There are many useful ham radios for preppers to use in both everyday life and on really bad days. This is why most discussions about the best radio for preppers, bugout bags, and surviving a zombie apocalypse are too broad. They tell us what the best walkie-talkie is, what the best weather radio is, what the best emergency radio is, and what the best shortwave radio is. They often list eight, nine, or even ten different radio options. It’s left to the reader to decide which one of those ten is the best.
But there really is one best ham radio for preppers.
In this article, I’m going tell you what it is and why. But first, we need to cover some basics.
First, it’s important to note that the best radio for preppers is a HAM RADIO because ham radios are the most versatile. A single ham radio combines all of the variations, features, and capabilities of the other radio services (FRS, GMRS, MURS, marine, CB, weather, shortwave, commercial broadcast).
Only ham radio addresses every communication need in a worst-case scenario.
And, there is ONE best ham radio for preppers. I’ll stake my life on it. Actually, I do stake my life on it because I carry it in my everyday carry (EDC) and bug-out bags.
I’ve deployed to provide amateur radio (ham radio) emergency communication during five hurricane scenarios between 2015 and 2020. The most notable time was in Puerto Rico after hurricane Maria wiped out the communication and electrical grid across the entire island. I carried, and relied on, this ham radio in each one. There are dozens of other less dire situations when I’ve carried that same radio. It’s never come close to failing.
Knowledge is Power
There’s a wise adage that says, “Your pack may be full, but there’s always room in your head.”
Knowledge in a survival situation isn’t just power, it is also imperative.
There are two types of knowledge in a worst-case scenario:
1) A skillset that has been honed over years of preparation
2) Awareness of real-time, actionable information as it happens, also known as situational awareness.
All of the gadgets in a bugout bag, including a ham radio, are useless, or at best ineffective, if you don’t know how to use them. Actually, much of the gear that we carry in our bugout bags and rucksacks is downright dangerous and life-threatening in the hands of someone who doesn’t know how to use it. Make sure that you have your skillset together and practiced before TEOTWAWKI. That’s the first part of survival knowledge, the skillset that has been honed over years of preparation. It’s the knowledge that you bring to the survival “party.”
The second part is knowing what’s going to happen at the party and what is happening during the party. It’s knowing the when, where and who of the party. While you’re at the party you need to know which are the hot conversations, who is interested in who, what’s the status of the snacks. There’s nothing worse than missing out on the wings because you didn’t have good intel about the jerk who loads them into his pockets. A good wingman and communication keep you in the know.
At a disaster or survival “party,” we need information input. Several types of radios provide incoming information: Emergency Alert radios, NOAA weather radios, over the air TV, etc. This information is valuable in that it can be transmitted over long distances measured in miles, but it’s passive, received only. There’s no way for the prepper to interact using these services, if needed.
Interactive or two-way communication is imperative. We need to coordinate efforts, provide status updates, contact first-responders, etc. Some types of radios (CB, MURS, FRS, GMRS, etc.) provide two-way communication, but are limited in usable distance and frequency range. VHF marine and aviation radios are capable of transmitting over several miles, but they’re relatively limited in frequency choice and not many people have access to them.
Even the most rudimentary, low cost ham radio has more frequency agility than all of those two-way radios listed above.
Ham radios can access all of these frequencies for reception: FM broadcast, NOAA weather radio, VHF maritime and aviation, business, and many first responder frequencies. This is why a ham radio is the clear choice for preppers.
What features must a radio have to be considered “the best ham radio for preppers”?
Let’s start by saying that there is no radio that will do EVERYTHING we want. There will have to be some compromise. But the radio that I’m going to tell you about can do everything that we need on a really bad day. The good news is, there’s only one “want” that this radio won’t meet, but more about that one thing later. We’ll begin with the needs, in no particular order.
