My path to hamming.

Discussion in 'Survival Communications' started by ghrit, Jul 13, 2013.

  1. ghrit

    ghrit Bad company Administrator Founding Member

    For those of you that have recently been bit by the survival comms bug, what follows is my story, with some suggestions you can take or not. YMMV as always.

    First, a bit of how I came to the point of deciding to finally become a ham. A long time ago, let's call it 50 or 60 years, something attracted me toward radio operations, and I looked into it, started trying to learn Morse Code (no longer a requirement for licensing) that was needed then for an entry level license (Novice class.) Whether it was girls, cars, or Little League baseball that took me off that track, well, I don't know. That is all lost in the fog of time; but I did not finish. The idea did not die, but sure went on the back burner. Fast forward to the '70s and the CB craze. I jumped into that early enough that licenses for stations were still required. I still remember my call sign, was into it rather heavily to the extent of, shall we say, “upgraded” equipment and many hours of yakking and listening at home and on the road. In the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, life’s circumstances conspired to take me out of the hobby, and dispose of all the gear. Thus things remained until around ’05 when a little time became available to pursue the idea. These threads expose some of the development of the thinking from then until now. If you really do get bit by the bug, you will want to read the threads for info on ham operations, not for seeing any particular personal history. Recommended threads:
    basic gear
    Long range comms
    Help an ignorant soul out here, please.
    Schults question...i.e. I know nothing
    Getting into amateur radio | Page 2

    Becoming a ham is easy. Not as easy as going down to the nearest truck stop and buying a CB rig and sticking it on your Prius and go active on the air, you do have to get a license (to transmit, but not to listen.) The license is also not a major chore these days, and it really is a license to learn, not all in the books will prepare you for operations. First things first, you need to affirm your interest. I skipped this step because I was already committed, but you should give very serious consideration to getting a good short wave receiver and listen, really listen, to the ham bands. A 100 dollar emergency radio will not do, you need something of a bit more capability. I imagine that some of the Monkeys will have good advice on a radio that will serve you well. (My Kaito does NOT have the ability to do it, in spite of the ads. But it does the weather service work quite well.)

    So now you’ve concluded that you are interested enough to pursue the hobby. The next thing is a license that will let you participate. Recommendations by me:
    -Find a local club and sit in a couple meetings, and maybe join. There are brains to be picked.
    -Find a class for the Technician’s ticket. I say class, because while it is possible to get thru the lessons on your own rather easily, there’s exposure to other interested people and an endless source of information from the instructors.
    -Start thinking about what you want to do with your ticket in hand. It may not be possible to tie down a specific purpose, since you don’t yet know what can be done on the air. The Tech study guide has some hints, but by no means provides a complete menu of activities. Or do like I did, and simply aim for enough equipment versatility to taste all the cake, then specialize later. You can also start browsing for equipment, since the prices may influence you.
    -Check your wallet, you will need some frns to get on the air. How many, well, that’s a variable depending, as always with such things.

    There are LOTS of folks that think it’s a good idea to study for and take the Technician class and General class tests at the same sitting, very doable if you can be diligent on studying. I didn’t, I’m not. General opens up a whole ‘nuther world of allowed operating bands, but starting on the Tech bands isn’t too bad for initial tasting of the hobby. Gear is also less expensive for starter units since they don’t have a lot of bells and whistles in comparison to full boat stations.

    As the Tech class progressed, I had a lot of looking at what was necessary to wet my toes in the ham pond. Immediately after the test, I bought a hand held xceiver that covered the VHF and UHF bands. You can get them for under a C note, but I opted for a higher quality unit. Yep, it hit the local repeaters just fine, and I made numerous 2 meter contacts along the way while working on the General ticket. (Self-study for that, was well established by then among the local club members and got answers to questions where I was light.) Hand held units do not commonly cover all the available tech allowed bands, but for my purposes, it didn’t matter. (YMMV, of course.)

    With your General ticket in hand (or slightly before then) shopping starts. It’s decision time, and the first one is how deep the pool do you want to jump into? If you are (relatively) young and poor, you might want to sneak your toes into the pool with low cost and limited capability, then grow the hobby (or not) later. If you are on the upper end of age groups, you might (as I did) opt to jump in and get as versatile a rig as can be found that will do what you might want to try, even if you never use some features. I’ve always wanted my tools and toys to contain mysteries to master; to be able to do more than I can.

