Choosing a Radio for Survival/Disaster/Bug Out Situations

By P.J. Beaumont

I’m PJ Beaumont, and I’m a licensed ham radio operator and I also hold a GMRS license.  In this article I’m going to talk about which radio to choose for your bug-out bag.

From specialized GMRS transceivers (Wouxun), to simple AM/FM/NOAA receivers (C. Crane), to rugged and capable Ham radios (Yaesu), to super-cheap Ham/GMRS transceivers, you’ve got a lot of choices when you need to bug out. But which one is right for you?

The first question you need to answer is whether you need to just listen to broadcasts so you can get official information, or you’d need to communicate (both receive and talk) with other people.  If you want to communicate, you need to figure out who you’re going to talk to, what radio service (ham, GMRS Citizens Band, etc.) they are on, and what the local conditions and resources are like (are there repeaters you can use?  Is the terrain hilly or flat?  How high up are you?)

There are lots of options, from hand-crank radios to small battery-powered receivers to walkie-talkies capable of receiving broadcast bands and NOAA weather stations.  But even if all you expect to do is listen for official news and weather, you still might want to consider putting a GMRS or even a ham walkie-talkie in your bug-out bag.

Even though I’m a licensed amateur, I realize that ham radio isn’t for everybody.  For one thing, you need to pass a test to get a license, and there are LOTS of rules and regulations to remember.  However, for radio communications that can cover a entire state, a region, or the whole world, no radio service is more capable than ham radio.

For simple, practical communications in a local area, GMRS has a lot going for it, including the fact that you don’t need to pass a test to get a license, the license automatically covers your whole family, and you’ve got the option to set up repeaters.  

For the purposes of this article, we will assume you will be on foot, so small portable radios will be the only ones considered.

Aside from being able to transmit, you’re going to want to have the ability to pick up AM and FM and NOAA weather broadcast bands to get official information, as well as scan the radio spectrum to detect any groups that may be coming into your area.

The way I see it, there are basically three ways to go.  One is a good-quality ham walkie-talkie (The Yaesu VX-6r), the other is a good-quality GMRS walkie-talkie (the Wouxun KG-UV9GX) backed by cheaper GMRS units, and the third is a very inexpensive walkie-talkie that is capable (in some editions) of transmitting on both bands, and more (the Baofeng UV-5).  Note that using that last walkie-talkie on GMRS or other non-ham frequencies is not exactly legal.

All three of those radios are capable of receiving a very wide part of the radio spectrum, including broadcast FM and weather bands.  The Yaesu is also capable of receiving broadcast AM, short wave, and even television signals (audio portion only).

In an emergency, there are certain AM radio stations that are equipped to deal with disasters, including the electromagnetic pulse from an atomic attack, and they are required by the government to be ready at all times for emergency operation (many even have several pallets of freeze-dried military MREs (Meals-Ready-to-Eat) on hand in case the personnel have to live there for days or weeks!).  The signals in the AM broadcast band can go farther than most FM signals, so a radio capable of receiving AM broadcast might be nice to have


Will you have a family group that you’ll need to maintain communications with?  Do you have connections with a group of like-minded GMRS radio users who can help you in an emergency?  Are you in a situation where your closest radio contact may be a hundred miles away or more?  Do you plan on organizing a cadre of insurgents against a foreign takeover of your region?  All these will require different radios and different ways of operating.


The Baofeng UV-5 is probably the most widely-used two-way radio in the world.  Different editions are used by both insurgent groups and special-ops military units.  You can obtain a brand-new unit for as little as $20.

Perhaps the best book on how to use this radio is “The Guerrilla’s Guide to the Baofeng Radio,” by NC Scout.  It not only has operating instructions, but also good guidance on radio procedures.

They churn these radios out like paperback books, probably hundreds or thousands a day.  There are different editions, so you need to make sure you get the one that matches your needs.  There has been some uproar about the Baofeng being able to transmit on “illegal” frequencies, so some distributors have locked them down so they can only operate on the designated ham frequencies.  However, it is usually very simple to unlock the radios, which allows them to transmit on nearly any frequency they can receive.  (It is also possible to unlock the Yaesu VX-6, which allows it to transmit on even more frequencies).   

The Baofengs have a reputation for unreliability, but they are so cheap it’s easy to just buy a lot of back-up units.  All the transceivers listed here can be programmed using a computer, which can make it easy to set a new unit to the exact same programming as the one it replaced.  They only weigh about 8 ounces, with battery.