- PORTABLE: Walkie-talkies are hands down the most portable two-way radios. Along with portability comes ergonomics. A radio that’s two large and heavy is a pain to carry around on a belt or in a bug out bag. (Here’s a great article about HOW TO MAKE A BUG OUT BAG.) But if it’s too small the controls can get “fiddly,” especially for large hands. Also, the smaller the radio, the less real estate for buttons and controls. This leads to multi-level menus which are counter-intuitive. Which brings us to…
- USER-FRIENDLY: This is one place where “channelized” radios with fewer frequencies might have an advantage over ham radios. With flexibility comes complexity. This is why earning a ham radio license is important. Think back to, “Your pack may be full, but there’s always room in your head.” Earning your ham radio license puts knowledge in your head. Practicing with ham radio after you have your license ingrains knowledge in your head. I teach an online class about how to pass your ham radio exam if you’re interested. You can find that here: https://www.outdoorcore.com/courses/the-ham-cram-ham-radio-zero-to-license-in-6-hours
Sure enough, the FCC isn’t going to care about licenses while civilization collapses all around us, but using a ham radio takes experience and practice. And practicing needs to happen before the melt-down of society. It’s illegal to practice transmissions on a ham radio before the FCC abandons all hope of enforcing regulations, so get your license and be prepared. The good news is that earning your ham radio license isn’t that hard. In fact, there’s a course at outdoorcore.com that will prepare you to pass the ham exam in less than six hours, guaranteed.
- The best ham radio for preppers should be RUGGED: This is important for outdoor, camping, and austere environments such as disaster relief or survival situations. To rate the ruggedness we’ll refer to the IP (ingress protection) Code for electronic devices. The IP Code is an international standard that rates a product’s protection against intrusions by water and foreign particles. https://reactual.com/portable-electronics/understanding-ip-code.html
Your ham radio should have an IP Code rating of at least IP54. It’s well protected from dust and won’t be damaged if you spill coffee or water on it. It would probably survive being dropped in a puddle, if you get it out and wipe it off immediately; use in rain is definitely not a problem. It should also have a MIL-STD-810 rating so it can withstand vibrations and knocks.
- It should receive NOAA Weather and the Emergency Alert System: Whether it’s a hurricane approaching landfall in the southeast, a thunderstorm squall line with tornados barreling across the mid-west, or tsunamis threatening the pacific coast following an earthquake NOAA weather radio is where to turn for the most accurate information. Along with NOAA weather radio is the Emergency Alert System (EAS). The EAS is that duck that swallowed a kazoo warning sound you hear right before a mechanical voice says, “This is a test, it is only a test…” or if it’s a real emergency they’ll announce impending weather or other information.
Just about any ham radio receives NOAA weather radio transmissions. The best ham radio for preppers will not only let you listen to NOAA radio, it will monitor and alert you for the EAS.
- It can access first responder, aviation, marine frequencies: This one comes with a caveat: not only can ham radio receive analog signals from all of these services, with some modification it can transmit on these frequencies, too.
But the caveat is that unless there is imminent danger to life or property, and there are no other means of communication, it’s illegal to key up a ham radio on these frequencies. But in a true-to-life survival situation, having a radio that can call to that circling search plane certainly has advantages over a signal mirror.
- The best ham radio for preppers should provide two-way communication: Yes CB, Family Radio Service (FRS), General Mobile Radio Service (GMRS), Multi-use Radio Service (MURS), and marine VHF radio are all two-way communication. They’re also available for general public use. However, compared to ham radio, they are limited in transmission range or frequency range, or both.
All things being equal, ham radio out-distances CB and FRS radios by miles and it can access exponentially more frequencies than all of the other options combined.
And, just like it can transmit on first responder, aviation, and marine frequencies, the ham radio can transmit on all of the FRS, MURS, GMRS frequencies. It can’t, however, transmit on CB frequencies.
Another caveat: just like with first responder, aviation, and marine frequencies, transmitting with a ham radio on the public radio service frequencies is illegal unless there is imminent threat or danger to life or property and no other means of communication exists.
