Technical Articles

Family-Friendly GMRS Radios

The General Mobile Radio Service (GMRS) today is what CB radio was originally intended to be–a group of frequencies shared by individuals who maintained a civil environment on the air, unlike the free-for-all atmosphere and trash talk experienced on the 11-meter CB band during the 1970s.

GMRS uses channels around 462 MHz and 467 MHz, just above the amateur radio 440MHz band. The most common use of these channels is for short-distance, two-way voice communications among individuals using handheld radios, mobile radios, and repeater systems. Advantages of GMRS over CB radios include quiet, static-free reception without skip interference. Maximum allowed power is 50 watts, providing a greater range for base and mobile units.

GMRS is one of three radio services, including MURS (Multi-Use Radio Service) and FRS (Family Radio Service), intended for personal and family use only. It’s a way for friends and families to stay in touch with each other while enjoying outdoor sports and activities like hiking and camping, or while traveling.

They’re ideal for more remote locations where cell phone service is spotty or nonexistent, and especially in crowded public areas like theme parks or the mall where family members can become separated from each other. These easy-to-use radios are perfect for young children and adults alike.

All in the Family

Like Amateur Radio, a license is required, but there’s no test involved. The current rules for GMRS limit eligibility for new GMRS system licenses to individuals in order to ensure the service is available to personal users. Operating privileges extend to members of the family, including a spouse, children and stepchildren, grandchildren, parents and stepparents, grandparents, brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, nieces and nephews, and in-laws.

Getting a license is easy and can be done online at the FCC site. You fill out a form with your information, pay a $35 fee, and you’re good to go for 10 years. If you run a small business, employees who are not family members are not covered by the license–they would need to get their own.

How Far?

Think line of sight communications, just like other UHF bands. UHF radio waves are fairly good at squeezing through small spaces and, unlike light, can travel through things like fabric and thin walls. They may bounce off a canyon wall once or twice and travel through light tree cover and in between houses, but YMMV (your mileage may vary).

Obviously, the more watts of power you transmit, the better chance your signal will be received, but power isn’t everything. Don’t count on communication in areas where there are large obstacles in the signal’s path. If a mountain is in the way, for example, no amount of power increase will help–unless you’re willing to climb the mountain.

But if there are a few trees between you and the other radio, and some signal is able to get through, boosting power a bit might turn an unreadable signal into one that’s readable. It’s best to always use the radio’s lowest power setting necessary to make contact. That way you aren’t adding to congestion on what may be a crowded frequency.

Estimates below are based on the experience of numerous individuals using GMRS in a variety of settings. These compare a 5-watt handheld; 50-watt mobile with a 5/8 wave mobile antenna; and 50-watt base station with 5/8 wave, 6dB gain omnidirectional base antenna at 50 feet. Always consider upgrading your antenna for best range, especially with handheld radios.

  • Urban Environment: Around 1+ miles from handheld to handheld, 2-3 miles mobile to handheld, and up to 5 miles or more base to mobile with base antenna.
  • Rural – Level – Open Country: From 1-3 miles handheld to handheld, up to 5 miles or more mobile to handheld, up to 15 miles or more mobile to mobile, and up to 30 miles base to mobile.
  • Rural – Mountains, Hills and Trees: Varies. Expect reliable communications only when you’re in line-of-sight of the other radio operator.

Repeaters, similar to those used on the ham radio UHF/VHF bands, will also extend communications, and they are permitted on eight pairs of frequencies with inputs on 467 MHz and outputs on 462 MHz. Radios used must be capable of duplex operation, which excludes the inexpensive blister-pack FRS/GMRS “hybrid” radios.

Radios to Go

GMRS is gaining traction in many parts of the country. It’s all about range and voice clarity. One popular use of these two-way radios is for trail communication. Jeep Jamboree USA has adopted GMRS as their new go-to radio over traditional CB radios.

An expanding selection of radios continues to become available as more people realize the advantages of GMRS radios and adopt them for personal use. Daystar’s GMRS high-power mobile and the Daystar GMRS 5-watt handheld radio are just two examples that can be found at DX Engineering. Antenna manufacturers like Comet have a selection of base station antennas made specifically for GMRS.

Thinking of using your Baofeng for GMRS? Don’t! Though many Chinese HT brands have the capability of being programmed for GMRS frequencies, most models don’t meet Part 95 certification and using them is illegal.

Even if you have your ham ticket, you should still consider adding some GMRS gear to your collection. It’s a great way to help keep in touch with your non-ham family and friends. GMRS radios can also become a convenient bridge for hams involved in emergency response (ARES, RACES) to communicate with other civilian volunteer organizations like the Community Emergency Response Team (CERT).

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