Best Handheld Ham Radio for Survival in 2020: Expert Analysis

Communication is critical.  In an emergency, communication is even more critical. Area-wide disasters can cripple our ability to communicate.  Recent events show us how quickly we can lose cell phone service, the internet, and even traditional telephone service.  Maintaining communication with your family and friends must be a priority in these kinds of circumstances.

Best Survival Handheld Ham Radio

Ham, or Amateur Radio, can provide the best and most reliable communication in the event of an area-wide disaster. Handheld Ham radios are ideal for this purpose.  Handheld HAM radios are battery-operated, free from wires, and other supporting systems.  Handheld radios don’t need cell phone towers or internet providers. A handheld HAM radio can keep you in touch at the press of a button.

Before diving deep, here is a summary of our top picks. We spent countless hours narrowing down this list.

RADIO DETAILS
  • Good battery life.
  • Relatively easy to program.
  • Two-channel monitoring capability.
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  • Digital and analog operations.
  • Long battery life and runtime.
  • Easy to see screen in all light conditions.
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  • Metal case for durability.
  • Color Display for easy reading.
  • Built-in flashlight is handy.
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What is a Handheld Ham Radio?

Ham radio, properly known as Amateur Radio, refers to the use of a specific range of frequencies set aside by the International Telecommunications Union and regulated in the United States by the Federal Communications Commission.

amateur ham radio

The range of frequencies, or the frequency spectrum that is allocated to Ham radio operators stretched from the high frequencies to the ultra-high frequency bands giving Ham operators a wide range of capabilities.  A properly equipment Ham operator can talk across town, across the country, or across the oceans.

These capabilities make handheld radios operating in the Ham radio frequencies a perfect choice for anyone preparing for an emergency.  I have been a licensed Ham radio operator for many years.  I was drawn to Ham radio because I wanted to be able to stay in touch no matter what the conditions. 


How I Choose a Handheld Ham Radio for Survival

I base my choices on my expectations that, at some point, the handheld radio may be my only source of information and communication.   I look for several features in any handheld radio I put into my bugout bag, my get home bag, or for my everyday carry.   Yes, I do try and carry a handheld Ham radio with me.  You never know when you may need it.

Rugged and durable – I carry a handheld radio every day.  It goes in my EDC bag, briefcase or backpack.  That means it takes some abuse and it needs to be able to withstand that kind of wear and tear and operate consistently. 

Easy to use – Many handheld Ham radios on the market are loaded with extra features that you won’t ever use in an emergency.  These extra features add cost and can decrease battery runtime significantly.  The more features you add, the more complicated it gets to operate the radio.  In an emergency, I want the easiest to use handheld Ham radio I can find.

Dual-Band Capability – Handheld Ham radios are designed to work in the UHF and VHF bands.  Any radio that goes into my emergency kits must operate on both bands.  Each band has capabilities that make it preferred under certain conditions.  It is important to have the option to switch frequency bands when necessary.

Emergency Frequency monitoring – The FCC has set aside certain bands and frequencies that are used by government agencies for emergency broadcasts.  The best known of these is the NOAA weather frequencies.  I want my emergency handheld Ham radio to be able to receive these broadcasts.

Accessories – There are certain accessories that I want for any handheld Ham radio I put into my kit.  At the bare minimum, I want a spare battery.  I also look for charging adapters that will let me recharge batteries under emergency circumstances such as an adapter for a car data power port or solar.

Cost – Last on my list is cost.  Budget is always a consideration for most of us.  I look for the best balance of features and cost that I can find.  Fortunately, in the past few years, the cost of handheld Ham radios has come down drastically, and the quality of these cheaper radios has increased dramatically.


Best Survival Ham Radios: My Top 5 Picks

There are hundreds of handheld Ham radios on the market.  A quick search on Google or on Amazon returns a huge number of brands, many with what are obviously of Chinese origin.  There are a few caveats about buying these radios.

