The Best SHTF Radios

Fergus Mason
By Fergus Mason November 10, 2017 12:36

The Best SHTF Radios

It’s hard enough to explain to modern kids that, just a few years ago, all a cellphone could do was make calls. Just imagine how they’d react if they knew that it isn’t even that long since, if you were out somewhere and wanted to call home, you had to find a payphone and drop some change in the slot. As for phoning someone when they weren’t at home, forget it. It’s amazing how quickly we’ve got used to being able to contact anyone at any time.

Well, when the SHTF you can forget all that. In a major disaster, cell phones won’t keep working for long. A nuclear EMP would wreck the whole infrastructure in a few seconds; a less violent event might leave them running for a few days, until essential maintenance didn’t get done or the power went off. Soon enough, though, cell phones and the internet would be a thing of the past.

Related: Nuclear Protection Supplies You Need To Have Ready

Unfortunately, being unable to communicate with people in an emergency situation isn’t really where you want to be. Keeping in touch with family and fellow preppers when there’s a crisis going on is a lot more important than most of the stuff we tweet or post in everyday life. In fact, being able to talk to them could be a matter of life and death.

Luckily, good old-fashioned radios don’t need all the complicated infrastructure that cell phones do. As long as you have a functioning radio and enough power to run it, you can stay in touch with anyone else who can dial in the same frequency.

Obviously the “functioning” part is important – a dead radio isn’t going to be any use to you. That means your emergency radios need to be in EMP-proof storage. Just taking the batteries out will give them some protection – it means they’re totally powered down and the exposed power circuits are broken – but if you really want them to be safe you should keep them in a Faraday cage. If you find them useful in daily life (they’re great for hunting, or staying in touch with home when you’re working outdoors) get a second set and store those in the Faraday cage. It’s vital that you have at least one set of radios that will survive an EMP. If your everyday ones survive the crisis too, great; you have spares.

That leaves the question of what kind of radios to get. You have three main options here: Amateur (“ham”) radio, Citizen’s Band or handheld VHF. Amateur radio is the most flexible, because there’s such a wide range of sets with different capabilities; if you have an HF radio, for example, the right antenna setup will let you talk to anywhere in the world. CB and handhelds operate in the VHF wavebands and are pretty much limited to line of sight, but you can still get a range of over 20 miles from the right set. It doesn’t have to be expensive either. You can pick up a set of four handheld radios for under $40; they’re basic, but you should get over two miles out of them – and for many people that’s enough. Less than $100 will get you a pair of much more sophisticated Motorola handhelds, with a range of up to 35 miles.

Where to buy

If you’re looking for handheld radios it’s hard to beat Amazon. They have a very wide range, and there’s something to suit any budget. If you don’t have a lot to spend on radios then Amazon is definitely going to be your best option – you can get an affordable multi-pack of basic but functional radios. One big advantage of getting a multipack is that you can be sure all the radios will talk to each other; if you mix different brands-  and sometimes even different models – you might find that their preset channels don’t match up. Unfortunately, most handhelds (especially budget ones) will only work on their preset channels; you can’t tune in the frequency manually.

Another benefit is that, if you have several identical radios, you can switch accessories between them. If one radio fails just cannibalize it – take the battery, antenna, earpieces, charger and anything else removable, and use them as spares for the rest of the set. Radio multipacks on Amazon start at two handsets and go up from there. You can get twenty 16-channel radios, each with a rechargeable battery, charger and earpiece, for $500 – or less than half that if you catch it on sale. That’s enough to connect your whole neighborhood.

If you’re buying more sophisticated radios on Amazon it’s worth checking out the manufacturer’s site to get more technical details. For example, if you know the frequencies of its channels you can tell if it will work with your other equipment.

You can also get CB radios – both handhelds and base stations – on Amazon, and the prices are usually pretty good. For base stations check the power requirements; unless you plan to fit it in a vehicle you’ll need to make sure it can be connected to your post-disaster power supply.

Unless you know your way around radios, however, it might be better to get a CB or ham set at a specialist radio store. That way you’ll be able to tell them exactly what you need – especially the antenna. Getting the right antenna is incredibly important for a base station or ham set; it can increase your range by a factor of ten or more.

Related: How To Make A Tin Can Directional WiFi Antenna to Extend your Communication after an EMP

If you know what you need, and want a highly capable ham set, Ham Radio Outlet has an immense range of gear. They stock everything from antenna brackets and microphone cables up to military-grade multimode radios. Remember that a ham radio can be dialed in to any frequency within its range, so if you know the channel frequencies for your handheld sets it can talk to them.

