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HAM Radio for Beginners – Prepping and HAM Radio

Interested in HAM radio but have no idea where to start? Is the whole idea intimidating? Let us help relieve those concerns and get you started on the right path.

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When lines of communication go down, anyone outside of walking distance will be someone you used to know. Have your COMM up with HAM Radio.

I used to think HAM radio was out of my reach. It was the domain of the smart and the rich. Waves and electrons. Base stations and antennas. Cool, but not for me. How wrong I was!

What can HAM radio be used for?

HAM radio is not only within everyone’s grasp, but it should be a core part of your survival preparations.

Consider this. The grid goes down and limits travel. No internet. No phones. Suddenly, anyone beyond walking distance is now someone you used to know. (Credit to JJS of AMRRON for that concept). 

Without knowledge and capability for basic communication, your ability to exchange information with the world is non-existent. Let’s change that by getting you up and running with HAM radio.

Note: Rules and regulations vary slightly around the world. The following sections are all from the perspective of the Good Ole’ USA.

What is HAM Radio?

Ever since humans wrote on rocks, the need to exchange ideas drove technology. Amateur radio is no exception. HAM radio applies technology to communications across long distances and HAM operators use the radio frequency spectrum to transmit information. 

Who Regulates HAM Radio?

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) governs communications. They have set the rules in the United States. They regulate who uses what part of the radio spectrum, and what the restrictions are.

The good news is that numerous support organizations assist you in this journey so government red tape is kept at a minimum.

What Are HAM Radio Frequencies?

Keeping it simple, HAM radio operations allow you to communicate over the Ultra High Frequency (UHF), Very High Frequency (VHF) and High Frequency (HF) bands.

From a practical application perspective, the 2-meter HAM band is in the VHF range (30-300 megahertz). The 70-centimeter HAM band is UHF (300 megahertz to 3 gigahertz).

Consider these line-of-sight communications. Both blocked by large structures including buildings, hills, and mountains. Count the range of these frequencies in miles. 

HF covers 3-30 megahertz also termed 6-meters to 160-meters. HF is where long-range communications come in. These frequencies bounce off a layer in the upper atmosphere then reflect back to earth.

This skips your signal back down to earth many, many miles away. With the HF bands, you can talk around the world. The range of these frequencies is counted in countries and continents. 

A HAM operator uses various pieces of radio gear to communicate. This gear starts with a transceiver (transmitter and receiver) to send or receive a signal. The transceiver attaches to an antenna which broadcasts your message. 

How Much Does it Cost to Get Into HAM Radio?

Go-Bag with Motorola 350Rs and UV-5Rs. The UV-5Rs can us the roll up N9TAX Dual Band J-Pole antenna

You can get into HAM for a little money or a lot. The variety of equipment that is out there is astounding. With those tools you can transmit your voice, text, images, even connect to email servers. With all this ability there is no wonder communications are a growing interest of those with preparedness in mind. 

Is listening to HAM radio illegal?

The ability to listen to radio broadcasts is completely unregulated. If you want to listen, knock yourself out. If you want to transmit. Then you need a license.

Let’s get one thing established. If you transmit and are not licensed HAMs will find out. Then the HAMs will find you. 

They are like that. They even have a sport around it. It’s called Fox Hunting. They hide a transmitter then have a group armed with directional antennas find it. Yup, they take it that seriously. Don’t transmit unless you have a license. 

HAM Licensing – HAM License Types

To all good things come regulations. There are a few rules that HAM operators must abide by, but it’s not too bad. It’s certainly nothing that will keep you out of the hobby.

HAM licenses come in three levels. Technician, General, and Extra. Each license builds on the previous and provides additional capabilities over the last. The FCC establishes the licenses and the American Radio Relay League (ARRL) officiates the testing process.

Technician License

The Technician license allows you the ability to communicate over two “line-of-sight” bands and a single long-range band. In tech terms this license grants you the privilege to use the 2-meter, 75-centimeter and, the 6-meter high frequency (HF) band. I’ll explain what all this means in a little bit.

