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How to Set-Up and Master Ham Radio Without Going Crazy, Part 1

Avatar for Gaye Levy Gaye Levy  |  Updated: September 1, 2022
How to Set-Up and Master Ham Radio Without Going Crazy, Part 1

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On April 18th, I will be taking the test to get my Technician Class HAM radio license.  This is something I have been meaning to do for quite some time but honestly?  I got so wrapped up with getting my equipment, two Baofeng UV5 radios, to work that I lost sight of the goal.

Update:  I passed!

To prepare for my test, I have been studying Dan Romanchik’s free guide “The Non-Nonsense Technician Class License Study Guide” which is all good.  But still niggling me was the sense of failure at setting up my HAM radios.  The crazy thing is this: the license should come first because during the process of learning about amateur radio, comprehensive and understanding the gear becomes a whole lot easier.

Also Read: Survival Tips

How to Set Up a Ham Radio Part 1 - Backdoor Survival

Long story short, during on of our weekly SKYPE conference calls, I asked my friend George Ure (ham radio call sign AC7X) to help Shelly (aka the Survival Husband) and I to set up our 2-meter Baofeng ham radios which had been sitting on the shelf gathering dust. Just to be clear, it is not that I don’t think we don’t have the smarts to do the project; it’s just there weren’t any simple, easy-to-follow guides that would let us get the job done in minimum time, with minimum fuss.

So I asked George to contribute to the effort so that more preppers would have an easy-to-follow resource. Here is part 1 of How to Set Up a Ham Radio.

Setting up a New 2-Meter Ham Radio

Probably the one thing that overwhelms people when they take up any new pursuit is it seems like there are so darn many details to the project.  The reality is that the difficulty is not in the details, but understanding that each of the “details” actually belongs to a certain recipe.

So whenever I am teaching people a new skill, I ask them to pretend that it’s very much like cooking.  There may be multiple “courses” to a meal, and in each “course” there may be a couple of “recipes” that must come together in order to make for a really delicious outcome.

Gaye and I know this intrinsically because of our computer backgrounds. But the process is identical: If you don’t have a Windows User Experience Index of 7.4, how do you get there, right? Or, how do you learn ham radio?

In each case, we need to “break the meal” down into courses to be served, and from there, we can move on to the individual recipes. Like putting together a gourmet meal, get the order of the courses wrong and people will look at you funny. Like some French, who insist on eating desert first.

When you’re dealing with technical subjects, the “order of events” (courses) is the key part.

So let’s pretend we just stepped up to the dining room table and have our “meal” set up before us.

What will the courses be?

First Course: Get to know the Radio and accessories.

Second Course: Determine how you want the radios to work.

Third Course: Gather the information you need in order to program the radio(s).

Fourth Course: Install computer software to handle the programming.

Fifth Course: Transfer the computer software into the radio.

Sixth Course: Test the radio to ensure that it is working correctly and as desired.

Seventh Course: Deploy the radio to a trained operator.

Eighth Course: Obtain a paper back-up.

Ninth Course: Make sure radios are always ready for use.

It all sounds simple, does it not? We’re going to have a “Nine Course Meal” of radio prepping and when we’re done, it will be simply delicious.

At the end of this “meal”, we ought to be very full and satisfied.  We will have a working ham radio, which will be recharging periodically, and it should be a ready tool should emergencies arise, or you just feel like chatting with some friends on a local ham repeater.

How to Set Up a Ham Radio – Before We Get Started

There is one thing to keep in mind.  Ham radio is full of mouth-watering great meals.  There are local emergency communications (which we’re setting up radios for in this series).  But there are other full-course meals involving High Frequency communications where low power advocates (like me) like to see how many countries around the world we can “work” in Morse Code.  Morse Code isn’t required for a ham license anymore, but that’s another meal, in and of itself.

Then there are the digital modes.  I enjoy doing slow-scan television – sending pictures to Europe or wherever, as another full meal by itself. The “courses” in that one include digital photography, Photo-shopping, transmitter techniques, as well as “normal” HF radio practices.

