Beginner’s guide to amateur (ham) radio for preppers
How will you communicate when the grid is down? Ham radio! Don’t let the technical jargon confuse you. We break it down so you can get started quickly.[See the full post at: Beginner’s guide to amateur (ham) radio for preppers]
Dr. Prepper - April 27, 2018
Well written; thanks for providing clarity
biodiesel - May 10, 2018
Having been thru over a dozen hurricanes I considered jumping thru the hoops and getting a Ham license and equipment but for me a far easier solution was to get a satellite WiFi hotspot. Yes they’re expensive (circa $700), but they work well and use a medium we are all already familiar with – the internet. Unlike cell towers that can become blown over or unpowered our satellite constellations are pretty much always going to be there.
John RameyStaff - May 11, 2018
Glad you found something that works for you. I consider them to be two different use cases — satellite can be a good way to get to the web (I use it at my bug out location), but ham is a good way to communicate between parties without needing to rely on anything else (sats, web, etc.)
Starbuck Avon - May 12, 2018
Thank you for this. I’m just starting to prep, and I’m taking my tech exam Monday. Hopefully I’ll be ordering a handheld soon after!
John RameyStaff - May 13, 2018
Happy it helped, and best of luck on your test!
no name - September 22, 2020
let me know how long it takes to take exam i am studing for technican licences..a lot of info to remember..how long for you take test////???just asking
Paul Pollock - May 28, 2018
I’ve been a HAM since 1998, and continue to enjoy it to this day.
Your artcle is quite good, in many areas, but something was missing, and the shortfall was glaring.
The Alaska Earthquake, in 1964, plainly showed serious problems, in many areas.
The recent hurricanes, that affected Puerto Rico and outlying islands, showed many of the same issues.
While your notes are important, the most important was, in past and more recent SHTF events, was not where to buy radios, and who one talks to… but electrical power.
Not one word about it. SHTF events have one overarching problem. The power grid fails, the one thing most preppers overlook. And so did you.
Two things need discussion, especially as regards regional and national communications. Radios capable of this kind of operations, need to be selected based on types of antennas (which will still be working after the emergency will be upon you), and how much power will be consumed.
The smallest radio, using the least power, and still perform the mission; is ALWAYS the starting point. Remember, the Pacific islands emergency, had communicators that did not have generators, and gasoline was poluted by sea water. Which means battery power. Solar only works when hurricanes have not blown them off a roof.
Conserve large-scale battery power, none should be used for heat, light, or comfort. Communications is everything.
Now that we’ve gotten here, let’s talk about radios.
Nothing Icom presently makes, uses less than 1.25-amps/hr, in receive. Some are much higher. The much liked IC-718 is totally unsuitable, because it uses more than 1.5-amp/hr. Your emergency battery at 12-amps, will supply reciever operation for roughly 8-hours. Using this radio to talk on, will consume that battery in roughly 1-hour, count’em “1”.
Kenwood has absolutely nothing that lends itself to shortwave preppers’ needs.
Yaesu has not one, but possibly two radios, depending on the user needs, and how he has constructed his station.
1). Yaesu FT-857/897 type radio. Both thse radios share the exact same mainboard, so their power consumption is similar. Less than half of the reciever power of the IC-718. And neither will use more than 19-amps/hour, at 100-watts. About 7-amps at 20-watts. These numbers are some of the best power consumption numbers of any prepper radios available. The FT-857 is still available brand new. The FT-897 has been discontinued, but is available used from eBay and other sources, and its accessories are still available via HAM stores.
Are these super-radios? No, but these radios, out of the box, are much more sensitive than the whole low-priced line in Icom, or Kenwood, for that matter. And the audio-based DSP is far superior to the DSP in the Icom IC-718. At the same time, it is possible to place 9-amps of 13.2-volt batteries in a FT-897 radio, for emergency power. Something not possible in any other product line.
2). Yaesu FT-817/818. This transciever is ideal for low power operation, and many people use them for base stations, that often transceive across the United States. Recieve power consumption is less than 1/3-amp/hour! Recieve performance is similar to its larger siblings. And uses less than 2-amps/hour at the full 5-6 watts/hour. These also contain a battery that operates at full power for at least an hour, until larger batteries can be attached. And even larger batteries are available for internal installation from sources like Windcamp and Batteries America, for reasonable prices.
