Old timers, don’t click away just yet!
This article is primarily for those who recently got their radio license, but I hope the old timers will hang around. The goal is to provide direction to the ham radio beginner and give more experienced operators some insight they can use to help others ease into the hobby.
You’ve taken the first step into a “club” with a rich history of technical innovation, community service, and personal growth. You’re going to meet some great people, and to be completely honest, some not so great people too. Like any avocation, what you get out of ham radio depends on your motivation and attitude. If your head and your heart are in the right place, the rest will work itself out.
The breadth and depth of amateur radio can be intimidating.
Ham radio has a low barrier to entry but the learning curve is quite steep once you’re in the door. Don’t be put off by that. As a ham radio beginner, it’s important to understand that no matter how long you do this, you’ll never truly know everything.
Amateur radio is a very wide and deep field with many subspecialties. Among them are DXing, contesting, disaster/emergency services, fox hunting, data modes, moon bounce, SKYWARN, satellites, antenna design, QRP operating, and of course my personal favorite, off grid power. There are many more. The diversity is both a blessing and a curse. It’s a blessing because there truly is something for everyone. It’s a curse because there are so many choices a ham radio beginner may feel a little overwhelmed.
Your first action should be to define what direction you want to go. For some people, this is the easy part. They may have wanted their license for a specific purpose, such as to work with an emergency response group. If you knew what you wanted to do with ham radio before you even got your ticket, then you can skip this step.
For everyone else, some decisions will need to be made. Be open to all the options, even ones that don’t seem to grab your interest.
How I came to ham radio.
As a teen in the 1980s I liked to tinker and experiment with electronics. I’ve been in that lane ever since and even turned it into a full time career. Ham radio is a natural component of that. The passion I discovered as a kid has not dimmed one bit, although my interests have shifted. I only got into off grid power in the last ten years or so when the cost of solar panels came down. What started as a simple solar experiment bloomed into a larger off grid system. I love doing off grid projects, and I love sharing what I learned via this blog.
Further your education.
If you have not figured it out yet, your license is a departure, not a destination. To get anything at all out the hobby, you’ll have to invest some effort into learning much more than what you had to know to pass a test. The best way to do this is to partner up with a more experienced operator who shares your interests, or join a club.
Both of these options can be problematic for the ham radio beginner. It might be hard to find someone who has the time and desire to give one-on-one help. Clubs are a hit-and-miss affair. Some are very well run and go far out of their way to help newcomers. Others are very clique-ish and don’t want their group invaded.
Many clubs themselves specialize. Some do community service projects or emergency/disaster comms. Others focus on contests. One club in my area spends almost all their time planning and running a swap meet. Another is just a bunch of guys who hang out on a repeater and exists as club in name only. If your local club is not into what you are looking to do as a ham, then there’s going to be a disconnect. This of course doesn’t mean you can’t join or won’t fit in, it just means you may not get what you were hoping for.
I would encourage ham radio beginners to give their local club a chance. You will likely meet some cool people and have a positive experience even if the overall goal of the group is not exactly in line with your own plans. Get involved with an open mind. You’re never going to get 100% of what you want, but you’ll get more than what you started with.
The internet…your electronic Elmer.
I wish the internet was a thing when I was a ham radio beginner. The breadth and depth of knowledge on line cannot be overstated. YouTube alone has more ham radio-related content than you’ll ever be able to watch in your lifetime. It’s also ideal for people who aren’t into joining clubs or don’t have any other training resources. Keep your eye on the prize, though. I’ve known operators who get so absorbed with reading about amateur radio on line that they never actually go out and do amateur radio. So by all means, soak up the wisdom others have posted on the internet, but make time to try out all that new knowledge in the real world.
Perhaps the most exciting part of the ham radio beginner experience is shopping for your equipment! I understand the anticipation…I’ve been there myself. Don’t run up your credit card before you’ve decided what you want to do with amateur radio. You could end up with a lot of expensive stuff that does not suit your needs. It’s like buying a hammer when you really need a screwdriver.
YouTube is ideal for helping choose equipment. Whatever you’re looking to buy, there are probably several YouTube vids about it. Evaluate all your options carefully and do your homework. The resources are there.
To the extent you can, build your own equipment. The learning experience is invaluable. Yes, you’re going to make some possibly costly mistakes. Think of it as “tuition” for your radio education. Money isn’t totally lost on a failed project if you come out of it with more knowledge.
Ham radio beginners & the reality of human nature.
This may come as shock to some, but our hobby has a few bitter old cranks who are hopelessly inflexible and don’t seem too excited about rolling out the welcome mat for ham radio beginners. You may have even experienced this before getting your ticket. It’s important to point out that these folks draw a vastly disproportionate amount of attention in relation to their numbers. In other words, their big pouting mouths do not make up for their small representation.
They are not the future of ham radio. They may indeed have impressive technical knowledge, but that’s not enough to make it worth putting up with their their attitude. Don’t let them piss on your party. For every recalcitrant whiner, there are dozens of hams genuinely interested in seeing newcomers succeed and thrive. Follow the advice you would give your kids: Hang out with the right people and don’t worry about the rest.
There is so much more ham radio beginners need to know than can be squeezed into one blog article. You’re going to be enjoying this hobby for (hopefully) a long time. There is plenty of time to learn. As you become more confident, pay it forward and make an effort to show others the way. If you associate with positive people and advance your knowledge, you’ll have a great experience that will last many years.
You’re right about ham radio covering almost too much territory. You have to pick one area that you’re the most interested in and stick with that. In my case I pretty much ignore VHF and higher and concentrate on the HF frequencies (shortwave) and I’m generally more interested in how radio propagates, antennas, etc. Curiously, I don’t actually like to talk to people all that much, and my log book reflects that. I’ve been doing this since 2013 and I don’t think I’ve made more than 300 – 400 contacts. I’m more interested in the technology, the equipment, etc. than in talking to people. I love tinkering with stuff, hence “The Great Radio Fiasco/Project” I talked about earlier. One of these days I need to start writing up some of my adventures with that over at my blog.
I got interested in ham radio when I got a shortwave receiver for Christmas back in 1969 or so, but couldn’t get licensed because of the CW requirement. The ‘bitter old cranks’, or ‘curmudgeons’ you talk about (I’ve run into more than my share of those) would claim I’m just lazy and that anyone can learn morse code. They’re wrong, of course. They’ve never had to deal with ADD or dyslexia or the other issues that people have to somehow work around. Anyway, if it hadn’t been for the problems with CW I would have gotten licensed back in high school.
Speaking of curmudgeons, the atmosphere in the forums over at QRZ has gotten a lot better over the last few years. The “back in my day we had to smelt our own copper and blow our own glass to make our own vacuum tube” crowd seems to have thinned out. Either that or the moderators have gotten better on shutting that kind of nonsense down. Although one discussion about mag-loop antennas quickly degenerated into chaos the other day. Holy cow that one fell apart fast. it’s unfortunate that nonsense happens because otherwise it’s a good place to get information.
It’s good to hear from you Randall. I also do very little on air operating, preferring to come up with ideas, put them on my blog, and let others run with it.
Old codgers are going to exist no matter what one gets involved with, so it’s easier and less mentally taxing to brush them off and find friendlier company.
Thanks for stopping by!
Chris: terrific article! I’ve just sent it on to all the members of a club we recently formed here in Dallas. Many of our members are new hams and your thoughts are spot on. http://www.whiterockhams.org
Hi Rich, I’m glad you enjoyed my article…and thanks for passing it along. Word of mouth is my best advertisement!