By Brion Kidder (W7CBK) and Marc Peterson (W7PM)
The view of the road ahead of you may be foggy, but don't worry, it's going to be a lot of fun! If you just got your amateur radio license so here are some things to send you off into the HAM radio universe.
You don't have to go crazy and spend a lot of money on an expensive radio right up front; however, most new Ham’s start out by buying a good Portable radio (sometimes referred to as a walkie talkie, handi talkie or HT) and then they move up to a Mobile rig later down the road.
Depending on your license (Technician, General or Extra) you are only allowed to transmit on the
bands that are authorized by your current license level. However, any Ham can buy any
transceiver (HF or otherwise) and may use it to ‘listen only’ while they study and work toward
getting the proper level of license. Basically, unless a Technician license holder plans
on upgrading to General or Extra very soon, running out and buying a $1k HF mobile or base radio,
plus all the antennas, isn’t the first place we’d suggest you to start.
As you know from studying to get your license, the Ham bands (or groups of frequencies) run clear across the entire radio spectrum. They range from HF (high frequency) to VHF/UHF and above, but no matter what bands or modes you intend on using in the future, all Ham’s minimally need to start out with buying a FM Dualband 2M/70CM radio.
90% of all repeaters across the USA operate either on 2m or 70cm, with the remaining repeaters operating on the less popular bands like 6m, 10m and 1.25m bands. Another important reason to have dual band 2m and 70cm capabilities is the fact that most LEO (Low Earth Orbit) Satellites operate by listening ‘crossband’ on either VHF and transmitting on UHF or vice-versa. Using higher gain antennas hooked up to their portable radios, Ham’s using just 5 watts have been able to work through the LEO satellites.
To start your Ham radio career out correctly, your rig needs to be able to transmit on both the VHF 2m band (144-149 MHz) and the UHF 70cm (430-449 MHz) bands. Also, dualband radios actually cover much more than just the Ham bands, they can easily listen to local Police, Fire, Marine and NOAA Weather Radio transmissions.
Beside FM mode, some Radios have the ability to transmit and receive in a particular Digital Voice Mode as well. Currently, ARRG has repeaters which will operate in both FM and C4FM Digital voice modes, however C4FM is only available if you buy a Yaesu Brand of Radio.
There are many brands and types of radios, and each model offers a basic set of ‘similar’ functions,
dials and settings, while the more advanced (and more expensive) radios will have many more features,
most of which you may not ever use.
If you have already been looking into radios at the local Ham store or online, then you know how overwhelming it can be to figure out which make/model is best for you, while still staying within your budget. Luckily, we’ll be suggesting a few make and models that are both perfect and functional, no matter if you are new or have been a Ham for many years.
As previously stated before, every Ham should start by buying a good dualband walkie talkie and it should be frequency agile, meaning a radio that does not have only 2, 6 or 16 memory channel limitations (like some business band radios), but in fact can be dialed to any of the thousands of open 2m or 70cm frequencies. Your radio needs a numeric keypad on the front, one that allows you to program in and store into memory, the many local repeaters in your area.
Because your walkie sports a keypad, you’ll know that your walkie has the ability to be programmed on the fly, out in the field via that keypad during an emergency. Now a day, all walkies also have the ability to be programmed via a PC, when you have the optional programming cable and software.
It’s a good idea for all new walkie owners that they should buy a spare battery or two and keep them charged in case of emergency/power outage. Walkies that have the ability to be switched from low power (1 watt) to 5 watts (high power) transmitter output are most desired because during an emergency, using the lower setting makes a normal battery charge last about 10 times longer than when you transmit using higher power. The difference in your quality of signal get really noticeable to the other people listening and your signal may be scratchier, but on the other hand, if your battery is completely dead, you have no communications at all.
Walkies can be used to communicate direct (radio to radio or simplex) from 5 to 10 miles away or when programmed to operate through a local club’s mountain top repeaters, your walkie transmission gets boosted and can allow you to communicate with other repeater users 25 to 50 miles away. Some of the ARRG repeaters are linked via the internet and you can talk to other walkie users in other states and even countries if you so desire.
Low-end, least expensive Chinese made FM dual band walkie talkies start around $50 and go up to $150, while the nicer Japanese brands, built with more functions start about $125 and go all the way up to about $600.
An inexpensive dual band mobile radio which mounts in your car, or can be used as a home a base station starts about $125 and goes up to about $1000.
The cheapest radios are made in China and while many Chinese Radios have undergone strict FCC testing and are approved for use here in the USA, there are dozens of companies with copycat models that have not undergone any testing. While they might work okay on the Ham Bands, some repeater owners will not allow certain brands to be used on their repeater systems, because there is no guaranty that they will stay on frequency and not cause harmful interference to other licensed radio services.
The top performing Amateur Radio brands you should be looking into are Yaesu, Kenwood, Icom and Alinco brands. These companies sell different models of walkie talkies, mobile, and base HF radios and tare the tried and proven radios Ham’s have relied on for many years. They are all made in Japan.
And while you're being frugal, you can afford an upgraded antenna to replace the rubber ducky that comes with most walkie talkies and when replaced with a $20 fourteen-inch-tall rubber ‘gain’ whip antenna, your walkie will transmit further, clearer and also receive better.
Some higher end handy-talkies have GPS receivers built-in as well as APRS (Auto Positioning Radio Service) functionality, so you can track your walkie or mobile via Google by going to aprs.fi. This might be a nice-to-have and not a need-to-have option, especially when you consider you can add APRS later using an inexpensive TNC node (see the very cool http://www.mobilinkd.com page).
2020 HT Dual Band Make/Model Suggestions
|UV-5R Series||Baofeng||China||Wonky field programming|
|UV-B5||Baofeng||China||Programs like a Yaesu/Icom|
|UV-82HP||Baofeng||China||Higher Power 8 watts out|
|KG-UV9D+||Wouxan||China||Great True Dualband Walkie|
|RT6||Retevis||China||Rugged, but has now VHF/MR key causing Baofeng like wonky field programming|
|RT-23||Retevis||China||Rugged and does offer the VFO/MR button and has true dualband. This is 10X better than any Baofeng|
|DJ-500T||Alinco||Japan||Great Little walkie|
|FT-60||Yaesu||Japan||Older model, look at FT-65R|
|FT-65R||Yaesu||Japan||2018 Model, good radio|
|FT-70DR||Yaesu||Japan||FM Dualband 2020 model|
|IC-T70A-HD-15||ICOM||Japan||FM Dualband 2020 model|
If your HT doesn't get good reception indoors, you can get an antenna adapter for under $10 and use this to connect to an external base or mobile mag mount antenna affixed on top of a metal filing cabinet or on a cookie sheet. You can also Google a J-pole style of home brew antenna. If you buy a bigger rig or a mobile radio for your vehicle later, those external antennas would still be usable.