Prepping: The Basic Radio (and Antenna) Inventory

One day this week, I’ll be sending one of my sons-in-law our trusty old Tecsun PL-660  shortwave receiver.  We’ve had it a good long while and its main use around here has been listening to CoastToCoast AM with George Noory out of WOAI in San Antonio late nights.

This particular SOL has done more actual prepping than anyone else in the family except my youngest daughter.  He’d just finishing up the add-on to the chicken coop for the UrbanChickens.  That, we congratulated him on – an Eggcellent  idea.  But with all the fresh ‘maters and eggs on the way, he doesn’t have a good shortwave and there are many reasons to have one.

  1. There is nothing like a good all-band receiver to listen to when you’re sitting around a campfire looking at the stars.  There’s Coast, of course.  But, before that Clive Lewis and Ground Zero is very enjoyable.   You just don’t want to be camping and catch the Chupacabra reports.  You won’t sleep well…
  2. The second feature – and this is more educational – is the air band radio.  Since this SOL lives line of sight from SeaTac airport, the radio will land with the frequency of the automated weather beacon and both approach and departure frequencies on some Dymo labels.  I figure our grand daughter might enjoy being able to see planes doing a right turnout on southbound departures and climbing ou over south Puget Sound and be able to figure out “Ah, there’s the Alaska flight down to Burbank…”
  3. Shortwave bands are not nearly as good as once-upon-a-time.  But they are still plenty active.  Most of the daytime content runs to religious broadcasters, but at night when the 5-7 MHz range opens up, there are lots of shortwave stations out of South and Central America.  Easy way to try and pick up a smattering of conversational Spanish.
  4. The PL-660 has stereo for the FM side.  Mono on the single speaker, so pack that pair of Sennheiser headphones.  We usually keep have a dozen pairs around though they have a way of “evaporating.”

In terms of flexibility, the solid shortwave receiver is a great “first radio” but remember you get what you pay for.  Double conversion (don’t ask, it’s too early) and a synchronous detector system a minimums.  Some shortwaves come with Air Band (useful and interesting if you live near an airport).  You can pick up weather (ATIS) frequencies off summaries, along with the tower and ground frequencies.

There’s an organization to the radio spectrum flying into a place like Tacoma.  You pop off of regional air traffic about over Snoqualmie Pass.  As you start down into Seattle you get picked up by Seattle Approach.  They have to clear you specifically into the “Bravo” airspace at 30-miles out.  Approach will work you across the cities and soon enough you get handed off to the tower at Tacoma.  And once you’re on the ground you change to a ground/taxing frequency.   There’s a good bit of air traffic to listen to.

On the other hand, if you don’t care to know whether that’s a Beech or a Piper cruising  overhead, other shortwave radios come with VHF Business and NOAA Weather and sometimes the two-meter ham band (144-148 MHz).  We have a couple of weather radios on most of the time (a fall back to our long-ago sailing days).  If you’re a boater, the VHF optioned shortwave makes more sense.

Once you have a shortwave – if you’re a boater that is – get out on the water in an area where you know the location of an AM radio station not too far away.  There were times before I put a 24-mile radar on the boat, that I navigated most of Puget Sound with a good radio (Yacht Boy).  You see, the antenna for AM in such radios is made of ferrite bar stock with fine wire wound on it.  Excellent for receiving, but very DIRECTIONAL off the ends.

With some practice (before you’re in the fog) you can have a very good idea of your position if you a) pay attention to the magnetic compass on the boat, b) look at the depth sounder which is your best friend (ever), and then use the radio as a redundancy check.

On Puget Sound (and San Francisco Bay) where we sailed a lot, you could use the sounder to find your way in.  From West Point in Seattle, northbound,  just follow the 100-foot depth around to Shilshole Marina.  When you begin to head N/NW after making East a ways, you run NW for a bit and then turn east again.  With luck (oh, practice, too) you can see the sounder telling you when you’ve passed over the channel inbound to the locks.  It’s very much like flying turned upside down.

I have heard tell of people who have stolen boats on the West Coast and made it all the way to Hawaii.  Just triangulate a few powerful AM stations on the coast.  You’ll use several because skywave propagation at night can get sketchy.  Everyone assumes having three GPS units ensures you will never be lost, but that’s not necessarily true.  Enroute to Hawaii, you can watch airplane contrails if the weather is good, in addition to flipping the radio around.

