tldr; In November of this year I took an Amateur Radio (aka “ham” radio) course with the local Cowichan Valley Amateur Radio Society (CVARS) club, studied for 5 weeks straight every night, and passed my Basic Qualification exam on November 14 2021 with honours! I scored 91% which was the highest in the cohort 🥳
I’ve always been interested in radio technology, ever since I was a child; I even had a podcast one time. It started when I had this crappy little children’s walkie-talkie that I took everywhere with me. One day I took the radio apart because I wanted to know how it worked inside. I was sad that I couldn’t figure it out, but I eventually got most of the pieces back together even though it didn’t work the same after. There is a high level of certainty that this quest for knowing what was going on inside the device contributed to my need to understand how things work, even in a more general sense in my day-to-day.
Fast-forward to the summer of 2020 in the midst of the pandemic lockdowns: I traded in my beloved VW GTI and bought a Toyota Tacoma, immediately taking up the hobby of off-roading, “wheelin’” or “goin’ for a rip” as some call it here in Canada. This newfound ability to explore the areas around where I live, the places I never had access to before, had (as cliché as it sounds) given my life new meaning.
Through my short involvement with the off-road community, I noticed folks out in the back country often use radios to communicate with each other and even have mobile base stations in their vehicles with antennas coming off the hood, roof, or tailgate, or some combination of the three. These antennas, I would come to find out, allow the propagation of radio waves over much longer distances than the puny little radio I grew up using.
Getting Started with Amateur Radio #
If you’re interested in getting started in the hobby of Amateur Radio, I have outlined some of the things that helped me ace the test.
Basic Qualification #
There are a few bits of knowledge you must have (not all topics are mentioned, just a few) before taking the Basic Qualification exam: you need to have a fairly intimate understanding of basic electronics theory, understand and know the difference between the Amateur Radio band frequencies, how to deal with interference, how to work with propagation, and be able to demonstrate proper safety protocols according to the rules and regulations set out by ISED and Health Canada, among many other topics. If you feel confident, you can challenge the exam, however I consider myself a “smart person” and I got ~50% the first practice exam I took without studying at all. It took a lot of studying and practice test-taking to go up the score ladder in increments of ~5 points every week.
Passing the Basic Qualification exam (without Honours) affords you access to the Very-High Frequency (VHF) and Ultra-High Frequency (UHF) bands which are in the 2m (~144-148 MHz) and 70cm (~440-448 MHz) bands of frequency ranges. These are radio wave bands that most hobbyists start out with as they are great for short-range communication and a fair amount of repeaters are erected in places allowing you to extend the range of your communications.
Important note: Before transmitting, always consult the band plan for your region. You can find it by searching for “[your country name] amateur radio band plan”. Also, when you first power on a radio it will allow you to transmit but you are required by law to refrain from pushing the PTT button before you have passed your exam and have a callsign issued to you!
Please don’t be dumb and ruin it for everyone.
Equipment required to make contact on the VHF and UHF bands is fairly inexpensive which makes entry at this point both easy and inexpensive for most new amateurs. For example: I purchased an inexpensive dual-band VHF/UHF Baofeng radio (in Canada, the company is rebranded as Pofung and the model that is certified by ISED is the
UV-5RIC, otherwise known as the
UV-5R practivally everywhere else in the world) for around $60CDN. This package includes a battery, charger, and the radio which operates on the available amateur radio VHF/UHF frequencies.
Baofeng (and by association, basically any other cheap radio made in China) get a bad rap because dumb people purchase these inexpensive radios and misuse them on radio bands that are properly used by licensed amateurs.
Basic Qualification With Honours #
If you do happen to take the Basic Qualification exam and you pass with a score of 70% or higher, this is considered an acceptable passing grade. You could stop here, get your first callsign, then immediately get “on the air” to begin making contacts on the VHF/UHF bands, however your goal should be to pass “with Honours” which requires a score of 80% or higher. Passing with Honours affords you a greater level of access which includes more radio frequencies (all the HF bands) that you are not allow transmitting on if you score below 80%! When you consider this, the goal should really be to get 80% or higher in the first place so you don’t have to re-take the test again at a later point in time!
