Long Distance Communications with HAM Radio

    My dear friends, I wish I could rewind the clock for you all back to at least 2016 when the United States completely lost interest in prepping. The orange haired man was going to drain the swamp and exit it’s creatures from their dominion over our tiny little fleeting lives.

    Oh well. Today I’m going to try to get you up to speed on something that may or may not matter to you. Communications.

    Perhaps you have kids who live a thousand miles away. Perhaps you have a bugout place 100 miles away from your home. And perhaps you feel like you just want to know “what’s going on out there” once the house of cards comes down. How many movies have we all watched where someone lived decades in a pure survival environment, only to eventually figure out that just outside their hovel there were people living normally.

    This is the fixed version of the video. Sorry I don’t know why it was cut off.

    At this point, late in the prepping game, you have probably heard of “HAM” radio. HAM is small list of bandwidth spaces that are available to properly licensed amateurs. To get the license, you have to study the correct answers to the potential questions, and take from one to three tests, depending on what you expect to accomplish. There are a lot of free phone apps to help you study, and I prefer the one where they only show you the answers. There are also books, and Ham Test Online that is very good.

    I am not yet licensed myself, after several years of learning, because it has not been a priority for me. Once things come down, nobody is going to be ratting you out for going on without a license, and I really don’t need to put myself on yet one more list. Beware though. If you want to go on there and talk, get licensed. Because even with what is called a QRP radio 10 watts or under, you will be able to be heard for hundreds of miles, and there are people obsessed with catching violators via triangulation, which is pretty easy with modern software. You can listen all you want with no license, and you will be amazed if you follow my advice below and get the right stuff. I got Japan and Germany the first time I turned on the radio.

    The HAM Scam

    As with all topics prepping, HAM radio is fraught with a ton of online misinformation propagated by new people in the space who became Youtube experts without any real research. I have covered communications for years on Prepping 101, begging people to slow down and understand what you need to buy, and more importantly, what not to buy. My advice from the original article on how to save a ton on a working 100 watt radio is still valid today, and though the prices spiked after my article on them, they are back down today.

    What you absolutely do not want to start with is a handset radio, whether a name brand Yaesu/Icom, or a budget Chinese Boefeng. Hand held radios use a band in the VHF and/or UHF ranges, and are not good than more than a few hundred yards in my experience, in a suburban or city environment. And even out in the woods in flat Florida, no more than about 1/2 mile. And that’s pushing it. In my neighborhood a handheld doesn’t even make it to the next street, with both radios at street level.

    Handheld radios are meant to be used with a “repeater.” That is a high altitude re-broadcast setup that is run by most local radio clubs. They rent space up on a cell tower to run a repeater, which gives you roughly the same range as radios used by police and fire. Without the repeater, permission to use it, and of course electricity to the repeater, handheld radios are completely useless for anything other than very short range inter-team communications.

    For long range, you have to move to the “HF” band, which stands for High Frequency. All of bands fall within the 1.5 to 30 megahertz range. They are not CB radios, and the term “short wave” technically includes frequencies outside of this range.

    HF radios, even very low powered ones, can easily reach out to 150 miles or so with a reasonably correct antenna. I have even covered some very expensive radios that send and receive Morse code only. And I even found some that use an Android app to send and receive, so you don’t even have to know Morse code.

    The larger radios, 50 watts and more, coupled with the right antenna will easily reach Europe and Asia on the right day, in the right band. HAMS usually refer to their band slices as “meters,” meaning the number meters wide that one cycle of frequency measures. So the 7 megahertz slice is 40 meters. The 7 and 14 mhz slices are the easiest to use, and work at night during most times of the year all over. At 150 miles, most of the bands will work all the time.

