To get your GMRS Radio system on the air, you'll need some equipment. Depending on your needs and budget, your GMRS equipment may include one or more hand-held (walkie talkie), mobile radios or "base stations," antennas, power supplies and adapters. Fortunately, GMRS radio equipment is inexpensive and easy to obtain.
Most of the radios we're recommending are used, and have come out of commercial service where they have been used by police, fire and other first-responders. These are rugged, durable radios that are built to last, and are highly configurable. They are also simple to operate, with fewer buttons and unnecessary functions that might confuse novice users.
There are basically five types of radios we use in our Neighborhood Radio Watch program:
- Basic Pocket Pagers - These are simple, inexpensive pagers that can be activated through our Neighborhood Early Warning System (aka our "NEWS Pager"system) during emergencies to emit a loud, beeping tone to get your attention that something is happening in your area. These are one-way communications devices that can also show short messages on their LCD display. You cannot transmit through them nor listen to other radios. Think of them as personal alert devices. Cost range is $15 to $35.
- Portable Radios - These are battery-powered, hand-held radios, also known as Handie Talkies or Walkie Talkies. These are "two-way radios," meaning you can transmit and receive signals from other radios using the same frequencies. They're mainly used outdoors, and are popular with backpacker, campers and hikers. Their range may be limited, especially indoors, due to their lower power and smaller antennas. Cost range can be anywhere from $15 to $100, depending on features and power. Family Radio Service (FRS) radios run about $10 to $30 per radio. General Mobile Radio Service (GMRS) radios run about $30 to $100 per radio.
- Mobile Radios - These two-way radios go into cars or trucks, and are powered by your vehicle's 12-volt electrical system. They are usually more powerful radios than Handie Talkies. They also use external antennas that are mounted outside the car. Because of their higher power and outside antennas, these radios generally have greater range than Handie Talkies. Cost range can be anywhere from $75 to $200, depending on features and power.
- Base Station Radios - These are really just mobile radios located in your home or office, with the addition of a 12-volt power supply (power supply is $75 ~ $100). They also need an external antenna, usually mounted on the roof. Total costs range can be anywhere from $150 to $300, depending on features, power and outdoor antennas.
- Scanners - These are one-way, receive-only radios, meaning you can't transmit with them. They allow you to monitor channels used by Emergency Services, Law Enforcement or Fire Departments. Scanners can be Handie Talkies, mobiles, or base-stations. Most scanners have their own, built-in battery pack or AC power supply and antenna. Cost range can be anywhere from $100 to $400, depending on features.
There are also "all-in-one" two-way radios that include the ability to listen to scanner channels and have pager capability. Cost range can be anywhere from $150 to $400, depending on features and outdoor antennas.
Here are some of the radios, antennas, power supplies and accessories we've tested and recommend:
Portable HT (Handi Talkie), Hand-held Radios
Portable HT radios are self-contained, battery-operated radios that you can easily carry with you. HT radios can also be used as a mobile or base-station radio, using an external antenna and a PL259 to SMA coax-to-radio antenna adaptor. They're not as powerful as Mobile or Base-station radios, and will usually put out between 5 to 8 watts of RF power. You will need a battery charger with these radios, and a spare battery is a good idea. There may be other, useful accessories, such as a holster, belt clip, or an external coiled-cord microphone/speaker.
For maximum versatility, you will want to select portable radios that can be programmed to use GMRS "Repeaters" to increase your range. However, there are also perfectly good, portable Family Radio Service (FRS) and General Mobile Radio Service (GMRS) radios that cannot transmit through repeaters but can be used to stay in touch with your neighborhood, or your friends and family during camping trips or vehicle caravans, by using "simplex" (direct, radio-to-radio) communications.
