Essential Communications on a Budget, by TCM

Communications within a survival group and with the surrounding area is not just important; it can be a matter of life and death. The lack of communications taken to the extreme can be illustrated by imagining yourself with your eyes and ears covered. Now, try to defend yourself and your family. We all know it is not possible. Being without, at least, basic communications is almost that dangerous. I’m not suggesting that you should blow your entire prepper budget on high dollar electronics. There is a low-cost, but effective solution. This article will offer some practical solutions for emergency communications, using low-cost Baofeng transceivers. Some of the suggestions are not legal except under emergency conditions. The best approach is to get your ham license and do everything legally, but your circumstances may not permit that approach. If not, this article is for you. First, we will talk about equipment then how to configure and use it.

The Ubiquitous UV-5R

Probably, the most popular hand held radio for those preparing for WTSHTF is the Baofeng UV-5R. It is a dual band (VHF and UHF) hand held with four watts output and is available for under $30. Two of these will offer you the most basic radio communications. Depending upon your environment, you can expect to reliably talk about a mile or two (I know, the theoretical distance is six miles but only with perfect conditions. I wouldn’t bet my life on it). Distance is largely a product of the antenna height of both radios. Two people with hand held radios with standard antennas will be very limited in range of coverage. Therefore, the best thing you can do to increase the distance of your coverage is to raise antenna height. Secondly, a good antenna will provide a gain in the effective radiated power (gain is measured in dBi).

As an example of increasing distance by simply raising the height of one antenna, put one antenna on a thirty foot pole. Now, your theoretical range increases to eleven miles. Put both antennas on a thirty foot pole and the distance is sixteen miles. You get the picture. There are numerous antenna height calculators on the Internet if you want to play with the numbers.

Editor’s Note:  Readers in the United States must be sure to follow all FCC licensing requirements.

Antenna and Co-Ax

If you choose to go to an outside antenna on a pole (let’s call this your base station), the Comet GP-1 is a good, dual-band, light-weight antenna for general purpose use. It has 3.0 dBi gain on the VHF band and 6.0 dBi gain on the UHF band (it goes for under $100) In addition to the pole and antenna, you will need cable to connect the radio to the antenna. The good stuff is LMR-400 (with PL-259 connectors.) Fifty feet is under $75. If you are cutting corners, try 50 feet of RG-8x cable (with PL-259 connecters) for under $35. To connect your hand held to the cable, you will need an adapter cable for under $20.

Configuration

Now that you have the equipment, let’s configure it. Remember, if you don’t have the proper license; it is not legal to use this equipment. In an emergency, you are best using frequencies that will cause the least disruption to other users. Therefore, let’s talk about those frequencies that are already designated for public use such as MURS, FRS and GMRS. Since the Baofeng UV-5R is dual band, it will operate on either VHF (MURS) or UHF (FRS/GMRS). It is advisable to select several frequencies for your group to use so that if one channel is busy you can go to an alternate. The radios have enough memory channels to permit all the MURS, FRS and GMRS frequencies to be programmed. There are twenty two FRS/GMRS frequencies allocated and five MURS allocated frequencies.

It is recommended, that when programming the radio, give each channel a name which does not divulge the exact frequency you intend to use. For example, you might name a channel Cindy. You then advise your group to switch over to Cindy. Anyone not in your group who might be listening in would not know to where to go.

In addition to the aforementioned frequencies, these radios are capable of functioning on the ham (2 meter and 70cm) and public service bands. It is not advisable for your group to plan using these other bands as they are likely to be very busy, but by listening to them you may acquire valuable information.

Repeaters

Another consideration for those inclined to get a bit more from their radio system is to install and setup a repeater. The advantage to having a repeater is that it greatly increases the distance which two or more hand held radios can talk to each other. For example, you may find that you are limited to two miles when talking between two hand held radios, but you can talk ten miles from a hand held to the radio attached to the antenna on the pole. Wouldn’t it be great if you could talk twenty miles between the two hand held radios?

