Got my license—now what?

(This is preliminary and comes from an e-mail I sent to someone asking what order I thought new hams should do things.)

I’ve been a ham for 35 years, so I’ve picked up a little here and there. I have no particular equipment recommendations except to keep it simple. The least expensive HF transceiver today is better than the best from 25 years ago. I do recommend the following in general:

* Hams should plan on joining the ARRL. The monthly magazine, QST, is indispensable. They should also plan to join and participate in their local club.
* The first radio should be a VHF handheld. There are inexpensive 2-meter-only handhelds and a few inexpensive 2-mtr/440 dual band rigs that are inexpensive (I bought one a couple years ago for under $200). I recommend dealing with HRO, www.hamradio.com, out of Denver, but AES is also good.
* Find ham friends to talk with! Learn about the local repeaters and then use them! GET ON THE AIR!
* Next comes a mag-mount antenna for the car. This should probably be purchased at the same time as the handheld
* Then comes a dedicated 12v power supply (from the mains–buy ahead and get a 10A supply that can be used with a mobile rig)
* One could put an outdoor antenna up at this point, but one has to be careful that it has a DC ground so as not to blow out the handheld’s front end (this happened to me).
* The second radio should be a mobile, either 2-meter or 2-meter/440, which can also be used as a home base station. Mine is a Yaesu FT-7800, which was quite inexpensive. It’s a very basic radio, yet can be used for voice, packet, etc. This should be used with an outdoor antenna. I recommend a J-pole because they’re easy and inexpensive to construct. In fact, I hosted a J-pole party today–two came to make antennas and one came to watch–all went away with what they wanted
* Next should be some sort of power that is independent of the mains, such as a 12-v Deep Cycle battery from Wal-Mart, with a way of charging it.
* A ham can stop here and have lots of fun. But…
* Then upgrade to General
* When upgrading to HF, there are a number of inexpensive rigs, but we’re now talking $800 and up. For a first HF radio I recommend something simple, like the low-end Yaesu FT-450. HF radio seems simple at first, but it takes awhile to really know how to use the specialized features–not something easily learned from a manual. Kenwood has the TS-480, and Icom a similar rig. Some like to go for the 160m-440Mhz rigs–both HF and VHF. I personally don’t like these because these are compromise radios.
* DO NOT start out with an expensive HF rig. A new ham is several years away from understanding and being able to use the additional features. These complex radios are difficult to use and can be very frustrating if you don’t know what all the knobs are for. It’s easy to set them up wrong.
* DO NOT start out with a QRP HF rig–get a 100W rig. QRP is a finicky and specialized sub-hobby and to be successful requires lots of HF experience. (But when you have the experience, by all means try it!)
* With HF comes an antenna. The antenna is the key to success. The lower bands require some real estate—a 40-meter half-wave dipole is 66 feet long, and 80m twice that. It’s very important for new hams to note that we’re just coming off the bottom of the sunspot cycle, and 20, 15, and 10 are really not useful right now. That’s important because some of the pre-packaged antennas only work on 20 through 10. Over the next couple years 20 to 10 will become very interesting as the sunspots come back.
* With HF also comes a bigger power supply, usually 20A. It’s also possible to use that 12v deep cycle as long as it’s kept charged. Note the hazard from hydrogen gas and also the potential for acid haze corroding things nearby.
* AND GET ON THE AIR!
* Somewhere in there a ham might like to play with the digital modes. A simple handheld will suffice for packet or APRS if used with the right TNC (but TNCs aren’t all that cheap—even the small ones are over $100, although the TinyTrak is pretty inexpensive). My packet setup is a dedicated ICOM IC-2100 mobile rig and a 4-element 2-mtr beam, coupled to an old AEA DSP-232 and used with an el-cheapo Win-98 laptop I got off e-bay for under $100. Digital modes are finicky–there are many ducks that have to be perfectly lined up for everything to work.
* Then upgrade to Extra
* And become a VE

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>