Prepping 101: Software Defined Radios

As the empire begins to collapse around us, and the more aware among us begin to question if the American prosperity bubble will remain, it is pretty easy to freak out about being cut off from knowing what’s going on.

When I first started looking at communications options for after the grid goes down, like many, my first find was the Boefang UV-5R handheld “ham” radio. I have seen them for as little as $7 over the years, and back in 2013 or so, most of the prepper blogs were touting them and linking to them.

Come to find out, the reason they were touting them was because they were getting Amazon kickbacks for sales. And the radio itself is mostly useless. This was actually a big part of what got me to dig far into the various aspects of survival after a collapse, and the knowledge base in this column is deeper than any other you will find.

What I discovered with radios is that with a few exceptions I did find, you mostly get what you pay for. It is also not so simple, and by that I really mean NOT SO SIMPLE (I am going to try to limit curse words this go around). If you want to talk to people all over the globe, from your own radio, you can. But it will take you months of learning, and if you want to actually broadcast before the collapse, you will need an advanced “Ham” radio license.

This is mostly because, as I explained in the video, radio signals are thick. If you are talking on a certain frequency, and you do have worldwide reach, both listening and talking, only you can use that block, which will cover a large chunk of the frequency spectrum. If two ore more people talk, in Ham-speak, it becomes a “pile-up,” where nobody can understand anything.

Our cellphones are something of a technological marvel in this regard. They all use the same block of bandwidth, but somehow the hardware at the towers can decode these gigantic pileups, and allow us to speak to each other. Our phones can also use a standard “line of sight” band for their signals, because cell towers have become ubiquitous throughout much of the civilized world.

The UV-5R, and all of the related radios, are also a line of sight radio. They broadcast on bands of frequencies in the VHF and UHF range, and without a tower of some kind to accept and rebroadcast their signals, radio to radio, on the ground, their maximum range is 7 miles, due to the curvature of the earth. In practice, especially in an urban setting with buildings, the practical range is more like several hundred yards. Even in the woods I have rarely gotten more than a mile out of small handhelds.

That is why, for this column, I elected to stick to receiving signals, not broadcasting them. If you search the archives here at GunsAmerica Digest, you will find some fantastic suggestions for how to get the least expensive broadcasting radios. I also found a Ham radio backpack and built two working rigs, and I even found a long range super cheap walkie-talkie radio that broadcasts morse code from an Android app, and can be used totally off grid.

This week I cover Software Defined Radios, mostly the cheapest options that connect to your computer and use free software to listen.

To understand why they are so important, first you have to somewhat understand why true Ham radio is so different from pretty much everything else. Ham radio, otherwise known as amateur radio, started at the dawn of radio communications. Back then, the governments of the world quickly understood the implications of radio technology, and they came to international agreements as to how these frequencies would be used, and who was allowed to use them.

Because most radio signals will only travel in line of sight, even with a 400 foot tower most signals die within hundreds of miles at most (pre-sattelite). The easiest of these signals to use are above 30 megahertz, because you can easily use smaller antennas for maximum reach.

Therefore, the amateurs of course were given the frequencies that require huge antennas. Nobody was really interested in these frequencies, and even at that, the Hams were only allowed small slivers of bandwidth.

Turns out, these frequencies, under 30 megahertz have a unique property not found in the higher frequency spectrum. They bounce off of the ionosphere, and skip their way almost entirely around the globe. In radio parlance, this block is called HF, or High Frequency.

The UV-5R talks on VHF and UHF, for very and ultra high frequencies. The blocks are indeed also Ham bands these days, but they do not extend beyond line of sight.

If you watch the video, you will find radios as little as $23 that can listen to the entire useful radio spectrum, from 100 kilohertz to almost 2 gigahertz. And included in this are the 1.5 to 30 megahertz Ham bands. If you buy the simple “discone” antenna I show you, most of these frequencies are listenable, but then you can take it from there.

As I said, it’s NOT SO SIMPLE. There are all kinds of band isolators, and FM blockers, and of course standard Ham antennas that will all enhance your ability to hear signals worldwide. Rather than link to them, all of the sources are searchable, because rather than just buy it, you should research it a little first for yourself.

What I didn’t cover in the video, but I will mention here, is the swath of frequencies that you be able to monitor with SDR# and even the cheapest RTL-SDR dongle and an up converter (or the $23 all in one I suggest).

There are now SDR# plugins that allow you to kind of bookmark frequency blocks, and ask the software to monitor them for you. From a prepper standpoint, this is wildly valuable not only for listening about potential news out there, but also to “hear” an expeditionary force that may be headed your way. Most military encryption is not crackable by the plugins, but they can’t hide the actual signals.

If you see people talking on the frequency spikes, but it is encrypted, it could be time to hide for a while until they pass. You also will be able to listen in on small groups that may be using the small Boefang or Wouxon radios for inter-group communications.

Powering these radios is also not so hard. I covered the basics of solar in at least two articles and videos, and the internet is full of resources. Solar panels are cheap these days, and the panels and charge controllers are all over Ebay, Amazon, and AliExpress. Just get at least one good 100ah gel cell, and a 19v converter for your laptop, which I also covered here.

It may seem overwhelming if you are just thinking about taking this stuff seriously, but remember, there are two best times to plant a tree. Thirty years ago, and today. I am going to allow comments to this article, because Hams can be very helpful.

{ 11 comments… add one }
  • BCS September 26, 2019, 11:59 am

    Good article, good info as usual. Really great to see Prepping 101 back, I missed it, thanks for bringing it back.

