The amateur radio hobby is a perfect complement to the RV Lifestyle, offering community, public service and so many fun opportunities that you can stay busy a lifetime.
Personally, I've been a radio amateur, or ham operator, since I was a teenager. My ham call sign is K8ZRH.
Now a half century later and on the road 3/4 of the time in my RV, I'm still active in the hobby, which I find not only fulfilling but very handy, especially when we are boondocking or traveling so far off the beaten path that reliable coverage by cell phones is not available.
Our followers have been asking me for a long time to more fully describe the hobby and its relevance to RVers. Keep scrolling down for a very thorough discussion.
But first, please watch the video below that I have prepared to accompany this article. In it, I demonstrate how I use amateur radio and give you a tour of my ham shack and my mobile installation in the RV.
What is the Amateur Radio Hobby?
Amateur radio operators use two-way radio gear to communicate via radio waves on designated radio frequencies. That is the basic, most simple definition possible.
In the United States, the hobby of amateur radio is regulated by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). An amateur radio license is required to operate in the ham bands and many different modes of communication are available, from voice, to digital, to morse code to slow scan television to teletype.
Ham operators do their communications by big tabletop sized all band, all mode radios that cost several thousand dollars, to small compact mobile units that sell for a few hundred dollars to a hand-held radio that can be bought for as little as a hundred dollars. Others DIY their radio gear, home brewing their radio equipment like pioneers such as Guglielmo Marconi of the hobby more than 120 years ago,
Some amateur radio enthusiasts hook their two-way radios to elaborate, multi-array beam antennas on 100-foot high towers, others throw a wire up between two trees.
How the Amateur Radio Hobby works
Radio communications are the original social media.
Most people are familiar with the old Citizens Band Radio that was all the craze back in the Seventies. It's still used today, of course, mostly for highway communications by truck drivers. Since then, the Family Radio Service has been developed. Both are low-powered, very short-range forms of communication.
Ham radio is much more. It communicates worldwide, can use much higher power (as much as 1,500 watts!), is extremely reliable, especially in times of crisis. Over the years, ham radio has saved countless lives. It is extensively used by emergency services during natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina, the wave of tornadoes that recently devasted the South, and during localized storms. flooding, wildfires, and the like.
Hams come from all walks of life, from movie stars. to truck drivers and everything in between. There are many RVers in the ham community, as I discover each day as we travel around the country.
There are young people in the hobby and there are old-timers. Most ham radio enthusiasts never leave the hobby. There's always something new to discover and tinker with on the different bands, from low frequency to ultra-high frequency (UHF).
Licenses for the Amateur Radio Hobby
The entry-level license for the amateur radio service in the U.S. is the Technician Class license. It is very easy to get.
All you have to do is pass one examination totaling 35 questions on radio theory, regulations, and operating practices.
The license gives access to all Amateur Radio frequencies above 30 megahertz, known as VHF (Very High Frequency) and UHF bands.
Generally, these bands cover local areas only (25-50 miles), although a network of ham radio repeaters can greatly expand that coverage to large regions, even entire states.
And with the advent of 21st century technology and the Internet in recent years, you can do VHF-UHF digital communications all over the world, as I demonstrate with a handheld radio in my ham radio video above
The next most popular license for radio amateurs is the General Class license.
In the early days and until recent years, licensed ham radio operators had to demonstrate proficiency to be able to send and receive Morse Code at the rate of at least 13 words a minute. That requirement has been shelved, although many of us still use morse code. But there's no doubt, the morse code requirement was a big hindrance for a lot of people.
The good news is that General Class hams don't have to know morse code. They just need a basic knowledge of radio technology, the different frequency bands, and how propagation conditions (the way radio waves bounce around on the different frequencies) affect communications.
To get the General Class license, you must first have passed the Technician Class exam. Then you must pass the general exam, which is another 35-question written test. With a General, radio hams have operating privileges on all Amateur Radio bands and all operating modes.
This license opens the door to world wide communications on the HF bands, (high frequency) or what many call short wave.
There's another FCC license for hams to aspire to – the Amateur Extra Class. It is the badge of honor for many amateurs and to get it requires passing a much more stringent exam of 50 questions on radio regulations and theory.
There used to be an Advanced Class License. That's what I have. It required me to demonstrate an ability to send and receive Morse Code at 20 words per minute. But when the FCC eased the licensing requirements some years back, it did away with the Advanced Class.
Amateur Radio licenses are good for 10 years.
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How do you get a Ham Radio license?
You can study from booklets or online and through practice tests, but I think the best way to get a license is to connect with a local amateur radio club.
The national association for amateur operators is the American Radio Relay League (https://arrl.org). Their website has detailed info on all the amateur bands and can connect you to local hams and local clubs where you can learn about basic electronics.
The important thing I want to stress here is how easy it is to get a ham license. My local ham club, The Utica Shelby Emergency Communication Association, for example, administers almost monthly exams for new hams. The other month, more than 50 newcomers came, took the tests, and walked away as newly licensed hams.
Similar growth is being reported by many ham radio clubs all across the country.
The Amateur Radio Hobby and RVers
I have a ham radio station at my sticks and bricks house in Michigan. I show it off in the video.
On the road, I have a VHF/UHF transceiver installed in the RV (the video shows its installation), and I also travel with a portable HF radio that I will often set up when we are at camping location for a few days.
One of the more recent advances in the amateur radio hobby is the integration of ham radio gear with the Internet through what is known as a hotspot.
