Survival-Pax Blog: Every Prepper Should Be A Ham - Introduction to Ham Radio

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Every Prepper Should Be A Ham - Introduction to Ham Radio

Going along with my last blog post about Ham Radio, I wanted to continue with the subject of Ham Radio in this post. I personally believe that Ham Radio Communications will be essential to rebuilding a community after an emergency.
Ham Radio stands for Amateur Radio.
It does not stand for Meat Radio.
source: http://uncyclopedia.wikia.com/

I see many preppers on the internet promoting food/water storage, flashlights, first aid, having an emergency kit and a Bug Out Vehicle, even going so far as having a fully-stocked house away from their normal home just in case of an emergency! While all of these things are either essential or extremely helpful, what I don't see mentioned as often is the need for a solid set of communications equipment.

In my opinion, after shelter and water, communications is the next most essential thing to have, even before food. An emergency can turn into a disaster if communication lines are broken and that can happen much quicker than you can run out of food. You will be dependent upon communications to rebuild after a disaster.

We, as a society, have become so dependent upon cell phone networks and internet, that many of us can't really imagine life without them. In an emergency, some of the first things to go are cell phone communications. Looking at an event as recent as the Boston Marathon Bombings has shown us just how fragile cell phone networks are. During any large disaster, these networks typically become jammed, as too many people try and connect through the network. The Boston Bombing was only a very localized disaster. Now think of what would happen if the disaster was more widespread? It's safe to say that the first thing that would go down in an emergency is the cell phone network, which is why securing communications should be something very high on every prepper's list of preps.

When I talk about communications, I don't mean walkie talkies or CB Radio. Those are great for communications within a 1-5 miles, but useless for communicating any further than that. Good news is that there are radios that can communicate for up to several thousand miles on fairly little power and these radios can be used by people who hold a Ham Radio License.

How Do Ham Radios Work?

Ham Radios are able to communicate to very far distances by utilizing the ionosphere, which is a layer of charged gases in the upper atmosphere. These particles gain their charge from solar radiation. Certain radio wavelengths have the ability to be deflected off of these charged particles. This enables them to skip off of the the ionosphere and back down off of the earth, back and forth, for several thousand miles. This is called sky-wave propagation.

An illustration of sky-wave and ground-wave propagation.
source: http://www.moonraker.com.au/
Shorter radio wavelengths travel through the ionosphere out into space and are limited by the curvature of the earth as far as propagation distance is concerned. Basically, if you can see it, you can talk to it. This is called ground-wave propagation. The upside is that transmitting using ground-wave propagation is very dependable, and can only be blocked by large structures or geological landforms (mountains, valleys, etc). Since mountains and buildings aren't likely to change very often, if you can communicate using ground-wave propagation now, you will be able to do so in an emergency.

Ground-wave propagation can still be used to transmit for about a hundred miles because of repeater stations. Repeaters are devices that listen and retransmit your signal. They often have excellent antennas placed at very high locations, which give them a really long range. By using a repeater, you can hit stations pretty far away using a very small and portable ham radio.

Antennas that are high up have the best signal
propagation and reception.
Antennas

"Height is Might" when it comes to antennas. I'm sure that many of you have seen radio towers before. You know, the super-tall skeletal structures standing in the middle of a cornfield. The reason for antenna towers being so tall is that a tall antenna enables you to receive and transmit signals further and clearer. Antennas have a further line of sight, so much so that an antenna on a tall tower might reach out to over 100 miles, whereas antennas close to the ground would have a line of sight distance of only 10 miles. Repeater stations generally have tall antennas with a high gain, which means that they are very sensitive to receiving and transmitting signals.



Skip Distance

There is a downside to sky-wave propagation and it has to do with a phenomena called skip distance. Skip distance refers to the closest point that your signal will reach after bouncing off of the ionosphere once. You will not be able to contact people that are beyond your line of sight but closer than your skip distance. This blacked out area is called the skip zone. This means that on a given wavelength, you will be able to communicate to somebody 1,000 miles away but not 300 miles away. However, with a good antenna and a network of repeaters, the communication black-out of the skip zone can be mitigated.

