Best Mobile Ham Radio Buying Guide

Taking up amateur radio or ‘ham radio’ is an excellent way to get in touch with people from all corners of the world. Plus it’ll teach you more about the wonderful world of radio technology as well.

Ham radio isn’t just a nostalgic activity for those who’ve lived in the pre-internet era. Even today there’s a large, thriving international community of ‘hams’ or amateur radio operators. In Japan alone, there are 1.2 million licensed users!

Ham radios aren’t just fun and educational, they’re very handy during emergencies as well, especially when you can’t get a cellphone signal.

If you’re looking to buy a mobile ham radio, there are many factors other than the budget to consider. For instance, power output is a big one as it determines what sort of range you’ll be able to achieve.

In addition, you have to think about frequency bands, whether the radio is programmable and if there’s a weather radio integrated. If all this sounds complicated, don’t worry! It’ll all become clear as you gain some context.

Buying Guide for Mobile Ham Radios

Mobile vs. Handheld

Something you must realize right off the bat is that the terms ‘mobile’ and ‘handheld’ refer to distinct types of ham radios. Handheld ham radios are portable devices that you either carry in your hand or clip onto a belt. On the other hand, mobile radios are designed for cars, trucks and other vehicles. 

When Are Mobile Ham Radios Useful?

Mobile ham radios are particularly useful for sending emergency transmissions on the road. For instance, while driving through very remote locations, you may find yourself without cell phone coverage. Now imagine that your car suddenly breaks down or you or someone else is in need of medical attention. With a mobile ham radio, you can reach out to an emergency radio service like ARES and get help.

What Do You Need To Look For In A Mobile Ham Radio?

Power Output

As mentioned before, the higher the power output of a radio, the greater its range. The reason is simple. When you send a message in the form of a radio wave, it has to overcome many obstacles before it can reach its destination. This includes things like strong winds and physical objects like buildings and trees. However, put enough power behind the wave, and it’ll be able to penetrate all of it!

Vehicle-mountable mobile radios typically have power outputs ranging from 5 to 100 watts.

Durability

A good mobile ham radio should be made of strong and long-lasting components. It should be sturdy enough to withstand the force of a collision so that you can use it to relay emergency transmissions afterward.

Features

Here are some of the most useful features that you’ll find on many mobile ham radios:

  • Weather alerts – it’s incredibly useful to know if the weather is going to take a turn for the worse while you’re out on the road. With alerts from NOAA, you’ll be able to avoid dangerous situations like blizzards.
  • The ability to scan – this will help you find channels more easily.
  • Squelch – squelch limits the amount of static noise so that you can send and receive messages with greater clarity.
  • Memory channels – this feature allows you to save certain frequencies so that you don’t have to keep dialing them each time.
  • Compatibility with privacy codes – privacy codes limit outside interference by keeping you on the right channel. This can be very useful for international communications.

Frequency Range

Different frequency bands support different types of communication. With ham radios, you’ll be able to use HF, UHF or VHF bands or a combination of these.

Ultra-High Frequency (UHF) signals are great at penetrating sturdy material such as wood, brick, and even concrete. So if you’re trying to get through to someone located in a highly urban area, you would preferably use this band. However, UHF signals don’t give you the longest range. 

A ham radio that operates on Very High Frequency (VHF) bands is great for longer range communication.  However, VHF signals aren’t particularly good at penetrating obstacles like buildings. You’d need a power output of at least 25 watts to talk to someone in the neighbouring city.

If you want the longest range, you need a ham radio that’s capable of using High Frequency (HF) bands. By dialling into a frequency in the HF range, you’ll be able to listen to transmissions from all over the world! That’s why international broadcasters and radio amateurs (‘hams’) use it.

If you want to use all three, there are plenty of All-band mobile ham radios in the market today!

Ease of Use

Ham radios aren’t that complicated to use but it does take some time to learn how to manipulate some of the more advanced features on them. Some units make this easy to do with things like dedicated squelch knobs, the ability to set scanning preferences on the screen itself, software compatibility and more.

