Walkie-talkies keep you in touch
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 $70 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
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.
the Best Walkie Talkies
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
In the race for best walkie-talkie, range matters
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
With this caveat in mind, the
walkie-talkie that generally fares the best in reviews is the (Est. $65 per pair). This model offers a wealth of 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), hands-free mode, weatherproofing (light rain
and accidental splashes are no problem), keypad lock (so your settings won't
get accidentally changed), SOS siren and a NOAA weather radio with
severe-weather alerts. It's available in black-and-silver, or black-and-yellow as
the (Est. $65).
Thoughtful extras include a spring-loaded belt
clip (you won't have to take your belt off to put the walkie-talkie on), car
charger and earpiece/microphones -- accessories that other brands charge extra
for. The hunter-friendly (Est. $70 per pair)
is nearly identical, but it has a camouflage case and five animal calls
(turkey, duck, crow, cougar and wolf) that you can use as your alert sound.
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.
WildSnow.com's Lou Dawson awards his stamp of approval
to the Midland GXT1000VP4. Dawson, a veteran mountaineer and backcountry skier,
urges readers make sure every member of their party packs along a reliable
walkie-talkie for safety, especially in avalanche terrain. "This Midland
... would work fine," Dawson writes. "It has the all important keypad
lock, and ability to silence most stupid 'beep' noises."
Owners have favored the Midland GXT1000VP4 for
years -- a testament to its real-world prowess and reliability. In fact, it
gets the best reviews of any walkie-talkie, period. It's a top pick among
customers at Amazon.com, BHPhotoVideo.com and Walmart.com.
The Midland GXT1000VP4'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
best waterproof walkie-talkie
Need a truly waterproof walkie-talkie? The (Est. $100 per pair) is your best bet, whether you're boating, fishing,
kayaking, swimming, skiing or hunting through a heavy downpour. It meets the
IP67 standard, which means it can be submerged at depths of up to 1 meter for
up to 30 minutes. It's also designed to float, face up, and there's a water
activated flashlight that makes the radio easy to find after a dunk in the
The neon green-and-black T600 replaces -- and is
very similar to -- the (Est. $80), though
that walkie-talkie, which has been Dawson's favorite waterproof walkie-talkie
for years, can still be found, for now, at retail. 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.
The new T600 "survived my torture tests with
no issues," says Michael Largent at TreelineBackpacker.com. "The body
is tough, thick, and obviously designed to take a light beating while shaking
off rain and dirt. All of the buttons are protected under a weatherproof cover,
and the USB charge ports are located under a protective cap to prevent water
from getting in."
Although the T600 hasn't been around as long as
the MS350R, it's started to accumulate some user reviews, including 120 at
Amazon.com -- mostly favorable. About 75 percent award it 4 or a perfect 5
stars. However, we did see several complaints from owners who got lemons that
either didn't work right out of the box or quickly stopped working, so buying
from a retailer with a good return/exchange policy might be advisable just in
case you get unlucky.
Compared with the older model, the T600 adds an
emergency alert button (which transmits an alert siren to other members of your
group) and whistle belt clips for each radio. It also includes more call tones
(20 instead of 10); you can set your walkie-talkie to transmit a specific call
tone so that other members of your group will know it's you calling.
Besides the waterproofing, the T600 includes several
features you'd expect at this price point: NOAA weather alerts, keypad lock,
vibrate setting and battery charger. However, unlike the non-waterproof Midland
walkie-talkie, this waterproof Motorola charges extra for a car charger and
earpiece/microphones. It does, as noted, have a built-in flashlight, which you
won't find on the Midland.
The T600 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). Motorola backs its walkie-talkies
and accessories with a one-year warranty.
budget walkie-talkie to consider
For a great bargain walkie-talkie, check out the (Est. $35 per pair) -- it's an owner favorite at Walmart.com, and it's the newer
version of a Field & Stream top pick (the now-discontinued Midland
This budget pick has a lower claimed range than its
big brother, the Midland GXT1000VP4 (24 miles versus 36 miles), but users say that
this model offers as much real-world range as any other walkie-talkie. Figure
on about 2 miles over flat ground, or 1/2 mile over hilly terrain.
Users say the LXT500VP3 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; Midland doesn't specify how long the
walkie-talkies will last on a single charge, but owners regularly report
getting 10 to 12 hours of light use. (Actually, at this price, many users are
just glad the LXT500VP3 has rechargeable batteries, period -- most cheap
walkie-talkies use disposable batteries only, and burn through them fast.)
However, some owners say they got lemons that wouldn't hold a charge right out
of the box.
Despite their low price, we didn't see many
complaints about durability. In fact, the LXT500VP3 carries the same three-year
warranty as Midland's pricier walkie-talkies. It shaves costs by cutting
features: There's no weather radio, no whisper mode, no hands-free mode, no SOS
siren and no noise-filtering privacy codes. A car charger and
earpiece/microphone are available, but they cost extra.
Still, the LXT500VP3 does include the important
basics: Silent mode, keypad lock, belt clips and battery charger are all
included. Owners also find it quite easy to use. The Midland LXT500VP3 makes a
fine walkie-talkie for kids; several parents and grandparents report that kids
love this all-black, real walkie-talkie as an alternative to cheapie
cartoon-character walkie-talkies. It's available in a camo version, too, as the
Expert & User Review Sources
Field & Stream and
the backcountry skiing blog WildSnow.com make expert recommendations
after putting walkie-talkies through their paces while skiing, hiking and
bushwhacking. TreelineBackpacker.com conducts a similar test of the
waterproof Motorola Talkabout T600 H2O. 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.