The simplest answer to "which radio should I get?" is to get what your friends are running.
If you don’t have any friends, or if your group is wondering which way to go, read on…
There are four main radio types that are used in the off road and overland world these days. Each one has its benefits and drawbacks. Those choices are CB, ham, FRS, and GMRS.
CB used to be the most common. It’s cheap, easy to set up, free, and unlicensed. It’s also the worst, and has fallen out of favor. Of all of the choices it has the worst range, worst sound quality, and the worst interference. In Kentucky it’s not uncommon to be interrupted by people who sound like they’ve had a little too much moonshine.
CB does not work with any of the other radios.
Verdict: Don’t even consider.
Suggested radio: N/A
Compatibility: CB radio does not work with any other radios.
Ham isn’t an acronym; it’s short for ham-fisted, a nickname given to amateur radio operators who would interfere with the professionals in the early days of amateur radio. These days it’s a lot more regulated, and use of ham radio frequencies requires a license, which involves passing a test. The test is $15 to take, plus a $35 application fee for the license.
It’s easy to find ham radios with up to 50W of power, giving them fantastic range. Additionally, ham frequencies have hundreds of repeaters across the country that are often networked together. These repeaters rebroadcast your messages, allowing you to communicate with people across a region.
Interference is pretty much unheard of on ham radio. Ham operators take themselves and their hobby very seriously, so will not interrupt you without reason. The only time it has happened to me was when I was discussing where to camp, and someone politely informed us of a wildfire nearby! Additionally, ham radios have frequency ranges you operate in, so you’re not limited to certain channels.
If you want to go really in depth, some radios allow the transmitting of GPS data, so you can track or be tracked.
Despite being arguably the best radio option, it’s also not particularly common in the off road and overland community. The testing requirements put a lot of people off.
Verdict: This is my choice, but it’s not for most. Ask your friends (and yourself) if they’re willing to take the test. If not, consider something else.
Suggested radio: Icom IC-2730A - it’s simple, powerful, and solid. If you want to be able to record your conversations or share locations, consider the Icom IC-5100A. Other brands such as Kenwood and Yaesu also make excellent products.
Baofeng and other cheap ham radios are tempting due to the low price, but the quality of incoming and outgoing transmissions can be poor with some of them. They make a good backup or spotting radio, however.
Compatibility: Ham radios can be modified to also work on FRS and GMRS frequencies, and sellers like Gigaparts will sell them modified with the MARS mod, but using them on those frequencies is not legal. If you do it, don't get caught!
The Walmart radios. These are the ones you see kids at shows and parks using. They’re cheap, don’t require a license, are clear, and easy to use. Unfortunately with a max power of 2W (or just 0.5W from channels 8 through 14), the range on them is pretty poor, and sometimes communicating between vehicles in a convoy can be difficult.
Because these are super common, interference is common in more populated areas unless you have a more expensive model with privacy channels.
Verdict: They’re great for spotting, a backup radio for someone joining you for the day, or for your kids, but are not a good primary radio.
Suggested radio: Whatever is cheap, or buy the same brand as your GMRS to make the privacy channel setup the same.
Compatibility: Shares channels 1-22 with GMRS, but FRS is limited to a lower power. Cannot transmit outside of those channels.
GMRS falls somewhere between the advantages and disadvantages of ham and FRS. It’s powerful, with a limit of 50W, has a repeater network (albeit not nearly as extensive as the ham network), but requires a license. Unlike ham, the GMRS license is simply an application and $35 fee.
Thanks to the easy process and powerful radio options, GMRS is the most popular option. It is quickly becoming the standard radio option for off road events across the country.
Unfortunately, being limited to just 22 channels that are shared with FRS can cause a lot of interference. Thankfully, some radios, such as the ones we sell on revereoverland.com, have hundreds of privacy channels that tune out anyone who isn’t on the same privacy channel.
Verdict: This is the best option for most people.
Suggested radio: Midland MXT275 (budget, 15W) or the Midland MXT575 (most powerful 50W). Midland is the most popular GMRS brand, and having the same brand as others in your group will simplify the privacy channels. Other good brands are Cobra, Uniden, and Motorola (Midland and Cobra use the same channel numbering system, while Motorola and Uniden share another numbering system).
Avoid brands other than the ones listed above. Radios that are advertised as ‘rugged’ are often overpriced. Some other brands are poorly made and receive or cause a lot of unintended interference, while others require the privacy channel codes to be manually set.
Compatibility: Shares channels 1-22 with FRS. Cannot transmit outside of those channels.
SOMETHING ELSE TO CONSIDER
A lot of people look at radios as emergency communication. They’re definitely capable of reaching long distances, but you’d need to be on a channel where someone is in range and is listening. Consider adding a satellite messenger to your kit - they’re great for checking in with people or contacting someone in an emergency. Garmin and Spot both send text messages to cell phones via a satellite, and both allow someone to track you as you go far out of range of cell and radio towers.