As preppers, maintaining your own self-contained methods of long-distance communication is a great idea. When things get really bad, you probably won’t be able to depend on landlines and cell phones, to say nothing of the internet, especially in an emergency situation.
However, you will be able to depend on the radio so long as you can power it. But for those of us who don’t have much experience in the world of amateur, or ham radio, it is difficult to make heads or tails of what kind of performance and range we can expect.
Will a ham radio set let you communicate with someone a couple of miles away? 10 miles away? 100 miles away? What is the maximum distance a ham radio will work?
A typical ham radio set will allow you to broadcast your signal between 10 and 35 miles. This range can vary significantly depending on the power of the set, the antenna, obstacles, and other factors.
If the only radio experience you have is using some dinky hardware store walkie-talkies, you have a lot to learn about ham radio and getting the most out of them.
Luckily, the principles are pretty easy to understand, and below we will provide you with an overview of the most relevant factors affecting the range of your ham radio set.
Tips for Getting the Most Range from Your Radio
There are several things you can do to maximize the performance of any ham radio set, some of them being easy and others more involved depending on the circumstances.
Check out these quick tips, and then we will break down all of them in detail throughout the rest of this article.
- More power means more distance, all things being equal. Ensure that the power supply to your radio set, direct or from batteries, is uninterrupted and fully charged if applicable. Less power means you are losing distance.
- Don’t neglect your radio’s antenna. Taller, higher-quality antennas almost always mean more range and a better broadcast overall. Keep in mind that many cheaper radios can be upgraded with superior antennas to improve performance. Also, try to place your antenna as high as you can when broadcasting.
- Obstacles are your enemy. All sorts of obstructions can break up or outright block your signal, including those near and down ranges from your broadcast location. Try to reposition to avoid major obstacles if you can, or get higher.
- Handheld radios can only do so much. If you want the best performance, and especially the best range, you’ll need to go with a vehicle-based or fixed-site radio set with a capable antenna to match.
That’s short and sweet, but the devil is in the details. Find out what they are below.
Power is Important
When we’re talking about the power of a radio we are talking about wattage. More wattage means more power and a stronger signal and a stronger signal means less loss or disruption when it has to push through or around obstacles.
Generally speaking, the bigger the radio the more power it requires and the more range that it has.
This is why handheld radios are so wimpy, while your larger fixed site sets and some vehicle-mounted units are far better, and best of all are the massive radio installations like those used by your local radio station and other broadcasters.
It might be possible to push more power into your radio to get more range than would normally be possible, but your radio might not be able to handle it and this could damage it, destroy it or create a dangerous condition.
Also, don’t neglect the basics of working around obstacles and ensuring your antenna and all other settings are up to snuff, because more power won’t fix all problems.
And of course, any discussion of power, wattage, and amplification are not complete without a mention of our friends at the FCC.
The FCC, in their inimitable wisdom, regulates all radios in civilian hands based on their capabilities- that means their power and therefore their range! Do not violate the law if you value your freedom!
Taller, Better Antennas Means More Range
Even beginning radio operators know how important the antenna is to broadcast range.
Antenna theory and science can and has filled many, many volumes all on its own, but just to keep things on track let it be known that a taller antenna is invariably better, as is a higher quality one.
One of the first things you should do if you are working with a short, cruddy factory antenna is upgrade it for one of better quality and one that is taller.
If you must work with a shorter antenna, you’ll have to move the antenna itself or move it to a higher vantage point.
Anything you can do to raise the antenna is worthwhile when you’re trying to gain range, from climbing on top of a nearby hill or building, to scaling a tree or even climbing a mountain.
Also, don’t forget the antenna type. Directional antennas have better range, again all things being equal, compared to isometric antennas.
If you want to maximize your range, and also maximize reception from a specific direction, a directional antenna is a good investment.
Obstacles Can Greatly Reduce Range
Most people, even those who are not trained in radio operations, understand that physical obstacles can get in the way of radio transmissions.
Everyone loses cell phone or car radio reception when going through a valley, passing by a mountain or entering a tunnel.
Whether you’re dealing with a solid or intermittent obstacle determines whether or not the signal will just be degraded or blocked entirely.
The presence and type of obstacles that are interfering with your signal will dictate a lot about how you set up and operate your radio if you want to get maximum range.
Tall, dense obstacles like mountains and skyscrapers mean that you need to get your antenna up and above those obstacles to have any worthwhile range.
On the other hand, intermittent, non-metallic obstacles like trees, especially if they aren’t very densely packed, will not degrade a signal too badly unless it is a very long stretch of forest.
In short, enough minor obstacles can still eventually block a signal over a long enough distance.
Do keep in mind that seasoned operators can rely on repeaters or signal-boosting techniques to get their signal over or around intervening obstacles that would be problematic with direct transmission.
Understanding the radio horizon is fundamental to mastering long-distance broadcasting. The radio horizon is very similar, but not identical, to the visual horizon here on earth.
