Amateur “Ham” Radio – What, Why, & How?

A little over two months ago, I didn’t know a thing about amateur radio, more commonly referred to as “ham” radio. All I knew was that it was a nerdy niche of technology with a funny name. However, this wouldn’t be the first time I’ve been intrigued with oddly named nerd tech.

“Ham radio?!” What, the hell does radio have to do with pigs? I have no interest in it if it’s just a bunch of ‘amateurs’ running around playing walkie talkie.

Eventually, curiosity overwhelmed my ignorance after I got into a discussion about amateur radio with some fellow search and rescue team members. They told me that amateur radio enables you to talk to anyone around the world, even space stations, without a subscription plan. They informed me that even handheld transceivers can be used at long range, sometimes over 100+ miles. Then they really grabbed my attention when they said that amateur radio can also send and receive data.

Worldwide capabilities? Long range? Data? Who cares, my iPhone can do, like, all of that…plus Angry Birds, so whateverrrrrrr.

First things first, amateur radio is never going to equate to a cell phone, nor does it want to. Amateur radio’s primary use is experimentation in radio communication. It is a legal and flexible way for radio enthusiasts to experiment with hardware and software, electricity and antennas while connecting with others who are doing the same thing around the world. I will be honest, none of that interests me. Nonetheless, another popular use of amateur radio is contesting, which involves organizing a group of people to try and make contact with as many other amateur radio operators as possible, as far as possible away. Ok, I suppose I can see the initial excitement for contesting, but that kind of sport sounds dreadfully boring to me in the long run. So, what is left? What does amateur radio have to offer other than playing with multimeters and saying hello to strangers?

Amateur radio has a tendency to really shine during emergency response. You see, our cell phones require “cells,” or cellular tower coverage, in order to send and receive signals. These cells are reliant on power from the grid, and if the power goes out on the cell tower grid, so do all the send/receive capabilities of your cell phone (backup systems and generators excepted). Best case scenario, even if the cell towers remain online after a disaster in a local area, all of the local residents will be making cell calls and overload the cell tower bandwidth, which means you won’t get to talk to anyone but the “all circuits are busy” automated lady, and she’s not very helpful. The point is, as reliable as your cell phone is every day (depending on your carrier), chances are good that it might fail you in a large scale emergency, at a time when you need communication most.

Natural disasters happen, we witness them every year in varying degrees of severity. From localized power outages from blizzards to large scale tsunamis, earthquakes, and tropical storms. These things happen, and it would be irresponsible to not prepare for them in some way, even if it’s just a small stockpile of water and canned food. Granted, communication in a large scale disaster might not be as important as food, water, and shelter, but amateur radio may be the difference between communicating/coordinating with loved ones and simply praying it all works out. It’s hard to grasp the magnitude of this problem, but imagine that you need to immediately contact a loved one in the middle of a workday without using a cell phone, a motorized vehicle, or the internet. Do you have a way? Amateur radio is one solution to this problem.

Amateur radio is typically tightly monitored and controlled by the FCC (as best they can), guided by hundreds upon thousands of rules and restrictions. However, in an emergency situation, where human life or limb is in the balance, all those rules yield to whatever is necessary to assist in the emergency. Amateur radio truly shines in these situations, because it not only provides reliable communication for responders, but also for victims.

Ok, so you aren’t the electrical experimenter, or the radio contester, or the emergency ‘prepper.’ However, if you are an outdoorsman, there is another feature you might be interested in; Automatic Packet (Position) Reporting System, or “APRS.” APRS is a software and hardware capability of a radio transceiver that determines your position from GPS and then transmits that position to a nearby internet gateway (or “IGATE”) via radio waves. Basically, you can turn on APRS on your handheld transceiver and a loved one can track your position via their computer or cell phone. You can even send custom status messages along with your location information to give quick details about your trip. Every backcountry or summit hiker has considered purchasing the Spot Satellite Communicator as a means of checking in with the family or to use as a backup transmitter in case of emergency, despite the $100/year subscription. An APRS equipped amateur radio can transmit the same data, in a different manner, without any subscription fees. To see an example of live APRS broadcasts being transmitted in real-time in your area, visit

Amateur radio is getting more and more popular, because of its ever-increasing capability and versatility. All it takes is a curiosity of what amateur radio can do for you before you start imagining all the professional and informal applications. If you have become inspired to try amateur radio, all you need to do to get started is your amateur radio license and some basic radio hardware. To get the most basic FCC designated license and call sign, you have to pass a 35 question, $15 test. Sounds easy enough, but the 35 questions are pulled from a pool of 396 questions, so I recommend getting a proper study guide and putting in some study time beforehand. After you receive your license the fun part begins: researching what radio you want.

For more information, including your local testing schedule, visit the American Radio Relay League.

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