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.
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 [pq]3 tips to get better reception and a stronger handheld radio signal[/pq].
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
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.
It’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.
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.
Or you could just use a mobile 440 uplink in your vehicle if you have a dual band mobile. That’s what I do with my two handheld units and my kenwood tm-d700 dualband mobile. With 5/8th wave whips mounted on the roof of my vehicle I have no difficulty hitting it for miles or with it getting out of all but the worst areas, especially with my 2m amp.
Cross-band repeating, like you mentioned, is another option to increase your range. I didn’t mention it in this article, but I did write about cross-band repeating in a previous blog post. Thanks for bringing it up.
Mike – What do you think about the external mics w/built in antenna, such as Motorola & other P.S.
ht’s use. I’ve never seen them available for Ham Radio gear.
Putting the antenna is a great concept, especially if the radio service you are using is UHF or 800 MHz. You’ve got the added benefit of keeping the radio on your belt, while holding the antenna away from your body. But this really a feature you only see in higher end commercial grade radios. If that’s a feature you are looking for, you can certainly purchase a commercial radio and reprogram it for the amateur radio bands.
For all you 2m/70cms HT uses out there, try using this method to improve your transmission and receive by simply soldering a electrical power supply connector ( They come in two sizes, Blue and Yellow ) its better to remove the plastic ring, just make things tidy to a short piece a coated wire, ( 19 inches long for 2/70 coverage & 19 1/4 inches for the 2 meter band ) and i think you,ll be surprized, good luck and 73s from the UK …. MANCHESTER
The 19 inch ‘Tiger Tail’ is a great way to increase the performance of your handheld’s antenna. Although some of the newer radios make it difficult to make a good contact at the base of the antenna due to the design of the antenna connector.