    Shopping, then: Rule #1: The ads don’t lie, but they do exaggerate, sometimes dramatically. (Find a copy of QST, the ARRL member’s mag. Elmer has one. Snoop the ads, you’ll see what I mean.) Rule #2: I don’t care how diligent you are, there will always be a hidden cost, i.e., something you need to make the item in question work. (This is one, of many, places where an Elmer will be priceless. Do your dead level best to find one with a beard that has been hamming for years and knows a lot about what all you can do with the hobby. He will know what you’ll need for any particular diving board.) It’ll take you all of half an hour to find capable equipment from a few hundred frns to near 6 figures. Let your wallet guide you, but be prepared to alter your ideas about what you want to do with the hobby due to expense. You will find Elmers that advocate buying used gear. May not be a bad idea, but I chose to go the new gear route because I don’t know enough about any particular bit of gear to be able to sort it out if there’s a hidden flaw. (Plus, if there is a flaw, it will delay the learning curve. I don’t have that much time to spend, too damn old for that, not to mention a problem with patience. YMMV) If you have the time and inclination, go used, there IS money to be saved. Whatever else you do or don’t do, read all the reviews you can find on the gear you think you want. Hams are pretty objective types, they tend to tell it like it is, but you must sometimes read between the lines. It is of paramount importance to check the reviewer’s creds. Often, the reviewer has a vested interest in the product especially in the necessary auxiliary gear like antennas.

    Ok, you are about to smoke test your plastic, you have your list of wants. Absolute minimum, gotta have a transceiver (these days, separate receivers and transmitters are not available new that I’ve found) power supply (transceivers typically want 12V DC supply rather than plug into the wall) and some kind of antenna along with some coax cable. What is NOT obvious is the various stuff you must have to make it all work, depending on your intended starter use. All the research you did while shopping should have pointed you in the right direction for most of that. One key word is “safety” for you, your family, guests, and house. RF safety is discussed thoroughly in the classes and manuals. The fact that antennas are lightning magnets is less obvious, but must be considered if your antenna is outdoors (along with wind loading.)

    Things to think about when you shop for a transceiver, after you decide whether base, portable, or mobile, and the features and modes (you do remember modes from class, don’t you?) you think you want and need. Cover every frequency from DC to daylight, or can you be happy starting with two or three bands?. (You can get them that will do all those, b, p, or m, with of course, some trade-offs.) Do you prize compactness and light weight? Are the buttons and knobs user friendly (i.e., how big are your fingers)? How readable is the meter? How deep are the menus? (For us olde phartes, meter size and menus can be a critical concern.) Some of those things you can ferret out from reviews. Others, you just have to find one to fondle. Color yourself lucky if there is a ham outlet near you for fondling and over the counter knowledge. Radio Shack is NOT the place these days. All three of my more or less local RS shops don’t know a band from dancing. In fact, the nearest place that would suit for me is a LONG way off, so I had to do it the hard way with Elmers and reading all sorts of articles and overzealous advertising.

    Power supply thoughts: These, too, come in various flavors, shopping will reveal the options. You need at least enough oomph to drive your transceiver at its full output power, or you are going to have to remember to dial the xceiver power back to avoid making smoke with the power supply. Don’t make smoke with your power supply. Look at the input requirements, can your house power feed it without tripping a breaker?

    Antenna thoughts: ZOWIE!! This will take more time and effort to zero in on a “good” choice than all the time you spend studying for the tests and picking an xceiver. As near as I can tell, there is no such thing as a single antenna that will cover every possible mode of operation on all the bands open for amateur use. You WILL suffer from analysis paralysis before the starter antenna is picked out, bought (or as many hams will recommend, scratch built) and erected. You WILL want more than one, if not right away, then eventually, even for base station use, not counting portable and mobile which you are apt to want anyway. Recognize right off the bat that multi band antennas have limitations that may not suit you all that well. In my case, I bought a multi band skyhook that supposedly covers 6 bands, and did so knowing that it will NOT be too awful efficient on any of them. And, my xceiver will work on bands the antenna will not. Trade-offs will rear their ugly heads at every turn in the analysis, believe it. If you are young, full of P&V, don’t mind climbing trees and towers, then home brewed skyhooks might be for you. Not me, I outgrew interest in that years ago, before I even got olde. I like working from ground level and don’t mind raising and lowering a mast during the tuning process. Lastly, make sure the antenna you pick can handle the full power your xceiver can put out.

