2-Way Radios Review – FRS, Talkabout, Ham, BCA, for Backcountry Skiing

Post by WildSnow.com blogger | February 20, 2018      

Update, February 2018: New FCC rules may change the feature set of the type of radios covered in this blog post. Current radios will be forward compatible so no worries. Much information about this can be had here.

I’m a big advocate of using 2-way radios for communication while backcountry skiing, especially in avalanche terrain. To minimize risk in avalanche areas, it is essential to spread your party out, often traveling or skiing downhill one at a time. Thus, communication can be a challenge; shouting and wild gesturing only go so far, especially in storm conditions. For example, in one documented fatal accident party members below a skier attempted to gesture and shout for her to turn out of the avalanche path, but she keep heading down and was killed by a slide.

If every backcountry skiing party member carries and uses a 2-way radio, you can prevent these types of situations, more, you’ll find you can relax a bit more, and your whole day of backcountry skiing or other outdoor recreation may yield more fun.

Tip: rig heavily used 2-ways with a small speaker mic that’s clipped in a convenient location on the exterior of your jacket or pack strap, so you don’t have to dig for your radio every time you use it.) A wide choice of small consumer “blister pack” two-way radios are available. What is more, if you choose to acquire an amateur (ham) radio license, you can use a variety of well made mil-spec radios that are perfect for backcountry sports.

Family Radio Service (FRS & GMRS, see glossary at bottom of this article) “talkabout” “blisterpack” are the radios most commonly marketed to normal consumers (as opposed to higher quality more expensive units). Quality of these radios varies, some are actually quite good. For example, BCLink is one of the best quality choices out there, and is designed specifically for backcountry sports.

Sadly, all FRS blister pack radios are nearly useless for calling help in an emergency (as in most areas the channels are not monitored), and they’re usually restricted to line-of-sight unless you get lucky with your signal bouncing around and projecting into a nearby valley.

Thus, for backcountry emergency help calls, you’ll still need something like a satphone or Garmin Inreach, or set yourself up with a radio system that is verified to access local communication systems (examples: with permission use a guide’s or commercial operations frequency, or get your amature “ham” radio license and use their communications systems if they exist).

In terms of specific product recommendations, we’ve tested dozens of blister pack radios over the years. We’ve enjoyed using some of the smaller ones that save weight and bulk, but such models frequently lack features, power and battery life. Instead, we favor slightly larger Motorola or Midland brand units with more battery and larger, easier to operate controls. Best we’ve found as of 2018 are the following, all use a supplied rechargeable battery or user supplies AA batteries. Beware that while the “waterproof” units sound attractive, they may lack a volume control knob and thus be much more difficult to use in the real world.

FRS/GMRS Radio Shopping List

MS350R is submersible waterproof, costs a bit more and lacks the on-off switch volume control knob. This can be an effectiv choice for mounting inside your backpack with an external speaker-mic, as radios with a volume knob have to be taped up to prevent the knob from accidentally rotating. Quite bulky and noticeably heavier than most other FRS/GMRS radios, but very reliable in our experience.

Motorola MS350R 35-Mile Talkabout Waterproof 2-Way Radio (Pair)

MT350R is splash proof, has volume knob, in our opinion the sweet spot in the Motorola lineup.

Motorola MT350R FRS Weatherproof Two-Way – 35 Mile Radio Pack – Orange

MR350R is our WildSnow standard, not particularly weatherproof so not recommended for wet climates, but works well for us in Colorado. Has volume knob.

Motorola MR350R 35-Mile Range 22-Channel FRS/GMRS Two-Way Radio (Pair)

MJ270R is another WildSnow standard, a bit smaller and lighter, not weatherproof, slightly cheaper.

Motorola MJ270R 22-Channel 27-Mile Two-Way Radios

Shop for Motorola speaker mic.

While somewhat high in price and a few ounces heavier, the BC Link backcountry skier’s FRS radio system is beautiful. Professional grade, with integrated speaker/mic. Note this is not a handheld unit, it’s designed to be mounted in your rucksack. That can be fine, but when you want the best range the standard in radio operations is to hold your antenna perfectly vertical, with BC Link hidden in your backpack it’s hard to know what the antenna is doing. Another issue with BC Link is the channel selection dial on the speaker-mike can get bumped off your setting. Frequent radio checks, as always, are the solution but a small bit of duct tape used to stabilize the dial can be wise. (A redesigned “Link 2” will be available fall of 2018, and looks quite nice as well as taking advantage of the new FCC rules, but if you need a radio it’s not necessary to wait for this. What is more the new Link will be limited to a max of 2 watts power, while other brand radios known as GMRS will go to 5 watts.)

Shop for BCA BC Link radio

Another brand, Midland, has upped their game with current offerings we much prefer over their radios from a few years ago. Last time I looked, their speaker-mics were also quite a bit smaller than those available for Motorola. This Midland, for example, would work fine. It has the all important keypad lock, and ability to silence most stupid “beep” noises. Pair with a compact Midland speaker mic.

When you shop for a radio, look for these features:
– Control key lock (IMPORTANT — most better radios have this).
– Easily accessed dial/knob volume/on/off control rather then fiddly buttons.
– Speaker mic and/or earphone connector.
– Privacy codes.
– Weather channels.
– Options to turn OFF annoying beeps and rings.
– Battery life meter.
– Normal size with normal length antenna, not miniature.
– Options for rechargeable as well as use of AA batteries. For monster battery life equip with lithium AA cells, to save money set up as rechargeable and top off every night.

When shopping, you’ll see packaging verbiage about how the radio is good for “22 miles, 37 miles” and so on. I have no idea how they get those numbers (probably guessed at by marketing people), they’re stupid, but perhaps indicate relative performance of different models within a brand. Whatever, the claimed mileage range rating is of little concern for backcountry skiing or ski mountaineering use so long as you’re buying a good quality unit, as all such radios can transmit at the maximum power allowed by law.

In real life, radios using FRS frequencies are usually limited by their power to line-of-sight transmission, though a signal may skim and reflect over ridges and other terrain features, thus allowing “blind” communication. (Since radio communication is unpredictable, it’s important to test your radios frequently throughout the day by send and receiving quick “radio checks.”)

