08:37 – It was 64.5F (18C) when I took Colin out around 0630 this morning, mostly cloudy. Barbara is off to Winston today to get a haircut, make a Costco run, have lunch with friends, and do some miscellaneous errands.
Ruh-roh. Lisa has hooked up with Jen and Brittany. These women are going to take over the world, I tell you.
I got email overnight from Lisa, CC’d to Jen and Brittany, congratulating me on getting my ham radio ticket. Lisa had been thinking about ham radio for a while, and asked me what she needed to do, on a budget, to get started. What to do, how to get licensed, what to buy, etc. As happens so often, she wanted to know exactly what I did because she intends to copy me. So, with the usual provisos that she is not me and what’s right for me isn’t necessarily right for her, here’s what I told her:
How to Get Started
First, go to http://www.arrl.org/find-a-club and locate the nearest ham radio club. Contact them and attend the next club meeting. Take your family along and let them know you’re interested in getting licensed. I’ve never met a ham who wasn’t friendly and eager to get others involved in the hobby. You’ll find the club very welcoming.
Find out if they offer classes for getting your license, and when and where the license exams occur. The exam for the entry-level Technician Class license and the second-level General Class license each comprises 35 questions from a published pool of 400+ questions. You don’t absolutely have to attend classes to pass your exam. Many people do so just by using on-line ham resources like hamexam.org, which has the question pool (with correct answers), flash cards, and sample tests.
If you’re interested only in local two-way communications–say within a 20-or 30-mile radius or within your county–all you need is your Technician Class license, and that exam is pretty easy to pass. If you’re interested in talking with other hams around the country or around the world, you’ll also want to take the General Class exam, which offers almost complete ham privileges. The General Class exam is harder than the Technician Class, but is still pretty easy.
Once you decide which license class each of you wants to get, start preparing for the exam. If you wish, you can buy the official ARRL study manuals for Technician and General Class, but chances are you’ll do fine just drilling on hamexam.org.
The tests are administered by a group of three Volunteer Examiners. There is usually a $10 per person charge for an exam session. During that session, you can take only the Technician Class exam if you wish, but if you pass that you can go on to take the General Class exam without paying any more. In fact, you can take all three, including the top-level Amateur Extra exam, at one session for the one $10 charge. You have to pass each lower level before you’re allowed to take the next level up.
What to Buy
Again, I’ll emphasize that what I recommend here isn’t best for everyone, but it’ll certainly get you started well.
⊕ Transceivers are available in hand-held versions (called HT’s for handy-talkies), mobile versions designed to install in the dashboard of your vehicle, and base station versions that are designed to sit on a desk or table at home. Nowadays, most hams start with an HT, and many never use anything else.
HT’s are available in a wide range of prices. Name-brand units (Icom, Yaesu, Kenwood, etc.) are generally quite expensive ($150 to several times that), and are limited to transmitting only on amateur radio frequencies. No-name Chinese models (BaoFeng/Pofung, etc.) are much, much less expensive (typically $20 to maybe $70), and can transmit across a broad range of frequencies, typically 136 to 174 MHz and 400 to 520 MHz). That range includes the amateur 2-meter and 70-cm (440 MHz) bands, but also includes many other services, such as FRS/GMRS, MURS, Marine Band, Business Band, etc. Many experienced hams dislike these programmable HTs for just that reason, while most preppers love them, for just that reason.
You might think you couldn’t possibly get much of a radio for a quarter to a tenth or less the price of a name-brand model, but you’d be wrong. A $30 BaoFeng HT has specifications (power output, sensitivity, selectivity, etc.) very similar to a $300 Icom or Yaesu.
There’s not much difference in terms of construction quality, either. One guy on Youtube torture-tested a $30 Chinese HT. He froze it, baked it, drenched it with a hose, and ran over it with his truck. Each time, it kept on working. Finally, he drenched it with gasoline and set it on fire. When the fire finally burned out, the case was charred and melted and the rubber-duck antenna was just a naked coil of wire. And it still worked. Note that he tested the UV-5R, which “feels” like a consumer-grade radio. The UV-82 “feels” a lot more like a commercial/industrial-grade model.
In fact, the commercial model of the UV-82, the UV-82C, is widely used by government and NGO emergency services agencies and volunteer groups that work with them. The only difference between the C model and the regular UV-82 is that the former costs about $60 rather than $30 and is a Type Accepted Part 90 device. It has had keypad access to VFO disabled, so new frequencies can’t be input from the keypad. These units have to be programmed with a computer and cable.
So I have no hesitation in recommending these radios for new ham operators, particularly those on a budget. You can buy a $30 model and use it as-is. If you want to accessorize it, you can spend another $10 or $20 each on things like a spare battery, a battery eliminator that let’s you plug into the cigarette lighter socket in your car, a AAA battery adapter that lets you use AAA alkalines or NiMH rechargeable, a good whip antenna, a speaker/mic, and so on.
