Baofeng UV-5R Review & Guide
Communication during an emergency between yourself and your friends and family is so crucial that it almost goes without saying. Yet have you considered what you would do if the phone networks went down? What if there was no more internet? It doesn't take a big stretch to imagine these possibilities.
And yet very few people have any real plan for backup communications. That's almost crazy when you consider that for $30 you can get a device which will allow you to connect to your local community, hear severe weather alerts, get by-the-minute updates on what the emergency responders are doing, and if need be, even call for help.
Enter the Baofeng UV-5R: the entry level radio everyone can afford and every family should have.
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Do you need a BAOFENG UV-5R?
The radio snob in me wants to start off by saying that there are other radios out there - and many of them are a lot more reliable than the Baofeng UV-5R. Icom, Motorola, & Yaesu make excellent HT (Handy Talkie) radios. And you might be much better served by having a more substantially reliable radio like one of those. If I had to put my life on the line I would prefer to have a radio I know I can count on to work when I need it to.
But as these are so inexpensive, and easy to get (and on Amazon Prime) and since you're usually looking at around $150 to get one of the better brands I decided to write this article to discuss the entry-level Baofeng so folks can understand what this radio can and can't do.
And since we now own 6 of them we shouldn't talk too much smack about them now, should we?
One thing to consider: there is a little bit of a learning curve with radios. If you are looking for something dead-simple that gives you a similar type of grid-down communication, check out the goTenna Mesh.
It should be said that in order to transmit with a Baofeng UV-5R a License from the FCC is required, since you can only legally use Amateur Radio Services and GMRS with these types of radios. Of course that could all fly out the window in a SHTF scenario, so plan as you see fit.
Also, in the event of an emergency (injury, life or death) you are allowed to transmit on any band you can to search for assistance. But you have to know what channels to call on to find help, more on that later.
About the non-license required public frequencies
Family Radio Service
You don't need a license to transmit on the FRS frequencies, which are the same frequencies the walkie-takies your kids have from Walmart transmit on. HOWEVER the UV5Rs transmit between 1 to 4 watts (it's adjustable), and the legal limit for FRS is only 0.5 watts, so it is technically illegal to transmit on FRS with these radios except in an emergency. If you set the radio power to LOW you are at 1 watt, and will *probably* be ok to operate in your area (Menu Option 2.) FRS frequencies are listed here.
Multi-Use Radio Service
They can transmit and receive on the 5 MURS frequencies, but since the UV-5R has the ability to transmit using more that 2 watts of power, it is also technically illegal to use them on MURS channels. You can dial the power below 2 watts (LOW power Menu option 2) and use MURS to comply with the rules of those frequencies, but do so at your own risk.
MURS does allow you to use an external antenna so simplex transmit and receive ranges of 10 miles is not unobtainable although not the norm. I've found MURS to work pretty well up to about a mile or so on flat ground with the Baofengs. Another MURS option is to look into something like an original goTenna.
The FCC license required frequencies
General Mobile Radio Service
GMRS can use repeaters and up to 50 watts of power and external antennas. No test required, just have to buy the license. This is a good option, because there are quite a few GMRS radios out there from the big box stores so it's a big network you can get going for cheap.
Amateur Radio Service
Lastly yet most importantly, you can use the Amateur Radio Service aka Ham Radio Frequencies. You will need to pass an exam given by the FCC to get your Technicians License. This is really the best option but requires a some time and commitment. There is only a $15 fee to take the exam, and if you pass the license is good for 10 years. We walk you through the process here.
You don't need a license to RECEIVE transmissions.
And that is the true beauty of this radio for the average person, and why it's a necessary tool and part of your bug out communications planning. It gives you a very powerful informational tool, one that's portable, fairly uncomplicated to use, and cheap.
With a little bit of research you can find out what frequencies the ARES and RACES groups transmit on, and listen in. Those are volunteer emergency associations which assist first responders with boots on the ground information about conditions affecting their area.
If you want to look for local "nets" in your area use this tool from the ARRL. It will show you the frequencies of the "repeaters" that the nets are taking place on.
There are a couple of good frequencies to program into your UV-5R. 146.520 (on 2m) and 446.000 (on 70cm.) Those are the national simplex "calling" frequencies, meaning they are the ones monitored by other local radio operators for simplex operation. (Simplex means "radio-to-radio" ie. not using a repeater.) A conversation started on a simplex frequency is then typically moved to another up or down the band so that others may call on it.