General License

The General license grants you the privilege to transmit over several HF bands. These include 20, 40, 80, and 160-meter bands. This is the majority of the spectrum that HAM operators communicate over. 

Extra License

The Extra license provides a little extra room in these bands to communicate. 

Is Morse Code Required for a HAM License?

Go-Bag with Motorola 350Rs and UV-5Rs. The UV-5Rs can us the roll up N9TAX Dual Band J-Pole antenna

The even better news is that they have removed the requirement for knowing Morse Code. You no longer need to memorize your dots and dashes! 

Is it hard to get a HAM radio license?

Getting your license is cheap and easy. In all three cases, you simply take a multiple-choice test. The technician test is 35 questions, general 35 questions, extra 50 questions. You need a score of 74% or better to pass. 

The technician questions come from a published pool of a little over 400 questions. The general has its pool of 400ish and extra has 700. The good news is that the questions and answers are all published. Not only that, but there is also an entire industry dedicated to helping people pass.

Regardless of the method you learn, you have several options. 

Want to get right to it and memorize all 400 questions? Download the question pool from ARRL.

Need something that will teach you more of the background? Hit amazon and search HAM Study Guide. You’ll find dozen-plus books. Read the descriptions to find one your style. 

A child of the internet? Look no further than the Google or Apple store. Apps abound. A quick search yielded HAM Test Prep, HAM Radio Exam (HRE), and FCC HAM Radio Test Prep. Most of the technician apps are free. All provide complete coverage of the test questions and offer some sort of flashcards or practice exams.

Need something more? Search for Technician in a Day or General in a weekend program in your area. You’ll pay a little bit but most have a guarantee clause.

Once you have studied and can reliably pass your practice tests find a local exam and go for it! In my area, they are $15 and I can find at least two a month within a one-hour drive. 

Upon passing you’ll be issued a call sign and you are free to communicate within your license class.

Why HAM Radio for Prepping?

Go-Bag with Baofang handhelds, roll up J-Pole antenna, and Tecsun shortwave SSB HF receiver.

So, how does HAM radio help your prepping efforts? Let’s look at the basics and then the benefits will fall into place.

UHF/VHF

As mentioned, these two bands are for line-of-sight communications. In general, you will be using either a Handi-Talkie (handheld radio) or a mobile radio. 

Don’t get HAM handhelds confused with the Motorola blister pack radios. Those are low power, use small antennas, and are lucky to reach out a mile. HAM handhelds run at 10 times the power (usually around 5 watts) and can use a multitude of antennas. These two factors alone allow you to reach out 10+ miles or more given the right conditions. 

At my house, I can hit a repeater 30 miles away. That being said, I’m 800 feet up on a mountain and there is nothing between me and the repeater. Oh, and I’m using a 1-meter antenna mounted at the peak of my house. 

Mobile UHF/VHF radios look like a CB radio from the ’70s but again use much more power. Used in a vehicle or elsewhere, with a separate power supply, you can extend your range to 30+ miles under ideal conditions. 

One of the benefits of this band range is the use of repeaters. A repeater is a specialized radio that allows two HAMs to talk with the repeater as a bridge. If two hams are 40 miles apart it is doubtful that they will be able to talk to each other.

With a repeater in the middle HAM A ‘hits’ the repeater, the signal is rebroadcast and HAM B receives the message. The process is then executed in reverse and they have complete communication.

One of the advantages of this band is that you share space with FMRS/GMRS and MURS. These are the blister pack radios you can get at your local big-box sporting goods stores. You may know MURS from Dakota and its radio-based security devices. 

Be advised that if your radio can transmit on this band there are limitations to the power that you can use. Read the FCC regulations and play within the rules. 

HF – Long Range

HF is where real communications happen. As you will learn while studying, the ionosphere allows HF frequencies to travel around the world. HAM operators can get 1,000 miles per Watt of transmission power using the right setup.

One of my favorite HAM methods is EME or Earth-Moon-Earth. I’ll just leave this here for you to ponder the power of HAM communications – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Earth–Moon–Earth_communication.

How Far Can You Communicate With a HAM Radio?

