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Get Started in Ham Radio

Here are some things to do after you get your amateur radio certificate


Have Fun

Congratulations! You have worked hard and passed the test. It doesnít matter whether you got 70% or 100%, you got your certificate and that is what counts. As you start into this great big hobby donít be too nervous. Everybody on the air started out just like you. MIC SHY! Itís not that scary. Nets are easy places to go to talk on the radio and not have to say very much. Usually you can write out what you need to say ahead of time. Write it all out, that way you wonít stumble.

"Good evening Net Control this is Victor Echo Three Hotel Yankee Sierra, no traffic."

Or if you are really scared how about this, "Victor Echo Three Hotel Yankee Sierra no traffic."

Thatís a pretty short radio transmission, just make sure you donít talk at a hundred words per minute and donít start talking before you push the PTT button otherwise net control will say something like

"The Yankee Sierra station, say again more slowly and wait for a second to speak after you push the transmit button."

Itís that easy to talk on the radio and tame those butterflies. Still nervous, well go find a club to attend so you can talk to some of the members. That way when you hear their callsign on the air you will know what they look like and having talked to them already you will be more at ease.

Donít want to talk then get into the digital modes. There are lots out there and many will let you communicate around the world. A lot of them are designed to get the contact and not to engage in a conversation so you would send their callsign, your callsign, a signal report and location. They would reply and you would acknowledge. Contact complete.

I can tell you are having fun already. Sometimes itís easier to get on the air when you are with a group of hams at an event like Field Day. Choose your group carefully as some groups are full on contesters and others are just out to have fun. Both are great places to be.

Remember this is a hobby with lots of things to do so it will be hard for you do everything the hobby has to offer in your lifetime. The good news, if you donít like something or are tired of it you can move on to another area of the hobby, you donít have to leave the hobby.

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Join a Club

There are many clubs in the Ottawa area and of course there is our National organization, Radio Amateurs of Canada. In the Ottawa area there is the Ottawa Amateur Radio Club, OARC, the Ottawa Valley Mobile Radio Club, OVMRC, the West Carleton Amateur Radio Club, WCARC, the Manotick Club, the QRP Group, the Amateur Radio Direction Finding Group, ARDF, and of course up the valley the Champlain Regional Repeater Association, VE3STP, and out to the east a group in Moose Creek area. There are also clubs in Almonte and Smiths Falls. Another group in Ottawa is the Emergency Measures Radio Group, EMRG.

On the Gatineau side of the Ottawa River there is the provincial group, Fťdťration des clubs radioamateurs du Quťbec, RAQI. Locally there is Club de Radio Amateur Outaouais Inc. and Association des Radio Amateurs Indťpendants, ARIA.

Many clubs offer you a free membership just for passing the exam so contact a club.

Most clubs have a repeater. Repeaters are generally open to all to use however most of them require you to transmit a sub-audible tone while you are talking in order to access the repeater. Joining a club helps provide funds to maintain the repeater and antenna system. Sometimes it also pays for the meeting area or prizes at some of the meetings. Club meetings are a great place to meet other hams and ask questions. There is usually someone that will be able to help you or point you in the right direction.

Clubs also organize many events such as Field Day or communications for events like Rideau Lakes Cycle Tour, CN Ride for CHEO, Canadian Ski Marathon, Lap the Gaps, Tall Pines Car Rally to name a few. These are events that can run anywhere from a couple of hours to the whole weekend. Even the weekend long events will have a few spots where someone with radio skills are only needed for a few hours. These are fun events that allow you to practice operating on nets, sending and receiving messages and mostly just listening to the other traffic.

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Join RAC / RAQI / ARRL

RAC and the ARRL are national leagues, RAQI represents all Quebec amateurs. RAC and the ARRL will choose people to represent our amateur radio interests at the World Radio Conferences where the world decides which service gets to use a given frequency band. This also takes money to prepare for the event and to attend it as they usually take place in Europe. RAC represents our needs to Innovation Science and Economic Development, ISED, throughout the year. They also organize the Winter Contest and the Canada Day Contest as well as publishing various study guides and other information for the hobby. RAC also publishes The Canadian Amateur, TCA, on a bi-monthly schedule.

Whether or not you join the ARRL, you want to purchase some of their publications. I highly recommend the ARRL Handbook for the Radio Amateur. These days it is several volumes however it is well worth the read. Even the older books have lots of value in them. Diagrams showing how to put RF connectors together and various projects you can build to make your shack a better place to operate from. They also have an Antenna Handbook to help you with lots of ideas to fill up your back yard.

