Getting Started (the correct way) in Amateur Radio
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.
1. Get a radio - preferably one that covers both 2m and 70cm bands (usually called a dual band radio)
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.
What Bands Should I have on my first radio?
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.
What to Look for in a 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 and 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
|Baofeng||China||$35 to $55||Wonky field programming|
|Baofeng||China||$35||Programs like a Yaesu/Icom|
|Baofeng||China||$70||Higher Power 8 watts out|
|Wouxan||China||$169||Great True Dualband Walkie|
|Retevis||China||$49||Rugged, but has now VHF/MR key causing Baofeng like wonky field programming|
|Retevis||China||$79||Rugged and does offer the VFO/MR button and has true dualband. This is 10X better than any Baofeng|
|Alinco||Japan||$95||Great Little walkie|
|Yaesu||Japan||$125||Older model, look at FT-65R|
|Yaesu||Japan||$125||2018 Model, good radio|
|Yaesu||Japan||$149||FM Dualband 2020 model|
|ICOM||Japan||$149||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.
2. Properly setting up your first home station and antenna - Power Supplies, Coax and Antennas
Every New Ham needs their own small 'hide-away' Ham Station. Stations can be as simple as mounting a dualband mobile rig on top of a 13VDC power supply, adding the proper coax and outside antenna on your home. Pick someplace where you can be free to tune around the bands, listen to static and actually make a few voice contacts in private.
For a mobile rig that has a 40-50-watt power output rating, the bare minimum power supply you should be looking at buying and using is an ASTRON 12 A (which puts out 13.8V @ up to 12 amps current). Using a 12 VDC converter or other oddball power supply which only delivers 5-7 amps is really not enough to run your mobile rig inside the house. Please stay away from the CB styled power supplies, like the Pyramid, Mirage or Browning, they are all too under powered to run most modern-day Ham rigs.
If you ever plan on installing a HF (High Frequency) transceiver, you must have a minimum of a 20 Amp power supply, with 30 Amps being the desired target current range.
Can't afford a fancy 12VDC power supply?
Consider using an AGM car or RV battery, along with a small 2-amp automatic trickle charger to serve as your station power supply. After all, using a battery and charger as your main (and backup source) keeps your station ready for any potential disaster.
Home Antenna and Coax Requirements can vary from house to house and even apartment to apartment. Ham's should always seek to purchase and install either a COMET or DIAMOND Base station antenna. Silly J-Poles and homemade wire antennas work (sort of) but usually not without SWR headaches.
The model you want to buy is basically any dualband 144-148MHz and 440-449MHz range model.
These antennas come in a white colored fiberglass covering and look like a stick style design. The lowest gain or least powerful antennas (for both transmit and reception) are the shorter 3 to 5' tall antennas, and these smaller units offer you little, if any real rf gain.
Spending an extra $50 dollars by upgrading to the larger 10-15' tall antenna design is the real way to go. These taller antennas exhibit higher transmit and receive gain and simply outperform even the best and most powerful mobile or walkie setup.
Plan to mount your new antenna as high on the house roof as possible. The antennas are super lightweight, so mounting one alongside one of your metal or ABS rood vent pipes is a simple way to get your antenna up and on the air. Any roof mounted antenna always outperforms an antenna mounted inside an attic or any antenna mounting on a pipe and lashed to a yard fence.
When you shell out $150.00 for that shiny new Comet or Diamond base antenna, you'd better be buying some good low loss 50 OHM coax to feed that antenna. We only recommend using the larger 'base station sized 1/2" round RG-213, Beldon 9913 or LMR-400 series of coax to run from your ham shack, through the wall and out to your shiny new antenna on your roof.
These cables have lower loss per every 100’ length. The Beldon 9913 and LMR-400 are the best cable for the higher 2 meter and 70 cm bands. The RG-213 is okay in short distances on VHF/UHF, but is a great cable for lower frequency HF work.
Stay away from using any RG-58 or RG-59 smaller diameter cables. They are only meant to run very short distances, like in a car radio installation. RG8X is supposed to be a miracle cable which is only a tad bigger than RG-58 but has better specs. At VHF and UHF frequencies, even RG8X sucks.
Keep all cables short from your rig, out the wall and up to the antenna. 50’ is awesome, but needing a 100’ run of coax will eat up 2.5 dBd of both transmit and receive power.
3. Try Checking into a Net
Nets are where a bunch of people all dial in to a particular frequency at a scheduled time. It's good practice for emergency communications. One person, the pre-arranged "net control" announces the opening of the net, and asks for any emergency traffic or people who need to check in early. After that, net control may ask for check-ins from specific groups in order, maybe everyone from a particular county. When it's your opportunity, simply say your call sign and wait to be acknowledged. There may be a number of people trying to get through at once; this is kind of unavoidable, so net control may ask one or more of you to try again.
The most popular Portland Metro Area Net is the daily ARES D1 Emergency Net. It starts at 7:30 pm and goes to about 8:00 pm. It operates 365 days a year. All Hams are encouraged to check into the net. The net can be heard on the K7RPT System by tuning to the South Saddle repeaters of 147.320 + 100Hz or 442.325 + 100Hz, but can also be accessed by tuning into the Portland 147.040 + 100Hz repeater. The Net is also carried on the Oregon Coast on the 146.720 – 114.8Hz Wickiup Mountain repeater.
