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Hand-Held Ham Radios

Glenn MacGrady

Staff member
Oct 24, 2012
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For those who don't have a satellite communication device, I was wondering if hand-held ham radios might work in certain circumstances as an emergency communication device.

I got my novice ham license when I was 12 and my general license when I was 13, but I let my license expire when I was in college and never returned to the hobby. At that time, you had to pass difficult radio technology and Morse code exams. I think the licensing process is pretty simple now. There also seem to be inexpensive hand-held ham radios and portable antennas on the market now, which theoretically should have a much greater range than CB channels.

Radio signals can be blocked by terrain, but there is probably a chance that they could get out a long distance across an open lake. The device might save your bacon if you have no cell signal or satellite device, and you could also spend your evening chatting with other hams instead of skinning a moose or chopping redwood trees.

Does anyone know if this idea actually makes technical sense?
Glenn, I think the usefulness would be limited, depending on your location.

On a lake or in very flat terrain, you might be able to hit a 2 meter band repeater. Down in a stream valley or a deep canyon your signal would go nowhere.

I was backpacking last week and took a handheld ham transceiver. At higher elevations (~3600 ft) I picked up a NOAA weather station loud and clear. There didn't appear to be any traffic on the nearest repeater, 10 miles away and 1000 ft higher although I didn't send out a CQ.

Down in the stream valley (~2900 ft) there was no radio signal at all, not even broadcast FM. The Zoleo worked fine; I was able to send "I'm OK" messages and contacted Zoleo's non-emergency medical advice service.

That said, your idea is worth trying. It's always good to have backup communications. The little Chinese transceivers are inexpensive and only weigh about 8 oz. (They are not waterproof.) Technician-level licensing exam is not difficult and is also inexpensive.

I worked with the NPS in a river valley. I carried a combo marine / 2m HT. Even with some strategically placed repeaters communication was marginal at best. After 9/11 we were issued much more sophisticated government HTs ($3000 each) They worked OK.