How to Reliably Communicate Off-Grid

Those vast open landscapes, however, expose an area that most preppers pay little attention to normally, which is how to communicate over those vast areas of land and communicate off-grid completely when needed.

Editor’s Note: This post is another entry in the Prepper Writing Contest from Craig. If you have information for Preppers that you would like to share and possibly win a $300 Amazon Gift Card to purchase your own prepping supplies, enter today.


Like millions of other preppers, I live in the southwest portion of the United States. That affords me the advantage of great scenery, mountaintop views and vast areas of land where I can escape the normal everyday business pressures of life by finding an outdoor area to escape into and reconnect with nature. Those vast open landscapes, however, expose an area that most preppers pay little attention to normally, which is how to communicate over those vast areas of land and communicate off-grid completely when needed.

In case you haven’t already noticed, time after time the news media reports that an experienced hiker, hunter, camper, or outdoorsman was found hurt or later found dead because they couldn’t notify anyone that they needed medical help. So even though their cell-phone worked in town, their departure into the wilderness created their own personal “grid-down” scenario, as their only means of semi-reliable long-distance communication (their cell phone) was made useless by their decision to head into the great outdoors (and way beyond their carrier’s cell-phone range).

As both an amateur Radio operator of 35+ years (and owning a company involved in two-way communications), I agree with most ham radio operators and FEMA officials that the “best” grid-down communication tools (including your own personal grid-down emergency that might arise) normally involve ham radio or satellite phone gear, so let’s look at the various types of communication gear and see how they hold up in a disaster or emergency scenario (and realize that your personal “grid-down” situation will share similar off-grid communication challenges).

Many folks first step into two-way radio frequency (or RF) communications usually doesn’t involve ham radio or satellite phones, sometimes due to their perception of the learning difficulty, or the equipment cost, or even them not understanding how the different radio bands allow hams to “target” our communication ranges (vs. a single band like CB or FRS/GMRS).

I also don’t believe that ham radio is the “only” way for EMCOMM (emergency communications) either, but not because of my Extra Class amateur radio license, it’s because of the vast ham radio infrastructure (located all over the world) available to any licensed ham (plus the relatively cheap cost to jump into either ham radio or satellite communications now).

According to the ARRL (Amateur Radio Relay League), we have just over 22,000 U.S. ham radio repeaters as of January 2015, with thousands more located around the world. Here’s an example of how that existing infrastructure can make a huge difference:

YaesuDX9000D

Imagine a disaster that sweeps through an area, wipes out the local electrical grid, takes out the cell tower(s), destroys the local public service repeaters (Fire, Police, etc.), and takes out the local GMRS and ham radio repeaters, plus generally wrecks the community with downed trees, power lines, etc.

So if everything involving local communications is toast (or if you find yourself 25 miles from the nearest cell tower deep in the back country of your state) – what’s the difference between using a small handheld (HT) ham radio vs. a CB, FRS/GMRS, Marine, or MURS radio? Won’t satellite communication be affected as well?

First, the vast quantity of communication options still available to the licensed ham, including more repeaters and more HF bands to use, allow us to use equipment outside of the disaster zone (just like a satellite phone user). There are 566 repeaters in my home state of AZ, so the odds of another ham radio repeater still being within range (and unaffected by the disaster) is quite high. Your states repeater numbers are probably similar – look them up yourself and compare.

Second, newer 2nd generation satellite phones use low earth orbiting repeaters approximately 800 miles up, well above any natural disaster. What’s kept the public from using them more frequently (until now) was cost, but that’s no longer a factor, as satellite service is available for just $65.00 a month from us (that works out to just $2.17 a day with a free sat phone).

Many of the ham repeaters also have one or more backup power sources available, and thousands of them support IRLP or EchoLink modes, allowing those same small HT radios to “link” one repeater to another – around the world if needed.

Imagine being able to contact your family (living in another state) to tell them you’re ok just minutes after a disaster strikes – when the phone lines are down and the Red Cross hasn’t even arrived yet (or when you’ve fallen and broken your leg miles away from your vehicle and unable to reach a cell-phone tower). Hams (and satellite phone users) enjoy the security of knowing they can get a message through in virtually any situation (without depending on a fragile wired or cellular infrastructure that can easily fail or be overloaded when a disaster strikes).

