OFF-GRID HAM RADIO: Simple Emergency Communication When the Grid Goes Down

Off Grid Emergency Ham Radio

One of the topics that I receive the most email questions about is Off-Grid Communication, specifically Ham Radio. A lot of readers are either confused or want to know why Ham Radio is even relevant in today’s digital age. While advances in technology have definitely caused some to lose interest in the hobby, I believe Ham Radio is even more important today – mainly because of people’s dependence on technologies that are anything but reliable during an emergency.

During a grid down scenario, or even during a short-term disaster where cell towers become clogged by a flood of emergency traffic, Ham Radio is still one of the most reliable forms of communication out there. It’s also something that I turn to on a daily basis for unfiltered news from around the world.

Low Power Communication: How Ham Radio will save you when the Grid Goes Down

One of the main benefits of Ham Radio is its reliability. During a disaster, when other forms of communication have been knocked out, chances are the Ham bands are going to be alive and well.

The video below shows an emergency Ham Radio setup that can help keep communication going even after the grid goes down. The setup can be thrown into a small bag (or milk crate, as seen in the video), and deployed anywhere in the world.

The Radio itself has a number of low-power settings, and can be operated at 10, 5, 2.5, 1 or 0.5 watts of power. It only requires a simple wire antenna to operate (we use a slinky in the video), and can be used to communicate with people from around the globe.

My Off-Grid, Portable Emergency Ham Radio Station

What you see in the video:

The setup is pretty simple, and for the most part (minus the radio, and the solar charger) it can be made with items from around your house.

  • Solar Charger: iLAND TREK – Solar Charger & Battery
  • Radio: Icom IC-703
  • Antenna: Simple Slinky Dipole
  • Coax: Regular household TV Coax
  • Light: Blackfire Clamplight
  • Clamps: Nasty Clamps – This is what’s holding the iPhone and the mic in the picture. These clamps are awesome; I use them all the time when filming and I’ve found a ton of uses for them.

For more information on Ham Radio and Emergency Communication, check out these articles:

36 Comments

  1. Lee
    November 30, 2014 at 8:51 pm

    This very misleading & oversimplified article does not mention that QRP (low power) operation on HF requires a great deal of skill and patience, nor is it particularly reliable.

    Also, “ordinary” TV coax has 75 ohm impedance and is not suitable for use on a 50 ohm radio/antenna, especially at low power where you cannot afford inefficiency.

    This is a horribly written article.

    • Off Grid Survival
      December 1, 2014 at 7:52 am

      This “misleading & oversimplified” article is not for the Ham who “thinks” he knows everything. It’s an introduction to give people an idea of what they can do during an emergency. Most people who come here are not hams, so using a bunch of technical jargon isn’t going to do a lot to help people who are just getting into emergency communication.

      If you watched the video, I mention that this is not a perfect setup; but instead an example of what can be pulled together during an emergency where conditions are not going to be perfect. Instead of pretending that you know everything, maybe you should consider the fact that most disasters rarely go as planed, and if you can’t figure our how to make something like a TV coax work then maybe you probably aren’t really suited to deal with emergency situations!

      During an emergency are you really going to cry about an impedance mismatch? Or are you going to MAN UP, Cut the damn coax to fix the mismatch (which isn’t a mismatch or a big deal to begin with) add a balun, or let the radio’s damn antenna tuner deal with the SWR.

      As for your nonsensical comment about the 75 OHM Cable….

      A dipole can be efficiently fed with a 75 Ohm coax. A typical dipole is around 73 Ohms, and in actual practice it really doesn’t matter if your coax is 50 or 75 ohms for a dipole antenna ¬– ESPECIALLY DURING AN EMERGENCY.

      Prior to the 60s, about half of all hams used 75 ohm RG-11 coax; none of them were crying about their SWR or not being able to transmit. If you can’t figure out how to operate in less than perfect conditions maybe you need to study Antenna theory a little better, or start experimenting a little more which is kind of the point of Ham radio and why most people get into the hobby.

      • Ka1eec
        December 1, 2014 at 12:55 pm

        Also, don’t forget that back in the 1950’s most finals were tube and could handle a greater range of antenna impedance.

