A lot of these articles I write for those of you “in the trenches.” And by that I mean the people who have taken seriously the risks that we all face ahead, possibly this year, possibly even this month. Most things I write about I don’t expect a lot of you to go out and buy. For instance, the Sun Oven worked pretty good, but I know that only dozens of you went out and bought one. Communications I think touches everyone though. If you haven’t figured out how to keep in touch with loved ones far away, the time may be getting short here. So even though I recently posted an article on low budget worldwide Ham radios, this follow up to my Black Friday post was really due. Because as much as I can sing the praises of cheap cheap low wattage “QRP” radios, there is no substitute for 100-200 watts of radio power when you need as little to go wrong as possible.
In every one of my Ham articles I have to explain the basic premise of “HF,” or “High Frequency” as compared to VHF and UHF (Very and Ultra High Frequency). The handhelds that claim to be Ham radios seen on most prepper forums are almost completely useless for contacting anyone outside of your local area. Their signals can’t reach more than 7 miles due to the curvature of the earth, without what is called a repeater. The publicly available repeaters are only good for 50 miles or so on each side of the repeater, under the best circumstances, which rarely exist.
Real Ham radios that can reach out and communicate reliably, worldwide, work in the 1.8 megahertz to 30 megahertz range, which is called High Frequency (HF). Signals in this range bounce off of the ionosphere and can and do reach worldwide every day. HF radios require an antenna made for the band you are trying to work, and there are multi-band antennas that cover several bands. All Ham/Amatuer Radio communications require a license from the FCC to broadcast, but you don’t need a license to listen. Ham radios don’t need any type of cell tower or repeater, or anything more than electricity. It is hard to imagine a radio that can hear signals from Europe, Japan, Russia, and talk back to those regions as well, with an antenna in the backyard, but every Ham has done it, and you can too.
I personally believe that the powers that be will keep the grid up as long as possible, mostly so they can keep the Fox News propaganda flying, but once the grid goes out for good, you won’t need a license for your Ham radio. For now though, do not broadcast on the Amateur frequencies without a license. There are three types of licenses, and parts of the tests are challenging, but with books, and even some new phone aps, you can buff up on the actual question pool and it is pretty easy to pass the test. Beware that the Hams will rat you out if you try to break the law with illegal transmissions, and they will even triangulate you for the FCC, which is much easier than you might think. As I have explained in previous articles, there are very good reasons why you should be licensed to use the Ham bands as a matter of regular polite society. Available bandwidth is available bandwidth with Ham radio, so learning the methods that Hams use to not talk over each other are really important. When all the Hams are dead it won’t matter.
Now that I have (sigh), discharged my obligation to es’plain those basics, yet again, we can get into what this article is actually about.
I started looking for “cheap” Ham radios about a year ago, after I figured out the difference between HF and VHF/UHF. Even then, the preppers were bidding old and questionable radios up to over $200 in most cases, especially when the radio said Yaesu, Icom, or Kenwood on it. The other names, like Heathkit, Atlas, Tempo One, other more unknown names like the Swan radio you’ll see in the video generally have gone for less. But even on those radios you really need to read the details, and my prior article on what makes a radio more or less expensive. A lot of people are out there now who know what’s what on radios, so if want a good working radio, you will either have to pay a little more for a tested radio, or take your chances on an estate radio that will come with a lot of questions. These days you can still score a good working HF radio for under $300, but you won’t find one under $200, ***usually***, I have found a few exceptions this week, and there are a number of great buys under $200 closing this week that I hope a few of you grab.
My primary focus for this article was supposed to be the Yaesu FT-101 series, because until recently, they were plentiful under $300 in working condition on Ebay. Just a few weeks ago they dried up, which figures, and now there are only a couple, in the $300+ range. Conversely though, the Kenwood 520 and 520S have come from few and far between in the $350 – $550 range, to several popping under $250. Mostly people online are sheep, so if it so happens that a few people list a particular radio for a high price, it will lead to others copying them, until there are none to buy. Then the low price cycle can start over with estate radios, which for the most part are for sale for whatever people can get.
If you can find a Ham fest or swap meet near you, also check that out for cheap radios that you can actually test. All of the radios in this article and video are not desirable to licensed devotees of Amatuer (Ham) Radio, because these radios won’t do the digital computer modes easily. Some of them can be adapted for computer modes with aftermarket parts, but rarely do people mod them. So to an experienced Ham hobbiest, all of these radios are doorstops, just taking up space in the shack. They generally will sell them cheap.
