Situational Awareness

We think that one of the most important overlooked prepping items is situational awareness. We all prep for one reason, to make an otherwise uncomfortable situation more comfortable. In some cases uncomfortable could be unsurvivable and comfortable could be thriving. We hedge the risk of an uncomfortable scenario by setting back goods and skills that will make that scenario more comfortable. Many of us try to prepare for all possible eventualities including hunkering down, long term self-sustainability, bugging out, defensive positioning, some even practice offensive offensive maneuvers.

Failing to have a robust communication plan could leave all of the above in a state of failure.

A good example is the Maui fire where no sirens alerted the residents of their impending doom. They had little or no situational awareness until it was too late to devise a proper reaction plan. Would a communication plan saved the 1000+ residents that lost their lives? Let’s think about that, how many died moving the wrong direction? Executing their predetermined communication plan may have resulted in at least some of those folks making better decisions due to having information and guidance from others that were participating in the communication plan.

We have heard people saying they don’t need a communication plan, they enjoy their solitude on their homestead paradise. However that solitude will only last as long as your situational awareness allows it to.

Events that could strongly benefit from a communications plan:

  • Wildfire
    • How far is it, what direction is it moving? Am I being forced to evacuate?
  • Tornado or Hurricane Aftermath :
    • Where to get medical attention or what roads are passable?
  • Government Intervention
    • Martial law, National Guard forcing evacuations etc.
  • Long Term Grid Outage
    • Locations of refugee caravans, proximity of thieves or bad actors
    • Setting up defensive perimeters
    • Collecting / sharing intel about non-friendly movements

In some cases having a network of trusted people could be the difference between surviving and not surviving. Using the information gleaned from your communications plan could help you make informed decisions instead of guessing for the following :

  • When to bug out
  • When to hide
  • When to provide disinformation over the air (very effective in steering away bad actors)
  • When to take up a defensive posture
  • Where to obtain medical assistance
  • Where to redirect folks who need help
  • How to prioritize your own situation.

Off Grid Comms is trying to wake folks up and provide useful solutions to these challenges, follow us for to learn more about what a good communication plan should include.

Winlink Private Server

Off Grid Comms runs a private Winlink Server to allow our subscribers to retrieve (download over the air), the NET Map report and the Daily News report from the server at your convenience. This page serves as instructions.

First you need a valid callsign and your callsign needs to be registered at Winlink.com

  • Download and install Winlink Express (first run will create your Winlink account)
  • Download and install Vara from here (you can use the free but the paid version is way faster)
  • Use the Contact Us Form to request a subscription for your callsign
  • Choose VARA HF P2P from the available sessions drop down and “Open Session”
  • Your VARA HF P2P session should match the image below, callsign W5DMH and Dial set to 3.583.50
  • Then click the “start” to start the session

Meshtastic, What is it?

No Licence, Encrypted, Inexpensive, Decentralized

Meshtastic Off Grid Communication Features

We like Meshtastic because it is an open source not for profit project that allows us to custom build our own devices inexpensively and easily. That said there are many pre-built devices available on Etsy, you do not have to build your own. These inexpensive units can be paired with your Android or iOS phone (does not require phone service or wifi, simply uses the phone as a mini computer) and used as a text messaging device when using the Meshtastic App on your phone. The Meshtastic App provides multiple channels, you can have private channels with unique encryption for command structure or private groups while maintaining a public channel as well.

  • No license required!
  • Short learning curve
  • Inexpensive (less than $25 per unit)
  • Self Meshing Network (every user acts as a repeater)
  • Works with your phone like text messaging
  • Can be a standalone device instead of using phone interface
  • GPS & MAP capability (see your friends on the move if they choose)
  • Can be solar powered (indefinite operation)
  • Can operate solely as a repeater (place on high ground or tower for miles of coverage)
  • Lightweight enough to easily be lifted by a drone for 50+ miles of coverage
  • AES256 Encryption available
  • Can use older phone with no sim card or wifi connections.