What this means is, keep a weather eye on that which is most important. POWER, and choose your equipment accordingly. Missing the need for power, when power is in short supply, creates a huge hole in the SHTF scenario.
John RameyStaff - May 30, 2018
Thanks for the thoughtful comments Paul. Glad you enjoyed the article. Please do keep in mind it was a total beginners guide, and although we touched on the role of power in a SHTF scenario, it was already pretty dense and we didn’t want to get in the weeds in this post.
Great equipment recs and thoughts! I’ll reach out about our future advanced / equipment recommendation article.
Bob C - July 16, 2020
As it was said in the movie Apollo 13. “Days? They don’t have days. POWER. Everything is power. Without it, they don’t thrust, they don’t power up the LEM. They don’t communicate. Without power, they’re dead, in hours. Not days.” When prepping, some type of power supply, as well as how long it is feasible to maintain needs to be a priority right up there with food, water, defenses (ammo). I can’t imagine prepping for any scenario where my families and my very survival does not rely on some form of power supply. As well as for a somewhat extended period of time for a plan B to be found based on the particular apocalypse. As long as I’ve got juice, I’m pretty sure I can hold my home if SHTF
Dan Thompson - June 6, 2018
Considering this great explanation of many aspects of radio use, there is one glaring problem:
the article was written to help novices like me to get past the horrendous amount of jargon surrounding HAM use. So WHY, for god’s sake, in the first paragraphs, did you use the unexplained acronym ‘SHTF’ and NEVER explain it. It is used consistently throughout and confuses things.
John RameyStaff - June 6, 2018
SHTF = Shit Hits The Fan, a common acronym used by preppers that we try not to spell out. But I’ve updated this article to remove the number of references to it + added context around it to explain. Thanks for the comment and glad you enjoyed the rest of the guide 🙂
Joni Zander - June 12, 2018
Love it when I can learn something and get a good chuckle here and there. You did a great job on both counts!
The Vail Tribe Family - August 26, 2018
Thanks so much for your hard work !
I was hoping you could suggest something .
I am an American citizen that moved abroad. I am hoping to create a self sufficient farm .. 20-100 acres .I am sad now because, I am unable to get a ham licence here. Also coming back to yhr states is noy an option . so what other options would I have . I would like something that I can transmitte 20 miles or more. The land is desert so there is not much for interferance. I am thinking for shtf situation and general communication between family . Out in about in reg. Situation and or emergency.
I really appreciate your suggestions and time !
John RameyStaff - August 27, 2018
Thanks for the kind words Rena. If you really can’t do ham/amateur radio where you live then I hesitate to assume what else you can/can’t do. There are not many good options for 20+ mile distances, but there are people who can get that kind of range in flat terrain with CB.
Locomiguel - September 25, 2018
Did you have a Ham License before you left the U.S.? If so, according to both the ARRL and the ARRAM web sites a reciprocal agreement is in place, meaning you can use your US license there.
If not, and if I am reading the ARRAM web site correctly as well as another, If you are a legal permanent resident (not stated in the ARRAM web site, stated in my secondary source) you should be able to take the test given 3 times a year by the Ministry of Post and Communications (?) and requires a Police background check as well as the application and fee, I would assume many “Tips” will need be provided.
O.K. my French is really bad so some (a lot) of this is me filling in the blanks. I am assuming the test will be in French since the ARRAM website is in that language, so I hope you speak it way better than I do. If you do I would contact the ARRAM for information.
John RameyStaff - September 30, 2018
Thanks for the info!
Upnnorthhere - October 6, 2018
Great intro to ham radio. I’m new to it, but I have worked radios and created digital communication systems for over 40 years for various emergency services and “government agencies”.
I know that lots of preppers consider themselves “immune” to radio regulations, but one thing I note is your statement, “no license is required” for CB, FRS or MURS. This is not technically true because nearly ALL transmitters in the USA need “a license” (including your cellphone and wifi). You automatically GET a license (by “rule”) for those, if your equipment was officially approved by the FCC (“type-certified”) for those uses. Transmissions using modified radios that violate power, channel and other restrictions would be “operating without a license”, which is a federal crime.
The ham radio structure, on the other hand, delegates this compliance (output power, frequency choice, antenna, type of modulation, etc) to the licensed ham operators themselves. Having said that, it would be “completely illegal” even for a licensed ham to transmit using a ham radio outside of ham bands. You cannot, for example, legally use a Baofeng ham radio to transmit on FRS or GMRS frequencies because they are not “type-certified” for those, and a ham license is only “valid” for ham bands. Yes, “nobody will care” and “it’s impossible to find you”, until they do care and they do find you, slap you with a $10,000 fine and confiscate your gear. Ignoring such laws, during peacetime, is probably a bad policy.
