On December 25, 2020, an RV loaded with explosives detonated in downtown Nashville. In seconds, dozens of buildings were damaged, 8 people were injured, and communication lines in several states were disrupted. Survival Mom readers quickly reported the impact of this outage:
“I am in the Nashville area and could not reach my adult daughters all weekend because they have AT&T. “
“My friend in Clarksville, TN says their calls still aren’t really going through and neither are texts.”
“911 was out in places all over the state, including Knoxville because of this.”
In a world where communication and information can be accessed in an instant, an event like this reminds us just how fragile these systems are.
Preppers know that backup systems are vital, but often we overlook this one. In a crisis, how will you get accurate information and how will you stay in touch with loved ones? A simple way to cover that base is with a ham (amateur) radio. Learn how to get your ham radio license and be ready for any disruption in the lines of communication you rely on.
Ham radio, or amateur radio, uses a radio frequency spectrum for non-commercial uses. It allows people to communicate without the internet or cell phones. However, to legally use a ham radio, you must first become licensed by the FCC. Most people study for the test, sometimes take a study course in person or online, and then take the official test. Once the test is passed, you get your own unique call sign.
Like many things, it can be difficult to pin an exact start date on when amateur (ham) radio started but it was in the general vicinity of 1910. By 1912, it was popular enough that Congress approved the Radio Act of 1912 to regulate it. Ham radios were limited to the bandwidth around 200 megahertz.
At the time, amateur radio was believed to be worthless because it only transmitted short distances. The restriction to 200 megahertz was expected to be the death knell for amateur enthusiasts. Instead, the American Radio Relay League (ARRL) was formed in 1914, and ham radio enthusiasts are active all over the world. This and other technological advances (notably the vacuum tube) allowed messages to be sent much longer distances – even to the moon!
Amateur radio is an alternative form of communication for entertainment, information, and assistance in disasters. I highly recommend it for preppers, especially for those who work long distances from home. The husband of one friend always has his handheld radio with him whenever he goes on business trips. His wife carries one in her purse, and they are ready to communicate, anywhere, any time.
When natural disasters happen, often ham radio operators are the very first to begin relaying details and calls for help. The National Weather Service uses the same frequencies as used by ham operators to send messages about extreme weather events.
During disasters, hams are often the first to be up and running, transmitting vital messages to emergency personnel.
When disaster strikes, ham networks spring into action. The Amateur Radio Emergency Service (ARES) consists of licensed amateurs who have voluntarily registered their qualifications and equipment for communications duty in the public service.
Salvation Army has its own ham radio division to assist in disasters. If you want to do volunteer work, this is a great way to combine service work with a hobby you enjoy.
It’s also a fun family activity, especially as you begin reaching out and meeting people from all over the country, the world, and even outer space! Yes, you can pick up on conversations from the guys and gals on the International Space Station! Some hams take great pride in collecting Q cards, or QSL cards, that confirm conversations and contacts with other hams. Our instructor showed off his collection of Q cards with a big grin on his face, and no wonder. They came from all over the world, including a few obscure islands in the Pacific.
Kids, especially, would get a huge kick out of collecting Q cards, and what a great way for them to learn geography!
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) regulates ham radio operators, as the Communications Act of 1934 requires. There are three classes of licenses – General, Technician, and Extra (or Amateur Extra, but usually shortened to simply Extra). Each one has a more involved test than the previous one, requiring more knowledge and skills, and allows those who pass access to a more of the radio spectrum available for ham operators. Licenses are good for ten years.
Generally speaking, prospective hams will take a class, do some reviews and practice tests, then take the exam. Ham Radio Prep offers online courses that make learning all about ham radio easy and they even offer a money-back guarantee if you don’t pass the FCC exam on your first try!
When my husband and I decided to become hams, we found a class through the ARRL website. To be honest, a lot of the technical stuff was over my head. My husband had been an electrician, so all the talk of wavelengths, frequencies, and transceivers were already part of his knowledge base. For me, it became a matter of rote memorization to pass the test.
After some diligent study, I passed the test with only 1 error. Much of the test consisted of questions about ham radio protocol and rules, such as:
What is the grace period following the expiration of an amateur license within which the license may be renewed?
- Two years
- Three years
- Five years
- Ten years
Now, I can learn that kind of stuff and retain it. “Where is an RF preamplifier installed?”, not so much.
I encourage you to not be afraid of the test. Taking a class isn’t required, and in my case, I’m not sure it helped much, since I ended up doing most of my studying using the various practice tests and study guides online. I’m more of a hands-on learner, so I needed to get my hands on an actual radio and start monkeying around with it. Sitting around just talking about transmitters and modulation wasn’t of much help to me.
You can download practice tests here, or use the resources on this page. If you have a smartphone, I highly recommend downloading the practice tests and using those to help study. Here’s a link to the Android app and one for the iPhone app.
Not very much. Sign up to take a class to learn the skills. For about $25, you can take the Ham Radio Prep course online — you’ll start with the Technician’s license.
Pass the test and wait to receive your license and call sign. Buy a radio to practice with. Be aware that some cheaper models may have the ability to receive but not send.
Probably the cheapest handheld radio out there is the Baofeng, popular among novices, despised by veteran hams! If you want something, anything, to just get started and get a feel for how ham works, this is a good starting place for 60 bucks or so.
Be sure to check out eBay and Craigslist, too. When I was writing this article and did a quick check on my local Craigslist, there were numerous listings for amplifiers, receivers, and even a 50-foot antenna tower for just $600.
What I found is that most all hams are fanatical in their devotion to their hobby. When I was researching my book, Survival Mom, I contacted 2 or 3 gentlemen who proceeded to talk my ear off about everything related to ham radio! I learned a lot and their enthusiasm was contagious.
Even before you take the class or get your license, consider attending a local ham radio meeting or one of their fun events, such as their Hamfest. (ARRL calendar of events can be found here.) You will be most welcome, have your questions answered, and connect with like-minded people living near you. It’s highly likely that some will even be survival/prepper minded — double bonus!
- Ham Radio Prep online courses
- Ham Universe
- Baofeng handheld radio
- Why You Should Learn to Love Ham Radio
- ARRL (National Association for Amateur Radio)
- SWLing Blog (Shortwave Radio)
- The Best Amateur Radio and Shortwave Apps for ios and android
- ARRL licensing manual
- Ham Radio Go Bag by Max Cooper
- SETTING UP AN AMATEUR RADIO STATION: Help For The New General Class Radio Operator by Bob Patterson
- Amateur Ham Radio Transceiver