Icom 2200H VHF Radio
Why You NEED a Ham (VHF) Radio
The CB radio has long been a standard item in a 4x4 for good reason. It's an easy and inexpensive way to add vehicle-to-vehicle communication. That communication makes travelling in groups more enjoyable and convenient, plus it also adds a margin of safety if you need to call for help. But CB has long had certain shortcomings as well. The primary downside is that it has a relatively short range. CB radios are limited to 4-watts of power. That's not much when you've got trees and mountains blocking your signal. Compare this to your typical vehicle-mounted amateur VHF radios that have 25-60 watts of power. From my own experience, CB radios max out around 2-5 km in the woods, vs. 15-20 km for a VHF radio. That's vehicle-to-vehicle, with typical vehicle-mounted antennas.
Before I go any further, I should stop and explain some of the nomenclature:
- When I refer to VHF radio, I'm talking about a range of frequencies allowed for use by amateur radio license holders. VHF is also known as 2-meter. This range of frequencies begins at 144MHz and goes up to 148mhz.
- There are other VHF frequency ranges that are not part of the amateur radio spectrum. Some of them are marine band. Some are commercially-licensed frequencies that are leased to businesses for use in particular geographic areas. But in this article, when I say VHF, I'm only referring to the VHF frequencies used by amateur radio users.
- Amateur radio is also known as "ham radio."
- Amateur radio users can use several different frequency ranges. The VHF (very high frequency) range is just one of them. There are also HF (high frequency) and UHF (ultra high frequency) bands that are allotted for amateur radio use.
If VHF or 2-meter radio is so good, why do so many people use CB's? Because CB radios have no licensing requirements at all. Just buy it, stick in your truck, and you're good to go. To get an amateur radio license, you have to pass a written test. And let's face it, no one enjoys studying and writing tests.
How hard is it to pass the test? It's not hard at all. Spend $30 on the study guide (available at any radio-specialty store), read it, then find a nearby qualified examiner who can give you the test. No nearby stores? Check www.rac.ca to order the study guide. It's also the place to get a down loadable quiz program and a list of accredited examiners.
I bought the study guide locally, read it and practiced with the quiz program for a week, and then made an appointment with a local examiner the following week. The whole process took less than 2 weeks. Cost was $30 or so for the study guide, and $20 which I gave to the examiner for his time (there's no standard fee...in fact, he said I could just give him a bottle of wine).
Another option is to contact a nearby ham club to see when their next licensing class will be held, or if they can put a class together for you (and some friends). You can see a list of Canadian clubs here.
Compared to just buying and installing a CB radio, getting a VHF radio sounds like a big hassle, right? Of course it is. But the pay-off is enormous. And it's important to make sure that VHF users are properly educated because even with the most basic amateur license (there are different levels), you can wield up to 250 watts of power. That's a serious amount of transmitting power. Can you imagine if everyone could walk into Wal-mart and buy a 250 watt transmitter without receiving any kind of training, first? The radio waves would be jammed with useless chatter coming from everywhere. It's bad enough with the short range signal pollution generated by some knuckle-dragging CB users. I'd hate to see what it'd be like if they were given 60-times more transmitting power. So the test is a good thing because it keeps a lot of the knuckle-dragging mouth-breathers off of the VHF air waves. (Mongo no like test!)
So yes, getting the license takes a bit of time, but it's worth it. You'll learn proper etiquette and safe operation (you'll now have access to so much power that radio frequency burns are something you need to be aware of).
A repeater station.
But wait, there's more! Yes, your VHF radio will have much more power and range than your CB, but there are other benefits.
In computer terms, repeaters are the "killer app" for VHF radio. A repeater is a radio that receives on one frequency and re-sends on another frequency. To get the best range, repeaters are typically installed on mountain tops and hooked up to very efficient and properly tuned antennas. This means that even with a 2-watt handheld VHF radio, you could reach a mountain top repeater several kilometres from you. And that repeater will re-send your transmission using its own transmitter which would probably be operating at anywhere from 25-100 watts, or more. Thanks to its stronger output power, better antenna, and higher location, it can reach other VHF radios at much farther distances than you could directly; or radios that are not within your line-of-sight, such as on the other side of the mountain. If the repeater is part of a connected system of repeaters, the range can be hundreds of kilometres. Some repeaters are connected to the Internet via EchoLink. If you hit one of those repeaters, you basically have the ability to reach other EchoLink-connected repeaters anywhere in the world.
