In this post I am going to show you how to build a grid down communications system that you can use now or in a disaster to keep in touch for less than $120. Back when I started getting into this lifestyle now known as prepping, I had a million problems I was trying to solve. If you are paying attention and are at least partially grounded in reality, you can see the fragility of society. It isn’t hard to imagine the wheels coming off this bus we are on in any one of hundreds of ways.
Economic collapse, foreign wars, terrorism, race wars, civil unrest, rioting, pandemic, or extreme weather to name just a few. It doesn’t take too much to throw our society into chaos and we regularly see numerous examples of situations where the help and assistance that were expected, never materialized or took much longer than promised.
It is for all of these potential problems in life that we start looking at what can we do to prepare to ride out the chaos when it comes down our street. We read the news and watch videos and ponder which skills to learn that could have prevented the same turmoil or mitigated the pain if those people we are watching on the internet had been us.
Preppers are looking for solutions to problems we don’t currently have, but firmly believe could affect us at some point in our lives. One such problem in many disasters is staying in communication with the outside world, your family or survival group. Some people don’t consider this an issue and others think this aspect of prepping is too hard or expensive.
Why do you need to communicate when the grid goes down?
It doesn’t take much imagination to visualize a world without being in contact with our loved ones. We have all been victims of a dead phone battery, a poor signal or network congestion. This is usually a minor inconvenience that is remedied quickly. We wander the halls of the airport terminals looking for an empty electric socket or simply wait until we can get through again all the while stealing glances at our phones every couple of minutes.
Imagine if cell service didn’t come back on. Imagine if the internet or electric grid had been severely compromised by terrorist attacks. Don’t believe it can happen? Remember the sniper attack on a power plant back in April 2013? It only took two people with rifles to knock an entire substation out for 27 days.
Imagine again if you will (I know some of you hate hypothetical exercises) that it wasn’t just two people at one power station. What if it was 100 people at 50 power stations all at the same time? We already have a huge influx of illegal immigration that only continues to grow. Is it out of the realm of possibility that just a few of these millions of people could set out to take down the electric grid?
You need a backup plan
Ham radios make a great back up communication plan for preppers for a couple of reasons. First, ham radios aren’t reliant on the internet or cell phone towers to work. They do require electricity to charge batteries, but that can be mitigated with a decent sized solar charger with rechargeable batteries or a high-power inverter connected to your car’s battery. With simple equipment, two people with radios only need their own antennas to be able to share information whenever they need to at pretty considerable distances.
Ham radios can be used at much greater ranges than the typical FRS radios you see at the store and can allow you to stay in contact with people hundreds of miles away (with the right conditions). Usually this comes down to antenna use or repeater access but even with basic equipment I will list below you can easily communicate 20 miles away when everyone else might be left in the dark.
This article isn’t going to delve deeply enough into the specifics of Ham radio. For a brief introduction you can read more on the AARL website. You can also watch this short video below for an introduction in a British accent no less. If this is something that interests you I would recommend you get your license and learn as much as possible. In an emergency though where lives are on the line you don’t really need to worry about a license but it is precisely at that time when you are going to need to know what you are doing.
Getting a license is pretty simple if you are willing to put a little bit of study into this first. Tests are conducted on a frequent basis and are taken exclusively out of the ARRL license manual. If you know the information in that manual, you should pass the test. It’s easy to find an amateur radio license exam in your area. Before you go, you should read more and study.
There are free study materials all over the internet. I used a set of videos to help me take the test from a man named David Casler. He has YouTube videos for every single chapter of the exam book and it helped me greatly. You can view the first video here or you can go directly to Dave’s site where he has links to all of his classes listed toward the bottom of the page. I have added links to all of Dave’s courses below.
- Chapter 1, Welcome to Amateur Radio. for video click here.
- Section 2.1, Radio Signals and Waves, for video click here. (Okay for use with 3rd edition)
- Section 2.2, Modulation, for video click here.
- Section 2.3, Radio Equipment Basics, for video click here.
- Section 3.1, Electricity, for video click here.
- Section 3.2, Components and Units, for video click here
- Section 3.3, Types of Radios and Radio Circuits, for video click here.
- Section 4.1, Propagation, for video click here.
- Section 4.2, Antenna Fundamentals, for video click here.
- Section 4.3, Feed Lines and SWR, for video click here.
- Section 4.4, Practical Antenna Systems, for video click here. Also, see this excellent video by K7AGE that walks you through building your own inexpensive outdoor 2-meter ground plane antenna.
- Section 5.1, Transmitters and Receivers, for video click here.
- Section 5.2, Digital Communications, for video click here.
See also this video about using packet radio bulletin boards.
