You don’t need a license or even a transmitter to take advantage of radio—a simple radio receiver could save your family from tragedy, informing you of whatever calamity might be headed your way.
An emergency radio might pick up one or more types of transmissions: government NOAA weather broadcasts, typical AM/FM stations, air traffic, shortwave radio, or ham radio transmissions. It makes sense that you’d want a radio to pick up as many signals as possible. But the cheapest models that can do that (>$90) are above most people’s price range.
That’s why many people end up with a product that picks up only NOAA weather and AM/FM stations — and that’s enough for the vast majority of emergencies.
If you want a simple, inexpensive weather radio that works when you need it, the Vondior NOAA Weather Radio (Amazon) fits the bill at under $30. It has a manual tuner and is powered by two AA batteries. It’s simple, inexpensive, and portable.
A popular category is multi-function self-powered radios that combine radio, lights, and device charging in a package that can be powered by a solar panel or hand crank. Unfortunately, while these jacks-of-all-trades can be handy, they are plagued by reliability issues and may fail you when you need them most. We’ve bought and used many over the years, and while some are better than others, the failures are enough to make us worried. There are some silver linings, though — for example, they’re relatively cheap (around $40), and a solar radio in your pack is a nice way to have a backup USB solar charger besides your main standalone one.
Many here at The Prepared own and enjoy the Eton FRX3 (Amazon) which is too big for go-bags but fine for household use. It has fewer reliability complaints than similar products.
The best overall emergency radio for most people is the $90 C. Crane Skywave (Amazon), which can receive weather alerts, AM/FM stations, shortwave radio, and even air traffic. It lasts up to 70 hours on two AA batteries and is small enough to fit in a pants pocket.
Our upgrade pick from the C. Crane Skywave is the $170 C. Crane Skywave SSB (Amazon), which adds single-sideband modulation, letting you tune into ham radio transmissions on HF radio. Being able to tune in to ham radio chatter can be useful at times, especially for ham operators. If you have just one radio receiver, the C. Crane Skywave SSB is the one to have, but most people will be hard-pressed to justify the $80 premium over the non-SSB Skywave.
You could also consider buying an inexpensive software-defined radio dongle like the RTL-SDR (Amazon), which lets you pick up almost any radio signal if you have the right antenna. But it does require a computer, so it may not be useful in a grid-down scenario.
The most important bits:
- You should have at least one radio that can receive NOAA weather alerts.
- A shortwave radio can pick up signals around the world, but only a shortwave radio with SSB capabilities can let you listen to all of them.
- Self-powered radios can be powered with a hand crank or a built-in solar panel and serve as a backup power source.
- Self-powered “emergency” radios are jacks of all trades. They’re good backups, but shouldn’t be your primary tool for any of its intended uses.
- If you can have only one radio receiver, the C. Crane Skywave SSB is the best. It’s the only radio receiver to combine SSB and weather.
- In most emergencies, the most important radio bands to tune into are FM broadcast and NOAA Weather Radio.
- None of our picks receive VHF ham or first responder frequencies, but you should have a small VHF transceiver that can.
- A police scanner may be a worthwhile investment, but you’ll have to do your homework to see if it’ll be useful.
- An inexpensive software-defined radio can receive as much as expensive standalone radios. They’re great learning tools, but might not be viable in emergencies.
Battery-powered weather radio:
- Vondior NOAA Weather Radio (Amazon)
Self-powered weather radios:
- Eton Scorpion II (Amazon): small enough to fit in a go-bag
- Midland ER210 (Amazon): bright LEDs and can charge tablets
- Kaito KA500 (Amazon): has basic shortwave reception as well as weather
- Eton FRX3 (Amazon): a staff favorite, but no shortwave and too large for go-bags
- RTL-SDR (Amazon): an inexpensive and highly capable SDR dongle
- SDRplay RSPdx: a highly recommended but pricey SDR box
What a radio receiver can pick up
The purpose of your radio is to receive information, so you want as many options as possible to receive that information. Groups of radio frequencies are called bands. Here are some of the bands you can hear in the United States:
- AM broadcast (530-1,700 kHz): AM (short for amplitude modulation) isn’t as popular as it once was, due to having lower fidelity than FM, but it’s still commonly used for talk radio. AM radio signals can travel hundreds of miles. I often listen to stations in Chicago from Tennessee. Again, they are useful sources of information. Another name for AM radio is medium wave (MW).
- Shortwave (3-30 MHz): What’s often called shortwave or high frequency is where radio gets weird and interesting because you can pick up signals all over the world, thanks to a phenomenon called skywave propagation that lets signals bounce off the ionosphere. Shortwave has amateur operators, various broadcast stations (like WWCR), digital transmissions, and all sorts of odd things, like numbers stations.
