You might be learning that your CB radio is no longer the favored means of communication on the trail (the EJS crew in Moab aside). Maybe you built a new rig and haven't set up communications, maybe you are getting tired of how obnoxious CB can be trying to keep signal and squelch properly adjusted on a band seriously subject to nasty interference. Or maybe you are sick of SWR maintenance.
Your salvation these days lies in GMRS, and its smaller cross-compatible cousin, FRS. But darn it, another radio, more parts, more $$ flowing out the door. Ahhh, the life of overlanding...
There are a number of threads on GMRS on this forum including how to get a license, general use, and other cool odds and ends, but what I have not seen was any thread specifically on budget GMRS. I had a few tid-bits on my November 2022 club run for El Camino del Diablo, but if you are not a paying club member, or that run did not interest you, you wouldn't have seen those. And since I have not seen any recent post(s) on maintaining a budget with respect to GMRS, I thought I would put this out here in a more central, logical place for everyone to enjoy and possibly add to.
This is not intended to be a comprehensive buyers guide to GMRS although I could point options for those with more budget to burn. This is mainly focused on what you do need bare minimum and what are the cheep upgrade options to extend your range. I will explain a few GMRS radio/signal basics to help you decide on what and where to spend.
I will not worry about Part 95e certification here although I certainly recommend it. I leave that decision to you. There are fairly reasonable cost radio options for both certified and non-certified radios.
Prices listed below as of 4/19/2022. Sadly, prices have mostly gone up since I wrote a short version of this for the ECdD run.
The first and most important universal radio truth: a low power radio with a good antenna beats a high powered radio with a poor antenna. Output power does nothing for reception and without reception, you get to talk, but will never have any idea of you were heard. Also high power with a bad antenna could, but not necessarily will, eventually damage your radio. If you have a limited budget, invest on the antenna side before investing more on the radio side.
A handheld (HT) GMRS radio inside your vehicle, unlike a handheld CB, will effectively send and receive with other radios outside of your vehicle. However the vehicle still cuts back both your reception and transmission ranges. An external antenna, for even a handheld, is HIGHLY recommended.
Unlike with your CB, you have some interesting options for antenna cable. The wave length of CB signal requires that thicker cable to avoid what's called insertion loss. With GMRS (upper 70cm) , (and 2m/70cm HAM) you can use super-thin RG-316 or RG-174A. This increases your options of where to mount your antenna and how to route the antenna cable. 316 and 174 both go though (under or over) door seals with less chance or wind noise and water leakage. Just be careful of kinking the cable. That super-thin cable can kink or break easily.
Another nicety of GMRS, no real need to measure SWR unless you are getting super custom. Things just work. Rule of thumb for GMRS antennas, use the least amount of cable necessary, but don't fret some extra, just don't coil it. Minimize the number of junctions in the cable. GMRS frequencies are far less sensitive to junction signal reflection as compared to CB, but still are a little. A two-part cable is perfectly fine, and common. Also note that you can buy a HAM dual-band antenna. Just look at the gain for the 70cm band for comparison to GMRS specific antennas. For pre-made antenna cable, I prefer to stick with Diamond or Comet. Bad cable can ruin an otherwise good antenna setup. Don't cheap out to save $5-10. It is not budget conscious to buy bad product only to have to replace it with good product later.
I am going to assume you have an HT with a removable antenna since we are talking about budget. Yes there are inexpensive mobiles. But inexpensive HTs will still generally beat them in costs. Plus an HT can come out of your vehicle for spotting and scouting by reinstalling its factory flexible/stubby antenna.
If you have a metal body panel vehicle, or at least a metal hood, the Diamond MR77SMA 144/440 Mobile Mag Antenna with SMA Connector ($55 from Amazon) is a super simple and inexpensive option. I used this as a semi-permanent option with HT radios for a few years on both my old JKUR and my Renegade Deserthawk and it was a great solution. It is not the thinest cable using RG58, but the SMA connecter makes it easy to feed through tight holes. It just connects to your Kenwood or Yaesu HT, or with the aid of a SMA gender adapter ($7), connects to most Chinese HT radios too (Baofeng, Wouxun, etc...). With a gain of 3.4:1 on the 70cm band, five watts and this antenna outside your vehicle will cross the Phoenix metro (North Scottsdale to the White Tanks). If you are using a dual-band radio, I recommend also getting a dual-band antenna. I have used antenna this on my JT Mojave (stuck to the hood) as a temporary setup and run this cable over the door seal with no apparent wind noise. I cannot speak for water tightness, as by temporary I mean only when running a few trails.
The Diamond MR77 is about the best, inexpensive mag-mount solution available in my opinion, when accounting for cost, antenna gain and simplicity of connection. Midland offers a shorty mag-mount GMRS specific with a radio-side UHF plug that will have to be adapted to fit your HT's SMA, and the gain is less at just over 2:1. The antenna is $20 from Midland but with adapter parts and cable for your HT, more likely closer to $35. But this solution for GMRS is STILL better than the HT antenna inside your vehicle.
