Walkie-talkies can be a useful alternative to cell phones in many situations. There's no monthly contract or service fee, you don't have to worry about overage charges, and -- most importantly -- walkie-talkies (which are also called two-way radios) work in remote areas where cell phones don't. Hunters, campers, skiers, and other outdoor enthusiasts often rely on walkie-talkies for this very reason.
Walkie-talkies also come in handy for families. Sending your kids out to play with a two-way radio makes it easy to check up on them or call them back in, and carrying a pair of radios can help family members keep track of each other when wandering through a mall. Many travelers use them to keep in touch with other members of their party on a cruise ship, where cell phone signals can be unreliable. Some business owners use walkie-talkies to stay in contact with workers in warehouses or at job sites.
Every walkie-talkie in this report is capable of operating on two sets of frequencies: Family Radio Service (FRS) and General Mobile Radio Service (GMRS). Using the FRS frequency does not require a Federal Communications Commission (FCC) license, but transmitting power, and therefore range, is fairly limited. The GMRS frequency can cover a much larger area, depending on terrain and obstructions such as buildings and trees, but using it requires an FCC license that costs $65 for five years. (See the Buying Guide for more information.)
Walkie-talkies are easy to use. Most consumer models have 22 channels to choose from, covering both the FRS and GMRS frequencies. You choose a channel, push the transmit button to talk, then release the transmit button to listen. When you use a walkie-talkie, anyone listening in on the same channel can hear your conversations, and you can hear theirs. Because this overlap can interfere with transmissions, most walkie-talkies include privacy codes, which basically set up a subchannel within any given channel and filter out all other broadcasts on that channel. However, the term "privacy code" is somewhat misleading, as using them only blocks out the noise from other people's conversations; it doesn't prevent them from listening to yours. Some two-way radios have an additional voice-scrambling feature, sometimes called an "eavesdrop reducer," that garbles the signal on an FRS channel to block it from reaching other listeners.
Reviewers note that not all walkie-talkies are compatible with one another; some functions -- particularly privacy features -- may not work if you're communicating with friends or family members who own different brands or models than you do. Your radio's documentation is the best guide to manufacturer/model compatibility.
We looked at lots of factors when evaluating walkie-talkies for this report. First, we checked the transmission range. Since the manufacturer-specified range for a two-way radio is based on ideal conditions that are all but impossible to meet in real life, we looked at reviews from both professional testers and users to get an accurate idea of how far the radios can really reach. Next, we considered features. Some two-way radios offer few extras, while others are loaded with features like National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) weather alerts, voice activation, vibration alert, texting and GPS functionality. We also read what reviewers had to say about ease of use. In general, more advanced features may require some time with the owner's manual to master, but the learning curve should not be unreasonable. Finally, we consulted reviews from owners to assess long-term durability.
Reviewers consistently agree that the real range of any walkie-talkie, regardless of brand, is nowhere near the distance specified by the manufacturer. However, with every single walkie-talkie we looked at, there's considerable disagreement among reviewers about how far it can actually transmit. Invariably, some users say that their radios can send over several miles, even in wooded or hilly terrain, while others complain that they can't get a clear signal across half a mile of flat ground. It's possible that the users who complain about short radio range are restricting their transmissions to the low-powered Family Radio Service (FRS), while those who got better results are using the higher-powered General Mobile Radio Service (GMRS). Whatever the reason, it makes it difficult to get an accurate picture of a two-way radio's transmission range. In general, the best we could do was to look at whether the positive comments outnumbered the negative ones.
With this caveat in mind, the walkie-talkie that generally fares the best in reviews is the Midland GXT1050VP4 (Est. $65 per pair). This model offers a wealth of hunter-friendly features -- "silent mode" (in which it vibrates instead of beeping to alert you to pick up), "whisper mode" (you can speak in a whisper, and your listener will hear you clearly), weatherproofing (light rain and accidental splashes are no problem) and a NOAA weather radio with severe-weather alerts. It even comes with a camouflage case and five animal calls (turkey, duck, crow, cougar and wolf) that you can use as your alert sound. The Midland GXT1000VP4 (Est. $65 per pair), is nearly identical, but lacks the animal calls and comes in black and silver instead. A version in black and yellow is available, too.
One other feature is worth noting: Midlands' "extra channels." While at first glance it seems that these and other Midland walkie-talkies have more channels than walkie-talkies from other makers, in reality, that's simply clever marketing. These channels are actually the same channels available on all other walkie-talkies, but locked to a preset privacy code. They can simplify finding an interference-free channel, but don't actually give you any additional frequencies to use.
In a walkie-talkie shootout at CampingLife.com, the Midland GXT1050VP4 is judged "solidly built ... the best choice if you're looking for great value and you expect to be outdoors in bad weather." Testers especially appreciated its spring-loaded belt clip: "We didn't have to take the belt off to put the radio on." It also includes a car charger and earpiece/microphones, "accessories that other brands require you to buy separately."
Although it claims the longest range in the test -- 36 miles -- CampingLife.com says the Midland "delivered only average performance in hilly, forested terrain." Still, it gets more positive comments than negative ones about its range from users. It's a customer favorite at Amazon.com, Walmart.com and BHPhotoVideo.com.
