Rural Defense Comms: The Hardware

We’re going to take a little break from terrain and touch on another topic – Communications or Comms.  I’ll say it right up front – I know I’m going to catch a ton of shit over this little gem.  Comms is about as hot a topic as different shades of Multicam and there’s as many arguments over the merits of what is and isn’t best in comms gear.  But remember what the focus of this blog is:  Rural Defense when SHTF.  That SHTF could be in any number of forms – economic collapse, widespread civil unrest, Insurrection, a Zombie Apocalypse (I got an email asking why I don’t use that scenario since it’s such a “great catch-all surrogate” – Are you happy now?).  This article isn’t geared for the Militia Unit in a tactical environment – there are better options for those folks.  If you’ve read The Farmer at War you’ll remember the mention of their radio system: The Agric-Alert Radio system.  This system allowed farms and ranches not only to alert security forces of attacks, but also to call for assistance from their neighbors.  And just like those Marxist thugs that attacked those farmers you can bet that if you’re going to get hit the threat is going to take your phone and power out if it’s still on (those little green telecom boxes up and down the roadside don’t hold up to being run over – and please don’t ask me how I know this).   In this entry we’ll look at some examples of comms solutions.

The first step of developing any system is examining the need.  What do we need?  Right off the bat I can think of three things that are critical:  It needs to be cheap, reliable, and easy to power. Here’s what I came up with for a set of basic requirements:

1.  A reliable, inexpensive, and readily available local communications system able to work throughout our entire AO.  It has to use readily available power sources and should be capable of being mobile.

2.  The ability to monitor official traffic and reports including LEO, EMS, and Weather as long as they are on-line and friendly.

3.  The ability to communicate with the world outside of our AO.  And not necessarily active communication which I’ll get into later on.

A fourth requirement that would be nice but just isn’t really feasible is a source of secure comms.  Crypto gear isn’t cheap so I’ll rule that out.   Now that we’ve identified three major requirements let’s look at our AO again.

Based on the old calibrated eyeball we need a local comms system that can reach at least 10kms (6 miles) in heavily wooded and hilly terrain.  FRS and GMRS are neat and cheap but in our terrain (heavily wooded) and given that distance they don’t seem really practical.  Handheld Amateur Radios (UHF/VHF)  have gotten incredibly cheap lately.  A quick check of fleabay shows tons of Chicom handheld dual-band handhelds for under $100.  The drawback with these is that it takes some training to really use and program them.  And not all of them take readily available batteries (for some stupid reason the cheaper ones normally use a proprietary rechargeable battery – not something I’m fond of).  Another option is Citizen Band.  CBs are cheap (Rat Shack has 7 watt handhelds that use AAs for $50), plentiful,  and are almost idiot proof.  Hell a lot of rural guys may already have a CB in their truck or tractor.   The drawback is that if your AO is sited near a busy highway you may get a LOT of outside traffic and finding a clear channel might be a PITA.  But I’m pretty sure if things go to hell most truckers are heading to the house to take care of their families.  Now remember what I stated above – we’re not looking for a comms system to go on a long range patrol.  We’re looking to get reliable comms between farmers, ranchers, and homesteaders.   Given that this is how I rank the three options:

1.  CBs (both handheld and base station)

2.  Dual Band Base Amatuer Radios (HAMs, including handhelds)

3.  FRS/GMRS

I skipped some systems like MURS, Business Bands, UPCS, and others because they just aren’t common enough, complicated to program, or too short range.  So for the sake of time and space we’re going to talk CB.  As I stated above handheld CBs capable of 7 watts can be had for around $50 new.  With that price it’s pretty realistic to assume that every home would have at least one on hand.  A good rule of life after SHTF would be that anyone out in the AO away from their point defense locaitons (remember – our homesteads) should be carrying one.  The cool thing with CBs is there’s also other options.  That mobile rig in the truck can come out and get hooked to a 12V car battery and run as a base station on a homebuilt antenna.  (see the resources I list at the end of this article).  I bought a couple of CBs at a yard sale right before last Christmas for $20.  And anytime I run across them for that price in good working condition I usually snag them up, box ’em up, and save them for a rainy day.  Given the commonality of CBs and their ease of use IMHO for our purpose you can’t beat them.

So now we move on to our second requirement – Monitoring LEO, EMS, and Weather (at least for as long as they are broadcasting in the clear).  The best (and pretty much only) option here is to have a scanner.  True there are other systems and sources but using our criteria (cheap, reliable, easy to power) a scanner is the best choice.  I’ve linked a site or two at the bottom that gives more information on scanners.  Regular radio stations can give you some info but once shit goes critical I wouldn’t expect them to remain on the air with anything more than prerecorded EMS broadcast messages.

