Introductory Disclaimer: I am not an expert in amateur radio in the sense that I have extensive electronics knowledge, nor am I an expert in prepping. However, I have some experience in disaster and lightweight, portable radio operations and have an interest in being prepared.
I have been an amateur radio operator, or “ham,” since 1997 when I was first licensed as a fifteen year old. At that point I was drawn to the hobby because my grandfather has always been very active in the amateur radio community and a stickler for disaster communication readiness. In 2011 I finally upgraded my license to a “general class” which opened up privileges on all amateur frequency bands. This has allowed me to communicate with amateurs all over the world from Europe to Africa to Southeast Asia.
About two years ago I discovered an area of ham radio that combined my interest in radio with my love for the outdoors. This program encourages hams to “activate” various summits for points. One of the primary guidelines for the program is that you operate without the benefit of commercial power. That is, you must operate using batteries or some other kind of power as long as it isn’t a generator. By nature this means that using low power, five to ten watts, is much more efficient than running fifty or one hundred watts. Furthermore, because of the low power nature of this part of the hobby it is much more efficient to operate using Morse code than voice communications (more on that later). What I have also come to realize with my study of preparations is that this form of communication is almost tailor made for disaster scenarios. What I intend to do here is lay out my argument in favor of low power ham radio for preppers as well as offer some steps for the new ham.
Low power, amateur radio disaster communications.
For about a century amateur radio has been the backbone of disaster communications across the globe. Even with the advent of cell phones ham radio operators have been crucial links in the communications chain, especially in the immediate area of a natural disaster such as a hurricane. Cell service may be available outside of the affected area but ham radio can help bridge the gap across the “last mile” so to speak. In a large scale disaster or collapse scenario it would be unwise to rely on any form of telephone or internet communication. I believe this is where amateur radio would really shine. I could also lump in CB radio here as well but I believe that the variety of frequency options available to amateurs gives them a much greater flexibility and reliability than citizen’s band (absolutely nothing against CBers here I’m just trying to be realistic).
Amateur radio operators have privileges ranging from 10 Gigahertz all the way down to 1.8 Megahertz. This means that hams have access to frequency bands that support both short and long range communications twenty-four hours a day. For instance, one of my favorite bands to operate on is the 40 meter band (7 MHz). During the day it is good for communications out to a couple of hundred miles while during the nighttime hours is can reach out to several hundred to thousands of miles. Depending several factors including time of year, the solar cycle and propagation, hams can operate on frequencies that allow for worldwide communication with a minimum of power.
This brings me to my argument for low power communications. I am currently using two radios for my ham activities, neither of which put out more than five watts of RF power. FCC regulations allow hams to use up to 1,500 watts on most bands but encourage the use of as little power as is necessary to maintain two-way communications. Using Morse code, a simple wire antenna and a small battery I have made successful contact with stations as far away as Eastern Europe. On a typical day of operating from home I can count on several contacts around the southeast with only two to three watts of power.
Let me pause here to address power supply considerations. When I operate portable I use a 1.2 AH sealed lead acid battery. It weighs about one pound and will sustain operations for several hours depending on how much I am transmitting. With two of these batteries I can easily operate all day. I haven’t purchased one yet but many hams use small solar chargers to replenish their batteries for extended portable operations. One thing that I would love to explore would be mounting a small solar array on my roof which would be connected to large batteries in the house. The solar panels would offer a slow trickle charge and the large battery would sustain longer durations of communication. This would effectively remove my radio station from the grid which would mean uninterrupted communications in a disaster. Naturally batteries would not last forever without recharge so in a situation where the grid was down it would take discipline to operate some while allowing the batteries sufficient time to charge whether by solar power, wind power or a generator. Again, the benefits of operating with only a few watts in this scenario are clear, less draw on the batteries equals longer time on the air.
My argument from here will be centered on two things, the simplicity of low power radios and the benefits of using Morse code. As far as simplicity goes, a low power Morse code radio is not only budget friendly but also quite easy to assemble and maintain. I have built and operate a radio that is about the size of a paperback book and weighs about one pound. It also gives me three bands to choose from which I picked for long distance and local communication (different frequency bands propagate differently). My entire portable station which includes; the radio, antenna tuner, wire antenna, battery, ear buds and key only weighs a few pounds and fits neatly in a small backpack. There are other options for radios that are built in Altoids tins and batteries like those used in RC aircraft that cut down on weight and size even more! All of this adds up to an extremely portable radio station that you can reliably communicate across the globe (North America to Australia is not unheard of with five watts of power).