This entry-level course is one meal, but there are hundreds.  There’s a ham station onboard the International Space Station, and “working” Japan using nothing more than a handheld VHF radio and a handheld small beam (directional) antenna, is a whole “next meal” for some.

HAM Radio Setup Recipe #1

Get to know the radio by lining up all the pieces you think you will need.  I’ll open the Backdoor Survival radio package and show you what they’ve got:

How to Set Up and Master Ham Radio Part 1 - Backdoor Survival

Let’s run through what’s what; refer to the numbers above.

1.  These are the boxes with the radio in them.  Not only the simple radios themselves, but also the charger to plug into the wall and associated drop-in charger, a short “rubber ducky” [flexible] antenna, and an instrument manual that only makes perfect sense if you’re an engineer or advanced ham operator.

I’ve been messing about with ham radios for years and until this manual landed in my lap, I have never learned that “PONMGS” referred to the radio’s “power-on message.”  Different radio manufacturers use different abbreviations.

The reason is simple:  Different manufacturers vary in their approach to their LCD display space and use.

You know. Just like in computer software on a desktop used to have “executable” or simply “programs” they’ve been morphing into Apps.  The process (which I not-so-jokingly call “jargonization”) goes on around us all the time.

In these radios made by Baofeng, PONMGS means the power on message that is referred to by other manufacturers (like Kenwood, for example) as “Power ON” [message].

2.  This pouch contains a mini CD.  Many people don’t have experience with them, but they are fairly simple.  When you open a CD you should notice (on a compatible drive) that there’s a small sunken area the size of the mini CD.  You’ll drop it in there, label up and install the software when we get to that part of the meal.

3.  These are two larger antennas than the stock units that are supplied.  The reason we recommend them is simple:  Up to a point, the longer the antenna, the more gain (thus longer distances) you’ll be able to communicate over.

The optional antennas should transmit (as well as receive) much better than the mini antenna provided.  But don’t get rid of the mini-antenna because there are many times when a smaller antenna is just what you want.

If you’re a husband and wife (or t’other way around) and you want to keep in touch using a simplex frequency while in a shopping mall, small antennas are discrete.  Or, if you’re directing traffic at an emergency shelter..I can think of lots of places when smaller antennas are great.

But, if you’re trying to hit a repeater, and you’re 20-miles away from it, the longer antenna may be better.

Unfortunately, there are no hard and fast rules in ham radio.  Things generally work this way, or that, but there are so many variables that it’s the ideal hobby for nob twisters.  I don’t know about you, but I get really bored with gardening.  It’s easy to rototill and get a crop going.  Weeding?  Hate it.  Drove me to hydroponics.

I specifically LOVE ham radio because there’s always another thing to try.  Gardening?  Soil, fertilizer, moisture levels…all important, and delicious when you have the patience, but a radio radio or weeding?  Come on!  What kind of choice is that?

4.  This is an optional speaker/microphone.  These are marvelous when you’re outdoors hiking and such. The radio can stay out of the weather and just the speaker/mic gets exposed to the elements.

Fire chiefs and other first responders use them, too:  Radio on the belt.  Speaker/mic on the label of the turnout  coat.  Fire scenes are noisy, so being able to clip the speaker close to your ear is a plus in noisy environments or when stealth is desired.

I’m not a fan of throat mics.  If you’re going for “ultimate stealth” learn Morse and you can reduce your sound “footprint” to minimum, or use a digital keyboarding mode.  Oops…a whole other series of meals, there, lol.

Now that you are familiar with Gaye’s gear, let us move on to Recipe #2.

HAM Radio Setup Recipe #2

Our next recipe sounds dirt simple:  Remove the radio from the packaging.  Plug the power cord into the charger.

When this is done, the charger base LED should be green.

Next, drop the radio itself into the charger.  As you do this, notice that there are electrical contacts on the back of the radio that will line up with (and make contact) with the charger contacts.

When you’ve done this right, the red LED in the middle of the charging base should turn red.