Well, it is very achievable. There are a lot of two thousand dollar solutions to this problem, but what if there was a solution for under ninety dollars? The TYT UV8000E radio provides just the answer. This amazing little hand held radio provides a built-in “cross-band” repeater. What this means is that it receives a signal on a frequency on one band then simultaneously re-transmits what it receives on a frequency on the other band. Thus, anything it receives on one band it sends out on the other band. An additional benefit is that it has a ten watt output.

Imagine If…

So just imagine you are ten miles from your base station (house or compound) antenna and another member of your group is ten miles on the other side of your house or compound. Ordinarily, there would be no way for the two of you to talk to each other directly. It would be necessary for someone to be at the house and relay your messages. To setup a repeater, you simply replace the radio attached to the base station antenna with the TYT UV8000E and program it for repeater mode. Now, when you talk on your hand held, the repeater re-transmits to the other member ten miles away. You have expanded your effective coverage to twenty miles.

Imagine the possibilities with the repeater, you could now start setting up communications with other groups and communities. Let’s say your group used channel “Cindy” which does not activate the repeater when you wanted internal, private communications. You could use channel “Robert” to activate the repeater and talk to someone ten miles away (or farther if your base station antenna was higher). What if they also had a base station antenna, then the distances continue to increase (two fifty foot antennas can reach up to twenty miles without a repeater). Take it even further, daisy chain a series of repeaters. Your repeater talks to the next repeater which talks to the next repeater. The possibilities are limited only by your imagination.

Why Hand-Helds?

You may ask:  Why use a hand held for these tasks? Why not use a mobile or base unit which has much more power? It is a legitimate question and one which I have pondered at length. I even started my own radio system with much more powerful equipment. It comes down to three determining factors…cost, electricity and redundancy.

Most mobile units cost several hundred dollars and base units cost even more. All of these hand held radios are well below a hundred dollars each.

Then there is the issue of electricity. In a SHTF scenario, the generation of electricity will be a major concern. The hand held radios can easily be charged with solar power while the mobile and base units would require a generator or a fairly large photovoltaic power system.

Thirdly, is the issue of redundancy. It is much more affordable and practical to purchase and store backup hand held radios. There is also the matter of redundancy in power generating equipment to charge the radios. Small solar systems cost less and are easier to store than larger systems required for the mobile and base radios.

Costs

So in summary, what does it cost to put together a basic communication system? The most basic would be two hand held radios for a cost of about sixty dollars. You could stop there if that satisfies your needs. Most will want to go at least to the next step.

Let’s setup a base station with two hand held radios (remember, one is none and two is one). The base antenna is about a hundred bucks. You may need to by a pole at the hardware store and that is another hundred. Antenna cable is not a place to cut corners so let’s get the good stuff for seventy five dollars. We’re at three hundred and thirty five dollars for a basic base station setup. Add more hand held radios if you can afford it.

Adding a Repeater

Now let’s go all out and get what we really want: a repeater system. We take the base station system shown above and put a TYT UV8000e at ninety dollars on the big antenna. We’re at four hundred and twenty dollars for something that will give us a lot of communication distance and possibilities. Note: if your budget can afford it, buy all TYT UV8000E radios. They will do the work of the Baofeng, but with more power. They will also serve as backups for your base station unit.

I know, $425 is another AR-15 or a thousand rounds of 5.56, but let’s face it. We need to be able to talk to each other, too. The fact is that I have wasted more money than that on my way to this highly efficient and cost effective communication system. I expect there will be those who disagree with my method and that is okay. I welcome suggestions and comments.

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41 Responses to Essential Communications on a Budget, by TCM

  1. R in nyc says:

    Generally the UV-5R has 110 or 128 programmable channels, depending on the particular series you buy. Look for 128.

    My radios are programmed to the repeaters around my home, around my retreat location and the various routes in between.

