To make the most of every dollar and every square inch available, a ham is well advised to make some important plans up front. Setting goals for entering the ham radio hobby can inform the decisions for the type of set up and equipment needed.
New hams should think about what first attracted them to ham radio. Perhaps they are interested in something that another ham already does. Maybe they have found interest in a specialized kind of ham radio. Particular modes or bands may be captivating, or perhaps a ham may want to assist in emergency operations. All these possibilities will affect the kinds of equipment a ham needs.
Any ham needs to set up a radio station, often referred to as a radio shack or a ham shack. These shacks are where most of the radio equipment is located and where a ham will spend most of his or her time while on the air. Ham shacks can be in a home, in a car or other vehicle, and even in a portable case, such as a backpack.
A ham planning a home shack needs to select a place in the home that won't disrupt other family members and that is also comfortable and temperature-controlled for the ham. Provisions need to be made for antennas, such as how and where to install them and how to wire them to the radio. (Some municipalities require permits as well.) For emergency operation, the shack should also be able to operate without regular AC power.
Some hams may want to outfit their cars as mobile ham shacks. For these hams, they need to budget well for a mobile HF antenna, and they also need to be prepared to make their own custom vehicle installation, which includes wiring and safety concerns, since there are so many different vehicle makes and models.
Still other hams desire a completely portable experience, being able to carry or backpack with their radio equipment. In these instances, a ham should determine how the equipment will be carried and what weight limit it should have. Power sources are a concern, so good battery packs are a must. It is also important to note that hand-held radios are more challenging to operate than full-size radios.
Radios take at least half of a ham's budget and usually more, and it's for a good reason: the radio is the central part of a ham radio hobby! Choosing the right radio for the job is crucial. Using a radio club, an Elmer, and other resources, such as the ARRL website, can help make the selection process a little easier.
HF or shortwave radios operate on the HF bands, which are under 30 MHz. All current HF radios are perfectly acceptable in transmitting and receiving on the HF bands. The differences among them come from additional features, such as filtering, ability to operate among other strong signals, number of memories, and more.
Basic HF radios are great for novice hams as they are relatively simple to use. While they connect only to one antenna and have limited displays and controls, they also make a great second or portable radio after a ham upgrades to a better main radio. Journeyman HF radios have more memory, displays, and controls. They may also be enabled for digital transmissions and can be hooked up to a computer. High-performance HF radios usually allow for antenna switching, have excellent receivers, have extended and configurable controls, and are digital and computer ready.
Filters are an essential consideration when choosing a radio. Filters allow for full use of the desired radio signal while reducing the strength of other strong signals in the area. Without a good filter, radio operation is difficult. Some radios provide extra filters or cascading filters, which follow one another. Purchasing the best filter your budget can afford and even multiple filters may make for a more enjoyable radio experience.
Portable HF radios are also increasing in popularity because of their relatively small size and ability to be "on the go." While these radios are more difficult to use because of their size and may not have as high a quality as their stationary counterparts, they have their own features, such as detachable front panels that allow the body to be installed in an out-of-the-way place.
Some HF radios have digital capabilities. If digital transmitting is important to a ham, there are accessory sockets that can make the radio able to handle different types of digital transmissions, and some even have internal modems to connect directly to a computer. A digital-enabled radio should be able to handle RTTY, packet, and other digital communications.
VHF/UHF radios are becoming less necessary in recent years as many HF radios include VHF/UHF bands, some up to 1200 MHz. However, VHF/UHF radios can offer their own unique features, such as the ability to more easily use satellites for transmissions. Some VHF/UHF radios are even GPS enabled to make using the Automatic Position Reporting System (APRS) even easier.
Microphones are absolutely essential to radio operation. Most radios come with hand microphones that are quite sufficient for most hams' needs, but some hams wish to upgrade to a better quality microphone after a while. Some hams prefer to use a headset that combines headphones with a boom microphone positioned in front of the ham's mouth. Some microphones are designed to work with higher frequencies, which can deal effectively with noise, and others still have frequency adjusters built in.
Another accessory to consider is a key. This is essential for any ham who wishes to get involved in Morse code as it's the physical device that sends the code. There are straight and electronic keys, and there are thousands of models to choose from. Since the feel and comfort of a key is highly personal, hams want to try them out first before they decide on one to purchase. Some keys even have memories to store commonly sent messages, such as a ham's call sign.
