Bug Out Communications
How to Use This Article
We're going to get into a lot of depth on some fairly complex subjects. You may not care about all the info we discuss. If you only want to know the very basic requirements for an emergency kit then read this article.
This isn't an advanced tutorial by any means but we will try to give you a comprehensive understanding of what options you have and what their strengths and limitations are, and that will include a pretty deep dive into electronics and radio theory so WARNING: big words ahead.
In the event of an emergency, you might not be able to depend on your cell or land-line phones to exchange information between you and your loved ones. The cell towers may be un-powered or completely overloaded. Network coverage may be spotty outside of your coverage area. The internet might be down so no emails can get back and forth. So what can you do?
Old School Methods
Technology is great but sometimes the older methods will work best. Every emergency kit should contain a whistle and a signal mirror. They are hard to break and are able to send messages great distances with a little effort. They are easy to carry and cheap. Here's an article to show you how to use a signal mirror and how useful they are. You can use flashlights to send messages and heck, even smoke signals can work with a little planning ahead of time. Having a notepad and a pen is a good idea, having a waterproof notepad and waterproof pen is a GREAT idea.
If your plans aren't for a full grid-down were-all-going-back-to-the-stone-age/EMP type event, then you could look into getting a device which communicates around the world via satellite. There are satellite phones, and other devices which can send text messages by connecting to your cell phone via Bluetooth. Some of those products are listed below. The coverage is amazing, you can be in the middle of many oceans and still communicate. Best part is you don't need a license to operate.
The units themselves can be a few hundred bucks, and they require monthly or yearly service plans which can be over $100 or more depending on what you want to do with it, but that's pretty much the same (or less) than your cell phone. On the upside though you can communicate from nearly anywhere in the world to nearly anywhere in the world with devices you are already used to using (a phone) and with a very small learning curve. We were able to pick up an older SPOT Connect for $20 on eBay which has a $12 a month service fee. It can send text or email messages one-way or call for rescue if needed.
SPOT Messinger Coverage Map. Last Updated 2016-08-05. Estimated coverage area. Actual coverage may vary.
The tried and true backup system is also one of the oldest: using radio waves to communicate long distances. You've probably heard about it before, it's called "Ham Radio" aka Amateur Radio. Regular folks can get a license from the FCC so they can transmit on certain radio frequencies, some of which can allow you to communicate around the world under the right conditions. It's the perfect answer for bug out communications.
It's a fairly complex subject that requires study and oftentimes help from others. In order to practice using the product and some of the techniques we will discuss you will need to acquire a license from the FCC. (Note: I'm not talking about SHTF here where all bets are off...BUT that is NOT the time to try to learn this stuff. It takes commitments of time and practice AHEAD OF TIME.)
Elecraft makes the great portable HF/UHF/VHF radios. KX3 and KX2 are their smallest.
We suggest that the adults and teens in the family get at least their Technician Class License as a Ham radio operator. It's easy, only 35 questions to answer (26 to pass) and with a few weeks study you can pass it easily. This gives you access to VHF/UHF Amateur bands ( and limited operations in certain HF bands. This is above and beyond standard walkie-talkie frequencies (which are UHF and don't travel very far.) You can also hit repeaters (assuming they are running) to help move messages around a broader geographic area.
Getting your General Class License is a better idea. Why? Because then you have access to the HF bands which can give you world-wide communications via atmospheric propagation (more on that later.) It's not much tricker than the Technician Test. All told it may take you 3-6 months to get both with regular study.
BTW You DON'T have to learn Morse Code to get your license. BUT...Morse is the most efficient way to communicate long distances with small radios and small power output. It is the ultimate post-collapse communications method, as it's one of the oldest we have.
Lets Explore Radio
With the right gear and the right atmospheric conditions you can communicate locally, regionally, or world wide with equipment small enough to fit in a backpack or a vehicle. Now that doesn't mean that a little HT (Handy Talkie, what you may know as a Walkie Talkie) is going to talk around the world. They don't communicate on the HF (High Frequency) bands so they can't make use of atmospheric skip. But they can be used when the local grid is down, or when cell phone service has been disrupted to talk within a mile or two, or further if using a repeater or home base station. You can talk with voice, morse code, or digitally (yes, you can send "email".) Check out our article about Packet Radio and how to send messages and files via radio waves during a grid-down situation.