Now let me take a few moments to address modes of communication as a ham. Amateur radio has done a stellar job of evolving with the technology of the times. Now there are modes that are completely digital and occupy a very small amount of bandwidth. Typically, this involves the addition of some kind of computer so I will not go into detail here. The two most popular modes of communication for hams are single sideband (SSB) and Morse code (also known as CW which stands for continuous wave). Sideband is obviously the more convenient of the two because you just talk into a microphone. The drawback is that it is less efficient, particularly in low power situations, and require more complex equipment. Though it is less efficient it is not out of bounds for low power. I have received good reports from as far away as Austria using only two watts on sideband from my home on the east coast.
In my opinion the best option for low power communication, especially in a disaster or collapse scenario, is Morse code. I hold this opinion for several reasons.
- CW requires much less signal strength than voice. All you need to hear is “dits” and “dahs” not words and sentences.
- A Morse code key can be made from just about anything. All you need to do is complete an electrical circuit. In a pinch you could send code by touching two wires together.
- Morse code is a code. This reason would be particularly helpful in a collapse scenario. While Morse code is not a “secret” code in the strictest sense the vast majority of people in the world don’t know it. This means that your communication automatically has slightly higher security to it. If someone is tuning around with a receiver and hears some dits and dahs and doesn’t know Morse code they are going to have no idea what you are saying. Speed also become a factor here. I am only proficient up to about fifteen words per minute right now. When I hear guys running twenty-five words per minute or faster then I’m lost.
Getting Started in Amateur Radio
For those of us who are preparation minded there is no reason I can think of to not become involved in ham radio now. The FCC has eliminated the requirement of knowing Morse code to get a license. There are three levels of license that offer greater privileges across the spectrum. The most basic license class, technician, offers complete privileges on VHF and UHF frequencies and some limited use of HF bands. The general and extra class licenses grant privileges on all HF bands which means some serious long distance communication. I will say, if I can get a general class license then anyone can. It does take some effort and study but it is very doable. There are many great books, web sites and courses available to anyone interested in becoming licensed. There is a test to pass in order to receive your license and most local ham clubs offer testing on a regular basis for a small fee.
One recommendation that I would make is to learn Morse code as soon as possible. It has taken me a little over a year to get to where I am at fifteen words per minute and the sooner you learn the better. Again, there are web sites and CDs galore to help in this process. One of the side benefits of learning code is it’s just plain cool. When you learn it you know something that fewer and fewer people know and friends will be amazed.
Once you become licensed the next thing is to get some gear and let me tell you…hams love their toys. If you so desire you can spend tens of thousands of dollars on your radio equipment, and no one will think less of you if you do. However, I have less than $500 wrapped up in all of my equipment and only $200 or so in my portable gear. If you look at swap meets, hamfests and on ebay there is plenty of good gear for reasonable prices. The best way to save some cash on radio gear is to make as much of it as possible yourself. I have never bought and antenna for HF operations. Simple, wire antennas perform at a world class level and can be constructed for a few dollars. I have also built a radio, two antenna tuners and a power/SWR meter. Through that process I’ve gained knowledge and confidence in handling electronic equipment.
I’ve made my argument for amateur radio communications for disaster or collapse scenarios and tried to offer some advice for those who want to get started. In my mind the low power ham radio station is perfectly suited to the preparation mindset. If and when the grid goes down the ability to communicate with others, gather news from near and far, and link up with other communities will be vital. Now is the time to be prepared for communications needs. You could easily get together with like-minded friends and get your licenses at the same time and start regular, on-the-air nets to practice for the unwelcomed event of a disaster. The truth is, there are already hundreds of nets going on each week to keep amateurs ready for natural or man-made disasters.
Finally, the argument could be made that when/if we find ourselves in a situation without the rule of law then you could just start operating on amateur frequencies without a license. That is certainly an option but one that I am not in favor of at all. First of all, just because there may not be an FCC to regulate radio communications sometime in the future doesn’t mean we can’t follow the law anyway. I would hope that no one would want society to remain in a state of lawlessness and one of the great things about ham radio is that we try our best to be self-regulatory. Should the worst happen, I will continue to operate my radio station in a manner that is consistent with the rules that govern me now. I will continue to use my callsign and I will do it within the boundaries set for me. The absence of law does not mean I have to be lawless and if operating my radio station in a legal manner helps in some small way to restore order that is what I will do.