I think more energy can be put into CHANGING some of the unnecessarily burdensome laws, thus allowing everyone the opportunity to test their prepper gear legally. As you suggested, a bad time to start figuring out how to work your radio/firearms is during a real disaster. The FCC recently changed the FRS/GMRS rules, for instance, combining all 22 channels into FRS, which needs no individual operator licenses, since relatively few people were getting the $14/year GMRS licenses anyway.
Final note, “radio direction-finding” (RDF) can be a useful prepper skill, if you might someday need to locate someone who is using a transmitter to jam you, or to help find a missing person, or perhaps might indicate the location of other local survivors. Even if you’re not using it, you can be fairly certain someone else is…
Thanks for all you do in raising awareness for self-preservation.
John RameyStaff - October 6, 2018
Thanks for the thoughtful comment. Understood and agreed on your points — particularly the need to fix the regulations to make this more applicable in modern life. Given this was a layman intro and most people are concerned whether or not *they* need to get a license, we kept it at that level. Need to do an update about the Baofeng FCC mess and the GMRS combo soon.
Battlesheep - January 16, 2019
Here’s a question. I have a ham license and I want to talk to my daughter using handhelds. Say one is my base station and one is my mobile station. Can I talk to her, and have her talk to me even though she does not have a license. It would seem that since I am overseeing the conversation (and I have a license) it’s my responsibility to ensure that the rules of the road are followed with regards to our communication. Anyone disagree and why?
John RameyStaff - January 17, 2019
That’s still illegal, as far as I know. Similar to how you might oversee her driving your car but she still needs a permit/license.
Battlesheep - January 17, 2019
Ok. Except there is no permit with amateur radio. You either have a license or you don’t. I’ll have to look at Part 97 further.
John RameyStaff - January 17, 2019
It was just an analogy for student drivers, where you’re physically sitting there with them and it’s your car but they still need some kind of documentation.
To my knowledge, you cannot transmit on ham unless licensed. Good luck!
Jenny Everywhere - January 27, 2019
There is one case where you can do this, but it’s not useful for the case requested. You CAN let your child talk on the radio if you are PRESENT and can control the station. You are the “control operator”, and the child is operating under a third-party exception. This is useful for situations such as giving demonstrations or teaching kids about ham radio, but CAN’T be extended to your child being a block away on a handheld, since you aren’t present to control that station.
There is no lower AGE limit to getting an amateur license, however. If your kid can take the test and pass it, they can get a license. There have been kids under 10 who have gotten their licenses. It’s quite common for teenagers to have their licenses, and it used to be VERY popular for them to have them back in the mid-20th century, and even build their own gear.
That’s another aspect of ham radio — because there isn’t a “type acceptance” for ham gear, amateurs can build their own radios. They’re responsible for the radios working properly, within certain specifications, but they don’t have to have them inspected by a government official or anything. I’ve built a bunch of radios in the 19 years I’ve been an amateur, of varying power and with varying features. I’ve got a couple of very low power Morse-code only transceivers I put together that cost $30 each. They even have a code key as part of the PC board you can assemble. (Search Google for the Cricket 80a for 80 meters, and Cricket 30 for 30 meters. Frequency is controlled with a quartz crystal instead of a dial, but you can get crystals on Ebay cheap.) It’s a good beginner project. There’s lots of low-power kits available, and even some full-power gear you can build, and you can always get schematics and build your own gear from scratch, or design it yourself if you have the skills. Many modern radios are actually computers, the radio functions being defined in software. I’ve built three radios that used Arduino boards as the “brain”, and a digital frequency generator for the “brawn”. I recently bought a very portable radio by Elecraft, their KX3, that has the features of a base station but low power, only 10 watts. It’s about the size of an older CB walkie-talkie, but works on all of the HF bands in all of the modes. I got a 100 watt amplifier for it to use as a base station. Add a battery pack and an antenna, and you can set it up anywhere and work the world.