Besides being static-free and crystal clear, this form of digital voice communication truly allows worldwide communication. In the video, I show you how, sitting on the balcony of our Florida condo and using just a handheld radio, I was able to talk with a ham operator in the United Kingdom.
While driving, I usually have my hotspot connecting my mobile transceiver to a bank of local ham radio repeaters back in Michigan on one frequency while the other frequency monitors the 146.52 frequency used by hams for point-to-point communications (think the old Channel 19 on CB radio).
That “52” frequency (as hams call it) is not nearly as noisy or busy as CB radio. But it is good for connecting with other hams on the same highway.
If you are interested in more about my ham gear and info CLICK HERE. If you already are a ham radio operator and want to talk to be on the air and have a Fusion radio, I often monitor the Zombie Alert reflector. On HF, I am most often on 7.258 Hz as part of the MIDCARS ham network.
I am thinking of starting an RV Lifestyle reflector, too, for RVers to use on the road and from campgrounds, too. I'll let you know when I get it set up.
“Radiosport” and the Amateur Radio Hobby
Hams love challenges that test their ability to set up their antennas and radio stations and make as many contacts in as many places as possible.
To that end, a very busy schedule of contests can keep an amateur radio operator busy all year round
Here are three of my favorites:
Parks on the RV – Perfect for RVers
Parks on the Air – This is perfect for RVers. We're always visiting and camping at parks. National Parks, State Parks, Regional Parks. The idea is to activate your station at a park and “work” as many stations as possible from that portable location.
Most recently, I did over the winter at Tahquamenon Falls State Park in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. I set up a temporary wire antenna and, in 20 minutes with a low-powered 10-watt ham transceiver, I worked stations in 12 different states. Next week, I plan to do so again from the Natchez Trace in Mississippi.
Amateur Radio Field Day
Field Day – This is always a favorite of mine that happens every year on the fourth full weekend of June. Think of it as Ham Radio's Open House. On the fourth full weekend of June (June 26-27, 2021), over 40,000 radio hams from across North America participate in this event.
Hams set up portable antennas and stations in public locations. Operators and ham clubs compete to see who can get the most contacts, with extra points assigned for operating under emergency power. I love camping in the RV and running my transceiver through my lithium batteries.
The object of this exercise, though is to sharpen our skills to be able to operate in abnormal situations in less than optimal conditions as training for when hams are called on to set up emergency communication networks.
Ham Radio CQ Worldwide DX Contest
CQ Worldwide DX Contest – This is a big one. It happens on the last weekend of October for voice contacts and the last weekend of November for Morse Code (called CW by hams, for Continuous Wave, the technical name for Morse Code communications).
The object is to work as many stations in as many different nations in the world as possible.
Other Amateur Radio Hobby activities
Contests and communication training are just a tiny part of the hobby's appeal. Here are just six of many, many other ways the hobby is used.
Ragchewing – That's an old ham radio term from the phrase “Chewing the Rag.” It's just kibbitzing, or visiting… having conversations and getting to meet other people in different parts of the world who share an interest in two-way radio communications by voice, code, digital means (think texting via radio). Conversations range from technical (hams love comparing signal reports and talking about their antennas), to socializing, with many different clubs getting together at certain times on then ham bands to share what they're up to.
Networks – Networks are formalized gatherings of hams who gather in as a group on the air. There's a Hurricane Hunters Network that activates when hurricanes pose a threat. I belong to one in the Midwest called MIDCARS (the Midwest Amateur Radio Service), where mobile and fixed stations can meet and exchange information on weather and road conditions. There are similar “Nets” for every region of the country.
Contact the Space Station – The International Space Station always has at least one amateur radio operator on board. Astronaut hams make radio contacts during their breaks, pre-sleep time, and before and after mealtime. Thousands of hams around the world have “worked” the space station and have often coordinated and brought their radios into schools so kids can talk to an astronaut and learn about space.
Bounce your signal off the moon – There is a dedicated group of hams who are devoted to Earth–Moon–Earth communication (EME). They point special beam antennas at the moon and communicate with stations on the other side of the world by bouncing the radio waves off the moon. The most fanatical of the bunch does the same thing off meteors. Cool, huh?
Go on a DXpedition – This is a short term specialized, challenging travel to usually very remote and inaccessible parts of the world where there are no permanent ham operators. A team of ham operators will activate the locale and try to give as many hams across the world a chance to make a rare contact with the area.
Collecting QSL Cards – Hams love to QSL, or in ham lingo, confirm a contact. They used to send colorful postcards to each other and then use them to verify contacts to get awards like Worked All States, Worked All Continents of DXCC – working 100 countries. Many still send the cards via snail mail but these days, electronic verifications can be sent over the Internet. As a young ham, I once had more than 750 QSL cards that I used to cover every wall in my ham shack.
Two Final Cautions about the Ham Radio Hobby
This first caution is, particularly for the RVer, or mobile operator. It comes from my “been there, done that” collection of life lessons.
Be considerate of your fellow travelers.
By that I mean is that when you are traveling with someone else, ham radio may not be of as much interest to them as it is to you.
So keep the noise down. Don't talk to others more than the person next to you.
The second caution is to go slowly. Don't jump all in. The amateur radio hobby can be very addicting. There are so many different ways to use the hobby, so many enticing modes and so much equipment that will be calling to you.
Ham radio is a lifelong hobby. There will always be something new to learn.
My advice, also from the “been there, done that” school of hard knocks: Pace yourself!
If you follow those two final pieces of advice, you and amateur radio are going to have a great time…. for a long time.
73 (ham radio talk for Best Regards), and Happy Trails!
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