Let's nail-down some specific definitions before we go further and you get too much lingo you don't understand.
If you are already a Ham, skip this section as you probably already know this stuff. But if you want to brush up feel free:
Radio is an electromagnetic wave. Waves have frequencies, meaning the amount of time it oscillates during a specific period. Radio frequency is measured in Hertz. 1 Hertz is 1 cycle per second. Frequencies are broken up into distinct groups for clarification:
HF: High Frequency Band
3 - 30 MHz Wavelength: 100 to 10 meters
VHF: Very High Frequency Band
30 - 300 MHz Wavelength: 10 to 1 meters
UHF: Ultra High Frequency Band
300 MHz - 3000 MHz (3 GHz) Wavelength: 1 meter to 10 centimeters
Personal Radio Services (PRS):
Not all radio frequencies require a license: there are several free services available, and some that require a license but not passing a test. CB, MURS, GRS, MARINE and GMRS bands are easily available to most people. There are certain limitations and restrictions for each band, familiarize yourself with them over at the FCC website. These aren't the best bands to use, those tend to be saved for the Amateur bands, and can be crowded. But they are a fantastic way to start and will likely be adequate for most.
At medium wave and shortwave frequencies (MF and HF bands) radio waves can refract from a layer of charged particles (ions) high in the atmosphere, called the ionosphere. So radio waves transmitted at an angle into the sky can be reflected back to Earth beyond the horizon, at great distances, even transcontinental distances. This is called skywave or "skip" propagation. It is used by amateur radio operators to talk to other countries, and shortwave broadcasting stations that broadcast internationally. Skywave communication is variable, dependent on conditions in the upper atmosphere; it is most reliable at night and in the winter. Due to its unreliability, since the advent of communication satellites in the 1960s many long range communication needs that previously used skywaves now use satellites.
Propagation is a deep subject, but it's an important concept to understand if you want to experiment with long-distance radio communications. Here is great article from Jonathan Imberi which explains it in detail.
Handheld VHF and UHF radios can make use of repeaters to increase their effective ranges. These are electronic devices which take incoming radio signals and broadcast them out. Typically repeaters or their antennas are located very high up since they rely on line-of-sight (simplex) operation with VHF/UHF. In flat territories this can mean ranges up to dozens of miles or greater. Most repeater use will require at least a Technician level license. Read more on Wikipedia.
Chirp is free open-source software which can help you program a huge variety of radios with your computer. Thats much easier and faster to do that entering them all into memory via the keypad on the radio itself, especially if you have a lot of frequencies you want to program into memory. You can also save configurations and share those files with others. Think of it as a spreadsheet for your radio. You can also program radio settings from within CHIRP as well. Download it here.
Types of Radios
Radio takes many different forms. Your cell phone uses radio waves. So do terrestrial TV sets. The kinds we are really concerned about are two-way radios where you can talk and receive information. Since we are talking about Bug Out situations, our focus will be on portable radios, not the big 1000 watt base stations that Ham Contesters use. That narrows us down to HT's (Handy Talkies) and Portable HF (High Frequency) Radios. CB radio and Marine radio are also options, but are not our primary choices as we'll explain.
HT's are self-contained units with built-in batteries. They can be either VHF or UHF radios, or dual band VHF/UHF. Those are the type we prefer, more options in one unit. These radios allow you to use many non-licensed bands, such as FRS, GMRS, MURS, and Marine Bands. Most can also use the Amateur Ham bands. You can buy cheap-o FRS or GMRS radios from Wally-world, and those can be good enough for many folks, but if you want to take it up a notch, get a true Amateur Band capable radio. Two of our favorites are the Yaesu FT-60R and the Baofeng UV-5RA. We'll talk more about those later on, but there are a ton of other options out there too: Kenwood, Icom, Alinco all make good HT radios.
