Two Way Walkie Talkies For Back Country Safety and Convenience by Ed Cordes
Have you ever found that during a hike or photography outing you are separated from your partner or group? My wife, Gail and I do a lot of hiking together for photography as well as just enjoying the wilderness. We find that it is a pretty common occurrence for us to become separated. This could happen because I am taller and therefore take longer strides during a hike. It more often occurs when either one of us is concentrating on a subject and the other wanders pretty far away photographing other subjects. This situation can become both frustrating and dangerous. It also inhibits communication between us about the various subjects we are photographing and the conditions we are in.
Many photographers have discovered the benefits of carrying light weight walkie talkie radios. These small, pocket size, two-way communication devices have become quite inexpensive and
should be on everyone’s list of must have gear when venturing into the field.
One obvious use is for communicating with your photographic partner about where you are and
where you are going. We often find that I am up ahead exploring the terrain while Gail is photographing something I have passed by. It allows us to keep track of one another for both safety and the ability to “catch up”. The radios also allow us to separate on purpose to get better coverage of an area. Gail can be on one side of a field and I can be on the other while maintaining communication about what we are doing.
You don’t need to spend a lot of money to get a quality set of radios. The set we bought was around $60 at a local big box store. When shopping you will see a lot of advertising about the distance the radios will cover. Read this with caution. First, the maximum transmitting and receiving distance is greatly affected by weather, and obstructions like mountains, hills, buildings, rocks etc. Do not expect to get 18 miles unless you are on a frozen lake in a direct line of sight of your partner! However, ½ to 1 mile is what we have experienced.
The companies also advertise a large number of channels the radios have, usually 22. While the radios do have the ability to use all those channels, for many of them you may need a special license. At least in the USA any channel that transmits using 1 watt of power or more (channels 15-22 generally known as GMRS) requires this license. The fee to obtain and maintain is currently about $75 renewable every 5 years.
The channels you may use for free are known as FRS (Family Radio Service). They transmit using 0.5 watt of power. For the vast majority of purposes this is enough. Keep in mind that if you are in a slot canyon or on the other side of a mesa your transmission may not reach your partner.
There are some special features you may want to consider including in your set. The radios we decided to buy have weather alerts published by NOAA. Before heading out on a long hike, say to the top of a mountain where storms may be dangerous, we can check for any safety alerts published for the area. Many radios utilize “privacy codes”. This is a system of 38 CTCSS (Continuous Tone Coded Squelch System) codes. You can select one of the 38 codes to greatly minimize the chance of cross talk with others using the same FRS channel you are on. The privacy codes do not however scramble your communication. Anyone else with the same code set in their radio can receive your calls.
A silent vibrating ringer is nice to avoid disturbing wildlife. However most of the time we do not use the ringers – we just talk. If sound intrusion is critical consider using a head set. A key pad lock is also a good idea as you and your partner can lock in your channel and privacy codes without worrying about accidentally changing it.
Radios come with both rechargeable batteries and replaceable AA or AAA cells. The usual trade offs exist. Personally, I prefer to use the AAA cells as it is one less charger and cord I have to keep track of. We get about 2 days of field use on a battery set.
There are many other features the new radios may come with. I have highlighted those that are important to us. Bottom line is that the modern 2-way radios are light weight, small and reasonably powerful. They offer any outdoor photographer a level of convenience and safety which is well worth the small investment.