How to Set Up and Master Ham Radio Part 1 - Backdoor Survival

Now you can go have a cup of coffee (or tea) since it’s a good idea to make sure the radio is well-charged before you do any serious programming work.

Low batteries shouldn’t make a big difference, but why take chances?  Beside, we have a ton of work to do getting ready for the programming, so charging for a few hours is possible.

HAM Radio Setup Recipe #3

See how easy this “recipe” way of learning is?  Me chef.  You cook.

Our next “Ingredient” for our adventure in programming the radio is to understand that the radio comes with a set of specifications that will govern what we can put into it.

On any radio there should be a specifications page and sure enough, the Baofeng UV-5R has the specs we want on Page 17:

How to Set Up and Master Ham Radio Part 1 - Backdoor Survival

Now we have a list of decisions to make and maybe doing this in a spreadsheet will make sense, if you’re comfortable doing that.

Here’s the problem:

Backdoor Survival’s HQ is in/near/around the San Juan Islands of Washington State.  They are in a hugely busy radio channel area.  So we need to put some thought – lots of it – into figuring out how to set up an idea Survivalist radio.

The process now is to “go shopping” for basic band information.  The federal government’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration has a detailed chart available online here which will let you zoom-in on what’s in that 136 to 174 MHz VHF range what’s our primary interest.

This seems like a trivial thing, but it’s not!

Let’s look at some of the threats in that area that could be monitored on radio, shall we?

Maritime threats:  There’s a frequency list over here used by the Coast Guard.  This is where vessel traffic movements, emergency marine search and rescue and so on takes place.  We would want some clues from here, but which ones?  Vessel Traffic System and Marine Calling Channel 16 would be good.  You can figure out if you want VTS traffic by consulting the local NOAA Marine charts.

Let’s pick VTS5, VTS11, and VTS14 as pertinent.

In your spreadsheet, to make things easier down the road, you may wish to use column headings like this:

How to Set Up and Master Ham Radio Part 1 - Backdoor Survival

The general approach here is (you got it!) another recipe.

HAM Radio Setup Recipe #4

You may want to group your radio spreadsheet into different priorities. and then assign channel numbers AFTER you have figured out what you want to load into the radio.

For the Backdoor Survival radios, we will use 6 groups as follows:

1.  Ham radio channels.  We will load an assortment of ham radio simplex as well and repeaters.  Remember, repeaters have super range, but with a small antenna, down low, just remember if you can not “see” the antenna (or the top of the mountain it’s on) your radio can’t either.  Elevation counts as this is line of sight communications.

2.  NOAA Weather Channels:  These seven channels are universal and should be loaded on every radio.

3.  Tactical Coms:  This is where you’ll put the local law enforcement folks if they are using non-trunking radio systems.  Ambulance companies, volunteer groups.  And don’t forget that since these radios operate and receive up  480 MHz, you can include all or at least the FRS (Family Radio Service) Channels, as in an emergency those may be useful.

4.  News Channels:  This is where backgrounders (like Coast Guard Channels) might go.

5.  Commercial FM channels.  No point having a radio with FM radio coverage if you don’t put a few channels in it for enjoyment or news and information.l

6.  Traveling Channels.  If Gaye & Survival Hubby come to visit us, they will find the local repeater up the street preprogrammed,  Along with some other channels like few in Seattle.

128 channels seems like a lot of elbow room.  But just loading up all the Marine, FRS, and NOAA channels eats up 50 channels.

To find scanner frequencies of the law enforcement and utilities, there’s nothing like the Radio Reference Database at to get you started.

Takeaway and First Lessons

Somewhere in our discussion, I hope it will dawn on you that this “learning the recipes” approach to tackling a new skill is a good one.

Notice how it is working out for us here:

  • We can use the radio until it’s charged and programmed.
  • We can’t program the radio until we have our shopping list of frequencies and services,
  • We can’t organize the channels until we have a grouping strategy.
  • And we can’t program anything outside the radio’s operating range and capabilities.

That’s how complex learning works, in today’s world:  Just like fixing that latest damn bug with your computer is a breeze…it’s ONLY a breeze once you find the right recipe.