Mobile Ham Radio Reviews

In this section we will review the best Mobile Ham Radios you can buy in 2019:

Kenwood TM-281A – Best Overall

Kenwood TM-281A 144MHz FM Transceiver

The very first thing you’ll notice is how sturdily built the TM-281A is. ‘Military-grade’ is a word we’d definitely use to describe this durable unit as it meets MIL-STD 810 standards C through G. That being said, it’s actually quite lightweight at just 2 pounds, meaning you’ll have no trouble carrying it around if needed.

With a maximum power output of 65 watts, the TM-281 A is capable of long-range transmissions. Hook it up to a vertical ground plane antenna and you’ll be able to transmit over a distance exceeding 100 miles! The unit also has a low setting for when you don’t require such a long-range. Plus it helps you save a lot of power.

The TM-281A’s audio quality is nothing short of pristine. This is largely due to the fact that the speaker is placed at the front. As a result, the sound won’t be stifled when you have it installed inside your car.

The backlit LCD screen has just the right amount of brightness and is quite easy to read. Furthermore, the illuminated buttons allow you to operate the unit at night without any hassle. The user interface is pretty simple too, although you may have to go through the manual once to understand the abbreviations used. This is because the TM-281 A’s display is only capable of displaying six alphanumeric digits.

Finding channels is easy, thanks to the scan function. Plus the built-in DCS & CTCSS encoder/decoder will stay perfectly tuned to a particular channel, limiting interference.

With the TM-281A you get 100 different memory slots for storing channels. If you spend a lot of time transmitting internationally, this may not be enough for you. You do get a lot more memory slots with most other brands in the same price range.

Furthermore, the unit does not have a dedicated squelch control like a lot of other mobile ham radios. Instead, you have to press two buttons to access the setting. 

Pros:

  • Military Grade build
  • 65-watt power output which allows long-range transmissions
  • Backlit LCD screen for night-time visibility
  • Pristine audio quality

Cons:

  • Need to refer to the manual to understand menu item abbreviations.

Yaesu FT-7900R – Best Dual Band Mobile Ham Radio Units

Yaesu Original FT-7900R Amateur Radio Dual-Band 144/440 MHz Transceiver 50/45 Watts

For the money, you can’t go wrong with the Yaesu FT-7900R. It can operate on both the 2 meter VHF band and 70cm UHF band. The power output varies depending on which of the two you’re dialed into. With VHF, you get a maximum output of 50 watts while with UHF, it becomes 40 watts. Regardless, you can expect long-range coverage in general.

The FT-7900 sports a sturdy and very compact build. Despite how small it is, the LCD screen takes up most of the front face, making it very easy to read the display. It’s also backlit, meaning that you can operate in dim-lighting without any problem.

The unit is completely programmable and is quite easy to do so. You can either use the buttons or compatible software to configure and save channel presets. With 1000 memory slots, you’ll have all the space you’ll ever need! You can store different presets separately based on power output and mode. In addition, you can give them a 6-digit alphanumeric name so that you can recall them easily later on.

The FT-7900 allows you to dial into ten NOAA channels for weather alerts. This is quite useful when you’re out on the road on a long drive or an off-roading adventure.

Of course, we can’t talk about the FT-7900 without mentioning the WIRES feature. ‘WIRES’ stands for Wide-Coverage Internet Repeater Enhancement System. It’s basically a feature that connects two mobile ham radios together over an extremely large distance by using Internet Voice Networking technology.

We’re talking about being able to communicate with someone who’s a continent away with perfect clarity!  However, there are a few hardware and software requirements that need to be met before you use this feature, including having an HRI-100 Interface with APCD-ROM Software.

The only downside we can think of is that the manual is a bit too complicated. However, there are plenty of blog posts and video guides on the internet to help you out.

