This is a look at the Amateur Radio Hand-held Transceiver otherwise known as the HT. This is often the first piece of equipment that is purchased by new hams. This article will be emphasizing the basic parts and functions common to all major brands and commenting on some key features and accessories that we feel are important to consider.
We highly recommend purchasing your new transceiver from a reputable U.S. dealer. Handheld Transceivers are available from several manufacturers in many configurations but they are grouped into 2 main categories, depending on their capabilities:
Single Band: Capable of transmitting on only one of the ham bands
Multi-Band: Capable of transmitting on more than one of the ham bands
The radio shown below is the Yaesu VX-170. It is a single band radio, meaning that it transmits on a single range of frequencies, specifically the 2 meter band or 144-148 MHz.
Your new transceiver will arrive in pieces. The antenna and rechargeable battery will both need to be installed. Most transceivers use a 110V wall charger and the charging instructions normally recommend several hours to fully charge the battery.
USING YOUR RADIO:
After charging, you will need to familiarize yourself with the radio’s controls. The list below describes the functions that are most commonly used. These features represent what most new Technician operators will need to know to begin using their license. Ninety-nine percent of the Technician level hams that I know use just the following functions to accomplish everything they need to do with their transceiver.
1) Locate and memorize the VFO function. The “VFO” mode allows the user to directly input a specific frequency with the radio’s keypad or tuning knob.
2) Learn to access the transceiver’s “menu”. Many radios that we’ve used just have a single button that toggles the display to the “menu” or “function” screen.
2) Locate and memorize how to access and change the “repeater offset” function. Repeaters generally have predetermined spacings between input and output frequencies and the radio will already have the spacings programmed into it. You will just need to know if the input frequency is higher or lower than the output frequency. There will be a menu pre-programmed to select a “+” or a “-” or you can select a custom offset.
3) Locate and memorize how to access and change the CTCSS or “Tone” setting. Repeaters often require a CTCSS tone to access them. These are also pre-programmed into your HT. You will just need to verify which, if any, the repeater is using and select it from the radio’s menu.
4) Locate and memorize how to change the “power level”. Most HTs have 2 or more power settings. It’s best to use the least amount of transmit power necessary to make a contact. It’s nice to have a full five watts available to use but you may only need two watts to hit some of your local repeaters.
5) Learn and memorize how to store a frequency and settings into “Memory”. Once you go to the trouble of setting your radio to access a repeater you will want to store it into the transceiver’s memory so you can access it again without wasting any time. We generally program our Severe Weather Net repeater into the first memory slot and add the rest of the area’s repeaters to memory according to their geographic distance from our home base.
6) Learn how to switch back and forth between “VFO” and “Memory”. The majority of our comms are conducted through the repeater frequencies stored into the radio’s memory. Sometimes it’s necessary for us to communicate on other frequencies without going through a repeater (simplex). Switching the transceiver from “memory” to “VFO” enables the operators to quickly move the conversation to an open simplex frequency.
7) Learn and memorize the “Scan” feature. Scanning the ham band you are using can be a useful tool to find other operators. Learn the “band plan” so you can determine if the frequency being used is a repeater frequency or a simplex frequency. Also, most single band radios are capable of receiving frequencies outside of the ham band they are designed for. This is another useful feature that allows the operator to monitor the nearby police/fire or weather frequencies.
Each radio’s programming process is slightly different. Different radios from the same manufacturer will have similar menus and inputs but can still vary from model to model. Your radio’s instruction manual will go into greater detail about these features. If you’re considering purchasing a used radio without a manual, be sure that the operator’s manual is still available. All of the top manufacturer’s have their current manuals available online. If you are a new ham, don’t buy a transceiver if the manual isn’t available or if it doesn’t have the basic functions described above. Consider making or buying a cheat sheet with the above functions and keeping it with your radio until you have mastered the steps.
The MULTI-BAND HT
The Multi-Band Handheld transceiver can be an extremely useful preparedness tool but it comes with the price of being somewhat complicated to use. There are many more functions to learn if you’re planning to get full use out of the radio. These radios can be purchased with any combination of the following features:
- Dual Band transmit: The ability to transmit on two of the Ham bands, usually 2 meter and 70cm.
- Tri-Band transmit: The ability to transmit on three of the Ham bands, usually 2 meter and 70cm PLUS 6 meter (FM) or 222-225 MHz .
- Quad-Band transmit: The ability to transmit on four of the Ham bands, 2 meter and 70cm PLUS 6 meter (FM) AND 222-225 MHz.
- Wide Band Receive: Oftentimes these transceivers will monitor or scan frequencies from .1 MHz to 1300 MHz (this includes shortwave, AM/FM broadcast, the analog police/fire frequencies and the NOAA weather broadcasts).
There are also some manufacturer specific features that can be interesting.
One of the multi-band transceivers we use is shown below. It is a Yaesu VX-5R. They’re no longer made and have been replaced by the VX-7R and VX-8R. It is a Tri-Band transceiver, capable of transmitting on 6m, 2m and 70cm. It can also be used as a wideband receiver. It will receive standard AM shortwave radio but not SideBand. We have programmed it to monitor or scan the area’s analog police/fire and emergency management frequencies PLUS the local amateur radio repeaters. This radio is a vital part of our emergency preps, allowing us to communicate on the ham frequencies plus monitor all radio traffic in the area (except digital and sideband comms).
