How to Use a Portable HAM Radio

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Emergency communications and HAM radios are part of a bridge that many preppers and survivalists refuse to cross. There is undoubtedly some learning that must happen. You cannot just pick up a HAM radio and figure out how to broadcast your call for help without some background knowledge. Because of this many just don’t put in the time or effort required. 

The time has come for YOU to really start exploring the possibilities of a basic handheld HAM radio. There is a lot more to these radios than simply having an emergency communications method in times of disaster. 

The reason preppers often refer to HAM radio as a necessity is because you can do a number of especially important things with ham radio 

  • Output power is higher (5-8W) on HAM radio than others (.5 – 4W)
  • You can listen and communicate with emergency services with HAM radio
  • You can get a better range with HAM radio than with any other handheld radio
  • HAM uses HF or high-frequency bands that are going to extend out the farthest in an emergency
  • Even the handheld HAM radios have a wider range of frequencies than things like CBs. This requires some advanced programming, but it can be done.

This guide will give you out of the box instructions so that anyone can purchase a set of HAM radios and take advantage of some of the functionality. You cannot go blabbing on the airwaves without a license and I highly recommend you get your license. 

However, even without one, these cheap handheld radios can vastly improve your emergency communications plan. 

The License 

What scares most people off is the testing for a license. There are several interactions of licenses that you can earn, but all require some studying on your part and testing. It has been my experience that you just go for the most advanced license you can rather than get the quickest and easiest. 

Everyone starts with a technician license and you can work your way up to the Amateur Extra which gives you access to more frequencies. If you are going to go for a license, go all the way. 

Basic Functionality of a Handheld HAM Radio

Here we are going to look at some buttons on the BOAFANG UV5R radio. By understanding a few simple things, you can utilize this communications tool without any kind of license. 

ON/OFF: Turn the radio on by twisting the knob on top next to the antenna. It should say “FREQUENCY MODE” when you turn it on.

Backup FM Radio

By pressing the orange call button on the side of the handheld radio you will connect with the standard FM radio dial. This can be amazingly effective in an emergency as it will give you access to all kinds of emergency information in a power outage. 

This also allows you to save the power on your primary communications device, your cell phone while listening in to the most up to date news during an emergency. 

VFO/MR: The orange button on the face of your HAM radio toggles between frequency and channel mode. Since this is a basic user guide, I am going to give you a simple way to understand this. These two options are like SEEK and TUNE on your radio. Though you won’t use them to just search for random signals. 

Frequency Mode: In Frequency Mode you will be able to scan for all kinds of frequencies or even input a certain channel. This would be more of your TUNE function when dealing with radio frequencies.

Channel Mode: Channel Mode is your SEEK mode or memory mode that allows you to program the most important frequencies so you can have quick access to things like emergency services, weather reports, and other types of local communication. 

Simple Programming

Even without a license, you can program channels into your handheld HAM radio. You will find that you can only program 6-digit frequencies into your radio. If you want to program other frequencies then you are going to need to program your radio with the software on a computer. 

Let’s look at some simple programming that will turn your new HAM radio into an effective emergency radio.

The first step is to visit which is a huge database of radio frequencies from every date. Click on the database tab, choose frequencies, and find your state. You will see a bunch of options. 

Find the frequency that you want to program. A great place to start is the NOAA. Enter Frequency Mode and type in that frequency. Once the frequency is typed in you want to hit the MENU button. 

There are 40 menu items that you can choose from. To save you time just jump to menu 27 by using up and down arrows between MENU and EXIT. You will see that MENU 27 is MEM-CH. Hit MENU again to enter this mode. Choose which preset you would like this to be, if it’s your first just make it 001 and finally press MENU a third time to program that frequency in. 

Continue with as many channels as you need or want to be programmed into your radio. There are lots of options. 

  • Police
  • Fire
  • EMS
  • Schools
  • Local Business


Now that you have a bunch of channels programmed not your HAM radio you can turn it on, leave it on the base charger and allow the radio to broadcast these channels for you. If there protests in your area or some other kind of emergency, you will get a steady flow of information from these channels. 

You simply use the up and down arrows in Channel Mode to move through your preprogrammed channels. 

Emergency Communications Device

Now, in an emergency, you can operate your HAM radio without a license. This sounds alluring but you will likely not be effective with your radio if you don’t know how to use it in the first place. 

A simple emergency communications method is to program two radios with the same frequency and use that frequency to communicate back and forth. This is how all handheld radios work. You will be able to communicate with another family member who has the same frequency programmed on their radio. However, anyone who listens in or uses that frequency will also be involved in your communications. 

This is hardly secure, but it might be a great way to be sure someone in your family is ok or on the way home or something like that. 

Another way you can communicate is by using a DISTRESS SIGNAL. 

You can send a distress signal to popular HAM frequencies, marine service, and/or a wide coverage repeater. Of course, without your license, and some practice, you will not know any of these. You could program marine service into your channels