One other thing about range: Some blister pack radios are quite small. These can be attractive but often have a shorter antenna and may lack basic features such as privacy codes. The shorter antenna will limit your range. We do not recommend the “tiny” radios.

Privacy Codes
Nearly any 2-way radio allows for setting a “privacy code” or “interference eliminator code” with each frequency (aka channel). These are simply subaudible sounds-tones known to techs as CTCSS or DCS tones. The idea is your radio will only let you hear transmissions that include the code. This works fairly well, but can be of limited usefulness if someone else nearby of with high power is transmitting on your chosen frequency, as you’ll still get “stepped on” and momentarily be unable to transmit or receive despite the use of privacy codes. Remember this glitch if you’re using your radio in places where radio use is heavy, such as ski resorts. Solution is to simply switch channels (or scan, if your rig has that option) till you find one that’s being used less. Communicate use of that channel to your friends, set a mutual privacy, and you’re good to go. Some radios have a scan feature you can use to identify what channels are in use by others, while fiddling with this can be time consuming it’s a useful feature that’s wise to master.

In backcountry areas with little to no radio traffic, privacy codes are an unnecessary complication.

Note that beyond the blister pack models, GMRS radios of ostensibly better quality can be had. While some of these might be worth considering, we’ve found the blister pack units to work so well we see little need to spend more money. If nothing else, we like the feeling of using a radio that’s inexpensive enough to not worry about dropping or losing.

In our experience, the biggest problem with blister-pack radio durability is moisture damage. At the least, acquire a unit that’s rated as “water resistant” or “water proof” to standard JIS4. This means you can probably use the unit in light rain without damage. If you come back from the wild with a soaked radio, dry it out before storage (open the battery case). Use of corded speaker mic allows storage of the radio inside your backpack (perhaps in a ziplock bag) and is the best solution to weather issues.

Other radio options

Citizen Band (CB) The trucker “10-4” type radio. For backcountry use don’t bother with this interference prone, limited range band, filled with bandit high power operators shouting profanity and clogging the airways. It can be useful to have a small inexpensive CB mounted in your vehicle, left off most of the time and used to chat with truckers on the open road or with others while on 4×4 trails. Some CB radios are sold with weather channels, a useful feature (use it as your weather radio, while using your other radios for communication). In our experience, FRS radios have pretty much taken over from CB, and the only people still using CB are truckers and the occasional group of 4×4 or ATV enthusiasts.

Amateur Radio (ham). If you’re serious about using a two-way radio for trail “inter-comm” — and for emergencies — get your amateur “ham” license (easier than you think). Doing so allows you to use a wide selection of high power “dual band” handheld radios, many of which are waterproof and shock resistant.

The beauty of ham radio is that ham clubs everywhere in the country have interlinked systems that allow effective emergency communication from places where a cell phone call is a joke.

The problem with using a ham radio for backcountry skiing or other recreation is that very few of your buddies will take the time to get a license. It’s best if they do so, but if you fail to convince them here is the solution: They can still carry a ham type radio configured for all the emergency frequencies, but they can only transmit on those freqs in an emergency (it’s legal to transmit on any freq in a life/death emergency). For inter-party communication (inter-comm) on the trail, simply use one of the frequencies in the MURS band (see information later in this article). I’ve also heard that many people simply use the FRS frequencies with a ham radio (see below) for trail intercom. Using FRS with a programmable ham radio possibly breaks FCC rules, but in some expert’s opinion can be done in ways that make it acceptable, and indistinguishable from the use of a blister pack FRS unit.

For example, you can use a dual band ham radio to monitor (scan) the the blister pack FRS and GMRS frequencies. To keep this legal, you can’t transmit anything but emergency calls on the FRS freqs. Some experts say you can also follow a few rules and transmit FRS, mainly by limiting your transmit power and using an antenna that’s permanently attached directly to your radio. Others have told me that the rules require you to be using a retail radio certified by FCC for FRS use. Whatever the case, we’ve found that simply using blister pack FRS radios (or the BC Link from Backcountry Access) is brilliant for 95 percent of our needs so using other radios has become a non issue.

2-Way Radio Reference Information

Blister pack FRS and GMRS radio frequencies
1—462.5625 GMRS/FRS
2—462.5875 GMRS/FRS
3—462.6125 GMRS/FRS
4—462.6375 GMRS/FRS
5—462.6625 GMRS/FRS
6—462.6875 GMRS/FRS
7—462.7125 GMRS/FRS
8—467.5625 FRS (limited power in any radio)
9—467.5875 FRS (limited power in any radio)
10–467.6125 FRS (limited power in any radio)
11–467.6375 FRS (limited power in any radio)
12–467.6625 FRS (limited power in any radio)
13–467.6875 FRS (limited power in any radio)
14–467.7125 FRS (limited power in any radio)
15–462.5500 GMRS/FRS
16–462.5750 GMRS/FRS
17–462.6000 GMRS/FRS
18–462.6250 GMRS/FRS
19–462.6500 GMRS/FRS
20–462.6750 GMRS/FRS
21–462.7000 GMRS/FRS
22–462.7250 GMRS/FRS

For most backcountry ski touring we suggest figuring out what higher power options your radio has, and using those channels/settings. Reason being that the lower power settings on FRS radios are paltry and best suited to situations such as convoy driving or maritime flat water. Penalty for using higher power is battery life, but keep your transmissions short and you shouldn’t have any problem (transmitting is what depletes battery, listening uses minimal power).

Tips for better radio range: Radios have much better range between units if the antennas are oriented in the same plane. Standard in radio use is to orient antennas vertically, thus, remind all party members to hold or locate radio so the antenna is vertical. Any solid object between you and your intended receiver can attenuate your signal, that includes your body and backpack. If you’re having problems with reception, try holding the radio as high as possible at arms length above your head, or seek higher ground. If you’re in the fringe of performance, sometimes simply walking around while receiving can help you find a sweet spot.

If you and your friends use programmable ham type radios and don’t want to attempt using FRS, the MURS (Multi Use Radio Service) VHS frequencies could be a good plan for radio chat as no license is required. Always listen before you talk so you won’t interfere with someone — use of these frequencies is common.

