In a future ‘grid down’ situation, your normal cell phones will almost certainly not be working. These days we’ve grown so accustomed to being always in touch with everyone, no matter where we are or where they are, that we’ll almost certainly want to recreate some form of ubiquitous communications, at least with other members of our retreat community and possibly with friendly nearby neighbors, too.
There is a wide range of different types of radios that can give you this ability, ranging from little more than $10 each and up from there to $1,000+ each. Many of these radio transceivers (ie a radio that both transmits and receives) require some sort of official FCC license to operate. Some types of license simply involve paying a fee to the FCC, other types of license require you to pass a skills/knowledge test about radio theory and practice. Other types of radio require no license at all.
The good news is that the types of radio that require no license at all (there are four main types – CB, MURS, FRS and GMRS) are generally the least expensive, most readily available, and probably all that you need for most of your survival requirements. Sure, the fancy and expensive Ham and commercial radios might be more appealing, more powerful, and more functional, but unless you’re going to go through the necessary licensing steps to qualify for operating these types of radios (anyone can buy and own these radios without having to show or prove their licensing authority to operate them, but as soon as you press the transmit key, you’re committing a moderately serious offense if you aren’t already appropriately licensed) you’re best to leave them alone.
See the next section for why we strongly recommend you follow all FCC restrictions, requirements and regulations.
Don’t Break the FCC Licensing Laws
We always urge you to conform to all laws, even in a period ‘without rule of law’, because you don’t want to create any type of vulnerability, either before, during or after any type of Level 1/2/3 situation. You might think ‘WTSHTF no-one is going to care if my radio is licensed or not’ but you’d only be partly right.
First of all, what happens prior to when things all go wrong? How can you practice and rehearse for such situations with your radios without breaking the law if you don’t have the appropriate licenses? You’ll definitely want to get familiar with your radios, and the coverage areas they provide you, and which channels are most free of interference; that will require extensive use of your radios long before any type of problem scenario.
Secondly, there will be patches of semi/pseudo law and order, even in the depths of a Level 2 or 3 situation. If you’ve ever talked to a policeman, you know they boast ‘We can always arrest you for something’. Maybe that’s true, but don’t make it any easier than unavoidable for them to find a reason to arrest you.
If you and the interim authorities get offside of each other (and we do foresee unavoidable tensions between the unprepared majority and the well prepared minority, with the former seeking any excuse or authority at all to confiscate food and supplies from the latter), you desperately don’t want to give them any sort of reason to confiscate any of your prepped supplies, and/or to ‘fine’ you or lock you up.
Thirdly, at the end of any such situation and with the return of normalcy, anyone you may have upset during the lawless period can now attack you – hopefully not physically, but definitely legally, using any of the laws that you may have broken during the crisis situation.
Can you rely on the grey suited faceless government bureaucrats – perhaps the same people who were going hungry while you were restricting your own limited supplies for your family – saying ‘Oh, don’t worry about it, they were tough times for us all, the important thing is you survived, never mind how many laws you broke in doing so’?
The Four Types of Unlicensed Radio Services Anyone Can Use
As we mentioned above, there are four main types of radio service which you can use without needing a license. All of these are covered by Part 95 of the FCC’s regulations.
We recommend you concentrate on the FRS and GMRS type of radios, so let’s explain the differences between the four radio services and why FRS/GMRS is probably the best choice for most people.
You probably remember CB radios (CB stands for ‘Citizens Band’) from the 1970s – they became very popular after movies like ‘Smokey and the Bandit’ and many people had them in their cars. But after only a brief period of general popularity, they faded back into obscurity and while they are still out there, and while they are still used by many truckers, these days most ‘normal’ people never have any contact with CB radios.
CB radios can have as good or even better range than FRS/GMRS radios when outdoors but not so good indoors (and are still basically limited by line-of-sight considerations), but they require very large antennas for good range (about 9′ as a good compromise length – a quarter wavelength). This is practical at a ‘base station’ – ie in your retreat, it is possible in a vehicle, but is very much less practical in a portable radio – a ‘walkie talkie’.