  • Check the shipping point – Many of the handheld ham radios being sold on Amazon are shipped from China.  This can add weeks to getting your radio.  More importantly, it makes getting service on the radio almost impossible.  Buy from a dealer who warehouses the radios in the US, ships from a US location, and is reachable if a problem arises.
  • Its what’s inside the case that matters – Many of the radios being sold on Amazon and other places are the same radio with a slightly different case and faceplate.  I have found when disassembling some of these different brand name radios that they are identical under the skin.  Buying from a known reputable firm is your best method of getting what you pay for.
  • Make sure your radio is FCC approved. – All Ham radios approved for us in the United States will have, and FCC imprint on the packaging, printed in the user manual, and a sticker attached somewhere on the radio indicating that it has passed the FCC inspection. 

With those cautions out of the way, let’s look at my choices for the best handheld HAM radios for survival situations.

1. Best Handheld Ham Radio For Survival (Overall) – BaoFeng BF-F8HP Review

BaoFeng BF-F8HP (UV-5R 3rd Gen) 8-Watt Dual Band Two-Way Radio (136-174MHz...

This is my go-to radio for everyday carry.  One of these goes in my day bag when I leave the house.  The get home bags in our vehicles are all equipped with a BaoFeng BF-8HP.  I bought my first BaoFeng radio when my store was open, and it was my first Ham radio.  I upgraded each time BaoFeng released a newer and better model.

The BaoFeng is an 8-watt handheld Ham radio on VHF, drops to 7-watts on UHF (read about VHF vs UHF here).  Most other handhelds only produce 4 watts of output power.  The frequency range of the BF-F8HP covers the UHF and VHF frequencies.  The emergency bands are also available for monitoring as well as the frequencies used by the sport type walkie-talkies in the GMRS and MURS frequency ranges. 

You can also tune in your favorite FM radio station.  This may seem strange, but remember that the emergency planners in most cities and states will rely on FM broadcasters to deliver emergency information.  This can be an asset.

The features on the BaoFeng BF-F8HP include:

  • 8 watts of output power
  • Hardened case
  • V-85 high-gain antenna included
  • Three power settings enable battery saving for extended run time
  • FM Frequencies (commercial radio, receive only)
  • VHF Frequencies (receive and transmit)
  • UHF Frequencies (receive and transmit)
  • Narrow/Broadband switchable
  • Computer programmable
  • Wide range of accessories available

One of my favorite things about the BaoFeng radios is the huge number of accessories that are readily available.   You can easily source extra batteries, a variety of adapters to charge the batteries from any power source, headset and microphones, upgraded antennas, carrying cases, and much more. 

Pros

  • Most affordable radio with these kinds of features
  • Good battery life
  • Relatively easy to program
  • Two-channel monitoring capability
  • FM receiver built-in

Cons

  • The programming cable is not included
  • Not waterproof

BaoFeng BF-F8HP (UV-5R 3rd Gen) 8-Watt Dual Band Two-Way Radio (136-174MHz...
  • Upgrades from our Previous Generation UV-5R: Twice the Output Power (8 watts up from 4 watts...
  • High / Med / Low Power Settings (8W, 4W, 1W); Frequency Range: VHF: 136-174 MHz(Rx/Tx). UHF: 400-520...

Last update on 2020-12-01 at 10:33 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

For more information, read our detailed hands-on review of the Baofeng UV-5R vs BF-F8HP radios.

2. Runner Up – Yaesu FT-65R Review

Yaesu Original FT-65 FT-65R 144/440 Dual-Band Rugged & Compact Handheld...

Yaesu is one of the best-known brands in the Ham radio world, so it is no surprise that their FT-65R handheld Ham radio comes in at the runner up spot on my list.  I have used the FT-65R during disaster drills and other evolutions, and I have been impressed with the operation of this little radio. 

The Yaesu FT-65R has almost all the features of the BaoFeng BF-F8HT, with exception of it’s power being 5 watts and a limited 200 channels.  The Yaesu doesn’t include the FM receiver into their radio.  This was the biggest factor in my decision to make the Yaesu the runner up instead of my top pick for best overall survival handheld Ham radio.

Yaesu doesn’t skimp on quality or features.  Buying a brand name can be a big part of a purchase decision for some people and you won’t go wrong choosing a Yaesu radio.  A look at the features included with the Yaesu FT-65R should convince you.