Channel Frequency Channel Name
1 151.820 MHz N/A
2 151.880 MHz N/A
3 151.940 MHz N/A
4 154.570 MHz Blue Dot
5 154.600 MHz Green Dot

For reference, below are the alpha lettered presets you get if you purchase a BCA BC Link radio, you can program these into any consumer type FRS or GMRS radio, so you’ll be compatible with your friends using BCA radios:
— A is FRS Channel 1 privacy code off
— B is FRS Channel 5 privacy code 10
— C is FRS Channel 4 privacy code 20
— D is FRS Channel 8 privacy code 10
— E is FRS Channel 9 privacy code 11
— F is FRS Channel 20 privacy code off


Blister Pack Radio… FRS or GMRS radio sold in plastic packaging, lower priced for general consumer use, quality varies.

Channel… Pop term for the transmit/receive frequency used with two-way radios. Most adhere to the Motorola standard channel numbers detailed above, but we’ve found a few that had odd channel numbers.

HT… Any handheld transceiver, handy talkie or walkie talkie, be aware that in many European countries cell phones are called “handies.”

Freq … radio frequency, often organized by channel numbers.

FRS… Family Radio Service, a set up specifications and frequencies for a low power radio service that doesn’t require a license. The type of radio covered in this blog post.

GMRS … General Mobile Radio Service (consumer frequencies that FCC allows to be used with more power, license required, most are the same frequencies as FRS, only with higher allowed power).

Ham … an amateur radio operator licensed by the FCC.

FCC … Federal Communications Commission.

Broadcast … to send over the airwaves like television or commercial radio. Correct terminology: A 2-way radio does NOT broadcast, it transmits.

MURS … Multi Use Radio Service, 5 frequencies that do not require license.

Transmit … to talk on a 2-way radio.

Receive … listen to a 2-way radio.

Hand mic … a small microphone/speaker attached by a cord to your radio, aka speaker mic or shoulder mic.

PTT … Push-To-Transmit, usually refers to the switch you press to talk.

Speaker mic … same as above.

VOX … voice operated transmit switch, acronym for VOX or Voice Operated eXchange (usually works poorly in backcountry sport environments due to incidental noise).

Check out this BCA paper (pdf) about utilizing radios for backcountry skiing safety.



82 Responses to “2-Way Radios Review – FRS, Talkabout, Ham, BCA, for Backcountry Skiing”

  1. Robert September 8th, 2011 11:59 am

    Do any in-helmet radios exist? Any suitable for ski touring?

  2. Lou September 8th, 2011 12:02 pm

    Robert, I’m not sure of any units that are totally in the helmet, but it’s easy to wear an earbud with a tiny mic and transmit switch, and keep the radio in a pocket. Louie and I did that for a while, I suspect it’s pretty common on ski movie making.

  3. Lou September 8th, 2011 12:06 pm

    Cool stuff here, including wireless: http://www.pryme.com/

  4. Dave September 8th, 2011 12:35 pm

    Lou, I’ve heard that cell phones can interfere with transceivers working properly. Not sure of the accuracy of this (but heard via ski patroller friends). Thus, I am wondering if there is any similar concern with two-way radios?

  5. Jonathan Shefftz September 8th, 2011 1:05 pm

    Beacon interference from a simple cell phone or FRS/GMRS radio is typically only when actively transmitting and even then is usually pretty minor.
    “Smart” phones though are another situation entirely: even when not [apparently] doing anything, a smart phone can cause nearly crippling interference when worn somewhere on the body, and with the searching beacon held fairly closely to the body as it often is.
    So, although good to test with your particular setup, I highly doubt that an FRS/GMRS radio sitting in your pocket or strapped to your pack is going to cause a problem when searching with a beacon (unless you’re calling someone on the radio, in which case simultaneously trying to talk on a radio and conduct a beacon search isn’t a good idea anyway).

  6. Lou September 8th, 2011 1:44 pm

    Dave, nothing more than a headlamp would cause, unless you choose to transmit, and in that case even if it did happen it would be intermittent and cease as soon as you quit talking.

    Most of this concern is blown WAY out of proportion. It’s like, you know how they ask everyone to turn off electronic devices during aircraft landing and taking off? You want to bet that a good proportion of folks don’t bother. Does it affect anything? Probably not, or planes would be falling out of the sky left and right.

    Nonetheless, just as they ask us to do in aircraft safety, it’s probably a good idea to turn off your smartphone/cellphone and not transmit on your radio when you’re doing a beacon search.

  7. Hojo September 8th, 2011 3:02 pm

    Here are a few other useful frequencies for the masses:

    Weather Band Frequencies:

    And if you happen to be coastal or hitting the vast and treacherous Minnesota Backcountry around the Mississippi:
    Marine 14: 156.700
    Marine 16: 156.800 (hailing/emergency).

  8. Lou September 8th, 2011 3:35 pm

    Nice Hojo, thanks.

  9. Dave September 9th, 2011 11:48 am

    Thanks Lou and Jonathan! Good beta.

  10. Jonathan L September 9th, 2011 8:37 pm

    After getting my ham license few years back, I splashed out for a Kenwood TH-6A. Tri Frequency, dual band, programmable. 400 channel memories. Programmed via my laptop and an obscure cable. Lithium battery, AA adapter if you need. You can limit the TX power per frequency so you don’t blow up your friend’s half watt FRS radio.

    After a little surgery, you can also expand the transmit range into a lot of frequencies the FCC doesn’t think you should be on. These include all the SAR and Ski patrol frequencies. I have the surrounding 500 miles of freqs on my radio. Why would you do this? Cause in an emergency, if my buddy is bleeding out, I’m going to use them. And if the FCC wants my radio and license they can have it. And I’ll pay the fine.

    Meantime, I don’t transmit on them. Ever. But I do listen. On 2 bands at once. One band for my buddy’s blister pack radio and the other on ski patrol when I’m in-bounds so I know when the chute you don’t know about is about to get opened. Radiostays tucked inside my jacket where it’s warm with a PTT speaker mic clipped on my lapel.

    Because it’s line of sight, it’s kind of a crappy emergency tool. In the states I’m carrying a SPOT in the backcountry, overseas I rent a sat phone and pay for GlobalRescue. But I have to carry another GPS to tell them where I am to send the heli if it all goes to hell. More weight, more gear. I’m lusting after buying the new Iridium Extreme with GPS and the emergency button but the yearly fees are still holding me back. But, they’re coming down, and it’s less stuff to carry, so who knows.

