Again, a delicate topic. Maybe a rant to all those YouTube Preppers out there, who are getting gear for showing off in their videos and putting it to the SHTF box or in the shelf. When SHTF they won’t be able to use the radio efficiently because they lack common knowledge about that topic. There is a reason why HAM radio users get a license, they learn pretty useful and technological content.
This topic is pretty comprehensive, so I suggest we just take a more organized approach to all of this and think about why it makes sense to get a HAM license if you are interested in serious comms after SHTF.
I was the same
I must admit I was the same. I bought my two Baofengs (BF-F8HP and UV5R) and stashed them in my closet. I used them here an there on PMR frequencies with buddies when outside. But I had no serious usage with them, talking for no more than 20km ever. The longest call I had with my Nagoya 771 antenna was about 12km from a 900m hilltop to a village where some guys had an airsoft competition. And that was it, after the hikes, I put back the radios on the shelf and never bothered about more.
Overall misconception about handheld radios
You have to keep in mind that by using a handheld radio you are very limited in range. You may hear distant stations but only get in contact with locals. Your first priority should be upgrading the antenna or go for an external antenna that is going to be connected to the radio. Most handheld users are aiming for local repeaters to establish communications over longer distances. But seriously, in a SHTF situation, the local repeaters will go off power as soon the backup supply diminishes.
I bet the first thing most of the people do is programming PMR frequencies into their radio. Those frequencies are in the UHF band resulting in lower range than VHF frequencies. Do you know what VHF frequencies or simplex channels are commonly used in your local environment?
Intercepting communications is still possible if you have a good antenna. I regularly intercept communications on simplex channels although I have only a handheld radio. But getting in touch with other stations on simplex (without repeaters) channels is rather difficult. Having an awesome antenna helps more than more power in such a case, as is the location where you will try to transmit your message.
All in all, using a handheld radio for making contacts in SHTF is not really a serious option. You could try to get an amplifier of at least 40W but in the end, it’s rather more useful to get a mobile radio transceiver. They mostly got over 40Watts and could be used to get in contact with more distant people. Or, you can use your handheld radios in combination with a repeater, e.g. at home or in your car to act as a proxy when you are out in the field.
Physical limitations of VHF and UHF and handhelds
The larger the wavelength (lower the frequency), the easier the electromagnetic waves travel through space. The serious communication is done on low frequencies in the HF bands. You can even communicate around the globe with less than 10W power by using morse (low power communication is called QRP and using morse CW)
Actually I found a video on the Youtube Channel Videos by Mike.
He was using the Yaesu 817 on 5W and got in touch to Latvia Europe from Florida. Check it out here.
There are even events where people climb mountains just to install their antennas and morse around the globe. It’s done by so called skipping. There is a very nice article on bugoutbagbuilder.com about skipping radiowaves.
Let’s say it like that:
- Short radiowaves = high frequency = good for local communication, can penetrate obstacles more easily (e.g. city)
- Long radiowaves = low frequency = good for long distance communication, difficulties with obstructions
Morse code is not dead
Using morse code for communication (CW – Continuous Wave) is still very popular in the HAM scene. The big advantage of using CW is the fact that low power carries the signal over very far distances. Radio transceivers for CW are very compact and can reach same distance with less power than stations using telephony (speech).
I am currently learning to listen to CW using the KOCH method, if you are interested in learning Morse you surely should check out that site: https://lcwo.net
Morse has a lot of uses, light signals, audio signals etc… It’s definetly worth considering to learn or at least to learn how to decipher morse messages.
Why experience is the most important
Listening to HAM conversations can be pretty frustrating for someone who does not know the phraseology. Also setting up comms in the field can be really challenging.
- Have you ever tried setting up your rig in the field?
- Do you know who you can reach from specific spots?
- Do you have an idea how far your transmission propagates?
- What frequencies are commonly used in your area?
- What frequencies are used in emergency situations?
- How are you going to supply power to your radios over an extended power outage?
As you can see, there is a lot to do about that topic. In general, you won’t know what is important in HAM until you start digging deeper. In the worst case, SHTF and you take your handheld out of your closet and are totally lost and have no clue whatsoever.
My UHF/VHF rig
I have two Baofeng radios, the UV5R with the maximal output of almost 5W and the F8HP from Baofengtech that gives 8W. They are UHF VHF FM handhelds and I must admit they are pretty good. Although I have never used a Yaesu or other high-quality handhelds to compare, I think the Baofengs give a good bang for the buck.
I am using the N9TAX SlimJim I got via eBay. It got a pretty good review on HamUniverse and it’s relatively cheap. The build quality is very good. The reason why I decided to take the SlimJim is that it has a very shallow radiating pattern towards the horizon. Because I am going to use it on VHF mainly, I really doubt that I can do skipping with that rig so I am going for the line-of-sight communication. Additionally I got a fiberglass telescope mast with 6 meters of height, so I can set it up where are no trees and in the open.
At the moment there is some snow here and the weather is rather yuck, so I had no chance to really try the SlimJim out in the field, but the tests at home and at my homestead were quite good. I had overall good reception. The transmitting part I have to postpone until I get my HAM license.
Using HAM in emergency situations
In Croatia you have the obligation to serve your country with your amateur radio equipment, proxying messages, establish repeaters if possible etc. in an event of disaster. During the war in Croatia, most of the communication was realized through radio amateurs. You should also check out this List of frequencies in emergency situations.
Radio-amateurism is a very comprehensive and complicated topic. Most people don’t realize that until they start to dig deeper. If you are a serious prepper and want to ensure reliable and useful comms for the SHTF scenario, you definitely should dive into this topic.
- Do some research about HAM radio
- Listen to the local ether and write down callsigns transmitting on those frequencies
- Write down what frequencies are in use and how frequent
- Make a list of repeaters in your area
- Get a ham license