This is a guest post by Old Hillbilly and entry for our non-fiction writing contest.
Part II: The equipment-what it cost and where to get it. Frequencies and how to program your radio. How far can you transmit and receive? Read part one here…
If you have survived my rambling this far then you must be interested so now let’s talk about what equipment you will need. If you have ever looked at a HAM radio equipment supplier catalog then you are no doubt familiar with the dizzying array of radio types, brands and configurations, not to mention all the other meters, antennas, cabling, and connectors. I spent a long time researching what I needed to get started and then reading product reviews and blogs to come up with the best “bang for the buck” to get started in HAM radio. I’ll cover the needed items one at a time and at the end of this section post a direct link for each item to the site where I bought it. (Note that most all of the equipment can be purchased from Amazon.com so PLEASE make sure you use the direct link provided by M.D. so that he will at least get a little benefit from your purchases should you decide to make them.)
The Radio: First let me say that with your technician license you are most likely going to want a 2 meter radio or a 70cm radio, or a dual band unit that is both. I am not going to get into the technicalities of bands at this point as you will cover this in your license study…only to say that the 2 meter band is where you will find the most activity….or at least it is in my neck of the woods. Radios range from “base stations” that you set up in your home, to “mobile units” you can mount in a vehicle or connect to a power supply and use as a base unit, to “portable units” that some refer to as handi-talkies, or simply put, small portable handheld radios.
For the purpose of this article I will talk about the small handheld unit as that is what I started with. Prices on these units are all over the board and usually the higher the price the better the equipment. Two well know brands are Icom and Yaesu, both of which offer handhelds that can cost several hundred dollars. Once again since this is an article about doing it “on the cheap” I will sidestep these makes and move directly to the Chinese made handhelds that are sweeping the HAM radio market. There are several brands of these radios but the one I settled on is Baofeng.
I found it is probably the cheapest handheld you will find and surprisingly enough it has a very good reputation! The unit I went with is the UV-5RA. This little radio is not much larger than a king sized pack of cigarettes but don’t let the size fool you! While it only has 4 watts of output power, it has allowed me to access repeaters 50+ miles away which have then enabled me to extend out close to 200 miles away in all directions! As offered by Amazon, the radio comes complete with a rechargeable lithium ion battery pack, an a/c plug in charger and a vox operated earphone/microphone combination. Imagine the uses of a vox (voice operated switch) microphone that will allow you to transmit hands free as well as listen through your earpiece…especially patrolling where your hands are busy pushing through cover or holding/using a firearm.
The radio offers both 2 meter and 70cm band receive/transmit functions along with marine receive functions once programmed. It comes complete with a “rubber duck” antenna that attaches to the top but with the addition of a small adapter (listed in the “what you will need” section below) you can also attach it to any antenna of the proper wavelength!
Now…I know you are wondering…what does this little electronic marvel cost? $100…$200…$300? NO, as of this writing you can get this amazing little radio for $32.98! That’s right, less than $34.00! Don’t let the price scare you folks. I am a firm believer in “you get what you pay for”, however, in the case of the UV-5RA, you get a whole lot more than you pay for when compared to similar radios costing many times more! Before moving onto what else you will need, I need to point out that you may find similar radio’s from Baofeng that do not have the “A” on the end of the model number.
From what I read, these are pretty much all the same…only with small differences in the internal firmware. As long as you order from the link listed below, you can rest assured you will get the most modern up to date model with the most current firmware…as far as I can tell. If you see a UV-3A, stay away.
This is a fine little radio also but only has 3 watts output power so for a few more dollars, go with the UV-5A which has 4 watts output power. Before moving onto accessories, it should be noted that this little radio also gives you access to the National Weather Service frequencies as well as “scan” capability of all programmed frequencies, including many police and fire frequencies. So not only do you get a great HAM radio but you also get a weather alert radio as well as a scanner all wrapped up into one!
