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Article by: RobRed

Applicable Models: Any Vehicle

Last Updated: Sunday, December 18, 2016

If you are a seasoned ham operator this article isn’t for you. I’m only covering the very basics to get a new operator engaged and involved. No APRS, no DSTAR, no C4FM talk. So for you veterans you can move along or maybe take a look at my mobile setup: Tour of the Center Stack. This post is intro to the idea of ham radio and getting going.

I get asked a lot about Ham (amateur) radio and why it’s important in overlanding / 4×4 / wheeling context. Many folks are aquatinted with CB Radio and even Family Radio Service (FRS), but Ham radio seems to be a black box. It’s not surprising since much of the Ham radio communities make up is retired white guys nerding out on antenna designs and DXing contests. But not everyone who uses ham radio is deep into the hobby. Some of us are very utilitarian in our interest and needs. The ranks of ham radio users is changing.

There has been a growing ham user base in the 4×4 community for a number of years and for good reasons. Communication quality that is superior to other traditional  comms like FRS and CB Radio. Safety is the biggest in my book. When I lead group trips (more than one vehicle) its a requirement to have ham radio. No ham radio, no go. Clear, quality communication is paramount to a safe trip. Being able to communicate vehicle position, danger avoidance, obstacle spotting etc saves damage to vehicles and possible injury.

In this post I’m going to attempt, very simply, to layout a path for a first time ham user to get started with licensing and equipment. This is not comprehensive in any way – think of it as primer. ham radio needs an investment of a little time and money but the value in return is high – I promise.  The advantages you will gain with this minimal investment will make your travels more comfortable and safer. Before i get into the “getting started” path let me answer the number one question related to this topic:

Q. What is the difference between CB Radio and ham radio? Aren’t they the same thing?
A. Its a big answer actually. Both are radios obviously but there are some key technical and operational differences. The major differences – voice quality, range and capability. In terms of voice quality think of the CB Radio as broadcast AM radio and Ham Radio is broadcast FM radio. FM has better fidelity than AM. Since CB Radio operates in the lower frequency AM band (27 MHz) CB Radio is much more interference prone making the transmission quality lower in almost every case. Mobile to mobile I’ve hit 30 miles between vehicles with crystal clear voice. Ham is frequency based not channel based so you have much more flexibility in choosing the frequencies for your operation. CB Radio has 40 (basic) channels. Probably the biggest difference is Ham radio’s ability to use repeaters. That is using additional radio infrastructure to extend your radio reach. For example the WIN system of repeaters (90+ of them) are interconnected via internet – when you key up one you key up all… there’s a few internationally anddozens in the USA. You can literally talk to folks 1000’s of miles away. Other “1:1” repeaters can extend the range of your Ham radio great distances by accepting a lower power input from your radio and retransmitting it. Ham radios like CB Radios provide simplex (radio to radio) operation as well.

ham radio differs in another way from CB Radio or FRS – ham radio requires an FCC license. This alone has prevented more people from getting and using ham radio than any other factor. So what does this license process like and how do I do it? Its actually quite simple. First let me address the types of licenses in ham Radio – there are three. Each license is progressive meaning you need the one before you can do the next. The license classes are Technician, General and Amateur Extra, in that sequence. Each license classification grants you additional access to more frequencies and types of communication.

The Technician class license is the entry-level license of choice for most new ham radio operators. To earn the Technician license requires passing one examination totaling 35 questions on radio theory, regulations and operating practices. The license gives access to all Amateur Radio frequencies above 30 megahertz, allowing these licensees the ability to communicate locally and most often within North America. It also allows for some limited privileges on the HF (also called “short wave”) bands used for international communications. [ARRL.org]

When I Took my Technician license test in 2010 the fee was $15. The test sites vary around the country. I took mine at the local fire station on a Saturday morning. I spent a couple of evenings prior to that Saturday looking over the study materials, walked into the fire station on Saturday, paid my $15, answered 35 questions in about 15 minutes. Seven days later I had a letter from the FCC with my call sign and license. The license is good for 10 years.