  11. Lou September 10th, 2011 6:52 am

    Jonathan, good job with that radio. Not sure about the Iridium Extreme GPS, as it probably eats batteries like a grizzly munching on strawberries, and if the firmware in the model 555 is any indication, the GPS functions will be at the stone age level, but we’ll see (To be fair, 555 menu system, while primitive, is easy to navigate when you don’t use the phone daily). I’ve found my satphone to be the ultimate solution. Somewhat expensive, but I save the yearly SPOT fee of course, as well as lots of time I would have otherwise spent messing around with other systems. I’m on the Iridium plan where you buy minutes in advance, and I buy the minimum every year. I don’t recall exactly, but I think I spend about $550/year. Per month, not bad for a guy like me who is out of cell phone range at least several days a week.

  12. mike zweifel September 20th, 2011 11:43 am

    I cannot find any information regarding the “dot” frequencies mentioned in the story on the fcc.gov site. Do you have any links?

  13. Lou September 20th, 2011 12:06 pm

    Mike, perhaps that’s an antiquated term. Whatever the case, the FCC allocation for those frequencies still exists as far as I know and they can be easily licensed for business use. I’ve heard quite a few folks transmit on those frequencies without license, in places where they won’t step on other users, but doing so is illegal no matter what.

    Here is an FCC page: http://wireless.fcc.gov/services/index.htm?job=service_bandplan&id=industrial_business

    (Edit, these are now known as MURS frequencies and it’s legal to use them without license.)


  14. Andy December 19th, 2011 11:56 am

    you’re also supposed to license your GMRS radios- once that’s done, your whole family is covered. The “dot” frequencies are called itinerant frequencies in FCC rules. Get acquainted with the rules and possible penalties- your buddies definition of emergency might not be the same as the fed’s.

  15. James Hamaker January 7th, 2012 8:44 pm

    I reccommend a Wouxun hand held for an everything radio. Not water(proof). $125 at Wouxun.us. Get a ham licence and the programing cable.

    NB: The CTSS tones (privacy codes) are not standard between makes or modles of FRS/GMRS radios. Get a modle w/ the option of no privacy code when mixing makes and modles.

    When licenced FRS (Ch 8-14) is legaly limited to .5 Watts.
    GMRS is licenced up to 2 Watts and can reach about twice as far.

    Repeater operators, including Gov’t entities often chance repeater frequencies et al. Repeaters can also go off line, many are seasonal . . . Don’t count on them.

    Also leave the frequency info that you monitor with whoever is going to call the sheriff to rescue you.

    If all your devices (avy beacon, camera, GPS, headlamp, radio . . .) reqire the same batteries (I use AA), then you will have batteries when you need them. Rem fresh Lithium batteries may fry some devices.

  16. RobinB February 24th, 2012 7:02 pm

    Some of the “dot” frequencies are also known as Multi Use Radio Service I believe. The MURS freqs are license free in the US and will also be able to be used in Canada next year. The regs state that they are only to be used with a MURS radio that is limited to two watts.

  17. Lee March 27th, 2012 12:35 am

    I agree with James Hamaker & Jonathan L. amateur radio is the way to go. I come from a background of 37 years as back-country forest/park ranger. Worked throughout the U. S. I personally carry both a SPOT & 5 watt VHF/UHF amateur radio while in the back-country. Side note Personal Locator Beacon (PLB) with both GPS & 406 mHz FM transmitter are better than SPOT with GPS transmitter/receiver for emergencies. But back to amateur radios, there are networks thousands of radio repeaters worldwide for most countries in the free world. There is no morse code required anymore to study for amateur license. Today newer amateur handhelds radio also can send text messages, email, and live tracking through repeaters link to computers on internet (D-STAR / APRS). Several amateur radios radio are mil spec for cold, heat, dust, waterproof, & falls. Lastly a basic 5 watt amateur handheld radio with a basic external antenna attachment can use repeater to satellites (about 10 minute windows) and are capable to talk to astronauts or cosmonauts on the International Space Station (ISS).

  18. Alex P October 2nd, 2012 8:07 am

    Are there any combination earphone/microphone accessories for two-way radios out there that folks would recommend? I think I’d rather keep the radio tucked away in a jacket pocket while in the backcountry.

  19. Lou Dawson October 2nd, 2012 8:40 am

    Alex, in my experience what works best for tucking the radio away is to simply run a speaker mic. I don’t like the way an earphone plugs up one ear, since being able to hear situation sounds from both ears is important for safety etc.

    I’m pretty sure this speaker mic works for most Motorola radios, many others are available if this one doesn’t

    Speaker Mic for MOTOROLA

  20. Theron January 13th, 2013 7:36 pm

    I always liked the idea of coupling a FRS radio with a police scanner, which increases the range tremendously. You could put the Yagi antenna on the police scanner and program the freq of the channel the person out in the wild is using to hear them better. If you have a FRS that has the remote antenna that mounts on a car even better, as you can put this on the roof of the shack and have reliable communications as well.

  21. Lou Dawson January 13th, 2013 11:16 pm

    Theron, is there an FRS sold with remote antenna?

  22. Terry January 17th, 2013 2:02 am

    Big appreciation to all the “hams” – James H, Jonathan L & Lee – for bringing up the advantages of VHF/UHF. I’ve ordered some books and am going to study up for my ham license. This extra knowledge and ability to use amateur radio seems like it’ll be a big convenience and extra safety in the backcountry! Thanks so much, guys!!!

  23. Ben Arie May 3rd, 2013 2:22 am

    This is a very complete list, thank you for the article. I’m another amateur radio user. FRS and GMRS are nice, but ham radio is just in a whole ‘nother class. The ability to hit repeaters 10 or even 30 miles away is fantastic, and adds a new communication capability to the backcountry. Thanks again for the article — Ben, KD8POH

  24. UV3R July 9th, 2013 2:11 pm

    One quick note, the type of radio that you use can vary, depending on the area. Some places have repeaters in place for GMRS radios — then, obviously, that type of radio exists. In other ski areas, there is good amateur radio coverage. There are some good websites that list the different repeaters and radio frequencies used in an area.

