Quantity vs. Quality: Putting the Handheld Radio in Context

During the Communications presentation at the PatCon I focused primarily upon the common radio equipment among preppers and survivalists- CB radio because of its inherent commonality (and overcoming potential weaknesses) and the Baofeng UV-5R because it’s cheap and everyone owns them ‘BY THE CASE!’ as one gentleman in attendance pointed out. While that’s all good and well to have plenty of units in the field, and there’s a lot that can be done with them for those thinking outside the box, the ubiquitous  chicom handheld is FAR from ideal for any use other than an inexpensive testbed for antennas or running alternative modes going beyond just pressing a button and talking. The prevailing issue is that people want to do what is not easy to accomplish alone without knowledge of limitations- compounded in part by equipment and a larger part by knowledge.

There exists a strong differentiation which must be made; Survivalist or Retreat Communications is a different animal from Tactical Communications.

I frequently get questions regarding Retreat Communications and have run  classes to address those needs- the backbone of which is Rugged Line of Sight Communications.

The former focuses solely on creating a parallel network to conventional communications, frequently (especially among beginners) in the form of local-scale networking around a retreat area. Growing up this was done by CB radio for our hunting club and in my later teen years by the Motorola Talkbout FRS units on foot with a CB in the truck. For localized security or communications with neighbors in a rural area this is relatively easy to do. Analog systems are fine for getting this done provided you understand that a) it’s NOT secure nor private by any means and b) it’s not the same as tactical communications. Tactical needs are different and involve attempting to mitigate the reception of your signal by potential OPFOR (the whole reason you’re being tactical- and the opposite of survivalist focus) so this means limited antennas to reduce the signal your putting out from the radio on your kit,

5element Yagi
Yagis are easily constructed and ‘beam’ a signal along the desired azimuth. Even for an analog signal, it provides at least a bit of security as well as focusing all of your radiated energy in one direction vs. the omni directional antenna you’re used to. Think flashlight vs. lantern.

directional antennas for longer distance transmissions, and creating pre-planned transmission points and times during the planning phase in order to add security to your communications, even if analog and unencrypted. And if you want an actual real-life feedback on the use of the UV-5R in a warzone, read this from fighters in Ukraine.

Once you’re done reading that, you can come back and we’ll work a little harder on squaring you away.

During the lecture I identified three common patterns among those new to preparedness communications:

  1. I want a secure way to talk to people I care about.
  2. I don’t really care about a hobby; I just want this to work.
  3. I want it to be simple and maximize its functionality.

This thought process is entirely understandable, considering the task at hand, but having a bunch of stuff on hand doesn’t exactly satisfy our above identified needs. First, all handhelds are extremely limited in range out of the box. Experienced guys know that the stock antenna is usually just about worthless, even on higher-end units. Antennas, as we talked about, make a world of difference and external purpose-built antennas are like night and day. Second, the common thinking among ex-military guys is that my equipment here works the same as the stuff I used while I was in. And that’s problematic thinking at best. I was an 11B, and in all of the various places I served there was an S6 or communications department that had already identified our needs and the equipment supplied and had it all down to an exact science- using the Line Unit example, Squad A will get XXX range with this PRC-147 or 152 and will get XXX range from this 117G in this area of operation, from which they will not deviate.

If you look carefully at the illustration, you’ll notice there’s two frequencies (f1) and (f2). The Retransmit vehicle in the center is performing the same function as a repeater would, only mobile.

We’re only working with line of sight equipment in the low VHF band at the unit level and do not expect it to do anything other than what it does. If need be, we can set a re-transmitter (retrans) site as a relay to the rear when we plan our mission. Large scale mechanized maneuvers always utilize retrans sites and the mech guys who wrote or briefed Paragraph 5 of their Operations Orders remember this well. But above all, the S6 shack knows exactly what their gear is capable of with the assigned equipment. For survivalist communications, that retrans site would be the communications center of our retreat.

