Radios are a valuable piece of prepping gear and even in normal times can bring us news, weather and music to help us get through our day.
But actually picking up a signal with our radios is something most of us take for granted. If you live anywhere near a major settlement your radio reception is likely crystal-clear barring bad weather or catastrophe.
During said bad weather or catastrophic happenings, or for those of us who live way out in the sticks radio reception is anything but guaranteed.
Weak or intermittent signal might mean you miss out on critical updates from authorities, warnings, of severe weather or even lose communication on a personal radio with others in your group or family.
When signal is weak or absent entirely, you’ll need to take immediate steps to rectify the situation.
Thankfully, many such improvements to signal reception are easily accomplished with a little hardware and know how. In this article, I’ll share several methods and procedures for doing exactly that, in good times or bad.
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Do What You Can With What You Have
Keeping in line with our purposes on this website, it is important that you know right up front you don’t necessarily have to have specialized hardware or intricate knowledge of electronics to improve reception for any radio set, not necessarily.
Everything we are going to share with you today is within reach of virtually everybody that has even a tiny modicum of DIY capability, and even better, many of these methods can be used as field expedient or improvised solutions to poor reception.
This is not to say that dedicated hardware upgrades, either to the set or just the antenna, or not worthwhile or may not be the ideal solution to the problem at hand.
These upgrades are indeed often a great value and worth investing in ahead of time before things get dicey, but they are not the end all, be all solution that some people espouse.
The point is, do what you can, with what you have, to improve your reception when required and don’t waste a moment’s time worrying, wishing or woulda-shoulda-coulda’ing. With that said, let us get on to the procedures.
Replace a Bad Antenna, or Install a Better One
A good antenna is absolutely essential to good reception, all other conditions, considerations and procedures aside. Most radio sets you purchase, of any kind and for any purpose, usually have an antenna that could be considered “meh” at best.
If you have access to a compatible antenna and basic skills for connecting or replacing the antenna on your unit, this is usually the most straightforward way to see the greatest gains in reception.
You might have noticed that fixed site and mobile radios that are expected to receive signals from great distances usually have those tall, obnoxious whip aerials mounted on the roof.
There is a reason for that, and in modest conditions antennas of that nature can allow the set to receive signals directly from as far as 15 or 20 miles away, potentially even further obstacles notwithstanding. You can thank those tall antennas for that kind of performance!
There is more to consider about antenna selection and installation, as not every antenna is unidirectional. Some antennas are directional and operation, and will more reliably pick up signals when aimed towards the source of transmission.
These antennas usually function as a trade-off, giving up all around reception for boosted reception and clarity in a specific direction.
One should also keep in mind that you don’t necessarily need a tall antenna to achieve a net gain in height; a shorter antenna, placed high enough, will function similarly.
Also, don’t discount the fact that your radio sets existing antenna which has functioned reliably enough for years under various conditions could simply be damaged or otherwise defective and need replacement. Like any other critical piece of equipment, you should have spare parts on hand for your radio, and an antenna included among them!
Try a Signal Booster
Signal boosters are worthwhile upgrades for radios of all kinds. Usually taking the form of thin, shaped dishes or meshes that are placed around or behind an antenna, a signal booster functions by catching radio waves that would otherwise miss your antenna, leading to poor reception.
Signal boosters are available in many varieties to suit any application, any style of antenna and any mounting solution. They are not terribly difficult to select or install, but you will need to know if the booster is compatible with your setup for best results.
Not for nothing, primitive signal boosters can be fashioned from all sorts of radio reflective materials and might be just the ticket for getting an edge on reception quickly in the middle of a dire situation.
Remember when your grandparents or great-grandparents fashioned an extension for their TV or radio set antenna using tin foil or sheet metal? That was an improvised signal booster in action!
You can do the exact same thing using smoothed aluminum foil today, and using materials with an even greater reflectivity index along with some foam board, cardboard or other materials to give your booster shape and structure will further increase performance for a tiny increase in time on project.
One thing to keep in mind is that based on your typical usage you might assess, correctly, that you do not need a signal booster.
However, degrading conditions brought on by damage, atmospheric interference or overloaded airwaves during a disaster or any other crisis might significantly degrade your once pristine and clear enough reception meaning that you would then have need of a signal booster you don’t have on hand.
You would be wise to acquire or fashion one ahead of time before you need it, just in case.
Depending on the frequency, radio signals might be impeded or completely blocked by intervening terrain and other obstructions.
Everyone has likely experienced a drop or absence of reception when traveling through mountainous regions, going through a tunnel or trying to pick up a specific channel when traveling through a city with tall skyscrapers.
This is not to say that every bit of intervening terrain or man-made construction will seriously impede a radio signal. Certain signals are barely impeded by anything except the densest materials.
Brick, stone, rock and concrete are generally not much of an obstacle, and neither is drywall, wood or other common building materials for residential homes. However, metallic construction, especially solid sheets of metal or very thick obstacles can impair radio waves.
In a similar vein, a radio wave will steadily degrade as it has to pass through repeated layers in an obstacle.
Those aforementioned materials that pose a little impediment as a one-time obstacle are a different story if they have to pass through multiple layers, say for instance multiple homes or multiple floors in a building or underground habitation.
Substantial obstacles like the largest, heaviest buildings, hills, mountains or deep woods can block signal entirely.
If it is possible, strive to remove any and all obstacles between the signal and your antenna or receiving set. If removing an obstacle is impossible or just not feasible under the circumstances, you might want to set up a booster or repeating station to help the signal get around it instead.
Get a Better “View” on the Horizon
A crucial concept for understanding radio range, and more germane to our conversation, reception, is radio horizon. Radio horizon is similar in concept to the visual horizon we see out in the world.
To conceptualize the radio horizon, imagine a perfectly smooth, featureless and obstacle free plane when you are outside, like salt-bed clear all the way out to the horizon where the curvature of the Earth blocks your line of sight. Anything that is beyond this line is said to be “beyond” or “below” the horizon.
And so it is with radio waves. Radio waves can cheat this a little bit since they can bend around the curve that is the “terminator” line of the horizon, but this cannot be broken as such except by gaining more altitude and thereby extending the horizon. The higher off the ground you are, the farther away the horizon appears.
Applying this concept to radio reception, raising your antenna or your receiving set off the ground will extend your horizon and improve reception, nine times out of 10.
If this is not possible, raising the transmitting set off the ground will start the signal propagating nearer or higher and generally closer to the horizon for the receiver.
You could not move a government emergency transmitter or station in any case, but if you are coordinating with relatives or other group members this might be achievable to improve reception on both ends.
When in doubt, move your antenna or take your radio higher and you should experience fewer intervening obstacles in any case and better reception under all conditions.
Poor reception can render a radio virtually useless, and could see you fall victim to changing circumstances or a lack of situational awareness in the middle of a crisis.
Luckily, reception is easy enough to improve with hardware or procedural solutions that are accessible and available to any prepper under virtually any conditions. If all you are hearing is static, hissing and the occasional vowel while tuning your radio start employing the methods that you learned in this article.
Tom Marlowe practically grew up with a gun in his hand, and has held all kinds of jobs in the gun industry: range safety, sales, instruction and consulting, Tom has the experience to help civilian shooters figure out what will work best for them.