- VHF and UHF (30-300 MHz, 300-1,000 MHz): Short for Very High Frequency and Ultra High Frequency, and they’re commonly used by ham radio operators, first responders, bus drivers, etc. VHF can typically travel about 50 miles in good conditions, while UHF transmissions don’t travel nearly as far.
- FM broadcast (8-108 MHz): FM (short for frequency modulation) is perhaps the most common familiar type of broadcast radio in the United States these days. It’s common to pick up FM stations 50-100 miles away, and they are often a great source of local news and information (as well as music).
- Aviation (108-137 MHz): There are chunks of the VHF spectrum assigned to civilian aviation, also called airband. As you can probably guess, these frequencies are used by aircraft.
- Weather: The National Weather Service has NOAA Weather Radio automated stations littered around the United States that continuously broadcast weather conditions, forecasts, and alerts over a handful of specific frequencies: 162.400 MHz, 162.425 MHz, 162.450 MHz, 162.475 MHz, 162.500 MHz, 162.525 MHz, and 162.550 MHz. These frequencies cannot be picked up by typical AM/FM radios. These stations broadcast a special tone when severe weather is imminent, and better radios can be set to stay quiet until it hears one of those tones. Terms commonly used to indicate that a radio can pick up these frequencies are “weather radio,” “wx,” and “NOAA.” These stations sometimes broadcast non-weather bulletins, such as AMBER alerts, civil emergency announcements, and wildfire alerts.
Out of these frequencies, the most important for most preppers are FM and weather. With FM radio, you can tune into local news broadcasts and the weather frequencies can warn you about hazardous weather conditions and other emergencies.
The VHF frequencies can be especially helpful since they can let you listen in on police, firefighters, and ambulances. However, many first responders are moving toward encrypted systems or even cell phones. For those reasons, while VHF is nice to have, it’s not a must.
Likewise, the VHF aviation frequencies are a nice thing to have in a radio, but not a must-have unless you’re stranded on a desert island.
Shortwave is a bit more esoteric, but in true SHTF scenarios, it can be a lifesaver. There are shortwave broadcast stations like BBC, Voice of America, and WWCR, but there are also more interesting listening options. The Amateur Radio Emergency Service holds regular “nets” on shortwave frequencies and you can tune into things like the Hurricane Watch Net. There are prepper-focused HF networks like AmRRON that track things like food shortages and civil unrest.
There are many inexpensive shortwave receivers on the market, but to make the most of shortwave, your radio needs to be able to demodulate single-sideband modes. What single-sideband does is take a radio wave and cram all of the transmitted information into one side of the wave, which helps transmit the signal over a longer distance with less power. SSB transmissions are designated as either Lower Sideband (LSB) or Upper Sideband (USB). For example, the daytime frequency for the Hurricane Watch Net is 14.325 MHz USB, which means you’d set your radio to that frequency and then put it in USB mode.
Tip: A “net” in radio lingo is a meeting of radio operators.
Another important thing to understand is that shortwave propagation changes throughout the day, so shortwave stations often change their frequency throughout the day. While the Hurricane Watch Net transmits on 14.325 MHz USB during the day, it moves to 7.268 MHz LSB at night.
In the simplest terms, a shortwave receiver with SSB can pick up amateur transmissions while a shortwave without SSB can only pick up shortwave broadcast stations. Unfortunately, SSB demodulation is rather complicated and makes radios more expensive. The C. Crane Skywave sells for $90 while the SSB model sells for $170.
Do you need a dedicated radio receiver?
If you keep a small ham radio transceiver like the BaoFeng UV-5R or BaoFeng BF-F8HP in your go-bag, you may not need a dedicated receiver. While BaoFeng radios aren’t the best, they are flexible and can listen in on FM broadcast stations and weather stations. (Older models can tune into VHF first responder frequencies like police and fire, assuming that they haven’t moved entirely to encrypted systems or cellphones. Newer models are prohibited from tuning into those frequencies to bring them into FCC compliance.) And of course, they can transmit as well. But they do not pick up AM or shortwave stations.
More: Best handheld ham radios
A dedicated radio receiver can serve as a backup and offer additional capabilities like shortwave reception and weather alerts.
You should prioritize a ham transceiver in your go-bag, since they’re small, cheap, and can be useful in a pinch even if you aren’t licensed. But after you have your other basics down, you should strongly consider a high-quality radio receiver.
What about scanners?
