What A Ham Radio Is And How Experienced Preppers Use It

For most people, amateur radio or ham radio is a hobby, but for the prepper, it is a valuable tool.

Most people think of ham radio as just a way to talk to people in far-away lands, but ham radio provides a means for preppers to communicate with family, friends and other preppers in the community and even across the country. Additionally, it provides the opportunity to work with local police, the National Weather Service, and even state and federal emergency agencies.

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Before I go any further, let me be clear, it is not difficult to get a ham license. The requirement to learn Morse code has been eliminated and the questions on the exam are not complicated. Children as young as ten have passed the test for their license. The cost of equipment can be very great if you want the best equipment, but there is also very inexpensive no-frills equipment and used equipment that meets the needs of the prepper.

Ham Frequencies

There are a number of ham bands from 1.8 MHz all the way up to microwave. The bands break down into groups: Medium Frequency (MF)/High Frequency (HF) and Very High Frequency (VHF)/Ultra High Frequency (UHF). The MF/HF bands are typically for long-distance communications. Depending upon the frequency, time of day and solar conditions, worldwide communications is possible. VHF/UHF bands are for local communications. Depending upon the terrain, power level, and antenna, these frequencies are typically good for up to fifty miles. Mobile to mobile is typically limited to about five miles and handheld transceiver (HT) to HT is limited to a mile or line-of-sight.

The VHF/UHF frequencies are of the greatest interest to the prepper since family members are usually within fifty miles of home. The cost of equipment is surprisingly low. Low cost HTs are available for under $30 and auto/home units are available for under $100. Since terrain plays a large part in the coverage, many ham clubs have set up repeaters at high locations in most communities around the country. A repeater picks up the weak signal with a sensitive receiver on a specific frequency and retransmits the signal at high power on another frequency. Through a repeater it is possible for two mobile units to be in communications while a hundred miles apart. Even HTs can communicate at great distances through repeaters. An HT will often work through a repeater at locations where a cell phone has no signal, such as in the mountains. To see a list of repeaters, go to your favorite search engine and type in “Amateur repeater” followed by your state. The most popular band is 144 MHz/2 Meters. Repeaters are everywhere and it is great to have a radio in your car when you travel, so that you can get help or directions anywhere in the country. Most repeaters are “open” which means that anybody can use them. Of course, it is courteous to make a contribution to the club if you are going to use a repeater on a regular basis. It is even better to join the club. Most hams are preppers to some degree or another.

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Many clubs work with the local police, emergency agencies, the National Weather Service, and during emergencies with the Red Cross, the Salvation Army and other public service groups. The National Weather Service even trains amateurs to be spotters for severe weather through a program called SKYWARN.

The MF/HF bands are useful if you have family members in other parts of the country, or beyond the range of the repeater. Communications is far less reliable since radio signals are affected by the weather on the surface of the sun. By having a good antenna, and selecting the appropriate frequency, coast to coast communications is usually possible.

Although Morse code is not required, it is recommended that every ham learn it. It is initially tedious to use Morse code; it becomes easy once proficiency is realized. Each letter has its own sound and becomes as easy as listening to somebody spelling out a word. Morse code is sent by Continuous Wave (CW) transmission. The CW is broken into short and long bursts. Because it is a binary transmission, it is possible to receive a usable signal at very low levels. With a good antenna and good atmospheric conditions, worldwide communications is possible with less than one watt. With a 100 watt CW transmitter, communications is often possible even when signal conditions do not permit voice communications.

Getting a License

There are five classes of license with each step in grade having more privileges.

  • Novice: Not available to new applicants.
  • Technician: Simple exam. Limited HF CW privileges. All privileges on VHF and UHF.
  • General: Advanced exam. Limited privileges on all bands.
  • Advanced: Not available to new applicants.
  • Extra Class: Difficult exam. All privileges. Licensees get to choose their own call-sign.

There are study guides for each class of license. The Technician Class is simple enough for children. Study guides can be obtained from the American Radio Relay League (www.arrl.org) or from Amazon. Just be sure that the study guide is for the current set of questions since the test questions change from time to time. Getting ham licenses makes a good family project. The most technically proficient member of the family should get a General Class license for long distance communications. It would also make a good project for a prepper community.

