What the best walkie-talkie has
- A clear signal. While the actual range of a walkie-talkie is nothing like the distance claimed on the package, you should at least be able to hear each other clearly when you are in their real-world range (expect 2 miles or less, depending upon buildings/terrain).
- Privacy codes. These codes allow you to partition the main channels for two-way radio transmission, reducing the chances that chatter from other users will cut in on your conversation.
- Easy-to-use controls. Menus should be intuitive, and buttons should be easy to find and manipulate, even while wearing gloves or in the dark.
- Voice-activated transmission (VOX). This feature allows for hands-free usage, with or without a headset (and can be used by parents to turn their two-way radios into makeshift baby monitors).
- Good battery life. Some models have a built-in rechargeable battery, some use replaceable alkaline batteries, and others (including all of the models in this report) can take both.
- A good warranty. One of the most common complaints about two-way radios is that they break or malfunction within a few weeks, so a warranty of reasonable length -- from a maker that stands behind its walkie-talkies -- is a key feature.
Know before you go
What transmission range do you need? Don't expect to get the range listed on the package, or anything close to it. This number is only a theoretical maximum that's all but impossible to achieve in real-world conditions. Expect the transmission range to be 20 percent or (usually) less of the advertised range, even on flat ground (usually 2 miles or so). Obstructions such as hills, tall buildings and dense foliage will further reduce a two-way radio's viable operating range.
Do you need a license? Most two-way radios can use both Family Radio Service (FRS) and General Mobile Radio Service (GMRS). Some channels (8 to 14) are FRS only, some channels (15 to 22) are GMRS only, and some (1 to 7) are shared. You don't need a license to use the seven FRS-only channels or to operate under FRS rules on the shared channels, but you'll only be able to transmit at reduced power. To be heard more than about half a mile away, you'll probably need to use the higher-powered GMRS mode on the GMRS-only or the shared channels. To use GMRS, you need a license from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which costs $70 for five years. You can apply for a license online at the FCC website.
Will you be using the radios in wet conditions? If you suspect you'll be using the radio in situations where it's likely to get wet -- on a lake or in the rain, for example -- look for a radio that's described as waterproof, or at least splash-proof.
Will you be traveling in remote locations for long periods? If you will be using your two-way radio for extended periods, consider purchasing a model that accepts alkaline batteries as well as a rechargeable battery pack. That way, you can swap out your batteries for spares if needed. Another useful feature when you're out in the rough is a built-in weather radio, which lets you pick up weather broadcasts and alerts from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
Will children be using this radio? Large, easy-to-press buttons are helpful for adults, but they're even more important for small children.
Do you need to keep quiet? Some walkie-talkies can alert you to an incoming message by vibrating, rather than making a noise. Hunters say they find this feature useful to avoid spooking the game. Another useful feature for hunters is "whisper mode," which lets you be heard clearly while speaking in a hushed voice.