Go-Bag with Baofang handhelds, roll up J-Pole antenna, and Tecsun shortwave SSB HF receiver.

As a prepper, you can imagine the ability to talk to like-minded people hundreds or thousands of miles away would be very beneficial. Knowledge is power. The power is in receiving intelligence from outside your affected area. 

The gear needed can be either simple or very, very sophisticated. I’ll talk about two options base stations and mobile radios. 

An HF base station is a thing of beauty. Lots of wires, knobs, and lights. Geeky stuff aside they allow you to do a few common things. Tune to a frequency to receive and transmit. Filter and clean it up (remove the noise) the signal.

Finally, connect to your power supply and antenna. That’s the easy description. From here it gets a little deeper. 

Your base station will need a power supply. By separating this component they add a level of flexibility to your operation. For example, you can run a separate plug-in power supply or feed off of a 12-volt battery for grid-down operations. 

You will also need an antenna and often an antenna tuner. Antennas deserve their own article. The basics are that with HF signals, especially while transmitting, you can’t simply string out a wire.

If you want to get deep into antenna theory there are plenty of academics and hobbyists that will welcome you with open arms – and talk your ear off. 

Mobile HF rigs have a similar form factor to the mobile UHF/VHF radios and can easily mount in your car or go-bag. You just need the antenna and the power supply.

HF – NVIS

The atmospheric effects that give HF its ability to talk around the world create a gap. As the radio waves travel from the antenna they travel out sideways not up. A few hundred miles away they bounce off the ionosphere then come back to earth.

Think of the path as a “^”. This leaves a hole in the coverage for about 500 miles around the antenna where the HF signals do not propagate. This is the space under the peak of the “^”.

The answer to this is Near Vertical Incident Skywave (NVIS). Running HF in this configuration directs the radiation straight up in the air. When the energy hist the ionosphere, it comes right back down covering that gap. 

The difference between normal HF operation and NVIS is the antenna. Luckily, with a few parts and some knowledge, you can make any number of antennas. Pick one to cover the modes you wish to operate.

Digital Modes

UV-5R receiving NOAA 15 satellite data

Not all communications need to be by voice. It’s often better to not use voice. Voice is often hard to understand. Frequently, the conditions are not good enough to send a meaningful voice transmission. 

This is where digital comes in. Just like computer modem sounds from the ’80s and ‘90s, HAM digital modes use sound to encode and transmit digital data. This data can be as simple as a word or as complex as an image.

At its most simplistic, Morse Code (called CW or continuous wave in the HAM world) is digital. Simple patterns of on\off or dot\dash that are combined to form letters. 

Digital has two main advantages. First, it uses less power. Second, it can use error correction methods to ensure that you have correctly received the signal. Utilizing digital modes, you can send and receive text messages, download weather images, even send an email. 

There are too many digital modes to cover here so I’ll let someone else do it for me. The good folks at the American Redoubt Radio Operators Network (AMRRON) have put together a series of articles and podcasts on digital. Start here then move onto their other pages.

Gearing Up!

You know the basics of the capabilities, now let’s get into the gear that will meet your needs. As with all of prepping there is a cost to enter the game. I used to think that this was a big barrier to playing the HAM game. This recently changed to our benefit.

What is the Best HAM Radio for a Beginner?

Handheld Radios

With the offshoring of manufacturing to China, prices have dropped significantly! In 2012 Baofang entered the US market with the UV-5R handi-talkie. A fraction of the cost of competitors it instantly found a following in the prepper world. 

The UV-5R is a dual-band handheld that operates in the 2-meter and 70-centimeter range. It has a replaceable battery, horrible programming interface, upgradeable antenna, and a manual that was not written by someone who knows English. All for about $25.

The negatives aside, you can’t purchase an ICOM or Yeasu with similar capabilities for under $200. The UV-5R or any of the other variants aren’t waterproof, or drop proof, or are as polished as any of the more well-known brands… But for $25 they are disposable!

If you prefer to “buy once cry once” the standards in the industry are Yeasu, ICOM, and Kenwood.

All are great radios and each has varying functionality. Finally, each manufacturer has several available handhelds. Review their capabilities and find one in your price range.

