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Watts Your Walkie Talkie’s Range? Real Range For Walkie Talkie Radios

When it comes to Walkie Talkies, many folks get confused by claims of manufacturers about range. It probably would help if someone cleared the air on this, to help out those trying to sort out the ridiculously high claims of range on many Walkie Talkies.  Keep in mind that challenging radio environments will quickly cut your range to a minimum of about 300 yards, or about a mile or so in somewhat better conditions. Buildings block or reflect signals, just like a mirror. Steel cars are even worse, and tinted windows are only a little better. Only lots of height will get you to the maximums claimed by manufacturers.  In any case, the manufacturers test their radios under decidedly unrealistic conditions, using facilities in the unobstructed flat-lands of Florida, using elevated testing platforms. 

Discussion on 2 way radio power:

First off, always buy a radio that says GMRS, or General Mobile Radio Service. This service is licensed for the maximum amount of power that the government allows; about 4 watts.  FRS or Family Radio Service radios are automatically limited to only 1/2 watt; barely enough to get down the street. So stay away from FRS, unless you want to buy toys and don’t need them for real communications and safety. Most better radios are billed as combined GMRS/FRS, but the walkie talkie automatically cuts power to 1/2 watt on the GMRS channels. 

Walkie Talkies are not cell phones

A GMRS radio (on a GMRS channel) can do a lot with 4 watts. This is a lot of power, considering that most digital cell phones these days operate on about 500 milliwatts or less, most of the time.  However, cell phones use a near invisible network of “cell” sites all around us, on high building corners, hills and mountain tops, so they seldom have to reach up and out farther than a few hundred yards. Cell sites use height and power to boost range of your tiny cellphone signal. A walkie talkie has to do things the hard way, without the help of a cell site. However, four watts will drain a battery quickly and requires slightly more expensive, larger and heavier internal components to handle the extra energy.

Having said this, anyone who has spent time in the field with these things knows that reliable communications is key. Some settings, such as using radios car to car, on urban streets or in heavily forested areas will cut the range of even the most powerful radio from miles to a few hundred yards. “Line-of-site” is the rule for radios like this, so if you have height, your range will be greatly extended.  With obstructions, signals may be absorbed or reflected away.

The rule of thumb, even for someone just having fun with these radios, is the more power the better.  That’s why I always recommend spending the extra $20 or so and getting something that uses the legal maximum. These are found on radios claiming ranges of “25 miles” or more., and they all put out about 4 watts on GMRS channels. Those extra watts will help in punching your signal through metal tinted car windows, through wood frame houses and around concrete structures.  In the wilderness, trees and rocks form similar barriers to radio signals, but as a safety device outdoors the radios really need to perform reliably so the max power makes for more peace of mind in tracking kids and hiking partners. You can always dial down the power to conserve battery juice for when you need it.

Thus, unless you really need the small size of the 5.5 inch Cobra LI5600 radio, you may want to go for the increased power of Cobra’s seven inch (including antenna) LI7020, or LI7200. 

Radios are inexpensive fun for the whole family. When it comes to range however, keep your expectations realistic. Read your instruction manual, keep your settings as simple as possible and go for it in the both real and urban jungles!

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