March 2, 2024

For nearly two decades, SurvivalBlog has featured many excellent articles about ham radio, written by authors who were very knowledgeable about the engineering of radio communication. The following article is far less technical. The intended audience is people who have not explored the value of radio communications because they are not sure why or how they should.  Maybe some old amateur radio equipment languishes, dusty and ignored, in a corner of the attic.

My husband and I utilize walkie-talkies as well as local, regional, and national radio communications every week at our remote home in Alaska.  We have gained friends, allies, mentors, equipment, lessons about weather spotting, check-ups after earthquakes and wildfires, resources and emergency contacts through local, regional, and national emergency response organizations.  Our ham radio experience has absolutely enhanced our confidence of continuing self-reliance in a grid-down situation, and informed us about the local and regional plans for emergencies – of whatever cause or form.

In this article, we outline how and why we use various radios for communication, their benefits, and how we gain and maintain our skills with them.

Getting Started

Anyone can listen to ham radio, but to transmit, one has to earn one of three levels of amateur radio licenses (from the FCC in the U.S.).   The easiest one, called Amateur Technician, is what I had earned.  I studied a free, online guide and then arranged to take an in-person, one-hour test for about $15.  My husband has passed two other, harder exams, so his highest qualification is referred to as an Amateur Extra rating.  Once we pass these exams, we are issued a call sign by the FCC that allows us to transmit on ham radio frequencies.  I have given my call sign to my children in another state far away.  During an emergency when cell phones do not work (perhaps an earthquake up here), they could contact an amateur radio enthusiast who could reach us through local frequencies that work.

Handy Talkies – local

When visiting friends in various cities, I have seen them text each other by cell phone with various messages, like “please pick up eggs on your way home”.  We utilize our handheld radios in similarly benign situations around our acreage, but also for more significant reasons.

Our pair of older, inexpensive Midland (LXT600PA) handheld radios stays plugged in by our kitchen table. They are powered by batteries but recharged by solar, wind, or generator.  With frequent transmissions, they last about 8 hours without recharging.  Occasionally, we leave them in a pocket and forget to plug them back in.  Unused, they last about 24 hours without recharging.

The rechargeable batteries last for about 3 years, so we bought back-up batteries, which lasted another 3 years.  After 6 years, the transmit button (PTT) started sticking, so we bought a new set.   Because of a “one is none and two is one” philosophy, we have a second pair of identical radios in our guest cabin, which get infrequent use. Thus, we have been able to trade out one when another dies, (like when I dropped one in the wood fired hot tub!)

As part of our daily routine, when either of us goes outside, we plop a radio in a pocket.  If I am in the cabin and my husband is in the woods or doing chores outside somewhere, I might ping him about a telephone call, or ask him, on his return, to bring something back from the food shed, power shed, or greenhouse.  We rarely go from one part of the property to another without taking something “there” or bringing something “here,” thus saving thousands of steps per day.

Another benign use of our handy talkies is for visitors in our guest cabin, which is 500 feet from our main cabin.  The most common use is for them to let us know when they are awake and heading downhill for breakfast and coffee!  They may also alert us to elements of nature they see, such as a marten chasing a hare, or a brown bear running after a moose. One friend whispered a late-night sighting of the aurora borealis – in case we were awake, too.

Twice, we even took the devices with us on cruise ships, to avoid their charges for roaming mobile networks when we just wanted to find each other.  This worked very well, but when we left the devices in our carry-on luggage at the airport, TSA confiscated them.

A more important use of these walkie-talkies at our rural home is for safety alerts.  We announce the sighting of a bear or moose and its location, or tell the other that we hear a float plane descending or snowmachines heading our way through the woods.  Living in a very quiet, remote location (only one other couple lives full-time within 10 miles in any direction), such mechanical noises are very distinctive.  In the winter, when the deciduous leaves have fallen, we can hear motors about 4 miles away, depending on wind direction.  We can tell when a snowmachine is curving back and forth along a nearby frozen creek or headed straight along a hard packed trail, or carving recreational circles in powder-soft snow on a nearby frozen lake.

Very High Frequency – Regional

Our gear:  Portable/Handheld, Kenwood (TH-D72).  Antenna:  we replaced the standard rubber ducky antenna with a Diamond Antenna (SRH320A) that vastly increased the range and transmission quality.

Base station, Yaesu (FT-8900R, at our main cabin).  Antenna: This radio uses a standard 2 meter magnetic mounted antenna that rises above the metal roof of our cabin.

Whenever my husband travels to the road system by snowmachine, he always carries this handheld Kenwood with him, often inside his jacket to keep it warm.  (His cell phone works in towns and some rural locations where a cell signal can reach a repeater, but those are few and far between in Alaska).

By radio, we can hear each other for about the first five miles of the 3.5 hour trek from our home to the nearest road, but cannot hear each other beyond that distance, largely because he descends into river valleys.  However, by testing every few miles along the route, we found a high point where I can hear him clearly.  It is about 2/3 of the distance from our home, and 1/3 of the distance to the nearest put-in point to a road (and a lodge where he warms up).   So he always checks in with me there.

We note his departure time from home or the lodge.  Then, I keep the Yaesu base station on during his travels, and note a half hour range within which I anticipate he will call me from that good transmitting location if his travels are uneventful.   If I do not hear from him within 2 more hours, I can contact locals to track him from the town side or I can head out from this side on my snowmachine because I know his departure time and route.  Fortunately, we have never had to search for him.

Another use of this device is available through the Internet site www.APRS.fi.  If you register your ham radio call sign and carry a radio with you, a loved one can track your progress along a map display on the website.  We have done this both when my husband flies our Piper PA-20 float plane and drives the snowmachine.  More commonly, I imagine, people use this service to monitor loved ones, for example, if a relative drives cross-country or hikes into national parks where cell reception could be limited.

Every day but Sunday, we participate in scheduled “nets” which are times when a radio group knows to tune into a specific frequency to log in and pass useful messages.  We use our VHF (very high frequency) radio to connect with members of local and regional amateur radio groups and emergency responders including CERT.

High Frequency (HF) – Distant/International

Our rigs:  ICOM 756ProIII and Micom2ES

Our HF (high frequency) transceivers enable national or long-distance communications through organizations for which my husband volunteers including the Civil Air Patrol, joint military service MARS, and DHS  SHARES.

High-frequency radios require much larger or longer antennae in order to transmit long distance.

  • Two 90 foot folded di-pole antennae are oriented east-west and tends to pick up stations several thousand miles away that are north and south of the antenna.
  • The third antenna is a long wire powered by a SG-230 antenna tuner (NVIS) connected to a 167 foot long wire strung through the trees about 30 feet off the ground. It is used for  communications to other ham radio operators in-state.
  • A large Log Periodic antenna is pointed Southeast, across the Lower 48 states. It is so sensitive that we can hear stations in Puerto Rico – about 5,000 miles away, and Maine – about 3,300 miles away, when other intermediate receivers cannot.

(To be concluded tomorrow, in Part 2.)