OB Approved So You Want To Be A HAM? (US Edition)

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Lars

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What Is Ham Radio:
The ARRL describes Amateur Radio as follows:
"Amateur Radio (ham radio) is a popular hobby and service that brings people, electronics and communication together. People use ham radio to talk across town, around the world, or even into space, all without the Internet or cell phones. It's fun, social, educational, and can be a lifeline during times of need.

You can set up a ham radio station anywhere!

On a beach...


...in your overland rig


...or at home.


Although Amateur Radio operators get involved for many reasons, they all have in common 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 allocated by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) for use by ham radio operators."


Amateur Radio and Overlanding:

On VHF/UHF Phone (Voice) Communications:
Amateur radio is a natural fit for those who are into remote expeditions or enjoy caravan trips through the wilderness. The radio equipment we use (VHF/UHF) is typically of a far higher quality than typical CB Radios. Also, these radios are usually capable of putting out more than 50 watts of power, compared to a CB limited to 4w. The 2M band being a much shorter wave length means the antennas are physically smaller than CB Antennas, while typically performing at a higher level of gain. This means more clearance for overhangs.​

Another advantage of Ham Radio Communications is that the use of Repeaters is possible. A repeater does exactly what it sounds like. It's a Radio and Antenna, typically on a very tall structure (or mountain) that receives your transmission, then re-transmits it from the new location. This can be very helpful in the mountains, where valley-to-valley communications is impossible. Putting a repeater on the top of the mountain in the middle allows you to communicate between those valleys, or out of them.


On HF Communications:
Once you upgrade to a license class that allows HF privileges, you are then able to take your communications global. During a trip to the southern edge of North Padre Island in Texas I was able to communicate with hams in South Carolina, Tennessee, and Oregon. While this isn't as reliable as a Satellite Phone, or "SPOT," in a pinch, this can still be an effective way of acquiring help in the most remote of areas. If you are 60 miles from the nearest road at the southern most edge of the island in Texas where cell signals are non-existent, and you need help, reaching someone in Wisconsin via HF is still useful because that person in Wisconsin CAN call the ranger station on the telephone and let them know there's someone in distress at the southern most edge of the island.
Special Use Cases:
One of the great strengths of Amateur Radio is how flexible the hobby is. One type of operation that is very interesting for the Overlander is called APRS. (Amateur Position Reporting System) APRS takes raw NEMA2 data from a GPS, encodes it, and transmits it over the amateur bands. A simple APRS Transmitter/Receiver can be built by connecting an inexpensive handheld transceiver (around $35 on Amazon) to an Android Phone or Tablet with a GPS, and then installing a $4.95 piece of software called APRSdroid. This APRS site can then simultaneously transmit your coordinates, as well as display the near real-time locations of every other APRS station within receiving distance. Imagine a caravan of five vehicles, each with an small APRSdroid powered APRS system in their vehicles, with the map display turned on.

Android Phone, and Baofeng UV-3R


Map Display

What Are The License Classes:
In the United States there are three classes of Amateur Radio Operator Licenses (Ham)
  • Technician Class
  • General Class
  • Extra Class
Each Class license increases your privileges on the air.

Primarily the Technician Class license is for VHF/UHF communications, which work well for regional contacts. VHF (2M) and UHF (70CM) are the two most common forms of mobile ham radio communications equipment. Simplex these operate line of sight, which is to say 5-10 miles over flat level terrain.

The General Class license opens up 90% of the HF bands for you. These bands work for around-the-world communications, even with low power and modest antennas. As an example, while driving on Hwy 71 in Austin, Texas, I was able to carry on a conversation with a HAM outside Moscow, in Russia.

Finally the Extra Class license gives you the last small piece of the pie. Primarily these are edges of the bands which more closely overlap with other nations band allocations opening up more opportunities to talk to HAMs from other countries.

How Can You Get Licensed:
Ham Radio Clubs across the country offer testing sessions every month. The ARRL (Amateur Radio Relay League) provides a tool to help you locate Amateur Radio License Exams in your area. TEST FINDER

Tests cost around $15 to take. If you pass the Technician the testing site will let you take your General test in the same sitting for free. If you pass your General test, they will let you take the Extra for free in the same sitting. So with proper preparation it is possible to go from unlicensed to Extra in one day.

