It’s perhaps the most frequently asked question by novice amateur radio operators. I passed my exam, obtained my license, and now I need advice on what equipment I need to acquire. In this article, I’ll create a kind of shopping list for you to get started.
Ambitions and license conditions
Firstly, it’s useful to know what your ambitions are in amateur radio and what limitations your current license imposes. If you want to focus your activities on HF (1.8-30 MHz), your shopping list will look quite different than if you choose VHF and UHF (30-3000 MHz). But even if you plan to transmit on HF, VHF, and UHF, you may need multiple antennas, for example.
The purchase budget
The budget plays a significant part. While one ham may have to work with used equipment, another ham might fill his shack to the ceiling with transceivers. However, I would advise against the latter as a newbie. The advantage of used equipment is that it is considerably cheaper. When you upgrade to a different license with more capabilities, it may be easy to switch to equipment with more options.
The shopping list
- Power supply
- Coaxial cable
- SWR meter (when not integrated into transceiver)
- Antenna tuner
- Antenna analyzer
- Desktop microphone
- CW keyer
Allocating the purchase budget
The challenge for the novice ham is allocating the purchase budget across the different devices. It won’t be the first time that the entire budget is spent on a transceiver, leaving no budget for a decent antenna installation. While it may not be unusual, some “romanticized” stories circulate about QSOs with just a few meters of wire directly connected to the transceiver, or even a knitting needle used as an antenna, contributing to this phenomenon.
The 50/50 guideline
Experienced amateurs often talk about the 50/50 guideline. You allocate half of your budget to the transceiver + power supply and the other half to the antenna installation. It’s not a golden rule, but it serves as a good guideline. By roughly dividing your budget 50/50, you strike a good balance between the transceiver + power supply and the antenna installation.
Let’s go back to the shopping list for a moment. We have the must-haves and the nice-to-haves.
You have a choice of transceivers for HF+6m, VHF, and higher (both multimode and FM only), as well as models that combine HF, 6m, VHF, and higher. There are basic models and those designed for mobile use. The choice depends on your license conditions and ambitions. For example, if you are currently limited to VHF but aspire to take an exam for a higher license in the future to transmit on HF as well, you might consider acquiring a transceiver that covers HF+6m, VHF, and higher. Some amateurs start small on VHF with an affordable handheld to gain experience.
Do not skimp on a power supply. Modern 100-watt transceivers often require a 13.8-volt power supply that can deliver at least 23 to 25 amperes of continuous current. OLder transceivers mostly need 20 to 21 ampers. Some switching power supplies may cause interference, but most are good. Your local ham radio shop can provide good advice.
Although budget is an important factor, available space, height, the opinion of your partner and neighbors, and local regulations are equally crucial. You may have a substantial budget, but if your partner is not comfortable with placing a mast on the house, the aforementioned 50/50 guideline may not be applicable. Additionally, if you plan to transmit on HF and VHF, you often need different antennas.
For VHF and higher, a vertical antenna is sufficient if you want to transmit locally or via repeaters. For real DX (long-distance), you need a horizontal directional antenna with a rotor.
On HF, in general, the lower the frequency, the larger the antenna. If space is limited, a vertical multiband antenna is an excellent choice. A wire antenna like an EndFed is also a good option to start with, especially if you want a small footprint. It is a known antenna that can cause interference with transmitting and receiving. If you have the space, you may consider an antenna like a G5RV. Personally, I find the broadband T2FD a very nicel antenna for beginners who have the space.
Always check whether your antenna requires a 1:1 balun or 1:1 unun and whether it is included or needs to be purchased separately. Typical antennes that require a balun or unun are dipoles, verticals and endfed wires.