Radio comms give you an immense advantage during a crisis. If you have a ham set you’ll probably already have a network of contacts when the SHTF; if not you can quickly build one, by simply scanning frequencies to see who’s still talking. Remember to use OPSEC when talking – don’t broadcast to the world where you are and how much food you have stockpiled, because someone might come along to take it – but being in touch is very useful. You can ask advice, share information about rioting, fires or fallout, and arrange to support each other if anyone comes under attack from looters. A good radio is a real survival multiplier, so it isn’t something you can afford to be without.

You may also like:

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Fergus Mason
By Fergus Mason November 10, 2017 12:36
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  1. greendelta777 November 10, 13:37

    I started my interest in 2way radios in the early 60’s.. my great uncle RIP, was a Ham and operated on all HF freqs.. I received my license while a HS soph.. and used my knowledge while in the military, SE Asia,, 3tours.. and its been my experience that for the money, CB’s can’t be beat, and have the ability to talk skip around the country and are no longer licenses, even though I am.. I operate on most of the freqs from 2mtr up to 80mtr. and all in between.. VHF and UHF are local only… where as CB’s being in the AM /lower FM bands still have the ability to skip giving them unlimited range depending on output.. Amps for AM/FM bands are cheap as well to boost output wattage.. Don’t forget there are millions of CBers out there as well.. Us old Hammies are fading away, but, we’re still out there till the end..

    Reply to this comment
    • Don November 11, 14:51

      What exactly do you mean by,” Skip?”

      Reply to this comment
      • JL November 13, 11:11

        Skip, is where your radio signal bounces off a surface to create a new path. This surface could be buildings, atmosphere, or other objects. When you have skip, it usually indicates that you are using very low watts to travel between states, say 4watt CB between Idaho and Texas. Skip can be two-way, or just one-way. Bidirectional is more fun than just listening in. Atmospheric skip requires certain solar settings coming from the sun and is usually tied to specific times and days of the week.

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        • Bruce October 17, 15:41

          In 1978 I was in Rota Spain listening on a cool night
          to a SW radio that I was dialing frequencies to listen, and picked up CB skips from truckers in Doswell VA.

          Reply to this comment
      • Fergus November 13, 19:55

        If you can get the right wavelength you can send a signal so it bounces between the Earth’s surface and the ionosphere layer in the upper atmosphere. I know a guy that used this to speak to London, from Belize, using a backpack HF radio.

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    • Tom March 20, 01:40

      CB is located at the upper end of what is referred to as the ‘ high frequency’ bands.
      It shares the characteristics of the shortwave bands ( meaning you get long range ‘skip’ sometimes) and the local only characteristics of vhf bands.
      It is cheap and easy to start.
      The downsides are-
      atmospheric and ignition noise may overpower signals, there are only 40 channels, people tend to crowd on one channel, you will find a lot of foul, rude language, a lot of what would be considered
      ‘bullying’ goes on.
      Used properly, they can be a good tool.
      It requires a bit of knowledge and experience, much like
      using a pistol vs a rifle.
      If you want true flexibility, I would suggest looking into the technician class amateur radio license.
      It allows you access to 50 MHz and above bands for voice communications and ten meters limited ssb voice.
      The test is easy enough, even 5 year olds have passed it,
      I am sure if you can learn to prep, you can learn and pass the tech test also.

      Reply to this comment
    • Judy February 12, 01:01

      It’s beyond belief how hard it is to find simple answers regarding which is the best “post-emp” radio, with emphasis on affordability. I’m a simple, aged person in the northeast USA, with no family. I basically just need to know the weather, and what’s happening in the world after EMP. Yet, after many hours of research, i still am not clear which would be the best all-in-one, good quality, affordable radio suitable for such a scenario. I already made a Faraday cage by placing batteries, lanterns etc.etc. inside old brown shopping bags that were well-folded, then inserted into a firmly-sealed black-painted metal trash can (the sort meant for fireplace ashes). I can then put that Faraday into my Behrens metal trash can, as an outer Faraday. Frankly, i didn’t even know whether flashlites & lanterns need to be protected vs. EMP, but i put them in anyway, for assurance.

      Reply to this comment
    • Elizabeth February 14, 15:07

      Where do you start on CB’s selection?
      Hand held models, which to buy?

      Reply to this comment
  2. Mikez November 10, 13:57

    Nice article , but you left out the inportant information, what model radio is the best to buy.

    Reply to this comment
    • MbMultiplane November 10, 18:28

      I agree. I thought the article was going to show a list of the best radios to buy.

