I clearly remember twenty years ago, or ten, even five. I did not then have any of the concerns I have today. The future was bright with no clouds on the horizon here in the United States. I don’t think the world is going to end this December twenty first, or next year for that matter. The Mayan who wrote his calendar must have been tired that night, and his wife was complaining about how much time he spent on it, so he probably just thought it went far enough and left it at that.. I am no doomsday preacher.
There is a certain unease among us however. The media is broadcasting multiple disaster and prepping shows. The economy isn’t going better. Five years ago, I had five ounces of gold, bought for less than $1500. Today, those coins would be worth close to $10,000. Only five years later! I am still hitting myself on the head for selling them before the increase. We may wonder why the value of the dollar hasn’t gone down by a factor of six or seven. The government is trampling on the constitution. One only has to watch foreign agencies news, not the dog-and-pony show we have here, to start worrying. Watching CSPAN can be more entertaining than “Doomsday Preppers,” and certainly scarier. Five years ago, there were few signs of trouble, none before September 2001.
So, you have a bit of food and water stored for rainy days, a generator with a few gallons of gas, your bug-out bag, and a .22 with a case of ammo. Will you be missing anything when disaster strikes? Yes, information. With the power down, no cell phones, land lines or Internet, you might be in total darkness has to what caused the blackout. Should you stay put? Is it safe? If you need to leave, where should you go and what route is the safest? If you happen to be away from your family, how do you get in touch with them? Where are they? Are they all right? Information in a disaster situation is crucial to you and your family’s survival.
I bought my first radio in 1980. It was a forty-channel CB. Back then, conversations were interesting and civil on the 11m band (27Mhz). You could talk to your neighbors, make new friends. People were helping each others. Truckers used them to inquire about road conditions and get directions in unfamiliar towns. Sure, we had some jerks, but the Citizen Band was self-policing. Ten years later it had changed dramatically. I worked one winter as a security guard, and wanted something to keep me awake at night on the job. So, I installed a 200+ channels CB radio in my car. There was still some good conversations going on, but mostly, CB had become pretty lame. I did manage to make a contact across the Atlantic once, using SSB (single Side Band), but usually, range was around ten miles.
A CB radio (AM) today is a poor choice of emergency communication in the U.S. Range is typically only a few miles and forty channels get crowded very fast. Radios are cheap however, and it is certainly better than nothing. “CBers” are no longer organized in clubs. Base stations are rare these days. Even truckers have replaced their CBs by cell phones and computers. The level of the conversations is rather low; you might not want your children to play with a CB radio… It is unfortunate, but the Citizen Band has become the black sheep of the radio world. One exception which could make CB a good choice is if you buy an SSB mode radio. Single Side Band is comprised of USB (upper) and LSB (lower) side bands. These modes offer more range, and even “skips” on the ionosphere, for very long range communications. Conversations on SSB are definitely more civil than on AM. Even with the legal 12W maximum power, you can reach stations thousands of miles away.
You probably own at least a pair of FRS (Family Radio Service) handheld radios. They are very limited in range, two to three miles typically. Do not believe the advertised ranges of twenty or more miles. That may work over water with perfect conditions, but don’t count on it. GMRS has slightly more range, but requires a license (no exam). They are useful to keep track of kids and family members within a small perimeter. Given their prices, you should get a couple pairs. Handhelds would be very useful for a neighborhood patrol, though anyone can listen in. There are better options, but in a pinch FRS can be a good thing to have.
There is no radio solution available to the public without a license that will provide you with enough range to contact anyone beyond line-of-sight. While receiving is important, and having a good short-wave receiver is a must, you still might need to call for help or inquire about a situation, or just contact a distant family member. The solution: HAM radio. Licenses require an exam, but it is easy to get started with a Technician license. It will only cost you a bit of study time and $15.
Now, a bit of technical information is needed. Transceivers (transmitter/receiver) are basically of two types, those that can broadcast beyond line-of-sight (thousands of miles) and those that usually can’t. It all depends on frequency. 6 meter wavelength and shorter are very good for local and medium range communications, from a few miles to around 200 miles. Longer wavelengths, up to 160 meters can bounce off the ionosphere around the earth. 6 meters is smack in the middle. Sometimes it will bounce, and sometimes not, but it does it all, hence it’s nickname, “the magic band.” The most common is the 2m band. As a “prepper,” I am mostly interested in the 2m and 10m bands, with my eyes on 6m. Longer than 10m, and you run into antenna length problems. Antennas become very long, and need to be strung horizontally between poles or trees. Not very discreet or practical in a survival situation, though possible with a bit of ingenuity. The basic technician license allows you to transmit on 10m and above 30Mhz, which includes the “magic” 6m band, 2m and 70cm.
By becoming a licensed HAM operator, you also become a valuable member of your community who can provide information when every other means are down. You would be the first to know what’s going on.
For anyone wanting to buy a do-it-all radio, I would suggest looking at the Yaesu FT-817ND. It is a small portable, multi-band transceiver which runs on batteries or external power. As far as handhelds, look into a couple 2m units like the Yaesu FT-270R for local traffic. Those are though and waterproof down to three feet for thirty minutes! At around $135, they are a bargain. I own one and I am very happy with it. You don’t need a license to buy them, but you can’t legally transmit, though anyone can legally use any radio in the United States for a life-or-death emergency. You would be missing out though by not getting a license, being it so easy and cheap, and get to know your fellow local radio operators.
As a prepper, you should have a spare and store it inside a grounded metal box for EMP protection (MUST READ article!). Make sure the radio is inside a dry cardboard box inside the metal one, and none of it’s parts touches the metal. Surplus military ammo cans are great for that purpose. I would also include a solar charger.
A radio is as important as your Coleman stove or rifle. You might not want to get into local HAM conversations, or even long distance contacts, but when you need potentially life-saving information, you will be glad you have one stored in that ammo can in the garage and that you know how to set it up and use it…