Hopefully you’re now convinced that a small ham radio will provide much more range (with repeaters) than anything else of similar size, cost, or weight – short of a satellite phone (which we also offer). Let’s also explain the various radio(s) you might already have (or are considering) and what their true capabilities are (vs. the marketing hype).

ICOM_IC-2340H_hamradio_station

FRS/GMRS, Marine, and MURS radios generally provide approximately 1 mile of communication range for every 1 watt of power, sometimes much less (depending on several factors including height of the antenna, surrounding buildings, mountains, etc.).

FRS (or Family Radio Service) units are all 1/2 watt radios with non-removable antennas that will normally provide a range of approximately 1/2 mile. FRS/GMRS combo radios usually have all 14 FRS UHF channels plus 8 more GMRS UHF channels, but these combo radios still have the non-removable factory antenna, plus their power levels are automatically set within the radio (1/2 watt on all 14 FRS channels, and normally up to 5 watts on only the 8 GMRS channels). Real world FRS/GMRS communication range is much less than the “Up to 50 Mile Range” marketing hype shown on the box.

Baofeng
Baofeng makes a really simple to use and affordable model that all Preppers should look into getting for their emergency preparations.

Marine band handheld radios generally have 16 VHF channels (but can have as many as 88). Most have non-removable antennas, which help keep some of the handheld radios waterproof. Most radios have 1 or 2 watts output, but some claim up to 5 watts.

MURS radios (Multi-Use Radio Service) was previously a VHF business band service that required a paid license (like GMRS), but several years ago the FCC eliminated the license. Some MURS handheld radios can have up to 5 watts of power, but most have 2 watts. MURS units can have removable antennas, which will allow better performance than their FRS, GMRS, or Marine radio counterparts, but MURS radios tend to cost more.

CB radio communications have several unique issues to overcome in our disaster example. First, it’s highly unlikely that an outdoor CB antenna would have survived (if all other public service, GMRS, and ham radio fixed installations didn’t). That leaves mobile CB’s or handheld CB radios, but that still doesn’t overcome the biggest issue with using CB for emergency communications – which is physics.

CB radio (within the U.S.) is located between 26.965 and 27.405 MHz. That’s lower in frequency than Marine or MURS bands (approximately 152 MHz) or FRS/GMRS bands (approximately 462 MHz). Being on an HF band allows the CB signal to “skip” great distances (depending on the current condition of the various layers of the earth’s ionosphere, which will cause the HF radio wave to reflect). That skip effect, however, can cause EMCOMM problems.

Unlike hams (that have multiple HF bands, each with a different angle of radio wave reflection – thus allowing hams to “target” a range area that we wish to communicate with), CB users are stuck with whatever band conditions are currently present. So a CB signal from Phoenix may be heard in Pittsburgh, but a few minutes later might now be heard in Miami. That makes for some interesting CB conversations, but it means using CB radio for EMCOMM is highly unreliable.

MobileHamRig
Great looking mobile Ham Rig that can be set up quickly in remote locations.

Some also have the belief that when the “skittles hits the fan” (SHTF), they will just grab any radio (including any ham or GMRS radio) and use it, since they believe no one will care at that point. While that “may” be correct in a truly end of the world event, anything short of that will mean those folks will be very surprised to learn it simply won’t be that easy.

Counting on using the local GMRS repeater has already been discussed (remember the local GMRS repeater has already been destroyed in our scenario). Amateur radio repeaters are monitored for non-licensed use (even during Hurricane Katrina, Hurricane Sandy, wildfires, floods, and earthquakes) and the control operators have different ways of restricting non-licensed use by various methods. Waiting until the SHTF is NOT the time to discover you can’t access the repeater that you had counted on for your emergency communication requirements.

The Technician Class amateur radio (or ham) license isn’t difficult to obtain. (We offer two different methods of study, one is a $10 book and the other is a $25 internet based online training course that will provide you with all the information you’ll need and guarantees you’ll pass.) Your actual FCC test consists of just 35 questions. Pass the test and join the 730,000 plus hams already in the U.S.