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Find an Elmer

This one is perhaps easiest to do if you join a club or at least attend the club meetings.Go to a meeting and talk to some of the members. Ask a question, Iím sure you will have some questions so pick one or two and ask the other folks at the meeting if they can help you. At some point you will meet someone who can explain it in a way that makes it easy for you to understand. Thank them and ask if they mind if you call with other questions. Most will say yes. If you get a yes then you have just created an Elmer. If they say no then remember you can always ask them for help at the club meetings and you can continue to look for someone else that you can call outside of club meetings.

Checking into various nets and asking your question will also provide several answers so be prepared to take a few notes and then choose a response that works for you.

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Buy a digital multimeter (DMM)

Sometimes called a DVM for digital volt meter, these very portable units are so handy. You will find that over time you will probably own two or three. Most of them will measure DC and AC voltage, resistance and DC and AC amperes. This is the basic unit, others will measure diodes, capacitors, transistors, FETís and temperature. Some will measure in RMS for a more accurate reading of AC signals.

No matter which unit you get make sure you pay attention to which probe is on the positive point in the circuit. A digital meter doesnít care about polarity but it will put in a minus sign if you connect the positive input of the meter to the negative output of the power supply and vice versa for the negative input of the meter. Itís up to you to make sure the value you get makes sense both from what number you expect to see, 12.8 to 13.6 on car battery, to whether or not you see a plus or minus sign. If you have an analogue meter you must make sure that the negative input is always lower in voltage than the positive input otherwise you run the risk of damaging the coil in the meter that moves the needle.

One of the cheapest places to get a DMM is Canadian Tire, just watch for the sales. There is also the web of course.

In addition to measuring voltage they will measure current and resistance. Most DMMís have a fuse in series with the probes for the current meter section. That is why you have to move the positive probe from the volts/resistance input to the current input. The fuse is usually user replaceable but you may have to take the complete back off the unit to accomplish this. HINT, take your time when making measurements, flipping back and forth between measuring voltage and current without changing the probe position will blow the fuse or short the power supply when you go to measure voltage with the probes in the current position. Trying to measure current with the probes in the voltage position will not cause any problems but the display will be zero and that may confuse you. One way to avoid this is to have two meters, one for voltage and one for current. Sometimes called a DVM for digital volt meter, these very portable units are so handy. You will find that over time you will probably own two or three. Most of them will measure DC and AC voltage, resistance and DC and AC amperes. This is the basic unit, others will measure diodes, capacitors, transistors, FETís and temperature. Some will measure in RMS for a more accurate reading of AC signals.

No matter which unit you get make sure you pay attention to which probe is on the positive point in the circuit. A digital meter doesnít care about polarity but it will put in a minus sign if you connect the positive input of the meter to the negative output of the power supply and vice versa for the negative input of the meter. Itís up to you to make sure the value you get makes sense both from what number you expect to see, 12.8 to 13.6 on car battery, to whether or not you see a plus or minus sign. If you have an analogue meter you must make sure that the negative input is always lower in voltage than the positive input otherwise you run the risk of damaging the coil in the meter that moves the needle.

One of the cheapest places to get a DMM is Canadian Tire, just watch for the sales. There is also the web of course.

In addition to measuring voltage they will measure current and resistance. Most DMMís have a fuse in series with the probes for the current meter section. That is why you have to move the positive probe from the volts/resistance input to the current input. The fuse is usually user replaceable but you may have to take the complete back off the unit to accomplish this. HINT, take your time when making measurements, flipping back and forth between measuring voltage and current without changing the probe position will blow the fuse or short the power supply when you go to measure voltage with the probes in the current position. Trying to measure current with the probes in the voltage position will not cause any problems but the display will be zero and that may confuse you. One way to avoid this is to have two meters, one for voltage and one for current.

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Buy a radio

Here is a whole wide world of ďwhat do I want to buyĒ. HF operations, VHF operations, low power, high power, satellite, really low frequency, digital, voice, CW and the list goes on. Many people will pick up a hand held transceiver for 2m or perhaps a 2m / 70 cm dual band radio. Many people get a mobile and put it in their ham shack with a power supply or in their car. Since most radios operate on 12 volts DC getting a power supply will let you use several radios in the shack. Just make sure you either buy a high current capable power supply or plan to buy bigger as you need more power.