  25. Jim Milstein September 27th, 2013 10:11 pm

    All these short range and HAM radios are fine if you need another hobby. I don’t and just sold mine. The new DeLorme inReach SE does what I need. It combines GPS and two-way Iridium satellite texting to any email address or SMS capable phone. It does world-wide emergency dispatch like a SPOT. It also texts directly to other inReach units.

    It’s pricey, $300 MSRP, and requires a subscription; the Safety Plan is cheapest at $10/month. When paired with a Bluetooth device you can do GPS mapping as fancy as you like. It’s also easier to compose messages with an iOS or Android device than directly on the SE.

    I pair the SE with an iPod Touch, 5th gen, which weighs only 3 oz and has a really good display. The SE and ‘Pod together weigh 10 oz, pretty bearable given that they combine good GPS function, two-way satellite texting, emergency dispatch, and a decent small camera. And, because the SE uses the Iridium network, it’s good anywhere you can see the sky. Texting does not require a connection as good or as lengthy as voice communication. Uploading and downloading messages takes no more than 22 seconds, they say. Often much less. So far, it’s been reliable. Haven’t tried the SOS function yet due to lack of emergency.

  26. Lou Dawson September 29th, 2013 5:53 am

    Thanks Jim, all good points and we think inReach is a viable option. I’m not a fan of how the unit has to be paired with a smartphone or tablet, but your iPod solution sounds excellent. 10 ounces total weight is excellent as well. I agree that texting is the way to go with this type of communication. That’s the big detriment of the Spot/Globalstar phones, you can’t send text over them. And the Iridium phones make sending text very difficult. Thus, we are indeed fans of inReach if it’s set up with care for weight and battery life.

    Everyone, our inReach coverage:


  27. Phil September 30th, 2013 10:13 am

    Lou, I think the point is that the inReach SE does NOT need to be paired with anything for 2-way communication. All Jim was saying is that if you are in a situation where you want easier typing than using the small built-in screen, you can CHOOSE to pair it with a phone/tablet/etc. The new version (SE) is stand-alone. Very nice.

    Spot isn’t terrible – it works well for some applications – but it has some big negatives: 1-way communication, not knowing if your message was received, and global star.

    The Delorme is clearly the superior product for remote travel//emergency use due to having 2-way communication and iridium.

  28. James Hamaker October 9th, 2013 8:24 pm

    The DeLorme inReach SE looks like quite the tool, esp. if all the software extras are usable.

    http://k5ehx.net/ seems to have re-vamped his repeater mapping site. I often head out to a new area w/ a dozen or so repeaters programed in, then I chat up other hams (esp. durring rush hour) who in turn turn me on to other local repeater.

  29. Stuart Fraser October 14th, 2013 7:20 am

    In Europe VHF handhelds that are set up for Channel E are available and these connect directly to the Emergency services in Switzerland, Haute Savoie and Val d’Aosta. A friendly retailer will also programme in the standard international marine channel frequencies; in the mountains you can use one of the frequencies designated for yacht marinas for communications within your group. See http://www.rega.ch/en/operations/additional-services/emergency-radio.aspx for further informationo

  30. Lou Dawson October 14th, 2013 8:58 am

    Stuart, any idea what frequency Channel E is on, and if it uses repeaters, or tones, or whatever? Thanks, Lou

  31. Lou Dawson October 14th, 2013 9:02 am

    Whoops, by using your link I answered the question…
    161.300 for Switzerland, requires tone squelch of 123.0 Hz

    Yet more reasons to just buy a programmable handheld Ham rig.


  32. Stuart Fraser October 14th, 2013 9:25 am

    The radios are configured for the emergency services, they have a yellow button to press in case of emergency and a test function to enable you to see how many relays are in reception. They are pretty much idiot-proof and very light. Maybe better to get one which is programmed specifically for the service rather any old HAM kit.

    The radios are available from: http://www.baechli-bergsport.ch/Fr/VX-354-Rega-Notfunkgerät-Vertex-Radios-1.htm and other retailers listed at http://www.rega.ch/fr/missions/autres-prestations-de-service/radio-de-dtresse.aspx

    Coverage maps can be found at: http://www.rega.ch/pdf/einsatz/Merkblatt_Notfunk_fr.pdf

    For maximum utility you someone who has a license to programme VHF radios and then you could get the frequencies used by emergency services in mountainous areas. I am still looking for someone!

  33. travis October 14th, 2013 9:37 am

    I’m surprised nobody’s mentioned the BaoFeng UV-5R. For $35 it’s a great alternative to a blister pack radio. Fully programmable from 136-174 / 400-480MHz, up to 5 watts transmit. For less than $75 total one can get the radio, a better/longer antenna, an extra battery up to 3800mAh, and speaker mic.

  34. Shaun October 25th, 2013 4:54 pm


    I had a question about combining a two-way radio with a gps unit. The Garmin Rino series looks like a good choice. I feel it would be beneficial to combine the two devices to save weight and size. Do you have any suggestions or advice? Thanks

  35. Lou Dawson October 25th, 2013 5:40 pm

    Shaun, the Rhino works quite well. Recommended. Just be sure to test the touch screen in the types of situations you’ll be in. Lou

  36. Shaun October 26th, 2013 1:47 pm

    My one concern with the touch screen is in really cold conditions when I don’t want to take off my gloves. They say it works with gloves but I don’t buy it. When I ski tour normally I have no issues with cold hands and sometimes don’t even wear gloves. It is snowmobiling where I see an issue. It’s too bad they don’t make one with buttons. Anyways, I suppose I have to weigh all the factors and come up with my best fit. Cheers

  37. Steve Gslts November 16th, 2013 6:01 am

    I’ve always found that taking radios on the ski slope is a wonderful way to stay in contact with the family, if you buy radios from the uk, i would make sure that your radios are in the 446 band.

  38. Jomalo November 19th, 2013 1:22 pm

    I’m looking for a dependable radio system to use while operating in mountain ranges. I’d prefer not to get a license, but would consider it if it would yield the best results.


  39. ionpaul December 8th, 2013 4:31 pm

    Hello, Sir. Can a two-way radio like the Baofeng UV5R communicate (transmit and receive) with blister pack radio like Motorola MR350?