If you decide to buy the UV-5RA then PLEASE go to this website and read all the information listed. It will answer a lot of questions and make your use of the little radio much more enjoyable, plus it has good information about using CHIRP. http://www.miklor.com/uv5r/
Radio Accessories; OK, I can hear it now….”the radio is only $32.98 but now he tells us we have to buy accessories that will cost us hundreds of dollars”! Wrong. As shipped from Amazon, you can take the UV-5RA out of the box, attached the included antenna, place it in the charger for an hour or so and be ready to transmit or just listen (if you are not licensed). However, like most things we buy these days, accessories can add a lot more utility to our purchase in making it easier to use or increasing its capabilities. This little radio is no different.
If there is a drawback to the UV-5RA, it is that like most HAM radios, it can be confusing to program, at least for me. There is a manual in the box and there are several useful websites that will assist you in programming. After researching about the UV-5RA I learned that the easiest and fastest way to program it with the frequencies needed to access repeaters or to directly connect with friends or group members is to use a piece of freeware called “CHIRP” for which I will list the link below. CHIRP is in the form of an Excel spreadsheet that allows you to enter the frequencies(s), tone and offset (both required for repeater access) and then quickly upload this data to your radio.
One of the best features of “CHIRP” is that it gives you the option of naming a frequency with a name that will allow you to keep up with the repeater name you are talking to without having to remember the frequency. For instance, the highest elevation repeater east of the Mississippi is located on Mount Mitchell, North Carolina at approximately 6,600 feet above sea level.
Rather than having to remember that this repeater is on a frequency of 145.190 MHz, all I have to do is search the LED screen for the “Mt-Mit” name I typed into CHIRP for this frequency am I am quickly ready to transmit or listen whichever the case may be. The only catch to using “CHIRP” is that you will need to buy a “programming cable” which comes with its own driver disk to load on your hard drive. As of this writing you can get the programming cable and driver from Amazon.com for $7.35! I will list the direct link to the cable at the end of this article.
Another great (but optional) accessory is a plug in microphone/speaker. While the speaker and built in microphone on the UV-5RA work fine, having an external microphone will allow you to place the radio in a shirt or vest pocket or clipped on a chest rig and still communicate without removing the radio from your pocket (assuming you don’t want to use the vox headset).
All you have to do is plug the microphone into the socket in the side of the radio and you are all set. The great thing about this microphone is that it also doubles as a speaker for the radio! I have mine set up as a “base unit” currently with the radio staying in the charger all the time so all I have to do to broadcast is pick up the external accessory microphone and talk…works great. The external microphone/speaker can be purchased from Amazon.com for $8.80. (see direct link below)
The Antenna: I know, I said the radio comes with an antenna and it does, but if you want to get the best transmit/receive range possible from your radio and hit those far away repeaters, a longer antenna is definitely in order. The little “rubber duck” is fine for local use and may even, depending on your location, allow you to access a local repeater, but if you want to reach repeaters farther away, a better antenna would be a wise investment in my opinion.
There are as many antenna options out there as there are radios but I am only going to mention one…the one I have found is one of the most durable and functional antennas on the market for what I consider a very reasonable price, considering what it can do. I am speaking of a class of antenna called a “Slim Jim”. I am not going to attempt to get into all the wavelengths and building or “cutting” of antenna’s to tune them because to be honest, I don’t understand it all! What I do know is what works for me. I am speaking of an antenna offered by 2wayelectronix.com, found specifically at http://www.2wayelectronix.com/
As you will note, it comes rolled up which means you can easily carry it in a bug-out-bag should you wish to carry your radio in the field. The antenna is made from a piece of heavy flat ribbon wire similar to the old flat ribbon TV lead in wire (if you are old enough to remember such as I am), but much larger. It comes complete with a ferrite choke built in to prevent interference. The method of mounting is entirely up to you. I mounted mine between two PVC pipe standoffs on a PVC pole on the eve of my house.
