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The Basics of Ham Radio

Avatar for Gaye Levy Gaye Levy  |  Updated: September 10, 2020
The Basics of Ham Radio

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Today I continue the conversation with George Ure of Urban Survival as he shares  his thoughts on the value of getting a ham radio license as well as an explanation of some ham radio basics for those of us that are just getting started with this mode of emergency commination.

But first, what exactly is ham radio?  According to Wikipedia:

Amateur radio (also called ham radio) is the use of designated radio frequency spectra for purposes of private recreation, non-commercial exchange of messages, wireless experimentation, self-training, and emergency communication. The term “amateur” is used to specify persons interested in radio technique solely with a personal aim and without direct pecuniary interest, and to differentiate it from commercial broadcasting, public safety (such as police and fire), or professional two-way radio services (such as maritime, aviation, taxis, etc.).

George Ure Ham Radio Setup

Someone who operates a ham radio is called a “ham” and is licensed to operate communications equipment over the public airwaves. All hams must have a basic knowledge of radio technology and operating principles, and pass an examination for the FCC license to operate on radio frequencies known as the “Amateur Bands.” These bands are radio frequencies reserved by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) for use by hams.

That, in very general terms, covers the basics.  Beyond that, I have asked George some questions  about  the most important things that a non-ham needs to know about the amateur radio hobby.

Below, with his usual wit and humor, are his answers.

Revisiting the Magic of Radio – Part 2

George, tell me a little about the public safety aspects of ham radio

The most important thing is that ham radio is an incredibly robust means of communications which works in spite of all kinds of emergency conditions. When there’s a hurricane or other public emergency, ham radio is on the front line through organizations like the Radio Amateur Civil Emergency Service (RACES)   When bad weather is about, they provide crucial “eyes on” to which is a public weather-gathering effort of the National Weather Service.

Lots of ham radio clubs down here in “tornado alley” activate local ham nets to track severe weather and provide nearly instant on-scene reports to the Weather Service on things like precip rates, size of hail, and other useful information.

In the event of flooding or major population displacements, like during hurricanes a few years back, hams were helping route people to least crowded shelters, and things like that.

How does it work? I mean, where can ham radio “talk”?

Well, the range of ham radio equipment depends on what frequency you want to use and the FCC has a wide range of radio spectrum set aside for ham radio use because so much of what we now take for granted was actually developed by hams.

The easiest way to explain this is to think of the radio spectrum like a long measuring tape. The low frequency end of things would be the AM radio band which would be between ½-inch and 1.7-inches on the tape. Way up the tape, you’d find the FM radio band beginning at 88-inches and going up to about 108-inches.

In reality, instead of “inches” what we’re really talking about here is the frequency in Megahertz (millions of cycles per second of alternating current). But the measuring tape analogy is very useful to visualize easily how radio waves work.

The part of the “measuring tape” between about ½ -inch and 30-inches is “special” because it reflects off the ionosphere depending on what time of day or night it is. Above about 30-inches or so, at a frequency that varies called the maximum useable frequency, radio waves stop bouncing and become mostly line of sight. There are some exceptions such as ducted propagation, and when sunspots are just right, up to 60-inches can reflect. Remember: inches means Megahertz or MHz.

The area from 3 inches/MHz up to 30-inches (MHz) is called the High Frequency spectrum and from 30 up to 300-inches (MHz) is the VHF spectrum. Above that you get into ultra-high frequency spectrum. As you’ve probably guessed, this is where the terms HF, VHF and UHF come from. The best “beginner” band is the 2-meter band up at 144 MHZ (or inches if you’re thinking of that measuring tape).

Fine…but what could I actually do with a ham radio?

Well, one thing you can do is cut down your cell phone to almost nothing. If you have even a very inexpensive “starter” VHF/UHF portable unit, such as the Wouxun KG-UV6D series radio which you can get for pretty cheap, you could talk to SurvivalHubby (if he also had a radio) while he was 50 or even 100-miles away.

You can’t quite do away with your cell, though. There are restrictions on using a ham radio repeater to actually conduct business. You can call a doctor or dentist, though, or order food to go, but you can’t use ham radio for your employer or in the course of regular business.

When there was a 6.8 Seattle earthquake in February of 2001, I was able to know where all the disruptions were to traffic flow because I had a VHF radio in the car and with all phone lines jammed including cell, I was still able to communicate and keep in touch with family and friends.