Kenwood TK-380 (type 1: 450 ~ 490 MHz) - These are very solid, well-made hand-held radios. There are many good, used TK-380s available online for under $100. Be sure to buy a new battery (~ $20 ea.) since used batteries may not hold a full charge. They also have a detachable antenna, and you can replace it with a Nagoya 701C (~ $20) for a bit better range on the GMRS Channels. These radios often require re-programming to get them set up for GMRS Channels. They can also be programmed to accept special Pager Alert Tones sent through our Neighborhood Early Warning System (aka our "NEWS Pager"system). We can program in these tones on radios we supply.
NOTE: These radios come in three models: Type 1 (450 - 490 MHz), Type 2 (470 - 512 MHz), and Type 3 (400 - 430 MHz). If you can't wait for us to supply you with a radio, be sure you buy the Type 1 model that covers the GMRS channel bands (462 - 467 MHz).
Mobile or Base Station Radios
Mobile radios can typically transmit with more power (up to 50 watts), and have greater range than portable, hand-held radios. They require external 12-volt DC power, usually supplied by your car's electrical system. They also require an external GMRS antenna, attached to your car either with a clamp or a magnetic mounting base ($35 to $100).
Mobile radios can also be used as a base-station radio at your home or office. Base-station radios require an external 12-volt DC power supply ($75 to $100) and an outdoor antenna (see below for antenna options).
Motorola Radius GM300 - These are very good, used mobile radios, and can also be used as base station radios at home or office with an external power supply and outdoor antenna. They offer higher power, up to 45 watts, and have a greater transmission range. They do require some programming to get them onto the GMRS frequencies. They can also be programmed to accept Pager Alert Tones ($60 ~ $100 used).
These radios come in many different versions so be careful to check the model numbers before buying. The model numbers carry a great deal of information, and it's easy to pick the wrong version of this radio. Look for model numbers that start with M44GMC29C3. This is a 40 watt, UHF radio, 45.1 MHz IF, wide spacing (20/25/30 kHz), 16 channels, expanded logic board, 438-470 MHz band. As always, ask us first if you need help in selecting or acquiring radios.
NOTE: These radios are often sold used without a microphone. Be sure you get a compatible microphone with the radio, such as the Motorola Radius HMN3596A Mic.
A good antenna can make all the difference in signal strength, both for transmitting and receiving. Antennas come in two, basic models; Omni-directional and directional:
Omnidirectional Antennas - These are the most common type of antenna used with many GMRS radios. Also known as "Vertical Antennas," Omni-directional antennas are usually composed of one, single antenna wire or element, and typically mounted vertically, straight up like a flag pole, with the radio or cable attached to the bottom. Your car's AM/FM radio antenna is a vertical antenna.
As the name implies, these antennas receive and transmit equally well in all directions in a complete, 360° radius around the length of the antenna, with very little signal coming off of the end. The little "whip" antenna on a Handi Talkie is a good example of an omnidirectional antenna. All portable radio antennas are omnidirectional. Almost all mobile antennas, and most base-station antennas, are omnidirectional.
NMO "Mag Mount" Vehicle Antennas - These are very popular antennas for mobile use, and come with a non-skid, non-marring magnetic base which magnetically attaches to the car body, usually on the roof. They come pre-wired with a thin, 12' to 20' section of coax cable, which can be routed down through the edge of a door frame or trunk lid (avoid pinching the cable!). These can run anywhere from $15 to $75, depending on features and signal gain.
For about the same money, you can also buy similar antennas with a more-permanent, "clamp" mount that attaches to your trunk or hood lip, and you then route the cable internally through your engine compartment or trunk to your radio inside your vehicle.
