The Best Mobile Ham Radios for Survivalists

According to the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, the world is currently only 100 seconds away from doomsday. The main two threats on the horizon are nuclear war and climate change. A sudden nuclear strike or widespread flooding caused by global warming could have calamitous consequences across the planet. In many areas, electrical power grids could very well be either totally disabled or severely damaged. As a result of that, people would have reduced access to the internet. Many TV and radio stations would be knocked offline, as well.

If a doomsday scenario did unfold, its victims would need to rely on some alternative form of communication. Ham radio technology can help bridge many of those information gaps. Mobile ham radios could be especially useful, since they can be used on the go. Keep reading to learn about five of the best mobile ham radios you can buy via the internet.

The most powerful mobile ham radio

Yaesu FT-2980R

FT-2980R FT-2980 Original Yaesu 144 MHz Single Band Mobile Transceiver 80 Watts - 3 Year Manufacturer Warranty

The Yaesu FT-2980 is inexpensive, yet it’s also more powerful than many of its high priced competitors. You may think that an 80-watt mobile ham radio would be loud, but its large heatsink eliminates the need for noisy fans. Another nice thing about the FT-2980R is that it’s equipped with Yaesu’s patented Wires technology. This extends its range by allowing it to interface with internet-enabled repeaters. There is one significant downside to note, though: if you have big fingers you may have trouble accessing the FT-2980’s hard-to-reach connector ports. If you don’t mind that inconvenience, the FT-2980R is an excellent choice for anyone looking for a solid and reasonably priced mobile ham radio.

Good

  • 80 watts of transmission power. The FT-2980R is the most powerful mobile ham radio we’ve seen so far.
  • Quiet operation. Instead of fans, a huge heatsink keeps the electronic parts from overheating.
  • Loud audio output. The three-watt speaker gives you the ability to crank up the volume as needed.
  • Reasonable price point. The surprisingly low sticker price is one of its strongest advantages.
  • Internet connectivity. Yaesu’s patented Wires system lets you connect to internet-enabled repeaters.
  • Backlit hand mic buttons. This convenient feature helps you use the hand mic number pad in low-light environments.
  • Easy to program. Fans of this ham radio appreciate its intuitive menus and controls.

Bad

  • Hard-to-reach connector ports. The major complaint about this ham radio is that its antenna and auxiliary audio connectors are apparently situated in an awkward position, buried deep within the bulky frame.

In a nutshell

The Yaesu FT-2980R is one of the most affordable mobile ham radios you’ll find– but it’s also one of the most powerful out there, as well. Rated at 80 watts, it gives you the ability to send out transmissions over extremely long distances. The heavy duty heat sink allows for surprisingly quiet operation.

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The most rugged mobile ham radio

Kenwood TM-281A

The Kenwood TM-281A is one of the very toughest mobile ham radios you’ll find. Since its MIL-STD 810 compliant, it can withstand the bumps and jolts that one experiences while driving offroad over uneven surfaces. Fans of the TM-281A appreciate its compact interface, alphanumeric display and reasonable price point. The front mounted speaker design is another notable plus. Most ham radio operators say that it has above average sensitivity, as well. On the other hand, the fact that the interface lacks a dedicated squelch knob may be a turnoff for some.

Good

  • Meets military ruggedness specifications. The Kenwood TM-281A is compliant with MIL-STD 810 C, D, E, F and G. In other words, it can withstand vibration and accidental drops.
  • 65 watts of transmission power. The industry standard for output wattage seems to be about 50 watts, but the TM-281A provides a bit more power.
  • Front-mounted speaker. Instead of positioning the speaker on the bottom of the chassis, Kenwood decided on a forward-facing speaker design.
  • Reasonable price point. It isn’t fancy, but it is rugged and affordable.
  • Alphanumeric display. Some mobile ham radios in this price range only display numbers, but this one supports both numbers and letters.
  • Compact interface. All the buttons have two functions. To use the alternative function, all you have to do is press the “F” button.
  • Excellent sensitivity. The TM-281A has been given praise for the efficient way that it hones in on weak, distant transmissions.

Bad

  • No dedicated squelch knob. This missing feature makes it inconvenient to operate while driving.

In a nutshell

Kenwood’s TM-281A meets the US military’s standards for shock and vibration resistance. If you often find yourself driving over rocky terrain, it might be your best option. The unique front-mounted speaker may be a benefit as well, particularly for those that drive noisy vehicles. Fans of the TM-281A also appreciate its compact panel design.

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The best Bluetooth-equipped mobile ham radio

Icom IC-2730A

Icom IC-2730A Dual Band VHF/UHF 50W Mobile Radio

The Icom IC-2730A seems to have been designed specifically for driving. Since it supports Bluetooth, you won’t have to worry about microphone cord tangles. The dedicated squelch knob is also convenient, because it lets you make squelch adjustments as you operate your vehicle. In addition, there are two different mounting options to choose from. You can either go with the standard mounting bracket or purchase the optional suction cup mounting system. The most common complaint about the IC-2730A is its fan, which its critics say is noisy.

