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Best Handheld Ham Radio for Survival

| Updated Dec 5, 2023

Based on essential features and affordability, you can find the best handheld Ham radio for survival in this beginner's guide…

When you travel, you sometimes go to faraway places. If you are like me, you are looking for a quiet, gorgeous spot off the beaten path. Somewhere to kick your feet up and relax- away from people and civilization.

But when you go off the grid, cell phones can lose their signal. Emergency situations can occur suddenly, even for serious survivalists, leaving you stranded without a way to call for help.

That is why I recommend always carrying an amateur radio with great features. They can turn survival situations into rescued ones!

What Is a Ham Radio?

Amateur radio, also called ham radio, is a handheld device that uses over-the-air radio frequencies to transmit messages for non-commercial use.

That includes private recreation, wireless experimentation, contesting, sometimes called radiosport. The most important use in my book, however, is emergency communication.

Buyer's Guide for the Best Ham Radio

When looking for the best ham radio you can find, look for one with some or all of these useful features.

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Dual Band

If the Ham radio offers this feature, you can monitor two different radio frequencies simultaneously. This function makes it simple to select the frequency you would like to transmit across. Usually, these are VHF/UHF radios that operate typically on the two meter and 440 meter ham bands.


Programming the ham radio can occur manually or via software.

If it is programmed manually, you must have a functional keyboard. If it is programmed through software, ensure that the programming cable or SD card is usable and functioning.

Good User Manual

Ham radios are not always easy to use. Be sure to find a radio that comes with a good user manual so that you can learn to operate your handheld device quickly and efficiently. You will get more from it in the long run.

Rechargeable Battery

A radio with rechargeable batteries will be easier and less expensive for you. Instead of having to purchase and carry external batteries, look for a ham radio that has a DC connection to recharge. This is pretty standard now so it should be standard.

Rechargeable batteries will save you time and money (and precious storage space) in the long run.

Speaker Quality

Look for a ham radio that comes with a headphone jack that can handle a combination external microphone/speaker (it's always an option) or a set of earphones.

While radios can be heard well in remote areas, they may not have great sound in crowded areas like in cities or noisy outdoor areas. If you are having trouble hearing what is being transmitted, you can also plug in headphones and hear everything loud and clear!

Licenses for Ham Radio Operators

Since amateur radio is regulated by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in the United States, you must get a license to use it. However, you can use a ham radio without a license in emergency situations. There are three types of licenses available to ham operators.

The Technician License

This entry-level license is usually issued to beginners. You only need to pass a single exam to obtain this license. Once you do, you can operate on a frequency above 30 MHz (VHF and UHF) and communicate locally or, through repeaters and special features that use digital technologies called things like System Fusion, Daystar, and WIRES-X, all over the world.

This VHF/UHF band is where most handheld ham radios operate. So this is pretty much the only license you will need for most handheld use.

General License

For a general class amateur license, you must pass a 35-question test. You also must have previously obtained a technician license or passed the written exam from that license requirement.

The general license will allow you access to all amateur operating modes and different radio bands below 30 MHz – called HF, for High Frequency – where most long-range point-to-point communications occur.

Amateur Extra License

This is the highest-level license and requires passing a 50-question test. You must have passed both the technician and general license is written exams prior to applying for the amateur extra license.

Once you attain this license, you will receive all operating privileges on all modes and different bands.

Keep reading for our suggested radios and more…

Best Handheld Ham Radios for Survival

The following is my list of the best handheld ham radios for survival that you can find on the market today.

These are for people looking to get the job done, not to invest in Ham radios as a hobby. They come with essential features for an affordable price.

These are basic radios with few frills. We call them survival radios because they are good safety tools when cellular communications are unavailable or go down.

If you are interested in the ham radio hobby, check out my article The Amateur Radio Hobby and the RVer: A Perfect Match.

(If you want to know what handheld radios I recommend that offer more features and can help get you into amateur radio as a hobbyist, read on through to the end.)

Baofeng UV-5R

Best Handheld Ham Radio for Survival 1

This radio is the most affordable on the list, coming in under $30. Baofeng Tech is a Chinese company that specializes in radios. Their brand is a favorite among preppers and survivalists based on the price alone, but it brings high value with the low price.

This high-power 5-watt is easily programmable for ham radio service operation using the manual or software program features.

The Baofeng UV-5RE is the next iteration in the 5R line that is slightly better regarded but does come with a higher price tag of around $60. Then there is the 3rd generation of the Baofeng…

Baofeng BF-F8HP

Best Handheld Ham Radio for Survival 2

The Baofeng BF-F8HP is considered the 3rd generation of the UV-5R line. Just like the second generation 5RE, it comes with a price increase to around $70.