The MODE of operation also affects performance. Voice communications (or “phone”) is the lowest-performing of the modes, but the easiest to use. The hardest to use but one of the best-performing is Morse code, called “Continuous Wave” or “CW”. Voice has limited range because the bandwidth of the signal has to be very wide in order to carry intelligible voice. It can be easily interfered with and requires more power to go a given distance. CW requires very little power, can travel very long distances, and since it’s the most primitive digital mode, can usually be picked out of lots of noise on the airwaves easier than voice, as it only needs a minute bandwidth for your radio to detect its “on-off” signal. You can get a very simple CW transceiver on Ebay for about $10, assembled and delivered, with a plastic case. It’s code only and less than a watt of output power, and the receiver is very noisy and subject to interference, but it works. You can cut the cost in half if you buy a kit. Look for a “Pixie” or “Super Pixie” on Ebay. You can get a “Super Octopus” Rock-mite kit for about $25 that has significantly more power and a somewhat better receiver. Both are crystal driven. If you put in a crystal socket instead of soldering it in, you can change the frequency by putting in a new crystal.
There are new digital modes that can use very low power and narrow bandwidth to transmit signals very long distances, but they require a fairly beefy computer to encode and decode the signals. The benefit is that you get the durable and long-range signal of CW but don’t have to encode and decode it in your brain, the computer does it for you. (You CAN send and receive CW using a computer, but it’s not as reliable and generally considered “cheating”. Take the time and effort and learn CW — you don’t HAVE to know it, but it’s valuable and fun once you learn how.)
John RameyStaff - January 29, 2019
Thanks for the detailed info, Jenny. Makes sense that you can oversee an unlicensed person if you’re side by side.
Battlesheep - February 10, 2019
Jenny, Hi. Just saw your (indirect) response. Yup. Maybe I can talk her into getting a license.
Anyway, I’d like to recommend a really simple CW encoder/decoder by Mark Roberts (http://kk5jy.net/cw-modem-v1/) that uses an Arduino. I built one and it works really good. I even fitted it with a LCD 4 line display and a microphone so it can be left on the table and will decode CW coming from the rig’s speakers. Tx is typed normally at the PC keyboard. Can be easily interfaced to any fixed or handheld transceiver.
Scott - February 10, 2019
Sorry, but that would definitely be illegal. Have her get her Tech license and you could talk over 2 meters with repeaters. Or, alternatively, get a GMRS licence since that covers the whole family, and use good radios with external antennas for better range. Most areas in the U.S. have GMRS repeaters, but you usually have to join a club or otherwise get permission to use them, but that is usually not a big deal. Jenny Everywhere is right, your method is only legal if she is right next to you and you say “third party traffic” and your call sign at the beginning and end. You would be responsible for whatever she said over the air.
Battlesheep - February 10, 2019
Thanks for your reply. It looks like she needs to study a little and get her license. I can shame her into it by telling her that kids can do it. 🙂
Scott - February 13, 2019
Sure. There are a couple of kids in our group that have their Generals and Extras. It can be done!
no name - September 22, 2020
denver colorado says yes get a lincenses
Ron Deutsch - February 2, 2019
I have been a Ham operator for over 30 years and this is the most comprehensive introduction I have seen to date. Loaded
with tons of great information so you can make an intelligent disicion about whatever type of communication will work best for your needs. Thanks for writing this most informative article.
John RameyStaff - August 6, 2019
Thanks so much Ron, glad it passes the expert sniff test!
Pat Smith - February 8, 2019
Great article that I am going to read more in depth later but there are some things I would love to point out the range for Ham radio base station is in the thousands of miles when operating HF. Plus finding a local club is a great way to get enrolled into a FREE class for what ever license you need, I teach at a few of them. The cost for taking the exam is $15 from the ARRL there are some that will give the test for free as well since there is no charge from the FCC.
John RameyStaff - February 12, 2019
Thanks Pat! We did point out the ARRL classes, but didn’t label ham range based on HF, atmospheric bounce, or other advanced-level techniques.
Scott - February 10, 2019
Great article! I think a bit more info about solar panels to keep a deep cycle battery charged up in a grid down situation would be good. Costco just had some large ones on sale on their website. I am keeping two of these in the garage for any power outages, short or long term. I keep two large deep cycle batteries from Costco charged up under normal conditions with trickle chargers/maintainers. That way I am ready to go at a moments notice….
John RameyStaff - February 12, 2019
Thanks Scott! More content to come 🙂
Bruce Perens - August 6, 2019
As in many things, practice makes perfect. If you are not planning on regular participation in ham radio, when an emergency comes it is unlikely you will be able to set up an improvised HF antenna that works, key up a new VHF repeater, and in general communicate with your radio.