I’m all for using any radio you have available in an emergency situation, but you simply can’t count on your home’s outdoor antenna(s) to have survived, nor should you count on any local infrastructure, which means you really have to count on the radio gear you can carry (and perhaps what’s in your vehicle). Most hams prepare a radio “go-bag” (or BOB) in advance, an idea I highly recommend. With the rapid cost reduction in satellite gear, more of them are also including a satellite phone with their preparedness equipment as well, or they simply use it as an everyday carry tool (especially if they own a business).

Since both amateur radio and satellite phone service provides so many more reliable emergency communication options it seems silly to depend on CB, FRS/GMRS, Marine, or MURS radios during an emergency (options that provide you with the least amount of range – when you need it the most). With today’s low cost two-way ham radios and satellite phones, combined with the ease of getting your license, two-way ham radio communication is really a great EMCOMM choice, but many business owners also write off the monthly $65 satellite service plan cost as a legitimate business expense. Whichever you choose, don’t pack your bug out bag without one.

Craig – N7LB
RF Gear 2 Go
866-448-4327 Toll-Free

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29 comments
  1. Do you have a link to the online training class? and/or the booklet? I looked on the RF Gear 2 Go site and couldn’t locate the links.

    1. you can type in search box ” ham test online practice exam” and you will find many sites. I find the ARRL(type in “practice” in word search top right) & QRZ (under resources)to be the best i think. you have to set up an account though.no cost and dont have to be a ham. there are lots of books you can order online also. the Technician test will be the starter test. Its very easy, then General. you can search for local Ham clubs and most hams will be glad to help you through the learning part and be glad to answer any questions.(if not, find another club!) the online is for practice only. you will need to go to a take a test once you feel your ready. i think its still 15 dollars. no worries if you fail, you can always come back again later. some people will take tech and general on same day. Kids pass the tech usually with no problem. (if you have special needs, Handicap/ blind… i beleive they do make some exceptions for testing (like verbal etc) . I know of few hams with physical challenges, but that doesn’t stop them. not saying that you have any issues, but maybe someone reading this will find it helpful if they do. Good luck!

    2. I used the free tests at Eham http://www.eham.net/exams/ to get my technician’s. You can take the test as many times as you like, no charge and I would supplement with the book.

      If you don’t want to buy the book, Dave Casler has a great YouTube channel https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fEWmiMotimY where he goes through each chapter of the AARL book and explains concepts you need to learn. I only used his videos and the practice tests and was able to pass my exam.

    3. Give us a call on our toll-free number (866-448-4327) and we’ll be happy
      to book your internet class or ship you the training book.

  2. Give us a call on our toll-free number (866-448-4327) and we’ll be happy to book your internet class or ship you the training book.

  3. If a major disaster like the electrical grid is down having an FCC license does not matter. Our government will have much bigger problems to resolve than whether or not someone has a license.

    1. Thats my take too,,, seriously doubt they will be looking for un licensed users, and if a ham is willing to turn someone in for not having the proper documentation they are no better than the rest of the a$$kissing government trash

      1. They won’t have to “turn someone in”, they’ll simply adjust the repeater(s) in question to block your usage of it – that’s the problem that most preppers don’t understand.

    2. So let’s pretend that a disaster has happened in your area. Just for grins, let’s pretend that you live near New Orleans, LA and another Class 4 hurricane is bearing down on your location.

      You own several radios (that someone else has programmed for you via their computer) and like many other preppers, you feel that no one will care if you use a local repeater during a disaster for your communication chatter.

      One big problem with that idea, however.

      Just like learning how to drive a stick shift, getting your driver’s license, and practicing with that license, skills don’t happen instantly. Waiting until the SHTF is not the ideal time to learn how to drive a stick shift, just like learning that the control ops for the repeaters in question have the ability to modify their machine to block your SHTF use is eye opening for some folks.

