Ham Radio Training: The Serious Survivalist’s Most Critical “Life-Line”

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December 7, 2023 / Comments (10)

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I’ve always known Ham Radio operators, and every time I expressed interest, they would do all they could to try and get me into Amateur Radio. They would go on with their Ham Radio jargon and I always thought, “maybe, one day…” Well, after my failure during a major crisis, the day for Ham Radio training had finally come…

It wasn't until an emergency situation hit my area that I understood the need for Ham Radio.

Ham Radio Training

I live in the northeastern United States. In 2012, we were viciously hit by Hurricane Sandy.

“Hurricane Sandy (unofficially referred to as “Superstorm Sandy”) was the deadliest and most destructive hurricane of the 2012 Atlantic hurricane season, and the second-costliest hurricane in United States history.” (1).

As I bugged in with my family, I tried my damnedest to get information from the communications (Comms) setup that I had at the time. My cell and home phone service were non-existent, my 2-way radios could barely get reception. When they did, there was so much noise (tons of people chatting away) that the radios were relatively useless. My shortwave radio received good reception but the only news that I could pick up was generalized and not specific enough to my area to be useful.

I couldn't even check on my parents, who were a mere 10 miles away.

Having an experience like Hurricane Sandy made me realize that I was nowhere near as prepared as I thought I was…

I reached out to a family friend with the call sign, W2MF, and he gave me the rundown on what I needed to do to get my ticket (Ham Radio license). I explained to him that I just needed to know how to use the radios in an emergency. Getting into the “hobby” wasn't really what I was looking to do. He laughed at me and put it in terms that I could understand. He asked me one simple question: “Do you practice with your Glock 9mm for all different scenarios? Or do you keep it in your drawer to only be used when SHTF?”

I simply replied back… “Roger That.”

As a U.S. Marine, I understood that perfect practice makes perfect. If I had access to Ham Radios during Hurricane Sandy, I would have been clueless on how to operate one. So I followed W2MF’s advice and began studying for my ticket. Keep in mind that I don't even like to talk to friends on my cell phone, so imagine how thrilled I was at the idea of having to communicate with strangers as a Ham Radio operator…

I prepared for my Ham Radio exam by using various apps & study guides which were all free. It was actually a painless venture. I invested a few minutes here and there on the phone apps and I would spend about 30 minutes each day preparing with study guides found on various free websites. In about 3 weeks, I was ready to take the exam. I searched online for the nearest location, where an exam was being given, and reserved my spot. The total cost for the exam was only $15 and the FCC license was valid for 10 years!

I showed up to the exam and there were a few of the administrators sitting in front. We handled the initial paperwork and before I realized it, I was in the middle of my exam. The volunteer examiners (VE) were incredibly knowledgeable as expected. What I didn't count on was their friendliness and their eagerness to help. I finished my exam and went to the front of the classroom to hand it into the VE staff. It was graded within a few minutes and I was told that I passed!

I struck up a conversation with the top VE for this exam session. He offered to help me get educated for emergency scenarios. Little did he know the door that he had just opened… 😉

In the Ham community, the seasoned operators who assist newbies like me are called “Elmers.” I now had an Elmer– and man does he know his stuff! His call sign is W2OU and he has patiently, in layman's terms, taught me about Ham Radio; specifically under emergency scenarios. Ham Radio is extremely versatile so there is never a one-size-fits-all all. However, the fact that we can configure amateur radio to our personal needs, makes it a necessary means of communication for anyone striving to be fully prepared.

As I continue to learn about Ham Radio and apply it to my current SHTF plan, the more I feel that everyone focused on preparedness should earn their Ham Radio license.

Here are my 10 reasons why I feel that every prepper should be a ham radio operator:

1: Social Networking

Ham Radio was one of the first social networking platforms. During an emergency situation, we may need to barter for goods and services. Being able to reach out to a network of trusted Ham operators… could mean the difference in not only surviving a SHTF situation but to able to do so in as much comfort as possible.

We can act like we are the biggest and baddest individuals in the preparedness world but when a loved one needs something urgently and we are unable to provide a solution… It can easily tear us apart inside by taking away our mental fortitude. That aspect alone can turn you from an asset into a liability for your family and/or group.