Radio #2

Since I’ve been an Extra Class ham forever, it’s easy for me to run on around the Baofeng handhelds you can buy cheap on eBay.  BUT if you don’t take the time to a) get the ham license and b) the programming cable and c) actually use it, don’t waste the money.

You’d have all the hallmarks of what we used to unkindly call “an appliance operator.”  FRS (Family Radio Service) radios are the electric can opener of radios.

Either way, when you travel with the kids, take at least 2-3 charged up units.  This  way, people don’t get separated – and if they do anyway – you can find them.  A little experimenting with your handheld will confirm this is most cases:  But vertical antenna (and many of the “rubber duckies” on handhelds) exhibit something called the “cone of silence” effect.

This was first noticed in the early days of radio navigation in airplanes.  You’d fly toward a radio beacon (non-directional beacons are NDB’s and are on long wave frequencies) would just disappear.  It was later found that there’s a sport directly over a vertical antenna where northing is heard.

Now let’s apply this to dime-store search and rescue:  If you have a friend with a radio, have them hike some distance away and then position the radio so the antenna is parallel the ground.  Sweep back and forth while pointing in their direction.  When you find a null, that’s where your missing companion should be found.

Just one thing:  Remember this is a bidirectional effect.  If you know they went north on the trail, then odds are good that’s where you will find them,.  But, if you’re not sure, then you could be going the wrong way.

I think I told you once about the “bunny hunt” we had in the early days of the Evergreen State Net.  A ham named Jim and I hooked up the railroad tracks in Edmonds Washington as our ground system.  Every time someone got near the tracks they through they has won the hidden transmitter contest.  One poor soul had started walking up the tracks…certain he was onto us… when he was six miles south.

The point this morning is pretty simple:  It doesn’t take too much of an investment to add a lot of electronic capability in terms of news and the operating environment.  With good comms comes safety.  And if you ever need to use a radio – for search and rescue or escape and evasion or just plain old entertainment) – there’s no substitute for some hands on learning that can be done as a “family thing.”

This being summer, in some parts of the country this is antenna-building prime time.  A great shortwave antenna has only to be 30-50 feet of wire “in the clear” and some way to get the signal into your radio.  Most have jacks or terminals.

The All-Important Battery Note

If you have a radio – and perchance an “actual emergency” shows up, you will need batteries.

The best way to ensure you have batteries on demand is to a) buy the best ones you can find, b) store them in a cool place and c) cycle through them.

By steps then:

A) For our “battery cache” we use the extended life, top of the line lithium types.  There are mainly AA and AAA sizes for radio equipment.  Some radios do not have an AA or AAA battery adapter, so make plans accordingly.

B) and C):   A small box with a couple of arrows drawn on it will help.  Make it something of a small enough size to fit on the top shelf of your fridge.  The arrows point to the next batteries to be used.  So when you pull out a set, take them from the end the arrow is pointing.  New batteries to the back.  The fletch if you’re an archer.

Our Current Picks


On a budget: ($90) C Crane CC Skywave AM, FM, Shortwave, Weather and Airband Portable Travel Radio with Clock and Alarm.

More dough: the Tecsun 660 but they seem to have focused on the PL-880.  Problem is they don’t include airband in this one.  ($160)

And the Sangean ATS-909 may be a technical marvel on low bands, but no aircraft, two-meter or weather. $255.

There are some “classic” shortwaves to be had on eBay, but you need to do some smart shopping because a lot of radios (old Panasonics and Sony’s) tend to be wildly overpriced.  Whenever you buy anything on eBay, make sure to check the current product price on the ‘Zon because often, you will see people selling on eBay who are just making up Amazon product.

Make sure to have at least one, 209-foot or longer – plugin wire antenna for the low-band/HF radio.  Makes all the different in the world because yes, when comes to antennas, size matters!

2-Meter Ham Portable: BaoFeng BF-F8HP (UV-5R 3rd Gen) 8-Watt Dual Band Two-Way Radio (136-174Mhz VHF & 400-520Mhz UHF) Includes Full Kit.

