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How to set up and run a full Bitcoin node using Umbrel

If you’ve been in Bitcoin a while, you’ve almost certainly by now had someone tell you that you should “run your own node”. But what exactly does that mean and why would you want to do it? And, most importantly, how would you go about doing that? Let’s talk about these things…

What does it mean to run a full bitcoin node?

Running a bitcoin node essentially means downloading a copy of the full bitcoin transaction database on a hard drive or solid state drive and serving it up to the network to send, receive, and/or forward information. That means your node will be able to discover other Bitcoin nodes on the network, connect to them, and propagate transactions and blocks.

There are various types of nodes part of the Bitcoin network, but full nodes are relatively uncommon among average bitcoin owners, and store the entire bitcoin blockchain history.

Do you need to run a Bitcoin node to own bitcoin?

Nope. You can own bitcoin without running a node yourself. The only problem is that you’re trusting a node run on someone else’s server to confirm that your bitcoin are actually yours!

Why would you want to run a full Bitcoin node?

If you don’t need to run a node to own and transfer bitcoin, why would you want to? It’s correct to assume that in most cases the bitcoin balances you’re viewing in popular wallets and on exchanges are accurate to the blockchain, but the problem that a full node solves is that you can never be entirely sure.

Don’t trust, verify

“Don’t trust, verify” is a common dogma in the Bitcoin community, and for good reason: part of the benefit of owning bitcoin is taking part in the price appreciation of an emerging monetary technology, but another major benefit is financial sovereignty. Running a bitcoin node, you can entirely independently hold and transfer bitcoin and confirm those transactions on a copy of the distributed blockchain database stored on your own hard drive.

As you can see above, running your usual third-party Bitcoin wallet or custodial wallet usually means trusting that provider to store and serve a copy of the blockchain to provide you information about your balances and transactions. Why trust when you can verify?

Strengthening the network

The second benefit to running your own node that some might miss is that it actually strengthens the network. The more full nodes in operation, the harder bitcoin is to attack by bad actors. It’s near-impermeable in its current state, which is a big part of why large institutions trust this bank in cyberspace to store huge chunks of their balance sheets, but why not be part of making it even more secure? Running a full node does this.

How to set up and run your own Bitcoin node using Umbrel

Convinced that running a full Bitcoin node is worth your time? Here’s how you can put yours together in just a few minutes (or a few days if you need to wait on a few Amazon shipments).

Buy the gear to run a low-power consumption independent device

Using Umbrel, which is the Bitcoin node software platform that I highly recommend (before Umbrel came around, setting up and running your own node was a bit more daunting), you have a couple options for running your own node: you can run it on a Raspberry Pi, or set one up on a separate Linux PC.

We at blocktalk — and Umbrel themselves — highly recommend you pick up a Raspberry Pi and run a proper node that consumes minimal electricity, doesn’t generate any unnecessary noise, and will certainly stay up and running for years with very little maintenance.

Here’s what you need to pick up, at least per Umbrel’s recommendations (which we endorse, as we’ve tried this hardware setup ourselves):

All of these together will come out to a couple hundred USD, but you can definitely save on a few of these things if you already own an microSD card or an Ethernet cable for instance (I did!).

Flash your microSD card

Now that you have everything you need, grab the microSD card and a microSD card reader (or SD if you have a microSD-to-SD converter). Plug that into your Mac or PC.

  1. Download the latest version of Umbrel from Umbrel’s website. Make sure you download it from Umbrel’s website only! Umbrel’s website is getumbrel.com. You can confirm their website URL on their Twitter account.
  2. Download the latest version of Balena Etcher. You need this software so you can flash the Umbrel image to your microSD card properly to install it on your Raspberry Pi.
  3. Run and install Balena Ethcher and walk through the steps to flash the previously-downloaded Umbrel release. It should be a .img file.
  4. You’re done. Your microSD card is properly set up to get going.

Assemble your hardware

Next, you need to simply assemble all the parts you bought.

  1. Put the Raspberry Pi 4 in the case you purchased. Every case will be different, but the one we recommend above will come with 4 screws and a heat dissipation pad. Stick that heat dissipation pad to the top of the CPU on the Raspberry Pi. Seat the Raspberry Pi board and screw the case closed.
  2. Insert the flashed microSD card into the Raspberry Pi.
  3. Put the SSD into the SSD enclosure and plug it into one of the blue full-throttle USD ports on the Raspberry Pi.
  4. Connect your Raspberry Pi directly to an Ethernet port on your router for maximum internet connection speeds. The Bitcoin block chain is a large file that will take several days to download.
  5. Plug your Raspberry Pi into a power outlet.

Support the site by checking out Swan Bitcoin and using their services to purchase Bitcoin. They also offer a free book that does a great job of covering the basics of Bitcoin.

Get started with Umbrel

After 5 minutes, you should be able to navigate to umbrel.local on any PC or Mac connected to the same network as your Raspberry Pi hardware. From there, Umbrel will walk you through the set up process. This includes creating a password and writing down the backup seed phrase for the Bitcoin wallet associated with your node. Umbrel is an easy-to-use dashboard that provides access to the wallet functions of your Bitcoin node as well as quick access to status information about the database and the ability to install various third-party apps to do things like explore the copy of the blockchain that you have downloaded.

After you’ve set up Umbrel for the first time, you’ll be presented with a dashboard that looks a lot like this:

On the main “Home” screen you’ll see four boxes: a Lightning Wallet, Bitcoin Core (this is your Bitcoin blockchain database), Bitcoin Wallet (the Bitcoin wallet associated with your Umbrel installation), and Tor (which your node traffic will be routed through by default — you can turn this off if you want).

Note: For now, Umbrel doesn’t recommend using this software as your primary Bitcoin wallet. You can store small amounts of bitcoin here for the purposes of running a Lightning channel or perhaps running a Sphinx server, but Umbrel says that because the software is in beta it should be assumed to be insecure.

And that’s it! Just give it a few days and you’ll have a 24/7 full Bitcoin node serving the network and offering you the ability to confirm your own bitcoin balance and transactions.

We’ll take a closer look at all the functionality of Umbrel in a different post, but for now we just wanted to give you a rundown on how to get a node set up and running using this great server. Stay tuned for more insight on how to use this for more things like Lightning and other third-party add-ons.

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