HAM on the road

In Adventure, RV, Travel

Yaesu Ham Radio

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We’re not talking about a spiral cut masterpiece for an evening’s dinner here.  Although while you’re traveling in an RV a nice big dinner is often enjoyable.  But this article is about Amateur Radio while on the road (HAM Radio).

When you think of HAM Radio, often visions of older people sitting at a Morse Code generator come to mind.  The crazy person down the road with the giant antenna farm in their back yard might also spring to mind.  But in truth, HAM Radio units are super small and compact these days, and believe it or not, they’re still a relevant mode of communication.

HAM Radio for your travels

Nothing AZ
Being in the middle of Nowhere and Nothing AZ, cellular coverage was also lacking!

Having a HAM Radio along for your travels is actually a smart idea.  Given the fact that you’re a subscriber to Living In Tin, you have an interest in camping in amazing places, and sometimes more unknown places.  And unfortunately (or fortunately depending on your perspective) many of the remote areas in the U.S. don’t offer cell phone service.

Driving along Hole in the Rock Road, or into the Vermillion cliffs, or boondocking near Vulture, visitors will find little to no cell signal for portable phones.  When you hit these places your iPhone and Androids are as useful as a brick.  In the event of an emergency in remote locations you’ll find yourself without a means of communication.  Having a HAM Radio in your rig or pack will give you an additional option for those moments when you just need to communicate!

In 2001 while hiking the Appalachian Trail there was a small Yaesu Radio in the author’s backpack.  “Just in case.”  It was never needed for any emergency situation, but was often turned on to get weather reports while hiking from Georgia to Maine.

Ham Came Before Cell Phones

Space Aged Mic
Space Aged Mic

Before the days of the bag phone, car phone, and finally all the digital devices we now have, HAM was a viable form of wireless communication.  And today it still is, especially for highly mobile travelers.  HAM paved the way for what we now do with digital communications today!

These days there are cell towers all over the place to provide coverage for cell phones.  HAM Repeaters work in a similar fashion to those cell towers, only they can cover a much larger radius than today’s digital cellular devices.  Your typical digital cell tower covers 3 miles in any direction.  A good HAM repeater covers anywhere from 50-100 miles depending on the setup.  The big difference?  A cell tower can carry multiple calls all at the same time.  A HAM repeater can only carry one voice at a time one way.  That’s the trade off, the carrying capacity.  But in an emergency situation where there is no other method to communicate with the outside world, HAM presents a fantastic and proven option to stay in touch!

Getting Your Ticket

Old school HAM Radio operators refer to their licenses as their “tickets.”  In order to operate a HAM Radio you must acquire a license through the FCC.  Fortunately it’s a relatively easy process, and should take you less than a month to study for an exam and take it.

There are many great guidebooks out there on getting your license.  And given the fact that getting your license requires you to take a Federal test, it’s extremely easy.  Most guidebooks walk you through all of the possible multiple choice questions that appear on today’s exams.  You can either memorize everything, or you can actually learn a little bit about how radio works, some simple electrical engineering, and you walk away with more knowledge!

Mixing Technology

Today’s HAM radios are small and compact, while still being powerful.  And radio manufacturers haven’t fallen behind all of today’s technology.  New handheld radios have GPS units in them, range finders for other operators to find your location, some have built in GPS functionality on the level of carrying an actual handheld GPS with you, and more!  All of the best features of the old radios have been combined with a lot of today’s digital technology making the radios almost as useful as your cell phone!

In addition to what radio manufacturers have done, there are also applications for your digital devices that compliment using a HAM Radio.  One favorite free “app” is the “RepeaterBook” for my iPhone.  I can look up an area on my phone and see what repeaters are within 50 miles of where I’m going.  The app will give me a list of all of the repeaters, their frequencies, access codes, etc.  With that information in hand a list of repeaters that will work in remote areas is easy to make, and I can be assured that reaching out for assistance while on an adventure is a no brainer!

An Additional Margin of Safety

The Airstream south of the Vermillion Cliffs. Note the antenna on the truck roof?
The Airstream south of the Vermillion Cliffs. Note the antenna on the truck roof?

While planning for this author’s first ever trip into White Pocket a list of HAM Repeaters was made before the trip in.  Knowing that cell phones didn’t work deep into the Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, there was a level of concern should any medical issues come up.  Once the list was compiled and tested though, it was clear that emergency communication would be easy enough.  4 repeaters in the area covered White Pocket, and they were all regularly trafficked.

After that initial trip into the Vermillion Cliffs, other adventures were also made a little safer with the presence of a Ham Radio.  Visiting Canyon of the Ancients, Hole in the Rock Road, Cottonwood Canyon Road, and several trips into the wilderness near Camp Verde, AZ., the radio in my truck was ever ready if we needed assistance!

A Different Kind of Community

Finally, these days we all seem to be part of some information community or other.  Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and the rest of the digital chat groups are out there.  And sometimes they’re a little detached.  Likes and Shares happen all over the place, and with many people we’ve never even met.  HAM Radio is a different type of information community.

HAM Radio operators like to talk.  And on most any repeater across the country you’ll meet some new people to chat with.  Over the years I’ve made many contacts with people from all over the U.S., and conversations with them are often more exciting than receiving a Tweet from someone.  The best part, in my opinion, is there’s an actual voice on the other end of the line!  It’s a tighter community to be sure!

If you decide to enter the world of HAM, keep a listen for the call sign N1ZZF (November One Zulu Zulu Foxtrot).  And be sure to say hi if you hear me on frequency!



1 Comment

  1. Rich you are spot on about getting at least the Tech License. Lots of free study guides on the net. You can take practice exams at http://www.qrz.com/hamtest/ or http://www.eham.net/exams/. The test is multiple choice and usually is $15 administered by other amateur radio operators. With the practice exams you get immediate feedback on the correct answers and the question pool is the same one that will be on the actual test.

    If you want even better peace of mind work on adding a general level license. While UHF/VHF works well in a lot of locations with repeaters as mentioned by Rich being able to run an HF radio (much lower frequencies) from the tow vehicle or trailer means you are really never out of contact. In an emergency you should be able to find someone talking somewhere in the world, yes the world, that can summon emergency help for you. And getting into the HF bands truly opens up the world.

    I added my General license about 8 weeks ago, got so addicted since it isn’t camping season, that I added the top of the heap Extra license. I just worked my 50th state along with Russia, Japan, Brazil, Ukraine and numerous other countries all with 100 watts and a wire antenna in the back yard.

    Have fun and be safe.

    Gary Haynes

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