    I have also searched the web, and found the frequencies of local police precincts, emergency services, public works, etcetera.
    All can be programmed into the radios (via computer & special cable. Never try to manually program via the keypad) and set to ONLY receive and NOT transmit, essentially creating a scanner.

    I would like to say, I have taken the test, and obtained my FCC technician license. Using the radios is a skill and is perishable.
    So get the book, study, take the test, get your license, get on the air and have fun. You will talk to some interesting people, many of like mind! (Of course remember OPSEC – these are PUBLIC airwaves, legally no encrypted, or coded messages allowed)

    Perhaps I will speak with you on the radio one of these days! 🙂

  2. M-ray says:

    Ham operators always insist that a person with ham equipment MUST get their license and I agree with that if you plan on communicating with other operators during these “normal times.” But if our government should someday become tyrannical to the point of gun confiscation and interment camps then I would imagine that the last thing they would tolerate would be pesky ham operators telling where the government has set up road blocks, check points and operating bases. So I expect that ham operators would be the first to get a visit and have their equipment taken and “Oh yes, while we’re here lets just get that gun collection too.”

    • TCM says:

      Very good point. I have my ham license, but had never considered that aspect of being “registered”. Fortunately, I plan to bug out so the feds will find an empty house. All my equipment is mobile and it goes with me. I have redundant equipment at the retreat in case I can’t take mine. Thanks for the excellent observation. TCM

    • Idahoser says:

      not this one, I think you should get the license but there is no requirement to be licensed to own the equipment, only to transmit. But using the equipment is something you have to learn, it’s useless to stash ham radio equipment with your wheat and beans “just in case”. You have to use it to learn it.

    • De says:

      M-ray, I understand the point, but…

      It is hard enough to set up a radio net and get everyone on the same page when everyone knows what they are doing. To attempt to set up even a couple of stations – base and one other – having not had the opportunity to work the bugs out during “normal times” is a recipe for disaster.

      If you read TCM’s article again, note the number of times he had to try something different, or buy a different part.

      So, when they show up for your UV-5, hand them the one with the cracked case and the bad battery and tell them you used to use it with your local club activities.

      • TCM says:

        De,

        I agree. It is better to get the ham license and practice with your equipment. I have gone through several iterations and I have been in radio for many years.

        Thanks for the comments. 73s. TCM

  3. Matthew says:

    Baofeng radios are not legal for FRS or GMRS. Baofeng exceed FRS and GMRS power limits and have a remove antenna. FRS and GMRS must have non-removable antennas.

  4. Al Wheelock says:

    Very good article.I have bought 2 uv5r s and have tried to program them with chirp.It is a free app that uses a computer and a programing cable to enter frequencies into radio.I,m using windows 10 and cant get radio and computer to clone.Chirp websites say its easier to use Mac computers.I will try that on a friends Mac.I have read other replies and its good to note that there are power max limitations on frs and murs.Thanks for your time and research.73 s

    • TCM says:

      I had trouble initially with the cable. I found this one and it worked with my computer and CHIRP with no problems.

      https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B00HUB0ONK/ref=oh_aui_search_detailpage?ie=UTF8&psc=1

      PC03 FTDI Authentic Genuine USB Programming Cable for BaoFeng, Kenwood, Wouxun, AnyTone

      Good luck and thanks for the comments. TCM

      • SM says:

        I purchased the exact same cable and it has been worthless. I was told by Baofeng Tech that I need to download a driver. The link they provided for the driver is also worthless. They will not respond to further questions. I have the emails on file to document their lack of customer service.

        • Doug C. says:

          Make sure the volume is set at max on the radio. I eventually used a Linux computer but didn’t have any luck until someone said to use max volume. Linux works better than Windows for Chirp, anyway. No driver issues.

    • R in nyc says:

      I’m using windows 7
      You may try switching USB ports
      I found that to be my issue
      Since then, I’ve programed more than 1/2 dozen radios
      Persistence…

  5. Randy says:

    Because of the inexpensive Baofeng radios, people in my area are buying these radios and creating problems with the local repeaters and nets by interfering with the nets by sending signals while someone is talking. On several occasions, the net control operator has had to shut the net down due to this interference. Also on a couple of occasions the idiot with the Baofeng is interfering with public service bands such as sheriff, fire department radio calls.