  40. Lou Dawson December 8th, 2013 5:08 pm

    Ion, sure. You’d have to program in the freqs. How you conform to FCC regulations is up to you, or use in countries where regulations don’t apply, which is the majority of the world. Lou

  41. ionpaul December 8th, 2013 5:36 pm

    Great. Thanks for the swift reply, Lou.

  42. John December 11th, 2013 8:53 am

    Lou – I’m relatively new and am trying to look for the best type of radio for skiing. You don’t mention anything of MUR transmission – what is the range for this type? Also, what would happen if you used higher output on FRS? Do you get more range? Is there a way I can utilize the repeaters that ski patrol uses to communicate, without interfering? thanks in advance!

  43. John December 11th, 2013 9:17 am

    John, not real popular with the dynafits-n-tights set, but quite reliable:


  44. Lou Dawson December 11th, 2013 9:26 am

    John, no way you could use someone business repeater. But get a ham license and you can usually find a bunch of repeaters to use. In any case, the common standard is the FRS frequencies so stick with that, and as mentioned above most of the blister pack radios work fine, just keep them in a ziplock if you’re out in the wet.

    Using more power can improve range of transmission but makes no difference with reception.


  45. Garrett Evridge December 12th, 2013 10:59 am

    Lou and company, thanks for the post. So what happens if you are using a radio without the necessary license?

  46. Lou Dawson December 12th, 2013 11:13 am

    FRS/GMRS blister pack radios require no license.

    But to answer your question specifically, it’s situational. If you use the Amateur radio bands without a license you might be reported to the FCC. What happens after that is a mystery. For starters, they’d have to prove that you actually did the heinous deed. Ditto, if you programmed an FRS frequency into your radio and used it, even though that’s technically illegal unless it’s an emergency, it would be a miracle if anyone at FCC cared, or actually busted you for doing so. For starters, define “emergency.”

    As for other radio bands requiring licensing, any sort of enforcement is almost non existent, so if you don’t abuse you’d rarely have problems. For example, there are some business bands that millions of radios are built for, and are in common use. No one is ever going to check your license for those unless you do something really obnoxious, like transmitting at high power and stepping on another business trying to use their radios. Even then, they’d have to know who you were and catch you in the act.

    As for what actually happens if you do get taken to court, you get fined.

    I’m not advocating breaking the law, just stating the reality of the situation.


  47. John December 16th, 2013 3:23 pm

    Thanks for the info Lou! I have another question: Would I need a HAM Operators license to be able to use the MUR frequency? (it is explicitly stated that no license is required for this frequency; wasn’t sure if that included a HAM license: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Multi-Use_Radio_Service).

  48. louis dawson December 16th, 2013 3:55 pm

    I’m not sure, should be easy to find out.

  49. James January 5th, 2014 11:24 pm


    In the U.S.A. you can use *any* frequency in a life threatening situation. But the information to use the frequency (repeater codes) is “official use only.” and *secret*.

  50. James January 5th, 2014 11:29 pm

    Last I checked GMRS *does* require a licence. Possibly FRS too unless they changed the rules. It is not, however, illegal to *buy* them. Like guns.

    I believe that FRS is limited to 2.5W whereas GMRS can transmit up to 5W – wich gives you a little better range. Some (cities) have GMRS repeaters.

  51. Lou Dawson January 6th, 2014 2:08 am

    James, FRS definitely does not require a license.

    Also, this whole discussion of licenses tends to get over emphasized. The main thing for consumers to know is go ahead and buy a blister pack radio, enjoy using it, and you do not need to fool around with any sort of licensing to do so.


  52. Andy March 7th, 2014 10:55 pm

    I ski a bit in japan and Europe. Are there standard radio types that will work for back country in these places ? I don’t want to buy 3 radios.

  53. CK June 19th, 2014 7:11 am

    In the USA
    FRS is unlicensed
    FRS is limited to 0.5 watts, 1/2 watt, or 500 mW (all equivalent)
    FRS radios must have fixed antennas
    Range is quite limited–line of sight. Realistically, often under 2 miles max and often just a 1/2 to 1 mile
    due to their poor, short antennas.

    GMRS requires a license from the FCC to use–it’s $80 for 5 years, just fill out a form and pay them
    –no test required
    –can be completely done online at http://transition.fcc.gov/Forms/Form605/605.html
    GMRS has higher power limits, and you’ll likely be 4-5 watts on a walkie talkie/handheld radio
    Radios can have interchangeable antennas.
    Range is also limited to line of sight, but because you can change antennas, is often twice or more of FRS radios.
    For walkie talkies/handheld radios, you can consistently get 3-5 miles, terrain dependent.
    Power is not as important as the antenna is for maximizing range.
    An honest 1/2 watt and a good antenna will generally beat 50 watts and a bad antenna.

    Amateur Radio (Ham Radio) requires a FCC license.
    Amateur Radio (Ham Radio) is free but requires passing a written exam (not too difficult).
    The most common license is Technician class, which is often taught in about 18 hours of classroom instruction plus some home study.
    Amateur Radio can use much higher power limits, but for praticality, you’ll still likely have 4-5 watts on a handheld radio.
    If you use a mobile/portable radio, using a vehicle’s car battery, you can run much more power (1000 watts), but most use 25 to 50 watts.
    The reason being is that a good antenna just works better than more power.

    My recommendation is:
    1. It’s worth it to get the ham radio license because it is free and the study material will allow you to understand how and why radios work.
    This simple knowlege will allow you to better communicate using radios.
    2. If not ham radio, then get the GMRS license. The ability to change to better antennas alone is worth the $80 license fee for 5 years.

    In either case, for an inexpensive radio, I recommend the UV-82 (generally under $45 at Amazon) as it is much better than any “blister pack radio” or FRS/GMRS radio sold in the chain stores.
    The UV-82 can be programmed manually, but most people use free software (CHIRP) and a programming cable ($20).

    Alternative, old commercial motorola radios that can be programmed (very important) for GMRS are a good alternative.
    Keep in mind that most motorolas require special equipment to program them.
    Most motorolas are are very sturdy radios designed to survive years of hard use public safety folks (police/fire/etc).
    As a result, they often are bigger and heavier.
    Bigger battery packs give you more operating time too.