Antenna, Mount, and Cable
If a mag-mount won't work for you (silly modern aluminum body panels) I personally like something like the Diamond C110NMO paired with the Rugged Radios universal cowl bolt mount ($35 on Amazon). Be aware, there is a C110 model that is UHF (PL-259). You can use the UHF base but you will find your antenna and mount options may change. Also the Rugged Radios mount is drilled for NMO and requires modification for UHF. The GMRS market is better served with NMO. You can find either C110 model for between $40 and $50 depending on where you buy it ($44 on Amazon). The RG-316 cable can enter your JL or JT under the triangular insulation at the A-pillar and body junction on your front doors with zero leakage or wind noise.
If you are using a dedicated GMRS HT, pair the C101 and Rugged Radios mount with the Midland MXTA26 ($60) for a super 6:1 gain, or the Midland Ghost Antenna ($50, Amazon link) at a 3:1 gain. If you are using a dual-band HT radio that supports transmit on the GMRS frequencies, the Diamond NR73BNMO ($57 from DXEngineering, $68 from Amazon) is a great option with a 5.3:1 gain on 70cm.
If you need more cable length than the C101 has, you can add the Diamond C110SMA for an extra 10ft ($30 from DXEngineering or Ham Radio Outlet). If you are using a mobile with the PL-259 plug, then grab the C110 (non-SMA) instead.
Total aside, if you have a JL or JT diesel, the JT Mohave, or the JL 392, you have a steel hood. Mag mounts can work for you.
I am not endorsing any of the below, simply pointing out cheap options.
Not Part 95e certified, but only $25 is the good-ole UV5R. Note that there is a risk it is no longer able to transmit in the 460 MHZ range of GMRS. But per NotARubicon, this is now fixable. I make no claims or warranties here. The mic and 12v power adapter are really cheap here, making this a great radio for under $50 with accessories (not including the external antenna).
Not Part 95e certified, but with more power is the Baofeng BF-F8HP (8-watt) that can be found on Amazon for $70. I put the same caveat about potential 460 MHz transmit limitation and opening up as above.
Part 95e certified per their claim with a removable antenna is the Radioddity GM-30 for $50 on Amazon.
Part 95e certified per their claim with a removable antenna also is the Baofeng UV-9G for $51 on Amazon. This one may not have a car power plug available.
I strong recommend you get a 12v power plug (not a charger!) for your handheld. After the antenna, the power source is the next most important thing. Steady power from the car will ensure you get the full rated power output and reception sensitivity of the radio. 12v adapters for these radios usually runs in the $10-$15 range. On battery, as the battery fades, it drops voltage which reduces radio power output. Even with a fully charged battery, you likely will not get full rated output.
I also recommend a mic. Those usually run in the $10-$15 range also. The UV-9G may require a mic adapter cable for another few bucks.
I would be remiss for not mentioning a mounting solution for your HT! Check out JeepUniq from our own @JeepUniq for HT mounting options, especially if you have a HT with a mic. Nothing like loosing your radio on a bump in the trail because you did not have it properly secured. They even have adapters for use with any existing 67Designs and BulletPoint Mounting Solutions you might be using.
Adapted from the ECdD Post
If you need a good range GMRS setup on the cheap (prices revalidated on Amazon on 04/19/2022), I suggest a Baofeng BF-F8HP (8-watt) that can be found on Amazon for $70 or its older, cheaper cousin, the UV-5R (5 watt) for $26. Both can mate to a Diamond MR77SMA mag mount antenna ($55) using a SMA gender adapter ($7). Helpful accessories: Speaker-Mic ($8) and 12v power adapter ($19). Do note that you want a battery replacement adapter and NOT just a charger for powering transmissions off your vehicle 12v. Lastly, not required but you want to, get a programming cable ($23). You can program by hand if you really want to save $23.
All-in cost for HT radio, antenna with SMA adapter, power supply, and mic: $115. This is well under Midland's cheapest "complete" mobile package, MXT275, at $165 which you can't take out of the vehicle for spotting or scouting.
What if I Do Want a Budget Mobile Setup?
Ok, you want some more power than a HT offers and you are willing to give up portability and a few more bucks for more power. Obviously there is the 15 watt MXT275 I mentioned above from Midland for $165 as a complete kit. The best put-it-together option I was able to assemble is a 25 watt Radioddity DB25-G GMRS Mobile Radio ($102 on sale, normally $120) with the Diamond MR77SMA mag-mount ($55) and an SMA to UHF adapter ($7) for a total of $164. 10 more watts for a dollar less! Both radios are Part 95e certified.
Make sure your antenna is rated for the maximum output power of the mobile!
50 watts is as high as you can practically and legally go. But at that point you kinda tossed out the budget. At 50 watts you are over $200 for the radio alone, even for reasonable quality Chinesium radios.
Am I missing something?
Found a cheaper, but still highly effective GMRS solution? Maybe a better option than I have presented, for the same price? Let me know in the comments and I'll update the main post.