You need a license for those frequencies to transmit. I've found that the simplex frequencies transmit and receive better than the FRS or MURS bands.
Hint: You might need to change your settings on the Baofeng to make 5k increments when programming frequencies. Hit the "menu" button and look for item 1 STEP. Then adjust it to 5k.
You have additional options for receiving info with the UV-5R: NOAA weather alerts and FM Broadcast stations (it is an FM radio after all.)
You can monitor 2 frequencies at a time using the Dual Watch feature. Menu item 7 TDR. TDR Allows monitoring of 2 channels, by toggling between Freq A and Freq B. If a signal is received, the Receive remains on that channel until the signal is gone.
The Baofeng UV-5R review & Guide
Lets set your expectations. This is not a top-of-the line radio. It's not supposed to be. It's cheap, so you can rest assured that problems with these radios can arise from time to time. We've had one that cannot receive or transmit if the channel is changed unless you turn the unit on/off.
There are several known variants of this radio. All of them are the same hardware, the only difference is the firmware (software) they ship with. If you buy on Amazon you are probably getting the latest firmware, but there's no guarantee. It's not a game changer, they all pretty much run the same from what I can tell.
Don't drop these too much. They aren't cream-puffs but they are not meant to be roughed up like some other radios are. But the build feels solid enough for what it's meant to do.
Our suggestion is to get a good HT from Icom or Yaesu if you can spring the +$150, and get a few Baofengs as beaters and backups. Strength in numbers. But if you want something today buy the Baofeng UV-5R and you rest easy that at least you covered it.
Not horrible, but only if done on a computer. If all you care about is 4-5 frequencies then you can do it on the unit. You need the computer program CHIRP to program the HT. You also need a special USB cable. Avoid the cheap knockoffs. Been there done that and they don't work.
It's a good idea to save a copy of this to your emergency USB stick with all your other emergency documents. You DO have an emergency USB drive, don't you?
Using a two-way radio speaker, plus an external antenna turns the UV-5R into a little base-station.
RECEIVE AND TRANSMIT
The antenna on the unit can throw a few miles to a repeater typically. For radio-to-radio simplex, you're lucky to get a mile. You can replace the antenna on these. Small or big. For $100 can get an adapter cable, 25/50' of LMR -240 low loss cable, and a N9TAX dual-band antenna to throw in a tree or get up high with. This will help get your signal out there and catch better signals to you.
The power outputs only 5'ish watts on these things so don't expect miracles. For a couple of hundred bucks more you can get a unit with 65 or more watts, but that means a 12v to 110 converter and a power source to connect it to. That's the next level stuff we'll talk about another time.
Scanning channels on these things is slooooow if you are trying to check every frequency in existence. My suggestion is to program in a few dozen local repeaters, the NOAA channels. FRS, MURS and maybe GMRS and call it a day.
Must Have UV-5RA Accessories
BaoFeng Two-Way Radio Speaker
These are cheap, and they give you the option of being able to talk and listen to your radio without having to hold it or take if off your belt clip. You can attach the mic to your shirt, etc with the built-in clip on the back.
You can use the belt clip that comes with your HT Radio, or you can use a small pouch to hold it and keep it protected. This one is inexpensive and works great for Yaesu, Icom, Baofeng, and Wouxon.
ExpertPower 14.5" 144/430Mhz U/V SMA-F Antenna
Increase the receive and transmit clarity on a hand-held Baofeng UV-5R with this antenna vs. the stock "rubber-ducky". Makes it a little less portable but is worth the extra throw if you can deal with it. Smaller options exist too.
Tram 1185 Dual-Band Magnet Antenna
This is a car mount antenna which transmits 2 M VHF & 70cm UHF. It has a 3" magnet mount which is nice, it ain't going anywhere once you stick it on. It comes with a 12' RG-58 Coaxial Cable & PL-259 connector - if you want to use it with the BaoFeng you need to get a Reverse SMA to "PL-259" Adapter Cable - Female/Female.
USB Programming Cable
BEWARE of cheap Chinese clones. This is the cable you want. It's how you connect your radio to your computer to program in the frequencies for local repeaters, MURS, NOAA, FRS, etc. Use the free program CHIRP to do so.
Miklor.com has extensive documentation on these radios, and is your best source for digging into them if you want to. Probably too much info for your average consumer, but it's good to see someone collected it all in one place.
Want to know how to get your Ham License? It's pretty fascinating stuff if you like science. We show you how to get started in this article.