Ham Radio Training: The Serious Survivalist’s Most Critical “Life-Line”?

2: Ham Radios Are Packed With Emergency Related Options

Ham Radios come packed with all sorts of options these days. Even a standard handheld VHF/UHF radio, which you can get for under $30 on Amazon, is bundled with useful features. Besides its obvious transmitting and receiving capabilities, you can also listen to standard news stations. When you need some R&R time, you can even tune into your favorite FM music station. Some radios have impressive flashlight features with additional sirens & strobes to utilize if you need rescue.

With a couple of cables and simple modifications, you can send texts and emails from your Ham Radio. With all of the useful features on the newer Ham Radios, you can think of them as an additional compact and lightweight survival kit.

Ham Radio Training: The Serious Survivalist’s Most Critical “Life-Line”?

3: Listen In On Police, Fire & First Responder Frequencies

In an emergency, listening to what the local Police and other first responders are communicating about is crucial for your short-term planning. It can help you figure out whether it is best to hunker down at your current location or should you and your family bug out! This can also boost your security needs by knowing if looting and break-ins are occurring in your neck of the woods.

There are organizations like NOAA, ARES, MARS, FEMA, RACES, The Red Cross, Salvation Army, and many others that are great resources for life-saving information. In an emergency, I can even monitor the Marine radio channels so that I can evaluate the info coming out of the local ports in the area.

Ham Radio Training: The Serious Survivalist’s Most Critical “Life-Line”?

4: Getting Started With Ham Radio Is Cheap

I already mentioned that you can get started with local Ham Radio communication with a $30 radio and a $15 license exam fee. But like most things related to preparedness… The more skills that you possess, the more options that you have available to you.

Seasoned Ham Radio operators can build their own antennas for a few dollars. They even build radios (transceivers) that can reach other Hams all over the world!

The inexpensive aspect is ideal because it makes it easier to get your family or group members active. The more friends that have a Ham license, the more prone that you will be to use your radios and refine this valuable skill. Even when on a regular camping trip, it is refreshing to be able to talk on the radio without listening to screaming children and grown men acting like fools on the channels.

The fact that you need a license to operate a Ham Radio tends to keep the weekend warriors at bay which is certainly a plus. I take my preparedness training time seriously, there is no need to waste it on others whose mission vastly differs from mine.

Ham Radio Training: The Serious Survivalist’s Most Critical “Life-Line”?

5: Legally Practice Your Ham Radio Skills

A certain thought process seems to form when I bring up Ham Radio in a conversation with non-licensed Hams. It's humorous now because when I look back, I had similar thoughts about getting a Ham Radio license. It goes something like this:

“What the hell do I need to waste time studying for an exam when I can use the Ham Radio in any emergency legally?”

The fact that anyone can operate a Ham Radio in an emergency, licensed or not, is certainly true. What seems to go by the wayside is the fact that if you can not operate legally in a training scenario, how the hell are you going to learn to effectively use your Ham Radio if SHTF?

There are frequencies, tones, band plans, and other factors that need to be learned and practiced. Even the ability to program your radio is crucial. Sure… there are plenty of software choices where you can sync all of your info from your PC. But in a SHTF scenario, you may not have that luxury. By legally transmitting, receiving, and operating your radio in a training environment, you will gain the skills needed when an emergency arises.

You wouldn't consider yourself prepared if you didn't practice your bushcraft and other survival skills continually, right? Your communication skills are no different and no less important.

Ham Radio Training: The Serious Survivalist’s Most Critical “Life-Line”?

6: A Skill That You Can Barter With

According to Wikipedia, only about 0.248% of the United States population are licensed Ham operators.

What this should mean to you is Bartering Power! You may get caught in a situation where you may need to become part of a larger group to survive. Skills and resources may be your only chance of gaining access to this much-needed lifeline. The fact that you are a versed Ham Radio operator, with some Ham gear, vastly increases your chances of being an asset to any group trying to be self-sustainable.

Just think, most of the people focused on preparedness are thinking the way that I initially thought. So basically, they are waiting for the disaster to happen for them to practice their skills. This logic is counterproductive but that doesn't make it any less true.

