Ham radio for local communication
Hi all. New here. Just found this site today. I’m hoping some of the more experienced preppers might be able to help me out. I earned my Ham Radio Tech license last August. My hope was that I would be able to communicate with my brother in law (25 miles east of me) and my nephew (20 miles southeast of me). We all purchased HTs. Unfortunately, I live on the wrong side of the hills and we can’t find a repeater that all three of us can reach reliably. We tried new HT antennas, mag mounts for our cars and even roof mounted antennas. No luck. My next thought was to get a mobile HF radio. Maybe one that works on six or ten meters, which our tech licenses allow us to use. I did try contacting our local ham club, but that was a dead end. They suggested I use Echolink (which worked) but it defeats the purpose of having an emergency backup when the internet/cell communications are down.
Seasons4 - March 20, 2022
Hi, Greg. Congratulations on obtaining your ham radio license and on working so diligently to communicate with family members if internet /cell phone service is down. I got my license 8 years ago, but I am still a beginner. I hope that others with more experience and knowledge will chime in. Here are a few thoughts and questions.
Is your roof-mounted antenna a directional / beam / Yagi? My roof-mounted beam antenna allows me to reach the repeater in the next county, at least as far away as you’re trying to reach. I use a Cushcraft CSH-A124WB, which is a 2 meter, 4 element wideband directional antenna.
However, your hills could be a real problem. If all three of you can’t reach the same repeater, you might need another ham to relay messages in an emergency. It would be nice to set up that arrangement in advance, though it may be challenging to find a reliable ham operator in the right spot with the right equipment.
You might also check if there are any linked repeater systems in your area. That way, you and your family could potentially communicate even though you’d be hitting different repeaters.
I’ve also heard of people using radios with DStar capability to reach the DStar repeater network. Some radios have System Fusion, which I believe uses a linked repeater arrangement. Radios with APRS allow short email messages to be sent. Besides Echolink, there is also Winlink, which uses a combination of the internet and radio waves, as I understand it.
My general sense is that digital radios can use a combination of internet and radio waves to achieve communication. To be independent of the internet and only use radio waves, it sounds like your hills are the problem. I’m not sure HF will solve the problem due to the feature of HF propagation called HF skip or the HF skip zone / silent zone / dead zone. It’s why HF stations farther away from each other can sometimes hear each other better than HF stations close together.
I’ll keep thinking about your situation and let you know if I have other thoughts. As I said, I hope others will chime in. One advantage to getting involved with an ARES group is you get to know who is public service minded and might have the equipment and the interest to relay messages if all family members can’t hit the same repeater.
Greg Ustaszewski - March 20, 2022
Hi Seasons4. Thank you for the suggestions. Both my brother-in-law and I are using Arrow dual band J pole antennas. We went with a dual band antenna because, well it was dual band and it was cheaper! Even so, I have good signal in my area and I can reach quite a few repeaters, but not any my brother in law can reach, because of the hill between us. We’re going to try to raise his antenna higher to see if he can reach a big repeater to the north of us. We’ve tried using this repeater a few times but his signal is just too weak. He bought a tall painter’s pole that we’re going to try to mount to his chimney. That should raise his antenna about 18′ higher than it is right now.
I’ll look into Dstar and System Fusion. I’m not at all familiar with those. My brother-in-law is not very techy, so I’m trying to make everything as simple as possible for him. Using Echolink was challenging for him.
I’m thinking of buying a TYT TH9800 quad band radio. Even if it doesn’t allow me to communicate with my brother-in-law and nephew it will give me an HF radio to use. I know it’s a cheap knock off of a Yeasu, but I’m not ready to invest in a ton of radio equipment right now. I just want the minimum necessary to get the job done. The reviews are pretty mixed on the Th9800. Do you have any experience with it? Any other suggestions? Thanks again. Greg.
Seasons4 - March 21, 2022
Hi, Greg. I don’t have experience with the radio you mention. Regarding your brother in law and his signal strength issue, you might consider replacing his HT with a mobile unit that’s used as a base station. That’s what I do for VHF/UHF. It’s dual band, designed for a vehicle, but I keep it at home. It can transmit at up to 50 watts, I think, versus maybe 5 watts for an HT.
