In response to this question-
You seem well-informed on the subject, so what are YOUR recommendations for someone looking to just get a few radios?”
I’ve consolidated some of yesterday’s discussion in one place.
The important question to start with is ‘what do you want to do?’ With that info, you can narrow the list.
The first separation is listen vs talk. No license required to listen. To listen, get a scanner. Most transceivers will scan, but they are much slower. To talk, see below.
If you want to monitor your local area, (and it’s fun but you aren’t necessarily gonna get the inside scoop), you need a couple of scanners. I like analog because they’re cheap. They work well for scanning ham bands, or the analog FEMA interop freqs. Analog scanners will also cover the GMRS and FRS bands, weather bands, marine (almost everyone in the US is near a coast or navigable waterway), air, etc. If you are rural, you may have more traffic on analog than other areas. If your area has gone digital, you need a digital capable trunk tracker scanner. The Uniden Home Patrol II is a bit long in the tooth, but is widely recommended. I like mine, but it needs a bunch of tweaking to the internal channel list. Setting up scanners takes a bit of thinking about what you want to monitor too. I shut off all the dispatch channels because they run constantly here. You may be in a slower area, and want to hear the dispatches, but even in a rural area, I think you’ll be surprised how much work your cops and EMS people do. For other sources of good intel, your highway motorist aid guys probably still use analog and they’re a good source for high water and road debris info. Same for the ‘talkback’ channel for your local news teams to talk to their ‘in the field’ guys. There is a lot of interesting stuff even during normal times. Radio Reference is the definitive web site for frequency info.
The other type pure listening radio for preppers is Shortwave. After trying dozens of radios and listening at least a couple of nights a week for the last year, I’ve concluded that there’s not a lot of info actually on SW. By definition, the state broadcasters are running propaganda stations. Most of the other stations are religious. The airwaves are NOT awash in alternative news stations. But even so there are things to listen to, and post SHTF, there might be other broadcasters or other content. It’s definitely overblown in the prepping world though. Other than music, I listen to a ham focused show out of Havana, a ham focused show on one of the religious broadcasters in Tennessee, and everyone’s favorite conspiracy guy broadcast by a station in Florida. Shortwave is also a fun, quick way to check band conditions without firing up your HF ham rig.
For SW, I like older “communications receivers” like the Kenwood R-1000 or the Yaesu FRG-7700. They have continuous coverage from the low lows to their highs at 50mhz. They are usually used on AC power but also may have battery inputs. For off grid, I love my Panasonic RF-2200. Over a year of checking thru the dial a couple of times a week, on one set of D batteries. Like the AC models, it is a larger model. Larger models will generally give you much more sensitive tuning and bigger dials, which is GOOD. For pocket or on the go, I’m really liking the little Sony ICF 7600 I took to the Virgin Islands. It’s got digital tuning but you can comfortably just tune thru the bands. LOTS of other radios with digital tuning will “chuff” or take a second to tune every single time you push the UP or Down button. For scanning around that is REALLY tedious. The Sony is very smooth tuning up and down.
You’ll notice that this stuff is all older. Yup, it is, but the designs stood the test of time. And it’s non-critical or covered by spares, and is cheap compared to current gear with the same capability.
I’ve decided the little pocket analogs are almost completely useless and the pocket digitals are pretty useless for just tuning around. Also, don’t worry about single side band or having a Beat Frequency Oscillator on your SW radio so you can listen to hams. They are almost impossible to tune in given the smaller dials, and across a dozen portable radios, I couldn’t consistently hear SSB conversations. If you want to listen to hams, get a ham radio. [there are other factors too, like where the band pass filters start and stop that can make SW listening on a ham radio, or ham listening on a SW radio problematic.]
When it comes to talking on the radio:
If you are thinking about getting a ham license, and want to get started cheaply, the baofengs are a great entry point for a tech or general license. DON’T buy a used radio unless you can get some guarantee that it works. You want to get on the air, not work on radios. If you want something better than the chinese radios, any of the big three, Icom, Kenwood, or Yaesu, that have the features you want, will be great. ALWAYS check the reviews at eHam.com before buying. They will address any reliability or useability issues, esp for something that’s been out for a while. I’d buy cheaper, and fewer features unless you’ve decided you like ham radio as a hobby or decided that you need a digital mode. Buy a dual band radio that has 2 meter (144mhz or VHF) and 70cm (440mhz or UHF). Don’t buy a single band radio unless it’s very cheap or you are planning for a dedicated use like data or APRS.
For HF (getting more than a mile or two away, or for HF data modes) I’m gonna say, there are great values in 20-25 year old gear. My Yaesu FT 847 works great. There are many classic models from the time period that are well regarded, still run well, and are cheaper than comparable new models. Any voice work on HF requires a General or Amateur Extra License.