- Section 5.3, Power Supplies and Batteries, for video click here
- Section 5.4, RF Interference (RFI), for video click here
- Section 5.5, RF Grounding, for video click here
- Section 6.1, Contact Basics, click here for video.
- Section 6.2, Band Plans, click here for video.
- Section 6.3, Making Contacts, for video click here.
- Section 6.4, Using Repeaters, for video click here
- Section 6.5, Nets, for video click here
- Section 6.6, Emergency Communications, click here for video
- Section 6.7, Special Activities, Modes, and Techniques, click here for video.
- Section 7.1, Licensing Terms, for video click here
- Section 7.2, Working with the FCC, for video, click here
- Section 7.3, Bands and privileges, for video, click here
- Section 7.4, International Rules, for video click here.
- Section 7.5, Call Signs, for video click here.
- Section 8.1, Control Operators, for video click here
- Section 8.2, Identification, for video click here
- Section 8.3, Interference, click here for video.
- Section 8.4, Third-Party Communications, for video click here.
- Section 8.5, Remote and Automatic Operation, click here for video
- Section 8.6, Prohibited Transmissions, for video click here.
- Section 9.1, Electrical Safety, click here for video
- Section 9.2, RF Exposure, click here for video.
- Section 9.3, Mechanical Safety, for video click here.
- Preparing to take your examination, for video click here.
Once I studied the book, and watched all of Dave’s videos, I also took the free exams online at Eham.net. You can take these as many times as you like and they give you the answers so you can see what you missed.
What do I need for grid down communications?
Getting the equipment you need for ham radio communications is pretty simple. Again, I want to emphasize that you really want to gain instruction in the principles behind amateur radio operation and I recommend studying for your technician exam. Just having the equipment isn’t going to help you when the grid goes down if you don’t have a clue how to use it.
That said, the system I use is composed of the following:
- Radio: Baofeng Black UV-5R V2+ – $34
- Antenna: Slim Jim – Dual Band 2m 70cm Slim Jim Antenna UHF Connector – $23
- Coax Cable 50’ – Steren 205-750 50-Feet UHF-UHF – $23
- Adapter between Radio and Coax – Digital smaF/pl259f SMA Female to UHF SO239 PL259 – $12
- Mobile antenna: I would also add this longer whip to replace the included antenna if you want to take your radio out without being tethered to the slim Jim antenna – Nagoya NA-771 15.6-Inch Whip – $17
- Programming Cable – USB Programming cable for Baofeng – $7
There are tons of options though to meet your own specific needs. There are other radios, antennas and you can quickly turn this into a major hobby that can cost major bucks. The grid down communication system I have above is less than $120 (before shipping). That’s less than a lot of you spent for your last rifle scope.
The Baofeng radio has a female plug for the antenna and that is why you need the adapter to connect to the coax. You can simply use the mobile antenna listed above but you will get much greater range out of the slim Jim if you have that mounted higher up. I have mine mounted in my attic and the antenna cable (coax) is run through a small hole in my ceiling.
This gives me some benefits in that nobody sees my antenna from the road. Sure, I could have done this much more professionally and run the wires down the wall, but I was in a hurry and never got back to it. Plus, this works just fine for me.
Optionally, I can carry all of this gear in my Bug Out Bag quite easily. The antenna can be tied to a small rock and some paracord and thrown over a high limb to raise the elevation. Using this method I can be out in the woods and still communicate far from home. The ability to have my antenna much higher is a big advantage and the slim Jim it tough enough to be used a little more roughly.
The radio set up was not done by Apple so the user experience does lack a little in the clarity department. You will likely need to download free software called Chirp. This allows you to program your radio with different frequencies. All of this can be done with the keypad, but it will take a much longer time.
You can download Chirp here. Instructions for how to use the software are also located on the site. It took me a little trial and error but once I got the hang of it, programming all of my radios only takes minutes and this isn’t something I have changed very often if ever after I got it set up.
The first thing I did when I received my radios was to find my local repeaters and listen in on what people were talking about. Repeaters allow you to connect to them to greatly increase your signal range. Networked repeaters have allowed me to talk to people on the other side of the country. You will find that at some times of the year, there isn’t a whole lot going on.
Other times of the year it is very busy. To gain experience I connected with several nets on repeaters in my state which gave me exposure to how things work and allowed me to gain some level of comfort with the whole experience. Everyone is very friendly and accommodating to new hams just starting out.
There is still much to learn but now I have the essential grid down communication gear, training and certification I need to communicate in a disaster if everything else is down. I have several units for the family and backup in my vehicle so I think I am a little better prepared if we have to depend on this equipment.
Is ham radio the perfect grid down communication option for you?