This arti­cle is by Cameron Green, of Green Acad­e­my of Per­son­al Pro­tec­tion (GAPP).

ham_radio1In 2003, the north­east of the Unit­ed States (as well as parts of the mid­west and Cana­da) suf­fered a severe pow­er out­age.  Traf­fic lights were not work­ing so grid­lock was ram­pant.… the sub­ways and oth­er  mass tran­sit were not work­ing so peo­ples nor­mal com­mute was any­thing but.… many were left strand­ed and tried to find a hotel… some peo­ple began walk­ing.  Cel­lu­lar net­works were either jammed with traf­fic or had no pow­er and tra­di­tion­al com­mu­ni­ca­tion was dif­fi­cult or non-exis­tent.  Liv­ing in cen­tral NJ, my lights flick­ered but I was lucky enough to have pow­er.  I began check­ing local repeaters for caus­es and quick­ly learned of the sit­u­a­tion. I spent sev­er­al hours talk­ing to ham radio oper­a­tors stuck in traf­fic or walk­ing home from work…most were unable to make calls home to their fam­i­lies.  My land­line and cell were work­ing so I made a few calls to fam­i­lies let­ting them know mom or dad was safe but would be late or home tomor­row.  This is a prime exam­ple of why ham radio can be invalu­able.… and in my opin­ion, there is no rea­son not to be involved in ama­teur radio.

Ham radio (and com­mu­ni­ca­tion in gen­er­al) is an area most prep­pers overlook…unfortunately in many cas­es due to cost.  I recent­ly came across a few low cost hand held radios and decid­ed to try a low bud­get radio project.  For those of you that don’t know what a hand­held is (or han­di talkie in ham speak), it is sim­i­lar to the pop­u­lar FRS/GMRS radios avail­able in most sport­ing goods stores…but a han­di talkie has a wider range of fre­quen­cies and in most cas­es is pro­gram­ma­ble. It allows the user to oper­ate on the VHF and UHF bands (very high fre­quen­cy and ultra high fre­quen­cy) which allows for line of sight com­mu­ni­ca­tion or long-dis­tance com­mu­ni­ca­tion via repeater. The min­i­mum license required to oper­ate on these bands is the tech­ni­cian class.  For infor­ma­tion on licens­ing, check with your local ham radio clubs, the Amer­i­can radio relay league (ARRL), or the FCC web­site.  You will find obtain­ing a tech­ni­cian class license is quite easy to do and, giv­en this low cost alter­na­tive to more expen­sive high end radios, there is very lit­tle rea­son not to get your ham radio license.

My goal was to put togeth­er a ham radio rig that I could use both as a hand­held and while dri­ving in my vehi­cle, while stay­ing under a $200 bud­get. In order to achieve this, I need­ed a hand­held radio, an exter­nal anten­na (and any nec­es­sary adapters), and a car charg­er. Oth­er items come in handy at times, but my pri­ma­ry goal was to stay under bud­get and have a decent entry-lev­el radio rig, so I fig­ured the extras may have to wait.

I decid­ed on the Baofeng UV-5R as my radio… sim­ply because they can be pur­chased for under $50 (at the time of pur­chase, mine was $42) and have a rea­son­able review rat­ing.  As with any­thing else, you get what you pay for, and as of writ­ing this, I can­not attest to the long-term durability/reliability of this radio, but my ini­tial tests are promis­ing. The UV-5R is a com­pact hand held trans­ceiv­er pro­vid­ing 4 watts or 1 watt of out­put in the fre­quen­cy range 136–174 MHz and 400–480 MHz, it also receives on 65 — 108 MHz (which includes the reg­u­lar FM broad­cast band). It has a dual watch and dual recep­tion fea­ture which comes in very handy and the user can eas­i­ly tog­gle between the two fre­quen­cies for trans­mis­sion. It has 128 mem­o­ries, bat­tery save func­tion, VOX, DCS/CTCSS encode, key lock and built in flash­light. It comes with a ANT5 SMA‑J flex­i­ble anten­na, BL‑5 Li-ion bat­tery (7.4V 1800 mAh), belt clip, wrist strap, AC adapter (8.4V 600ma), ear bud/mirocphone, and drop-in charg­ing tray.  All in all, it is a good basic unit and more than rea­son­ably priced.  As with most hand­helds, many of the fea­tures are buried in menus and under­stand­ing the abbre­vi­a­tions on the LCD screen takes time.  One word of warn­ing I will give here is the man­u­al is very poor.  It does not explain much or in much detail… as a new user, you may be bet­ter off look­ing online for reviews and direc­tions on how to oper­ate the unit.