        If you do a little math, at 75 ohms impedance, that is simply an swr of 1.5 well within the range of modern transceivers.

    • Joe
      December 1, 2014 at 9:48 am

      And to add to what OGS said, which was spot on, not all of us have loads of money to spend so the TV Cable is just fine for those of us that want to save some money and do some actual experimentation. People have been using 75ohm for ever and doing just fine.

      And during extreme conditions TV cable is going to be a lot easier to find.

      • Chuck
        December 2, 2014 at 1:52 pm

        Right, and since the reason most dipoles are listed as 50-75 ohms is that it depends on how high they are off of electrical ground. So a dipole at 1/4 wave length off a “perfect” ground is 75 ohms (If I recall correctly) but it can and will vary quite a bit in real life. People get so wound are the axle about little stuff I think they forget that a lot of it just doesn’t matter that much. Like you said. The difference is only the difference between 1.5 and 1 to 1. In the real world that is a win.

    • Not Lee
      December 24, 2014 at 2:14 pm

      I didn’t see any misleading text in the article. Can you please point out said “misleading” part of the article. This was thrown together in an emergency. He says such.
      As for the cable it may not be suitable but it works in a pinch. Did you watch the video? He was able to pick up two different states on the unsuitable antenna. LOL :) we call people like you trolls back in the day of bulletin boards. Keep trolling on.

    • dave
      October 24, 2016 at 7:03 pm

      Its obvious u DON”T have a LICENSE!!!!

  2. Mike Crounse
    November 30, 2014 at 9:37 pm

    Would like more info on IC-703, RADIO ONLY. THANKS !

  3. george hill
    November 30, 2014 at 9:47 pm

    how about a price list and where to buy also what about a handheld unit?

  4. December 1, 2014 at 6:52 am

    Emergency communications by ham radio operators has saved the day during many disasters.
    Your choice of he Icom 703 is an excellent one, but may prove difficult in practice. The ‘703 is discontinued and may not be that easy to find because many of the hams Who have them are not interested in selling them. A good alternative is the Yaesu FT817. Though it only delivers 5 watts, it has an internal battery and modest charging requirements. Many hams charge them from solar arrays and a suitable regulator. These are still available new from some dealers

    • Off Grid Survival
      December 1, 2014 at 8:02 am

      Thanks Bill,

      I’ve had the 703 for awhile now and I’ve been looking for a replacement. I’ll have to look into the Yaesu FT817 it looks like a nice radio. Love that it covers 6 to 160M Bands, plus 2M & 70cm!

      • Art
        December 4, 2015 at 9:36 pm

        Another great radio is the FT-857. As small as an 817…but not QRP power. I use it for my “off the grid” communications. Nice article. There are good “go box” sites as well. Thanks

    • Mike
      December 1, 2014 at 10:02 pm

      Try using the Yaesu FT-897D. It is set up to run natively on 12 VDC, is basically a hand held base station with all modes, and will NOT allow you to burn out the finals. It is almost fool proof!

  5. scoutsout23
    December 1, 2014 at 9:14 am

    In your video you kept saying 10 meters. Is this correct or did you mean 10 kilometers?

    • Off Grid Survival
      December 1, 2014 at 9:22 am

      10 meters is the band.

  6. Craig
    December 1, 2014 at 3:47 pm

    Yes, 75 ohms can be used for coax, but anyone putting together a bug-out bag would be well advised to toss in some 50 ohm coax (RG-8X is fine, especially for HF, and doesn’t take much space or weight).

    You might also consider adding the newer IC-706 MKIIG to your list (much easier to find in the used market than IC-703 units). It has the advantage of both 2m and 70cm (FM and SSB) plus HF, and the power levels can be adjusted down from 100 watts (on HF), 50 watts (on VHF), and 20 watts (on UHF).

    I also own a Yaesu FT-817 (but the screen is tiny and hard to see). It does have the advantage of being able to be powered by “AA” batteries, but if you have the capability the added power of the IC-706MKIIG units and the much larger screen make them the choice in my book.

