As you probably have surmised by now, this column is really about taking a global collapse seriously. Radio communication is one subject that I find taken for granted in most of the internet press and supermarket survival magazines, but if you don’t understand the basics of what radios can be used for what types of communications, and go out and actually buy them, you will truly leave yourself in the dark when all of the standard communications go down.
The serious preppers out there have this stuff down, and this is why it is taken for granted in the enthusiast pubs, but if you are starting from no knowledge at all, this is a brief overview of simple radios you can buy, then go learn how to use. There is a whole world of private communications evolving out there, unbeknownst to the general populace. Many of the radios I link to here in the article have hundreds of watchers on Ebay. Get into the communications game as quickly as you can, because like everything else here, ten years early is better than one day late. What disaster movie have you ever seen that didn’t hinge at some point on “getting the radio working.” To get it working, you have to know how to work it.
Just to back up a bit, because not everyone has the money required to go buy a real radio, at the very basic least you should have a solar powered and crank emergency radio. Good ones that really work well can be found on Amazon and Ebay for as little as $30. This will at least give you access to the local TV and radio stations, as well as emergency bands. Barring a total conflagration, something like a nuclear confrontation that may or may not be survivable anyway, systems in the US should come back online and communications will be an absolute priority for those who will restore them. If you are hunkered down eating your freeze dried food and playing dominoes, you’ll have plenty of time to monitor radio stations and TV hoping for good news.
Don’t believe those who say that the internet will never go down, because it was created for the military (by Al Gore of course lol) to survive a nuclear attack. To some degree that fact is true. Internet computers don’t need a central server to connect to each other. Each ISP keeps a copy of internet locations and can connect directly over the IP protocol to another computer. That works, however, only if the ISP servers have power, and the routers in between ISPs have power. At most, those stations have 60 days of backup power, and that is assuming that the people are there to start up the generators and make sure everything transitions smoothly. Murphys Law is always going to apply in what may be the perfect storm. Assume no internet, even if you have your own source of electricity.
Likewise the cellphone network. Your phone is actually a radio, and a very good one. But cell phones are underpowered, and they are made to connect only to proprietary networks. The cell tower transmits your signal over land and satellite lines to other phones. As a radio, your phone is useless, and the cell towers and networks will of course go down.
If you are among those of us who feel that the police are militarizing themselves to round up the troublemakers once “expanded police powers” (ie. Martial Law) take effect, you have to assume that you may be fighting an organized force. In areas of the country where the police are actual patriots and would refuse to fire on Americans, you, and they, may have to contend with UN troops. As this 2010 Youtube video shows, looking down at at airstrip in Jacksonville, Florida, the paddy wagons that say UN on the side are in country and ready to go. Is it smart to fight these guys? No way! Hide! But if there is no choice, one thing that any infantry man or SWAT cop will tell you is that communications are key.
We will get to more advanced radios below, but the problem with good radios that can pick and choose frequencies is that they are expensive. If you have ten adults in your survival group, buying 1 radio for each could get into the thousands (though there is a $40 radio below). For that reason, I suggest a simple 16 channel radio radios I found called the BeoFang BS-888S. It transmits in the 400-470mhz range and I have found them to be very reliable, and strong enough for “around the neighborhood” contact, provided you don’t live in a neighborhood with concrete block houses. All radios don’t like cement. The nice thing about these radios is that they can be bought on Ebay for… drum roll please… as little as $15 each. These radios are 5 watts, and can be compared to Motorola radios costing 5 to 10 times as much.
All About Radios (not really)
Once you get beyond a simple channel radio, including standard CB radios, it becomes a rabbit hole. Once you go down it, there really is no bottom. This is the realm of “Amateur Radio” otherwise known as “Ham Radio.” Why it is called Ham nobody seems to know. Amateur Radio has a huge presence on the web, and you can get a lot of great information for free. But I strongly suggest that you start with the book I bought, Ham Radio for Dummies. The dummies moniker has become a marketing term at this point, and the book is extremely substantive. It explains the basics of Ham talk, and all of the ways that Hams communicate with each other these days.
Amateur Radio covers a span of several frequency blocks in the overall spectrum. You can download a chart of the spectrum at the NTIA website in PDF. The green blocks are Amateur. Frequency blocks are in great demand for a huge array of services, and the Amateur Radio community has had to lobby and fight to keep these blocks over the last decade as wireless communications have exploded. They do that by offering free emergency services help to FEMA and other Federal and state agencies. During the major hurricanes of 2005, Katrina and Wilma, the Hams were the first to be able to get emergency services into the correct locations. Hams take great pride in being part of the government emergency management system, and that has plusses and minuses.
