In Intro to Ham Radio, we will cover radio in general, the specifics of ham radio, how to get into it and why you may need one. If you are reading this blog, it’s because you like the outdoors whether that’s fishing, hunting, ATVing and so on. A lot of these activities can really benefit from having comms (communication).
While my blog is not about prepping, I have and always will talk about safety, survival, gear and so on. In a way you could say there is a prepping element to it – or perhaps there is some overlap. What I can tell you for certain is that the prepper community loves these radios! And for very good reason so let’s get started with intro to ham radio.
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- Making Your Intro to Ham Radio EASY
- The Electromagnetic Spectrum
- The Walkie Talkie, CB Radio
- Ham Radio
- Choose Your Path for Your Intro to Ham Radio
- Buying a Ham Radio
- A Little About Bands
- The Repeater
- Calling Frequencies
- Get a Better Ham Radio Antenna!
- Digital vs Analog
- Back to Repeaters
- The HF Band – The Holy Grail
- Ham Radio Prep
- Intro to Ham Radio Conclusion
- Purchase the Items in This Post
Making Your Intro to Ham Radio EASY
There is an overabundance of ham info or videos circulating the web, most of which delve far deeper into the hobby and are immediately over your head. Don’t waste your time on them, not yet anyways. The problem is that entering the ham radio world is almost like entering the gates of geekdom with technical jargon that is very foreign to anyone outside of that world. Even for someone technical like myself.
Don’t get me wrong, the people in this community are tremendous, polite and very helpful. It just comes with an insane learning curve to get started and it posses an unintended barrier of entry to the hobby. To complicate matters, there are very few places, if any these days, where you can walk in somewhere and have a person to person conversation about it. So we have condensed the subject into what you need to know, in the order you need to know it and in plain English!
The Electromagnetic Spectrum
Without too much geek speak, let’s briefly go back to high school science. Electromagnetic radiation is the flow of energy in the form of electromagnetic waves. This can mean infrared heat from the sun, visible light, microwave ovens, x-rays and you guessed it, radio waves! The graphic below will help illustrate this.
These waves come in different frequencies and wavelengths. From above, you’ll see the frequency is inverse in relationship to the wavelength. In other words, as the wavelength gets smaller, the frequency gets bigger. Remember that as it’s really important for radio. The graphic below will help illustrate the idea of wavelength and also the fact that frequency is simply the number of waves in a given amount of time.
Control and Order
Radio waves are used for broadcasting not only audio but also tv amongst several other things. As you would imagine there is a lot going on out there with limited bandwidth. So the use of these radio frequencies are then sub-segmented or in other words allocated by governments so there is control and order as to what frequencies we use, for what and where.
Before I end the geek speak, I’ll give you one last graphic below about light. It’s too cool to pass up the opportunity that the very thing we are talking about for radios also applies to visible light. Even the very colours we see!
The Walkie Talkie, CB Radio
There are comms out there we all know of that don’t require a license. Nor do they require much knowledge to operate so let’s quickly look at them before addressing ham.
The Walmart or Canadian Tire type packaged walkie talkies run on a segment of radio called FRS (Family Radio Service). They are handy for talking to the kids or for use on an atv trip with a group of people very close by.
This segment only allows low power broadcasting (max 2 watts) and they have very limited range. DO NOT believe the package when it says 50 km and so on. That is a joke and might be true if one was on top of a mountain with a clear & un-impeded line of sight to the other radio. Realistically you might get a kilometre which is what I get out in the country where all we need to penetrate is trees. Going across flat open areas like a lake is supposed to help but I’ve tested that and am not impressed.
FRS by the way is based on FM (Frequency Modulation) so going back to the science above, we can look up FRS and see that there are frequencies around 462 MHz reserved for FRS. Interestingly, it can be heard on several ham radios as its basically UHF. It can even be broadcasted to by some ham equipment, but not legally.
CB (Citizens Band)
We all know the truckers use these. They run around 26 and 27 Mhz using AM (Amplitude Modulation) and generally it means different equipment than ham. Although, I have a handheld unit that I can listen on.
CB uses a band of radio that has a longer wavelength which means it travels farther. That added range is of course at the expense of requiring a bigger antenna. With radio in general: the longer the wavelength, the longer the antenna has to be. CB also has a higher wattage cap than FRS at 4 watts. All in all however, CB still has a fairly short useable range.
Other than what’s mentioned above, CB is out of context for this post as there is no real use for it in the bush or for broader emergencies.
Ham radio is basically amateur radio and is heavily regulated by governments. You do not need a license to listen on ham but you do require one to broadcast. This begs the question then as to why is it amateur? The simple answer is that it’s not intended for commercial broadcasts.