There are multiband mobile radios that include HF but due to power and antenna limitations, they aren’t the best choice if you are gonna do a lot of HF.
Mobile radios make decent home stations too, if the power limits are ok for you.
Antennas are critical to your success talking on the air. Some of the radios (like FRS) are intentionally crippled by requiring attached (and crappy) antennas. There are lots of books about antennas, making your own, or buying, and the classics are available used for very low prices. The web is full of antenna projects too.
Some people recommend tube radios for EMP survivability but they are harder to use, need more power, and are physically bigger. Probably better to get another modern radio and put it in a metal box if that worries you.
Moving to radios that don’t require a license, the most common are the ‘blister pack’ small form factor walkie talkies.
I have buckets full of FRS/GMRS radios (blister pack) that I buy when I see them cheap ($1-3). I don’t trust them for anything critical though. I use them when I’d rather not yell but don’t trust them for anything farther than that.
I’ve also bought motorola business radios when I see them cheap. They are bulletproof unless the batteries leaked, but anything will be destroyed by leaking batteries. After years of using moto radios in the field, I may be biased, but they just keep working. A blister pack Motorola business radio is a good compromise between a $10 FRS and a $1000 ham or commercial high end walkie.
There are real differences between a $1200 moto walkie and a $30 one. Those differences might not be important to you, but don’t discount them. Sure, you can easily replace your $30 radio with a spare if you are where the spare is. It’s NOT so easy to replace if you are out USING it and the spares are at home. If it’s critical gear, buy quality.
I’ve mentioned before that I think CBs are worth having. There is still a lot of CB use in more rural areas, and among the Off Road crowd. There are also some people in the prep/liberty/militia/patriot movements that advocate a super set of CB known as “freebanding.” They use modified radios or ‘export only’ models that include access to freqs outside the Citizen’s Bands. They are illegal for most people, are NOT obscure, ARE easily monitored, and get you very little for the additional cost/risk/complication and learning curve.
A side note on licensing. Many of the freqs and radios are restricted to various licensed individuals/businesses/or classes of people. Some are enforced, some are not. FRS doesn’t need a license, but is supposed to be restricted to non-business use. GMRS requires a license, which covers your whole family for a number of years, and is a ‘fee only’ license. CB dropped the individual license requirement, but there are still restrictions on power output, antenna heights, and even attempting to reach beyond certain distances. Ham frequencies and modes and power output are all subject to different license requirements. Technician and General ham licenses are not difficult to get with study, and will give you almost all the privileges that the very hard Amateur Extra license does. MURS describes frequencies for business use and does not require individual licenses. Most of the blister pack ‘business’ radios use MURS freqs. There are some other freqs and modes available (baby monitors, dakota alert, Moto 900mhz walkies, that don’t require individual licensing). Some preppers advocate one of the more obscure frequencies and modes but you won’t be hiding when you press the transmit button, and there are ways for anyone motivated to eavesdrop. BTW, it’s illegal to encrypt or otherwise attempt to hide the content of your communication on the ham bands, and also illegal to use them for business (with one specific exception for used ham gear) or to be compensated for your use of the bands.
Some online preppers have recommended getting marine radios and using them on land. This is a really bad idea, with very little upside. It’s specifically prohibited by law. The Coast Guard takes a very dim view of this abuse, and they are set up to direction find transmissions. Just don’t do it.
Every month, the magazine of the ARRL (QST) lists enforcement actions the FCC has taken. The vast majority are for CB violations, followed by willful interference violations on ham bands. Hams will report you if you are on their bands without a license. Just don’t do it. There are guys that LIVE to direction find you, record you, challenge you, and they will remember you if you later get a license. Given that, there are WAY more violators than there are people prosecuted. But if you do get prosecuted the fines are not small, and the FCC tacks on “respect my authority!” fees too. Get properly licensed and get on the air to practice. It’s no different than the recommendation to gun owners to get training and practice. You’ll learn to use the gear you have, be able to judge its usefulness and appropriateness for YOU, and to make changes if needed.
One of the biggest frustrations for new hams is getting a definitive gear recommendation. Experienced hams will almost always say “it depends” and “what do you want to do?” For preppers, it’s a lot easier. Start with the baofengs. Add a dual band mobile (in the car or on your desk) from the big 3. A good basic walkie or HT as hams say, is the Yaesu FT-60r. Most will consider that an upgrade from the baofeng HTs. Stay away from re-purposed public safety commercial radios until you’ve gotten farther along in the hobby, or unless someone local can set it up for you (and keep it up.)
In general, look for radios that can be programmed by pc with a cable. That will be WAY easier than doing it by hand. That said, I’ve got about 4 freqs programmed in my HT. How many more can you keep track of?
I hope that helped some, I’ve written 10’s of thousands of words on the subject here and in other blog comments.
(opinions are my own, correct me if I’m wrong, ask any questions you might have.)