Best Two Way Radios for Mountains

Best Two way radios for mountains

Mountains offer some of the most beautiful and isolated terrain in the world. They attract hikers, hunters, and those just looking to do a little soul-searching. And while this isolation is a big reason for people seeking out mountains, they also bring the inconvenience of communication with the outside world. If you’re like me, in the search for the best gear, you’d want to have the best two way radios for mountains with you before heading out.

Whether you are backcountry camping, just hiking in and out for the day, or have a cabin you like to retreat to for several days, you will often run into the issue of no cell service. While most of the time that might be a plus to being in the mountains, we know it is to us, there is always the chance that you need to contact help or stay in communication with a hunting buddy or hiking partner that you might have gotten split up with.

Two-way radios are one of the best, if not the best, method for staying in contact in this terrain. In this article, we will take a look at the different types of two-way radios, some of the components that make them ideal for mountain use, and even take a quick look at several two-way radio models that we think will serve you well.

Best two way radios for mountains 

What exactly is a two way radio?

There is a lot of jargon out there when it comes to two-way radios, and there are a lot of different types of two-way radios. Because of this, we wanted a clear definition of what a two-way radio is before moving on into the discussion.

A two-way radio is a radio that can both receive and transmit (transceiver) a radio signal. Because this is a broad definition, two-way radios can encompass a lot of different styles of radios including hand-held and stationary radios as well as covering a lot of different frequencies [1]. 

And again, we are most interested in two-way radios in the context of mountain use which is going to let us focus on some key concepts and radio components that might carry a little more weight for outdoor and isolated terrain.

Two way radio frequencies

One of the major ways that two-way radios are grouped or classified is by the radio frequencies that they operate at. This is important to understand because it gives you an idea of the range the radios will have and also because the frequencies used are going to determine if you are going to need to purchase a license.

There are two main types of radio frequencies that are used, VHF (very high frequencies) and UHF (ultra-high frequencies).  These are not the only two frequency ranges used for radios. HF (high frequencies) are also found in some two-way radios though most two-way radios that are going to be used in mountainous terrain for common recreational activity will fall into the VHF or UHF categories [2].

HF

HF frequencies fall within the 3 to 30MHz range. This frequency range is used by a lot of military organizations, air-to-ground communications, and amateur radio enthusiasts that need or want long-range communications. While this frequency is excellent for working around rough and broken terrain, as is the case in mountainous regions, you are limited to mobile or base radios as there are very few hand-held radios that work in this frequency. With large antennas providing better line of site, high wattage, and repeaters, you can get trans-continental communication with HF radio waves.

VHF

VHF radio frequencies fall in the 30 to 300MHz range. Compared to UHF, VHF waves have much longer wavelengths. This increase in wavelengths makes radios operating in this range more suitable for mountain use. This is because these longer waves are better suited for dealing with changes in terrain elevation and give your signal more range compared to UHF.

If you are around a lot of ridgelines, canyons, or any other terrain features that means a lot of different and rapid changes in sightline than a VHF signal is going to give you the most range.

And even though VHF is more widely used commercially, in mountainous terrain that is isolated, you’re not going to have to worry about a lot of traffic. There are certain bandwidths within this frequency range that will require a license, and we will cover this in its section, but there are options out there for two-way radios in this range that won’t cost you extra in fees.

UHF

UHF radio frequencies fall into the 300MHz to 3GHz or 3,000MHz. This means that radios using UHF are giving off much shorter wavelengths than VHF. In the context of mountains, this means that UHF is going to break up easier when encountering changes in elevation and obstacles such as large boulders. UHF has its uses and it very popular when in urban areas, but that is not the topic of this article. There are certain bandwidths within this frequency range that will require a license, and we will cover this in its own section.

Different frequency allocations

The FCC has designated certain bands of this radio spectrum for specific uses. Because of these designations, some radios are going to require additional steps, such as acquiring a license for use or even taking exams. Below, we have listed several of these different radio bandwidths and whether these fall into HF, VHF, or UHF range. We also have provided references for you to look into each spectrum category more closely.

These are not the only bandwidths that are available, but all of them are easy to acquire and are generally what someone looking for two-way radio communication in the mountains would run across when shopping. All of these bandwidths have both handheld, mobile, and base station options.

Designation VHF or UHF
HAM (Amateur Radio) HF, VHF, and UHF
CB (Citizens Band) HF
FRS (Family Radio Service) UHF
GMRS (General Mobile Radio Service) UHF
MURS (Multi-Use Radio Service) VHF

In our opinion, HAM, CB, and MURS are advantageous in mountainous terrain because of their longer wavelengths that do better traversing broken terrain. They can be quite a bit more expensive and the hand-held models, which are pretty convenient for mountain use, are not as numerous. If you are looking for a mobile or base two-way radio, these are the best options.