Here is where my post gets interesting. They say the ham radio licensing process is not difficult – I’m not licensed myself, not yet anyways. There is however a lot of preparation required before writing and passing a mandatory test to become licensed. This test requires an understanding of how the radios work (Ie. electronics theory), antennas, laws regarding the use of these radios and so on. There are courses out there, several books and online practice tests to aid in the process.
Right now you might be asking why then am I reading about all this? The simple answer is that in an emergency and by that I mean a life-threatening emergency and other comms are not available to you, you are very permitted to get on ham and seek assistance without a license. That is very attractive when in the bush where cell signals are hit or miss. Or when stranded in a car during winter. It also makes ham immediately relevant to everyone out there as most of us only have a cell phone and no backup plan.
Choose Your Path for Your Intro to Ham Radio
If you are asking, so now what? You have a couple options here with your intro to ham radio. If these radios interest you, I will give you a link a little farther down where you can buy one. I will also show you some basic programming and you’ll have an extra lifeline for your backpack. I also highly suggest you listen, learn and practice using the radio (without broadcasting of course) as it’s not the type of thing you want to figure out when you really need it.
Your second path into ham is very similar. You do what I mentioned above but you find that the hobby of radio now interests you. At this point it’s time to google your local ham radio group and reach out to them to see what resources they have to help you. Another excellent place to start in Canada is rac.ca (Radio Amateurs of Canada) which has courses and study guides available. Similarly in the US, you would want to visit arrl.org which is the National Association for Amateur Radio. Millions of people worldwide are into ham, many if not most of them for sheer enjoyment so you’ll find endless resources out there.
The path I took was to buy some radios and test the waters for my own interest level. In the meantime, I know I’m learning the use of and have secured a very valuable communication tool for my adventures into the bush. As an added bonus, these very radios have secured me some long range comms for the bad times such as SHTF, disasters, power outages and so on which I’ll explain a little farther down.
Buying a Ham Radio
Oh boy, this is like picking a car for someone who has never drove so let’s go by process of elimination. Let’s not look at base stations, vehicle versions or anything not super portable or requiring an external power source. Let’s also not look at anything over $100.
That makes things a lot easier and takes us to a Chinese radio made by Baofeng. For what you pay, they are good, budget radios and more than enough to enter the hobby. Since you’ll eventually want a few radios in the arsenal, even if you go big in it, the Baofeng will always have its place.
The Baofeng UV-5R is the standard, most used, most known Baofeng out there. I found a used one on my local Facebook marketplace after looking for a couple weeks. I also had to drive an hour one way to get it which gives you an idea of exactly how scarce radios are right now. Luckily the link above showed up on Amazon which should makes things a lot easier for you in terms of securing your first radio.
Tip: Don’t bother with the average stores out there, even electronics stores like Best Buy and The Source as they don’t carry ham radios anymore. The only brick and mortar retailer in the Greater Toronto Area I could find is Radio World. I drove there as well, 2 hours one way, to secure a better radio as it opens the doors to more bands, channels and technologies like digital. I suggest you call ahead to check inventory as they were very low at the time of writing.
My advice to you is simple, get a cheap radio like the Baofeng UV-5R and get started by programming it and listening. Without it you have no idea what you are getting into and what kind of chatter is in your area. Again, just don’t broadcast without that license or in the absence of an emergency.
A Little About Bands
We need a little more geek speak. I mentioned wavelength and frequency up top. Wavelength will determine the “band” in which your radio needs to operate. There are several bands of ham radio but for our purposes today we will only cover VHF (Very High Frequency) and UHF (Ultra High Frequency). These are quite common terms you may have heard of before.
VHF – The 2 Meter Band
Ie. 2 meter long wavelength…
Ranges in frequency from 30 – 300 Mhz
Allowable amateur radio use of 144 – 148 Mhz
Better for distance
UHF – The 70 cm Band
Ie. 70 cm long wavelength
Ranges from 300 Mhz – 3 Ghz
Allowable amateur radio use of 430 – 440 Mhz
It’s shorter wavelength penetrates objects or buidlings better but at the expense of range
Why These Bands for Ham?
These bands don’t require massive antennas which suits our purposes of using an HT (Handheld Transceiver) or basically handheld radio. Similar sized antennas to those used on walkie talkies will get you by and makes entry into the hobby much easier.
In other words you aren’t writing cheques for someone to erect a big tower on your house nor are you calculating the correct resonant lengths of wire for certain frequencies and stringing out your backyard. It also supports our discussion for BushLife in terms of mobility.
Unlike walkie talkies, we now have typically 5 watts of power at our disposal versus 2 watts and we are not running on narrowband FM like FRS. So our range is substantially better right out of the box. The big kicker is we are now running more professional equipment with the option to use several different antennas in addition to not being locked into a very small group of channels like FRS.
