Ham radio is going to work even when you’re out of range for cell phones. If you’re going into the wilderness for whatever reason, don’t go without your ham radio. This provides a lot of security for you at a relatively low cost. Except 9-1-1 doesn’t usually have the ability to listen to ham radio, so who do you call when help is needed? There are a number of options and we’ll discuss them in this article.
As an aside, you should always leave a copy in writing of your plan with someone. Include where you plan to go, where you plan to park your car, the trail or area you plan to be in, when you plan to return, cell phone numbers, and radio frequency you plan to monitor with your ham call sign.
Ham Radio Frequencies
Ham VHF (2-meter) frequencies will travel farther and better in the woods versus the GMRS or FRS radios which are UHF (70-cm). Additionally, portable ham radios are 5-8 watts versus the 2-watt max for FRS and 5-watts for GMRS. A VHF frequency of 5-watts will travel farther and better than a 5-watt UHF frequency in wooded areas.
Depending on where you live there may be ham repeaters that cover the wilderness areas fairly well. So, before you go venturing into the woods do some research. Go to repeaterbook.com and search your area. Look for repeaters listed as wide-area as these cover a larger area because of their location. Look for linked repeaters as they cover a large area by being linked. Wide area and linked repeaters are more likely to have someone listening most of the times. Also look at the details of the repeaters and see if any have the code LiTZ. This means long-tone zero, key up (PTT) the radio. While keeping the PTT pressed, press the 0 (zero) key for at least 3 seconds, then announce your call sign. Depending on how the repeater is programmed it will alert a control operator or dial 9-1-1. Some repeaters may list another code to dial 9-1-1.
Once you identify the repeaters that may provide coverage, program them into your radio. You should also create a list that includes their memory location, frequency, and any special codes such as LiTZ, dial 9-1-1, etc. Then laminate it to keep with you.
In addition to repeaters there are several simplex frequencies you should know and program into your radio. Also, you should list them on a card.
The national simplex calling frequency is 146.520. In theory hams should listen to this while travelling so it’s easy to call others on the road. You never know what repeater they might be on. There are a number of articles that mention a ham wilderness protocol. The concept is that you listen on 146.520 (and 446.000 the 70-cm national simplex) at the top of the hour (or 5-minutes before) until 5-minutes after the hour, every 3-hours starting at 7am.
There are many sites that list 146.550 as the Ham Survivalist Simplex and 146.420 as the Ham Prepper Simplex. The 146.550 frequency was apparently chosen as surplus military radios (AN/PRC-127). The Bendix King radios commonly used in wildland firefighting are also capable of using this frequency. It may be that like-minded people are using this frequency in the area. You may also find local preppers use this for a simplex AmRRON net.
Some radios like the Baofeng’s and some of the DMR capable radios are capable of operating outside of the ham bands. They can do this as modifications of commercial capable radios. Note that while they’re capable, operating on frequencies outside of the ham bands requires a FCC type accepted radio and an appropriate license or permission to use the frequency. However, if a true life-threatening emergency exists the FCC may choose not to press any charges. Type acceptance requirements are specific for each radio service and the applicable sections of the FCC rules are listed below.
Search and Rescue (SAR) Frequencies
Search and rescue teams across the country doesn’t use the same frequency. However, you may be able to find a frequency the SAR team(s) in your area use by searching a radioreference.com. The national SAR frequency is listed as 155.160, called VSAR16 in the National Interoperability Field Operations Guide. However, it doesn’t seem to be consistent in all areas. When looking up frequencies be sure to note whether they’re listed as FM or NFM. If they’re NFM, then you need to make sure your radio is selected to transmit narrow band width. In addition, the pl/CTCSS tone may or may not be listed. You should try reaching out to your local SAR group and see if they’ll provide their radio frequencies. Keep a list and use if you know someone is listening. In some areas the SAR teams use a statewide trunked system that you’ll not be able to access as it’s only monitored with a trunked capable scanner.
If you’re near large bodies of water used by boaters or near lakes, etc., have a list of some of the common marine channels. They’re always referred to by their channel number. Channel 16 (156.800) is the common calling channel which every boater is supposed to monitor.
In the Great Lakes region boaters on lakes should use Marine Channel 9 (156.450). Channel 72 (156.625) is listed for small boat operations in other areas. Channel 22A (156.100 receive and 161.700 transmit) is for direct contact with the US Coast Guard. However, in an emergency the normal procedure is to call on channel 16. Broadcast “mayday, mayday, mayday, this is….”. You may be instructed to switch to another channel. If you operate in areas with water, have a list of all the marine frequencies on a laminated card. If you’re around inland lakes check with local boating folks to see what they normally monitor when on the lake.
In many rural or wildland areas the fire departments still operate on older VHF radio systems. At least sometimes they retain that capability after switching to trunked radio systems. Part of this is that wildland fire responses still use VHF as they aren’t dependent on a repeater system. An 800mhz frequency that’s common for trunked radio systems doesn’t travel far or well in wooded areas. They also use these frequencies for communicating with firefighting aircraft.
They commonly use what are known as the National Interoperability frequencies in the VHF range. The most common being VFIRE21 (154.280). However, there are a number of other frequencies available including:
VFIRE22 – 154.265
VFIRE23 – 154.295
Users were supposed to switch to the common naming convention several years ago. It uses V for VHF then the next characters designate user. You might still find agencies listing these as something like HEARS (Hospital Emergency Radio System) or some similar name. Some agencies use them for county to county communications. Again, check radioreference.com to see what the local agency is using.
