Cheap and Easy Ham for the Communications Novice by TSR

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[Editors Note: FCC rules stipulate that Amateur Radio operators may convert and operate transceivers designed for other services on Amateur Radio frequencies, but the reverse is not true. Unless a radio has been type accepted by the FCC for use on other frequencies, those transceivers may not be used for such purposes. They may, however, be used to listen to other frequencies (except for cellular frequencies.)]

Purpose

You’ll find the line item “ham radio” on a variety of prepper, collapse, and bug out bag lists, and for good reason.

However, for the communications novice, this item can be difficult to address in a meaningful way without plunging into electronics and radio theory, forum discussions about the relative merits of different equipment, a confusing learning curve, licensing, jargon, and erratic device documentation.

Nevertheless, procuring and using a basic Ham radio is an important part of being prepared for a crisis. So, a simple, easy-to-follow recipe for gaining a modest, inexpensive Ham radio capability is the goal of this article.

If you’re an experienced Ham, this basic, procedural approach will no doubt fall short of your needs and sophistication. However, if you’re someone with no radio or electronics experience who wants to add some rudimentary Ham capability quickly and cheaply, I hope that these simple steps are as useful to you as they were to me.

What’s Ham?

The Wikipedia page for “Ham radio” is a somewhat overwhelming orientation, but for our purposes it’s just important to know that Ham radio is amateur, bi-directional, public, radio communication that is partly infrastructure-independent. This means that Ham radio will continue to work for person-to-person communications even when the power grid is out, radio and cell towers have crumbled to ruin, and mutant zombie squirrels roam the wasteland.

Ham isn’t completely immune to infrastructure collapse though, as it leverages available repeater towers to boost range and requires some form of power to run the radio, but it’s far more enduring than cellular service and the Internet. It is also far more useful than (uni-directional) broadcast AM and FM radio.

Why Ham?

Ham radio is a useful tool during crisis both as a source of information (since it allows you to listen to the communications of others) and as a means of communicating (since two Ham radios within range can talk to each other like walkie-talkies).

Ham frequencies are a common denominator fallback method of communication for government disaster and aid agencies that might need to communicate across mutually incompatible systems.

Also, some Ham radios allow you to listen to FM radio stations– a potentially important source of local news.

Training and Licensing

What about training, call signs, and all that? Ham radio technically requires training, licensing, and following certain etiquette. You might also have heard that Ham licensure used to require knowing Morse code.

Not to worry. You can skip all that complexity for the purposes of getting started. In fact, you can obtain, configure, and (passively) use a Ham radio without worrying about any of it.

You can and should pursue the simple requirements for licensing, if you’re going to be transmitting on Ham while the rule of law exists. Regulatory agencies and licensed Ham operators legitimately complain and penalize you if you pollute their otherwise peaceful airwaves.

However, those complaints become less important post-collapse and shouldn’t prevent you from obtaining, configuring, and listening in on Ham right now. Once you get the basics in hand, you can become more involved as time and interest permits, using the resources listed at the end of the article.

Equipment

First, go buy some basic equipment. You’ll want one each of the following:

This radio is attractive because of its ruggedness, cost, size, programmability, FM radio, and USB charging. There are plenty of radios that are more capable in a variety of directions, but the UV-3R+ is a sweet spot for the novice.

Other brands will work, so long as they’re dual band 144/430 MHz, and have an SMA female connector. Anything that works with the Baofeng UV-5R will work with the UV-3R+. You can also skip this item completely and use the (shorter range and not as good) antenna that comes with the UV-3R+.

Programming the UV-3R+ isn’t strictly required to get started, but it makes all subsequent use far easier. If you intend to program the UV-3R+, you’ll also need access to a computer running Windows, Mac, or Linux.

The total cost for all three components will be about $50. You may want to buy more than one radio and antenna (though perhaps only one programming cable). You can plan to use the UV-3R+ either alone as a listening post link to the outside world, or you can buy several to use as two-way team communicators. You can also use the UV-3R+ with FRS/GMRS two-way radios as described below.

You also need to consider how you’ll recharge the device. This can be any means that can provide either wall (110 volts AC) or USB (5 volts DC) power, including:

I purchased a Suntactics solar charger, which is great for an iPhone and iPad, too.

Software

Download and install the free CHIRP software.

If you’re using Mac OS X, download and install Python from the link on the CHIRP download page, too.

Download and install the Prolific PL2303 driver for your Windows or Mac.

