Please feel free to distribute this information to whoever you like! Credit me or not, doesn't really matter to me. I just want the information out there.
This is intended for US amateurs, I apologize for not including info for people in other countries. I'm simply ignorant of the rules there.
I've tried to break this down into sections in FAQ form to help people just get the info they want.
What is ham radio?
Amateur radio, often called ham radio, is both a hobby and a service in which participants, called "hams," use various types of radio communications equipment to communicate with other radio amateurs for public service, recreation and self-training. Due to the extreme long range available to ham radio operators (30+ miles simplex with a basic license) the FCC requires a license in order to use this equipment. The following wikipedia article is a good read on not only US based amateur radio, but worldwide history and information.
Why should I care about ham radio?
- DISTANCE! With modest mobile (in car) gear and a technicians license you can talk over 30 miles with your own power, radio to radio. If you use a repeater (stationary devices all over the us that extend your range) your range can include hundreds of miles.
- CLARITY! Another nice attribute of ham radio is that it uses FM (CB uses AM just for reference). FM and AM are just like what you remember from listening to your cars radio. You could definitely hear the radio station on AM, but FM was remarkably clearer. Same thing here with ham radio.
- HARDWARE! If you're a gadget geek or just looking for something simple, ham radio offers it all. This is technology that is still advancing all the time. There are tons of options for some of the best electronic communications gear available.
- EMERGENCY! Need to make a phone call but your cell phone doesn't work? Ham has you covered. Need to talk to someone in Arizona from your trip in Mexico? Ham still has you covered. Want to send out your exact GPS coordinates all the time so others can find you easily if necessary? Ham has you covered again! The original intent of the US amateur service was to prepare the general public for emergency communications. Ham licenses were BUILT for it! ***All of these features will be a function of what frequencies you are using and what is available in your area, they are examples only meant to indicate the vast number of emergency features available to ham operators***
Test? OMG! How hard is it?
No reason to get your underwear in a bunch, the basic test is very easy. I know that many of you probably associate math or signals geeks with ham radio and think that the tests are a lot harder than they actually are. The good news is that CW, or morse code, is no longer required for ANY test. If you have no idea what I'm talking about don't worry about it, all tests are simple multiple choice written tests. The three current available licenses in the US and they must be taken sequentially.
- Technician class - This will get you the basic privileges 99.9% of you are most likely to use on a regular basis while traveling in your FJ. There are lots of options with this "basic" class and it will give you what you need to talk well over 30 miles in many areas. It's not the ultimate emergency tool like the general license is, but in many places will allow you to communicate very long distances to call for help (or your buddies) if necessary. The test is VERY easy and over half of it is common sense stuff about safety. Most people will pass with ease even if they bomb every single math question on the test. With that said, if you can divide and multiply, then you'll ace the math stuff as well. Don't take my word for it, take some practice exams and see for yourself.
- General class - This is where you really step up your distance of communication. General class is all about HF (or high frequency) privileges. HF has better distance propagation than what you see in the Tech privileges and at higher power in some instances. This is the license you want if you need to talk to someone in Arizona from your Baja 1000 trip under your own power. The ultimate in emergency communications. However that comes at greater complexity and cost of equipment. The test and math requirements are quite a bit higher than the tech exam but you won't be doing calculus on the test. Most of these tests are memorization of frequencies and law. There is a lot more focus on circuit design and understanding of components in this test. While not impossible, it will take a lot more studying for those of you who are not already EEs.
- Extra class - If you get this far, you are probably really into the hobby side of things and already know what this will do for you. In general, this class will appeal to people who want to gain access to the entire range of frequencies that amateurs in the US enjoy. It won't give you a lot in terms of frequency privilege, but those frequencies you do gain access to can be very helpful with communication with nations outside of the US. *see xtatik's excellent post on the bottom of page 4 for a good description of what this means* You also will receive the benefit of a extra short call sign if that suits your fancy.
How do I get my ham license?
There are apps for the iPhone and Android that help you study, and gain aptitude.
iPhone = Ham Tech (free)
Android = Ham Radio Study (free)
If you're more of a book learner, it's hard to go wrong with the ARRL references
Sometimes joining the ARRL can come with a book. It's always worth a check and it's a great organization to support anyway.
Here are the practice exams. These are the ACTUAL questions you will see on the test picked randomly from a pool of around 300. Take this enough times and you'll have seen every question possible on the test.
http://www.qrz.com/ht// - these now require you to login but you don't need a license to get an account.
Here's where you find a local place in your area to take the test:
I took my exam at:
Sponsor: DEVRY ARC&WEST VALLEY ARC
Time: 9:00 AM (Walk-ins allowed)
Contact: DAVID R MORRILL
Location: DEVRY UNIVERSITY
2149 W DUNLAP AVE
PHOENIX, AZ 85021
Cost is $15 to take the test.
What should I look for in a radio?
This is probably the first question most people ask. This will be from the new tech licensees point of view. If you have your general, you already know all of this. There are several decisions you'll need to make about what kind of radio you want. I'll cover some very basics here.
Hand held (HT) or Mobile?
The number one thing you get with a permanent (mobile) radio is power. 10 times the power usually (5w vs 50w+). Hand helds are generally very limited in power. Both can usually be used with external antennas and there are radios available in both that do just about anything you want. However, the power is worth it. If it's your first radio and you're using it in your vehicle, get a mobile unit. 50w makes a huge difference in your distance. You will limit your range if you decide to go with a hand held for your first radio, but will gain some mobility outside of the vehicle if that's important to you.
