Home > Tactical Comms Setup
MY “TAC-COMMMS” BOX
Below is my portable Tac-Comms setup. It features (5) waterproof Retevis RT-6 Handhelds their charging cradles and a step down power regulator for the 10VDC required to run the cradles. It is a self-contained with solar charging as well being able to use any 12VDC source as an input.
These radios have proven to be solid performers with excellent reception and ease of programming if you are use to the Chinese style menu system.
CHIRP works flawlessly with them and I really have nothing negative to say other than I wish the charging cradles took 12VDV input instead of the 10VDC which mandates the use of the voltage regulator, creating an unnecessary “failure point” potential.
The regulator does allow me to direct drive the chargers off the small 10W solar panel attached to the Apache case from Harbor Freight. These cases are just as good as my Pelicans for everything but the hardest duties and are priced at a fraction of the cost.
Everything is held in place with hot glue which surprisingly seems to be quite durable. If I have issues with it, I will switch over to a more permanent solution of “Pig Putty”.
The panel is mounted on 1” blocks of high density foam from a kneeling pad. This gives it some shock resistance but more importantly allows cooling air behind the panel.
After a warm day in the sun, the glue heated up and the solar panel slid off. It’s now on brass screw standoffs and the airspace keeps the box much cooler this way.
TOTAL SETUP COST: $233.00
(5) RT-6 radios @ $35.00ea
Adjustable 5A Step-Down LCD Digital Power Supply @ $15.00
Newpowa 10 Watts 12 Volts Polycrystalline Solar Panel @ $23.00
Apache 1800 case @ $20.00
For the price of the radios and considering they are 10X the quality of a similar priced Baofeng UV5R, the oddball voltage requirement is worth the trade IMO.
WHY THIS SYSTEM?
Tactical Communications is such a large part of any SHTF situation that when I recently purchased new HT radios I placed the priority of having “handout” radios over a few higher quality units.
In my case as someone who does not have a prepper group, the mission is to get as much Intel gathered about my AO in SHTF as possible. And hopefully form a small MAG (2-3 families) in the immediate area to provide over-watch for each others properties.
If you understand the variables involved with trying to coordinate several different band radios like FRS/GMRS/Marine/MURs that people around you may already have and combine the fact that non-preppers will likely have no off-grid method to keep their batteries charged, a pre-made self contained system like this one starts to make a lot of sense.
On a sunny day this setup will charge all 5 radios from completely dead to completely full in 9 hours.
(5x1800mAh = 9Ah demand) / (10W / 10V = 1Ah) = 9 hours
To assemble a pre-programmed system that can be distributed to non-HAM individuals in the event of a SHTF scenario.
Using the KISS principle, the idea is to keep it at the “point and click” level of Operator interface. No programming needed on the OP’s end, just pre-set channels and a cheat sheet handed out with each radio to give the recipient an overview of what each channel should be used for and general comms practices to adhere to.
You need the ability to interface with outsiders using FMR/GMRS/Marine band radios popular with hunters and boaters, the Chinese radios allow this out of the box as they are not “locked-down” like the “Big Player” HAM radios are.
Scan Capable (aka. “Bubba Scanner”)
You want the ability to scan the surrounding area for non-HAM frequencies while monitoring the assigned TAC channels of your group.
This requires a radio with priority freq function (like the Yeasu VX-6R) or a dual band monitoring function (like most Chinese radios) with one scanning and the other on a fixed freq. HT’s with (2) transceivers are the preferred model, but are very expensive in comparison.
Dual band HTs that can dual monitor a cross-band repeater are crucial. A solar cross-band repeater is another topic that you should consider once you are up and running on your TAC-Comms but is a little more advanced and will cost some money. To see the setup I’m using, look at my portable solar-powered cross-band repeater article.
The likelihood of non-preppers having solar to recharge their HT is very slim. The unfortunate fact is that they will need to come back to a central location to pick up a freshly charged radio and put their depleted radio back on the charger every so often.
How often depends if they are monitoring at all times, coming up on freq for “SCHEDS” at preset times, etc. That will need to be determined by the group based on the level of need at any given time during the SHTF scenario.
Having a solar panel with the kit is a big deal, but also having the ability to clip onto any car battery or 12VDC source is also needed. Don’t limit your resources.
WHICH HT TO USE THEN?
With all the requirements above in mind, I found the RETEVIS RT6 to be the best candidate.
- Cheap: I picked up (5) for $35.17 ea at eBay and they come with a waterproof earpiece and lapel mic, add a programming cable for $8.17 and you have FIVE radios delivered for less than $200.00 or the cost of (1) Yaesu FT-70DR.
