Handheld Radio (HT) Tips

Here are a few things you should consider getting along with your new handheld HT radio, or shortly after the purchase!

1. A Speaker-Mike!

This is one of the handiest accessories. If you are cost concious, eBay for your model handheld and look at the Chinese offerings for your particular radio. You will find many for under $15 landed in Nome. But read on for more information.

These microphones make using the radio a pleasure. You have not only a mike, but also a speaker, all built into one unit. Many styles are available, big, small, tiny, rainproof ... you name it!

Without the microphone, you are condemned to carry the radio in your hand. Imagine walking along a city street, or a back country trail carrying the radio. You have one hand tied up with the radio. Have you tried eating a cheeseburger with one hand? Or walking up a steep hill with one hand having to hang on to that radio? Or driving a car while holding the radio? Or driving "look ma, no hands!" while monkeying with the radio?

All of these scenarios, and more, will happen to you if you have no external speaker mic for your set.

There are two better ways to use your radio as a walkabout unit:

  • Carry the radio on a belt clip, and bring the mic to your lapel.
  • Carry the radio under or inside your coat or bib overalls, and mic to your lapel.

I prefer the second option for several reasons: It is easy to lose a radio when hanging from your belt; the radio is warm and dry under your coat, and if you bump something, brush the willows, or fall down, the radio is protected. Remember: if you fall and bruise your arm or forehead, it heals. If you break the radio, you gotta get a new one.

Having the radio under your coat, or inside the coat, keeps branches and other things from snagging your radio. The microphone cord also is under the coat; you just bring the mike itself out of the coat by your neck to clip on your lapel. To use, you do not have to unclip it ... it should be close enough to your mouth so all you need is key it up and speak.

Sometimes, in motorsports such as ATV'ing, you will find this use of a mike very useful. The speaker part of the mike is close to your head, and plainly audible with most ATV engine and wind noise. Most mikes also have a 1/8" headphone plug on them, and it is possible to wear headphones or earbuds under your helmet or hat, to give you the clearest reception.

2. Extra battery power!

You have a trio of options here, depending on your situation.

  • Extra rechargeable batteries. These can get expensive.
  • An Alkaline AA cell holder for your radio.
  • A battery eliminator.

What can I say about extra rechargeable batteries? Well, if you have a thirsty radio, like a conventional ham unit, Yaesu in particular, the battery life is short.

There are two types of battery life. First, you buy the battery. How many months will it last before it will not accept a good charge anymore? And secondly, how many hours later can you still transmit for, say, 3 minutes?

With a Yaesu radio, or one of the older Alinco's, most batteries will not receive for more than 4 to 8 hours (depending on capacity), and still be able to transmit at all. Trust me, a battery that powered your radio for 8 hours, when new, will not give you even 6 hours a few months later, specially in cool or cold weather.

The newer Puxing radios will go at least 24 hours before needing a recharge. The batteries are vastly cheaper too, so kinda nice ... you may not need to carry a spare, and even if you do, it will not cost you an arm and a leg.

Many, if not all, radios have Akaline Battery Packs available. Alas, they are hard to find for the Puxings (but don't give up, they show up once in a while!).

With these, you insert AA cells and you are good to go. The advantage is that compared to Nicad or NiCD batteries, they are lighter and have more capacity than NiCD. Also, the discharge characteristics of Alkaline is much friendlier than NiCD. With a Nicad battery, it runs fine until the last minute, and then it dies. A hard, sudden death. Alkalines you can often let them rest -or go to low power- and get a transmission or more out of them.

Alkalines are 1.5 volts per cell. But you can also get rechargeable AA cells. There are different brands and type, but the typical AA rechargeable is 1.2 volts. That means that a radio that works on high power with the built in battery or Alkaline pack may only work in a lower power with rechargeable AA cells.

Rechargeable AA come in NiCD, NiMH and LiON. The Nicad NiCD and the Nickel Metal Hydride cells can use the same charger. Best charging is done with the proper charger; ie, if you replace the NiCD with NiMH, you should make sure the charger is optimum for it. But in a pinch, you can use either charger on either chemistry cell.

The Lithium Ion battery is much, much lighter than the Nickel based ones. Often the cells are higher voltage, so you ought to check voltages. For sure, the charger would be special.

Any Lithium Ion battery charger can be left connected to the cells indefinetely. No more "cooking" of cells or "memory effect" in the battery.

Lithium batteries -- non ION -- are 1.2 volts per cell, and you can get them in AA size, but they are not rechargeable. These typically have a life expectancy of 6 to 8 times the duration of an Alkaline cell.