Many radio clubs will assist in studying for the exam and will actually give the test. When I got my license, I had to take the exam in front of an FCC agent. That is in the past and the tests are now given in libraries, schools, churches, and even homes by other hams. The exams are given in a comfortable setting; no pressure! To find a test location in your community, contact the ARRL or a local club.

Getting the Equipment

Once you get your license, your next step is equipment. There are very sophisticated and expensive radio transceivers for the hobbyist, but for basic emergency communications, inexpensive or old equipment is adequate.

For HF, you have two choices: old tube type and solid state. There are advantages and disadvantages to both.

Tube type equipment requires a cache of replacement tubes because tubes wear out, but they are often available on ebay at reasonable prices. Tube type equipment is easier to repair, but often has voltages up to 1000 volts. (Not for the beginner! But, there will always be somebody in the community who will help). The performance is slightly poorer than solid state, but can still be very good. Tube type equipment is almost impervious to EMP. The major disadvantage of tube type equipment is power consumption, especially in receive mode. Some old HF equipment will only work in CW and Amplitude Modulation (AM) mode. AM is rarely used because it is very inefficient. Single Sideband (SSB) is the most popular mode for HF.

Solid state equipment will be more expensive, but will generally be more reliable and perform better. Repair of solid state equipment may be difficult or even impossible. Some repair parts must be ordered from Japan. Power consumption is small, especially in receive mode. Solid state transceivers will often work from 12 volts dc.

Regarding VHF/UHF equipment, it must be compatible with the local repeater. Most of the radios for VHF/UHF that are sold on Amazon are compatible with most repeaters. I bought a Baofeng radio from Amazon that works with my local repeater, picks up NOAA broadcasts, my local police and fire, and it even picks up FM broadcast radio. It also has a built-in flashlight. It costs less than $30. Yes, it’s cheap, but I have two of them: one on my belt and a spare in my pack. It’s also great for younger family members who might lose or break the radio. It will work almost everywhere! There is even a repeater on Mount Washington to cover the White Mountains in New Hampshire.

My recommendation for getting equipment is to join a club. Most members will have some used equipment that they want to pass along to new hams, or recommend new equipment that meets your budget and needs. Members will probably help you put up an antenna. Beyond getting equipment, you will find a community of preppers in the club. Most hams and clubs will do whatever it takes to keep the equipment running even after SHTF.

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If you are setting up a bug-out retreat in a rural town, making local radio contacts and joining a local club is a good way to meet the residents and establish yourself as a member of the community. The ham community is a close-knit group but it takes very little time to become accepted.


Field Day

Each year, on the last weekend of June, hams around the world conduct an emergency drill called Field Day. The premise is that all electric power and communications is gone. To participate, hams grab a transceiver, a tent, their AC generator, and some food. They meet in a park, a field, a hilltop, or any other place where they can put up make-shift antennas. Once the equipment is set up, they make as many contacts as they can to prove their proficiency. Should there be an actual emergency, those who participate in Field Day will be prepared.


Ham radio is a great hobby, but it is also an important tool for the prepper. It is easy to pass the test, but not so easy that just anybody will get a license. By selecting the proper frequency and equipment, it allows you to keep in contact with family, friends and other preppers during a crisis. Having a ham radio can make the difference between life and death when a woman or children need help in places with spotty or no cell phone coverage. And on those cold winter nights, you can use it to make new friends all over the world.


Frank Karkota, K1RZK, has spent his life working in communications. He got his ham license in 1959 at the age of thirteen and his commercial license in 1967 at the age of nineteen.

He has worked for a number of broadcast radio stations. He served in Vietnam working with a team that enabled reliable communications over long distances using tactical troposcatter. The company he founded made special receivers for blind people.

He lives in rural New England where he has written novels about people who live deep in the woods. His novels are “Tales from a Haunted House” and “The Last Summer.”