If you consider your radio transmission to be similar to your line of sight, you already know that the higher vantage points you get the farther away the horizon effectively becomes for you. It works the same way with your broadcast.
Your signal, with few exceptions for advanced techniques and other trickery, can only go as far reliably as the radio horizon.
Once again, elevating your antenna will increase, or extend, the radio horizon moving it further away.
Consider the fact that any receiving sets that lie beyond the radio horizon will not be able to reliably pick up your signal.
So, assuming that your power, antenna, and obstacles are not a factor, gaining height to extend the radio horizon and understanding the effects that this imposes upon you is a paramount for maximizing your transmission range.
Signal Type Matters
Lastly, but certainly not least, your signal type, or frequency, makes a big difference in the range of your radio.
Depending on whether or not you are broadcasting on lower frequencies or higher frequencies, you’ll get more or less range. But this is, as always, a trade-off.
High frequencies generally cannot travel at all beyond the actual visual horizon you can see, limiting them typically to line-of-sight applications if you cannot relay or otherwise boost the signal.
The advantage is that they do quite well when it comes to cutting through obstacles of varying types depending on whether you are using very high-frequency or ultra high-frequency transmission.
At the opposite end of the scale, you have lower frequencies, which reliably go much, much farther even beyond the horizon compared to higher frequencies but with the caveat, there are more easily disrupted and susceptible to atmospherics.
This is starting to get into more advanced radio theory, and there are all sorts of strategies and interesting ways to combine these fundamentals to get your broadcast where it needs to go and clearly understood.
What matters is that you pay attention to the basics and work to troubleshoot obvious problems.
Relying on this you’ll always be able to maximize your range no matter what sort of set you are working with.
Tom Marlowe grew up with a gun in his hand, and has held all kinds of jobs in the gun industry: range safety, sales, instruction and consulting, He has the experience in helping civilian shooters figure out what firearms work best for them.
2 thoughts on “What’s the Max Distance my Ham Radio Will Work?”
What’s being discussed here is pretty much VHF (Very High Frequency) and UHF (Ultra High Frequency) radio, which is more or less line-of-sight (LOS). HF (High Frequency) radio transmissions can bounce off the atmosphere and return to Earth. That’s why you can “talk around the world” on HF. VHF and UHF signals aren’t refracted (refracted back) enough by the atmosphere. These signals are lost in space. That’s why they’re LOS.
A couple of things:
More power can be good, but it WON’T make up for a lousy antenna. Think of a trumpet. The mouthpiece of the trumpet is the “transmitter.” Without the horn, Even Louis Armstrong couldn’t make it sound like anything but a hoarse duck, NO MATTER HOW HARD HE BLEW ON IT. The HORN is the ANTENNA. The HORN shapes and amplifies the signal so that its output is unmistakably that of a trumpet. Change the length of the plumbing of the horn or change the size or shape of the bell, and you’re going to get something quite different hitting your ears. Long story short, if you’re limited on money, spend the money on the antenna! This being said, excellent VHF and UHF antennas can be BUILT AT HOME quite inexpensively! Do some searching on the ‘net. Do it while there IS a ‘net!
If ham radio or CB are figuring into your prepping plans, BUY IT NOW! USE IT NOW! Get familiar with your radio’s strengths and weaknesses. Get to know the range IN YOUR AREA. Get to know other people on the air. Ham radio is DEFINITELY not CB. There is protocol. There are repeaters. There is programming needed on your radios. Don’t leave this prep for last!
Don’t forget about good ol’ CB! This used to be the ham radio “11 meter band.” Anyone who was ALIVE in the 1970’s probably has one of these things languishing in a box somewhere! They’re also yard sale fodder that can be had for a couple of bucks. Again, a decent antenna can be built at home for a few bucks. Under the right conditions, these things can transmit MANY miles! If you’re looking at yard sale material, look for something with 40 channels. If you find one with SIDEBAND, even better. Search SSB (Single Side Band) or Sideband for explanation as to why. Look for something with KNOBS instead of pushbuttons. Early renditions of those rubber membrane pushbuttons SUCKED when they were new, and they only went downhill with age and use! Even if you find one new in the box, those buttons are going to frustrate you!
Good luck and 73’s.
Before you commit to a ham radio research the alternatives. Ham is intended for for one to one communication from one licensed user to another. While a licensed operator can permit a non-licensed user to transmit under their supervision the license only covers the licensed operator and they are responsible for the actions of all users of their stations.
Some may need a solution, albeit with slightly less range, that they can share among their families, friends and small business workers.. Popular among farmers and ranchers, General Mobile Radio Service (GMRS) is widely used to communicate among the teams. With good antennas a handheld can transmit 7 watts with a range of 3-5 miles depending on terrain. In flat open areas its not uncommon for them to reach 20 miles. Mobile and base units are available that offer more power and range but be aware that if you’re using handhelds in your network they will be the limiting factor. It does require an FCC license but the cost is only $35, no test is required, its good for 10 years and it covers all the members of your family.
If you need communications among a wider group operating in a smaller area GMRS may be a viable option.