So far, in following the Survivalist paradigm concerning radio, we’ve discussed the many uses of hand held sets, due to their overwhelming popularity but far more importantly their largely misunderstood role. Capable of local, or Line of Sight (LOS) communications, they are often the entry-level communications device that most cut their teeth upon. Mobile VHF or UHF sets usually offer more power and increased range, but basically accomplish the same goals with most off the self models leaving out AM and SSB from the upper bands. But from there, the next step seems bewildering at a minimum and inaccessible at worst. The advantages of HF communications however, are numerous and bring to the table tools that possibly get overlooked in other contexts. That being said, getting on HF is kinda tough. You need at least a General Class radio license, which is certainly attainable but no small feat, and the selection of equipment is nothing short of bewildering (as well as expensive in many cases). Hopefully by the end of this, together we’ll get a better understanding of meeting our requirements.
The first question in a lot of minds among the uninitiated is ‘Why is this important? Why do I want to talk to people I don’t know?’
Well, at first glance, this would seem logical. In a grid-down, crazy variable-x situation, talking to people you don’t know could endanger your ‘opsec’ and ‘put your preps at risk’ (these are both face value arguments I’ve heard) and that possibly may be true over LOS. If you’re talking to people you don’t know on VHF, they very likely are within range to affect your near-term living condition. This is not necessarily logical over HF. First, the antenna size required for efficiency (in most cases) and complication of operation negates likely hostiles baiting folks over HF. It’s just too hard. You’ll most likely find that stuff on the license-free options.
Second, and much more important, is that HF creates self-controlled regional and even global communications. Yes, you read that right. Sure, there’s shortwave radio stations to be heard, but we can do that with some of the higher-end handheld radios I’ve previously recommended or the excellent SW receivers on the market without buying a much more expensive and complicated HF set. But those SW stations are filtered, written and approved by someone with an agenda, as nearly all international stations are state-run and to varying degrees exist as propaganda tools. You can communicate world wide over HF, with relatively small amounts of power, provided you understand the components of the system. But why would you want to? Remember Venezuela? We knew about Venezuela’s problems before the news reported them because their Amateurs were on the air talking about it. And some of us talked to them about it, getting first hand information, raw and unfiltered. Why do you think Turkey cancelled a substantial number of radio licenses post-coup attempt? To control what info got out to the world, as well as prevent a substantial communications network among potential partisans. But say, you have a license now, and it gets cancelled as a result of some variable-x scenario… your skill set still does not go away. Your spare equipment you’ve stashed away can get up and running and on the air, even after your primary set was confiscated with your license. And for those who will now read this and snarkily say, ‘then why bother with a license?’, I’ll state that you cannot gain the skill required to communicate over HF without doing it on a regular basis. Just not happening, snowflake.
HF also creates a very reliable regional communications system, via NVIS propagation on the lower half of the High Frequency bands (160-40m, reliably). This has been covered substantially on this blog; review the information, it’s not there for my entertainment. NVIS is a technique that provides communications in that tricky zone where LOS fizzles out but the higher end of HF skips over. It’s relatively reliable but requires regular practice and study to get right, which starts with getting on the air and doing it. So let’s talk about doing that.
Building Your HF Station
The neat thing about HF is that it can be as complicated or simple as you like- every HF operator has a differing set of preferences that evolve over time. The field is so big that there’s literally a differing opinion pretty much everywhere, and it’s entirely dependent on the interests of that particular operator. This varies from modes to equipment to bands to contests vs ragchewing vs working the world vs EMCOMM, and so on and so forth. So for those new to the hobby, the options quickly become overwhelming, with most new folks wondering exactly where to start.
Most of the information (and questions I get on a regular basis) out there are centered around the particular radio itself. There’s a bunch of good options out there that we’ll examine. There’s others I’ll miss, so don’t get your feelings hurt if yours doesn’t get talked about. But what’s important to understand is that while the particular brand of radio is one thing, there’s a lot more to it than brand A vs brand B. Transmission lines, antenna systems (tuners included), and power supplies (and lines) are all key to your success.