    Bandwidth can be a hard thing to understand at first. Radio signals are not infinitely divisible. So if you are broadcasting at 7.023 mhz, you have essentially stomped out that frequency for everyone who can hear you, with a lot of overlap on each side. For that reason, for HF radios, you will be using upper sideband or lower sideband, and the choice is largely based on what is popular in that slice. Nonetheless, when you are on 7.023 as your center frequency, someone will not be able to use 7.024, or, in practice, anything close at all.

    That is why cellphones have their own methodology. All of our phones work pretty much on the same frequency, and the towers decode the signals from one another. Radio frequencies are very expensive, and controlled by all the governments of the world. The amateur frequencies differ slightly from country to country, but mostly they are close. An American with a 1,500 watt station (the legal limit) and a giant tower antenna will clean that frequency out worldwide, so it would be pointless for them to not agree.

    Before you rush out and buy an HF rig, you have to understand the the antenna is much more important than the radio with HF. With just about any HF radio, you’ll have the 20 meter and 40 meter bands available, and they will most likely get as far as you need, even a very low wattage $150 DIY. If you read my prior articles and watch the videos, I went down a lane that few people entertain. It is to get more wattage for less money buying old radios.

    This USDx radio is the newest QRP rig with good reviews. I have the kit, but you can get fully built radios in a case for under $150. It will easily cover 150 miles with the right antenna.

    My grandfather was a HAM, but I don’t think I ever heard him say anything, so he probably either had just a receiver, or he just didn’t have a license. His radio, like all the radios of the generations who have been passing on, went into an estate sale and it was picked up by yet another HAM, who probably is also now dead from the murderous hospitals during covid, or the shots.

    There are a lot of preppers out here now, but only a tiny fraction of them understand true long distance HAM radio, so the radios really are still cheap. I am a fan of the Yeasu FT-101 series. It is part tube, part transistor, and without any tuneup at all will probably be more than any prepper will ever need. I also have some Kenwood 520 era radios, and every one I have tested works fine, though sometimes the dial is a bit off the correct frequency. All of these old radios can be bought for under $400 including a much more expensive shipping these days. And there are newer all transistor radios as well, from Yeasu, TenTec and others.

    As I write this, you can buy this radio on Ebay for under $400, shipped, and I’m sure it works like new. There are a ton of HF transceivers on Ebay right now for very reasonable prices, that came directly out of estates.

    Search Ebay for HF Transceiver and it will be begin to walk you down the path of everything that is currently out there. You will see brand new rigs like the Xiegu G90, which is 20 watts, and plenty of Yeasu, Icom and other brands where prices can stretch into the thousands. In my experience, if you find a seller who has great feedback, and they say “it lights up” or “this is from an estate and assumed to work,” it works perfectly most likely. It was unplugged when the guy kicked off, and sold off without any investigation. If the guy had a pile of radios he kept for parts, or some that didn’t work, those are usually not in the main area of the HAM shack, and are thrown away. Nobody wants to sell something on Ebay or otherwise, that may come back to them. The cherry stuff is what you will find for sale, generally. There are obvious exceptions.

    Antenna is Everything with HF

    The antenna is what makes HF difficult. I have tried small and portable antennas, but they just don’t reach out the way a real HF antenna does. Again, for 150 miles, any antenna built for HF will work.

    That includes a bare wire, believe it or not. It is called an end fed dipole, and they work really well, without even using an antenna tuner. If you are thinking a QRP radio, ten watts or under, the choices are numerous, or you can make it yourself. Ideally you should use a “balun,” which is effectively a transformer, to match the impedance of the wire to the impedance of the radio. A simple antenna like this one gives you the lengths of wire you would cut for the individual bands.

    These antennas are all over Ebay at under $30, and will cover most bands with just a variable length bare wire. Some, like this one, say that it is QRP only, which is under ten watts, but many say 100w as well. So for short transmissions, probably they will all be fine who knows. For listening, it is really all you need, with no tuner at all.

