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GMRS Radio Range Chart

Range is a popular word in the world of portable handheld two way radios or walkie talkies. Ironically, it's also one of the least understood among the masses, which makes it quite controversial. This simple, five letter word is easy to enunciate, yet it is perhaps one of the most complicated to resolve in the consumer radio marketplace.

The reason for this is contained in the word itself. Although range has an absolute definition, it is defined by a range of variables. In short, range is absolutely relative.

The Variables of Range
A number of variables determine actual range. These include (in no particular order):

  • Type of Radio Signal
  • Obstructions
  • Terrain
  • Distance to Horizon
  • Antenna
  • Radio Power (Wattage)
  • Atmospheric Conditions

Type of Radio Signal
The type of radio signal is a significant variable in determining range. Lower frequencies such as those on the VHF band travel farther but can be more easily blocked. Higher frequencies in the UHF band do not travel as far but can pass around obstacles more easily. The GMRS operates on UHF frequencies around 460 MHz, so our range estimations will be based on that variable.

Obstructions
GMRS radios operate on "line-of-sight", which simply means that as long as they or their operators can clearly "see" each other with nothing between them to obscure their view, the radios should be able to communicate with one another. Anything that gets in the way can adversely affect the line of sight. Such things include, but are not limited to, hills, trees, bridges, buildings, vehicles and anything else that can potentially block, deflect or divert the radio signal away from its intended target.

Terrain
The terrain between the radios is another important consideration. If the area is flat with few or no obstructions, the signal can freely travel unencumbered towards the horizon, even at a very low power. If the terrain is populated with vegetation such as trees or heavy brush, such obstructions can slow or eventually block the signal at some point along the way. Higher frequency GMRS radio signals cannot penetrate earth, so if the terrain is hilly or mountainous, the distance the signal can travel may be reduced significantly.

Distance to Horizon
Since the earth is round, GMRS radio signals do not have an unlimited line of site across the entire globe. At some point, they are blocked or diverted by the curvature of the earth. This is the earth's horizon. In an area of open, level terrain with no obstacles or over open water, the average distance to the horizon is just a few miles. On the roof of a very tall building or mountaintop, the horizon could be ten, twenty or thirty miles. The higher you are over the terrain, the greater the distance between you and your horizon, hence the farther the line-of-site. Conversely, the closer you are to the ground, the nearer you are to your horizon, thus the shorter your line-of-sight.

Antenna
The antenna is one of the most critical components of a radio. It converts the radio signals into the electrical signals the radio can understand and vice versa. Without an antenna, your radio could neither receive nor transmit across any perceptible distance at all. This means the type, height, location and quality of the antenna will have a significant impact on the overall range of the radio signal.

Radio Power (Wattage)
Obviously, the more powerful a signal, the greater its potential range. Or is it? When comparing a 5 watt radio transmission to a 50 watt signal, the difference in range can be quite significant. However, when comparing two low power signals between 1 and 5 watts, the difference is not as impressive. Depending on some of the other variables, there may not be much of a difference at all. For instance, an entry level GMRS handheld walkie talkie operating at about half a watt in an open field may have about the same coverage as a five watt model in the middle of a large city. Depending on the distance to the horizon and/or the height and quality of antenna, it may be even better! The moral? Don't let the wattage rating alone dictate your choice of radio. Consider all of the variables.

Atmospheric Conditions
One variable that is sometimes overlooked is the atmosphere. While not as disruptive as many other variables, atmospheric effects such as rain, snow and fog can interfere with a radio signal and may slightly reduce overall range.

The Confusion with Range
Considering all the variables, calculating range still doesn't seem too complicated. It isn't, really. So, why the confusion? To answer that question, all we need to do is pick up a brand new pack of consumer FRS/GMRS radios and look at the packaging.

One of the first things you may notice, more often than not, is a great big number emblazoned in bold and prominently displayed on the front of the package, usually designated in mileage. It may read 16 Miles, 26 Miles, 36 Miles or more, and is implied to be the mileage rating of the radios enclosed. The higher the number, the greater the range, and the more powerful or higher wattage the radios are perceived to be. But are they? Not necessarily.

Remember, power/wattage is only one of the many variables used to calculate range, and as we've noted, it is not the most influential. After all, a low wattage handheld radio can have a greater range than a higher wattage handheld radio within reason, provided the other variables exceed those of the higher wattage model.