To QRP or not to QRP, that is the question-
A lot of the Survivalist-oriented radio knowledge likes to talk about QRP, or low power sets. QRP is the three-letter CW code sent to signal you are reducing power. Over the years it has become synonymous with low power communications and in particular, 5w and below. It’s its own area of interest very popular with the SOTA, NPOTA, RaDAR, and other portable radio hobbyist groups, usually very analogous to Survivalist and Self Reliance principles. Battery operation and efficient power management is paramount, but comes at a cost. Low power operation is anything but friendly to those new to the HF game. Inefficient antennae and lossy connections are the enemy of success with QRP. CW, or morse code, is a large booster in transmitting efficiency, as is skill with digital modes. Voice contacts over SSB at QRP levels is a challenge, and while completely possible, can be discouraging to new or inexperienced operators. So while a small, miserly set seems attractive at the outset, know that it’s not perfect, and certainly not the answer to all questions or needs.
The two most popular sets out there among the QRP world, hands down, is the Yaesu 817 and the Elecraft KX3(and KX2…which while tiny, lacks 160, which I find a deal breaker in a tactical sense). There’s others, such as the interesting rigs coming from China (which while some are neat, you’re taking a gamble) and the diminutive (and very cool!!!) CW-only Mountain Topper radios, but by far the most versatile QRP HF sets are the two aforementioned rigs. The 817 offers the most versatility of any QRP rig ever made with all of the HF bands and all-mode VHF/UHF, and the KX3 has arguably the best receiver ever made along with housing everything including a tuner inside a neat, compact package. Shortwave sounds good on both- I’m hardly an audiophile, however some find it important. But at a 5w and 10w Peak Envelope Power (PEP) respectively, they are definitely limited by power for those operating phone-only. Digital operations usually don’t require much more than 5w though, and CW is very well suited to extremely low power. For a more general purpose set, or one to cut our teeth upon, there’s other options that offer more versatility to the Survivalist role.
Enter the 100w ‘Field Day’ Rig-
The Icom 706 was the first rig to offer everything in one. While not perfect, the later incarnations were very, very good radios and extremely common in the EMCOMM community. In fact, the updated incarnation of the 706MkIIG, was the Red Cross standard HF unit. Yaesu took the concept and ran with it, eventually building the excellent 8X7 family of ‘shack in the box’ rigs, which offer everything from 160m to 70cm in a neat portable package. For a lot of new amateurs, the advantages of having everything in one box is just too much to resist. For those Survivalist oriented, these are great rigs to have. I’ve owned one of each in this family, with the 857D being the best of the bunch in terms of portability, versatility, and ease of use. It shares all of the same controls as its 817 and 897 brethren, but can be thought of as a happy medium between the two. It’s less power-efficient than a QRP set, but still not bad (RX is 1A @ standby/TX @ 10W is 5A…not the most efficient but not awful either) and the bottom end of operating voltage is 11v.
Some folks are torn on the idea of everything in one house, and like to have a separate mobile for VHF/UHF needs. I agree with this in a certain context, for redundancy’s sake, and for not putting all my eggs in one basket. But there’s no other new rig on the market that offers SSB operation on 2m or 70cm, and those capabilities definitely add a new and interesting capability to your signal package. But for those who like separate rigs for separate jobs, the Icom 7200 (which is now discontinued…and sad really, as it’s the last new Icom model I’ll buy…all of their newest stuff is very much, well, not designed for outdoor use…Yaesu seems to be traveling down this path too…their product development crews need to be fired, they’re missing the mark big time) is one to watch for on the resale market. While less efficient on power (2.2A @ RX) it is extremely simple to operate and fairly rugged. The Icom 718 is a very similar rig, still in production, and very, very simple to operate being marketed on its simple form factor and bare-bones utility. Along that vein is the Alinco DX-SR8T. Each of these are capable of operation on each of the HF bands plus 6m, which offers great capability at a reasonable cost for Survivalists getting into HF communications.
Probably the most important part of your system that gets no attention is the transmission line. While 450-ohm ladder line used to be quite common, among all new(er) rigs coax is king. You’ll most commonly find UHF connectors on the ends (SOcket-239, PLug-259) but sometimes BNC as well on the QRP sets. The Yaesu 817 has a BNC plug on the front and UHF on the back for coax attachment. Along your transmitting lines you should have as few connectors as possible- one homogeneous line is best for a consistent electrical path and to insulate against interference or water contamination. All connections should be waterproofed with electrical tape (make sure it’s 3M tape!!!) if not soldered.
