We’ve previously covered non-FCC license dependent communications devices and are wrapping up our examination of FCC license dependent communications options, with special consideration for their use in an emergency. Today, we’ll also begin looking at resources and accessories that help us improve communications.
Almost all of the “base station” VHF/UHF radios are designed as car Ham radios. Because of this, they can be very flexible in usage. Most of these are 25-50 watts, and some are even stronger. With the limited range of VHF/UHF, I think that going over 50 watts is probably not needed. FM is the primary modulation for these kinds of radios, and today it is rare to find one that supports AM/SSB. Some vendors support Echolink, D-Star, DMR, and or APRS. Most of these radios also cover the NOAA stations. These (NOAA) emergency radio stations usually report weather but can relay other information. Having access to those stations is a must when I’m looking at a model.
“HT” or Handheld radios are also very useful. (See comments on inexpensive Chinese radios below.) For quality HTs, I recommend paying attention to the IP ratings on these radios. Expect to use this radio in bad weather. These are almost always 5 watt radios, with NOAA and FM radio receive. Some are “smart phone like” with apps for repeater selection based on location. Just make sure you also get the following, if they have them available: programming cable, ear bud, upgraded antenna, and VOX support.
Pros and Cons of Inexpensive Chinese VHF/UHF Radio
There are pros and cons of inexpensive Chinese radios. First off, many of the HT (handheld) radios are good enough to connect to your local repeater and allow for different antennas. In SHFT, many of the models, like Baofeng, allow for TX outside of the Ham bands, including on FRS/GMRS/MURS/NOAA frequencies, and they can receive FM radio stations. This can be very handy, since they usually put out 5-8 watts, depending on model.
Free programming software like CHIRP almost always works on these radios, as long as you get a programming cable. A distributor called BTECH also has data cables for the Baofeng that will allow you to connect your Baofeng to an iPhone. When combined with a low cost iPhone app called PocketPacket, you can send out email, SMS, and other information via APRS.
The downside is that they almost never have a good manual. Also, different firmware from different distributors can cause issues, stock antennas are usually horrible, and they have limited power and IP ratings. Some of the Chinese radios, especially the small car units, have overheating issues, so pay attention to the Amazon reviews when looking at different distributors.
Many new Hams start with these radios, since they usually cost around $30. These prices mean the cost of the radios are low enough to get for practice, learning, and then dump them in an ammo can when you upgrade.
If you only use one band, wavelength or small range in frequencies, you will not usually need an antenna tuner. You can cut an antenna to length (covered below in the antenna section) and work without one. However, many of us operate on a wide range of frequencies, and an antenna tuner helps to protect the radio by synchronizing the input and output resistance (Ohms) between the antenna and your radio.
Why is this important? This is an oversimplified answer, so buyers beware. If too much electricity comes back over the antenna, you can damage your radio. If the radio pushes out more RF than the antenna or coax can handle at that frequency, it bounces right back at the radio over and over again, which can damage your radio. The reason many use an antenna tuner is because your radio is expecting 50 Ohms resistance on the antenna. When that is not true, there is some “buffer” with the resistance but not much.
How much resistance you get between the antenna and radio depend on many things. They type of coax, length of coax, type of antenna, the height of the antenna, and how far off frequency you are from the antennas optimal resonance. Antenna tuners help match all of this. They can make a wire that would not operate well on 20 meters, actually work on 20 meters. It’s not magic, but it can greatly expand the number of frequencies you can operate on.
Types of Antenna Tuners
There are two basic types of antenna tuners: manual and automatic. As the name suggests, one you dial using knobs (and write down settings for different frequencies); the other is close to plug and play. Both have their advantages. The one that is manual can be a pain to keep adjusting, but they work with almost any kind of radio. Automatic tuners have adapters for your specific radio, so you might need to buy new cables and goodies if you replace hardware. Personally, I own a MFJ-934, because it is very flexible when it comes to different configurations. It even has a feature where you can tune your counterpoise. The downside is that whenever I move anything, I have to re-test my settings for each frequency. Others prefer automatic tuners, because you just press a button.