Another consideration is to tie a piece of paracord to the end (push it through the hole made in the end just for this purpose) and then throw the line over a limb and hoist your antenna up! (the higher the better…more about this later) As you will note on the order form, you are given your choice of end connector. In order to hook to the adapter (discussed next) you will need to choose the UHF Connector so-239. This allows you to use a “standard” piece of coax in between the antenna and your radio. (more on coax later).
The price of this antenna is $22.99 plus shipping which will vary depending on where you live. I will include the direct link again at the bottom of this article. Finally, regarding this antenna, let me just say that I cannot believe the difference it makes. Using the UV-5RA “rubber duck” antenna I never was able to access the Mount Mitchell repeater from my home 35 miles away. However, as soon as I plugged in the “Slim Jim” antenna I could access the repeater with ease, being told on the other end that I was putting out a good signal on my little 4 watt $32.98 radio!
Adapter & Coax: Simply put, if you use the “Slim Jim” antenna then you MUST have an adapter to attach it (or a longer piece of coax) to the UV-5RA. It is called a “Reverse SMA to PL-259 Adapter” which will cost you $16.34 including shipping at Amazon.com (see direct link below). There may be cheaper adapters out there but I know this one works, and take my word for it, if you are as radio illiterate as I am, it is very easy to order the wrong adapter. Please don’t ask me how I know. Still, as long as you can find one that says “Reverse SMA to PL-259” it should work.
Coax (short for coaxial cable) is what you need to be able to place your Slim Jim antenna up in a tree or on a mast on top of your house. Consider it the same as you old TV lead-in wire or the cable that you now have run from your satellite dish to your TV. In fact, that cable will probably work if it has the correct adapters and is 50 ohm.
You can pick up this cable at any number of places including Radio Shack or any number of online sources including Amazon.com. I ordered 50 feet of the RG-8X cable with PL-259 cable end connections from Amazon for $28.61 including shipping. Shop around….you may be able to beat this price as the prices vary. If you don’t want to spend time shopping around, see the direct link below showing where I got mine
Now I have it…what do I do with it?
The first thing to do is get the radio out of the box, make sure everything is there, and then install the battery pack in the back of the radio. Then plug the charging base into your wall outlet and place the radio in the base to charge the internal battery pack. Next turn your attention to your antenna.
If you are going to stick with the small “rubber duck” antenna, simply screw it into the top of the radio and you are finished! However, if you are going with an external antenna like the Slim Jim you need to find a suitable place to mount it…the higher the better. Why higher? Since you are dealing with an FM signal you are transmitting and/or receiving “line of sight” so usually the higher the antenna the longer the line of sight distance is and therefore the longer the distance you can communicate.
The Slim Jim can be mounted any number of ways. As said earlier, I have mine on a PVC pipe mount on my house. Some folks put them in a tree on a mast and some simply hoist them up in a tree using a line thrown over a limb. Just remember that however you do it, you need to BE CAREFUL and not get yourself or the antenna or coax near any electrical lines.
Also, try not to mount the antenna close to any large metal objects as this can lessen the receive/transmit ability of the antenna. The manufacturer of the Slim Jim tells me that as long as the antenna is at least 18” from a metal roof it should be fine. Before I forget, make sure you attach your coax cable to the end of the antenna before hoisting it up in the air. You also need to consider a grounding method for your coax. You can go to the following website for some great information about the Slim Jim antenna including mounting ideas. http://www.n9tax.com/Slim%
Now that you have your antenna mounted and your radio battery charged, you need to attach the coax adapter to the top of the radio and then attach the coax cable to the end of the adapter with the screw on fittings. Your radio is now ready to transmit/receive as soon as you tell it which channel you want to use.
Frequencies (Channels): The UV-5RA has 128 channel memory slots available. As mentioned earlier, there are two ways to use your radio. One is called “simplex” which simply means one radio communicating directly to another radio. Suppose you and your friend(s) want to carry on a conversation. You simply decide on the frequency such as 144.320 MHz and then each of you manually inputs this into your radio using the keypad. That is all there is to it! Once each of you has the same frequency punched in, all you do is key the mic and start talking. As stated earlier, it is advisable to have your HAM radio license if you are going to transmit unless you are in an emergency situation or the rule of law no longer exits. If either of these are the case, then I doubt a license will matter much, if at all.