FRS and GMRS radios are all pretty common, and there are a lot of options for these radios in both hand-held and mobile platforms. While the Multi-Use Radio Service has a lot of advantages in our opinion for mountain use, there are not as many models available in its frequency range. Without repeaters, all of these radios can be pretty limited in range, but the FRS and GMRS bandwidths are limited with their short wavelengths.

Licenses for two way radio use

So, depending on the frequency that your two-way radio operated on, you might have to apply for a license. Normally, these licenses are good from five to ten years, so it’s not going to be a hassle to keep up with from year to year. The price tag can vary from license to license, but it is pretty straightforward if you follow this link to the FCC website.

There are a lot of radios that are both GMRS and FRS compatible. With these two bandwidths, there is some crossover in the available channels. While you don’t need to obtain a license for the FRS channels, it is illegal to switch over to GMRS channels. Are there people out actively patrolling and tracking these people down? Not really, but it does happen from time to time and can end up in some hefty FCC fines. Our advice is to get the license and never have to worry about it.

In the table below, we have listed some of the more common radio allocations that might be considered for mountain use along with license requirements.

Designation License Requirement License Duration
HAM (Amateur Radio) Yes and Test 10 Years
CB (Citizens Band) No N/A
FRS (Family Radio Service) No N/A
GMRS (General Mobile Radio Service) Yes 10 Years
MURS (Multi-Use Radio Service) No N/A

Two way radio design styles

There are three design styles of two- way radios that we think are important to discuss in the context of mountain terrain.

  1. Hand-held
  2. Base Station
  3. Mobile

Hand-held

The obvious advantage to a hand-held two-way radio design is its ability to go about anywhere and always be available to you. The disadvantages are the limited range and the limited power supply. For hunting or hiking in area where you are only going to be spending a limited amount of time, hand-held radios are going to be your best option because of their portability. And while their power and range are limited compared to mobile or base setups, there are options out there where you can get several miles worth of range. 

Base Station

Base station radios have the advantage of longer range and a stable source of power which allows the use of radios with higher wattage. With more wattage and the ability to mount an antenna, you can get a much stronger signal with a base radio that has longer range. With a repeater or several in play, you can get quite a range with a base station radio setup. Of course, the disadvantage is obviously that it stays in one place, so the hikers and hunters looking for a radio to keep on person should rule the base radio out.

Mobile

While a hand-held two-way radio is technically mobile, we are talking about vehicle mounted radios when discussing the mobile style. If you have a job that requires a lot of driving back into mountainous areas or if you use a recreational vehicle to take to remote mountain roads with your buddies for some muddin’, a mobile two-way radio offers you several advantages when compared to a hand-held radio. The first is range. You are going to be able to use a much longer antenna system when mounted to a vehicle. The second is you have a source of power in your vehicle to be able to utilize stronger radios providing you a stronger signal.

Key Features of two way radios for mountain use

From just some of the information we have covered above, it might seem like certain two-way radios are much more beneficial regarding signal strength and the wider range of channels. There are still other features that we need to cover. These high powered radios are great when you have electricity and can mount an antenna somewhere, but what if you are just out hiking or hunting? A handheld drawing 10watts an hour is not going to last long.

A lot is going to depend on your intended use for these two-way radios besides power and signal strength.

We have already covered the style of radio in the previous section so let’s look at a couple of other factors you should take into consideration when buying a two-way radio for mountain use.

Range

 You are going to see so many radios that tell you the range is anywhere from 30 to 50 miles. And that might be true if you were in space. In the mountains, you can drop that range down to a couple of miles unless you are working with repeaters in which case you might get something like ten miles of range.  Below is a video that discusses the range of both UHF and VHF signals.

The power of your signal, as well as the antenna, are going to effect the range of your signal as well as the terrain. With hand-helds, don’t expect anything more than 2-3 miles of signal. With mobile and base station radios you can get several extra miles in range.

  • Wattage. The wattage that is used by the radio is going to give you an idea of signal strength. The more wattage, the greater the signal strength. Obviously, you’re not going to get as much wattage from batteries in hand-held devices. And more wattage can add signal strength, but it will also drain battery life quicker which could turn into a real problem.
  • Antenna Length: Antenna Length is also important when it comes to range. For hand held radios, you’re going to be a bit more limited than you are with mobile or base radios. With hand-held devices, the length varies greatly from model to model. You might have a fixed, five-inch antenna on the cheaper FRS models while a handheld HAM might have a 12-14 inch antenna. The latter is going to give you better range.

