8 Best Handheld Ham Radios Reviewed ( Cheap, Survival, Most Powerful )

ham radio on the ground

Communication is vital when you’re exploring the wilderness.

Venturing for miles into the forest without backup is one of the most dangerous activities you can perform. Thankfully, radios can keep you in contact with other hunters, hikers, and outdoorsmen while taking up very little space and weight.

However useful they may be, walkie talkies will only take you so far. The Family Radio Service and General Mobile Radio Service are both limited in power and available frequencies. In an emergency, you might not be able to contact anybody can help!

However, amateur radios, also called ham radios, can use more powerful transceivers on a wider range of frequencies that can be repeated across the nation.

Ham radio can communicate with the transceivers used by boats, planes, and search-and-rescue workers.

And, yes, you can get handheld ham radio transceivers built for outdoorsmen, too!

 

The 8 Best Ham Radios of 2020: Outdoor Empire Reviews

  1. Best Cheap: BaoFeng UV-5RA
  2. Best for the Money: Yaesu VX-6R
  3. Best for Beginners #1: TYT MD-380 DMR
  4. Best for Beginners #2: Retevis RT82
  5. Best for Survival #1: BaoFeng Pofung GT-3TP
  6. Best for Survival #2: BTECH DMR-6X2
  7. Most Powerful #1: Ailunce HD1
  8. Most Powerful #2: BaoFeng BF-F8HP

 

CategoryBest cheapBest for the moneyMost powerful
ProductBaoFeng UV-5RA
BaoFeng UV-5RA

Yaesu VX-6R
Yaesu VX-6R

Ailunce HD1
Ailunce HD1

Frequency Range136–174 MHz
400–520 MHz
144–148 MHz
222–225 MHz
430–450 MHz
136–174 MHz
400–480 MHz
Output Power4 / 1 watts5 / 2.5 / 1 / 0.4 watts10 / 5 / 1 watts
Channels1289003000
Batteries7.4 v 1800 mAh Li-Ion1500 mAh3600 mAh
Survival Features- Emergency alerts
- LED flashlight
- Severe weather alert
- Emergency automatic ID
- GPS
- Lone worker
CostCheck PriceCheck PriceCheck Price

 

1. Best Cheap Ham Radio: BaoFeng UV-5RA

BaoFeng UV-5RA

  • Frequency Range: 136–174 MHz, 400–520 MHz
  • Output Power: 4 / 1 watts
  • Channels: 128
  • Batteries: 7.4 v 1800 mAh Li-Ion
  • Battery Life: Not stated
  • Standby Time: Not stated
  • Survival Features: Emergency alerts, LED flashlight
  • Weatherproofing: IP57

Overview

The BaoFeng UV-5R is perhaps BaoFeng’s most successful radio. The UV-5RA, this radio, is based on the 5R and manages to be an excellent handheld ham radio transceiver for very little money.

With an output strength of 1 or 4 watts and an 1,800-mAh battery, the UV-5RA is a modestly-powerful radio. The expected battery life isn’t stated, but it will last all day, especially with battery saver mode on.

The display is a tri-color LCD screen that can be used day or night. When darkness falls, an LED flashlight can help illuminate a map or your path.

VOX lets you transmit hands-free, and CTCSS/CDCSS lets you communicate privately over any of the 128 channels.

The UV-5RA can receive FM radio, monitor NOAA weather radio, and alert you to incoming inclement weather.

Like any handheld radio that transmits at a strength over 0.5 watts, you cannot legally use this radio without a license. You’ll find more information about this below.

Pros

  • Compatible with GMRS and amateur radio frequencies
  • Very capable for the price

Cons

  • Comes with a short-range radio
  • Only moderate waterproofing and does not have much drop resistance

Recommendation

The BaoFeng UV-5RA is an excellent handheld two-way ham radio for people on a budget or survivalists who want an inexpensive radio they can store in their bug-out bag.