Mike L - December 22, 2019
Awesome article. I actually recommend people get both a Ham radio and a good FRS radio. While an FRS radio is no match for a Ham (as you mentioned) they still serve a purpose in survival, particularly if you are traveling with your family or a group and not everyone is a licensed Ham. Most FRS radios now also can receive NOAA and other emergency updates.
The PreparedStaff - December 23, 2019
Robert Wright - April 24, 2020
The main purpose of my ham radio station is to be able to communicate with the outside world in the event of an earthquake or similar disaster. Without power from the grid, I can reliably communicate with others 500 miles away.
My power source is a 100 AH battery which is charged by a 100 watt solar panel. That cost me about $200. My ham radio is a used Kenwood TS130 which I bought off eBay for about $200. My antenna is just a 110 foot piece of insulated copper wire which cost me less than $20. The antenna tuner I use cost $100.
I test it every afternoon on the 40 meter band and every evening on the 75 meter band. For the past two years it hasn’t failed once.
With ham radio, it’s possible to communicate a lot farther than 500 miles, but with my station, which is designed for NVIS, I wouldn’t be able to so with reliability.
JohnM - June 7, 2020
Electronics has been my hobby since age six and I have two electrical engineering degrees. The technical requirements are second nature to me, so getting my HAM radio license was an obvious path, but the Morse code requirement intimidated me as a kid. Even after Morse code was dropped, I just kind of stuck that way and never reconsidered until now. You just might have created a new HAM operator.
You know, the funny thing is that I ended up writing a technical manual in Japanese, which required learning several thousand Chinese characters. What’s so scary about ~40 Morse code characters?
Daryl - June 25, 2020
You mention “portable HF units that can fit in a backpack”. Do you have any examples of these?
Robert Wright - June 26, 2020
The most common backpack HF unit is the Yaesu FT817nd because it’s decent and been around the longest. It puts out 5 watts. Elecraft has the KX2 and the KX3 which are newer and superior in design. They put out around 10 watts. There are a couple of radios coming out from China, the Xiegu, one that puts out 5 watts another another one that puts out 20.
The best of the bunch in terms of quality, expandability, and ease of operation would be the KX3. It’s also the most expensive.
There are small mobile radios like the Yaesu FT891 that will fit in a backpack and run 100 watts but need a power source like a car battery or a 100 ah battery connected to a full size solar panel.
Conditions will allow 5 watt radios to work sometimes. You’ve got to be fairly lucky. Twenty watt radios will work a lot more often, and a 100 watt radio works even better. But even with a 100 watt radio, you are subject to daily band conditions and the time of day. A portable HF radio set up makes communication possible, but not reliable. Even a good HF base station isn’t always reliable.
Radios that put out 5 to 10 watts are challenging to operate which make it an interesting hobby, but not very good for a preparation plan. A small size 100 watt HF rig, preferably with a built in antenna tuner, would be the best way to go unless you know you won’t have any way to power it.
My HF base station runs off a battery and a solar panel. I also have portable HF 5 and 20 watt radios and a 75 watt 2 meter radio To supplement emergency ham radio communication, I have a Garmin inReach Mini satellite device for two-way email. It costs me $12/month but it’s very reliable and enables communication with anybody worldwide.
Joe - August 26, 2020
Great article. I was the director of net operations for the ARRL Force of Fifty in Puerto Rico and you guys nailed all the points. Thanks.
John RameyStaff - August 26, 2020
Thanks Joe! So cool to meet someone who ran that effort, which you saw I referenced heavily when I wrote this post shortly after the PR hurricanes. Thank you for the work you did helping those in need.
We want to expand more ham-related content soon, so it’d be great to see you around the community and maybe chip in!
We’d love to hear about and maybe share your story of that PR experience, for example.
Joe - August 28, 2020
It would be my pleasure. I found theprepared.com this afternoon while researching some content for a brand new venture. The site won’t be live until mid-September. In the meantime, I’ll stop by theprepared.com a few times a week to become familiar with the community. I’ve deployed for 5 hurricanes locally (and might be headed to southwest Louisiana in the next day or two) and am the training officer for our county Amateur Radio Emergency Services, so I might be able to come up with something to contribute.
Again, thanks for the great content. The picture of the people with cell phones in the air caught my eye. I actually said out loud, “That looks just like Puerto Rico after Maria.” Lo and behold, it was.
