Is Ham Radio Useful?


The BaoFeng UV-5RE.

Last year I got my general and technician amateur radio licences thanks to an easy to learn memory trick. But when it comes to actually using a radio I don’t have a clue. To learn more I joined my local club and took part this last Friday in a contest, using the club’s equipment, to talk to Hams worldwide. The contest involved the quick exchange of call signs. One moment I’d be talking to Japan the next Slovenia, the Azores, Brazil, Venezuela, Mexico, New Zealand–the list of countries went on and on.

I spent three hours in the club’s radio room, located in the emergency communications center at the offices of a local hospital. It was fun, but the utility of the exercise was not immediately apparent. The cell phone system is a lot more robust than it used to be and you don’t need a licence to use a phone in an emergency.

I got home from the contest around 9 pm and as I began to make dinner the windows started rattling and the house began to roll. It was an earthquake. The cats panicked and ran under the couch. Since Ham radio was on my mind I instinctively grabbed my handheld radio and immediately heard the voices of other Hams discussing the earthquake. It was then that I realized how useful amateur radio could be. Not only did I get instant information about the earthquake, but I also had access to a network of people who could help me and my neighbors in a real emergency.

The cats? Not so useful. It took about a half hour for them to emerge from their hiding spaces.

In an emergency it’s a good idea to have a radio and know how to use it. And you don’t have to be a Ham to listen to Ham frequencies. Thanks to cheap imported electronics you can now get a radio that receives and transmits on Ham bands, works as a scanner and even transmits on FRS (family radio service) frequencies–all for $40–the BaoFeng UV-5RE. The Survival Podcast did a whole episode on radios you should have in an emergency and the BaoFeng features prominently in the pantheon of zombie apocalypse communications equipment discussed on that show. I can’t speak from experience about the BaoFeng as I have a Yaesu FT-60. But, combined with a battery operated AM/FM radio, the BaoFeng would make a nice addition to your emergency supplies.

Now if only I could teach the cats to tap out Morse code.

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  1. Hmmm, my comment disappeared? I am with the cats all the way–under the couch.

    Did you use Morse Code? I know it is not being used now, but I still wonder if people still learn it. Jeremiah Denton certainly used it to transmit useful information with the enemy watching and transmitting for him. Brilliant!

    So, people can just listen and not transmit? That would have been so helpful when I sat here for five days with no way of knowing what was happening even one mile from me after our tornado that ripped up our town. Actually, going to BAM and getting on their wifi after two days was helpful. But, two days without news of the immediate area was very unnerving.

    That sounds like a fun session. Will you go for CEUs? Or, is that required?

    I see it is sitting in a base for charging. If there were no electricity, how would you charge it? I charged my cell phone in my car even though the car was not turned on. Does this ham radio come with a car charger? Or, would you need an inverter?

    • I don’t yet know morse code–but it’s on the to-do list.

      Most of these handheld radios have battery units you can attach should the power go out. Usually double-A batteries. And, absolutely, you can listen without a license. You can also use that radio to listen to the police and fire departments.

      You’ll have to explain to me what a CEU is.

      Always good to hear from you!

  2. How are the BaoFeng and Yaesu, if used as walkie-talkies? Have you guys used it as such, ie. the Mrs. out for groceries, the Mr. tending the urban farm, an 8.1 mag hits, cell phone towers down, chaos in the streets, zombies coming out…

    • That’s the scenario. Zombies are coming and we need another wheel of Parmesan from Trader Joes. BaoFeng would work in that situation as it transmits on the family radio frequencies that you don’t need a licence for. The Yaesu only transmits on amateur radio frequencies and Mrs. Homegrown does not have a licence. Thankfully we have another option.

  3. Thanks Tim. This really helped me to decide what radio I wanted to start with. I am ordering it woth xmcar charger, extra battery and hand mike. Thing is, it comes with an antenna, so whats the dual band antenna thats offered extra for sale used for? Thanks for the info..

  4. CEUs-continuing education units. I’m sure that jogged your brain. People with degrees, professionals of all sorts, people with licenses are usually required to update their skills.

  5. I am a ham radio operator for 56 years. Yes, hams still use the code every day. If you have access to a communications receiver, listen near the bottom of the ham bands in the evening and you’ll hear it for yourself. While it’s not required for licensing now, it’s still a very useful communication tool and can get through under conditions when other modes can’t. I have used it to make contact with stations as far away as Japan and Europe from my car with 4 watts of power on the 14 MHz band.

    There are multiple organizations within ham radio that help promote the use of code, called CW in the ham community. One of those is the “Straight Key Century Club”

    Now, about those Bao Feng radios, I have three of them and my wife, also a licensed ham has her own. They are very handy communication devices and can, as was mentioned above, be used on FRS and MURS frequencies as well as monitoring the NOAA weather channels and much more including the 144 and 440 MHz ham bands.

    Something to keep in mind regarding any small low powered radios like these is that their range is limited if the repeaters are off the air, as might be the case in some disaster scenarios. With the compromise rubber antenna supplied with these units don’t expect more than a mile or two. If you can connect them to a more optimum antenna that can be elevated 15 or 20 feet, the range to another similarly equipped unit increases quite a lot. Terrain makes a LOT of difference, too.

    Let me throw out another consideration. Who are you going to talk to and how do you know what frequencies to use? Assuming you are licensed, and hams will likely not talk to you if you aren’t because they won’t know who you are and you won’t know them either. Getting licensed and getting a radio are the two first steps, but it’s very important, too, to get involved with the local hams and talk with them so you get to know each other. They probably participate in some public service events as volunteers and that can be a lot of fun and, at the same time, builds communications skills that would be useful in case of an “unpleasant event”.

    Food for thought.

    • Thanks Roger for the tips. I joined my local club and try to go to as many meetings as I can. When I’m free I also participate in the 2 meter net the club runs on Tuesday nights. They also have a CW practice group that I’d like to give a spin. And I’m hoping to set up an HF rig and antenna soon–tips on that are appreciated.

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