Editor’s Introductory Note: Because of the length of this detailed article, it will be serialized into five parts.
I’ll begin with a note of warning for those who would delve into, or recommend sophisticated radio equipment. The learning curve can be steep, and it requires a significant investment of time to become competent. I recommend using the “Keep, Simple, Stupid” (K.I.S.S.) principle. The apocryphal originator of the K.I.S.S. principle was no simpleton. He was the aircraft design genius Kelly Johnson, and we should heed the advice. It is likely that simple-to-use equipment is the best choice for most.
Here is an example of what can happen with some transceivers: Baofeng handi-talkies can inadvertently become locked, and unusable should the key denoted with the ‘#’ symbol is accidentally depressed. A lock symbol will appear on the upper right-hand corner of the LCD display. To unlock it, simply press the # key again. If one is unaware of this keypad lock feature, the radio is ‘stuck’ on the current frequency, and otherwise rendered mostly unusable.
Here is another example, this time involving a good quality, and nearly new in condition, modern ham radio, a Yaesu 2800M mobile. I recently pulled it out of storage to check the operation, and to physically remove the MARS/CAP (MARS, Military Auxiliary Radio System) that limits the unit to the 2 Meter Ham band by removing solder from a circuit board connection, and soldering to make a new connection in some transceivers. I got it in a trade for a couple old CBs. It was too much radio for the previous owner. They were very happy to dump the NIB Yaesu 2800M, and get two good-looking CBs, one with an antenna. The Yaesu 2800M is a good one for preppers in that the MARS CAP can be overridden, or canceled by depressing the ‘low’ and ‘d/mr’ buttons simultaneously while turning the radio on. The code ”A2” appears on the display indicating the radio is unlocked, allowing it to transmit from 137 to 174 MHz. I had programmed the radio prior to securing it in a watertight Faraday cage. Upon testing it’s function, I found that it transmits and receives, yet no audio was available. I must have depressed a key that muted the radio. The owner’s manual did not shed light on the problem. This radio has a sophisticated menu which on one hand is wonderful, and on the other hand, could be a curse. With so many different radios to deal with, it can be a challenge to master them all. Anyway, the ‘fix’ was to do a factory reset by rebooting it’s CPU and cleaning out it’s ‘brains’ to return it to it’s default settings. This fixed the audio problem, but it wiped the memory clean. Because I cannot get a programming cable, I must now spend hours reprogramming it.
Ham radio is not for everyone. Most people I am acquainted with who have a Tech license know little more after attaining their license than they did before studying for the 35 question examination. Much of the test is about the ‘rules of the road’ that the FCC would like you to know. Sadly they have not availed themselves of the technical knowledge offered by potential ‘Elmers’, or other knowledgeable and helpful Hams in person, or on the Internet. The Smartphone is just too convenient, and provides for all of their communication needs. Therefore there is little incentive to look elsewhere, and to strive to master a new platform that offers less. Besides, they only got the license in case the world blew up, and have little current need for it, just like the Baofeng they got that is still in the box. I end up taking care of their programming and other technical issues, so that all they have to do is key up. I’ve finally accepted this as a fact of life of this day and age.
If you cannot invest lots of time into radio, then I suggest going with simple platforms. If there is someone in your family, or group who has the time to become the ‘resident expert’, perhaps sophisticated Ham radios can be a part of your plan, but not all have to get their Tech license. We can use MURS, GMRS, and even CB. The Ham Shack should have all these radios, something for everyone, and an ability to talk to neighbors. The two most popular radios outside of Survivalist circles is not a Baofeng. Rather, it will be CB, and FRS/GMRS. GMRS will allow you to talk far and near, and to your neighbors. A 40-watt GMRS transceiver on a good antenna, will in most situations, talk farther than a 4 watt CB. It will also talk to the Wal-Mart bubble pack FRS/GMRS radio most already have. Human error and ignorance can disable an otherwise very capable and sophisticated radio. Over the years I’ve had to fix many Ham radios, and antennas operated by Hams. They got their surfboard, but still can’t surf. In a WROL situation, you will be on your own, and in big surf. A simpler radio with less buttons to push, however less capable, would be a better choice, than a complicated radio that can not be operated at all.
There are several radio types that can used in a complete commo plan for the prepper that is redundant, and flexible and relatively easy to use. To start, choose a primary, install that, and then choose a good alternative to standardize on. GMRS and SSB CB or standard CB complement each other. GMRS has only 8 channels, plus repeater channels, and anyone with a FRS/GMRS could talk to you. As with any radio, it is important during WROL to use brevity codes and discipline. Do not use a radio as you would a cell phone. A GMRS mobile can have considerable range, and unfortunately there are many GMRS receiver owners out there that can hear you. Given this major COMSEC issue with GMRS, SSB CB would be a better choice for longer distances between the base station and vehicle, yet there are no SSB CBs on the market. It might be the best balance of an ‘off the beaten path’ radio that is easy to use, and much more secure, yet we cannot talk to hand held’s. It could be your primary, and GMRS could be your secondary, but because of the deficit, SSB CB and CB would be better as an alternative.
