UPDATE: I recently did a 3 video series and wrote a very detailed post titled “Ham Radio for Preppers: The Complete Guide” This article goes through everything you will need to know about Ham, GMRS, FRS, & MURS radio.

Ham Radio for Preppers First Contact & SHTF ApplicationsGetting your technician license for ham radio has quite a few application what it comes to any SHTF scenario, and that includes if the power grid goes down.

Getting your technicians license is only the first step, next you actually need to use the ham radio to understand how it works, otherwise you will have no idea how to use it when it really matters.

In an article I wrote when I first got my ham technician license a while back goes through what equipment I started out with, and how I studied for the technician test. In that article I said…

“Before I took my Test had no idea about ham radio and I didn’t even realize how little I knew until I started studying for my technician’s license. I didn’t let that stop me, and if you are interested in getting your ham radio technician license don’t let it stop you. Getting your ham radio license is not as hard as you think.”

It really is true, you can get started for about $70 with the equipment I mentioned in that article, and you can get your technicians license in a little as a week if you want to.

In this interview with Jeremiah we didn’t talk about getting your technicians license, we talked about what to do after you get it. It can be intimidating and confusing getting on the air for the first time, and if we want to be able to use our ham radios in a disaster situation we need to jump in the water and get started.

SPP114 Ham Radio for Preppers: First Contact & SHTF Applications


I also included a pdf guide at the end of this article with links and resources to help new ham operators out.

First Contact: After you get Your HAM License

ham radio first contactIn order to explain this better I am going to explain my story because I think it’s pretty common among new ham operators. Getting your technician’s license is just the first step, then you have to apply everything you learned, get on the air and figure out how and why everything works.

Getting your signal in and out: One of my major problems when I first started out was connecting with other hams and repeaters, I could hear other people talking, but they couldn’t hear me.

Come to find out I needed to upgrade my antenna because of my rural location. I also installed the antenna wrong (next to a metal pole) causing my signal to get disrupted before it even went anywhere.

Ham Radio Repeaters: A repeater receives a weak or low-level amateur radio signal and re transmits it at a higher level or higher power, so that the signal can cover longer distances without degradation. Many repeaters are located on hilltops or on tall buildings as the higher location increases their coverage area

Help from other hams: Jeremiah recently sent me a message using the national traffic system. Even though I was not actively using my ham radio, this helped me to get back into it. He sent a message through different ham operators which ended up with someone who lives a few blocks away from me.

This person was actually able to come and look at my setup and show me what was wrong. As helpful as these online groups are, sometimes it takes someone who can see your setup and be hands on with helping.

First Contact: We also talked about how intimidating it might be when you first get your signal out. I didn’t want to sound like the new kid on the block (even though I was) and come to find out I was making it a bigger deal than it was.

The best way to learn how to swim is just to dive in, that’s what I did with ham radio. For my first contact I just said “This is KE0AKD monitoring, doing a signal check, can I get a confirmation?” The person who came back was great and said “fantastic! and welcome to ham radio.”

It’s also good to just listen and see what the seasoned hams (pun intended) are doing. Learn the lingo before you go on and say something dumb like “breaker breaker one nine.”

Ham clubs: Online groups like our Ham Basics Facebook, and the popular ham radio forums like HamRadioForums.net or ThePreparedHam are a great way to get some of your basic questions answered, but there is only so much help you can get online.

Joining a local ham radio club can help get advice from people that are closer to you. As preppers we are always worried about OPSEC, but ham radio clubs give you the option of meeting people without them knowing where you live.

SHTF Applications, What can I do?

Local Communications: Ham radio will be useful whether you are bugging out, getting family members back together or any other unforeseen situation that might arise. With the very real likelihood that cell phone communications being down using your ham radio for short range communications might be your best option.

The range might not be that great depending on the terrain, but with the right ham radio equipment you might be able to communicate between cars, within a group or even if someone needed to do a little recon, hunt or forage.

Emergency Communications: You can I monitor NOAA channels and local Police, but it is probably best to just get a low cost NOAA radio and/or a police scanner. While a ham radio can do this, it is much slower than the equipment that was made for something like this.

If you get the Beofeng I recommend you can also download the CHIRP program to program it that comes with some of the NOAA frequencies pre-installed.

Long Range Communications: The more you get into ham radio you will see that there is almost a competition for how far you can get your signal out. While you can’t do this with the low cost beginner’s setup, you can use Echolink.

Echolink is an internet based communications system so it probably won’t be available in some sort of SHTF event, but you can use it now to talk with other preppers around the country which might help you learn more about ham radio by talking to people with the same mindset as you.

I haven’t gotten into Echolink all that much yet, but now that I am “online” so to speak, I am going to dig deeper into the program. I’ll be writing an article or doing a podcast on this soon so watch for that.  For now here is a PDF that I found called Echolink for Dummies that explains how it works if you want to give it a shot. 

