2020 has seen an explosion of new ham radio operators. This is one of the interesting side stories of the COVID-19 pandemic. Human beings are social creatures and ham radio is a great way to meet new people. Call it the electromagnetic version of being a pen pal.
Ham radio is like ethnic cuisine – there is something for everyone. Italian food is my favorite but yours may be Chinese, Indian, or Mexican. Ham radio has its own cuisine – HF, VHF, satellite, digital, DMR/System Fusion/D-Star et al. Portable operation is one type of ham radio cuisine. Many portable operators participate in Parks-on-the-Air, an international parks-based ham radio program that promotes emergency awareness and communications from national/federal and state/provincial level parks.
Portable operations is a lot of fun. Imagine talking to another ham radio operator thousands of miles away. I live in Florida and never cease to be amazed at having a QSO with another ham in Europe or South America.
Many new hams are intimidated by the cost of getting involved in the hobby. To be sure you can spend a lot of money on ham radio equipment. I mean a lot of money! If you have deep pockets then go for it. But what if you are on a budget? Can you get started in portable ops for less than $1000? Less than $750? Less than $500? The answer is yes! So, without further adieu, let’s jump right in.
Refuse to be Shamed
Unfortunately, ham radio is not unlike other parts of life. There are some hams who act poorly to new hams or hams on a budget. I have heard hams smugly state that the hobby is only for those who can afford good equipment. They think that by making the hobby difficult to get into it will preserve it for serious-minded hams. That is wrong and outdated thinking. The hobby is open to anyone who wants to get into it. Pass your license exam and you are a ham.
There are also hams who try to shame other hams who purchase certain foreign-made equipment.
They want to inject politics into the hobby. If you have a scruple against buying items made by certain countries you are free to act according to that scruple. However, it is not acceptable to shame someone else who is of another opinion. My advice to the new portable operator is to refuse to be shamed. There is hardly a home on this planet that does not contain something that has been made by one of this countries. You are best served by listening to your own conscience.
Determine your Budget
In order not to over spend, determine a hard number for your budget. Can you afford to spend $1000? $750? $500? Knowing your budget will help you determine whether you should look at all new equipment, pre-owned equipment, or a combination of both.
For $1000 you can purchase a brand new Yaesu FT-891 for $640, an MFJ-939Y automatic antenna tuner for $150, a mag mount for $47, and a set of five hamsticks (10,15, 20, 40, 75 meters) for $109. At $946 you are under your $1000 budget.
For $750 you have a few options. You can search the QRZ swap meet web page for used 100 watt rigs like the FT-891, FT-897D, or the ICOM 706MKIIG. You can then add your tuner, mag mount, and individual hamsticks to fit your budget. Buying used equipment requires patience because you never know when the rig you want will be available.
Another $750 and below budget idea is to purchase a new rig like the Xiegu G90. A new G90 will set you back as little as $425. The G90 is a 20 watt rig, so it has a bit more power than QRP. The G90 also has a built in antenna tuner, so you can save some money right there. This leaves you $325 to buy your mag mount, hamsticks, and other accessories.
What if your budget is only $500? All is not lost. The aforementioned Xiegu G90 is an excellent entry-level rig. Many new hams start with the G90 and decide to graduate to a 100 watt rig. I have seen G90’s for sale on QRZ for as low as $325. Even at $375 it leaves you enough room to buy a mag mount and a few hamsticks. Again, you have to peruse swap meet boards for available G90’s but they come up for sale quite often. The good news is that they are easy to sell if you decide to do your own upgrade.
I am just sharing a few ideas on how to get started in portable work on a budget. By no means am I the final word on this. Check with your local club to see if member hams have used equipment for sale or do your own research. You may be able to save money that way. The point is that you don’t have to spend a lot of money to get started in portable work.