|Arcshell Two-way Radios||Amazon||C|
|Motorola Talkabout Radio MH230R||Amazon||B|
|Retevis H-777 Walkie Talkie||Amazon||C|
|Midland GXT1000VP4||REI / Amazon||B|
I’m going to go out on a limb here (and possibly embarrass myself): doesn’t hiking make you feel like a bit of a badass?
Let’s face it, modern life is pretty pedestrian. Most of us wake up, shower, queue in traffic, sit behind a desk all day then spend our evenings watching the adventures of other people on TV. Most of the time they’re not even real people – adventure is now confined to the realm of fantasy.
There is a reason most modern men secretly accept that their dads and grandads could beat them up – and, let’s not be sexist, grandmothers could probably kick their granddaughters’ butts too! Our parents and grandparents belonged to a different generation. Life was a “manual” affair back in the day – hand’s on, straightforward, rough, tough.
Hiking is an opportunity for us to reconnect with something we’ve lost. Not just our connection to nature, our connection to our own inner resolve and willingness to battle against the elements. Putting on a solid pair of boots, strapping the weight of a dead body to your back and tramping through wind and rain for 12 hours is a hobby that, arguably, only makes sense in these terms.
Two way radios may seem archaic in the days of Skype and cell phones but they are another tangible connection to a lost past of soldiering, trucking and barking instructions across crackling static. Two way radios are gloriously manual – grip it in your hand, raise it to your mouth – and will make you feel more purposeful out on the trail.
Of course, if things go wrong they might save your life, too! When your “smart” phone goes stupid and loses signal (and how often does that happen out in the wild?) a two way radio can help you stay in contact. Let’s take a look at the kind of features that make for a high-quality handheld radio.
Features to Look Out for in Portable Radios
Two way radios, like any modern day tech gadget, come with such an array of features and selling points that newcomers to the market could be forgiven for yearning for a simpler era: the days when walkie talkies came with only the button you press when you want to speak!
However, tech has its upside, too, and since a walkie talkie could potentially save your life on a hiking trip, it seems worthwhile to spend a bit of time picking out useful features.
Why a Walkie-Talkie
Of course, there is one question that needs to be answered first: why bother buying two way radios at all?
Walkie-talkies have several advantages over other communication devices in wilderness scenarios:
- Probably the biggest advantage two way radios have over smartphones (and, let’s be honest, this is what they’re up against, the ubiquitous smartphone) is that they don’t require cell towers to operate. Walkie-talkies communicate directly with one another via radio waves and cut out the reliance on signal towers (which, inevitably, are placed with an emphasis on serving civilian rather than wilderness areas).
- Battery life. Walkie-talkies come with a range of battery life options. I probably don’t need to convince you that most of these options will significantly outlast your power-greedy smartphone.
- If you take your kids hiking with you the push and talk method of walkie-talkie communication is hard to beat in terms of simplicity
- Hiking in large groups. Okay, technically you could place a group call to all members of your hiking party on your smartphone, but isn’t it easier to press just a single button and speak to everyone at once?
The Things You Need
Basic walkie talkies can be purchased in toy shops for less than $10 but you won’t have much success transmitting an SOS call from the bottom of a crevasse in one of these! That’s because they tend to have the functional range of two tin cans hooked together with a piece of string.
High-quality walkie-talkies tend to boast of a “maximum range.” This can be anywhere between 20 and 40 miles. Please keep in mind, though, that these tests have likely been conducted in the Netherlands or on a desert plain somewhere! “Operating ranges for walkie talkies are often very optimistic compared to realistic situations” (1) probably classes as an understatement.
Trees, buildings, even your own body, can block radio signals so don’t always expect to ever get the max range. However, as a general rule the stronger the device is (eg the higher the maximum range it boasts of), the more likely it is to function well for the 2-4 mile range that can realistically be expected of a portable radio in the wild.
Radio waves are out there and they’re being used for all kinds of things. Since you probably don’t want your distress call to a friend to be interrupted by a truck driver trying to communicate with aliens, a two way radio system that works at Ultra High Frequency (or UHF) would likely be a wise choice.