 

 

2. Best Ham Radio for the Money: Yaesu VX-6R

Yaesu VX-6R

  • Frequency Range: 144–148 MHz, 222–225 MHz, 430–450 MHz
  • Output Power: 5 / 2.5 / 1 / 0.4 watts
  • Channels: 900
  • Batteries: 1500 mAh
  • Battery Life: Not stated
  • Standby Time: Not stated
  • Survival Features: Severe weather alert, emergency automatic ID
  • Weatherproofing: JIS7 submersible

Overview

The Yaesu VX-6R is a tri-band amateur radio transceiver that can listen to every frequency from 0.5 to 999 MHz (except for cell phone signals, naturally).

It can transmit on three ham radio bands: 144, 220, and 440 MHz. This lets you monitor practically any channel you need to monitor. Five watts of power lets you talk to whoever you need to talk to, too.

It’s also rated for waterproofing and is submersible to a depth of 3 meters for 30 minutes. This, the weather alerts, and emergency automatic identification (EAI) make it a good hunting radio, too.

EAI is a feature that allows other users to trigger your radio to transmit your callsign and then engages the microphone, which can save your life if the unthinkable happens and you are unable to reach your radio to call for help.

Pros

  • 0.5 to 999 MHz transmission receive range, minus cellular transmissions, for excellent monitoring
  • EAI allows a hunting partner to make your radio transmit if you’re trapped and can’t reach the PTT button

Cons

  • Complicated
  • EAI can block other users from the channel if used improperly

Recommendation

The Yaesu VX-6R is not the most capable or powerful radio, but it’s also not the most expensive and fits a lot of goodness in a small package, so it provides a good value for the price.

 

 

3. Best Ham Radio for Beginners #1: TYT MD-380 DMR

TYT MD-380 DMR

  • Frequency Range: 400–480 MHz
  • Output Power: 5 watts
  • Channels: 1000
  • Batteries: 2000 mAh Li-Ion
  • Battery Life: Not stated
  • Standby Time: Not stated
  • Survival Features: N/A
  • Weatherproofing: ABS shell

Overview

DMRs, or digital mobile radios, are relative newcomers to the ham radio community. However, they’re easy to learn how to use and are inexpensive, making DMRs a good choice for amateur radio operators.

The TYT MD-380 DMR is an entry-level digital radio but is still very capable.

It broadcasts at up to 5 watts of power, though only in one band: 400 to 480 MHz. This one band allows it to work as a GMRS handset as well, though.

The MD-380 can broadcast in analog mode as well, though then you’ll miss out on the text messages.

It comes with two antennas. The smaller one is less likely to get in the way, while the high-gain antenna will give you more range.

You can program this radio on the computer. Unlike many radios, the MD-380 comes with a good programming cable in the box. You’ll need Windows.

The biggest downside is the plastic shell: it’s non-waterproof ABS that can’t withstand too much rough handling.

Pros

  • Comes with two antennas and a programming cable
  • Compatible with radios that are Motorola TRBO Tier I and II compliant

Cons

  • Single band
  • Lacks weatherproofing

Recommendation

The TYT MD-380 DMR is an easy-to-use digital radio transceiver, though it’s not built to withstand the rigors of the outdoors. Pack a waterproof bag!

 

 

4. Best Ham Radio for Beginners #2: Retevis RT82

Retevis RT82

  • Frequency Range: 136–174 MHz, 400–480 MHz
  • Output Power: Up to 5 watts
  • Channels: 3000
  • Batteries: 7.4 v 2200 mAh Li-Ion
  • Battery Life: 12 hours
  • Standby Time: 150 hours
  • Survival Features: Record function, lone worker, emergency alarm
  • Weatherproofing: IP67

Overview

The Retevis RT82 is a dual-band analog and digital ham two-way radio. Dual-band means that it can transmit on both the VHF and UHF bands, which ups the flexibility and complexity.