Good

  • Bluetooth integration. The optional Bluetooth headset allows for wire-free operation.
  • Dedicated squelch knob. You can quickly adjust squelch as you drive without having to flip through menus.
  • Two different mounting options. You can either use the included fixed-in-position mounting bracket or upgrade to the optional suction cup mounting system, which gives you the ability to swivel the display.
  • Extra large display. The previous version of this mobile ham radio was equipped with a much smaller screen.
  • 50 watts of transmission power. Though other mobile ham radios have beefier transmitters, the IC-2730 still meets the industry standard when it comes to max transmission wattage.
  • Simultaneous receive. It supports natural, full duplex communication while in VHF/VHF and UHF/UHF modes.
  • Picks up aviation, marine and weather channels. The wide band of frequencies the IC-2730A contributes to its versatility.

Bad

  • The fan can get noisy. The most common criticism of the IC-2730A seems to be its noisy fan, which gets loud at times.

In a nutshell

Icom’s IC-2730A is one of the few mobile ham radios that supports Bluetooth. If you hate dealing with wires when you drive, you may want to give it a closer look. Previous versions of this mobile ham radio were criticized for having small displays, so Icom responded by equipping the latest edition with a much bigger screen.

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The mobile ham radio with the best APRS features

Kenwood TM-D710G

The best thing about the Kenwood TM-D710G is its advanced APRS features. Kenwood even brought in APRS developer Bob Bruninga as a design consultant. As a result of this, there are a seemingly endless number of APRS tweaks and adjustments that you can configure. You can even output the GPS data that you receive to a KML file if you want to view your data in Google Earth.

Good

  • Built-in GPS functionality. The internal GPS, which can be used to send location data via APRS, is one of the TM-D710G’s most unique features.
  • APRS (Automatic Packet Reporting System) feature. Ham radio fans respect the TM-D710G for its versatile built-in APRS features.
  • APRS software compatibility. You can connect the TM-D710G to your computer and use a wide range of different third party APRS software programs.
  • Works with Google Earth. It can output GPS data to KML files, which can be opened in Google Earth.
  • Detachable head. This design provides for installation flexibility. You can set the panel up within reach and hide the rest of the device in a suitable location.
  • 50 watts of transmission power. The TM-D710G isn’t the most powerful mobile ham radio out there, but the transmitter has more than enough wattage for most use cases.
  • Above average audio quality. Supporters of the TM-D710G say that its built-in speakers are above average compared to other mobile ham radios.

Bad

  • Expensive compared to other mobile ham radios. The built-in GPS antenna and other advanced features likely contribute to its high price point.

In a nutshell

If APRS (Automatic Packet Reporting System) is the main feature that you’re looking for in your mobile ham radio, you probably won’t find a better option than the Kenwood TM-D710G. APRS developer Bob Bruninga made significant contributions to the design of this mobile ham radio. His influence is probably why it has so many powerful features in that department.

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The mobile ham radio with the most advanced display

Yaesu FTM-400XD

Yaesu Original FTM-400DR/XDR 144/430MHz Dual-Band Analog/Digital Mobile Transceiver System Fusion

No other mobile ham radio we’ve seen can compare to the Yaesu FTM-400XD when it comes to display features. Its large, full-color touch screen and intuitive interface places it ahead of the pack in the ease of use department. Yaesu’s Wires feature, which allows you to send and receive media files, is another significant perk.

Good

  • Full-color touch screen display. The FTM-400XD’s cutting edge, full-color touch screen is its most unique feature.
  • Built-in APRS (Automatic Packet Reporting System) interface. The full-featured APRS interface eliminates the need to use third party APRS software.
  • Can send images and other data. You can send and receive media files through the use of Yaesu’s proprietary Wires standard.
  • Optional camera microphone. The camera mic can take pictures, which you can send to other ham operators.
  • Built-in GPS functionality. The internal GPS antenna is another major selling point.
  • 50 watts of transmission power. 50 watts is more than enough power for most types of ham radio applications.
  • Easy-to-use interface. Even though the FTM-400XD is so feature-rich that it comes with five different manuals, its intuitive interface lets you flip between all the main features with ease.

Bad

  • Limited 3rd party APRS software integration. The most common criticism of the FTM-400XD is that it’s difficult to connect it to third-party APRS software programs.
  • Expensive compared to other mobile ham radios. The advanced display and all the other deluxe features contribute to its high cost.

