Because of my position in the prepper and homesteading community, I have the privilege of being able to speak to others frankly and openly about their degree of preparedness. So often I am pleased to hear that each person or family is working towards improving their level of readiness in each of the basic areas of water, food, shelter, protection and medical preps. But if there is one area that most of us seem to be lacking it is communications. Because communications can be a technical, expensive and somewhat confusing area for most of us non-radio geeks, it tends to get regulated to the “some-day” list. Given the extreme importance of being able to communicate is an emergency situation, it is just unacceptable to not have at least a basic level of communications in place. Today we are going to change that.
To do that, I am going to focus on an inexpensive, relatively non-technical way to get a basic level of communications for your preps; a pair of basic FRS/GMRS radio handsets. Undoubtedly you have seen these in the electronics section of many big box stores. Made by manufacturers such as Motorola, Uniden, Audiovox, Midland and others, these radios are fairly reliable, inexpensive, and easy to use. While limited in range and performance, these radios can be used to satisfy your need for basic communications until your equipment and knowledge on more advanced HAM radio systems can be obtained.
What Kind of Performance Should I Expect?
While many of the packages and online ads will scream “35 mile range!”, don’t believe it. While technically true, these ranges are for mountaintop to ground with no obstructions. In reality things like terrain, trees, structures and other radio interference greatly limit the range and practical effectiveness of these handhelds. Because all of these factors will vary depending on the situation, the best way to know what they will do for you is to get a good quality set of FRS/GMRS radios and try them out around the areas you will most likely be using them. Not real helpful, but it is the truth. However, a general rule of thumb is that most of these radios will get you between .5 mile and 1 mile in urban situations, and 1-2 miles in relatively unobstructed, flat open rural areas.
Test the radio in your actual environment to see what ranges YOU can expect
So What’s the Difference Between FRS and GMRS?
Without getting into an unnecessary technical explanation, FRS and GMRS operate on the same frequencies. Channels 1-7 are for both FRS & GMRS, 8-14 are FRS only and 15-22 are for GMRS only. Channels 1-14 are limited to .5 watt while channels 15-22 allow up to 50 watts. Most of the FRS/GMRS radios we are discussing have 2 watts max power and automatically limit themselves to .5 watt when used on channels 1-14. You technically need a GMRS license to operate on channels 15-22 and it is available for about $80 on the FCC website. It is good for your immediate family for 5 years. Of course in most true emergency or TEOTWAWKI situations the license point is moot, but you should know what is required by the FCC. I have oversimplified this on purpose, but you can research FRS/GMRS more once you begin moving on to the next level of your communications plan.
What Should I look for in a Handset?
Personally, I look for a quality unit by a solid manufacturer. For me that’s Motorola, but many of the other bands are fine too. Check the reviews and buy accordingly. My next consideration is batteries. I have standardized on AA batteries for my preps whenever possible, so I look for that in my radios. Many, like my personal radios the Motorola MR350R , have a proprietary NiMh battery pack that can be swapped out for 3 AA batteries if needed. I would avoid radios that can’t use a standard size battery. Also be sure to have a reliable means to recharge your batteries if the power is out. Solar panel re-chargers are the most popular for these situations. I also like to have a VOX feature on my radios. When turned on, the radio will automatically transmit when it hears a sound. This will allow for hands free communication in a lot of circumstances. Some have even used this feature as a long range baby monitor.
Practical Uses and Limitations?
Because of the limited range, these units do not diminish the need for a good HAM radio setup and the knowledge to use it properly. However, having a reliable device that allows close distance communications can be invaluable. Imagine having no power and you and your family or group is together at your place of shelter. Without radios, you are limited to shouting distance communication distances. With a set of simple FRS/GMRS radios you have increased the range to likely cover your entire homestead or general perimeter. Every trip to get fresh water, empty the trash or use the facilities no longer cuts you off from the rest of the group. Even simple trips to the neighbors can be done with a little more peace of mind. A basic lookout post becomes much more effective at securing the rest of the group than would otherwise be possible. While certainly not a substitute for more secure means of communication, it is certainly better that shouting! They can also be used for close vehicle to vehicle communications if the need to travel arises.