  • Aluminum case
  • Water-resistant
  • 5 watts of output power
  • Three available power settings
  • Great battery run time
  • Dual-frequency operation covers UHF and VHF
  • 1,000 memory channels
  • Emergency frequency receiver operation

I do like the rugged aluminum case on the FT-65R.  It is certainly more durable than radios with plastic cases.  On the other hand, I have never cracked or broken one of my handheld Ham radios with a plastic case.

Pros

  • Great display that is easy to read even in daylight
  • Locking mode prevents inadvertent frequency changes
  • Easy to program
  • Accessible and simple controls and knobs

Cons

  • Doesn’t include the programming cable
  • The menu structure can be hard to navigate and understand
  • Only show (and listen to) one VFO or frequency at a time (e.g., can’t listen to weather on one channel and your frequency on another, only one at a time)

Yaesu Original FT-65 FT-65R 144/440 Dual-Band Rugged & Compact Handheld...
  • Offers up to 5W of output power along with lower power settings of 2.5W and 0.5W.
  • Boasts an IP54 rating along with MIL-810-C, D and E.

Last update on 2020-12-01 at 11:22 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

3. Best Digital Handheld Ham Radio – TYT MD-UV 380 Review

TYT MD-UV380 with GPS MD380 VHF/UHF 136-174Mhz/400-480Mhz MD-380 Dual Band...

TYT has established itself as a real competitor in the handheld and mobile Ham radio markets.  TYT first came to my attention with their mobile line of radios, and I mounted a TYT-9800 tri-band radio in one of my vehicles for many years.   It proved to be tough and reliable.  But that is a review for another time.

The TYT-MD-UV 380 is a full-featured handheld Ham radio plus it includes many of the new digital ham radio features that are becoming more and more popular among Ham radio operators.  If you must have DMR digital capability, this is probably the radio you should consider for your survival handheld radio needs.

DMR is an acronym for Digital Mobil Radio.  This technology harnesses the latest innovations in combining ham radio technology with the internet.  When you have access to a DMR repeater station, you can communicate with other DMR radios around the world.  Your radio transmission is converted to digital signals and sent over the internet to all the other DMR stations in the net, where it is rebroadcast over the radio.

This is a great technology in a lot of ways, but in a true emergency, this technology doesn’t gain you much, especially if the internet is down or you don’t have access to a DMR repeater.  However, the TYT MD-UV 380 is certainly well worth a place on our list.  Digital capability, along with a full feature list, gets the TYT MD-UV 380 a place on our list as the Best Digital Survival Handheld Ham Radio.

  • Digital and analog Combined
  • 3000 programmable channels and up to 100,000 contacts
  • Firmware upgradeable
  • FCC Certified
  • 5 watts of output power
  • Long-lasting 2000mAh battery
  • Easy operation
  • High-resolution screen

The other major downside to the TYT MD-UV 380 is it is a single frequency radio.  It only operates in the 400-470mHz range limiting its usefulness in an emergency, in my opinion.

Also, note that there are multiple digital radio formats available in the market that don’t easily talk to one another. So if one user is using a MotoTrbo type radio (be it TYT) and someone else in your group is using D-Star digital, they cannot talk to one another using those digital formats.

Pros

  • Digital and analog operations
  • Includes the programming cable and software
  • Long battery life and runtime
  • Easy to see screen in all light conditions

Cons

  • Single-frequency operation
  • The programming software can be confusing and hard to use.

TYT MD-UV380 with GPS MD380 VHF/UHF 136-174Mhz/400-480Mhz MD-380 Dual Band...
  • TYT MD-UV380 GPS model is a Dual Band DMR/Analog radio Compatible with Mototrbo Tier Ⅰ & Ⅱ Dual...
  • Color LCD display Transmit interruption Private/Group call match off = Promiscuous on Digital and...

Last update on 2020-12-01 at 11:22 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

4. Best Ultimate Handheld Ham Radio – Kenwood TH-d74A Review

Kenwood Original TH-D74A 144/220/430 MHz Triband with Ultimate in APRS and...