    Supposedly? What chu mean, Willis? Well, antennas need to be tuned and tweaked for best operations. With a single band, it’s pretty easy, trimming the length of the wire or whisker to resonance. With multiband antennas, the problem looms larger, much larger. They will NOT be resonant at all possible operating frequencies, and even within a band they won’t necessarily resonate across the entire band. In the old days of tube transmitters, you could fry the amplifier tubes if you got too far off resonance and took no action to limit the power going up the feedline. These days, as near as I can tell, most if not all new xceivers have limiting circuits that won’t let you over heat the final stage solid state devices. Some simply dial back the output, some will just stop transmitting, and some will do both or either. They do this by sensing reflected power. (Did the class cover Standing Wave Ratio? Should have, it’s in the study guide.) You need to know, and digging thru the reviews and owner’s manuals might tell you.

    Which segues neatly into another discussion. Antenna tuners. A lot of the current crop of xceivers have on board auto tuning circuits that will handle various ranges of non-resonant conditions. How they work is well beyond my understanding, but I firmly believe that using them will result in reduced efficiency of getting your signal out beyond your property lines. I’ll leave it for more knowledgeable folks to sort us out on that. My xceiver dials back on power at an SWR of 3 and shuts off entirely at an SWR of 10, or so it appears. That all said, there are also external tuners of both manual and automatic flavors that will keep your xceiver cool, even if your property line is all you can reach at full output power measured at the input to the tuner. Get one, it’s cheap insurance. What they don’t tell you is that the tuners simply fool the xceiver into thinking it is merrily transmitting your signal into the ether, it ain’t necessarily so. Took me too long to figure that out, but now YOU know. There is NO substitute for actually tuning the antenna itself as close to resonance at your selected frequency or band.

    What I did and why. Firstly, note that there is a real trade-off between money and time. Time, in my case, is measured somewhat by age. You younger folks can start cheaper and adjust as you go. Us olde phartes will live with the limitations by burning plastic rather than climbing trees. Hence, my choices, without naming names; I do not have enough experience to do even a half accurate review of what’s in my shack, about all I can say is that so far, things work to expectations. Here’s what I have acquired for a first station: A 100 watt transceiver, all mode, all band except VHF and UHF with auto tuner on board. A switching power supply capable of running the transceiver flat out with a tad of amperage left over. A manual tuner. A rotatable multiband mini-dipole. And some RG 213 coax to get from the tuner to the antenna. Two 10 foot lengths of EMT conduit to support the antenna, just above my roof line. (I should not need guy wires by using my deck for lateral support. That way, nothing to drive the mower around.) The transceiver can go portable and mobile when I get around to rigging the pickup. (That will open up a whole ‘nuther go ‘round with antenna selection.)

    Questions yet to be answered and things to do: A) – How to arrange for a permanent way to pass the coax thru the wall or window instead of thru the slider to the deck. There needs to be at least 2 coax pass through, rf ground pass through to start. I think I can make one for the window using bulkhead fittings, remembering that insertion losses add up to reduced signal strength. Also will have to provide a way to stop drafts in the winter. B) – How to arrange for lightning protection for the station short of disconnecting the coax entirely. The mast will be properly grounded after installation. C) – Complete the property layout to determine which trees (or future masts) will be used for a fan dipole or OCF wire as the next antenna, and figure out the “best” bands to use for it. D) – Figure out what other gadgetry I might want or “need.”

    There you have it, one ham’s path to hammism. I’ll edit/update this specific post as time goes on, and flag the thread to alert anyone interested in coming back to see the edits.
    Last edited: Apr 26, 2014
  2. Pax Mentis

    Pax Mentis Philosopher King |RIP 11-4-2017

    Well G...I have been considering it, but you convinced me I have neither the time nor energy (nor, to be honest, the level of interest needed) to do it...

    Maybe I can find someone locally who is interested and "sponsor" them...
  3. ghrit

    ghrit Bad company Administrator Founding Member

    Pax, no one will criticize you for taking a pass on hamming, it ain't for everyone. The time and expense came as something of a surprise to me, nothing came together quite like my imagination saw it. That is one of the reasons I started this thread, I have no wish for anyone to follow in my path without knowing what is ahead. Most of the above can be teased out of the other threads, but I can't help thinking that having the important pieces all in one place will make it easier to take a decision.
    AmericanRedoubt1776 and BTPost like this.
  4. Idahoser

    Idahoser Monkey+++ Founding Member

    Aw, don't let him scare you away. He just got done telling you he has his way, and it's not necessarily your way. It's a hobby. The point first and foremost is to enjoy yourself. It's hard to do that putting the pressure on yourself to make all these decisions before you know what you're doing. Ghrit seems happy with this way, but it isn't the recommended way.
    any radio will do some. Start with what you have.
    even if you don't prepare, TAKE the general exam after you pass the tech. It costs nothing, and gives you a preview for when you do come back. Same with Extra if you pass general.
    sure there is, it's called a "dummy load". :)
    if you're going to insist on feeding an antenna on other-than-resonant frequencies with coax cable, then yes, you will turn a lot of your power into heat.
    Any resonant antenna is only resonant on one frequency. NOT the whole band, I mean one precise frequency. As soon as you turn the tune knob, you are now working into a non-resonant antenna.
    Marck and Falcon15 like this.
  5. Pax Mentis

    Pax Mentis Philosopher King |RIP 11-4-2017

    Thinking my "tone" may be not coming across the way I mean it to this week due to my actually feeling stressed for the first time in MANY message was meant as one of thanks for exactly that...putting it all together and disabusing me of the idea that it was a serious option for me.