The second communication method and the one that will give you the most communication range is by using a “repeater”. Think of a repeater as being an “automatic radio” located at some high point in the area. It could be on top of a building, or on top of a mountain, or on top of a tall tower. Notice the pattern here…high in the air. Repeaters operate by receiving your transmission and instantaneously re-broadcasting it again at a higher wattage output. Since your UV-5RA is a low power unit with only 4 watts of output power, if you can hit a repeater with your signal, that repeater will boost your signal to a much higher wattage output and re-broadcast it simultaneously from its high location, greatly extending your communication range.
Each repeater uses two frequencies, receive and transmit. If it used only one frequency it would most likely destroy itself by overloading its circuitry. However, by using two different frequencies and what is known as a duplexer, the repeater allows you broadcast to it on its “receive” frequency and then it “offsets” that frequency to a higher or lower frequency and re-transmits it at a higher wattage output. Typically on 2 meter the “offset” is 600 kilohertz. You will also need to know if this is a plus or minus offset which indicates if the 600 kHz is added to the repeater’s receive frequency or subtracted from the frequency. Many repeaters also require a “sub-audible” tone from your radio before they will listen to you…just another safeguard to keep the repeater working for everyone.
At this point I need to point out that just like your radio, repeaters operate on electric current and in the event that we are faced with some type of disaster or societal collapse that shuts down the power grid, it will most likely negatively impact repeater usage. If you are lucky you will find a repeater to use that is powered not only by grid power but also by an alternate source such as solar or wind power. Also, since HAM radio is such an integral part of most local governmental emergency response communications I would hope that efforts will be made by emergency services to keep the repeaters up and running…at least as long as emergency services exist! If we suffer an EMP then all bets are off for any type of electronic communications. Fortunately the UV-5AR is inexpensive enough that it may allow some to purchase two or more to keep in a Faraday cage if desired, at least giving a means of radio to radio communication locally.
NOW, before you start screaming “THIS IS TOO TECHNICAL” let me say this….now you see why I said you need to buy the programming cable and download the free CHIRP software. If you do this, you simply type in the repeaters receive frequency and whether it is a plus or minus offset and if there is a tone, the tone frequency…and that is it. Once you get all this entered into the spreadsheet your click “upload to radio” and you are done! Believe me…I am not very radio literate but after a few minutes of research and a little trial and error, I was quickly programming frequencies easily. Fortunately the software has a “help” menu as well as a website that will help if you have problems.
At this point you are probably wondering “how do I find a repeater I can access and once I find it how do I know how to program my radio (using CHIRP) to access it”? Simply put, go online and search on Google or Bing for “ham radio repeaters” and look for a link to one of the many online databases that allow you to enter your zip code to find local repeaters. OR, do a search by typing in “amateur radio club” and then the name of your (or a nearby) town or county.
Once you find a clubs website, look around the site and there is a very good chance you will find info relating to a local repeater. In that info you should find the repeaters receive frequency, the offset (most likely 600 kHz) and whether it is plus or minus. You should also find listed the tone frequency, if the repeater requires one…not all do. My advice would be to program in several repeaters at various distances from where you live and then start listening.
