I receive quite a few email messages a day not only inquiring about my antennas, but also general radio operation as well. One question I get over and over again is: “I purchased a set of radios that advertised 30 miles of range, but in our situation we are only receiving 1/2 to 1 mile of distance from them. Will one of your antennas improve my range?”
The manufacturers of these radios do a great disservice to the general public buying these radios. They see the claims on the packaging and think that they will be able to talk halfway across the county or all through the woods with them. But in reality, and under most circumstances these radios are only going to give you about a mile of distance.
Case in point: The Midland LXT600VP3 is advertised with 30 miles of range. Under the features it states: “xtreme range- up to 30 miles*.” Follow the asterisk down to the bottom of the page and you’ll see: “*Maximum range can only be achieved over water or open rural areas under optimum conditions.” Yeah, under optimum conditions, like standing on a mountain top and talking to the other guy on another peak 30 miles away.
The blister pack GMRS radios, even though are advertised to have a range up to 30 miles, will in real life experience about one mile of true range.[ In fact most 3-5 watt handheld radios whether they be commercial grade or consumer models will only give you a 1-2 mile range. The reason is two-fold. First, the antenna is quite short and designed for convenience, not optimal range. The second is that five watts isn’t that powerful; buildings, trees, terrain, and other obstructions are going to affect your range and distance. You could theoretically get 30 miles out of your radio if both parties were on high hills, or rises and had a clear line of sight between them. Otherwise obstructions and even the curvature of the earth will affect your distance. For handheld radios in most situations, about a mile range between them is the norm.
But I see public safety and ham radio operators use handheld radios to talk all over the place. How does that work?
On there own, handheld radios have limited range. But public safety (police, fire, ems, etc) use handheld radios daily to talk with dispatch that may be tens of miles away. Ham radio operators can also get dozens of miles out of their small, portable radios. The secret is to use a repeater. Repeaters are intermediary radio systems located on a high spot or the top of a tower that increase the range by listening to communication on one channel and simultaneously retransmitting it on another channel. The GMRS band allows you to use repeaters to increase range, but installing one may cost several hundred or thousands of dollars. Plus you’ll need a repeater capable radio, and most inexpensive blister pack radios don’t have the option.
How can I increase my range?
As for solutions, Attaching a longer antenna may give you a marginal increase in distance. Commercial grade radios, Like the Motorola GP-300 allow you to attach external antennas, but the consumer ‘blister pack’ radios do not.
A better solution may be to install a higher power 35 or 50 watt mobile/base radio with the GMRS J-Pole Antenna 10 or 20 feet in the air located at your base of operations. Then the base will ‘hear’ more of the handheld radios and and the operator can relay information back to the rest of the group. There are also devices called simplex repeaters, which are like digital voice recorders. They listen on the frequency, record any traffic and then retransmit it on the same channel. You’ll experience a slight delay in communications, but it will work for increasing your parties range.
Best advice I can give you to increase your range and intelligibility over the air is to find a rise or clearing when you need to transmit. Take the radio off your belt or pack so that the antenna is not close to your body, and listen to the received signal and try to orient your body or position so that the signal sounds the strongest.
The inexpensive blister pack radios are great for casual operation and are convenient to use. When my kids were younger we used to hand them an inexpensive radio so they could go off to play and explore and it was easy to us to call them back to the campsite. But if you are planning to use these radios in your group, know the limitations and don’t expect to the marketing claims to trump the laws of physics.