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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.