Building your own infrastructure is not so simple without experienced people to help you. You are your own S6 trying to get all this sorted out before the big dance and the field is broad and confusing on a good day, even more so if you’ve simply taken the ham cram and disappeared without talking to the more seasoned guys grading your exam. It is critical to understand:

  • You are not an Infantry Unit.
  • At best, you’re an irregular group based on voluntary participation and lack any of the supporting assets an Infantry Unit requires for survival.
  • You are your own S6. 
  • You have an unpredictable set of needs to address.

It’s super common to get confused, especially if all that you’re doing is snapping up and stashing kit without working through its bugs or thinking past plug n’ play. In addition, life deployed for contemporary conflicts doesn’t exactly correlate to making one a know-all survivalist (although it puts you FAR ahead of the curve). During the discussion it was brought up that one should strive to pick up Tech and General in the same sitting, with one very experienced gentleman disagreeing, pointing out that you should want to get to Extra for the additional learning it requires. And he’s exactly right. You should force yourself to learn the most even if you’re only doing the ham cram. It’s impossible to do if all you’re doing is waiting for that non-existent time when ‘I don’t need no license!'(if that’s your attitude by the way, stop reading this blog- we both have better stuff to do). Right now some folks are asking ‘If it’s so complicated why bother with it anyway?’ That’s simple. Having even a Technician-class license provides the absolute most options- far beyond anything license-free stuff provides and will make you lightyears smarter about implementing the license-free stuff if you’re still using it (and there’s no reason not to, by the way).

This is a Yaesu VX-5R, which has been discontinued for a long while but is widely known as not only a rugged and versatile unit but is quite simple to operate. This one was purchased from a local Ham buddy for $25. I bought both of his. It’s been opened up, and in addition to transmitting on 6m, 2m, 220, and 70cm, and everywhere in between, it can also receive everything from Shortwave to Airband and above- capability the Baofengs can’t match. Pictured with an improvised Moxon beam antenna, this system is just about as flexible and capable as it gets- for less than $50 total.

You learn why and how your stuff works. And for those who embrace it, you get plugged into a network of vast resources. One of those resources is the ability to try stuff before you buy it and even in many cases offer lightly used gear at cheap prices.

Which brings us to our kit selection. Most of you out there own the ubiquitous Baofeng in one of its many incarnations, despite the fact that over and over it’s flaws have been well documented. But going back to our three points of mindset noted above, y’all buy them because they’re cheap and they work at least for a while. They shine in one area- an inexpensive learning tool. If you happen to burn one up from building an antenna and not checking the impedance match (the value your SWR indicates…also described as an efficiency rating of your antenna) or going far past the intended duty cycle (the talk-to-standby time ratio…in other words, how hot it can get during use without doing crazy stuff on its own like transmit across the entire spectrum it covers…something the UV-5R is notorious for) you’re not heartbroken. It can be a decent enough testbed for a low power repeater design, an inexpensive Packet transmitting platform (uh what??? Really??? Yes, really- but that requires some knowledge building that we might cover in the future.) or antenna designs without destroying more expensive units. But to be blunt, the Part-90 certification is a joke and these things should never be considered for anything other than standby use or for what I describe in this post from over a year ago. If you’re a survivalist or prepper your focus should be investing in kit that can take abuse for the long haul- stuff you can stake your life on, because the reality is that this is your aim anyway (and if it’s not, and you’re just buying cheap because it’s cheap you’re fooling yourself or playing a game). If you’re a militant of any kind buying cheap crap for the sake of having something equates failure as well. That’s the context of which you should be viewing all of your gear; this is stuff you must be able to rely upon when the chips are down. It should not be a matter of cost-per-unit comparison, as that logic is the same as saying a Hi Point is just as good as a Glock only because you can buy two of those for the cost of one of the other- it’s absurd. And while there absolutely IS a threshold of diminishing returns (such as comparing CZs to Sigs- CZ makes a better gun at a better price) the quality between extremes is night and day; you get what you pay for. And besides, good commo kit doesn’t need a flashlight on it. 