Written by

Frank Karkota, K1RZK, has spent his life working in communications. He got his ham license in 1959 at the age of thirteen and his commercial license in 1967 at the age of nineteen. He has worked for a number of broadcast radio stations. He served in Vietnam working with a team that enabled reliable communications over long distances using tactical troposcatter. The company he founded made special receivers for blind people. He lives in rural New England where he has written novels about people who live deep in the woods. His novels are “Tales from a Haunted House” and “The Last Summer.”

Latest comments
  • SURVIVOPEDIA is literally the BEST community anywhere I read it everyday and I’m also so greatfull I found. it helps me solving my problems all the time, hope it helps others too!

  • What are your thoughts on purchasing a ham radio simply as another tool for when the SHTF? Is it really NECESSARY to pass all of those exams in order to learn how to operate a ham radio, or is it as simple as using a CB or a child’s toy walkie-talkie? A radio is a radio. Hams may be a bit more complicated, but I’m sure that anyone can figure out how to use one by trial and error. Don’t get me wrong. I understand the need for exams and licenses in order to regulate things NOW, but when the SHTF, even if there still IS a federal government, I think the FCC will have more to worry about than spending time and resources trying to track down someone who is using a ham radio without a license! For that reason, I’ve considered buying a ham radio and packing it up with the rest of my bug-out gear so that I have it “just in case.” If and when the SHTF, I can set it up and erect an antenna to keep abreast of the latest information and ask for help if I need it and provide help if I can. I’m not interested in exams and licenses and becoming part of a ham radio “community.” I just want it as another piece of emergency gear.

    • I’m an Extra class ham. It is possible to just buy and wing it, but there’s a good chance you will fry the finals on your radio, rendering it useless. You do need to at least learn about RF, and how to power the radio off grid, etc. I think it’s a very valuable skill. Having a rifle and never shooting it would render you ineffective as a rifleman, having a radio and never using it, or understanding it would render you ineffective on comms. HF is a totally different game than vhf,uhf.

    • A radio is not just a radio. You are using frequencies and antennas that are different than just a CB, FRS, or GMRS. You need to learn proper etiquette, formalities, propagation, traffic handling, and know your capabilities and distances you can use. Getting a license isn’t that hard and it makes you legal. Once you learn to operate and join a traffic net and become familiar with your radio it will go a long way in providing a safe, secure, and reliable means of communicating with family, friends, neighbors, and maybe all over the world.,

    • A ham radio is a sophisticated electronic device and there’s a great chance that it sits in your prep “bug out bag” until the SHTF when you turn it on for the first time and realize you have no idea what all those knobs and buttons do. Suddenly the radio is a brick because you didn’t take the two or three weeks to study and get a license. You could simply get ANKI software and flashcards for the ham test, and in a few days you’ll be ready to be tested. Flunk? I doubt it, but if you did, take it again that day! No problem. Strongly, strongly recommended not to approach this as ‘Winging it.”

  • exams and licenses get them FCC will track you down an fine the hell out of you do it legal an enjoy it

  • If you don’t have a license, and some experience in using the gear properly and communicating with other hams, you will stand out like a sore thumb, and be boycotted/ostracized as an intruder. In a SHTF scenario, I would not view an intruder as a member of the prepper community but as a troll trying to figure out who are the preppers for the purpose of pillage. You can always get a CB or a handheld Marine Band or Family Band radio for local comms if you don’t want to take the time to get a license, and God forbid, maybe even have a little fun. It’s not the FCC you would have to worry about, but the wrath of licensed operators who also practice direction finding and hidden antenna hunts. Good luck !

  • Frank, a nicely written article. Easy to follow and factual. Sadly, the comment from Dale arouses my concern that un-oriented, untrained and unlicensed folks will wind up on the ham bands ill equipped to operate. This most likely will cause additional confusion not needed should times become that difficult. The license is very easy to obtain now that the original requirements have been dropped and as you stated, 10 year olds are successfully obtaining their tickets. Additional lawlessness on the bands will not be a positive experience for anyone. I would hope people planning to use the Amateur Radio bands for communication will take the time up front to do it properly. If done this way, a lot of help and encouragement will be afforded them by the existing and legal ham radio community.