      Now you have a repeater that’s close enough to your area but no idea how to adjust your radio’s settings to use it. What happens to your comm plans when the control op announces (that due to unlicensed usage on the repeater), he (or she) has remotely changed the machine’s PL tone or DCS?

      You probably had no idea that control ops would still be monitoring the machine (perhaps using a linked system far from your location), and completely beyond your physical reach. You probably had no idea that they still care that the machines in question are used legally (since they may be well outside the disaster area in question).

      I’m willing to bet that many preppers in the areas of both Katrina and Sandy were very surprised to learn that various ARES and RACES groups had the capability to remove non-licensed users from the area repeaters, so as I state in the article, be very careful with your disaster planning if you really think that you’ll simply jump onto a local repeater and carry-on with your conversations – as if you owned the machine during any disaster (or that anybody listening would care if you were licensed or not).

      Please understand, it won’t be the government that shuts down your usage on the machine(s), it will be licensed ham radio operators that generally take a very dim view of unlicensed users.

      So “if” your disaster is truly an end-of-the-world scenario, you “may” be right that all control ops have given up caring – but that didn’t happen during any major disasters yet, so why chance your comm plans to hoping that they won’t care when you need it the most (especially when getting a beginning Tech license is so easy now 5 and 6 year olds can do it)?

      Far too many preppers think that ham radio is just like their CB or FRS radios. You push a button and talk. You wait for your buddy to push his button and talk. That’s true with simplex communication, but there’s far more going on in the background with repeater traffic (that as a non-licensed user you’d have no idea what’s actually going on, especially if the machine is linked to other repeaters for wide-area coverage).

      Yes, you normally can use a repeater to report an actual emergency (assuming your radio can still use the repeater, you’re in range, and the control ops haven’t already changed various settings because unlicensed Billy Bob jumped on the machine 10 minutes before you did).

      If they did make the change, any normal health or welfare traffic, meet us at XY location, we need gas, etc., etc. – will NOT be passed though on the repeater – unless you have the knowledge and know how to make those adjustments. Even then, without a license, your time using the machine will be real quick indeed.

      Should you (or your friends) try to “game” the system, you’ll quickly find that most control ops have little patience for untrained operators during an actual large scale emergency or disaster, and your two-way radios will quickly become one-way scanners instead.

      1. I am a licensed ham radio operator and years of work on law enforcement radios and dispatch consoles. So with that said your cn use any radio and frequency in an emergency without violating any FCC laws!

        1. Gene,

          The problem is that both the user AND the FCC (not local law enforcement) must agree that:

          a) the event in question was in fact, an emergency (normally regarded as death was certainly possible without immediate help), and

          b) that you had no other way to contact the authorities needed except to use the radio (or frequency) that you would otherwise not be allowed to use.

          In other words, if you are sitting in a restaurant and witness a bad car accident involving a police officer, but you decide to ignore using the restaurant’s phone, and ignore using your own cell phone, but instead run over to the officer’s car to use his/her radio, the officer may thank you, his chief may thank you, the mayor may give you the keys to the city, but the FCC may still fine you (although I agree that’s not very likely).

          The problem most folks have when discussing these types of situations with the FCC is that their view of what constitutes an emergency and when you are entitled to use a radio “in an emergency” is normally different than most citizens would think.

          Many preppers tend to think that anytime they think it’s an emergency that’s good enough (or should be) to everybody involved – it normally isn’t.

          I too have been licensed for more than 35 years, sell (and service) all types of LMR/DMR radios to both state/local and federal agencies, but neither your experience or mine counts as only the FCC has the final word on what fine (if any) is handed down when an unlicensed user accesses a repeater system. If it’s truly an emergency (that life or death example), they probably have little to fear (from the fine standpoint).

          The point I was trying to make is that many preppers have the mistaken idea that all of the local repeaters will be able to be accessed and used by them when they decide there’s an emergency (therefore no need to get their ham license), and that’s just not true, as the control ops will take the necessary steps to quickly stop that unlicensed traffic.

    3. There are many ‘grids’ in the U.S. Having a single grid down could mean power is just a few miles from you or a few hundred miles. Don’t confuse a grid outage with a total lack of energy across the country. Many emergency situations are local (Hurricanes, earthquakes…) and there will be plenty of people still managing communications.