There are four major types of antennas and hundreds of variations of those basic forms. What works for you may not work for someone else, due to terrain type and restrictions. Also note that proximity to the earth impacts how the antenna behaves.
- Dipole antennas include variations such as G5RV, OCF, cage, cobweb, and many others. In its basic form, it has two wires. One wire is connected to the center lead of a coax cable and one to the outer (ground) of the coax. These antennas tend to give the best overall performance. The downside is that they can be long. Length of a dipole is calculated by 468/frequency in megahertz. So a dipole for 40 meters (7.110MHz) is 65 feet long. For some, that is a lot of space. There are folding dipoles that can cut that length in half, and they can be bent to reduce the amount of space the antenna takes up. Also the ideal height for a 40 meter wavelength is 40 meters in the air. These are usually the least expensive and are typically found for under $100 dollars.
- Vertical antennas are based on 1/4 or 5/8 wavelength (usually) and often come with loading coils to help make them resonant on alternative frequencies, and reduce the overall length. When you see these on automobiles, they are using the car itself as a ground and counterpoise. When mounted on the ground, they often require an extra wire(s) buried or spread out, with a length of around 1/4 wavelength. These can cause several hundred dollars and still need to be mounted as high as possible.
- Loop/magnetic antennas are some of the smallest antennas. Some only take up six feet in circumference. Most are designed for use close to the earth and can be found as kits with portable mounts. They are semi-directional in nature but easily rotated. This makes a great quick deployment and takedown antenna. The downside is that most versions that are reasonable in cost are for low power setups (QRP – less than 20 watts). For something that can handle several hundred watts of power, expect to pay in excess of $400 or even $600, without the mounts.
- Yagi antennas are directional antennas. They amplify signals for both sending and receiving in a single direction and have a significant null or dead area in areas where it is not pointed. In its basic form, there is a reflector, driver (1/2 wave dipole), and one or more directors.
With the (possible) exception of the loop antenna, all antennas should be mounted as high as possible. When most of these antennas are less than one wavelength off the ground it has an impact on the “takeoff” angle of the signal.
NVIS: When the antenna is less than 1/4 wavelength off the ground, an interesting phenomena takes place. The radiation coming out of the antenna is shot almost straight up, and the reflection off the ionosphere is almost straight down. Now the 1/4 ratio varies, depending on what report you sight, and some say it can be as low as 9 feet, but the results are generally the same. This reflection, in an almost straight down angle, combined with ground wave, gives you a circle of communication possibly out to 500 miles.
You will not be able to talk beyond that, but you will be able to receive past that 500 mile mark. Also note that the 500 miles is very subjective. It could be as little as 200 miles. If two locations are within 500 miles and you do not care to talk past that, then setting up both sites with NVIS may be your best option. You can adjust the height to see what is optimal for you.
About FCC Ham Radio Licenses
Some preppers have an issue with the FCC requiring you to submit a SSN and address with a license application (PO Box is allowed). For the most part, they are concerned with a lack of anonymity and risk of confiscation by the government during some kind of SHFT emergency. I understand that viewpoint and even share some of it; however, if you are one of those people, please consider these points.
- It is legal to use a Ham radio in a life-threatening emergency. If you call with an emergency under normal conditions (i.e. I am not concerned about confiscation or loss of freedom during SHFT), then I and any other Ham out there will move mountains to help, and we won’t care that you don’t have a license. We are kind of addicted to helping. That being said, in a SHTF situation, I won’t risk my freedom or my radio to help someone I do not know and who doesn’t even have a call sign. And if you don’t have a license, then I have never talked to you. I don’t know if you are from the government. And every second I’m on the air places me at risk of direction finding. Sorry, but that is the reality of it. During SHTF, I would expect Hams to change their call sign to hide their identity and end up relying on personally recognizing each other’s voice or CW swing.
- Just because I can hear you, doesn’t mean that you can hear me. This is everything. You can buy equipment, connect up an antenna, and direct it to hear what you want to hear, but that still doesn’t mean that I can hear you when you transmit. And without a license and call sign, I’m not answering you to let you know you are really “connected” to my region. Every Ham has spent countless hours tweaking their antenna to communicate to the location they want to. This tweaking requires transmitting and someone answering you. No license, no answer, no confirmation of reception.