Some radios actually have two radios built in one. This allows you to monitor two stations at once and switch between them at will. This is very useful for monitoring a repeater for very long distance communication, while still talking to your friends on a simplex channel. It's not a must have, but most will find it very useful. Some of these radios will even let you use them as repeaters (cross band repeat), but don't worry too much about that if it doesn't make sense. It's mostly useful to listening to two frequencies at once.
Single, Dual, Triband, or Quad+ radio?
The first thing you'll need to decide is if you want a dual (or even tri) band radio or not. The two most used frequency groups in ham radio are 2m and 70cm (aka 440). There are many excellent and inexpensive 2m only radios. However, you will severely limit your access to repeaters if you choose to get a radio that does not support the 70cm frequency. This doesn't mean there aren't a lot of repeaters on 2m, but 70cm is very popular for repeater use as well. Most of the time while on the trail or traveling with friends we all use 2m simplex (radio to radio communications). If that's all you care about and you're willing to deal with losing access to some 70cm repeaters, just get a 2m single band radio. As for tri-band radios and above, I do not recommend them to most people. 6m and other frequencies available to tech licensees aren't highly used by others at this time and it can make antenna configurations more complex. If you've got the money, go for it! It can't hurt to have too much access to additional options, but it's something most will never use.
PL, CTCSS, "encoding" oh my!
All modern radios will support Privacy "tones". These are tones at a certain frequency that will give you access to repeaters and special equipment listening for communication with that signal. You WANT a radio that supports this. Without it you'll be limited mostly to simplex only. This is only a concern if you are looking at much older radios in the used market. Make sure it has tone capability for use with repeaters! It has other uses as well, but this is the most important one. CTCSS is usually the technology keyword you should look for. DCS is also common in some radios and is the digital equivalent of the tone based CTCSS system. Don't worry if the radio doesn't support DCS, it's not commonly used at this time.
There are lots of other features I could discuss, but this will arm you with some basics that you need to know. Post in this thread if you have questions about other features.
No really, just tell me what radio to buy!
There are lots of options I'm not even familiar with. I used Yaesu and Kenwood, so that's what I know. Here's some options ordered by price for mobiles, each unit includes the features of the previous unless indicated otherwise.
Yaesu FT-2800M - SINGLE band 2m only, mil standard tough, high 65w output (highest power output off all in this list)
Yaesu FT-7800M - Steps up to Dual band 2m/70cm, steps down to 50w on 2m and 40w on 70cm and you loose the "mil standard" (it's still a tough radio)
Yaesu FT-8800M - Steps up to DUAL receive (This is my recommendation and the radio I use)
Kenwood TM-D710A - Built in TNC for APRS, Feature rich king of the dual band/dual receive 2m/70cm radios. I also use this radio and it will appeal to the gadget geek in you.
If you're looking for a real budget buy, watch the used markets or ham radio swap meets. These radios really are tough and tend to last. I wouldn't be scared of buying used.
What's a good antenna mount for the X vehicle?
One of the easiest mounts for most is a lip mount for the back door/hood/whatever. The one I've used is the comet CP-5M. I don't really like the NMO connector, so I usually go for the smaller PL-259 option. Either will work just fine, so don't get hung up on that. If it comes with enough coax to reach your radio, just get the package that comes with coax. This may not work for everyone. Our installation wasn't enough to reach all the way to the dash! Do your measurements first before you buy.
This mount isn't the most ideal ground plane possible, but I've found it to be very adequate. Simplex tests have repeatedly reached 20-30 miles. However, if you have the room, a center roof mount, like a magnet mount or similar, is almost always better.
I've used both diamond and comet mounts. Either brand will serve you well.
What kind of antenna should I get?
This will be dependent on if you need a dual or single band. These antennas are all rated for the frequencies they support. So if you need a 2m, just buy a 2m rated antenna. Likewise for the 2m/70m. Those of you who have dealt with tuning CB will appreciate the fact that 2m/70cm antennas require NO tuning. At least that's what they usually tell you. Any system can be tuned for optimal SWR, but mostly unnecessary here. I recommend getting the tallest antenna you think you can get away with for the areas you plan on travelling to. If you're constantly travelling to places with very low brush you may be tempted to get a rubber ducky antenna. These antennas are NOT very good. If it's the only option you have, go for it, it's better than nothing. However, comet has some new antennas with built in base springs that look very promising for mobile applications. Check the SS-460SB and the SS-680SB antennas. If I were to buy one today it would probably be one of these two.
I've used comet and diamond radio products. They both make great similar antennas.
I've heard that ham radio requires a lot of special etiquette?
I don't think it's as bad as some people make it out to be but there are some rules you should know.
- There is absolutely no foul language allowed on ham radio frequencies.
- You are required by the FCC to state your callsign every 10 minutes and at the end of any conversation. This is very important on repeaters but tends to get more relaxed during simplex communication. However, that is the rule!
- You may not broadcast music of any kind (unless you're in the international space station)
- You may not intentionally encrypt or otherwise obfuscate your communication. Normal speech is generally required.
This is a good list of the basics. The rules are easy to follow and it shouldn't impact your ability to have good trail communication. There are more that you'll learn before your test or you can read about them here:
Hope this helps.