This article will look at a basic radio setup on a budget as well as other possible upgrades.
Regardless of the opinions on the Baofeng and other “cheap Chinese” radios (Baofeng) that have flooded the market in the past few years, and regardless of the FCC rules pertaining to the type acceptance for radios in the Personal Radio Service and the Amateur Radio Service (see this article on the specific rules), the Baofeng radios have opened up the door to ham radio to people who might not have considered it.
You basic radio setup consists of a radio, usually a hand held, battery and antenna.
The minimum ham capability would be a hand-held radio which covers the 2-meter and 70cm ham bands, which are the most common bands. On the low end of radios are the Chinese Baofeng series radios. The original radios were the UV-5R, the current 2nd generation version is the UV-5R V2+ and the current version is the BF-F8HP. The older UV-5R’s can still be found on Amazon for around $305, but obviously, they have older firmware but this shouldn’t impact their operation. These radios produce a 5-watt signal which is standard for most hand-held radios. The radios are available with a larger battery and these should be on your list of additional options.
There radios are not ‘commercial grade’ and they can easily break if dropped, but at this price you just buy another one. In any case you should buy several so you have some spares safely stored in Faraday cages.
While you can find the Baofeng’s for around $30 if you can stretch your budget a little further, and especially if you are part of a mutual assistance group (MAG) then I’d strongly suggest looking at the BTECH UV5x3 radio. It is the same case as the Baofeng UV5R models, so parts are interchangeable. HOWEVER the big advantage is that it has the 1.25m (222MHz) ham band. This band is not commonly used in ham radio because most of the name brand manufacturers do not offer it.
Yaesu has the VX-6R (which is waterproof) for around $250 but 1.25m is only 1.5watts maximum.
Kenwood has the TH-D74A which is about $500.
Alinco used to offer a model with 1.25m only but it is no longer available.
The BTECH UV5R is 4watts on 1.25m.
“Security through obscurity.” If you have 1.25m repeaters in your area check to see if they are linked to another repeater (usually 2meter) at using repeaterbook or the clubs web site. If is is not linked the chances are that it is used very little.
If you use simplex the chances of someone hearing you on a scanner are very slim. Again, there isn’t much on those frequencies so people are not usually scanning them.
You could also put your own up if you have access to a good location.
AA battery packs should be on your ‘must have’ list. These allow you to use regular rechargeable AA batteries. They also sell a battery eliminator that allows you to connect the radio to a 12v supply, such as a 12v car outlet.
Stock, aka “rubber ducky,” antennas, that come with radios are not the best at radiating your signal, in fact it is very inefficient!
If you’ve taken your Technician license already then you might remember that to calculate the wavelength of a frequency that
wavelength (meters) = 300/frequency (MHz)
So with the range of the ham 2meter band being 144-148MHz
300/144 MHz = 2.08 meters which is 81 inches
300/148 MHz = 2.02 meters which is 79 inches
(both a bit long for antenna on a hand held!)
1/4 of 80 inches is 20 inches
To get the best signal out of your 5watt radio you need to use an antenna that is about 1/4 wave length.
There are some well known brands of antenna manufacturers, Commet and Cushcraft being the most common and Nagoya are also know for antennas for hand held radios (I have a “collection” of a number of these brands and models!). HOWEVER these weight about 1oz, which might not sound a lot but the force and weight of the antenna flexing on the connector of a hand held radio, especially the cheaper Baofeng’s, can cause the connector contacts on the inside of the radio to break. This is especially the case if you are running around in a more tactical situation.
I highly recommend the antennas that Signal Stuff makes. They are about 0.4oz and very flexible, so the stress on the connector is greatly reduced. ASLO, they are a small business and the sale of their products support hamstudy.org (a free on line study guide not only for US Amateur Radio exams but also the General Radio Operators License (GROL) exams). They have also spent hundreds (probably thousands of man-hours) developing and upgrading the testing site (Exam Tools) post-COVID and providing it FREE to test teams to provide both in-person as well as remote exams.
This is a very quick look at a budget setup to get you started and on the air.
In future articles we will look at a budget setup for your house. While you can use a hand held with an outside antenna you loose a lot of power along the coax to the outside antenna so your 5watt hand held might only be putting out 1 or 2 watts.
We will also add an article on going mobile. How to improve your mobile comms with just a hand held as well as some budget mobile radios.
Remember, Fortune Favors the Prepared