In our next part, we’ll load up the spreadsheet data into the programming software and then program the radio.

The front end stuff is actually as hard, or harder, than the rest of what lays ahead.

The Final Word

As soon as I get George a list of our favorite local (FM) radio stations, he’ll finish up the programming and we’ll be on to our next “course” or project.  He’s also sending me a data file on CD.

Something he happened to mention is that since this is a time-consuming process, a shortcut is to go to a few local ham radio club meetings and buy a radio that someone already has done all the work programming.

Another suggestion he made is to take someone else’s hard work (hours laboring over making this choice and that) and do something that is called “cloning” a radio.  Hams do it generously and often.  And if as part of attending a ham club meeting, you offer to share use of your work and programming cable, pretty soon you’ll be what the ham radio types call and “old-timer” or an “Elmer” – someone who can pass on the secrets of outstanding communications!

For additional reading including a general understanding of the basics, see this earlier article, The Basics of HAM Radio and also Shortwave Radios for Preppers.

Also visit How to Set-Up and Master Ham Radio Without Going Crazy, Part 2 which continues this discussion.

Enjoy your next adventure through common sense and thoughtful preparation!

If you enjoyed this article, consider voting for Backdoor Survival daily at Top Prepper Websites!  In addition, SUBSCRIBE to email updates  and receive a free, downloadable copy of my e-book The Emergency Food Buyer’s Guide.

Below you will find 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.

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. 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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39 Responses to “How to Set-Up and Master Ham Radio Without Going Crazy, Part 1”

  1. Back in April it was my turn for doing the club net. At home I use a Kenwood Tm V71A with a Diamond X50 antenna. I usually only run 10 watts to hit the machine full quieting 18 miles away. Long story short the repeater went down and nothing was being heard. Most of us had the lick of sense to switch over to the input ( simplex ) and carry on with the rest of the net. Yeah I had to turn up power to 25 watts so most of the guys could hear me, no big deal. A few guys got in their cars and participated in the net. A friend and myself went to the repeater in the morning and reset the machine. Everything was fine. Heard the power was out for a few hours for unknown reasons by the repeater.

    P.S. With an HT….A ham has got to know his limitations.
    73, Dan

  2. After getting my Tech license and now my General I noticed one thing. The 2 meter repeater just lit up during a recent hellish storm. Information was flying. We got reports of tornadic activity that other media outlets never talk about. IT WAS EXCITING. Then ZAP… something blew the repeater out and we were stuck in simplex mode with no real communication. All of a sudden this last line of communication was now the first to get cut off! At that point I decided to get my General license. That’s my point to this rambling. Get your General or Extra and move to HF. There you can talk around the world with a good rig and great antenna. I think HF might be more critical if it does hit the fan. My 2 cents.

    • Gary,

      First off, there’s not a frequency in existence that you’re going to be able to communicate on when a strong-to-severe thunderstorm is nearby. We’ve had a few this Spring in Iowa, and when they get close to being overhead, all you can hear is lightning hash. Besides, that’s when you might want to be in your storm shelter…:D

      Also, the HF frequencies also are affected by T-storms…or should I say, your ability to make contacts on HF is adversely affected. I found this out during last year’s Field Day, an Amateur Radio event where folks grab their portable equipment and operate outdoors, mostly off the grid. This is Good Practice for emergencies and Emergency Communications, aka Emcomm.

      Field Day is coming up ! It’s the weekend of the 24th. There’s a lot to be learned at such an event, and they’re held all over the country. At many of them you can even get on frequencies you’re not (yet) licensed for thanks to Hams operating GOTA (get on the air) stations.

    • I guess my point I was trying to make and don’t think I did a good job of it is I was a bit disappointed in the fragility of 2 meter/70cm communications. Advertised as emergency communications yet it seems to be the first thing to get wiped out. During our net the repeater got damaged and we’re stuck without communications. Fortunately I turned on the TV and got the news. LOL I think it’s great emergency communications as long as your emergency doesn’t affect propagation. You’re right… during a storm is no time to be playing with a radio and should be in a shelter. Now 1 month later and the repeater is still broken.