Unfortunately, there are to my knowledge, no handheld SSB CB radios available, but there are CB handhelds, yet these are typically larger than a brick. And because of the long wavelength, and long telescoping antennas needed for useful ranges, these are not practical for everyday carry. GMRS has only 8 channels, yet in many regions that is plenty, and we can use PL tones to block unwanted traffic. If we use brevity codes and limit ourselves to brief exchanges, GMRS would suffice until the threat situation escalates. And because the GMRS 5 watt handheld radios are compact, we can carry a handheld transceiver that can talk to a base station at an extended distances, and possibly to a repeater if there is one in your area. If there is, then you have major advantage and very good reason to choose GMRS as your primary, and SSB CB, or just plain old CB, as a secondary.
But what about MURS? We do not need to program a Baofeng to use MURS. A pre-programmed handheld MURS radio, on a good external antenna might be good fit here. In my thinking GMRS could be a primary, a MURS handheld on a linear amplifier could be alternative, and CB, or SSB CB would be good for a contingency. A whistle and signal fire could be for emergency communications. However, I should let the user make the final decision.
PRE-PROGRAMMED UHF and VHF TRANSCEIVERS
(No Programming required and easier to use)
GMRS MOBILE, BASE STATION AND HANDHELD TRANSCEIVERS
This is an easy-to-use, and good quality GMRS Transceiver:
Midland MXT400 GMRS 2-Way Radio.
(Recommend 2 MXT400’s, one for the house, and one for the vehicle. If money is limited, install the Base Station first. A transceiver for the vehicle could be used as a replacement unit for the Base Station if necessary.)
MXT400 Transceiver = $249.99
BASE STATION 120VAC TO 12VDC VOLTAGE POWER SUPPLY
Samlex SEC-1223 23 Amp Switching Power Supply, $136.99
(needed to covert house power to 12vdc to run radio)
Nagoya H-20N Lightning Protector (N Female)
COAXIAL CABLE FOR A GMRS BASE STATION ANTENNAS
We are using the more expensive and heavy cable, and low loss N type connectors to optimize the performance of the transceiver and antenna. We should also measure to estimate how much cable to order, and order by the foot to avoid using an excessively long cable that weakens the signal at the antenna, and costs more. Amazon sells pre-made cable that is of a certain length, but it much more expensive and possibly too long, or short.
We should avoid using connectors to extend cable lengths as the use of connectors decreases signal strength, and if exposed to the elements, invites corrosion and unanticipated high VSWR’s that would damage the transceiver. Connectors can be sealed from the elements with vulcanizing electrical tape. Minor cuts in the cable can also be repaired in this and other ways. Silicone is not as durable as this tape. During installation, use means and methods that protect the cable from damage, and it will provide a decade, or more of service.
For lengths of around 50 feet use BR-400 coxail cable, the equivalent to LMR400:
Note: Specify Type N connector for the ends.
Adapters will likely be needed at the transceiver and antenna:
UHF (PL-259) Male to N Female Adapter $4.99 x 2 = $9.98
Using an adapter means we can adapt different radios to the cable as needed.
ANTENNAS FOR GMRS BASE STATION RADIO INSTALLATION
Slim Jim antenna for GMRS. UHF 440-470 MHz
Specify cable connector, N type Female, and frequency range 462 to 467Mhz.
GMRS, MOBILE TRANSCEIVER COMPONENT LIST
The Midland MXT400 GMRS 2-Way Radio.
Magnetic MNO mount and cable for vehicle-mounted mobile radios. Midland brand. (Note that the cable is only 12 feet)
Midland 6 dB Gain Antenna with Durable Spring Base and NMO Connection – Works with Midland MXT400
PRE-PROGRAMMED GMRS HANDHELD TRANSCEIVERS
Wouxun KG-805G GMRS Two Way Radio
Wouxun, FRS and GMRS handheld, true 5 watts for GMRS channels 15 to 22, repeater capable.
Midland T290VP4 High Powered FRS and GMRS Two Way Radios (a pair of 2 radios)
Midland, GMRS, pair of hand held radios, maximum 1.5 watt, not repeater capable.
$89.99 (one pair)
ANTENNA ADAPTER FOR HAND HELD Baofeng AND WOUXAN, but not for the Midland T290VP4
SMA Female to UHF (SO239)
Use to connect handheld to base station antenna for low power operations or other external antennas, or for vehicle’s mobile antenna)
(To be continued in Part 2.)