    Going up in wattage, your antenna choices do not change. You just need thicker components, and that green QRP one says it can handle 100 watts. There are a ton of antennas made for the 100 watt range. And you can keep it really simple on Ebay stores like this one, and just put the stuff away for a seriously rainy day. And many many antennas are made for multiple bands. The same length of wire will be a 1/2 wave at 20 meters, and 1/4 wave at 40 meters, and an 1/8 wave at 80 meters, etc. Don’t get overwhelmed with your choices. An antenna that is solid at 20 and 40 will get you a long way to figure out what is going on in the world, and is plenty good for contacting family once the cell service goes down. 10, 12 and 15 meters are the others commonly used, but don’t worry about 80 meters really. The antennas are very long.

    If you don’t have 60′ of space between trees, or you don’t have trees, a vertical may be your best choice, and the products are much more sparse If you see verticals with a coil at the bottom, they seem to work ok. But I recently found a popular Youtuber who makes what he calls the DX Commander, and I got a couple, one meant to be stationary and one portable. They are roughly $239 each, and shipped directly from the UK. He seems to have an extremely good understanding of the physics of what works, and he supplies you will enough wire to place a good deal of radial wires at the base of the antenna to isolate it from the ground, and give the signal something to “push against.” I have no stake in any of these products and am not an affiliate in any way.

    This guy really knows his shit, and his vertical is the best option I have seen at a reasonable price if you just don’t have the trees.

    Please don’t take this as the absolute best solution for you. The kit requires that you clip your own wire lengths and crimp the ends on, and you do have to assemble the poll as well. I just think it is a good option for people who don’t have what to hang an antenna on. He says in several videos that for receiving, a tuned dipole might have a slight edge, but for transmitting his DX Commander wins out.

    For anything but a single wire with a balun, you should get an antenna tuner. there are dial ones and automatic ones, and some radios have one built in, though I don’t suggest that you rely upon them. An antenna tuner reduces what is called the “standing wave ratio” which is much more important on transmit than it is on receive.

    I am partial to the “folded dipole” as it was the first thing I tried, and it worked right away for me, listening of course. They tend to be more expensive, but can cover a lot of bands with one installation. Now that I found the DX Commander, I think Callum’s rig is a better choice for most of us, though antennas like this one I still find attractive, and you don’t have to build anything yourself.

    If you have the distance, and the trees, the “military” antenna for 6-80 meters is the G5RV. It is over 100′ feet long, and is basically just a dipole. You do need an antenna tuner, but the default configuration works fantastic, and the MFJ offering, and some others on Ebay, are quite durable for years of use. The military actually uses a lot of bare wire antennas, but the G5RV is more of a standard that does it all.

    None of the dipoles need to be up high. That is probably the best benefit of them. Some work as an inverted V, so you only need one pole in the middle, and maybe 50′ of coax to both get to the radio and the top of the post in the middle. The G5RV sometimes comes with ladder line to the middle, so you can plug in your coax at ground level. Make sure you have the right connector. A BNC radio does not fit an SO-239/259, and you will need an adapter. Make sure you make all of your outdoor connections waterproof or performance will quickly deteriorate.

    More than anything, don’t get wound up with all of your choices. HAM radio is an endless stream of knowledge and learning, and surprisingly there are new developments in both radio tech and antenna tech all the time. It is incredibly fun brain food for the nerds among us. But functionally HAM hasn’t changed all that much. I used to sit with my grandfather over 40 years ago and listen to people speaking Japanese. And he probably had a small vertical on the roof.

    There are many more topics on communications in Prepping 101. If you want to just listen, look into the RTL-SDR stuff. It is cheap, and with the right antennas for the right types of signals, works just as good as any real HAM radio, but for the most part you can’t transmit (though there are exceptions). Using regular old Windows software you can watch wide swaths of bandwidth for spike signals, and they are very easy to home in on when you see them. There are many different grades, and pricepoints, so do your homework. I have all of this stuff and i wish I had the time to review it all, but I just don’t.