The RT82 has enough storage space for 3,000 channels, 10,000 contacts, and 8 hours of recorded audio.

You can use the recording function to take notes in the field and leave an audio trail for rescuers to follow if you are in danger of being separated from your radio.

Another feature that’s good for hunters is the lone worker function. If you haven’t used your radio in a certain period of time, then it will call and let other users know that you might be in trouble. This can be embarrassing if you’re prone to naps but is indispensable if you fall out of the tree stand!

The RT82 also comes with a programming cable, though learning how to program it has a learning curve.

Pros

  • IP67 weatherproofing
  • Lone worker function

Cons

  • Some users have difficulty operating the directional buttons

Recommendation

The Retevis RT82 is more complicated than the TYT MD-380 and is also more expensive, but it’s still relatively easy to use and is better suited for the wilderness.

 

 

5. Best Ham Radio for Survival #1: BaoFeng Pofung GT-3TP

BaoFeng Pofung GT-3TP

  • Frequency Range: 136–174 MHz, 400–520 MHz
  • Output Power: 8 / 4 / 1 watts
  • Channels: 128
  • Batteries: 7.4 v 3800 mAh
  • Battery Life: Not stated
  • Standby Time: Over 3 days
  • Survival Features: LED flashlight, emergency alert
  • Weatherproofing: IP67

Overview

The BaoFeng Pofung GT-3TB Mark-III is an upgrade of an upgraded radio. Naturally, it’s pretty good.

It’s a dual-band radio that can broadcast in 136–174 MHz and 400–520 MHz, which is a little bit broader than most dual-band ham radios.

The GT-3TB comes out of the box with a good range because it can broadcast with 8 watts of power and has an above-average antenna. You may still want to upgrade that to a better antenna, though.

It’s also usable at night thanks to backlit keys. A flashlight lets you see in the dark, and a whopping 3,800-mAh battery lets you do that without worrying about draining your communication capabilities!

The main weaknesses of this radio are outside the radio itself. The included manual might as well be used for kindling, though the PDF is better.

BaoFeng has a free program you can use to program the GT-3TP, but it falls far short of CHIRP, so you should use that instead.

Pros

  • Flashlight
  • High-gain antenna included for good range (upgrade it for even more range)
  • Tough construction
  • Very long battery life

Cons

  • Poor-quality manual
  • Poor-quality programming app

Recommendation

The BaoFeng is a high-quality two-way dual-band radio that’s dustproof, waterproof, drop resistant, and cheap enough that you won’t cry if you drop it into the Grand Canyon.

 

 

6. Best Ham Radio for Survival #2: BTECH DMR-6X2

BTECH DMR-6X2

  • Frequency Range: 136–174 MHz, 400–480 MHz
  • Output Power: 7 / 5 / 2.5 / 1 watts
  • Channels: 4000
  • Batteries: 2100 mAh and 3100 mAh
  • Battery Life: 35 hours
  • Standby Time: Not stated
  • Survival Features: GPS, daytime/nighttime display
  • Weatherproofing: N/A

Overview

The BTECH DMR-6X2 is a dual-band digital radio by BaoFeng that can broadcast at up to 7 watts.

It’s GPS-enabled and is capable of sending APRS packets to compatible beacons, so other people can know your location.

You also get not one but two batteries with this radio. One is 2,100 mAh and the other is 3,100 mAh. I would use the larger battery for most purposes and keep the smaller battery as a backup.

The display has multiple modes. You can set it for daytime or nighttime use by using the vibrant blue or contrasting black settings.

That display, by the way, is pretty busy but still very usable. You can easily add groups and quickly reply to text messages on the screen.

If you prefer programming the radio on the computer, which you’ll need to do anyway to access some of the more advanced features, it comes with a programming cable.

The biggest problem with this radio is that it’s not waterproof. You can probably just hide it in your jacket, but don’t take it for a swim.