Mobile UHF/VHF

You will find that most of the handheld radios operate in the 0.5-watt to the 8-watt range (more wattage = more power = longer range). If you want to upgrade your power you will need to move to a mobile platform.

Honestly, at this level, I would go with one of the mature brands. The budget brands are only slightly cheaper and the extra money is worth it for better form, fit, and function. Operating up at 50 or 60-watts you will have the power to reach out.

Mobile radios can come loaded with features including additional modes (DSTAR, EchoLink) and some can even act as a repeater. While designed to mount and operate in your car, they can be easily tossed in a go-bag or COMM box and taken out into the field. 

You will need an antenna. Just like radios, there are too many to list. For my go-bag, I use a roll-up antenna. This gives me the ability to have an antenna that can reach out farther than any small whip and fit in my bag. You will not be using this antenna on your vehicle.

HF Base Station

Base stations are worthy of multiple articles. I’ll summarize with my recommended components for a beginner base station. Please recognize that there are hundreds of combinations possible. If you want to get into this level of operation find a local HAM group and get some serious guidance.

Radio: ICOM IC-718
Power Supply: Samlex SEC-1223 Power Supply
Antenna Tuner: LDG Z-100Plus Automatic Antenna Tuner
Antenna: G5RV Multiband HF Antenna
NVIS Antenna: DIY Instructions

This is a relatively simple and “inexpensive” setup. It’s also one that is still in my Amazon watched items as I have yet to pull the trigger on it yet as I use a different route for my HF listening. 

Inexpensive HF Options

Go-Bag with Tecsun PL-880 and long-wire antenna

Not everything HF capability has to come with a big price tag. If you are willing to make one main sacrifice (dropping the ability to transmit) you can switch to data collection mode and gather intelligence with your equipment. 

I’m talking about Shortwave, SDR, and the Web.

Shortwave radios receive the same frequencies as HF HAM rigs. The key feature to look for is that the radio supports SSB or Single Side Band. 

Shortwave radios like the Tecsun PL-880 give you the ability to scan the airwaves for 1/10th the cost of the above HF base station.

The second option is purchasing a Software Defined Radio (SDR) USB dongle. For less than $50, this little device will port HF signals right into your computer.

Can I Listen to HAM Radio on the Internet?

Finally, you have internet resources. Several dedicated HAM operators have made their SDR systems available on the web. WebSDR is a portal to several of these permanent sites.

The beauty of this is you can dial in any frequency from multiple locations around the world. For free you can practice your skills at targeting frequencies, decoding digital signals, and gathering intelligence. 

Prepper Applications of HAM Radio

Blessed with a new set of capabilities and a pile of gear, what’s a prepper to do. Gather intel and communicate, that’s what.

Small Groups and Municipal Signals

Starting from local and moving out, we have UHF/VHF communications. These are perfect for both small groups and regional communications.

With a set of radios and a solid base station, you can communicate openly across several miles. Your COMM officer can even set up a repeater to increase the effective range. 

Each member of your team and MAG should have an identical setup. This makes gearing up, initializing, and training easier. You can also purchase spares without having to worry about multiple brands. 

Can HAM Radio Be Used as a Scanner?

Most small radios have scanning functions that allow you to quickly cover all the available frequencies. Most municipalities (town offices, police, fire, rescue) use communications over the UFH/VHF bands.

The website Ham Radio Reference makes this easy by listing out the frequencies used by towns across the US.

Select the most applicable frequencies into your radio and set your radio to scan! Please note that some transmissions are digital or encrypted. You must add some more equipment to copy these transmissions. You won’t understand them but you will know they are talking.

Long Range and Networks

With your HF rig, you can extend your reach for listening and communicating. First is communicating with your friends, family, supporters, and teams across the miles.

Much can be said for exchanging information outside of our region of interest. Establish your contacts now and how you exchange information. You must practice while times are good to succeed when times are bad. 

Then, there are networks operating around the world. These groups exist to exchange information in times of crisis. These nets are skilled at the efficient exchange of timely critical information.

