Ham Radio Primer for Trail Use, with Buyer’s Guide / Comparison
First of all, a disclaimer: the depth and possibilities of amateur (ham) radio are huge and many, and way beyond the scope of a small article like this. Whole books have been written on the subject. Hence, this write-up is not intended as an introduction to the hobby in general, but only as an informational piece to those interested in its use as super-effective and long-range 4WD trail communication. Many aspects of ham radio will be lightly addressed or not at all. If you desire more information, especially on other technical aspects of amateur radio, additional research on your part will be required. Ham radio is a world-wide hobby, but again for simplicity this article will discuss United States operation and legality only. Finally, this article represents only the opinions of the author on a single narrow aspect of the hobby, with which others may disagree.
What is Ham Radio?
I’m not crazy about wikipedia, but this is actually about as concise of an explanation of amateur radio that I’ve seen:
“Amateur radio, often called ham radio, is both a hobby and a service in which participants, called "hams," use various types of radio communications equipment to communicate with other radio amateurs for public service, recreation and self-training.
Amateur radio operators enjoy personal (and often worldwide) wireless communications with each other and are able to support their communities with emergency and disaster communications if necessary, while increasing their personal knowledge of electronics and radio theory. An estimated six million people throughout the world are regularly involved with amateur radio.
The term "amateur" is not a reflection on the skills of the participants, which are often quite advanced; rather, "amateur" indicates that amateur communications are not allowed to be made for commercial or money-making purposes.” (Wikipedia
, Amateur radio - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
In the U.S., many sub-bands of radio frequencies are reserved for FCC-licensed amateur or “ham” operators for use with voice, Morse Code, images (TV), digital, and other data modes. This article is concerned only with voice communication on the VHF (and only lightly on the UHF) bands, specifically the 2 Meters band, as this is the most common and useful band for 4WD trail communication, and the easiest and cheapest band for the beginner to access.
Why Should I Become a Ham?
In the context of this discussion, you should become a ham because communicating on the trail (and on the road to the trail) is so much clearer, stronger, and farther with a ham radio than with a CB radio. The difference must really be heard to be believed! It is a night-and-day difference. The difference is primarily due to two factors, power and modulation. CB radios are limited by law to 4 watts power output, while mobile 2-meter ham radios are commonly 50-75 watts, more than twelve times the power of CB. In addition, CB radios are by definition AM radios, while 2-meter ham radios are FM. Think of the difference between scratchy AM radio stations and the clear reception of FM music in your car or home stereo – the same advantages are with 2-meter ham; the clarity of voice communication far surpasses anything possible with CB.
Because of the limited power output, a CB radio can only transmit about 10 miles under absolutely ideal conditions, i.e. perfectly flat terrain with no obstructions or interference. Once you get on the trail with steep terrain, many obstructions, and especially minimal equipment (like a hand-held CB without an external antenna), the range of the CB goes down to very little. Personally, I have been in many 4WD trail groups where the front of the group could not communicate with the rear on CB. In rugged canyon country like the Moab area, even small groups may have trouble reaching from the front to the back (depending on the lowest-common-denominator CB equipment in the group). 2-meter ham on the other hand can transmit over long distances, up to 100 miles in favorable conditions. Even reduced by unfavorable trail conditions, the extra power and range far exceeds what is required to communicate from the front to the back of the group, and almost always means you can communicate all the way back to the base camp or office, and usually out to the nearest town. The ability of ham radios to access and use repeaters extends their range even more. Most cities of any respectable size have at least one 2-meter repeater. The extra range of the ham radio can literally be a life-saver in the event of an emergency. It can also mean the difference between getting help and having to hike out in the event of a break-down or being stuck.
Other advantages to ham are the multitude of frequencies available. CB is limited by definition to 40 channels. 2-meter ham does not have assigned channels and can use any open frequency between 144.100 and 148.000 MHz in 0.005 MHz increments, which is like the equivalent of having 780 “channels”. Ham radio is way less crowded than CB, and even if there were way more ham operators than CB there would still be more than enough room for them all on the extended bandwidth available. Because it takes a test and some (minimal) effort to become a licensed ham operator, the courtesy and helpfulness of ham operators is vastly superior to that of many CB operators encountered on the air waves. While every hobby must have its share of irritating people, I must say that I have yet to encounter any in ham radio, while you can hardly turn on a CB (near any major highway) without picking up some seriously-irritating idiots.
How Do I Become a Ham?
You only need two things to be a ham, an FCC license and a ham radio. To get the entry-level “Technician” Class license, you only have to pass a standardized multiple-choice test of 35 questions, getting 26 of them (74%) correct. The test covers very basic radio, electronics, and antenna theory, safety, communication, bandwidth, and legal matters. The Technician Class license is all you will ever need to enjoy great trail communication on the 2 Meters band, plus you will get privileges on the 70 cm and 6 Meters bands, and limited privileges on the 10 Meters band. If you enjoy these bands and want to pursue other aspects of the hobby with additional frequency and bandwidth privileges (for example for longer-distance work), you can learn the material and take similar tests to earn your “General” Class and “Amateur Extra” Class licenses. No Morse Code is required for any of the license classes (although it used to be).