Up until now, I have only talked about simplex communication. This is simple communication from one unit to another on the same frequency. I’ve really just been warming up to what is next which is the repeater. This is what makes ham radio so powerful.
A repeater is usually a big antenna preferably high up on tower. It also comes with some very powerful equipment pushing 100, 250, 500 watts all the way up to 1500 watts. Range is now more like 75 km as it re-broadcasts what it hears, which can be you. This substantially and fundamentally changes the available use and power of ham radio but it does come with a few minor complications.
In order to hear a repeater, you need to tune into a specific frequency to receive or hear its broadcasts. Simple so far. You also need to simultaneously tune to transmit on a different frequency in order to transmit or broadcast your message to the repeater, hence the term duplex.
It is done this way because everyone is listening to the frequency the repeater transmits on and not the frequency you use to send your message to the repeater. Obviously with a lot bigger and better equipment, the repeater is capable of receiving and then re-transmitting your (and everyone else’s) broadcasts with a much better signal than what you would get if you were all talking on simplex from one unit to another.
A Few More Terms
Offset is the difference between a repeaters transmit and receive frequencies. It is stated as + or – as its basically a measure of deviation from the repeaters transmit frequency. Confused, don’t worry, I’ll have an example below.
By definition, squelch is a circuit that suppresses the output of a radio receiver if the signal strength falls below a certain threshold. Remember this as you’ll need it for radio in general. Squelch can be adjusted on almost all radios and it’s usually used to filter out noise. I bring it up mainly for the next item.
CTCSS or PL Tone
Repeaters either don’t use tones or they use a very specific tone in the broadcast which is required to open the squelch. Again, don’t worry we’ll cover it in the example a little farther below.
Why These Terms?
There will be a LOT more terms for you to learn with your intro to ham radio. With duplex, you simply need to understand these items in order to program your radio to talk to repeaters – and trust me, you are going to want to tap into repeaters right away.
Finding Repeaters In Your Area
Once you get your first radio, you are going to google what simplex and duplex frequencies are active in your area. This could be repeaters, other hams, public service, fire, police, air, rail, marine, weather, commercial businesses, etc. You’ll notice as you go that repeaters are heavily in use.
Here is The Example I Promised
The graphic above contains the typical info you’ll find when searching for a repeater. Above is from repeaterbook.com with a snapshot of some records for a search in Ontario. Let’s use the last entry as the example and I’ll speak in the context of programming your radio using computer software called Chirp.
- 145.1300 goes in the frequency column
- VA3GTU, the call sign would go in the name column for reference purposes
- Under tone mode I would select “tone” in the dropdown list
- Select 103.5, again from a dropdown list
- Under duplex, select –
- Under offset input “0.6”
If using software other than Chirp, things will look different. By example, my Yaesu uses its own software and I could put 145.1300 in the receive column and 144.53 in the transmit column for the example above – only this time I calculated the transmit frequency by subtracting 0.6 Mhz from 145.1300. The result is always the same, we just need to tell our radios the basic information it needs to communicate.
By following the example above, you have learned how to add your first repeater to your radio! It’s a PITA at first but it gets better as you go. You then have to transfer it to the radio, which we’ll cover below.
You will also want to add the national calling frequencies which are:
146.520 for VHF
446.000 for UHF
These are simplex frequencies you would use to call out and see if you can make contact with someone. Out of etiquette, you keep it brief and move to an agreed upon different frequency should you carry on the conversation.
Each radio manufacturer has their own programming software and you know what that means: Different menus, settings and even different terms which can be overwhelming and confusing at first. I mentioned Chirp above which is really simple software, has a lot of pre-programmed channels to import such as weather, marine VHF, FRS and so on. Chirp works with several different radios and if you go with the Baofeng above you guessed it, your in luck! Chirp is a free download.
You will also need a Baofeng programming cable as it does not come with the radio. Once you get that cable, you need USB drivers which can be a bit quirky. I got mine from Miklor and it is also a free download. After installing the drivers and plugging in the cable, check device manager to confirm there is no unrecognized hardware floating around. Then go into ports and see what number is assigned – which you’ll need to set and match in Chirp.
I should also mention that its infinitely easier to program your radio on the computer and transfer using the programming cable than it is trying to do it on the radio itself. While it can be done directly on the radio, just trust me on this and get yourself a cable when buying the radio!
Still Need Help Programming Your Baofeng
Don’t worry, there’s videos for that stuff! Out of everything I found on YouTube, I really like Ham Radio Crash Course. He has some really great content and he explains things very clearly. This particular video below is excellent on setting and using the radio.
This next video from the same channel is excellent on programming it with Chirp.
Get a Better Ham Radio Antenna!