UHF radios transmit at 466 MHz, which effectively blocks interference.
Life has a tendency to get a little rough out on the trail. Frequently, water is involved. Rain, thunderstorms, rivers that have to be waded. Survival devices need to be able to survive extremes of the environment so a serious hiker is likely to seek out a walkie-talkie with some level of waterproofing.
Rechargeable or non-rechargable? This is the question when it comes to walkie-talkie batteries.
As this blog confirms the battery debate essentially centres on two things: price and battery life. Rechargeable batteries will almost certainly save you money in the long-term, however bear in mind that they “lose drain more quickly over time and successive charges” – drawbacks which do not apply to disposable batteries.
Whatever type of battery you decide to go for carrying spares on the trail would be a smart move.
This may seem like a strange feature to emphasise on a portable device but there are degrees of portability.
Generally speaking, the smaller and lighter your walkie-talkies are the more suitable they’ll be for hiking (making members of your group less likely to complain about having to carry them!).
Additional features like a belt clip and/or a headset can further enhance the walkie-talkie trail experience. A combination of the two will allow you to communicate quickly without having to worry about locating your walkie-talkie when you want to chat or feeling that your hands are encumbered – when it buzzes on your belt just press a button and bark your commands into the headset!
We live in a techy age and, as a result, walkie-talkies are as likely to be marketed with a bewildering array of extras as anything else. One of the key advantages of the walkie-talkie as a survival device is simplicity of use. You do not want to pick it up for an emergency call and find yourself toggling through endless options on a digital interface – “Dammit, I want to send an SOS, not reconfigure my privacy options!”
That being said, there are a few additional features that you might find handy on the trail.
Flashlights are built into some modern walkie-talkies and could prove to be a handy, backup source of light in a wilderness situation. If lightweight hiking is your thing it may even allow you to combine two devices (comms and torch) into one.
An out of range alert will cause your walkie-talkie to beep when you move too far away from a comrade to communicate. Beeps can be annoying but they’re a better way to discover that you’re drifting out of range than speaking to static when you have a boulder on your foot!
A digital compass is built into some two way radios and can help you find your way.
Some walkie-talkies also come with access to weather channels to allow you to listen to forecasts when out on the trail. This feature could be a big bonus is if you are out hiking (and beyond the reach of mobile data) for several days.
Voice activation may seem like a smartphone gimmick but can enhance the two way radio trail experience by leaving the hands unencumbered. Activate your walkie-talkie with your voice to speak to your pals – just make sure you don’t do so by mistake when you’re cursing them!
Arcshell Rechargeable Long Range Two-way Radios
This low-price offering ticks a number of boxes. The Arcshell radios communicate via UHF, minimising interference, and come with a rechargeable battery – ensuring that the running cost of the device is every bit as low as the purchase price. The radios come with belt clips, an earpiece with an inbuilt microphone (allowing for almost hands-free communication – you’ll have to hold a button on the earpiece to speak) and are water resistant.
Hardened trekkers may be wary of the range of the devices. This is estimated at five miles with no obstructions. Nature abounds in obstructions – perhaps the reason you head out there is to climb over some! – so the limited range of the device may be a deal breaker for some.
- Very low price point
- Rechargeable batteries with life estimated at 8-94 hours depending on usage
- At 4.53 inches high, 1.30 inches thick, 2.36 inches in width and weighing only 6.3 oz they are pleasingly portable
- Low power output of 3 watts severely limits range. This is almost certainly not the radio you’re looking for if you plan on going canyoning in a remote area
Motorola Talkabout Radio MH230R
Motorola’s MH230R headsets come in a distinctive yellow that may have some judging them before they get near the specs.