Some radios will truly cover DC to daylight. Others might be a single band or just the HF bands for instance. Do you want something that is portable? The less it weighs the less output power it will have. This isnít a terrible thing as you can work the world on 5 watts, it just takes a bit more skill.

Another consideration, do you need to be able to control your radio from a computer? Some people will put their radio at a cottage or a parentís home in a province or territory that has fewer hams. Since many hams look to make contacts just to get awards the contacts are easier to make if your transmitter is in Labrador rather than Ontario. Some radios allow you to set this up very easily. You do need your Advanced to do this.

Are you going to contest? Here is another reason to have a radio with a computer interface, some logging software will read the information from the radio and record everything in the log but the call and name of your contact. Doing satellite work, other computer software can change the frequency so that you are always tuned into the station you are trying to contact as the satellite goes whizzing overhead.

Once you decide what part of the hobby you want to try first then you can start shopping for a radio. There are swap shops on line and many ham clubs have flea markets to allow you to visit with vendors and see what stuff others are selling off. Often old radios will work quite well especially on HF. Depending on the model and the options like filters these radios are usually in the 2 to $500 range. If you are purchasing a VHF radio to operate on the repeaters, make sure that you can select CTCSS tones. The really old ones wonít have that option.

You can always purchase a new radio. There are suppliers in Canada, the US and various on line web sites.

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Get on the air

Now that you have a radio itís time to get on the air. To do this you will need to buy some tools, set up a shack and build and install an antenna. So jump ahead and read the next three sections then come back here.

Or just get a handheld that will let you operate on the local repeaters with a flexible rubber antenna. That will get you on the air. Have a digital radio, get a ďhot spotĒ that will let you connect to the world with your D Star, CFM4 or DMR digital radio. Plug it into the internet and go to the various groups that deal with your type of radio, such as radioid.net for DMR radios, to get your id number that allows you to be identified in the digital network. There are also local repeaters that operate with some of the digital modes.

One of the easiest ways to find out which frequencies are assigned in your area is to get a repeater list from a website like repeaterbook.com. Remember when you are near a border such as Ottawa many times you will need to search both sides of the border to find all the repeaters that are near you or put in your position and ask for a list of repeaters within a set distance. For a handheld with a rubber antenna I would select 10 miles or 16 km as a good starting point.

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Buy some tools

Hopefully you already own a DMM. Now you need to add to that. If you donít have a set of screwdrivers, wait for a sale at your local hardware store, apparently Dadís need tools so just about any reason to buy Dad a gift will result in tools going on sale. Pick up a selection of screwdrivers. Try to get ones that have good tips so the screw heads wonít round as you take your radios apart. If you are going to build things then you will need a soldering iron. This is not to be mistaken for a Weller Soldering Gun. They have their uses but circuit board assembly is not one of them. 40 watts, fine point, and somewhat dainty so itís not too hard to handle if you are doing a lot of soldering, on a kit for instance. Sometimes you solder something you shouldnít have or you heated it for too long and now you have let the magic smoke out so you need to replace it. A solder sucker or some solder wick is handy to have.

Small pliers or tweezers to hold things, a vise to be that third hand. A set of ignition wrenches as they are small and most things around the electronics will also be small. So make sure you snug things and donít try to tighten that nut up like itís holding your car tire on.

A couple of different sizes of wire cutters, such as a pair of Linemans pliers that will let you cut large coax and small diagonal cutters for trimming resistor leads. A pair of stripers also means you wonít nic the wire while you are baring the end.

Now you know why they have so many tool sales! Your tool inventory will build up over time.

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Set up a shack

Time to stake out some territory in the house. Most likely you will be regulated to the back corner of the basement. Hopefully there is an easy means to get feedlines outside.

Power, not that you likely need very much but as you add things like a computer and monitor or two, power supplies, some test equipment, cool things you built that will run on batteries but can be plugged in and so on. You get the idea, outlets or power bars.

Some sort of flat work space. Maybe two spaces, one to operate radios and take notes while the other space is where you tinker with things. A comfortable chair, after all you hope to spend lots of time on your hobby. Room for a second chair lets you share the hobby with your friends.

Depending on how computer oriented you are you might want a large screen to connect to your radio or view maps of the world. On the other hand you might not have a good internet connection so any information you need will need to be posted on the wall or in a binder for handy reference. This is your room so you get to layout any way you would like. Visit different shacks using qrz.com to see how other people have laid out their station. One interesting setup that you can view on qrz.com is W9EVT.

