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HAM Radio Uses: There are more than you think!

Tornado-damaged land and home in northern Alabama one month after storm.

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Do you have a HAM radio but aren’t sure how to implement it in your preparedness plan? Let’s have a look at some of HAM radios many uses so you can get the most out of your devices.

HAM radios are great devices for maintaining contact without traditional infrastructure, but their uses go far beyond two-way communications within your team or party. From open-source information gathering to sending emails while miles away from an internet connection, HAM systems are a critical piece of equipment whatever situation you find yourself in.

Choosing to purchase a radio system can be a large investment, so join us as we help take your communications plan to the next level and get the most out of your radio unit.

Starting Simple: Communications

Assuming you have a license to operate your HAM radio system, it’s likely you brought your radio with the intent of communicating with others. 

HAM radios excel in this role, as they are able to transmit over long ranges, especially when broadcasting over a high frequency or using relay stations to extend your reach even further.

This allows you to very easily connect with people potentially hundreds of miles away to share information about developing situations, or even just make friendly connections with people if using the radio casually.

It is important to always be aware of the potential security risks associated with HAM radio as commercial units lack any form of end-to-end encryption, but as we will see, this can often be used to our advantage.

One-Way Communications: Information Gathering

Within the U.S.A, you are required to have at least a technician license to broadcast over HAM radios, however, there are no restrictions placed upon owning or listening to other people’s broadcasts.

This makes HAM radios an extremely popular option, even with those without a license, for the purpose of OSINT (open source intelligence) gathering.

How you carry out this information gathering is largely dependent on the type of information you are hoping to obtain.

While you may choose to listen into other enthusiast’s broadcasts in the hope they share relevant information, a much more reliable method is familiarizing yourself with emergency frequencies. 

National Communications website has some great resources to start finding emergency broadcasts that may be useful for understanding current events, both nationally and internationally.

In addition to NatComm, the NOAA  broadcast regular weather reports (at 162.500MHz) which again would be incredibly useful in emergency situations. 

We would always recommend going through the steps to get a license to start joining in on the conversations, but even in cases where you are unable to broadcast, HAM radios can be extremely valuable tools for improving your situational awareness.

Boosting your Communications with WinLink

So far, we’ve covered the two most common ways of using a HAM radio, listening to information and broadcasting your own, but with only slightly more equipment HAM radios can become significantly more powerful through WinLink.

WinLink essentially uses the digital channels on your HAM radio to transmit emails from remote locations, such as while at sea, in a similar way to how internet was encoded and transmitted along phone lines.

If your computer is set up correctly, it is possible to directly wire in your radio to the soundcard before broadcasting, but this is often not the case. Instead, a separate device can be used as an intermediary between your computers WinLink software, and the actual radio unit.

Broadcasting in this way is not for everyone as the set-up process is rather complex, however, if you are already seasoned with the world of HAM radio and are looking to take it one step further. WinLink has some great how-to guides available on their website, including the equipment you need and protocols to follow.

There are two important things to note if you are considering establishing a WinLink system. 

As this system is most popular with nautical communications, most WinLink receivers are positioned near the coastline. There are some inland stations, however, they are less common so you may not always be able to reliably establish a connection to the WinLink system. 

Instead, you may wish to look at investing in a satellite phone which offer much of the same capabilities without the need for relay stations.

Additionally, email broadcasts are again open to interception, so you should be careful not to share sensitive information. Personal emails to family or friends are permitted within the WinLink network, but you should always take care with the information you broadcast on any unsecured networks.

Navigating with your HAM Radio

While radios are built with the intent of communication, many new units now come equipped with GPS transmitters as a means to aid in navigation. 

These devices typically do not allow you to track your movement or give directions when navigating, as we see with dedicated GPS units such as Garmin. 

While they are less effective than traditional units, they are useful as a secondary method to quickly obtain grid positions, which can aid in more traditional navigation methods.

These units are often slightly more expensive than their non-GPS counterparts, however are still available for just over $100.  For only a slight increase in cost, having such redundancy is well worth the investment as accurate navigation can be critical during times of emergency.

Digital Tracking Through HAM Systems

While HAM radios may be used to navigate, it is also possible to employ radios for the purpose of tracking.

By using direction-finding antennas it is possible to find where a broadcast originated from through a process known as triangulation, which we explored in much greater detail in a recent article

This may be a valid way to locate other survivors during an emergency, although there are more practical methods. 

Whatever the reason you are attempting to trace a HAM broadcast, as tracking does not require you to actively broadcast it is legal without an F.C.C license.  Signal tracing is a less common skill but has become a sport, with regular “Fox Hunts” being hosted around the globe.

Tracking may not be the most practical application of a HAM radio, but it is an extremely valuable skill to practice to develop your knowledge of HAM radios. 

HAM Radios to Boost Morale

HAM Radios are extremely practical tools whether you are simply out for a day hike or being forced to evacuate from your home as a result of a natural disaster. 

While valuable tools, they can also serve as an extremely effective method of boosting group morale.

Almost all portable units have the capability of tuning into commercial FM frequencies to pick up news or music stations. This can be extremely valuable while away from civilization to bring some of the comforts of home back to your party and help everyone relax.

Using your radio in this manner does not require a license as you are not broadcasting information on an FM frequency and is often as easy as a few button presses. 

With that said, it is important to consider how important your radio is to you. As listening to FM stations will drain the battery of your radio, you should only tune in for entertainment if you are confident in your reserve of batteries or have an alternate means of generating power, such as a compatible solar charger.

Music can be a great way to keep spirits high among your group, but you should be sure to keep alternative methods of boosting morale in your preparations. 

In the event of a nationwide emergency, there is no guarantee radio stations will remain active so it should not be relied on as your only source of entertainment. This will entirely depend on the nature of the emergency as well as its scale, but you should be prepared to go without access to FM bands, at least for short periods of time.

Conclusion

A HAM radio is extremely valuable both for casual use while out in the elements or in cases of emergency.

While their use within the U.S. is regulated by the F.C.C, even without a license they can still be a great addition to almost any kit.

If any of these applications have caught your interest and you are hoping to get into the world of HAM radios, be sure to check out our recent in-depth beginner’s guide for more information.

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