However, even those displeased by the yellow aesthetic may find themselves coming around when they discover that the radios have a range of 23 miles, over four times that of the Arcshell radios. The price point is a little higher – mid-price – but the MH230R has other selling points, too. 21 channels, each with 121 privacy codes, provide 2541 combinations that are unlikely to experience interference, while weather radio is another valuable addition for serious outdoor types looking for forecasts in isolated environments
- Radio has a high-range and enough channels and privacy codes for you to enjoy uninterrupted contact with friends in even challenging environments
- Compatible with both rechargeable and non-rechargeable batteries, allowing users to tailor their own balance of price and battery duration
- IP-51 dust and dripping water protection should make the radios pretty robust
- Weather radio option
- Lack of earbuds and microphones means the headset will have to be lifted by hand to operate
- Users have complained of a complicated menu interface that makes it difficult to access certain features – not the kind of thing you want to be dealing with in an emergency
Retevis H-777 Walkie Talkie
Retevis H-777 two way radios are another low price option. With a maximum output of 5 watts they have more power than the Arcshell but a similarly limited range (five kilometres or so under favourable conditions).
On the positive side of things they come with a number of helpful extras such as a built-in LED torch, belt clips and earbuds – although some reviewers have noted that the buds are uncomfortable when worn for prolonged periods. The batteries are rechargeable and a USB socket is present to enable charging on the go.
- Low price point
- Highly portable due to low size, weight and belt clips
- In-built torch
- Limited range will be considered a significant drawback by many
- Earbuds said to be uncomfortable to wear for prolonged periods
Midland’s mid-price option has the biggest potential range of any walkie-talkie reviewed so far – 36 miles under optimum conditions – and also possesses the highest number of channels and privacy codes. Even those for whom maths wasn’t a strong point will know that 50 channels multiplied by 142 privacy codes equals…a large number of communication channels that are unlikely to experience interference.
The radios also come with belt clips, headsets and VOX (voice activation) software to allow hands free communication. The safety conscious will be pleased to hear that the radios come with weather radio and an SOS Siren that allows users to send out distress signals in an emergency – a potential life saver.
- Two way radios on the trail are really all about safety and with the highest range of any walkie-talkie on this list and an SOS siren the Midland GXT1000VP4 steps up and delivers
- Weather channels are another feature that should appeal to hardened adventurers
- Vibrate-only option in place so you can preserve the sanctity of nature (if you choose!) and move soundlessly through an environment
- The variety of options available on the set mean its interface can appear complicated to newcomers
- Users have reported that batteries can drain exceptionally quickly as these radios age
Uniden MHS75 Handheld Submersible
There’s a reason this Uniden radio contains “Marine” and “Submersible” in its title – it is submersible for up to 30 minutes at a depth of five feet and has been designed with marine adventures very much in mind. Not only does the radio boast a level of waterproofing that makes the “splashproof” claims of other radios look, frankly, pathetic, it is also designed to float on the surface of water. If you’re the type of adventurer whose hikes often descend into river-wading or improvised sea caving the Uniden’s water-proofing features may be a major bonus!
The Uniden radios contain another feature that may appeal to adventurers: adjustable power settings to allow for an impressive range without draining the batteries. While at close quarters you might want to save battery power and run the radios at one watt, they can be cranked up to 2.5 or even 5 watts if the situation demands it.
- Best waterproofing of any of the radios on this list by some margin
- Adjustable power settings allow for long range communication if necessary without draining the battery when only low power is required
- With a mid-to-high price point you are paying more for the radio’s special features
Our Top Choice
And the winner is…the Uniden MHS75 Handheld Submersible. It was a close call, with both the Midland GXT1000VP4 and the Motorola Talkabout Radio MH230R running it close.
Ultimately, however, the Uniden’s two unique features – exceptional waterproofing and adjustable power settings (allowing for increased battery conservation) – edge it ahead of the pack,
The Uniden MHS75 has all the essential features you’d look for in a walkie-talkie – UHF transmission channels, weather resistance, batteries with power conservation options and the wattage to transmit over high distances – and takes some to the next level. The fact that the device can be submerged in water and live to tell the tale is bound to resonate with those who have experienced drenchings or accidental dips in bodies of water while out on the trail.
The Uniden’s price point is slightly higher than rival devices but, when it comes to safety, you’re unlikely to want to cut costs. Where a rival radio could be dropped in a puddle or damaged irreparably while wading through a stream, the Uniden MHS75 is designed to keep going strong in tough conditions and is the most likely of all the reviewed devices to be there when you really need it.