    I was also serious about possibly "sponsoring" someone (helping them get the needed equipment)...since I really would like to have access to longer distance communication if/when everything goes belly up.
    Marck and kellory like this.
  6. ghrit

    ghrit Bad company Administrator Founding Member

    I got the message, didn't miss your point at all. It is NOT for everyone, and if you can find someone to "sponsor" then by all means, go ahead. Both you and the sponsoree will benefit greatly.

    Idahoser pointed out that my path is NOT a recommendation, it's just the way I did it and he has a different POV and went about it another way. There are many more ways to go after it than the way either he or I did. Point also is that one has to plot it out and plan ahead; charging in with no plan is doomed to cost time and money. I hope that anyone digging thru the post picks up on some of the pitfalls as well as some other paths to pick. The easiest first step is the Tech ticket. Cheap first step, and do it with your sponsoree. After teaching various courses, both civilian and military, I can tell you that it is a pretty good idea to know as much as the students, and catching up with them if they slither ahead is a royal PIA. (Besides, you might get bit by the bug.)
  7. DarkLight

    DarkLight Live Long and Prosper - On Hiatus

    @PaxMentis - While I can understand the "level of interest" part, getting the first level of license (Technician) really isn't all that difficult or time consuming. It costs about $20 for the book and the test is anywhere from free (non-ARRL sponsored) to a max of $15 (ARRL sponsored).

    The Tech license is more about the "what" and less about the "how", which is why your access to the HF bands is limited (but not removed altogether).

    Depending on your background, with a couple of hours a day study you could easily be ready for the test in a couple of weeks. It would take some dedication but 20-30 hours of studying really isn't that much in the big scheme of things. I say that as someone who has a full-time job, owns a web-hosting company on the side that sucks up WAY more time than I would like, and who wrote three books in the last two years. NOBODY is too busy to throw a couple of hours a night at something if they want it...but again, I understand the lack of interest.

    VHF/UHF access can be had for $35 via a handheld unit and even at 4 watts you'd be surprised at how far you can get. I built a cheap, easy, quick antenna (sleeve dipole) for my handheld for another $30 and could have done it for less if I'd looked around for feed-line (10base2 cable) instead of buying a length with two ends already on it from Radio Shack. With 4-5 watts, I can talk to a co-worker between 15 and 18 miles away and hit repeaters easily that far.

    Can it be more expensive? Sure. That's why I still don't have my HF rig (other than a borrowed 10m from the same co-worker) even though I have my Extra. Trying to get out of debt first. I'll have local comms though if I need them and should the repeaters either survive or be brought back online via solar/battery, I'll have twice the distance.

    Not trying to convince you to try but didn't want you to walk away from it entirely without having a look at the other side. In the long term it may very well be a good skill to have...just like knowing Morse Code (which I'm now trying to learn but is NOT required for any level of license now).

    AmericanRedoubt1776 likes this.
  8. Pax Mentis

    Pax Mentis Philosopher King |RIP 11-4-2017

    Since I had a 3rd Class Radiotelephony License for many years (back when one needed it to work on the air on a radio job of choice when I was in college), it wasn't really the licensing requirements or expense I found daunting...more the different antennae, and technical aspects that seem more than I really want to deal with. I am retired and have a busy life almost entirely made up of things I enjoy (well...except for the health related issues for my wife and I) and really just don't have the time...nor do I wish to give up any of my other activities.
  9. ghrit

    ghrit Bad company Administrator Founding Member

  10. BTPost

    BTPost Stumpy Old Fart,Deadman Walking, Snow Monkey Moderator

    Just the hobby for a GrandKid, about 12 years old, there Pax.... Got any of those who live close? They get the License, and you get to talk.... Couldn't be a better deal for both.... You get GrandKid time and they get GrandPa time...
  11. David Spero

    David Spero Monkey

    The original poster raises some excellent points, bravo.

    A couple of comments.