In addition, there are tactical VHF frequencies such as VTAC10 (155.7525), VTAC11 (151.1375), and a number of others. Some of the VTACs may have repeaters on them. Note that all the National Interoperability VHF frequencies are narrowband (NFM). Make sure you know how to program narrow band operation into your radio if it’s capable of operating on these frequencies.
Search your local agencies or area at radioreference.com as they’re usually listed there if the agencies have capability on them. All the National Interoperability frequencies are listed in the National Interoperability Field Operating Guide (NIFOG). You should obtain one to keep in your emergency communications gear/bag.
Aircraft radios operate on AM modulation. Unless it’s a specific aircraft band radio, your ham radio won’t be able to transmit on the aircraft frequencies. You may be able to find some on eBay, usually made by Icom. If you do have an air band radio then the National Guard emergency frequency is 121.5.
I strongly believe that the bubble pack radios (GMRS & FRS) aren’t ideal for emergency. However, there are a couple of things we would be remiss to not point out about them.
AmRRON promotes what they call the Channel 3 Project. This is an emergency communications protocol that uses the 3rd channel of the different radio services to include MURS, GMRS, FRS, and CB.
Multi-Use Radio Service (MURS)
This is a license by rule service, which means you don’t need a FCC license to use the frequencies like FRS. The rules for MURS use are in 47 CFR Part 95, Personal Radio Services. General information and some radio type approval information for the Personal Radio Service are in Subpart A General Rules for the Personal Radio Services. Emergency messages are defined in §95.303 as “communications concerning the immediate safety of life or protection of property”, and §95.353 addresses false distress signals. Rules specific to the MURS frequencies are contained in 47 CFR Part 95, Subpart J. The rules for MURS don’t list a channel number, just the frequencies. Channel 3 for the project is considered to be 151.940. This is listed as a narrow band frequency.
Family Radio Service (FRS)
FRS operation is covered in Part 95, subpart B. The FCC changed the rule of use of a number of the Personal Radio Services in September 2017. It changed the maximum power to 2-watts for most of the channels but some were left at 0.5 watts. It also combined use of the FRS and GMRS channels. The frequencies for FRS are listed in §95.563. However, the list on radioreference.com is more useful as it shows both FRS and GMRS with their respective power limitations. Note that since the new rules manufacturers are no longer permitted to make or sell radios that combine FRS and GMRS (§95.591). The rules for type acceptance have been significantly improved and clarified ( §95.361 and §95.561). Channel 3 for FRS (and GMRS) is 462.6125. FRS frequencies are narrow band.
General Mobile Radio Service (GMRS)
Specific rules for the operations of GMRS radios is in Part 95, subpart E. GMRS requires a license but no test. The license is $65 for 10 years since the rule change, and is valid for the whole family. While a call sign is issued with the license, users can use their own call signs as long as the official one is used at the end of transmissions. In addition to simplex frequencies, users can put up their own repeaters. The best place to find listed GMRS repeaters is mygmrs.com.
As with FRS, since the rule changes you can’t have a radio capable of transmitting on GMRS and any other radio service. Again, the frequency list on radioreference.com is your best resource.
Channel 3 is the same as on FRS, 462.6125. However, prior to the rules change it was 462.600. GMRS is wide band. I strongly suggest printing and laminating both the old and new frequencies for GMRS and FRS. Keep them in your radio bag.
GMRS and GPS
A few years ago when looking for a handheld GPS unit, I discovered that Garmin made one that would communicate and display your location with a similar device. I was in a class at the time learning how to use GPS units. There were a number of folks from a search and rescue team taking the class. They bought them because it will display all the users in range on your devices. It’s great for knowing where the other parties in your team are. At the time they were the Garmin Rino 600 series. In researching for this article, I found the Rino 700 is their current device. Their website says it has a 20 mile range. You should realize by now that would only be under the most ideal situations. There is also the Garmin Rino 755t, which appears to operate on both FRS and GMRS, plus offers unit-to-unit text messaging. Backpacker magazine did a review of the 755 and they said it maxed out the range at 3 miles.
If you have a GPS unit make sure to know how to select the different formats for GPS coordinates. It would be advisable to talk to your local SAR team and find out what their preference is. Although any good SAR team should be able to convert between the different formats. Of course, a GPS unit would allow you to back track your location. If you could do that, there would be no need to call for help from being lost. Of course, you might still have to call for help if there is an injury.
The charts I’ve seen on sites listing prepper and survivalist frequencies usually include “PMR” frequencies. Note that these cannot be used in the US as they are in the ham bands.
As mentioned at the beginning of this article, you need a license to operate on some of the frequencies and channels listed. Have a radio that is type accepted or certified for use in the radio service you’re using. Except Amateur Radio as there is no type acceptance requirement. However, in a true life and death emergency no one is likely to press charges if you get on another frequency to get help.
I strongly recommend that you at least get a Technician ham license. You’ll find that it’s very difficult to get a radio out of the box, especially the Baofeng’s, and be able to program it. You’ll likely attempt to read the manual several times, then search the internet for instructions or videos! Getting a ham license will teach you some basic operating rules. This will include what CTCSS, DCS, and offset are. Most importantly, there will be people who can help you learn more and become a better radio operator. You need to be able to understand the limitations of your radio and how to program frequencies from the keypad. In an emergency you may not have your computer to add in new frequencies.
If you have questions any questions go to the Survival Dispatch Insider Facebook page. I’ll certainly do my best to help you with any questions about how to get your ham license, or find classes, or study materials, or just questions on using a radio.