  7. The hostile tone of the discourse here makes me glad that their are Amateur Radio Nets populated with Hams who are already prepared and regularly practice for disasters and emergencies. Being prepared in advance does not require tons of money and it beats being stuck in MacGyver mode after disaster has already struck. The 10 meter question by “scoutsout23” kind of puts the whole thing in perspective. I hope when the stuff does hit the fan blades that the practiced and prepared Hams are not interfered with by a bunch of unlicensed MacGyver wanna-bes.

    • C-rock
      December 22, 2015 at 5:53 pm

      Absolutely. The average untrained joe is not going to be able to turn this on and use it

  8. ssgmarkcr
    December 2, 2014 at 5:22 am

    Howdy OGS,

    Came across your article on the QRZNow website. A very nice looking setup. It looks like you have a nice size battery bank. Have tried running off of it continuously to see how long it will last?
    I have hopes of picking up an FT-817 come tax time. I’m going to have some challenges due to me living in an apartment at present. You have a very interesting site and I’m looking forward to learning what I can here.

    -73
    Mark AD0KV

  9. Craig
    December 2, 2014 at 4:37 pm

    Mike,

    A friend of mine has the Yaesu FT-897D and loves it (sad that Yaesu just discontinued it), but everyone that I know that owns one likes it. If I didn’t already own 4 Icoms I’d probably add it to my list (still might, as Christmas is just around the corner).

    Don,

    With all of the available band space, it’s doubtful that the “MacGyver wanna-be’s” would even be able to locate most of us (especially on HF). Most of them can’t even program their VHF/UHF radios (Chinese or Japanese), and don’t understand PL tones or splits, etc., etc. I doubt you’ll have very much to worry about so long as you don’t count on FRS channels as your primary communication link.

  10. joe
    December 3, 2014 at 9:52 am

    What’s the output of the solar panel/battery?

  11. Chris
    December 3, 2014 at 6:52 pm

    Pretty slick for something you can cobble together under emergency circumstances. I need more solar panels…

    • Chris
      December 3, 2014 at 6:53 pm

      Nice job BTW Rob.

      • Off Grid Survival
        December 3, 2014 at 7:42 pm

        Thanks!

  12. Steve
    December 4, 2014 at 5:44 am

    After seeing some of the negative comments, I wanted to throw my 2 cents in. Many Ham Operators are on a budget, shoot, I’m a General Class and still only have a 2 Meter/ 70cm rig. The author says this is an introduction. Frankly, while not being the “right” coax, etc. we need to remember that the biggest positive of Ham Radio is that we are innovaters. To me, this is an awesome homebrew setup, and I’m very impressed with the article and the innovations. Thank you for sharing this information, and keep it up.

    Steve
    KF5YGB

    • Off Grid Survival
      December 4, 2014 at 9:24 am

      Thanks Steve,
      I think some people forget about the homebrew aspect of ham radio.

  13. Phil G0RKF
    December 11, 2014 at 3:45 pm

    I just love it when the black box operators start getting clever. I forgot to pack my coax one trailer camping holiday and operated for two weeks using loudspeaker wire as balanced twin feeder, connected to the balanced output of my ATU and terminating in a 1/2 wave for 80M. It loaded up on all bands from 80 through to 10 with a bit of ingenuity. It was configured as a flat dipole, sloper or inverted vee depending on where we were staying and what natural supports were available. Worked most of Europe, West Coast USA and New Zealand with that ‘lash-up!’ Why loudspeaker wire you might ask? I found a 100m drum at a flea market and paid very little money for it.

