The Pros & Cons of Survival Walkie Talkies

Two-way radios are stronger and less expensive. But are they worth the weight in your pack?

The ups and downs of survival walkie talkies
The ups and downs of survival walkie talkiesWesley Allsbrook

I hail from a generation who could do no more than shout to gain the attention of fellow sportsmen, and my first experience with two-way radios was far from encouraging. Through snowflakes I could make out my brother working down the opposite ridge less than 200 yards away, and I still couldn't raise him on the radio.

That was 15 years ago and this is now, and the power and range of two-way handhelds have steadily gone up while size and price have come down. Where I hunt, radio crackle is becoming as common as the jackhammer pounding of sapsuckers and three-toed woodpeckers. Conversations with several believers-including one hunter who became hypothermic in Colorado's Weminuche Wilderness but used his radio to talk himself out of the jam and join up with his brother-convinced me to take a second look. Or, more accurately, a second listen.

Today's radios have tons of options, like interference elimination, weather alerts, and so forth. None are crucial. An emergency button, which transmits an SOS signal and permits hands-free communication, is a good safety feature. Make sure to buy a set that operates on GMRS bands (1 to 5 watt), as well as the less powerful FRS bands (1⁄2 watt). To use the more potent channels, you're required to buy a five-year license ($75) through the FCC, an unenforceable regulation and one I'll bet no more than one in 100 radioheads obeys. Still, what would your mother tell you to do?

After a season of tuning in, which included several extended backpack elk hunts in Montana's Gravelly Range, I've reached a few conclusions.

The Bad News

The advertised transmission range ("up to 20 miles") on the three-pack of Motorola Talkabouts my hunting buddies and I used seemed about as far-fetched as Mitt Romney's claims of being your brother sportsman, because even the fine print, which fessed up to no more than 2 miles in broken country, proved optimistic. The fact is that when you're using handhelds, line of sight is everything. Put a ridge between hunters and communications go dead. Plus, the radio is another pound in the pack and, along with GPS and the locator beacon, one more electronic crutch that hunters can lean on to substitute for the sound legs of basic survival and navigational skills. Confidence should reside in your head, not be placed in satellites and airwaves.

The Good News

As long as my partners and I hunted the same basin, communications were adequately clear out to about 2 miles. By staying in touch, we knew one another's last locations should someone have failed to return to camp. Memorably, the radios came in handy the evening my nephew, Brandon, downed a 5-point bull and didn't make it to our backpack camp until midnight. If he hadn't reported the situation, I'd have been up feeding the fire and feeling pretty darned worried.

Which raises a point: By law, hunters aren't allowed to use radios to discuss strategy-not even to report the location of game. Were we on thin (legal) ice by discussing a kill? I don't know. What I do know is that using technology to gain an edge on game is a moral issue, regulations notwithstanding, and that overuse of radios can be just as bad as overreliance. I've hunted with men who talked the day away with radio earphones tucked in their aural canals. This begs the question: Do we come to the mountains to tune in to the sounds of nature, or to plug our ears and tune nature out? I'd rather hear birdsong than static when I hunt. But it's better to play it safe than leave communications behind when you take the fork of no return.