38 thoughts on “Quantity vs. Quality: Putting the Handheld Radio in Context

  1. I would also like to add to your excellent article that once you get that Technicians or General ticket is to join a local Amateur Radio club!

    My aforementioned licenses were a ticket to a world of information and equipment from the more experienced ham operators in the club. If you have put your time in to secure your license, are willing to ask questions, and MOST Important willing to listen – You will become a very good radio operator in short order.

    While in a local club, be willing to volunteer for any assignment no matter how beneath you YOU may feel it is. Doing a little weed-wacking at the clubs shack or sitting at a rest stop giving out free coffee and donuts for passing motorists in the name of your club, forces you to sit across from experienced hams. What a wealth of knowledge.

    Anyhow, just getting your ticket is just the beginning and it is up to you to reach out and meet up with other hams to share the knowledge you have as well as gathering the knowledge that others have gathered over the years.

    Secondly, as was mentioned in NCSouts blog to just get your ticket and then to buy a few HT’s thinking you have checked off your prepping “to-buy-list” the communication item, you are sorely mistaken. Like learning to poach an egg, grow veggies or to run a radio, it takes practice and experience. Please just do not sit back, buy a radio and then put it in the faraday cage for later when you really need it. You will not be able to use the radio at its optimum.


  2. Jon

    Great insights for those who will actually do the work.

    You cant get a Victor identifier by reading the Ranger Handbook. Commo is exactly the same way. Gotta work it to make it your own. I am studying for General ticket now. Will test after we get settled in from PCS.

    I am very interested in a future article about VHf digital modes beyond APRS.

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  6. A Freeman

    Slowly, you are peaking my curiosity in hams. I was never truly interested. Just checking the box as you say. I got my technician and missed general by 1 question at the time. I am that prior servicec 11b RTO who knew a PRC 119 pretty well, and had those very expectations you speak of. But the push to talk days will be gone when the cell phones go bye-bye. And long range coms which could be beyond shouting distance require the same constantly is and practice as long range shooting. They are the results of the space age. Thanks again for the insight, and inspiration.

    1. Yup.

      That 119 is a 4w 6m backpack radio, essentially. That’s grossly oversimplifying it, but basically if you took that VX-5R I displayed and put it in the 50mHz range, you’ve got the same thing In SC/PT in the palm of your hand.

      …and with that I might’ve created a monster…

      1. everlastingphelps

        The 119 also is built to withstand butter bar lieutenants and and first sergeants, something your VX-5R doesn’t have to worry about. It just has to withstand less destructive events, like hurricanes and volcanic eruptions.

  7. Brad in TX

    This post is more pure gold.
    And +1 on tapping knowledge of local hams. It’s fairly likely that some old fart in your area is already doing exactly what you want to do. Attend local ham meetings and ask judicious questions to find that guy, then invest some time and some coffee/beer to cut years off of your learning curve.

  8. Blackthorn

    Lots to absorb here. I’m studying hard to get my Tech license and learning Morse as well, largely due to your always sound advice NCScout, so thank again! The fog is lifting for me on all of this.

  9. June J

    Guilty! I just bought the BaoFeng BF-F8HP as my first radio and training tool, understanding that this is not survival or SHTF quality equipment. Started studying for Technician class license and based upon some good advice will also study for General class to take both tests the same day.
    Thanks for the info!