It's easy to pick out the big bold number on the box, but miss the words "up to" in the small print above it. As a result, many who latch onto the large font and tune out the tiny type naturally assume the double digit figure is an absolute, when it isn't. In fact, the mileage on the package doesn't really figure into the range equation much at all.

The Truth About Range
Are the manufacturers lying? Well, technically, maybe no. If the radio is advertised to transmit (up to) 36 miles, you might get 36 miles - that is, if you're transmitting from a mountaintop or hovering somewhere in the upper troposphere and the horizon is at least 36 miles away. If you're orbiting the earth and there are no obstructions, you might even get more. But then, how often do you go there? Exactly.

The truth is, the number on the box only indicates how far the radio has supposedly been tested to transmit and receive under what the manufacturers refer to as optimal conditions. This phrase or a variation thereof is usually found in even smaller type somewhere on the back, side, or bottom of the box. Unlike those big numbers, you'll probably have to look around to find it.

Optimal vs. Actual Range
Forget the fantasy figures. Let's get real. If those numbers mean anything, they serve as a general reference as to which tier the radio is placed within the industry. It works like this. GMRS radios with a low optimal range of 10-16 miles typically have basic features and functionality. These are considered low-end or entry level models. Those labeled as a higher optimal range of 35 miles and above with the most wattage, add-ons and options are considered the high-end models. The mid-tier models consist of everything in-between. While not perfect, it's a fairly reliable method and goes a long way towards simplifying the confusing marketing hype surrounding the range claims created by the manufacturers of FRS/GMRS two way radios.

To simplify things further, the chart below was created to convert the manufacturer's advertised range to an actual, real-world range and assigned to a tier as a range rating. The chart is further divided by type of terrain for greater accuracy. Note: These are real world estimates only.

Rick's Simple GMRS Radio Range Chart

Urban Terrain
Advertised Range Actual Range Range Rating
16 miles 1-2 blocks Low
20 miles 2-3 blocks Low
26 miles 3-4 blocks Mid
30 miles 4-6 blocks Mid
36+ miles 0.2-0.25 mile High
Suburban Terrain
Advertised Range Actual Range Range Rating
16 miles 300-800 feet Low
20 miles 0.1-0.3 mile Low
26 miles 0.4-0.5 mile Mid
30 miles 0.6-1.0 mile Mid
36+ miles 1-2 mile High
Open (Level) Terrain
Advertised Range Actual Range Range Rating
16 miles 0.5-1 mile Low
20 miles 1-3 miles Low
26 miles 3-4 miles Mid
30 miles 4-5 miles Mid
36+ miles ~6 miles High
No Terrain
Advertised Range Actual Range Range Rating
16 miles Up to 16 miles (est.) Low
20 miles Up to 20 miles (est.) Low
26 miles Up to 26 miles (est.) Mid
30 miles Up to 30 miles (est.) Mid
36+ miles Up to 36+ miles (est.) High

Related Resources
30 Miles? The Truth About Range
Getting The Most Range From Your Radio
The Two Way Radio Show TWRS-05 - Radios in Range
The Two Way Radio Show TWRS-45 - The Truth About GMRS Radio Range
Radio 101 - The truth about FRS / GMRS two way radio range
How To Optimize Range for Motorola Talkabout Two Way Radios

11 thoughts on “GMRS Radio Range Chart”

  • Alexander kumlin
    Alexander kumlin November 25, 2019 at 2:50 pm

    What is the ranges of UHF to VHF. Also what are the realistic ranges in a forest with dense trees. I plan to snowmobile on trails up north in Minnesota and I leave my friends in the dust. Blue tooth literally cant work 20 around a corner in trees or over a small hill. Plus when your 200-300 ft away open terrain in cuts out. I have the Cardo smartpack and boldpack models. Just looking to switch over to 2 way Digital radio with gmrs, 5W, vhf/uhf (based on distance of uhf), somthing to sort the snowmobile noise out from voice since throat mics from what I have seen still kinda suck.

