Recently I purchased a good two-way HT (slang for a hand-held Ham radio), and I thought I would share my thinking process behind picking it.
Here are a few general points. (Later I will get into the specific details.)
Conditions and Reasons May Differ
First off, I want to say that these are the conditions and reasons I used to make my choice. Yours may be different. I have a Ham radio license. This means I can operate within a wider frequency range than those frequencies covered by an off-the-shelf radio (FRS/GMRS). If you just don’t want to get licensed, I’m sure you can use the criteria I will go over to help you choose a FRS/GMRS/CB hand-held radio.
Not My Only Hand-held, Two-way Radio
Second, this is not my only hand-held, two-way radio. I have others that are inexpensive ($30 each). They do not match my criteria for a critical radio. Those $30 HT radios are made with $15 worth of parts and by what I would call “Chinese slave labor”. They work, are fun, and are inexpensive enough to take apart and hack. Get them. Learn with them, but I would never bet my life on them.
Money Set Aside As If Life May Depend Upon This Radio
Third, I figure one day my life may depend on this radio, so I put away the same kind of money for it that I would a primary rifle or handgun.
Criteria For Selection
That being said, these are criteria, in order of priority, that I think are critical when choosing a two-way radio:
1. It Works
This may sound obvious, but the most important feature is that I know “it works”. That kid-like radio you bought for Y2K, and hasn’t seen daylight since, is an unknown. It might turn on, but the conditions the battery went through may prevent it from taking many new charges, or even running for an extended time.
2. Weather Proofing
Consider this criteria of weather proofing in bold, in red, italicized, and triple underlined. If I had to chose between all the features below and weather proofing, I would chose weather proofing. I want this radio to function after swimming with it or in a hurricane. A two-way radio that is “dust and maybe sprinkle proof” is about as useless as a rifle that jams unless it is operating room clean and with very specific ammo.
3. Frequency Range Appropriate For Terrain
It must be frequency range appropriate for my local terrain and adjacent terrain. What’s usable in an apartment building may be useless in a mountain range. See my SurvivalBlog article on “Radio Communication Methods During Emergencies” for more details. https://survivalblog.com/radio-communication-methods-emergencies-part-1-r-nc/
4. General Coverage
It much have broad coverage. Beyond the frequencies that it is designed to transmit on, I want it to be able to receive the following: AM, FM Broadcast, and NOAA/WX. GMRS and FRS are a plus too, but these are not as critical.
5. Security Through Obscurity
Security is important. I want the radio to have either a lesser used digital mode or spread spectrum capabilities. Digital modes are not encryption. But like in one of Rawles’ books where he uses a CB with SSB because SSB isn’t on all CB’s, I want to have a mode that my base station has and that fewer people use.
I have a few side notes:
- a. DMR is the most popular digital mode.
- b. Echolink is not really digital; it’s analog out the radio, later converted for VOIP.
- c. Hand-held radios and even base stations using 2m or 70cm frequencies rarely have SSB. They are almost always FM only, making one with SSB a good alternative to digital in that frequency range. Ideally, I would like to hear all digital modes and transmit on a lesser used one. However, that choice isn’t always available.
6. Cloning Software
The radio needs to have cloning software. It must have something that will let you program and save the programming features of the radio. This lets you copy the same config from one radio to another. It also makes frequency rotations for your radios much easier.
7. No Fancy Rechargers or Weird Adapters
It should require no super fancy recharges with X plugs and a weird adapter. I want a normal 12v barrel connection and an adapter to charge off a car cigarette lighter. 12V barrel connectors opens a whole world of recharge opportunities when you have to get power from a variety of sources.
8. Removable Antenna with Common Adapter
The antenna must be removable, with a common adapter such as SMA or PL259 connector. I want to be able to attach a better portable antenna whenever possible.
Nice To Have List
There are some other criteria that would be nice to have but aren’t necessities. This includes:
GPS is nice, especially if it has the ability to save a location and see how far away you are from it. Oh, and yes I can read a map and have passed the Ft Benning land nav course. However, sometimes, one hill looks just like another hill, and I’m too old to just “walk over and see”. <insert smile>
2. Ability to Send Data
It’s a plus to have the ability to send data through the radio when combined with a cable and a laptop. In Ham space, we call this a TNC– Terminal Node Controller.
3. More Than One Band
More than one “band” (aka frequency range) can be useful. Portable radios, for the most part, are either UHF or VHF. UHF is usually better around buildings. VHF is usually better in the suburbs. Although HF is also a good option if available, with CB or 50MHz (technically still VHF), the antennas start to get very long for a hand held. Again, see my article on Radio Communication Methods During Emergencies, linked above.
Applying All Criteria
Okay, so after applying all the criteria above and making allowances for “not every radio is perfect”, my choices came down to two radios. Since the price for both was a punch in the stomach, I wanted to make sure I got the best one for me. This meant it also was something of quality. Again, know your terrain. Consider what’s the best frequency range for an area where there are farms. Starbucks may not be the best terrain test for you deep mountain folks.
The two I ended up picking between were the ICOM ID51A (plus 2) and the Kenwood TH74A. Here’s how they compare, from the perspective of my itemized priorities.
|1. It works||New, not open box, no major “issues” identified on amazon or eHAM.net (http://www.eham.net/reviews/)||New, not open box, no major “issues” identified on amazon or eHAM.net (http://www.eham.net/reviews/)|
|2. Weatherproof||IPX7 (submersible up to 1 meter deep for 30 minutes).||IP54/55 low dust and waterproofing by my standards, decent impact resistance.|
|3. Frequency range||144/430 MHz||144/220/430 MHz – note the extra frequency range (220). Also note that there are fewer hand held radios that are in 220MHz.|
|4. General Coverage||AM/FM Broadcast, NOAA||AM/FM Broadcast, NOAA, SSB|
|5. Digital Modes||D-STAR * being proprietary, there are far fewer D-STAR capable radios out there than DMR. Also note that D-STAR supports point to point/simplex and does not need a repeater. Note, data cable included.||D-STAR * same comment as ID-51a, no data cable included (to be fair, no data cable listed as included).|
|6. Cloning software||Cloning/programming software is included, and is compatible with my other ICOM radios. Programmable over included data cable.
