How I Set Up My First HAM Rig
When American Survival Guide Editor Mike McCourt asked me to write a story on HAM radio operation and employment, to say I was a little unsettled would be an understatement. Throughout my previous career as an Army Green Beret, there were probably more than one or two ongoing jokes concerning my “troubled” relationship with electronic gadgets—and radios were at the top of the list!
When I joined the Army back in 1986, radios, in general, were relatively easy to set up and operate, and you could usually do your own troubleshooting and field-expedient repairs right there at the operator level.
Fast forward to 2012, when I retired. At that time, communications gear, along with seemingly every other piece of hardware in the military, appeared to be spearheading the digital revolution. With communications security taking center stage, radios had to be able to send and receive messages without our enemies listening in and/or jamming us; that meant that the communications equipment had to meet this growing challenge.
In essence, the requirement for secure comms has always been a part of war-fighting, but the result was that over time, communications gear had evolved into far more advanced and technically challenging systems than the radios of the past.
Let’s skip ahead again to 2020. I’m semi-retired—and also a self-proclaimed homesteader. So, with my pipe-hitting days behind me, why should I be concerned with having a radio that would allow me to reach out and communicate with anyone when I already have the ability to do so via my cell phone or landline?
Of course, to the readers of this magazine, this question is a bit rhetorical, and the answer is obvious: There’s a plethora of reasons to have a decent radio system as a fundamental part of your home preparations.
Right at the top of the list would be that cell phones require cell phone towers, computer networks and power to operate, and landlines require the lines to remain intact and the power grid to be functioning in order to work. If the grid goes down, so does your ability to communicate.
Radio communication, on the other hand, requires no such infrastructure to function. Assuming that both the sending and receiving radio systems are functioning properly, messages can be transmitted between the two with nothing more than those systems … as long as you’re able to generate electricity to power them. With the advances to solar power over the past few decades, you can easily and inexpensively set yourself up with an alternative power source for your radio.
In today’s word of pandemics, civil unrest and an increasingly uncertain future, having the ability to send and receive information is key to staying informed, keeping your family safe and to getting help when you need it the most.
What Is HAM Radio?
The official definition is, “Amateur radio, also known as HAM radio, is the use of radio frequency spectrum for purposes of non-commercial exchange of messages, wireless experimentation, self-training, private recreation, radio sport, contesting and emergency communication.”
Basically, this means that as an “amateur” radio operator, you’re bound and regulated not to use your radio for commercial purposes and to only talk on frequencies not used by commercial broadcasting, professional frequencies used by aviation, maritime and other operators, or frequencies used by public safety and first-response organizations such as the fire department and police.
HAM operators are limited to the small-frequency bands that have been allocated to them throughout the radio spectrum. Within these bands, a HAM operator can transmit on any frequency using voice, data, images or text modes.
However, don’t let the “amateur” label fool you. Becoming a certified HAM radio operator isn’t easy. The amateur radio service (amateur service and amateur-satellite service) is established by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) through the Radio Regulations. You’ll need to learn and retain a huge amount of information, become technically proficient in building a number of different antenna systems and also be able to successfully operate a large range of radio equipment.
U.S. HAM radio operators must pass a government test demonstrating technical radio knowledge and also know the legal aspects of the country’s radio regulations in order to receive their amateur radio operator’s license and legally transmit over amateur radio bands.
All certified HAM radio operators are assigned a “call sign” by the ITU that they must use to identify themselves when transmitting on any of the amateur bands. That being said, you don’t need a license to monitor radio bands. Consequently, having a HAM radio as part of your communications PACE (Primary, Alternative, Contingency and Emergency) plan is a prudent idea, particularly these days. Just having the ability to stay informed about what’s going on within your state, region, country or the world can be priceless during a local disaster or global catastrophe.
Even so, having the added benefit of being able to transmit information shouldn’t be understated. While it’s true that legally, only certified HAM radio operators can transmit data under normal circumstances, simply having the capability to do so in an extreme emergency makes investing in a HAM setup a worthwhile endeavor.
This article isn’t meant to teach you how to be a HAM radio operator or be used as a guide for studying for an amateur radio operator’s license; but, this piece does explain the benefits and outline some important considerations and steps you’ll need to understand before making a decision to add this to your list of capabilities.
“ … I believe having a HAM radio rig is an important part of my contingency plan in case things go sideways in my area or our country.”