Kenwood is one of my favorite Ham radio brands.  Their equipment is hard to beat in any of the many configurations available.  I have a Kenwood high-frequency radio in my Ham station and use it regularly. The quality of the handheld Ham radios doesn’t suffer either.

The Kenwood TH-d74A is our premium pick.  I will warn you before you go and check prices that this is not a cheap radio.  It doesn’t even qualify as a moderately priced radio.  However, if you want a radio that is loaded with features that you don’t normally find in a handheld Ham radio, this is the pick you want.

Not only do you get digital and analog radio functions including compatibility with the D-Star digital radio system, but the Kenwood TH-d74A also has a built-in GPS position receiver that allows you to use APRS, the advance packet reporting system, to send location information automatically to other radios equipped with this feature.  The feature list continues with:

  • SiRFstar III GPS receiver
  • GPS logger functions
  • Built-in TNC means direct GPS communications with no external or extra equipment needed
  • Stand-alone digipeater functions
  • Computer programmable
  • MIL-STD810 weatherproofing
  • High capacity battery for long operation
  • Multiple power modes
  • Dual receive function
  • 1000 memory channels
  • Nine scan modes

This is just a shortlist of the vast array of features and capabilities of this radio.  The Kenwood TH-d74A is on my personal wish list to add to my collection of Ham radios.  It is, without a doubt, my choice as the Best Ultimate Survival Handheld Ham Radio.

Pros

  • Too many features to list adequately.  This is a do it all handheld Ham radio
  • Digital and analog operation
  • GPS, APRS, D-Star function built-in
  • Easy to navigate menu structure
  • Great programming software

Cons

  • Complicated and has a steep learning curve
  • The manual that is included is not well written

Kenwood Original TH-D74A 144/220/430 MHz Triband with Ultimate in APRS and...
  • APRS compliance using packet communication to exchange real-time GPS position information and...
  • Built-in high performance GPS unit with Auto Clock Setting Wide-band and multi-mode reception...

Last update on 2020-12-01 at 11:22 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

5. Best Budget Handheld Ham Radio – No products found.

No products found.

Want a budget handheld Ham radio without a budget list of features.   To be honest, this is probably my favorite handheld Ham radio.   There are 8 of them sitting in a rack charger at the back of my office.  In an emergency, I can hand them out to friends and neighbors so I can keep the lines of communications open.

The budge price of these little radios makes that possible.  You can purchase these radios on Amazon for less than $40.  There is no cheaper way to get into a handheld Ham radio than the BaoFeng UV-5R.  Just because they are cheap doesn’t mean you have to give up features, reliability, or capability.

  • 128 programmable channels
  • Dual-frequency operation
  • Dual display
  • Scan and monitor functions
  • FM radio receiver
  • Flashlight
  • Emergency locator sound
  • High and low power operation
  • Wide and narrowband operation
  • Computer programmable
  • Wide array of accessories
  • Optional larger battery for longer runtimes

These are great radios.  If you are on a budget but want to add emergency Ham radio capabilities to your kit, you can’t go wrong with the BaoFeng UV-5R.

NOTE:   If you opt for the UV-5R, I suggest you also purchase at least one of the extended batteries.  You can find them on Amazon here.

Pros

  • Metal case for durability
  • Color Display for easy reading
  • Built-in flashlight is handy
  • Perfect beginning Ham radio

Cons

  • The programming cable is not included
  • The buttons on the keypad are small and hard to find with gloves on.

No products found.

For more information, read our detailed hands-on review of the Baofeng UV-5R vs BF-F8HP radios.


Open Questions About Ham Radios

Do I need a License to Operate a Handheld Ham Radio?

Yes.  You are required to get a license to operate a Ham radio.  For the basic operation of the radios I have reviewed, you need at least a Technician license.  The new licensing rules make it easy for anyone to get into the Ham radio world.  For more information about getting an Amateur Radio License, check out this website. Also, check out this YouTube channel for various videos on the topic.

Why can’t I use the radios sold at the big sporting goods stores?

