There have been many articles written by the prepper community outlining why having a communications plan for a grid down situation is so important. So we are not going to go in depth about why you need a communications plan, but rather offer concrete suggestions on communications in general and particular products that every prepper should own.
I am a licensed ham radio operator and have been participating in Skywarn spotter activities and off grid battery operated events for over ten years. I am also a pilot and a licensed EMT, both activities in which radio communications are a matter of life and death. I am not affiliated with any of the companies I recommend in this article nor do I stand to make any financial gain through any of them.
In an age where we enjoy unprecedented global communication, it is good to remember how fragile the communication infrastructure really is. Cell phone service is usually one of the first services to go down in an emergency. Even in a localized crisis, such as the Boston Marathon bombing, the cell phone system was overloaded with calls and went down in many parts of the greater Boston metro area. In a power outage many cell towers, if they have a backup at all, will only have a few hours worth of emergency power. Even land lines are now routed through computer switchboards that are susceptible to hacking, power outages and EMP’s. Basically, it is not wise to rely on phones for reliable communications in a emergency.
There are three main types of radio communication requirements for preppers:
1. Short range (under 50 miles).
2. Long range (around the world communications are possible).
3. Scanning to keep tabs on what is going on around you.
The single best thing you can do for your communication plan is to get your ham radio license. The test is very easy to take. I took it when I was 12 and passed. You get a basic grounding in radio theory and it opens up thousands of short and long range communication frequencies for your use. The world is literally your oyster! The first level of ham radio operator is technician. This level allows you to use short and medium range frequencies while restricting most long range wavelengths. The technician class license test consists of a 35 question written exam. The best way to prepare for the test is to buy the American Radio Relay League Ham Radio License Manual. It comes with lots of practice questions and is the standard to which all other ham radio test books are compared.
The most common kind of short range communication is hand held FRS (Family Radio Service) or GRMS (General Mobile Radio Service) radios. You can buy them at Wal-Mart or any large outdoor camping store. They usually have rechargeable batteries and some have NOAA weather channel listening capability. Many also come with ear pieces that allow you to operate them in situations where hands free or quiet operations are desired. While I certainly recommend that every prepper have at least five or six of these radios, they should not comprise the bulk of any communication plan for several reasons. Most radios in this class bundle FRS and GMRS frequencies into one unit. Channels 1 to 14 can be used without any sort of license while channels 14 to 22 require a GMRS license which is not hard to get, you just have to send $80 to the FCC. The problem is that these radios are immensely popular and unless you live in a very unpopulated area, all 22 channels will probably be packed with people trying to communicate. Range is also very limited. Regardless of what the packaging, says I haven’t been able to use them beyond 5 to 7 miles, less in hilly or wooded areas. However they are a cheap, sturdy, and easy to use form of communication, and therefore have their place in a prepper’s arsenal.
The best short range communication device is a 2 meter portable ham radio which is relatively cheap and reliable. The 2 meter frequencies that this radio transmits and receives on are so named because the radio waves they transmit are 2 meters from crest to crest. Most come with a rechargeable battery, and some can be powered through a 12v power source, thereby allowing them to run off car batteries. 2M radio frequencies are called line of sight frequencies, meaning that the radio waves travel in a wave motion in a straight line off the antenna. After about 50 miles the earth begins to curve down and the radio waves continues to travel in a straight line into space. This is why these radios are limited to about a 50 mile range. You can extend the range through repeaters (which are radios set up on mountains or on top of buildings that take your signal and retransmit it) but when SHTF most repeaters will drop off line pretty quickly and therefore will not be considered here in detail. The pros of these kinds of radios are many. There are hundreds of available frequencies, so even in busy metro areas you should have no problems finding a clear channel to communicate on. These radios can be powered through many different power sources and have excellent battery life. They are a great cross between power, range and portability. They are light and can be easily carried wherever you might need to go. You can also buy a variety of accessories for them, including everything from ear pieces to extra battery packs. Portable ham radios are also a very good resource. Most portable ham radios are powered by a 12 volt car battery. They can be installed directly in a car or carried in a backpack. Portable radios generally transmit with a lot more power and therefore can extend your range, especially in wooded or mountainous areas.
Ham radio is the best way to communicate in an emergency, but CB radios are also an option. They require no license to operate and most medium/large trucks already have one installed. This makes them a good potential source of road conditions and general outside information especially when bugging out. Mobile CB radios that can be installed in a vehicle are quite popular and should definitely be installed in your bug out vehicle if your prepping includes one. The same problems with FRS and GRMS radios also hold true for CB radios, in that not many channels are available for a lot of users and offer less range then a ham radio.
Long range communications may or may not need to be a part of your prepping plan. If you and your loved ones will be located within reach of the short range communications mentioned above, then I would just skip this section altogether. For those with longer range needs, I would suggest you obtain a general or extra class ham radio license. This will open up long wave length, long range communication frequencies for your use. The radios and equipment in this class are more expensive and require more knowledge to operate. The scope of long range communications are outside the parameters of this article. Suffice it to say that if you are interested, there are lots of good books on the subject and you could spend a lifetime learning about this class of radios and the associated theory.
In an age of relatively secure digital communications (NSA snooping aside) it is important to remember that radio communications are public and can be heard by anyone with the right equipment. The easiest thing to do is come up with some code words and phrases for common words, locations and names that you might need to use over the airwaves.
Last, but certainly not least, comes scanning. Having the ability to listen to a wide range of communications including police, fire, EMS (Emergency Medical Service), military, aircraft, school and prison systems, public works and more will be invaluable. The situational awareness that you gain will give you a edge no matter where you are or what situation you are thrust into. There are two main kinds of radio systems that you might need to keep an “ear on”, trunked and non-trunked. Trunked systems have several communications frequencies and a control frequency. The system will dynamically switch which frequency you are communicating on based on what frequency is open at that time. Trunked systems are usually used in and around big cities when there are a lot of users and not enough frequencies to go around. Listening to a trunked system requires a trunking scanner. The best way to tell if you need to spend extra on a trunking scanner is to go to the Radio Reference Database and type in your zip code. At the bottom of the page, it will list the trunked systems in your area. If you want to listen to those services, get a trunking scanner. Regular scanners are fine for all non trunked systems. Non trunking systems are like an FM radio station; they always transmit on the same frequency and don’t switch, any scanner, even a trunking one, can listen to non trunking systems.
No matter what your level of preparedness, you can fit some level of communications gear into any budget, from a $40 pair of FRS/GRMS radios to a $2,000 multi-band ham transceiver. Either way, you will sleep better at night knowing that no matter what happens, you will be able to keep in contact with your loved ones and improve your situational awareness.
The following is a list of some gear I recommend preppers have. I have tried to list several price options in each category to satisfy any budget.
Portable Ham Radios
Handheld Ham Radios
Okay (inferior quality but very cheap):
Tri-band, waterproof, scanner
Portable CB Radios
Handheld CB Radios
This scanner has analog trunking: (This is an older standard for trunking systems. Most municipalities still use analog trunking, and so this radio will be the best choice for most preppers as digital trunking capability doubles the price.)