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.