Walkie Talkie Review
Why Buy a Walkie Talkie?
Whether you’re going on a backpacking trip or taking your family to a campground for a weekend, a set of walkie talkies can make it easier to keep in touch where cellphones don’t get service. The best two-way radios give you a variety of tools, including weather alerts, flashlights and SOS signals. Modern walkie talkies have actual ranges of around two miles and most weigh less than half a pound, so they won’t weigh you down.
There are many walkie talkie radios to choose from, but our favorites are the Motorola Talkabout T600 H2O, the Motorola Talkabout MU350R and the Uniden GMR5098-2CKVP. We’ve extensively tested all the radios on our list for range and features and compiled walkie talkie reviews for each so you can find the best radio for your next excursion, whether that’s at the beach, the ski slopes or just out in the back forty.
How We Tested Walkie Talkies
While there are many different types of walkie talkies, we focused on consumer-level outdoor radios, rather than toys and CB radios. All the models we tested follow FCC guidelines for channels, frequencies and non-removable antennas. We based our comparative reviews on range, emergency options, design and support options.
Range and Clarity Test
For our range and clarity test we took the walkie talkies to a stretch of rural country road west of our headquarters in Ogden, Utah. We chose this location because of the relatively few man-made structures in the area – just a few houses and not much in the way of infrastructure like telephone and power lines.
We tested each walkie talkie set for both range and clarity, transmitting randomly generated letters and numbers at half-mile intervals. For each test, one tester broadcasted the sets of letters and numbers on two different channels while the other tester listened and wrote down what he heard. Then, to make sure that there wasn’t any user bias or directional issues, we swapped roles and made a second broadcast at the same distance, with the second tester transmitting and the first recording.
Once our testing reached the 2-mile mark, we compared what each tester had recorded with the actual letters and numbers we broadcasted and calculated an accuracy score. This score represents range as well as clarity.
The Motorola Talkabout T600 H2O performed the best at all test distances over both the GMRS and the FRS frequencies. While there was a lot of static on both the FRS and GMRS channels on the T600, the broadcasts were audible and didn’t break up in the middle of transmission.
To test the battery life of the walkie talkies, we powered each unit on and opened the broadcast channel to the same frequency. We then put the two-way radios in our soundproof room and recorded time-lapse video of the readouts to see how long it took for each unit to die. This isn’t exactly a scenario that most walkie-talkie users find themselves in – constantly broadcasting for hours on end – but because many of the units we tested feature power-saving modes that extend the life of the battery when the units aren’t broadcasting, our battery test gave us a good idea of the total talk time possible on each of the units. For units that were constantly broadcasting, we found the average talk time was around 2.5 hours.
Several of the units, however, have a timeout feature that disables the push-to-talk button if it’s pushed for longer than 60 seconds. This means that if you hold down the transmit button for longer than 60 seconds, the unit will stop transmitting. This is designed for situations where the button is pushed without your knowledge, like if it were stored in a backpack, for instance, and it is a useful feature to save battery life.
Three of the walkie talkies we tested were advertised as being fully waterproof and having the ability to float. To test this, we filled the test sink in our kitchen with enough water to fully submerge the radios. Two of them, the Cobra ACXT 1035R FLT and the Uniden GMR5098-2CKVP, both floated easily on the top of the water as advertised. The third unit, the Motorola Talkabout T600 H2O, could only barely count as floating – it bobbed up and down just beneath the surface and only a small length of the antenna was out of the water.
How to Choose a Walkie Talkie
All walkie talkies list a maximum effective coverage area. These range anywhere from 20 to 50 miles, but these numbers are a bit misleading because certain conditions must be met for you to reach these ranges. Many manufacturers test their radios in perfect environments with zero obstructions—like communicating from a mountaintop to a valley with perfect line of sight or over perfectly level ground. In actuality, the environment where you use your walkie talkies affects this range. In our tests, several of the radios couldn’t communicate at all at distances over 1 mile, while others only had spotty reception at that distance.
All the radios we tested communicate on both FRS and GMRS frequencies. FRS stands for Family Radio Service, and the frequencies are free to use but usually have shorter ranges. GMRS is short for General Mobile Radio Service. While these channels can provide longer ranges, they require an FCC license to access.
You should also look for an emergency radio, or a walkie talkie that can access NOAA weather channels. We prefer radios that push emergency weather alerts to your unit so you don’t have to manually monitor the emergency channels. Some units also have an SOS option to help you in case of an emergency. These SOS options were varied, but they include features like sirens, flashing beacons and alerts that could be broadcasted to other radios. Several of the walkie talkies we tested also featured LED flashlights. Our top pick, the Motorola Talkabout T600 H2O, has both white and red LED flashlights to light the way and preserve night vision.
If you're planning a backpacking trip, every ounce matters. Look closely at the weight of the unit you choose to make sure that it won’t add more weight than your pack can manage. Similarly, if you’re looking for radios to use around a construction site or in a warehouse, size matters, as does the ability to clip the radio on all types of clothing. All the radios we tested come with rechargeable battery packs or batteries and a charger, but they also all run on disposable AA or AAA batteries. This means you can bring extra batteries along if you are planning a longer excursion into the wilderness and swap them out for more talk time. Lastly, the best walkie talkies we tested also were fully waterproof, and several even float, just in case you drop your unit in a river or the ocean (or for peace of mind on your jet skis).
Help & Support
Since walkie talkies are used in the outdoors, you’ll likely put your units through their paces. The standard warranty for most manufacturers is one year, but the Midland two-way radios we tested offer three-year warranties. While the warranty won’t cover accidents or misuse, a longer warranty gives you more confidence that your walkie talkie won't break down as quickly through normal use. For troubleshooting, make sure the manufacturer’s website has a FAQs section and downloadable user manuals. Also, we appreciated manufacturers that offered email and telephone contact information because it means you have a resource to get additional information, should you need it.
With cellphone coverage increasing every year, walkie talkies might seem like a technology that belongs in the past, but hiking and camping can put you outside the range of cellphone towers. These two-way radios act as communication tools for when you are outside of cell phone service as well as emergency alert radios when you need to know the local weather conditions, and many modern walkie talkies have built-in emergency features that make it worth investing in a pair for your next excursion. Our reviews can help you find the best walkie talkie for your next ski trip, cross-country caravan or hiking adventure.