I regularly see articles touting the benefits of having a ham radio license and most of them are logical and well-written. What I don’t see much of are articles explaining just exactly what to expect from ham radio and why it may not be the right choice.
I make a living in the wireless comms industry and that daily immersion has allowed me to share a fairly deep insight into the topic. We have many articles on this blog that cover 2-way radio communications, both licensed and not and I’ll be referencing them in this post and providing the links.
This article discusses the topic of Amateur Radio and whether or not it can truly be a benefit to your preps.
The sideways answer to that question is a solid “Maybe”….but only if you are planning to talk to someone. Ham radio use requires a licensed operator on each of the conversation. A Ham operator that sets up a radio station just to make an attempt at contacting someone is basically in it as a hobby.
Most of the articles covering ham radio seem to be written by writers that don’t have a complete grasp of the topic. In other words, they tend to lump Ham Radio together as both short-range comms and long-range comms when, in reality, there is a large difference in the two aspects of Ham Radio. Differences such as reliability, cost of equipment and the actual “real world” benefits need to be acknowledged by anyone interested in becoming a Ham. Here is a short list of questions to ask yourself before a commitment is made to become a Ham Operator:
1) “Who do I really need to communicate with” ?
If you don’t have anyone to talk to that you trust or if the person that you WANT to communicate with is not willing to get a ham license then you really don’t need a Ham Radio license for preparedness. If this fits your scenario, you will be better off purchasing a scanner radio for local info and a shortwave radio receiver (SSB capable) for national/global info. You will save yourself some time, money and headaches.
Becoming a Ham is an admirable achievement that requires time and money and a moderate commitment after the call-sign is granted. For that reason, I do believe a person needs to truly evaluate the need to go down that road when there are other options that may actually leave a family or group better prepared.
2) “How far away do I expect to communicate?”
This is the next serious question that must be answered before making any commitment to Ham Radio. I mentioned above that most ham articles fail to explain that Amateur Radio should really be divided into local and long distance comms.
I think most preppers are drawn to exploring Ham Radio because they are wanting to communicate directly with someone they know across the country, during or after a disaster, without the use of the internet or satellites. The cold hard fact is that is very unlikely to happen unless both parties involved are very dedicated to the cause. To put it another way, you need very experienced operators at each end of the conversation. There are many other constraints to long distance comms as well. Propagation conditions must be just right and these antennas tend to be very tall, long or expensive. As of today, the cost of setting up a reliable long-distance station would be a minimum of $800 and would be absolutely worthless half of the time due to atmospheric conditions.
Using Ham Radio for local comms would be an excellent choice however. That is what we mainly use ham radio for and it’s my opinion that every group or family should have short-to medium range ham radio capabilities. By short-to-medium range I mean up to 25 miles without the use of a public repeater The equipment cost is comparable to non-ham comms gear and it offers many more options and features. The down-side to this part of our plan is that not everyone is capable of operating it.
So, if you’re planning on communicating across hundreds of miles reliably and whenever you want to, ham radio is not going to be your ideal solution. If you just need to communicate around the neighborhood or within a 5 mile radius, ham radio would work but there are other options that don’t require the fuss of getting a license for each person that needs a radio and training them how to use it.
3) “What can I accomplish with an Entry-Level Amateur Radio License?“
The first level of Amateur Radio is called “Technician Class” or Tech. The bulk of the privileges issued with this license are in the VHF and UHF portion of the radio frequency spectrum. To the average prepper this means that your comms will be limited to short range only or up to medium range with the aid of a repeater.
Each license level adds to the number of frequencies that a Ham can use and the Tech license includes all of the Ham-only frequencies above 30 MHz plus a very small amount of space just below 30 MHz which is meant to entice new hams into testing for the second and third levels of Amateur Radio.
With some extra equipment investment it is possible to use the Tech frequencies cover the globe via the network of linked repeaters, the internet and satellites but, as a prepper, your main goal is to have comms when the existing grid is partially or completely unavailable.
So the short answer to question #3 is that you can expect to be able to reliably cover up to about 10 miles directly between radios depending on your station set-up and local terrain. This is pretty much the same range that could be covered with a GMRS or CB radio network.
With some work and added expense it is possible to extend your Amateur Radio Tech-level range by using more power, taller antennas or your own off-grid repeater.
I’m hoping that this article can answer some preliminary questions for those preppers that are considering Ham Radio in their communications plans. It may sound like I’m trying to steer folks away from Ham and, in a way, I am. Ham radio has it’s uses but it’s my concern that some bloggers are not explaining the down-side to ham radio and are over-looking the fact that sometimes Ham radio is just not the right fit to some preppers plans. This is especially true if many of the people you are trying to communicate with are not “tech-savvy”.
Let’s end this article with the reason why I’m writing it.:
Six preppers that I know have each purchased a ham radio.Three of these six people have tested for and received their Tech Class license and purchased commercial quality, reliable transceivers. Two of these Hams are active, practicing and can have their stations up and running in a minute or two. The third Ham has not touched his radio in over 3 years and as of today doesn’t even know what he did with the charging cable for his radio. The last time he used his radio I had to re-teach him how to change frequencies and program a repeater setting into it. And, believe me, it’s extremely difficult to instruct someone how to use their radio while you are talking with them on the radio.
The remaining three friends have each purchased a Baofeng handheld.. obviously because of the cost and the hype generated by the prepper community. Each went into this thinking that they would be able to communicate long distances with their little 5 watt Baofengs. None of these individuals has obtained their Tech License but they plan to “someday” when they’re not too busy . Two of these radios are sitting in storage and have never been used. The third radio had to be programmed by an experienced operator and is now being used simply as a police/emergency scanner. It’s owner has no clue how to reprogram it or how to use it as a 2-way radio.
So only two out of my six prepper friends are truly ready to use their ham radio. The others have found that their radios are too complicated to use and/or the licensing requirement is an impediment to their plans. For these four preppers, I feel that a CB radio and a cheap police scanner would have been a much better choice and all of us would be better prepared to communicate with each other.