Once you pass a test, your license is good for 10 years, at which point you renew your license for free. You do not need to take any further tests.

Training/Study Materials:
There are books from Gordon West to help you prepare for the tests. I found Gordon West's teaching style in his AUDIO CD Programs to be very compatible with my learning style.
You can take Practice tests for all three license classes here: QRZ.com (free registration required)
Each requires a score of greater than 70% to pass. If you are regularly scoring around 85% on practice tests, you are ready for the real thing!

73 from W9ZEB
Lars
 
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toxicity_27

US MidWest Region Member Rep
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I need to study for this and get my license. Everyone in the overland group I'm part of runs HAM.
 
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XPlore

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Have you heard of Land Ops? I am going to one of there intro events this Saturday out in Hungry Valler
 

Lars

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Have you heard of Land Ops? I am going to one of there intro events this Saturday out in Hungry Valler
I hadn't heard of them before now. Bookmarking their site though.

I had done a presentation on "Mobile Radio Communications" for Texas Overland in Austin this past November. I am planning on giving the presentation again out in the Dallas FortWorth area for "North Texas Overland" and then again out in Houston for the TO guys that are out that way. The slide deck from that presentation is linked in my signature. I'm hoping one of these future presentations I can bring a video recorder, and a good enough microphone to record the event.


On another note. Would y'all like a "Ham Radio Equipment" post to go into this thread, or a separate thread?
Perhaps a "Radio Communications" sub forum? I dunno, There's so much to this hobby it's tough to say what the best path forward is. I'll take queues from @administrator and the rest of the staff. You tell me what you want, and I'll make it happen to the best of my ability.
 
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toxicity_27

US MidWest Region Member Rep
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I think you could do a HAM Radio Equipment thread in the Overland Communications forum since that's where most of the radio talk is at.
 
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Lipek

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Thanks for posting this, it reminded me to finally take my technician test. I've been staring at my baofung for way too long
 
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Lars

Rank VI
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Advocate II

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Wyldwood, TX
Member #

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Overland Radio Gear: (VHF/UHF only in this segment)
Radios for Overlanding fall into two major categories. Handheld Transceivers (HTs) and Mobile Radios.

Handheld Transceivers are effectively "Walkie Talkies" and can run from as inexpensive as $35 per unit for a Baofeng UV-5R all the way up to several hundred dollars for a top of the line Yaesu/Icom/Kenwood digital HT, like this Yaesu FT2DR. HTs typically offer several power settings, with Low being ~ 0.5W, medium being 1-2W, and high being 5W. At 5W the radios tend to get hot while transmitting a lot, and the batteries don't last long. (It's worth noting a CB maxes out at 4W in the United States...)

Mobile Radios come in three major varieties, and then have a host of options. The three major types of mobile VHF/UHF rig are:
  • Single Band (usually 2M)
  • Dual Band (usually 2M/70CM)
  • Dual Band CrossBand Repeater (usually 2M/70CM)
The single band radios are exactly what they sound like. These radios operate within a single band, which usually means 2M, although they don't have to. These usually, but not always, output between 5w on Low Power and upwards of 75W on High.

A dual band radio is virtually identical to the single band radio, except you can select between two bands. This means if you're in a small group, and if everyone has dual band, you can select which band you want to use. The 2M band is the most popular band in the world. If you're looking for a quiet place to talk within your caravan, you might choose as a group to move to 70CM for instance.

Finally we have CrossBand Repeaters. These are also dual band radios, but they have two receivers in them, rather than one. This means they act in many ways as if you have TWO radios at the same time in your vehicle. These include a special mode of operation though, that allow you to "connect" the 2M radio to the 70CM radio. Thus, anything received on the 70CM side will be instantly re-transmitted on the 2M side. And anything received on the 2M side, will be re-transmitted on the 70CM side. When coupled with an HT, this can allow you to use the HT on 0.5W on 70cm, but communicate with a remote station using the 50-75W 2M transmitter in your vehicle. (Ask me about "Red River Gorge" in Kentucky sometime.)

Another newer entry into the Mobile, and HT ham radio market is Digital radios. These all operate normal FM like the others listed, however they include some form of digital encoding. Right now there are no "standards" so each vendor has their own competing protocols. Yaesu appears to have the most widely adopted system with C4FM FDMA and their Fusion Repeaters. This is a fairly in depth discussion on its own, and I'd be happy to field questions to the best of my ability but won't muddy the waters here.