    1. There’s absolutely NOTHING wrong with owning one- I’ve used, abused and destroyed several. Within their context, they’re fine- but always look to upgrade. 😉

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  11. S6cnrdude

    Great information as always. There is absolutely no substitute to operating your equipment in various environments. For example, the June VHF contest was this past weekend. I really wanted to do some mountain topping but for me that’s at least a 2 hour drive or more depending on where I go. I ended up setting up in the back yard, completely portable on solar power using a FT-817 for 6M with a wire dipole antenna. Luckily the band was open some (sporadic E propagation) and I was able to make a couple of contacts (one was a Canadian). I also made a few local contacts on 2M FM simplex. Not spectacular but I got a few QSO’s. I’m sure a hilltop location would have been better. Every time I go to the field I learn something about my equipment, band conditions, etc. I keep thinking that guys operating their equipment in their house on 115V (and that’s all they ever do) are going to be in a world of hurt one of these days. Thanks ncscout!!

    1. Sporadic E is definitely an interesting animal in the summer. You should give 2m SSB or CW a shot- the results, especially in the solar minimum, might REALLY surprise you.

      1. S6cnrdude

        I definitely need to try to learn CW. I know it can get through when phone can’t. It consumes less power and bandwidth. This is not an excuse, but it’s like you stated in your original post, you have to experiment and get on the air. Many old timers use it on 40M for example but don’t want to QSO w/ someone pecking along at 5 – 7 WPM when they are screaming along at 20 – 30. Again no excuse, gotta get it done! BTW, there is another VHF contest coming up in July. It’s sponsored by CQ magazine. It’s 6 and 2M only. I may try to head to that hilltop in NC somewhere and operate. I’ve got my eyes on a spot in the Uwharries. Thanks!

      2. Keypounder


        Learning CW is not a trivial endeavor, but if my non- technical language challenged baby boomer wife can do it ( with minimal involvment from me, let me hasten to add!) then almost anybody can, and it pays huge dividends in capability. 5 wpm using a straight key is infinitely better than no CW. It alllows you to use some significant portions of the spectrum at power levels that are MUCH lower than those required for sideband.

        It also gives you ‘street cred’ within the amateur community, as someone with the determination to dig in and learn a valuable skill. CW operators find open doors where phone ops do not. NC Scout has a friend who knows exactly what I mean.

        Check out the Straight Key Century Club- they have monthly sprints, weekly straight key nights, and recommended slow speed frequencies for those starting out. If you work at it regularly, (every other night for half an hour or so, ) you ought to be up to 13 wpm in less than a year, and maybe up to 20 if you really work at it.

        I found CW very useful last weekend; I got a number of new grid squares on 6 meters (using a wire antenna, btw) that I never would have made using sideband. I made some sideband contacts , too, but the real weak signal work was done using CW.

    2. S6cnrdude,

      I was thinking of setting my communication GOD bag with a lithium battery and a small flexible solar panel.

      No rush however when you get a chance I/we would love to read about your solar/battery system.


      1. S6cnrdude

        Key pounder: thanks, I’ll check look into the Straight Key Century Club. I have participated in VHF contests over the last several years mostly in the portable operator category. There are many times when I wished that I knew the code but could only listen. So I do see high value in learning code. I was using a wire dipole as well in the backyard only about 7-8 ft high. i heard several stations throughout the contest but could not get their attention. i think a lot of that was backscatter. The 2 stations i worked (on 6M) had strong signals as their beams were probably pointed in my direction. More importantly code maybe very useful in the days ahead. Thanks again for the info on the club. As I said before, gotta get it done.

        Johnymac: I started out with a 12V, 5 Ah gel cell battery then purchased a cheap 10W metal framed solar panel and charge controller from eBay. The total investment was less than $80 and it worked well. That setup will run the 817 all day and let you call or listen/monitor as you like. A 15W panel would be even better but slightly bigger. My panel is 13.25″ x 8″ x .75″. I’m looking at the flexible panels at Harbor Freight but have not purchase one yet.