External antenna tuners are an accessory that can assist if the antenna is being pushed to its limits. Internal tuners, which come with radios, can only usually handle transmissions that the antenna was designed optimally for.
By carefully planning for your needs before making any equipment purchases, you can get the biggest bang for your buck choosing equipment that has the right features for you and avoids wasting money on other options you'll never use.
Selecting Antennas and Computers
As with radios, choosing the right antenna is also a crucial decision. Hams who know their goals and do their research can select the right antenna for their interests in ham radio.
Most HF antennas are large and can be up to 33 feet tall...or higher! The higher the HF frequency, the less height in antenna is required, so that is often part of the decision-making process. Also, the space constraints for the antenna and even zoning ordinances can also affect the size of antenna needed.
Wire, or dipole, HF antennas are so simple in design that many hams choose to make these antennas themselves. Hams can research the instructions or speak to Elmers about how to make a wire antenna. Simply put, a wire antenna is a wire that is cut in the middle where it attaches to a feedline. The feedline runs from the antenna to the transmitter, and is a coaxial cable in this case. Wire antennas maintain a fixed orientation.
Another popular HF antenna is the vertical antenna. These are lower to the ground than wire antennas and are more portable. Depending on the wavelength, some vertical antennas require a ground screen, which is simply a series of wires that radiate from the base of the antenna and lay on the ground. Unlike wire antennas, verticals are omnidirectional, radiating in all directions simultaneously.
A third type of HF antenna is the beam antenna. Beam antennas have several elements that reflect and direct energy in specific directions. These antennas come in multiple shapes and sizes with a few wires or a whole series of tubing. Most beam antennas have the ability to turn or rotate in order to focus on particular signals or reject others. This does require a motorized rotator to be installed with the antenna.
For VHF/UHF transmissions, verticals or beams are most common. Verticals are almost the exclusive choice for FM operation, and beams are quite common for VHF/UHF DX-ing on SBB and CW signals.
In mobile situations, FM operation still uses vertical antennas. There are special considerations to make when attempting to mount an antenna to a vehicle, whether the mounting device will be magnetic or permanent. The antenna will need to be removed for certain situations and changed out for others. HF operation requires larger antennas for mobile use.
A quality feedline, which connects the antenna to the transmitter, is also important. There are different levels of quality in cables, and lower qualities will lose a certain amount of transmitter output and received signals. Because of this, a ham is wise to purchase the feedline with the lowest loss that the budget allows. It can also be cost effective to buy cable on 500 foot spools and share the cable (and cost) with other hams. While quality radios and antennas can be bought used, it's usually a good idea to buy feedlines exclusively as new.
Hams also need to use connectors for the ends of their feedlines. Connectors can handle different power levels and some are waterproof, which is great for outdoor connections. Connectors are relatively inexpensive when compared to other equipment; therefore, it is wise to purchase a good quality connector.
Even though there are many types of antennas for different needs, they all need some kind of support to keep them mounted and clear of obstacles.
One natural support for certain antennas, especially wire antennas, are trees. They are sturdy and blend in naturally to the environment. The challenge is to figure out how to raise the antenna to be attached to the tree and how to run the feedline. Permanent installations may benefit from working with an arborist to be sure that the antenna has a long life.
Another option is to use wooden or metal masts, which can be made at home or bought premade. Larger masts with guy wires are good choices for wire antennas and VHF/UHF beams. Simple VHF/UHF verticals can probably use smaller masts without guy wires. Guy wires are a particularly good idea to help an antenna stand up to windy conditions.
Tripods are type of support that mounts on a roof and are available in different sizes, depending on the need. If mounting an antenna support from the ground is not an option, then the tripod might be the way to go.
Finally, towers are the most substantial antenna support, but they are also the most expensive and challenging to erect. Permits are usually required for towers, especially the larger ones. Some towers are welded and require concrete bases; others crank or telescope up into place. These are serious antenna supports for especially tall applications (sometimes 100 feet tall or more!) and heavy antennas.
Computers are becoming increasingly valuable in ham shacks. While originally used for keeping electronic logs, computers now control radios and send and receive digital messages. For example, computers can monitor and control some radios specially designed to work with computers, and some radios now must be controlled through a computer. Computers can also use their sound cards to take data information transmitted and decode it into messages (or images). Whatever the use, selecting a computer for a ham shack needs to take into consideration the right data ports a radio requires. Other than that, the latest, greatest computer is often not necessary, and older, handed-down computers often do the trick just fine.