High Frequency Radio
HF radios come in many different flavors. You can buy huge basestations that can run at thousands of watts or small portable units. For our conversation here we are focusing on the smaller portable units that can be used in the field during a bug out, either with internal batteries or with a small(ish) external 12 volt battery. Many of these units do not come with an internal power supply as they are designed to be run in portable applications as in a vehicle so if you want to use them at home as a base station you will need a 110 power inverter. There are a couple of HF radios which will also run VHF/UHF frequencies which is great, keeps you from having to run 2 radios at a time. Some of our favorites are made by Yaesu: FT-817D and the FT-857D. Both have been around a while and both are portable. Each has a couple of things to consider to decide which is best for you, which we discus in greater detail later on.
We don't recommend using Marine Radio as your primary backup communications device. Firstly because those channels are only supposed to be used to discuss boating operations and safety. So you cant really get on there for testing purposes and talk about general topics. Secondly the amount of channels available is very limited, and those bands could fill up quickly in an emergency leaving you crowded out. On the positive side no license is required to operate, and you can use external antennas.
CB doesn't require a license to operate, which is a good thing. But that also leaves it open to everyone else, and there are a limited amount of frequencies you can use. I know many truck operators still use CB and if it works for you then great. Problem I've found is that there are some really, um, "interesting" people on CB who jam the airwaves with overpowered illegal stations and are doing all kinds of weird random things. My advice is to put yourself ahead of the crowd and stick with the folks who sit and study and pass the Technician test. I think you will find it a more "grown-up" experience, at least in the area I live. Your milage may vary.
Lets start with the entry level radios and look at the HT's in greater detail first.
BaoFeng UV-5RA Ham Two-Way Radio
Read our review and user-guide here. This is probably one of the most popular Amateur capable HT radios out there. They are cheap, easy to buy on Amazon, and pretty simple to program using CHIRP. Not the most durable radio you can buy but since they are cheap buy a bunch of them!
Must Have Accessories
To make the most out of your Baofeng UV-5RA there are a handful of accessories you should consider. If you want to use the radio in a car then you will need an antenna that sits outside of the vehicle because the inside of the car blocks the signal. Tram makes a dual band antenna for less that $20 which works great and has a magnetic base. You will need a SMA Female to UHF SO-239 Female adapter to use that antenna with the Baofeng. It's easier to use a separate Radio Speaker while driving then talking directly on the radio, that's why I have a Baofeng BF-S112 Two Way Radio Speaker in each of our vehicles. If you are taking the radio with you as a pedestrian then having a pouch to put it in is helpful. You might want to replace the stock antenna with a smaller stubby or a longer range one. If you want to program the radio with the computer using CHIRP then you need to get a USB cable. Make sure you get the right one! The real ones cost $20, the rest are knock offs that wont work.
Yaesu FT-60R Dual Band HT
If you've broken a UV-5R then you may be ready to go to the next level. The FT-60R is ruggedized, water and drop resistant, has 1000 memory channels. If you have the dough, this radio is your best bet. Tons of accessories available. It is bigger than the Baofeng but worth the extra size since it performs much better.
Portable HF Radios
AS discussed earlier HF (High Frequency) Radios can be used to send voice/morse/data communications around the world with the right conditions. One thing to note that nearly all run on 12v power, so you will need an external 100v to 12v power source like a power supply or you can just wire directly to a car battery. Yaesu makes some of the best and smallest portable HF radios, and have some that can also work VHF and UHF.
Yaesu FT-857D Portable Radio Transceiver
The FT-857D is a great choice for most portable radio needs. It's extremely powerful for it's size at 100W. That helps to get your signal out there better than a QRP (low power) radio like the FT-817D. RX/TX on HF, VHF, UHF. Can be used with a TNC for digital coms. It is a menu driven interface given it's diminutive size, so you might need to keep a cheat sheet with you until you memorize your favorite options. This has slightly older technology out there when it comes to its noise filtering but makes up for it with portability. You will probably want to use with an antenna tuner like the popular LDG Electronics Z-100PLUS if you want to use a variety of antennas, or try the auto-adjusting Yaesu ATAS-120A 40 Meter through 70cm Auto Tune Motorized HF/VHF/UHF Antenna.