Pros:

  • Sturdy build
  • 50 watts of power output to help you achieve long-range communication
  • Low power settings to help conserve power
  • Backlit screen for operation in dim-light conditions
  • Programmable keys for convenient function recall
  • NOAA weather alerts
  • Compatibility with WIRES
  • Compatibility with programming software

Cons:

  • The manual can be a bit confusing

ICOM 2300H – Most Beginner-Friendly

Like the aforementioned two ham radios, the ICOM 2300H is also ruggedly built. The backlit LCD is large enough for comfortable reading and its colour can be switched to green, yellow or amber. The backlit keys on the front panel make the entire unit completely operable in the dimmest lighting conditions.

Like the aforementioned two ham radios, the ICOM 2300H is also ruggedly built. The backlit LCD is large enough for comfortable reading and its colour can be switched to green, yellow or amber. The backlit keys on the front panel make the entire unit completely operable in the dimmest lighting conditions.

The ICOM 2300H actually comes with an HM-133V remote control mic. This means that you can control the unit using the mic instead of the buttons on the front panel if you prefer.

The ICOM 2300H is capable of outputting 65 watts of power, so long-range coverage is possible. However, if you don’t need to use that much power all the time, you can easily switch to one of the three lower settings (5, 10 or 25 watts).

We love how easy it is to program this mobile ham radio. First of all, it comes with a very comprehensive manual that details everything you need to do. You won’t have to spend time troubleshooting, as is the case with a lot of other brands.

All programming is done through the included software. After you’ve installed and registered the software and drivers, you just need to configure your scan and menu preferences. And that’s all there is to it!

Using the software, you can also program hotkeys to execute certain functions.

The ICOM 2300H comes with 207 memory slots for saving channels, which is more than enough for the average user. However, if you tend to participate in ham radio contests or transmit internationally quite extensively, then you might require a bigger bank. Furthermore, it’s only compatible with the 144 Mhz band, which may be severely limiting to some ham radio operators.

Pros:

  • Durable build (meets MIL-STD-810 G specifications)
  • 65-watt power output makes long-range transmissions possible
  • Backlit LCD screen for night-time operations
  • 207 memory channels for creating your own channel presets
  • Crisp audio quality
  • Extremely easy to program. Even beginners should have no trouble

Cons:

  • Restricted to the 144 Mhz band.

BTECH Mini UV-50X2  – Most Feature-Packed  Mobile Ham Radio

The BTECH Mini UV-50X2 is one of our favourite dual-band ham radios. To start with, there are a few features that set it apart from the typical unit in the same price range.

For instance, it’s got a multi-colour LCD screen that’s completely customizable (with 9 different color options) and sports a Dual Synchronize Display Mode. The latter allows you to synchronize up to two channels while having them display their frequency and name on the screen. If you wish, you can even monitor four different channels at once, by lining them up on the display.

The UV-50X2 is capable of outputting a maximum of 50 watts, meaning it’s built for long-range transmissions. However, if you don’t need that much power all the time, you can keep it at the 10 watt setting on default. The Auto-Off function is also pretty useful because you don’t have to worry about it draining your vehicle’s battery.

The UV-50X2 comes with a few different scanning modes as well. Depending on the mode, you can configure the unit to start scanning as soon it turns on during a reboot, or even resume the scan after an interruption. The LCD screen allows you to easily edit and save your scanning preferences, setting things like the range and interval.

One feature that we absolutely love is the ability to edit channels on the fly. This means that you don’t have to delete a channel and start from scratch if you want to change a parameter. With the UV-50X2 you can simply go to the channel and edit squelch details, change tones and either add or delete it from a scanning list. The best part is that you can do all of this using the screen itself!

Last but not least, the UV-50X2 comes with Quad Watch Delay Time and Random Privacy Mode. The former allows you to set a custom delay period which lets you stay on a channel for longer following the inbound transmission. So if you’re simultaneously talking on two different channels, this avoids manual switching.

