Beginners guide to ham radio

Discussion in 'Survival Communications' started by sdr, Oct 16, 2019.

  1. sdr

    sdr Monkey++

    This is a copy of a reply i gave to a question that was asked of me. A friend of mine is interested in getting a license and wanted advice on which radio to purchase.

    Best way I know of answering that is going in depth a little.

    About a year ago another friend asked if she should buy a mobile or base unit for shtf. I sent a similar reply. Just can't find that copy. So I figured I had better save this one somewhere safe. So here it is.

    I would appreciate any additional info being posted here that might be useful to newbies interested in learning ham stuff.

    Please point out any errors in my post so I can correct them.

    In the future I can provide a link to this post if the question comes up again.

    I would like to help. Just a little warning though... I enjoy talking ham stuff. I will get a little long winded.

    I think its important to understand a few basic concepts and commonly used terms. I like to start there.

    The electromagnetic spectrum is pretty much the base line. All radio waves, sounds and light are electromagnetic waves. The size of the wavelength and frequency are related. The smaller the wave the higher the frequency. A good visual is imagine tying a rope to a tree. Grab the loose end hold it tight and shake it back and forth. The waves travel down the rope. Now shake it much faster. The waves are smaller.

    Radio waves used for ham radios are grouped in segments called bands. From 1.8 MHz (frequency per second) (160 meter long wavelength(band)) to several hundred gigahertz per second (small ass wavelength) (super high high frequency like x-rays/microwaves) .

    These bands are grouped into 3 main parts. High frequency (HF) 160 meters to 10 meters. Very high frequency (VHF) 6 meters to 70 centimeters and ultra high frequencies (UHF).

    HF... Best for long distance comms. The wavelengths are big enough to bounce. From your antenna they can travel at an upward angle until they are reflected off the ionosphere where they return back down traveling a thousand miles or two and bounce again. The term is referred to as skip or hop. Smaller wavelengths pass through the atmosphere normally unless some weird tropospheric, aurora, meteor trail type thing is happening.

    The solar cycle (11 year period of high and low sunspots) is what charges the ionosphere giving it the ability to reflect signals better. Unfortunately we are at a low spot in the cycle.

    Different HF bands (10m, 12, 15, 17, 20, 30, 40, 60, 80, 160meters) work better at different times during the day and night because the atmosphere changes. Some bands do stay open more than others. Open meaning usable.

    HF radios can be single band or multiband transceivers. 10m, 20m, and 40 meters are common single band radios. Multiband is the way to go. Gives you more options.

    A decent new multiband transceiver runs anywhere between (I think) $600 to $1000. I haven't purchased one for obvious reasons. A used one varies alot. I didn't pay over $150 for any of mine. Older tube radios are cheaper than newer solid state rigs. Tube radios use much more power and require more knowledge to properly start up than solid state ones.

    I found my 3 HF rigs from classified adds I placed asking for used equipment back in the 90's. Only the solid state Kenwood ts440 needed about $120 in repairs.

    Most if not all HF rigs run off 12v. So technically they can be mounted in vehicles. Some rigs are designed small enough for mobile use.

    UHF/VHF. Pretty simple stuff. Mainly used for local comms. HT's (handy talkies) like the baofengs are pretty inexpensive. A good name brand one is around $200 or less. Again I never purchased one new except for my Radio Shack HTX 202 for less than $100 back in the day. Not including baofengs.

    These are the radios that use local repeaters.

    HT's output power is around 5 Watts. Mobile rigs are much higher at around 20 - 50 Watts. Maybe more.

    Antennas. Most important part!
    A poor radio with a great antenna beats a great radio with a poor antenna. Acquire (build or buy) the best antenna you can.

    2 main types of antennas. Omnidirectional and high gain. Mobile antennas on your car are omnidirectional. The signal radiates equally in all directions. Fine when your driving different directions. UHV/VHF antennas are usually omni. If you are far from a repeater you can install a directional (high gain) antenna to increase your signal strength. At a base not mobile.

    Hold a light bulb up. The light scatters everywhere. Put a reflector near it and the light can focus into a beam. Same principal. Well... Both are electromagnetic waves so there you go.

    Beam (high gain) antennas are mainly used on HF frequencies.

    UHV/VHF antennas are easy. Plug and play.

    HF is a different story. There is no such thing as a one size fits all. Every frequency has a specific wavelength. The antenna needs to be matched to that wavelength. Luckily an antenna only needs to be a harmonic of that wavelength. Like 1/4, 3/8, 1/2, 5/8 ect. If I cough near my acoustic guitar one of the strings will emit a tone. That string is a harmonic of my cough frequency. So. A multiband antenna can be made or purchased that will work on different bands. Example, an antenna can do 40m, 20m and 10meters pretty easy. Simple enough to see how those bands are harmonically related.

    Antennas can be build relatively easy. Basically hang some wire up between 2 trees. Not quite that simple but close.

    Antenna tuners. A box designed to virtually adjust an antenna length to match the frequency you want to use. Hard to give a more accurate description than that. Totally not needed if your antenna is setup perfectly for the band/bands you want to use. Single band with a narrow frequency range? Great. Forget the tuner.

