If you think about it, communication with the outside world is going to become really important in the weeks and months after a system collapse or major disaster. You may have food and water for months, but you don’t have it for years. And as I explained in my article on seeds, growing your own food just isn’t that easy. But as several commenters pointed out on the first radio article in this series, there is a strong argument to maintain radio silence. Any experienced radio operator can triangulate your position as soon as you press the send key, and in any survival situation, and you can bet that there will be hostiles out there listening for where they can steal some supplies. Radio silence has to be weighed against the benefits of reaching out to the world outside.
Therefore, I think the smartest advance plan of action is to build a mobile radio system, and not a lame one. You need a solid radio that can really reach out there, across all of the active radio frequencies worldwide. Your only option is a full featured Ham radio, and it needs a mobile power system, a mobile antenna, and ideally an added antenna tuner. Most important, the whole system has to fit into a backpack that you can travel quickly with. Estimated cost? Gulp. Just over or at least in the vicinity of $1,000. As I explained in the first article, there are a few handhelds that you can get in unlocked versions that will at least be able to listen to most active bands, but if you want to be able to transmit, even a good deal on Ebay is going to run you $500 just for the radio.
Why mobile? Because we don’t at this point know who the hostiles will be, and it could very well be the government. The military is building small towns on their bases these days with soccer fields and church steeples. FEMA has created a network of internment camps nationwide, with “Fusion” centers connecting communications between the brown shirt police state agencies for when the collapse occurs. Freedom loving Americans are the enemy now. And if you have stocked up food, water, and arms, you will be viewed as an enemy to all “true” patriots, because you are hoarding what “belongs to the people.” Whether we have a quick collapse or a slow and softer collapse, this type of policy is virtually guaranteed. So on the one hand you really need a good flow of information as to what is going on out there, but on the other hand, you certainly don’t want to be found by whoever ends up being in charge.
One press on your send microphone may call in an airstrike, a team of commandos, or a pickup truck full of good ‘ol boys who weren’t as dumb as everyone thought they were. But if you can transmit even a mile from your bugout location (traveling off the roads of course), communications won’t endanger your team. Then you can observe the area you transmitted from. Maybe nobody is listening. But then again, maybe someone is listening. Regardless, a valuable flow of information from distant lands will increase your changes of coming out of your situation alive, and probably save you some time going it on your own. In the meantime, practice with your radio, either by finding a licensed “Elmer” Ham operator, or by getting licensed yourself. Learn the frequencies used by law enforcement and military. Nobody can tell if you are listening, just transmitting, so learn how to listen now, while life is still easy. Two mobile systems will allow you to send out a long distance scout who can then report back to a remote location closer to but still far enough away from your base camp.
This is why I decided to build two complete mobile radio systems for this article. One is based on the Yaesu 857D and the other is the Yaesu FT-817ND. Both are well under $1,000 brand new, and I would not call either of these choices definitive in selecting the right radio. You can’t go wrong with either of them as opposed to others of similar features and bandwidth. There are a ton of great radios out there of basically the same size and function, and price. One of my main factors was that I wanted an unlocked radio, so I bought both of these from the seller in Greece that I mentioned in the last article. He currently isn’t offering the 857D, but the only reasons I chose that radio at the time was that it was a higher wattage radio that was built for mobile (it comes with a mounting bracket for trucks), and the reviews at EHam.net said that it was very voltage tolerant. I am running the 857D from a battery, so this is very important.
The FT-817ND has its own battery pack and it is very small. To me that is a huge plus because there is not very much to go wrong with it. As long as you can charge the battery, you have a radio. The downside to the radio is that it only broadcasts at a maximum of 20 watts (with a software mod from this guy in Greece), and only 5 watts on several of the more useful Ham bands. The 5 watts is only when it is plugged in, so on battery power you are dealing with a 2.5 watt radio. This isn’t a deal killer. An experienced Ham operator can reach across the world with only a 1/2 watt during certain times of the day. But a 2.5 watt radio isn’t going to be as useful as a 100 watt radio in most circumstances.
If you don’t know anything about Ham radio, please read my first article on radios. It breaks out the different types of radios out and explains why Amatuer Radio, ie. Ham, is your best bet for survival communications. I’m not going to spend a lot of time on the issue of Ham licensing for this article. You do need a license to operate both of these radios, and because I have not tested for my license yet I am not going to cover using them at all. There will be a followup in the future. This article is about the physical components you need, and where I bought them.
The thing that made me decide to build these systems was a radio backpack frame I stumbled across on Ebay. It makes a car model Ham radio into something like a military backpack radio, called a “manpack.” The frame isn’t cheap, $159, and it fits into a backpack that the same seller sells for $105, which I also bought. There is also a different seller of the larger frame for $150 right now if you jump on it, and you want the bigger size, for which you’ll have to find a backpack that fits it. The way I see it is that you can buy a Vietnam era military radio backpack for under $1,000 these days, and they sometimes work, but I don’t see any reason to rely on old technology when this option is available. In case the above seller runs out (he only has 4 left as of this writing), there is another guy on Ebay selling the smaller frame for $170. This guy also seems to have a lot of the larger frame for $150. Check the sizes before you buy. There is a “big one” that is 490 and a “small one” that is 400. I don’t know what either of those numbers mean, but they aren’t millimeters from what I can tell. Mine measures 5″ x 10.5″ x 15.75″ edge to edge.
