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Comms Is Still Sorcery

Updated: Mar 24

Recently, on Matter of Facts Podcast, we had a guest and longtime listener on the show to talk us through an intro to off-grid communications, primarily centered around HAM radio and GMRS. We certainly intend to dig deeper into the subject over time, as it's a world I'm more and more learning about as quickly as my fingers can crawl the keyboard, but I was asked recently what I thought the bare minimum was to stand up comms. Not for the hobbyist, not for the radio dork, just for those people out there that want to push a button and talk to their group/MAG/spouse/etc. While I won't lay claim to the following being the best or most efficient way to jump off, these are my thoughts.

  1. You want GMRS. HAM radio is a MUCH more capable world to get into, opening up possibilities of truly regional comms independent from the internet in a way GMRS being a UHF/Ultra High Frequency radio band simply can not compete with. But, HAM requires studying and taking a proctored/in person test which makes that barrier to entry more than the average person will indulge in. For GMRS, your requirements are figuring out FCC's website (which is awful), paying a small sum of money, and buying your equipment. For short range, across town comms, GMRS is where I'd recommend people start. FRS radio, the common 'bubble pack' radios you get at Wal Mart and similar that require no license transmit at a tenth the power GMRS handhelds are capable of, and their non-removable antennas are never near as good as what can be procured for a GMRS handheld.

  2. Get a license. Listen, I happily admit there is the impulse to tell the FCC to stuff it, but getting a license for GMRS is neither expensive nor a lengthy process, and resources like require users to input their FCC provided call sign in order to register. No affiliation, this linked video is one of the more recent ones to walk you through the admittedly convoluted process.

  3. What do I really need? Truthfully, to get started in GMRS, all you need is enough handheld radios to outfit the people you would like to talk with. I grabbed a set of Baofeng GM-15 Pro's (affiliate link below). This particular package includes Baofeng's updated batteries that charge via USB-C (and includes a couple of charging cables) and upgraded AR-771 whip antennas (these are a knockoff of the well liked Nagoya 771). GMRS radios, by virtue of being GMRS, come pre-programmed with the appropriate channels already, rather than being more flexible to select various frequencies. Simply set the two radios to the same channel, and start talking. Easy easy. Baofeng GM-15 GMRS radios.

  4. What else? The above will get you off the ground for under $50. Your range will be hamstrung by both the antenna (while an upgrade to the 'rubber duck' short antenna, it's still a handheld whip) and the relatively low power a handheld outputs (4 watts is the common assessment of the Baofeng handhelds. Other handhelds aren't much if any more powerful.) Typically, the above is good for anywhere from a half mile in a densely urban environment out to 2-3 miles. Any more than that, while possible given perfect variables, just isn't reasonable to expect. To help push this further, something like this upgraded antenna can help. This Nagoya UT-72G is intended to be vehicle mounted, as is the case with mine riding on the roof of my truck, and includes the adapter to attach this antenna to your handheld. Alternatively, you could slap this on something like an old pizza pan/cookie sheet to act as a ground plane (don't ask, you don't want the radio dork theory, you want the simple version). Placing this antenna and cookie sheet contraption as high up off the ground as you can manage and connect it to your handheld radio will make a noticeable improvement in the reach of your little 4 watt handheld radio. The other day, using a GM-15 and this antenna, I was able to ping a repeater 25 miles away given admittedly very generous conditions. I can not pull that same hat trick with my whip antenna on my handheld, no matter what sorcery I try.

Is that really it? Well....yeah. A license (ignore that part if you really want, I still recommend it), a pair of Chinesium radios off of Amazon for under $50, add another $35 for a much better antenna that requires either vehicle mounting or at least making yourself stationary. Click a button and talk to people. We can dive down a rabbit hole about programming (which is another layer of black magic on top of the sorcery of comms) and working with larger, more capable antennas (that require permanent mounting, coaxial cable, and almost demand either signal amplifiers or larger and more powerful base stations) and we probably will in the future. But this little blurb was intended just to simplify the topic down to the point of "I want to talk to people Phil, not be a radio nerd".

If there's interest, I can also detail my Poor Man's Commtac setup to take the above and integrate it into helmet/headborn setups so you can LARP just like your favorite YouTube and Instagram celebrities do for a fraction of the cost.

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