      Reply to this comment
    • Wannabe November 10, 18:44

      Go into the article archives on ask a prepper website and go to the article dated August 27 of this year and it is more in depth of what kind of radios to get. A lot of good comments also

      Reply to this comment
    • Bri November 10, 20:00

      In my opinion the basic cheap Baofeng UV-5R does the job and that’s why I have a load of them for my comms preps. You will need a licence but when the world goes pop so do the radio rules in my opinion. While it’s in my mind, don’t just rely on removing the battery from radios, it’s the pulse of energy caused by an EMP or CME that fries the radio even with the battery removed.
      (2E0WHB call sign)

      Reply to this comment
    • AJ HILLBILLY HAM October 30, 03:25



      Reply to this comment
  3. TheQuist November 10, 16:21

    Radio communications is indeed very beneficial to all, but it has one disadvantage if you desire to keep your location secret. Use common sense. Radio transmissions are easily triangulated to get one’s precise location. So keep that in mind if you are in a questionable area or at your home base with all of your “stuff” that any “undesirables” out there might want to relieve you of.

    Reply to this comment
    • Wannabe November 13, 11:57

      How many times do you have to transitmit before you can be tracked? Just curious, because if you transmit once or twice in one location then move and have radio silence until you have changed locations considerably.

      Reply to this comment
      • TheQuist November 14, 14:11

        In practice, it only takes one transmission nowadays to get your pinpointed, IF they are on your frequency and are expecting your transmission AND have at least two people in different places doing the triangulating. Normally though, it would take at least two transmissions for someone to triangulate your position. one to get on your frequency and coordinate that with their other tracking station, and then a second transmission to lock you in. Moving is a great way to stifle their efforts a little bit, unless you are driving on a major freeway and they recognize that fact. With the advent of satellite communications however, you can be found on the first transmission if they know your frequency and you aren’t moving your locations, similar to the way they track ELT’s (Emergency Location Transmitter) on aircraft and other personal tracking devices on skiers, cars, commercial trucks, ships, etc. A pre-agreed upon change of frequencies would work out best. Especially if frequency bands were changed also, i.e. low freq. to high freq to mid freq, etc. If you are line of sight, modulated laser beams could work wonders, because they would be almost impossible to detect under normal circumstances, and hard to intercept without interrupting the signal if the path is detected. Of course, there are a myriad forms of encrypting your voice transmissions, not to mention the various different types of voice transmission formats available and the almost unlimited forms of digital transmission types available to the creative mind. Just my thoughts anyway.

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        • Wannabe November 15, 03:42

          Well crap, does not take long

          Reply to this comment
        • Tom April 14, 15:54

          Triangulation or rdf requires at least 2 points of reference to the transmitter. You can build antennas that null the signal when pointed at it ( make it zero) which allows you to locate it. However the number of people with the knowledge to do this is likely to be low. There are techniques which you can use to confuse direction finding but if someone has unlimited time to look they will locate you. Polarization changes make transmitter hunting interesting.

          Reply to this comment
  4. Ridgerinner November 11, 19:35

    A “skip” I think is your signal bouncing off the clouds/atmosphere and down to another operator and relayed and so on. Back in the 60’s we could CB talk from 20 to 30 miles away mountain top to mountain top. Too much interference now.

    Reply to this comment
    • Bear March 15, 18:52

      Do yourself a favor, and get a ham license before you get the radio. Hams will not talk to people without licenses. And, you need to learn how to use the equipment. Ham is not like using the CB. You will need the help of other hams to learn and become educated

      Reply to this comment
  5. SaturdayPrepper November 12, 02:40

    CB operates in channels around 27MHz… which is the upper end of the HF band for radio. Also known as 11m (named that because of the wavelength) AM and FM are modulation types not specifically bands. CB radio depending on radio type and the modulation techniques and output power and antenna used CAN be effective for short or long communication. But because of the rules and standards set by the FCC there are limits in how you can operate on that means of communication.

