The Virgin Valley 4×4 club currently uses GMRS radio channel 16, on frequency 462.575 MHz, for communications during rides. The club has a few hand-held radios to loan to members who don’t have them. They are simple to operate and do not require a license, however they are low-power (2-watt). We strongly encourage folks to get one of their own. Two-way radio is a complex subject, so you should spend some time doing your own research before making a purchase.
Without a license, you can use a radio that transmits on the FRS/GMRS frequency our club uses, but only at low-power (2-watt).
To use a higher powered handheld or mobile radio, you need a General Mobile Radio Service license. The license currently costs $70, there is no test, and it is good for ten years. You can get more information and apply online using FCC form 606.
You DO NOT need an Amateur Radio (HAM) license for GMRS, and having a HAM license does NOT authorize you to transmit on GMRS frequencies.
Radios to Consider
License-free FRS Radios
Low-power Family Radio Service handheld radios that don’t require a license are inexpensive and available online and in stores, including Walmart. They are usually sold in pairs as walkie-talkies. They are usually adequate for line-of-site communications on our rides to talk between vehicles, but it depends on circumstances like distance and terrain. If you choose to get one of these type radios, be sure it can operate on 462.575 MHz or GMRS channel 16. Most newer radios will work. Here are a few examples of these types of radios:
Higher-powered Handheld (handie-talkie) Radios
The Baofeng radios are relatively inexpensive, and readily available from online merchants. Because they transmit at higher than 2-watts, legally they require a license to operate. However, most of them can be programmed to transmit at low-power. That would technically allow you to use them without a license, and then re-program later if you decide to get your license. I say technically, because there is still some question about the legality of the radio itself, since it has capabilities that go beyond the description of a “license-free” radio. They are able to transmit on Amateur Radio frequencies. But those technicalities are a bit ambiguous, unlikely to be an issue out in the desert, and go beyond the scope of this discussion.
Right now you can pick up a Baofeng UV-5R handheld radio from Amazon for under $30. This is a 5 watt radio with an1800 mAh battery that is perfectly adequate for a day trip ride.
An upgraded radio, the Baofeng UV-9R plus, can be purchased on Amazon for under $40, which gives you a little more power and larger battery. I own one of these and it has been very reliable.
A newer Baofeng model, the GT-3TP, can be ordered as a kit with external speaker and extra battery. Several club members own one of these units.
One of these higher-powered handheld units would be a good choice for a new or occasional off-roader looking for reliable communication. If you decide to upgrade to a more powerful mobile radio later on, the handheld will still come in handy for spotting situations and hiking.
If you are willing to get licensed and want a serious radio, take a look at some of these mobile units. They typically transmit between 15 and 50 watts, and combined with a decent antenna (a whole other topic) can provide you with reliable communications at great distances. Some of these units are Amateur Radio frequency capable also, so you can extend your communication reach even further with a HAM license.
This 15-watt Midland GMRS Radio is great for limited space vehicles, since the control panel is built in to the mic, allowing you to mount the unit in an out-of-the-way place.
This 40-watt Midland GMRS will cost you about $100 more than the MicroMobile, and doesn’t have the controls in the mic, but gives a lot more transmit power.
Radioddity has a heck of a deal on Amazon for a dual-band radio that pushes 25-watts and comes with the antenna for just over $100. The unit is tiny and can be controlled from the mic. The only extra you’ll need with this kit is the antenna cable and vehicle mount.
I installed a VERO VR-N7500 unit in my Jeep. It is a 50-watt HAM/GMRS radio that is unique in that it has no control panel at all– it uses an application on your smartphone or tablet. It also supports a wireless Bluetooth mic. If installation space is a issue, this radio might be a consideration for you.
If you purchase one of these or another radio (just be sure it will work on the club’s frequency), you’ll want to program it. Programming simply assigns frequencies and settings to the radio’s channels, making it easier to use. You can do this manually, but to make programming less tedious you will need the correct programming cable for your specific radio (they run about $10) and software (free). Generally, you only have to do this once, so you can save a couple bucks and a few hours of frustration by getting with me (Glenn) or another member who has a radio like yours to do it for you.
Why Not CB?
There are some valid arguments for the advantages of CB radio (11 meter). Many drivers already have one installed, no license requirement, etc. Technology wise, however, GMRS is superior, and not limited to the 4-watt maximum that Citizens Band is. Legal CB’s are usually line-of-site only, with a range somewhere between 3 and 10 miles, dependent upon conditions. GMRS is also condition dependent, but has the flexibility of using inexpensive, low-wattage, license free handhelds, and higher powered, licensed units on the same frequencies for greater distances. The inexpensive handhelds are the primary reason our club uses GMRS– makes it easy to provide a loaner radio to a new member until he gets his own.
The radios I listed above are just several of the ones I have had experience with. As I said above, it’s up to you to do your research and pick what will work best for you. There are undoubtedly better quality and more capable radios and brands available if money is no object.
If you find that I am in error or left something out of this article, please feel free to email me or leave a comment on this post. Also, if you have a radio I didn’t mention that our other club members should consider, you can leave that in a comment as well.