Starting out in amateur radio, our first rig usually is the venerable handheld radio. Compact and all-in-one design, these HT’s or handi-talkies are an inexpensive choice. In fact, now with the Chinese handhelds flooding the market, a ham can get on the air for as little as $30.
But soon after buying one, you realize the limitations of handheld radios. Battery life being the first, but more importantly, range. We all want to get farther with our radios. Making contacts is an enjoyable part of amateur radio, but the 3-5 watts of the handheld radio can only go so far. Fortunately, hams are resourceful and we love to do more with less. So to make our signal reach further with a handheld radio, we need to add an external antenna.
Handheld radio antennas
A common complaint with handheld radios is the terrible quality of their stock antenna. Rubber duck antennas are poor radiators, and the ones included with your handheld is no exception. But why is this? To illustrate, we need to look at how rubber duck antennas are made.
Rubber duck antennas are basically a wound coil of wire encased in a rubberized sheath. These helically wound springs have the electrical length of a quarter wave antenna, but have a greatly shortened physical length. The main reason for this is convenience. Handheld radios are designed to be worn on the hip, and who wants a quarter wave antenna poking them in the armpit or tickling their neck. Plus the duck antennas are more flexible and durable than a fixed or telescoping antenna. So to make an HT more convenient, we’re hobbled by a poor antenna.
There are certainly better designs for duck antennas than what comes with your radio. Nagoya makes an excellent aftermarket antenna for the popular Baofeng handheld radios and both Comet and Diamond both offer their version of the duck antenna with the female SMA connector that Baofeng radios require. These aftermarket antennas will certainly improve performance, but your range will still have limits. To make the biggest jump in transmit/receive performance, you will need to take the antenna off the radio and mount it in a advantageous location.
Connecting an external antenna
In a previous blog post, I’ve given tips on increasing your range with an attached antenna to your handheld radio. But to really boost your performance you need to use an external antenna. External antennas come in all shapes and sizes, from the simple quarter wave vertical to multi element beams. A popular model for the new ham is the 2 meter J-Pole antenna. This antenna will not only give you increased range, but also offer a upgrade path as you replace your handheld radio with a more powerful base station.
So how do you connect a base station antenna to your handheld radio. You will need two items, an appropriate length of coaxial cable with PL-259 connectors on each end, and an SMA to SO-239 adapter. To make things a bit more complex, there are two different styles of SMA connectors, and you will need the right one for your brand of radio. If you have a Kenwood, Icom, Yaesu, or Alinco handheld; they will require an SMA Male to SO-239 adapter. If you own a Chinese handheld like the Baofeng, Wouxon, or variants; you will need an SMA Female to SO-239 adapter. How do you know which do you need? Unscrew the antenna and look at the threads on the handheld. If the threads are on the outside of the connector (Yaesu, Icom, Kenwood) you will need an SMA Male adapter. If the threads are on the inside of the connector (Baofeng, Wouxon), you will need an SMA Female adapter.
My recommendation is to use an adapter with a pigtail instead of one that screws directly into the radio. The pigtail made out of lighter weight cable offers stress relief. MPD Digital offers a line of Made in the USA adapters that feature pigtails from 8 to 36 inches long. So you’ll be able to find an adapter that will meet your needs. (full disclosure, MPD Digital sent me some design samples, but I’m only recommending their product because of their quality and customer service).
The antenna’s location can make a big difference in the coverage that you will receive. But where you are able to place the antenna is usually determined by outside factors like type of house, land, HOA rules, and spouse. If you live in an apartment, your only options may be to place the antenna on the deck, railing, or even in the window of your home. Or if your home is governed by home owners association rules, an external antenna may not be allowed, and sticking it in your attic may be the only option. But don’t let these limitations hold you back, there are plenty of options for installing an antenna that doesn’t require a 60 foot tower and acres of land. Check out my blog post on installing VHF/UHF antennas for ideas.
Don’t forget the coax
The choice of coaxial cable makes a big difference in the strength and quality of your signal. Coax is rated by it’s loss characteristics and power handling capability. For casual VHF/UHF use, power handling isn’t a big factor as even lightweight RG-58 will handle 200 watts. But cable loss is a big deal, and you should select a coaxial cable that fits your budget and offers a loss factor that your are comfortable with. I usually recommend investing in the best quality cable that you can afford as properly installed, it will give you years of use and it is often easier to upgrade the antenna and transmitter than it is restringing the coax. More on selecting coax cable for your antenna system can be found in this blog post and accompanying video.
Your cable will have PL-259 connectors on each end. The PL-259 connector mates to the SO-239 connector found on the antenna and the adapter I recommended earlier. The PL-259 / SO-239 combination, also known as UHF connectors, is the standard found in most amateur radio and land mobile gear. Some high end equipment will have the N style connectors, but this is more the exception than the rule. Common connectors for amateur radio can be found in this blog post.
What kind of performance gains can you expect using an external antenna with your handheld radio? It really depends on location and terrain. But putting an antenna on the roof of your house or in the attic should net you triple the range on simplex and give you access to most repeaters in a 40-50 mile radius. Want more coverage than that? You’ll need to upgrade to a more powerful base station radio. But installing that rig will be a piece of cake as you will only need to disconnect the adapter and screw the PL-259 from your coax directly into the back of the base station radio.
So, improve your signal and start the process of building your ham radio station by installing an external antenna for your handheld radio today.