You can push the “scan” button on the UV-5RA and it will continuously search your programmed frequencies until it hears activity. LISTEN for a while. It is amazing what you can learn, especially when it comes to broadcast techniques and protocols used by other HAMS. It doesn’t take long to catch on! One last point regarding repeaters…virtually all of them are open to anyone that can access them, free of charge! (there’s that “free” thing again)
How far can I transmit/receive? The short answer is…”it depends”. As stated earlier, since you are using FM transmission, you are pretty much restricted to “line of sight” usage. If you live in an open, flat area, or are using your radio over open water, then you can probably transmit or receive 5 miles or more…maybe even a lot further if you are on a hill and depending on atmospheric conditions. I am hesitant to give a specific distance as there are a lot of variables. Let’s just say that your 2 meter radio will transmit a lot further than a CB, GMRS or FRS radio, at least in my experience. FM transmissions from a 2 meter radio do not normally bounce off the ionosphere so you don’t get the “skip” like we use to talk about in the hay day of CB but they can sometimes bounce off of buildings if you live in an urban setting. There are times however that you do get a measure of skip that will let you talk a few hundred miles, so I read.
NOW… where you get the real distance is when you can hit a repeater that is located at a high elevation. As a case in point, I don’t live within direct line of sight of the Clingman’s Peak repeater on Mount Mitchell, NC, and could not access it with the standard rubber duck antenna, although I could pick up its transmissions. Once I got my Slim Jim antenna hooked up I was able to access this repeater easily with my little 4 watt UV-5RA. Since this repeater is the highest repeater east of the Mississippi, it has a tremendous coverage area which enables me to talk with other HAMS located in East and Middle Tennessee, Southeast Kentucky, Southeast Virginia, Upstate South Carolina, Northern Georgia, and Central North Carolina….and all points in between.
As best I can measure it this means on a good day my coverage area can be up to 400 miles from one side to the other! In fact, I have read reports that on occasion HAMS in Maine and Florida have been able to hit the Mt. Mitchell repeater! I don’t know how often this happens but when it does happen that means anyone accessing this repeater can talk to others up to a thousand miles away!
I have no way of verifying this other than what I read but considering the elevation of the repeater tower I would not rule out the possibility. Another example for me is using a repeater located on Holston Mountain near Bristol, Tennessee. Sometimes I can hit this repeater and once I do, I am able to talk to other HAMS located near Middlesboro, Kentucky which is 85 miles west of Holston Mountain and much further from my home. At this juncture I do need to point out that my home is on top of a mountain at an elevation above 3,000 feet and this adds greatly to my transmit/receive capability. Your mileage may vary up or down depending on where you live and your surrounding terrain.
Now, if you wonder why I brought up Middlesboro, Kentucky, if I am not mistaken this is fairly close to where M.D. lives in the “Redoubt of the East” also known as the Cumberland Plateau! Hence…this brings me back to what I mentioned in the introduction to this article being the mechanism for folks in this group that live in or plan to live in the “Redoubt” being able to communicate with each other!
Even if you have no intent of ever living in or even visiting this area, still this radio setup will give you the capability to talk to others in your own area and far outside your area if you are so minded! To conclude discussing repeaters I need to mention what is called a linked repeater system.
I’m no expert on this by any stretch of the imagination but as best I can understand, a linked system simply means that one repeater links to another repeater which links to another repeater and on and on and on. If you are fortunate enough to live in an area that has a linked repeater system then by being able to access any repeater in the system you could be linked to all other repeaters which could increase you effective range tremendously!
NOTE: It needs to be noted here that just because you cannot transmit to a distant repeater or radio receiver does not mean you can’t receive from it. That repeater or radio may be running much higher output wattage (power) than your 4 watt radio which explains why you can hear transmissions from it but cannot transmit to it. Wattage on your end does not relate to how far a distance you can receive from, only to how far away you can transmit. They type and height of your antenna directly relates to both transmit and receive capabilities on your end.
One final point to consider regarding how far you can communicate involves other HAM operators. It is not uncommon for amateur radio operators (those holding a General or Extra license) to use more than one type of radio. While 2 meter and 70cm are most used for line of sight communications (referred to respectively as VHF and UHF radios) another type of radio communications referred to as HF can be used to communicate long distances, even to the other side of the planet!
While an operator holding a technician license is not authorized to use the HF bands, still he/she may be able to contact another operator via 2 meter that does have HF equipment. Imagine you are in a SHTF situation and you need to find out about the well being of a friend or relative located on the other side of the country, or that person needs to find out about you. If you are able to contact another HAM that has HF equipment, that operator may very well be able to contact someone close to where your friend or relative lives and get a message to them or receive a message from them directed to you.