In addition to the basic commands and functions that we covered in Part One, you will need to learn the following commands to get the full use from your transceiver:
Learn the Display! The most frequent problems I see with new operators is that they are not understanding how to read the details on the display screen. In the photo above there are 2 frequencies shown along with the receive mode and transmitter settings. These radios are capable of monitoring more than one frequency and the radio above is shown to be monitoring a local repeater AND a local FM broadcast station. The radio obviously cannot transmit on the FM band so you must know how to switch back and forth between the radio’s monitor and transmit functions. These radios often use icons to indicate if features are toggled on.
Learn the bands. These radios have the common bands pre-programmed into their memories, i.e Air Band, Weather Band etc. You will need to know how to switch between bands and what each band contains.
Learn the MODES used in each band. These radios can receive several different modes. Most of them will receive AM, Narrow FM and Wide FM. Some are capable of receiving Upper/Lower Side Band and CW. You will need to know the common mode for each band and be able to switch the receiver to that mode if necessary.
Learn the squelch function. It is usually necessary to adjust squelch when monitoring certain bands.
These radios can cost anywhere between $200 and $500 dollars. They are fairly expensive but can do the job of several radios. One of my personal favorites is the Kenwood TH-F6A. The Kenwood is a tri-bander with wideband recieve and the shortwave band is sideband capable. The radio shown above is an excellent radio and has lasted for many years. It is used and carried almost daily in my EDC bag. IMO, all of the recent Yaesu radios are excellent radios.
Each radio’s programming process is slightly different. Different radios from the same manufacturer will have similar menus and inputs but can still vary from model to model. Your radio’s instruction manual will go into greater detail about these features. If you’re considering purchasing a used radio without a manual, be sure that the operator’s manual is still available. All of the top manufacturer’s have their current manuals available online. If you are a new ham, don’t buy a transceiver if the manual isn’t available or if it doesn’t have the basic functions described in the first section of this article. Consider making or buying a cheat sheet with the above functions and keeping it with your radio until you have mastered the steps.
Necessary Accessories for the Handheld Amateur Radio
In the first two parts of this article we covered the Amateur Hand Held Transceiver options, features and necessary functions. Now we’ll cover some of the accessories necessary to improve the performance of the HT and make sure that it is functional when and where you need it to be.
Speaker Mic… These have been mentioned by us before (many times). These allow you to anchor the radio to your waist, vest or pack and have the speaker on your shoulder, near your ear. Not only are they convenient, they also reduce wear and tear on your radio’s Push-To-Talk (PTT) button.
AA or AAA battery adaptor case…. Most manufacturers offer a special case that holds AA batteries that can be used instead of the OEM rechargeable battery. This is MUST-HAVE accessory in my opinion. We’ve had more than one OEM battery go bad on us without any previous signs of failure.
Power Cable/Charging Cord…. Most HTs will come with a rechargeable battery and a 110V charger cable. You should also locate and purchase a 12V charger cable for your radio. Some brands of radios must use cables that are specifically designed for that model so be sure to check before buying a generic brand of cable.
If a 12V cable is not available or is too expensive, consider purchasing a small inverter to allow you to use the 110V cable thru a 12V power port.
External base station antenna and coax…. You can turn your hand-held transceiver into a base station if it has a detachable antenna (most of them do). This will increase the range of your radio considerably. Centerfire Antenna and US Dipole both offer lightweight portable base antennas for handheld radios. There are also many websites offering the plans and instructions for making DIY “roll-up” antennas. We plan to post some instructions for a simple antenna as well here on the blog.
Mobile antenna and coax…. Another antenna option for your HT is the mobile antenna. They’re available as bolt-on or mag-mount and will increase the range of your radio while you are using it in your vehicle.
NOTE: Both the Base Antenna and the Mobile Antenna must be tuned before use. An SWR Meter is required.
It may be necessary to use another operator’s base antenna in an emergency and having a selection of adaptors can prepare you for just about any situation. Fortunately, there aren’t too many variations to prepare for. You will need to know which connector your radio uses (most HTs use the “SMA Male” connector) and build or buy some of the common adaptors like BNC, UHF and N style. There are two styles: Rigid and Flexible. It’s usually easiest and less expensive to purchase an SMA to BNC rigid adaptor and then build BNC flexible adaptors for the rest of your assortment.
Linear Amplifier… An amp is the only way to add power to your HT’s output. These are handy for punching your signal thru urban terrain or wooded areas. An amp requires it’s own power source and an external antenna in a raised location. There are amplifiers available that are specifically designed for hand-held transceivers. They will specify an INPUT wattage and it must be 5 watts or less. Some amps will boost an HT’s signal up to 50 watts. Keep in mind that an amp needs plenty of 12V power to function and that they usually cost as much or more than an equally powerful mobile ham radio.
Cheat Sheet…. This is nothing more than a small sheet of paper or cardstock that has the instructions printed on it to perform your HT’s common programming functions. Unless you program your radio everyday, you will most likely forget the exact steps involved in changing the settings in your transceiver. These small guides are usually available for purchase online or through ham dealers. We make our own with a CAD program. You could probably make one with Windows Paint or similar program. The nice thing about making your own is they can be customized to your specific needs. Your HT may come with one or have one in it’s instruction manual that can be photo-copied and laminated. Below is an example of a cheat sheet for a Yaesu VX-7R. This is one side of a two-sided sheet that we made for a group member:
Go-Bag…. a place to keep everything for your HT. I’ve seen some folks use a small tackle box or soft-sided cooler. I prefer the padded camcorder bags designed for the older, larger camcorders. Our bags stay packed and hanging on the wall, ready to go when needed.
Hopefully you’ve found this series to be helpful. It covers the basic need-to-know information for the beginning Ham or someone thinking of getting their license.
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