The versions of these three components that I used (with Mac OS X 10.9.5) are:

  • KK7DS_Python_Runtime_R10
  • CHIRP 0.4.0
  • PL2303 Mac OS X Driver 1.5.1

Frequencies

While you wait for your equipment to arrive from Amazon, go find local frequencies of interest at RadioReference.com. From the main page, choose Databases > Frequency Database. Under Retrieve By Location > Retrieve by US zipcode, enter your zip code and choose Retrieve.

In the results, identify frequencies that interest you, and log them in a list. I used an Excel spreadsheet, an example of which is shown below. Be sure to store at least the Frequency, Tone, and Description from RadioReference.com. Don’t bother with anything labeled as trunked or encrypted; you won’t be able to listen to or use those without other, significantly more expensive equipment. Focus instead on frequencies with either “XXX.X PL” or “CSQ” listed for Tone.

UV-3R

Frequency

Tone

Description

1

154.01

186.2 PL

Lane 14 (County Tactical)

2

154.13

186.2 PL

Metro 13 (Metro Tactical)

3

154.145

186.2 PL

Metro 14 (Metro Tactical)

4

154.175

186.2 PL

Lane 13 (County Tactical)

5

154.19

186.2 PL

Metro 11 (Metro Tactical)

6

154.205

CSQ

Lane 15 (County Tactical)

7

154.265

186.2 PL

Firecom 2 (Metro Tactical)

8

154.295

186.2 PL

Lane 11 (County Tactical)

9

154.355

CSQ

Metro 1 (E/S Dispatch)

Include in your list the following FRS and GMRS frequencies (all are “CSQ”). These are the frequencies that a variety of “two-way radio” walkie-talkies use. By programming your UV-3R+ with these frequencies, you’ll be able to easily interoperate with those FRS and GMRS radios.

FRS/GMRS Chan.

Frequency

1

462.5625

2

462.5875

3

462.6125

4

462.6375

5

462.6625

6

462.6875

7

462.7125

8

467.5625

9

467.5875

10

467.6125

11

467.6375

12

467.6625

13

467.6875

14

467.7125

15

462.55

16

462.575

17

462.6

18

462.625

19

462.65

20

462.675

21

462.7

22

462.725

You’ll probably find it useful to add in National Weather Service frequencies.

Also identify any local FM radio stations that you wish to program, using Radio-Locator.com. A news/talk station would be a useful choice.

Programming

Once you have the CHIRP software, driver, and (if necessary) Python installed, have received your purchases, and have collected a list of local frequencies, you’re ready to program the UV-3R+.

Make sure that the UV-3R+ is charged.

Open the rubberized cover on the side of the UV-3R+ and connect the programming cable. Plug the other end of the cable into your computer.

Press and hold the orange power button on the front of the UV-3R+ to turn it on.

Launch CHIRP, and choose Radio > Download From Radio.

Set the port to the correct USB port, which for me was /dev/cu.usbserial. Set Vendor > Baofeng, and Model > UV-3R. Choose Okay. Wait while the default factory settings of the UV-3R+ are loaded into the software.

Back up the default settings by choosing File > Save As, picking a convenient location and name (for example “factorydefault”), and choosing Save. This lets you revert to the factory configuration later, using CHIRP, if you need to. (You can also reset to factory settings by holding down the UV-3R+ POWER and VOL buttons for five seconds.)

Choose the Memories tab in CHIRP.

Edit the frequency list in CHIRP by double-clicking a location and filling in your previously-collected information (Frequency and Tone).

If the RadioReference Tone is listed as “XXX.X PL”, choose “Tone” for the CHIRP Tone Mode, and enter the numerical value (XXX.X) for the CHIRP Tone.

If the RadioReference Tone is listed as “CSQ”, choose “(None)” for the CHIRP Tone Mode, and leave the CHIRP Tone value as it is.

For example, if the information you gleaned from RadioReference.com looks like this:

UV-3R

Frequency

Tone

Description

1

154.01

186.2 PL

Lane 14 (County Tactical)

Then you’d create this line in CHIRP:

Loc |  Frequency | Tone | Tone  | ToneSql | DTCS | DTCS | Cross Mode | Duplex | Offset | Mode | Power
| | Mode | | | Code | Pol | | | | |
9 | 154.010000 | Tone | 186.2 | 88.5 | 023 | NN | Tone->Tone | (None) |0.000000| FM | High

And if you had this channel information from RadioReference.com:

UV-3R

Frequency

Tone

Description

9

154.355

CSQ

Metro 1 (E/S Dispatch)

Then you’d create this line in CHIRP:

Loc |  Frequency | Tone | Tone  | ToneSql | DTCS | DTCS | Cross Mode | Duplex | Offset | Mode | Power
| | Mode | | | Code | Pol | | | | |
9 | 154.355000 | none | 88.5 | 88.5 | 023 | NN | Tone->Tone | (None) |0.000000| FM | High

Don’t forget to enter the FRS/GMRS frequencies. I started entering these at memory location 71, so that CH 1 = 71, CH 2 = 72, and so on, to make it easier to remember and directly access them later.