Tests are administered frequently in almost any metropolitan area, by other hams accredited to do so. Many local ham radio clubs offer free or cheap classes to teach you the test material, and administer the exam as a final part of the class. To find a class near you, search on the internet for “amateur radio club (your city)”. To find an exam near you, fill out the no-obligation or registration form here: ARRLWeb: Exam Session Search
Many free on-line resources exist to help you learn and pass the test questions. Here is a place to take practice tests for free (be sure to choose the “Technician” category): QRZ.COM QRZ Ham Radio Practice Tests
These tests are identical to the one you will actually have to pass to get your license, but as in the real test, the 35 questions are drawn randomly (by category) from a larger pool of potential questions. If you can consistently pass these free on-line tests several times in a row, you are ready to take the test for real. For many hams, this is the only preparation they do for the Technician-level test, just take the practice tests over and over until you can remember the right answers.
Books and paid courses are also available:
Gordon West Radio School :: Training Materials
ARRLWeb: ARRL's License Manual Series
Hint – you can buy these books second-hand very cheaply on half.com
Your exam will graded and you will be told on the spot whether you passed or not. If you passed, your new call sign will be posted on the FCC on-line database usually within a couple of weeks. The easiest place to check and see is here: QRZ.COM Callsign Database
Put your last name and zip code in the “Search” box at the upper left-hand corner of the page, and when you call sign is issued it will show up there.
Hams always use their call sign to identify themselves on every session. It’s the law, and part of the responsibility and courtesy of being a ham. You need to identify yourself by call sign at the beginning and end of every radio session, and every ten minutes during an extended session, but these rules are a little more relaxed on a simplex (single frequency, without using a repeater) net that you would typically have on a trail run.
Once you have your ham license and a radio, I highly recommend that you become involved with a local amateur radio club. They have many opportunities for you to learn how to use your radio and the (minor) protocols and courtesies that are different for operating a ham radio versus a CB, like local chat nets, emergency training nets, and public service events. Hams are very helpful and supportive of new hams. There is a risk however that you may find other aspects of the hobby like storm spotting, emergency communications, search-and-rescue, or long-distance communication interesting, and then you will be in danger of having another hobby to spend time and money on in addition to your 4WD hobby.
Buying a Radio
There are several considerations to buying a ham radio, the most confusing of which for the beginner may be, how many and which bands to get. For the purposes of this discussion (4WD trail use), a 2-meter radio is all that is required. Fortunately, these are among the cheapest and easiest to use of all ham radios.
If you want to spend more money, you can buy a dual-band radio with 2-meters and 70 cm (the 70 cm band is also frequently referred to as “440”, for its wavelength in MHz), or even a quad-band radio. These more expensive radios will give you more frequencies and options, and room to grow in the amateur radio hobby, but are not necessary for trail use. The one useful feature of these more expensive radios for trail use would be the ability to receive (and in some cases transmit also) on two or more frequencies at the same time. That way, it would be possible to monitor a trail group and base camp at the same time for example. Another use of this same function in higher-end radios is the ability to use the radio as a local repeater – the radio in your truck could receive signals from others in the group on one frequency, and re-broadcast the signal on a different frequency, for greater range or coverage area.
Some neat extra goodies now available on high-end radios include GPS and altimeter functions, APRS positioning systems, Auto-range transponder systems, Echo-link, and etc.
Another consideration is the choice to go with a hand-held radio (frequently referred to as an “HT” or “Handy-Talkie”) or a mobile (in the truck) radio for your first one. Although you can sometimes get more features for the money in a hand-held radio, they are usually limited to 5 watts output power. In a ham radio this would be more than enough power for a trail group, but in my opinion you are missing out on much of the advantage of a ham radio if a hand-held is your only trail radio. Like a hand-held CB, you can upgrade them with an external truck-mounted antenna, but you are still limited to 5 watts.
For the average beginning off-road ham, my recommendation is to buy a simple 2-meter-only mobile radio. You get a good radio for the lowest price that will serve you well on the trail, will still be useful back in town and for other hobby uses, and will always be useful in some capacity even if you decide to buy a bigger/better radio later. If you do decide to upgrade later, you haven’t sunk a ton of money into it. And your antenna choices will be simpler and cheaper too. If you are enthused about the hobby and want to spend more money up front, go right ahead! Just be aware that you don’t have to spend a fortune to get great trail results. There are usually some used 2-Meter radios for sale at a ham-fest if there is one scheduled near your locale.
In the case of the mobile radio, you will have to purchase and install a suitable antenna and coax cable as well, much like a CB radio. You can’t use your CB antenna for a ham radio; the antenna height must be a resonant fraction of the wavelength of the radio frequency (2 meters in this case). There are lots of 2-meter antennas available that are suitable for trail use, and dual-band antennas too.
A buyer's guide / comparison for 2-meter, dual-band, quad-band, and hand-held radios follows.