Grid Down Communications: This kind of goes along with short term communications, but in a grid down scenario there would be a way to get messages across the country, although it would be very slow. Right now people use what is called the traffic net which is how Jeremiah got a message to me from his state.

The same principal could be used and would have to be passed from one amateur radio operator to the next, a little like an old school telegraph or the pony express. The down side of this is that if one of the links in this chain is missing, the message won’t get through.

Contacting other Prepared Hams: As I talked about with Jeremiah there is not much in the way of finding a local prepper ham group, although if you start (or have) a prepper group and have members who are amateur radio operators or who want to be.

I did find a list of SHTF Frequencies for preppers, but I’m not sure how this would (or could) work in a SHTF situation, especially without expensive equipment.

The Ham Radio Resources PDF

I went ahead and made a PDF of all the links that Jeremiah shared with me during the show, and also the ones he emailed to me. You can download that PDF here.

Other Ham Radio Podcast Episodes

In the past, while I was getting my license I talked to Jake about what it takes. There are 2 podcast that might help you, part 1 is here, and part 2 is here. 


Survival and being prepared should not only be a passion, it should be a lifestyle. The definition of a prepper is "An individual or group that prepares or makes preparations in advance of, or prior to, any change in normal circumstances, without substantial resources from outside sources" Like the Government, police etc. I don't believe that the end of the world will be the "end of the world" I believe it will be the end of the world as we know it now. You can also find me on Google Plus and Twitter

    2 replies to "Ham Radio for Preppers: First Contact & SHTF Applications"

    • Aaron McNany

      Hey man, super good article on the basics of radio comm’s for people who may not be familiar with amateur radio. Since coming into the amateur radio world I’ve definitely realized that there WILL still be communications even if SHTF, simply because of radio operators. Anyways, thanks.

    • Dr John

      Radio for Preppers

      I’ve been reading with a good deal of interest the large number of articles and comments on amateur (Ham) radio and prepping and decided it’s time to chime in.

      Full disclosure; I’m a retired physicist employed by a national lab for more than two decades, I’ve been a licensed amateur radio operator for more than 40 years, and I’m a closet prepper.

      Why Ham radio?

      Amateur radio is a great choice for prepper communications for three basic reasons; 1) you get a full range of comm options with limits that will not impact its effectiveness in a SHTF occurrence, 2) you can legally practice using the gear and developing skills, and 3) there are literally thousands of skilled and knowledgeable people who will willing help you – for free.

      An entry-level license, called a Technician Class License, is obtainable with about ten hours of time invested and a one-time fee of $15. This license will give you all the VHF and UHF functionality you can use (think handheld radio) as well as some limited HF (think shortwave) privileges as well.

      The mid-level license is called General Class and gives you everything a Technician Class gives you plus expanded HF privileges. This license can add 2- to 40 hours study time and is a more demanding test but comes with more rights.

      The top-level license is called Extra class and, for those not experienced with electronics or not strong on algebra, can be a bear. I recommend not going for this unless you’re either already holding a lower class license or just a plain wiz. Extra class provides all the privileges available to a Ham operator.

      There is no CW (morse code) requirement for any of these licenses.

      Amateur Radio licenses are good for ten years and are renewable on-line or by mail without the need to retest.

      Used gear is cheap. And very few time do you get a lemon.

      What would happen that could make it useful?

      What, exactly, can happen that would make personal comm an advantage to you? OK, we’ll set aside the Zombie Apocalypse, the martial law, and the black helicopters – none of these scenarios are grounded in reality and if you don’t agree you’re free to go read something that better fits your internal narrative.

      What could happen is a nasty solar flair event or some whack job assassinated the wrong politician at the wrong time and all hell breaks loose. What these two have in common is they’re both fulcrums for a potential collapse of social order. While these don’t properly represent the full range of whats probable they do bracket the problem sufficiently.

      Collapse of social order is the raison de etre for prepping. As much as we might dislike it, social order is convenient for us. We get grocery stores and online shopping. We get schools and roads. We get the rule of law. Without these life gets way more complicated and way less predictable. Maybe society isn’t ordered quite the way we’d prefer, but at least it is ordered.

      A potential loss of social order is the number one reason to have comm gear you know how to use.

      Let’s take the nasty big solar storm as our working scenario. A once in a lifetime CME hits the planet full-on. The power grid goes down. Some number of vehicles stop dead in their tracks. Maybe your smartphone still works but the cellular network is down for the count. How will you get news? The gossip grapevine? Not really robust nor reliable there. No, you’ll need a way to listen to what broadcasts there are.