In a nutshell

Even though it’s expensive, the FTM-400XD might very well be the best mobile ham radio out there. Most people that use APRS with a mobile ham radio rely on computer software to perform many APRS operations. That’s where the Yaesu FTM-400XD’s large, multi-colored, touch sensitive display comes in handy. It lets you perform all those actions on the device itself.

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Buying guide for mobile ham radios

Key considerations

Built-in GPS

Some mobile ham radios come with built-in GPS antennas. This lets you send out your location information without using an external GPS device. However, GPS-equipped mobile ham radios tend to be much more expensive compared to those that lack this advanced feature.

Mounting options

Typical mobile ham radios come with a mounting bracket, which allows you to install your device in a fixed location. Some manufacturers provide additional mounting options. Mobile ham radios that have removable heads can be set up in a variety of different ways. Suction-cup mounting systems provide additional mounting flexibility.

APRS

APRS stands for Automatic Packet Reporting System. Essentially, it’s a data-sharing standard that lets ham radio operators share weather reports, search-and-rescue information, GPS data and other similar types of information. Some mobile ham radios that support APRS have more APRS features than others, so be sure to dig deep into your prospective device’s instruction manual to find out what you’ll get before you commit.

Internet integration

Some mobile ham radios can connect to internet-connected repeaters. Yaesu’s Wires-X is the most popular standard. YSF (Yaesu System Function) and FCS (Fusion Connect System) are two open-source alternatives to Wires-X.

Control panel

You may want to investigate your prospective mobile ham radio’s control panel before you buy. Not all mobile ham radios have the same kinds of dials and buttons. For example, some have dedicated squelch knobs and others do not. Some manufacturers opt for lots of small single-function buttons, while others use a smaller number of multi-function buttons.

Transmission power

The industry standard for transmission power among mobile ham radios seems to be about 50 watts. However, some mobile ham radios can be cranked all the way up to 80 watts.

Sensitivity

The flip side of transmission power is sensitivity. Mobile ham radios with good sensitivity are able to hone in on distant, weak signals better than mobile ham radios with poor sensitivity. Bit Error Rate (aka BER) is the specification you’ll want to investigate if sensitivity is a high priority for you.

Frequency range

Not all mobile ham radios are capable of picking up the same ranges of frequencies. If there’s a specific type of transmission that you want to pick up, find out which frequency range it’s in. Then, check your prospective mobile ham radio’s manual to see if it is capable of picking up those frequencies before you buy.

Display size and type

If you want to be able to tag your favorite frequencies, be sure to get a mobile ham radio that has an alphanumeric display. Some low-end mobile ham radios can only display numbers. Typical mobile ham radios are equipped with simple monochrome screens. However, some high-end ham radios come with touch screens and/or full-color displays.

Price ranges

Budget

Prices for mobile ham radios start at around $150. At the lower end of the price spectrum, you’ll get only the most basic features and a smaller range of frequency bands.

Mid-range

Mobile ham radios that cost around $200 tend to have louder built-in speakers, better sensitivity and can usually receive a wider band of frequencies.

High-end

The price jump from mid-range to high-end mobile ham radios is significant indeed. Mobile ham radios that have media capabilities, built-in GPS antenna and/or on-board APRS can cost as much as $600 or more. The added cost may be worth it if you have a specific need for these kinds of advanced features.

Frequently asked questions

Q: I’m interested in ham radio, but I am feeling overwhelmed by all the terminology and technical specifications that I’m encountering. What’s a good resource that I can use to get up to speed?
A: H. Ward Silver’s Ham Radio for Dummies is a good starting point. The American Radio Relay League’s Ham Radio License Manual is another important resource.

Q: Do I need a license to operate a mobile ham radio in the United States?
A: Not if you don’t intend to transmit. If all you want to do is monitor, you don’t need to get certified. The most basic ham radio license consists of only 35 multiple choice questions and it only costs $15. If you pass that, you’ll be legally authorized to transmit over all frequencies above 30 MHz.

Q: What advantages do ham radios have over emergency radios in disaster situations?
A: Emergency radios are extremely useful for getting information during tornados, floods and other similar situations. However, if a total catastrophe occurs– like a nuclear strike, for example– most AM and FM radio stations will likely go offline. If something like this ever happens, ham radio operators could step in to help close the information gap.

Tips

  • Pay attention to the temperature of your mobile ham radio’s case. You may even want to touch it every once in a while to make sure that it’s not overheating, especially when operating in high power mode.
  • The more bonding (aka grounding) you do, the more RF continuity you’lll get and the better your reception will be. Some types of vehicles– like Ford’s F-series aluminum-bodied pickup trucks, for example– require you to go through a specific process when bonding to prevent corrosion.
  • Is RFI (Radio Frequency Interference) a problem in your mobile rig? You may want to install an RF choke to counteract this issue. RF chokes suppress the high frequency AC signals that can interfere with mobile ham radio reception.

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