You might be surprised to learn that, in the age of the cellular phone, sales of handheld transceivers are on the up, but that’s because they offer a very different flexibility. The term ‘walkie-talkie’ has been around since Motorola first supplied backpack-sized radios to American troops in WW2; now the technology has not only shrunk considerably but moved on in several ways and found plenty more uses.
The classic walkie-talkie setup requires every user to have a matching radio on the same channel, which only one person can occupy at a time by pressing the ‘talk’ button; the other radios play what they hear through their speakers.
That’s not only why you should say ‘over’ and release the button when you finish talking, but why in many-user environments you’ll be given a list of spare channels to switch to for a longer conversation.
• See also Best satellite phones
For small-scale use, the US explicitly created the weaker FRS and GMRS channels (the later requires a license which costs $70 for ten years). Walkies in each band should all work together whatever the brand, but you can often save money buying in packs of two or more can often save a good deal. Check the glossary below for all the terminology and acronyms.
A bit of science to remember when browsing specifications of all walkie talkies: range depends on line-of-sight; if two radios are about the height of, well, a human, then the range will be around 6 miles / 10km – any further and the planet gets in the way. Hiking valleys and mountains can change that dramatically, of course, as can a repeating station, but that is another story.
The best walkie talkies in 2021
With a sleek and water-resistant design and ultra-cool reverse backlit LCD display, the T800 is more than elegant enough to hold its own against other consumer tech. The recessed raised buttons are easy to feel without looking, too. The stand-out feature, though, is a Bluetooth connection to your cell-phone which can create a mini messaging network even when you’re completely outside coverage.
Your phone – with a Motorola app – can send texts and GPS locations using the walkie talkie’s radio. If you download in advance, you can track your groups on maps outside coverage zones. Data transmission range is theoretically 20 miles (in practice about 5).
The phone is generously equipped in terms of features; emergency weather channel monitoring, auto-squelch, PTT power boost, dual-channel monitoring, emergency alert button, call tones and more. Given all the choice, it’s great that you can also use the app for readable access to the radio’s settings.
The Huaker Kids Walkie Talkie are a great choice for kids. Some major manufacturers slash the features aggressively for usebility, but if your kids are old enough to be persuaded to agree a channel (5 or 6 in our experience). If not, an adult can easily set a channel and sub channel for them. Huaker provide 22 channels and 99 sub channels; great for kids to find space to talk with friends in nearby home, and providing a boost to sound clarity. There is also a VOX (talk without pressing) function which some kids might find easier.
The changeable call tone and LED torch are nice addition which will please kids, and the 4 day standby from three AA batteries ensure that if kids fail to switch off it will stay on until toy collection time (power off requires a determined press-and-hold). The clear sound is useful and the side-mounted talk button and camouflage styling makes the radio feel more ‘real’ than some children’s designs.
The DeWalt walkie is license-free but the 800 series uses the maximum power available to communicate through up to 25 floors. Built firmly (in every sense) with the knowledge that the radio is there to help – not be the focus of attention – the channel display is clear and simple, clarity enhancing auto-squelch is included and operation is straightforward with a beep tone confirming the end of each transmission. Equally handy is the automatic shift to lower power to save battery when the channel isn’t busy.
The design has the perfect balance of familiar – the button and volume knob are traditionally located – and striking, with dust and water protected casing which will be easy to spot even if dropped. The included charging dock is also reversible, so it doesn’t matter which way the handset is dropped in, it’ll still charge; if you’re rushing off site for refreshment at the end of the day, that’s reassuring.
Sold in a variety of cost-effective packs (and some more eye-catching case tones), the GXT1000 has good functionality which should prevent emergencies as well as helping you keep in touch in times of strife. Top of that list is the NOAA weather scan and alert system which can automatically cycle through ten WX (weather band) channels, lock onto the strongest, and pass on any sever weather alerts. As a GMRS radio (though only pushing up to 2.5W) it has more power than standard FRS, letting you travel further into the wilderness (though do check FCC rules if switching to the upper TX level). There’s also a siren you can use to seek attention if you’ve landed in a tricky spot and help is coming, and a whisper mode for wildlife photographers (or hunters) to communicate quietly.
