Ham Radio Intro Roadmap
The purpose of this guide is to act as a starting point for preparedness-minded individuals to see the benefits of HAM radios as an emergency communication solution and answer questions that were difficult to find the answers to when I first began. This is not an end-all-be-all guide from a HAM expert or even enthusiast. This is a layman's guide to getting started, and showing the paths to further your knowledge in the interest of adding another tool to your toolbox. Many of these topics will be extremely over-simplified. My hope is that this guide will spur readers to develop their own enthusiasm and continue their education.
As an additional note, I am not affiliated with any agency that would oversee any radio transmission and as such it's not my business if you choose to get a HAM license or not. Keep in mind that choosing to transmit on HAM frequencies without a license in most situations is unlawful - I presume you are an adult and as such are capable of making your own decisions.
Why should you care?
Why should you care about HAM radios? It's outdated technology compared to the modern cellular phone, it's bulkier, it doesn't communicate as far, it has no apps and it's less convenient, and in some cases it's more expensive. True. Radios are not as fun or as sexy as guns or other preparedness equipment, and it's usually pretty boring. Objectively true.
What's also true is that it's still an effective and commonly-used form of communications, especially when your primary method of communications are down. How often does that happen? As of the time of this writing (February 2022) a winter storm has affected large parts of Texas, and cellular communications have been negatively effected. Reports of failed service are common. If you had an emergency in that situation, how would you reach for help? Could you communicate with your neighbors, your prep group, or anyone at all?
Night vision has been compared to "buying a super power", in the same way that learning how to pilot an aircraft or using scuba equipment gives you the "super power" of flying or breathing under water, albeit at a great expense. Purchasing body armor allows you to become more bullet resistant, another super power. It's my opinion that being able to communicate over great distance instantly, completely detached from a cellular network is a "super power" as well.
Even if you never plan on transmitting, the ability to gain intelligence over your surrounding area is a very real benefit. Local repeaters, while typically packed with old men talking about what doctors appointments they have that day, can familiarize you with your local community - and in the event of adverse weather or emergency, these repeaters may be your only method of reaching out to someone that may be able to render aid. We'll talk more about repeaters later.
What can you do with a Ham Radio?
For this roadmap we're going to focus on two main purposes of radio use.
#1 Communicating with a small group of people within a range of a couple miles.
You have a group that needs communication within a couple miles of your location. Family, neighbors, training group, etc. This is helpful for obvious reasons. This is also where your fun LARP gear comes into use, by way of comm headsets/ear pro.
#2 Communicating with local repeaters, allowing you to greatly expand your area of coverage.
You are able to listen and transmit to repeaters which typically have very large ranges of many miles.
We're going to start with #1 and then move to #2
What do I need?
You need, in my opinion, this list of items which will total around $100.
Two Baofeng UV-5R - about $35ea
The ubiquitous Baofeng which adorns so many plate carriers on Instagram. I want to make one thing very clear from the outset - this radio costs about $35. What level of quality do you imagine a $35 radio to be? It can receive, it can transmit, and it can be programmed just like an expensive radio in the same fashion a $129 pistol is the same as a tuned 2011 because they both fire the same cartridge. This is a cheap radio, it is prone to cheap things - that includes durability, quality control, water resistance, computer connection problems and so on. That said, it is my upmost recommendation that you actually buy TWO of these radios if you can - that way you learn how to get them talking to each other, and can then have more radios to give away to friends/etc. later. Being able to drop off a radio at a neighbors house in an emergency is powerful.
We'll talk more later about better radios, and what you should upgrade to later, but a Baofeng is great for learning on, and again, makes a great radio to hand off to others.
A GENUINE Baofeng programming cable - $26ish
I'm not going to bore you with why, but you have to find a REAL programming cable, there are fakes and they're a pain in the ass to deal with. Here's a link to a genuine one. I'm of the opinion that learning how to program with a computer and cable is the better way to start, and will make learning how to manually programming the radio (programming it on the device itself, without using a computer) easier in the future. Just because a radio comes with a cable, does not mean it's a genuine cable.
*Note* - you will need an 8th grade understanding of computers. If you don't have this, google will help you through almost anything. Please keep in mind, children program these radios every day. If they can do it, you can do it. Specifically you will need to know how to install a program, and potentially how to use the Device Manager (search it on your computer) to uninstall/reinstall/update driver devices on your computer. This isn't scary - again, children do this.
CHIRP Programming software - $free
This is a tremendous little program, and it's free. This is where you will be programming frequencies into your radio. The benefit of doing it over a computer is that it's not only faster, but you're also able to do things like add custom names. So your local repeater can display the name of the city it's in to help you keep your repeaters or team channel names organized. Programming manually does not allow you to do this.
Ok I have that, now what
Good job. You have two radios, now let's get them talking to one another.