The other thing to keep in mind, what do you want to do in the hobby right now. It may be modest so you may really only need a small space to charge up radios or build some antennas. Or maybe you managed to find your dream rig and now you want to work the world.

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Build an antenna

Is this a simple project or are you going all out to do some moon bounce operating? Maybe itís a simple ľ wave for 2m or a J-pole. How about a dipole for one of the HF bands? A beam, would you like to build a beam? Itís not that hard, especially as the frequencies get higher, everything gets smaller and shorter. There are some excellent publications such as The Antenna Handbook by the ARRL. The nice thing about these books is that they provide you with lots of ideaís and all the numbers to build it on at least one band. If you like the design but want to operate on a different band usually all you need to do is scale it up or down to the new frequency.

The J-pole can be made several ways for 2m, the copper pipe nice solid antenna that you can stick on the chimney or elsewhere or get a bit of twin lead and make a nice portable version that you can roll up when you donít need it. A VHF ľ wave can easily be made by using a chassis mount RF connector and soldering the appropriate length of whip to the center conductor and four radials to the mounting holes. Now you have a thread or BNC connector to attach your feedline to. Really simple but a bit time consuming, take a length of coax and strip the outer plastic off. Now use a fine screwdriver and unwind the braid that forms the shielding. Once you have unwound it to get the length of centre conductor that you need for your band of operation take a length of bare wire and solder the shield wires to it so you have a cone for a ground plane. It will last forever hanging in an attic.

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Build a kit

There are all kinds of kits out there. If you do not have an advanced licence then you cannot build a transmitter or output amplifier however there are lots of other things that you can build. Take a small computer like a Raspberry Pi or an old computer that you have lying around and load the software on it so you can run APRS, Amateur Radio Positioning Software, add a GPS and a radio. This is a homemade kit that you just put together to report your position as you are driving around. Too big for the car, leave it at home listening to other stations with APRS and have it report their position to the web.

Build a receiver or a Morse Code keyer, practice oscillator, some test equipment. There are lots of DSP things that you can build. Check out e-bay for things to do. Itís not necessarily a kit but many ideas can be found in the ARRL Radio Amateurís Handbook that come with a parts list so you can make it yourself.

Sometimes the local club will put together a kit, anything from an antenna BALUN project to learning how to program a Software Defined Radio, SDR. The best part of these builds is that they happen with lots of other club members around so you get to have fun and talk to your fellow hams.

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Go to a hamfest

There are all sorts of hamfests or flea markets. Almost every club has one so itís pretty easy to get out and meet lots of other fellow hams. The best part is that you will always find a deal, after all one hamís junk is another hamís treasure. Just donít let the boss see you unload the car when you get home. Typically itís a dayís event, travel shopping, talking, snacking and of course haggling.

The biggie is in Dayton Ohio. It takes place in the spring and goes for several days. Many folk book their hotel room for next year as they check out this year.

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Learn the lingo

Like anything new, there are always things to learn. As you move around inside the hobby you will discover new lingo. If you wish to pass messages there is a format that standardizes things and several short forms such as 73, Best Regards, or 88, Love and Kisses. Get into contesting and itís a whole different set of expressions, or how about just wanting to ragchew, talk, on the radio, you never know for sure what the fellow on the other end will say. Nets tend to be organized and again there is a standard format for most of them. Unfortunately many of them have their own standard. Usually it doesnít take long to figure things out, just listen for a bit and then jump in.

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Subscribe to mailing lists, blogs, and podcasts

These are great ways to keep up with things that are happening in the hobby and to the hobby. They let you know about the latest equipment and new types of emissions. If you are into contesting for instance these can be great tools to help you pick up contacts that you need for a particular award.

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Upgrade to Honours, Advanced or Morse Code

You can upgrade to Honours just by taking your Basic exam again. Itís that simple, just get at least 80 questions correct. ISED has a great exam generator and if you do a practice exam a day in a couple of weeks you will likely be ready to take the real one.

Learn the code and you should be able to pass the test. There are lots of apps for your phone, and some websites that will teach you the code. For instance Learn CW Online or lcwo.net is one resource. My advice would be to learn the characters at a fairly high speed, 15 to 25 words per minute. Just have the system send them with lots of space between each letter. Also donít memorize them as a collection of longs and shorts. You will never get any spend without a tremendous amount of effort.

