Let’s talk about some amateur radio skills. I’ve been singing the praises of getting licensed and learning the craft for a while. But I’ll also admit that I’m practicing as much as I should be and my radio mostly sits on my desk looking me in the face.
Today I’m talking to NC Scout, who you might know from his own blog over at Brushbeater as well as American Partisan.
NC Scout is a former US Army Infantry scout who has a long history with reconnaissance and radio communications. He has experience in both Iraq and Afghanistan, and now teaches military skills (including radio communications) to folks looking to be more prepared for hard times.
I’ll get right to the point. If there’s nothing else for you to take away from this interview, it’s that there’s a lot of capability out there in the world of radio, but doesn’t mean anything to you if you don’t have enough working knowledge to use it. The time to start learning how to effectively use radios is not after you’re already in need of doing it.
Like many skills, including shooting, it’s relatively easy to learn the basics and start transmitting. But getting really good takes time, practice, and study.
So what does really good look like when it comes to radio?
Let’s illustrate two examples.
The Novice Radio Operator
This isn’t explicitly laid out in the episode, but I think we talked around the idea a lot. The novice is a lot like Tactical Timmy. He wants to buy the gear and have the look without necessarily putting in the work.
The novice buys the radio, buys a factory-made antenna, and hopefully gets his license to operate. From there, he jumps on the air and talks to local people in the area (if there are any). Novices are limited to roughly a geographic area the size of a country, presuming they have access to a repeater in the area to carry the signal further.
Should the repeater go down due to power loss or hardware failure, the novice is pretty much stuck to a couple of miles within the line of sight.
Should the novice want to try for more efficiency out of their radio, they don’t have the skills or equipment to construct, test, and utilize a different kind of antenna. In fact, doing so may result in destroying their radio.
The Seasoned Radio Operator
In contrast to the novice, we have the guys who actually put in the work. This group can make their own antennas out of piano wire and electric fence insulators. That helps shape the signal in a way that gets further out and has better audio.
The seasoned operator has experience with the high frequency (HF) radio bands, meaning they know how to bounce radio waves off of the Earth’s atmosphere and talk across state lines or even to other countries. They know how to configure and maintain a repeater, but also don’t need to rely on it.
Should the internet go down, the seasoned operator knows how to send digital messages and email over radio waves.
The seasoned operator is the kind of person who can keep your communications up and running even when everything else is failing. You want this guy on your team, if not becoming this guy yourself.
The first step in all of this is to get your radio and a license. I would say get the license first, but my own personal experience is that having the radio to tinker with while I was studying for the license exam was a great help.
Nothing is really stopping you from having the radio and transmitting without a license, but realize it is against the law and you’re setting yourself up for problems by doing so.
NC Scout talked a lot about the Baofeng UV5R as a place to start. While I know a lot of amateur radio operators out there look down on this radio, it’s hard to argue with the amount of capability it brings to the table for less than $50.
Once you have the radio and your license, the next task is to start learning and tinkering. You need to gain that working knowledge for the future. It will not come naturally, and it’s something you have to work at.
Local groups are full of people at all skill levels, including the “Elmers” who are the guys that have “been there done that” many times over. So long as you’re ready to learn, people are willing to teach you.
You can’t become a USPSA Grand Master in a single trip to the range. The number of primary and secondary skills that go into that are simply unobtainable in a single day, or even a handful of range trips. So why would anyone think they can do it with radio?