GMRS radio all over the ‘zon.  You can find Family Radio units at big box stores.  Just remember, range is under ideal conditions.  Divide by 2 and then line of sight only – and that’s a good day…

It you don’t have time for ham radio (and it doesn’t take much time, btw),  at least get a good fire/police scanner.  If you’re in a big city, most of the services are on “trunking” systems – which cost more money.  But on the periphery of major cities, the $100-class scanners will provide a wealth of information.  Smaller jurisdictions don’t the budgets, grants, and excuses to pour money hand over fist into trunking equipment.

Print off (and laminate) a card with all the local VHF emergency service channels.  Fire, police. roads, water, power company, garbage company (more use cell phones now, though) along with county sheriffs, the local US Marshalls channels, FBI and so on.

Remember, ‘in the event of an Actual Emergency‘ you need to know where to tune in order to maintain the one reason to own an assortment and maintain competence in your equipment type.

You want to OWN  the information high ground.

Write when you get rich,

18 thoughts on “Prepping: The Basic Radio (and Antenna) Inventory”

  1. I was first ham-licensed in 1957 as a Novice, and I’d like to confirm and second George’s suggestions.

    I got a Tecsun PL-660 on his recommendation, and it’s a superb choice. The AM side is VERY good, and at night will copy stations from hundreds of miles away. In a Big Infrastructure Crash, AM-ers are likely to survive in numbers, widely scattered. The built-in ferrite loopstick antenna is quite sufficient, while connecting a long wire seems to overload it — it’s so sensitive. A wire DOES help the shortwave — the included whip just isn’t enough. 20 to 50 feet of simple wire tossed over a tree branch will help a lot. Attach it to the radio’s whip antenna with a clip — you don’t need to use the “External Antenna” connector provided on the radio’s side panel. Have lots of AAs available. (It takes four at a time.)

    You can also listen to Citizen’s Band with the Tecsun. Much-maligned and often disparaged, CB still has a lot of immediate usefulness to it.

    I would strongly suggest a Baofeng UV-5. It can allow you to listen in on the local ham 2-meter repeaers, one of your BEST local and specific intel sources. You don’t need a license to listen; and we’ll spot you as a pirate Real Fast if you try to join in by talking. We welcome newly licensed folks, but we don’t like pirates.

    The Baufeng will also give you Family Radio, Marine, MURS, and several other potentially useful LOCAL radio services. You’ll need to suffer a learning curve, and do some small amount of channel loading via a spreadsheet-like program, but you’ll get the hang of this quickly if you have a good attitude.

    Between the two — The Tecsun and the Baofeng, you’ll have a LOT of local E-Lint sources. And LOCAL info will be way more immediate and important to you than knowing what’s going on in Europe. Long-range (nighttime) AM will give you good insight into that’s going on in the wider United States.

    The very first thing to be attacked in a sudden war with a high technology component will be satellite communications — of all kinds — and the GPS navigation systems. Gas pumps, ATMs, and supermarkets (if you’re credit-card dependent) will all be off-line and unable to do business. (Hint: have a cash green money emergency fund stashed. A few hundred dollars will be very helpful.)

    Thoughtfulness, patience and practice before the urgent Need is vital.

    • Silly question.. Why not make the antenna out of graphite wire..that way it could be a double purpose antenna.
      Depending on its shape and web structure.. Graphite attracts electrical ion’s.. With a directional diode run the power collector into a capacitor or battery bank. Theoretically you would have emergency power to run the radio along with a great antenna. If I’m not mistaken wouldn’t graphite also work as a filter of sorts to decrease noise.
      Kind of like salt water used by coating a plastic bag or tube then placed over an antenna works like a filter..
      Just curious if that would be a reasonably simple solution.

  2. Batteries. Man, everything uses batteries. A While back I switched all of our AA and 3A to rechargeables, together with an A/C D/C solar charging setup and all the connections. Interestingly, my charger also works in reverse, and can act as a “battery bank” for USB and 12v devices. I also invested in AA to C and D converters for flashlights and such (all of which were converted to LED). I no longer buy anything but AA and 3A reghargeables.

    I hate the Baofeng. Have to be an engineering major to program it. Went to a Yaesu FT60 handheld and never looked back. It can be programmed from the keypad by memory. I have a Baofeng I’ll sell ya.

    • Make an antenna out of graphite wire. Collect the static electrical ions from the atmosphere to charge your batteries

  3. Thinking about radio –

    Wouldn’t it be a better strategy to get a transmitter and transmit false information out?

