GMRS radios are flexible walkie-talkies – or two way radios – that you can use in Canada without a license – but only if you use Industry Canada approved radios.
There are big differences in GMRS rules between the US and Canada. If you understand the rules, you’ll understand what you need to look for when purchasing GMRS radios, and you’ll understand what channels to use to get better range. And you’ll understand why you could get in trouble for using some US radios that are not approved for use in Canada – and vice versa.
Radios must be approved in the country of usage
Every GMRS radio has to be approved by the authorities of the country where you will be using the radio – Industry Canada (IC) and the FCC in the US. There are also rules for usage.
If the radio does not have an IC number, it’s not approved for use in Canada.
If the radio does not have an FCC number, it’s not approved for use in the US.
The origins: the FRS radio
FRS – or family radio system – has a set of frequencies (channels on the radio) allocated for license-free communication. It’s a big improvement over the consumer walkie-talkies of old that barely had enough range to reach from your basement to the second floor.
FRS rules are pretty much compatible between Canada and US, and limit transmit power to 0.5 watt, which also limits the range of the radios. Most FRS radios operate just under that limit.
GMRS – FRS with more channels, and *maybe* more power
GMRS is an evolution of FRS that is compatible with older FRS radios on the FRS channels. But there are significant differences between Canada and US regulations.
- Licensing. In Canada, GMRS users do not require a license. In the US, radios above 0.5 watt require a GMRS license.
- Power limits. In Canada, you’re limited to 2 watts power on the GMRS and combined GMRS/FRS channels, and 0.5 watts on the GMRS channels. In the US, if you have a license, you can go to 5 watts on the GMRS/FRS and GMRS channels.
- Repeaters. There is no provision for legal usage of GMRS repeaters in Canada. In the US, licensed users can us GMRS repeaters and GRMS radios with repeater capability.
- Antenna. In Canada, the antenna must be fixed on the radio. It cannot be removed, and it is illegal to replace or modify it. In the US, licensed users can change the antenna.
What’s the range of my radio? How is it affected by power?
Most of the radios you buy in big box stores in Canada and the US are designed to be legal for unlicensed usage in both US and Canada – which means you will be limited to 0.5 watts, a quarter of the power you’re allowed to use in Canada. The ranges they advertise are ridiculous, varying from 20 km to 80 km (50 miles).
Those ranges are for the absolute ideal situation – top of a mountain to valley. It drops dramatically over flat land, and even more in wooded areas and cities. Reviews seem to put reliable usable distance as follows:
|Power||Real-World Range||Advertised Range|
|0.5 watt||250 metres||20 km|
|1 watt||500 metres||30 km|
|1.5 watts||750 metres km||50 km|
|2 watts||1 km||80 km|
Finding the power rating for the radio is not always simple. Most manufacturers don’t tell you. We’ve checked the packaging, manuals and web sites for the two biggest manufacturers, and it was either not there or very difficult to find.
As per the table above, the advertised distance gives you a hint, but it’s not absolutely reliable. We’ve never seen a radio rated for the full 2 watt maximum. The closest we’ve seen is 1.92 watts, advertised with a 80 km/50 mile range. We’ve seen 1.6 watt advertised with a 50 km range. So everything is approximate.
Another hint is the batteries. A 0.5 watt radio might have a battery compartment for 3 x AAA batteries. A radio with 1 watt, 1.5 watt or just under 2 watts might have 3 or 4 AA batteries to handle the extra load.
How do I find the power rating of the radio I’m considering?
Once a radio is approved, Industry Canada and the FCC keep the records with all the technical details, using IDs they assign and that are stamped somewhere on the radio body. You will often find them inside the battery cover, molded into the plastic. But that doesn’t help if you’re searching for specs on the Internet.
If you search the records for a manufacturer’s model number, you probably won’t find it. You have to use the FCC and IC IDs. These are sometimes but not always listed in the product documentation.
Here are the steps we’ve found work – say, for manufacturer Motorola and model T600. (Note: this is not a recommendation – only an example for the search).
These web pages tend to change. Treat the instructions as guidelines to help you find the info.
This example uses the FCC database. At the time we wrote this, the links we found to the IC database were not working.
- Use your favourite search engine and look for FCCID Motorola T600.
- In the results, look for a result on a web site starting with https://fccid.io/. You might need to scroll down a couple of pages in the search results.
- That page will provide the manufacturer code and FCC ID of the radio. It may also include a manual and pictures.
89FT4924 is the FCC ID for the radio. AZ4 (prefixed on the other number) is the FCC manufacturer code.
- To get to the FCC filing, you have two options.
- If available, click on the FCC ID Filing link. This page tends to change, so it might not work,
- Go directly to the FCC search page and enter the FCC ID.
From there, you will get a table that looks like this.
Click on the checkmark links under the Display Grant column, and one of them will show you the power ratings. You might need to try a couple. This one worked for the first entry.
