Why Ham Radio?
The first question is why ham radio? What is the allure for the survivalist? When you pick up your home phone, there is a lot of equipment between your home and the person you are talking to: miles of wires, computers, power from the grid, etc. You have no control over this equipment. Cell phones are also very dependent upon expensive, complex equipment. The internet is even more vulnerable and interdependent on numerous systems.
Will these be around in a worst case scenario? How will you communicate or receive information over long distances? Will traveling to gather information be safe? Will contact with other people be healthy and safe? Will you rely on information you might get from AM, FM, or other organized news broadcasts? These sources will probably not have power for very long, will rely on employees actually showing up for work, their locations are well known and therefore may have questionable security, and such sources are prone for takeover for propaganda and misinformation purposes during trying times.
I was living in Southern California in 2003, and almost lost my home to the Paradise Fire. Most of the local firefighters had gone north to help with other fires before our local fire started, so we were almost completely on our own. Both cell phones and land lines went down very early in the game. Not long after this experience, I got my technician license, to be able to communicate locally on Ham Radio. I became involved with a local group of hams, and helped organized a communications net.
Ham radio is one person with a radio and an antenna, talking to another person across the street or on the other side of the world, who has a radio and an antenna, with no other equipment between them - just air!
You may also find that many (if not most) hams will have political, social, and moral views quite similar to your own. Ham radio may very well be an avenue to put you in contact with a vast network of intelligent, helpful, service oriented, resourceful people that might be of great help to you in a TEOTWAWKI situation, or even in other less drastic scenarios.
How Will You Power Your Radio When TSHTF?
Many hams already have their equipment off the grid, using power sources as simple as a car battery and a small solar panel. If TEOTWAWKI happens, there will be a plentiful supply of good batteries available, as cars will quickly run out of fuel, but their batteries will be useful for much longer.
RVs and boats won’t be of much value to most, but will have very useful deep cycle batteries. If you don’t have access to a photovoltaic panel, with a little ingenuity, an alternator and an old bike, (or even a lawnmower engine and a small supply of gas) you can make a charger for your battery and get some exercise at the same time. There are many YouTube videos on the topic. If you are charging a battery that is not completely drained, you will not need a permanent magnetic alternator. Many car alternators will work, preferably one with an internal voltage regulator.
How Technically Complicated is it?
How complicated is ham radio? Well, the answer is that it can be very technical, and even if you are a genius, you could spend a life-time delving into it, and still not know everything there is to know about sending and receiving radio signals, designing and building antennas, radios, amplifiers, etc. However, Ham radio can be greatly simplified. Metal resonates (vibrates), and different lengths of metal resonate at different frequencies. This is the essence of ham radio: it is about hooking up a piece of metal to a receiver or transceiver that resonates at the frequency you want to listen to or communicate on.
A good question is how much do you need to know? Your home is quite complicated. There is a lot of math that went into designing the shear panels in your walls so that they don’t fall over in a strong wind. A structural engineer designed your trusses so they can hold up your roof. An electrical engineer designed your power panel, the amperage of the breakers, sized the wire to each of your appliances, etc. Do you need to know this math in order to live in your home? Most people don’t, they just walk into their homes and turn on their appliances and appreciate that they work, and that their house doesn’t fall down.
You all have seen the 150’ towers with alien spaceship looking antennas on top of them. Those hams have taken a lot of time and spent a lot of money making their antennas and transmission systems as efficient as possible, and are talking around the world, often with just 5 watts or even less. Will that ability be important in a survival situation? Probably not. In fact, I’ll bet the last thing you will want is a tall tower with a beam antenna being turned around with a rotor. Not the best OPSEC.
Antennas can be Simple, Quick, and Cheap
I was on vacation at Lake Powell, Utah several weeks ago. I took a beam antenna that I had built the week before for about $100. It was designed to resonate at 14.250 MHz (the “20 meter” band is 14.000 MHz to 14.350 MHz, and is capable of world-wide communications). I used a 24’ mast made up of 4’ army surplus fiberglass poles ($1.00 each on eBay + shipping!). I had numerous conversations the first evening across the US. Unfortunately, the wind blew very strong the next day, and one of the plastic connectors between two of the poles snapped, and my antenna went down. It needed several hours of repairs before I could use it again, but I wanted to get “on the air” again that same evening.
I went into the hold of our houseboat, to see what I could use to make an alternate antenna. There are about 20 owners on the boat, so you never know what there might be down there. I found a piece of ½” x 10’ electrical conduit, an aluminum plate 1/8” x 6” x 20”, and 3 sets of jumper cables. I had a 4th set in my ski boat. Here is how I made my “free,” 15 minute antenna:
- I screwed a 6’ 5” wire to the bottom of the electrical conduit (I cut this from #12 wire I had brought with me to ground my radio)
- I then lashed the conduit to 2 sections of my fiberglass pipe, so the top was 16’, 5” off the ground.
- I used 3 lengths of ¼” nylon rope tied off to 3 metal stakes to hold the antenna vertical.
- I connected the wire from the conduit to a coax connector (an so-239 from radio shack – about $4) I robbed from my broken antenna.
- I grounded the coax connector to the aluminum plate with a small 3” piece of #12 wire and a self-tapping screw.
- I clamped the jumper cables to the plate, and ran them straight out from the plate on the ground, like an x with the plate at the center.
- I connected the other end of the coax cable to my transceiver.
