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Every now and again, someone asks me about ham radio and how it works for four wheeling. So, I thought I would take some time and write down a few comments. This will save me from having to retype the same information time and time again and it will also allow me to provide a constant response and not leave any important parts out. I think I will do this one in the form of a FAQ since so many of the questions are repeatedly asked. So here goes. (Note: For basic information about obtaining a ham radio license, please stop by www.arrl.org for information.
1. Is ham radio used a lot on 4 wheeling trips and trails?
Unfortunately, I would have to say on. I have been on trips where everyone was a ham radio operator. These are the exception and never the norm, unless you specifically wheel with a group of hams all the time. Because using a ham radio requires you to have a license, many 4 wheelers do not wish to devote the time required to obtain a license. The other down side is that a cheap ham radio costs more than an expensive CB radio. (But you do get what you pay for. The quality of the average ham radio is well above that of the best CB radio.)
2. What kind of range do you get with a ham radio in your Jeep?
Well, that depends on a couple of different things, those being the frequency used, the type of antenna, and the amount of transmit power used. I can legally use 1000 watts of power if I wish to talk to other hams from my Jeep.
High frequency (called HF) provides the longest range for communications but is probably the least commonly used for four wheeling. HF signals can reach half way around the world given favorable atmospheric conditions. The CB band is located very close to the upper edge of he HF frequency range. (I am sure many of you have heard another CB station, often times half way across the US, come blasting into your radio while you are out on a trail run.) There are many factors that can influence the distance an HF signal will travel. Trying to explain all of them here would go beyond the scope of this write-up. I'll just say that the time of day, season of the year, position in the sun-spot cycle, and a variety of other things that none of us have control over can either enhance or detract from our ability to use the HF bands for communications.
The Very High Frequency (VHF) and Ultra High Frequency (UHF) bands are more commonly used by hams for mobile communications. Because of the much higher frequencies, you do not normally receive other signals that originate from across the US like we see with the HF signals. VHF and UHF signals are often times referred to line-of-sight frequencies, although this is not completely true. Some folks get a little "sloppy" and start lumping everything above the HF band into the line-of-sight category. The lowest ham band in the VHF range of frequencies can be used for talking to Europe, African, South Americia, and Australia. This long range mode of communications requires very favorable conditions in the atmosphere, but none the less, it does happen. As I write this text, I am thinking about my local friend who just yesterday was talking to South America on 6 meters (VHF).
Because the VHF and UHF bands usually provide shorter range communications, you do not get the "skip" of signals that is commonly experienced with CB signals. What this means is that a fairly small power signal can travel from one point to another and not have to compete with signals coming in from all over the US (or the world). This means you will not hear nearly as much interference from other radio stations. To give you an idea of how "clean" the VHF and UHF bands can be, I have stood on a mountain top (yes, I drove my Jeep to the top of it) here in Arizona and spoke with my friend back in Phoenix while using my VHF handheld radio. The distance was about 35 miles (as the crow flies). We talked just as clearly as we do when chit chatting across town from his house to mine (about 8 miles apart using outside antennas and 5 watts of power). Oh, by the way, I was using less than a half watt of power when I was talking from the mountain top. This is called simplex communications because we use the same frequency for transmitting and receiving (just like on a CB radio).
When you get into mountainous areas, RF communications can become blocked by the rock. VHF and UHF radios (remember the ones we called line-of-sight) usually perform worse in these situations, if we are trying to talk to someone on the other side of the mountain. However that does NOT mean you can not talk to another ham if there are some hills or mountains between you and he. Again, the type of antenna, the power of your transmitter, the frequency (6 meters works better here some times) and the mode of operations (single sideband, AM, or FM) all play into the formula that may or may not be good enough to squeeze a signal through to your friend. Let me say here that I have NEVER been on a trail run where either VHF or UHF signals could not be heard by every ham in their vehicle. (I can say, however, that I have been on trail runs were not every CB user could hear everyone else on the trail)
