Ham Radio Survival Communications on the Cheap

What’s the difference between a ham radio …. a shortwave radio …. and a CB radio ?

Nice info by M.D. Creekmore on thesurvivalistblog.net about a Ham radio.

Part I: Why HAM?/Do I need a license?/How do I get a license?

Water… food… shelter… medical supplies… security. Since you are reading this on a blog dedicated to survival then I imagine you have these priorities covered or at least are working toward covering them. But what about communications? If the world goes to hell in a hand basket will you be able to contact relatives, friends, loved ones, or emergency personnel when the communications infrastructure goes down? Even if you don’t want to transmit, will you at least be able to listen to shortwave frequencies to hear what is going on in the world? Maybe even gain a little INTEL as to what is going on in your area? I frequently read posts on various survival forums where folks like us say they are woefully inadequate when it comes to communications and quite often some of the reasons given are:

  1. I don’t know where to start.
  2. It is all too technical for me.
  3. I have no clue what kind of equipment to buy.
  4. Getting good equipment is just too expensive.
  5. I don’t want to get involved in the license process required for some types of radio use.

I can say for certainty that EACH of these thoughts was in my mind for several years before I took the plunge into amateur radio.

Hopefully in this article I can shed some light on at least one area that I have had a small measure of success in….amateur radio commonly referred to as HAM radio. First off let me state for the record that I am a novice when it comes to HAM radio, having received my Technician license less than 4 months ago. I dabbled with CB back in the late 70’s and more recently with marine radio, but until just recently I had ZERO experience with amateur radio. About two years ago I contracted a rare muscle disease that is rapidly crippling me to the point that I spend most of my days sitting in the house “playing” on the internet. Much of that “playing” eventually turned into research involving HAM radio. As stated, I am a novice and about as far from an expert as one can get but feel I have made some progress, learning that amateur radio communications does not inherently have to be overly technical or expensive. It is my intent in this article to share some of my experiences with those of you in hopes that you may benefit from my research and brief experience. Before I go further let me say that there are probably many who will read this that know far more about HAM radio this I will ever know. To those individuals I say…please bear with me and forgive my oversimplifications and PLEASE, jump in and add your expertise or correction should you feel it is warranted.

Why HAM?

Why not CB or FRS or GMRS or Marine? Over the last 40 years I have dabbled a little with each of these radio types with varying degrees of success. In my neck of the woods CB was great for a number of years until the channels became so clogged with nonsense and vulgarity that I finally gave it up. I still own a CB base station but consider it only a backup. The GMRS and FRS radios are nice little units but after trying them I found that the range was quite limited….nothing near the exaggerated claims of their manufacturers…15 miles…25 miles…30 miles…all of which are based on ideal conditions over a totally flat surface like water…which is rare in most places. They are great for short range communications, especially for patrolling purposes, but in my experience that is about it. Marine radio on the other hand is great! The equipment is reasonably priced. The range is good (I can hear local bear hunters talking 30 miles away without a repeater) and since they are FM, the reception is very clear.

However, marine radio use (transmission) is legal for maritime purposes ONLY, unless all you do is listen. That leaves amateur radio also referred to as HAM radio. Depending on the license you acquire (more about licensing later) your range is only limited to the size and type of equipment you use, some of which will allow you to talk to other operators thousands of miles away. Someday I hope to be able to talk these great distances but holding only a technician license at this point, the likelihood of talking to someone half way around the world is slim.

With the technician license (the beginner’s license) you are pretty much limited to “line of sight” use when speaking from one radio directly to another. (known as “simplex”). However, by using what is called a repeater (more about repeaters later) you can greatly expand the effective distance of your communications. One of the greatest benefits I have found thus far that HAM radio has over other types of radio (other than distance) is what I will call “community”….. or interaction with other HAM radio operators.

Thus far I have found them for the most part to be a very friendly (as long as you have a license), welcoming, and talented group of individuals. At one point in time not too long ago, the HAM radio hobby was losing popularity caused, according to some, by the advent of the cell phone. However, in the last few years things are looking up as there are now more licensed HAMS than ever before… over 700,000 in the U.S. I have to think that the popularity of amateur radio in the survivalist community is responsible for a large part of this increase.