Pros:

  • Dual Synchronize Display Mode for viewing two frequencies at once
  • 50-watt power output
  • Backlit LCD screen with 9 background color options
  • Auto-Off function to help conserve battery
  • Multiple scan modes
  • Ability to edit channels on the fly
  • Quad Watch Delay Time
  • Random Privacy Mode
  • Compatibility with CHIRP for easier programming

Cons:

  • There can be some very minor firmware bugs.

AnyTone AT-778UV  – Most Compact Mobile Ham Radio

The first thing you’ll notice about this unit is how compact it is. With physical dimensions measuring 8 x 6.9 x 3.5 inches, it’s perfect for mounting inside smaller vehicles.

The AT-778UV is a dual-band ham radio, so you’re able to operate it on both VHF and UHF bands.

The maximum power output is 25W which is significantly lower than what the units on this list output. Hence, don’t expect to be able to transmit messages over very long distances (around 35 miles at the most). If you don’t require 25 watts of power all the time, you can dial it back to 15 or 5 watts and conserve energy.

The coloured TFT LCD screen lets you see all the details with great clarity. Plus it’s big enough for comfortable reading from a distance and you can rotate it 180 degrees. On the front panel, there are six buttons similar to hotkeys. You can program them to execute functions that you use most often.

In addition, you get a few buttons on the microphone itself, including an A/B toggle. These are backlit so you can use it in the dark without a problem. However, as a result of the buttons, the mic does feel a little heavy and large.

The audio quality in the AT-778UV is admirable, especially considering its price. The microphone has very low distortion levels which means that transmissions on your end come out crystal clear too.

The biggest downside with the AT-778UV is that it’s hard to program. The manual seems unnecessarily complicated and can be hard to follow if you’re new to the world of radio. In addition, the instructions are a bit hard to find even on the official website. A little bit of hunting is required.

Pros:

  • Compact design
  • Rotatable TFT screen
  • Programmable keys for easier function recall
  • Crystal clear audio

Cons:

  • Low power output compared to others on the list
  • Hard to program
  • Manual is quite hard to follow

FAQ Section

What Is The Best Ham Radio For A Beginner?

We personally recommend the ICOM 2300H considering how easy it is to use and program.

What Is The Range Of A Ham Radio Handheld?

It depends on a number of factors. As mentioned above, more output equals a greater range. In addition, the type of frequency band matters as well.

With your typical VHF and UHF handheld ham radio, you can expect to get around 9 to 15 miles. However, with a repeater, you can extend the range to up to 50 miles! However, please note that you need a ham radio license in order to use a repeater. 

Handheld ham radios that use HF frequency bands have an even greater range. We’re talking about hundreds and even thousands of miles!

What Is Dual Band Ham Radio?

A dual-band ham radio can operate on both UHF and VHF frequencies.

Do You Need A License For A Ham Radio?

Yes. There are three types of licenses you can apply for, which are issued by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC):

  • The Technician License – In order to obtain a technician license, you have to pass an official 35-question test offered by the American Radio Relay League (ARRL). Once you pass, you’ll be allowed you to operate on bands above 30 megahertz. This includes VHF and UHF but not HF.  You can find a license exam in your area.
  • The General License – In order to qualify for a general license, you first have to complete the Technician license test. Afterward, you have to pass yet another 35-question test. This license gives you the privilege of using VHF, UHF and most of the HF frequencies. 
  • The Amateur Extra License – This license gives you permission to operate on all radio bands and digital modes. The test consists of 50 questions and you need to have a general license before you’re allowed to take it.

If you’re thinking of acquiring a license, here are some ham radio exam tips and practice questions to help you study. 

In Conclusion

Mobile Ham radios are great additions to your vehicle and can truly come in handy during emergencies. When trying to determine which radio is the best for you, there are many factors to consider. This includes build quality, what features and range you require, ease of use and more.

If you’re looking for the best overall mobile ham radio, we highly recommend the Kenwood TM-281A. It’s built like a tank, is generally easy to use and won’t burn a hole in your wallet.

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