That goes for the tube radios as well as some of the older the solid state models you’ll see me scrolling through on Ebay, and testing at the end of the video. There are a couple of those Kenwood TS-120s radios right now on Ebay for under $250, as well as the Icom 730 in the same range. Yet the Icom 735 is mostly over $300. Sometimes the prices make little sense, because again, it just so happened that three people listed the same radio for two much money, and they need to cycle out. If you do your homework and read the ads thoroughly, it isn’t hard to get a good buy on a radio that people just aren’t searching for right now, but that will serve you just fine for SHTF.
If there is one secret weapon when it comes to Ham radios, it is Eham. This is how you’ll find good radios that people aren’t bidding up right now, because there isn’t an expensive example upon which the sheep have placed their value proposition. You just have to have the courage and gumption to research and buy radios that nobody else wants.
For instance, there is right now an Atlas 210x holding at $86. If you search the reviews, there are over 50, all positive, for that radio. Don’t worry, I’m not going to buy it. 😉
But as you can see, I have bought quite a few of these radios, and at one point, to me, an Icom IC-730 was no different than that Atlas. Now that I have researched them, read hundreds of reviews, bought several, and have actually held over a dozen radios in my hands, I understand the different eras of radios, even though the numbering systems for the models make no sense.
That is why, even though I personally picked out the Yaesu FT-101 and Kenwood 520 as great value for the money, you shouldn’t have a loyalty to any one brand or radio. Ebay has nice feature that shows you what people also looked at, and if you follow these rabbit holes often times you’ll find a motherload of radios nobody has ever heard of but that were made by Yaesu or Icom for some retail chain in the 80s. Go on Eham and look them up, and the reviewers will tell you the history, the selling points, and the comparative performance and reliability.
Note though please. Unless you like to hunt killer deals on untested products, and you have a strong stomach, buy one that is tested and covers the bands between 3.5mhz, or 80 meters, and 30mhz, or 10 meters.
The Ham Bands & MARS/CAP Mod
The major difference you will see with the Yaesu FT-101 is that the 160 meter band is included on the radio. I always brain fart the frequency on this band, and the correct number is 1.8mhz-2mhz. Most radios leave this band off, because you need a really big antenna to work it effectively. The Kenwood 520 and most of the solid state radios don’t include it. My perspective is that the more bands you have available, the more there is a chance that you will find something once the world goes dark.
None of these radios have what are called the WARC bands that were added to the list of available Ham frequencies in 1979. These are very small slivers of frequency, and they are used very little.
But what you will see on Ebay are a few radios here and there that have what is called “the MARS/CAP” mod. Officially, these are radios that were modified to broadcast just outside the Ham bands for official purposes. MARS stands for Military Affiliate Radio System, and CAP is Civil Air Patrol. In real terms, the MARS/CAP mod usually means that the radio has been freebanded, and can now transmit on all frequencies within the frequencies covered by the radios. For a prepper these radios are ideal because if you get a hit on a signal, you can then contact the person on the other end. Broadcasting on non-Ham frequencies, with or without a Ham license, is a pretty serious FCC offense, so beware that as long as the government has policing power, you have to be careful.
If you haven’t read my article on RTL-SDR dongles, you really should check that out. Those tools are perfect for use with these radios, because you can monitor huge blocks of bandwidth for active signals, using your computer, then if you want, contact the other party with your Ham transceiver. There are Hams that have spent many thousands of dollars to get the performance of a $50 RTL-SDR dongle and Up Converter, and their transmitter in the HF bands is no better than your FT-101 that you paid $325 with shipping.
There will be a time when “radio silence” will use up its usefulness and you are going to want to communicate with the outside world, and one of these cheap Ham radios is your best bet to do just that.