- Transmitting to your friends when you don’t have a license. Direction finding (DFing) is a significant part of the Ham radio hobby. There are old farts all over the country that high-five each other whenever they hear you key up. In time, they will find you, record you, and hand it off to the FCC. The fine is $10,000. You see, it’s not about you being a pain, or us on some ego trip. It’s not even about using the radio without a license. Amateur Radio is self-regulated, and without being aggressive at self-regulation, Ham radio will become just like CB radio or the comments section of a political blog. We do everything we can to keep the trolls away and to keep the government from implementing an active control on the Ham bands.
Tomorrow, I will tell you how to go about obtaining your Ham radio license. You’ll also learn about establishing and planning your communications.
- 1 – Radio Communication Methods During Emergencies, by R. in NC
- 2 – Radio Communication Methods During Emergencies, by R. in NC
- 3 – Radio Communication Methods During Emergencies, by R. in NC
- 5 – Radio Communication Methods During Emergencies, by R. in NC
SurvivalBlog Writing Contest
This has been part four of a five part entry for Round 73 of the SurvivalBlog non-fiction writing contest. The nearly $11,000 worth of prizes for this round include:
- A $3000 gift certificate towards a Sol-Ark Solar Generator from Veteran owned Portable Solar LLC. The only EMP Hardened Solar Generator System available to the public.
- A Gunsite Academy Three Day Course Certificate. This can be used for any one, two, or three day course (a $1,095 value),
- A course certificate from onPoint Tactical for the prize winner’s choice of three-day civilian courses, excluding those restricted for military or government teams. Three day onPoint courses normally cost $795,
- DRD Tactical is providing a 5.56 NATO QD Billet upper. These have hammer forged, chrome-lined barrels and a hard case, to go with your own AR lower. It will allow any standard AR-type rifle to have a quick change barrel. This can be assembled in less than one minute without the use of any tools. It also provides a compact carry capability in a hard case or in 3-day pack (an $1,100 value),
- Two cases of Mountain House freeze-dried assorted entrees in #10 cans, courtesy of Ready Made Resources (a $350 value),
- A $250 gift certificate good for any product from Sunflower Ammo,
- Two cases of meals, Ready to Eat (MREs), courtesy of CampingSurvival.com (a $180 value), and
- American Gunsmithing Institute (AGI) is providing a $300 certificate good towards any of their DVD training courses.
- A Model 175 Series Solar Generator provided by Quantum Harvest LLC (a $439 value),
- A Glock form factor SIRT laser training pistol and a SIRT AR-15/M4 Laser Training Bolt, courtesy of Next Level Training, which have a combined retail value of $589,
- A gift certificate for any two or three-day class from Max Velocity Tactical (a $600 value),
- A transferable certificate for a two-day Ultimate Bug Out Course from Florida Firearms Training (a $400 value),
- A Trekker IV™ Four-Person Emergency Kit from Emergency Essentials (a $250 value),
- A $200 gift certificate good towards any books published by PrepperPress.com,
- A pre-selected assortment of military surplus gear from CJL Enterprize (a $300 value), and
- RepackBox is providing a $300 gift certificate to their site.
- A Royal Berkey water filter, courtesy of Directive 21 (a $275 value),
- A large handmade clothes drying rack, a washboard, and a Homesteading for Beginners DVD, all courtesy of The Homestead Store, with a combined value of $206,
- Expanded sets of both washable feminine pads and liners, donated by Naturally Cozy (a $185 retail value),
- Two Super Survival Pack seed collections, a $150 value, courtesy of Seed for Security, LLC,
- Mayflower Trading is donating a $200 gift certificate for homesteading appliances, and
- Two 1,000-foot spools of full mil-spec U.S.-made 750 paracord (in-stock colors only) from www.TOUGHGRID.com (a $240 value).
Round 73 ends on November 30th, so get busy writing and e-mail us your entry. Remember that there is a 1,500-word minimum, and that articles on practical “how to” skills for survival have an advantage in the judging.