If you gather together some random group of radio owners and ask them what they would like to improve on their radios the most, most of them would emphatically answer ‘more range’.
Now, it is important to realize that there are two parts to the range of a radio when we talk about greater range. The first part is how far the signal can be heard, and the second part is how far it can transmit signals from other radios.
Usually, there is no point in improving one part of the range of a radio transceiver without also improving the other part. What is the point of being able to send (or vice versa) farther than you can receive? The whole idea of a two-way radio transceiver is that both to and from some other individual, you can communicate bi-directionally.
On the other hand, if you made some tweaks to your receiving circuit so that you could hear stations twice as far away now, and if they were to do the same thing with their receiving circuits, then that would balance out and you would be able to send and receive each other again.
So if you try to optimize conditions among the radios of your own group, it is okay to make an ‘unbalanced’ enhancement to your radios if you make the change to all the radios. And, of course, any better performing function should always be preferred to an underperforming function.
Number 1 Priority: Antenna
The most important thing you can do to enhance your radio’s range – both for transmitting and receiving – is to enhance its antenna. The basic default antenna that most radios come with is very disappointing for some odd reason (mainly cost, secondary size) and does not work as well as an antenna is theoretically capable of doing.
A ‘good’ antenna can be slightly longer than the regular radio norm (the ideal length is around six inches for a ‘on radio’ FRS/GMRS antenna) but that’s not a massive increase in size, so it’s almost a necessary ‘must-do’ upgrade.
A poster about the Baofeng UV-5R transceivers on a Yahoo group gave a great illustration of the effect on the radio that the antenna can have. With its regular antenna, and with two separate aftermarket antennas instead, he calculated the frequency of a transmitted signal from a UV-5R.
A signal strength of -19 dBm was given by the standard antenna. A strength of -12 dBm was provided by the first of the two aftermarket antennas and -10 dBm by the second one (lower numbers are better).
Now for the awesome thing. These are logarithmic measurements, so a shift of 9dBm is about the same as an 8.5-fold increase in AND receiver sensitivity transmitting power. Oh, the cost of this awesome antenna that transformed the radio from an average performer (the Nagoya NA-701) to a super performer? On Amazon, less than $10!
You probably can’t replace the factory antenna now if you have an FRS radio, because it almost definitely comes with a fixed ‘hard-wired’ antenna. The same is true of most but not all GMRS radios (especially the consumer units of the low-priced ‘blister-pack’). It is not possible to overstate the significance of a good antenna, and so you can make this part of your purchasing assessment of radios, whether they have removable antennas.
To boost the efficiency of your radio, a good antenna is by far the best thing you can do. It will provide you with a balanced improvement in both transmitting and receiving capabilities, and will give you the equivalent of a highly overpowered transmitter, without violating the transmitter power law / restrictions, and without using your batteries faster (which would happen if the transmitter consumed power at a much higher rate).
If you have a radio to use in your car or at your home / retreat / wherever you have more antenna choices without having to think about antenna size / weight / portability quite as much. In particular, for a fixed ‘base’ station, there is another impressive transformation that you can do, and that is to install your antenna outside the house, and as high as possible.
Having the antenna up higher not only provides local radios with a better line of sight, but also increases the sight distance line for farther away ones. The horizon is just 3 miles away at normal heights while your radio is kept to your head (and if the other radio you are talking with is also, say, 5.5 feet above ground level, then the overall distance between you for a line of sight conditions should be below 6 miles). But if your antenna is 20 ft high, you’ve almost doubled the distance from the horizon, and you’re almost 9 miles away from the antenna in the tower.
If your communications are only in one general direction, you may also suggest choosing a directional antenna in only one part of the hemisphere that otherwise radiates out of your antenna to concentrate your transmitting power (and your receiving sensitivity too, of course). Even if that is not the case, there can be advantages to having both a general antenna and also a very directionally focused one, and if you need to, switch from the general to the directional antenna and point it where the other radio you want to communicate with is, and that will surely give you another doubling or quadrupling of equivalent transmitter power and receiver sensitivity.
Number 2 Priority: Power and Voltage
Perhaps it is designed to operate with a rechargeable battery pack that it is provided with if you have a portable unit. If so, well and fine. But maybe it is designed to work with batteries of the standard AA or AAA type, or maybe even a 9V battery.
There is a temptation to replace the regular single-use batteries with Ni-MH rechargeable batteries, if that is the case. Normally, this is a great thing to do, but rechargeable batteries (both Ni-Cd and Ni-MH) are 1.2V per battery, whereas standard single-use batteries are 1.5V. Batteries that are rechargeable have 20 percent less voltage.
How significant is this?
With either voltage, your radio receiver will function pretty much the same. But the transmitting power of your radio will probably be proportional to the square of the battery voltage. This is technically valid, but maybe the radio has a voltage limiting circuit within it and cuts the voltage from the regular batteries and runs with rechargeables at maximum power.
Assuming there is no circuitry restricting voltage, then your radio may only develop 64 percent of the power it would with the regular batteries with the rechargeable batteries. That’s a substantial power reduction-not as substantial as with an antenna shift, for sure, but still a significant one, and it might make all the difference between having a signal out or not if you’re in an area of marginal coverage.
In such cases, what to do? Either use single-use batteries or have an external power pack with enough rechargeable batteries to match the standard battery voltage and a wire running from the external power pack into the radio, or slightly exceed it.
Oh – in addition, if you’re in a marginal coverage area, make sure your batteries are reasonably fully charged. That might benefit, too.
Number 3 Priority: Hold Your Radio High, Don’t Shield It
We recommend that you get an external radio microphone / speaker or earpiece / microphone so that you can keep your radio not in your mouth, but high above your head while you are transmitting or struggling to receive a weak signal.
This not only gives the signal a little more clearance, but it stops some / much of the signal from being soaked up by the body.
At the very least, if this is not possible and you know best where the other people you want to talk to are, don’t position your body between the radio and the direction you want to transmit / receive. That can often also make a little difference.
Number 4 Priority: Move Your Position
If there’s a large barn right next to you and the other radio you’re trying to connect with is blocking your line of sight, then (if the signal is poor) switch so that you are no longer blocked by the barn.
If you’re in a tiny dip in the land, climb out of it and you can find the highest ground.
As a general rule of thumb, while radio waves will go through objects to some degree, the more clearly you can see the other person you want to communicate with, the more clearly your radio signal reaches him, and the more barriers between you, the lower the quality of the signal will be.
If you have purchased your radio(s), the preceding things are about all you can do.
In general, we suggest that the most important part of optimizing your radio is its receiving capacity. Think of what super-power you would prefer in real life: super-hearing or a super-loud voice? Most people would, and you should, choose super-hearing.
Your target is not to be heard within an exceptional range of your radio by anyone, anywhere. Instead, you want to be able to hear everybody, friend, enemy, and neutral outsider, and communicate exclusively with those with whom you need to connect and preferably without being overheard by any more individuals that you can absolutely not prevent.
The less transmitting power you need and use, the better. That keeps your transmissions closer to ‘below the radar’ of other people who might be out there and saves the batteries in your radio.