Range :

Range is based on line of site, from user to user is fairly short, with typical terrestrial obstructions, 1-2 miles is realistic. However if you have a user on high ground or you put a unit up on a tower or tall building, the coverage grows exponentially to up to 60 miles realistically. The messages literally hop from user to user until the message reaches the destination user.

Real world use case: we have a solar powered unit mounted on a 60ft tower with a good antenna acting as a very inexpensive repeater and 15 miles is not a problem. Take that a step further, we have lifted a unit with our drone to 400ft and easily got 46 miles of reach. I’m sure the drone was able to reach farther but that was our test location and it was a solid communication.

Cost :

Costs range from $20 for a no battery unit that uses a USB cable to connect to your Android phone to $200 for a standalone messaging unit that operates without a phone at all. We prefer the T-Echo units pictured here , they are $54 each and pair with your phone, however most units can still receive and display what they have received without pairing them to a phone including these T-Echo units.

When you add in a solar charging capability the costs go up, our solar powered tower mounted repeater has an all in cost of about $150, we built it ourselves and only used the best components to have a repeater that will work in a high traffic environment for up to 30 days without sunshine. So for $250 I can consistently contact my family 15 miles away, add another two units and a drone and I can reach my buddy 46 miles away consistently.

Dollar for Dollar Meshtastic is the most cost effective medium range solution there is for secure communication over distance .

Off Grid Communication Options

Here are the majority of options for off grid communications

So which is best for you?

You need to figure out what your personal communication goal is. What will you be listening to for local and national news? Will you be interested in talking beyond 1 or 2 miles? Maybe beyond 30 miles? Do you need radio email capability? Is text messaging only (no voice) acceptable? What will your budget allow?

We will be adding to this article soon with additional information.

Winlink Radio Email

Winlink is a unique email application that works with both radio and internet. It operates very similar to other email applications such as Outlook or Gmail. Winlink of course has a lot of additional features and functions that make it useful for Amateur Radio.

Why Use Winlink?

Winlink has a very unique feature in that you can send and receive email from your non-ham friends. This is huge, as there are very few methods to accomplish this bridge from Operator to non-operator. Imagine being able to send an email to your family and friends who are several states away without any internet at all, just an walkie talkie (HT or Handheld Transceiver, in Amateur speak) and a phone with no cell service are the minimum requirements.

Advantages of Winlink

  • Ability to send to and receive from non-ham people
  • Ability to send a message to pretty much anywhere
  • Can use with or without internet access.
  • Can be used as a Public Mail Server
  • Can be used as a Private Mail Server (point to point & only authorized callsigns)
  • Operates on pretty much any band from 2m to 160m
  • Zero Cost
  • Equipment can be as minimal as an HT , cable , and a cell phone without service.
  • Support is very good with many radio specific training and setup videos
  • Works anywhere in the USA (using HF radio)

Disadvantages of Winlink

  • Can be daunting to setup and learn
  • Requires a cell phone, tablet or computer to operate
  • Requires regular usage to stay in practice.
  • Radio coverage of Winlink gateways is limited (VHF only, HF has blanket coverage of USA)
  • A major regional event might clog Winlink Gateway HF stations
  • Winlink Gateways are one customer at a time, waiting to send may be necessary

Summary

Winlink is a very useful tool to have available during an event. You can receive news, weather, information directly from non-ham loved ones and friends who are outside of the affected area. You can send and receive map locations (view them in offline mapping within the Winlink tool) . We run an Winlink Private Server that is updated daily with News, Weather and the Midwest Prepper Report NET map and status report. Our private Winlink server is a great tool for practicing your Winlink skills.

Digital versus Voice

Digital radio can seem daunting so let’s break it down to make it a bit easier to understand. First what is digital radio? My definition is pretty much anything that isn’t voice. But what about morse code? Well morse code is actually a binary digital mode, dits and dahs are simply carrier on for a short period or a long period or 0’s and 1’s.

What advantages does digital have over voice?