Like everything else in life, in many ways you do get what you pay for. I personally intend to pick up a few (5?) UV-5R radios to keep in a Pelican case in the truck for dire emergencies but wouldn't personally trust them as a primary radio. Ham radio is like a lot of hobbies. There are many different ways to participate and enjoy the hobby. I've hardly scratched the surface here. I, and I suspect the rest of the Hams on Overland Bound, would be happy to field any discussion on the hobby you might have.


Single Band 2M Radio


Dual Band 2M/70CM Radio


Cross Band Repeater


Yaesu Digital Cross Band Repeater
 
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Lars

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Wyldwood, TX
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Natural Bridge Kentucky

When my wife and I went to Natural Bridge in Kentucky back in 2007 she wrote the following diary note to go with this photo.

While hiking in the park, I noticed that the nearest Cell phone reception was 11 miles down the road from where we were.

There’s also a warning on the bulletin board near virtually every trail head: "Every year, about forty-five people fall from these cliffs. One or two usually result in death. Once contact is made with emergency personnel, it will take at least thirty minutes for someone to arrive. Many falls result in spinal injuries, so the person who comes to find you must wait for the EMTs to arrive to remove you safely – another thirty minute wait. Unpacking all the equipment, bundling you up securely, and getting you back to the emergency vehicle can take over an hour. It’s a forty-five minute drive to the nearest hospital. In other words, if you fall, it could be about three hours before you receive proper medical treatment. And that’s after you actually manage to contact someone."

I ensured that from my car, parked in the lot I could reach the local 2M repeater in the next town over. I then turned on the cross band repeater, and set the 70CM side of the car, and my HT to match one another. This gave me an instant link to "town" and several times while hiking, I verified that I could both hear the repeater in town, and still communicate with the hams there. (all while using 0.5W) There's nothing like eliminating the time to get to a place you can call for help.

 

Lars

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Wyldwood, TX
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Here are some example mobile transceiver options. Each of these is a dual band radio. (2m and 70cm) Also each of these has a detachable, or detached control head. I'll add a note next to each with additional features.

Kenwood, Icom, and Yaesu are regularly referred to as "The Big Three". They are the ham radio equivalent of Ford, GM, and Chrysler. There are other brands, but if we're focusing on high quality, reliable equipment, these are the brands that are going to receive all of my attention.
  • Icom
    • IC-2730a - Dual Receiver / Cross Band Repeater
    • IC-880H - D-Star Digital Mode Ready
    • IC-5100A - Dual Receiver / Cross Band Repeater / APRS capable / D-Star Digital
  • Kenwood
    • TM-V71A - Dual Receiver / Cross Band Repeater
    • TM-D710GA - Dual Receiver / Cross Band Repeater / APRS capable
  • Yaesu
    • FT-7900R
    • FT-8800R - Dual Receiver / Cross Band Repeater
    • FTM-100DR - Yaesu Fusion Digital / APRS Capable
    • FTM-400DR - Dual Receiver / Cross Band Repeater / APRS capable / Yaesu Fusion Digital
On the topic of Digital Modes. There are currently three competing standards. (Think VHS vs Betamax) or for you youngsters (BluRay vs HD DVD)

Yaesu has developed and released a system called Fusion. It's based on C4FM.
Icom has had a system called D-Star for the last 10 years.
Motorola Has a system referred to as DMR, or MotoTRBO.

If my Crystal Ball is tuned properly, I think Yaesu's Fusion system is going to end up being the winning technology for most average hams. I make no promises that this is correct. However looking at how unsuccessful Icom has appeared to be with D-Star, I think it's unlikely they're going to win the battle.

I think the EMCOM crowd is going to flock to MotoTRBO/DMR. In large part because many of the ARES/RACES Emergency Communications types also work with Police/Fire/Search & Rescus and are carrying Motorola radios already.

I didn't mention Motorola radios above in my list. Motorola builds some exceptionally high quality equipment. However it's all designed for use as Business Band Radios. They work fine in the Amateur Radio Service, and it's legal for a Ham to use them as such. However I think anyone leaning toward a Motorola, is already experienced enough that they're not looking for any advice from me. :)