Best Handheld HAM Radio for Bug-Out Bag in 2021

Amateur radios, also known as HAM radios are essential for your survival kit.  There are different sizes of HAM radios ranging from handheld radios which are basically high powered walkies-talkies that can communicate between several miles (depending on conditions) to base stations that cost thousands of dollars but can communicate around the world.

HAM radios require FCC licenses to operate during normal times, though during an emergency, anyone would be allowed to use a radio.  If you are serious about preparing for an emergency, I recommend everyone in your family get licensed.  The “Technician” exam, which is the easiest license to obtain is fairly easy with a small amount of studying.  A 10 year old child could likely pass this exam.  There are study materials available online for free.

The reason we recommend everyone in the family become licensed is because being effective in an emergency requires training.  You want everyone to be familiar with the equipment and know how it performs.

The handheld HAM radios are a great starting point for preppers.  These will allow for communication among family members over a few miles and are very inexpensive.  If you get on top of a mountain, it is possible to communicate for up to 40 miles in a true emergency.  

What to Look for in a Handheld HAM Radio

Frequencies

As a HAM Radio operator, you have access to a variety of different radio bands and frequencies.  Handheld radios generally only operate in UHF and VHF radio bands.  You may be familiar with these terms because they are the same bands used for UHF and VHF television.  Some radios communicate in only one of these bands while others have both UHF and VHF capabilities.  I recommend purchasing dual band UHF/VHF radio because it provides more communications options.  

The VHF band operates at longer distances and is great for outdoor uses where there are few obstructions.  UHF is great at penetrating through obstructions like walls and trees, but it comes at the cost of reduced communication distance.  Having the ability to switch between the two bands allows for communications in different environments.  If you are in a forest or building, use UHF to communicate with each other.  But outside on a prairie or on top of a mountain, use VHF for the farthest possible communication distance.

Power

The more power your radio has, the farther you will be able to communicate.  Most handheld HAM radios have a maximum 5 watt capability, though recently I have seen a few 7 watt radios for sale.  In my opinion, more power is always better, but I would also consider the price of the radio.  

Antenna Gain

The quality of your antenna can significantly affect the performance of your radio.  The antenna that comes with your radio is probably nice and compact, but likely will not maximize the distance you can communicate.  You will want to buy a high gain antenna that is optimized for the frequencies you are going to use.  Also make sure it can handle the power of your radio.

Programmability

Your radio should have the ability to remember frequencies that you want to communicate on.  Your area probably has “repeaters” which allow you to use your low powered device and amplify it through a more powerful radio to allow for more distant communications.  As such, you will want your radio to be able to remember the frequencies for the repeater.  Similarly, to communicate directly between two radios, you will want the radio to remember which frequencies you are planning to communicate on.

The problem with handheld HAM radios is that they are notoriously difficult to program directly on the handset.  You will want a radio which has the ability to be programmed through your computer.

Top Pick

BaoFeng Dual-Band UV-5R HAM Radio

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This radio is my top pick simply because the performance cannot be beat for the price. The BaoFeng Dual-Band HAM radio checks all the performance boxes for a handheld HAM radio at a price you can afford. In fact, at this price you can buy a radio for everyone in your family so you can practice.

Features & Benefits

The BaoFeng Dual-Band HAM radio is exactly what the name implies.  It can communicate on both UHF and VHF bands and all of the frequencies within those bands which a Technician license allows.

This is the handheld HAM radio I own and I have been able to communicate with a repeater 15 miles from my house during perfect weather conditions.  For direct radio-to-radio communications, I have not attempted more than 5 miles, but my tests at a 5 mile distance worked well.

The BaoFeng Dual-Band radio can be programmed either directly from the handset or, if you buy a cable, it can be programmed from your computer using the free CHIRP software.

The battery on this unit will last for many hours.  I have kept my radio turned on for 24 hours without losing battery.  The battery life will be reduced if you transmit, but it has plenty of battery life for emergencies.  Having said that, I would recommend having a second battery for true emergencies where the electricity may be out for days.

What do Owners Say

Owners are generally extremely happy with the BaoFeng UV-5R radio because it has so many features at such a low price.  In fact while researching this article, I found very few owners had anything bad to say.  This radio is what most people buy for their first radio after passing the Technician license exam.  It is a great entry level radio.

The only negative reviews that I could find centered around the fact that it is made by a Chinese company and, as such, the quality may not be excellent.  Also, some users complained about the quality of the speaker.  I would say that at this price, there are going to be trade-offs.  In fact, no radio is perfect.  But for the price, the trade-offs are insignificant.

In conclusion, I highly recommend the BaoFeng UV-5R Dual Band HAM radio as an addition to your bug-out bag or as a first HAM radio after passing the FCC Technician Class license exam.

Runners-Up

BTECH DMR-6X2 7-Watt Dual Band Two-Way Radio

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The BTECH DMR-6X2 radio is very capable for a handheld HAM radio.  Again, this radio checks all the boxes of necessities in a HAM radio.  It is dual band, so it can operate in both UHF and VHF frequencies.  It also communicates in both analog and digital (DMR) modes.  DMR is a recent technology which is catching on in the HAM radio community, but not yet widely used.  Being digital, the sound quality of voice communications is excellent.  In DMR mode, you will only be able to communicate with other DMR radios as digital and analog communications are not compatible.  

One interesting note about DMR communications is that encryption is available.  Encryption would make it difficult for others to be able to decode communications.  Therefore, you could theoretically have private conversations over the radios by simply sharing the encryption code.  In the event of complete collapse of civilization, this could be useful for communicating with others in your group regarding safety or other situations where you would not what others to know what is going on.

The fact that the DMR-6X2 radio has 7 watts of power is excellent.  This will significantly increase the effective communication range, likely by a few miles.

The battery has an outstanding life and can power the radio for up to 36 hours without recharging.  

The downside to this radio is the price.  While this is an inexpensive radio considering the fact that it has DMR capability, it is still expensive as you can probably buy 4 BaoFeng UV-5R radios for the price of 1 DMR-6X2.

But if you are in the market for a DMR radio or want more power, the BTECH DMR-6X2 7-Watt Dual Band Two-Way Radio is definitely the HAM radio I would purchase..

What do Owners Say

Owners rave about the features that this radios comes with for the price.  Many owners think that this is the best DMR radio available, regardless of price point.  But considering this radio is significantly less expensive than its DMR competitors, this an excellent buy.

On the negative side, some users said that the speaker on their radio stopped working within weeks.  However they said that the warranty replacement process was painless and a replacement was received quickly.  Their new radios worked flawlessly.

Conclusion

While there are definitely other handheld radios on the market that work well, these are the two radios that I personally would consider.  I have owned the BaoFeng UV-5R for the past 5 years and think it is an excellent radio.  For the price, it cannot be beat. I would certainly recommend BaoFeng UV-5R for new HAM radio operators who recently passed the Technician license exam.

I am interested in upgrading to a DMR radio, so I will likely purchase the BTECH DMR-6X2 DMR HAM Radio in the near future.  I like the 7 watts of power because that will improve my emergency communication range.  I also like the capability to encrypt my communications.  This radio will be my next purchase for our Bug-Out Bags.

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