    Like anything else, the important thing is just go get the stuff and try it when you don’t need it. I usually say ten years early is better than one day late, but I think we all realize that 10 years out isn’t happening now. Shit could pop off any day, and it is starting to do so worldwide. Late does not always mean too late. Get going.

    Paul Helinski

    Leave a Comment

    • Rob August 1, 2022, 8:09 am Reply

      Interesting info, most is correct. However beware of solid state transmitters with transistor finals working into mismatched impedances. Some solid rigs fave a holdback feature which keeps power output low so you do not blow up the finals when transmitting into mismatched antennas. However, there are also a lot of lower power radios (the QRP rigs) that do not have this feature. You do not get to many chances with these radios and operating into mismatched antennas you will over time destroy the finals (the output power amplifiers) to the point where you only get a few watts or less than a watt output. You need to learn about this or your radio will become useless very quickly.

      • Paul Helinski August 1, 2022, 2:59 pm Reply

        Any tube final, guitar amps included, need a specific impedence to run correctly and not burn themselves out. All complete antenna systems you see have been normalized to 50 ohms, so I don’t understand your point.

    • Brett Collier Salamon August 1, 2022, 11:18 am Reply

      I have been following you since Prepping 101, thanks for all you hard work.
      The problem with this video is that at 16:00 into the video the screen goes black and stays that way till the end. Perhaps you could look into this and change it. Thank you.

      • Paul Helinski August 1, 2022, 2:57 pm Reply

        Yes I see I don’t know what happened but will fix it and reupload soon. Sorry I didn’t check comments today. Most likely I’ll resend the story in the Digest next week and note the fixed video. Or maybe friday.

    • Mike krull August 1, 2022, 2:52 pm Reply

      Having a ham radio with tons of knobs, dials, displays can be confusing. But in the process of getting a license , you will learn what they do. Getting licensed as a HAM has never been easier. I was going to get licensed back in the 90’s but got discouraged by the lack of study material and the big one- learning morse code. Well fast forward to present times. The requirement for even the highest level of ham license no longer requires knowing morse code. Lots of material online. Online practice exams. I suggest checking out hamexam.org. I also suggest getting Gordon West’s book”2022-2026 technician class”. This book will teach you all you need to know to pass your technician exam. Exam is 35 questions, out of a published question bank. You will then have a callsign and know what you are doing if shtf. I do suggest however getting a dual band handheld transciever as your first radio. If it won’t transmit a block away, you are doing something wrong. Throw out the factory “rubber duck” antenna and get the Diamond SRH77CA antenna. It’s flexible, about a foot and a half long. I have talked using simplex( direct, radio to radio) over 100 miles on 5 watts. Also the author seems to think negatively about repeaters. They are a great resource, Free in most cases, Requires no permission, Frequencies and access tones are published. Check out repeaterbook.org (app is free and easy to use) for example there are 12 listed repeaters in my county. All are open access, and most have battery/ generator backup. Pretty useful in an emergency.

      Then you get into HF. I have a modest antenna hidden in my attic, And i have made contacts with people on every continent.

      Callsign K4SSR

      • Paul Helinski August 1, 2022, 3:03 pm Reply

        Yes it is not hard. Important is to just get going.

    • Bob W. August 1, 2022, 3:02 pm Reply

      Just be advised that much of the Ham equipment you mention (on eBay, e.g.) utilize vacuum tubes to function. There are places (on the web) where you can purchase spares. 73’s

      • Paul Helinski August 1, 2022, 3:04 pm Reply

        Yes, and I still haven’t had one go bad, or even an output transformer. The most vulnerable piece on a tube amp are the caps drying out. No problems yet.

    • Rich K. August 1, 2022, 4:57 pm Reply

      My wife and I are both licensed hams – I’m an extra class, she just earned her technician at the Hamvention this past May. I have rigs old and new, high and low power, solid state and tube (the tube equipment has the advantage of being EMP resistant).