Pros

  • Good screen
  • GPS and can send APRS packets
  • Two batteries included

Cons

  • Can do digital repeat but not analog cross-band repeat
  • Not waterproof

Recommendation

The BTECH DMR-6X2 is an excellent analog/digital survival radio, but you should probably put it into a waterproof bag first.

 

 

7. Most Powerful Ham Radio #1: Ailunce HD1

Ailunce HD1

  • Frequency Range: 136–174 MHz, 400–480 MHz
  • Output Power: 10 / 5 / 1 watts
  • Channels: 3000
  • Batteries: 3600 mAh
  • Battery Life: 15 hours
  • Standby Time: 160 hours
  • Survival Features: GPS, lone worker
  • Weatherproofing: IP67

Overview

The Ailunce HD1 by Retevis is an excellent wilderness phone for several reasons.

First, it is very powerful and can broadcast transmissions with up to 10 watts of power, or less if you need to talk to people closer to you.

Second, it has a high-capacity battery that can last longer than your smartphone on standby mode.

Finally, it’s GPS-enabled and can transmit your GPS location to similar devices!

It’s a dual-band digital radio that can receive VHF and UHF bands along with FM radio. In fact, you can listen to FM radio without worry because you can set the radio to pause FM reception when receiving a call.

That VHF band overlaps with the radio frequencies used by fire departments and wildlife agencies, which makes it easier to contact help in the wilderness.

Finally, Ailunce has very good customer support. If you have a problem with the radio, then the engineers might get involved. One user even got to take part in determining what needed to be upgraded in the firmware!

Pros

  • 10-watt transmission power
  • Can listen to FM radio and receive transmissions at the same time
  • Compatible with radios that are Motorola TRBO Tier I and II compliant
  • GPS tracking and sharing
  • IP67 dust- and waterproofing
  • Very good customer support

Cons

  • Busy screen is sometimes hard to read
  • Firmware is not yet mature

Recommendation

The Ailunce HD1 is a GPS-enabled, dual-band ham radio with impressive battery life, good weatherproofing characteristics, and engineers that take customer suggestions when considering firmware upgrades.

 

 

8. Most Powerful Ham Radio #2: BaoFeng BF-F8HP

BaoFeng BF-F8HP

  • Frequency Range: 136–174 MHz, 400–520 MHz
  • Output Power: 8 / 4 / 1 watts
  • Channels: 128
  • Batteries: 7.4v 2000 mAh LI-Ion
  • Battery Life: 20 hours
  • Standby Time: Not stated
  • Survival Features: Flashlight
  • Weatherproofing: N/A

Overview

Finally, a BaoFeng radio with a good manual!

The BaoFeng BF-F8HP is the third generation of the famous UV-52. As you’d expect, it’s a great radio and is very powerful.

The 2,000-mAh battery pack provides enough juice to power the 8-watt transmissions. The BF-F8HP is also power-efficient, so you get a longer battery life than expected out of a “mere” 2,000-mAh battery.

The BF-F8HP comes with a 7-inch, high-gain antenna, so you get good range out of the box. You’ll get even better range with a longer antenna, of course.

The tri-color display is adequate. It’s small and busy but works well.

You can somewhat program the radio on the unit, but you’ll need to use your computer for greater flexibility; thankfully, a cable is included.

There’s a built-in flashlight in case you get caught outside after dark. Watch out for rain, though; this radio is not waterproof.

The speaker’s power is only 700 mAh versus the average of 1,000 mAh, which saves battery life at the expense of volume. There are different ways to measure “power,” yeah?

Pros

  • 8 watts of power
  • Great manual
  • High-gain, 7-inch antenna

Cons

  • Not weatherproof
  • Underpowered speaker

Recommendation

The BaoFeng BF-F8HP packs 8 watts of transmitting power into a cheap, handheld ham radio. It punches well above its weight class.

 

 

 

What Are Handheld Ham Radios?

ham radio on hand

Handheld ham radios are radio transceivers which operate on certain radio bands for amateur radio operators.