Yes, I know I said the walkie-talkie style antenna that comes with the radio will get you by. While that is true, the fastest, cheapest, single most thing you can do to improve your experience is get a better antenna. A great antenna with a cheaper radio will always beat an expensive radio with a cheap antenna. It’s sort of like the relationship between an electric guitar and its amplifier and you can’t have one without the other.
Where I am located there is a commercial FM radio station that barely comes in on any radio. On the Baofeng UV-5R with stock antenna it’s at least audible but really fuzzy. With the upgraded whip antenna from Diamond, it’s crystal clear. The antenna I speak of is model SRJ77CA. I can’t find it online economically and found a similar antenna by Nagoya. I’ve since bought the Nagoya antenna and can confirm it works just as good as the Diamond. Both manufacturers are very reputable and heavily used in the hobby.
We’re not talking about a behemoth antenna here which makes it very reasonable in size for portable comms. Nor is it expensive.
Digital vs Analog
Up until this point, I have really only addressed analog. Analog is your old school ham radio and is still in use on at least 90% of the repeaters out there. That is a guess to be honest but based on the folks from the radio store who seem to really know their stuff.
Analog is still the gold standard and partly why preppers love these radios. When times get bad such as after a disaster, governments have turned to ham radio operators to get messages out or communicate with areas that have no power, no internet and often even no physical access. It would be up to local hams to run their own generators that power their own equipment but you can quickly see how much less it takes to get ham up and running versus broader infrastructure. It takes substantially more co-ordinated efforts get internet and cell towers back online, especially when there is major damage to infrastructure such as power, phone and internet trunk lines.
Digital has entered the HAM world. Unfortunately as always with emerging technology (remember VHS versus BETA when movies were on tape or Sirius vs XM for the younger crowd), there comes different standards or formats until one is dominant. While I’m not sophisticated enough on digital to talk about it in detail, I can tell you there are about 5-6 major formats that do not talk to each other and confuses things.
Back to Repeaters
Here’s the good news. Even on analog, one could bounce from one repeater to the next and talk over a very long distance. It’s not easy to do but it is possible and a nice insurance policy for bad times.
During the good times, digital repeaters are fundamentally changing things. For someone talking to a local repeater (with an internet connection) they can talk to anyone in the world who is on the same format of digital repeater. This literally takes an old school style comm completely global and it drastically simplifies the process.
I may write about digital later but its really not in the context of this post. I can assure you, it’s not something you need to worry about right now and while it simplifies long range comms, there’s yet another big learning curve to start on it. Analog is alive and well and is by far the best way for you to start in the hobby.
The HF Band – The Holy Grail
I have to cover this before I let you go or it’s not an intro to ham radio. HF is the wholly grail of ham as its longer wavelengths and the fact that you can bounce signals off the Earth’s atmosphere opens up the doors to very LONG distances, like 3000 miles! Everyone I talk to in the hobby is going on and on about it and its making a big comeback.
I’ve been watching David Canterbury for a while now. He is a survival, bushcraft expert on YouTube and he puts out some interesting stuff. Oddly, he too recently got into ham and he happens to also like Ham Radio Crash Course. Anyways, for someone fairly new and learning himself, he put out a video the other day where he threw a wire into a tree, tuned it quickly with an antenna tuner and hooked up to equipment running at only 5 watts. I believe he was in the north east US and he managed to easily get a signal out to Cuba from his location somewhere out in the bush. If anything, he had a hard time getting a signal out closer to him than farther.
You need bigger and better antennas, equipment and knowledge to get into HF. I bring it up though as something to really look forward to if you choose to keep going down the path into radio. In a connected online world, it’s absolutely mind blowing how far you can communicate using old school ideas and using only your own equipment that relies on ZERO outside services in order to function. Think about this, you can talk to Australia from California with nothing but a radio and a long piece of wire as an antenna between you and the other person!
Ham Radio Prep
For those of you interested in getting licensed, Ham Radio Prep offers easy-to-understand courses to help prepare you for your exam. There are three levels of licenses that you can obtain:
- A Technician License enables you to have access to VHF / UHF.
- The General License gives you access to many nationwide and worldwide HF bands.
- And lastly, the Amateur Extra License is the highest amateur class offered by the FCC.
What’s pretty cool about this program is that Ham Radio Prep guarantees that you will pass your exam on your first try. If not, they will refund your money and pay for your exam fee, provided you put in the effort.
With an All Access Pass, Ham Radio Prep includes an entry-level Baofeng Basics course. This course will teach you how to use your Baofeng Radio to get on the air and make your first connection. It beats trying to decipher complicated manuals and saves a ton of time and frustration!
Intro to Ham Radio Conclusion
I know, it was big post! Hopefully not too painful as the point is to take the pain away. Radios however are definitely worth the time and effort. As always, don't forget to like and follow us on our social channels. Until the next post, go have some fun with a radio!