    Reply to this comment
  6. Jack December 4, 01:22

    People think picking up a ham radio is what it takes to talk to distant countries. Half right. KNOWING how to use it is key. Radio waves bouncing off ionosphere is kind of like how light refracts across the surface of water, and how light bending thru a prism depends on its frequency.. Higher frequencies tend not to refract off ionosphere as much as lower, which will bend back to earth.. where they may bounce again (“skip”). Why HF (lower bands) travel long distance. Higher.. VHF/UHF.. need repeaters and signals are shifted slightly and retransmitted (Duplexing), and repeaters are typically located in panoramic/high locations.. for covering long distances/wider areas.
    Ionosphere changes with sun and sun spots, day, night, so conditions continually change. This is the KNOWLEDGE part of ham radio.. and HOW to use your equipment. AM modulation actually consist of 3 primary radio waves.. of 3 frequencies; this is why long distance AM is “Donald duck” like, as the 3 frequencies drift out of sync when they bounce. SSB is a process where only ONE frequency is transmitted, but, the receiver needs a standard to compare against to decipher the audio and is why SSB receivers are more than a regular AM receiver, why SSB is superior in many ways. FM varies the carrier (main) frequency and needs a different type of demodulator.
    Due to limits of FRS radios output power most advertised range is ALL HYPE. Unlike Ham radio where you can legally play with things, if you will, you are not legally allowed to modify non ham radios so you have what you have. Personal experience, if you get more than about 1/2 to 1 mile, well, this is exceptional for FRS radios. CB. As memory serves, 26.950 to 27.450 MHz runs the full gammet of 40 channels. VERY narrow band. Overall, I agree with another who says its hard to beat. But, its also EASY for someone to scramble as its all in one comparatively narrow band. Ham, by comparison runs from 1.9 Mhz to over 400 MHz and beyond. MANY, MANY octives! Now that said, not all frequencies between are ham, but ham BANDS.
    So far as Faraday cages.. I see LOTS of examples of people going into or placing a radio in.. a simple aluminum cage and the radio quiets. This is a great demo.. of stopping MICRO/MILI watt signals. EMP is like a BILLION times stronger. Steel has a MUCH higher permeability than aluminum .. Like 40:1. When I see You Tube people showing the use of a foil lined type bag, Don’t waste your time. Any metal container with the lid MUST have the lid in complete electrical contact all the way around! You must have no place where the electrical circuit is open. High currents and high magnetic fields will result from an EMP. Also, ANY cords attached to electronics are your worst enemy as the act as antenna’s to carry greater amounts of EMP INTO your electronics.
    If you take a strong magnet and stick it to vertical sheet steel, it may not hold itself to the location. This is because of Saturation (of the sheet steel with excess magnetic field). Heavier steel will “conduct” more of the magnetic field and the magnet will hold MUCH better to less or no saturation.. Same to consider in your steel faraday cage. I encourage heavier sheet metal. Depending on your potential to be closer to a Nuk detonation, and the strength of it. For me in Alaska, Id prefer using 1/8″. Id use 3/8″ if I was at Ground Zero.. but then, what’s the point???
    I will try to monitor for questions.. and address any. If there are people who appreciate my comments, please say so, so I know someone’s listening!

    Reply to this comment
    • Tom May 11, 00:56

      What is your opinion of putting your radio(s) and other electronic gear & batteries in your gun safe for EMP protection? I will be buying a pretty healthy Liberty safe soon AND with a mechanical lock, not just electronic. The safe will have guns in it but I can find room for a handheld ham radio and a few batteries. I figure I may need all of its contents in an ass kickin’ contest. In an EMP, how might ammo fare? Thanks.

      Reply to this comment
      • AJ HILLBILLY HAM October 30, 03:18


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      • Silver Rabbit March 15, 22:59

        To be an effective Faraday cage all openings must be electrically sealed. That means the electrical contact between the door & frame must be continuous. Grind the paint to bare metal on both surfaces & apply a mesh tape or silver filled tape that will ensure full contact.

        Reply to this comment
    • Bulldog February 26, 16:53

      Great comment. I see so many people out there who order a ham radio on Amazon and figure someone will be on the other end the day they need it. And the scary part is that they assume having a license won’t matter in an emergency.

      Reply to this comment
  7. Guitar dude May 10, 21:58

    Will sat phones still work after an EMP?

    Reply to this comment
    • Bulldog February 26, 16:42

      The short answer is likely no. Although you may be able to keep your sat phone from being damaged in the event of an EMP, the likelihood of being able to reach someone with an operational phone on their end would be slim.

      Reply to this comment
  8. ADK Anne November 11, 20:41

    Would a wind up radio be any good when the SHTF?

    Reply to this comment
  9. Bulldog February 25, 18:15

    I‘ve been playing with radios since the early 90’s and can offer some helpful advice for those specifically looking for the right SHTF radio. First of all, whether or not you plan on becoming a licensed ham, if you don’t know your way around the theory, then it would be worth your while to read a book like “ham radio for dummies”. A book like this will explain the behavior of radio propagation which will be highly important in choosing a radio that will actually work in your area. This article mentioned the different bands, but not necessarily the differences between them. HF stands for High Frequency, VHF stands for Very High Frequency and UHF stands for Ultra High Frequency. To keep it basic, the higher you go the shorter the actual wavelength. UHF and VHF have a much clearer signal in general, but with a much more limited range. These radios are good in heavily populated suburban areas without a lot of tall structures. CB is actually a portion of the HF band, it has roughly a 35 foot long wavelength compared to 3-6 feet on UHF/VHF, which makes it a much better option if you live in a less populated area, like a farm where your neighbors are miles apart. A lower frequency with a longer wavelength will stretch out over a much broader spectrum, and will be much less vulnerable to obstructions like tall buildings, hillsides, etc. Learning the basics on antennas and repeaters can be helpful too as it will explain why there will be many cases where you can hear someone but that person won’t hear you. Just some input that I thought might raise a bit of interest in the subject.

