The comparison between ham radios and walkie-talkies might seem trivial, but it remains a point of contention. While ham radios are considered superior devices, there are times when a walkie-talkie might make more sense. In this article, we’ll cover the differences between the two and discuss which device is suitable for your needs.
What is a Walkie-Talkie?
In simplest terms, a walkie-talkie is a portable two-way radio communication device. Most consumer-grade walkie-talkies operate on Family Radio Service (FRS) channels between 462 MHz and 467 MHz, while some utilize General Mobile Radio Service (GMRS).
It’s important to clarify that GMRS radios, not traditional “walkie-talkies,” are often used for more professional applications. These radios can function on Ultra High Frequency (UHF) and Very High Frequency (VHF) bands and boast a transmission range of 5-10 miles under perfect conditions. For this article, we’ll stick to traditional FRS radios, which are what most people think of when they hear “walkie-talkies.”
The walkie-talkies that operate on FRS are generally low-power devices, usually running on AA or AAA batteries. Their limited power restricts their range to approximately 1-2 miles under the best conditions.
Walkie-talkies are primarily used for recreational activities like outdoor activities, sports leagues, and hiking trips. These devices are strictly amateur, unregulated, and don’t require a license or registered call sign for operation. All you need to do is purchase, unpack, and switch them on.
What are the advantages of walkie-talkies?
Walkie-talkies are less expensive than most handheld ham radios, yet they are still quite robust. They are especially user-friendly for beginners, requiring minimal instruction or training, unlike ham radios. A course or license is not needed to operate a walkie-talkie, except if it’s used on GMRS frequencies.
What are the disadvantages of walkie-talkies?
In comparison to ham radios, walkie-talkies have significant limitations. As low-power communication devices, their reliability for transmitting and receiving voice communications beyond 1-2 miles is questionable, rendering them largely ineffective in emergencies. They have access to a limited number of frequency bands compared to ham radios.
What is a ham radio?
Ham radio operates much like GMRS but provides substantially more capabilities. Ham radios, also known as amateur radios, are significantly more powerful and can communicate over long distances. Unlike walkie-talkies, which are restricted to a few frequencies, Ham radio systems can access any frequencies in the 70 cm band, and beyond.
Ham radios come in several different formats including handheld, mobile, and base station, making them more versatile than exclusively portable walkie-talkies. They are powerful and can broadcast thousands of miles away with the added advantage of using repeaters to extend their range. To use ham radio, you’ll need a Technician’s license from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).
In this article, we are focusing on handheld ham radios because handhelds are the most likely ham radio option to be compared with walkie-talkies. Even though handheld ham radios aren’t as potent as other mobile or base station hams, they still significantly outperform walkie-talkies. Handheld ham radios, utilizing relatively low power of about 5-8 watts, are commonly used for short-range or near-distance communication.
What are the advantages of ham radio?
The range and power of a handheld ham radio is significantly greater than a walkie-talkie. A walkie-talkie can get ~2 miles of range with perfect conditions. A handheld ham radio can transmit significantly farther due to several factors.
Handheld ham radios can achieve a 12-20+ mile range if there’s an excellent line of sight including optimal weather and no obstructions. However, with poor climate conditions or obstructions like hills, mountains, or buildings, the range may reduce to approximately 2 miles. These are the primary conditions that impact the range of handheld hams.
Additionally, you can extend the range of a handheld ham with an upgraded antenna. Most handheld transceivers come with “rubber ducky” antennas, which offer limited power and transmission capabilities. Many ham radio operators choose to upgrade their antennae to something stronger which can improve their range up to 20 miles in some cases.
Power is another area that can impact the range. Most handheld ham radios are between 5-8 watts, but some do go higher. Generally speaking, the more power a radio has, the farther it can transmit; however, for handhelds, the extra power doesn’t always translate into more range. Line of sight and antenna quality has the biggest impact.
What are the disadvantages of ham radio?
It’s difficult to find many negatives about ham radios, especially when compared to walkie-talkies. It is important to remember that to operate one, you first need to secure a ham radio license from the FCC, which is not required for walkie-talkies. This extra step has stopped many people from upgrading. Ham radios also need extensive training and practice to be used properly.
While ham radios can access more radio frequencies than walkie-talkies, they are not legally permitted to use the GMRS and FRS frequency ranges (although many ham radio operators attempt to use these ranges regardless).
Why would someone use a ham radio?
Ham radios are the most versatile type of radio for radio enthusiasts and professionals. They allow communication around the world. Their high power and long-range capabilities make them valuable for emergency communications, such as during natural disasters. When infrastructure is down and power is out, ham operators become a vital resource for disseminating information to the public.
Ham radios can pick up many different types of signals, including FM radio broadcasts, Morse code, weather updates from the NOAA, maritime and aviation transmissions on the VHF band, and many emergency responder channels. This wide-ranging ability to tune into critical communications makes Ham Radio a top choice for those planning for emergencies.
What about CB radios vs walkie-talkies?
A better comparison could be between CB radios and walkie-talkies, as both were designed for short-range two-way communication. The ease of use, limited range, and low power of CB radios made them popular with truckers, who still frequently use them today. CB radios with SSB have a range of about 7-10 miles, which is more than most walkie-talkies. They’re also relatively cheap and can be mounted on most trucks or car beds easily.
So, which one should I choose?
All things considered, we recommend handheld ham radios for their superior range. You can find good deals on new and used handheld ham radios. For example, the Baofeng UV-5R Dual Band UHF/VHF radio and the Kenwood TH-D74A are two of the most well-known models.
While they do require a license and some training, the benefits they provide are worth the effort. However, if you’re only communicating around the house and don’t need extended range, a 2-way radio like the Motorola T100 analog or even a cell phone might be your best choice.