COMMS CHECK! – American Survival Guide



Editor’s Note: This is one of three sections about communications we published on our Fall/Winter 2018 Prepper Manual. The other two sections are Comms Before the Storm and Let’s Talk Tech.


As I wrote this article, Amateur Radio Field Day 2018 was rapidly approaching. Each year, the fourth full weekend in June provides the opportunity for ham radio operators to participate in an organized event geared toward getting outdoors and operating away from the comfort of their home stations.

Following rules established by the American Radio Relay League (ARRL), participating radio clubs and individual operators try to work as many other stations in North America as they can in the allotted time period. After the event, logs are submitted to the ARRL for scoring, with extra points given to stations that operate in an effort to meet the challenges of emergency preparedness, such as using battery and/or solar power to run their equipment.

The whole idea of this “dry run” is to establish and maintain communications in abnormal situations in less-than-optimal conditions. (More information can be found at

A dedicated group of amateur radio enthusiasts, believing emergency communications in a winter environment is just as important as it is during the warmer months, has established the last full weekend in January as Winter Field Day. Sponsored by the Winter Field Day Association (, this event is open to licensed hams throughout the world. Its goal is to enhance the skills of radio operators and ready them for environmental conditions in all seasons, not just the nice days of summer.

In June, more than 40,000 amateur stations engaged in the preparation and practice that makes the June Field Day so fun, but January’s turnout will likely be fewer than 1,000. The takeaway from Winter Field Day will be invaluable to those resolute radio operators: What is easy in warm weather can be virtually impossible in sub-freezing temperatures, when fingers become numb and batteries succumb to the cold. Gear selection becomes critical, because station equipment is downsized to make way for the bulk and weight of items necessary to cope with frigid temperatures. The experience will allow them to fine-tune their communications plan to ensure it will work in all seasons and weather conditions.


1.1 Environmental conditions can change in short order. Checking weather forecasts should be part of your daily routine, but don’t simply focus on the short-term outlook.

1.1.1 Look as far ahead as possible for developing systems that could bring significant changes, good or bad, to your current environment.

1.1.2 Weather forecasts should be obtained from local over-the-air television, as well as NOAA Weather Radio.

1.1.3 Use Internet resources, such as Weather. gov, and other websites, to gather national and regional weather information.


1.2 During the winter months, sharp changes in temperature are usually accompanied by high wind.

1.2.1 Antenna structures and power lines are susceptible to damage or failure due to high winds. When high winds are in the forecast, check antenna structures, ensuring that all guy lines are tight and anchors are secure. Plan for power outages that could impair cellular telephone systems.

1.2.2 Freezing rain and ice storms compound high-wind concerns by coating exposed surfaces with layers of ice. The extra weight and increased wind resistance makes structures more likely to fail.

Excessive snow and ice loads on trees can cause power and communications outages without the advance warning that severe storms and high winds can provide.

1.3 Severe winds associated with winter storm fronts

Winter storm systems can be very intense, often marching across the continent in organized lines at a quick pace. These storms can persist through the night without weakening, fueled by the drastic atmospheric temperature differences as arctic air spills southward and meets the warmer, moisture-laden air from the Pacific Ocean and Gulf of Mexico.

1.3.1 Frequently accompanying these storm systems are severe gust fronts called “derechos.” Wind speeds of more than 100 miles per hour are common and can extend along a line more than 250 miles wide. Tornados can—and often do—form within these storms, but a derecho on its own is perfectly capable of destroying buildings and blowing mobile homes off their foundations and tractor-trailers off the road. The destruction caused by their straight-line winds can be indistinguishable from that caused by tornados.


2.1 Most of the equipment used to convey information—televisions, computers and the like—is inside our homes and not really affected by cold weather, but devices used outdoors can exhibit problems in extreme cold.

In most of the United States, blizzards such as this can be reliably forecast days before they strike, giving residents ample time to prepare. (Photo: dbking/Wikimedia commons)

2.1.1 Cellphones are typically carried under our outer layer of clothing, where they’re kept warm by body heat. However, if left exposed to sub-freezing temperatures, they might fail to operate properly or not at all.

2.1.2 Devices carried outside our garments and exposed to the cold might suffer diminished battery capacity and decreased operating time. Handheld two-way radios might not be able to transmit at full power, even though the battery appears full.

In some cases, even with advance knowledge and preparation, you can still get stuck in snow. (Photo: Jarek Tuszynski/CC BY 4.0, Commons.

2.1.3 Electronics exposed to deep cold might not function properly when needed. Displays on two-way mobile radios installed inside a vehicle might take a few moments to show channel or frequency information.

