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2017/11/15 9:20:12 PM - By Ryan - our Gadget guy
Maybe, one of our biggest motivators when we’re interested in buying something is cost. We have these fancy mobile phones that do just about anything. They’re relatively small, and have more features than a NASA relief map! But unless you have a good service plan, and the area you’re in (or going to) is well covered, then it’s not going to do you much good. For us adventurous types, you’re sure to end up in places that have very poor coverage, at least every now and then.

Enter the humble two way radio… a ridiculously cheap and fun way to communicate when you’re in a group with friends or family, or heading into the great outdoors. And no, I’m not talking about those bulky boxes we sometimes see in the movies – I’m taking about those tiny ones that fit in your pocket and run off a set of AAA batteries for the day. These cheap alternatives can be found at your local two way radio dealer as well as the popular sporting goods retailers. Sometimes even places like The Gadget Shop and Macro sporadically stock these!
There’s a dizzying variety of these radios available and each one with more added features than the rest. A common feature is VOX (Voice Activation), where you don’t have to press a button to transmit. And some of these radios advertise as a “baby monitor function” although this is a very bad idea since your baby crying is transmitted to anyone else on that frequency. One feature that is rare though (on the higher end versions) is an SOS transmitter beacon. This feature will transmit a signal every few minutes until the batter runs flat or you stop it. Because these signals are so easy to track, this feature will allow people to track you if you’re incapacitated.

Another handy feature is the ability of radios to sense if somebody in your group has gone out of range or has just come into range. ARTS (again higher range radios) will send out an inaudible signal every now and then requesting a response from other radios with ARTS turned on. So if it suddenly loses communication (gone out of range) or suddenly gets a response from a new radio (just come into range), then it alerts you.

There’s many more interesting things they can do though these higher end features are quite rare. The more common features are waterproofing, drop resistance, dust resistance, floating in water, and so on. And even some models with a built in torch as well.
These radios are a small, cheap and convenient way to communicate within a short range. Remember, these are FM (Frequency Modulated) radios – so the signal is “line of sight”. A mountain in between you and the person you’re trying to reach is not going to help you at all. And for places like a city, those buildings are as good as mountains – so don’t expect much in conditions like that. Out in the open, or if you’re high up, then you’re going to get a good amount of distance out of them. Don’t expect to talk to somebody in the next city, but car-to-car or outdoors, they’re going to work well.
These are not a good way to get hold of emergency services. While emergency personnel may at times have access to these frequencies (think search and rescue), the chances are very slim, as they use their own more powerful radios and completely different frequencies. HAM radio (amateur radio) does fall on some of these frequencies and it’s common for HAM radio operators to program these frequencies into their radios. In an emergency, any HAM radio operator will easily help you but don’t count on it that you will be able to reach anyone outside your group.

Also, these radios are on a VERY public set of frequencies. Since they’re license free, you’re going to find many people (the 4x4 crowd, security guards, events, kids, etc.) all using these – so don’t expect privacy. There is a way of filtering out the conversations of others, but that does not mean they can’t hear you. Be patient, be “family friendly” and keep in mind that others can easily hear what you’re saying.
These are fantastic for group or family activities. On a trip down to the coast a few years back, I was driving in convoy with a group of friends. I just happened to have 4 of these and gave one to each car… and then the fun began. Not only were we able to keep in touch all the way there and back, but we also found all kinds of other people also using these radios, and chatted to one and all along the way. It saved us a great deal on our cellular bills, plus the convenience was a big plus. And I don’t know what it is with two way radios, but picking one up seems to take us back to our childhood – it’s just plain fun! I owned a pair of these many years ago (Kenwood UBZ-LF14 (pictured) and Icom IC-4088 (pictured) if I remember correctly) that were very low power, and was able to get from the cableway at Hartbeespoort Dam to my home in Mayville, Pretoria. That’s about 29km and exceeds the rated distance, but because I was on top of a mountain, the height made this possible. I’ve even used these over a few kilometers boat to boat and they worked very well indeed.

But don’t think the fun stops there – for hiking, camping, climbing, and everything inbetween, these little radios pay for themselves in the first few months. And if you’re a parent, giving one to your child when you go out does give you a little more peace of mind - it fosters independence while enhancing security. And you just know that kids are going to love this!
But for more serious things, like such as climbing or hiking, it’s a great idea to have one of these on you for general communication, and also, just in case something hits that proverbial fan. Climbing… but don’t you need to press a button? Not always – some of these have a handsfree voice activated function. So by clipping it to a harness or backpack shoulder strap, you can communicate without having to press that button. Biking – many of these have a headset connector so they function just like a mobile phone walk-and-talk. So these are handy and possibly even a lifesaver when you really need them. And for the times in between charging and emergencies, just a lot of fun.
Since this is a public set of frequencies, there’s little you can NOT use them for. But there are certain rules that you should follow, such as not using bad language since this is a public frequency band and kids may be listening. Interfering with the communication of others is also bad – you can easily pick another frequency. Since some of these frequencies do overlap the HAM radio bands, you should be mindful not to interfere with those since they are subject to very strict license conditions. And in an emergency, it’s best to move on or you may end up costing somebody their life – this is not the time to butt in and get nosy.
There are many two way radio dealers all over the place that have access to all the major brands and many varieties of two way radios. Generally, you’re going to find them full of advice and they’re happy to talk to you about your needs and the options available to you. But do remember they they’re going to try to “up-sell” your needs to make more money… so be careful. I’ve used these radios all my life and they have worked extremely well in all kinds of situations – but a recent call to a dealer had the sales guy telling me it would not work on a car race track that was basically flat. A few small buildings are not going to make much of a difference – but a city block full of high buildings would. Just be aware of this.
Kenwood South Africa - Surprise - Kenwood doesn’t just make hi-fi’s and blenders. They’re a global leader in communications and well worth checking out.

Icom - There doesn’t seem to be an office in South Africa for Icom, but these radios are a popular and reliable brand. Your local two way radio dealer can easily supply these.

Motorola - Again, it seems like there’s no local office for Motorola, but their Talkabout series of radios are available from any two way radio dealer, and are also very popular.

Uniden - Also available from your local two way radio dealer, Uniden has a huge range of these license free radios for any occasion.

Zartek - Zartek is local and I have found these radios being sold by many retailers and two way radio dealers. They also have a good range of products for all occasions.
Not all radios are legal and you should check up on them before using them in South Africa or abroad. Many people import HAM radios from places like China – where they are very cheap, and then just program in the frequencies. This is dangerous – as the power of these radios are normally far higher than the legal limits. Above that, HAM radios almost always have a removable antenna, which is outside licensing parameters for license free radios. Be careful – ICASA (Independent Communications Authority of South Africa) will be quite unhappy with you, even if you make a genuine mistake and can get you into very hot and deep legal water. So it’s best to approach your local two way radio dealer or HAM radio club for advice before buying these imported versions.
If you're interested in taking radio communications to the next level and actually becoming a qualified HAM, then there's a number of places you can go to. If you search for amateur radio clubs on Google, then you should find many of these clubs that would gladly give you advice and also welcome you into their group. Having a HAM radio license opens up a huge number of doors for you and would allow you to use a vast spectrum of frequencies, as well as access to radios with far greater power. As a social activity, these guys do some interesting stuff.
Do it your own way, Explore in your own time.
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