"What radios are most people using on the trails?"
It's a pretty common question. The blunt answer is: most aren't.
"So what radio should I get?" Well.. it depends.
There are so many different types available, each with its own purpose, strengths, and drawbacks. Each purpose requires its own specific type of hardware, and in many cases, specific licensing. Ultimately your decision should start with what you want to use it for: communication in a group? Long range? Staying in touch with other industrial traffic on the backroads?
The sections here will cover different types of radios most commonly used in the backcountry - requirements, strengths, limitations, etc.
Buying a Used Radio
It's true, a new land mobile radio can be expensive to get into - hey, you get what you pay for! So what can you do to save some coin, short of going with cheap craptastic grey-market handhelds that aren't legal for RR/4WDABC channel use?
Facebook Marketplace, buy & sell groups, Craigslist, Kijiji, eBay, etc. are a good place to start... but how to make sure you get what you need?
If you're a ham, you probably already know what to look for, and you can use just about anything available, so we'll leave that out of the equation for now, and assume you're just looking for a land mobile unit.
First up: if it's listed as an amateur or ham radio, it's not what you want. If it has buttons on the face or microphone for punching in your frequency, it's the wrong type.
If it has a numbered channel display, it's probably the wrong type. A handheld with channels 1-14 is likely FRS (Family Radio Service); with channels 1-22 or so, GMRS (General Mobile Radio Service). A mounted unit with channels 1-60 or higher is going to be marine VHF.
A land mobile may also be listed as a commercial, business, or simply two-way radio. Handhelds are just as likely to have no display at all, just buttons or a knob to select a channel. A mobile unit will generally have no numeric buttons for entering a frequency, maybe just some presets and a few control buttons on the faceplate.
Ask the seller for a model number, then look that up on the manufacturer's website - see what kind of radio they list it as. In Canada, land mobile radios are certified under regulation RSS-119, and the manufacturer's description may reflect that. In the US, the FCC certifies them under Part 90 - most radios of this type will say if they're Part 90 compliant.
If you're looking at a mobile unit, you also need an antenna: make sure you get one designed for 2m use. A CB antenna is not suitable for this purpose. Make sure it's properly installed, tested, and tuned to get maximum performance.
If all else fails, feel free to drop an email to email@example.com with the radio model number or a link to the ad, and we'll let you know if it fits the bill!
Handheld vs. Mobile
Mobile (vehicle-mounted) radios are typically rated for 50-60W of output power, sometimes more. Handhelds (walkie-talkie style) are generally limited to 5W (sometimes 8W, if the marketing hype is to be believed). This gives mobile a decided advantage in transmit range.
However, receive range is not affected by the radio's power output. The single biggest factor here is the antenna: a large external antenna, properly grounded to the vehicle body, will give you far better reception than a small "rubber duckie" antenna that's being used inside a large metal box. An external antenna connected to a handheld should, all else being equal, give a handheld the same kind of reception as a mobile radio.
An external antenna will also potentially give your handheld far better transmit range than its bundled antenna, again primarily by virtue of being outside of that metal box that is your vehicle cab, and by having a good ground plane (said metal box). And again, you should, in theory, have the same range as a mobile radio on its lowest power setting.
The ability to take the radio with you for security is a plus with handhelds, but mobile radios usually have a quick-disconnect on the power wires and are attached their bracket with thumbscrews making them easy to remove and take in the house.
LMR Shopping Tips
When shopping for a land mobile radio, there area a few features in particular you should look for, including:
Alphanumeric display. Not just digits that show a channel number, but a display that will show you the channel name. A radio with no display will generally "speak" the channel number, but then you need to remember which channel is which memory location.
Memory locations. There are 35 RR channels, 14 LD (loading) channels, four LADD channels, and nine 4WDABC channels, so at a bare minimum you'll be needing 62 memory slots to program these. If you're a ham and want to program some common ham frequencies and repeaters, you'll need more... perhaps many more. Radios tend to come with memory locations in counts of 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, 128, 512, or higher multiples. Make sure the radio you choose has enough.