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One of the best things about backcountry skiing? The total freedom that comes with zero cell service. One of the worst things? The total logistical chaos that follows.
If you’ve ever waited a small eternity at the bottom of a run, misplaced your partner in some dense trees, or decided on that far-right line at the last second (then got in a fight with your significant other when he couldn’t find you afterward), you can probably understand why a mountain-compatible communication system could be a game-changer. Enter handheld radios. The past few years have seen a resurgence in the use of walkie talkies, in backcountry and resort settings alike, and we’re here for it.
Keeping it Legal
But before we get into our recommendations, we’re obligated to pass on some pretty critical legal info to keep you out of trouble. Radio technology has come a long way in the past decade, and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC)—the overlords of radio regulations—have had to tweak their policies a few times to keep up. The latest: Stricter enforcement on licensing.
Right now, you’ll come across three main categories in the backcountry radio game. There are lower-wattage family radio service (FRS) walkie talkies, handheld general mobile radio service (GMRS) radios, and very high frequency (VHF) radios.
VHF radios (and dual-band UHF/VHF options) have the highest wattage and therefore the best range. Handheld GMRS options are one step down from that, maxing out at 5 watts. The rub: To legally operate a GMRS or VHF radio, you’ll need a license to avoid risking thousands of dollars in fines. For that reason, you’ll usually only see VHF radios strapped to the packs of ski patrollers and guides—though you’ll see the odd recreational skier flaunting a questionably legal UHF/VHF BaoFeng radio in the backcountry every now and again.
The third category of radios, FRS, caps out at 2 watts. At first glance, they might look like the walkie talkies you used to play G.I. Joe growing up, but they come with their own major perks. For one, FRS radios don’t require a license. They also tend to be more user-friendly and glove-compatible than VHF options. Plus, 2 watts is all you’ll need for most recreational skiing.
Some FRS options list ranges up to several miles in the mountains, but when your buddies are waiting for you at the base, a pitch away, or just around the bend, that’s usually more than enough. These days, the leading contenders also have stand-out weatherproofing and battery life—features you’d be hard-pressed to find in the walkie talkies you used as a kid.
So, without further ado, here are our top picks for FCC-certified, ski-ready FRS radios.
While newer to the market, Rocky Talkie radios have been gaining traction fast thanks to a top-tier combination of features, battery life, and durability. The batteries, which charge at lightning speed via a USB-C cable, will keep kicking for three days or more with normal use, even in temperatures down to -20°F. IP-56 waterproofing means the whole kit is splash-proof and snow-proof, and a fully-rated climbing carabiner and metal-reinforced backup leash prevent drops. And even if the radio does take a spill, the shatterproof screen, protective case, and two-year warranty all have you covered. Bonus: 128 channels and 121 privacy codes mean you’ll never fight for airtime.
$110; 8 oz.; rockytalkie.com
BCA BC Link 2.0
Created specifically for skiers, the Backcountry Access BC Link remains the O.G. backcountry radio. The standout feature is its Smart Mic, which clips to your backpack strap, letting you change channels and communicate with partners while leaving the bulkier radio body in your pack. Like the Rocky Talkie, the BC Link 2.0 boasts IP-56 waterproofing and a snow-shedding grill. It gets up to 40 miles line-of-sight range and up to six miles in hilly or forested terrain. Battery power is a little less than that of the Rocky Talkie—up to 40 hours in temps down to -4°F—but the three-year warranty is generous. And with 22 channels and 121 sub-channels, you’ll have plenty of options for finding your own niche among the airwaves, even on crowded days out in the backcountry.
$190; 11 oz.; backcountryaccess.com
Midland X-TALKER T71VP3
The Midland X-Talker T71VP3 is a lightweight, budget-friendly FRS radio that keeps safety front and center: It automatically locks onto your local weather station and sends you weather alerts any time there’s a storm coming your way. The T71VP3 also has a hands-free voice-activation feature (useful with gloves on), some light water resistance, and a three-year warranty. The listed range is 38 miles line-of-sight, though users can expect just a few miles max in the mountains, similar to other 2-watt radios. At just 15 hours, battery life doesn’t touch that of the Rocky Talkie or BC Link 2.0, but it’s the only radio out of the bunch with removable battery packs, which means you can bring a couple and switch them out midday if you need to re-up. The T71VP3 also has plenty of channel options: a full 36 with 121 privacy codes to choose from.
$80; 6 oz.; midlandusa.com