Damn-fine question, that. By the end of today’s column, you may have evolved an opinion and along the path, you’ll learn about an obscure American radio company that even most hams don’t know about.
But let’s tackle the question, first. It’s entirely contextual. What I mean by that is on a submarine, the “survival radio” might be the shipboard VLF. In a desert or mountain fire-fight, it be the squad satcoms. In a fire or disaster recovery setting, it could be the under-$50 2-meter radios that every prepping site on the planetentiary has offered for sale.
Yet another? Oh, what about all those HF single sideband marine radios I’ve installed or worked on over the years?
Fortunately, for reg-lar ‘Mericans the definition is considerably easier: What’s the distance desired and what are the operating limitations.
Let’s start with the simple bug-out radio. Imagine you’re in the L.A. area and things have gotten ugly due to an attack on critical infrastructure. SoCal two exposed soft-spots: water supplies and power transmission.
You get wind of something, perhaps by listening to something you overheard or read having set up a home intelligence platform. This is where you use Google News alerts and route them to your email. Once it hits your computer, you’ve got some clever routing rules and you noticed what could be “bad news advancing quickly” and decide to head up the hill to hang out with friends in Phoenix.
You get in the car. Just as you’re climbing the 10 eastbound up the long hill from Indio/Thermal, the AM all news station drops to less audible. Oh-oh: the regular power is gone and they are on backup power and not running their normal full 50 kilowatts. Down to 5 or 10 kW, based on your finely calibrated AM monitoring ears…
You decide to call the folks in Phoenix and tell them “We’re out and on our way ahead of the human tide…” Except, when you go to dial them on the cell phone, how do you get them? The attack – whatever it was – seems to have hit all the cell tower routers.
You eye the two radios in your vehicle: One is a used 2-meter ham radio, but you wonder if it will make it to Phoenix by linking repeaters? You’ve never done that,. but it might work.
The other option is to simply turn on the 40-meter mobile radio which would likely be the radio of choice for such an adventure.
40-meters offers decent range in the daytime, and if the people you’re bugging-to happen to be hams with a 40-meter antenna,…you would likely get them.
IF you had a pre-arranged frequency.
Prepper sites get breathlessly whipped up over how cool this little handheld is and how it has a blinking light so you can find it at night. But, when push come to it, do you even know how to program the damn thing?
Many hams don’t. They buy “programming software” and shove in a bunch of frequencies that work around home base and that’s it. I mean seriously, if you live in Seattle and your bug-out destination was Spokane (or North Dakota), where’s the comms plan for that?
Odds are 99.95 there isn’t a plan.
Take our own family: We have two ham radio relatives/close friends in the Seattle area. BOTH of them know that in the event of an actual emergency, either in Texas or a tsunami rinses Seattle, that we’ll all be hitting the Maritime Mobile Services net on 14.300 at the top, :15, :30, and :45 minutes past each hour.
That may sound “loosey-goosey” but think about the signal path: From our airport to the one we’ve landed at at Gig Harbor, WA, it’s about 1,900 miles. The only band where you’d have a chance would be 20-meters until you’re down to the final 200-miles, or so.
Write this down and memorize it: Having a radio isn’t a solution unless you have invested in operating plans that include times or day, path lengths, modes, and frequencies.
In order, then:
An Operating Plan says “We are planning to travel from Texas to Payson, AZ at starting date X with time Y.”
This means we can estimate what kind of range would be needed for every step of the trip to have about a 50-50 chance of getting through.
Starting out, you might begin on the 20-meter band – during the day – as the band is not always “open” out west. We are in the dregs of the solar cycle and judging by the latest solar weather progression studies, we could have crap radio conditions for another five year. Or longer!.
The easiest way to build your comms plan is to begin from “sky wave” propagation (like 20 meters or 14. Mhz) and then move to NVIS or ground wave (40 meters) when closer, then NVIS (80 meters) and ultimately 2 meter of 440 MHz line-of sight.
No. In fact, we’re only skimming the surface.
