Once upon a time, any off-road enthusiast worth their salt had a CB or ham radio installed in their vehicle and a long radio antenna (or two) wiggling around somewhere on top of their rig.
But times–and technologies–have changed. Nowadays, many overlanders and off-roaders are opting for GMRS radios, devices that operate on different wavelengths than CB and ham.
These radios present fewer hurdles to adoption than the older technologies, as they are simpler to use, easier to install (if they need to be installed at all), relatively affordable and acquiring a GMRS operators license is easy and inexpensive.
In this guide, I’ll explain why GMRS radios have become so popular and how they are used. I’ll also share some criteria for choosing the right one for your situation. Please note that we are focusing on handheld GMRS radios here, as opposed to “mobile” units that are installed in vehicles.
For a more general introduction to using two-way radios, check out our guide to overlanding and off-roading communications.
Please note that you must obtain a license from the FCC to operate a GMRS radio.
Recommended GMRS Handheld Radios
Before we get into more detail explaining GMRS technology, I’ll highlight two of the best handheld GMRS radios (as opposed to “mobile” GMRS units) on the market that are popular among overlanding and off-roading enthusiasts.
Founded in 1949 and based in Kansas City, Missouri, Midland is one of the leading US manufacturers of handheld radios. Their GXT100VP4 GMRS Radios are a staple in the off-roading and overlanding communities, and they offer some terrific bundles of multiple radios at a good price. While not offering as much versatility in channel options as the Baofeng radios, the Midland radios are a bit easier to use and cost a bit less.
Baofeng is a Chinese company (with a US base in South Dakota) that makes feature-packed mobile and handheld radios that are popular among off-roading and overlanding enthusiasts. The BTECH GMRS-V2 is the company’s second-generation GMRS handheld GMRS radio. With a maximum GMRS broadcast power of 5 watts, these radios pack a big punch for a small radio. For the price, it’s hard to beat the functionality and broadcasting power this radio offers.
While other companies manufacture handheld GMRS radios, the Midland and Baofeng are trail tested and affordable, so we’re recommending that you pick on or the other. The Midland offers the simplicity of use and a great price, while the Baofeng offers greater power and more features, but has a bit of a steep learning curve and costs more.
What are GMRS radios?
General Mobile Radio Service (GMRS) radios operate in the 462 and 467 MHz frequency range. Most GMRS radios use between 1 and 5 watts of power, although they can use up to 50 watts on channels 15-22. They have a better range than Family Radio Service (FRS) radios and CBs, with a typical maximum range between 1 to 2 miles, and some devices with larger antennas and power broadcasting further. The extra wattage also makes the signal a bit clearer than FRS.
A major reason for their growing popularity is their compact size, ease of setup and use, affordability, and versatility. You can use handheld GMRS radios in your vehicles or throw them in backpacks in case you get separated while hiking, skiing, or mountain biking.
Both GMRS and FSR operate on frequencies between 462 and 467 MHz and both types of devices broadcast and receive FM waves. MURS radios operate in the VHF band from 151.820 MHz to 154.600 MHz.
Why are GMRS radios popular for overlanding and off-roading?
GMRS radios are popular among off-roading and overlanding enthusiasts thanks to their combination of ease-of-use, low barrier to entry and superior signal strength when compared to FRS and CB radios.
As I mentioned above, GMRS radios typically produce a stronger signal than FRS radios, which increases their range. When you are traveling with other vehicles, this comes in handy (no pun intended).
In my experience, it’s easy for two vehicles to become separated by a mile or two on the trail at which point, an FRS walkie talkie won’t have the signal power to bridge the distance. The greater signal range of GMRS radios better suits the communications needs of vehicles traveling off-road.
Another reason GMRS radios are becoming popular is the ability to use repeaters to greatly extend their signal range. Repeaters towers pick up incoming GMRS signals and amplify them to extend their range. The network of GMRS repeaters is growing in the US and other countries.
This adoption of GMRS by users and growth of the repeater network has made GMRS a viable alternative to ham radio, another technology that offers greater signal range and repeater amplification.
While ham is still popular among enthusiasts and offers greater signal power and other unique features for those who want it, it requires studying for an operators license and taking a test, which is a substantial barrier for many off-road and overlanding enthusiasts.
There is also a bit of a snowball effect taking place with GMRS at the moment. Many off-roading clubs have adopted the technology and recommend the radios to their members, so it’s becoming the logical technology to use if you want to communicate with other off-road enthusiasts.
What is the difference between “handheld” and “mobile” GMRS radios?
Handheld GMRS radios are small units designed, as the name says, for holding in your hand. They typically have a maximum power level of 3 watts, which limits their range. Mobile GMRS radios are larger units that resemble your classic CB or ham radio installed in a vehicle. They are usually installed in the vehicle and use its battery for power, so have a much larger range.
If you have the money, it’s actually nice to have both a handheld and a mobile unit. The handheld is useful for communicating when you are out of your vehicle, for instance, while guiding a driver over an obstacle. Mobile units will give you greater range and will help you connect to repeaters (which can be clutch in emergency situations).
Do I need a license to operate a handheld GMRS radio?
Anyone operating a GMRS radio must obtain a license from the FCC. The permit cost $35 at the time I am writing this and doesn’t require a test. The FCC classifies any radio operating on FRS/GMRS frequencies with more than 2 watts as a GMRS radio. You can obtain the license here.
For a deeper drive into getting started, check out our basic guide to GMRS radio.