On one of the open links, you should find a table that looks like this:
The lower power frequency values are for FRS channels, and the higher power is on the GMRS channels. You can search for yourself on the web or in the documentation how the frequencies in the table map to the channels on the radio.
Privacy/confidentiality modes: not confidential at all
Many GMRS radios are advertised with confidentiality or privacy features. These are not private at all, and many simple radios can listen in on anything supposedly private GMRS communication.
The privacy mode is controlled by a CTCSS or PL (“private line”) tone. It’s an inaudible a low-frequency tone that’s added to the transmission. For each GMRS channel, there is a default PL tone frequency. That’s the “open channel”.
When you set the channel to confidential mode, you are choosing a “privacy code”. All that does is change the inaudible PL tone on the channel to a different frequency.
So what is the radio doing?
- If you are in privacy mode on the channel, the radio if filtering out any signal on the channel that does not have the PL tone (privacy code) you selected.
- If you are not in privacy mode on the channel, the radio is filtering out any signal that does not have the default PL tone for the channel.
A small handheld ham radio can legally listen in on FRS/GMRS frequencies. Their default is to ignore the PL tones, so they will hear all conversations on the channel. These radios are capable of transmitting on GMRS frequencies, but it is illegal to do so except in distress and emergency situations.
What about special “boost” or “turbo” features?
Some radios claim a power boost or turbo feature to increase range. It usually involves a separate or combined talk button. What does it really do?
- On a typical power boost radio , all of the channels – FRS or GMRS – will transmit by default under the maximum FRS power level of 0.5 watt.
- If you are on a GMRS channel where you’re allowed above 0.5 watt, pressing the boost button will transmit at the higher power level specified in the specs.
The FCC data usually doesn’t list the boost feature. Using the example of the table above, without the boost button, the radio will transmit at 480 mW (.48 watt) – just under the FRS limit. If you are on a GMRS channel *and* you hit the boost button, your power will increase to 1.71 watts.
Don’t assume that all radio with a boost feature will transmit at that power level. We’ve seen some with boost only going to 1 watt.
Batteries and rechargeable battery packs
A rechargeable battery pack included with many radios is nice, but not very convenient when you’re out in the bush and don’t have anything to recharge it.
Many rechargeable radios can use 3 or 4 AA or AAA batteries. They use a rechargeable battery pack that fits in the battery slot. Just as you do for your headlight or flashlight, pack a spare set of batteries. Most rechargeable battery packs now have micro USB connectors for recharging.
In the long run, the rechargeable battery pack is a nuisance and we recommend you use alkalines. Why?
- Battery life. For most radios, a fresh set of alkaline batteries will run the radio 2 to 3 times as long as the rechargeable battery pack.
- Charge retention. Many rechargeable batteries gradually loose their charge when not in use for a few weeks. By the time a group borrow them, the batteries may have completely discharged. Alkalines hold charge for 5 to 10 years.
- Rechargeable battery pack deterioration. After two years, many rechargeable batteries have significantly reduced capacity.
- The nuisance of carrying the cable and chargers – and people loosing or damaging them. It happens.
If loaning out the radios to different groups, keep the rechargeables and tell them to buy their own batteries. Alkaline AA and AAA batteries in bulk packs are surprisingly cheap.
Remember to remove the batteries when the radios are returned and stored. This can help preserve battery life. The radios will be protected from harmful chemical leakage from older batteries.
Waterproof… or not.
A waterproofing rating is generally a good indication of build quality. If you’re going to be sharing the radios, it’s a good feature to have. But make sure you know what you’re getting.
There are two dominant families of ratings – JIS for Japanese Industrial Standard, which covers water protection, and IP, Industrial Protection, which covers dirt/dust and water protection.
|Rating||What it means|
|IP54. Weatherproof.||Will not protect against all dust getting in, but enough to protect operation. Water splashing from any direction OK.|
|IP 67. Waterproof.||Completely protected against dust penetration. Submersible in water up to 1 metre depth for 30 minutes.|
|JIS-4||Splash of water from any direction OK.|
|JIS-7||Water will not enter when immersed under defined conditions. These are usually the same conditions as IP67.|
Conclusions and recommendations.
With a bit of research, you can get some quality GMRS radios that will meet your needs. You’ll find some that can be purchased for about $50 a pair, but they won’t be waterproof, they’ll have small batteries, and their power and range will be pretty limited. At around $150 for a pair, you’ll get a set that uses 3 or 4 AA batteries, is reasonably waterproof and rugged, and will give you a range of somewhere between 1/2 and 1 kilometer in most conditions. Buyer beware. Research, read and check all the specs. Above all, be sure the radios are approved for use where you will be using them.
If you need more distance than GMRS can provide, start studying here and get your amateur radio license. Handheld HAM radios usually have 5 watts power and more features and opportunities for extending the range. They’re not expensive, starting around $60.
Now check out our activity on radio usage protocol and testing.