  • Ewell Cassidy September 24, 2019, 9:23 am

    You need to educate yourself about ham radio yes VHF UHF is line of sight but I can talk 50 plus miles radio to radio no repeater all VHF if you buy one of those cheap baofeng radios you get what you pay for the receivers in them are pieces of junk they transmit decent but there is HF which you can talk around the world and when the shift hits the fan that’s what you want is you want and HF radio which covers many bands millions of usable frequencies and yes you have to be a licensed operator in case of an emergency you can use a ham radio without a license if it’s a life-threatening situation but from the video I watched you need to educate yourself on radios how they work how radios propagate through the atmosphere because you are Miss informing Preppers again when it comes to radios whether it be VHF UHF or HF you get what you pay for if you buy $25 radio you’re going to get a radio that will talk seven miles you get a name brand radio like Kenwood or Yaesu VHF you’ll be able to talk 50-plus miles you definitely need to educate yourself amateur radio the capabilities of HF we don’t have a small sliver of radio spectrum that we can talk on we have a very wide Spectrum of the radio band plan sit down by the FCC educate yourself you’re coming amateur radio operator instead of making yourself look like a fool

  • Bill September 24, 2019, 7:54 am

    Rationalizing that you won’t tell us necessary info so that we can do our own research is hardly helping. If you have knowledge, share it.

    • Dan Borchers May 17, 2020, 5:27 pm

      If you want a nanny, be a liberal. Be a man and do your own work.

  • BK September 23, 2019, 1:12 pm

    Easy answer, if this is important to you, plant the tree now. Learn , practice. Get your ham ticket. I’m an Extra. There are so many great study guides. Morse code is no longer required. My young daughter has her Tech ticket, and next summer will go for her General. The General gets you 90% of all Ham operating rights.

  • Chris Baker September 23, 2019, 12:32 pm

    Ham License KK6LOP, reading your article I was pretty disappointed. Baofeng radios are the bottom of the barrel, quality and performance wise. It\’s well worth it to spend $100+ and get a decent handheld like those from Alinco, Yaesu, Kenwood and others. Second point, all handhelds regardless of brand have crap for antennas. You can gain quite a bit of performance by adding a simple wire to the antenna system of a handheld between 12\” to 20\” being easily managed while porting your radio around if hiking of moving about a park or on a salvage mission after things fall apart. You simply wrap it around the base of the antenna being careful not to touch the center conductor of the antenna and just let it dangle. Better yet is an after market antenna such as the dual band antenna sold by Diamond or other manufacturers. Keep the dangling wire though. For your base station using a handheld or a mobile rig or even a full size base VHF/UHF rig, would be to buy a 16\” steel pizza pan from Walmart and a decent magnet mount that would normally go on your car and use that. I was able to hit the President\’s Peak repeater over 30 miles away with a 5 watt handheld and a diamond magnet mount sitting on a pizza pan and inside my living room.
    For anyone truly interested in Ham radio, whether for emergency use or for fun and camaraderie, get \”Ham Radio for Dummies\”. Research the local clubs in your area either by internet search or by contacting the \”American Radio Relay League\”. They have some really good books on getting started, getting your license and also upgrading your license. For those who use the radio as an emergency only communication device you still need to practice otherwise it\’s like going to the range for the first time in years with your favorite firearm and expecting to hit all bullseyes.
    Much simpler and easier is to simply use a CB radio. Many Hams sneer at CB but they are much closer to ubiquitous than ham radios and much easier to operate. They operate on the 11 meter band and are legally limited to 4 watts. In the 1980s I talked to the east coast regularly with an 4 watt CB and sporadically to Hawaii and a couple of times to New Zealand. That probably won\’t happen now due to the lack of sunspots predicted for the next 3 solar cycles but they go around corners much better than VHF/UHF and the frequency selection is already set up, you simply choose one of 40 preset channels and key up and talk.
    Whatever you do, don\’t by cheap junk. Research the brands before you buy anything.

  • PHILIP September 23, 2019, 11:52 am

    Good Ham 101 item Paul. A neat android smart phone app for those interested in identifying local ham radio activity try “repeaterbook” available in the Plat Store. 73, Phil

    • PHILIP September 23, 2019, 11:54 am

      Can’t seem to get it correct. Sorry, I fat fingered “Play Store.”
      Phil

    • PHILIP September 23, 2019, 12:30 pm

      For reception on an SDR HF receiver almost any piece of wire extending 20 feet or more will hear many signals. Antennas cut for a specific frequency will do far better, and is essential for transmitting. For the beginner listening can be easily done at very low cost.

      • Ti September 23, 2019, 7:51 pm

        Good point.

        A ham radio license is the best way to understand the commo chain “links”.

        VHF/UHF is line of sight, expect no more unless you are the local commo engineer, not witch doctor. These radios being DC to daylight suffer from “birdies” and noise in different bands. If you understand this, and not to brag, it takes alot of stick time on radios and spectrum analyzers to understand, you can do anything. You want reliable links, you plan, build and USE before its actually needed. Find an old timer to Elmer you.

        You can listen all day on random wire antenna, to establish a reliable link, a resonant transmitting antenna should be used, otherwise you are wasting transmit power to standing waves as was stated.

  • Adam Freeman September 23, 2019, 5:38 am

    Thanks for this article on your observations of the usefulness of SDR’s for “off-the-grid” communications. As an off-road truck camper and back-country hiker, I am always looking for ideas on how to improve my experience on my “boondoggles” around the country. Telecommunications, or Coms in general, are one thing I have yet to completely be prepped for. I enjoyed the article!

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