I get a lot of questions regarding equipment- its a common theme, as a lot of the preppersphere focuses on what to buy. As anyone who’s taken the RTO Course knows, the actual equipment itself doesn’t matter that much with some solid foundational training. One VHF analog radio, functionality-wise, does the same thing as any other VHF analog radio. Students are usually surprised by the neat things you can do with a few bucks spent in wire and electric fence insulators along with guiding hand. We wring the absolute most out of whatever you have. But that aside, I do have some suggestions for the prepper just starting out and the more seasoned survivalist who’s graduated to the jack of all trades phase. Since many folks are asking about current production gear, let’s talk about it- specifically, what gets the job done for the money, and what’s really good for a little higher end.
With that said I’ll state up front that buying a bunch of stuff and putting it in a bag or box and then never using it does you no good. You have to use your gear, whatever it is. Everything I own is used hard and heavy- not abused, mind you, responsible people care for their equipment– but used. I know the ins and outs of what I own, and you can be darn sure that if I suggest it, I not only use it, but I can show you the results. So for the folks that buy a case of Baofengs on Alibaba and then never take them out of the box, you’re doing yourself a disservice. Whether you’re buying a $20 Baofeng, a $200 Yaesu, or something somewhere in between, use your stuff and if it fails, you’ll know its limits. The next thing I’ll say is I definitely don’t require anyone to ‘be a ham’ or have any prior knowledge before coming to class. But having people to talk to is the most important part of the learning process, and like land navigation, marksmanship, and basically anything else, its very much a perishable skill. There is a learning curve to communications, especially emergency and field expedient uses, so having stuff just sitting around ain’t doing much for anyone. The unlicensed options out there, with the exception of CB, just doesn’t have much traffic and are mostly limited in what can be done. Even GMRS repeaters in most cases I know of are quiet- which may or may not be an asset to you. But having people to talk to does two things for us; it gives us a real answer to whether or not our gear works and it also allows us to branch out of our little bubble. So if you’re the guy running around screeching “I don’t need a license to learn!” you’re really doing yourself a disservice. I could care less what you do, I’m only here to help you make the most of your options; you either do it or don’t but don’t be shocked when heaven forbid you have to count on your skills that you haven’t worked on. It’s not like all these lessons are being repeated over and over in real warzones. Conversely, being in the licensed camp doesn’t mean we can’t or don’t use the license free options- I do all the time- and the flexibility of all the options gives us a broad range to use in our SOI and PACE plans in training.
And that brings us to what we can cross off the list up front. Preppers and Survivalists have to make use of gear in a general purpose sense; the more options available, the more flexibility, which in turn means more resiliency. Anything that doesn’t allow us to modify or build an external antenna should be crossed off the list. This is primarily aimed at all those bubble pack FRS handhelds from Walmart that make bogus claims about 35 mile range. You’ll actually get about a mile out of them on a good day. I really don’t like them for the same reasons I don’t like Dakota Alert MURS handhelds or anything that’s set to specific channels- there’s no modification by the end-user that can’t be solved much easier by just buying something else, so you’re stuck with what you’re stuck with. That means there’s no flexibility. And for those of you claiming that they’re so easy to use, that might be, but they’re also ridiculously easy to intercept and screw around on. You’re only left with a handful of channels to work with- that a guy with a scanner listening wit one hand and radio to jam on the other can exploit. It’s not all that hard to do- I did it with a really basic (and old) scanner. Most newer close call scanners and even frequency counters also display the privacy tone, so that’s a false sense of security. The only (somewhat) exception is CB, but CB shouldn’t be your only communications means anyway because its incredibly limited. Around here it’s basically useless, unless you happen to speak a Guatemalan or Norteno dialect of Spanish. Of course if you do se habla espanol, you can score a killer deal on some laying hens, so there’s that.
