Grid Down Communications

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Back when I started getting into this lifestyle now known as prepping, I had a million problems I was trying to solve. I imagine some of you feel the same way if you are beginning. If you are paying attention and are at least partially grounded in reality, you can see the fragility of society. It isn’t hard to imagine the wheels coming off this bus we are on in any one of hundreds of ways. Economic collapse, foreign wars, terrorism, race wars, civil unrest, rioting, pandemic, or extreme weather to name just a few. It doesn’t take too much to throw our society into chaos and we regularly see numerous examples of situations where the help and assistance that were expected, never materialized or took much longer than promised.

It is for all of these potential problems in life that we start looking at what can we do to prepare to ride out the chaos when it comes down our street. We read the news and watch videos and ponder which skills to learn that could have prevented the same turmoil or mitigated the pain if those people we are watching on the internet had been us.

Preppers are looking for solutions to problems we don’t currently have, but firmly believe could affect us at some point in our lives. One such problem in many disasters is staying in communication with the outside world, your family or survival group. Some people don’t consider this an issue and others think this aspect of prepping is too hard or expensive. In this post I am going to show you how to build a grid down communication system that you can use now or in a disaster to keep in touch for less than $120.

Why do you need to communicate when the grid goes down?

It doesn’t take much imagination to visualize a world without being in contact with our loved ones. We have all been victims of a dead phone battery, a poor signal or network congestion. This is usually a minor inconvenience that is remedied quickly. We wander the halls of the airport terminals looking for an empty electric socket or simply wait until we can get through again all the while stealing glances at our phones every couple of minutes.

The BF-F8HP is a newer model with greater power. It costs a little more for these enhancements but it could help you reach out further.

Imagine if cell service didn’t come back on. Imagine if the internet or electric grid had been severely compromised by terrorist attacks. Don’t believe it can happen? Remember the sniper attack on a power plant back in April 2013? It only took two people with rifles to knock an entire substation out for 27 days. Imagine again if you will (I know some of you hate hypothetical exercises) that it wasn’t just two people at one power station. What if it was 100 people at 50 power stations all at the same time? We already have a huge influx of illegal immigration that only continues to grow. Is it out of the realm of possibility that just a few of these millions of people could set out to take down the electric grid?

You need a backup plan

Ham radios make a great back up communication plan for preppers for a couple of reasons. First, ham radios aren’t reliant on the internet or cell phone towers to work. They do require electricity to charge batteries, but that can be mitigated with a decent sized solar charger with rechargeable batteries or a high-power inverter connected to your car’s battery. With simple equipment, two people with radios only need their own antennas to be able to share information whenever they need to at pretty considerable distances.

Ham radios can be used at much greater ranges than the typical FRS radios you see at the store and can allow you to stay in contact with people hundreds of miles away (with the right conditions). Usually this comes down to antenna use or repeater access but even with basic equipment I will list below you can easily communicate 20 miles away when everyone else might be left in the dark.

This article isn’t going to delve deeply enough into the specifics of Ham radio. For a brief introduction you can read more on the AARL website. You can also watch this short video below for an introduction in a British accent no less. If this is something that interests you I would recommend you get your license and learn as much as possible. In an emergency though where lives are on the line you don’t really need to worry about a license but it is precisely at that time when you are going to need to know what you are doing.

Getting a license is pretty simple if you are willing to put a little bit of study into this first. Tests are conducted on a frequent basis and are taken exclusively out of the ARRL license manual. If you know the information in that manual, you should pass the test. It’s easy to find an amateur radio license exam in your area. Before you go, you should read more and study.

There are free study materials all over the internet. I used a set of videos to help me take the test from a man named David Casler. He has YouTube videos for every single chapter of the exam book and it helped me greatly. You can view the first video here or you can go directly to Dave’s site where he has links to all of his classes listed toward the bottom of the page. I have added links to all of Dave’s courses below.

Once I studied the book, and watched all of Dave’s videos, I also took the free exams online at Eham.net. You can take these as many times as you like and they give you the answers so you can see what you missed.

What do I need for grid down communications?

Getting the equipment you need for ham radio communications is pretty simple. Again, I want to emphasize that you really want to gain instruction in the principles behind amateur radio operation and I recommend studying for your technician exam. Just having the equipment isn’t going to help you when the grid goes down if you don’t have a clue how to use it.

That said, the system I use is composed of the following:

There are tons of options though to meet your own specific needs. There are other radios, antennas and you can quickly turn this into a major hobby that can cost major bucks. The grid down communication system I have above is less than $120 (before shipping). That’s less than a lot of you spent for your last rifle scope.

The Baofeng radio has a female plug for the antenna and that is why you need the adapter to connect to the coax. You can simply use the mobile antenna listed above but you will get much greater range out of the slim Jim if you have that mounted higher up. I have mine mounted in my attic and the antenna cable (coax) is run through a small hole in my ceiling. This gives me some benefits in that nobody sees my antenna from the road. Sure, I could have done this much more professionally and run the wires down the wall, but I was in a hurry and never got back to it. Plus, this works just fine for me.

Optionally, I can carry all of this gear in my Bug Out Bag quite easily. The antenna can be tied to a small rock and some paracord and thrown over a high limb to raise the elevation. Using this method I can be out in the woods and still communicate far from home. The ability to have my antenna much higher is a big advantage and the slim Jim it tough enough to be used a little more roughly.

The radio set up was not done by Apple so the user experience does lack a little in the clarity department. You will likely need to download free software called Chirp. This allows you to program your radio with different frequencies. All of this can be done with the keypad, but it will take a much longer time. You can download Chirp here. Instructions for how to use the software are also located on the site. It took me a little trial and error but once I got the hang of it, programming all of my radios only takes minutes and this isn’t something I have changed very often if ever after I got it set up.