Furthermore, over the last decade or more, radio manufacturers have lost interest in CB radio (there are fewer companies making them, fewer models available, and very little in the way of new models or feature), and there are not many high-end models available as portable sets. That’s not to say you don’t still have a reasonable selection, as you can see from Amazon’s several pages of listings.
If you only wanted communications between vehicles and base stations, maybe CB radio is still a possibility, but why would you want to limit yourself to only base and vehicle services? Whatever you use has to be useful in all three types of applications – base, mobile, and portable.
For the sake of completeness, we’ll tell you some more about CB radio. It was established back in the 1940s, and originally was a licensed service. In 1983 they became unlicensed (largely because during their surge of popularity in the 1970s, many people didn’t bother licensing them and it seems the FCC gave in to the inevitable), so now anyone can operate a CB radio without needing an FCC license. The radios can be used for both business and personal communications.
There are 40 AM channels in a range from 26.965 MHz to 27.405 MHz (channel 9 – 27.065 MHz is an emergency calling channel, and channel 19 – 27.185 MHz, is a general ‘hailing’ channel to contact other people). The channels from 36 – 40 are often used in a SSB form which gives the signal more range and power (all channels could be used in SSB mode but by convention only the upper five channels are used that way).
CB radios can have external antennas, and are limited to 4W in power, or 12W in SSB mode. In years gone by, it was common to see a lot of illegally modified CB radios – typically either with too much transmitting power (some would go as high as 1,000 Watts) or tweaked for non-standard frequency operation. Even now, with only a bit of searching, you could probably find ‘linear amplifiers’ for power boosting and radios capable of transmitting on non-official frequencies. But if that appeals, maybe you should re-read the preceding section on keeping everything legal!
The Multi-Use Radio Service, or MURS for short, is the newest of the four services. It was established by the FCC in 2002. There are five VHF FM frequencies (in a range from 151.820 MHz to 154.600 MHz) and they can be used for business or personal use, but can not be patched into the normal telephone system.
MURS radios are limited in power to 2W, and can have external antennas. Repeaters are not allowed.
MURS is an okay alternative to FRS/GMRS, although with 2W maximum power, they may have more difficulty reaching their theoretical maximum (ie line of sight) range). Unfortunately, there are very few MURS radios out there, and they tend to be more expensive than the FRS/GMRS radios, so we prefer to focus on FRS/GMRS to the exclusion of MURS.
Here’s the Amazon page of MURS radios. Currently it seems there’s nothing less than $80 per radio, whereas the FRS radios can be had for as little as $10 each.
Here’s an FCC summary explanation of MURS service.
The FRS (Family Radio Service) was instituted in 1996. The rules associated with it are designed to allow for only very limited range communications, which can be for either business or personal purposes. The radios can not have external antennas, and are limited to a maximum power of 0.5W.
There are 14 FM different frequencies, the first seven of which are shared with GMRS radios. They range from 462.5625 MHz to 467.7125 MHz.
Manufacturers have started offering FRS radios at amazingly low prices – it is not uncommon to see a pair of them being sold for $50 or less. As you can see, Amazon has a lot of different FRS radios, with some as inexpensive as $20 a pair.
You will also see that the radios are being advertised as having range capabilities up to 36 miles. Do not believe this nonsense claim. Well, to be more specific, if you were up the top of a ship’s mast on the unobstructed ocean, or if you were on the top of a mountain, and looking over to a person that you could see (through a telescope) free of obstructions on the top of another ship mast or mountain, then maybe – just possibly maybe – you could get a signal to punch through.
But for the real world, with obstructions between you and the people you’re wanting to communicate with, you’ll probably get something less than a mile, and often very much less.
One more thing about these offensively incorrect statements about range capabilities. Don’t think that a radio with a claimed range of 36 miles is better than one with a claimed range of 24 miles, or any other range. Typically there are the same identical radio electronics inside the different models of FRS radio; the main difference is the packaging, the marketing hype, and the price.
So the good news about FRS is that the radios are very inexpensive. The bad news is the radios are good for only very short-range communication. But even the lack of range is a mixture of good and bad news. You don’t want strangers, five miles away, to be able to listen in on your communications or even to know you’re out there at all. If low powered FRS radios give you the range you need around your retreat property, but don’t reach much further, then that is a good rather than bad thing.