    • TCM says:

      I agree there is the possibility of abuse and interference. However, that is true with automobiles, guns, pills and almost everything else in the world. That should not prevent good, responsible people from using them appropriately. Thanks for the comments. TCM

    • SM says:

      Randy,
      A wholesale blasting of the Baofeng unit because of how it is being misused makes about as much sense as blaming guns for killing people. How do you know they are Baofeng units? Sounds to me like it is more of a situation where people haven’t been trained in Ham etiquette, and , or , are unlicensed and uneducated about proper ham operation.

      • Randy says:

        SM, the reason I know it’s a Baofeng is that whoever owns the radio, and I have an idea who that guy is but can’t prove it, is that they are also interfering with public service comms. A Yaesu or other brand name radios has a chip to prevent those transmissions unless someone goes into the radio and bypasses that chip and you have to know what you are doing in order to do that. And that type of interference has happened before in other parts of the country. I do have a Baofeng and that is my go to radio when I am out in the woods and it is a good radio, so I am not knocking the radio, just some people who misuse them.

  6. Wheatley Fisher says:

    If you are worried about deep state control, please realize that the Ham operators a hundred years ago were too. Big Navy was identified to take over all radio operational controls. But the citizens lobbied hard and successfully kept the amateur bands under control, and pushes hard to make sure the FCC and congress continue to allow self-management of our band allocation.

    Yes,BaoFeng/PoFung are good and cheap. I have four now. And I just got my General license. I urge anyone considering prepping or radio to join a radio club, even if long distance from you. Plenty can go wrong with antennae and transmitters. Clubs have tech experts who have purchased their own test equipment and love teaching and helping set up base stations.

    Quite often members have working equipoment they’ll give you. Last meeting one guy gave away a $500 antenna he couldn’t use. One guy gave me three other radios including a base station last winter.

    Other equioment issues to be aware of are things like RFI such as when you are trying to operate from your vehicle. You need to test whether your vehicle alternator is putting spurious noise into your transmitter when you key the microphone. You need to test your antenna, coaxial cable, and each connector to make sure your antenna can radiate properly. Club members have the equipment and will help you test each to make sure you CAN talk 10 miles.

    I got the UV5R V2, because theu have the extended 3800mohm batteries. Buy 2 spare extended batteries per radio. One battery can last on monitor mode for up to 36 hours. But then it needs to charge. Also make sure you buy two spare 12 Volt recharging cables. Set up a plug so you can grab any car battery, recharge your depleted battery and keep operating.

    • TCM says:

      Excellent advice. I also have my general license (41 years) and belong to a club. There is always an “Elmer” who enjoys helping the “newbees”. Thanks for the comments. TCM

    • Alley says:

      Check that your 12v adapter is actually regulating down to the required 10v. Unregulated 12-14v of car battery/alternator could be bad news for your 7.4v radio battery. The adapter I bought advertised alongside my UV-5Rs was unregulated and is now in the parts bin.

  7. RR says:

    I had to get an FCC license when I got my pilot’s license. No expiration date. Am I legal to use these radios? VHF only?

    • TCM says:

      I suspect the answer is no. They are primarily intended for ham, business or public safety. In any case, you need license for the specific use. If you are police officer or fireman, you may be allowed to use it for departmental purposes on designated frequencies. If you are a ham, you may use it on the ham frequencies. It is not legal to use this radio on the FRS, GMRS or MURs frequencies. Thanks for the comments. TCM

  8. Steven R says:

    1) The author said they were not legal to use without a license. It is not legal to broadcast. It is perfectly legal to listen.
    2) Anyone who is capable of reading well can pass the test. One can memorize the questions. There are several free sites with the questions and answers. The test is cheap.
    3) Everyone should get a license. To have a tool you have not practiced with before SHTF is not wise. Would anyone do this with a firearm?
    4) If one is really paranoid, one can get a PO Box before one gets licensed. It won’t stop them from coming to get you but it might slow them down.