The metal frame came unassembled, and it is little more than a stainless steel erector set. But it does work. The radio went into the brackets, and I was able to also install an antenna tuner into the same frame. I also bought some mobile sized 12v batteries to the kit. You can use any 12v battery, but I decided to spend the extra $99 on a LifePO4 lithium on Ebay that is made for electric bicycles in addition to a couple of sealed lead acid batteries which are only about $20 each with shipping. LifePO4 holds voltage longer than sealed acid before it dies, so it is ideal for electronics that depend upon stable voltage.
The antenna tuners for both kits are from LDG, and both are made for the specific radios. Yaesu also makes antenna tuners, but they are more expensive than the LDG tuners and aren’t as highly rated. Once you dig a little bit into Ham radio science you’ll find that there are zillions of antenna designs out there, and the technology is still evolving. For home installations, the Yagi design is considered the most powerful for both reception and transmission, but they are huge. For mobile, you can choose from a number of inexpensive designs, and some even purport to be as good as the big Yagis. But no matter what your antenna, you really need an antenna tuner to give you the best signal for the equipment. Get the Ham books I linked to in the first article. You will have to learn what terms like SWR mean to some degree, but these antenna tuners will do a lot more for you than books of knowledge about radio waves. The LDG Z-817 is usually under $175, and the LDG Z-100 is usually under $225. The nice thing about the Z-100 is that it runs off of the radio power, whereas the Z-817 requires AA batteries, as you can see in the pictures. With both of these tuners you tune to the desired frequency and push a button. After a series of clicks the station comes in, and your antenna has been optimized for that frequency.
For antennas on the kits I bought a few different ones. To start, you’ll need two different types of antennas for each radio, and both radios have two antenna hookups for that reason. The VHF and UHF bands use a small whip antenna (the FT-817 comes with one) and the HF bands use a longer antenna that can either be manually adjusted to different sizes or that has electronic components that adjust the antenna to act like it is different sizes. The original military radios even had two different types of antennas, including a take apart whip. On my larger kit, the one with the metal frame, I got an $79 MFJ-1699S mobile antenna. It uses a “wander lead” for the different HF bands which tap internal windings in the base of the unit matching the partial wave lengths required for picking up and broadcasting HF frequencies. This antenna covers 80 meters, which is 3.675 mhz – 3.725 mhz, all the way to 2 meters, which is 144 mhz – 148 mhz. A small whip antenna on the other side of the frame will cover the higher frequencies, and this radio will be “done.”
On the FT-817 I bought a similar MFJ mobile antenna created just for that radio, but a little smaller. The $89 MFJ-1899T covers 80 meters through 6 meters, which is the 50 mhz – 54 mhz band, because the included whip antennas with the FT-817 cover the rest of the UHF spectrum. The FT-817 is meant to use a separate antenna for HF bands, which is why it has a regular connector on the rear of the radio, so I still have to research what happens with the antenna tuner when you use the whip antenna mount for HF. After I get my license and can experiment with the radios I’m sure it will all become clearer. There are settings on the FT-817 to switch between the whip and rear antenna feeds, so it really is just confusing about the antenna tuner.
For both radios I also bought some interesting alternative products from various sellers on Ebay who seem to be very eager and confident in the products they sell. In the pictures you can see that I included the “QSO King” antenna in my small hydration pack that I set aside for the FT-817 and it’s LDG tuner. He claims that you can string the wire on that kit from tree to tree in just about any fashion you want and it will give you performance similar to a Yagi. The black wire is very discreet and I like that, if it performs as promised. There are also a number of open coil antennas both from MFJ and on Ebay, and I got one that works from 80-6 meters that has a lot of great reviews. You mount it on an tripod, or clip it to a table or something. And the most interesting antenna I got is another MFJ product called the MFJ-1621. It covers 10-40 meters, which are the most useful Ham bands, and it is adjustable from a base unit without a tuner, though I plan to use one. Antennas can drive you nuts because there are just so many of them, so don’t rush to buy one until you read up on the various options out there.
You can see from the pictures that I also added a “foldable solar panel” to the kit. This is only a 100 watt panel so when I tried to power the radio directly from the panel with no battery it didn’t work, even in full Florida sunlight. It probably isn’t advisable to try that at home. But as a part of your mobile radio kit, I highly recommend a portable solar charging system and ideally an extra battery. Once you make a connection there is nothing worse than going dark for loss of power. Long range radio contact is best made at night, so sleeping during the day and traveling/communicating at night will be your best bet anyway. It is always best to top of your battery when you can.
Are you better to buy $1,000 worth of food or medicine before building this radio kit? It all depends on how much food and medicine you have and how much money you have. But you can’t escape the question, and it is a question that comes up all the time whenever you talk about survival preparedness. A better question would be are you better to build a mobile radio or buy an once of gold, or 50+ ounces of silver, or even yet another AR or 5,000 rounds of ammo? My answer would be the radio, because all of things would be put aside for barter, post collapse, and there is no guarantee that the collapse is going to happen, let alone that there will be people to barter with. Let me ask a better question. If you had to bug out and take only what you need with you, would you take the radio or yet another AR? 50+ ounces of silver? Even an once of gold if you had to choose between the two? I’d take the radio.