A scanner is a special type of radio receiver that can “scan” through banks of frequencies at lightning speed. They’re designed to listen in on first responders, particularly police. Fast scanning is essential for monitoring those kinds of transmissions because they tend to come in short bursts. BaoFengs can act as scanners, but they scan slowly so you’re going to miss a lot of stuff.
Rewind the clock a few years and I would tell you that a scanner is an essential prep. You could buy a scanner for not much money and listen in on happenings in your community all day. My grandma was a scanner enthusiast and knew everything going on in her small town often days before anyone else did. As a budding journalist, I listened to scanners 24/7 when I worked at newspapers.
These days, it’s more complicated. Police and other first responders now often don’t transmit over open-air frequencies they used to. Many use trunked systems that can only be picked up by special scanners. Others encrypt their transmissions so they cannot be intercepted. And many first responders use cell phones, sometimes informally.
If you’re interested in listening in on these frequencies, look up your area on RadioReference and see if they’re unencrypted or require special equipment to listen to. Because the type of scanner you need depends on your location, it’s difficult for us to make general recommendations.
Our picks cannot listen in on first responder frequencies, but combined with a VHF/UHF transceiver you can listen in on pretty much any civil radio transmission.
Powering your radio
There are several options to power a radio. Skip models that have to be plugged into the wall, because you want a radio you can take with you wherever you go.
That means batteries, and radios can be powered by everything from small AAA batteries, to big, heavy D cells, and even 18650 lithium-ion batteries. You don’t want a radio with big, heavy batteries: it makes it hard to carry and adds more weight to your pack. AA or AAA batteries are good lightweight choices, and there are rechargeable versions of both. Rechargeable 18650 batteries are fine, but the nice thing about AA and AAA is that they’re common and thus easy to scavenge.
So-called “emergency radios” often feature a charging crank. That’s not a bad thing to have, especially in radios that have built-in USB chargers. However, they have some major drawbacks: they tend to break at the worst times, you have to crank them a lot (about two minutes of cranking for five minutes of listening), and the requisite dynamo adds weight and bulk.
More: Off-grid power 101
Many emergency radios also have built-in solar panels. Again, that’s not a bad feature, but the ones built into radios are too small to be very useful. Plus, you have to put the radio in direct sunlight to charge it, which makes the radio hot, which is bad for both the battery lifespan and possibly the plastic in the radio.
These emergency radios can be best-considered as great backups for your other preps, but they shouldn’t serve as your main radio, power supply, or flashlight. Buy a radio that is first and foremost a great radio. There’s nothing wrong with whizbang features or redundancy, but each item in your preps should do its main job well.
Ideally, your go-bag should have a lightweight folding solar panel, spare rechargeable batteries, and a battery charger that can connect to your panel. That way you can have your batteries charging on sunny days while you take your radio wherever you want to go.
The trouble with emergency radios
Emergency radios that combine radio reception, lights, charging, and are self-powered sound great in theory, and they can be useful. FEMA recommends keeping a battery- or crank-powered weather radio in your emergency kit. But crank-powered radios all have reliability issues.
For instance, take the Kaito KA500, a widely recommended emergency radio. It has many fans, including radio expert Josh Nass, but others have found it to be poorly built.
Thomas Witherspoon of SWLing Post had this to say about the K500:
Though the radio feels solid in your hand, I found through my testing that the quality of the KA500 is actually quite poor. More than once, the tuning mechanism would slip and the needle would get stuck in the middle of the dial. The worst part, though, is the poor quality of the hand-crank mechanism. The dynamo and crank arm feel cheap. Well, they are cheap. After only a month of occasional testing–and with me being very careful with the hand crank–the dynamo started showing signs of failing. The crank became less fluid to turn and would rub the side of the radio chassis. One day, while slowly cranking, the crank arm just snapped in half. No more crank power.
Witherspoon recommended the Eton Scorpion, which has since been replaced by the Eton Scorpion II, but Amazon reviewers complain of broken antennas, broken cranks, batteries that won’t hold a charge, and radios that just spontaneously die.
The reality is: good radios are expensive. If you don’t want to splurge on a top-tier radio, you should get something simple that focuses on a specific purpose, like the Vondior weather radio.
The C. Crane Skywave SSB
C. Crane advertises the Skywave SSB as the “Swiss Army Knife of portable radios,” and that’s a pretty accurate slogan. Out of all the bands mentioned above, the only one it doesn’t receive is VHF/UHF. It receives AM, FM, weather, airband, shortwave, and shortwave SSB. It is the only portable radio on the market that receives both SSB and weather bands, and it has a weather alert feature to keep the radio quiet unless a warning is broadcasted.
