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,