The walkie-talkies sold at the big sporting goods stores and other retailers are not meant for true emergency communications.  These lower power (often only 2 or 3 watts) operate in a completely different range of frequencies that limits their reach sometimes to less than half a mile.  These types of radios are meant for very short-range casual use by hikers, campers, and other outdoor uses.

Why do I need a license?  My friend told me that in an emergency, it is legal to operate a Ham radio with one.

It’s true.  The FCC regulations have a provision that anyone can use a Ham radio in an emergency without a license.  The key here is the emergency.  To learn and understand how to operate your radio properly, you need to practice and train.  To operate that radio legally during practice and training, you need the license.


Other Alternative Radio Options

HAM radios not ideal for you? Let’s discuss some alternatives.

The three most readily available radio options are GMRS or FRS radios, CB radios, and of course ham radio as we covered.

GMRS/FRS

These survival radios are good for short distances with little terrain interference. Used as pagers/communicators inside a building or a camp, GMRS/FRS radios offer low-cost & convenience. Small and easy to carry, GMRS/FRS radio family biggest drawback is their range and their battery life.  Some of the manufacturers report that these survival radios will work up to 35 miles, but that is 35 miles over a flat surface with no interference.  Once you start putting trees, hills, houses, etc in the way the range drops dramatically.  While fine as a short range group communications tool, they lack the ability of medium or long range communications.

Survival-Communications

CB radios

Around for several years as an offshoot of Ham Radio, CB does not require a license and unlike amateur radio, it may be used for business as well as personal communications.  Enjoying a boom in the mid-seventies and are readily available today, CB radios are still the main short-range communications choice for truckers.

You can find CB’s fairly cheaply at yard sales, craigslist, eBay, and flea markets.  Mandated by regulation as a low power device, the range on these radios is much greater when combined with a signal amplifier, or “Linear” Amp.  It is not advocated using a linear amp, however for the most part, enforcement of the restrictions are few and often only when an illegal stations signal interferes with other communication methods.  Long distance communication is possible when atmospheric conditions permit.  CB radios come in many different forms, ranging from legal 40 channel/4 watt models, to a grey-area type of “export radio”, that skirts legality by being built for ham radio use, but are easily modified for the CB band. Operating within the 10-12 Meter HF Band, CB radios need a longer antenna than UHF/VHF GMRS/FRS radios.


Things to Keep In Mind About Communication

Text Messaging

It has been reported that during Hurricane Katrina, the only reliable way to communicate was by Text Messaging.  This is a good piece of information to know if you are caught off guard in the next crisis.  While everyone else is desperately trying to call, you might be able to get your messages through via text.  I would recommend planning as if Text Messaging will not work and if the crisis spills into multiple weeks you can bet that the service will no longer work at some point but this is still good information to know.

EMP Blast/Solar Event Considerations (Electromagnetic Pulse)

Survival-knife-survival-radio

Because we are talking about electronics and two of the scenarios which many people plan for is an EMP type blast or the more likely scenario, a Solar Storm Event like the one that took place in 1859 (Carrington Event).  Because these threats are very real, you should try to store your critical electronics in a protective case.  One of the ways you can protect yourself from this scenario is by storing your survival radios and critical electronics in a Faraday cage.  While we are not going to go into “How to Build a Faraday Cage” in this article, I can assure you that there are a lot of examples out there, such as this one:


Getting On The Air

Staying in touch with family and friends when every other form of communication is unavailable is a situation that requires planning and preparation.  Having the equipment and the knowledge to make that communications work is part of being prepared. For me, the best way for anyone to begin that preparation is to purchase the right radio, get the proper license, and then train with that radio on a regular basis.

The BaoFeng BF-F8HP will get you the most features I feel are important in a survival handheld Ham radio at the best possible price.  This little radio is great for the beginner and has a place with the most experienced amateur radio operator.



Written by Dennis Howard

A life long hunter, fisherman, and outdoorsman, after surviving a devastating tornado in his home town, he saw the effects on people's lives as they struggled to cope. He built his first bugout bag a few weeks later and has been a dedicated prepper/survivalist since that time. After a career as a fireman, Dennis opened a retail store (FFL approved) catering to the military, law enforcement, and like-minded individuals. The store built their own AR platforms. Furthermore, Dennis was also an NRA instructor in both long gun and handgun as well as a certified range safety officer. Read his full interview here. Read more of Dennis's articles.