Do not underestimate the influence of coaxial cable. The longer the coaxial cable and the higher the frequency, the greater the losses during transmission and reception. Thin cables like RG-58 are suitable for short lengths on HF. Personally, I recommend a maximum of 10 meters (33 ft). Beyond that, I advise using coaxiale cables such as RG-213, RG-8, or more flexible options like the LMR series popular in the US, or the popular 7 mm variants in Europe, such as Aircell 7, H2007, and Hyperflex 7.
On HF, plugs such as PL-259 are often used. For local contacts and repeater work on VHF, a PL-259 plug is sufficient. Some choose N plugs due to lower loss and better realibility.
Because losses increase with frequency, it’s advisable to choose better cables than RG-58 for VHF and higher, especially if you need to cover more than 10 meters (33 ft) in length.
If you plan to bury your coaxial cable, check with your supplier to ensure that cable is suitable for this purpose.
Older transceivers often lack a built-in SWR meter. You do need one to measure whether the impedance of your antenna installation matches that of the transceiver (50 ohms). An SWR lower than 2:1 is usually acceptable, above ,may cause the transmitter to overheat. There are many different SWR meters available, and most models can also measure your transceiver power output.
Nice to haves
For some antennas, the impedance does not always match the 50 ohms of your transceiver. You need to match it to protect the transmitter in your transceiver from overheating. Certain transceivers have an internal tuner to match the impedance. However, the range of such a tuner is limited. An internal tuner can improve an SWR of 3:1 or lower. Beyond that, you need an external tuner with a broader range. Not all tuners are suitable for all antennas. There are tuners designed for symmetric and asymmetric antennas. So, don’t just buy a tuner without seeking advice.
A tool that greatly helps you fine-tune your antenna for optimal performance. Think of it as a kind of multimeter, but for measuring antennas. Operating it requires more than just basic knowledge.
Transceivers usually come with a hand microphone. Especially during longer QSOs, you’ll find it handy to have both hands free. Some opt for a headset with a foot pedal to operate the transmitter. Microphones come in different price ranges, but don’t be overly influenced by prices. Also cheap microphones can produce surprisingly good audio. Keep in mind that each transceiver brand uses different connectors. A Kenwood microphone will not fit directly onto an ICOM transceiver.
If you’re a Morse code enthusiast, a CW keyer is what you need. There are two main types: the straight key and the paddle. The best key is highly personal, and prices vary widely. From simple Made in China models to gold-plated keys with inlaid diamonds. Some amateurs even build their own keys. My advice: visit a local amateur to see what type suits you!
Digital modes are extremely popular. With a mode like FT8, many amateurs can make long-distance connections with limited resources. With just 25 watts and a simple vertical or wire antenna, DX (long-distance) is possible. To transmit in digital modes, your transceiver needs to be connected to a PC or laptop, at least for audio. It’s also convenient if your PC or laptop can control your transceiver. Older models often lack this capability, requiring a CAT interface. These interfaces are available separately, often with a built-in sound card, and can be connected to your computer via a USB cable.
New or used?
Don’t be immediately tempted to buy a brand new transceiver, even if your budget allows it. Modern transceivers have many features that you may not use initially. If you do want to use them, there’s a steep learning curve for a newbie amateur.
Generally, older models retain their value for a long time. This gives you the opportunity to sell such a transceiver after a while and upgrade to a more modern and/or feature-rich model. If you’re buying a used transceiver, test it on-site for reception, transmit power, modulation purity, etc. A look under the covers will quickly reveal if the set has been tampered with. Consider bringing an experienced amateur with you to conduct the tests together.
For antennas, the situation is a bit different. They often endure harsh conditions outdoors. Accumulated moisture and corrosion can significantly hinder the optimal operation of an antenna. Buying a used antenna comes with risks. There’s little risk with a simple wire antenna, but for an antenna with, for example, extension coils, it becomes more critical. Always test an antenna and check if mounting points and electrical transitions are in good condition. If you know the selling party personally, that adds some confidence.
Go for it
Ham radio is the best hobby in the world. Even when you start small, you will have a lot of fun.