That sentence can confuse some people, so let’s break it down.

Many radios are stations built into vehicles or buildings. A handheld radio, however, is a device small enough to be held in one hand. It has a battery pack, an antenna for catching the radio waves, a microphone, a speaker, and all the electronics required to make everything work together.

“Ham” refers to the “amateur radio” an individual uses for personal purposes over common radio frequencies. You need a license for this, by the way.

And no, “ham” is not an acronym. You don’t capitalize all the letters. The word “ham” is used because of the phrase “ham-fisted”—many early amateur radio operators were less skilled than professional radio operators. Amateur radio enthusiasts wear it as a point of pride now.

A radio transceiver is a device which can both receive radio waves and transmit radio waves. Your car’s radio is a receiver. A walkie talkie is a transceiver.

A radio band is a section of radio frequencies assigned to a specific purpose. Though some ham radios can transmit on frequencies past these, two bands are most common:

  • VHF
  • UHF

The VHF (very high frequency) ham radio band is typically 144–148 MHz and is called the 2-meter band. The UHF, or ultra-high frequency, band is 420–450 MHz. That’s the 70-centimeter band.

Most radios can broadcast past these. You may be penalized by the FCC for doing so if it’s not an emergency.

 

What Are They Used For?

Handheld ham radios are used for keeping in contact with other people when you’re away from your base or mobile station.

This can be for emergencies, keeping track of the weather, communicating with people several states away, or just because you’re bored.

 

How to Choose?

2 ham radios

The array of handheld ham radios can seem overwhelming, especially once you delve into the specs and see many acronyms, such as CTCSS, CHIRP, VOX, and more.

Here’s a secret: until you learn what those mean, they don’t matter to you.

If you want to communicate with your hunting buddy and maybe radio for help if lost, you don’t need to know about CHIRP or CTCSS. Those are advanced radio features you won’t even use.

VOX is nifty because it represents hands-free calling, but truth be told, I’ve spent years with a radio in my hand and have never used that feature.

The main things you, as a novice to ham radios, need to know is that you want power, battery life, and the right bands.

 

Power

ham radio power

When it comes to radios, the more powerful, the better.

However, you do lose efficiency as you increase in power. Doubling the wattage gives but a small boost to your effective range.

Anything better than 4 watts is good enough for a hunting radio. Eight is great, but you’ll see a bigger bonus to your range by buying and installing a longer antenna, and that won’t come at the expense of your battery life.

 

Battery Life

ham radio battery

Handheld ham radios often have larger batteries than simpler walkie talkies. They also tend to have better battery-saving modes, too.

That said, you want to have as large a battery as possible.

This will increase the size and weight of your ham radio, but it can mean the difference between several days of standby time and a week of standby time.

If you’re waiting for rescuers, you don’t want your battery to die before you can get in touch with them.

Unfortunately, unlike recreational walkie talkies, ham radios tend to be incompatible with AA or AAA batteries. Still, you can typically buy additional battery packs for your specific radio.

 

Bands

ham radio on table

As mentioned earlier, bands are selections of radio frequencies.

Your main consideration here is to get a radio that can receive and transmit on the same frequency as your hunting partner.

Secondary is the capacity to contact emergency services.

Most ham radios can broadcast in frequencies you aren’t legally allowed to. This is good because you can use them to contact the officials during an emergency.

Just contact search-and-rescue professionals in the area where you plan to hunt and learn what frequencies they use. That way, if you do get lost in the woods, you’ll know how to contact the people looking for you.

VHF or UHF?

ham radio manual

“VHF vs. UHF” is a very complex topic that’s still being argued about both online and offline.

There are some oversimplifications you can make, though.

VHF tends to experience less interference and therefore edges out UHF in range.

UHF, however, has more gain for the same length antenna and therefore has better bandwidth and better audio quality within its range.

This is why, for a survival ham radio, you want a dual- or even triple-band radio.