Despite having so many capabilities, it comes in an incredibly small package: 4.75″ W x 3″ H x 1.1″ D. Not only is it the most capable radio receiver on the market, it’s one of the smallest, and it weighs only six ounces (without batteries).
The Skywave SSB is powered by only two small AA batteries, and C. Crane advertises a battery life of 70+ hours with the included earbuds or 60+ hours using the built-in speaker. Note that if you take advantage of the weather alert feature, it will drain the battery as if you were actively listening to a station.
It features a Mini USB port that can be used to charge NiMH batteries with an optional $15 AC adapter. Mini USB is a fairly rugged connector, much more so than Micro USB, though USB-C would have been even better. C. Crane warns in the manual to only use alkaline or NiMH batteries, not lithium, and they also warn not to try to charge regular alkaline batteries.
The Skywave SSB can store up to 400 stations in memory. You can enter frequencies manually with the keypad, but you don’t have to thanks to its auto-scanning feature. Select a band, set it to scan, and the Skywave will automatically program every received station into memory so you can easily flip through them.
It features a standard whip antenna, which should be fine for receiving AM, FM, airband, and weather stations. It also features a high-quality reel antenna you can attach to the whip antenna and hang in a high place for better shortwave reception.
The Skywave SSB features a number of bandwidth filters to eliminate noise, and you can tune into frequencies all the way down to 1 kHz increments, which is especially helpful with shortwave reception where transmissions can sometimes be slightly off frequency.
At about $170, it’s not cheap, but you won’t find a more capable, more compact radio for your go-bag. Radio experts love the C. Crane Skywave SSB. Thomas Witherspoon of SWLing Post had this to say about the non-SSB Skywave:
If I’m travelling by air, however, I almost always choose the CC Skywave: its unique combination of AM/FM/SW coverage, NOAA weather, and AIR band are simply hard to beat. It’s compact, durable, and gets the job done. Plus, the Skywave seems to operate for ages on a set of AA batteries. C. Crane really knocked it out of the ballpark with the CC Skywave.
Witherspoon was even more impressed by the Skywave SSB, and said it’s now his radio of choice. The first units produced had a few quirks that Witherspoon says have now been fixed. The Skywave SSB also has upgradeable firmware so it may improve more over time.
Colin Newell of DXer.ca was equally impressed by the Skywave SSB:
Dollar for dollar there is a lot of “tech” and quality built into the CCrane Skywave SSB. Something for everyone: Credible SSB reception with fine tuning. Sync detection that works reasonably well. Not as much on the ETON Satellite. Low battery consumption etc etc. With the size and weight, it is simply unbeatable. In most places in the World, it would give you enough signal grabbing people to get you the signals you are looking for.
Josh Nass, host of the popular Ham Radio Crash Course YouTube channel, called it “a traveler’s dream radio.”
If the Skywave SSB is out of your budget, shoot for the non-SSB model, though we think you’re better off buying once and crying once.
An alternative: software-defined radio
A cost-effective alternative to standalone radios is what’s called software-defined radio or SDR. You plug a box or dongle into a computer, connect an antenna, and then use a software program to tune the radio.
There are many SDR devices on the market, but many start out with a simple and inexpensive RTL-SDR dongle. The RTL-SDR V3 is an impressive piece of kit for the price, as it can not only tune in to FM stations and VHF/UHF frequencies, but it can also pick up AM stations and shortwave when set to direct sampling mode in your software. Earlier versions needed a separate piece of hardware called an upconverter, but that’s not the case with the V3.
Another great thing about SDR is that most SDR programs can tune into multiple frequencies at once. Why scan when you can listen to everything at once?
The RTL-SDR comes with a basic dipole antenna, which is just okay for picking up FM stations. We’ve had great results connecting a Chameleon Emcomm III Portable to it. Even though it’s an HF antenna, it works great for picking up FM stations as well. But it’s designed to transmit as well as receive, and you don’t need that expensive of an antenna to make the most of SDR. The market is full of effective and inexpensive SDR antennas in a variety of designs. Just make sure you have the right connector or adapter to fit the RTL-SDR’s female SMA connector.
There are SDR apps for Windows, Mac, and Linux. A personal favorite is CubicSDR, which is free, open-source, and available for all three platforms.
If you’re interested in radio, SDR is a great place to start, but it has one major downside for preparedness: it requires a computer. You could set aside a laptop or battery-powered Raspberry Pi specifically for radio purposes, but a portable standalone receiver will be easier and more useful in a SHTF situation.