6 thoughts on “Best Handheld Ham Radio for Survival in 2020: Expert Analysis”

  1. Consider adding the Baofeng BF-T1 Mini if you can find one. It's VERY inexpensive, under $25 with the programming cable. It's single-band, 70cm band (400-470 mhz UHF), and only has about 2 watts output with an integral antenna that can't be changed. BUT…

    It is the only amateur handheld I'm aware of that can be CHARGED via standard 5v USB. This means it can be kept in a bag as an emergency radio, and charged on the fly with the same USB power bank you'd use to charge your phone, or any wall charger for a microUSB connected device. The programming cable also acts as a charge cable when plugged into your computer. It can be programmed using the free program Chirp.

    In my area (Philly suburbs, though I used to live in Naperville), I can reach about 8 local repeaters, but two of them are long-range "link" systems, connecting many repeaters in the Mid-Atlantic region. For its size, the T1 has very good sound quality and decent range, which can be improved with altitude. It is NOT a heavy-duty radio, but it IS a very inexpensive radio that can serve in an emergency. It has the FM broadcast band in it as well, and a built-in flashlight.

    The only downsides to it are the integral antenna and bad volume control. The volume is TOO LOUD, even on the lowest setting, something that seems common in Chinese radios. It can be programmed for FRS, GMRS, MURS, and standard Amateur 70cm frequencies. Amateur and GMRS will require licenses for each. FRS does not, and it is limited to what FRS can do because of this in power and antenna options.

    But it works very well on Amateur frequencies for something so small, and the ability to power it from a USB power bank makes it ideal for chucking in a bag, preprogrammed for the area's repeaters and a couple of local simplex frequencies. Then you just have to remember to bring the same USB battery bank you use for your phone to charge it when needed.

    Reply
    • SHTF or any catastrophic event happens – the last thing my wife and I are concerned with is if she has a license to operate a radio that will put her in touch with me. Get real Jane.

      Reply
  2. Everyone's requirements are different of course, my choice for family basic handhelds is Yaesu VX-150s – to simple for the most basic of communications, older model but still available almost new quite often for less than $50, again, just the most basic radio with a note pasted on it for my non-ham wife to follow instructions should I not be in the house if something were to happen.

    My EDC handi is either of two – an ICOM IC-91AD or Yaesu FT1XD. Either is weather resistant, either are relatively easy to program from the keypad, they have extended receive from zilch to microwave (almost) and they are dual band/dual watch VFOs. The important thing here for these BO/GH radios is they receive EVERYTHING – if there is anything being broadcast powerful enough, you have the capability to get that information.

    Good article – I tend to stay away from the B and TYT series radios, I have had to many failures to want to trust them – I don't believe in "well, it's only a few bucks, just buy another", I would rather spend that on an accessory for a better, IMO, radio build. That is never to say they aren't great training and intro tools, I would never fault anyone for buying a cheap radio to see if they like the whole amateur radio hobby.

    Reply
  3. You guys are great!. These are all great concepts and ideas. I am saving my pennies and nickels for a Kenwood handheld, whatever iteration is the current latest model when I finally get enough together. I have had my fair hair of failures with the Bafengs as well but for someone who wants to put a radio in a buyout ba of that when I need it situation and will do a responsible job of keeping the batteries charged and doing a once a month band check to make sure it is working, I can't fault them either.

    For those of you that are interested, I usually try to be on the air on 14,242 about 8pm on Thursday evenings (central time)

    W1BUB
    Dennis Howard, author

    Reply
  4. My EDC handi is either of two – an ICOM IC-91AD or Yaesu FT1XD. Either is weather resistant, either are relatively easy to program from the keypad, they have extended receive from zilch to microwave (almost) and they are dual band/dual watch VFOs. The important thing here for these BO/GH radios is they receive EVERYTHING – if there is anything being broadcast powerful enough, you have the capability to get that information.

    Reply

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