    First, getting a 'Technician' class ham license is easier than you might think. Maybe ten hours of study, maybe even much less, depending on your high school physics and maths, and you'll probably pass.

    I discuss the easiest and best ways to get a ham license in a two part article starting from this page

    Strategies to Make it Easy to Pass Your Ham License Exam Part 1 - Code Green Prep

    Secondly, an earlier poster mentioned the availability of excellent handheld transceivers now available in the $35 - $40 price range. That's absolutely true - you want to get a Baofeng UV-5R series radio; less than $35 on Amazon. Get the cheapest version you find - they are all the same, even though the sellers try to pretend theirs is more up to date or 'better'. Apart from different external cases, there is no difference.

    I discuss these radios regularly on my site, here's a hopefully helpful article about how to configure and get the best use out of them.

    73s to all fellow hams

    David S.
    Garand69 and AmericanRedoubt1776 like this.
  12. Falcon15

    Falcon15 Falco Peregrinus

    Well, I did this, I took the plunge. Merely a week before I took my Technician's exam, BTPost encouraged me to take the General at the same time. I crammed for the General (there are tons of great resources on the interwebs) for 4 solid days leading up to the test, about 3 hours of reading a night. Immediately after taking (and passing) my Technician's test, I asked for, took, and passed, the General. All told, for a $15.00 test fee, it was a great investment of time and effort.

    I am of the same mind as Ghrit, I may or may not take the Extra, but one of the test coordinators looked at me and made "morse code" taps on the table and said "Extra next" with a smile and a wink. I can say this, my initial impression of just three of the local Hams was exceptionally positive.
  13. ghrit

    ghrit Bad company Administrator Founding Member

    I've changed my mind. I will do the Extra, but am in no hurry at this point, maybe next year. Have to solve some hardware issues first. What I have works, and seems to work well, just can't do everything I think I might like.
    BTPost likes this.
  14. kellory

    kellory An unemployed Jester, is nobody's fool. Banned

    My buddy just passed for extra , and seems excited i have a radio. He is exceptional busy for the next couple of weeks, but we may have some time on his set to get my feet wet soon. At least, we should be able to get my radio properly programmed.
    Last edited: Dec 19, 2013
  15. Dont

    Dont Just another old gray Jarhead Monkey

    would seem I have some catching up to do..
  16. BTPost

    BTPost Stumpy Old Fart,Deadman Walking, Snow Monkey Moderator

    Are you interested in Ham Radio? If so, we can help with places that have Learning Aids to master the Test...
  17. Dont

    Dont Just another old gray Jarhead Monkey

    Have been interested since I got a crystal radio set as a child.. A few years ago, I was given some equipment and radio mag's dating back to the 50's and 60's, and this has rekindled my interest..
  18. BTPost

    BTPost Stumpy Old Fart,Deadman Walking, Snow Monkey Moderator

    Check out Prepared Ham Perper Ham site with folks willing to get newbies going down the right path....
    AmericanRedoubt1776 likes this.
  19. Dont

    Dont Just another old gray Jarhead Monkey

    Thanks BT , will give them a look in a bit..
  20. Tevin

    Tevin Monkey+++

    For starters, my comments are not in reference to the original poster or any particular person. These are merely my own observations about the general state of amateur radio.

    I've been a ham for about 30 years and loved it so much I turned into a successful electronics career.
    I realize not everyone wants to immerse themselves in it. There is something for everyone in ham radio.

    What I find most bothersome is the lax licensing requirements. The hobby has been dumbed down to the point that, with a few hours study and zero technical skills, one can "earn" the the ham radio equivalent of a PhD degree without touching a radio, an antenna, or making even one single on-air contact. Very few of these "zero-to-Extras" will ever get past the Baofeng 2-meter handheld stage because they truly have no freakin' clue how to set up or operate an effective working radio station.

    Still, I welcome these people to the hobby and have nothing personal against them because, after all, they just followed the rules, not make them. I will also help them get started, even though they outrank me and are supposed to know more than I do. I mean, I've just been a little ol' General for the last thirty years. The Extras should be teaching me something.

    Now that I think of it, I can say with a high degree of confidence that I knew more as a Novice (that used to be an actual license class) than most recently-licensed Extras do today. How many of you could make a dipole, right now, without having to google it or look it up in a book?

    Ham radio has a low barrier to entry, but once you are in, the learning curve is very steep. If all you care about is 2-meter FM, then you should be ok with the light-duty effort you've already put into earning a "push to talk" license. Those seeking a spot as a full-service radio operator qualified to be the captain of their own all-band station will need to commit to years, possibly decades, of practice and skill building.

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