And we finally get to our third requirement: The ability to communicate with the world outside of our AO.   For this purpose I firmly believe there is only one real solution – Amateur Radio or HAM.  When the world has gone to shit, the living dead rise from their graves (that’s a freebie for you zombie nuts out there), and the British come for their back-taxes HAMs will still be on the air.  The problem is HAM radios aren’t cheap.  And the handhelds may not have the power to reach out and touch someone.  Your best bet is to do some research (Links below), and shop around.  A UHF or VHF radio is not something you can just unbox, plop down, plugin, and start using like an X-Box.  It takes a little knowledge and understanding of science.  Now if you get lucky and have a rag chewer in your AO (look for the antenna mast) you’ll be in luck.  Otherwise someone is going to have to invest the time, money and effort into studying and buying a rig.  And I know it won’t matter after the “rule of law” is gone but studying and getting that license now is a good idea.  Practical experience before you need the skills goes a long way.

The final two solutions have one drawback – most of them require AC power.  And that stuff don’t grow on trees.  I’m not going to go into the zillion solutions to power your homestead after the juice goes out.  Google will give you more info than you care to digest on that topic.

One thing I want to address:  Whenever you pick up a radio be it whatever kind the first thing you do is listen.  And with comms to the outside world that is critical.  Don’t assume just because someone is on your freq. they are friendly.  You’re not the only one reading this article and I’m not the only nitwit that has come up with this info.  Practice OPSEC (that’s a subject for a later entry).

In the next entry I’ll go into some examples of comms procedures and we’ll look at what we can do to overcome the lack of Crypto.

Links for further study:

CB Radios

CB Radio Magazine Info Website – A good source for basic info

CB Radio Installation (has different installation methods including the direct to Battery connection for use as a base station)

A good article on homebrew Base Station Antennas

Scanners

The Best Scanner FAQ I’ve Found

LEO/EMS Scanner Info (including freqs)

A list of Common Police Radio Codes

Amateur Radio

The Wikipedia Entry is a Decent Place to Start

The National Association for Amateur Radio (ARRL)

Need it simpler?  HAM Radio for Dummies  (Used copies can be found ultra cheap)

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About Treaded

Semi-retired career and contract troop. I own and maintain my own small ranch out here in beautiful rural America.
This entry was posted in Security Planning, Situational Awareness. Bookmark the permalink.

19 Responses to Rural Defense Comms: The Hardware

  1. Pingback: LF: Comms | Western Rifle Shooters Association

  2. wasajco says:

    We are using Marine radios out here, no lakes/rivers so we step on no one. 25W, work like a CB. Just a thought. Excellent range. No license required. BTW, last time I checked CB was 4watts max and SSB was 12.

  3. the current issue of TECHNOLOGY REVIEW (published by MIT) has a very informative article on how internet communications were used during the war in Libya to communicate among Libyans, and to pass intelligence to NATO forces. Well worth reading. Probably in your local university library.

    • Treaded says:

      I’ve read bits and pieces of it and there are some good points in it. Internet in a lot of rural areas in the US is still highly dependent on dial-up or satellite (I have the satellite gig). Other than that even cellular service is spotty. For instance I live in a cellular doughnut hole (absolutely zero coverage).

  4. Pilgrim's Pride says:

    Just a small point, but as a ham radio guy, the style “HAM” (meaning, spelled all in capitals) is kind of weird. Don’t really know where it comes from except that it’s all over the web this past year.

    Ham is just ham. Like William Shatner is a ham or Mike Tyson is ham fisted. Amateur Radio can be capitalized if you want since it’s also the legal name of a radio service, but you don’t have to do so.

    I agree with your assessment by the way. If you want global commo you need HF/shortwave. That requires much study and practice since it is equal part art to science and the ionosphere is never the same twice. But it all pays off when you make contact to wheveritisthat’simportanttoyou.

    Note on the marine band radios: I stipulate your points but you’re taking unecessary chances. As with radio amateurs who work very hard to earn their license and erect their stations, the USCG also takes an exceedingly proprietary view of their VHF and HF frequencies. Both hams and the Coastieswill track you down for illegal ops on their turf and then you get nice five figure fines and potential jail time for your cheapness.

    One problem with CB: we’re coming up on a new sun spot cycle maxiumum and soon 11m will skip all over the world. This can be great fun unless you really, really, really need to contact someone five miles down the road but you can’t hear each other for all the interference from Timbuktu and Texas.

    Just sayin’

    • wasajco says:

      Still looking for the USCG here in WY, a hamster checked for us. Thx for the concern tho.

      • Treaded says:

        FYI: DHS monitors ALL comms its subordinate agencies are responsible for administering – including USCG ones inland.

