One of the most common questions we get at M.O.R.R. is, “What is the best ham radio to get?”. Which is like answering the question from your tailor of whether you dress to the left or to the right. (Btw, the correct answer is “Yes”) There are literally hundreds of awesome ham radios on the market that will do long range communications extremely well.
The big players in the radio industry are Icom, Yaesu, Kenwood, Alinco, and now Baofeng. Each company will have ham radios very similar in functionality to each other, but with slight stylistic differences. What you get to figure out is what functionalities do you want in your ham radio.
Chances are, you are just starting into ham radio and you have no clue what possibilities are even out there. So, we will help you narrow it down. We are going to go over such things as what you are doing with the ham radio, budgets, functionalities, and, in Part 2, some great ham radios that we have found work well to get you going.
Step 1: What is your Ham Radio Purpose?
First off, you need to ask yourself, “What am I going to be using the ham radio for?”. Are you going to be hiking and camping? So you may need something portable, preferably with an antenna already built into it like an HT (Handie Talkie! Think of a walkie talkie… but a little more complicated).
Maybe you are going to be backpacking away from a vehicle. So, you may want something lightweight, weather proof, and a little more power since you might be in some more remote locations.
Do you want something to install in your vehicle? Do you volunteer with a Search and Rescue team? Maybe you want something to put in your house so you can monitor nearby ham radio repeaters or trails? All of these things are going to impact what ham radio you ultimately choose. So figure out what purpose you are trying to fill before moving on to the next step.
Step 2: What Functionalities Are You Looking For In Your Ham Radio?
Ham Radio – Bands
One of the great things about ham radio as a hobby, is that there is very little oversight. Hobbyists are encouraged to dream up and create whatever they can come up with. This means that some pretty cool features make their way into ham radios sold to the mass public.
Starting at the basic things to look for, you will want to look at what band(s) the radio will operate on. Does it only operate on 2meter? Does it only operate on 70cm? Does it operate on 2m and 70cm? Maybe 3 bands? The best way to figure out your needs is figure out what ham radio repeaters are in the area that you get lost in the most.
On the left coast, 2meter repeaters are everywhere, but there are still some areas that are only covered by 70cm. On the east coast, there are more options of ham radio repeaters. The 1.25m and 6m bands are becoming more popular for backwoods adventures. (A Band is just a section of radio spectrum that tells you what frequency range the radio can operate on)
Ham Radio – Dual VFO
Having a “Dual Band” radio will go a long way to ensure that you can hit a ham radio repeater in an emergency situation. However, do not confuse “Dual Band” with “Dual VFO”. Dual VFO means that a ham radio can listen to and monitor 2 different frequencies at one time. All Dual VFO radios are Dual Band, but not all Dual Band radios are Dual VFO. Just because you can operate on two different bands, doesn’t necessarily mean you can operate on 2 different bands simultaneously.
As people who get lost regularly, we highly recommend getting a Dual VFO Ham Radio such as the Alinco DJ 500T, TYT TH-7800 Mobile Ham Radio, or the Icom IC2730A Mobile Ham Radio. Having the ability to monitor 2 frequencies simultaneously will allow you to monitor a repeater and talk to your buddies on simplex at the same time. Or listen to 2 separate ham repeaters at one time for when someone calls in.
Ham Radio – Power
How much power does the radio operate at? Most ham radio handhelds will transmit around 5 watts of power. Most mobile ham radios will operate around 50 watts of power. Most home ham radios (or base ham radios) will operate around 100 watts of power. You can find some bulletproof mobile ham radios that operate at more than 50 watts, but they will generally only be single banded like the Yaesu 3200 or Kenwood TM-281A.
You can also find a couple of ham radio handhelds out there, like the Baofeng BF-8HP 8W that do more than 5watts of power, but then you start sacrificing battery life and will need to carry extra batteries. Which, may be worth it if you are backpacking and need the extra range of more power.
Ham Radio – Crossband Repeat
One of the more useful ham radio features for the backwoods adventurer, is crossband repeat. Crossband Repeat allows you to turn your mobile ham radio into a mobile repeater! This is awesome for hiking and camping adventures. Or if you help out running communications for a bike race, or race of some sort.
A regular ham radio repeater will take your incoming signal and boost it out from a higher elevation, at a higher power. This effectively increases the range of your signal by as much as 300 miles! Sometimes though, if you are going on a day hike, you may venture outside of the signal range of your 5watt ham radio handheld as you get down into a valley near a river.