    As a licensed amatuer radio operator, you have your choice of Yaesu, Kenwood, Icom and many other brands of radios to choose from.
    Many of these have special features that go beyond simply talking on a channel/frequency (digital modes, APRS, linking, etc).

  54. Ken October 26th, 2014 1:11 pm

    I am a ham, and have been involved for years in emergency communications.

    For personal use, I actually use the cheap family radios for short-range communication. They are cheap, work well enough, and are also extremely compact. They also use aa batteries, and spares can be brought to ensure working radios at all times.

    I also have MIL spec radios. The problem with these is that any reliable radios are heavier, bulkier units. I would not trust my life on any made in china micro-radio, and that is exactly what most people are buying these days.

    In fact, I would not trust my life to any radio. Safety practices in the moment are more prudent than calling for help in lieu.

    I would also like to appeal for some sanity in respecting radio protocols. Advocating the use of “unlocked” radios that can transmit on controlled frequencies opens up the possibility of abuse, whether intentional or not.

    The regulations are not there for the FCC, DOC and government…….they are there for all of us, so that the radio spectrum will operate as intended in a real emergency.

  55. George November 28th, 2014 4:55 pm

    The Rino (Radio/GPS) with buttons is the old Rino 120 or 130. You can still find them online. Combining Radio with GPS location could be important if your base station has a Rino. I use my Rino in the Marble BC to communicate with my wife in town. My wish is for the ultimate combo Radio/GPS/Spot/Satellite & Avi Beacon. I cannot believe Garmin has not jumped onto this idea and enhanced their Rino with Avi Beacon and/or Satellite.

  56. glenn brady November 29th, 2014 6:23 am

    I own and use rhinos..i feel they are to big and clunky and way to complicated for what I call short ski mountaineering trips where you are within 2 miles of each other. I recently bought a pair of midland 118’s for $25..as an experiment..they work great if.your under 2 miles and within line of sight.

  57. Jerry November 29th, 2014 11:38 am

    Lou – good post to recycle, thanks. I would like to point you to a study done last year on radio use (BCA Links) on hut visitors. See Bachman, etc at the BCA site: (http://www.backcountryaccess.com/education-research/#avi-research-and-papers). We loaned a set to groups and asked about pre trip planning and communication. Very few groups engaged in in-depth planning before starting out; most everyone used and like the radios. One finding is that the lack of communication before starting out is replaced with the ease of doing so during the day. Other interpretations are possible.

    In any case, radios were said to increase safety and generally make the day more enjoyable. Best.

  58. AT November 29th, 2014 12:27 pm

    I pair a vhf with spot…. My emergency spot message includes the vhf frequency I would use to communicate with helicopters and search and rescue folks (lad 1 is common on everyone’s radio where I live in bc). I use spot to trigger rescue and monitor vhf for short range communication when the helicopter gets near. I have a very detailed communication planlinked linked to aspot message on publicly accessible website so rescuers have good info to understand ho . I will behave and comnunicate in an emergency.

  59. Sedgesprite November 30th, 2014 12:59 am

    in helmet radio, in helmet headlamp, a guy can dream can’t he?

  60. jhamaker December 18th, 2014 8:33 am

    Hey AT, James (KF7NYC) here in Washington.
    What other frequencies/repeaters do you find usefull in SW BC?

  61. Sam January 3rd, 2015 7:34 pm

    Lou, do you know if these can be recharged in Europe without trashing the battery?

  62. Lou Dawson 2 January 4th, 2015 1:23 am

    Sam,I’m not sure which radio you’re asking about, but most everything these days is dual voltage. Just read the fine print on the charging unit if you’re in doubt. Lou

  63. Linda Gordon February 24th, 2015 12:17 pm

    We have a sailboat and use the VHF radio. It is against the law to use a VHF radio on land.

  64. Lou Dawson 2 February 24th, 2015 1:01 pm

    Linda, sorry but you’ve got it wrong, I think you mean the VHF marine band. If it was illegal to use all VHF frequencies and radios on land that be quite a change (grin). Lou

  65. Linda Gordon February 24th, 2015 10:15 pm

    OOPS–Lou you are right–it is the VHF marine band I was referring to.

  66. Fitz September 9th, 2015 8:18 am

    Hello, and thank you for this info on 2 way radios. It’s true these radios come in handy in many situations. I think it’s good to be prepared and have the communication ready for different kinds of situations.

  67. Cal Driver February 10th, 2016 5:50 pm

    Great post! I’ve never used 2-way radios while back-country skiing, but I can speak to its effectiveness while hunting and also driving a pair of U-Hauls cross-country. You’re right—the peace of mind and camaraderie of being able to talk to someone in the general area is reason enough to pay whatever is asked. After using a two-way I’m definitely interested in getting my ham radio license. Thanks for sharing!

  68. Aaron Mattix December 31st, 2016 6:25 am

    The Beartooth looks like an interesting option as it pairs with your smartphone, has a five mile range, texting capability, and functions as a spare battery.

  69. Lou Dawson 2 December 31st, 2016 7:27 am

    Aaron, indeed, I’ve tracked Beartooth for a while. My plan is to wait until they are actually shipping retail-ready product to journalists just before or during their retail launch. Then we’ll test and review. Could be nice, or, could be a good way of demanding too much from your smartphone (for example, you’ll need a phone that’s up there in moisture resistance, if you’re using it as an outdoor recreation radio device. Further, they’ll need a speaker-mic option, and the fact that these will NOT be compatible with regular FRS/GMRS radios is a big downside in my opinion.

    All we want here is a weather proof phone that also works as a walkie-talkie, simply to combine devices. Nothing fancy.

    Doing a technological startup product that is not backward compatible is a pretty risky endeavor. More power to them if they succeed.

    A better system might be existing smartphones that are hardened for outdoor use as well as including an FRS radio. Expensive, but they look excellent. Also, there is a lot of general movement in the area of providing push-to-talk “2-way” radio type performance smartphones.



    And Snowpow looks to be the most legit





  70. Cory January 2nd, 2017 10:12 am

    Can someone simplify this for me? I bought two BaoFeng Uv-5X radios. I’d like to use them for both back country and resort skiing in Colorado. Emergency use for sure, but also mundane conversation.