Making full use of the GMRS spec (which does require a license) this handset is ideal not only as a two-way radio (it is, at its heart, a walkie-talkie) but also provides scanning receiver functionality on VHF/UHF frequencies and an FM tuner. The antenna is replaceable with a common standard, providing an opportunity improve radio performance or fit to a vehicle kit.
All 30 GMRS channels, including the 8 repeater channels, are supported in receive and transmit mode, and dual PTT buttons make it easy to take advantage of the semi-duplex function. This monitors two channels at once, giving priority to the one with an active call.
The keypad and matrix LCD (with backlight of a tone you can choose) make choosing channels and privacy codes relatively easy, and the radio is compatible with a range of accessories like speaker mics and a PC programming lead (to customize channel names). Vox is built in, and a MURS-V1 edition (see glossary) is available which might better suit local regulations.
A handheld marine radio is like a walkie-talkie for the ocean, and the Uniden MHS75 is everything you could want as you begin to explore the waves at an accessible price. It can be held underwater for up to 30 minutes and the wrist strap will help you keep it to hand.
It covers the key US, Canadian and international channels, at up to 6 watts via a boost key. Since that kind of power can provide 10 miles of range, it’s handy that it can usually be switched between 1W or 2.5W to save batteries.
The noise and volume knobs are easy to grip, and the buttons well separated for even damp hands to operate, plus the system’s triple watch mode automatically monitors channels 16 and 9 for emergency alerts. The only complaint is the newer 4-digit or Canadian “B” channels aren’t supported and the only charger is a 12-volt car-style socket, but NOAA weather alerts are available.
The BC Link is two-way radio which pairs the portability of a walkie’s body, with the firm feel of a handheld mic more commonly associated with CB radios. Why, you might ask? The external microphone (with snow-protected grille) allows you to keep operating in difficult conditions (perhaps cross-country skiing?) Despite the higher weight, you can tuck the body of the device away in a pocket or pack and clip the radio to your pack’s straps, which might make chatting more appealing than reaching to the belt all the time.
The radio is rugged, thanks to its removable rubber case; the only area that looks like it could be stronger is the clip on the mic connector, but a screw-in mount seems to
For those hiking popular areas like national parks, the BC Link features privacy codes pre-set into the default channels. Even overnighters will find the 22-hour battery impressive, though if you need to top it up it’s a fully enclosed 2,300mAh lithium so you’ll need a battery bank or equivalent to hand, but the mini-USB charge port makes that straightforward.
Glossary of walkie talkie terms
Family Radio Service is an FCC defined set of channels – 22 + 8 for repeaters – shared with GMRS, however FRS does not require a license as it is limited to lower power. These channels are 462-467 MHz UHF..
Using the same frequencies as FRS (see above) the GMRS system allows for operation at over 2 watts of power; up to 50 watts on some channels. The down-side is that you need a license which costs $70 for ten years and – unusually for a government outfit – applies to all immediate family members of the owner.
Stands for Multi-Use Radio Service, and is a different group of frequencies (151-155 MHz VHF) which the FCC allocate for non-licenced use in a similar manner to CB radio.
Federal Communications Commission license radio frequencies in the USA; there is a similar body in most countries as the bandwidth must be shared, though believe it or not government agencies do try and cooperate across borders – to some extent, the FRS channel group is acceptable in Canada, Mexico and – at least some channels – in South America too; handy for trips abroad.
Frequencies on the electromagnetic spectrum are divided into broad categories (visible light is one of these) and the subcategories are known as channels. For convenience, these are named with simple numbers within GMRS/FRS For example, Channel 1 is 462.5625 MHz.
Despite the name, these offer no protection from eavesdropping; when you broadcast with a walkie talkie it is not encrypted. Instead you can agree on a tone (which you won’t be able to hear yourself) which will tell your handset which is the preferred signal.
This is another term for using sub-audible tones to filter out unwanted chatter from other users on the same frequency – see Privacy Codes.