Here is an Alkaline vs. Lithium story.


Kenny Shapiro, KL1YJ and I, did the 2006 Iron Dog using Yaesu VX-150 radios with AA battery packs. I chose the "Copper Top" AA Alkaline. He chose the Lithium cells.

We left Wasilla with fresh cells. I had to change mine in Rainy Pass Lodge, at Puntilla Lake, roughly one day into the race. He was going strong yet. His radio showed better than 8.0 volts, whereas mine was down to 6.5 volts.

In McGrath I had to change the AA's again. He was still good.

Arriving in Galena, I had to change again. He was still good.

Arriving in Nome his batteries were still good, and then a few days later he forgot and left his radio on and they finally died. That was 4X minimum the battery life of the well rated Copper Top AA's. They are also reputed to work well in cold weather.

You pays your money and makes your choice.


Lastly, there is this thing called a Battery Eliminator. This is a device that plugs in place of the battery itself, has a cord that goes to a cigarette lighter in your car, boat or ATV. Or you can somehow hook it up to 12 volts like a motorcycle battery, etc. Most Chinese radios will have these available, the Puxing 777+ and 888K are no exception. Yaesu's as a rule do not have them, but they have a "charging cord" that is similar and will do the same thing.

A plus on the charging cord is that if you unplug your radio, the battery now has some charge, or is fully charged, and you can continue to use it. With the battery eliminator, you have to undo it, and replace it with a battery that may not be fully charged.

The best of both worlds would be if you could get charging cords and battery eliminators for whatever kind of radio you have. Alas, this is not always possible.

3. A Carrying Case!

For the heavier radios you gottsa have one of these, but the new Chinese radios do not need them in most instances.

A heavier radio follows the rule: "The heavier they are the harder they fall." And if you drop one of these radios with no leather case around it, something might break. A knob, a button, the LCD, or the battery will detach from the radio with broken hardware. In my Kenwood TH-79, the case of the whole radio split in half.

Somewhere in the weight range of a Yaesu VX-150/VX-170 or Alinco DJ-196, the case became redundant. Unless your radio is subject to continuous extremely rough treatment, the leather case is optional.

The Chinese radios are so light they really do not need a case.

Regardless, a leather or cloth case can be handy, desirable or allow for mounting options that are not available to the bare, naked radio. To give an example, the new Chinese Puxing radios are light, but the belt clip is on the battery, and .... I really do not trust the hardware that holds the battery to the radio. You would feel stupid, just before you have to spend $80 again, if you reach for the radio and find just the battery hanging on your belt, and the radio is somewhere on the trail or in town. Of course, the external speaker-mic can sometimes retain the radio for you!

The leather or cloth case is not always essential, but keep it in mind depending on your particular circumstance.

4. An External Antenna!

The ability to connect to an external antenna is often the difference between having communications or not.

First, the antenna has to connect to the radio somehow. In the old days, HT radios had only one type of connector: the BNC female. The antenna cable would have a BNC male plug. But that is not the whole story.

While you can buy a mag-mount antenna with your specific plug to mate your radio, you will find that base station antennas typically have the UHF plug to connect to a mobile radio. The only remaining standard is that you will have an antenna cable ending with a PL-259 coax plug.

The radio then needs an adapter to allow connecting this PL-259 to the radio. In the old days, a UHF/SO-239 to BNC male adapter was all that was needed. By the way, the SO-239 is the designator for the female mate to the PL-259. These are called UHF Connectors. See the picture at left, with the cable sporting the PL-259 connectors.

The newer radios have an SMA connector. In the case of Yaesu, the radio has an SMA female and the antenna needs an SMA male. The Kenwood and Chinese radios follow an industry standard that has the radio having the SMA male and the antenna having an SMA female.

Regardless, you can have a solid, one piece adapter to take the antenna PL-259 plug and connect it to the proper gender BNC or SMA on your radio. I very strongly advise you not to do that!

An antenna cable is going to be RG-8, RG-8X or RG-58, all of which are pretty stiff and it means your radio will be lifted and moved around by the antenna cable. This means that eventually the radio's antenna connector is going to be damaged, or the case cracked, or the connector stripped or loose. A loose connector will not connect properly inside the radio, and you are out of business.

