I recently joined the Survival Podcast Forum to explore their HAM Radio section and came across Carl (KB5WMY) who has extensive experience in the field of EMCOMMS and is a regular on the forum.

We kinda got off topic on a post called “Re: auto jump pack for portable operations?” about the issue of how much power is needed for reliable HF comms.

The discussion could be summed up with the following quotes I think…

Carl: I hope you don’t have to depend on the LOW POWER radio in an emergency as with the current state of propagation it is like whispering for help in a crowd on a busy,noisy street.About the only way QRP (low power) works effectively is with CW (morse code) or digital modes,even when the solar cycle is good…but it should be good again in 5 to 7 years.

My response is that I’ve only been on HF during the “low cycle” we are currently in and have not had issues with getting through with my little FT-817 at 5W SSB.  Today I checked into the noontime net on 7.268.5 and was easily picked up first try by Net Control W6KOZ 250 miles away.

Carl: The reliability of the 2 to 5 watts of the 817 is poor at best unless CW or digital is used as the extensive military testing determined that 20 watts or more was needed for NVIS to be reliable and as you say you intend it to be for emergency use and you NEED DEPENDABLE, then maybe it will work for you when you need it and maybe it won’t. Most QRP users are successful because of CW or DIGITAL as the SSB and human voice are poor communications tools, at best.

Solid information.  I would agree 100%, but before you discount QRP I think one really needs to put things into perspective.  Consider the chart below and realize that it takes an increase of 1S level to even notice a change in signal strength most times.

50 10.00 1.67
40 9.03 1.51
30 7.78 1.30
10 3.01 0.50

Now, nobody in their right mind is going to argue against more power being more effective in getting your signal to the place you want it to go, but at what cost?

When the grid is up and those kW hours are dirt cheap, running 100W is not an issue.  But when the only power you have is what you can store from solar?

I don’t know anyone that has a solar system large enough to spare juice on a radio running 100W continuously, but the beauty of these rigs is that they can also be turned down to 10W / 5W when the extra power is not needed.

I’m currently working on upgrading to a 400W solar system myself, so I was glad to hear Carl confirm his current (meager) setup was enough for continuous use.

Carl: I run a 24 x 7 VHF with laptop for ECHOLINK and a two hour a day 50 to 100 watt HF radio off of a 120 watt solar panel and TWO 125 Amp Hour batteries. The solar charges at 5 Amps for five hours most days and tapers up and down 2 or so hours each morn and evening. Only after a cloudy week do I need to augment the solar…

From reading further on the board, I saw that Carl is a proponent of the FT-857, the 100W big brother of the FT-817 5W ALL BAND mobile unit.

Mobile units are the Prepper’s “Base Unit” as they are designed to run off 12vdc (not only 13.8vdc) like some true base units are.  They are much smaller and pack a whole lot of function into a small box, matching the performance of many dedicated base units in some circumstances.

I considered the FT-857 for my first HF radio but two things held me back.

  1. I didn’t have the extra $300 to purchase it over the $400 FT-817 I ended up buying.
  2. After researching it against the FT-817 it was obvious that it was never going to be a compact field radio.

When you get done adding in a power source that can run 100W, take into account the extra size and weight of the unit, adding it to a “Go/Patrol Bag” that needs to remain small and light, the FT-857 or any other 100W mobile just didn’t work for me.


The kit above will provide HF comms for weeks if used for scheduled check-ins and fits into a Pelican 1170 (11.64 x 8.34 x 3.78-Inch) case. Another constant 12hrs of operation is available with the DIY Batt-Pack shown on top of the tan case.

Compare that to the FT-857 and FT-897 shown in the picture below where just the radio alone will take up the same space and weigh quite a bit more.


Dimensions & Weights:

  • FT-817  5.31 x 1.5 x 6.50 inches / 2.58 lbs
  • FT-857  6.1 x 2.0 x 9.2 inches / 4.6 lbs
  • FT-897  7.9 x 3.2 x 10.2 inches / 8.6 lbs.

Mission Drives The Gear:

Consider what you plan to do with HF in SHTF?

  • For me, HF is about listening first and talking second.
  • For me, it’s about regional comms using NVIS for contacts with those in the immediate area 30-300 miles.
  • For me, it’s about having a small compact kit that is able to be carried along side other gear when on patrol. This is why the FT-817 was my first HF radio and will always be with me in the field.
  • For me, having a 100W home unit should be the second radio the Prepper HAM should purchase, not the first.

Base Units:

I’m about to purchase my second HF radio (FT-891) after using the FT-817 for over a year now.  It took me that long to actually learn what I would like in a radio and the 891 has everything I could ask for, especially a built in scope.

Having that reserve power is nice insurance, and newer tech makes the FT-891 a much nicer radio to operate with the much improved filtering on board but I would not trade it for a field deployable unit like the FT-817 as my first choice of radios to purchase.

The answer to the question is a resounding YES in my opinion, QRP is a good choice for a Prepper’s first radio and ONLY radio if that ends up being the case, but a 100W mobile definitely has it’s place and IMO you should have both.


One thought on “QRP as a Prepper’s First HF Radio?

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