  • Well, there’s probably nothing I can say to someone who is willing to violate present laws and regulations. I’m sure you’re well meaning to provide for your own needs during a crisis. I would like to mention that I spend my working days trying to help clients use their properly licensed equipment, because we have so many individuals thinking like you are. They buy a cheap radio off of Amazon and light it up with their buddies/friends with not a care in the world of the interference they are causing to others who are properly licensed to be on the frequencies they are using, and in some cases, paid good money for their commercial equipment. I would like to help you though, in the SHTF situation, there are procedures that will be in place to try to keep the airwaves orderly. You will not have the slightest clue what to do in those procedures, and you will be a main source of interference to others who are trying to follow the procedures and accomplish their communication goals efficiently during the crisis. You would be wise to join the ham radio community correctly by getting licensed, if nothing more than to be an asset to your community, and your family as well. It doesn’t matter to me if you want to “enjoy” the hobby and all the very knowledgeable friends you will make, but for heavens sake, please consider doing so for your own knowledge of what to do during a crisis, so you don’t become a liability to others because of your lack of knowledge that is out there and freely available from the ham radio community.

    • I don’t like getting a licence from the government for anything I can do.But if I can be shown a good reason, I am willing. You have shown me the advantages of having a ham licence, and I thank you.

  • If you want your amateur radio to be of use to you when SHTF then you need to start learning now. Amateur radio is fairly complex, not something that you want to be learning by trial & error. Yes, some aspects of it are like CB or a kids walkie talkie, but other aspects are much more complex. Some frequency bands are channelled, just like CB, but others are not. You need to study the bandplans which tell you which frequencies are used for what.
    If you’re not willing to put in a bit of effort then get yourself a CB with a good antenna, as well as a NOAA 7-channel weather radio receiver.

  • I am new to the world of ham/amateur radio. Like many others, I knew it was a great idea to implement emergency communications, but held out because of my belief that is would be too hard. I would like to encourage others who may be considering ham radio to give it a try. After reading the book “One second after” (series) then seeing the movie “A quiet place”, I made up my mind that I absolutely had to make ham radio happen for myself!
    I studied a few library books in my preparation, but had a hard time not falling asleep while reading (I did go back and order my own personal/paper copy of my favorite of the library books). I took practice tests about a dozen times a day for a little over a week. Before long, I was consistently averaging in the 90s or better on my practice exams). I finally felt ready to take my exam, but decided to go for a general license also since it’s free to take additional exams (without any penalty for failing). For the last few days before my exams, I crammed hard, but this time I did it the smart way. I got an audiobook by Michael Burnette and he is great! I listened to the audiobook every day for 3 or 4 straight, while continuing to take the practice exams. On the day of my exams, I took all 3, aced the first 2, but came up a few correct answers shy of getting the top license (which I didn’t ever study for). Half of the questions on the second exam came from the same pool of questions for the first exam (which I had just aced), which was really reassuring!
    I let a few months pass before actually getting any equipment, but now I am the proud new owner of a Baofeng BF8HP. The radio itself was $63, plus another $45 for a couple of accessories. All told, I am probably $140 (including the exam fee of $15) to be up and running in the ham radio world! I just got through programming my radio and am trying to get familiar with it at the moment.
    My plans are to get familiar with my current HT, then move into some longer range (high frequency) gear. Since I am a licensed general, I do have legal acess to HF bands, which is important to me so that I can do longer distances without relying on repeaters.
    I hope my little story encourages others to “take the leap”.

  • Well done, Chris, and congratulations. We need more peppers like you, willing to invest the time & effort into becoming competent hams for when the SHTF. Best 73 de VA3ROD

  • If there are local nets this is a way to learn some procedures and also to practice using your equipment.

