Many of the questions I get on a day-to-day basis revolve around what equipment is needed to get a radio station up and running with minimal cost. That’s a tough question and one that’s even tougher when you don’t know where to begin. A lot of survivalist and prepper-oriented folks getting their feet wet think that commo begins and ends with a handheld radio – and while that might work within a family farm of a couple dozen acres or even over a small town with a repeater, a group can do so much more, reliably, with a better base station. In addition, a repeater should never be part of your communications plan. It’s another point of failure that decreases the robustness of your communications. For those starting out I highly recommend bypassing the more complicated digital equipment and keep it all analog. One of the many topics I cover through field use in my RTO Course is the versatility of analog systems and the ability to nearly hide in plain sight- with the proper instruction and application. Simplicity is a huge asset to the survivalist and prepping community. We’re going to talk about how to build a robust local radio network for not that much more money, but offer a lot over simple handhelds in terms of capability.
Stepping Up From The Handheld- The Dual-Band Mobile Radio
Many old-time radio enthusiasts will tell the up-and-comer that the first radio they should buy is a VHF or UHF mobile- one that does both, known as a dual band, is even better for flexibility. A dual band mobile offers a world of capability over any handheld option for not much more cost and in some cases can be cheaper. Although this first purchase is usually not the case, it’s solid advice and should be heeded for a couple of reasons. First, a mobile puts out more power, more efficiently. You can do a lot more with 25 or more watts than you can with 4, and having an external antenna that is closer to an electrical match as far as efficiency goes gives that 25 watts more bang for your power buck. Most newcomers like the plug and play aspect of a handheld, but a mobile can be a more effective learning tool through the more things you have to do to get it on the air. Second, a good mobile usually can handle a higher Duty Cycle– in layman’s terms, the amount of time you’re transmitting versus not transmitting, which generates heat in the radio and can cause problems. The higher the duty cycle, the longer you can talk without damaging your set from the built up heat.
A mobile or base unit needs a good antenna. In the RTO Course each student builds an improvised wire antenna that can certainly be used with a mobile radio, but for a longer-term or more permanent setup you might want to look into some of the purpose-built VHF or UHF antennas on the market. Arrow Antennas builds a really good one at a fairly inexpensive price. You’ll need to get it up high, and the beauty of the Arrow’s J-Pole model shown here is that it can be bolted on nearly anywhere- on the eves of a house or building or even a homemade mast from conduit pipes if you want to get fancy like my home setup. I’m not a fan of the various roll-up J-poles out there as a primary antenna. They’re made from 450-ohm ladder line and are intended to be a temporary solution just like our Jungle antennas built in the RTO course. If you’re hanging it up for a quick deployment, fine, but it won’t last under full time duty. A much better way to go is a sturdy antenna made of copper or aluminum for a more permanent installation.
Connecting that antenna to your radio is fairly simple- you’ll need 50 Ohm coax cable, easily found in any truck stop’s CB shop. Make sure it is 50 Ohm and NOT 75; television coax cables are 75 Ohm. TV coax usually has F-type connectors, two way radio most commonly has UHF or BNC. If you’re not sure, read the print on the cable itself- usually it will tell you. There’s many types and grades of coax cable, and usually what’s sold at the truck stop is on the lower end of the quality scale. That said it still works, its cheap, and for our purposes works just fine. The most common types you’ll find are RG-58 and RG-8X, and there’s not a lot of practical difference between the two.
You’ll need a way to power your rig- since nearly all portable radios are designed around 12v Direct Current (DC) systems, you have two options. Either connect it directly to a deep cycle battery for off-grid power or purchase an inexpensive power supply that plugs into any 120v AC outlet. Doing either or both is simple and made simpler by equipping your power cord with Anderson Power Poles. These standardize all of your connections and make it simple to go from one power source to another. Something else I do is build a type of jumper cable with clamps on one end and power poles on another so that I can scavenge any type of battery I might come across.
More Power, More Height, More Line Of Sight
Going back to our main point above, the increase in power output, having a mobile up and running with a good antenna creates a center for people with their handhelds to communicate with- you have greater Line of Sight over the horizon. Since your antenna is generally larger, more efficient and at a higher position, it both sends a signal much further and receives weak signals much better. Couple that with more power and you’ve got a big leg up over simple handhelds. So what does this mean for the end user? A more reliable station with the ability to maintain communications with your people in the field at a longer range. It’s a no-brainer for a solid mobile to be added to your Command Post (CP) or Prepper’s Retreat signals package. Not only that, but it allows longer distance contacts with other retreats or groups that have similar setups. And as inexpensive as some of the decent options are today, there’s not reason not to.
If you’d like to learn more about building your off grid communications skills, there is an upcoming RTO Course. We’d love to have you out- email me direct at firstname.lastname@example.org for more details.