      The majority of Ham HF gear comes with general coverage receivers. Make a note now – don’t buy a HF radio that does not include this capability. Broadcast AM stations and shortwave station are more likely to get back on the air than FM stations or TV stations. Maybe your best news source is a shortwave station in Poland but it still is a news source. You’d want to know if a war breaks out, if there is a mass migration of people from name your place to name your place, if some other region or nation was less or more affected. You’d want to know.

      The grid is down and the grocery store is shuttered and the filling station is closed because the pumps don’t run and the natural gas if off and the LP guy’s truck won’t start and your smartphone is now good for little more than playing Angry Birds. How will you stay in touch with the family while you go out to reconnoiter? How will you arrange a meeting with your like-minded neighbors? How will you monitor what is and is not being done on the local, state, and federal levels to mitigate the crisis?

      Radio. Ham radio. That’s how.

      For the cost of a mid-level FRS handheld you can have a UHF/VHF Ham radio handheld with weather service channels built in. It is far more useful, will come with more features, will have many more options available on the aftermarket, and is likely to take more abuse. It’s a better investment all the way round.

      Why low-power is your friend?

      Low power equals low power consumption. Ask yourself how you’re going to recharge those bigger, heavier batteries. Smaller batteries are easier to recharge. They’re also lighter to carry.

      In the amateur radio world you can talk around the planet on just a few watts of output power with an appropriate antenna. In a real SHTF situation you will likely never need a 100 watt transmitter. Think it through; in a SHTF will you really want to talk to South Africa?


      Near vertical Incidence Skywave. On the lower HF frequencies this mode of signal propagation delivers good service within a radius of about 250 miles. That’s a lot of coverage and most importantly it’s fairly local which will be of the greatest value to you. Oh, and this mode of operation makes triangulation far more difficult. Think OPSEC.

      One of the practical advantages to NVIS operations is it works best when the antenna is low to the ground. For most Hams HF antennas that are higher work better. But that is only because long distance, what they refer to as DX, is the most desireable. For emergency comms a low antenna is preferable. Think about this; an antenna that is only 10’ off the ground actually works better for local HF communications. Easier to put up and take down. Quicker to deploy and get packed back up. Lighter because you don’t need some complicated support structure.

      At your primary place, Hams call this the home QTH, a low antenna is easier to conceal. No need to let everyone know how well you’re prepared.

      From a receive standpoint a low antenna isn’t that much of a compromise when it comes to long distance signals. Not as sensitive as something up 75’ but still quite workable.

      Low power, light to carry, hard to find, robust comm out to several hundred miles. Sound like something you’re interested in?

      Digital modes

      The very first digital mode was CW. Morse code is nothing more than dits, short bursts, dahs, longer bursts, and spaces. Ones, twos, and zeros.

      With CW you can operate very near in or very far out with minimum requirements of power and antennas. From an OPSEC standpoint it’s advantageous because no one hears you talking. You can literally lay on a forest floor and send SITREPS while making no noise at all.

      I mentioned above CW is not needed to get a license. But it is still very handy to know.
      Computer based digital modes are very popular in amateur radio today. And the most popular is called PSK. With a cheap computer, an adapter, and an average radio – yes a handheld or a HF rig – you can “talk” to the world.

      PSK is very much like instant messaging or text messaging. Type what you want to say and read what the other operator is saying. You know that smartphone that still works even though the cell network is down? Now it can do more than play games.

      What not to do – op illegally

      On a number of forums I see commenters who suggest that you should not get a license to operate your Ham gear. Their reasoning seems to fall into two categories; the feds keep records and F the feds. Ladies and gentlemen this is just plain dumb.

      First, the feds already know who you are and as much as it displeases you more than likely know where you are. Second, operating a radio in a licensed service illegally is an invitation to attract unwanted attention. Remember, the best place to hide is in plain sight.

      But the simplest reason to get properly licensed is that it allows you to practice. Practice using your gear. Practice talking to others on a long distance circuit. Practice putting up and taking down antennas. Practice the craft.

      If you don’t get licenses none of the nearly 800,000 licensed Hams in the US are going to want to help you. Where are you going to learn to troubleshoot your gear? Who is going to tell you why this thingy is better than that thingy? And since amateur radio is essentially self policed those hundreds of thousands of Hams will very likely turn you in for interfering with their hobby.

      Be smart, get a license. If you want to keep a low profile then don’t attract attention to yourself.

      Summing Up Ham Radio

      Ham radio offers the broadest set of solutions for the comm needs of preppers. Ham radio equipment is easy to obtain and use. Hams have perfected techniques for just about any comm need you can imagine – the heavy lifting has already been done.

      Low power is your friend. Smaller equipment to lug around. Smaller batters to lug around and less resource expensive to recharge. Harder to triangulate yet capable of providing robust communications. In many cases less expensive.

      NVIS is the way to go for communicating beyond handheld range. The ability to “work” a station 50 miles away with repeatable regularity can and should not be discounted. You don’t need to talk to Europe, you need to talk to Ned in the next county. And the antennas are easier to deploy, knock down, and hide.

