I made this video to promote Morse code for prepping. Morse code is an excellent mode of communication, even today, and especially for emergency situations.
We’ll start with local communications. Failure of land lines and cell phone relays could isolate you from family members and friends you would want on your side in an emergency. After a hurricane a few miles might as well be a few thousand. Something might also happen while you are away from home, if only shopping on the other side of town. I hope you have a bug-out bag in your car to help you get home…
Before diving into the subject, I need to lay out some bases on frequencies and communication modes. It isn’t hard to understand and I will do my best to make it as simple as possible. Take your local radio station for instance.. Let’s say you listen to 102.5 FM. 102.5 is the frequency, in this case 102.5 megahertz, which is 102,500,000 cycles per second. Frequencies are measured in Hertz, meaning cycles per second. Imagine flipping the light switch in your kitchen.. At 102.5MHz you would be flipping it more than a hundred million times per second. Pretty easy concept. As far as units go, we use the Hertz, Kilohertz (x1000 Hertz), Megahertz (x1,000,000 Hertz) and Gigahertz (1,000,000,000 Hertz). You are already familiar with “Gigahertz” if you ever had to shop for a computer…
FM is the modulation mode, which means the way your voice (or data) is coded before sending it by radio waves. I won’t get into details here but just know that there are different modes. You probably listen to AM radio sometimes, which is a different voice mode from FM. AM (amplitude modulation) was invented before FM (frequency modulation) and is of course still in use today by short-wave radio stations because it is more efficient than FM. AM will go further than FM using the same power but doesn’t sound as clear. This is why radio stations prefer FM for music. For local communications you will be using AM or FM, but on different frequencies than your local radio stations.
So, why use different frequencies and which ones are useful to you? For practical matters, we will divide frequencies in two parts: HF or High Frequency, and VHF/UHF or Very High Frequency and Ultra High Frequency. HF, as far as Ham radio is concerned goes from about 1600KHz to 30MHz. UHF goes up to a few Gigahertz. So, your local FM radio station uses VHF which is above 30MHz but below about 400MHz, and your AM station uses HF, around 1MHz. What’s the difference? You see, the problem with radio is that the earth is round but radio waves travel in straight lines… So how do you contact someone who is beyond line-of-sight? If it wasn’t for the ionosphere, we would never have been able to do so before the invention of the communications satellite. There would have been no Titanic survivors! Fortunately radio waves bounce on the ionosphere! Under certain circumstances… They can even bounce on the earth and go all around the world! The ionosphere will bounce radio waves up to around 50MHz, and not very often at that frequency. It depends on solar activity. That’s why you’ll never hear an FM radio station from Japan! But you might hear an AM one on HF if you have a big enough antenna.
For local communications everyone uses VHF and UHF, except for CB radios which use HF on 27MHz. We can use HF for local communications as well as VHF/UHF but we run into another problem, antenna size… The length of any antenna depends on the frequency. You can’t use any antenna size… It is inversely proportional to the frequency used. Antennas are usually half a wavelength. Take 7MHz for instance, which is a popular Ham HF frequency.. The size of a half-wave antenna is around 66ft. A bit long for a handheld radio! Another common Ham band for local communications is the 2 meter band around 146MHz. A half-wave antenna for that frequency is about 3.2ft. Now we can slap that on a walkie-talkie.. You will learn about all that simple math while studying for your Ham Technician license.
Let’s look at the no-license-required options for local comms: You probably already own a pair of FRS handheld radios. You can find them at Walmart for as low as $30. How good are they? Pretty good it turns out, but their range is limited. The manufacturers pretend up to twenty or thirty miles, but that would be floating in space talking to someone on the ground. The earth being round, again, we run into the line-of-sight-problem. Two humans standing up with a radio at head-height will only be able to talk to about six miles… That goes for any radio at that height, FRS or not. Because of their low power and small antennas, actual range is more like two miles maximum. A good way to extend range would be to climb on your roof, but obstructions will reduce the practical range and you’ll never get more than a few miles. FRS (family radio service) radios are more useful to keep in touch while moving as a group in case some members get separated.
An alternative to FRS handhelds are MURS radios. They aren’t much different but since less people know about them you get a little more privacy… Anyone can listen to FRS. Few people use MURS because they cost a bit more. Range is similar to FRS in that they are limited by the same laws of physics.
Personally I don’t have much money to spend on gear so I opted for FRS. If things turn ugly I can give a few to my friends and establish a simple code for operational security. I highly suggest that you do buy as many as you need for each members of you inner circle, plus a couple spares.
