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A Prepper’s Guide To HAM Radio Basics


So, maybe you have seen our review of the Baofeng UV-5R and you plan to purchase one in the near future to take part in the Tin Hat Ranch survival communications series.  Great, now what?  Let’s take a look at what it takes to be a HAM.  Many folks have this ethereal concept of what it takes but when boiled down becoming a HAM requires you to pass an almost* free test.

Why would anyone need to take a test to operate a HAM radio?  No, it isn’t a government conspiracy or an attempt to limit the rights of individuals.  As close to a Libertarian as I might be I still agree with the government’s right to regulate the use of such radios.  There are a few simple reasons; you hold significant power in your hands with one of these radios.  You can affect the liberty of others.  In my local community the police operate on 154.8150 MHz.  This is a frequency available to the Baofeng radio.  What were to happen if a person keyed up their radio at a life or death moment out of plain ignorance?  What if the officer’s call for back up didn’t get through?  I am sure that most can agree there is a need for a regulatory body to eliminate ignorance in terms of critical communications. This is the main reason for the regulation.


As a prepper there are many benefits in studying to take this test.  We will be the backbone of emergency communications in everything from a local to worldwide disaster.  It was the HAM’s who were providing communications during Katrina after commercial communications failed.  If you paid attention during my initial review of the Baofeng you would notice that communications on GMRS (General Mobile Radio Service frequencies) were limited to 1 or 2 miles.  What good would that be in a regional disaster?  Becoming a HAM will give you those answers.  In the event of a major disaster, after the dust settles and we attempt to look out to the rest of the world, we will be the ones with the information.  The radio spectrum is vast and can’t effectively be censored.  Learning about amateur radio will introduce you to the knowledge required to communicate with the world.   From radio theory, how frequencies propagate (which ones to use to talk to people locally, regionally, and worldwide), electronics theory, how radios work, safety, rules, and more.

The FCC allows any citizen to take the HAM test for free.  They only require you to pass a test to receive a 10 year license to operate this radio.  I said the test was free but they do allow the entity that administers the test to charge a nominal fee.  This test fee is no more than $15.  There are three types of HAM radio licenses, the Technicians, General, and Extra.  We will focus our efforts on getting you the Technician license as this is the basic license to operate on frequencies higher than 30 megahertz with some limited short wave privileges.  This will allow you to talk to folks across North America (or your continent).  So for about $50 (radio, shipping, and test fee) you can be a HAM.


The test itself is a 35 question multiple choice exam in which you must answer 26 of the questions correctly, or roughly 75 percent.  The questions themselves are always taken from a pool of about 400 questions.  This will allow two modes of study, studying the test to take the test and actually learning the information behind the questions.  I feel for some that it would be possible to walk into a test, take it blind, and pass but I highly recommend against doing so.  For others a few hours of reading the questions and answers a few times would suffice to pass the test, but again, I would recommend against this method.  The correct method would be to learn the basic knowledge behind the questions in order to understand how and why things work.  I’d recommend getting this basic knowledge under your belt, pass the test, and then begin some “on the job” learning.

Do I have what it takes to be a HAM radio operator?

Now on to some nuts and bolts, it is probable that being a HAM is not right for everyone.  To learn properly requires a significant investment of time.  To better understand if you should continue, let’s take a look at the major subsets covered by the test itself:

  • FCC Rules
  • Operating Procedures
  • Radio Wave Characteristics
  • Amateur Radio Practices and Station Setup
  • Electrical Principles
  • Electrical Components
  • Station Equipment
  • Modulation modes, amateur satellite operation, operating activities, non-voice communications
  • Antennas and Feedlines
  • AC power circuits, antenna installation, RF hazards

The list itself might be daunting, but the test requires only basic knowledge of each subject.  Do you know Ohm’s law?  Can you identify a resistor on a schematic; if not can you memorize half a dozen pictures, what they mean and how they work?  Can you perform simple multiplication and division?  Are you willing to memorize a few rules and regulations?  If you answered yes or are willing to learn you should continue.

Once you can get the basic knowledge under your belt and pass your test you will be part of an elite club.  You might get sucked into a world that has no escape.  One thing is for certain, once you are in there will be no shortage of folks that are drooling to help you learn.  Guys like this want to help for as long as you will listen:


I am not going to re-invent the wheel for this “course”.  There are far too many resources available to you.  What I will do is use those resources to guide you along.  If you wish to get started on learning the basics behind amateur radio operation you might want to take a look at this study guide from Dan Romanchik (KB6NU).  It is a good place to start.  Read through it and see if it feels right for you.  If you can understand what is going on in this guide you can pass the test.

If you haven’t already seen it, click here to see our initial review of the Baofeng UV-5R.

Click Here for the next part of the series, setting goals and how to schedule the test.

Permanent link to this article: http://tinhatranch.com/a-preppers-guide-to-ham-radio-basics/

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