Photo by @life.to.the.max

So next, what gear do you need? Well simply a radio. Since we are talking in the overlanding / 4×4 context what I recommend is as much as you can afford. Lets break it down into budget and necessity. Since your license class is technician with a desire to use this new found communication prowess you’ll choose a radio that’s either 2 meter (146 MHz) or 70 centimeter (440 MHz) or both. 2 meter is the most common for the 4×4 community but many ham radios are multi band (they cover both ranges and sometimes more). In addition to the dual band coverage you can purchase radios that are “dual watch” or multi VFO. What the what? Translation, you can listen to two frequencies at once! It’s like two radios in one. In case you don’t choose a “dual watch” radio every ham Radio (I’ve seen) has the ability to scan frequencies quickly so it is not critical but it is very convenient.

The basic radio is either a handheld battery powered unit or a mobile unit installed in your vehicle. The handheld will seem familiar as it’s a walkie-talkie style unit that can fit in a pocket or pack. A mobile unit on the other hand is a fixed install, drawing power from the vehicles electrical system and requires an addition of an antenna. A note about mobile installs – many ham mobiles have remote face capability. This allows you to install the “radio” in a more convenient location and the control face in the optimal cockpit position. Not all remote face capable radios come with the parts needed to go remote, so check with the manufacturer or reseller.

Here are a few of my recommendations for equipment to get you started. This is by no means a complete picture of radios available but simply equipment i’ve had good luck with and that fits what we do offroad. Also note I don’t generally recommend the handheld radios listed in “Budget” but I understand the desire to go cheap to get your feet wet. I’ve owned 3 of the Baofeng handhelds and they all crapped out on me. Some folks buy them and love them with no issues. Some folks get them in conjunction to a mobile to provide out of vehicle comms for obstacle spotting etc. Your mileage will vary.

Handheld Radio

Budget: Baofeng UV5 ~$30 Tons of features including dual watch. Built cheap and wont last but gets you in the door. Many use these as disposable radios for spotting duty outside the vehicle
Workhorse: Yaesu FT60 ~$150 A rugged unit with great quality a staple in ham radio.
All in: Yaesu VX8, Kenwood TH-74, Icom ID51 . Top of the line with all the features like APRS, DSTAR and more.

What you need for in vehicle handheld operation: Radio with rubber duck antenna, 12v charger / power supply for in vehicle use over long periods.
What I recommend for in vehicle handheld operation: Dual band (2M/440) radio with external antenna (magnetic or fixed mounting), 12v charger / power supply. Speaker Microphone to make using the handheld more like a mobile radio ergonomically.

An external antenna on handheld operation in vehicle will give you much of the range of a mobile install radio. Handheld radios are attenuated dramatically using the rubber duck antenna inside a vehicle, cutting range to a mile or two at full power.

Mobile Radio

Budget: Alinco DR-B185HT ~$149 (2m only)
Workhorse: Kenwood TM-V71 ~$339, Yaesu FTM100DR ~$299
All In: Icom ID-5100 ~$500, Yaesu FTM400D $500, Kenwood TMD710G ~$549

What you’ll need for mobile operation: A mobile radio, external antenna, magnetic or fixed antenna mounting, remote face kit (depends on radio and install desires), location to hang microphone.
Additional install notes: You’ll likely need additional antenna cable and power wires.The radios and antenna mounts are supplied with some but check your install plan to see if you need extra. If you are using the remote face option you may need additional microphone cable extensions as well.

Antenna

All of the handheld units above come with a small rubber duck antenna but if you are using them inside a vehicle (and you are) you’ll want an external antenna mounted. These vary in size and capability. Something less permanent would be a mag-mount style antenna that is easily removable for daily driving minus your radio setup. If you have a mobile mounted in your vehicle you’ll need an antenna and mount for it.  Whichever antenna / mount you choose make sure it’s cable has a compatible end to your radio or you’ll need an adapter.

Mag Mount w/ Antenna: Diamond MR77 ~$45 Small Mag base perfect for weekend warrior handheld user.
Hatch/Hood Mount:  Diamond K412C NMO mount. ~$55 Works on a hatch or a hood – very adjustable. Stays put.
Short Antenna: Comet SBB-1 NMO (dual band) ~$37
Full Size Antenna: Diamond NR770HNMO (dual band) ~$55

Talk with other 4×4 ham operators, resellers and friends about gear choices. They likely will have great suggestions on what and where to buy. Obviously we all have budgets but keep in mind these radios last a long time and they are not updated often so you are making an investment in a tool. As inferred above – you can get into this for a total investment of about $50. You can go a lot higher. Whatever you choose it’s going to add a whole lot fun and safety to your adventures.

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