2.1.4 Portable gear could fail to turn on after extended exposure to temperatures well below freezing. Some battery types are not capable of providing power in sub-freezing conditions and could be damaged if the temperature drops too low.

The lines and mast are coated with ice from freezing rain, adding weight and wind-resistance to the structure, thereby making it more susceptible to wind damage.

2.1.5 Bringing cold devices into the warm and humid environment indoors can cause moisture to condense on external surfaces, as well as the interior, leading to water damage. This layer of moisture can freeze if not dried off before returning the device to the cold.

2.2 Items such as cords and cables can become stiff  and brittle.

2.2.1 Coax insulation might crack, creating a path for water to enter, thereby leading to failure.

2.2.2 Frozen connectors can break.

2.3 Installing outdoor antennas or other hardware in cold weather is difficult.

2.3.1 Connecting coax cable with numb fingers can be nearly impossible; and weather-proofing material, such as electrical tape, might not stick when cold.

2.3.2 Driving mast guy line anchors into frozen ground often results in broken stakes and can lead to injury.

Tight guy lines keep the author’s HF antenna standing against strong winds.

2.4 In some parts of the country, power outages are a common occurrence during strong winter storms, and weather conditions can prolong outages because repairs are hampered. Because much of our communications equipment needs electricity to operate, having alternative power available is critical to maintaining comms.

In preparation for winter use, the author has scaled down his summer station t

2.4.1 Fuel-powered generators can supply plenty of power, but condensation inside fuel tanks can lead to ice blockages in fuel lines.

2.4.2 Battery power offers convenience, but some battery types (such as common lead-acid deep-cycle batteries) might need protection from extreme cold.

2.4.3 Solar-power generation becomes less effective in the winter months. There is decreased solar intensity due to the lower angle of sunlight. There is a shorter period of useable sunshine per day. Frequent overcast skies further reduce the available sunlight.


3.1 Cellular phones are typically with us all the time, so they are the most common mode of communication between parties that are not under the same roof.

Two or more 100-watt solar panels are required in the winter to meet the power needs of the communication center. During the summer, one is usually sufficient.

3.1.1 Establish a schedule or routine for letting others know of your situation or of a change in your status. Notify your spouse when you are leaving the office (for instance) or if you’re caught in a traffic delay on your way.

Just one of the benefits of a two-way radio is that it works without any dependence on infrastructure. (Photo: Jim Jeffries)

Don’t assume that your family, friends and group members are as informed as you are. Keep them apprised of your situation, as well as about any conditions that will affect them. (Photo: Staff Sgt. Christopher S. Muncy/New York Air National Guard; Released; DVIDS) Maintain a check-in schedule with family and group members.

3.1.2 Extraordinary events should trigger more-frequent check-ins or alert notifications. Approaching severe weather alerts should be sent to all family and group members—never assume they already know what’s coming.

With power and telephone/Internet lines down during an ice storm, e-mail can still be sent and received over radio. Batteries, kept charged by solar panels, provide power to the author’s amateur radio station equipment. Prearranged action plans that are appropriate for the situation at hand should be set in motion during emergencies.

3.2 Two-way radios work when cell phones don’t.

3.2.1 Cellular service can be interrupted for a variety of reasons: extended power outages, high call volume, lack of coverage, etc. A two-way radio does not need a network, nor does it require grid power to function.

3.2.2 Direct radio-to-radio communications can span many miles; global communications are even possible with the proper equipment.

3.2.2 Some radio services permit the use of repeaters (special radio systems that receive and retransmit the original signal) that greatly enhance the useable range of two-way radios, providing coverage citywide and beyond.

Communications in extreme cold weather require equipment designed to function in that environment. (Photo: Senior Airman Sean Campbell/U.S. Air Force; DVIDS)

3.3 Alternative methods of communication

3.3.1 E-mail is very effective when detailed information must be passed on to family or group members. With the advent of smart phones and other mobile devices, users have e-mail capabilities at their fingertips 24/7. Even without local Internet access, amateur radio operators can send and receive e-mail over the airwaves to or from anyone, anywhere, via HF, VHF or UHF radio.

Typical consumer communications gear might require protection from the cold.

3.3.2 Cell phone text messaging is often more effective than voice communications. Information such as warnings, instructions or addresses can be referred to at any time so the recipient does not have to rely on memory alone.

3.3.3 When it comes to sharing information, social media has become ubiquitous. For some people, it is the primary (or only) source of contact with family members and friends outside the home. Use it if you must, but keep operational security (OPSEC) in mind!


Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in the Prepper Fall, 2018 print issue of American Survival Guide.

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Tactical Pete
Author: Tactical Pete

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