Ham Radio for Survivalists
by John Cunningham, W1AI
Hope for the best, but prepare for the worst.
— English Proverb
— The Scout Motto
By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.
— Benjamin Franklin
The survival essentials
We've seen all throughout history, and as recently as Hurricane Katrina, that for a wide variety of reasons civilization breaks down from time to time. These disruptions can last days, weeks, or even years. Preparation often determines who survives.
Here are some things that preppers typically stock, in order of importance:
- Guns and ammo. (Without a means of self defense, you cannot count on keeping any other supplies.)
- Water, food, and shelter.
- Medical supplies, emergency power, communication equipment.
- Heirloom seeds, farming equipment, etc.
Of course, just having the equipment is not enough. You have to know how to use them. The time to prepare is before, not during, the disaster
Disaster communications serve two critical functions:
- Coordinates the activities of family, friends, and neighbors.
- Tells you what's happening around the country and around the world to help you better plan your own actions.
Amateur radio, also known as ham radio, can help with both. The entry level ("Technician class") ham radio license lets you operate on the VHF and UHF frequencies, which are most useful for local communications. For example, you could post a lookout at the top of the local hill and communicate with him via ham radio.
The second level ("General class") ham radio license also allows you to operate on the HF frequencies, which means you can talk all around the world without relying on the grid, satellites, or other infrastructure, simply by bouncing signals off the ionosphere. If you don't want to rely on the mainstream media for accurate news, you will want to talk directly to people outside your own area. Unfortunately, operating HF radios is not as simple as picking up a cell phone and dialing a number. You need to know about feed lines, antennas, SWR, the characteristics of the various HF bands, MUF, procedural signals, etc. You will learn about these topics while studying to pass the license exams, and you will pick up even more by practicing with the radio once you are licensed.
How to get started in ham radio
Here's a step-by-step guide to getting ready to use ham radio for survival communications:
- Decide which level of communications capability you need:
Choose a target exam date. Assume you will need about 10 hours to study for the Technician exam. To get the General class license, you must pass an additional exam, so tack on an additional 20 hours to study for the General class exam. If you want the Extra class license, add on another 30 hours to study for the Extra class exam. The good news is that you no longer have to learn Morse code for any class of ham radio license.
- A Technician class license is useful mostly for local communications.
- A General class allows you to talk all around the world.
- An Extra class license has a few minor additional privileges, but nothing important for survival.
It sounds like a lot of work, but all of this studying is not a waste of time, as you are learning information that could someday save your life.
I recommend that you try to average at least one hour every day, and more if possible. So decide how much free time you can devote to studying, then figure out when you could take the exam.
Look up exam sessions in your area by zip code at http://www.arrl.org/find-an-amateur-radio-license-exam-session. (If you don't see any sessions in your immediate area, expand your search to a wider area using the dropdown box to the right of the zip code.) Picking your exam date up front keeps you focused on studying.
Create an account on this website. The HamTestOnline™ website is the most efficient way to get a ham radio license. It integrates study materials with question drill using the actual exam questions. So you are learning about the aspects of ham radio you need to understand, and at the same time preparing to get a high score on the exam.
Subscribe to the desired courses. Everyone starts with the Technician exam, and most survivalists take the General class exam, as well.
Stay in Study mode until your score bar reads at least 85% on each course. That will ensure that you are ready to pass the exams.
Take the exams at a local exam session. Don't be afraid to take multiple exams in a single session. We've had many students pass two exams in a single sitting. In fact, we've had at least a hundred students go from zero to Extra in a single session. Since they only charge a single exam fee (typically $15) no matter how many exams you take, taking multiple exams at once saves both time and money.
Buy one or more radios. For example, Wouxun sells some nice VHF/UHF portable (handheld) radios for around $125. The Elecraft KX3 is an ultra-compact HF radio excellent for hunkering down or bugging out. Depending on the options you select, it costs around $1000. If that's too much for your budget, you could buy a less feature-rich, used HF radio at local hamfest for around $200. To operate HF you're also going to need some kind of antenna. If bugging out is an option, you might prefer something portable like the Buddipole.
Find a solution for emergency power — emergency generator, solar panels, etc. If you live in a sunny area, solar panels will provide free power for decades. Without power, a radio is as useful as a rock.
Use your radios until you are completely comfortable with them. Participate in your local ARRL Field Day and other ham radio contests. It's amazing how much fun you can have while learning essential skills!
When you're not using the equipment, you might consider investing in EMP bags or a Faraday box for safe storage.
See you on the air
In a The End Of The World As We Know It (TEOTWAWKI) scenario, most people are not going to be prepared. But the ham radio frequencies are going to be filled with survivalists and preppers. I'll talk to you then!