The lines themselves matter. They vary from being extremely cheap (RG-58) to very expensive (LMR-400) but what difference does this really make? Any 50 Ohm coax can work. Over HF, the transmitted energy itself is more tolerant of loss than on VHF and higher. So while the RG-58 you found at a yard sale for $10 a 400yd spool might be ok on HF @ 100w, it may experience too much loss to be effective at 5w. Conversely, that roll of LMR-400 you paid much more for per foot from Wireman may not offer much improvement at 100w over the cheap RG-58, all things being equal. I take the middle of the road on this- for HF use, both QRP and QRO (low power and high power, respectively), RG-8X. It’s slim and light meaning it takes up little room in the ruck, but is vastly more durable than RG-174 (extremely narrow cable popular with ultralight operators), can still be useful on VHF (in short runs), is more flexible than LMR, and won’t break the bank in cost. For portable operations I find it the best of all worlds with the fewest drawbacks. LMR-240 is useful for low profile, more permanent VHF/UHF setups. It has lower loss on those bands than RG, is narrower than its LMR-400 brother, and can be hidden in plain sight. It’s very rigid due to the shielding however, so you have to be careful of bends and turns. For this reason I don’t recommend it’s use in the field, but otherwise it’s pretty good stuff. Unless you’re looking for broadcast-quality audio, these are really the best options out there for our uses. You can spend more, but the law of diminishing returns definitely applies, and in the field 8X is really the best cable I’ve found between all variables.
Go back and check out this post from a while back. Grounding is very important for a couple of reasons- it completes a path for your transmitted and return energy, and it gives excess static a place to go before it damages you or your radio. It also insulates from excessive noise emitted by other nearby objects. It’s important to understand that an RF ground is not the same as an electrical ground, although the two are principally the same. There’s a lot of confusion on grounding for this reason, and that’s a debate for another day. Inside the scope of this article, just know that it’s an important part of your system and definitely needs to have attention paid to it, and it’s just as important in the field as it is in the shack.
Antennae in their many forms-
Even more bewildering than radios is the antenna types out there. As with the debate over radios, the options for antenna types can be absolutely confusing to beginners. Many books have been written exclusively on this topic, and I cannot hope to address all of the dimensions comprehensively in one post. But what I can do is give you an idea of what types are optimal for what purposes.
Polarization is just as important on HF as any other band, but that’s not to say that horizontal polarization is incompatible with vertical, or circular, for that matter. This is really outside the scope of this article, but I’ll limit it to saying that the takeoff angle of your HF signal is very important to the manner in which it refracts off of the F layer. The steeper the angle, the shorter the skip zone, the shallower the angle, the further the distance. The angle is measured at the apex earth surface and the height of the radiation pattern. It’s important to note that these are general characteristics and not 100% absolutes all the time. Thus, a vertical antenna will render a very shallow takeoff angle, with a low hanging dipole giving a steep angle.
Vertical HF antennae tend to be very tall (a quarter wave long wire 160m vertical would be 40m tall!) and require ground radials matching the length of the frequency. Think of it as our Jungle Antenna but sitting on the ground and with many more legs. Rigging a dipole is far simpler in both construction and setup. Dipoles are typically horizontally strung, either completely horizontal or in a sloping Vee configuration with the run ends sloping towards the ground. This is the configuration I prefer most of the time. End-Feds fall into the category of dipole as well, although they have their own characteristics. Dipoles are the most versatile and simple to rig antenna in the field, but requires a large amount of space, with the lower bands requiring much more space than the higher ones.
Dipoles almost always should be used with tuners to ensure protection of your radio, even for resonant dipoles. The reason for this is that while the wire may be cut to resonance mathematically, and may even be matched in one setting, those conditions change rapidly in the field. Since this happens without warning, a tuner becomes not only a critical part of the system but an insurance policy, no matter how much care you’re taken in building your antenna.
I’ve talked about the directional qualities of Yagi antennae many times in the past, and they are very popular on HF, but usually require significant infrastructure to erect. You need a tower, rotor, and the space to put the antenna on top of having the antenna, which really rules it out among those new to the hobby on HF. While a lot of fun to beam transmissions, its important to remember that a Yagi is a dipole with a ‘cold’ element slightly longer than the ‘driven’ element (connected to the radio) behind it to reflect the energy, and another ‘cold’ element slightly shorter as a director to focus the beam. A simple dipole is far lower profile and can work just as well regionally, as well as far better when unsupported operations are on the plate.
