You can no longer use your cellphone to communicate with the outside world, you don’t have an amateur radio license. How do you communicate with the rest of your family?
Whether you are on a cruise, in the mountains with no cell service, or surviving a disaster, communications should be a priority in your operations. A number of different factors play a role in identifying the best communication option to fit your needs. Here are a few radio communication options available to bring you back online.
Multi-Use Radio Service (MURS)
The Multi-Use Radio Service was opened up in the year 2000 and is the best kept secret in the available “no-license” radio spectrum. The MURS band falls into the VHF portion of the radio spectrum (151 & 154 MHz) and offers 5 channels with up to 2 watts output. The band also allows the connection of external antennas (below 60 feet) which allow you to greatly expand the range of the radios.
Part of the reason MURS has remained relatively open is that there are few manufacturers that make a dedicated MURS radio. The Dakota Alert M538-HT is a great off the shelf handheld which includes privacy codes (and at a better price point) as opposed to the Motorola RMM2050 which does not.
Most who operate MURS have a programmable radio that they have programmed to tune the band such as the Baofeng UV-5R, Baofeng UV-82C, or Wouxun KG-UV6D as they can be found cheaper than many radios that are ready to use off the shelf, but require a higher level of technical expertise to setup.
Anticipate radios in the MURS band to reach out 1-3 miles between handhelds with no obstructions and from 3-10 miles when using an external antenna that is elevated. When in an urban area or faced with multiple obstructions, expect no more than 1-1.5 miles between handhelds.
- Great for any uses where you are in a cluttered radio environment (i.e. urban areas) or when you are in an enclosed space such as a vehicle or building
- The limited use of the band means it is very easy to find a clear channel. I have yet to run into other users on MURS when I use it. The band is almost always wide open in my region, even near urban centers.
- The ability to connect an external antenna will allow you to overcome the losses associated with being inside a vehicle or building.
- Can connect external antennas
- You are limited to only 2 watts output
- Radios can be harder to come by than radios for other bands.
Use on Boats: Some may be concerned about using MURS while on the water either on a cruise or boating because of the close proximity to the marine band. This is not a problem, so talk away. The FCC allows for MURS operation on all vessels of the United States.
A Word on External Antenna Use: If you wish to connect external antennas for MURS, I recommend you stick with the Baofeng or Wouxun radios and work through the programming hurdle as they have common radio antenna connectors whereas the Dakota Alert radios do not.
Family Radio Service (FRS)
The Family Radio Service is the most popular radio band today and is also the most readily available. Step into any sports retailer and you are likely to find a few models. The FRS band falls into the UHF portion of the spectrum (462 & 467 MHz) and offers 14 channels.
Do not believe the distance ratings provided on the package of radios, as you will rarely, if ever, be able to achieve that distance. Because the radio band is limited to ½ watt on the FRS channels and no external antennas are allowed, the distance is severely limited. The most recent FRS radios available also include GMRS frequencies which allow higher power and therefore longer ranges, but we will cover this in the GMRS section.
Expect an average of ½ mile from radio to radio (handheld) in areas with obstructions (trees, homes, etc) and no more than about 2 miles when at high elevations or in a field with no obstructions. Because it is a popular band, it is more cluttered and finding a clear channel can be difficult. If using FRS, always purchase a radio with privacy codes such as the Motorola Talkabout MS350R or Midland GXT1000VP4 and use them.
- Radios are readily available
- Limited power output
- No ability to connect external antennas
- Band is heavily used and may be hard to find a clear channel
General Mobile Radio Service (GMRS)
The General Mobile Radio Service is a great band that falls in the UHF spectrum (462 & 467 MHz). It allows for higher power and connection of external antennas up to 20 ft, and the ability to connect the repeaters. All of which can greatly increase your range. That said, all radios that allow access to GMRS aren’t created equal. You have to look at each radios capabilities to see what GMRS features it provides you.
Dual Service Radios
As mentioned above, most clamshell pack radios sold in stores are “dual service” radios which include both FRS and GMRS. While the FRS only channels (Channel 8-14) are still limited to ½ watt, the remaining channels allow higher power, usually from 1-5 watts. Unfortunately they only have a fixed antenna. This is great however, for interoperability with older FRS only radios. Some good models include Motorola Talkabout MS350R or Midland GXT1000VP4.
FRS Kicked to the Curb
GMRS radios that omit the FRS channels is where the band really starts to shine. These offer higher power and the ability to connect and external antenna. Quality handhelds like the Cobra MRHH450 offer GMRS and also includes the marine band for use on water. Some newer mobile models such as the Midland MXT115 or Midland MXT400 offer 15-40 watts and even include the ability to connect to the GMRS repeaters off the shelf. A feature that was previously only available in programmable radios.
Using a 5 watt handhelds expect ½ – 2 miles when talking to another handheld. Your distance may increase from 3-5 miles as you move up in elevation and into areas clear of obstructions. Using a 15-40 watt mobile GMRS radio as a base station with an external antenna (approx. 20ft above ground), expect 3-7 miles dependent on terrain when talking with another handheld and 5-10 miles when talking with another mobile base. When talking through a repeater on a handheld, distances of 5-25 miles are easily capable, 25-50 miles using a mobile radio on a repeater. As with FRS, the GMRS band can be a bit cluttered in populated centers, so look for a clear channel and use privacy codes.
A License Is Required
One caveat to GMRS, you must have a license to legally operate on the channels. Yes, even on the “dual service” radios. Obviously there are a ton of people that purchase the “dual service” radios from the store and use the GMRS channels without a license just as they would FRS. Although not legal, it happens.