So, what specific items do I recommend for getting started on a budget?
⊕ BaoFeng UV-82 HT – buy one or more of these. They run about $30 each. Assuming all of your group are getting their ham licenses, buy one for each of them. You can use them legally on the 2-meter and 70-cm ham bands to communicate directly between units (simplex mode) or with local repeaters (duplex mode) to extend your comm range over probably a 50- to 100-mile radius.
⊕ BaoFeng programming cable – The UV-82 has 99 programmable channels. You can program it manually, from the keypad on the radio, but it’s much easier to use a programming cable connected to your computer. This genuine BaoFeng Tech cable costs about $20, but it Just Works. Don’t make the mistake of buying one of the cheaper clone cables for $6 or whatever. They use an obsolete chipset that requires old drivers that screw up your computer. The cheap cables are nothing but headaches. You only need one programming cable no matter how many units you need to program, unless you just want a second one as a spare. (two is one …)
Download a free copy of the CHIRP software (available for Linux, MAC OS, or Windows) and use it to program your radios. You can also download various templates for CHIRP that include groups of 99 useful frequencies. Here’s one example, which includes a useful set of frequencies for preppers.
CHIRP templates are stored as simple CSV files, which you can edit with any text editor. You might want to edit the template mentioned above to remove some of the less useful frequencies (like the PMR446 group, which are kind of the European equivalent of the US FRS/GMRS frequencies). You can then use those free channels for 2-meter and 70-cm ham frequencies that are popular in your area for either simplex (direct unit-to-unit) or duplex (repeater). Programming frequencies, mode, etc. is very easy once you look at the CSV file. Pretty much self-explanatory.
The UV-82 itself comes with a charging base, battery, and rubber-duck antenna, which is all you really NEED to get on the air. I consider the programming cable and CHIRP almost a necessity, so I also included it above. There are also several optional items you might WANT. Here are the most popular ones:
⊕ Nagoya NA-771 replacement antenna – this 15.6″ dual-band whip antenna costs about $17 and is a direct screw-in replacement for the rubber duck antenna included with the radio. It is much, much more efficient and effective than the standard antenna. Using it can easily double the effective range of your UV-82.
⊕ BaoFeng BL-8 7.4V 1800 mAh battery – you’ll probably want a spare battery for each of your UV-82 HT’s. Battery life is good on the UV-82, but if you ever need to run your HT’s 24×7, spare batteries for each are critical.
Buy the Nagoya-branded antenna and BaoFeng-branded battery, and buy them on Amazon from BaoFeng Tech or BTech (same vendor), which is the authorized US distributor for BaoFeng. Do NOT buy them if Amazon is listed as the vendor. Amazon and its third-party vendors are both notorious for shipping counterfeit products. The branded units from BTech/BaoFeng Tech cost about the same price Amazon charges if they’re selling them, and BTech doesn’t charge sales tax to most locations. Amazon ships it, but BaoFeng Tech is the seller.
⊕ BaoFeng battery eliminator – this $16 item has a cigarette lighter plug on one end. The other end looks just like the UV-82 battery, and slides onto the HT in place of the real battery. You’ll probably want at least one or two of these, and maybe one for each radio or at least each vehicle, if you plan to use them a lot in vehicles. Once again, buy these from BTech or BaoFeng Tech as the vendor.
⊕ BL-8 AAA battery – another $16 item that’s basically just an empty battery housing for the UV-82. It lets you use AAA alkaline or rechargeables. Interestingly, this adapter requires only five alkaline AAA’s but SIX NiMH rechargeable AAA’s. That’s because the real battery is 7.4V. Five alkalines is 7.5V, which is close enough; six NiMH’s is 7.2V, which again is close enough. But if you put six alkalines in this adapter, it’s delivering 9V, which is too much. The UV-82 apparently continues to work, but it won’t transmit. That’s why this adapter includes a dummy/spacer battery, for when you use alkalines. Again, buy these only from BaoFeng Tech or BTech as the vendor.
⊕ Finally, if you can find it, you might want a clone-and-copy cable. I bought one of these from Amazon back in 2013 or so but they’re now listed as no longer available. Like the programming cable, they have a two-prong connector on one end, but instead of having a USB connector on the other, they have a second two-prong connector. That allows you to connect two UV-82 HT’s directly together and transfer the programming from one unit to the other. The only reason you’d use this is if you don’t have access to a working computer to program units directly. And, if absolutely necessary, you can program units directly from their keypads. So this is definitely an optional item.
So this is what I recommend, in the sense that this is what I actually did and bought.