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.
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,
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:
- I want a secure way to talk to people I care about.
- I don’t really care about a hobby; I just want this to work.
- 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.
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).
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.