It was unclear from the websites if the data cable could be used for programming, but after some digging, I found that it is used for data and programming.
|Not listed, I would have to use CHIRP (free) or RT-Systems.
No programming cable listed, would probably have to buy it. (again, to be fair, no programming cable listed as included).
|7. Recharging||12v Barrel connector. You must turn radio off to charge it, otherwise it used the 12v connection for direct power.||12v Barrel connector. Run on vs Charging unknown – would have to research|
|8. Antenna||SMA removable (note this is a male SMA, unlike Baofeng’s that usually come with a female SMA.) don’t expect your Baofeng add-on antenna to work without an adapter.||SMA removable, cant tell from documentation if male or female. I’m sure it’s in there somewhere.|
|Optional 1. GPS||Yes, included. Will send GPS data via D-Star DPRS if enabled. Note that this is not APRS. There are D-STAR gateways that will convert it to APRS once you are on a D-STAR repeater, but it will not send native APRS. If you are talking to someone else on D-STAR, even simplex, it will send GPS coordinates (if you enabled it to do so).||Yes, included. Will send GPS data via D-Star DPRS if enabled. And will send native APRS.|
|Optional 2. TNC||Yes, works fine though a PC/android, applications are a bit more limited though, and this is not “iPhone friendly” No bluetooth. ICOM has a free application to text/configure for both PC and Android – nothing for iOS.||Yes, though I don’t know what applications are available and compatible. Note that this has Bluetooth.|
|Optional 3. Multi-Band||2 bands for transmit||3 bands for transmit|
|Optional 4. My personal opinion – I hate buying anything made in China, I’ve had too many bad experiences with Quality Control from products shipped from there.||Japanese company, made in Japan||Japanese company, made in China|
My Selection Reasons
In the end I went with the ID-51A, for two reasons. First, it’s IP7 waterproof. To me that was the primary reason. I can live with a few less bells and whistles, but if it can’t survive a puddle, then it’s useless to me. Second, it was less money ($359 in black to around $489 for different colors) compared to the $450-$600 for the TH74). Now, don’t get me started on the cost. Though it’s not “battle rifle” price ranges, these should still have a warning on the box that states: “Sit softly after buying.”
Just to list a few items I added to the order:
- 15” extended antenna Diamond SRH77CA,
- third party speaker mike with plug for ear piece, and
- a must-have 12v car cigarette lighter adapter.
I wanted to add extra batteries, but I’m going to have to save up for them. The small one (1150 mAh) is about $69; the bigger (1800/mAh) is $99, and the 3xAA case converter to use normal batteries is, wait for it, $52. This is why the 12v barrel connection is so important. You can run off of any 12v using that connector while you save up a few paychecks for the batteries. Don’t have 12v? Make it with 6v batteries. See, you have options.
Note that if you order this, or something like it, from one of the big Ham radio websites, you will often see a “MARS” option. This expands the frequencies that the radio can transmit on. For a VHF/UHF Ham radio, that usually means it will be able to transmit on FRS and GMRS after the modification. I specifically did not choose this option. I have for other radios but not this one. There should be nothing risking the IPX7 rated seal. I don’t even want them to open it, even if the modification should not compromise the seal. I just won’t risk it.
Out of Your Budget
Now, I know there are folks that think this is just way out of your budget, especially if you are young or on a fixed income. Some of us take years to finally get through the ammo, guns, canned food, and other critical expenses. Personally I consider radio communications just one notch down from beans, bullets, and bandaids, so I save up for this. It took me a year to pull this together. Even after saving, not everyone can afford it. For you, I recommend focusing on two major features above all others: weatherproofing and the 12v barrel connection. Forget the GPS, fancy TNC, or digital modes. Forget the dual and tri-band options. You want something that works when you drop in in the river and can be charged and run off of anything you can get to 12v. ICOM and Kenwood have radios in that range.
The ICOM ID31A has most of what the ID51A has, including IPX7 weatherproofing but only supports 440MHz transmit. This will bring your cost down to about $299. Also, there’s the ICOM M36. It’s a Marine VHF (AM) IPX7, and it floats. I don’t know a lot about Marine VHF or this radio, except it’s a FCC no-no to use away from “water”. By “water” I think they mean in support and use of a boat. This will run about $160 and does not need a license. I haven’t really found much at an IPX7 rating that costs less than that.
Are you wondering why all the ICOM? The short answer is, I like them and they have the largest selection of IPX7 that I’ve found.
Remember, I’m not saying that this radio is the best choice for you. This is more about defining specific criteria, prioritizing them, and figuring out what is most important when selecting a hand-held radio. Also note that I have and recognize a personal bias against Chinese-made radios. I have seen far too many technical components come from there that just could not pass any kind of QA test. That is my personal opinion. If you don’t share it, I’m sure you can find a number of less expensive radios that match the criteria above. But do your research, and pay attention to the comments on amazon and eham.net. In the end, you get what you pay for.
Feel free to ask any questions you have, and 73.
SurvivalBlog Writing Contest
This has been another entry for Round 75 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,
- 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 75 ends on March 31st, 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.