  9. Bob says:

    TCM
    I am just getting started in researching communication strategies, so, your article is both timely and very informative.

    A quick question. There are multiple models of the UV-5R radio. What version would you recommend and why?

    Thanks!

    • Randy says:

      The two I would recommend is the UV-5R or the UV-82L. Either one would work for you, the 82L is about 1/3 larger than the 5R and the keypad on the 82 is easier to use if you have big hands. Other than that there is not much difference between the two of them. And like others have said, the license is not hard to get, it just takes a little bit of studying on your part.

    • TCM says:

      Bob, the models are very similar. The most important thing to watch for is the size of the battery. I initially bought units with a small battery then had to upgrade. The link in the article takes you to one that has the larger battery. Thanks for the comments. TCM

  10. A in Aloha says:

    This is a project that has been on my bucket list for a little while now. About a year ago I found these two videos on youtube that are pretty handy if one was wanting to setup radio comms at their BOL or maybe their ranch/farm.
    You will need to look them as I do not know how to make a link.
    MadMaxTrac is the guys youtube channel name and the video is called “Build your own 2 meter tactical repeater from Bendix King HT’s on the cheep” this a great idea for making a repeater and can be easily adapted to BaoFeng radios and the next video will give you enough info on how to do that.
    asuseroako is the channel name and the video is “Set up a BaoFeng UV-5R Repeater System”

  11. Joe says:

    In a modern society that is used to instant and rapid communications radios take some getting used to. Just learning how to speak on a radio requires actual training and practice. It sounds silly, but we are used to running conversations and a free flow of information and a radio lets just one person at a time communicate while everyone else has to listen. Conversations can take longer and patience is required by those conversing. I guess what I’m saying more than anything is don’t get a set of radios and get them set up and then store them away in a faraday cage. Practice using them and learn what works and what doesn’t work for your team.
    If you want to get into long haul HF communications I would looking up field expedient antennas – I’ve spoken over 2000 miles with a length of copper attached to a children’s party balloon. It’s fun to experiment and see what works.

  12. Tim S. says:

    I do not mean to rain on the parade here, but here is some food for thought.
    Depending on the situation ham radio can help you or kill you, during a natural disaster or some similar event ham radio is great.
    During marshal law ,societal breakdown emp. etc.
    having been a ham myself not very many people talk about the codes that mean go to another frequency most radio’s can scan and you will be heard.
    My favorite topic is triangulation this means if you transmit someone can find your exact location in seconds. I have brought this subject up on Dave Hodges and Bob Griswald but neither seem to grasp how serious this is.
    Mr. Griswald’s answer is I will go five miles from home and transmit. [That is not realistic] in this technological age [[[Some deleted by the editor, for courtesy and commenting decorum.]]].
    I myself will not transmit during a time of crisis , I will listen as this is good COMSEC.
    And as far as mobile 2 meters go you can’t beat the Yaesu 2900r up to 75 watt transmit power,I have talked 40 mile easy without hitting a repeater. Don’t know what they sell for now mine was $149 new when they first came out.

  13. Steve says:

    As several other commenters have suggested, obtaining an FCC license and practicing Ham radio regularly is a very good strategy. Building and tuning an HF radio and antenna set for optimum communications capability isn’t plug and play. You’ll likely need to experiment with a couple different configurations before finding one that suits your style and frequency range.

  14. PG says:

    2 meter dipole antenna may be easier to pack up and move. All one needs is a tall tree and some rope.

  15. RV says:

    Get the license. It is not as easy as it looks.