  14. Norm WB2GGM
    February 1, 2015 at 1:00 am

    I have used my FT817 for more than 10 years in Radio Amateur Civil Emergency Services (RACES) drills as well as demonstrations for schools, Boy Scouts, 4-H,and other groups/agencies and found it be a good performer.
    I have added an MFJ Tiny Tuner to my go-bag and a piece of copper pipe with 14 gauge copper wire for a ground rod. This has allowed me to use many different antenna options. I like to think “out side the box” for antennas using the tuner to correct for impedance mismatches. I use the internal SWR meter on the FT817 and have found it to be quite adequate. Here are a few of the things tat worked well:
    The tree stand climbing stick antenna array. As I am an avid deer hunter, it hit me that I could combine things from both activities. I mounted 2 3/4X24 dipole mounts and 1 3/4/24 mirror mount to the top section of the climbing stick. Using mobile Ham Stick® antennas, it gives me options to work 2 HF bands and + VHF and UHF. The climbing stick comes in 4 foot sections and just ratchet straps to tree, fence post, or light pole making it a rapid deployment system. It takes only 5 minutes to set up.
    The extension cord antenna. I took a small piece of line cord and soldered a PL259 plug on one end and an in-line 3 prong socket on the other. The PL259 plugs in to the tuner,and then you can plug in any length of extension cord, and throw it up in a tree. Our county was running an emergency drills few years back and gave our RACES group the task of getting messages through to our state emergency management (EMO) office in Albany, the federal EMO in Buffalo, and the FCC in Gettysburg.
    I used this setup and the FT817 running 5 watts, and was able to pass messages to all 3 entities via a regional traffic net on the 75 meter band. The county officials were so impressed by that capability that they gave our group an office at the EMO and a yearly budget!
    These are only a few ideas. I am sure that other hams have also come up with unique antenna solutions. Let’s see them. 73.

  15. kd7fqd
    February 7, 2015 at 6:31 am

    Hey Rob I just had an “a-ha” moment when I saw you used a slinky for your antenna “D’oh” why hadn’t I thought of that before

    • Norm WB2GGM
      February 9, 2015 at 6:52 am

      Back in the 1970’s, there was a Slinky Dipole sold commercially. It came with center coaxial value as a creeping and clips that held the coils at each end together for proper tuning for each band. I bought one to use in my attic and it worked reasonably well.
      73

      • Norm WB2GGM
        February 9, 2015 at 7:21 am

        That was a coaxial balun not value. Also it was a feedpoint – not creeping. My Kindle sometimes has a mind of its own. Sorry.

  16. Russ
    August 21, 2015 at 4:01 am

    Don’t ya love keyboard commandos

  17. Mike KD0TLN
    August 24, 2015 at 9:29 am

    Those interested in ham radio emergency communications I highly recommend checking out USNERDOC at YouTube. His invaluable ham radio videos are what sparked my interest in emergency communication. He has excellent information in emergency and prepper communication. He favors the Yeasu FT-817, Yeasu FT-857D and the Yeasu VX-8 handheld. Check out his channel.
    -73

  18. Quentin
    May 19, 2016 at 10:06 pm

    I seem to remember the ARRL antenna handbook describing an antenna made from old style tv dual core “zip” antenna cable. I tried it on 27 meg, didn’t get out well, reception was iffy too. My Ham brother in law said my math was out. Bugger, my fault, figures. In an emergency, any signal beats no comms.
    Back in the 80’s and earlier in Australia we had CREST Citizens Radio Emergency Service Team (I think it was service team. This was 30 odd years back!) CREST supplied emergency comms when official comms wouldn’t work, and they did it with 27 meg am and ssb cb with a max of 5 watts output in ssb PEP. This cat has interstate comms with a jerry rigged unit! What’s the problem? Good display of ingenuity using household items and a transceiver to get comms. Anybody really think the mobile phone (cell phones) net will be operational if the power grid goes tits up?

  19. Wayne Burdick
    June 3, 2016 at 10:46 am

    A quick-deployment alternative to coax is to simply attach a wire directly to the radio and toss it into a tree. Lay another wire on the ground as a counterpoise.

    I’ve been using this method for years with the 10-watt-class HF radios my company designs (Elecraft KX3, and more recently the KX2, which is about half the size/weight). Both rigs have an internal, wide-range antenna tuner (ATU) option. At this power level, you can get away without any coax at all; just use a BNC-to-binding post adapter to get from the antenna jack to the wires.

    73,
    Wayne
    N6KR

  20. William
    September 25, 2016 at 1:40 pm

    Good day, will the goal zero 400 power an IC2300 or an IC2200?

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