  4. Just remember my friends, on the modern battlefield any transmitter is known as a “target”. The PTB will attempt to control every source of information and they have the equipment to find any transmitter. The longer the SHTF scenario lasts, the farther down the list of irritants to be disposed of they will get. They will control all repeaters and no doubt will have a list of ham operators (even if you don’t emit) who have obligingly filed for an license. Carrier pigeons anyone?

    1. Well i am counting on all the unskilled ones to constantly key up thier radios and reveal their positions. If you know about fox hunting, you can build your own transmitters a place them out as decoy transmitters. Even if they do locate me, I will use your “come and take it” philosophy:>

  5. i disagree. IMHO citizen band is the way to go. it’s unlicensed regs make it available instantly to EVERYONE. it’s simple and inexpensive to use. it’s many times more prolific than amatuer radio operators. before cellphones it was the ONLY communication system in ALASKA and is still used extensively. before internet and cellphones everyone used CB….. businesses, utility workers, law enforcement ,and citizens. many still have CB as backup. it is a decentralised offgrid system. in any scenario imaginable it works better than ham radio. who do you want to communicate with, your neighbors or germany ? if you say it’s range is restricted thats technicaly true. but when TSHTF people will use booster amps. almost everyone does NOW because, since the advent of digital broadcasting, the stronger signals don’t interfere with other broadcast mediums like they did in the past. generally speaking, as long as you don’t interfere no one cares anymore.
    unlike some motormouths, we old school communicators used our CB for routine daily communications before cellphones….. and still do as backup….
    forget all the rube goldberg ,stuffed shirt potentate, rigamarole and go CB and start communicating. there are a jillion times more people to talk to than on ham bands.

    1. The problem, Steve, is that CB users are also fighting physics. Sure, you can add power and when the sunspot cycle is high, use the 11m band to talk to folks all over the world. The problem, however, is that you can’t control your range – plus not everyone is going to be able to have a large tower with a CB antenna up after many different types of SHTF events.

      The 11m CB band (just like the 10 and 12m ham bands) works really well talking long distances (like 2,000 miles or so), but all three bands (10, 11, and 12m) don’t work if your comm range requirements are more like 300-500 miles.

      I can take many different ham bands and communicate with folks in Alaska any time I want to, plus I can also communicate with friends and family 300-500 miles away (which simply can’t be done on CB), and I can do both whether or not I’m home or mobile.

      I’m NOT saying to ignore the CB band, but let’s recognize it’s built-in limitations (just like the limitations of the 10m and 12m ham bands). When you’re miles into the back country and all you can use to communicate is what you can carry, CB just won’t cut it for RELIABLE communications – while amateur radio and/or satellite gear will still work.

  6. This article was one of the better ones thus far in the Prepper Writing Contest. Thorough and well-written. Probably the best of all the ones I’ve read.

    As a practical matter though, those who consider themselves preppers would be better advised to live under conditions which don’t require remote communication. Keep your loved ones close-by; live in a way in which your life revolves around your immediate environment, and those in your immediate physical proximity.

    When TSHTF, a lot, if not all of this stuff is going to be in chaos or non-existent. Electricity will be the first thing to go/become unreliable/unreliable. Radio signals will give away your location to the government/show where there is activity/allow eavesdropping on conversation.

    If I can only give one tip to “preppers”, it would be: Don’t rely upon ANY technology.

  7. Wow! After reading some of the comments here, it is clear that many people have not learned a THING about our current predicament, even now!

    Look at all the people saking where they sign up for a license!

    Sure….go get yet another license; ask your overlords for more permission to use their system; provide them with all of your personal info; give up your privacy, and sign on the dotted line to agree to abide by their rules.

    Isn’t that how we have gotten to this point in the first place?

    We instead should be seeking to relinquish what licenses we already have! The more licenses we have, the less free we are!

    Yeah, go get that ham license, so they can identify your exact identity and location when you use the radio!