Yaesu FT-817ND Portable Radio Transceiver
Typical Price: $800
This is a really great, fun little radio. It operates on low-power at 5W so the radio can run on internal batteries. FT-817 is designed for operation on the 160-10 meter HF bands, plus the 6 meter, 2 meter, and 70 cm bands. Running low power can be tricky with field deployed antennas with voice communications. It can be difficult to make contacts in some cases. You will have more luck with Morse code and digital modes, which requires less power. If you had to pick between the 817 and the 857 I would chose the the 857.
HF Radio Antennas
You could have the best radio in the world, but if you have a bad antenna it won't work the way it should. A great antenna can make even a bad radio a great radio. HF antennas can be tricky though, because many of them are very long and need to be mounted several feet in the air. They essentially come in 2 flavors: vertical or horizontal. Luckily for us there are portable packable antennas available to us. Some use poles, some use wire.
Super Antenna Portable HF VHF UHF
Super compact, easy to setup long-range HF/VHF/UHF. Excellent packable field antenna. Can be used with any radio. Vastly improves your transmit and receive distances. Place as high in the air as possible.
Chameleon Antenna Hybrid-Micro
Your standard small dipole which you can hang from a tree or what have you. Frequency: 6M - 160M. Power: 100W SSB. RF Connection: SO-239. Length: 60'. You can also convert into a vertical by using the CHA Mil Whip. Below are some examples of how an antenna system like this can be deployed. Take a look at the Chameleon User Manual for the Hybrid-Micro and -Mini to get more specific info.
goTenna: Off-Grid Text & GPS
There's a very cool new product out called a goTenna. It uses radio waves to send messages and location info between users via a cell phone interface. See our full write-up about the goTenna here. An alternative to relying on cellphone networks or busy radio frequencies.
If there was a world wide event that took down our satellites then these products won't help but for large scale events like a hurricane or super storm then these are great options. Especially useful for those who spend time in the backcountry.
SPOT Gen3 Satellite GPS Messenger
Price: $150 + Plans
Using GPS and Satellites you can share tracking info to others from almost anywhere on earth. You can send preprogrammed text messages and tracking info plotted on Google Maps. SOS feature will send GEOS Intl Emergency Response Coordination Center your coordinates and info to local response teams.
DeLorme InReach Explorer Two Way Sat Coms + Nav
Price: $379 + Plans
Navigate, create waypoints, log your trip and find your way back. Send and receive text messages. Trigger an interactive SOS. Plan, track and share your trip. 100% global coverage from Iridium. You can also pair it with a mobile device to access topographic maps and U.S. NOAA charts.
Must Have Basics
These items should be in your EDC or GHB no matter what. Each bag should have at least one whistle, one mirror, a pen and a notepad.
UST JetScream Whistle
122db LOUD. With great power comes great responsibility, so don't go blowing out peoples eardrums. Must have item and good for the little ones who will know how to use it better than you do. Check out our review of the Mini Jetscream.
Military Glass Signal Mirror
These are considered must have items by nearly all survivalists. Use it to signal great distances, in some cases up to 100 miles. Here is an article about how to use them, and why you need to carry one with you. Handy as a mirror to find things stuck in your eyes while traipsing around the woods.
Fisher Space Pen
These pens are used by Military forces around the world. Writes at any angle, even under water and other extreme environments. Neat! We're having a hard time figuring out though what someone might need to write whilst under the water...
Rite in the Rain All Weather Pocket Notebooks
Price: $14 for 3
Well if you have a pen that writes underwater, I suppose you need waterproof paper then. Rite in the Rain pads allow you to send love notes to your sweetie in the middle of a tsunami.
Sony Pocket AM/FM Radio
Not knowing whats going on in the world around you would be extremely stressful, so a good, reliable cheap radio would be priceless during an emergency. This little guy is a work-horse and gets high praise from it's users on Amazon and from us.
Header Photo Credit: Piztrek - Incredible website! Check out his Pinzgauers.