Types of Ham Radios

An HT such as the Baofeng UV-B5
can be had for around $40!
There are three basic types of Ham Radios that people use most commonly. The first type and the type that most people start with is the HT or Handy-Talkie. These are handheld radios similar in size and weight to a walkie talkie but with many more capabilities. These radios generally transmit on 2m and 70cm wavelengths and are great for line of sight communications. If the station that you are transmitting to has a good antenna, you can communicate for upwards of  20+ miles in good conditions. You can expect transmissions of about 2-5 miles between HTs, which usually have weaker antennas. Whereas walkie talkies are limited to 0.5 Watts of transmitting power, HT radios have about 5 Watts of power, allowing them to transmit further. You can also tune the specific frequency of an HT radio, so you are not limited to only 20 or so channels like you would be with an walkie talkie. HTs are also becoming more and more affordable. A decent dual-band HT (2m and 70cm capable) can be purchased for around $40!

The second type of Ham Radio is a Mobile setup, which means that the radio is mounted to a vehicle, similar to what you would see in a police squad car. Mobile Ham Radios have more power than HTs, around 50 watts, and generally have better antennas, as well. They are also more expensive than HTs, priced at around $300-500 for a decent radio. Mobile radios can have a range of about 30-50 miles. Further than that, you are limited by terrain conditions and the curvature of the earth. Generally, mobile radios are limited to using the 2m and 70cm bands, however, there are radios that use all amateur radio bands.

The Yaesu FT DX-9000 radio is top of the line,
but comes at a price tag of about $11,000.
The third type of Ham Radio is a larger, more stationary setup. These larger radios can transmit on various wavelengths. Some of the more expensive radios can transmit on all common amateur frequencies while others can only transmit on longer wavelengths (High Frequency/HF) or shorter wavelengths (Very High Frequency/VHF and Ultra High Frequency UHF). These radios have about 100W output as a maximum (some go higher), but they can work along with an amplifier to get up to 1500W output (legal limit). Since these radios are generally not moved around much, they are usually set up using high-gain antennas on high antenna towers, which maximize the distance that the signal can travel or be received. These are the most expensive radios, some of them costing several thousands of dollars!... even more when factoring in the cost of an antenna and a possible amplifier. Purchasing one of these is definitely an investment, but well worth it if you are serious about emergency preparedness.

How to Get Ham License

The main barrier for entry into Ham Radio isn't so much the possibly expensive equipment; rather it's the licensing requirement. There is a good reason for having a licensing requirement and that has to do with how powerful of a tool Ham Radio can be. Since a person with a radio can potentially mess with communications several thousands of miles away, it is important to have Ham operators know how their signal transmits in order to limit interference, especially interference with airplane, police or other emergency communications.

There are three classes of licenses in the United States, and each class has different transmitting privileges. The first class is called Technician. Technicians are essentially limited to wavelengths with poor long-distance propagation. The second class is called General, and it gives you transmitting privileges on all Ham wavelengths. The third class is called Extra, and it gives you transmitting privileges on a few extra frequencies that the General class doesn't have access to.

The different transmitting privileges can best be explained by looking at this chart. (click on it to zoom in)
Delving into Ham Radio will first require the attainment of a Technician License. In order to get one, you'll have to study for a few hours, and you should be able to pass the exam with relative ease.

Many local Ham Radio Clubs will administer exams every so often, since the exams need to be taken in person. You can find a local Ham Radio testing site here:
http://www.arrl.org/find-an-amateur-radio-license-exam-session

The exams usually cost around $15 to take, and once you take one, you can continue taking further exams for no extra charge. Believe it or not, there are people who have passed the Technician, General and Extra exams all in one day! Once you pass, you will receive a callsign from the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) , which will be your "name" when using Ham Radio.

Study Materials

Like I said, in order to pass the Ham Radio exam, you will need to study. Here are some great resources for study material.

HamTestOnline - http://www.hamradiolicenseexam.com/
A great resource for studying on your own. This is what I used to pass my Technician exam. It is an online study program comprised of various questions found on the the license exams. This is a paid program, but it if you study, you are more or less guaranteed to pass your exam.

KB6NU No-Nonsense Study Guides - http://www.kb6nu.com/tech-manual/
I plan on using this to study for the General Class license. The Technician and General Study Guides are free, while the Extra class guide is available for a meager $7.99.

HamExam.org - http://hamexam.org/
A free resource for practice exams and question pools for the current Ham Radio exams. While I wouldn't recommend it for study, these are a good way to review or see how likely you are to pass the actual exam.

I hope that this post helped introduce you to the world of Ham Radio. There is still a lot more to Ham Radio than I mentioned, but I think that this post more or less covered the very basics.

I personally believe that Communications are the single-most underrated aspect when it comes to prepping. If you are serious about preparing for emergencies, then you really need to have a Ham Radio license, along with the equipment to communicate in a way that isn't dependent upon cell phone, telephone or internet networks.

Take care guys!

Simon - Survival-Pax Team Member

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