    73 de KC3NGQ

  • In a national SHTF scenario, ham radio communications will be shut down by the government. Only those hams working with groups already authorized by the FCC and FEMA will be allowed to function, and then, only as auxiliaries to and as directed by Federal authorities. In localized emergency situations, like hurricanes, earthquake, wildfire, etc. ham radio has proven its usefulness time and again. Participation in local drills, events using hams as back-up communications, and club- or ARRL-sponsored nets (regularly scheduled check-in events) are all good training opportunities for improving skills and etiquette for efficient use of radio frequencies during real-life emergencies.

  • Finally, an intelligent article on ham radio here. Other obviously non-hams have tried to write some electronics tech stuff that was so bad it was painful to read.

  • Very well written article. There will always be those who think they can just pick it up as the shtf. They are a joke. Ham radio is a very enjoyable hobby and there really isn’t any good reason not to learn it properly.

    • Frank may want to update the article to reflect the three levels of licensing. There haven’t been five levels for may years now. Otherwise, this is a great article that nicly explains all the different things to think about when considering ham radio prepping.

  • I am surprised no one had mentioned the move in CA to start charging HAMs for the repeaters/locations. I do not have my license yet,, but it makes one wonder if ‘they’ aren’t trying to ‘limit’ HAM use, even with the well known usefullness/helpfulness of the HAM community during emergencies. What happens on the coasts tends to eventually find its way inward in the US. Just throwing that out there, and wonder what experienced operators think of the situation.

  • Ham radio from the beginning of the hobby in the early 1900’s has a history of serving as a communications link for the public and government in times of need. That continues to this day.

    The military is already using organized ham radio, such as military amateur radio and the Civil Air Patrol, as a HF backup.

    I have been a ham for over 50 years and involved in emergency communications with the above organizations and local EMA. The hobby is a great one, but for preppers, it is more than just another tool to survive. I also encourage you take the time to obtain your license and join a local ham radio club to get help.

  • You need an authorisation to possess Marine radio or Amateur radio or Aeronautical radio. In each service it is the operator certificate, not license, that serves as your authorisation. You will need to show that to the seller when you go to buy your equipment. No, you cannot bypass this regulation by simply saying that you are only going to listen, not transmit. Marine stations with a fixed antenna on land are Coast stations and are required to be authorized by a station license, wear as boats are marine mobiles and do not require a VHF marine license, they are exempt. A ham station doesn’t require a site-specific licence. An Aeronautical base does require a licence specific to a site.

  • I’d be really interested to find information that I think would be useful to any prepper,, but for whatever reason, it’s almost impossible to find. I have recently obtained my Tech license and am studying for my General and cannot find information on MINIMUM expectations pertating to HAM radio.
    I simply can’t find good information on distances can be expected, nearly 100% of the time, with reasonable expectations, for various bands. All HAM experts ever say is “it depends”. For example, I think we can pretty safely say, that with an 8 Watt, Baofeng, unless you’re at the base of a cliff or in a metal building, that under no circumstance would you expect less than a half a mile on 70 cm. Any reasonable expectations would lead one to believe they can almost always (99%) of the time, always communicate with a Baofeng on UHF or VHF within a 1/2 – 1 mile. I’ve figured that out based on my own experience. Sure repeaters change that significantly, but i”m talking about point to point, nearly 100% of the time.
    What kind of minimums would I expect for 10 meter, say with 100 watts? There’s no such thing as “full proof, 100%” when it comes to communications, I understand that. But using the standard I just laid out, and assuming that I’m not dumb enough to transmit with my antenna inside a metal building , or thinking I’m going to communicate with people with 70 cm on the other side of the mountain I’m sitting in front of, I’d love to know the minimums for point to point on 2 meter at 100 watts (for near-by communication), 10 meter at 100 watts (mobile station), 40 meter NVIS setup at 100 watts, and 80 meter 100 watts.
    My expectation is that with that setup, I could have nearly 100% complete coverage within 300 miles of my house, would you agree with that, or are my expectations innaccurate.
    Thanks very much great information and if you’re able to answer this question.