Then we have the good old CB radios. They operate in AM on 27MHz. Furthermore, you get forty channels. Since this is HF, it is occasionally possible to communicate over vast distances using a CB (citizen band) radio, although the FCC doesn’t allow you to talk to anyone beyond 250 miles. I don’t think they enforce it… There are very few CB handhelds as most models are for car or home use. Antennas are fairly long, not very practical for something you might want top carry in your pocket. It is however a popular band to listen to, though if you have kids I’d suggest keeping them away from it! CB used to be civil and polite, self policing. Not any more… If you decide to buy a CB I suggest you get one with SSB modes, which we will talk about in our upcoming long distance communications article. See my post about the Galaxy DX-979. Getting a CB means that you will have to learn a bit about antenna tuning and how to measure SWR (standing wave ratio), which is how much power is not radiated by the antenna and could fry your radio turning it into a receiver only.. It is simple but can’t be ignored. Your antenna must be of a precise specific length to transmit with. So, if you buy a CB radio, also buy a SWR meter. More about that in our HF article later.
Ham radio is you best choice for emergency communications. Not only the radios are of better quality and more versatile but you also gain a whole community of knowledgeable individuals ready to help you. The Technician exam is so easy it’s almost laughable. It will only set you back about $15 and your license will be valid for ten years. The FCC assigns you a call sign and that’s the extent of it. You gain access to many frequencies and modes for worldwide communications. The Technician license is mostly for local communications but allows some long-range contacts on some bands.
The most common local Ham band is 2m FM, which covers from 144 to 148MHz. What’s so great about it compared to say, FRS, since again the laws of physics come into play? In one word, repeaters! Ham operators install repeaters on high towers all over the country. You can be pretty sure there is one within range of your house. These repeaters relay your signal over large distances, sometimes up to one or two hundred miles. Not bad for using a small handheld radio. Repeaters might not operate for long after a large scale emergency but at least they will keep you connected until the generators run out of gas.
Another popular band like 2m is the 70cm band from 420 to 450MHz. Most handheld radios offer both band in one device which is what I suggest you get. Prices range from $35 to $600 but you can get a great radio for $150. Ignore expensive digital models because they don’t work any better than the good old FM ones. More private maybe, but that’s about it.
One of my favorite model is the Yaesu FT-270. It is a 2m only model, very rugged and waterproof. You can actually dunk the darn thing in a bucket of water while it’s on and it will keep working! Best thing is, price is around $120. Another cheap option is the Chinese Baofeng UV-5R and UV-5R+ models. They have both 2m and 70cm and can be programmed to include FRS and MURS channels, though you can legally only listen. In an emergency however, you can use any radio on any frequency, so a good option to have. The UV-5R has a big flaw however and that is the external microphone jack. It breaks after you use it a few times, limiting you to use the radio with an external microphone only. I have two and both are broken. One I received already broken and the other one broke within a couple weeks. I now use them with external microphones.. Still a good deal for $50 a pop. If you get one I suggest never plugging in an external microphone and using it as-is. That way it will last a very long time. It’s too bad a great radio like this was built with sub-standard jacks.
Get your Ham radio license! Go to the ARRL site to find an exam session and buy a book. Then open a free account on QRZ.com. They have free practice exams online. If you are local to Sarasota, contact me and I will answer any question you might have. If you are hesitating because you fear being put on some list, let me tell you that you are already on a few and a Ham radio license won’t make any difference. There are no good reasons in my opinion not to get one. I would even suggest trying to pass both the Technician and General exams on the same session. It isn’t much harder and will give you access to a flurry of frequencies on HF.
So far we have our few FRS or MURS handhelds, maybe a CB for the house or car, and a couple 2m/70cm Ham HTs (handi-talkies). What else do we need? We need to know what’s going on beyond our town, even beyond our continent! Everyone needs a short-wave receiver. Short-wave is HF. Something like the Tecsun PL-380 for bout $45. Whatever you buy make sure it has a plug for an external antenna. The built-in antennas are way too small to be of any use. You will plug in a long wire, say 60ft. or more to get distant stations. Also make sure the receiver decodes SSB to listen to Ham radio operators. Usually a good short-wave receiver covers all HF Ham bands and everything else in between. Some Ham radio transceivers (transmitter/receiver) allow you to listen in between Ham bands, thus act as a short-wave receiver. If you plan on getting into Ham radio you might just buy one, even before you get your license, if only to listen. Otherwise, do buy a short-wave receiver!
There you have it, all you need for local communications and getting news from distant stations. How are we going to power it all up without electricity? First, make sure all the devices you buy can be powered with AA batteries.. They are everywhere and rechargeable ones can be recharged with a solar panel like the GoalZero Nomad 7, which I use. You can charge four batteries at a time in about four hours. Make sure you buy AA battery adapters for your HTs and have the correct connectors and battery packs for your other devices.
You need to protect your gear against strong magnetic fields generated by lightning or an EMP. I use a cookie tin can with my radios wrapped in plastic as to not touch the sides of the can.. It isn’t grounded but I hope it would work. I tried placing my cell phone inside then calling it, it didn’t ring. I also soldered a piece of wire between the can and the lid to insure a good electrical contact. I sometimes leave a radio outside the box but never leave it plugged-in while not in use.
Questions and comment are welcome. I will be glad to help anyone get into Ham radio. The next article will cover global communications. Stay tuned!
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.