To License or NOT to License
A real Ham station is a powerful communications tool, and therefore it is strictly controlled. You may not “broadcast” on Amateur Radio, even with a license, and there are licensing requirements as to which frequencies you are allowed to communicate on and what methods of communication you may use. It is apparently OK to listen without a license. The licensed Hams who clicked into this article are not going to like that this topic is even covered in this manner, because by and large they are proud to be rule followers by nature. The world of Amateur Radio is controlled by a volunteer organization called the American Radio Relay League, or ARRL. Without them there would be no Amateur frequencies these days. They are the principle lobby group, and by following the rules and getting in good with the government they have retained the ability of civilians to use powerful international radios on set frequency blocks.
There are three tests, and three license grades. The tests are administered by ARRL volunteers. The first test, called the Technician, allows you to use only VHF and UHF frequencies, except for being able to speak and use Morse Code on the 30mhz band, but nothing below that. The next test up, General, allows you to move to the below 30mhz band, the HF bands. Those are the frequencies that you can bounce off the ionosphere and talk to people in Japan. The next license after that allows you to use the more advanced communication tools, including satellite repeaters. Licensing information and a class locator can be found on the ARRL website.
The problem with licensing is that the tests have gotten way out of hand. If you are only interested in Amateur Radio for survival purposes and don’t have a ton of time to spend learning obscure radio jargon and technology that you will never use, it puts the licenses out of reach. In today’s day and age there is no need to be able to take apart and solder back together your radio, or to even know the definitions of electrical components. Likewise, complex antenna theory is not something you really need to know when you can just ask the guy who sells antennas to give you the one you need, and the filters and components to go along with it. The Hams have really just put a huge bar to entry so that their radios don’t have a lot of people jabbering on them. Sadly, most Hams are just old men with nothing else to do. There are young people involved that have been tutored by their parents and grandparents, but they didn’t have to wait to use the radio until they learned all the stuff! It is my opinion that the Hams have shot themselves in the foot by making the fun stuff hard to reach. The hobby has been shrinking for decades and even though there has been a resurgence because of the preppers, few of them will turn into true enthusiasts should the world not actually melt down.
By far the biggest question as to license or not license is if you are of draft age. A war is coming. Even the deepest sleeping sheeple among us see that by now, and when that war comes there may be a draft. Radio men are going to be in big demand, and if you are licensed by the FCC, you will get a knock at your door first. If there is a complete collapse, FEMA may show up at your door to commandeer your equipment. A radio station is a valuable asset, and your name will be on the government list of where they can find one that works and that has someone who knows how to use it.
I personally am going to get licensed, because I’m a nerd and they are coming for me anyway when the SHTF. I found a really cool book on Amazon called simply the Complete Study Guide, but it is a trick book. The tests, you see, are taken from a pool of questions that are made available to the public. His book only shows you the correct answers, so you can sight study them and recognize the correct answers on the tests. The pool of questions changes every couple years for each of the three tests, so make sure if you read this article in the future that you have the right book.
Buying Your First Radio
This is one of those questions where “what’s your budget” has to be the first question. Real Ham radios can be had for as little as $40. The BoeFang UV-5R works great and has all the features you need to get started with a Technician license. It has two send/receive frequencies, so you can use public “repeaters” to get a signal much stronger and further than you could normally get with your radio alone. A small 5 watt radio like the UV-5R can reach out to satellites, but you need to use an external antenna, which I’ll get to.
One step up from that is the Wouxon KG-UVD1P. It has certain features that, once you get acquainted with how repeaters work, you’ll probably want. You can usually find them in the $100 or under range, and they likewise cover the UHF and VHF bands. There are other small radios out there, and as this article ages new ones will emerge, so do some research before you buy. At this level of radio you can’t do much better than these two, but remember, they rely on repeaters to span distances longer than line of sight. Those repeaters will go down.
If you plan to go the full licensing route, but you don’t know when you will do it, I strongly suggest that you buy a radio sooner rather than later that can reach the 10-30mhz range. These are the where the long range Hams reside, and it is where, in a survival situation, you will be able to hear news from across the country and across the globe. The problem is, if you buy a radio from a US seller they will block the frequencies that you are not licensed to use. I found a seller on Ebay that has great feedback and sells unblocked radios direct from Greece. These radios will also allow you to listen to police and fire channels that are blocked on the US radios as well. You can still only speak on the amateur bands, but absolutely do not do so unless you are properly licensed.