    Reply
  • Robert

    New to the GMRS game, but not new to radio. Thanks for this article. I think most can agree the manufacturer advertised ranges are unrealistic most of the time in most situations. I just installed a Midland MTX-400 in my vehicle. After some DCS/CTCSS coding on that radio and a handheld, I did a little bit of sampling in neighborhood. With my wife sitting on the couch on our 2d floor apartment with the hand held, I drove around about and did some radio checks, annotated the check points where reception was effective on both ends, and then plotted on google maps. The results for our communications was about a mile effective communication in any given direction. I would classify our terrain as in between urban/suburban. Good amount of 6 - 10 story buildings, in every direction. This was with low power on the midland mobile, not sure what power on the hand held, no modifications or accessories, and no repeater. Haven't done an SWR check on the mobile antenna (I know I should). Haven't done any repeater testing just yet, but that's next.

    Reply
  • Suspicious Mind
    Suspicious Mind April 7, 2019 at 4:18 pm

    A lot of verbiage expended to prevaricate and yet, in the end, fail to justify ignoring the wattage of units. If line of sight is everything, then a 50 watt system is also no better than 0.5 watt. Yet, all electronic design elements being equal, wattage is the only measure of power contributing directly to signal strength, so is the only reliable means of comparison. Of course a .5 watt unit may perform better in an open desert, than a 5 watt unit in Manhattan - so what? Better quality control and battery options, extras like water resistance, may enhance one model or brand over others. If strict line of sight were obligatory, none would work within the confines of any building, much less 1/4 mile in downtown Manhattan, but clearly if a unit works at all in such extremely blocked areas, a higher power is still going to produce a stronger signal that may reach farther. It is not that complicated.

    Reply
    • Rick

      There is no prevarication. It goes without saying that significantly higher wattage will certainly increase range. However, that isn't the scope of this article. It specifically addresses the range claims made by manufacturers of low power, portable handhald radios, and provides a more accurate and reasonable expectation of the optimal range of these devices than what is printed on the box. As a general rule, handheld GMRS radios, which is what this article covers, do not usually exceed 3 watts. In fact, most of the units available today have a maximum power of one watt or less. The exceptions to this are the Midland X-Talker T290 and Midland X-Talker T295, which were recently released to the market and are just under 3 watts.

      Sure, a 50 watt system will provide greater range than a .5 watt radio by default. It's a no-brainer, and a silly point to argue indeed. However, the chart was not created to discuss such a comparison, since there are no 50 watt handheld GMRS radios on the market, at least nothing that is legal. If there were handheld GMRS radios of such high wattage, such a device would be considered too dangerous or risky to operate in transmit mode, since a handheld radio is typically carried next to the body and held close to the face.

      To reiterate, the purpose of this article was not to discuss the range of two way radios in general. it is only intended to address the specific range claims printed on a pack of low power, consumer grade GMRS radios for more realistic performance expectations than those provided by the manufacturers.

      Reply
  • Suspicious Mind
    Suspicious Mind April 7, 2019 at 11:52 am

    Fifteen years ago I got a couple Audiovox GMRS units for a Moab bike expedition. They saved much anxiety at least twice when group members took wrong turns. I pre-tested line of sight, with a high point rigged to record to a Voice actuated recorder, and reached seven miles, before going over a ridge, near the claimed limit then. Using within urban areas seems rather pointless, with massive high signal blocking structures everywhere; outdoors, they can be extremely useful. Some clarification regarding the GMRS "emergency" channel 10 would be helpful, especially as it appears to be one that can sync with repeaters which might extend signal range to get help.

    Reply
  • Mark

    great article regarding Actual vs. Advertised range.

    10/10!

    Reply
  • Issac

    Midland MXT90 is a good starter GMRS

    Reply
  • Stan Hausam

    I have been searching. Would like to know from anyone what the best FRS/GMRS 2-way radio is.

    Reply
  • Charles Murphy

    Yes! In deed a very honest and up-front article. I agree with everything here, I have been a licensed GMRS user for many years; I use HTs as well as mobile and base stations. There are many variables to consider; however, one that eludes many people are those cute little rubber duck antennas. They are but useless after-thoughts as far as engineering is concerned. Yes they fit nicely in your pocket, but if you are looking for better performance, fork out some $ bucks and get REAL radios with mil specs and removable antennas. Of course a license is likely required for such radios but its really worth it, I mean really folks come on, what do you expect for $40 ... a miricle?

    Reply
  • John Wilkerson

    Excellent, honest portrayal of the marketing hype. I have experienced the rests you have posted.
    Thanks for the article!

    Reply

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