Durability

Anything you are going to take into the wilderness you want to be durable and the same goes for two-way radios. It might be even more important given that you could be relying on this piece of equipment to get you out of sticky situations. There isn’t anything you can just read and get a sense of durability from just reading online. You obviously don’t want some cheap plastic material. Composite is fine, but you want the high impact resistant stuff that also does well in the water resistance category.

Battery life

If you’re going to be out for a week-long excursion, you are going to need to bring some backup batteries. For a day in the woods or just preparing for the contingency of spending several days in the wilderness, you should consider how long your radio is going to last. Battery life is going to depend on the wattage but also on the amount of use.

Water resistance

I know when I am in backcountry areas, I want any of my electronic gear to have some water resistance. We’ve yet to come across a radio that is water-proof, but there are plenty of two-way radios that are going to stand up to rain and even quick dunking in streams of puddles.

VOX

VOX is known as voice-activated transmit, allows you to transmit while being hands-free. This is going to be best served with a headset and is a cool feature if you are hunting in tandem with someone. The ethics of this when stalking an animal might be questionable for a lot of people, but that’s not the topic of this article. We just want you to know that some people use radios in this capacity.

Weather alert system

 A lot of two-way radios will come with a quick scan for NOAA stations that alert you to changing weather conditions. This is a plus for those undertaking backcountry hikes or hunts.

Privacy codes

Most radios come with privacy codes that can be used to keep you and a partner or team’s communications private. In mountainous terrain, there might not be enough chatter to warrant a privacy channel, but some people don’t like the idea of people listening in to their conversations. And these privacy codes will not influence your ability to scan other channels or reach out to others.

 

Best two way radios for mountains 

We have covered quite a bit of information regarding two-way radios, and now we want to look at several two-way radios that we think might benefit you out in the mountains. If you’re on a large wetland delineation, we definitely recommend having radios along. There are so many options out there that it is very difficult to narrow down our choices. Because the majority of people looking for a mountain radio are probably hikers or hunters that are only going to spend a day or two at a time in the mountains, the majority of our choices are going to focus on hand-held two-way radios. There might be some out there that like to take AVs or other recreational vehicles or have a cabin they like to retreat to for needed rest. So we will throw in one or two mobile and base station radios.

BaoFeng UV-5R V2+

The BaoFeng UV-5R V2+ hand-held radio has a wide range of frequencies and is a popular option for HAM operators. With that, there are frequencies on this radio that do require a license for use. It features a switchable wide/narrow band (25KHz/12.5KHZ) with 128 channels that can be set to memory for easy and quick access. It features an easy to navigate face with an LCD display that gives you quick information to all settings currently in use on the radio and also has an LED flashlight.  

The body of this radio has been upgraded to better withstand normal abuse just as dropping the radio though it is not indestructible and it isn’t going to fare well in anything more than rain.  Overall, this radio feels like it is constructed well.

The radio features two power settings, a 1W and 4W and can be easily switched between the two. You can get plenty of battery life from this radio, and your use and power setting will have a large impact. This radio is compatible with the larger BaoFeng 1800mAh, 3600mAh, and 3800mAh extended batteries.

There are a lot of features on this radio, more than we have time to go over. It is going to take some time to get everything down that this radio can do but that is a good thing for serious radio users. The  volume is controlled by a classic top turn knob. We already mentioned that you can program up to 128 channels to memory, but you also have access to squelch, VOX, WB/NB, dual watch and dual reception, transmission timer, and CTCSS or DCS for secure communication.

We like the flexible antenna that comes with this radio though it can be upgraded to give you a bit better range. Out of the box, you can expect about the same 1 to maybe 2 miles of range in mountainous terrain. If there are repeaters in the area, with some elevation to clear obstacles, you can probably get quite a bit more range out of this radio.

There is a lot to this radio, and it can be set up with numerous computer programs as well as CHIRP to program specific channels. It takes a little more work to get everything set up just the way you want it so it might not be the choice for those of you who want to pull it out of the box and hit the trails.

Midland GXT1000VP4

This Midland GXT1000VP4 is a great, mid price range option for a hand-held radio to be used in the mountains. It is a rugged design and incredibly durable and covered by a three-year warranty. It also features Midland’s JIS4 waterproof protection. It’s not going to hold up to dropping it to the bottom of the lake, but you should have no issues using this radio in the rain or around shallow creeks.

You have access to 50 separate channels within the GMRS frequencies. You also have a lot of privacy codes if you are in an area where there is a lot of traffic. On top of that, you have VOX options and NOAA weather screening.