Screenshot of Chirp. It is mainly a list of information and settings you can use for each channel and your radio.

Screenshot of Chirp. It is mainly a list of information and settings you can use for each channel and your radio.

The first thing I did when I received my radios was to find my local repeaters and listen in on what people were talking about. Repeaters allow you to connect to them to greatly increase your signal range. Networked repeaters have allowed me to talk to people on the other side of the country. You will find that at some times of the year, there isn’t a whole lot going on. Other times of the year it is very busy. To gain experience I connected with several nets on repeaters in my state which gave me exposure to how things work and allowed me to gain some level of comfort with the whole experience. Everyone is very friendly and accommodating to new hams just starting out.

There is still much to learn but now I have the essential grid down communication gear, training and certification I need to communicate in a disaster if everything else is down. I have several units for the family and backup in my vehicle so I think I am a little better prepared if we have to depend on this equipment.

Is ham radio the perfect grid down communication option for you?

  • CJ Pennywhistle

    This is, hands down, the BEST put together article I’ve seen on Ham radio. Including links and descriptions of lessons to get folks started and educated on what they need to know as well as direct product links and explanations of why each product is needed, someone has finally filled in all the blanks for those who want to get set up in HAM but have no idea where to start. Thank you for writing such an excellent resource!!

    • Thank you so much CJ for the comments and compliments!


  • Lost Comms

    Like the post, but I am still looking for a list of frequency to program.

  • Christian Gains

    THANKS BRO! I’m in the process…and a amateur, but DETERMINED! Time is my biggest obstacle! You’re Class & counsel is PRICELESS!

  • skeptical1

    EXCELLENT article! My father was into different types of radio and had a small business in our home when I was a kid. I always wished I’d learned more than I did…which was nothing about Ham. I’ve been considering learning, but until this article, everything I’ve read wasn’t very helpful. Thanks SO much, Pat!

    • Thank you very much! My grandfather was into it but I didn’t know him very well. My father gave me his old desktop microphone though that I want to rebuild and work into my base station.

      • skeptical1

        That brings up the memories of my brother taking one of my Dad’s old mics and turning it into a microphone for his “disc jockey” set-up he had in his bedroom. That kid had at least a dozen speakers set up in his room for our “enjoyment”. LOL

  • Bolofia

    Great article and highly recommended for folks who have not thought through the need for communication when “normal” goes sideways. Just a word of caution regarding dual band Slim Jim (J-pole) antennas: Yes, they are a significant improvement over the screw-in antennas that you can use on UHF/VHF handheld radios, and they out-perform standard ground plane antennas. Without delving too far into radio theory, these products are generally tuned to the 2 meter VHF ~146 MHz band and to the 70cm UHF~ 440-450MHz band. At the tuned frequencies, you can achieve a 10dB gain at ~146MHz and a gain of 6dB at `~440MHz. This is the electrical equivalent of giving a 4 W handheld a boost to 40 W. The caveat is that these gains drop off significantly as you move away from those frequencies. In other words, the “ideal” performance improvement will occur within +/- 3MHz of those frequencies. Beyond those ranges, the physics of the antenna diminish and the standing wave ratio (SWR) works against the radio.

    Is it useful to have a VHF J-pole or Dual band VHF-UHF J-pole antenna to augment communication? Absolutely. But if your Slim Jim is tuned for 440 MHz, don’t expect to get the same performance at 520MHz. There are web sites that offer Slim Jim antennas that are tuned to specific frequencies. Do a search on “Slim Jim Antennas.”

    • Thank you so much for that additional clarification Bolo. I still have a lot to learn myself.


    • EgbertThrockmorton1

      I have been “intimidated” by the whole Ham process, however, I’ve got an excellent mentor that is walking me through the process. This article has cleared UP some questions I had. Great article. Thanks Pat.
      Looking forward to getting that first license when I take the test in a few months. Going to encourage all the adults in the family to get their license as well. Seems like it is well worth it in the long run.

  • Mark

    Some more basics are here:

    Keep this in mind—When the grid is down, repeaters with backup power will last only as long as their fuel lasts.

    Consider joining other patriots and preppers in the AmRRON network that even includes the CH3 project for FRS, GMRS, and MURS radios.

  • Helen Wachowiak

    Thank you so much because I’m very interested but very intimidated by this also. I’m only worried about communication within…I would say not even 100 miles. Would a CB be ok? Also wondering if anybody uses police scanners or anything like that in their comm area. Thank you very very much!

    • Thank you Helen,
      A CB isn’t going to get you more than a few miles reliably unless you are on very flat ground or you run illegally (which I don’t recommend). Ham is going to a far superior option.
      A police scanner isn’t something I have personally but have looked into. I think if you can pick up the radio communications it would be incredibly useful. Some stations have switched to digital now so picking them up might be impossible or require specialized equipment. Maybe someone else on this thread can comment.

      • Helen Wachowiak

        Aaahhhhhh ok interesting thank you! Ham radio it is. If I devote the time to those videos like you did it will be less intimidating in time I’m sure. No definitely not interested if it’s not legal. So I wonder if scanning has gone digital what the backup for that is…hmmmm. Anyway thank you so much I’m pretty excited now. I actually have another question – what would you or your readers recommend for emergencies ok so landlines and cell is all down – for 80+ year old seniors in a retirement place? I’m thinking if they can’t manage the backup comm they probably just need an evac plan.

  • Sn SM

    Much appreciate you taking time to put this together. I got my HAM license a few years
    ago exactly for this reason. Got my handheld just before a serious snow storm and it
    was nice to be able to contact my buddy when things ground to a halt for a day 😎