Link: For more comparison information about two-way radios please see my blog post The Best Ham Radio for Beginners at http://valiantoutfitters.com/the-best-ham-radio-for-beginners/
- It should provide rudimentary OPSEC: Many survivalists and preppers are concerned with operational security (OPSEC). Keeping looters, bandits, human predators, and other ne’re-do-wells in the dark as to our activities is a distinct advantage. While none of the radio systems discussed here have NSA level encryption, and encryption is illegal on public radio services, most of them provide rudimentary protection against accidental discovery of your location.
- The best ham radio for preppers should have a transmitting radius of at least a few miles: This one gets tricky because more power doesn’t necessarily mean more distance. Like we discovered above, all things being equal, ham radios can transmit over a greater radius than FRS, GMRS, and MURS (keeping in mind that walkie-talkies are best for portability). The most useful frequencies in tactical and survival situations propagate by line of sight. That means that the two radio antennas need to see each other to transmit over the longest distance. The non-licensed radio services (CB, FRS, etc.) are limited to a mile or two under usual circumstances. By comparison, two persons of average height can easily communicate across 3-5 miles using a ham walkie-talkie.
How about ham radios that can transmit around the world? Yes, those can be very useful in a disaster or survival situation. Many of them can access all of the frequency ranges mentioned above and also include HF (high frequencies or shortwave). However, very few of them are portable enough to carry around in a bug out bag or EDC bag. All but a handful are definitely too large and heavy to hook on a belt or talk into while walking. HF walkie-talkies are great, but they don’t meet our final criterion…
- It should be AFFORDABLE ($175): Why? You’ll need two, so expense is an important consideration and $350 for two-way communication seemed reasonable. Yes, there are some ham radios that are less expensive than $175, much less. But they all fail in one or more of our criterion. Most ham radios that are under $100 fail in durability. They’re fine and fun radios in good conditions, but I wouldn’t bet my life on them. These budget radios might be a third of the price, but you’ll replace them five times over the life of a more robust radio. One of these budget radios receives an honorable mention, but it did not receive my recommendation as the best ham radio for preppers.
There are also some great ham radios in the $100 – $150 range, but most of them lack some frequency range. One of these also receives an honorable mention.
So, now that we’ve covered all of the details. What is my recommendation as the best ham radio for preppers?
It is the Yaesu FT-60R. I’m so convinced that it’s the best that I carry one in my EDC/bugout bag. It’s rarely more than a few feet away from me.
The FT-60R fulfills every single criterion:
Portable: Measuring in at 2.3 x 4.3 x 1.2 inches and weighing just 13.03 ounces it fits easily in even a small hand, but the buttons and LCD screen are ergonomic for large fingers.
User-friendly: Manual programming is intuitive and it can be pre-programmed with 1000 memories.
Rugged: The die-cast metal case is IP54 and MIL-STD-810 rated.
Receive NOAA Weather Radio and EAS: Automatic search of weather radio frequencies and background scanning of alerts.
Frequency range includes first-responders, aviation, marine VHF, and public radio services: Receive of these frequencies (except CB) is capable right out of the box. A modification can be done to enable transmit (*non-emergency transmission is illegal). There is also an easy to use scan feature for these frequencies.
OPSEC: Through the use of PL tones. The FT-60R also had a feature called EPCS (Enhanced Paging and Code Squelch). The EPCS allows you to “page” a particular station and only receive calls from that station. The FT-60R can also be password protected against unauthorized use.
Transmitting radius: At 5 watts maximum, the FT-60R can communicate well up to 5 miles radius, even farther in certain conditions.
