What's a good walkie-talkie?
August 17, 2007 6:20 PM   Subscribe

I'm looking for some walkie-talkies (two way radio) but I've been spoiled with military quality gear for most of my life. What are good commercial walkie-talkies, and where can I get them?

As a minimum I'd like:

Alternate frequencies
Water proof (or at least resistant)
Squelch on/off
Changeable antennas (e.g. something for under 2 miles and something for over 2 miles)
Something that can be dropped regularly without concern.
I'm flexible when it comes to batteries.

Can I get this sort of thing without AN/PRC? Is there any AN/PRC quality available for civilians?
posted by furtive to Technology (11 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I'm also curious about frequencies/bands.... I know Radio Shack isn't going to sell me stuff that violates FCC rules, but there must be a market for "mod" type two way radios. What's the scoop?
posted by furtive at 6:21 PM on August 17, 2007

P.S. I'm in Canada, not in the U.S. if that helps/hurts.
posted by furtive at 6:22 PM on August 17, 2007

Get your amateur radio license (see http://arrl.org for test information; I took the exam after a week of studying and got 100%), and then buy a good handheld transceiver (I got a Yaesu VX-7R) that can be modded to use whatever frequency you want.
posted by aberrant at 9:08 PM on August 17, 2007

I bet with a HAM license and a nice budget, you can do better than the military gear. I bet you can even get scramble and maybe digital encryption.
posted by Netzapper at 9:53 PM on August 17, 2007

Netzapper, not exactly. Amateur radio specifically prohibits ciphered messages. (Things like morse code or packetized data are ok as long as there's a standard way that folks can decode the signals). Encryption is a violation of FCC code and, likely Canadian code as well.
posted by aberrant at 10:27 PM on August 17, 2007

@abberrant -- I didn't see encryption or encipherment in his list of requirements. (I know the modern AN/PRCs do encrypted burst, at least on the recent ones, but he didn't specify that as one of the features he wanted in a civilian radio; my reading of the question is that he wanted something that equaled the physical construction and robustness of the military radios, not their technical capabilities.)1

Anyway, I think you're going to be hard-pressed to find anything that's exactly as tough as the AN/PRC radios (because, frankly, nobody but the military wants to pay for them). However, there are lots of radios built for commercial and public safety (police/fire/etc.) use that are 90% as good.

Icom, for instance, makes some fairly decent radios that meet military specifications in some areas (mostly shock and vibration, not EMP or anything). They're not truly "mil spec" radios, but they'll survive being dropped in water. Icom makes both Land Mobile and Amateur radios, although not all of the Amateur ones are quite as rugged (although most of them are at least waterproof -- it's only the displays that I would worry about).

Motorola's commercial radios have, in my experience anyway, always been the choice of a lot of fire departments, and they seem to be really well-built. Again, not exactly military gear, but I've seen some ridiculous things happen to 20-year-old Motorola HTs and they keep on ticking with only cosmetic damage.2 You'll need a commercial radio license to use them.

The other manufacturer of public safety radios that I'm familiar with is Bendix King (formerly just King Radio), which I think is out of business now. Maybe you can find some still around at a dealer or used. Here's one of their late models, just to give you an idea of what they're like.

But if you want 'real' military radios, aside from hunting on eBay and buying a surplus one for $3-5k and using it on the amateur bands, I don't think you'll find anything. There just isn't a market for anything like that except in the military. It's cheaper, even in places like public safety, construction, and mining, to just buy several $300-$2000 radios than a single ${really huge number} one.

1 - Though, you can use some of the more recent military HF radios -- if you can find one, that is -- on the Ham bands legally, as long as you don't turn on any of the encryption or any undocumented digital modes. See here for a breakdown of various military radios and their usefulness to amateur radio...basically anything that's newer than Vietnam-era will cost you thousands of dollars, and that's assuming you can actually find one.

2 - The closest model to the ones that I have seen the local firefighters beating the tar out of are the HTX-1000 series.

posted by Kadin2048 at 12:18 AM on August 18, 2007

Wow, most of that is way out of my budget. I guess I'll stick to the cheapy $100 motorola ones for now.
posted by furtive at 6:11 AM on August 18, 2007

Kenwood ProTalk 3201 FTW!

I've used them on the UK's/Europe's PMR446 band, doesn't the US have FRS?
posted by dance at 7:11 AM on August 18, 2007 [1 favorite]

FRS is power-restricted to something less than 1 watt, IIRC. And here's the official (arrl) word on encryption (I used google cache since it's a .doc file):

o Amateur Radio is prohibited from using any form of communications security (the ability or method to hide the actual transmission(s); and

o Amateur Radio is prohibited from using any form of encryption to hide the content of any transmission(s) (satellite and Internet access excepted).

There's one other exception: signals used for the remote control of devices may be encrypted.
posted by aberrant at 8:18 AM on August 18, 2007

and of course, that document is not exactly on point, since it deals with emergency and disaster communications. However, FCC Part 97 "prohibits the use of ciphers and symbols to hide the meaning of transmitted message content." According to this ARRL pdf, this extends to packet-over-radio, so that means no ssh/sftp allowed! Huh.

posted by aberrant at 8:24 AM on August 18, 2007

We also use Motos at work, and I see most of the police and fire people with them also. Very rugged, but also very spendy.

To tell the truth, in many field situations now cell phones are almost more useful (you can get cell plans which include this--in Canada see Fido's MIKE plans, for example). We keep the radios as backup, but we've only ever had to use them when the cell networks crash.
posted by bonehead at 7:45 PM on August 18, 2007

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