When someone mentions the words "ham radio", do you picture it as the hobby of older retired guys, surrounded a Frankenstein's lab worth of gear and antennas and vacuum tubes? Or maybe you picture a trucker rolling down the road, saying "Breaker! Breaker!". I'll admit, that's how I always saw it; with a cell phone and instant messaging I didn't see a need for another form of communication, and if I wanted a "walkie talkie" I could just go get a pair at Wal-Mart.
But a Ham radio is considerably more than that. It gives you a way to talk to other people across the street or on the other side of the world without relying on any wires, cables or grid power. It's a lifeline for when you're hiking and for when your cell phone has no bars. Many times in disasters and emergencies, it's Ham radio operators that are relaying vital information and coordinating rescue efforts.
A year ago I took my two oldest boys to a day-long class for their Boy Scout Radio merit badge, which happened to held at a HamFest here in Texas—a large "expo" of Ham radio related events and vendors. The merit badge covered a lot more than just Ham radio, but while we were there we learned what it would take to get our licenses, and how affordable it is to get started.
We have three boys, ages 14, 12 and 10, and I quickly discovered that the youngest two just weren't motivated enough to put in the study effort. My oldest and I studied, and exactly one year later (at the HamFest again) passed our exams and got on the air! Now that we have our licenses (and a pair of brand new shiny radios!), I think the younger two are going to be more motivated to study!
A lot of people might hesitate to try to get their licenses because they hate studying for tests, or maybe they don't want to try and learn Morse code. Well, you're no longer required to learn Morse to pass the exam, and you'll probably find this is one of the easiest tests you've studied for!
There are actually three levels of Ham radio license classes: Technician, General and Extra. The exam for each is a little more difficult than the previous, and each one basically gives you access to more frequencies than the lower level of license.
Unlike studying for your SATs, where they could ask you anything, the Ham radio exams pull their questions from a pool of questions that are published and readily available online, with the answers. The Technician class exam, which you'd be taking first, is 35 questions from a pool of about 400. The best part is that the answers are published, word for word, so you could theoretically memorize every single one!
Here's how we studied... We bought some study materials, and downloaded some for free. First we purchased the Technician Class Preparation guide by Gordon West- one of the most well-known instructors in the hobby. This book not only goes over all of the test questions, but also helps you understand the theory behind the questions. We also purchased Mr. West's audio CDs to listen to in the car. I found that even when I wasn't paying close attention to what he was saying, a lot of it was still sinking in—I started to recognize a lot of the questions on the practice tests. We also downloaded a free pdf of the questions and answers (but no explanations) . This was useful for testing ourselves as well as making flashcards.
You can also find practice test software from Amazon, various web sites, and even as free phone apps. This is useful after you've gone through your study guide at least once and want to start testing what you've learned.
After that, it was just read and take practice tests! If you spend about an hour a day reading and testing, it shouldn't take you more than 2-3 weeks to feel confident that you're ready to take the test. You only need to answer 26 of 35 questions correctly, or 74%. You'll find a test being given in your area with a quick Google search (or go to a HamFest like we did), pay a small fee (usually $5-$15), pass your test, and receive your license. We took our tests on Saturday, and by Wednesday had our call signs!
(I'd like to pause this post for a moment for some proud bragging - my 14-year-old son got a perfect score on his exam!)
I mentioned earlier that it's not required to learn Morse code to pass your exam... you still might want to take the time to practice and learn it, however. You'll find that a weak Morse code signal can travel considerably further than a voice signal; under good conditions it's possible to pick up a Morse transmission from overseas and understand it, where a voice signal would be almost pure noise.
So, now that you've got your license, you've got to start investing quite a bit in your gear, right? Wrong! You can get on the air with a simple little handheld radio that costs under $40. We purchased a pair of BaoFeng UV-5R radios for about $35 each. Now, like anything else, you get what you pay for - these radios don't access every frequency to which you are entitled with your Technician license, they have small antennas, and are relatively low powered. You're not going to be talking around the world on these, let alone around the country, but they're enough to talk to other Hams in your area, as well as access local repeaters (a public device that can extend your signal hundreds of miles by using a higher power station with a bigger antenna). While you're using this, you can be researching better models and deciding what features you really want. Personally, I wasn't ready to spend a few hundred dollars without doing some serious comparison shopping, but I was also too anxious to wait that long!
Our next steps will probably be to build some better antennas. Just like an old set of TV rabbit ears, the better antenna you get, the better signal you can receive. You'll learn a little bit about building an antenna as you study, and there are hundreds of tutorials on the internet. You can build an antenna with just a simple piece of copper wire and a few connectors, and pretty soon you'll be pulling in signals from further and further away.
The Ham radio "hobby" can be as simple or as complicated as you want to make it. You can build a complicated base station in your home that will talk to Europe, or you can use a handheld radio and a portable antenna that you stash in your bug out bag. You can be a part of a network of disaster preparedness operators, or just talk to friends and family. But if and when SHTF, you'll have a way to stay connected to the world!