If you pass the Basic Qualification exam with Honours, you have access to the VHF and UHF bands as well as the following metre bands: 10, 12, 15, 17, 20, 30, 40, 80, and the inclusion of one Medium Frequency band, 160. Except for the 160m band, these low frequency bands are ironically referred to as High Frequency (HF, 3.5 up to 29.7 MHz) in the Amateur Radio world. These lower frequencies are what allow you to make contact with other amateurs over hundreds, if not thousands, of kilometers thanks to ionospheric propogation during sunspot activity.
I haven’t delved too far into HF, but I will follow up this post in the future if I do.
Exam Study Resources #
I’ve compiled a few resources that you can, and definitely should, use in your journey to becoming a certified Amateur Radio operator:
- The ISED Amateur radio exam generator website — here you can do a few things: pick a category to study, generate practice exams, and even print off all the possible questions that could be on an exam.
- The Radio Amateurs of Canada (RAC) website is a great place to figure out where to get started, available to anyone. It can point you towards joining a local club, getting your basic qualification from an examiner, etc.
- The COAX Publications Canadian Amateur Radio Basic Qualification study guide — I purchased this book and after having read through 90% of it before I took an in-person course, I can confidently say it didn’t help me as much as I’d hoped it would have. If you’re a book learner, this one is for you; it is incredibly well-written and very thorough on the topics covered, but when I wanted to apply the things I learned from the book I found it very hard to approach them in a practical sense. You will also notice if you choose to order your own copy of the book that the COAX website is… terrible… but it is functional.
- The Amateur Radio Exam Canada iOS app has been an amazing resource to help with practical quizzing to help reinforce concepts. Whenever I had spare time I would complete a practice exam, whether it was sitting on the couch passively watching TV or during a work-break during the day.
- And of course, what I believe was my key to success: join a club-sponsored Amateur Radio course where you will apply everything you learn! Because of this I was given a mental deadline and forced myself to study every night for several weeks leading up to the exam which took place at the end of the 5th week.
After Passing The Exam #
Congratulations, pat yourself on the back! You’ve joined a group of people dedicated to their craft and most of whom enjoy introducing newbies to their hobby.
Once your examiner has submitted your grade (which likely happens quickly), you will receive an email from ISED with the instructions on how to request your first callsign. Once you have this callsign, you will use it to identify your station whenever you make contact with other radio amateurs. Be sure to print out the confirmation page when you do apply for your first callsign as there doesn’t appear (at the time of writing this) to be a way to view your requested callsigns in your account information on the ISED website, so you’ll have to rely on this or the printed copy of your certificate which shows up in the mail a number of weeks later.
Continuing Education #
Watch YouTube Videos Covering Amateur Radio Content #
One way to expand your knowledge of Amateur Radio is to watch videos on a variety of topics and figure out what you might be interested in. A lot of people take their test and pass, but find the landscape of actually doing something with Amateur Radio very daunting and don’t know where to start. I’ve found that, by watching a variety of YouTube channels for information like Ham Radio Crash Course and Ham Radio 2.0, they give me insight into the vast array of topics you can become interested in surrounding Amateur Radio, from operating esoteric base station equipment, to learning about APRS and digital modes, to operating emergency long-range data communication networks like AREDN, among many other topics.
Programming Your Radio With CHIRP #
CHIRP is a piece of software for Windows, Linux, and macOS, that can allow you to program your radio to set channels, change settings, among other things. If you have a supported radio model and a programming cable for said radio, you will have a much better time setting your channel frequencies and changing settings than trying to decipher the very cryptic short-word menu options on your radio’s screen. I may publish a followup post on how to program a UV-5R with CHIRP and will update this text with a link.
Use Repeaters To Extend Your Signal #
One thing that a lot of people starting out with Amateur Radio do is transmit through the repeaters in their area to make contacts further away than their base station antenna can transmit. This post is a great primer on using repeaters for VHF/UHF bands to extend your signal past line-of-sight simplex. Repeaterbook is a great resource that you can use to find local repeaters in your area that you can transmit and receive through. There is also has an app you can install on an iPhone or android device which can use your current location to find repeaters within a geographic radius, and it even works offline! This is useful if you are going to explore somewhere you’ve never been or simply want to know what repeaters are around you on-the-go, at any given time.
Dive In To APRS #
A topic that I am very interested in is GPS-powered tracking over Amateur Radio. I will follow-up this post with more information about this topic as I learn and apply it. For now, you can follow my shenanigans over on aprs.fi.
If you’ve made it this far, the time has come: go take your exam. When you pass, send me your callsign on Twitter using the link below, then we can make a contact!