Plus, since I was able to here what was going on in Bremerton, I had a good idea of what the TV news choppers would be showing that night on the news…

Hold it!  You said above 30 MHZ, or so, radio waves became mostly line-of-sight…how do I talk to SurvivalHubby on a ham radio from the San Juan Islands to Seattle?

This is the really cool part of VHF ham radio: Ham clubs have sponsored what are called “repeaters” that are on top of many tall buildings, mountains, and so forth. It’s a very sophisticated network and in some instances, these high elevation repeaters can be linked. Or, as another network, you can go from a repeater to the internet using voice over IP and then pop out of another repeater. So from up in the San Juan Islands you might be able to talk to someone in eastern Oregon.

The Seattle Mike and Key Club has a Puget Sound repeater list over here, but they are all over the country and if you want the definitive source, pick up the ARRL’s definitive national Repeater Directory which has about everything imaginable in it when it comes to repeaters.

And the American Radio Relay League, which is the largest national ham radio group, has a nice summary of repeater operations and much more over here on their web site.

Hams will move signals around a lot of other creative ways, too. One that I have on my bucket list is doing some 1296 MHz EME (earth-moon-earth) contacts. You point a good-sized dish with a little bit of UHF power and you can use the moon as a passive reflector! Of course there’s also Aurora scatter and meteor-scatter and tropo-scatter, but I got my fill of tropo in my younger days. Meteor-scatter is pretty cool, though. They’re hitting earth all the time since space is not exactly empty.

Is Morse Code still required? I know it used to be.

No, the Morse code requirement went away years ago. In fact, the ham radio licensing is set up now so you can go all the way to the highest class of license – called the Extra Class – without having to learn a single “dit” or “dah” of Morse.

On the other hand, you will find some of those Extra Class questions challenging because there is so much you can do with ham radio.

part of dad's ham radio station

Like what?

I happen to personally enjoy four or five aspects of the hobby a lot and when I explain what they are, you’ll see what I mean about a wide spectrum of technical knowledge.

I happen to like Morse Code myself because it’s an important “other language”. If I ever had a stroke, for example, or were incapacitated and unable to speak, I could still communicate by tapping a finger or toe. I didn’t used to think about that but as 65 comes closer, those kinds of thoughts do come up.

The second thing I like to do is built and use my own equipment. So, for example, I get a great kick out of using a low power Morse transceiver I built to communicate with Europe, the Middle East, and Asia on the 20 meter/ 14MHz (inch, right?) band. Using very low power (all of 4 watts) I can communicate all over the world and to me that is a really neat skill….like fishing, but with radio waves.

Third thing I like to do is talk to my son, who is also an Extra Class ham, who lives in Kirkland, Washington. We often hook up on voice (single sideband) on 14.160 MHz.

Fourth? Well, I enjoy both the digital modes and slow scan television. As a result of hooking my radio up through an interface to my computer, I can move pictures around the country without using the internet or a phone line! You can hear the sounds often on 14.230 MHz and it’s a warbling noise.

If you just want to have a kind of “personal teletype” you can use a mode called PSK-31 which for long distances if often found between 14.070 and 14.080 MHz. It’s like internet chat, except there’s no internet involved. You just text back and forth. I’ve talked to all kinds of people that way, in places like Guatemala, Cuba, most everywhere in Europe, Russia, Japan, and so on.

Number Five? Elaine and I use ham radio to keep in touch when I run to town and we use 2-meters here on the ranch all the time. It’s not smart to be out in the brush, a block or three from the nearest human where there are wild pigs, snakes, and occasionally packs of wild dogs (don’t start me on irresponsible pet owners!). With a two-meter radio I can always get help if I need it…so in a very personal way, ham radio is something we use all the time.

How hard is the test to get a Ham License?

It’s not hard at all. Like any new skill, it will take a day or two, but my son has taught a number of classes and reports the pass rate is something like 95% if someone just takes time to read some study materials and goes through about six hours of class which can be found free almost anywhere in the country.

A great starting point is to download and read Dan Romanchik’s “The No-Nonsense, Technician Class License Study Guide” which is available for free on the KB6NU website here.

Then visit the ARRL website and search for a class near you because that’s the easiest way to get hooked up to take the test after going through the classroom part. Some classes are one day, others get into more details and are two days or longer. Some people want to know everything while others just want to get a book and take a test. That’s all according to your personal learning style and how you want to approach it.