Knowing this gives you the upper hand. When we tend to do what others refuse to do… we give ourselves options. The more options that we have in any situation, the greater the chance of us coming out on top.

Ham Radio Training: The Serious Survivalist’s Most Critical “Life-Line”?

7: Ham Radios Will Still Function When The Grid Goes Down

When I talk to certain friends about Ham Radio they quickly reach into their pockets and pull out their mobile phones.

They look at me and say, “I have all I need right here in my hand.”

What they do not understand is that if SHTF, the cell towers will be one of the first things to go down. Two examples from my experience were the 9-11 attacks in NYC and Hurricane Sandy. When these events hit my area, it was impossible to reach anyone on my cell phone. During 9-11, there was so much congestion that all the cell tower circuits were overloaded rendering them useless. During Hurricane Sandy, cell towers were actually collapsing!

The one form of communication that remained in constant use, however, was Ham Radio.

The Ham operators were out in my neighborhood receiving and conveying life-saving information via their Ham Radios. The fact is that since the early 1900s, Ham Radio has made it through every major emergency and disaster. With a track record like that… we can see why Ham Radio is a valuable resource for any prepper.

Ham Radio Training: The Serious Survivalist’s Most Critical “Life-Line”?

8: Interact Frequently With Your Prepper Group

Let’s face it… Not everyone is as motivated as you are to work on their preparedness. Couple that with members of our group that may be some distance away and you can understand why it is difficult to coordinate your full group for hands-on training and meet-ups.  Standard operating procedures are vital for effective group planning and everyone needs to be in the know for it to work.

What many preppers with a Ham Radio license do, is hold weekly netmeetings over the Ham Radio frequencies. This will kill 2-birds with one bullet… You will be able to convey and share vital information about updates to your group plan, while simultaneously working on your Comms skills.

Ham Radio Training: The Serious Survivalist’s Most Critical “Life-Line”?

9: Locate Other Groups Via Radio Direction Finding

In a SHTF situation, knowing who is around you with transmitting capability is vital. It can be a group that you can barter with for needed resources. Or… It can be the flip side of the coin. Not all groups will be friendly in an emergency situation. Being able to do a bit of recon to know where their base camp is will give you the upper hand.

By utilizing your Ham Radios, directional antennas, and some know-how, you can effectively triangulate the position of where the “others” are operating from. This skill is even a part of the Boy Scouts of America’s Radio merit badge requirements.

There are also competitions held around the world called Foxhunting. Ham operators compete in a race that involves orienteering with a map & compass and directional finding with Ham gear. Having a Ham license you allows you to compete in these types of events. By competing in these events, you will learn and refine the skills needed to fare much better in any emergency situation.

Ham Radio Training

10: Getting A Ham Radio License Is Easier Than Ever

Up until recently, you had to learn Morse Code to get your Ham Radio license. That was a deal breaker for many who were interested in Amateur Radio. Luckily for most of us… that requirement was scrapped making the exam much more appealing to newbies entering the Ham world. The exam for the first two levels of Ham Radio licensing (Technician & General) consists of answering multiple choice questions. So… much of the “stress” has been taken out of the process.

There are Ham Radio exam study apps for both Android & iOS that are free, just do a quick search on your phone. Many study guides and practice exam websites are also free of charge.

One of the most popular guides is not free of charge but is an awesome resource to keep with your COMM gear. It is The ARRL Ham Radio License Manual. If you cannot access your smart device, having a book is always key.

If you search for a local Ham Radio club they will be able to either offer you free Ham Radio classes or at the very least, point you in the closest direction to find them.

Ham Radio operators, as a whole, are eager to assist those interested in their much cherished “hobby.” They offer their time, free of charge, and tend to hold your hand through the learning process. When I look back at some of the questions that I initially posed to my Elmer, W2OU, I realize that the man has the patience of a saint! Whatever I ask of him, no matter how idiotic the question may be… He is always there with a detailed explanation or with the resources for me to find the answer on my own.