The Midland GXT1050VP4's weakest point appears to be the rechargeable battery (it also accepts four AAs). While most reviewers say the battery life is good (10 to 12 hours with intermittent talking on its rechargeable battery), we see quite a few complaints about faulty battery packs that are weak, won't hold a charge or randomly stop working. Midland backs the radio with a three-year warranty, with 90 days for the charger, antenna, and earphones.
We also found several recommendations for Motorola walkie-talkies. The Motorola MR350R (Est. $80) fares well in CampingLife.com's tests as well as in user reviews. Testers found that its transmission range was comparable to the Midland radios' above and that audio quality was clear. It likewise has a built-in NOAA weather radio and push-button belt clip (although it didn't operate as smoothly in the test as the Midland's belt clip).
The Motorola also has a handy built-in flashlight (white bulb) and emergency light (red bulb), and testers say it fits in the hand nicely. "This is a kid-friendly radio with a number of features that make it a good choice for general camping and other outdoor uses," they concluded, although the battery life was the shortest in the test (Motorola claims eight hours on its rechargeable batteries, or 23 hours on three AAs).
Users at retail sites, such as Amazon.com and BestBuy.com, agree with these points, but they also have more complaints about this walkie-talkie's transmission range than they do about the Midlands'. Also, while only a few users report durability problems, those users tend to say that Motorola's customer service is very difficult to work with. Motorola offers only a 90-day warranty on its consumer two-way radios.
Need a truly waterproof walkie-talkie? The Motorola MS350R (Est. $70 per pair) is your best bet, whether you're boating, fishing, kayaking, swimming, skiing or hunting through a heavy downpour. It'll survive being completely submerged for 1 minute 30 seconds -- but it floats, so it probably wouldn't even stay underwater that long.
Lou Dawson of WildSnow.com, a backcountry skiing blog, recommends the MS350R as one of the best waterproof walkie-talkies around. Dawson strongly recommends readers carry walkie-talkies for safety, especially in avalanche terrain.
Dawson says he has tried smaller, lighter walkie-talkies, but he prefers the slightly larger Motorola walkie-talkies' longer battery life and bigger, easier-to-operate controls. Customers at BestBuy.com and BHPhotoVideo.com rave about the MS350R, too; they say it really is waterproof (with dunkings in pools and oceans to prove it), and it delivers good reception and battery life during everything from kayaking to doggie day care.
Besides the waterproofing, the MS350R includes the features you'd expect at this price point: NOAA weather alerts, a headset connector, belt clips, battery charger, and more. The MS350R claims up to 35 miles of range (although, as with any walkie-talkie, you should expect only about 2 miles in real-life use) and nine hours of battery life using its rechargeable batteries (it also accepts three standard AA cells).
For a great bargain walkie-talkie, check out the Motorola MH230R (Est. $45 per pair) -- it's an owner favorite at Amazon.com, Walmart.com and BHPhotoVideo.com.
This budget pick has a lower claimed range than its big brother, the Motorola MR350R (23 miles versus 35 miles), and users tend to agree that its range is very limited. A few users say they got a strong signal over as far as 3 miles in mountainous terrain, but the majority say they can only put about half a mile of distance between these radios in real-world circumstances. Any dense foliage or terrain obstacles shorten the range still further. However, users say the MH230R delivers clear sound at close range, even when transmitting through solid walls -- so it's a terrific budget walkie-talkie to use in malls, on building sites and on shipboard. Users also praise its long battery life (specified by Motorola at 8 hours using its rechargeable battery) and lightweight, durable construction.
The Motorola MH230R is a basic model, but it does have all the key features users like most, including NOAA weather radio channels, voice activation and a noise filter. Owners also find it quite easy to use. Buttons are large and easy to manipulate, and the bright yellow casing makes it easy to spot if you happen to drop it. Along with its budget price, this makes the Motorola MH230R a fine walkie-talkie for kids.
Users' biggest complaint about usability is that it's hard to recharge the Motorola MH230R because it doesn't fit securely in the charging stand. The MH230R can also be recharged on the go via a mini-USB port; the cable isn't included with the radio, but are readily available and fairly inexpensive (these are the same cables used to charge most modern cell phones).
Complaints about faulty units pop up occasionally with any walkie-talkie, and the Motorola MH230R is no exception. A couple of reviewers at Amazon.com say that they purchased multiple units and most of them failed within one year. The battery pack and charger are particular weak points. A Walmart.com reviewer points out that because the charger doesn't turn off automatically, it shortens the life of the rechargeable battery packs (the MH230R also accepts AAA batteries). After a while, the radios may begin to turn themselves off unexpectedly. The outer shell of the walkie-talkie, however, is sturdy. Users say it stands up well to being dropped repeatedly and even dunked in a river.
CampingLife.com conducts the best head-to-head walkie-talkie test, putting popular models through their paces while skiing, hiking and bushwhacking. Field and Stream and the backcountry skiing blog WildSnow.com also make expert recommendations. User reviews at retail websites (BHPhotoVideo.com, Amazon.com, Walmart.com and BestBuy.com) are indispensable for showing how the walkie-talkies perform in real life.