  • Concise information
  • One to many broadcast is possible (certain modes)
  • Cuts through noise & static
  • Can be received & decoded with inexpensive receivers
  • Images can be transmitted (maps, damage, etc)
  • Coordinates can be transmitted (move to the map point)
  • Some modes work with just a cell phone, without any wires (Rattlegram, APRS, FLMSG)

Disadvantages of Digital over voice

  • More equipment is required (minimum cell phone depending on mode)
  • Much steeper learning curve
  • Cost can be a barrier (depends on mode)
  • Disadvantages of Digital over voice

What are the options? Well there are many options :

  • Winlink Radio Email (can work with just an HT and a cell phone for local work)
  • APRS (can work with just an HT and a cell phone for local work)
  • JS8Call (requires an HF receiver, radio interface & computer)
  • FSQCall (requires an HF receiver, radio interface & computer)
  • FLMSG (can work with just an HT and a cell phone for local work)
  • FLDGI (many modes, requires an HF receiver, radio interface & computer)

Look at the Articles section for specific articles on each of these modes.

Why bother with MPR NET ?

Suppose there is a national or regional event that shuts down the internet and other forms of communication (most including your cell phone rely on the internet)?

  • Cyber Attack
  • EMP
  • Coronal Mass Ejection
  • Government Shut Down
  • Critical Infrastructure Event

How would you communicate? How would you get regional or national news? Would the news you are getting be trustworthy or factual? Can you rely on the internet, cellular or even terrestrial television & radio stations? What about satellites, could they be affected as well?

This is why we have started having bi-weekly radio communication over HF (High Frequency) radio.

Open to everyone to listen and even unlicensed folks can participate as long as we have internet available. This practice before an event ever occurs is fun and enlightening, learning how others are prepping, what their successes and failures have been and what their current status is in there own area of operation (maybe very near you?).

Our primary station for all of this is a very resilient station with solar, battery and diesel generator backup that allows us to operate indefinitely after an event. We also have multiple satellite systems for pulling in information from around the world in the event the satellite constellations are unaffected.

Practicing with a battery powered radio (instead of the internet WEB SDR link is highly recommended) . Here is the link to the story that includes how to purchase these little receivers. These little receivers are highly effective and so inexpensive you will be able to afford two, one for listening to our MPR NETS and one to keep in a Faraday cage for safe keeping!

Non-Hams Welcome!

We welcome non-Ham or unlicensed listeners to our nets either over the air or via the online Web Radios we post links to. You can learn what is going on when all other communications are down. This is why we recommend a small High Frequency receiver for our non-Ham unlicensed friends. Below is a is a very inexpensive receiver I have personally used to listen to our twice weekly MPR NETs. This little $45 receiver with it’s built in battery works great if you connect a 66ft long wire to the antenna port. I will provide links to everything you need below. You can simply attach the wire antenna and drape it over some bushes or along a wooden fence or even in a square around your deck!

When the internet is down this little radio could be a lifesaver! It has a built in rechargeable battery that lasts for many hours and the radio easily fits in your glovebox or backpack.

Buy it at Amazon Micro Rechargeable Shortwave SSB Receiver

Buy the antenna coupling Antenna Wire Adapter

Buy the wire for the antenna Antenna Wire

Full transparency, I have now do have an affiliate account with Amazon and may get compensated for your purchase, however I personally bought these items and tested them myself to make it easier for you.

What is the Midwest Prepper Report NET?

The Midwest Prepper Report “NET” is a twice a week radio event on HF radio for preppers in the midwest to share information relative to their particular location. You can learn about the status of other areas and have a reliable method of communication in the event all other means of communication are down.

Unlicensed listeners are welcome and we encourage non-Ham participation.

So what is a NET?

A Net is a meeting on the air between Ham operators where one operator is the lead or NET Control Station (NCS for short) and he/she will call out for “check ins” where other stations call back with their callsign, county and name. After everyone is “checked in” the NCS station will call each of the checked in stations one at a time and ask for their “Traffic” (the information they want to share or ask for ).

A listener can learn a lot about the status of surrounding areas and potential good deals at certain stores or possibly what areas to avoid.