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Gear Junkie: Keep in touch with radios

Sun., Nov. 28, 2010

The handheld radio crackled with static before coming to life. “Roger that,” came a voice. “What’s your location?”

I was standing near a swamp, remote and deep in the woods of central Minnesota. The day’s task – scouting a wilderness race course and planting checkpoint flags with a partner – was aided by topo maps, a compass and a pair of radios from Motorola.

You can call them walkie-talkies. Motorola Inc., which markets its devices as “ultimate communication tools for outdoor enthusiasts,” calls its latest handheld units Talkabout MR350R Two-Way Radios.

They cost about $80 for the pair. Motorola cites 35 miles as the maximum communication range.

In my tests, the signal was strong for five miles across woods. Trees, swamps, and small hills did not impede signal strength. Static cropped up and voices crackled when the topography got deep, but the needed communication still squeaked through.

In open areas, including marine and alpine environments, long-distance calling is much more feasible. Boating and alpine skiing are optimal activities for radios like the Talkabouts. The less interference, the farther your voice will fly.

Beyond simple voice communication, the Talkabouts offer a few nice built-in features. The display is backlit and easy to read. You can scan through 22 channels, each with more than 100 privacy codes for exclusive radio-to-radio links.

Where in range, you can tune in to United States National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) communiqués for weather alerts.

The radios can be used hands-free with a headset. There’s a small flashlight on the bottom of the unit for reading and simple tasks at night. It has a vibrating ringer option when you want to be covert.

The Talkabouts come with rechargeable battery packs that last about nine hours per charge. You can swap the packs out for regular AA batteries, too, which is nice if you’re heading on a trip and won’t have the chance to recharge in the wild.

Design-wise, the Talkabouts are not tiny but are manageably small – about 7 inches tall with the antenna and about 2.5 by 1.5 inches for the body. The included belt clips are small and only marginally secure. I took them off right away, as I didn’t trust the radios to stay on a belt while hiking in the woods.

For customizing the look, the company sells removable faceplates in 10 color choices. For use in the outdoors, I picked a bright-orange faceplate. It is highly visible and easy to spot if the radio is dropped in the brush.

In the Minnesota woods, after a few hours work, my partner and I finished designing the race course. Topo maps kept us heading the right direction. The radios kept us in touch.

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