by John from Iowa, Editor at Large
FRS – FRS radios are a good value and most have a power saver mode to make batteries last longer. Communications are usually crystal clear.
One drawback is limited range – most claim to have a range up to two miles and more over water. While this is generally true across open flat ground, the range is dependent on line-of-sight. In my area the terrain is serious rolling hills with timber. The range with a FRS is 1 mile max and usually ½ to ¾ of a mile. FRS radios would be better suited to open areas, or use around camp.
GRMS – GRMS radios are a better value as they have a range of 5 miles or more line-of-sight, with more over water. Because they have a higher power output, they do require a license, here again in an emergency, who cares? One of the best values I’ve seen is the Midland XTRA Talk 700 series radios. They claim to have a 30 mile range, though usually the claims are under ideal terrain and conditions. Overall the GMRS radios have quite a bit higher range over FRS radios in my hills and timber (due to higher power output).
FRS/GMRS Note – Privacy codes that are advertised on these radios are not really privacy codes. They merely screen out any transmission that is not coded and you don’t hear it. Anyone without the code on can hear the signal in its entirety. This means what you receive is coded for privacy, not what you transmit. It works kind of like a coded squelch.
CB Units – By far the only low priced radio unit that performs excellent in the timber and hills is the CB radio. Used units are all over the place at cheap prices. The output power on these units can be increased easily with booster amps and antennas. Hand held units are around, but performance varies greatly on each brand, as well as features. With handheld CBs, there are some real bad ones out there. The best advice with handheld CBs is to ask around and find someone who has a good one. My personal choice for a handheld with overall performance and features would be the Cherokee brand name.
The disadvantage to CBs is that the airwaves are almost totally cluttered with skip and static most of the time. Plus since they were so common, allot of people used to have them and listen to them. Nowadays, they are pretty much outdated and considered obsolete due to the low priced FRS and GMRS radios on the market.
Ham radios – This would be another choice, but having only limited experience with these, I feel there are others who could better address this area.
Regular Receivers – It’s good to have just a plain old radio around to try to pick up any common info. Two of my favorites are the AM/FM Weather band crank, solar, and battery with a built in light. It’s cheap and effective. Secondly, a good compact multi-band shortwave receiver with external antenna and power jacks is a must. Remember though, it needs to be compact and light. Here again for the first choice Midland has the best I’ve seen as the model XT511 series radios. It has it all (except shortwave), plus communication with GMRS and FRS.
Scanners – Although a scanner can’t transmit, a good one can receive and search out about any frequency out there. Handheld scanners offer flexibility and opportunities to gather and monitor all types of transmitted information. This can be very useful in emergency situations. Most of the time you can hear first hand what’s going on directly from the source before the media even has it.
Features – Almost all of theses devices are loaded with features such as power save mode, caller beep, privacy codes, and etc. You can, in just about every case, turn off any unwanted features.
Wireless Drawbacks – The main drawback with any wireless communication device is that you never know who is listening and when they are listening. Any good scanner can pick up signals from these devices and even from cellphones. It has always amazed me how many people don’t realize that their cellphone calls can be heard by anyone with a good scanner. Your location can even be narrowed down over a period of time depending on your type of radio unit, and your conversation. You should remember that you are just like a common AM or FM radio station when you transmit. But in my opinion, the advantages outweigh the disadvantages as long as common sense is used.
Security Issues – All transmissions should be coded. There should never be any reference to real places, real people, or events past or present. That is unless you just don’t care if everyone knows who you are and where you are!
The codes should be relatively simple, but not obvious. Setting up a map into zones will do if you simply call each area by a code name (IE: sector 5). Code names for people shouldn’t be too difficult either. There are handles on CBs as well as ones commonly used on the net, although I’d use something different than I commonly use today in those circles. Events are no different. Sometimes I’ve found that a subject comes up in a conversation on the air that you don’t have a code for. A little common sense says just play a little bit of ‘charades’ and you’ll get there without ‘selling the farm’ so to speak. It should go without saying that if the codes are, or could be compromised, that there should be a plan B or even C, or if there’s no choice, use the ‘charades’ trick until you get reorganized.
Power Requirements – All of the above require some sort of power source. This is usually in the form of batteries. If possible, try to get items that use the same type of battery as much as possible. Alternately, try to keep items in common groups of batteries. Don’t get something that takes an oddball battery unless it’s something you can’t live without. One should remember that in an emergency situation, batteries would not be readily easy to obtain. Therefore about the best alternative would be rechargeable batteries. Some rechargeables (NiCd) carry less voltage so you will shorten your transmit range. Nimh types rule here, as they have fewer recharging issues. Whatever your choice, have plenty of spares. No battery lasts forever!
Rechargeable’s can be recharged a variety of ways. My personal choice would be solar energy. (A good source for solar equipment, at a reasonable price, is Ebay). Solar energy has no cost (except for the solar cell), is quiet, and is only dependent on a fairly clear day and a place that has good sun exposure. Ideally a bank of solar panels charging a group of 12v batteries could be used to power about anything. There are converters to change the voltage to any voltage you want. They could recharge lesser voltage batteries, or with an inverter, can run many 110v appliances. There are also allot of appliances which are made to work on 12v as well. Good sources for these are RV specialty stores.
Something to think about. What battery would be the easiest to scavenge in an emergency situation? (hint>most any car has one)
Summary – To sum it all up, a handheld radio is just a tool. Like a tool, you have to decide how you are going to use it and if it fits your needs as a tool. In other words, don’t buy it for the looks or what it has built in. All the features in the world aren’t any good unless you’re going to use them. If batteries are expensive or hard to come by, make sure it’s worth it. It’s all a matter of personal choice to fit you or your group needs.
My Personal Best Choice – I wrote this article several years back, and have done much testing and trying on many models and types of radios. I finally came across one that meets all my needs.
It is the Garmin Rino series radios. In a nutshell it is like a PDA and Smartphone wrapped into a neat package. It has the radio features plus GPS, texting (some models), calendar, weather/emergency radio receiving (some models), electronic compass, waterproof, rechargeable, and on and on. I know, I said don’t buy the extras unless there’s a need, but sometimes you aren’t sure of the need until the emergency arises.
There are features that make the Rino series absolutely outstanding, in my opinion. You can send your position by the push of a button in real time to another Rino user and it will show on their built in map. But the best is that you can scramble your communications to where no other radio or scanner can understand what you are saying or transmitting. The only drawback is that another Rino radio, in scramble mode, can understand it.
There are many different models of Rino radios. Basically you get what you pay for. I started with the Rino 120 and eventually moved up to the Rino 530hcx. These are now older models, as there is a new Garmin 600 series of radios. However that is a good thing, as the 500 series can be purchased for less than the original retail price on ebay and Amazon.
You might say “I don’t need that, as I already have my Smartphone”. But hold on! We have all seen how they quickly become useless in major emergencies. Cell towers cease to function without power after a short amount of time, and they get overwhelmed by everyone trying to use their phones all at once. So don’t count on it as your foolproof choice. The Rino doesn’t rely on cell towers for communications, and in most emergencies the GPS satellites will keep functioning for a long time to use the maps.
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