AC vs. DC Operation
I didn’t address in the video that the FT-101 and 520 run primarily on AC. They actually run on 12 volts DC, like all of the solid state radios, but they come with a built in voltage converter and rectifier box. The manual on the FT-101 shows you the pinout on the plug to wire the radio for DC, and there have been people selling the cables on Ebay from time to time. I don’t know if it also works on the Kenwood, as they are the same plug. Theoretically, if you have the pinout, you can just look up the DC inputs on the power plug and use alligator clips to power the radio from a 12 volt DC source, such as a solar charged battery. I have bought a DC cord for the FT-101, but haven’t played with it yet. The FT-101 was specifically created for low power draw in receive mode, somewhere around 400 milliamps @12v. On transmit all of these higher wattage radios require 20-30 amps @12v, which is ~400 watts. To run them AC, a cheap 400 watt inverter from Costco works fine.
Antennas for HF
As I’ve explained several times in this series, antennas for HF communications are more important than the radio itself. You can spend a fortune on a huge aluminum monstrosity and tower, or you can use a cheap wire antenna strung either between two trees, or just strung up in one tree, and get almost as good results. I elect for the latter.
For most of the contacts in this video I used a Diamond WD-330 folded dipole between two trees in the backyard, about 15′ off the ground. I bought that antenna as one of my first investments because it says that it can receive from 2-30mhz, which is most of the Ham spectrum for long distance. I like the folded dipole because it didn’t need a ground wire counterpoise, and it doesn’t need to connected to a ground rod. As you can see, it works great, worldwide, with these radios.
Since they I have learned that there are plenty of both folded and regular dipole antennas that are cheaper, and that most likely work as well, though I haven’t had the time to work them. You can get a military G5RV design for as little as $45, and other brands of folded dipole claim that they can handle the 1.8mhz 160 meter band as well, up to the legal limit of 1500 watts.
To broadcast effectively, you should also invest in a decent antenna tuner. These can be had that will handle the 200 watts on the most powerful of these radios for under $200, both automatic and manual, from MFJ Enterprises, as well as LDG. When I finally get my Ham license I will experiment with tuners to see how they effect my outgoing signal. But alas, I still am not licensed.
These radios will of course work fine with the single wire antennas from my last article, but beware that many of them are not rated for more than 100 watts and these radios are up to 200 watts. I have yet to run a head to head test between the end fed dipoles with a balun/unun, and the folded dipole. That will probably be my next project for this series, after I get my license.
I strongly suggest that you buy a Ham radio book, like Ham Radios for Dummies, before you attempt to use your radio. If you do hit the transmit key, not only are radio frequency burns nasty, you also need to make sure that you don’t get arrested for an illegal station. Go buy the $50 worth of RTL-SDR gear first, and you’ll see just how easy it is for the authorities to monitor wide swaths of bands, which they absolutely do.
Should I Get My Ham License?
I don’t think so at this juncture, even though I personally will be taking the test fairly soon I hope. I am already on the government list as a troublemaker, so I have little to lose by being put on yet another list. For me, getting my license will make me look like I drank the coolaid and now want to become a government bootlicker. I’m thinking maybe they’ll invite me into the cabal! George Carlin perhaps thought the same thing.
Even though you own guns and you may feel like you are on a list, most likely you are not. Right wingers are so easily suckered by Fox News these days that the government is fairly certain they can take your guns when they want. They can, but I think we have been played to become the new enemy as climate change deniers, as I’ve explained at length in past articles. They don’t want our guns. They want to push us to use them so they can lock this whole mess down. You aren’t on a list that will ever matter for owning guns, even a lot of guns.
But Ham radio has become the darling of preppers and militia. There was even what I believe to be fake and engineered Ham broadcast from the Oregon situation recently that went viral, on the 80 meter band. I think the preppers are kidding themselves that the government doesn’t know they plan to use HF to communicate after the collapse. Ham radio will be used for disinformation and obfuscation just like everything else available to the cabal running this mess. Your best bet is to buy a radio through backdoor channels, and put up a wire, dipole, or folded dipole that nobody will notice. Then just listen.
If you are of draft age, especially under 30, absolutely do not get your Ham license. They try a new tactic every week now to spin up the next war, and my friends, war is coming. Anyone with a Ham license under 30 years old will be in the first wave of draftees that have special skills. You don’t want to be on that list. This is a case of do as I say not as I do in my case. Right now you don’t want to stand up for anything, and you don’t want to be on anyone’s list. Hunker down. Make sure you have food and water for a long time. Get your family to do the same, and get everyone you love a Ham radio and antenna, and tell them how to use it when the time comes. Come up with a schedule of potential communications, once the dust settles, and then just wait for the dust to settle.