    • Kuby August 5, 2022, 8:56 am Reply

      Study guides are handy but really not needed, today, I recommend utilizing the FREE services of ‘QRZ.com’ online FCC testing. QRZ has the official license class question pool(s) and can generate real FCC tests for you to take online with immediate feedback as to the right answer (a learning tool). That’s how I aced my Extra license test decades ago. Before the internet, I studied off a PC testing program for my Advanced class license.

      Here is another FREE location to buy used HAM gear, ‘QTH.com’.

      I’m not much of a prep’er but I do have fears, one is of the big EMP taking out all electronics. To that end, I have a spare IC-7000 (used off QTH.com) stored inside a steel military mortar ammo box aka Faraday-shield plus WX-proof. In the ammo can are all items needed to run the radio on car battery power AND band configurable 100ft metal-tape-measures for use either as an HF End-fed-dipole or (using two tape-measures) an HF Inverted V plus a dual-band (VHF/UHF) TV-twin-lead “J” antennas.

      I highly recommend the FT-991 for overall use and operating digital modes (as it has a built-in sound card) that allows super easy USB connections to a portable computer.

      This year, I’ve reached a pinnacle in being a HAM for 50 years getting my first Novice (CW, 75W, w/crystals) license in High School. It has been an adventure, passion, hobby and career in my life, I’m a true HAM nerd/geek as I enjoy designing antennas and building equipment – MS-EET & USN-10yrs FTGC. What am I most proud of is passing my HAM interest to my sons and soon grandsons as they will inherit a lot of HAM gear from me.

      My Grandpa was a Transoceanic Radio ‘SWL’ but he instilled the radio curiosity within his Grandkids. Each of his three kids oldest offspring are Extra class HAM, Veterans, getting a Master degree and conference call every Wednesday evening (soon to use HamShack-Hotline for our call) just to shoot the bull, joust, banter each other. Our family HAM count is eleven HAMs strong.

      • Paul Helinski August 15, 2022, 8:04 am Reply

        Go look for a book on Amazon called The EMP Hoax. If your mind is open enough to understand that you have been fooled, you will be amazed.

        • Dw August 27, 2022, 2:38 pm Reply

          I hadn’t heard of the EMP Hoax til your comment. Have read a book synopsis now. Couple comments: 1) Reference is made that says “D) The EMP theory itself is theoretically impossible”. I think that a nonsensical comment. 2) What about sun EMPs – do you believe them? 3) Finally, his synopsis doesn’t disprove EMPs, it just implies they can’t be proven on the basis of what occurred in Hawaii.

          • Paul Helinski August 27, 2022, 9:31 pm Reply

            It’s isn’t an expensive book (you fucking moron who isn’t even smart enough to have a job to buy a cheap book that you feel you need to comment on. Oh did I mention you are a complete fucking moron?)

    • Clint Wilde August 5, 2022, 11:33 am Reply

      To be truly prepped in the radio realm, any solid state radio is subject to EMP. While an EMP event precludes having anyone to talk to after it, any SS radio not in some form of EM protection will be DOA. Only a 100% tube rig will survive an EMP, assuming it is not at ground zero, and it must also have tube rectifiers and a tube detector, not a germanium or silicon diode as many do. The US scoffed at the MIG 25 that was flown to Taiwan by a defector, because all its avionics were tube based. Then they realized in an atomic confrontation, the 25 would still be flying and all the whizz bang fancy US solid state designed avionics in our planes would be dead as a post. This was the beginning of the hardening project for solid state devices in US armament and facilities. The Enola Gay was full of tube electronics, it was in viewing distance of Hiroshima, and the radios played on.

      • Paul Helinski August 15, 2022, 8:02 am Reply

        Go look for a book on Amazon called The EMP Hoax. If your mind is open enough to understand that you have been fooled, you will be amazed.