The organizations’ ARES and RACES dedicate their time to emergency COMM during a disaster. Their practice nets and emergency events are widely publicized. It is a great practice to listen in to their events.

Finally, the prepper world has its own well organized and skilled network. The American Redoubt Radio Operators Network (AMRRON) provides not only great resources to the prepper community but also runs one of the most in-depth emergency practice events each year. T-REX often runs in late summer is should not be missed for any budding radio operator. 

Intelligence Gathering

I’ll admit it, I’m currently on a bit of a weather kick. We are entering summer and storms are bound to be even worse than last year. In a grid-down scenario, you will need to know if the darkening skies signal a passing shower, or something much worse. 

There are two NOAA resources: base stations and satellites. Located throughout the United States, NOAA base stations broadcast Weather Fax (WEFAX) maps around the clock. A copy of FLDigi software and a list of frequencies is all you need. Complete instructions are listed here.

Want to get a little higher-tech? How about downloading satellite images directly from the source. NOAA currently has three satellites circling the globe. These provide low-resolution, wide-area coverage images. NOAA satellites 15, 18, and 19 pass each point on the world several times per day.

Complete instructions are here, don’t let the antenna theory scare you away. You can get a fairly good image with a simple long wire antenna.

Can HAM Radio Pick up Police?

Above I mentioned that some municipalities are moving to communicate via digital which causes a little difficulty. Unless you have an SDR dongle. 

Interpreting digital signals requires a little bit of software. Luckily this is all explained on the web. With a single SDR dongle, an antenna, and a few hours of tinkering you can listen in on any local digital signals. 

Will a HAM radio work after an EMP?

No discussion of prepper electronics is complete without addressing EMPs. For the uninitiated, and EMP is either man-made (via high altitude nuke) or natural (coronal mass ejection from the sun).

Regardless of the source, the effect is the same. The atmosphere is filled with charged particles looking for conductors to the ground. This includes any metallic surface. Just like an antenna or your expensive radio gear.

If the EMP is large enough, your radio equipment can be rendered useless. The good news is there are simple means of protection. Creating and using a faraday cage will protect even the most delicate electronics. 

EMP Protection

A faraday cage is simply a metal container with all the seams sealed. This includes garbage cans, shoeboxes wrapped in tinfoil, and ammo cans. The internet is filled with DIY instructions. Just make sure to cover all seams with conductive tape or tinfoil.

To protect your equipment lock it in a faraday cage when not in use. If we are ever hit by such an event, pull out your radio, antenna, and other COMM gear and fire it up. There will be many other preppers that will be doing the same to exchange situation reports. 

Do HAM Radios Work Without Electricity?

The other factor that you will need to consider is power independence. If the grid does go down you will need to power your radios. A generator is a great starting point however they do leak a considerable amount of electromagnetic interference.

This will cause humming and loss of signal when running one while operating your radio. You are better off with a battery bank charged with either a generator or a solar array. Just don’t run your generator while you run your radios. 

Where to Learn More

HAM radio is a hobby embraced by people who love to learn, share, and teach. It is almost guaranteed that there is a club in your area. The ARRL will help you find any clubs in your area. 

If you can’t find a local club, head to the internet. HAM resources are around every corner. Just a few include.

COMM’s Go-Bag Example

Example COMM Bag Part 1
Example COMM Bag Part 2

HAM Radio for Preppers Wrap Up

Grid down, COMM up! It’s the mantra of COMM operators. If things go south, and even when they get a little rough you need every advantage possible to come out on top. 

Success starts with food, medical knowledge, and the ability to secure yourself. It doesn’t stop there though. When your world is reduced to walking distance, wouldn’t it be nice to reach out beyond the horizon to see what the situation is like in other places?

The ability to communicate if just for a little human interaction can lift your spirits, but the real power comes with information exchange. Knowing the risks heading your way whether they be natural or man-made will give you the edge in getting ready.

Don’t be scared away due to your impression of the technical complexity or cost of HAM radio. It doesn’t need to be expensive or challenging. You just need a sense of the importance and the drive to add it to your toolbox. 

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