One of the most asked questions in off grid ham radio for preparedness is “Where to start?” I’ll try to answer that question.
If you are planning to or already earned your ham radio license, you are ahead of the curve. The starting point was deciding to use off-grid ham radio as part of your survival radio toolkit. Well Done! For those of us who may not “Get it” yet, let’s see if we can help.
The Grid is down, cell service is out.
Group communications is the most overlooked aspect of what the channel and blog are about. The grid is down, cell service is inundated or completely shut down, and we want to coordinate with our group members. No we are not mindlessly calling CQ CQ to random people on 20 meters during a contest. In the best case we are trying to coordinate with friends, and family, known group members, … That may simply be to say “Hey I’m here, out of danger, and OK!”. It could also be a message like “I’m ok but Dean has an injury on his leg. I need advice on how to clean it and bandage it!”. Perhaps you see where this is going.
Radio is a lifeline
In the example of Deans injured leg, we are reaching out over ham radio to someone we know. We are asking for instructions on how to care for a particular wound. We could be doing this over Winlink, JS8Call, or even on a simplex voice frequency to a group member in the next county. Why not just go to the hospital? Easy, the hospital is flooded with more serious cases, or roads are closed, or lots of chaos after a disaster, … or we may just want to shelter in place (bug in), until the situation improves. The point is, “None of us has all the knowledge and skills!”. We coordinate with our friends, family, known group members, sharing advice and know-how over the radio. This way we don’t become a burden, and we don’t add to the choas ourselves.
Where to start
Grid down comms
You may want to start buy watching this video. Hopefully, it may answer many of your questions. I suspect it will also drive as many new questions as it answers. Just watch without distraction, when you can really pay attention.
Get your ham radio license
Naturally getting licensed is the very first step! I’ve been working with Ham Radio Prep in North America for a couple of years now. Ham Radio Prep helps prepare people to take the ham radio exams in the United States. They offer a 20% discount to people using my link to get started. Yes it is an affiliate link, used to help fund this blog. Yes it is totally legit! Just use “Julian20” as a discount code when you sign up. Ham Radio Prep guarantees you will pass your exam, so there is very little risk. I only wish there were similar services in other countries to offer viewers and readers of my channel and blog. There are none which I know of.
Choosing radios and modes
After getting your ham radio license, it’s time to start searching for a radio. There are lots of radios out there but keep a few things in mind.
- Your “Survival Radio” may need a renewable power source, if it doesn’t have one built-in. Don’t let this be an afterthought.
- If it is too large and heavy, it may get left behind.
- Two is one, one is none!
You may start out with a single radio but ultimately, a primary rig and a backup may be a better strategy. I like to think about it like a side arm and a long rifle.
- Keep it simple stupid! Avoid complex configurations, the wire mess and dependence on the internet for setup and re-installation. If you need a computer script to get started, the setup might become too complicated. If you need to recover from a hardware or memory failure, hopefully it can be done without access to the internet.
With all that said, here is a video I did on choosing a survival radio. The video focuses on commercially available ham radio gear. The video also goes through a variety of things to consider when choosing your radio. A choosing data modes video is already in the works.
Get your group on board.
The next hurdle is getting other preparedness-minded group members to get on board with ham radio. This is best done by showing them what you have accomplished, and how you got there. Talking at them like some subjective blogger who never gets out in the field usually doesn’t sway anyone. Showing practical examples of how you use your skills and gear is a much better way to go forward. Sometimes I send recipes to my buddies using Winlink email, from a tent in the forest. These practical examples get noticed! Eventually, some will see the benefit of your efforts, using you as a bridge to getting there themselves. This is a good thing! Anyway, just be creative. Remember, getting others onboard is usually the most difficult part of the process. You’ll hear arguments like “but I have a CB or GMRS radio”, or “a satellite phone is a better way to go”.
For the CB or GMRS argument, I think about it like this: In my toolbox, there is a flathead screwdriver. There is no need for Phillips, Torx, or Hex head because the flat head is already there. Stupid argument right? Becoming a ham radio operator doesn’t mean we won’t use CB. GMRS, PMR/FRS, … It means we add a broader variety of tools to our toolset.
For the “you’re better off with a satellite phone” argument, who will you call with a satellite phone if cell service isn’t working? I mean the satellite phone is working, but what about service to the person we’re calling? Naturally, we plan to call someone from a satellite phone to their mobile phone or landline. If telephone service isn’t working, or they are not at home to pick up the phone, a satellite phone may end up being completely useless. I would and have taken sat phones on certain types of journeys. My time in North Africa on my trusty Honda Trans Alp is one example where a sat phone was a useful tool. Needless to say, I also had my Yaesu FT-817ND on the trips to the Sahara. Consider this, a disaster you’ve survived, where the grid is down, network comms are down, this is better done with tools not reliant on traditional infrastructure. If you can, why not carry both!
Train as you fight
So you’ve got your ham radio license, and some friends and family are on board. Now it is time to do some training. My channel often focuses on asynchronous data mode comms. Winlink is one example of this. The channel also focuses on real-time or near real-time data comms using JS8Call, ION2G or VarAC. There are others, but I tend to keep my focus on network tools.. The following playlist has various examples of asynchronous data comms. The reason we focus on asynchrnous comms is simple. “One can’t always sit next to a radio, waiting for a call or message to come in“. Anyone believing we can is living a pipe dream. In the worst of times, I am more likely to be tending chores cutting wood, catching fish, trapping rabbits, filtering water or cleaning my guns or solar panels, than sitting in front of the radio. Still, I don’t want to miss a message which came in while I was doing other work. Keep that in mind.
Also keep in mind that modes like CW amd Voice are only good once comms have been established. If you are not in front of the radio when someone sends a CQ to you with voice or CW, it is the same as not receiving the incoming QSO request. We don’t choose one over the other, we augment ones with the others! CW or Phone augmented by asynchronous data is the only logical way to go. A strategy based on CW alone, or phone alone will usually fall apart, when choas influences the sked.
If you don’t use your gear regularly, your skills will fade. For Winlink, I use training days called Winlink Wednesdays. These are Winlink nets designed to give you a set of requiremetns to fulfill, in a non threatening learning environment. Some operators think doing it over a telnet connection is useful. I think anything other than over RF defeats our training goals. Again, we train as we fight, but the competition is with yourself! Meet and or exceed your own goals whenever you can, and do it regularly. Anything less is a waste of time.
The following video is one example of a Winlink Wednesday check-in from home..
It is also important to take your training to the field. I often do it hiking, or on the fat bike, from a hotel room, … It doesn’t matter from where, as long as you are honest to yourself about your goals and the outcome. In the following video, I hike about 20 kilometer round trip with my dog. Our goals were setting up a winlink station, send and receives messages, then tear down the station and head home. If we do this often enough, it becomes second nature. Don’t do it enough, and we fail when it matter most.
As we do field work, remember to include the other members of your group who are also off-grid comms enabled. Keep each other involved, motivated, and give each other reasons to use the radio in place of traditional social media.
Here is one more example of a winlink session. This time it was done from a hotel room in the center of Helsinki. The point is taking every opportunity we have to use our gear, get more familiar with the processes, and become effective enough that we can help others.
This is about all for now.
Hopefully this post gives you inspires you, gives you ideas, and/or helps you move along to your personal goals. If nothing else, I hope this serves as a sort of off-grid ham radio for dummies. It doesn’t matter if others don’t see the point of an off-grid ham radio strategy for group communications. Do it anyway! It just might become a lifeline some day.
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