Communicate Off-Grid Digitally with Packet Radio
Mentioning a Bug Out Laptop always stirs up controversy. Many folks would say that a laptop doesn't belong in a bug but bag. And for 99% of the time they are 100% correct...but there are indeed some reasons why you would want to include a laptop in your Emergency Kit. For the majority of us, that would mean moving it to and INCH bag for a longer-term away from home situation or when a vehicle is available to use. But here's the catch...if you are into Emergency Communications, or want to be able to quickly put together networks for organizational purposes then there is definitely something to be said for having a PC at your disposal. Lets look at why and how a Bug Out Laptop can be useful and what hardware options are available:
What good is a Bug Out Laptop?
Let's look at the most important thing first: Why you would need a laptop during a home displacement event, natural disaster, or worse? In order to answer that question, think about how you use a laptop already. If its just to check email and surf the web then both those things can be done effectively with much smaller devices like a smartphone or tablet. But what if you are interested in communication not tied to commercial infrastructure or dependent on the grid? Using a laptop with a radio and something called Packet Radio, you can send messages and files over the air. Were you using computers back in the BBS days, back the dial-up modem days? Then you can catch my drift here a little easier because the concepts are similar.
1. PACKET RADIO
Once you have your Amateur Radio License, you can transmit data over radio waves (typically VHF) using a Terminal Node Controller or TNC. Its called "Packet Radio" and works almost the same way as the internet does, however it does not require a wired backbone. Using Packet you can send emails. You can send files. They will live on the TNC connected to your radio until you decide to check them. Think about that for a moment. When you are using radio with voice if the person you are trying to reach isn't available, then you can't communicate with them. Using a TNC you can log into their TNC and leave them a message that they can retrieve anytime. I won't go over all the reasons this is a good idea - but there are lots.
The most used TNC controller is the Kantronics KPC-3+, which runs about $199, sometimes you can find them for cheaper on eBay. Here is a very concise article about Packet Radio by Greg Jones, WD5IVD Many radio folks build "Go Boxes" which are all-in-one kits which house all their radio communication devices in a portable unit. There is a great Facebook Group dedicated to the making of such kits here. Take a look and join up if you are so inclined. Its interesting to see each person's take on how to make a good Go Box.
2. RADIO PROGRAMMING
Staying on the subject of radio communications, if you are using Amateur radios then you already know that having a laptop makes programing them 1000x faster and easier. Especially if you have several radios to setup, you can create one master setup file and push that out to the radios via a USB cable. For those of you who don't know, this means you can program in all the frequencies needed for the radios to use, as well as programming settings within the radios themselves. There's lots of software available to do this task. Some better than others. A good free option is the widely used CHIRP (grab it here) which is available on many platforms and is straightforward to use.
The Best Laptops
There are two schools of thought here when it comes to laptops being used in the field for emergency communications.
- Ruggedized and Weather Resistant is better or,
- Smaller and Lighter is better.
The choice is up to you and your budget. Lets look at both options so you can decide for yourself.
Ruggedized Laptops are better
Several prominent manufacturers make laptops which are built to be used in harsh conditions: rain, snow, freezing cold, dust, etc. The most notable are Dell, Panasonic, Getac, Lenovo, and General Dynamics. They are usually completely overbuilt, have swappable bays, some offer dual batteries, and some have serial ports which can connect directly to a TNC without a USB adapter. These laptops get very expensive quickly, but if you look around on eBay you can usually find used ones in the $300 range. Suggestion: if you do buy a laptop on eBay, learn how to reformat the computer and reinstall an operating system on it, you never know what you're gonna get with a second-hand computer, but its totally worth the cost savings to go this way. Google is your friend and will show you how to do it.
Here's a list of some older models you could look for on eBay to save $$:
- Lenovo ThinkPad X131e: Inexpensive. Some ruggedization added to casing.
- Dell Latitude XFR: More external reinforcement. Touchscreen.
- Panasonic Toughbook: Drop-proof. Stylus. 3G built-in.
- Getac B300: The best. Certified to MIL-STD 810G, IP65 and MIL-STD-461F standards. Endless list of features. Or if you want to go crazy look at the X500...wow.
Lighter Laptops are better
There are a lot of reasons why a smaller laptop makes a better bug out laptop: weight and size being the two most obvious. Also having a spare along isn't going to be too difficult. They aren't as durable of course but there are ways to handle that. Pelican makes hard waterproof cases for laptops and companies like Cargo Works and 5.11 make tough tactical soft cases. There are a million different options here. The most important thing to look for is battery life and performance - don't just shop on cost alone or you may wind up with a sluggish machine that lasts an hour unplugged. The undisputed winner here is the Apple Macbook Air. We have both 13" and 11" sizes and they are amazingly powerful. The hardware is very reliable and the performance can't be beat. Plus they are so diminutive as to almost disappear in a pack.
You can find a 2011 13" for about $350 on eBay at the time of writing. On these older models its still simple to change the battery and the SSD Hard Drive (not the RAM or processor.) If you go this way, make sure you check the cycle count on the battery - they are only rated to go to 1000 cycles or so and its $100 replacement (there are cheaper batteries but I don't trust them.) They are way more power then you will ever use and they will be relevant for another 10 years or more. I also have an Asus X205 11" Windows Laptop that I got from Best Buy for $200 on Black Friday. I put Windows 10 on it and it runs like a champ and I'm quite impressed with the speed, battery and screen. The only problem with it is its odd proprietary power connector. But a computer like this will serve you well.
Which OS is Best?
This ultimately comes down to preference. There is probably more software available for Windows then Macs but that's not to say Macs are left in the cold. They aren't. There are also lots of options for Linux users as well. The nice thing about the Apple laptops is the fact they can run all 3 OS's simultaneously.
What about tablets?
Dell Latitude 12 Tablet starts at $1,849 - but it's meant to be bulletproof. Amazon sells refurbished ones for about half price. If you buy anything with the links we provide on this page we get a small percentage of the sale from Amazons end. For more info click here.
Tablets are great for consuming information, but aren't the best for inputting information. Still, they can be an viable option for your Bug Out Bag, and several folks have compiled great lists for making one - like Creek Stewart's guide. If communications are your thing, the tablet can help to some degree. Take a look at this comprehensive list of software available for tablets relating to Ham radio. Pretty great, but you can't use a TNC or program radios with them...yet?
There are of course other reasons a laptop can be helpful. You can have all your important documents on it, you can entertain yourself and the family with games and movies, etc. Having a tablet or kindle is another option. Or carry your important documents on a USB key or Hard Drive...although without a computer they don't do much good.