Not one word. Because though you may not know it, you are surrounded by Hams. Some very famous people are Hams, and Hams in general are a government boot licking lot. If you speak without giving a proper call sign, one that can be verified online, your local Hams will easily triangulate you and report you to the FCC. Don’t try to fake it. They know their game and they will rat you out. Unless you are licensed, absolutely do not say a word on the air. In a disaster, don’t think this rule doesn’t apply. The Hams cherish their ability to help FEMA and other government agencies, and they don’t want you on their repeaters and frequencies when they can use them in service of Big Brother. In a complete collapse, for a “is anybody out there”type of scenario, your radio will be there for you, and you’ll be able to listen to the chatter from whatever your antenna can pick up.
If you decide to go with a base station and really build a radio station, radios are available on Ebay every day, and at severely discounted prices. Just remember, if it is too good to be true, it isn’t true. Plan to pay $400-$5,000 depending on the unit, the condition, the guarantee that comes with it, and many other factors. The absolute best website to check what each model does is available on EHam.net. I bought a perfectly new working base station on Ebay for $2,000 that new is over $5,000. More importantly, I was able to check on dozens of Ebay radios to see what each did better than the others. When you buy a used radio it is generally from an experienced Ham, and unlocked.
By far, the biggest bang for your buck with radio is how much you put into your antenna. If you decide to buy a hand held, by all means consider upgrading to a better antenna for it. If you buy a mobile, make sure you put a high up antenna at your bugout location, in addition to your travel antenna. The higher your antenna the better, which is why many Hams have backyard towers that actually require zoning approval.
Radio waves can only travel line of sight, except in the 10-30mhz bands that can be bounced off the ionosphere at certain times of day. Radio waves do not bend, and the earth is round, so eventually all radio waves bottom out on the curvature of the earth. If you do the math, that means that a 6 foot tall person at ground level talking to another 6 foot person at ground level can talk about about 7 miles, provided the radios have enough power and nothing is in the way. So when you see radios that say they reach out to 20 miles and more, it is complete baloney. We are all slaves to the physics of radio waves, and that means that your antenna has to be up high, and it has to be tuned to the frequency you are trying to reach.
That subject is yet another rabbit hole that I won’t go far into. I will instead direct you to what seems to be the leader in antenna engineering and sales, DX Engineering. An antenna has to be the correct length for the signal that you are trying to pick up and transmit. That size is usually a percentage of the size of the wave. So when you see hear a Ham say they are on the “2 meter band” (150mhz), that means how big is the wave for that frequency. The antenna for that frequency will be a fraction of that, either 1/2 or 1/4, or 2 meters itself. DX Engineering has several rudimentary antennas in the $200 range that cover several bands on one antenna. You can also see these on public cellphone towers that have been licensed by independent parties. They work fine, but they aren’t for reaching out to far away places, or “DX’ing” as they say in the radio game. For that you need to spend more, and you should read up and speak to the retailer as well.
For handhelds, I found a great cheap antenna on Ebay that you can mount on your roof and that will more than triple your ability to reach out. You buy 5′ of PVC from Home Depot and encase the antenna yourself using the 3/4″ PVC caps they send you. It’s only $30, and make sure you order the Ham version not the commercial version. I have not been able to compare this antenna head to head with the DX antennas, but it was published in the ARRL magazine as a new and successful antenna idea.
Just be aware, when it comes to a survival setup and a radio antenna, public knowledge that you have a long distance radio may become an issue. The government may try to snag it. Your neighbors may want to try to contact places where their distant families reside. All kinds of unwanted interaction with other humans could occur because someone sees your antenna. I don’t have an easy answer for this and am trying to figure something out myself, so please leave suggestions in the comments if you have addressed this issue yourself already.
Ham radios are a lot like guitar amps. A one watt guitar amp is really loud through a 4×12 cabinet, and a 5 watt handheld Ham works really good with a high mounted antenna. I personally did buy a 100 watt base station, but only because I hope to do Ham as a cool old guy hobby (my grandfather was a Ham). If you intend to build a genuine, worldwide, “is anybody out there” station, you are going to need to learn a lot of material, and hopefully get some help from an existing Ham. There are a ton of resources online, but you will save yourself a lot of research time with that Dummies book, and the reviews of radios at EHam. Just remember that everyone starts from zero, and you will learn and relearn and eventually get to where you want to be.
Even if the world doesn’t end, Amateur Radio is a lot of fun, and they could use some younger people in there who weren’t raised to be government boot lickers. Just beware that for now, when you are interacting with Hams that could help you a great deal, don’t overdue it with the “conspiracy” stuff or try to explain to them that things are not going as well as they hear on Fox News. Just take what you can and leave the rest. Radio is hard stuff, and a lot of it, sidebands and whatnot, is really confusing. An hour with an expert will be worth dozens of hours online. And have fun. Fun is good while we can still have it.