Do I really need a license?

Simply put, no. You don’t need a license to buy a HAM radio and you don’t need a license just to listen to HAM radio. You only need a license to transmit LEGALLY on a HAM radio. I have heard many folks in the survival community say they will just transmit when they have to and take their chances of not getting caught. I must admit that they have a point…especially if the balloon has gone up and the rule of law no longer exists. In that case, who cares if you have a license or not…certainly not me. Actually, the FCC rules say that it is not illegal to use a HAM radio without a license IF a life threatening event requires such use. SO…why do you need this license then (other than the obvious answer that the FCC requires it for you to legally transmit)? The answer is…training and practice.

When you bought your firearms to defend your family and your homestead, did you simply sit them in the corner and look at them and never learn how to use them? I doubt it. If you did then should that fateful day come when you need to use them…will you know how to operate them? Will they work? The same holds true for HAM radio equipment. While transmitting is as simple as keying the microphone and speaking into it…knowing what to say, how to say it, when to say it, and how to get the most range, is not that simple. Just like becoming proficient with your firearm takes practice, so does proficiency with your radio. I know what you are thinking….”I don’t need a license….I will go ahead and start talking to people and avoid the hassle of getting a license”.

Wrong. You might get away with it a time or two but the HAMs I have spoken to, while a friendly and supportive group, will not condone the use of a HAM radio by an unlicensed operator. In fact, some HAM operators go so far as to use radio triangulation to locate broadcasting non-licensed operators using directional antennas and once found, report them to the FCC. Please don’t think that just because I have a license that I condone this practice! I am only stating what I have read regarding the practice. In other words…if you broadcast without a license a large fine (up to $10,000.00) could be coming your way. NOW….I know what you are thinking. HOW does someone on the listening end know from your transmission if you are licensed or not?

Simple….if you are a licensed HAM, you are required to give your call sign at the beginning and end of your transmission as well as every 10 minutes during that transmission. Another HAM might forgive a novice forgetting this a time or two, but not indefinitely. If you don’t give that call sign they may just pull out the triangulation equipment! “Well…why can’t I just make up a call sign?” You can but it probably won’t work very well. There are a number of online services that allow HAM operators to do call sign searches to determine the name and location of any licensed operator.

They simply type in the call sign and if it is for real, your registration information pops up. Many HAMS even go so far as to download database programs directly onto their computers that allow them to search by call sign without the need for an internet hookup! So, while you don’t need a license just to listen, it would be a very wise idea to have one if you intend to become proficient in using your radio as well as making on-air acquaintances with other HAMS. Such contacts could be extremely helpful in times of emergency (more about this later).

How hard is it to get this license?

As with most things in life that are worth having, getting an amateur radio license takes some effort…but not nearly as much as some folks think it does! At one point in time every person desiring to be licensed had to be able to send and receive Morse code! Fortunately (at least in my opinion) this requirement was dropped totally in 2007. There are currently three levels of license available to HAM operators…..Technician (the beginner’s license like I have), General, and Extra. With each upgrade in license, a wider array of frequencies is opened to you which equates to longer ranges of communication.

The test you are required to take for a Technician license is composed of 35 questions randomly selected from a set group of questions in the FCC question database. The FCC requires that the database contains a pool of 394 questions from which each 35 question test is chosen. All the multiple choice questions and answers are available to anyone wishing to take the test. There are many study guides available that will cover EVERY question in the current database which means once you go through the guide, you will have covered every possible question and answer!

These study guides vary in price but since this article is about HAM radio “on the cheap”, the one I used was FREE! It is easy reading and written in a manner that actually teaches you about the basics of amateur radio while preparing you for the actual test questions at the same time. As you read through the guide you will notice words in bold letters which are actually the ANSWERS to actual test questions. This allows you to zero in on the actual answers you need to know. You can download this free guide in PDF form at:


(NOTE: The questions in this guide are good through 6/30/14 at which time a new pool of questions will be used)

Once you have read through this 49 page guide you can start practicing for the test by using any of a number of free online sites that generate practice tests using randomly chosen questions from the FCC test pool. The site I used can be found at http://www.eham.net/exams/ To start taking the sample test, go to this site and click the “Technician” button and start your test. The great thing about this site is that it grades your test instantly when you are finished and then tells you the ones you missed PLUS it then gives you the correct answer! I took the sample tests many times until I was consistently scoring in the mid 90’s. You must make at least 75 on the real test to pass.