    I use tuners. Not much about my setup is perfect.

    Go back to the rope and tree example. Shake the rope once and stop. Watch the wave travel to the tree. You'll notice the wave hit the tree and part of it will get reflected back to you. In electronics that's bad. That's how radios fry. Its called SWR (standing wave ratio). Means you have a bad impedance (resistance to the flow of electrical current) match You want zero or a very small SWR. Most antenna tuners have a SWR meter on them. Most HF radios also.

    Antenna feed line. What connects a radio to a tuner and antenna. Common is 50 ohm coax. Coax to the tuner. From there either continue with the coax or other types of feed line can be used. Something about twin lead ladder line being a good choice. I don't have enough info on that. Use coax.

    Amplifiers. Save the money and get a better antenna. Put the antenna up as high as possible. Most HF rigs do 100 Watts. Legal limit is 1500 Watts. Big bucks.

    Many operators use very low power successfully just for the challenge (10 Watts or less).

    If your throwing out 1500 Watts and the receiving station isn't, there is a good chance you won't hear them anyway.

    Before you get a transceiver (rig) decide what you want to do with it. I mean communication methods. Two basic modes. Phone (voice) and CW (Morse code). Pretty self explanatory. Other modes include digital signals. CW and digital modes are easier to get your signal through. Many types of digital modes are available. Think of it as sending a text message. Rigs can be connected to a computer for using those modes.

    To use one of our amateur satellites up there a rig capable of split frequency is best. One frequency for uplink and one for downlink. Being capable of automatically adjusting for doppler shift (think of a train whistle passing by you. Higher pitch as it approaches, lower as it departs) is important also.

    At a minimum i would recommend a multiband HF rig that has a connection for a computer. Solid state. Mobile or base. If you go the used route I suggest buying it locally and have it tested first. Repairs can get expensive.

    Check reviews on different rigs before you buy.

    ▶ Show quoted text
  2. ghrit

    ghrit Bad company Administrator Founding Member

    You are in the ballpark. Could be that you can get them to join and read the comms forums for a LOT more info. Also, steer them to the local ham club, an Elmer is really desirable and they will have a much harder time finding one without a like minded group.

    Reading your post sorta points to them wanting to buy a rig, but little said about getting licensed. THAT is a must, OR send them to a scanner to listen for a while before making up their minds. When you come down to the nitty gritty, the ticket is a license to learn without paying a monstrous fine.

    The more significant question they need to answer is what they want to do, or expect to do with the hobby. Might be all they need would be family radio, or (slap my mind) CB.

    See also -
    Advice...first Mobile Radio/Base Station
    Last edited: Oct 16, 2019
    Idahoser and Tempstar like this.
  3. Bandit99

    Bandit99 Monkey+++ Site Supporter+

    Yes, it is difficult trying to explain 'radio' to those that know nothing about communications or electronics and I think you did a pretty good job.

    I like @ghrit idea to "steer them to the local ham club" as most hamsters are very helpful getting others started. I also think a cheap handheld (preferably the BF-F8HP) is the way for them to start out, costs about $60 bucks, gives them VHF and UHF, and supposedly gives 8 watts so tying it to a real external antenna like a simple J-Pole (for VHF) or even a $100 dual-band antenna (Diamond X50 or Comet GP-3) will give them excellent results and get them HOOKED! LOL!

    I know, many frown at the cheap Chinese radios but as a learning tool they are a perfect fit especially in cost so that one can get a taste of the hobby. Another entry radio that I love is the Yaseu 2980R. It's simple to program, built like a brick (doesn't even have a fan that could fail instead has a big heatsink) and will put out a big 80 watts if needed plus you can get it on sale for ~$115. I love this radio so much that I recently purchased two! It's strictly VHF but it's ultra reliable and does what I need right now until I purchase an expensive dual-banded (got my eye on that Kenwood TM-D710GA). Anyway, that's just a few thoughts...
    STANGF150 likes this.
  4. sdr

    sdr Monkey++

    Great advice guys thanks. Both the people i mentioned are looking into getting their licenses. They are fully aware to not transmit without one.
  5. BTPost

    BTPost Stumpy Old Fart,Deadman Walking, Snow Monkey Moderator

    They can study for a couple of nights, and pass the Tech Test...30 Questions and only 75% need to be right... get the Test Questions from the “Prepared Ham” site. when it comes back up, and memorize the Answers.. Grade Schools Kids can do it....
    STANGF150 and ghrit like this.
  6. Bandit99

    Bandit99 Monkey+++ Site Supporter+

    Motomom34 likes this.
  7. Bishop

    Bishop Monkey+++

    Why do you have to have a license to use a ham radio.
  8. BTPost

    BTPost Stumpy Old Fart,Deadman Walking, Snow Monkey Moderator

    Because of the Federal Statute “ Communication Act of 1934” as amended.... Your Federal Tax Dollars at work.... Oh yea, and Don’t forget the International Telecommunication Union Treaty.... Your UN Money at work... These are the two controlling Documents for All national and International Communications interchanges...
    hitchcock4 likes this.
  9. 3M-TA3

    3M-TA3 Cold Wet Monkey

    So you never have to hear "Breaker,breaker, good buddy - what's your 10-4?"