  5. TM says:

    Ham Radio:
    (licensed in 1996)
    I have found that Alinco radios are by far the most intuitive to use(for me). They are a mid priced product but built like a brick out house. I’ve never had a failure with any of my radios. I have a 1/2 watt Handie-Talkie(HT) the size of a pack of cigarettes that can reliably reach an unobstructed base or vehicle at 3 miles. But not HT to HT. I encourage you folks to learn about “cross band repeat” (X-band repeat, XBR) mobile radios. They allow HT’s (or other mobiles) to communicate through a mobile unit that has the cross band repeat feature, thus allowing much greater distance than from an HT alone. I typically use my 1/2 watt HT up to 1 mile from my vehicle’s cross band repeating radio – the signal goes in on the band of the HT (my case VHF) and out on a separate band (UHF) at the exact same time. The UHF output frequency from the XBR then travels up to 15 miles +/- to a base or another vehicle with cross band repeat, then back out to another (VHF) HT in the field. My ham friends and I have used HT’s while snow skiing. We extended our range to BOTH sides of the mountain (HT to HT via the repeaters at base of mountain) — it all depends on where the XBR vehicles are located. Two HT’s, and two XBR vehicles strategically located and you could have some seriously good range for HT communication. My 50 watt Alinco UHF/VHFCross Band repeat mobile radio cost around $400(DR-605TQ). My Alinco VHF 1/2 watt HT (DJS-11 – (2)AA batt) cost me $89. My other radio is a Mobile/base Alinco DX-70TH (HF BAND) — $880. It is the one you would use for 50–5000 miles — given proper antenna* and conditions. I also have a cross band repeat ICOM mobile, and a Yaesu HT. My Yaesu HT is a tough little bugger as well – it has up to 5 watts out – but bulky. So I use my little Alinco whenever possible. For secure communications — the lowest power that you need — is all you need.

    NOTE: Alinco, kenwood, Icom and yaesu are all good brands — in the ham world people have their favorites – you know mine.HA HA
    NOTE 2: Just like the lizard farmer said — there are some chi-com brands to be had on ebay for cheap. I’ve never bought any nor know anyone who has. But I am thinking of buying one all the same.

    * the antenna is EVERYTHING!!! Build it crappy — expect crappy results. A good antenna with 10 watts can easily out do a crappy antenna with 100 watts. Before you by an AMP, build a great antenna. see — ARRL HF antenna designs

    • Treaded says:

      I have seen a few of the cheaper Chicom ones – all were Wouxuns and the ops seem impressed for the price but they feel like something made in China- cheap and plasticky. I have slowly started the learning process for an Amateur license. And of all the sources I have come across ARRL is by far the best.

  6. Itor says:

    I understand the newer marine band sets transmit a unit identifier – you are no longer anonymous. CB w/SSB capability seems to be a great all around unit, until one needs to Really Reach Out.
    Ah, and one criteria not noted above – self contained units, no repeaters – although good to have knowledge of locations & freq of same.

  7. NOCALL says:

    ::Cracks Knuckles::

    First, CB is not the best option in a handheld. The antenna system is grossly inadequate for 11m waves. Unless you have somebody else with a decent quarter-wave TUNED groundplane setup to pick up your signals locally, it isn’t going to happen. Slapping up a CB stick antenna on a pole or on a truck mirror doesn’t cut it. You NEED a groundplane and you NEED to use a VSWR meter to cut the antenna to the right length for your installation to actually effectively use the power the radio is putting out.

    The knowledge required to properly set a CB station up for good comms is about what you need to do amateur radio, so why just do CB if you’re going to go to the trouble of learning about radio? Google “no nonsense guide” and start studying up for that 35-question multiple choice test on QRZ.com and pay the $15-20 to get that ham license. Not a big deal.

    Second, care and feeding of antennae are much more important than power. The investment required to double output power at the unit is much better spent setting up an antenna with 3db of gain (effective doubles output power) or raising said antenna 10 feet higher in a line-of-sight VHF/UHF situation. You can build j-pole antennas and mount either in trees or on structures for all locations in the AO for under $100. Just google j-pole. With a decent antenna, 5 watts on VHF/UHF will get all the way to the horizon and communicate over 100 miles with good line of sight and good antennas at both ends, even if the radio is just a cheap chinese handheld hooked up to the antenna.

    You can also get little quarter-wave magnet mount antennas to install on a car for the VHF and UHF ham bands for $20 or so that gives 2db of gain and gets the antenna out of the metal vehicle body and a wavelength off the ground to actually make use of the power. They’re only about 19 inches long, so not super obvious.

    If even one location has line-of-sight to most others, plan to have that one pass traffic between points that can’t hear each other directly. But, with j-poles up at 20-30 feet, it’s unlikely that anybody won’t be able to hear everybody else unless there are some deep canyons or mountains in the way.