During crisis situations amateur radio operators do this regularly, having specific organizations set up for such a purpose. This is just one more reason to get to know the HAMs in your area by communicating with them and listening. Many times I have heard operators on my 2 meter radio talking about a contact they just made on one of the HF bands, a contact half way across the nation!
Putting the numbers together along with where to buy:
Since the title of this article includes “on the cheap” it is time to put the numbers together. Below you will find the necessary items discussed above, what they cost me and the direct link where you can get them. At this point let me say that I have no financial stake in any of these companies and do not stand to profit in any manner from your purchasing any of the listed items.
However, as stated earlier, if you decide to buy any of the items sold by Amazon.com (which includes everything except the antenna) PLEASE click through M.D.’s Amazon.com portal so that when you purchase he can make a little money on the deal to compensate him for all he does for us through his site.
- Radio: Baofeng UV-5RA Cost: $33.27 (free shipping using Amazon “Prime”)
- Antenna: Slim Jim Cost: $22.99 (shipping extra-amount depends on shipping location)
- Coax: RG8x (50 ohm) 50 ft. Cost: $34.99 (price includes shipping)
- Coax adapter: SMA to PL259 Cost: $5.70 (plus shipping) (shop around on this cable and you may find a cheaper one…just make sure it is a SMA to PL259)
- Programming cable : Cost: $ 7.35 (free shipping using Amazon “Prime”)
- Aux. microphone/speaker Cost: $8.80 (free shipping using Amazon “Prime”)
- CHIRP programming software Cost: FREE
- Exam training guide Cost: FREE
- Sample tests Cost: FREE
It should be noted that shipping is factored in on some of the above but not others. Where Amazon listed a set shipping amount, I included it in the price. For other items they only listed it as free when using Amazon “Prime”. If you do not have Amazon Prime (which requires an annual fee) then by all means, shop around!
Amazon often lists the same item from several suppliers so if you look around you might find free shipping or their own free shipping on orders $25.00 and over. Shipping on the antenna will vary depending on where you live. I think mine was around $5.00 which still brought me in under $120.00 total!
Your cost could vary up or down a little depending on price changes for specific items or the length of coax you need and if you can find it on sale or not. I noticed that some of the prices are up and some down between the time I ordered mine about 3 months ago and now. Anyway you cut it, $120.00 for a HAM radio setup that allows you to communicate for hundreds of miles seems like a bargain to this Old Hillbilly but I guess it all boils down to one’s financial ability. (Note that I did not list the cost of taking the test either as this apparently varies based on where you take it so I won’t even hazard a guess what yours will cost although mine cost $14.00)
I hope this rambling article that you no doubt thought would never end is of some help to you. As I stated at the start, I am a novice to HAM radio and am in no way saying the way I did it is the best or only way to do it. All I can say is that it works for me and I am pleased. Should you have any questions about my experiences I will do my best to respond to them in the remarks section. I am sure there are lots of others here though that can answer your HAM radio questions much better than I can.
May God richly bless each of you in all you do for His glory.
Prizes for this round in our non fiction writing contest include…
- First Place winner will receive – A $150 gift certificate for $150 off Wolf ammo courtesy of LuckyGunner. A Humless 2.5 Watt Portable Solar Panel courtesy of LPC Survival, Sopakco Sure-Pak MRE – 12 Meals courtesy of Campingsurvival.com.
- Second Place winner will receive – One Emergency Seed Bank (stored in military ammo cans) with over 33 varieties of non-hybrid garden seed courtesy of TheSurvivalistBlog.net.
- Third Place winner will receive – a one year subscription to Personal VPN service courtesy of unspyable and a copy of my book 31 Days to Survival: A Complete Plan for Emergency Preparedness.
Be sure to read the rules before entering… This contest will end on September 9 2013