    Reply to this comment
    • Judy February 26, 05:06

      Bulldog, so in Northeast USA, in suburbs which have tall buildings to the east of me, what type of waves are best, and if Low-Frequency waves are best, how do i get hold of a LongWave radio – and which LongWave radio’s are best able to connect to the Atlantic (and beyond) in order to reach informative English-language stations which offer practical info?

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  10. Judy February 26, 05:05

    Bulldog, so in Northeast USA, in suburbs which have tall buildings to the east of me, what type of waves are best, and if Low-Frequency waves are best, how do i get hold of a LongWave radio – and which LongWave radio’s are best able to connect to the Atlantic (and beyond) in order to reach informative English-language stations which offer practical info?

    Reply to this comment
    • Bulldog February 26, 16:04

      Hello Judy,
      That’s a great question. If you are looking to make contacts across the Atlantic then you will need to have an amateur radio license of general class or higher. This will allow you access to the ham radio HF bands between 1.8mhz and 30mhz. This would also require a good size antenna as well as an Hf transceiver. If you are just wanting to hear what’s going on around the world as far as news reports and things then a portable shortwave world band receiver is the way to go, If you are not interested in getting into ham radio and want to keep it fairly simple, then a CB radio with single sideband (SSB) mode will likely reach you up into Canada from where you are. But you will still need a decent size antenna for that as well. (The lower the frequency the larger the antenna required.)

      Reply to this comment
      • Judy March 1, 07:37

        I struck out in my first attempt at getting SW. I just bought a used/vintage Realistic DX-350 (by Radio Shack) – but when I tried either SW or LW, all i got was static on every single station, including when i tried it outdoors with its antenna totally extended. It states that it’s a 12-band receiver. I’ve a feeling a previous owner tinkered with it & abused it, going by its appearance.

        Reply to this comment
        • Wyo Jon March 1, 15:59

          Judy, the Short Wave bands have been very crappy lately, due to the sun being at the bottom of the 11 year solar cycle. However, you should be able to pick up some Broadcast Stations at night on SW1 and SW2 (from 6 to 10 mHz). During the day, SW3 -SW6 (9 – 15 mHz) would be the bands of choice. Maybe SW7, but the top 2 bands are not working now.

          Don’t know if there is an external antenna jack, but 50 – 100 feet wire will make a lot of difference for receiving stations. If there is no jack, just wrap a little of the bare end of the wire around the telescoping antenna.

          I do not think the radio you have has Lower and Upper Sideband . . . which you would need to hear Ham radio guys on 7, 10 and 14 meters.

          Reply to this comment
          • Bulldog March 1, 17:49

            Wyo Jon is right, it really all depends on the time of day and the solar cycle depending on the type of listening you want to do. I live in the Seattle area and the Cuban stations have always been pretty consistent on my little battery powered portable radio. Night time is always the best time of day to listen, but it does take a bit of time and patience to learn the behavior of the airwaves in order to know when to listen and what to listen for. If you’re considering getting another shortwave radio, I’d recommend something like the Grundig brand. They’re a good quality for a portable emergency type of radio and they usually sell for a pretty good price. There are also many great forums around the web regarding shortwave listening since it is quite a hobby.

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  11. Judy March 4, 20:53

    Thank you both – that was helpful. I actually did try it out at night with antenna extended but no stations were picked up, rather just static. BTW i also require English language practical stations.

    I have some wire in the house as follows:

    There’s 15-feet of wire that’s a bit flexible, and has Red/Black/Yellow/Green wires bundled within a White casing.

    I also have clothesline wire that contains a bundle of copper-wiring within it.

    Also some very stiff wires (my dad used to tinker with electrical stuff & carpentry).

    All from the good old days (except for the clothesline wire which i bought within the last 15 years approx.

    The problem is, I couldn’t find any video showing how to do all the connections (both indoors & outdoors).

    I saw one vid. where a guy added a clamp to the end of wiring, and then crimped it (i’m not sure if my terminology is correct). But I don’t have the tools for that, nor the expertise.

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