4B. Getting On the Air with HF
OK, you’ve followed the process on our 3. Upgrading Your License page and just upgraded to General or Amateur Extra. It’s time to get into the worldwide adventure of HF.
Despite the name HF for “high frequency”, which implies “short waves”, HF radio waves are actually among the longest waves that hams use. And they are very long! Some of the waves covered by the HF name are as long as 160 meters – that’s over 500 feet long for each wave. Because of the special interaction between long waves and our Earth and its ionosphere, HF transmissions can travel directly from one station to another for hundreds or thousands of miles, over state lines, oceans and continents. That’s what makes HF Radio truly magic.
Setting up your HF station is more involved than a VHF/UHF one. There are several different parts that need to be obtained, assembled and connected together properly to make a good working station. There’s also some new jargon and procedures to learn.
The primary items are a transceiver (combination transmitter/receiver), an antenna, a transmission line, connectors, antenna support (such as a mast or tower, or just a couple of trees to attach the right length of wire between) and several other parts and bits. A power supply is needed, if it’s not built into the transceiver; and a power amplifier is an option if you want to push a stronger signal. For more information, look over our page on Basic Equipment to Get On The Air with HF Radio.
Feeling adventurous? Like the hands-on fun of building things? Then build your own dipole antenna. It’s not that difficult. Even if you buy a pre-made dipole antenna, you’ll need to adjust its length and tune it so that it works its best. Review our Dipole Length Calculations and Dipole Tuning pages for some guidance.
Using an HF rig is more complicated than a VHF/UHF radio. As with our previous page, 4A. Getting On the Air, read your equipment’s operating manuals and try to find an elmer to help you with questions about the gear you can’t find answers to. Then, read over our Operating Procedures page for tips on what to do (and not do) when you’re on the air; general tips for taking care of your radio, and being safe while you use it.
Some of the jargon we hams use on the air makes use of the Phonetic Alphabet, as hams spell out their call signs or other terms that may be hard to understand on the radio. So study that page and learn it well. Also, it can be helpful to get familiar with the Q Signals and Prosigns that are used a lot as abbreviations on the HF bands. And you’ll need to know about the Readability, Signal Strength and Tone (RST) signal reporting system.
Most of the communications on the HF bands span multiple time zones, so they’re usually handled and logged according UTC time. UTC is the proper term, but you may also hear it referred to as “GMT” or “Zulu”. Although there are some picky technical differences among these terms, they’re of little consequence to us. You need to be familiar with UTC time and how to convert between it and your local time, so study our UTC Time page.
Another concept that can be useful to learn is Grid Squares; what they are and how to determine them. The ARRL describes them as “a shorthand means of describing your general location anywhere on the Earth”. A grid square is an imaginary rectangle on the earth’s surface, indicated by two letters (the field) and two numbers (the square). If desired, each sub-square is designated by the addition of two letters after the grid square. For example, the grid square for the summit of Mt. Diablo’s South Peak (its main peak) is “CM97bv”. See these ARRL pages, Grid Squares and Grid Locator for details and links to grid square locators.
Of course, there will be a lot of other terms you’ll hear that will be new to you. Check our Glossary to find out what they mean.
Every ham is responsible for being fully aware of, and abiding by, all federal and local regulations that apply to us. So go to our multi-page Regulations section, download and study a copy of the FCC’s Part 97 rules. Then review the other pages in the section, such as the Amateur Radio Bands.
You want to absolutely be safe while operating as a ham. So read over the information in our Safety section, and follow its guidelines.
Where to Go, Frequency-Wise
When you’re ready to push that PTT switch, you’ll need to decide what frequency to use. There are no fixed “channels” on HF, like there are on the VHF/UHF bands. When transmitting it’s required that you stay within the specific frequency limits of your license privileges. Of course you can listen to any frequency. And listening to others is one of the most powerful ways of learning about HF radio.
Real World Compromises – theoretical ideals vs real life
There are theoretical ideals regarding issues such as: full size antennas vs. shortened inductance “loaded” ones, height of antennas off the ground, perfect length tuning vs. good-enough for effective use, limited bands vs. multi-band, transmitting power, the benefits of directional antennas vs. omni-directional, portable and simplicity of operation vs. “all the bells and whistles”, and . . . expensive vs. affordable. No one reaches the ideal in the real world. In fact, for many of these issues there is not even agreement on what the ideal is. Don’t let inability to achieve the ideal stop you from setting up a station and beginning to engage in this thrilling aspect of ham radio.
How Do I Get to Carnegie Hall?
Most of you have probably heard the tired old joke of a lost first-time visitor to New York City asking a local “How do I get to Carnegie Hall?” The local’s response is “Practice, practice . . .”
The same applies to being a ham. Ultimately, the only real way to learn to use your radio is to just do it. Get on the air. Of course, you don’t need to jump into the deep end by yourself. There’s a couple of good, structured ways to have support while getting experience. Of course, we also have elmers more than willing to help you out whenever you need it.
Unlike when operating on FM repeaters, most amateurs carefully log their HF contacts. These records can be used when applying for operating awards, when submitting a record of your contacts in a contest or operating activity, and when responding to QSL card requests from other amateurs. Please remember that, while you may have little or no interest in applying for operating awards, many other amateurs are and you should be willing to provide a confirmation of a contact when requested.
Your log can be as simple as a paper book in which you record each of your contacts. More active amateurs generally use a computer program in which they can record their contacts as they happen. Computer logs are especially easy to upload to sites such as the ARRL’s Logbook of the World where they can be used in award applications.
Every weekend of the year brings a new contest. Although some of these contests require technical skills and/or equipment not generally possessed by an amateur new to HF, many require nothing special.
State QSO parties are held on the majority of weekends throughout the year. Many of these rather low-key contests require only that participants exchange a standard signal report (see the RST signal report page) and the name of their state or county. Since these contests bring out many local amateurs in the state sponsoring the QSO party, amateurs trying to work all states can use a particular QSO party to maximize their chances of being able to work a station in that state. DX contests can be more challenging, because the bands can become filled with signals. Still getting even a modest number of DX stations in your log in your first DX contest can feel very rewarding. By the way, “DX” stands for “distance” and is usually used to refer to contacts outside the U.S.