    What is the best frequency to use? Do I need a license to operate these radios? Thanks!

  71. geek432 January 2nd, 2017 10:40 am

    Following is stated for educational use and is theory.

    If you are only going to talk between the two Baofengs, use the MURS frequencies but listen first to ascertain if the freq you pick is being used much. It’s also possible to program in one (or many) of the 22 FRS/GMRS frequencies shown above, along with a quiet code. If you do so, in populous areas be sure to set radio to low power while using FRS/GMRS so you don’t overpower other users.

    If both people using the Baofengs have their amateur (ham) radio license, you can use one of many frequencies in the amature bands.

    With the Baofeng, using computer software for setting up the radio is way easier than using the front panel keypad.

    All that theory said, a simpler way to do close proximity chat is just use the FRS/GMRS blister pack radios available at Walmart or other, such as those linked above .

    For emergency use I’m assuming you mean contacting authorities for rescue? If so, that’s quite a bit more complex. Best is to contact your local amateur radio club and talk to them, see what frequencies are generally listened to and get them programmed into your radio. Problem is that licensed ham operators are touchy about non-licensed folks using their frequencies, though doing so in an emergency is perfectly legal. Problem is, a radio set up for emergency use needs to be tested frequently, and doing so would trigger the ham operator’s annoyance reaction. Best, just get your amateur license then you’ll be set. You can also try programming the frequencies of various local authorities, but again, if you try to test you’ll get scolded or worse.

    In the end, best emergency devices is something like an inReach or satphone. And even in those cases you have to test and verify your emergency contacts.


  72. AAG February 19th, 2018 5:15 pm


    This article has been quite a helpful resource. We have purchased a few blister pack radios (Midland) through your link to Amazon, along with the small remote speaker / mic. Not only for backcountry, but even at the resort these have been extremely helpful for communicating as a family.

    One question about venturing abroad, specifically France, Italy Switzerland. A brief search online leads me to believe these radios / frequencies are not approved for unlicensed use. It appear that there is a PMR radio at 446Mhz, but the range on these radios appears to be significantly less than that of the GMRS radios in the US.

    Do you have a recommendation / solution for touring / skiing in Europe?


  73. Lou Dawson 2 February 19th, 2018 5:37 pm

    HI AAG, it depends on where you are in Europe. I’ve used the blister pack radios at low power, in remote areas. But I leave them switched off if I’m anywhere near villages etc. My recommendation for ski touring in Europe would be to indeed just purchase a few of the approved radios, and figure out usable range, which you can probably work with. The other thing about Europe is there is cell phone coverage commonly, sometimes it’s easiest just to make phone calls to each other. Lou

  74. AAG February 19th, 2018 6:08 pm

    Lou, thank you for the prompt response.

  75. Patrick February 20th, 2018 1:30 pm

    In my experience, the BCA radios have been terrible, a big disappointment after making the investment. They won’t stay on channel, the battery life sucks, and the talk button on the mic is hard to press. Oh, and you have to use the mic, even though it can be detached from the radio. Radio alone is useless. And the mic has detached itself in my pack despite their attempt at making that impossible. For the cost, they look nice, but that’s where the buck stops.

    I’ve reached out to BCA with feedback and they basically told me that they know they suck, but don’t plan to change them substantially.

  76. robin February 20th, 2018 2:15 pm

    Appreciate everyone’s input above. Anyone with knowledge about radio use in Japan? Would have been helpful on recent low-vis trip to Hokkaido. Thanks

  77. Lou Dawson 2 February 20th, 2018 2:25 pm

    Patrick, new Link model is changed, substantially, IMHO… Lou

  78. XXX_er February 20th, 2018 6:40 pm

    the local ski hill bought a bunch of the Bao-fengs on line becuz they were SO cheap and they seem to work fine, there seemed to be a pretty long battery life if you don’t transmit much

  79. Joseph February 21st, 2018 5:17 am

    Is there something like NOAA Weather Radio for Central Europe? Sometimes we’re stuck somewhere without cell phone reception, and a weather update would be nice then.

  80. Reuben March 8th, 2018 10:00 pm

    Does anyone know the privacy setups are for the various radios? Trying to program my beofeng to talk to other Bca and uniden etc for back country touring.

  81. Lou 2 March 9th, 2018 6:18 am

    Hi Reuben, there is no official standard for which privacy code number on a BCA radio stands for which actual CTCSS “privacy” tone. But the BCA, Motorola and many others do use an informal standard. You can of course use radios without using the privacy codes, but it’s worth learning how to program them into your Baofeng. The problem is that if you have, say, 22 FRS channels, and 38 privacy codes, that would be 18,392 possible combinations (if my math is correct). Thus, it’s not possible to program every possible combo. What I’ve heard people do is pick some common combos and program them in using computer software and a Baofeng data cable, such as channel seven using code 11 (7-11), as well as agreeing on combos they’d use within group, and programming those in.

    Beyond that, they carry a cheat sheet with the privacy codes and FRS/GMRS frequency info and get good at quickly entering using the Baofeng keypad. This is not a trivial process and many exceed many people’s patience level, as there are a several gotchas that can halt you in your tracks. I know, because I’ve played around with this quite a bit.

    The following article is excellent.


    The BCA radios use some standardized combos that I’m told are worth programming in. I wrote this up in the following article, and I believe they’re available in the BCA documentation.


    I’m assuming you’re using CHIRP app to program your Baofeng?

    The preppers are who to look at for tips. Geek Prepper is always interesting and useful:


    Regarding CHIRP, I know one guy who deliberately does not use it, instead he deep learned the Baofeng keypad, says he’d rather be fluent in that so he can easily do nearly anything with the radio, wherever he is and whatever he’s doing. Makes sense, but involves some memorization and time commitment, plus it’s a skill that has to be used or would eventually be lost to the mysteries of human memory.

    Lastly, my radio guru suggests having a blister pack FRS radio laying around, for testing your Baofeng programming.


  82. Vicky March 28th, 2019 3:53 am

    The radio is helpful for the backpacking but i find it little heavier. I like walking in the woods but having such heavy item attached to your bag makes it difficult.

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