  3. I’ve used Chirp to program the UV5R radio with no problem. The receive is not that great on these Ht’s. People put these radio down for being another piece of Chinese junk. I do own other HT’s, a Yaesu FT-60 and a Kenwood TH-F6a. When I need reliability I take one of these radio with me. When I’m out in the yard working, I’ll have the UV-5R with me. If it falls and get’s damaged, I won’t feel bad because it didn’t cost much. So there is a place in a persons arsenal for an inexpensive HT.

  4. Great Article Gaye ! Most of what you have written about I got through my local Ham club. Having worked as a “professional announcer” didn’t hurt either…:D
    To answer some previous questions, YES there are indeed “Nifty guides” for the Baofeng and for other hand-held radios, as well as for DSTAR and Echolink. The Nifty guides are written in a kind of shorthand…which some people ‘get’ almost immediately. I was not one of those unfortunately. It’s been MUCH easier to use software to program my radios (Two HT’s). The software seems pretty simple and straightforward. You will need a cable to connect your radio(s) to your computer, and to my knowledge each radio needs a different cable. You can find out if there’s a Ham club local to you, and also if they run a “New Ham net” on 2 meters, specifically for those of us new to the hobby. The “nets” are usually very friendly and informative.

    73’d (which means Best Wishes in Hamspeak)
    Carol, KE0IKD

  5. That’s the way I went after buying a Baofeng radio and spending the better part of a week trying to get the CD it came to work without crashing my computer, after giving up on THAT, spent another week trying to decipher the Chinglish manual, (even the local Hams, most licensed 30+ years, couldn’t decipher the manual or figure out how to program the radio!!!) Finally said “screw it” and got a used (but not abused) FT 60 off of a local Elmer for $100 with a new battery and aftermarket antenna!!! Took me all of an hour to figure out how to program it including time to charge the battery!!! (First time programming an HT, to boot!!)

    The Baofeng is a $30 paperweight as far as I’m concerned…

  6. I am an extra class ham operator and also have the UHF/VHF radios. They are great in an emergency situation and just plain fun to use. There is a computer program called ECHO LINK that links you to thousands of 2 meter and six meter hams around the world. Of course you must have a ham license to us it but it is a very useful tool. Download it and try it.

  7. I just wanted to thank you for this very helpful guide.
    I actually wrote some things about Ham radio in my apocalyptic book Mr 303 and felt bad that I hadn’t credited you with a thanks.
    Along the way, I seem to have picked up an interest in the subject and actually considering getting a Ham!
    Thanks again.

  8. The conversation on this thread is long since over, but I’ll try anyway. We’ll test that “there are no stupid questions” theory while I’m at it.

    I’m confused. My grandpa and my dad were both ham radio operators. I can still even remember their call letters. Their radios were *huge*…and I understand how they would, logically, be smaller given advances in technology. But what about the antennas? They also had huge honkin antenna towers. My grandpa’s was well over 30 feet (yes, I was much smaller back then, but it was taller than the tallest part of the house so I’m fairly confident that it was at least 30 feet). How can any sort of antenna on a hand held radio transmit very far? And if the power is out locally, aren’t you still pretty much screwed, signal wise? A charged radio doesn’t seem like it’ll do much good of the power for miles and miles around is out.

    My daughter and Iive in 2 different states and I’m trying to get together a viable emergency communication plan, and if I can get a grip on some of the technical aspects, I might be able to sell it to her. But I’m to confused, right now, to even bring it up.

    • In this case “size does matter’. The bigger the antenna, the bigger the signal (in most cases). However you don’t need that “big honkin’ antenna” to COMMUNICATE. I have done well with just a small wire antenna thrown up in a tree. A lot depends on the band you want to use. The lower the frequency, the longer the antenna. You only need 18′ of wire at 10 meters (28Mhz) but over 500′ for 160 meters (1.8-MHz). There are “compromise” antennas (every antenna is a compromise) that are vastly smaller and some work quite well, but most times your signal suffers.


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