Getting Started: Your First Handheld

Once you’ve got your licence, the first purchase you’re likely to make may well be a handheld radio. All the rage at the moment are the PoFung / Baofeng radios such as the Baofeng UV-5R and Baofeng UV-B6, as these can be cheaply obtained from Amazon and eBay.

Want a one-page printable guide? See our Getting Started Guides

On this page, we outline a few things that you may need to consider.

Know the radio’s limitations

First off, so you’re not disappointed, it’s important to understand the limitations of these radios:

Essex Ham's Kelly M6KFABuild quality – At £25, don’t expect a high-quality radio. They are made to be sold at budget prices, and are not the best quality.

Audio – Notable is the lowish quality of the microphone which can sound very muffled. Solutions include drilling out a bigger hole on the front of the radio to allow more sound to hit the mic – also worth considering is an external microphone, plugged into the socket at the side. If neither are an option for you, make sure you speak loudly and clearly at a suitable distance from the mic hole. Some experimentation may be needed.

Antenna – As you’ll hopefully remember from your Foundation course, we teach that VHF and UHF normally work “just beyond line of sight” and there’s a limited range. The free antenna supplied with a Baofeng-type radio is acceptable, but don’t expect much in the way of distance. At a high point out in the open with nothing in the way, hitting a repeater 10 or 20 miles away may well be possible. However, in a built-up area, in a dip, or where there is no clear line-of-sight, you may get nothing. See “improving your range” below.

Power – Although rated at 5 watts, that’s not necessarily what’s put out.

Other factors

Squelch – Check that this isn’t set too high. If it’s set too high, you’ll be blocking some signals. One of our members, Charlie M0PZT, suggests a squelch setting of “2” for the Baofeng UV-5R model, and again some experimentation may be needed.

Lack of activity – 2m can be a quiet band. Here in Essex, where there are lots of amateurs and clubs, it’s possible to monitor 2m and only hear a couple of people all day. Listening when a busy net is on (such as our Monday Night Net), is worth a try. If a net is on a repeater, listen to the Input frequency, as you may be able to hear local signals even if you can’t hear the repeater itself.

In Essex? Listen on a Monday Night at 8pm. Repeater output frequency (Danbury) is 145.725MHz. The Input frequency is 145.125MHz. You can also listen online to check if the net is running and hear what others are saying. Details: Essex Ham Monday Night Net

 

Difference in power – Don’t be disappointed if you hear someone calling, but they can’t hear you. It could be that they’re transmitting under ideal conditions at 50 watts. It’s easy to see how you, with an inferior antenna at 5 watts or less, may struggle to be heard clearly (if at all) in these circumstances

Repeater settings – If trying to work a repeater, you will need exactly the right settings to be programmed into your radio – The CTCSS tone on transmit, and the offset. Without both of these 100%, you won’t open the repeater. Setting up from a computer (with free software and a suitable programming lead) often is easier than trying to program using the on-screen menu and the radio’s button interface. Poorly-worded Chinese manuals don’t help either.See links at the bottom of the page for instructions on setting up some of the common Baofengs

Radio settings – Just check the obvious – Is the volume turned up? Is the antenna connected correctly? Are you on the right frequency? Is your radio set to some odd unexpected mode? As a last resort, try a factory reset.

Baofeng UV-B6 screen transmitting on GB3DA
Baofeng UV-B6 screen transmitting on GB3DA

Improving your Range

As explained above, using the basic rubber duck may not get you far. If you’re in a dip, a built-up area, or there’s a structure between you and the station/repeater you want to work, you’ll struggle.

Baofeng UV-B6 SMA Antenna Connector
Baofeng UV-B6 SMA Antenna Connector

The cheap antenna supplied with budget radios can be unscrewed normally revealing an SMA plug or socket – Connecting a better antenna will make a big difference. Here are some options:

Antenna height – As you’ll hopefully recall from Foundation, height is more important than power for VHF/UHF. If at home, ideally, a rooftop antenna is best – as high as you can get it. If that’s not immediately possible, an antenna in the loft could be a decent compromise – perhaps hanging from a bit of string nailed to the highest point of the loft. The roof tiles will attenuate the signal a little, but you’ll have the height.

Antenna type – Again, from Foundation, you’ll know this makes a difference. A decent Yagi (beam) antenna with a good gain, correctly polarised, and pointing at the target will give the best results, but this is often not practical. For most, a decent compromise is a 2m/70cm colinear white stick antenna (such as the Diamond X30 – approx £40, or a cheaper clone), on the roof or in the loft. Next option would be a home-made Slim Jim antenna (loft, or out the window). Last resort, a bigger / better rubber duck type antenna

Position – If you’re working using just the rubber duck antenna – Try going elsewhere – High up, closer to a repeater, less built-up area – again, perhaps when you know a busy net is on.

Go mobile – If you can’t get a good signal at home and a fixed aerial on the roof isn’t an option, get in the car. Get yourself a cheapish co-linear antenna and a mag mount. These have a magnetic base for the roof of your car, and the co-ax goes through the door seal. Cheap mag mounts use very thin co-ax cable, which is not great at UHF (see the next point), so don’t skimp too much. The metal roof of your car will act as a groundplane, and you have freedom to drive to a high point or find a nearby sweet-spot. Take a flask too!

Co-ax cable – If using an external antenna with co-ax cable, using RG213 (the thicker co-ax) may be better than the thinner RG58, especially if there’s a long run involved. It’s more expensive, but less lossy at VHF/UHF frequencies, and if you’re struggling for signal, it can make the difference.

Charlie M0PZT, multi-tasking with programming and advice
Charlie M0PZT, programming radios at the Essex Skills Night

Final Thoughts

One other option to consider, is getting someone else to programme / test your radio. In Essex, consider coming along to one of the monthly Essex Skills Nights in Danbury. Essex Ham member (and Ham Goodies founder) Charlie M0PZT attends most Skills Nights, and offers free handset programming for many of the common makes and models. Bring your radio and power supply), but get there early, as he often has a queue.

Hopefully this short guide has helped. If you have any questions, or better still, any tips – please add them as a comment below!

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