Monday, July 23, 2012

Getting Started in Ham Radio

Ham radio, or more properly "Amateur Radio", is a hobby and a public service. Ham radio officially exists to
1. Promote the radio arts
2. Enhance international goodwill
3. Maintain a pool of skilled radio operators

You can use Ham radio for anything you like, with some restrictions
1. No commercial activity
2. No music
3. No "broadcasting"
4. No facilitating a crime

You do need a license. The Technician level license is pretty easy to get. If you are reasonably technically inclined and can read and remember simple rules, then you can probably study for it in a weekend; it's 35 multiple-choice questions. The exam fee is like $10 or something and the license is good for 10 years I think, after which time you pay another $10 to renew.

The biggest technical advantage to a ham radio over a CB or a FRS (Family Band) radio is range. CBs use AM, which is very inefficient, and are limited to 5 watts output power, and small CB antennas tend to be inefficient. FRS uses FM, which is better than AM, but are limited to ½ watt and a may not use external antennas at all! For local comms, Hams typically run 5-50 watts of power using FM on VHF or UHF with efficient external antennas when possible. I run a 5/8ths wave VHF antenna that is about 1.5 feet long. It's got a gain of about 3db (roughly doubles signal strength). A 1.5 foot CB antenna is going to have a loss of about -12db (you lose about 3/4 of your signal) and that's IF it's properly installed and tuned and everything.

The reliable range on a VHF ham radio can really be startling compared to CB. Hams put repeaters up on high mountains so as long as both folks are within range of the mountain top, they can communicate, even if they are not within range of each other. Depending on terrain, antenna height, power, and other factors, repeaters can have a reliable radius of 50 to 100 miles or more. VHF ham radios are pretty cheap and pretty easy to use and it's how most people get started in Ham radio nowadays.

HF range is basically world wide, but it's less reliable, since it uses ionospheric reflection, which varies depending on the time of day, solar conditions, and other random factors. There is a technique called NVIS that provides pretty reliable comms for a radius of about 300 miles, without using repeaters, but it's still not immune to space weather. Equipment is more expensive and trickier to use, and the antennas tend to be bigger. But for expeditions way out into the back country it might be the only means available (other than sat phone which costs $$$) of communicating with the rest of the world.

There's also ham satellites but they can be tricky to use, mostly because there are too many satellite users and not enough satellites.

Honestly a lot more wheelers do run CB so you really do need it on the trail. But CB activity among the general public has pretty much fallen off. Ham radio activity is actually increasing. I can almost always get somebody useful up on my ham radio, no matter how far out in the sticks and out of cell phone range I am, from down in a gulch that the CB would never get out of. So I do think it's useful to have in a rig, especially if you hit the back country. And when you wheel with somebody else with a ham radio you can make private jokes about everyone else and their chicken band radios And the calibre of ham radio operators tends to be higher than CB, since it's a licensed service. If you are travelling a lot it's a great way to spend time on the road, chatting on the radio.

Randall/Larsen antennas are the only ones worth looking at IMO. If you get a VHF/UHF ant, get the one with the OPEN coil. Mag mounts WILL get knocked off your jeep by brush, etc, and it sucks when they get wrapped around your axle (don't ask how I know) so I recommend a more permanent mount. Don't be afraid to drill holes in your roof.

Always wire positive and negative wires directly to the battery with fuses on both. Use heavy gauge wire, 12ga minimum, 10ga is better.

2m is the all-around most useful ham band.

Getting licensed is easy:
  1. Study up: 
  2. Memorize the test answers: 
  3. Buy a book (bookstores, RadioShack, online): 
  4. Take a practice test: 
  5. Take a class if necessary: 
  6. Take the real test (cost $15, bring cash & two forms of ID):
After you pass the test, you can start searching for yourself in the FCC database. As soon as you find your callsign there, you can start operating even before you receive your paper license in the mail. Usually takes 1 to 3 weeks tho sometimes longer. Put in your name as "lastname, firstname"

Buy a radio:

Join the ARRL:

Join a local club:

Join an emergency service like ARES or RACES:

Follow da rulez:

Go to a hamfest:

If anybody has specific questions feel free to message me, I can give you my email and help you with whatever you need to get licensed.

Good luck, 73 de n1ywb

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