Less than $175: Ironically, the FT-60R seems to be only one of two things that can’t be bought on Amazon. But don’t fear, it’s available from Gigaparts.com at less than $160 with free shipping. Ask for Scott in the product expert chat box. He’ll hook you up. Below is the link to use if you want one:
And in the “This Puts the FT-60R Over the Top as the Best Ham Radio for Preppers” department:
There’s a really cool, survival specific feature on the FT-60R that makes it an invaluable tool in a survival situation. Let me explain it in a story…
I’ve made several attempts to solo hike the Presidential Traverse in the White Mountains of New Hampshire in less than 30 hours. This range of peaks includes Mount Washington, where they’ve measured the fastest winds on the planet. It’s generally considered to be the most dangerous mountain range east of the Mississippi. The temperature on top of Washington has never exceeded 72 degrees. The elevation change over the 27 miles from beginning to end is over 10,000 feet. The elevation gain in the first 3 miles is over 3500 feet. Most of the hike is in the only alpine zone east of the Mississippi with straight line winds regularly above 40 MPH.
My wife, the lovely Mrs. Bassett, wasn’t too keen on me lugging my 50-year-old plus body through The Whites, by myself. She finally relented and after three attempts over 6 years I DID IT!
Here’s the thing. She would have felt much better about me hiking solo if I had owned a FT-60R back then. Why?
The Emergency Automatic ID (EAI) function. Let’s imagine that Mrs. Bassett’s worst imagination came to be true and I fell down one of the boulder fields and was incapacitated. The EAI would have automatically transmit my call sign engage the microphone, even if I couldn’t press the mic button (PTT), myself! Search and rescue could have triangulated on that signal to find me.
There certainly are other ham radios that work very well for preppers and survivalists and amateur emergency radio operators. And it’s true that the radio that you do have is better than the one that you don’t. Two of those other radios deserve and honorable mention.
The Icom IC-V86 is a great VHF radio. At 7 watts, it’s a bit more powerful than the FT-60R and it’s built like a tank with the same IP Code and MIL-STD rating. We used an earlier version of this radio for relief work in Puerto Rico following hurricane Maria and it performed well.
Along with the FT-60R, the IC-V86 is the second of thing you can’t buy on Amazon. But like the FT-60R, it’s available at Gigaparts.com. Again, Scott can hook you up. Here’s the link to this product: https://www.gigaparts.com/icom-ic-v86-7w-vhf-ht.html
The other honorable mention goes to the ubiquitous BaoFeng F8HP. Most preppers and survivalists with radios are familiar with its predecessor the UV5R.
The F8HP is 8 watts, so a little more powerful than either the FT-60R or the IC-V86. And it will receive FM broadcast stations.
The reason it gets an honorable mention because of the price: < $75 on Amazon. I’ve included my Amazon Affiliate link for it below if you’re interested.
Remember those radios that I said you would buy 5 of over the life span of the FT-60R? I was referring to BaoFengs. Are they bad radios? By no means. I own three. But I own them because their disposable. I don’t care if they get damaged. I let my grandson drool on it, I throw one in my wife’s glove box, I loan them to hams who forgot theirs and I don’t worry if I don’t get them back.
But you get what you pay for. I would NEVER depend on a BaoFeng with my life. Yeh, I can pick up another one if the one I have succumbs to the pressures of a bad day. But on a really bad day, when the infrastructure implodes, I’m probably not going to have internet access to order one from Amazon.
So, there you have it. Your search is over. You now know what is the best ham radio for preppers. Actually, it would make a great radio for any ham radio operator, not just preppers.
About the Author: Joe Bassett, Founder, Valiant Outfitters, LLC
Joe earned his first amateur radio operator’s license in 2009 and since then has helped hundreds of others earn theirs. He has deployed to support radio communication in five hurricanes, including serving as the coordinator for amateur radio emergency communication for the Red Cross and FEMA in Puerto Rico following hurricane Maria. Drawing on hundreds of hours of experience he is a frequent lecturer about the role of amateur radio in future disasters and leadership of volunteer teams. His knowledge of off-the-grid radio operation supports Joe’s role as founder of Valiant Outfitters, LLC and program director for The Salvation Army’s Camp Sebago Wilderness program for at-risk teens in Maine. If you want to learn how to pass the Ham Radio Exam, consider Joe’s online course here: https://www.outdoorcore.com/courses/the-ham-cram-ham-radio-zero-to-license-in-6-hours