Grace and 73.
Sam - September 14, 2020
Care to help a newbie jump into the ham universe? I’m looking for two things, I think. Portable ham for extended bug out situations and a way to reach my kids who are out of state.
Im thinking of FRS devices for communicating with my boys and a ham for myself. I’m interested in pursuing a license ASAP…not only for the apparent SHTF scenario I’m watching unfold.
If I’m focused on getting up to speed (license and practice), about how long will it take to be proficient enough to use it when it’s REALLY needed.
Many thanks to the contributors. I’ve been researching and settled here for advice after reading the many helpful posts and articles
Joe - September 15, 2020
Please see my reply to your other post regarding MURS.
To be prepared for what you describe, high frequency privileges are necessary. That requires at least a General class license which is the middle of the three classes. Technician class is the entry level. While the Technician class does have access to 10 meters, 10 meters has been usable for 3-4 years and won’t be usable again for another 3-4. Even when the sunspot cylce comes back it isn’t reliable for emergency communication.
The Technician class exam is easy. The General is somewhat more difficult, but many people take the Tech and General in the same session. I’ve written a blog post with some tips and hints for passing the Tech exam. http://valiantoutfitters.com/how-to-study-for-the-ham-radio-test/
Also, I have an online 4 hour course to prepare for the Tech exam in the final phase of development. It should be available before the end of the month (I want to avoid spamming this site, but I’d be happy to get the information to you, if you’re interested in the course). People (over 100 of them) who have taken the in person version of the course have all passed the exam in less than 4 attempts. The exam is free through some organizations and I list those in the blog post.
You’ll want to take the exam before the end of the year. Ham licenses are currently free, but the FCC is probably going to start charging $50 next year.
Of course, this is a great community at theprepared.com and you can get a lot of help here.
Lil K - September 15, 2020
Sam, like you I am worried about todays state of affairs and am looking to Ham radio as a way to communicate with loved ones as well as stay on top of things when SHTF. I just ordered this to get my toes wet with the basics-
– Please keep in touch. It will be interesting to see where our journeys take us with this!
Joe, mad respect for the work you do. Hat’s off. Appreciate all the tips and tricks. I’ll look into taking both exams and I’m interested in your course as well.
Joe - September 15, 2020
Thanks for the kind words. The ARRL book is great. Another one that is a bit more concise is the Gordon West book. Gordon is quite a character and his books are the best on the market. In fact, I mention them in all of my classes and recommend and link to them as an Amazon Affiliate in my blog posts.
no name - September 22, 2020
still working on my technican course working hard..
Jonnie PekelnyContributor - December 21, 2020
I know that this is a thread primarily for ham radio, but I just want to put in a plug for providing resources for people who are NOT currently on the ham track. Speaking for myself, I am interested in ham radio, but I’m not ready to take it on as a project right now. It honestly seems like a bit of a rabbit hole. I do, however, need some kind of emergency radio/communications in the meantime. All your website says is that NOAA radios are unreliable, bulky and not recommended. So, what is a beginning prepper who’s not ready to dive into ham supposed to do?
Joe - December 21, 2020
Jonnie, welcome to the thread. You’re right, ham radio isn’t the only option for communication in a disaster scenario, but it is the best option because it can cover all of the other options, ie NOAA, broadcast, two-way, etc.
I’m not sure where the impression of NOAA being “…unreliable, bulky…” came from, but I disagree with it. NOAA radio is excellent for what it purports to be: broadcasts of weather and other emergency information. The issue is that the information it broadcasts is of limited value for preppers. There are many excellent NOAA radios on the market that are robust, but portable. In short, NOAA radio and ham radio can’t be compared, they’re completely different forms of communication, each having it’s own intrinsic value for preppers.
Adequate preparedness requires two-way communication. There are some options to ham radio that are less expensive and don’t require a license. The most accessible is FRS (Family Radio Service). These are the walkie-talkies that can be found in Walmart and other big box stores and CBs are also an option, (along with GMRS (General Mobile Radio Service) keeping in mind that all of these options are extremely limited in both distance and frequency accessibility.
In the end, ham radio is the best option for communication in a worst case scenario. It’s provides much longer and more reliable two-way communication than any of the others listed. It also provides access to broadcast information such as NOAA and commercial radio. Also, with modification it can monitor first-responder communication and aeronautical/marine traffic.
