I don’t think anyone would disagree with me when I say amateur radio isn’t a cheap hobby. Unless you build your very own rig, getting on the air can cost hundreds of dollars. At the time, I didn’t even know if I’d end up enjoying it. As it was, I needed to spend hours studying for an exam just to be able to really dabble with it. The thought of dropping at least $200 for a radio and antenna seemed pretty steep at the time.
My Wife (Brianna) took up the task to find us inexpensive radios. After some googling and searching on Amazon, she came across the Baofeng UV-5R. With nearly a perfect 5-star review and for about $35, we ordered two. Being a computer geek, I also ordered a programming cable. Since we’re Amazon Prime members, the radios quickly arrived. Brianna and I weren’t licensed yet so we stuck to just listening at the time. I had no idea what an offset was never mind a PL tone, so I wouldn’t have been able to even get on a repeater anyway.
You wouldn’t think just listening to other people talk would be very exciting, but I really enjoyed it. Now before you call me out for being a creepy radio wave eavesdropper, I should say I was excited mainly because they were discussing things that I found super interesting. For the most part it had to do with computers, electronics, and… amateur radio! Being able to listen was a big part in what pushed me to study for my tech exam. I quickly found myself wanting to be able to contribute to the conversation!
After passing my exam and with my call sign and radio in hand I was all set to take to the airwaves. I fired up my radio and tried to make a contact on a repeater. After many failed attempts, I started researching the issue. Turns out most of them operate on two different frequencies, one for transmitting and the other for receiving, in addition, they also are looking for a PL/CTCSS tone, which is basically a sound that is sent along with the sound of your voice. The sound can’t be heard by human ears, but some repeaters will only re-transmit a message if it can hear these special tones.
I headed over to RepeaterBook.com to look up the information to correctly setup my radio with the needed settings. After some fiddling I was able to get my radio configured to use N6FQ, a Fallbrook repeater on top of Red Mountain and made contact with Ron – KG6HSQ, who was incredibly nice and welcomed me to the hobby.
With the basics of repeaters figured out, it was time to load my small radio with all the local repeaters. Doing this by hand, while possible, would have been a little painful. Luckily I had already purchased the programming cable for the Baofeng and could easily transfer over all my settings to the radio very quickly. After doing a little research, I ended up downloading the free software called CHIRP. It supported my radio along with being able to easily download from RepeaterBook.com from within the software itself. Total time to get everything programmed was less then 10 minutes.
Overall, I would HIGHLY recommend picking up a Baofeng UV-5R or similar model. For about $35 you can have a pretty great radio that has many features of radios that cost upwards of $600. There is a lot of hubbub about how they’re “cheap radios from China” or that they don’t receive, transmit, or “whatever” as well as an ICOM, Kenwood, or Yaesu radio. These comments in my opinion come from individuals who haven’t actually owned one or who are loyal to a particular brand of radio. An inexpensive Baofeng is a fraction of the cost and gets you on air right away without braking the bank.
In addition, when you’re first starting out, you don’t even know what kind of features you need or want in a radio, so why spend $289 on a mobile rig only to find out you wish you’d saved up a little more and gotten one that supports APRS?
In closing, grab one of these great little radios, you won’t regret it and if you have any questions or need help with anything; you’re always welcome to post questions in the comments below.