I understand you’ve been a ham since 1963…so in that time what are the kinds of things that stick out in your mind as “high points” of the hobby?

Oh, gosh, there are so many I’ve never stopped to think about it. Helping my late neighbor (W7IMF) run phone patch traffic for 1964 Alaska Good Friday Earthquake victims was a standout. Doing a live new interview via ham radio with a DC-10 flying through the zone of totality of a total eclipse over central Oregon, would certainly be up there, too.

A lot of people who you might not think about as being ham radio operators are neat to meet: I’ve talked to Barry Goldwater, the US base at McMurdo Sound in the Antarctic, late Jordanian president King Hussein, and scads of others.

I mean starting back with the founding of the ARRL, Hiram Percy Maxim, W1AW invented the silencer for firearms and one of the early electric vehicles…hams do tend to live about 10-minutes (or longer) in the future.

Linux Kernel developer Ted Ts’o is a ham, so was Bob Moog of synthesizer fame. Maybe you knew late-night radio guru Art Bell is a ham, but how about Walter Cronkite? Former CBS News president Bill Leonard… Or John Sculley of Apple who used to be active and Steve the Woz, too… and in aerospace you’ve got Dick Rutan and General Curtis Lemay…so I don’t know how you top that except to say every shuttle mission had at least one ham astronaut onboard – it was required.

Lots of musicians, too: Ronnie Milsap, Chet Atkins, Joe Walsh of the Eagles along with Stu Cook who was the bass player with Credence Clearwater. A little more current? How about Sir Mix A lot…rumor has it. Hell, I didn’t know Gary Shandling or Sheri Bellafonte-Behrens was a ham till I looked at an online directory of famous hams over here.

And I guess that’s the fun of the hobby…you don’t know when you “call CQ” – meaning looking for someone to talk to – who’s going to come back to you. It could be someone famous, or it could be a lonely trucker driving across the Dakotas, or a DX-pedition to some rare island out in the middle or nowhere, to a robotics specialist in Japan who’s into the hobby.

It’s just a heck of a lot of fun…and that’s why some of us do ham radio types would rather talk, text, or code instead of vegging out watching so much TV.

The Final Word

This is a lot of information to absorb but good information.  As George tells me, if you are looking for an interesting hobby with a prepping angle to it, start with shortwave listening and then move on to ham radio.  The way he tells it, it sounds a lot easier than I originally thought.

Now all I need to do is get started.  What about you?  Do you have some ham radio tips to share with a ham radio newbie like me?

Enjoy your next adventure through common sense and thoughtful preparation!

Note: This is Part 2 of a two part series.  For Part 1, go to Shortwave Radio For Preppers.

If you have not done so already, please be sure to like Backdoor Survival on Facebook to be updated every time there is an awesome new article, news byte, or link to a free survival, prepping or homesteading book on Amazon.  You can also follow Backdoor Survival on Pinterest.

In addition, when you sign up to receive email updates you will receive a free, downloadable copy of my e-book The Emergency Food Buyer’s Guide.

Bargain Bin:  Below you will find links to the items related to today’s article.

BaoFeng UV5R Dual-Band Two-Way HAM Radio:  I own two of these.  Something to keep in mind that if you are just planning to listen, you do not need a license.  Still, it is a good idea because it will make understanding the technical aspects of HAM radio a whole lot easier.  Price alert!  As of this writing, the price of the BaoFeng UV-5R is only $29.84

Special Note:  BaoFeng and Pofung radios are one and the same.  Newer units are branded with “Pofung”.  Here is the Pofung UV-5R.

The No-Nonsense, Technician Class License Study Guide:  Dan Romanchik’s guide is available for free – you can read it online or download it and save it to your computer.  For $7.99, you can also purchase a version for the Kindle: The No-Nonsense Technician Class License Study Guide for Tests starting July 1, 2014 .

Baofeng BF-S112 Two Way Radio Speaker:  These come in very handy.  Also consider the NAGOYA Antenna for BAOFENG UV-5R  and the USB Programming Cable for Baofeng UV-5R UV-3R+.

ARRL Repeater Directory 2014/2015 Pocket Size: The best directory of frequencies for the 21,800+ repeaters around the country! Includes D-Star and APCO-25, references for operating practices, tips for handling interference, emergency message handling, guidelines for severe weather reporting to SKYWARN and the National Weather Service, and more.