I was able to make three contacts, one in California, one in Oregon, and one in Texas that evening using 100 watts, about the same amount of energy it takes to power one bulb in a light fixture. I was able to listen all over north and south America. This was a crude, inefficient, (but yet effective enough) vertical antenna. I knew I wasn’t going to talk to Russia or China, but I was able to communicate for hundreds of miles. For what survivalists may want, close enough will often be good enough.
You can make a simple antenna with almost anything. The wire in an extension cord would work. A piece of pipe (steel, copper, aluminum, it doesn’t matter), bailing wire, an old tape measure, etc. You could probably make dozens of simple antennas with just the exposed wire in your attic after the grid goes down. What else will you use it for?
Do You Have Space for an Antenna?
Can’t have an antenna in your HOA-ruled community? There are numerous antennas you can make with a wire suspended inside your attic. Live in an apartment and don’t have an attic or a yard? You would probably be surprised by what you can listen to by running a wire around the walls of your bedroom near the ceiling, and attaching it to your transceiver.
Don’t have an aluminum plate to connect your ground radials? Use a metal trashcan lid, smash a beer can, use the wheel from your broken wheelbarrow. Or just use a wire nut to connect the ground radials to your coax. You don’t need a ground plate, it just made it easy for me to clamp the jumper cables together.
Want stealth? Run the vertical wire up a tree. Several months ago I was at a Mountain Man Rendezvous. My buddy and I slung a 43’ wire up into a pine tree with a rock and a nylon string, used 2 - 100’ rolls of 3’ welded wire fencing laid on the ground in a big x (same function as the jumper cables), connected the vertical wire to the center post of a SO-239 connector, and the fencing to the ground portion of the connector with a short wire, and with my antenna tuner, were able to communicate with many hams on numerous bands.
Don’t Like Math?
The formula for the length of a ¼ wave vertical antenna (what we have been discussing here) is:
Length = 234/ Frequency in MHz
Don’t want to do the math? Thousands of geeks have already done it for you! Just google “wire antenna lengths for ham radio,” and you will find many links. For a 20 meter antenna, cut your wires 16’ 5” for your vertical and for your ground radials - at least 5, more is better (4 sets of jumper cables is actually 8 radials). The length for 40 meters is about 32’ 8”. Etc.
To get your antenna as efficient as possible, you would need an antenna analyzer, make your antenna a little longer than suggested, and tune it by cutting off smalls lengths until it resonates at precisely the frequency you are targeting. You could lay out 100 or more radials. The proximity of your house, other metal objects, the type of soil you have, the topography of your location, etc, will all affect your antenna. Is this important for a survivalist? Probably not, as perfection is not the goal. You will most likely be more interested in what is happening 1000 miles or 500 miles or 100 miles away. A simple, un-tuned wire antenna will more than easily allow you to communicate those distances. Such an antenna is very easy to hide, and is very easy to construct.
So where do you start? If you don’t want to transmit, you don’t need a license. Buy a radio, and build a few antennas. There are thousands of plans for simple wire antennas online. There may be reasons that you would not want to transmit. For example, transmissions can be triangulated quite easily. In ham radio, that is called a fox hunt, and 5 year olds do it with regularity. If you are just listening, no one will know it. Also, you can transmit without a license if someone with a license is with you, as long as they identify themselves with their call sign. This means that maybe only a few in your group will need a license. Also, in a TEOTWAWKI scenario, I doubt many people will be overly concerned with licenses.
I am using a Kenwood TS 590. It is a bit expensive, but I like some of the bells and whistles. It cost about $1,600, and will transmit from 6 meters to 160 meters. The Yaesu 957 is about half as big, cost half as much, uses less energy, and will transmit down to 2 meters. A hamfest is like a ham radio swap meet, and you can get some very good deals on high quality equipment. Contact a local radio club or just google hamfest.
If you want a license, it really is quite easy. You can contact your local ham club (simple to google – they make themselves easy to find), and attend a class. You probably will go to 4 or more classes at a local fire station, school, church, etc.
For some, an easier way is to go online and just start taking practice tests. All the questions and answers are online. EHam.net is a great site. The questions are multiple choice, and you only have to get about 75% correct. You will get 25% correct just by guessing! Many will say that this method will not teach you much, and they are probably correct. However, I am not one to go to a lot of classes to get a ton of information I may or may not need. I prefer to search out specific information that helps me with a project of my choosing.
I spent four evenings in a row (a Sunday to Wednesday) taking tests online for my general license, and passed it with over 90% the next Saturday. As I recall, it cost $10 for a 10 year license. I had seen all of the questions and answers multiple times when I took the exam. I knew I would learn on my own by doing, on an as-needed basis, after getting my license. I am not an electrical engineer, and I have never had an electronics class or even an electronics kit.
So ham radio can be as simple or as complicated as you want it to be. You can spend a ton of money building a system that will talk to Australia using about as much power as an LED flashlight, or you can build “good enough” antennas quickly out of junk laying around your back yard, and you can do it in a way that no one will even know that you are doing it.
By my way of thinking, information can be invaluable in stressful times, and you need to be able to trust the source of the intelligence you are receiving. Not only do I find the hobby fun and interesting, and filled with fascinating people that think a lot the way I do, I believe that ham radio will be one of the safest means of gathering intelligence, and one of the most reliable forms of long distance communications and information gathering should TSHTF.