Get a better signal out of your handheld radio

We’ve all done it. Standing on our tippy toes. The dance, slowly swiveling around, alternating holding our arms up in the air and hands close to our ears. I’m talking about the weird contortions we do until we get the best signal out of our handheld radio.

“3 tips to get better reception and a stronger handheld radio signal”

HTs bring the promise of portable communications, but their low power makes their range limited. Repeater systems extend their range, but even the best repeaters won’t help you if you are located in a bad spot. How can we make the most out of our handhelds? Here are 3 tips to get better reception and a stronger handheld radio signal.

1. Get the radio off your belt

The key to getting a better signal out of your HT is in how you hold it. Handheld radios are built for portability, so everything about them is a compromise. They’ve got low transmit power, the antennas are small, and the microphone may not have the best quality. So how hold and use the radio can make all the difference in how well it transmits.

The first step in getting a better signal is to get the radio off your belt. Yeah, I know- the speaker mic was designed for the convenience of not having to hold the radio when you transmit. But your body does a lot to absorb the signal. A transceiver located next you, especially with an antenna pressed against your body is operating at a big disadvantage. If you are outdoors and in good range of the repeater, you may have no problem being heard. But move indoors and the waist mounted radio is all but useless.

2. Hold it right

Getting a good signal out of your radio is all about holding it right. The best method is to hold the unit upright with the antenna away from your face. Speak clearly and distinctly with the microphone about 3-6 inches away from your mouth. The closer the mic is to your mouth, the better the sound pickup, especially in loud environments.

I’ve seen people hold their radio horizontally with the microphone all but covered up by their hand. Not only does the covered mic muffle the sound, but with the antenna in a horizontal position, your radiated signal becomes horizontally polarized. A good repeater may be able to pick up this signal, but move to a compromised location and all the repeater will receive is a muffled, scratchy signal.

As I mentioned in the intro, swivel your body to find the best quality signal. Your position makes a difference, if you are receiving a scratchy signal, try moving or turning while listening and watching the S-meter on your display. You’ll soon find that sweet spot.

If moving doesn’t work, use your speaker mic while holding the radio high in the air. Getting that antenna up above your head can make a big difference. I’ve been in wooded areas were holding the radio high was the only way to get a solid signal out.

3. Aftermarket accessories

Kenwood TM-281A base radio and Kenwood TK-5210 commercial handheld radio that I use to communicate in the bike ride event.

The stubby antenna on my HT is convenient, but when I need performance, I switch to a high gain antenna.

My HT came with a little 3 inch antenna. I love it because it doesn’t poke me when I wear the radio on my hip. But these small antennas are nothing but dummy loads. They often will have either 0 or a negative gain. The designers know that you’ll be using the handheld with a repeater, so they figure convenience trumps utility. To increase your range, consider an aftermarket antenna. I’ll switch to a higher gain antenna if I know I’ll be in a situation that requires more signal. Many brands and styles are available. Most of them also claim outrageous gain figures. I’d take those numbers with a grain of salt. But none the less, most any aftermarket antenna will outperform the one that came with your radio.

For even more range, an externally mounted antenna may be required. My go kit consists of a 2 meter J-Pole antenna, mast and cable. I can use this setup with a base radio and battery, or for even more portability, I carry an adapter to connect my HT to my external antenna.

kb9vbr bike with antennaIt’s amazing what kind of range you can get with an external antenna. I do a lot of distance bicycling, so I’ve custom built a half wave antenna for the back of my bike. With this antenna I’ve hit repeaters 50+ miles away while mobile on the bike. I’ve also used the setup to track my position via APRS with a 25-50 percent reception rate. Thats a pretty good rate for a low powered transmitter in a congested APRS network.

Your battery makes a big difference in getting that signal out. A fresh battery is a good battery. As batteries discharge, their voltage drops. Modern HTs can work with a wide range a voltages, but many units will lower the transmit power as the voltage drops. Fresh, high capacity batteries will keep you transmitting a full for a longer period. Keep a spare battery in your pocket. If another station or net control can’t copy you, try changing the battery.

Conclusion

Getting the most out of your handheld radio can be best summed up with the words: Location, location, location. If you are in a bad spot, move to higher ground or away from obstructions. If you are inside, get near the window. Move the radio away from your face and hold the antenna upright. Finally, get an external antenna to improve your signal.

These tips work well for me, but are there any tips or tricks that you use to improve your radio’s reliability? Please share them in the comments below.