This is considered one of the best of the bare-bones “cheap” ham radios on the market because of its larger battery and higher power output (8 watts vs 5 on the others).

And though it is the most expensive in the UV-5R line, it is still extremely affordable compared to most handheld ham radios.

It's a good option for beginners who don't want to spend hundreds of dollars. Plus, it comes with an in-depth manual to help you understand its capabilities and guide you through its customizations.

The extra power is well worth the extra price. It also has multiple power settings that are great for saving the already bigger battery.

All in all, the BF-F8HP would be my top choice for the best of the cheapies.

Whistler WS1040 Handheld Digital Scanner Radio

Best Handheld Ham Radio for Survival 3

Some consider this the best survival ham radio because it stores up to 1,800 frequencies and allows the user to search (scan) for any local frequency transmissions in the area. It's not a cheapie – it costs $340

Known for its excellent reception, it has nice audio punch, delivering crisp and clear signals, especially with outdoor use.

It comes complete with a Skywarn Storm Spotter technology, providing access to weather forecasts even before they are released on the television or radio.

There are mixed reviews on how hard it is to program. But if you go to YouTube, these programming videos by ScannerMaster can help.

TYT MD-380

Best Handheld Ham Radio for Survival 4

This dual-band radio also makes the list because of its value-to-price. But it's costly when compared to the others-about $240

The top choice model features Time-Division Multiple Access (TDMA) digital technology. It can access 1,000 different channels, featured on an impressive LED screen.

In a nutshell, this model is dual-band, analog and digital, in a simple and sturdy case with simple dials and buttons. It is also widely heralded as the best-sounding handheld in the inexpensive class with excellent speaker quality.

The downside is its programming difficulty. Although, users say that it's worth the trouble once you figure it out. Here is a helpful video for programming the TYT MD-380.

The Big Names in Ham Radio Handhelds

There are three major names in ham radio handhelds – Yaesu, Icom, and Kenwood.

These are all popular with hard-core hobbyists and amateur radio operators who are deeply involved in emergency communications.

I have radios from all three. If pushed, I'd recommend Yaesu right now. We always travel in our RV with one handheld ham radio and a more robust and high-powered VHF-UHF digital and analog mobile radio, the Yaesu 400XDR.

The reason I like Yaesu is because of System Fusion, a Yaesu digital technology that allows worldwide communication. It's too technical to get into in an article like this but if you want to know the model I have, here it is.

The Yaesu FT3DR

Best Handheld Ham Radio for Survival 5

This is a dual-band (VHF/UHF) handheld with a color screen, a built-in GPS receiver, Bluetooth, massive memory banks, and lots more serious features.

I hesitate to even include it in this list because it costs so much – $679.

But this is what I use. I am a major hobbyist. I've been in the hobby for more than 50 years. And while I really do like this handheld, it's not what I'd recommend to a newcomer.

Instead, there are two other Yaesu handhelds that are more suitable as survival radios for those who don't intend to make amateur radio their hobby.

Yaesu FT-60R

Best Handheld Ham Radio for Survival 6

This handheld radio is an older model .which can sometimes make it harder to find for a good price.

As of now, it's only available on Amazon in a bundle that costs around $275. That does come with a Diamond SRH77CA High Gain Antenna, though. You can find the radio by itself on other sites for around $160.

But, despite its age, many users prefer it over newer models. It's often recommended as a first radio for the new Technician Class operator. It provides solid dual-band performance in a rugged package without too many bells and whistles to confuse the newbie.

It contains 1,000 memory channels while featuring nine DTML auto-dialer memories. In addition, it provides ten memory banks.

It is user-friendly, and its durable construction is water-resistant.

Yaesu FT-65R

Best Handheld Ham Radio for Survival 7

Even though its name is very similar, this 65R is not the 60R's successor.

Like the 60R, it offers additional features that go beyond just the basics. But, not surprisingly, that comes at a price (around $120).

This model's commercial-grade specifications mean great ease of use for the owner, providing a more professional feel than other more basic handheld radios.

The speaker offers a lower front-end rejection, which translates into minimal interference from adjacent channels. In layman's terms, it is a perfect choice for urban areas.

In comparison to the 60R, there seems to be a mix of pros and cons to the new design. But either one makes a good choice for the beginner.

Here's how Mike uses Ham Radio

OK. Want to see all my ham radios and how I use them? The below video shows you my ham radio “shack” and my mobile setup in the RV.

I warned you I was a serious hobbyist!

Your Vote on the Best Handheld Ham Radio for Survival

Please let us know your opinion and share your recommendations in the comments. The world of Ham radio is big with so much to consider. Any input is helpful!