Also, still thinking about the probable need for relay help because of the hills, you might check with your local Red Cross and/or Salvation Army and/or county emergency manager to see what they have set up to relay health and welfare messages in the event of an emergency. Salvation Army has its own radio network (SATERN) and Red Cross does, too, in some areas.
My assumption in an emergency is that our loved ones are probably not going to hear from us for a while if the internet and power grid are down. It might be good to “normalize” that expectation in advance so people don’t panic and also to have a plan for where to meet or when to try to contact each other hours or days after the onset of the emergency.
Watermelon Samurai - March 24, 2022
I just wanted to chime in on the Yagi antenna being a good idea. They are high gain antennas that are very directional. A Yagi will provide enough gain to allow an HT to communicate with satellites(!) so a yagi might give your BIL the additional oomph he needs to reach the repeater. Googling “2m Yagi” will give you several options for ready-to-buy (Arrow makes a good one) and inexpensive DIY. Here is a DIY design that is built using coat hangers!
Alternatively, it’s only small step up from the HT to a 2 meter mobile radio that has more power. Looking at the classified ads on QTH.com, there was a 50W 2m Kenwood that just sold for $80.
Lastly, if you do decide to upgrade to an HF radio, look into two software programs: Winlink and VARA. Together, these two allow you to send and receive email using your radio – internet optional. I’m just getting my feet wet with these now, and it’s like using a 2400 baud modem again (am I dating myself?), but it works and it’s a very nice option to have available in an emergency.
Happy Soul - March 20, 2022
Good Evening Greg,
Congratulations on your Ham ticket. I just did my first 10 year renewal of my ham ticket, and like Seasons4, I still have MUCH to learn! Some thoughts that might help. Keep checking on linked repeater nets. I’d also check the articles on this site about GMRS radio service. It may be a long shot in your area. but some places will have enough low power GMRS repeaters to possibly get through your mountains. If you do go that route, you’ll need a separate GMRS license (with a different call sign), but I don’t think there is any test to take. If your budget can handle such things, satellite phones are available for a flat yearly fee for the phone, and a flat fee per minute for talk time. And sat. service is TOTALLY independent of cell towers, yeah! There are also satellite based services that move text message traffic only that are cheaper than voice service. If you and your family go that route, make sure you can live with satellite phone quirks. Sat. units work MUCH better outdoors, and some sat. networks use satellites that orbit just a few degrees above your ground level horizon, and the service is “line of sight”. So mountains can again be an issue if you are too close to them. And satellite based service can get really jammed really quickly if cell networks have an outage of more than 1 or 2 towers. In my area anyway, cell network failures are mercifully rare. Also, ALL sat. phone traffic is recorded for national security reasons. (Privacy issues?) One of the joys of ham radio is that its capabilities are growing quickly as technology progresses. And like all electronics, the cost of a unit with a given set of capabilities gets lower over time. Happy hunting!
Greg Ustaszewski - March 21, 2022
Hi Happy Soul. Thanks for the reply. My family always uses FRS radios for our road trips and campouts, but I’ve never used GMRS. To be honest, I don’t even know what the difference is. I got into Ham Radio because I have family scattered around my state and even in different states. I thought it would be the best way to guarantee constant communications.
My county uses Satellite phones to communicate during an emergency. I actually had one assigned to me at one point, but I never used it, other than for a brief training. I’d prefer to stay away from satellites, knowing that the government or foreign hackers can monitor them or even restrict their usage. I will look into GMRS radios, though.
Bill Masen - March 21, 2022
Over in th.e UK some Ham radio prepper types have portable battery powered repeaters and mobile antenna, they often set them up on hill tops during times of concern
Greg Ustaszewski - March 21, 2022
Hi Bill. Thanks for the reply. I didn’t even know that was a thing. How do they secure it? I would be afraid that someone would just walk over and take it.
I’m just getting into Ham Radio. I clearly have a lot to learn.
Bill Masen - March 21, 2022
I assume they hide the unit and antenna away from prying eyes.
Robert LarsonContributor - March 21, 2022
You have gotten some good advice from others and I had many of the same ideas when reading your post.
– I know you want to be able to just call them up and talk like a cell phone conversation and hopefully you can figure out how to do that, but if you can’t at least shoot for some minimal way of getting a message through to them if you absolutely needed to. Maybe you could reach your BIL but not your nephew. And maybe your BIL can reach your nephew and could relay any message you wanted to get to him. Or you can make friends with another ham in between you all who can reach the other person. It may take 2-3 hops in relaying a message but at least it is something.