Rather, I recommend an adapter pigtail. This is a short piece of very thin and flexible coax, with the right connectors on each end, as shown at left. For instance, you can have a 12-inch coax with an SO-239 on the antenna end, and an SMA Female on the radio end. This thin cable will absorb all the strain. You can get them longer than 12", but don't get one that is too long because this cable soaks up your radio signal rapidly. It will not be noticeable on less than 5 feet or so, but any longer and you can give up a lot of signal and power. I understand that 50 feet of this skinny cable, connected to nothing at the far end, is a fine dummy load with perfect SWR! So, limit your cable to 5 feet max. This skinny cable is known as RG-174, but there may be other types out there. It is 1/8 of an inch diameter.

The antenna you choose could be a mag-mount or a base station antenna. If you have a camp, consider a base station antenna. Route your RG-8 size cable to where your radio is going to be in the cabin, then the adapter cable, and then to your Handheld. Be aware that various critters like foxes, voles, lemmings and mice like to chew on cables. Don't lay the cable out on the ground.

With mag mounts you have two choices of antenna: Those that are one piece; whip, magnet and all are made in one piece; and the other is that you buy the whip and the magnet separately.

The one piece magnet antennas are about 18 inches long, and are inexpensive. The MFJ-1724B at left is a good example.

They do need to be put on a largish piece of metal. A car roof, or at minimum a steel drum, a cabin's corrugated or metal roof, or -in an emergency- a cookie sheet. With anything smaller than a steel circle of less than 40 inches across, your performance will not be optimum.

If you simply set this antenna on a wooden sill, or some non metalic surface, it will not work and could damage your radio.

As a rule, one-piece magnetic antennas have smallish magnets, and can blow off a car roof at speed. An antenna trailing your car at 50 mph can cause all sorts of mischief.

However, you can buy the magnet separate. For instance, Diamond makes the 6" diameter K702M (left) that I swear can lift an empty drum. It has a UHF connector for antennas that have UHF plugs. There may be an NMO version, but I am not sure.

Some Diamond/Maldol/Comet antennas with UHF plug base are whips that do not need a ground. Most will require a ground, so shop carefully. The 37" long Diamond NR-770HA (or black HB) comes to mind as an excellent antenna because you do not have to concern yourself with what the magnet clamps on to. This antenna is shown in the picture at left, and screws directly on the Diamond K702M magnet, or similar. Make sure your whip ends up vertical. In actuality, you could set this magnet on top of something wooden because it is big and heavy enough not to get blown around by normal winds.

By the way, if you see my blue Jeep in town, the one with tinted windows and the AL7X license plates; take a look at the left rear corner just above the tail lamp. That is a Diamond NR-770HB, in black, with UHF base.

If you are in a car, or camp, you will find that an external antenna, even one at moderate height (like a tent roof) will give you solid, full quieted, contacts where the rubber duck antenna that came with the radio will not even allow you to hear anything, much less talk to it. The difference is dramatic! I repeat, dramatic!

5. A longer rubber duck!

These are rubber, flexible "rubber duck" type of HT antenna. Unlike the 6" inch or so antenna that came with your HT, these can be from 12 to 18 inches long.

Two types are available: A heavier type, perhaps as thick as a pencil, and another type that looks at first blush to be ideal, about 1/8" thick, or thinner even, and very flexible.

Get the thick type. The skinny type, for some reason, when it gets cold will mold itself to any shape you want. It will not stay straight!

Performance gain can be noticeable, sometimes, but for the most part it is not very significant. In my opinion the gain does not offset the awkwardness of this longer antenna. While antenna gain is dependent on length; the whip is only half of the antenna. The other half is "ground", or in the HT case, the metal box or chassis of the HT itself. Since these longer whips still operate against a sub-optimum ground, the extra length does not always get you double the results!

I have seen people clip a 19" piece of wire to the exposed metal of the antenna connector, to give a full "ground plane" for the antenna. This wire is maximally inconvenient, but if you use it, along with the longer whip, the improvement will be noticeable. Nothing like an external antenna, however.

Unless you have dollars or curiosity to spare, I do not advocate the longer whip. You may decide otherwise and find the results worthwhile.


All of these accesories are worth the investment. Together they will allow you to have good, comfortable communications far beyond what you can do with a "bare" HT radio. In a car, the magmount on the roof and the external mike will make the whole thing much more practical than a plain HT on the seat next to you. In a cabin, walking around in town or the back country, or at the center of an emergency communications center, the little HT will do very well indeed. Anything more, the full sized mobile radio will work better, but sometimes is not really the right size, or needs too much DC power to be practical.

Make good use of that HT!

Copyright © 2013, Ramon Gandia