Local, Local, Local: Handhelds and Mobiles
Old timers will tell you the first radio anyone should buy is a mobile, which is the exact opposite of what 99% of everyone does today. It’s neither good nor bad, it’s only a reflection of where the market is. But the reason they suggest a mobile first is twofold- for starters, it generally puts out more power meaning more reliable contacts at further distances and second, it takes a little effort to get a mobile on the air. Not much, but a little. You’ll learn some things about power sources and coax, how to put up your own antenna, and have a shorter learning curve once you’re actually on the air. The other thing about a mobile is they have a longer duty cycle- meaning you can talk on them longer with fewer breaks to cool them down.
So what do I suggest as a startup mobile? If you’re just trying to get the job done, the QYT KT-8900 actually ain’t horrible. At under a $100, 25w on VHF, 20 on UHF, and 4 frequencies on the VFO (Variable Frequency Oscillator- the display), the small set works. And when I say small, I mean, it’s tiny. What’s very nice is that it fits in the dash of the truck and takes up almost no room, can be run off-grid from any 12v power source (as shown above) and it’s very simple to program with Chirp (see the sidebar for a link to download). But, like its chinese brethren, you’re not getting the best quality under the sun at this price. The VFO itself can act strange if scanning, the receiver is not the best in the world especially in the UHF range, and even though its not as bad as the first generation Baofeng, it does emit spurs. A step up in all around quality is to look for TYT’s version, the TH-8600, as it’s about the same size and waterproof for just a little more money. For about double the price you’ll get TYT’s quad band which includes 10 and 6m. We’ll talk about those in a second. And if you’re looking for highest quality with a company who backs their products up, look at Icom’s IC-2730.
But what about handhelds? Glad you asked. Since the de-facto prepper’s radio is the Baofeng UV-5R, and they cost somewhere between $25-35, there’s little reason not to own one for the simple fact that a large number of them are in circulation out there. There’s another, better reason to own one though- it’s an excellent test bed for homebrew antennas and a handful of other interesting applications for those who think outside the box. One thing that I do, as inferred by the pic, is to simply program it with all of the license free channels and set it to scan. So for $25, you’ve got a bubba detector with an incredibly long battery life. If you’re buying one, just stick with the UV-5R- the newer ones in my experience don’t offer enough improvement to justify any added cost.
After saying all this, the drawbacks are many and it’s not the first handheld I’d pick up to carry on patrol. If you’re looking for an HT that’s still on the lesser-expensive side of the house but is a huge step up in quality, look into the Quansheng TG-UV2. It’s still an analog dual band handheld, but it’s far more rugged in build quality, also has a nice long battery life, includes a rubber membrane inside, and still takes the rapidly-becoming-industry-standard Kenwood two prong plug, so all the Baofeng accessories will also work. I’ve been using one for over four years doing everything from hunting, property patrolling, coordinating range drills between teams in class, and bumming around on the local 70cm simplex ragchew. The receiver is actually excellent considering the low cost and mine makes a good foxhunting HT. The only bad thing I can say about it is the programmers from Chirp never found it, so it uses it’s own software. Don’t let that deter you from an otherwise good little HT. It’s on my chest rig right now, hooked up to an H-250.
If you’re wanting the best, for a survivalist looking at jack-of-all-trades gear really only has one answer that’s current production. The Yaesu VX-6R. The only thing that came close in terms of versatility, Kenwood’s TH-F6A, has been discontinued. Yaesu’s little HT receives 504kHz-1000mHz, everything from AM broadcast to shortwave to FM radio to Aircraft and above. And while it’s advertised as a tri-band, do the MARS/CAP mod on it and you’re enabling 6m FM use also. On top of that, it’s waterproof and incredibly durable being mil-spec shock rated. So while it’s a lot more expensive than the low end options, it offers so much more in terms of versatility.
That said, some of the recently discontinued rigs are also very good and can be found lightly used- that TH-F6A being one. Yaesu’s earlier HTs, the VX-5R and VX-7R, should be at the top of your hamfest fleamarket list, offering the same capability as the VX-6R above but in the case of the 7R, an even more durable package and no need for a hardware mod to enable full capability. All of these were made for a very long time and can be easily found. Purchasing one, even as a general purpose receiver, should be on your to-do list. It adds capability to your arsenal of equipment and redundancy with your other communications equipment, while each being well built and well established in an aftermarket.