VHF lets you communicate with people further away while UHF lets you speak more clearly to your hunting partner nearby.

 

Weatherproofing

ham radio on water

Much can be made about weatherproofing, but it’s not as big a problem as you may think.

An IP67-rated radio will be dustproof and can handle one meter of water for half an hour.

However, unless you’re spending lots of time near the water, waterproofing is less important than you think.

That’s because you can hide your radio inside your jacket. I’ve even poked a hole for the antenna in a plastic bag! That’s enough to keep a radio dry during a downpour.

 

Top Ham Radio Brands

BaoFeng

BaoFeng

Ah, where to start with BaoFeng?

BaoFeng is a Chinese company that’s both loved and hated in the amateur radio community.

BaoFeng focuses entirely on radios, especially handheld ham radios. They are loved because they produce high-quality radios for a price cheaper than the competitors.

They are constantly improving their radios by communicating with consumers, discovering vulnerabilities, and iterating their products and firmware to improve the user experience for everyone.

BaoFeng has also worked to drive ham radio prices downward so a handheld radio can be within the price range of everyone, not just enthusiasts.

But, as I said, not everyone likes BaoFeng.

Part of that is because the ham radio community grew in the USA from folks doing it themselves, which is somewhat antithetical to a Chinese company mass-producing radio units with which you can’t tinker.

Also, while BaoFeng’s radios are great, their accessories are not. It’s almost always worthwhile to replace and upgrade the antenna and chargers that come with BaoFeng radios.

 

Retevis and Ailunce

Retevis

Another Chinese company, Retevis, focuses more on business and commercial radio operators than on amateur radio operators.

That does not make their products inferior; quite the opposite, in fact!

Retevis’ radios are made to very high standards. This does drive the price above similar radios by BaoFeng, but people who use their radios constantly are not concerned with spending a little bit more.

However, Retevis does have plenty of high-quality ham radios. Some of the best available, in fact.

They are also attached to Ailunce, though the relationship is not clear. What is clear, however, is that Ailunce focuses on producing ham radios for  operators around the world.

Ailunce

In fact, they are willing to work with people who use their radios. I’ve seen few companies reach out to their customers as much as Ailunce does!

 

F.A.Q.

Are ham radios dangerous?

There is a measure of danger in ham radios, yes.

However, these hazards are typically related to base station installation (which requires massive power supplies) and the output of enormous repeater antennas.

Handheld radio waves are not ionizing and do not present a danger to human health.

The most dangerous action you can take with a handheld ham radio is to illegally use a military frequency, bludgeon someone with the transceiver, or toss the lithium-ion battery into a fire.

Don’t do any of those things!

 

Are ham radios still used?

woman using ham radio

Yes, ham radios are still used!

There are amateur radio clubs across the world. Repeater networks can let you speak to someone 100 miles away or more.

The internet has made some forms of communication obsolete, but radio waves are not dependent on cables, satellites, or anything except a power source.

Ham radio will be around for a long time.

 

Why do ham radios require a license?

Radio technology has been around since the 19th century, so it’s simple for a person with the right know-how to build a transceiver.

However, radio waves are used by police, militaries, firefighters, businesses, and others. If radio had no regulations, then everyone would step on each other’s toes.

Also, radio waves can pass beyond national borders, so there’s international pressure to regulate amateur radio broadcasts.

Plus, used improperly, radio frequencies can be dangerous. You don’t want to cook yourself, do you?

A ham radio license tests your knowledge and allocates certain frequencies to you so you won’t interfere with an airline or electrocute yourself.

Andrew Jackson
Andrew Jackson learned to walk in the mountains and has spent much of his life exploring the outdoors. He is equally at home in the woods, at the range, or on the gunsmithing bench, and loves to build guns almost as much as he enjoys shooting them. His travels have taken him to the four corners of the United States. Though his favorite hunting spot is in Alaska, Kansas deer taste better.

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