Amateur Radio: One Year In…

I took my Technician and General tests together, last July (2019). I had started with a Yaesu FT-60R handheld, but really started to learn things last October (2019) when I bought a Yaesu FT-991A and started working on HF. Looking back over my first year+ in amateur radio, here are some things that I have learned:

It’s all about the Antenna — It’s easy to focus on the radio, with knobs, buttons, and flashing lights. Probably the biggest factor to one’s overall success/performance is not the radio, but the antenna! The “best” antenna is the one that you can put up (given any location, size, HOA restrictions), but an antenna that is resonant in the frequency band you are using is going to be the most effective. Higher off of the ground is generally better if possible. Antenna tuners, loading coils, traps, etc. are compromises in performance for size, and flexibility. A compromise antenna can work for you, but may not be ideal. You can find lots of information and ideas in the ARRL book on “Small Antennas for Small Spaces.”

Antenna performance is important with handhelds as well. The typical “rubber ducky” antenna is optimized for size/cost, not for performance. An aftermarket 1/4 wave antenna that is 14-16” will generally perform much better than the stock antenna. With the original antenna on my handheld, I could barely hit the repeaters from outside — with the aftermarket antenna I can reach them from my basement! You can also use a mobile antenna, like a mag mount, or something like a roll-up dual-band J-pole. A mag mount mobile antenna can greatly improve your results when using a handheld from inside of a vehicle, since the metal shell, and even metallic window tint film, can block the signal.

Get Grounded — it’s important for your safety, to reduce RFI, protect from lightning, improve antenna performance and reduce background noise level on the radio. The ARRL book on “Grounding and Bonding for Radio Amateurs” by Ward Silver (N0AX) is a great resource. Use quality materials, including a “joint compound” like Penetrox or JetLube to prevent oxidation on metal-to-metal contact, and weather-proof outdoor connections. Wrap with rubber splicing tape and quality electrical tape to seal and protect.

Think big, but start small — it’s easy to spend a lot of money on equipment and materials, so invest wisely. Start small, with something affordable like a hand held. A decent 2m/70cm handheld with a good antenna can hit many repeaters.

Plan for how the components that you acquire could be repurposed, so that you’re not throwing things away as you go. If you get an external mag mount antenna for the HT to use on a car, get one with the right connector or adaptor to use with a mobile radio when you are ready to move up to that. If you start with a mobile radio as your base, pick one that you would want to move to a vehicle later if/when you buy a base station transceiver.

Join the ARRL — it’s worth the $50/year for the “QST” and “On the Air” magazines alone, but also to support the largest advocacy group for the hobby. For instance, right now they are lobbying against the FCC imposing a $50 fee for license and vanity callsign applications. The ARRL offers members a wealth of information, including your choice of magazines, a large library of product reviews, article archives, etc.

Join a local club — Having someone to talk you through setting up a new rig, programming a new radio, or troubleshooting issues is invaluable. An organization like the Parker Radio Association has monthly meeting presentations and “Elmer Night” for mentoring, weekly “nets” on the air, and many experienced volunteers who are happy to help and share their experiences.

Other (free) places to join:

  • LoTW — The Logbook of the World is free service from the ARRL acts as a “central repository” for logging and confirming contacts
  • QRZ.com — One of the most popular websites for looking up contacts and logging
  • QRZCQ — Another popular site for looking up and logging contacts
  • eqsl.cc — This website lets you upload your log and create electronic “QSL cards” via email

Things that you need to know:

Finding your Lat/Lon, Gridsquare
can lookup from: http://www.levinecentral.com/ham/grid_square.php

Finding your ITU Region and Zone, and CQ Zone:
http://www.mapability.com/ei8ic/maps/maps.php

Logging is important to other operators, even if you don’t think it’s important to you. Many hams are participating in contests or pursuing awards like “Worked All States.” If you don’t log your contacts, the other stations you work may not get credit for the contact. I’ve made a digital contact with a station in Alaska, but it wasn’t confirmed in LoTW, so it “doesn’t count” toward an award. There are many computer-based logging programs that can do most of the work for you.

Get on the air! If you have a 2m/70cm handheld or mobile, program your radio for a local repeater. Listen for any activity, and don’t be afraid to join the conversation if you have something to add. Joining a “net” (on-air meeting) is a great way to practice and to meet other hams in the area.

When you get your General license, getting started on HF can be a bit more challenging, but also very rewarding. It takes some practice to tune in SSB voice signals. I have found that having a radio with a “spectrum scope” or “waterfall” display is helpful to visually spot where there is activity on the band.

Digital (sound card) modes like RTTY, PSK31, and ft8 can be a great way to get started. One advantage is that many operate on predefined frequencies or ranges, which can make the signals easier to find. Many of these modes, such as ft8, are optimized for “weak signals” so they can easily be worked with a portable radio and a “compromise” antenna, so you don’t need to have a big system setup to make them work.

HF Propagation is a fickle mistress — While in theory, an antenna is “reciprocal,” and can transmit as well as they receive, there are many factors which can skew the actual results. Sometimes you can hear better than you transmit, and sometimes you might be able to reach other stations that you can’t hear. Propagation can also change throughout the course of the day, and even from minute to minute. Be patient!

It’s not about the Distance — Because of “skip” it’s possible for stations further away to hear you when closer stations cannot. You might be able to reach both east and west coast, but not the adjacent states, depending on the band and time of day.

Power isn’t everything — You would be surprised how many contacts you can make with less than 50w. It doesn’t require a high-power amplifier to make contacts. QRP is the practice of operating on low power, typically considered to be under 10w.

Radio is mostly magic… There are many cases where something that looks like it would work on paper may not perform well, and other times when something that sounds impossible will actually work. Don’t be afraid to experiment!

Ask Why? — Everyone has an opinion, but understanding the thought behind it can give more insight, and you’ll learn a lot.

Dealing with roadblocks is always a challenge, and it takes creativity and perseverance to work through them. Don’t be discouraged. You might have challenges with antennae locations or restrictions, RFI, etc. Reach out to the people in the club for recommendations.

Find an aspect of amateur radio that appeals to you. There are many ways to be involved, from local repeaters and nets, long distance, contesting, etc. Many people enjoy portable operations as a way to get outside. Setup at a local park, or take a portable radio with you on a hike, off-roading or when camping.