    A license means that you have enough knowledge to follow the rules and not eff it up for everyone else. The job of effing it up for everybody else belongs to California.
    STANGF150 and Bishop like this.
  10. Bishop

    Bishop Monkey+++

    Lol I don't see me getting one then I would eff it up
    Motomom34 likes this.
  11. BTPost

    BTPost Stumpy Old Fart,Deadman Walking, Snow Monkey Moderator

    Naw, once you get the hang of it, it is just common sense....
    hitchcock4 likes this.
  12. hitchcock4

    hitchcock4 Monkey++

    Why do you have to have a driver's license to drive a car?
    Same answer to both. You must know the "rules of the road". If you don't you could mess it up for everyone else, as well as get caught and fined by the FCC (in the case of ham radio).
    Bishop likes this.
  13. Bishop

    Bishop Monkey+++

    But I don't understand why it's talking on the radio
    Homer Simpson likes this.
  14. Merkun

    Merkun furious dreamer

    You're a marine, not so? Does a recruit need to understand the why of it? Just do it, the reasons will come in time with study.
    Bishop and hitchcock4 like this.
  15. William Warren

    William Warren Monkey+++

    Asking "which radio should I buy?" is like asking "which truck should I buy?," or "which job should I take?" - the answer isn't "x" or "y," but rather "what are you trying to accomplish?"

    William Warren
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  16. Bishop

    Bishop Monkey+++

    part of the reason I got out of Marine corps was because I wanted to know the why not just go do I've done things a question to this day why the hell I did it.
  17. Merkun

    Merkun furious dreamer

    Understood. All the same, you had to join to be introduced into the mysteries. Besides, when you were a kid, didn't your mom tell you to try it, you might like it? (Yeah, mine tried that with Brussels Sprouts, and I was right.)
  18. BTPost

    BTPost Stumpy Old Fart,Deadman Walking, Snow Monkey Moderator

    It is simple, before the Federal Statute was passed, Radio was in the Wild West... No Regulation, No accountability, and what was an Physics Experiment, was growing exponentially... Can you imagine the chaos the Airwaves would be without that regulation, not just Nationally, but Internationally? As the technology matured, the world needed to negotiate Internationally, with other countries, to share the Spectrum, and thus the International Telecommunications Union was formed by Treaty, and was made binding in the USA, when that Treaty was ratified in the US Senate.. So, compliance with these International Rules keeps folks from messing up others Spectrum Use, just like those that comply will not mess up your Spectrum Use... Like the Radio Golden Rule, “ Do not unto others, as you would not wish them to do unto you.”

    Rant ON....
    Now if only I could get our own .Gov to obey the ITU Rules like the rest of us radio users... When I was a Resident Field Agent, with the FCC, I was charged with administrating the FCC’s Rules & Regulations for ALL Radio Users, including State, and local Governments... My roll for the Federal Government Users, was to insure that they met the Rules & Regulations of the ITU, which the USA, by TREATY is legally bound to adhere to... My biggest offender was the USCG... They apparently do not instruct their District Communications Officers in the ITU R&R at Comm School, because they do not teach their on Air Folks how to use Marine & Aircraft Emergency Frequencies for Calling, and Distress Communication ONLY... They routinely use Marine Ch16 for position Reports, from the mobile Assets, and idle “Chit Chat” but the turn right around and tell Mariners, “Channel 16 is for Calling and Distress, ONLY... Please move you Comms to a Working Channel..” Every time they got a New Comms Officer, I would have to make an Appointment, and get this issue fixed...Then that would last about 2 years, and a New Comms. Officer would come, and we would go thru this whole rig-a-moroll again... Now that I am reTIRED, They are back doing the same BS.. Then there is the whole Stuck Microphone PTT Switch thing... Some Yahoo boater will get their PTT Switch stuck in Transmit, on Ch16, and we have to listen to a lot of noise, and chit-chat until the Radio either burns up, or someone turns off the Radio... But what do our “ Friends“ @ the USCG Comm Center do, they come on Ch16 and Broadcast “We have a vessel with a Stuck on Transmit Radio. Will all Mariners please check your Radios, for a Stuck Mic...” Sounds really good, but it does NOTHING but clog up an already cluttered Ch16, because the Radio that is causing the issue can NOT HEAR the Broadcast, because it is stll transmitting... Duh, and Double DUH....
    Rant off....
    Last edited: Oct 21, 2019
    hitchcock4 likes this.
  19. sdr

    sdr Monkey++

    Lol. Rant on... I, like many hams, started on 11 meters (CB) during the peak of the solar cycle back in the 90's. Talked all over the world on a $25 CB. After a few years my blood pressure couldn't take it anymore. The outrageous crap that came over the air was incredible. One I will never forget was a recording continuously broadcasting "your wife's dead Al and she's never coming back". That was bizarre. I can guarantee if there was no license for the ham bands it would go to hell. Too many stupid people to not regulate.
    oldawg likes this.
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