Loop Antennae are yet another option that is very popular among amateurs who’ve been on the air a while. They’re very compact and nearly 100% efficient by design, making them especially attractive for digital operations and for folks living under the thumb of HOAs. Another very attractive quality to a loop antenna is the ability to rapidly DF a signal using them- where you don’t hear the signal, or the ‘null’, is the bearing of the signal itself. At the feedpoint of the loop is a butterfly capacitor which is used to tune the loop to resonance, and also is responsible for the general higher cost over other antenna options. But for many of its advantages that cost is justified, and enjoys a considerable popularity among many into QRP digital communications.
This is simply a (very) brief primer as to antenna types and what’s out there. A great beginner’s companion resource is the ARRL’s antenna book and General Class license manual, in addition to the ARRL Handbook, to really lay the groundwork for antenna theory far beyond the scope of what’s written here. For Survival and Self Reliance enthusiasts interested in communications, these are must haves along with any resources on DIY antenna construction.
Powering Your Set
Radio equipment is almost exclusively powered by 12v Direct Current. What this means is that, for the beginner, they’re not exactly plug and play like your TV or your Kureig. Conversely, your radio can be powered from a variety of sources within your control. It boils down to one of two options- a converting power supply for working on-grid, and batteries for working off-grid.
Power Supply units are usually pretty simple and do not vary much in design, aside from their Amp-rating. Your connection must be fused- if not, you’re risking power surge damage to your radio. I run dual fuses on both lines and connect with Anderson power poles, making life quick and easy (more on this in a second). Make sure your power supply at least supplies the maximum number of amps your radio will require. The 857 and 7200 are both very happy with 30 Amp supply that I use. I can run 100w barefoot (no amplifier) with no problems. But what would happen if the supplied power dips? Your radio quits working right, also known as ‘motorboating’ where it may still be powered but the sound is garbled.
That being said, let’s talk about batteries. Pictured above is a 7AH sealed lead-acid battery (SLAB) which supplies 7 amps to a radio for one hour (hence, ‘amp hour’). So now that we know that, we need to know exactly how much current our set consumes at any given point. Refer back to our radio discussion above. Those numbers given in parenthesis are important and if any of those are your chosen radios, these numbers should be memorized. So if my 857 consumes 5A @ 10w, that gives me a little over an hour transmitting time at 10 watts. If listening consumes 1A, then I can listen for 7 hours using that 7AH SLAB pictured above. Typically we do not want more than an 80% discharge on our battery, so when it gets down to around 11v or so on standby it’s time to recharge. Making sense? Luckily the 857 and 817 have a voltmeter on the display, making them very attractive for running on battery power. The 817 also can run on the widest variety of battery power, having the ability to run down to around 9v or so before bottoming out. As for connections, just like with the power supply you can make a pretty simple connection to the batteries using a short paired run of wire and an Anderson Power Pole connection.
Power Poles should be a no-brainer among Survivalists- not only do they make standardizing very simple, they are very durable, very reliable, and make our connections clean and safe. They’re not expensive to stock up on, and aside from the crimping tool being around $40 (a must have- you can crimp with pliers in a pinch, but the actual tool is far, far better, cleaner, and yields better results) provides a cheap way to standardize interchangeable power supplies among all of your radio and electronic equipment.
Some Final Thoughts
Through the course of this, we’ve first identified why we might want to include HF in our signals package, how to satisfy that need with the most versatile equipment possible, and how to get it running and on the air in the most efficient manner possible. As we’ve seen, it goes far beyond a simple ‘brand A vs. brand B‘ argument that usually grinds any other useful discussion to a halt. In all honesty, the radio itself makes little difference if all the other requirements are met. Differing models simply offer a different set of features and in some cases superior quality (we’re talking among the big names here…not the ebay specials) or a some neat caveats unique to that brand. My intent with all of this has been to answer as many ‘new guy’ questions as possible for those looking to get on the air, and I think we’ve met most of those needs. HF communications can be some of the most rewarding experiences an amateur can have, and for a Survivalist, doing it (mostly) with kit you’ve built yourself is nothing short of incredible. The empowering experience of communicating over huge distances entirely with your own home-made infrastructure is one that, while not always for everyone, is definitely cool, and teaches so many other skills simultaneously.
Get Out and Do It!