The Advanced is the last piece. Once you have it you can build or work on transmitters, repeaters and remote stations. The exam is 50 questions and you only have to get 35 correct. There are not many resources for the Advanced program however ISED does have a practice exam for the Advanced so you can at least take the exam and find out where you need to study.

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Go to Field Day

Field Day happens on the last weekend in June. Itís a big contest that is designed to demonstrate that you can operate a communications system on standby power in the field as though you were in an emergency situation. It lasts 24 hours from 2 PM Saturday until 2 PM Sunday. Then you tear down all your antennas and count the points.

Itís a great way to see lots of different radios in action, logging systems and if you havenít gotten on the air yet then a way for you to get on the air at the GOTA, Get On The Air, station with some experienced help. You can usually find a place to help out and have some fun. It wonít take very long to learn the lingo.

CQ Field Day this Victor Echo Three Sierra Hotel Quebec

Whiskey One Alpha Whiskey you are 5 9 Ontario

Good luck in the contest, CQ Field Day Ö

How hard is that?

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Learn Morse Code

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Get to know your (ham) neighbours

You really do want to know your neighbours, whether they are hams or not. It will make your life so much better when you go to install an antenna. If you have talked to them ahead of time then they know what to expect and there are no surprises. If they are a ham then you may be able to get them to help you on your journey.

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Buy QSL cards

These days most contacts are confirmed electronically but having a small stack of post cards that you can send to special contacts such as your first contact or when you are someone elseís first contact just make it that much more special. If you have a visitor to your shack then itís a nice gift of the time they spent with you. It might even encourage them to get their ticket.

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Join SkyWarn, ARES, or RACES

These are groups of hamís that like to help out during times of trouble. SkyWarn is a weather network that is activated when the weather is expected to be nasty. Mostly designed to spot tornados or other major weather events and report their location back to a command center to allow officials to notify the public. ARES and RACES are groups that spring into action after the storm has gone through and communications are needed. Usually these are groups that provide links out of the area to send health and welfare messages to loved ones who canít get in contact with family in the disaster area. They might also be organized to assist with a search and rescue mission as another example. These groups tend to be very organized with protocols for various events so that everyone knows what to do.

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Participate in a contest

Maybe you have already participated in Field Day but if you havenít then how about another contest. Most of these contests take place on the HF bands but some will also provide points for those working the VHF or higher bands. The ARRL VHF Sweepstakes is about the only event that doesnít have an HF. Contests are a great way to work many stations without having to worry about what you might talk about. Everyone is in a hurry to work as many stations as they can, thus other than exchanging signal reports, possibly a contact number and call signs you are off to your next contact. With a little luck you could work all the provinces or all the states in a contest or two. Whoever runs the contest will take your log and compare it to the other stations to determine where everyone ranks. You may end up doing well in the contest and at the same work all the states in the US qualifying for the Worked All States award, WAS. Two for the price of one. I expect that it will take a bit of time to work all states but you get the idea.

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Give back to the hobby

If you are having fun then why not give something back to the hobby. Maybe you will convince some friends to join or perhaps you will help out organizing the communications for an event. There are lots of jobs that clubs are looking to have filled from the meeting night coffee maker to serving on the executive of the club. Itís just another great way to meet fellow hams.

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Plan a new home for your gear when you become a silent key

Hopefully this wonít be for quite some time but if you list all your equipment on a spreadsheet when you buy with the date and how much you paid, you donít have to show it to the boss, then when it comes time to sell it off your executor will have a pretty realistic idea of what it is worth. After all if you paid $100 for something 30 years ago they will quickly realize there is no gold mine in equipment. I say after having to give such news to the daughter of ham who passed away. All she knew was that he had collected all this electronic stuff. Once I showed her how old it was then she was able to price it at a reasonable value to sell it although I Ďm sure she had believed it was worth much more.

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Public service events

These are fun, usually just a half day or maybe 6 am until 2 pm, and you get to meet fellow hams and tell members of the public about your hobby. Most times you are outside or perhaps sitting in a car at a checkpoint just watching what is going on. It could be cyclists flying by in a race or skiers doing a marathon, much of the time you will listen to the radio, make reports at pre-determined times and be ready to call for help if someone gets injured. More likely the question will be can you locate so and so on the course, I canít find them and I was supposed to meet them here.

Many public service events have been cancelled or made "virtual" due to COVID-19 restriction, but here are some links so you can get an idea of what is involved:

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Page last modified on September 26, 2021, at 07:24 PM