Handheld Radio Communications When SHTF

During most major disasters, cell phones stop working and people are unable to get in touch with their loved ones. In a long term SHTF event, it is a given that cell phone networks will no longer be active. This makes having an alternate way to communicate an important part of emergency preparedness planning.

Using a radio to communicate and receive information during an emergency has proven reliable in many disasters in the past. Unfortunately, radio communication can be very complex for the average prepper and I have found that many people avoid the topic all together for lack of understanding.

Because of the importance of this issue, I thought I would create an introductory guide on the different types of handheld radio devices. I also recommend checking out this great list of articles about emergency communications on my website http://survivalpulse.com.


Two-Way Radios (Transceivers)


Two-way radios are simply radios that can be used to both transmit and receive. The frequencies that a two way radio can operate on determine if a radio is considered a HAM radio, a walkie talkie, CB radio, etc. Below is a breakdown of the common types of two-way radios.

Standard Walkie Talkie (GMRS/FRS)

Family Radio Service/General Mobile Radio Service (FRS/GMRS) frequencies are most commonly associated with the typical walkie-talkie you can find sold in pairs at the store or online for under $100.

These radios have a limited range (usually up to 1-2 miles or so in urban areas). The boxes for these radios are often misleading, promoting the max range that is possible in ideal conditions (e.g. mountain top to valley on a clear day).

They come with a number of frequencies that can be used to transmit and receive. Some of the frequencies are FRS frequencies, which automatically limit the amount of power that the device uses when transmitting. This limits the range/clarity of the device. You can transmit on these frequencies without any type of license.

The other frequencies are GMRS frequencies, which transmit using more power but require a license to use. GMRS frequencies allow up to 5 watts max for transmitting but even high end walkie talkies do not transmit using this much power.

The good thing about a GMRS license is that there is no test and your entire family is allowed to use the GMRS frequencies when you buy one license. If there are GMRS repeaters in your area (basically towers that amplify your transmission) you will be able to communicate at much greater distances.

It is possible to buy 5 watt handheld programmable radios and program them to use GMRS frequencies. This would extend the range of the radio further than pre-programmed consumer versions.


  • Affordable.
  • Easy to use.
  • Compact.
  • Can use repeaters on GMRS frequencies.


  • Limited Range with off-the-shelf models.
  • Requires a license to transmit on GMRS frequencies.

MURS Radio

Multi Use Radio Service (MURS) radios are similar in capabilities to FRS/GMRS radios. A different frequency band (made up of only 5 frequencies) is used. MURS radios are allowed to use more power to transmit than a radio transmitting on an FRS frequency but less power than a radio transmitting in a GMRS frequency. No license is required to transmit on MURS frequencies.


  • Affordable.
  • Easy to use.
  • Compact.
  • Does not require a license.


  • Limited range.
  • Limited number of frequencies.
  • No access to repeaters.

CB Radio

Citizens band (CB) radios operate on a different frequency band than FRS/GMRS and MURS radios. Without going into specifics, the frequencies used by CB radios are typically less effective at communicating in an urban environment when compared to FRS/GMRS frequencies. Handheld CB radios are significantly larger than FRS/GMRS and MURS radios making them less than ideal for a bug out bag.


  • Affordable.
  • No license required.


  • Limited range.
  • Larger than other handheld two way radios.
  • No access to repeaters.

HAM Radio

Amateur (HAM) radios can use more power to transmit and have access to more frequencies than any of the other previously mentioned types of two-way radios. You will hear many experts claiming that HAM radio is the absolute best and only option you should consider.

However, there are a few considerable downsides to HAM radio that I would like to point out. First, each person that wishes to transmit using a HAM radio must pass a test and pay for a license. Second, general chat with family members and that sort of thing is discouraged using HAM frequencies. Third, in a shtf scenario it will be much harder to find additional radios that can receive the HAM frequencies, meaning that it will be difficult to expand your communications as the size of your group increases. Finally, learning HAM radio is complicated and it will probably be difficult for you to get family on board with learning it.

If your group were to use GMRS frequencies instead, all it would take is a couple extra sets of standard walkie talkies to take part in group communications.


  • Greatest range out of handheld two-way options.
  • Access to HAM repeaters, which are common in most areas.


  • Expensive.
  • Complicated.
  • Requires a license test and fee. License only grants use to one person.
  • Requires multiple family/group members to learn now in order to be an effective shtf communication strategy.

Listen Only (Receivers)


Receivers are radios that receive radio signals but cannot transmit them. Below is a breakdown of the two most common types of radio receivers.

Police Scanner

Police scanners are great for monitoring local emergency communication, CB, FRS/GMRS, and the majority of HAM frequencies. Scanners actually do “scan” frequencies looking for a transmission and automatically stop on the frequency when a signal is found. However, scanners must be programmed to scan the correct frequencies or else they will just be expensive paperweights.

One downfall of standard scanners is that they cannot scan digital frequencies. Law enforcement is making the switch to digital and encrypted communications, which could make the typical scanner obsolete in your area for monitoring these services. Digital scanners are available but are much more expensive at the moment. Some law enforcement and emergency agencies also operate on frequencies above the range supported by most scanner models.

On the plus side, you can still monitor quite a bit with a traditional scanner, and the old law enforcement frequencies would most likely still be used to broadcast important news during a shtf event. Before buying a scanner, make sure you do your best to ensure compatibility with the frequencies used by emergency personnel in your area. You can find out what frequencies are used locally on Radio Reference.


  • Can receive info from local sources during an emergency.
  • Can scan channels automatically so that you don’t have to spend time searching manually.