- Waterproof: Not having to worry about your radio in a downpour is very nice. Living in Oregon, where I get 40 inches of rain each year makes this a real concern.
- Ear Bud Included: Sometimes a low profile approach is needed, not having to shell out extra money for this is nice. I’ve found that I prefer using a radio without a remote speaker mic for simplicity, but this requires keeping the volume turned up to hear. The ear bud handles this issue when discretion is needed such as scanning while on patrol.
- Low/Med/High TX: The 1W/3W/5W settings are nice. The TYT-UVF1 radios I have only have 2W/5W settings. I would prefer to have a .25W/5W selection so the signals stay short for TAC channels and then use 5W for repeater channels, cycling through the power levels is done by pushing one button so you can select only the amount of power (more power = faster battery drain) that you need to make comms.
- CHIRP Programmable: Being able to use one software package to program all HTs is very nice and CHIRP is the king of cross-platform programming.
- Desktop Charger: Unfortunately the included desktop charge runs on 10vdc instead of the preferred 12vdc that would make charging on solar/battery setups easy. In order to charge the Li-ion battery you need to use a step down unit as shown below.
WHAT ABOUT OTHER HT’s?
To explain why I picked the RT6, I am going to rundown the HTs I have owned, as a non-HAM and as a HAM operator. Each radio has contributed to the choice in one way or another.
TYT-UVF1 (TYT-UVF1 Homepage)
My first HT was based solely off the advice of a guy that seemed to (and does) know his stuff about VHF/UHF comms. That guy was “Guerrilla Geek” who now goes by “Guerrilla Comm” on YouTube.
His series on the TYT-UVF1 convinced me they were quality and I still have them today and use them regularly without issue. These HTs have taken several hits and kept on going without a hitch.
My first choice was to buy more of these radios, but when I looked into them again, they seem to be getting discontinued. The battery eliminator was nowhere to be found and the same was true for extra batteries.
I did manage to get two (6) AAA alkaline battery pack units for the two HTs I already own so that I can now run rechargeable AAA batteries in them when the Li-ions finally die.
The TYT-UVF1 showed me that Chinese radios could indeed be reliable and by default come “opened up” to allow transmitting on bands outside of it’s designated purpose, such as MURS / FRS /GMRS / Marine, this is very important to me as most radios being used post SHTF will be of this flavor as they are used heavily by Hunters now.
Baofeng UV-5R (UV-5R Homepage)
My second HT was purchased as a “handout” radio and the selling factor was the price point. These radios are in the $20-$30 delivered range and probably the most popular choice among new preppers because of the low cost alone.
Of the (2) that I bought, both broke within a few months, broken speakers.
Sometimes cheap is just that and nothing more and some brands are not worth trusting, Baofeng is one of these IMO.
Yaesu VX-6R (VX-6R Homepage)
When I did become a HAM, I bought a Yaesu VX-6R (touted as one of the best prepper HTs) but soon learned that name and cost do not always equal ruggedness.
The VX-6R is waterproof and has great features with much easier interface for hand programming, but in the end it was too delicate due to it’s ceramic filter.
I dropped mine 3ft onto concrete and it cost me $150.00 to repair the radio when the filter cracked, it was sold shortly there after.
I did like the waterproof feature of the VX-6R though, and one of the reasons the Retevis RT6 was my final choice was because of it’s waterproof rating.
Each person given a radio will receive the following along with a short class on how to use the radios and conserve their batteries. More importantly, when NOT to use them will be covered and why it’s crucial to not establish patterns or reveal information about the size / location / capabilities of your group.
In the USMC we called these infractions a “bead-window” violation. If you heard someone call you out with “Bead-Window” it meant you were giving away sensitive information and needed to check yourself!
End User Guide:
- Protocol: When and what to say for OPSEC
- Scheduled Nets: Established times (with randomizer element) for group information transfers.
- Field Programming: RT6 Manual & Cheatsheet
- Code Words: Pre-established codes for REACT teams, etc.
- DRYAD Pads: For sending sensitive info over the air.
PROGRAMMING THE RADIOS
First you need to get the CHIRPS Programming Software.
While the RT6 comes with a Windows software package, I prefer Linux and to use CHIRP for all my radios if possible as it allows for easy cut and paste of frequencies between radios.
If you are using Linux, you might find my Linux Cheatsheet for HAMs helpful, otherwise follow the installation instruction on the CHIRPS website for your OS.