    Third, the cheap chinese radios by Wouxun (pronounced “ocean”) and Baofeng are usually good for 136-174mhz in the VHF and ~400-480mhz in UHF. This gives you not only the 2m (144-148mhz) and 70cm (420-450mhz) ham bands, but also nearly all law enforcement channels (see radioreference.com to see LE/.gov channels in your AO, including repeater inputs), MURS (151&154mhz), GMRS/FRS (462mhz), Marine VHF (156-162mhz), NOAA Weather Radio (162mhz), MARS (secret VHF frequencies), CAP (scattered around VHF) and part 90 business radio (VHF and UHF, construction companies and such).

    If somebody you want to talk to doesn’t want to study for the ham test, have them get the chinese radio and program it for just MURS and GMRS channels, then use your radio to talk to them, plus have all of the other capabilities for yourself. You can even get them a Baofeng bf-888s radio for around $35 on Amazon and they’ll have 5 watts and 16 programmable channels in either VHF or UHF.

    About the only thing these Chinese radios don’t give you is CB (27-28mhz) and 800mhz (common for trunked law enforcement/gov systems in medium to large cities). While you’re at it, have a couple of locations get $35 CB mobiles and install TUNED antennas at these locations.

    Finally, power. Get a decent deep-cycle battery ($60-70 at Sam’s) and a $75 solar cell and charge controller from Amazon. The cheap cell won’t provide enough power to run the gear directly, but it charges whenever there’s daylight on a constant basis, while you only transmit and draw real power for a few seconds at a time. A good deep-cycle will have 110 amp-hours or so (that’s one amp for 110 hours or 110 amps for one hour). The cheap cell dumps in 1 amp for ~12 hours per day, meaning it adds 12 amp-hours to the battery per day. A VHF/UHF base station tx @ 25 watts might pull 5 amps, meaning you’d have to transmit over two hours per day to get ahead of what the cell is putting back. Monitoring only draws .5 amps or so, very negligible. Charging one of the cheap batteries that the chinese radios come with is hardly worth mentioning. Just be sure to get the 12v charging accessory.

    Finally, the little chinese handhelds use proprietary batteries, but the batteries are dirt cheap. Just buy a bunch of them or get the 12v battery eliminator and AA-cell adapter that is available.

  8. bill says:

    most dual band Vhf/Uhf radio’s will receive outside their transmit frequencies. In the rural areas where the locals have not gone to digital trunking systems the local police,fire,rescue frequencies can be programed in and be scanned and heard.

  9. KL says:

    For short range, simple, secure information passage, look into Trisquare XRS radios. They are in the unlicensed 900(?) band, are digital, and are virtually non traceable. It appears that they bounce between several hundred channels and you cannot listen in unless you are on the same channel and “synced” with other XRS radios. These radios cannot be listened to by normal means (CB’s, most scanners, FRS/GMRS, etc) as they run on a completely separate frequency. They are license free unlike GMRS, MURS, Marine bands and HAM. However, they are limited in range, from 1-10 miles. I have the XRS 300 series, which can send text messages. I think it would be useful when counts on people, buildings, etc need to be done quietly with no radio noise. I picked up a pair for ~$75 on Amazon.

    • Treaded says:

      I have used the Trisquares and was very displeased with their performance. For what we paid we didn’t get anything much better than FRS/GMRS performance.

      • KL says:

        I agree the performance isn’t as great as I envisioned, however the SMS function and the ability to keep comms quiet from prying ears was the money difference for me. Due to terrain issues, I can’t use these beyond a 5 mile circle around the homestead. At best I could get 2 miles out of a set of Cobra FRS set I paid almost as much for. For longer range listening, I go HAM or CB, but these can’t be beat for short range talks. As always YMMV.

  10. ExSun says:

    When it comes to out of AO comms, you don’t want a UHF or VHF ham radio. They will be little better than FRS, MURS, etc. since the repeaters will likely be down. You want HF ham radio. BTW, nearly all gear runs on 12V – which can be a car battery charged by a solar cell. The exception would be kilowatt level amplifiers, which you also don’t want, unless you want your signal to stick up like a nail (and we all know the nail that sticks up gets hammered down).

  11. Yank lll says:

    For the Scanners..
    This site publishes the FCC frequency list from all fed, state, local and othe govt agencies plus all commercial and private data..

    http://www.radioreference.com

    the law requires registering all radio freq use.. even for big bro.. Dig around.. software for programming your scanneras and plenty of info on who, when, where and how. You’ll be amazed at how some things are still out in the open.

    Yank lll

    • pdxr13 says:

      “You’ll be amazed at how some things are still out in the open.”
      Yep. Agents/employees of various abc groups can’t be bothered to learn how to use radios in secure mode, so they just use them in the open. Hundreds of millions spent to use talkies in Wal-Mart mode during “confidential” operations. Meet your TSA by listening to them display their 6 weeks of training after being paroled/fired from fast-food.

      Cheers.

  12. Overload says:

    Great subject and good info. Free download emergency communications training course on our website. http://www.w4ava.org

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