  8. In a multi-EMP scenario, those computer gizmo solid state transceivers will be smoking regardless of Faraday cage versed folks that fancy their preparation skills. One EMP event wipes the majority out and the delayed second one or third a week or month away wipes the surviving few. You may still have to take a step back to the past with vacuum tube rigs and still know Morse code. Those fancy smanchy computers won’t be around to do the encoding / decoding unless you live in a EMP hardened bunker with hardened antenna interfaces.

    1. Yes, David, a nearby EMP event can certainly affect communications from the 0-100 MHz range (like CB at 26-27 MHz), but the farther away from 100 MHz (and the farther away from the EMP event in physical distance), the less effect the EMP will have.

      An EMP event over Kansas will have little effect to most VHF/UHF communications in California, for example, especially if the owners of the comm gear simply disconnect the coax lines from the various radios in question (when the gear isn’t being used). I realize that knowledge may not help folks selling expensive EMP protective bags at prepper shows, but just like most physical disasters, EMP events tend be be far more local in scope than international (even really large ones like Katrina).

      Some preppers will continue to find no solution that’s 100% effective in all scenarios (and therefore they suggest preparing that way to handle the event or problem a waste of time, effort, or money), and that anti-solution thinking is great as a practice exercise, but in real life 99.9% of all disasters and/or emergencies will not involve the end of life on this planet, but rather temporary problems that can be overcome far easier with advance preparation.

      I chose to take common sense approaches to what’s far more likely to happen in my lifetime vs. the idea of gamma rays from some distant star (thousands of light years away) sending a massive amount of radiation pinpointed directly towards earth. (Don’t laugh, I actually had an individual at a recent Utah prepper show ask me how he should prepare his comm gear to handle that scenario.)

      I replied that even at light speed, it would take thousands of years for that radiation to reach earth and I planned to let my relatives far, far, far into the future worry about that because my physical body would have turned back to dust lost before the radiation arrived. By then, perhaps the human race will have invented warp engines and our future relatives won’t be here anyway. I wish you could have seen his face.

      1. I am referring to a ‘Starfish Prime’ type of event and those interested in nuclear initiated EMP events can look up ‘Starfish Prime’. I am intimately familiar with survivable communications as I was one of the node elements in ‘MEECN’ plan pertaining to space assets in my military service days. So I know what I am talking about. Thank you for your reply and yes, HF is usually frazzled and VHF/UHF are more resilient but I was more focused on induction and burning out circuitry. Integrated chips and transistors do not do well during a EMP and anything with computer chips are usually fried and most of the technology of the day has those chips.

        1. Starfish Prime was a valid demonstration of the mass-destructive potential of EMP weapons on satellites launched during the early 1960’s (primitive by today’s standards), but designers of satellites today routinely harden their satellites and military aircraft against many types of radiation, including EMP.

          The reality is if a foreign government is intent on destroying or disrupting communication satellites today, there are far easier ways to do it vs. a massive EMP blast.

          My point, which I still think is valid, is that some preppers seem to invent ways to not take simple steps to improve their capabilities on situations far more likely to happen within their lifetimes. Natural disasters (earthquakes, forest fires, floods, etc., etc.) and various terrorist attacks (like recently seen in France) happen far more frequently than EMP attacks.

  9. I can understand people reluctance to obtain a FCC license but i think the benefits way outweight the risk. Its like saying I won’t learn how to build a fire because it mayl give away my position, or I wont build a fire becuase it could get put out by the rain. WIth my license and belonging to a club, I have learned to build all my own antennas, have built multiple radios including a Elecraft K2 kit and warbler kits 80 & 40 meter kits. Even if a EMP hits, there will still be enough electronic parts& pieces that survive that still work to build a radio. I personnaly have FRS/GRMS/CB/ ham radios, at least 3-4 of each. THe kicker is knowing how to use them and program them. You can blow the finals in a CB radio real easy, same as in Ham radios if you transmit with bad antennas.

  10. RE: The “Great looking mobile Ham Rig…” shown above. I’d appreciate getting a list of the components that make up this way cool rig, including the enclosure.

    Thanks, Mike – N6DQX (Central Oregon)

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