One drawback to the Baofeng is that it’s cumbersome to program using the built-in keypad, and the instructions can be confusing.  Also, while it’s possible to use a Baofeng UV-5 on GMRS frequencies, it’s not legal, though I’m not aware of anyone who has been prosecuted for it.  The radio is known for not having a clean transmission signal, which sometimes leaks out into unintended frequencies.


If all you plan on doing is listening to FM and NOAA broadcasts, the UV-5R is small, light, cheap, and capable.  If you plan on leading a cadre of warrior-citizens against an invading military force— and you have a certain amount of technological expertise— then the low-cost and versatile Baofeng UV-5 might be a good choice.  It doesn’t have encryption or frequency-hopping capabilities, but it does have the ability to both transmit and receive over an extremely wide part of the radio spectrum, which might help keep you from being detected.


The Wouxun KG-UV9GX is capable of transmitting only on GMRS frequencies, but it can receive a lot more than that.  The U.S. distributor (, who also designed the radio’s programming) pre-programs the units, with public service and aircraft frequencies already in memory.

The main advantage of the Wouxun is that it has what is called a “superheterodyne” receiver, which many radio technicians consider superior to the software-defined radio (SDR) receiver in most other compact transceivers.  With the big screen that shows the user lots of information, it’s a bit easier to program from the keyboard than most others of its type.

The disadvantages are that it only transmits on GMRS frequencies, and it’s expensive.  If you plan on using GMRS as your two-way radio system— and there are good reasons for doing so— I’d only get one or two of these for group leaders, and fill in the rest of your group with cheaper GMRS radios.


The Yaesu VX-6, like everything else in the Yaesu line, is reliable, high-quality, and not cheap.  As well, the unit is waterproof down to a few feet.  It’s even tinier than the Baofeng, and much smaller than the Wouxun.  From the factory it is only able to transmit on the 144/220/430 mHz ham frequencies, but it is possible to easily “jailbreak” it so that it can transmit on nearly any frequency between 0.5 mHz and 1000 mHz (note that this voids the warranty and will enable the unit to operate illegally).

It’s the only one of the transcievers that is capable of receiving AM broadcast band and TV audio, and like the others it can receive FM broadcast and NOAA Weather.

The Yaesu is much easier to program from the keyboard than nearly any other unit on the market, and automatically knows the offsets for ham repeater channels (note that this and many other functions would be destroyed by jailbreaking).  I use both the Yaesu and the Baofeng for ham operations, and while I can eventually get the Baofeng to do what I want, using the Yaesu is a dream in comparison.


There are a number of receive-only radios that have the ability to charge via a crank.  Some of them have solar cells, though those solar cells aren’t very powerful, and might take days to charge a radio’s batteries from empty.  Their biggest drawback is that they are very heavy, but if you are staying in one place and expect to have problems with the electrical system, they might be the way to go.  Choose a good brand, you’ll get what you pay for.


You can get battery packs with built-in solar cells, and though they will make your entire kit weigh as much as the crank radios, you can use the power banks to recharge other items in your kit, like cell phones.

If you don’t think you’ll be on the move for long, then the lighter two-way radios with extra batteries might be the best choice.  Note that some of the radios have a feature that turns on the receiver only every few seconds or so, which drastically reduces the battery drain, and can make a battery last several weeks while it is waiting for a signal.


Which unit you get will depend on your anticipated situation, how technically capable you are, and what you need to do with it.

If you are prepping for a natural disaster, and you have a group of people (like extended family) you will need to coordinate with, GMRS is a good fit.  Along with the Wouxun for group leaders, get cheaper GMRS units for other people.

If you are a ham prepping for a natural disaster and you don’t need to coordinate a group of people (unless they are all techno-geeks who have ham licenses) the Yaesu would be a good addition to your kit, especially if there are ham repeaters in your area that can spread your signal far and wide.  Many hams have emergency kits that can be set up in remote areas and transmit on frequencies with a much longer range than than the walkie talkies use.

The Baofeng can substitute for much of what the Yaesu does, and I have a couple of them as back-ups for my Yaesu.  Get the Baofeng— or maybe several of them— if you are a ham operator on a budget, or if you anticipate an enemy military force invading your area, and you plan to oppose them.  Good luck with that.  If the enemy is technically sophisticated, they will have the ability to locate you quite quickly.

If you expect the electricity to be out for long periods, you’ll be staying in one place, and you’re not technically savvy, get a crank radio.

Good luck to all of us, and stay safe.

Add a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *