Electronics for Mobile Self Sufficiency, by Blue Sun

I believe that the ultimate survival strategy for the ultimate collapse of civilization goes far beyond simply fortifying and stocking a retreat and locking yourself into a potential box canyon, I believe that the last resort for survivors is to develop the skills and knowledge to exist for years, or even for the rest of your life, in the most extreme and remote areas as a hunter-gatherer with nothing in terms of equipment except what you can carry on your back.

So, here I will present part one of my must-haves for total self-sufficiency: self-contained electronic tools that can be run indefinitely on inexpensive photovoltaic panel roll-ups and [hard] panels that can be folded into pocket-sized packets.

All of my power and interface connector cords are broken down into two pieces, with red and black Anderson Power Pole connectors.  That way, I can mate any [matching voltage] device-specific plug to any energy charging plug.  So, for instance, I don’t need separate miniUSB to USB, miniUSB to cigarette lighter,  miniUSB to AC-to-DC power cube, and miniUSB to gel cell battery cords.  All I really need is a  particular jack on one end of a cord, and Power Poles on the other. I have a variety of cords for specific devices and for specific power sources, like USB, cigarette lighter, gel-cells, and so on, each ending in the Power Poles.  I simply mate any device-specific power cord to any power supplier cord.  Keep two of each and you have the optimal capability with minimum weight and size.

[JWR Adds: I’m also a committed user and evangelist for Anderson Power Poleconnectors. Keep in mind that the specification for USB is 4.4 to 5.25 Volts, DC. The unit load was specified at 100 mA in USB 2.0, but increased to 150 mA in USB 3.0. To avoid any confusion, I recommend using different color Power Pole connectors for different voltage ranges. For example, you can use an odd color combination for the 15 Amp connectors for the 4.4–5.25 VDC USB voltages and red and black 30 Amp connectors for 11 to 16 VDC (car battery) voltage. Oh, and remember, in-line fuses are inexpensive insurance for your valuable electronic gear.]

Any items in my kit that run off of internal, external, or rechargeable AA or AAA NiMH batteriescan be charged with light, small, relatively inexpensive roll-up or foldable PV panels.  At the very least, the USB Charging 4 Watt Solar Pane should be included (available for about $100 from Ready Made Resources.)  Since it has a USB port, it can be used directly with any device that can charge through USB, and my Power Pole arrangement allows me to mate any of my [4.4–5.25 VDC USB voltage range] devices to the solar panel’s USB port. It weighs just over 6 ounces and folds up small enough to put in a pocket.  It puts out a voltage just slightly less than a powered USB port and can charge anything from cell phones to [a pair of] NiMH AA or AAA batteries.  It is also rainproof.  In peak sun, it produces not only enough power to charge batteries, but, simultaneously generate enough power to act as an active power supply directly connected to most devices. This model has been in use for a decade and has proven its reliability.  I carry two of them and, whenever possible, a larger and more powerful roll-up. (I own several variations.)

So, given my simple, but lightweight and efficient power sources, what battery-operated devices do I include as must-haves?

First and foremost, a Kindle ebook reader with wi-fi for my unit, depending on whether you care or not about the screen savers and a homepage banner showing ads, or prefer the artwork screen savers.  Note that the less expensive ad-based Kindle is the same as the other, and that none of the ads show when you are actually reading a book.  My Kindle weighs only 8.5 ounces, can store up to 3,500 books. With the wi-fi turned off, it will run for a month on a charge if you read an hour each day (Two months if you only use it a half-hour a day).  It has a 6″ (diagonal) screen and displays pages that are virtually identical to printed material (they refer to this as E Ink). It is only a third of an inch thick and height and width are 4.8″ x 7.5″. I can easily carry it in a back pocket of my jeans and still have room for my passport and a notebook.    It can let you carry around a massive library of books covering every facet of survival as well as a lifetime worth of books for enjoyment while adding negligible weight and taking up practically no space.

Second, I include my Samsung Charge 4G Android phone (I’m due for an upgrade to one of the anticipated second-gen 4Gs in the fall).  I leave the battery out when not actively using it to be absolutely, positively, belt-and-suspenders sure that I can’t be tracked through it.  It can provide a wide number of functions besides phoning (which will be impossible anyway if the power to cell towers go off).   However, it has full GPS capabilities, including maps equivalent to my car-mounted Garmins. BTW, I recommend using GPS in very small doses, whenever necessary, and only while you are on the move.  The GPS satellites will probably be functioning long after the grid goes down, because they are self-powered and probably will not be destroyed by an EMP attack. 

The second major function I use the phone for is that it will accept microSD cards.  I have a number of 32 MB microSD cards that I use to store additional books, as well as music, audio books, and other audio and video entertainment.  The third advantage is that it is capable of acting as a wi-fi hot spot, so I can use it to transfer books from my microSD cards to the Kindle via wi-fi.  This is a ‘force multiplier’ in that it gives me the ability to carry a very large library of reference and resource books.  The entire package is lighter and smaller than a single paperback book.  If you don’ have a GPS-enabled cell phone, then at least get the Garmin eTrex handheld for less than $75. It doesn’t let you be traced, since there is no identifying information included in the transmission.  This is a powerful waterproof unit with WAAS (which gives you accuracy to less than 10 feet), but it doesn’t have maps – just compass and GPS readings, though it is easily programmed for destinations and waypoints, and leads you to them via the compass and distance-to-travel indicator.  If you want a map, the Garmin Legend H has all-terrain four-color grayscale maps in storage for only $50 more.  Color maps are available in higher-priced models, but IMHO are not worth the extra bucks except when driving on the highway.  Both models are just over 5 ounces with two of my NiMH AA batteries, and are waterproof. I carry a Legend H as a backup to my cell phone GPS.

Next comes my communications gear.   I carry a portable Yaesu FT-817 QRP (low power) transceiver that can handle USB, LSB, AM, CW, VHF, UHF, PSK31 and a number of other operating modes.  It covers every ham band from 160m to 10m in the HF region excepting the newer 30 and 60 meter bands, which are really not necessary (a newer model includes at least the 60m band, and possibly the 30m band if you absolutely, positively  have to have them), as well as covering 6m, 2m, and 70 cm on VHF and UHF FM bands.  It runs on an internal NiMH battery which I upgraded to an after-market NiMH battery with a higher mAh rating and can also be powered by external AA batteries and an available Ni-Cd pack as well as from one of my solar packs.  I also installed a 500 Hz bandwidth Collins filter for CW operation.  It also has an internal keyer that can handle CW speeds from 4 WPM to 60 WPM. (I usually copy about 30 WPM – 35 WPM if I’m working CW regularly).  I carry around two keys. One old navy-style Bencher hand key, and a Kent single-lever paddle key (having first learned Morse in the mid 1960’s using hand keys and ‘bugs,’  I have never felt comfortable with dual paddle iambic keys, but YMMV).  In extremis, the up and down buttons on the mike can be used to transmit Morse code. The FT-817 has a maximum output of 5 watts, but can also dial that back dramatically.  The ham rule has always been to use enough power to make the QSO – but no more.   Given the right antenna, I’ve had CW QSOs with hams all over the world – including in Antarctica, as well as several shuttle crews and the International space station using only 500mW output.   You don’t need 1,500 W PEP to work the world. Though the lower the power, the more you have to rely on skill, experience, knowledge of propagation characteristics of each band at any given time of day or stage in the sun spot cycle, and antenna-craft.

Today, you can get any grade of ham license with either no Morse requirement or the old novice requirement of 5 WPM (which anybody with an IQ above room temperature should be able to master inside of three weeks if they use the Farnsworth learning technique).  Still, given that Morse is the most efficient means of post-SHTF communications, allowing communication at greater distances, with lower power, and much narrower bandwidth usage that any other mode that will still be operating, it would be of advantage to at least develop 13 to 15 WPM abilities. PSK31 and other digital modes are even better in all respects and are primarily why the ARRL has stopped requiring a trained emergency backup collection of hams with CW skills up to 20 WPM, however, digital modes require a computer and an interface box, and are only usable if you and the people you are trying to contact have similar gear.  Even the smallest laptop is too heavy to cart around in a backpack solely to run a PSK31 program.  Morse will be the best bang for the buck and has the advantage of requiring that anybody monitoring your radio transmissions must be at least as skilled and as fast as you – unlike voice communications that anybody can understand.  For use with other survivalists you are associated with, you might want to decide on an encryption scheme and then encrypt your messages before sending them.  Try to reach the Amateur Extra grade as soon as you can, since only the top grade of license gives you legal rights to operate on any legal ham frequency.  Lower grades have significant restrictions.

Another critical feature of the FT-817 is that it has an expanded frequency receiver that covers both of the major VHF and UHF public safety bands used by police, fire departments, EMTs, etc. as well as AM coverage of the entire civilian and military air bands, and even the commercial FM radio band.