  • First of all HAM licenses are for an individual. There is the GMRS frequency band which is just above Ham UHF (460-470 MHz). There is a 10 year license, $70, without any testing required and it applies for the entire extended family. In that same band there is the FRS radio band. FRS requires no license at all. Midland makes these little GMRS/FRS handhelds for tactical communication. These walkie-talkies, are $80 a pair. Their range is about half a mile in a suburban area. Terrain and line of sight (LOS) govern these frequencies. FRS radios are limited to 2 watts power. Midland also makes mobile GMRS band radios with up to 40 watts, ~$250. But this level of power requires wiring into you vehicle’s battery system. Not a portable option. Radioddity makes a cigarette lighter plug in 20 watts portable GMRS radio, $110. For $15 you can get a wall outlet adapter to make it work inside or in a vehicle. You put that magnetic portable antenna on a cookie sheet to form a ground plane and woopie, inside house transmitter power.
    You should also investigate the Radioddity GM-30 5w handheld $50, Baofeng UV-82HP Ham handheld $70 with 400-520Mhz coverage, and it cousin BF-F8HP $70. These latter two 8w handhelds are not legal for GMRS, but cover the band. Plus it is legal to operate a Ham radio for emergency purposes without license.
    These GMRS 20w portables have a range of 1 to 7 miles depending on terrain and LOS. The good news is the people have set up repeater radios (see myGMRS.com). These radios repeat you transmission using GMRS repeater frequencies to extend range from 5 to 50 miles. As a prepper relying on a repeater service has its weakness, but it is a capability when available. Of course when there is no terrain restrictions you can transmit a much longer distance. From a hilltop to a valley my little walkie-talkie has proven capable beyond 4 miles. The point here is don’t get caught up in the Ham License business when there are other options that may economically meet your requirements. An example, I can go up the road about a half mile to a real hill top and reach a GMRS repeater almost 50 miles away which then relays back to another receiver 35 miles away to make contact with a cohort. Only a family license is required. As a Grandpa with extended family, well you get the idea. Finally, many of these GMRS radios can receive the Ham VHF and UHF frequencies, just cannot transmit on them.

  • Can a Ham licensed radio operator legally talk to a GMRS Licensed family? Yes, assuming they have dual band radios like a Baofang UV-82HP handheld for the Ham and Radioddity GM-30 handheld for the GMRS. Dual band means you can receive on two frequencies at the same time. The Ham guy sets his transmit band to a VHF channel and his other to receive GMRS UHF. The GMRS guy does the reverse. GMRS transmits on a legal UHF and the Ham on legal VHF both can receive the others transmission and you have two way communication between bands. Radios like the UV-82HP can be programmed to transmit on GRMS frequencies but they are not legally certified by FCC to do so. Be careful.

  • I have been interested in Ham Radio since I was a kid and would visit an older neighbor who had his Ham Shack set up in what used to be a back yard chicken house. This was in the 1950s and I remember being facinated by all the bluish lighting of the tubes glowing in the dark. BaCK IN THE 1970S, I got into the CB radios, like everyone else, and I loved that. I got back into CB about 10 years ago because I also like tube guitar and HiFi amplifiers as well as radio gear, so I started collecting old Tram. and other older units. I then started chatting with folks locally on the CB frequencies. This led a friend and I to get Ham licensed. I still love to operate the older tube gear and Ham Radios have been tube for a long time, so there is a lot of it around…you just have to get most of it working again but back in those days things that broke were meant to be repaired ! I have talked all over the US and the world on 100 watts. I can reliably talk with friends about 100 miles away on 80 meters. I passed my General test and soon plan to test for my Extra. I also have tube amplifiers for emergencies and actually tube equipment use less Amps to operate than solid state, which may be good to know in case of using inverters and battery systems. Radio in general is a fun, fun hobby and it is a great thrill to me to hear and chat with someone in Glasgow, Scotland, or Berlin, Germany, or Japan, or Italy. The Ham operator out of Scotland is a real hoot to talk to!

  • Find a local ham radio operator who will help you buy the correct equipment and get simple antennas erected. You can have a complete station for HF and VHF for under $2,000.
    Have him show you how to use it in an emergency. In an emergency, nobody will care about a license. Then take your time and get a license.