I’m not going to reinvent the wheel and show you exactly how to use CHIRPS because David Casler has already done a terrific job of this and has many more great tutorials on his YouTube channel. Go check him out and watch his Using CHIRP to Program your Handheld Ham Radios, AD#38. Back already? Great.
Later you will want to experiment with adding local repeaters via CHIRP and the REPEATERBOOK.COM option inside of it, but for now…
You can download the my RT6 demo file for the freqs used in this article at: https://drive.google.com/open?id=1QLqc9b-Dp1fFy9vAgpd07FMXMU2oIczo One you have CHIRPS installed and the demo image opened, take a look at the first three channels, TAC 1-3 which will be the ones dealt with in this post. These are your “Tactical” channels that will be used in Simplex Mode for day to day comms between groups. I have three TAC channels setup as I anticipate three potential MAGs in my AO. I recommend setting up a TAC channel for each group to use between themselves and then a “REACT” channel for all the groups to monitor. Better yet is a Repeater Channel for Regional Comms beyond line of sight.
Feel free to change the frequencies in the demo image to your own or use the ones I’ve put in the sample, as they are not my actual systems freqs for obvious OPSEC reasons. :)
USING TONE SQUELCH
By setting the ToneSql value we are only allowing transmissions into our radios that have the specific CTSS value (TAC 1 = 88.5), any person using 146.4200 without a CTSS of 88.5 will hear you but not be able to talk to you or more importantly, interfere with your comms.
Interference is probably not going to be much of an issue on HAM bands since there are many more freqs and not just standard channels like FRM/GMRS/MURS, but better safe than sorry thanks to the huge influx of cheap HTs like the Baofeng UV5R that “Purchase Preppers” love to get.
More importantly, the CTSS ToneSql settings will prevent QRN from opening your squelch and giving away you position.
Always use ToneSql on your TAC channels!
The DTCS Code is 023 by default, we are not using it in this article. DTCS is no different than CTSS for our purposes and provides not greater “security”.
Also the Tone does not need to be set when using TSQL because it automatically uses the ToneSQL value for TX and RX, but it won’t hurt to match them up as I have in the demo img.
If later you decide to use another Cross Mode, this value could be needed.
I want to make it clear that, nothing in any of these articles is going to set you up with a “secure” network over the air that allows you to speak and not be decoded.
All transmissions in analog armature radio are not encoded, it’s actually against the law to encode/encrypt them.
If you have the money to setup a similar system on Digital radios with sudo-encryption and can afford a digital repeater (big money) then have at it, but then again if you have that much money you are not reading this article. :)
If you are looking for a more secure simplex only setup, then I highly recommend the Yeasu FT-70DR in Digital Modes for Tac Channels and using the Analog side for inter-operations with outsiders or for you analog xband repeater.
OTHER CHANNELS & SCANNING
If you look at the demo file you will see that I have FRS/GMRS/MURS/SEA (Marine Channels) along with local repeaters in my memory banks. Also, don’t forget your local WX channel (importable from CHIRP) as they are of great value while the reports continue to air.
One thing to note is that blocking a busy channel is a pain if you have a lot of them to handle in the field at once, so I limit my scanning to the “Bubba Freqs” (FRS/GMRS/MARINE/MURS) and only scan to know if someone is using them in my AO (line of sight ~ 2 Miles for VHF/UHF).
I’m not scanning the other channels in my system, they are being used by other MAG’s as their own simplex channel. Because the radio is a dual monitor type and does not have two VFO’s it can not listen to two separate signals at the same time like higher end radios.
Since there is only one VFO in these radios I’ll call the display levels; Level 1 and Level 2 to distinguish between the monitoring of it’s single VFO. I will normally have “Level 1” set for monitoring my own TAC channel and “Level 2” scanning the “Bubba Freqs”.
I always have Level 1 set to a system channel and only transmit on Level 1 to keep from getting confused and transmitting outside of my system by accident while scanning.
In high risk times there is an exception to the rule. When a REACT Team response might be expected, one “Level 2” is set for the designated Repeater/REACT channel to listen for comms from the other MAG’s and “Level 1” is set to my own MAG’s TAC channel. Bubba Scanning is done with a second HT if needed.
The reason for three TAC channels is that if someone does “skim” your CTSS code and start talking on your channel when you don’t want them to, you can advise the group to move to “TAC 3” and the OPFOR will have to find your Freq. and CTSS code for that channel.
It’s a temp fix for a compromised channel and if they captured your CTSS, it probably means you are keying up too long, giving them time to capture it, or they have advanced Signals Detection capabilities beyond your average “Bubba” or beginning HAM Operator.