Field Operating 1: VHF-UHF Handhelds

Going out “in the field” is becoming more and more popular every year. There are “on the air” activities for just about everyone: Parks on the Air (POTA), Summits on the Air (SOTA), Islands on the Air (IOTA), and more.

For most hams best way to get going is by using what you already have, and start with VHF and UHF contacts. Use what you’ve got!

Friends don’t let friends buy crap gear

I hate that I even have to include this section, but as an amateur you should be buying tools, not toys. Handheld radios get nothing but criticism from the amateur radio community, and what fuels this more than anything else is the abundance of knock-off radios flooding the market.

“A dual band Ht for $30! What a deal – I’ll take three!”

Knock off radios have built a reputation for weak batteries, poor receive sensitivity, sluggish squelch, overheating, difficult programming, and even non-compliant spurious emissions. I knew one amateur who raved about his new “amazon special” radio for a full month . . . until it literally caught fire during transmit.

You get what you pay for, and $50 doesn’t buy a lot of radio.

Spend your dollars with manufacturers who actually support the hobby. Leave the garbage radios for the prepper community, who will do the right thing and bury these radios in the backyard along with the other apocalypse supplies.

Ham radio handheld and log
Logging at the peak with a kneeboard and Kenwood Ht. Note that the antenna has been removed and a small coax run connects the radio to an external antenna.

Handhelds on the air

The radio models produced by reputable manufacturers are genuinely useful tools that you can depend on. Consider the advantages a handheld offers to the new field operator:

  • Lightweight package that is easy to carry
  • Integrated power source
  • Can remove the antenna and connect to coax for full-size antennas
  • Abundant documentation, good manuals, and logical menus
  • Simple interaction with the radio
Basic handheld station for my first Summits on teh Air activation
My very first SOTA activation: it doesn’t take a lot of radio when you’re 2,000 feet up.

Depending on your interests, a handheld may be all you ever need for field work. My first portable outings were accomplished with nothing more than an analog Icom IC-70, a whip antenna, and a notepad. Even today I still rely on a handheld as my default gear when heading out.

Simple is reliable . . . simple is effective . . . simple is fun. Simple is good.

handheld radio and a Mirage amplifier
Adding a small amplifier can really give your handheld a boost in range. Note also the coax connected in place of the rubber duck antenna.

Handheld plus

Another nice feature of handhelds is that they are actually modular:

  • Need more power? Add a small amplifier.
  • Need to run digital? Run audio to a computer.
  • Need more gain? Add a longer antenna.
  • Need a lot more gain? Add a coax run to a yagi!

The image below is from one of my trips in the Mojave desert, near Fremont peak. This was my very first foray into any kind of “serious” field work with radio, and I was attempting to contact my home club, about 100 miles away.

Amateur radio in the desert
With little more than some PVC, aluminum, and a handheld I was able to work contacts over 100 miles away.

I built a small yagi antenna from PVC pipe and aluminum rod, connected that to a Mirage amplifier, and fed that arrangement with an Icom IC-70.

I was thoroughly pleased with how well the system worked, especially since a handful of the “more knowledgeable” club members were convinced that the signal path was impossible.

I was able to reach members of my club back home near Riverside with ease, and I’m confident that I could have stretched teh contacts quite a bit further.

Signals were strong, the FM audio was interference-free, and the whole system ran off nothing more than a small battery pack.

Versatility comes in small packages

Adding to the usefulness of handheld radios is that the discussion above doesn’t even touch on some of the newer features found in advanced handhelds: waterproof cases for hard field use, digital voice capabilities like DMR, and models with “wide receive” that can tune in everything from AM broadcast all the way up to UHF GMRS transmissions.

Handheld radios really are the “hidden gems” of the amateur radio world. They don’t cost much, they go anywhere, the learning curve for a basic radio is well within a new operator’s abilities, and the advanced amateur can tap into features that were unheard of only 20 years ago.

When starting out with field operating it would be difficult to go wrong with a handheld radio. Find a high point or a local park, go on the air with your local club members, and see what you can do. You’ll be pleasantly surprised.

Updated 2022-05-22