Choose the Settings tab in CHIRP, and then choose FM Radio Presets. Enter any desired FM radio stations, clicking the Enabled checkbox and then entering the station frequency (for example “102.9”).

Chose File > Save As, and save your hard work as a second, differently-named backup (for example “mychannels”).

In CHIRP, choose Radio > Upload To Radio, using the same settings as for the earlier download.

If you have more than one UV-3R+, you can do this upload for each unit, thereby quickly cloning your settings to multiple devices. One interesting way to use this cloning capability is to set up specific, non-FRS/GMRS frequencies for the use of your UV-3R+-equipped team.

Using the UV-3R+

Now you’re ready to use your freshly programmed UV-3R+. The accompanying manual isn’t so great, so here are shortcuts for several common tasks:

Note: The dial has to be lifted up to rotate. Pressing the dial down locks it. Don’t force a locked dial!

Scanning presets

Press and hold U/V to toggle between frequency and preset modes. You’ll see a small number (the memory location) in the upper left of the display when you’re in preset mode.

Press F/A, then MENU.  This enters scanning mode.

Twist the dial to keep going when scanning stops at an undesired signal, or to change scanning direction at any time.

Press any key to stop scanning when you find a desired signal.

Navigating to a particular preset

Press and hold U/V to toggle between frequency and preset modes. You’ll see a small number (the memory location) in the upper left of the display when you’re in preset mode.

Rotate the dial to choose the preset.

Scanning frequencies

Press and hold U/V to toggle between frequency and preset modes. You WON’T see a small number (the memory location) in the upper left of the display when you’re in frequency mode.

Press U/V to toggle between UHF and VHF ranges.

Press F/A, then MENU.  This enters scanning mode.

Twist the dial to keep going when scanning stops at an undesired signal, or to change scanning direction at any time.

Press any key to stop scanning when you find a desired signal.

Navigating to a particular frequency

Press and hold U/V to toggle between frequency and preset modes. You WON’T see a small number (the memory location) in the upper left of the display when you’re in frequency mode.

Rotate the dial to choose the frequency.

Press F/A to toggle between large and small frequency increments.

Press U/V to toggle between UHF and VHF ranges.

Navigating to a particular FM preset

Enter or leave FM mode by pressing and holding L/F.

Press and hold U/V to toggle between frequency and preset modes. You’ll see a small number (the memory location) in the upper left of the display when you’re in preset mode.

Rotate the dial to choose the FM preset.

Scanning for an FM signal

Enter or leave FM mode by pressing and holding L/F.

Press and hold U/V to toggle between frequency and preset modes. You WON’T see a small number (the memory location) in the upper left of the display when you’re in frequency mode.

Press F/A, then MENU.  This enters scanning mode.

Scanning stops when it finds a signal.

Navigating to a particular FM frequency

Enter or leave FM mode by pressing and holding L/F.

Rotate the dial to choose the FM frequency.

Testing FRS/GMRS interoperability

Press and hold U/V to toggle between frequency and preset modes. You’ll see a small number (the memory location) in the upper left of the display when you’re in preset mode.

Rotate the dial to choose the preset for FRS/GMRS channel 1 (in my case, preset 71).

Set the FRM/GMRS radio to channel 1, and set the channel 1 interference eliminator code to zero.

Hold the FRS/GMRS radio near the UV-3R+, and press the PTT (talk) button. You should hear a squeal of feedback from the UV-3R+.

Repeat for all 22 FRS/GMRS channels, setting the UV-3R+ preset and FRS/GMRS channel, and using zero for the interference eliminator code for each. For each pairing, listen for a feedback squeal when you transmit.

Storage

After you’ve enjoyed your new Ham radio for a while, you’ll want to store it with your other preps. When doing so, remember that the battery will slowly discharge over time. Plan to recharge the battery and test the unit every three months or so.

Remember to store the user manual and any other helpful documentation (like your list of frequencies) with the radio.

Finally, for your radio to be most useful under the most conditions, consider storing it in an EMP-hardened container, like a metal ammo can or metal trash can with metal lid. Store it with the antenna detached, for an extra measure of protection.

Learning More

This simple, procedural approach to getting started with Ham radio has only barely touched the surface of possible Ham radio complexity and knowledge. When you’re ready to know more, there are a number of additional resources:

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