So Get Your License!
I recommend every preparedness minded family get a GMRS license. It is a straight forward application process and no testing is required. The communications capabilities that are opened up is something that blows all other non-licensed bands out of the water. It is the closest you will get to ham radio capabilities without testing for an amateur radio license. Don’t be a lazy prepper, get the license, it’s worth it.
- Best communications capabilities and range options outside amateur radio
- Radios are readily available
- Allows the use of external antennas
- Allows for power output up to 50 watts
- Compatibility to use with older FRS only radios
- Allows use with repeaters
- Mobile radio options available
- Most off the shelf radios will not allow for repeater operation, but here are a few decent ones that do Motorola MS350R or Motorola MS355R
- The “dual service” FRS/GMRS radios will not allow you to connect an external antenna
- Have to learn how to communicate using a callsign during conversations (not hard, just a change for many people, especially children)
Citizens Band Radio (CB)
Citizens Band radio is old school, but it is still used today and has its pros and cons. CB falls into the High Frequency (HF) portion of the spectrum (27 MHz) and is just below the 10-meter amateur band. All of the previous bands we have discussed use frequency modulation (FM) while CB radio uses amplitude modulation (AM).
The Citizens Band is still used heavily in the trucking community and is very cluttered near major transportation routes. I must say, the language and conversations spoken on the band in urban centers is quite often not what you want your kids to hear, so keep that in mind.
CB is limited to 4 watts on AM mode and up to 12 watts if using AM Single Sideband (SSB) which is really where CB shines. However, to use SSB, all users have to be using an SSB capable radio to communicate.
Range of a standard mobile CB radio is around 2-5 miles, expect 1-2 miles using a handheld. This range can be extended to 5-30+ miles when using AM SSB. It can be extended further by avoiding obstructions and raising an external antenna. Because of the long wavelength, CB sideband operations using a radio like the Uniden Bearcat 980SSB are capable of atmospheric skip and can sometimes be heard 500+ miles away, however this is completely dependent on atmospheric conditions and should not be depended upon for survival communications.
- Capable of medium to long range communications when using SSB modes
- Radios are readily available at most truck stops or electronics stores.
- Great way to communicate with truckers on the road to gain travel information on accidents, closures, etc.
- Band is highly cluttered
- Highly susceptible to interference due to AM modulation
- Language and conversations of many users are not “family friendly”
- Sideband radios can be harder to find in retail stores, but are available online
- A good antenna is relatively large and can be difficult to find in local stores.
The Marine band falls in the VHF radio spectrum (156-172MHz) and is only available for legal use if both the transmitting parties are on the water. Most pleasure craft and marine vessels do not require a license if used in domestic waters. Handheld radios are capable of 1-5 watts while mobile radios in the band can achieve up to 25 watts, each allowing for an external antenna to be connected (depending upon model). VHF radio waves travel great across the water and can achieve most communications within the line of sight which is primarily limited by the height of the antenna (as obstructions aren’t as big of an issue in the water).
Expect 1-5 miles using 5 watt handhelds such as the Cobra MRHH450 with limited to no obstructions and up to 15+ miles with a mobile using an external antenna on a mast above the water.
- Certain channels are monitored by Coast Guard and other maritime vessels to receive and relay distress calls (near major navigable waterways)
- Large number of channels to communicate
- Easy to gain maritime information in or near waterways
- Radios are readily available
- Allow for up to 25 watts power output
- Allows for external antenna connections on most handhelds and mobiles.
- Can be used on the water only
- No privacy codes
Range and Estimations
The range of any radio in any band is dependent on a multitude of factors. Without getting into radio theory; using a quality antenna designed for the band you are using, getting it as high as possible, and clear of obstructions is the most valuable aspect to increasing radio range. The availability to output more power is beneficial to “push through the static” but the antenna is the most important factor.
All of our range estimations included in this article are based on actual testing in the real world between urban, rural, and mountainous areas at a multitude of elevations. Your mileage may vary (no pun intended).
What Should I Use?
The band that best fits you is completely dependent on your situation and the factors you face. Having multiple options is important in developing a robust communications plan so all your eggs aren’t placed in one basket.
Overall GMRS and MURS are the top two I recommend for family use. They provide most communications methods you will need. A good combination of GMRS mobile radios and handhelds can be obtained for under a few hundred dollars allowing you a decent communications bubble even without repeaters. When you are looking at “off the shelf” radios, stick with name brands in the radio industry such as Cobra, Midland, or Motorola as they tend to bring better performance. If you want to have the capability of MURS, GMRS, FRS all in one radio, and have the technical expertise to figure out the programming, go with a Baofeng or Wouxun radio.
If you live on a boat or frequent the water, a marine radio should be a no brainer. If you want the best of both worlds, invest in the Cobra MRHH450 and get GMRS and Marine in one radio.
CB radio communications are great if you are on the road and need situational awareness during travel. Otherwise single sideband CB and can be used for medium range consistently with limited obstructions and long range sporadically. However, if you are looking for this type of communications, I recommend you push forward and get into HF amateur radio as it opens up much for feasible long range options.
Regardless of the route you take, be sure to start including communications into your family preparedness initiatives. Train with your radios day to day, while on bike rides, outings, or even when your kids go to their friend’s house. Peace of mind is much easier to come by during emergencies when you can communicate with your loved ones. It frees your mind to focus on other important elements on your flight of survival. Sign-up for our newsletter here to have more great communications article sent directly to your inbox. Prefer social media? Follow us on Pinterest, Twitter, or Facebook.