Also, with low transmitting power comes longer battery life. There’s a lot to like about FRS radios, and you need to realize that sometimes short-range is a good rather than a bad thing.
Here’s an FCC summary explanation of FRS service.
Yes, we’ve deliberately left what we view to probably be the best radio service until last. The General Mobile Radio Service has the same 1940s origins as CB radio, and, the same as CB radio, has evolved over the years. Although CB’s evolution has brought us to an easily understood point today, the same is not quite as true for GMRS, which is in a period of regulatory transition at present.
The Evolving History of GMRS
The distinctive thing about GMRS is that it uses similar, and in some cases, identical frequencies to the FRS radios, but usually at greater power and with fewer restrictions. This meant that it didn’t take too long after the release of FRS frequencies in 1996 for manufacturers to start selling dual-purpose radios – higher power for GMRS and lower power if you switched the radio to its lower power setting for FRS.
But whereas FRS has always been a license-free service, back in 1996 GMRS required a license – either a business or a family license – to be used. So the manufacturers were being slightly naughty selling radios that combined FRS and GMRS capabilities, and selling them at retail rather than through specialty radio stores, and with only the smallest of small print somewhere telling the purchaser that to use all the frequencies, and on high power, it was necessary to now go fill out a form and pay a license fee every five years to the FCC. The five-year license fee ($85) is often very much more than the person spent to buy two or more of the walkie-talkie radios.
You’ll be unsurprised to learn that lots of people bought the more powerful combo radios, and almost none of them bothered to get FCC licenses. At first, the pre-existing GMRS licensees were appalled at their quiet uncongested ‘sensible’ channels suddenly getting shared with unregulated users, often young children just having fun in the back yard, and the FCC tried to enforce its licensing laws.
But it became plain to the FCC that, just like with CB radio licensing in the 1970s, this was an unwinnable fight, and what could it do, anyway? Even the nastiest FCC official didn’t really think it fair to send a family – mom, dad, and the kids too – to federal prison for two years because they’d bought a pair of radios at Office Depot or Costco or Target or wherever, didn’t read all the pages of fine print, and were just simply having fun with them. And the cost of trying to go after probably hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of law breakers was just impossible for even the federal government to consider.
So they unofficially gave up on enforcing the requirement for licenses, and in 2010 published a proposal to officially remove the licensing requirement for GMRS radios (and also to change power limits and some other things too). Strangely, the proposal has languished somewhere in the FCC and is still pending, unresolved, nearly three years later, as we write this in March 2013.
So at present the theory says you need to buy an $85 five-year license to use GMRS radios, but the FCC no longer seems to be enforcing this.
The Present Situation with GMRS Radios
GMRS radios are allowed to transmit up to 50W of power, although we’re unaware of any handheld GMRS devices that do this (they’d eat through batteries tremendously quickly, and might be dangerous in terms of too-strong RF emissions too close to you). Some of the base stations and mobile units do use this much power, though, and that really helps you punch your signal a bit further out, and through obstructions on the way.
GPS radios can have external antennas, and can be used by either the licensee’s family or the employees of a licensed business. We expect this will probably become ‘can be used for personal or business use’ once the requirement for licensing is removed. You can’t connect a GMRS radio into your phone system.
We’ll talk more about range another time, but suffice it to say that while more transmitter power doesn’t always guarantee more range, if all other things are equal, more power can often help provide additional range out to the end of ‘line-of-sight’. For a portable handheld transceiver and a short stubby antenna, with probably 1W or 2W of power, you’ll get similar or slightly better range than with an FRS unit.
Unique among these four radio types is permission to operate repeaters for GMRS radios. This can massively extend the range of a GMRS based system, allowing it to reach out potentially 50 or more miles, depending on the topography of the area in which you live.
There are 23 FM frequencies assigned to the GMRS series. Sixteen of these are in the form of eight frequency pairs for repeater operation, and the other seven frequencies are shared with FRS service. Frequencies range from 462.5500 MHz to 467.7250 MHz.