    • TCM says:

      I concur. If at all possible, it is better to get the ham license and practice with your equipment. I have gone through several iterations and I have been in radio for many years. Thanks for the comments. TCM

  16. MMA says:

    Very good article, thank you. I am a ham radio operator, and I will share a couple of thoughts. First, as others have said, it is not plug and play. Get the license, and start the learning process. It is very enjoyable, and you will make some great friends along the way. But please know, there is a learning curve. The clubs and experience offered in the clubs are great teachers. Take advantage of the generous offers of education now, not when you desperately need it. There is a lot to learn, like all other aspects of your education, one thing at a time. There are numerous options of Amateur Radio not discussed here and the possibilities are almost endless. Begin your communication education like all the others, a long and enjoyable journey.

    • TCM says:

      Great advice. There is no substitute for training and experience. Train and test your communications the same as you would your weapons. Both can save your life. Thanks for the comments. TCM

  17. TN Radio Dog says:

    Great info here on both ham radio & the baofeng (“bf”) uv5r – “Chinese cheap but high quality” radios! Some bullet (to the) point additions to this topic – from this “Extra” who has long found these particular radios to be VERY reliable & highly useable…in so many ways.
    1) Learning to MANUALLY PROGRAM these “BF’s” was difficult & almost kept me off the air for a whole year (due my anger over the programming cord problems with these BF’s), but this is a skill I would never recommend anyone NOT to have (now that I have it)! Forget the computer & programming cord problems and learn how to hand program these BF’s – on the fly!
    2) Get the better Whip Antenna (Nagoya NA-24) for much better performance, bilaterally! Simplex (& Repeater) uses greatly improve with this antenna!
    3) Learn now about “free-banding” with the BF…as in what many high end CB Radios are now doing on (our) 10 Meter Band, illegally…just for the advanced “Learning Concepts” this gives you in (legal) Private Simplex Comms, using these programmable BF’s! (“Freebanding” for BF’s are not possible on 10 Meters…duh.)
    4) Get at least your Tech License. Any wanker can pass this test & this is a skill that must be practiced – to work the Knots out. Ham radio is a lot like riding a bike!
    5) I have spent significant time in the remote mountain areas of Haiti, where ham radio was the ONLY form of communication we had (between hospitals) & at all! THE ONLY – think about that! The same could happen here, easily & unless you’ve been able to experience this (truly scary) form of real remote ISOLATION, then you will be 100% shocked when this occurs to you – here or anywhere – only then understanding how necessary HAM RADIO truly is to your own survival.
    6) Handheld Radios like a BF are limited inside vehicles – due Transmitting Power Limits & RF. A good installed Mobile Unit is necessary, I feel, when traveling frequently.
    7) BF’s UV-82 is a 1Watt/5Watt Unit vs the basic UV5R being a 1W/4W Unit.
    8) The BF UV5R radio will heat up & “burn yourlittle fingers” if Transmitting on the higher power setting (for > ~1-2 minutes)! When I manually programmed my 12+ BF’s, I always set the default Transmitting Power on “Low”(@1W), which hits repeaters 90% of the time (using the Nagoya!) just fine. PEARL: If you want the higher Wattage, when you might need it on the fly, all you have to do is (this is a not well-known “trick” to these radios) BRIEFLY HIT the right lower “#/Lock” button – to see the “L” disappear, going right up to the 4W (5W on the UV-82) Power level!
    9) I also believe these BF’s have opened up a “dumbo door” on the local repeaters here – for a lot of unlicensed transmitters to be playing on them, doing stupid annoying things – at all the wrong times, etc. Most long time “Ham-mers” strongly feel these boob’s now doing this – are the “Preppers” with cheap BF’s who either don’t know how to keep these radios quiet and/or who are unlicensed Hams & are now playing “on air” (on repeaters), stupidly & illegally. (Please don’t shoot the messenger – i am both a Prepper & a Ham.)
    10) With “RADIOS” always remember…why that Cop can (almost) ALWAYS catch that runaway car! ANSWER: “They’ve got Radios!” We should understand the real value of doing the same, especially WTSHTF…or before!

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