Repeaters are generally operated by volunteers from ham radio clubs, and most are available for public use. This is pretty amazing, when you consider how useful they are, and the fact that they need to be maintained and upgraded fairly regularly.
Click here to see a map showing the ability of a handheld VHF radio to receive from a local repeater situated on Seymour Mountain. It's showing a distance of at least 60 km.
||In addition to the previously mentioned benefit of long range, there's the fact that repeaters are generally monitored by ham radio enthusiasts. Since getting my license a few years ago, every time I'm in the bush, I try hitting local repeaters. And every time I've reached one and requested a contact, I've gotten a response. Try that with your CB! But I'm not just talking about backwoods emergencies. In times of natural disasters or civil emergencies, volunteer amateur radio groups set up communications nets on a variety of amateur radio frequencies, including many in the VHF range. A VHF radio will let you contact these groups even when phone lines and cell towers are out of action. (Most repeaters are self-sufficient in power, so they don't rely on a power grid for emergency operation.)
||As mentioned earlier, some of the VHF range is allotted to businesses. These ranges are a bit higher up the frequency range than amateur radio VHF, but most ham radios allow you to listen in to those frequencies. This is a handy feature when you're travelling on active logging roads. They generally have signs at the entrance listing the frequencies in use, so you scan those frequencies while driving. The truck drivers will call out their position every kilometer or so, so you know where they are and when you should pull over and wait for them to go by. Nothing ruins an drive in the woods faster than a head-on collision with a loaded logging truck. Many ham radios can also be very easily modified to transmit on these commercial VHF frequencies. While it is against the regulations for non-authorized users (ie: people who don't work for the logging company that leased the frequency) to transmit on the frequency, it is acceptable to do so in the event of an emergency. For instance, if your truck had a flat tire and you're stopped at the exit from a blind corner, that would be a good reason to use their frequency to let them know where you are.
||There are many, many other cool things you can do with amateur radio but I'll mention just one: APRS (Automatic Packet Reporting System). This is a system where by you can send packets of digitized information from your ham radio to repeaters that support the APRS protocol. These repeaters will then forward these packets to to other APRS repeaters, and those repeaters will do the same. These repeater-to-repeater packet transfers can cover hundreds of kilometers. Some of these APRS repeaters are connected to the Internet, where the packets are then transferred over the net to their intended destination. What does that mean to a non-geek? It means you can send things like your current location (by interfacing a GPS to your ham radio) to the Internet, while you're out in the bush, and your location would then show up, almost real-time, on an online map. Or you could send email! Here's a map showing some APRS position data. Cool, right? If you don't see car icons on the map, try moving the map to a larger city.
||Ok, I lied, I'm going to mention another geeky thing you can do with VHF radio. Some clubs have their repeaters connected to the phone network. You could connect to one of these repeaters, hit a sequence of keys on your radio to open up the phone line, and then make a phone call through your radio. Pretty cool, huh?
When ever I see fourwheelers talk about VHF radios, the question of commercial and marine VHF radios always comes up. So let me just pre-empt such questions by saying this:
Yaesu Hand-held FT270R VHF Radio
- Marine radios are only allowed for marine use. Do not buy them for off-roading. They won't work with ham VHF frequencies or commercial VHF frequencies.
- Commercial radios are not meant for ham radio frequencies but most can be programmed to work with them. However, depending on the age and obscurity of the radio, it might not be possible to get it programmed anymore. The ones that can be programmed are usually limited to the use of a handful of frequencies at any one time. In contrast, ham radios can be set to use any frequency with the turn of a knob. On the plus side, commercial radios are usually very robust and built with quality components. But generally speaking, I think your first VHF radio should be a ham radio. It'll allow you explore the world of amateur radio more easily and with a minimum of fuss.
- Marine and commercial radios are usually asked about because used models can be found for under a hundred bucks. If price is a consideration, I suggest starting with a handheld VHF ham radio. Brand new, good quality ones go for $120-150 with up to 7 watts of power. That's plenty to get you started, and they make for great back-up radios, too. Buy one that also lets you connect it to external 12V power so you can easily run it in your vehicle. I have a 6 watt handheld that will go into our earthquake emergency kit when I upgrade to a newer radio. My current handheld can be powered with 8 AA batteries so it will be a very useful item to have in the event of a large scale emergency.
The final word: don't let the studying and exam requirement discourage you from using this amazing tool. The first time you talk to your buddy from 100km away, you will not be able to wipe the grin off your face. Trust me, it's worth it!