There are many GMRS radios to choose from, ranging from ‘consumer’ grade units that are usually dual purpose FRS/GMRS units up to ‘prosumer’, professional and commercial grade units. The consumer type dual purpose units cost little more than FRS-only radios, the high-end units can cost plenty more than $100 each.
There are two major points of differentiation between consumer and professional/prosumer/commercial units. The first is the more expensive radios have better receiver circuits and can take external antennas – these capabilities will have more impact on your radio’s effective range than its power output. The second is that the more expensive radios will be capable of operating in both ‘normal’ mode (what is termed ‘simplex’) and also in split mode, with different frequencies for sending and receiving, a mode which allows the radio to work with a repeater.
You can see Amazon’s extensive range of GMRS radios from the link.
As with the FRS radios, ignore the ludicrous claims of enormous ranges. Remember also – don’t think that, whatever the range truly is, that because one radio costs $40 and claims a 30 mile range that it ‘must’ be better than a radio costing $30 and claiming a 20 mile range – they probably have identical circuitry inside. More professional GMRS radios are typically sold by industrial and Ham radio manufacturers and are described as being in the 70cm band or UHF or will show the frequencies they can operate as ranging from somewhere below the start of the GMRS band to somewhere above the end of the GMRS band – sometimes as broad as 400 – 520 MHz.
Not all of these radios though are certified for use with GMRS service. The FCC might have certified them for Ham radio service (Part 97 of their regulations) and for private land mobile radio services (Part 90) but perhaps the manufacturer didn’t request Part 95 certification too. That may pose a slight ethical dilemma for you.
Become a Licensed Ham Radio Operator
If you want to be able to lawfully use more powerful and sophisticated radios (although, alas, they’ll be more expensive, too), if you’d like the flexibility of additional frequency bands (that fewer other people will be likely to be accessing or using too), and to have additional capabilities and longer ranges, then you probably should become a Ham radio operator.
The good news is that – these days – there’s no need to learn Morse code. For a basic ‘Technician’ Ham license you need to learn about some aspects of radio theory, law and operation, and then sit a test with 35 multi-choice questions for which you must get 26 correct.
You can see a list of about 400 multi-choice questions from which the 35 questions will be semi-randomly chosen in advance, making it easy to prepare for the test, and easy to pass it. There are two higher levels of Ham license you can also obtain, after passing two more exams.
We have a separate article that tells you all you need to know about how to become a licensed Ham radio operator.
Encryption, Scrambling, and Codes
The FCC forbids the use of encryption or scrambling (two words that essentially mean the same thing) or talking in code on these public access frequencies. But it does allow people to use codes such as the popular ’10 Code’, and as you’ll see if you do some research on the 10 codes, there are an enormous number of different codes, and some numbers mean different things in different areas for different user groups. Yes, 10-4 pretty much universally means ‘Okay, understood, agreed’ but beyond that, things get more arcane and individualized.
There are some walkie-talkies with built in encryption capabilities. You can legally buy these, but you can’t legally enable the encryption feature. That might sound stupid, but – hey – you can legally buy a sports car that will do 200 mph even if you’re not allowed to drive it at that speed anywhere.
If you want to draw attention to yourself, then start using encryption. That’s a sure way to end up with an unwelcome visit from an FCC Radio Inspector (there are legions of self-appointed ‘spies’ – Hams who monitor radio communications eagerly looking for violators they can report to the FCC for enforcement action). But if you want a low level of security you could use your own set of 10 codes, and you could also use some obfuscations – for example, maybe you could flip any bearings you give and say a number 180 degrees different, and maybe you could change numbers in some way too. ‘I see ten people six miles south of us’ might mean ‘I see five people three miles north of us’.
Some type of wireless communication service and strategy will be close to essential for life after TEOTWAWKI.
Ham radio gear is probably the best choice for the truly dedicated prepper, but if you have less time, less budget, and less technical skill, then GMRS radios are probably the second best choice.
Please see our detailed two part Buyer’s Guide to Walkie Talkies for information on how to choose the most appropriate units for your needs and budget.