Mike Wendland

Published on 2021-08-31

Mike Wendland is a multiple Emmy-award-winning Journalist, Podcaster, YouTuber, and Blogger, who has traveled with his wife, Jennifer, all over North America in an RV, sharing adventures and reviewing RV, Camping, Outdoor, Travel and Tech Gear for the past 12 years. They are leading industry experts in RV living and have written 18 travel books.

16 Responses to “Best Handheld Ham Radio for Survival”

March 25, 2024at9:53 am, Bob K0NR said:

Hi Mike,
Thanks for the article promoting ham radio for use with RVs. It is obviously a fun fit for people interested in wireless comms. However, I would caution people that having a ham radio tucked away in your RV, not being used, is a poor emergency communications strategy. For it to be effective, you need an FCC license and be familiar with operating the radio. That means you need to learn the radio by using it.

One nit:
The TYT MD-380 is NOT a dual-band radio. It is a single-band radio that comes in two versions: a VHF version and a UHF version, hence the confusion. TYT MD-UV390 Plus is a newer dual-band version, so maybe you were thinking of that one. But also note that DMR is not a good choice for people traveling as you need to set up the radio for each local area of the country, which is a real pain on DMR.
Bob K0NR

March 18, 2024at3:28 am, Neet and Angel said:

I completely agree with your recommendation on the Baofeng UV-5R. I’ve been using it for years and it’s been a game-changer for me during camping trips and emergencies. The battery life is amazing and the quality of the radio is superb. I’ve even been able to use it to communicate with other ham radio operators in my area during Hurricane Sandy when cell phone service was down. Highly recommend it to anyone looking for a reliable handheld ham radio.

March 19, 2024at1:38 pm, Team RV Lifestyle said:

Thank you for the feedback! Team RV Lifestyle

May 07, 2023at9:32 pm, herschel glenn said:

install a sideband cb, no license, truckers and others still have cbs, when the shtf those cbs will pop to life like lights on a christmas tree. cb’s are cheap and reliable, channelized for ease of use and they aren’t the least bit intimidating….my $.02

May 08, 2023at10:51 am, Team RV Lifestyle said:

Thanks, Herschel! Team RV Lifestyle

January 08, 2022at12:11 am, Jenny Churchill said:

I am interested in purchasing a HAM radio that will allow me to communicate with someone 270 miles away in a power outage situation. Once I have the radio I will study and take the test(s), practice and learn, and then give a simple radio to two family members which they could use to communicate with myself or others in emergencies. I am also interested in crank and solar charging capabilities. I would mostly be doing this for communication during emergencies, but would also possibly like to use it for light hobby use. Given what I have shared, what radio and components would you recommend? Please let me know if you have any clarifying questions–I would love recommendations!!!

January 01, 2022at12:54 pm, Angus Malarkey said:

Why promote Chinese made merchandise?

April 12, 2022at8:27 am, Eric Tondevold said:

Most of your radios are made in China, including some well known Brands like Motorola, Kenwood and Icom.

July 09, 2023at7:19 pm, James Chandler said:

Kenwood and icom are Japa ese, not Cjinese.

September 01, 2021at7:00 pm, Vic Delnore said:

Thanks for producing this informative video. In response to N7ZEV’s comment, I believe that in a true emergency where life or property is in danger anyone, licensed or not, is permitted to use any available radio equipment to solicit help. But it must be a real emergency that you might need to justify afterwards or face the fines.

Now that I got that off my chest, I’ll mention that I’m setting up my Icom 705 for use in our Roadtrek CS Adventurous XL. Lucky for me, my wife loves to drive it, so I get to play radio while we’re underway. Also have an ancient Icom IC 2SRA Handheld, good for hitting repeaters while walking around.

73 from W2ILY

February 19, 2023at6:01 pm, Brad Osborne said:

No the law does not permit use ( in any type of emergency) by a non licensed person to use a licensed radio frequency. I have checked this out with the FCC.

February 27, 2023at11:34 pm, Dan Azevedo said:

Possibly the FCC tech did not understand your question.
In the study material for taking the required tests the question of using the radio frequencies is covered and thier use is acceptable for emergency purposes without a license.

August 31, 2021at1:07 pm, Kim Umbaugh said:

Anyone can use ham radio as long as you don’t transmit. Listen Only.

I have and love my AnyTone AT-D878UV Plus work great on UHF/VHF and DMR.

KO4OIG AKA MadDillys

August 31, 2021at11:12 am, Frank Kostelac said:

WHERE did you get your info?
There is NO provision in FCC rules for using ham radio without a license.
That is fake news!


April 25, 2022at1:40 pm, Al tony said:

Frank, you need to review all FCC regs, pubs, and related docs going back to the 1940s. It’s clear and there. hope you can find it.. I’ won’t bother to quote since Im certain you are the type of person that would rather read it themselves instead of hitting the “I believe” button. good luck!

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