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One of the most important factors in choosing two way radios is their actual real world range.

If you need a 3 mile range in the city, there is no value at all in buying a radio that advertises a 5 mile range, but which in reality has less than a 1 mile range!

 
 
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Real World Ranges for CB, FRS, GMRS and MURS Radios

Testing Results Part One :  Consumer Grade Radios
 

If you're relying on the claims of the manufacturers, you'll probably be very disappointed.

Here's a realistic look at the true distance you can expect from your radios.

Part 3 of a 5 part series - click for Parts  One  Two  Three  Four  Five

 

 

Going to the shopping mall? Expect your radios to have as little as a 100 yd range!

Wanting to keep in touch between two cars driving on the freeway? Expect as little as a 1 mile range.

Wanting to stay in touch with family at home while you drive to the shops? You'll be lucky to get 1 mile of communications, and in some conditions, less than 1/4 mile.

CB Radio Range

CB radios have the longest range of any of the different types of radio services considered in these articles but only if used with a good antenna. And that presents as the major weakness of CB radios for most casual applications - the ideal length for a CB radio antenna is about 15 feet!

CB radios can be a sensible solution for communications between two cars (with external antennas), or for communications between a 'base station' at home or work (with a big high antenna) and a car. Expect two to five miles range between two cars, and as many as ten or more miles between a base station and a car. You might get twenty or more miles range between two base stations.

But CB radios are probably your worst solution for communications between two people using hand-held portable radios with short antennas. They are not nearly as small in size as the FRS/GMRS radios, they are much more expensive.  Because of the very inefficient antennas in such units, their range is probably inferior to the FRS/GMRS radios too.

Note that although their range is the longest of any of the four radio services discussed in this article series, their range is trivially short compared to the range of transmissions at lower frequencies in the High Frequency, Medium Frequency and Low Frequency radio bands.  Unfortunately, you need to pass various tests and be licensed by the FCC in order to operate radio transmitters in these frequency bands, making it impractical for casual use.

MURS Radio Range

I have not tested any MURS radios and so can't comment specifically on them. However, I guess that they will perform very much the same as FRS/GMRS radios.

MURS radios are not on the mass-market yet and so are the most expensive solution. On the other hand, the 'commercial' grade of MURS radios that are on sale are often made to a higher quality and with better performance than the cheap 'consumer' grade FRS/GMRS radios, and if you can find such radios and are willing to pay the price, you will definitely get better performance than from FRS/GMRS radios.

FRS Radio Range

FRS radios will give you as little as 100 yds or less in office buildings and shopping malls (less if no line of sight and you're on two different floors, more if you are more or less in line of sight and on the same floor).

In semi-open ground, you'll get about half a mile of range, sometimes less (especially if things block the line of sight between you), and seldom more (mainly if you can have direct visual contact).

You'll get similar or sometimes slightly better range if you are both in your cars, but if the road you're on turns a corner, and the line of sight disappears, the range will of course reduce again.

FRS radios are not allowed to have external antennas, and their maximum power is limited to half a watt.

GMRS Radio Range

A GMRS radio is identical to an FRS radio - it uses the same frequencies. But it might have two important differences.

The first difference is that it might be higher powered than the FRS radio. As discussed in part two and four of this series, extra power does not always automatically mean extra range, so don't be too excited by the extra power that a GMRS radio offers. All that extra power really means is your batteries won't last as long!!!

The second difference is that the GMRS radio can have an external antenna. As also discussed in parts two and four, the quality of your antenna is one of the most important factors in determining your range.

So, in theory, a higher powered GMRS radio with external antenna should outperform a lower powered built-in antenna FRS radio.

Generally it seems that manufacturers claim an 'up to 2 mile' range for FRS radios and an 'up to 5-7 mile' range for GMRS radios (with built in antennas) and then claim 'boosts range by up to 75%' for an external antenna add-on. So, this would suggest a best case range of about 12.25 miles for a moderately low powered GMRS radio with a 'normal' non-directional antenna.

These theoretical ranges were never experienced in actual testing conditions.

Testing Part One

See part four for a second series of tests using 'professional grade' radios and antennas.

I tested three radios in my car - a 0.5 watt FRS radio (see left column), a 2 watt GMRS radio with built-in antenna (Unit A in the middle column), and a 2 watt GMRS radio with both an internal antenna (Unit B in the middle result column) and with an external roof mounted antenna (right column), and matched them against another 0.5 watt FRS radio and a 2 watt built-in antenna GMRS radio at home.

I drove in a spiral sort of pattern around my house, and tested the quality of all four different radio/antenna combinations from various places.

Here is a table showing the quality ('recognizability' more than signal strength) of reception on a 0-5 scale (5 is best).

No results are shown for greater than 0.8 miles because none of the radios would receive signals at these greater ranges. Distances are direct 'as the crow flies' distances as measured by GPS.

Distance
(tenths of a mile)

FRS

GMRS
int antenna

(Units A - B)

 GMRS
ext antenna

(Unit B)

1 5 5 - 5 5
2 3 2 - 3 4
3 (place 1) 0 1 - 1 2
3 (place 2) 3 2 - 3 4
3 (place 3) 4 3 - 4 5
4 (place 1) 0 3 - 3 4
4 (place 2) 3 2 - 3 4
4 (place 3) 2 1 - 3 3
5 (place 1) 0 0 - 0 0
5 (place 2) 2 0 - 1 3
5 (place 3) 3 2 - 3 4
5 (place 4) 3 2 - 2 4
6 2 1 - 2 3
6 1 3 - 3 4
7 0 1 - 0 1
7 0 0 - 0 0
8 0 0 - 0 0
8 0 0 - 0 1

Analysis

1.

Many times the old low powered FRS radio outperformed one of the new high powered GMRS radios and sometimes it even outperformed both of them.  This shows that radio design is more important than power.

2.

There was a surprising difference between the two different models of GMRS radio.  This again confirms that radio design is more important than power.

3.

Adding an external antenna did improve the quality of the signal quite noticeably, but did not give a big increase in range.

4.

The biggest factor on range was the topography between the two units, with maximum range varying up to two-fold depending on the conditions.

5.

You will get better results in a flat open space where you can see the person you're talking with, and you will get worse results within buildings.

Summary

In the real world, range experienced with generic consumer grade low cost FRS/GMRS radios seems to vary from a low of under 100 yds (this happened in a shopping mall) to a maximum of 0.8 miles.

This distance may stretch out to a mile or two, and possibly more if you can both actually see each other, with no obstructions between you.

For longer range between cars, CB radios with good (ie large!) external antennas are your best solution.

In general, the best way for most people to stay in touch is simply to use a cell phone. Especially if you never use all the included minutes in your monthly plan, using your cell phone is probably the best solution.

See also Parts 1, 2 4 & 5

In Part 1 we explain the different types of personal radio services available to you, and what they variously mean.

In Part 2 we discuss how it is that manufacturers can claim ranges of 'up to seven miles' when the effective range - as tested by us - is sometimes as little as one twentieth the claimed range. Many factors influence maximum range - some we can influence, most we can not. In particular, read the startling truth about the importance of transmitter power to give you more range.

In Part 4 we repeat the testing, this time using 'professional grade' radios to determine just how much more performance you get from these much more expensive radios.

In Part 5 we explain the confusing mismatch of channel number allocations to different FRS/GMRS radios.
 

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Originally published 15 August 2003, last update 02 Jul 2017

You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me (David Rowell - KF7VVM) as original writer.

 
 
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