Ed Fong DBJ-1C Base Station Antenna - Lightweight, high-performance base station antenna kit. Just add a 35" section of Class 200 PVC pipe, mount, and a good-quality, low-loss coax cable. Specifically tuned for GMRS, MURS, Public Safety & Commercial LMR uses, with 6dB gain at 460-470 MHz over a stock handheld antenna. Can be used with your handheld (using a coax adapter), mobile or base two-way radio station. The approximate retail price is around $40 plus shipping. Be sure to order the GMRS model: https://edsantennas.weebly.com/
Comet CA-712EFC Base Station Antenna - Fixed station, omnidirectional vertical base-station antenna. Frequency: 460-470MHz. Gain: 9dBi. Max power: 200 watts. Length: 10 ft 5 inches. Weight: 2 lb 13oz. Connector: N-female. Construction: Two-piece white fiberglass. Max wind speed: 112MPH. Very good performer. You will need a good, sturdy base mount and good-quality coax cable to complete the installation. The approximate retail price is around $145 plus shipping. Shop around for the best price. https://www.amazon.com/Comet-Original-CA-712EFC-460-470Mhz-Connector/dp/B01HQK6L90
Directional Base Station Antennas - These antennas are used with GMRS base station radios to improve reception in weak-signal (or "fringe") areas. Signals can be weakened by hills, trees, buildings or weather between you and distant stations. Sometimes known as "Yagi Antennas," directional antennas typically concentrate almost all of their signal in one direction, with very little signal coming off of the sides or back of the antenna. The conventional roof-top TV antenna on top of a house is a good example of a directional antenna.
Directional antennas offer higher signal "gain," or range, in one direction and are usually pointed directly at a GMRS repeater to improve reception and transmission. The gain can be as much as 6 to 9 Db of signal improvement over an omnidirectional antenna but only in one direction. Each 3 Db of gain is equal to doubling your signal power. For example, the power from a 20-watt radio fed into a 3 Db gain antenna is effectively doubled to 40 watts. The same 20 watts of power fed into a 6 Db gain antenna is effectively quadrupled to 80 watts, and the power of 20 watts fed into a 9 Db gain antenna is increased by eight times to 160 watts.
Like omnidirectional antennas, directional GMRS antennas are also typically mounted vertically, with the high-gain (or smaller) end of the antenna pointed at the desired distant station or Repeater. Cost ranges anywhere from $50 to $300, depending on the type of antenna, mount, cable type and cable distance. We have several inexpensive Yagi antennas in stock.
Cable and Connectors - Get the best coax cable you can afford. RG-6 or RG-59 (75 ohm) coax, used for TV, won't work. You need 50 ohm coax. Better cables have lower signal loss per foot. At a minimum for short cable runs, you'll need RG-8X. Especially with longer runs over 40', you'll need RG-8, RG-213, or LMR-400 (the best). Price can range anywhere from $0.20/ft for RG-8X up to $1.00/ft. for LMR-400. Most connectors used for GMRS radios, cables and antennas are type "PL 259." However, some GMRS antennas may use "Type N" connectors. Be sure you check which connectors your antenna and cables come with before buying.
Antenna Mounts - Mounts come in a variety of shapes and sizes from a simple, vertical TV mast section to more elaborate offset or wall mounts, chimney mounts, or under-eave mounts. Generally, higher is better. The 1 5/8" diameter "gooseneck" mounts, used for Dish Network antennas, and attached to the fascia board at the edge near the peak of a roof may be adequate for most households. Figure $15 to $50 for a mount, with most being under $25.
The El Dorado County Amateur Radio Club has tested many brands of new and used GMRS-capable radios, antennas, power supplies, and accessories, and can help you choose what equipment and options are best for you and your budget. To help you decide what will work best for you, fill out and return our "Two-way Radio Needs Assessment": edcarc.net/images/Documents/Two-way_Radio_Needs_Assessment-20200319.pdf
NOTE: Neighborhood Radio Watch Programs ARE NOT a replacement for Emergency Services such as Police, Fire, the Sheriff's Office or 911. These programs are intended solely as a backup communications solution When All Else Fails.
The El Dorado County Amateur Radio Club is a "not-for-profit," all-volunteer Community Service organization. Members are not reimbursed for their Membership or for services provided to the Community. All of the Community Radio equipment we furnish is provided at or below our out-of-pocket costs, and our general support services are offered free of charge. Radio acquisition, programming, and training workshops provided by our Club Members are free of charge. If people need help installing their equipment at home, unpaid Volunteer assistance may be available. Donations to the Club to sustain our efforts are gratefully accepted but are not required nor expected.