By, Stu Olson N7QJP
Another type of radio that has recently appeared on the market is the Family Radio System (FRS) type radio. FRS is for non-business communications and was designed for short-range distances between family members. FRS uses the UHF frequency range (~460 MHz) and very low power (.5 watts), so the effective range is limited to a couple of miles, maximum. While this will rarely help you communicate between your vehicle and someone back home, it does provide excellent talk-around capability between vehicles on the trail. These radios use FM transmitters and receivers, which results in a better sounding audio signal when compared to the AM type CB radios. Unlike the CB radio, FRS does not suffer from the effects of "skip". In addition to this, most FRS radios can transmit a special sub-audible tone in addition to your voice. If the person's FRS radio that is receiving your broadcast is also configured to receive this tone, it will only allow the receiver to work when the tone is present. So, even if the radio channel you are using is busy with other users, you can basically turn a "party line" into a "private line" by using these sub-audible tones. This is usually not needed, unless you are in a heavily congested area and there are many people using FRS radios (perhaps a large campground at a national park or the Easter Jeep Safari).
Since most of the FRS radios come in a very compact walkie-talkie design, they are perfect for operating in your off-road vehicle. On top of this, they are great for taking along on those short hikes to the lake, top of the mountain, or down to the campground general store. It is so easy to stick one in your pocket and take it with you. They also work well for mountain bikers and other related sports where short-range communications are handy. Because of their low transmit power, battery life is pretty good and most have an optional DC power adapter cord that can use the 12V from your vehicle's battery. Another plus is the built in antenna, which means you don't need one mounted on your bumper, rear-quarter panel, or the spare tire carrier. That means one less thing to get caught on a tree limb and broken on the trail. Most of these radios offer a variety of optional add-ons and usually include an accessory jack for a boom-mic headset that provides for hands-free operation. FRS radios can be had for under $100 and go up into the $200+ range. No license is required to transmit on a FRS radio.
The FRS radios share some of the frequencies that are allocated to the GMRS (General Radio Mobile Service) radios, the big brother to FRS. GMRS radios allow slightly higher power levels and can use repeaters to extend their range (see the section below about ham radio repeater operation). You must obtain a FCC license before operating a GMRS radio, however there is no test required to acquire the license. The restrictions imposed on what can be communicated on GMRS radios are more stringent than on FRS. If you are considering GMRS, you should do some research on the topic to determine if it will meet your needs. You can get more information at http://www.fcc.gov/wtb/prs/genmbl.html . The price for GMRS radios vary quite a bit. Because these radios are usually marketed in the "commercial" section of a manufacturers catalog, they tend to be more expensive. Adequate ones start in the $300 range and go up from there. They are available in both walkie-talkie and mobile radio versions.