      Morse code, CW, is an incredible mode to use for low profile, low power communications. PSK and other computer assisted digital modes can provide you with easy to use text based communications and even let you share computer files – all over a radio link.

      Want your kids to learn science and technology? Ham radio is electronics, applied mathematics, and physics rolled into one.

      Speaking in Tongues

      It is illegal to use encryption or secret codes on amateur radio. The rules are very specific about this. You may not obscure your communications. But when SHTF all bets are off. What you do to protect your family and your property during a social upheaval is far less subject to question than during the “normal” times. The FCC rules state that during an emergency you can use any frequency at any power in any mode to seek or render assistance.

      The single best code to use to obscure your messages is book code. Find a book that you and your communications partners all have. Devise a code that uses chapters, pages, paragraphs, words. Use number groups to send these and decode these. 4451 5320 9907 Etc. Unless I have that book and know its the one you’re using it’s very hard to figure out what you’re saying. And while it’s true the supercomputers at the NSA are programmed to decode these from every book ever written in every language they’ll be busy doing other things when SHTF. A couple of families in rural Wisconsin won’t be very high on their to-do list.

      My stuff

      Handheld, ICOM T-70A – HD VHF/UHF radio. Great battery life, rugged, easy to use, highly water resistant, includes NOAA weather receiver.

      HF Rig – ICOM IC-703+. Hard to find but well worth the time and energy to locate one. Add battery and antenna and you’re on the air. Light weight, built-in antenna tuner, very good receiver.

      I carry a Palm Radio mini-paddle for CW work and a pair of earbuds.

      My smartphone is my digital comm unit. It uses a small adapter to connect to the radio. It even reads CW right on the screen. The software cost me $1.99.

      For the HF rig I use a 11 amp hour Lion battery that weighs less than two pounds and gives me 20 hours of receive time. It’s only marginally larger than two packs of cigarettes and has a USB port for charging my smartphone.

      For charging the Lion batter I have a 12 watt solar panel that is frameless. Weighs less than a ¼ pound. It can recharge the battery in one good sunny day.

      The handheld antenna is a home-brew shunt-fed monopole that is all of 20 inches long and straps nicely to the pack.

      The HF antenna is a 44’ non-resonant dipole fed with very lightweight open wire line (old 300 ohm TV twinlead that I took a hole punch to to reduce weight). I use a small choke at the back of the rig to get a near match and let the internal tuner handle the rest. The rig can match this antenna from 80 through 6 meters.

      All of this fits well into my 5-11 Rush 24 bag with lots of room to spare for the other stuff life depends on.

      In the everyday world this kit looks like a guy carrying a tac backpack, like about every college kid in the US. If it hits the fan I can walk all day and set up the HF rig in about five minutes.

      Recommended alternatives

      Any Ham handheld will do so long as it does U as well as V. Some have built-in FM and weather receivers. A few will even receive HF. The cheap Chinese ones are cheap for a reason. They make great throw away radios but when SHTF you don’t want a throw away anything.

      Lightweight HF was very popular in the early 2000’s and is making a comeback. Google ‘QRP’ to learn a lot about this. Yaesu makes a nice small battery powered HF rig.

      Not recommended

      Avoid used mil gear. It’s heavy, not really user friendly, and not really great for battery life.

      Avoid kits. You’ll never get as fine a radio in kit form as a manufactured one. You and your families lives may depend on this bit of equipment.

      Avoid gimmicks. Radio antennas follow the laws of physics. No marketing hype can replace those laws. There are no secrets when it comes to antennas. None. Every innovation worth noting was made more than 50 years ago.

      Fancy microphones and headsets may look cool but offer little in the way of valued functionality. Stick with straightforward and simple.

      Better always costs more than good. No one has ever made better for less. Save up some money and go after better. It’s worth the wait.

      EMP Proofing

      First, read up on the subject. E1 and E3 are very different phenomenon. You don’t protect against them with the same strategy.

      Second, those silver lined bags for EMP proofing may work, but may not. Get a more robust solution. Try this; an all aluminum baking pan with all aluminum fitted top. Coat the inside with multiple layers of spray-on rubber (Plasti-Dip, Krylon, Rustoleum). Make sure the inside edge of the lid and the top on the pan edges are bare aluminum so you get a good electrical connection. Put your electronics inside and leave it there when not in use. Place them in a paper grocery bag and place that in your gun safe. DO NOT GROUND YOU GUN SAFE. Now you have an actual Faraday cage.

      If your radios are powered on and hooked up to an antenna when the EMP comes they’re likely reduced to little more than doorstops. Keep them in a Faraday box when not in use.

      So that’s my two-cents. 73 (which means best regards to Hams) and good luck.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.