These radios pull 5watts, which is the max power allowed for hand-held radios. It also is a little draining on the batteries if you are using the radio constantly. With a full battery charge, you are looking at around 11 hours of battery life. With its wattage and antenna, you can get up to 36 miles of range with a clear line of site. Depending on how rugged the terrain you are in, you might be looking anywhere from 1-2 miles.

Midland LXT600VP3

The Midland LXT600VP3 is our second Midland selection, and it shouldn’t come as a surprise given their reputation when it comes to two-way, hand-held radios. Like the previous Midland model, the LXT600VP3 is an frs/grms radio. This radio model has the standard 22GMRS channels as well as 14 additional channels for a total of 36 which is less than the previous Midland model.

Look, like any hand-held radio, you can’t let the 30-mile range be misleading. With a clear line of site, you can get a couple dozen miles, but if you are lower elevation in a mountainous region where the terrain is not flat, you are going to be restricted to one to maybe 3 miles. Again, it all depends on the terrain.

This is an excellent option for outdoor use for several reasons. It is highly water resistant and can stand up to rain and even a light dunking in water. Now, you don’t want it to sit at the bottom of a creek for several minutes, but overall it stands up well to water. The second reason is that is can automatically scan for environmental information channels including NOAA Weather Radio which issues a variety of environmental hazards.

This radio also features a silent mode which turns off all alerts which is going to be useful to hunters working in the field. Other features on this radio is three different levels of VOX operation, hi/low power settings, and up to 121 privacy codes.

We like this radio for a reason that will probably get overlooked most of the time, and that is its dual charge option. It does have a rechargeable lithium ion battery, but it can also be powered by three AAA batteries. We like this because if you are going to be out in the wilderness, it’s pretty easy to carry some extra batteries to keep your radio running.  Overall, this radio has decent battery life, and you can get between 8 to 10 hours of use between charges.

BTECH Mobile UV-50X2

Unlike the hand-held model, the BTECH Mobile UV-50X2 is a mobile radio. It can also be used as a base radio if you are so inclined.  It comes with mounting hardware so you can get it prepped right out of the box.

When out in the mountains, we like the 50watt power setting. With this amount of power going into your transceiver, it makes it a lot more likely to get a message out when you really need it. You are going to need to purchase an antenna separately, but with a quality antenna and the high power setting, you are going to be able to get a signal out in mountainous terrain. You also have a low power, 10-watt setting that is going to be more power efficient when just talking to those in your immediate area.  

Maybe one of the few drawbacks to this two-way radio is the small display screen. That is probably going to be a personal preference, but it is a little small compared to other models. Besides that, the LCD display is very self-intuitive and customizable.

On the screen, you can program it to display either the programmed number for specific channels or the frequencies. You can maneuver pretty easily through this interface with control knobs and buttons on the radio or through the handheld mic that is included with the radio.  And you can add up to 200 channels to memory.

An interesting feature of this mobile radio is the ability to dual, tri, or quad sync two to four different channels simultaneously. It can come in handy when you are wanting to stay in contact with friends in the area while also keeping tabs on weather alerts. And this can be done when in VFO (frequency), MR (channel), or toggling between the two.

There are a ton of features on this radio, and again, with a little time messing with the radio, you can easily navigate between them through the radio directly or by the handheld mic. Most are standard features you will find on most quality two-way mobile/base radios including a narrow/wide broadband option, squelch features, frequency step options, transmit in DCS or CTSS code, and a scan timer.

This two-way radio just about anything an amateur radio user needs and its features and design make it ideal for use when in mountainous terrain whether in your vehicle or at base camp.

Conclusion

There are quite a few decisions that you are going to have to make if you want to optimize your two-way setup for use in the mountains. What seems like a simple decision can actually be quite complicated when you start getting into the details of the subject.

We hope that this article has cleared up a lot of the misinformation that is out there and given you a resource for choosing the radio that is going to suit your needs as well as give you some options to start out with.

There are few places that provide the adventures and solitude as the mountains and also few places that can be as dangerous when you are not prepared. A two-way radio is a good place to start in your preparation.

 

References

[1] https://govbooktalk.gpo.gov/2013/07/10/radio-101-operating-two-way-radios-every-day-and-in-emergencies

 

[2] https://www.ito-inc.com/tech7.html

 

LET US KNOW WHAT YOU THINK IN THE COMMENTS BELOW!

Also, be sure to check out some of our other posts, such as

Trail Camera that Sends Pictures to a Cell Phone

or

Best Point and Shoot GPS Camera

 

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