This has been on my mind a lot lately.
It may be because I’m in the process of building a few.
It is also because it has come into real sharp focus for me lately. It’s an important lesson to learn: Without the proper gear, you may not get the job done. Although that’s true with many aspects of preparedness, it happens to be very true with emergency communications. Yes, skill matters more, but all the skills in the world will not compensate for the wrong gear for the job in many situations. You may be the best informational communicator out there…but that means nothing if no one can hear you.
Case in point…
In my recent efforts in running a radio emergency communications net, several hams in the group were heard either very weakly, were unreadable, or (worse off yet) were not even heard by anyone at all. Some of this had to do with the power of their radios, and much of this had to do with their locations, but both of these issues would have been overcome if they understood radio propagation. (Just consider QRP radio as an example…some QRP operators can communicate all around the world on just 5 watts!) In the cases of the net participants, since VHF propagation is primarily line-of-sight, they could have used better antennas placed in better positions.
So what would make a better antenna?
That depends on the job.
For one thing, what band are you using? For VHF and UHF bands, using a vertical antenna (such as a J-pole or a whip antenna placed as high as you reasonably could) would be a recommended option since VHF and UHF radio waves travel line-of-sight. Conversely, HF waves bounce off the ionosphere and travel around the curvature of the Earth…so a horizontally orientated antenna (such a dipole) would perform well for those bands.
Secondly, are you trying to be heard over a given area, or are you trying to communicate with someone at a specific point? Omnidirectional antennas (such as a mobile whip or a rubber duckie) send out waves horizontally (in theory) in all directions. In this case, you could be heard over a given area (if there were no physical obstructions to the waves.) However, in the case of trying to reach someone at a specific point, such as trying to reach a mountain top or a certain repeater, a directional antenna (such as a yagi) would typically perform much better than the antenna that came with your radio.
Also, how far are you trying to communicate? The choice of bands has more effect on this than anything, but antenna choice can impact this as well. For example, NVIS antennas are specially designed for making contacts about a hundred to a few hundred miles away (too far for VHF or UHF bands without repeaters, but too close for HF bands due to the wave skips in the atmosphere.) Again, directional antennas could help with reaching further as well.
And finally, what purpose are you using radio communication for? Are you trying to deploy a mesh net? A grid antenna would be beneficial. Are you trying to reach a satellite? Then a directional antenna is a must. Or are you just trying to contact someone a few blocks away? Then your rubber duckie may do just fine.
Here is another personal example:
I recently have been learning the skill of radio direction finding (also known as transmitter hunting or fox hunting.) I had a fox hunting loop antenna already, so I supposed (wrongly) that I would be just fine. Truth be told, I failed at my first attempt. I assumed that my whips could lead me to the general area of where the hidden transmitter was which is where I had planned to employ my loop antenna to zero in on the exact location. The problem was that my whips couldn’t adequately identify the direction (being omnidirectional) since they were overpowered by the signal being received. (Every direction registered a strong signal.) Plus, my loop antenna was too weak to pick up anything at all at a distance, so my loop was no help either. It wasn’t until the next time when I used a directional yagi with an attenuator that I began to have any success.
I needed the right antenna for the job.
Just as it is with many other skills, the right equipment for the right job usually makes the difference. Of course, the right equipment without the needed skills is not going to get the job done either.
Honestly…you need both.
But…the right equipment does make things a whole lot easier. 🙂