That said, I believe having a HAM radio rig is an important part of my contingency plan in case things go sideways in my area or our country. It’ll be invaluable if I’m in a scenario where I’m faced with having to care for and protect my family in the event there are no local, state or federal authorities that can come to my aid.
Saying you want a HAM rig setup and actually becoming proficient in how to put the system into operation and use it (or simply listen to it clearly) are two completely different things. Lucky for me, I had some help. I had the good fortune of making the acquaintance of fellow ASG writer and amateur radio guru Jim Jeffries, who was gracious enough to lend me one of his portable HAM radio rigs. He also kindly gave me access to his incredibly impressive knowledge on the topic, which he allowed me to tap into whenever I had questions (which was often!).
Jim understood that my intent was not to immediately try to obtain my amateur radio license. My initial goal was to simply get a rig operational, have the ability to monitor various bands and, in the event of a catastrophe, have the ability to reach out and get news—and possibly help.
Over time, my intent is to build up a HAM rig to add to my comms PACE plan. I asked Jim to lend me a radio system that he thought would be practical for the purposes I outlined and something that would have a reasonable cost when I’m ready to buy my own first HAM rig (I want to keep the total cost under $1,000). Jim sent me a YAESU FT-891 HF transceiver with an LDG Electronics Z-100 PLUS automatic antenna tuner, a Chameleon EMCOMM III portable all-band HF antenna, power and interface cables/coax, a 100-foot coax feed line, an operating manual and a quick reference guide.
Choosing Your First Radio
When it comes to size and portability, HAM radios have advanced in leaps and bounds. However, some of the smaller radios are also some of the most difficult to operate because of their long digital menus and sub-menus that can be quite confusing for the beginner.
“There’s a plethora of reasons to have a decent radio system as a fundamental part of your home preparations.”
I found the YAESU FT-891 somewhat confusing for my novice abilities, but the operating manual that comes with it was comprehensive and made the setup doable, even for a beginner like me (and, yes, with some mentoring from Jim). Even so, you might want to purchase a bigger, more traditional unit if you’re just starting out, because they have lots of visible dials and tactile features. Once you figure out what you need, you can move on to one of the newer, more compact models.
Choosing a Power Supply
I chose to go solar, using the Thunderbolt 100-watt Solar Power system, a 4×5-watt panel system and a rechargeable, 12-volt battery. If you aren’t using an AC power supply, you need to use systems that can function using a wide range of voltages. Most 100-watt transceivers require a power supply that provides around 13.8 volts, give or take a few volts. You might find lower-powered QRP radios to be a bit more flexible, but you should still try to keep the power supply at the minimum specified voltage for the system you’re using. You’ll find that the more your power drops below that specified minimum, the poorer your signal strength and quality will become.
Choosing an Antenna
Because I wanted to use an antenna that was versatile, would work well sending and receiving at great distances, and that someone with limited understanding of the craft could construct on their own, I chose to go with a dipole antenna. As a backup, and for comparison purposes, I also purchased a Falcon Electronics premade dipole antenna for $58 from Amazon. At the end of the day, I felt this was money well-spent, because the antenna worked much better than the one I made myself. Still, if you have the time and patience, you can definitely construct a dipole for far less than it will cost you to purchase a manufactured one.
Choosing Which Bands to Use
Consider starting out using only one or two bands with your HAM radio. Whether you’re studying for your HAM license, or you simply want a HAM radio to monitor others’ transmissions, portable, low-power operators should be able to get by just fine during the day on HF using the 14, 17 and 21 MHz bands.
Add HAM Radios to Your Comms PACE Plan
Writing this article has helped me overcome my aversion to working with communications equipment, and I hope it’ll inspire you to do the same. While these devices can be frustrating and confusing as hell, the capability is also incredibly important, particularly when you’re considering what to include in your emergency comms contingency PACE Plan.
Why should you invest in learning how to set up and operate a HAM radio system? Many amateur radio operators, such as Jim, are highly skilled in this craft and have a great deal of technical proficiency and competency. Some of these guys and gals are masters of improvising and adapting to create effective communications systems out of basic materials. Think about it: HAM operators can talk around the world without transmission lines, cell towers or the power grid with just a radio and a few items they picked up at the hardware store!
If you’re willing to put the time and energy into learning how to properly set up and operate an amateur radio system, the payback can be huge. Getting your own amateur radio rig up and running will greatly enhance your safety and survivability if the day comes when you need information or help and your everyday means of communicating aren’t viable.
Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in the November, 2020 print issue of American Survival Guide.