What you don’t know can ruin your day.
Fortunes are made and lost based on information exchange. How we dress on a given day might be based on weather reports. Television and radio inform us on developing news. We hear about our friends on social media and through email. Disruption of these services can indeed “ruin” our day; that is, in normal circumstances. In a state of emergency, what you don’t know can kill you. Our reliance on the power grid, cell phones and the Internet makes us very vulnerable. A simple storm like Sandy or Katrina can take away all power distribution and communications for days, even weeks. A hurricane will wreak havoc on a large area. just look at the Philippines recently or the last tsunamis in the Pacific. We are not immune from such events just because we have been lucky so far. Have we?
Certainly the United States has been lucky. Yellowstone hasn’t blown up yet, nor has California separated from the mainland after the overdue “big-one.” Since the Civil War the country has been fairly peaceful. There was an event however a century and a half ago that would have ended civilization had it happen today. Statistically it will. Actually there are about one in eight chances that it will happen by 2020. Meteor strike? Volcanic eruption? Nope, nothing that fancy but potentially deadlier. I am referring to the solar storm of 1859. Back then it only fried telegraphs and shocked a few Morse-code operators. Today it would destroy every single microchip in it’s path. That includes those in your car, phones, computers; airplanes, satellites, the trucks that deliver food to supermarkets, everything. We would essentially be back to 1859 with the population of 2014. I won’t tell you how important it is for you to consider that just maybe you could take a few simple steps to survive the first few weeks of any natural or man-made disaster. Just Google “prepping,” thank me later. One of these steps however I know much about, and that is radio communications. Not only receiving, but also transmitting. There is nothing worse than not knowing or reporting what is going on or not being able to call for help. Is your relative on the other side of town still alive? Have you ever seen a wall full of photographs in a disaster area refugee camp?
Now, this article is not about helping your community by becoming a Ham Radio operator (though I will suggest you do) and going to meetings with a bunch of old guys who occasionally will “help” during the local walk-a-thon with handheld radios and orange jackets. They can be of tremendous help during local or regional emergencies, but in my opinion only for a limited time until generators run out of gas and looting starts. Then they won’t come to you, or you to them to send word to your relatives on the other side of the country. Nor will you have any idea of what is going on beyond your field of view. This article is about helping yourself, friends and family. It is about staying in touch with them in times of need, receiving and exchanging vital information.
This is just an introduction. The subjects I will cover include which radios to use for different situations and distances. What type of information you can convey via radio, including voice, Morse code, text, and yes, even emails, including attachments. I will talk about simple but effective antennas you can build with cheap electrical wire. Which batteries to use and why. How to recharge them without power. You will learn how you could make contacts globally for less than $100 of gear that fits in a shirt pocket and send emails without the Internet for a few hundred dollars. I will not charge you for the information.
What do I know about this stuff and why should you listen to me? Well, I went to school for electronics back in the 80s. At the time I was also into CB radio and learned how to set-up a radio station and tune an antenna properly. I learned about propagation and how radio waves behave in regards to the ionosphere, time of day and seasons. When CB radio went out of style with the advent of cell phones I boxed up my radio, picked up a camera, became a photographer and also learned to fly. Another story… Fast forward to 2012. It became increasingly apparent to me that things were not heading in the right direction economically as well as internationally. Also being separated from my parents by thousands of miles could be a problem if communications were disrupted. I started looking into Ham radio. Of course I wasn’t going to do what most Ham operators do, namely set-up a big station in my attic with a tower in the back yard to chat about politics and other ailments after the eight-O-clock news. I wanted to find what could be used after everything fails. What could be carried in a backpack that doesn’t weigh a ton. Being able to talk to a friend three miles down the road, send a message to someone on another continent or listen to a distant radio station for news. All of this with gear that can fit in a shoebox, including antennas and batteries. I wanted something I could use for weeks, months or even years without power.
There are three levels or licenses for Amateur radio operators. Usually one starts with the Technician license, which is very easy, then upgrades to General maybe a year later. Some go as far as the “Amateur Extra” license, though not everyone passes because of the amount of material involved and the math. I studied for and passed all three exams the same day. I have built and operated many radios, all geared towards that end. I have bought and sold numerous models. Most of my antennas are home-built with materials bought at the local hardware store. My favorite radio, which I also built is the size of a pack of cigarettes and I am routinely heard five to six thousand miles away.
I have operated these radios while camping, even outside my favorite coffee shop. Oh, and I can decode Morse code in my head at twenty five words-per-minute. So, I do pretend to know what might work and certainly what doesn’t. But enough self-pontificating.. A lot of the information I will present has been passed down to me from ex military signal intelligence spooks who know how to set-up a portable “discreet” radio station. Notably, I need to thank my friend Ray who helped me with my Morse code speed and taught me a good deal about what works in the field. Most of my Ham friends are very knowledgeable on field radio operations. It would be too long for me to thank them all here. You know who you are.. There are no secrets in radio. There are however a lot of misconceptions. There are also as many types of radio operations as there are games using a ball. They are as different as can be. Radio prepping is one of them and a fairly new concept.
Chapter two will deal with the minimum set-up to communicate with friends in the same town and also cover short-wave radios for news reception. Both can be done at very low cost and a Ham radio license isn’t necessarily required. That will include CB radios and handhelds of different kinds. I will assume the reader knows nothing about radio or even electricity. I will also explain how to protect your radios against strong magnetic fields generated by solar storms, lightning or God forbid, nuclear explosions. You could potentially stop reading there if you have no special interest in radio or no family living beyond about twenty miles.
Chapter three will move to regional and global communications for which a Ham radio license is required; again easy to obtain by anyone above the age of six who can read and for about $15. I will also write about easy to set-up antennas that are practically invisible. You will learn the peculiarities of the different frequencies or bands and how to take advantage of them with different modes of communications.
Chapter four will dwell into portable radios and why Morse code is probably the best mode for preppers. I will give you tips on how to learn the code efficiently by avoiding all the mistakes I made! Batteries and solar charging will be explored. This is my favorite mode of operation and I am looking forward to sharing this information.
Chapter five will be about data modes and sending emails. I will explain how you can connect a radio to your computer to send text or any type of file. This is beyond portable operations but could be extremely useful for short to medium term emergencies. Questions and suggestions are welcome.