– I do not know much about digital radios but what you are using probably is an analog radio. From the little I know about digital radios, they send out a much cleaner signal that can often be picked up further away. You’ll have to do some more research on those.
– I know it’s not as nice as transmitting from your house, but if you could have a mobile unit inside your vehicle and could drive to the top of the hill and out of the bowl you live in, that could possibly be a way you could get through to them in a worst case scenario. Just having the mobile unit will give you significantly more transmitting power than a handheld.
– Try joining or asking your local ham groups if placing a repeater in your area would be helpful. That could get you over the hump.
– They have little raspberry pi projects where you take a small low powered raspberry pi computer ($35) and attach a small antenna ontop of it. Your analog radio will transmit to the pi, the pi will take that through the internet, and send it out through a repeater or directly to your family member’s house. I know that isn’t ideal, that isn’t the best because it is reliant on the internet, and you might as well just call them, but it is a fun project, it will give you radio time, and during the good times (now) you can enjoy the hobby and talk with them until you can find out a better solution for communicating during SHTF.
– The user on here named Happy Soul says to try GMRS and he might have something going on there. While ham radio can transmit further than GMRS and usually have more repeaters on average, there may not be too many ham repeaters in YOUR area but there may be many or at least one GMRS repeater that all three of you could connect to. Try looking up GMRS repeaters in your area and see if that is something that could work. I believe there isn’t a test and just requires a $70 fee for a license that is good for the entire family.
– Have everyone work on their general or extra licenses and try HF that usually transmits further. Although I think your main issues is the stupid hill in the way more than just distance.
– Figure out WHERE you have to go to be able to reach each other and set up a comms plan. If SHTF happens, I will hike up to the top of this hill at this location that we have already tested out and know that it works and transmit at 10am and 2pm every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday until I can reach you.
Tell us if you figure out how to reach each other! Best of luck to you.
Greg Ustaszewski - March 22, 2022
Hi Robert, thanks for the detailed reply. It is very useful information. It’s funny that you mentioned “bowl” because that is exactly how it can be described. I live in a valley with hills and mountains all around. There are a few repeaters in every direction, but unfortunately my brother-in-law and my nephew can’t reach any of them from the other side of the hills. I nearly joined our local Ham Club, but I changed my mind because my brother-in-law and nephew didn’t want to use Echolink – which is how most members of the club communicate. The local club does run a repeater, but my brother-in-law and nephew can’t reach it unless they drive around the side of the hill. It only takes 10 or 15 minutes, but it’s not ideal in an emergency situation.
I downloaded a list of repeaters from Repeater Book and we tried them one at a time. We found a few that we could both reach, but the signal was weak and intermittent. Not reliable at all, which is why I’m now looking into upgrading and raising my brother-in-laws antenna.
One of the local club members made an antenna from an old satellite dish – similar to what is in this video on youtube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mH9_xW_QvVk
He claimed it increased his range immensely. He suggested that we make one for my brother-in-law. We have obtained an old dish that we plan to experiment on. Fingers crossed.
Regarding your other suggestions: We have identified a central location for when the SHTF (my son is in between all of us and has a lot of land) which is well stocked with supplies. I made an emergency communication card for everyone with directions on how to communicate with the Ham or FRS radios after an emergency.
I’m looking into something called LoRa – Long Range Communications which might help once we are all centrally located.
Also, I just purchased my GMRS license. I’ll look into upgrading my FRS radios to GMRS now. They seem to have better range and more features. Unfortunately, the GRMS radios are much more expensive.
I appreciate all of the feedback from everyone here. It’s given me some great ideas and I’m feeling much more confident than I was yesterday.
Thanks again everyone!
Robert LarsonContributor - May 4, 2022
Hey Greg, check out this comment on another forum post. Sounds like he moved to a mobile unit and it solved all his problems
Levy - June 1, 2022
Hello Greg, I’m not an expert but I’ve seen lots of videos about this!
There’s a type of antenna setup called “NVIS” which sends radio waves directly up, and when it bounces back it reaches a reliable radius of dozens of kilometers. I’ve seen someone testing this online and reaching more than 100km distance talking with a friend. NVIS circumvents any difficult terrain, as the radio waves are basically just going up and down, and not much horizontally.
Best of luck!
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