The subject of Ham Radio, in relation to preparedness, is one that’s often overlooked. When it is talked about, it’s often an afterthought in an article, or it’s presented by someone who has no real experience with radio communication technology.
In my opinion, Ham Radio still plays a very important role in emergency communications and preparedness. If you’re serious about survival and prepping, you really need to look into HAM Radio.
In general, radio communications is a pretty complicated subject; one that can hardly be covered in a single article. That being said, I want to answer some of the most common questions I receive about Ham Radio, and why I feel it’s still important to survivalists and preppers.
What is Ham Radio
Ham Radio, sometimes called amateur radio, is a popular hobby and vital emergency service that officially became regulated by the government in 1914 when Congress passed the Radio Act of 1912. Since then, amateur radio operators have been required to be licensed and have been restricted to certain designated frequencies.
Today amateur radio operators communicate with each other over a wide frequency spectrum using various types of radios and transmission modes, including CW, phone, SSB, FM, packet, TV, PACTOR, PSK31, RTTY, and other modes. Ham operators can bounce signals off the ground, the ionosphere, and even off of the Moon to successfully transmit their messages.
What does ham radio stand for
While most amateur radio operators are probably completely unaware of its origins, the term ham started out as a derogatory term to describe amateur operators who were competing for time and signal supremacy with government and commercial radio stations.
Amateur radio operators could effectively jam commercial stations operating in the area, so these commercial operators started referring to the interference as “hams.” The name stuck, and now we call ourselves hams.
Why is Ham Radio Still Important for Emergency Communications?
In an age where communication is often taken for granted, it’s easy to overlook the importance of Ham Radio.
I often receive questions like: “Why do I need Ham Radio when I have a cell phone?” or “Didn’t the internet kill Ham Radio?” While these modern forms of communication may have shifted the attention away from Ham Radio, by no means did it make it unnecessary. In fact, during a disaster, it’s very likely that these modern forms of communication will be the first ones to fail.
The number one reason for preparedness minded people to consider Ham Radio is its reliability during times of crisis. Since the early 1900s, this form of communication has reliably made it through every major crisis, disaster, and emergency situation with flying colors. When all other forms of communication fail, Hams are often the ones who are called upon to help communicate in and out of the disaster zone.
When the grid goes down, the Ham Bands will still be alive and very active.
What about my Emergency Radios, can’t I just use one of those to get information?
Probably Not! Emergency radios are great; I have a few of them myself, but during a large-scale disaster, they’ll probably become completely useless.
Think about it this way; most Emergency radios have the normal local AM & FM Bands, a few weather channels, and possibly some shortwave frequencies. During a large-scale disaster, most of these radio stations will either shut down because of a lack of power, or they’ll go silent when their employees stop showing up for work.
On the other hand, Ham Radio will be more active than ever. During any kind of disaster, small or large, the Ham bands light up. From being able to monitor local communications to monitoring what’s happening nationally or even throughout the world, Ham Radio allows you to find out what’s really going on.
One thing to keep in mind about Ham Radio is its operators are independent operators that don’t answer to any corporations or government officials. Yes, you do have to be licensed; but the people you’re listening to are independent operators that have no agenda, no filters, and no reason to lie about the situation. You will hear raw, unfiltered news right from the source.
How will I power my Radio when the Grid goes down?
While some radios require massive amounts of power, there are a lot of Hams who enjoy the challenges of operating on next to nothing. In Ham lingo, it’s known as QRPing. And yes, these weird terms and phrases actually mean something and are extremely useful when operating in low power situations. (Check out our ham radio cheat sheet for more terms)
From using solar, wind, and other alternative power sources to the batteries in your vehicles, boats, or RV’s there are a number of ways to power a Ham Radio after the grid goes down. In fact, some radios can be operated with little more than the batteries in your smoke detector.
Personally, I’ve talked to people from around the globe with less than 10 watts of power. If you really know what you’re doing, you can transmit with even less. I use an Icom 703, with a battery pack that can be recharged with a small solar panel. Here is an example of one of my solar powered Ham Radio Rigs.
Amateur Radio License Questions
How to get a Ham Radio License: How hard is it to get the License?
In general, radio communications is a pretty complicated subject, one that’s impossible to cover in a single article. That being said, the licensing process itself is actually pretty easy.
Over the last decade, the testing process has been simplified. Some of the past requirements, such as learning Morse code, are no longer required to obtain a license. In my opinion, it’s a shame they’ve dumbed down the testing by removing the Morse code requirement, but I’ll save that rant for another day. What’s important here is that almost anyone, with a little bit of practice, can get their license.
How to become a ham radio operator
The Technician class license is the entry-level license of choice for most new ham radio operators. To earn the Technician license, you need to pass a 35 question examination. The test covers basic radio theory, FCC regulations, and basic operating practices. The license allows you to access the very popular 2-meter band.
The cost of the exam is $15. You can find a testing center through the ARRL Website.
To really get the most out of Ham Radio, you should shoot for at least a General Class License. This license will require you to take another 35 questions examination, covering more advanced radio theory, regulations and operating practices. Once you pass the General Exam, you will have access to all VHF/UHF Amateur bands and most HF privileges (10 through 160 meters).
Can’t I just buy a Radio without becoming licensed?
I often come across people who buy the equipment without ever learning how to use it. In my opinion, it’s the same as buying a gun and then never learning how to fire it. While there’s nothing stopping you from buying the equipment, I probably wouldn’t do it without learning how to use it first.
Each type of equipment, power source, antenna, and communication mode has its own set of strengths, weaknesses, and intricacies. Ham Radio equipment isn’t something that you can just pull out of the box during an emergency. Just like every other skill in life, it requires practice; and in the case of Ham Radio, a lot of it.
I refuse to be part of something where I have to be licensed by the FCC.
I hear this argument a lot; and while I usually do everything I can to keep government out of my life, in the case of HAM Radio, I feel the benefits far outweigh the risk. So unless you’ve sworn off driving for the very same reasons, I advise anyone who’s serious about learning the ins and outs of emergency communications to take a good look at becoming a licensed Amateur Radio Operator (HAM).
What kind of Ham Radio should I Buy?
If you’re just starting and have your Technician class license, you don’t need to spend a whole lot of money to get started. In fact, a Baofeng UV-5R Radio will only set you back about $35 and is a great way to get started. The dual-band UV-5R covers the 2-meter band and 70CM ham band (136-174 & 400-480 MHz FM), making it the perfect choice for beginners.
Do you know of any good resources that can help?
I usually recommend any of the study manuals from Gordon West. His materials have been helping Hams for decades, and they are something that I actually used when I first got into the hobby.