You can start the day by parking your vehicle on the ridge, and hike down into the valley. As long as your handheld ham radio can hit your vehicle, then with crossband repeat, your vehicle can then hit a repeater using its 50 watts. The repeater in return talks to your vehicle, which then talks to you off on your hike or geocaching adventure. We use this feature all the time on our TYT TH-7800 Mobile Ham Radio and Icom IC2730A Mobile Ham Radio.
Ham Radio – APRS
One great function for people that are like us and get lost regularly, is GPS. Having a GPS built into your ham radio opens up a whole new world to you called APRS (Automatic Packet Reporting System). APRS is a complex system that takes your GPS coordinates, and reports them to the internet via mini APRS repeaters called digipeaters. Digipeaters are usually placed in key locations, like mountain tops or high elevation ridges. So, if you can get yourself to the top of a ridge or mountain, you have a very high chance to hitting a digipeater.
Having your GPS coordinates and GPS track posted to the internet can come in handy when venturing out away from cell reception. If loved ones or a search and rescue team need to come find you, they will have your last known coordinates and know where to start looking.
Along with your coordinates, APRS can also send emails, send out broadcasted bulletins to others in your vicinity, and text messages!
The Garmin InReach is a neat unit that will send text messages via GPS satellites, but it charges you a monthly fee to do so. APRS works in the same way, but it also does a little more. The only down side to APRS enabled ham radios, is they will cost a little more (50-100$), but, 100% worth it when you need it.
The Kenwood TH-D72A Is an awesome outdoor, IP54 weatherproof ham radio handheld with APRS built in. And the Icom ID-5100 Mobile Ham Radio is perhaps our favorite mobile radio on the market.
Ham Radio – Repeater Book and Programming
Some other great functionalities are repeater directories and ease of programming repeaters. There is an app you can get on your phone called Repeater Book (iPhone, Android). This app has a massive directory of every repeater in the United States. The app will take your GPS coordinates from your phone and list the nearest repeaters to you.
You can then export repeaters over to your radio if it is bluetooth enabled! If you hate programming repeaters (they can be a pain! Which is why we offer our Ham Radio Programming service!), then check out some mobile ham radios like the Yaseu FTM-100DR for a nice, clean, dual band radio. Or check out the Icom 7100 Mobile Ham Radio for an all band, 100w radio that works great in vehicles.
Or, you can check out one of our favorites, the Icom ID-5100 Mobile Ham Radio and its ability to come with a repeater directory built in from the factory. It will then take your coordinates and automatically select the repeater closest to you! Very cool technology.
Ham Radio – Digital or Analog
A big question that has become more of a topic in the past couple of years is, “Do I want a digital or Analog ham radio?” If you are going to be doing any kind of backwoods adventuring, we highly recommend to stay away from digital only radios like Yaseu’s C4FM, or Icom’s D-Star. In flat lands and cities, digital works amazing. You get an always crisp, clean, clear signal no matter how far you get from the repeater or the other person you are talking to.
Analog will fade in quality as you get further away from the repeater. This sounds great in theory, but the problem is that when you do venture far enough away from the repeater that you can no longer hit it, with digital, you simply drop signal. It is like a switch, there is only on or off.
If you are in the backwoods, hiking or backpacking, this can be a huge issue because you will not get any warning when your signal is going to drop. And, if you are not paying close attention, you may not be able to figure out which direction to go in order to get your signal back.
With analog, your signal will start fading and you will be able to know when you are reaching the edge of your signal. Having a ham radio like the Yaesu FTM-100DR that does both digital and analog, can be really nice to have.
There are a few other functionalities and options that ham radios will have. Some of them include the ability to take a picture, and then send it via radio waves to someone. You can also have hands free bluetooth capabilities in your vehicle radios. You can have full colored displays with maps that overlay your gps coordinates. There are waterproof and shockproof radios. And more.
Continue onto What Ham Radio Should I Get Part 2 to see our favorite beginner ham radio picks, why we like them so much, and why you need them in your adventurous life right meow!
Step 3: The Ham Radio Options!
That’s it for Part 1! This ended up going on longer than we anticipated, so head to Part 2 to see Step 3: The Ham Radio Options! and what our radio recommendations are for the outdoors adventurer!
Continue to What Ham Radio Should I Get Part 2!
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