Ham Radio Training

Wrapping Up

I have only scratched the top layer of Ham Radio for preparedness with this article. There are literally books written on this subject. Once you get your Ham Radio license, there are countless opportunities for you to learn and become proficient. Some prepper Hams want to focus on bugging out with their Comms and others plan to Bug-in. Some want to be able to check on their family in Europe while others just want to be able to reach their solar-powered, local repeaters when SHTF. Whatever your focus may be, you have endless resources currently available for free online.

Take a look at the Amateur Radio Relay League's website for up-to-date information on getting started. If you are a YouTuber, take a look at a channel that I visit often which is GUERRILLACOMM. The creator is a fellow Marine and as you would expect from a Marine… He leads from the front! For another informative channel, full of great Ham info related to preparedness, go to Commsprepper.

Bottom Line

If you want to really be prepared for any emergency, Comms options will go a long way in helping you get there. There are countless options available to you once you earn your ticket. You may choose to opt for communications within your community by using a simplex or local repeater. While others will want to tinker more with their Ham gear and communicate across the globe using the lower frequency bands. The choice is yours. But you need to be in the game, by earning your license, to discover and refine what is best for you.

73, -Hg (W2NTC)

Ham Radio Training: The Serious Survivalist’s Most Critical “Life-Line”

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Editor’s Note: This post was originally published on Feb 7, 2017, and has been updated for quality and relevancy.

10 Responses to :
Ham Radio Training: The Serious Survivalist’s Most Critical “Life-Line”

  1. Coach Helder says:

    I hope that you enjoyed reading my article. If you have any questions, please comment below.
    -Hg (W2NTC)

  2. Jimbo says:

    Great article, thanks! I’ve always thought about getting into HAM, maybe I’ll give it another look.
    In my limited understanding, you would need to put your signal through a repeater in order to send/receive long range communications, correct? Would this make your conversations public for anyone to listen to? What are your thoughts for that in a survival situation?

    1. Coach Helder says:

      Thank you Jimbo, I appreciate the kind words!

      As far as longer distances over (VHF & UHF) local comms, you would need to use a repeater. Now repeaters have certain tones or codes that you put in, depending on the repeater, in order to get access. Most of these codes are readily available in books, Apps, websites, etc. Keep in mind that some groups even build their own solar powered “simplex” repeaters that fulfill their preparedness needs and are able to operate even if the main repeaters in the area are down or in continual use. (Noisy)

      As far as the above mentioned codes… They are not meant for private communications, they are mainly used to make sure that you are reaching the repeater that you actually want to reach. Some repeaters have the same frequency as other repeaters that are located in close proximity. By putting in the proper tones, you can rest assured that you are sending your signal to the right repeater.

      Amateur Radio bands are not private, anyone can listen in. That is a main reason for us to setup protocols, within our groups and families, so that we can use certain words or phrases that would not be easily understood by others. Examples would be: our designated meetup locations, what supplies we may be running low on, security breaches, etc..

      That is basically my lay-person explanation and I hope that it helps.

      Thanks again for taking the time to comment!
      -Hg (W2NTC)

  3. AJR says:

    Great article.

    Late last year I got my technician license and also joined a local radio club. As you pointed out everyone is very helpful.

    Last month I was asked by a club director to be a ham operator during the miami marathon at mile marker 22. I didn’t think I was up to it, but they members assured me I was, even though I recently received my license.

    My mission was to relay any medical emergency information to net control as well as check in at regular intervals with updates on the race, etc.

    I handled more than 6 medical emergencies as well as several other requests for assistance. Not only was this fun, but it was a trail by fire for a newbie. Real experience in the field under stressful conditions.


    1. Coach Helder says:

      Excellent! Congrats on passing your Trial By Fire! It is definitely impressive and extremely helpful to all of those involved in the marathon. It’s certainly something to be proud of.

      Thank you for your support!
      -Hg (W2NTC)

  4. Frank Zhong says:

    Hmm… you gave me a lot to think about Coach, I’ll be looking into this for sure! I love learning about preparation and never heard about HAM radio before you informed me.

    1. Coach Helder says:

      Excellent Frank! I’m glad that I was able to “introduce” you to Amateur Radio.
      If you choose to earn your Ticket/License, feel free to contact me if you need any assistance.

      Enjoy your weekend!

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