        Then I believe it was late last year, I was watching commsprepper on YouTube use a Hardened Power systems QRP Ranger battery system. After talking with the the company (located in TN), I purchased one (even after seeing another person trash it on You Tube). They are NOT cheap but so far I am pleased with mine. It uses LiFEPO battery technology and has built in Anderson power pole connectors along with a LED display of load amps from the radio and battery voltage level (basically a built-in charge controller). My little 10W panel had no problem keeping the system going although I think a 15W panel would be better. It never showed below 12.5V on the panel and most of the time was around 12.7 – 12.8V. At times during this past weekend’s contest, I was running the 817 and a Radio Shack HTX-202 on the battery. I ended up w/ 5 QSO’s during the contest w/ a lot of listening time. That was in my backyard (not ideal). I did not operate at night and went to church Sunday morning. The contest was from Saturday afternoon until Sunday evening. I have had this battery for a few months. This was the longest period of time of using it. I have used it several times for shorter periods. So far good to go.

        I keep my 5Ah battery on a float charger as a backup. I hope this helps.

      2. I have two of their 35ah AGM batteries. So far they’re great for running my radios off-grid. I demonstrated how to do that at the PatCon.

  12. Tim

    Quality isn’t that expensive. An Icom vhf radio can be had for 100 or less, a Yaesu ft60 for not a whole lot more. That said, I think it’s worth having some simpler radios for people to use in an emergency. The above sets do have a learning curve. A MURS radio, however, operates on five channels, doesn’t have a lot of options, and is easy for novices to start using right away.

  13. Donk

    How bout ICOM F3S for MURS? Mine seem pretty rugged.

    How bout Moto DTRs for “secure” short codes transmisaions?

    Based on a NCScout post I decided listening was way more important than talking so I sold my ICOM 703

    Also, +1 on the Slim Jim roll up from n9tax (sp?) Works great on my ICOM F3S and V8

    Also, NCScout recommended an inexpensive HF listening device I cant recall the name.

    1. 1. Sure. Limited in capability, but if that’s what you have, that’s what you have.

      2. Limited in range, limited in capability, not end-user configurable, not 100% reliable in the field FROM ACTUAL USE OVER SEVERAL DAYS OF CLASS in mountainous terrain. Make sure you have a PACE plan with them.

      3. Probably not the best transaction you’ve made, but whatever. The 703 is a great receiver.

      4. N9TAX is ok. Homebrewed 292 groundplane or ‘jungle antenna’ is better. I take pride in building mine and have written instructions on how.

      5. GP-5. It’s in the Signals Intelligence Resources page up top.

      1. Regarding (2)

        Everything NCScout said, and then some.

        For bubba-proofing they’re solid for VERY local comms. They make good for good small ranch radios but the limited range and capability make them secondary radios at best. Given their cost, even used, if you want something similar, you’re better off getting the Motorola iDEN phones and using them in Direct Talk mode. Even at $30 or so, they’re a niche piece of kit, and only useful in an extremely narrow set of circumsrances. With the iDEN phones, several models have provisions for external antennas. I’ve used them with a beam antenna yo wrangle a bit more capability out of them, but overall they’re more trouble than they’re worth.

    2. everlastingphelps

      On the F3S for MURS, the Good Boy answer is “it isn’t certified for MURS use”, and the scofflaw answer is, “it’s better for the purpose than any certified radio (which no one is even selling anymore), no one is going to care that it isn’t certified if you aren’t causing interference, and if you get caught the only penalty for the first offense is that you receive a Strongly Worded Letter.”

      You can pick which answer you want to go with.

      I like my N9TAX. The low takeoff angle helps, and I like that it doesn’t look like what people think of as antenna — they see the ladder line and look above it to try to figure out where the antenna is. It’s my go-to for VHF. It’s next to useless for HF. You never want to be stuck with One Way, though, so you should also look at things like bashing together a Moxon for VHF.

  14. Donk

    @Mike Bishop +1 on the Moto iDEN phones, one model is i355, can be had in lots on eBay around $35/pc. The upgraded antennas are available as well. We have reached out as far as 2 miles (flat coastal terrain).

    1. Absolutely.

      The i355 > DTR all day long.

      Still limited, but as long as the users determine their operating characteristics, they can fill a role.

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