If the XYL (wife or S.O.) hasn’t let you put a big ugly HF radio antenna on the family car, there is a useful back-up option in the form of a trailer hitch radio mount. Less than $100 bucks.
Use a good LMR-type coax and in possible, set things up so the radio can be fed with an automatic remote antenna tuner. LDG and SGC make good agnostic (brand-independent) units. Of all of the partisans, I happen to like the Icom AH-3 and AH-4 but then again, my Bug-out HF is an Icom 725.
The BEST HF mobile installations use a remote coupler (AH-4 or SG-230) and have only a strand of solid core ignition wire going from the tune to the antenna. Coming out of a tuner or coupler just causes lost efficiency. Quick: How much capacitance per foot of coax?
RG-8 is around 29.6 pF per foot. When you are transfering power and the line is flat (meaning a very low standing wave ratio (swr) the capacitance is not a terribly big deal. But, as the line departs from its design impedance, and the SWR increases, then capacitance losses increase.
It can also screw up a tuner. Can’t tell you how many “Antenna tuner won’t work” problems I fixed by simply taking the braid off the output side and exposing insulated wire for the final foot or so from the tuner to antenna base…
What about Tube Versus Solid-state Radios?
There. You would have to ask.
Some prepping sites opine that ONLY tube type gear is worth a damn because a) it works using high voltages so (rather logically) it would be more resistance to certain threats like EMP.
That’s true but a wholly incomplete answer.
Most tube type radios require 110 VAC (regular power power) to run. This is something that many people don’t really think through: Yes, the radio may work, but will the power?
“Tube type equipment is easier to work on, Ure. You’s said so yourself!”
Well, yes, it is easier IF you have 55-years experience.
The fact of the matter is – even with the lights on and the Internet up – tube-type gear can still be a cranky bitch on a bad day to work on.
When you see this:
You need to know how to find the broken part is this one on a schematic.
Oh-oh. You DO have the schematic printed off from the now non-existent Internet we’re prepping for, right?
And you need to test tubes to make sure they are not at fault. So I’m going into the Prepper Hereafter with one of these…
Yes, a tube tester. Seen a lot of gear in my life. Still haven’t seen a 12 volt tube tester that’s worth a damn, though.
And spare tubes for every one in your “EMP proof radio”, are in your kit right?
And that’s ONLY the Tubes. Now, you have resistors (40 common values but 4 wattages (you can usually cobble up something with 1, 5, 10, and 25 watt resistors but that’s a pile of dough to have laying around in parts!)- so 160 types – and meters to make sure you didn’t screw up remembering all those color bands on components actually give you their value (and tolerance).
THEN you need a butt-load of capacitors. On the solid-state gear, 25 and 35 volt caps are de rigor. On hybrid gear (some of which is great like the FT-101 Yaesu’s) you will still have high voltage caps in the power supply because they use three tubes for transmit. These radios were built in the transistor-tube crossover period.
On the other hand, replacing surface mount components requires eyes that I don’t have anymore. And hot air rework soldering station is nice, but now we’re back to that damn power problem again. Try finding a soldering station or hot6 air rework station that runs on 12 VDC.
Something as stupidly simple as a Bristol wrench to deal with set-screws on Hallicrafters front panel knobs can keep a radio down for however long it takes. Prying knobs off without the right tool can damage more parts and now you’re into what? Yes, very good: Cascading Failures mode.
I’m not trying to scare you off. Ham radio is a grand hobby. But the best radio to prep with? Is the one that works, will handle the path and modes you need,
And the one that comes out at least quarterly and is used for point to point comms testing. Because if you don’t have the operating skills, you can have the some of the finest tube type gear in the world –a Collins 75-3C-based S-Line or a highly sought-after Cosmophone!
Wait! you don’t know what a Cosmophone is???? Pour a second cup and enjoy some grand American technical history at this Youtube video…
Since I’ve now revealed that yes, I know what a Cosmophone is, you’re part of a very elite group. Most ham radio operators have never heard of it.
Would it be as good as a Hallicrafters or Collins radio? Go to church this weekend and pray we never find out.
Write when you get rich…