  • Only expensive models can receive digital signals.
  • Cannot pick up encrypted communications that some law enforcement agencies use.
  • Are typically complicated and require manual programming of your local frequencies before the device will be effective.

Shortwave Radio

Shortwave radio picks up a unique band of long distance frequencies. You can listen in to news that is broadcast from around the world using a shortwave radio, which could be extremely important in a major disaster. If local communications are taken out, a shortwave radio could fill you in on what is going on from sources on the outside.

Shortwave radios also usually have AM/FM capability so it could replace your standard radio.


  • Inexpensive.
  • Can receive info from around the world.
  • Can receive standard AM/FM in most cases.


  • Cannot pick up local frequencies (emergency, police, HAM, CB, FRS/GMRS).


None of the communication options are perfect. I personally am going with both a scanner and a shortwave radio for monitoring purposes. For communication with family, I am going with a high powered programmable radio and programming it to use GMRS frequencies. This way, family members will also be able to use it with one license, and anyone in my group with a standard walkie talkie will be able to receive information from group broadcasts if shtf.

Hopefully this article helped clear up some of the mystery of radio communications for you! If you are looking for more great prepping information, don’t forget to check out http://survivalpulse.com. Just search for the topic you are interested in and all of the related articles are there for you!


survivalpulseFind the latest preparedness articles and resources at SurvivalPulse.com. You can also follow their regularly updated Facebook page and Twitter.

This information has been made available by Ready Nutrition

Originally published October 10th, 2013
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  • TexasScout

    One other thing, most ham radios in the VHF/UHF band can be programed for use on FRS/GMRS, MURS, etc frequencies.  Mobiles can put out up to 75 watts!  Not legal but….

  • Randall L. Schultz

    This is a very good article for those who do not have much exposure to these types of communications. I have been a ham radio operator for almost 40 years. Plus, I have a strong interest in the other forms of communications that you mentioned in the article. Most folks today are way too dependent upon their cellphones. While the smart phones are useful, a majority of their owners would not know what to do if there was a major, long term cellphone outage. Thanks for publishing this.

  • John

    The information published about amateur radio is not correct.
    “Expensive” – not true. You can pick up a dual-band hand-held radio for around $40, brand new (VHF/UHF).

    “Complicated” – not true. If 6 year-olds can get their license, then so can anyone. The Technician license is the easiest, and only the other two licenses (General & Amateur Extra) are “complicated” (gets very technical…I have an Amateur Extra license.)

    “Requires a license test and fee” – not true. You can test for free through http://larcmdorg.doore.net/vec/ (always FREE), although for the Technician license, a test is required, but it’s only 35 questions!

    “License only grants use to one person.” – not true. Licenses are granted to ‘stations’ not persons. As long a someone with a station license is present, ANYONE may talk on the ham bands.

    Getting a Technician class license is much easier than most people realize. The morse code requirement was retired in 1997, and is no longer tested. Quite a few people take a one-night class (a few hours) and then take the test, and usually pass the first time, all without any prior knowledge of electronics/radio theory/FCC Part 97 regulations.

    Amateur radio is an EXCELLENT mode of communications in any situation, and is heavily used during disasters.

    Give it a try…at the very least, you’ll have a license to use if you need it. And those $40 radios? They’re made in China, but from what I’ve heard, are good radios (I’m planning on getting a couple for my car..just in case!)..and even better news, the price is down to $30! Here’s the link:


    Thanks again for your article! I hope this clears up any confusion.

    • FloridaHillbilly

      John is correct in all his statements. And when you take this line:

      ” sold in pairs at the store or online for under $100.”

      when speaking about FRS/GMRS radios sold in pairs, and compare it to the BaoFeng UV-5R variants for under $35 each…you’ll find that Ham radio is actually LESS expensive that FRS/GMRS…and covers a LOT more distance.

      I own one of these radios, and as far as transmission and reception distances, find it performs as well as radios that costs hundreds of dollars. Sure it has fewer bells and whistles, BUT IT WORKS. Hard to argue with results, eh?

      As to the test, all questions are posted, as are the answers… the test is 35 questions from a pool of 400 possibles…you must score at least 26 correct. My ten year old daugher is currently studying to get hers….it is not hard….and the benefits outweigh any other commo option, in my opinion…

      • FalconMoose

        Thanks, Hillbilly.

  • Bill Leaming

    GMRS mobile and base radios can transmit up to 50 watts, so they are ideal for longer range communications. They are also rather inexpensive with hundreds of “retired” commercial Kenwood and Motorola UHF radios available from multiple sources, including eBay.

  • AngelGabe

    Just wondering what the best set up would be for those of us who have relatives in different states…short distance radios are out ….are there any options for us?

  • I think this is a decent article – it’s not meant to be exhaustive, but it goes over the basic options, but some things have changed in the past 3 years. Cheap radios like the Baofengs aren’t much better than bubble-pack radios. They are known for giving off some nasty spurious radiation (which might not be good if you’re trying to stay under the radar), and they don’t have the build quality of even the newer Chinese radios. They also aren’t often FCC Certified for use on GMRS or MURS, so while they may be fine for a SHTF situation, if you want to actually use your radios in the meantime (say for your family or friends for recreation, biking, hiking, hunting, etc.), then you would be operating illegally. I found a new company named TERA that designs and supports their radios in the US (still made in China, but they are much higher quality). They are more expensive, but you get what you pay for and some models work great for Ham use also. I loved them so much, I started an emergency two-way radio business with them. I’m selling versions pre-programmed with every SHTF frequency you would need, so they’re ready to go from day one. I won’t spam the link here, but if anyone is interested, you can search my profile for the link or search my name on Google. 😉 Cheers!

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