Getting Started for Under $100 – by Glen Johnson
Getting started in ham radio has a steep learning curve. The goal of this section is make that process a little easier. As a beginner, I was surprised to learn that:
1) You don’t have to learn morse code.
2) You don’t have to spend a fortune to get started. As with most hobbies, the more you get into ham radio the more you will spend.
Getting a License – Using a ham radio requires a license from the FCC. There are three licensing levels: Technician, General, and Extra. The Technician license is the starting point – you can use frequencies that are basically “line of sight” (5-20 miles depending upon terrain). The General and Extra license gives you access to frequencies that you can reach out to people from other countries. Getting the Technician license is the easiest; this is the license that you will need for small hand held radios that would be very helpful in an emergency situation. As with many ham radio operators, my goal was to work with organizations that help out in disaster situations (Salvation Army, Red Cross, FEMA, etc.). For myself, the online course allowed me to study in small time blocks and used repetition until I mastered the topic area. I would recommend the following for a cost of $24.95:
Ham Test Online – https://www.hamradiolicenseexam.com/
Getting a Radio – For my purposes, I wanted a radio that was portable and allowed access to local repeaters (these stations receive my transmission and re-broadcast the same signal with a lot more power). Thus your hand held radio or HT (handie talkie) can talk with someone between 20 to 100 miles away. For a starter radio, I was most impressed with the Baofeng UV5RA. You can find this radio on Amazon using the search word Baofeng or click here for the $32 version or here for the $48 version with 3800 mah battery. This radio has a lot of positives for the money – transmits on VHF/UHF frequencies, long lasting battery, you can listen to FM broadcast stations, and has a light. It makes a great NOAA weather radio (see the Repeater menu of this site for programming frequencies). The downside to this radio is that it picks up a lot of interference (i.e., it thinks my work’s security system is an active signal). Programming this radio without software is a big pain. I would recommend getting the programing cable for $20. You can get free software (CHIRP) to program the radio by clicking here. There is a great Baofeng web site for drivers and info on the radio by going here. I have taken the liberty of making a list of Traverse City area repeaters by going to the Repeaters section of this web site. You can download the IMG file into CHIRP, then upload this info into your radio in minutes.
I would also recommend a few extras:
A spare battery for $9.99 by clicking here. For the larger battery with 3800 mah capacity, you can find one here – a word of caution, you may have to use a dremel to get it to fit the newer versions of the Baofeng UV-5R (UV-5RA, UV-5RB, etc.).
The antenna that comes with the radio is poor. For $9.50, you can get a Nagoya antenna here.
A speaker/mic that plugs into the radio is very handy. For $7.18, Amazon has it here.
If you want to spend more than the $100 budget, I have looked at a number of options. One dual band radio that seems to be highly rated was the Yaesu FT-60r for around $150 (not including extras such as extra batteries). Another Yaesu radio that is water resistant is the VX-6R which sells for around $330.
Once you have your license and gear, I would highly recommend getting involved with your local ham radio club. The folks at Cherryland Amateur Radio Club have been very helpful and patient in answering my questions.