Finally, I’m not sure what you mean by a “rabbit hole,” but earning a ham radio license is not difficult (I’ve developed a tip sheet for passing the exam that I’m happy to share via email) and the expense for actionable ham gear is less than $150 (some would argue less, but I encourage staying above bargain basement).
Again, welcome to the thread.
Jonnie PekelnyContributor - December 21, 2020
@Joe. Thanks for offering to share the cheat sheet. You can send it to [email protected]. The statement that NOAA radios are bulky and aren’t recommended comes from the ham radio intro on this website. I am not contesting the value of ham radio. I’m just saying that if a person isn’t (yet) able to put in lots of effort and training into it it’s important to have an alternative tool for disasters.
Are you saying that I can plunk down $150 for the equipment, go through your cheat sheet, pass the test and be more or less set as a ham radio operator with some degree of (at least beginning) competence? How much time do you think it takes to get up to speed? It would be great if that were the case. My impression is that most people into ham spend lots of money on equipment and lots of hours training and delving.
Robert Wright - December 21, 2020
Jonnie, I think your reservations are valid. I agree that ham radio can easily become a rabbit hole and for it to a reliable, long range communication resource. You not only have to pass a test, but you’ll have spend a fair amount of time and effort familiarizing yourself with how it works and to troubleshoot when things don’t go as expected. If you’re hesitant on taking it on as a project, yes, you might want to pass on it or consider a lower tier of involvement.
You also need to figure that when ham radio is an alternative means of communication, it usually needs an alternative power source. You’ll need a solar power setup, a gas generator, or an easy way to connect it to your car battery.
Keep in mind that I’m talking about HF, the 40 and 80 meters bands, which will allow semi-reliable communication from 200 to 800 miles. To set up a station for HF with new equipment, you could spend as little as $800. For old, used equipment, maybe $500 if you’re lucky.
The two meter band is a different ballgame. You can set up a two meter radio for $150 and it doesn’t require the time, energy or preparation of HF. Two meters will come in handy for emergencies when the phones are out and they have a range of about 20 miles and farther when used with repeaters. Many repeaters have battery back up but during a serious emergency, their use will be restricted.
Is getting a two meter radio worth the time and investment? I happen to think so, without hesitation. In some disaster situations, it will come in handy. As for HF, I’m glad I’m set up for it, but it’s not something I’d recommend for everyone.
Robert Wright - December 22, 2020
Giving advice on emergency preparation can be confusing because different degrees of emergency require different measures. If we’re talking about something like the Loma Prieta earthquake in the Bay Area that knocked out phones and the power grid for about a day, two meter ham radio came in handy to keep in touch with friends and family members who also had two meter radios and who were local. To communicate with friends and family outside of the Bay Area, battery powered HF ham radio was needed.
If you experience a disaster that knocks out the phones for a day or two in your community, you’ll feel fortunate to be equipped with two meter ham radios. If the disaster knocks out power and communications with a 100 mile radius or greater, you’ll wish you had a HF radio station as well as two meters.
To repeat, equipping yourself with two meter radios isn’t expensive and getting the license isn’t terribly difficult. It’s a good, reasonable measure to consider for emergency preparation. To go beyond two meters and set up an off-grid HF station will increase your range of communication but I’m not sure it’s worth the time, expense, and effort unless you also want to adopt ham radio as a hobby.
I have two meter radios and a solar powered HF station but I also have a Garmin inReach Mini that can send and receive texts and email via satellite. I’m not sure how satellite communication will function during a wide area catastrophe, but I have it just in case. The monthly fee is about $12, which stings a little, but satellite communication is more reliable than ham radio and it would be convenient to communicate directly with friends and family outside of the catastrophe zone who don’t have radios.
Joe - December 21, 2020
Sorry for the delay in responding. The email address is returning “invalid.” Please feel free to contact me at [email protected] and I’ll forward the sheet.
John RameyStaff - December 23, 2020
Quick note that we just put up NOAA radios roundup: https://theprepared.com/gear/reviews/emergency-radio/
RV Zone - February 3, 2023
Amateur radio, sometimes referred to as a ham radio, is a common tool for communication. It caters to a wide range of consumers with different demands and conveys messages across great distances.
Some people take a ham radio with them for emergencies and SOS calls, such as sailors and hikers. Some people have a ham radio so they can experiment and study radio skills. But not everyone has the money to purchase a ham radio. As a result, homebrew ham radios gain popularity.
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