4. I've heard the term "Repeaters" used before....what does that mean?
A repeater is a special kind of receiver and transmitter that can pick up your transmission and retransmit it (usually at a high power level) so that other hams can hear it better. The repeater is usually (but not always) located on top of a very tall building, tower, or mountain top. The ones located on the mountain tops (or tall TV towers...the ones that are sometimes a thousand feet tall) are used for wide area coverage because they can rebroadcast your signal to others that can be up to one hundred or more miles away. Again, the range depends on various things, but other mountains being in the way will seriously reduce the signal strength, sometimes to the point where it can not be heard. The nice thing about mountain top repeaters (commonly found in the western states cuz we have SO many mountains out here) is that it makes VHF and UHF communications between hams on opposite side of the mountain sound as crisp and clear as a local phone call (and sometimes even better!).
5. What is a linked repeater?
A linked repeater is a VHF or UHF repeater that is tied to another repeater using a pair of "link radios". A link radio is a receiver and transmitter than hams do not directly talk on but rather their signals are relayed through the link radios from one repeater radio site to another. These links can extend for hundreds of miles and in many cases, span the borders of several states.
6. So what good is a linked repeater?
Depending on which linked system you are talking on, you can use your Jeep's 30 watt VHF or UHF radio to talk to another ham that is one or more states away. I belong to a radio club that is affiliated with a large group of other radio clubs who all have their UHF repeaters linked together. I can stand on Fisherman's Warf in San Francisco, CA and talk to another ham standing by the Gulf of Mexico in Texas....and I can do it using a handheld radio (using about 2~3 watts of power).
Now you might say that talking from San Francisco to the Gulf of Mexico is no big deal, and I'll agree with you that it isn't because I could borrow my friends cell phone can place a call from Fisherman's Warf and call Texas. However, keep in mind that I can find LOTS of places (especially in the west) where there is NO cell phone coverage but I can reach a ham repeater (or perhaps even a ham using simplex) but yet a CB signal would be lost in the noise. I have sat in my Jeep, while in Moab, Utah, eating my lunch and spoken with my wife in Phoenix, AZ using a linked repeater system. That is pretty cool, if you ask me. I dare you to attempt such a thing with a 4 watt CB radio (or even a 400 watt CB for that matter).
Here is another example of putting a linked repeater to good use. A friend of mine routinely vacations in Colorado and Utah, spending several months at each location during the summer time. Both he and his wife are ham radio operators. He routinely (as in several times each day) contacts her via a linked repeater system and passes along his GPS coordinates. Should something happen to him, his wife has the last location he was at and usually an idea of where he was headed. (No, he is not Jeepin' alone, but he does like to keep in frequent contact with his wife and best friend that both live in Phoenix.)
7. How much does a ham radio cost?
Well, that is kind of like asking what a good Jeep costs....it all depends on what model you get and what kind of fancy options come with it. You can buy a nice 50 watt VHF mobile radio with an antenna for about $300 or so. It won't have all of the fanciest features on it, but it will be a good name brand radio for that price. You can obviously buy a used one for considerably less. I have a 3 band FM radio (two VHF bands and one UHF band) in my TJ that runs close to $900 as configured. My HF radio was about $1200 when I purchased it new. To that, you can add about $500 for the HF antenna tuner and VHF/UHF antennas and mounts. (yes, I take my hobby fairly seriously)
I also have several handheld radios, the kind that put out about 5 watts max. I usually take one of them with me when ever I go wheelin'. They are easily transported to the top of a ridge or mountain (ie., they can fit in your shirt or coat pocket) in case you need them for an emergency call (you rolled your Jeep and broke off the antenna). They are also great if you are Jeepin; from a base camp and wish to keep in contact with someone at the camp (yes, they too have to have a ham license....like my wife does).
Well, that about wraps it up. I think I have gone on long enough about the various aspects of ham radio and how they might apply to someone who wants to combine two most excellent hobbies into one (ie., put your ham radio into your Jeep). If you have any other questions that you think would benefit other readers, please do not hesitate to drop me a note and I'll look into adding it to this page. My e-mail address is on my home page near the bottom.