10, 6 & 220: Off the Beaten Path
We’ve been mostly talking about the most common equipment (that’s current production) off the shelf that works for getting the prepper up and running. It just so happens that 90% of the gear you find today is built for the 2m (VHF) and 70cm (UHF) bands. It’s the path most traveled and has the shortest learning curve as far as getting on the air. And while it’s still pretty easy to hide in plain site, in one of the recent RTO courses the class intercepted a conversation happening in the Blue Ridge, over 60 miles from our position. There’s a lot of reasons for that which are outside the scope of this writing, but still, there’s simplex traffic out there. If you’re looking for relative quiet and to set up an analog net with only those your really want to talk to, take a look at 10m, 6m, and 1.25 aka 220mHz. 10m is very close to the CB band (11m), and provides good local coverage in rural environments similar to CB but without the channelization. 6m, or 50-54mHz, is known as the “magic band” because in the summer activity in the E layer of the atmosphere allows some very interesting long distance propagation. But as a useful local band, I HIGHLY suggest it especially in rural areas. Like 220, its underutilized mainly because of the success of 2m and 70cm repeaters, so you just don’t find much on the air. And this is an asset not just for the quiet spots of conversation but also because fewer people will be looking for you there.
But this is a gear discussion. We’ve already mentioned the suggestions for coverage on these bands above, but there’s a few other lesser-known choices. Wouxon makes the KG-UV5D, which is a 6m and 2m dual band handheld. It’s still a chinese HT, but they’re not awful. While I think for the cost better stuff can be had ($120 versus $170-$200 for the used multi-band options I listed above) they are out there for those seeking them- and they’re relatively simple to use sharing a lot of commonality with Baofeng’s user interface and all the same plug-ins. There also was (maybe still is) a 220 version of Baofeng, so if you’re looking to dive into that on the cheap, it’s out there.
Shack in a Box: Creating A Base Unit Anywhere
What if I want one thing to do it all? One and done. Well, the best option that’s still on the market new is the Yaesu FT-857D. It’s little brother, the 817, is hampered by a 5w output and doesn’t offer much as far as local uses go over a good handheld or mobile. The 857 on the other hand offers the same functionality and power output of a mobile, with the added benefit of different modulation modes such as AM and the sidebands, along with a very simple digital interface. It’s an expensive investment, being right around $800 as of this writing (with another $200 or so for a tuner if you’re working on HF) but its money well spent.
Like all the other points contained here, browse the used market. Yaseu’s 897, the older and larger version of the same radio, can be found for a little cheaper on the used market. Icom’s IC-706 is extremely common, and it’s MKIIG version is the one you want to keep an eye out for. The IC-7000 replaced it with the same capability, while commanding a higher price. Like all Icom gear, the radios are incredibly durable and simple to use.
All of the above are simple to run off the grid, and although full-powered rigs can be power hungry, they’re still not bad if you’ve got a good sized battery bank and a decent means to charge them. In addition the 857 and 706. Even if you have no interest in HF at all, they’re worth having for VHF and UHF use just based on the ability to work sidebands and AM as well as listen to HF and shortwave. If you haven’t noticed, redundancy is a big deal to me, and for a good reason. It should be to you too.
At this point you might have more questions than answers, and that’s ok. Keep in mind, you have to first understand what the purpose of your station even is. Our primary focus here has been getting a general purpose station on the air using analog systems. Whether your purpose is community networking or getting an off-grid station up for a retreat, these are your common options in the wild which offer the most versatility on differing ends of the cost/build quality spectrum. Tactical use systems are different- and come with their own considerations. And these are all things covered in the RTO course, which we’ve got a couple coming up. There’s not another course like it offered anywhere, and it’s for everyone of all skill levels. Feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org for more details.
We’ll see you out there.