I began test­ing the unit with radio to radio com­mu­ni­ca­tion and found the range more than ade­quate giv­en the ter­rain (well over a mile but don’t know exact­ly how far).  Once I fig­ured out the nec­es­sary menus and set­tings for repeater oper­a­tion, I began to test the unit with PL tones and longer range com­mu­ni­ca­tion.  Using just the sup­plied rub­ber ducky anten­na, trans­mit­ting on 4 W, I was able to hit repeaters about 10 miles away (note: with the extend­ed range anten­na I pur­chased, I was able to hit repeaters out to 20 miles but my audio was poor).  It was report­ed that my audio sound­ed good by all that I cor­re­spond­ed with.  I was eas­i­ly able to receive FM broad­cast and the local NOAA weather/maritime report… though I spec­u­late recep­tion would be bet­ter with a sim­ple wire anten­na.  I have to say so far I was very pleased with the per­for­mance of such a low cost radio.

My next step was to try com­mu­ni­ca­tion from my vehi­cle.  Since my radio was well below bud­get, I was able to pur­chase a wide vari­ety of acces­sories for it and still remain under the $200 cap.  I could­n’t find any of the items I was look­ing for local­ly (I’m a big fan of sup­port­ing local busi­ness­es above inter­net com­pa­nies) so through a com­bi­na­tion of Ama­zon and Ebay, I pur­chased:

All these items, with ship­ping, cost me approx­i­mate­ly $140.… so I was well below my bud­get.  I found a small tin and lined it with rub­ber to act as a fara­day cage for my radio and what­ev­er else could fit in it.  I was able to fit every­thing in this small tin with the excep­tion of the charg­ing equip­ment and mag­net mount anten­na.  I don’t know what effect an EMP would have on the charg­ing equip­ment or the anten­na, but if there is no pow­er for charg­ing and my car is use­less, what’s the point in pro­tect­ing it?… pro­tect­ing the radio unit was much more impor­tant and this tin was free (it came with a knife set I received as a gift).

Budget Ham Radio Gear

The car mag­net mount is easy to install (well duh).  I sim­ply attached the mag­net to the top of the truck, ran the feed line through the rear win­dow, and hooked it up to my radio.  With the stan­dard bat­tery and the exter­nal anten­na, I was able to hit repeaters (trans­mit and receive) up to 20 miles away.  The mag­net for the anten­na is small but held well dur­ing dri­ving.  While dri­ving around my area of oper­a­tion, I tried the oth­er acces­sories I pur­chased and got mixed results:

Car bat­tery elim­i­na­tor: worked fine but made the radio awk­ward since I was tied to a12 volt out­let, note: it did not increase the watt out­put of the radio (which I had wor­ried about)

Speaker/mic: good audio and made using the car elim­i­na­tor eas­i­er

Car charg­er: charged the bat­tery and still allowed the radio to be used but the upright charg­ing deck may tip over when dri­ving

AA bat­tery pack: a big dis­ap­point­ment… I was able to receive only with this item.  I have a sim­i­lar unit for my Yae­su han­di talkie and am able to trans­mit so this issue was a shock… if I can find a fix for it at a lat­er date, I will post up my results in the com­ments sec­tion below.

Rub­ber ducky anten­na: the results using the rub­ber ducky were not as good as with the car anten­na, but much bet­ter than the fac­to­ry anten­na (although it makes the radio a bit awk­ward to use).

Ham Radio Packed UpThe last thing I need­ed to do was pro­gram the unit using the pro­gram­ming disk and cable I pur­chased… anoth­er big dis­ap­point­ment.  I insert­ed the disk expect­ing it to run on its own…I tried it with the radio hooked up through the data cable and with­out… no dice.  I began to look for dri­ver soft­ware or some sort of “run” pro­gram… its all in Chi­nese.  So I gave up and decid­ed the radio did not need any advanced pro­gram­ming for what I need­ed it for… and most like­ly as a new ham radio oper­a­tor, you won’t need it either.

Con­clu­sion: the Baofeng unit is com­pa­ra­ble to all of the high end units I have used (Yea­su, Icon, Ken­wood) but costs con­sid­er­ably less… even the acces­sories are much less.  In fact, I was so impressed with this unit, that I bought two (two is one, one is none).  It won’t replace the Yea­su han­di talkie I keep in my vehi­cle, but it is a great back­up unit I will keep in my sec­ond vehi­cle and/or in my bugout trail­er.  It turns out the $200 bud­get I set for myself would cov­er every­thing you need to start oper­at­ing… includ­ing gas for you trip to take your tech­ni­cians class license.   As an entry lev­el unit for a new ham radio oper­a­tor, this unit can’t be beat… and giv­en that its under $200, just about any­one can have a func­tion­al radio giv­ing local com­mo.  So get your license, get a radio, and get work­ing on the air waves.

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