You can even familiarize yourself with the net control operator's script at http://www.oregonaresd1.us/wp/d1-net-script-and-check-in-sheet-by-w3lor/
Another net worth looking into is the Noontime Net (http://www.noontimenet.org/), which is a public service amateur radio net that meets every day at noon Pacific time on 7283.5kHz and 3970kHz, with a secondary frequency of 7265 kHz for both nets. Again, when it's your time, say your call sign and wait to be acknowledged.
On the net, you may hear other operators say "no traffic," meaning they have no messages to relay. In an emergency situation, they might have information they need to relay to the outside world, such as injuries in the neighborhood or maybe a doctor offering to share medical aid.
4. Become familiar with the bands
Whether you hold a Technician, General, or Extra class license, you need to stay within your permitted bands. You can download a nice graphic from ARRL.org; get it here.
If your license class is General or better you may like The Considerate Operator’s Frequency Guide, available here. It gives guidelines (not regulations) on generally what happens at what frequencies. Because it only covers the HF bands through 10m (29.7MHz), there isn't much for Technicians do there.
5. Become familiar with the repeaters in the areas you frequently use
Learn how to program them into your radio. See a list of ARRG repeaters here. A repeater will have a frequency, an offset (shift), and an access tone. Offset shifts are fairly standardized in the United States, and your radio will almost certainly have them pre-programmed. But the access tones vary by repeater. One very active repeater is the Eagle Butte system at 442.225MHz. To use it, your radio needs to use a positive offset and an access tone of 100Hz; you need only program each repeater into your radio once.
A great app for your smartphone is RepeaterBook. It's free, and it shows all the repeaters in your location (or any location you choose to search). Very handy to map out repeaters if you're going for a drive out of town.
If you plan to transmit in digital mode, ARRG asks that you announce to the repeater in FM beforehand so the FM-only rigs can turn down the volume. Digital transmissions are ear-jarring when heard over FM.
To confirm you've got a connection to the repeater, key your mic once and you should hear the repeater reply with a burst of static or maybe even some tones. Then, if you want to see if anyone out there wants to chat, key your mic and just say your call sign.
6. Give Echolink a try
Echolink is a free app for your smartphone that allows you to communicate with a repeater without your radio--just using your phone. There are some nets where friends from all around the world meet on a particular Echolink repeater and chat, even though they are too far apart to connect otherwise. It's fun. The K7RPT-R node is on the Cedar Mill 147.380 + 100Hz or 443.750 + 100Hz repeaters on Portland’s West side. We also have the K7RPT-L, which is on the South Saddle repeaters and the AC7QE-R node which operates on the Mount Hood 147.120 + 100Hz or 444.225 + 100Hz repeaters.
7. Learn some lingo
Amateur radio operators use terms pretty unique to the hobby. You'll hear people saying "73," "QSO," "QTH," "QRP," and so on. What do they mean? Why do people say "you're 5 by 9?"
There also seems to be an unspoken protocol for how to begin and end a conversation on the air. Let's say I call out "KI7MNU mobile." Another station might reply with my call sign followed by their own: "KI7MNU W7PM how's it going?" Then when the conversation comes to a close, if I were the disengaging station I'd say "73 W7PM KI7MNU clear," and the other station similarly "W7PM clear."
8. "Chase" a SOTA "activator"
Summits On The Air (SOTA) is an amateur radio program that encourages licensed amateur radio operators to operate temporarily from mountainous locations, combining hiking and mountain climbing with operating their amateur radio station from the summits of hills and mountains. Those who set up a station on a summit (usually for a few minutes to a few hours) are known as activators, and those who contact ("work") activators on summits are known as chasers.
See the North American SOTA site at https://na-sota.org/ or the Pacific NW site at https://www.pnwsota.org/ See also the SOTA Wikipedia page (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Summits_on_the_Air) and SOTA world map (https://www.sotamaps.org/).
9. Go to Seapac
There is a HAM radio convention every year in June, and it is worth attending. Held in the lovely coastal town of Seaside, it's a quick trip from the Portland/Vancouver metro, and makes for an inexpensive weekend getaway. Included with the very modest registration fee is access to numerous informational seminars. Browse vendor booths, get a hat with your call sign on it, or maybe pick up a new radio. Show prices can be tempting. There is also a huge array of used equipment and what-not for sale that is very interesting to browse. And best of all, at Seapac you can meet other members of ARRG. Sit with your new friends during the massive prize giveaways at the end of the show. Find out more here.
10. Participate in Field Day
Every June, more than 40,000 amateur operators throughout North America set up temporary transmitting stations in parks and other public places to demonstrate ham radio's science, skill and service to our communities and our nation. It combines public service, emergency preparedness, community outreach, and technical skills all in a single event. It's a super fun way to practice your com skills and make friends with your fellow HAMs. See the ARRL Field Day page at https://www.arrl.org/field-day.
If you have Questions, we are here to help
Please feel free to contact the ARRG Technical Team by sending an email to email@example.com.
Thanks to Brion Kidder, W7CBK and Marc Peterson, W7PM for writing this webpage. The page is a work in progress and is always growing and expanding, so please consider adding to the page by sending Evan Vander Stoep [KJ7BRE] your suggestions and submissions, and we’ll add your submission to this webpage.