(NOTE: Many local community colleges offer HAM radio study courses that conclude by giving the actual test to the applicant. Not only do most of these classes give an in-depth study but they also allow you to meet others interested in HAM radio (many of which are probably survival oriented just like you) as well as having the opportunity to ask actual questions of the instructor…something the free guide above cannot offer. However, since I was doing this “on the cheap” I opted to study on my own for free. )

Once you feel you are ready to take the test you need to find a testing site. Fortunately there are now many volunteer examiners which are actually amateur radio club members authorized by the FCC to give the test. To find a local test site you can go to http://www.arrl.org/find-an-amateur-radio-license-exam-session and search by Zip Code. This site, http://www.arr.org is a great site with lots of free info (can you tell I like “free”?). If you want to find out if there are any licensed HAMs close to where you live you can go to http://www.arrl.org/fcc/search type in your zip code and see the name(s), call sign, and license class of those living close to you.

When I tried to search the ARRL site for a testing location close to where I live all I came up with were places at least 75 miles away! My next idea was to do an online search of amateur radio clubs in my area. I started typing in names of local towns and counties in my area in my search engine ( www.bing.com ) along with the words “amateur radio” and found there was a club located in my neighboring county that had a website on which I found a contact email address. I inquired of them about a testing site and was pleased to learn that their club gave tests quarterly with the next testing session only a week away!

I told them I would be there! When I arrived at the site I was very pleased to meet a fine group of people all interested in helping me get my license. I filled out a short application, paid $14 to take the test, and 30 minutes later I learned I had made a grade of 92 and would have my call sign issued within a week! I was cautioned by the examiner that even though I had passed, I could not legally broadcast on my radio until my call sign was posted in the FCC database…which happened in about 4 days.

Now, at this point I a sure some of you are wondering just how “technical” these test questions are? If I said there was nothing technical in them, I would not be truthful. Some of the questions require a little bit of math using Ohm’s law and some require being able to identify certain schematic symbols found in typical electronic circuits. However, please remember that the study guide mentioned above covers ALL of this and gives you the exact answers in bold as you go through it! Also, when you take the practice test(s) the questions will be the exact questions you will see on the real test. After taking the sample test a few times you will soon begin to remember the answers based on repetition, at least I did. You will also notice that many of the questions are nothing more than common sense, especially the safety questions involving grounding, climbing antenna masts, etc. So, all of this being said, don’t let the fear of too many technical questions deter you in pursuing your license if that is your goal.

To wrap up the section on licensing, I would like to touch briefly on privacy. I resisted getting my license for many years because I did not want to be involved with a governmental licensing procedure unless I had too. Over time I began to realize that since I have filed an income tax return for over 50 years, driven a car for about the same length of time, and purchased a firearm through a dealer, my personal data is already in numerous governmental databases. Most of us have concerns also about being on governmental “watch lists” and I am no exception.

Rest assured that if you have bought a firearm legally, secured a concealed carry permit, or even frequented a website dedicated to survival/prepping, there is a good chance you are already on several “lists”. After weighing this against the benefits of being a licensed HAM operator I decided that being on yet another government list probably wouldn’t matter in the overall scheme of things. That being said, if YOU don’t feel comfortable with getting a license, then by all means DON’T!

As stated earlier, you can always listen and learn the best you can and then should the SHTF you can always key your microphone and broadcast in a life threatening situation. If the rule of law no longer exists, broadcast to your hearts content as a license will not matter at that point. Just remember that by getting a license now you can practice and learn how to use your radio along with the amateur radio network of users…and LEARN…just like you learn to become proficient with your firearms from use, not just looking at them!

In Part II we will discuss the equipment I used to set up my HAM radio “on the cheap.