I also have two HTs (handy-talkies or handheld radios) for myself and two matching ones for my wife.  One can fit into a shirt pocket and covers 6m, 2m, and 70cm – along with a wide-frequency receiver capability.  The other is a bit larger and only covers 2m and 70cm, but it does have APRS capabilities.  Both can run on a variety of power sources.  I have a mobile 50w dual-band unit in each car covering the same two bands with dual-frequency mag-mount antennas as close to the ground plane center as I can get them.   All of my handheld and mobile radios are capable of functioning as cross-band repeaters, and, in fact, one of my mobiles was parked at the Red Cross tent at Ground Zero, cross-banding both the police and fire bands so they could communicate despite their very different frequency ranges, for the first month after the attack.   Also, all of my emergency ham transceivers are ‘freebanded’ to provide two-way coverage of the VHF and UHF public safety bands.  Note that, in order to do this legally, you must have a very good justification.  I have worked as a volunteer communications first responder for 30 years with ARES, RACES, the state Office of Emergency Services (OEM) [in my state] run by the State Police and the American Red Cross, so I can freeband legally as long as I only transmit on public service frequencies in a dire emergency.

I carry two kinds of antennas for the FT-817.  The first is a batch of extremely light-weight homemade dipoles.  I carry two for each band I expect to be using, with one tuned for resonance in the CW portion of a band, and the other tuned for the SSB portion (except for VHF and UHF, which are FM voice – where my dipoles and small vertically polarized ‘sticks’ are tuned to the middle of the band.) I also have what IMHO is an ingenious modular kit for creating a long-wire antenna on any frequency the 817 supports.  It consists of a number of different length antenna wires, each terminated with a different color of Power Pole connector. I believe they come in 11 or 12 colors, so they can be color-coded.  The shortest one is resonant at 70 cm and all of them plugged together make an antenna resonant on 160m.  Various single wires and combinations of wires cover all of the other bands.  I use the colors to match the configurations to a laminated pocket chart that I created years ago.  It is easy to put them up in the trees if you use a string tied to a rock you can throw, and even easier if you have a slingshot.

When I want a radio scanner with wide reception coverage, I use a Yupiteru MVT-9000.  The Yupi is sometimes referred to as a “DC-to-Daylight” receiver since it receives on a continuous range from 0.1 MHz to 2,000 MHz with no gaps.  This means that, while the radio is legal to buy in every other country of the world, it is illegal in the United States because it does not block the cell phone frequencies. I bought mine when working on a consulting job in Europe and ‘forgot’ to leave it behind when I returned. Oops! The customs officer was clueless about its capabilities and passed it right through. (BTW, it is a good idea to select an FM radio frequency on each receiver or transceiver before going through US customs or TSA checks.  They will often ask you to turn on the device, and there is nothing more harmless and non-threatening than discovering that it is just a fancy FM radio. 

The Yupi has an external BNC connector and there are literally a thousand different antennas you can use with it, including single and multi-band.  It has everything one can want in a hand-held scanner, except for several recent capabilities: it has no PL/CTCSS and it has no trunk-tracking.  It does support decoding voice inversion, but doesn’t have support for Motorola APCO digital trunked systems or any of the analog trunking systems (Motorola type 1, type 2 and type 1/2 hybrid as well as EDACS and LTR).  If continuous unblocked coverage is not important to you, but trunking, CTCSS, and/or digital capabilities are, then I suggest something like the Uniden Bearcat BCD396XT, which covers all analog trunking systems, both 3600 and 9600 baud digital trunk tracking, CTCSS and DCS decode. I use both in different contexts.  Note that the 800 MHz systems were ‘rebanded’ in 2008, so it is far better to buy this or similar radios produced after the rebanding, so you don’t have to modify and reprogram the unit. If there is radio transmission going on anywhere after TSHTF, I truly believe that it is of inestimable value to be able to monitor it.

Proviso: Anybody putting a radio or scanner capable of receiving the VHF and/or UHF public service frequencies in a vehicle should check with the laws in their state (as well as any other state they will be driving through).  Some states have varied restrictions, and at least one (Minnesota) bans them outright.  This is another reason to get a ham license, as hams are licensed by the FCC and are exempt from [some] state regulations.  Keep a copy of your operator’s license in your wallet and be prepared for a trip to the police station when you encounter local yokels who are clueless about the Federal communications laws. You might want to keep a copy of the pertinent FCC regulations in your glove compartment as well.