Ham Radio For Dummies: This could also be called “Ham Radio for Gaye” or other newbies.  I have this in Kindle format and have loaded it up on my iPad so it is handy to review whenever and wherever. It is never too late to learn and if SHTF, HAM Radio may be the only reliable form of communication available.




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28 Responses to “The Basics of Ham Radio”

  1. Love this. I’m just starting in ham radio. And want to learn more
    . The local club was no help what so ever,they were more of a clique than anything else. Anyway KF7BPH

  2. HA, you would look at Wikipedia to find out what a HAM radio is. Great read, I had no idea; good information though and a nice interview.

  3. This message is for Gil,
    I tried to register on the RadioPreppers site and keep running into a problem.
    The verification image(using Quicktime) does not appear, no matter what browser I use.
    QT is installed on my machine.
    Could you contact me to help me through this problem?
    Thanks for your time,

  4. There is a king of Ham radio that is IMHO much better for prepping, and that is QRP, meaning low power operations, often in Morse code. With a radio the size of a pack of cigarettes I regularly reach Eastern Europe from Florida, and of course all of the U.S. Many preppers forget that they may have to change location and carry their equipment. Would you rather carry a car battery and a ten-pound radio, or put it in your shirt pocket and take along eight AA batteries?
    More about radio prepping on


    • Gil, I agree and you can even get QRP (low power) radios that cover all the HF (shortwave) and VHF/UHF ham bands and are also a general coverage receiver for HF broadcast.

      The power down from a regular full power radio is not that much. I could go into technical terms but the difference between running a regular ham radio and a QRP one to the other person is about one and one-half S (signal) unit. In other words, you will still communicate and use less power doing so.

      The antenna makes the difference so when out in the ‘boonies’ camping or testing your bug-out location get as much wire up in the air as possible and use an antenna tuner and you will get out. That lot of wire will have a multiplier effect at most frequencies and make you sound louder and also receive better. Yes there are all types of technical things which us engineers understand but from my own experience in over 40 years in the field, the long wire with a tuner worked excellent.

      Bottom line to all is to start simple with inexpensive radios that you can find at Cheap Ham dot Com, gain experience then move up. It all takes time and even with near 60 years in ham radio, I am still learning. 73 Leslie _ . _

  5. One of those portable solar outfits that Gaye showed us would be good for here……because, some of Spring and most of summer is when we get enough sun. Winter; not so much. Between the cross bow and a ham radio……I have things to learn and save up for. My housemate’s mom was big on Ham and C.B. I guess her den looked like electronic central. I think that was way back when morse code was the language……kidding!!! I’m not very young, so I do remember watching friends talking funny….;+) Anyway, Thank you again. I’ll let you know from time to time, how I’m faring. Going to cheapham now….fits me quite well.

  6. No not expensive at all. There are lots of good used radios out there and even a $1,900 radio is way out of what I would pay and have paid for radios.

    Yes you can just string a wire and it will work and work well. You will need an antenna tuner to ‘tune’ the wire to frequency but that is usually what every one gets anyway.

    For a lot less than $1,000 you can get a good 3 to 30MHz (inches) radio, a couple of HT (walkie-talkie) for you and the other, and a good antenna tuner plus the wire and maybe even a solar panel or two and a battery.

    Start now and learn as you go. Study for the Technician then the General and search the Internet for deals.

    Contact a local ham or two and they may even have some ‘extra’ radios they can loan. I have already loaned out some to starting hams.

    Ham radio has been around since the beginning of radio, all the pioneers in radio were hams.

    Ham radio is very different than CB, a lot different and a ton more fun with the friends you make all over the world.

    I’m sure if you ask around you will find the help you need.

    EBAY is a good place for good used equipment. I can always look at what you have in mind and guide you even from a few thousand miles away.

    And again, wires in trees work just fine, I’ve done that many times when out and about.

  7. If I can find a decent set, I would play with it for a bit till I’m thoroughly frustrated, and then pack it away for … know! I live 200ft above sea level and the mountains surrounding this place are 1200 and 2,800 ft. respectively. In an emergency, however, the unit and equipment can be relocated to a more friendly area, reception wise, I suppose. When I say decent, I mean” gently used.” I see just a basic set, without the antenna will be at least ……very least, 300.00. That’s all I have to say about that.
    I would really like to get into ” ham”, so it’s something to shoot for and I will keep searching.
    I remember when C.B radio was all the rage, and I’m sure you do too, but that was in a place where those transmissions were bouncing about with no limits.

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