    “Free eats in Detroit” might get the crowd walking north as opposed to listening to a radio, “The crowd moves toward Dallas”.

    • No. Transmitters may be easily located through triangulation, even from space.

      \See the keyhole series of satellites. Look up.

      • If your worried about that, also make sure your reciever has a good rx pre amp, otherwise L.O. leakage emanating from your radio receiver can be detected as well.

      • Actually, most modern receivers already have at least one stage of rf amp built-in. the “leaky local oscillator” was an artifact of early (direct antenna input to mixer) superhet designs, But, on the other hand, switching noise from the solar controllers has to go….


      …and that was 1942!

      The only way to transmit false information and get away with it is with a link to a robust, _never used_ repeater, many miles away. In a GHD, anyone who can afford to build same isn’t going to be troubled by a few dozen, or hundred, or thousand hungry zombies on their doorstep. They’re also going to assume, as do I, that He Who Makes No Footprints, Can’t Be Followed…

  4. Our local ham radio network is the most useful for keeping up-to-date on our local volcano eruption, summit earthquakes, and lava flows. The county civil defense/fire dept. helicopter pilot is a ham operator and frequently gives us end-of-day reports of what he has seen in his daily patrol flights into the ‘hot zone’. Hams in volcano village track and report earthquakes as the summit caldera collapses. When the tradewinds quit and the volcano fumes drift northward into populous areas we all report air quality observations from various subdivisions. It beats the hell out of waiting for the evening newscast! Getting that ham license and developing some ‘radio competence’ and networking with your local surrounding radio operators is probably the MOST important thing you can do for emergency preparedness… assuming you’ve got your food and water covered.

    When our volcano erupted back in May, our local ham VHF network doubled in size as new hams, and old licensees, got back on the air. Many assisted with communications while helping people evacuate their homes ahead of the lava advance. Get that ham license! Don’t wait until it is too late.

  5. First off on the Baofeng, I have several and initially they were a pain to program, BUT , if you can forget everything you learned about Yaseu and ICOM it gets a lot easier. It’s almost a reverse program to the expensive Japanese radios. Yes there is a program cable BUT I’m away from a compoooter so much that I really need to know how to program in the field. Baofeng also makes ?? or at least supports another 8 watt (3 power levels)handheld the BF F9 V2 and it takes all the same appliances as the UV 5 R cost about $55).
    As to police scanners, In Colorado almost all law enforcement / ems/ fire dispatch and tactical is on 700-800 mc digital as interoperable “channels” (of course they are frequencies but they do jump around as though using a cell phone tower)The scanners necessary to listen to the trunking type digital system run in the $400-$500 range.
    Now on to direction finding.
    You come to that point that you have determined the null but your not sure which direction. Learned this trick on a S/R mission. Hold your radio / antenna vertically while listening on frequency, hold the radio directly up against your chest and then face the direction you believe the signal is coming from, then immediately turn 180 degrees. If you are not directly on top of the transmitting source(or the transmitter is not radiating 1000watts)you should hear a noticeable difference when your back is to the transmitter. The ugly big bag of mostly water (which is your body) effectively blocks some of the incoming signal.
    Also George, thanks for the tip on the 3 SW receivers. I think I will go with the C Crane. JJ

  6. And redundancy, there may come a time when what you have is what you have. Disaster struck a week ago. Even though both HF radios were isolated from their respective antenna’s and my shack is solar/battery operated, the FT450D took a hit when we had a tree strike about 140 feet from the house. It’s on the way to Yaesu. Lucky for me the FTDX1200 was unscathed. The Kenwood TMG-707 2 Meter, whose base antenna is 30 feet up and about 50 foot closer to the tree AND was tuned to NOAA at the time was also unhurt. Go figure.

    As an aside, two of the family have Ham tickets. Everyone lives on top of the same mountain. We have scrounged enough 2 meter radios for everyone. We have a Simplex Freq setup, and have tested this net.

  7. If they would only legalize marijuana..the things that can be made. Super capacitors batteries and graphite sheets to collect emergency power from the atmosphere. Just think an inexpensive roofing material generating power or a space station using the polymers made to reduce the cost of space travel . to the mayonase in the fridge or the life saving cancer medication. The more I read about that plant the more I like it.

Comments are closed.