The following article was originally published in the June 2022 issue of The Spectrum Monitor Magazine:
by Thomas (K4SWL)
At least ninety percent of all of my radio operations happen in the field. Whether I’m in a park, on a summit activation, or I’m out camping, I’ve always thoroughly enjoyed “playing radio” outdoors. In fact, it was the joy of field radio––and the accompanying challenge of low-power operations––which launched my labor of love in the world of ham radio.
I’ve been running QRPer.com now for fourteen years, and during that time, the questions I’m asked most deal with selecting a field radio. Turns out, it’s an incredibly difficult question to answer, and we’ll touch on why that is before we dive into the reasons one radio might hold appeal over another for you.
Instead of offering up a list of field radios on the market, and reviewing each one—and, to be fair, there are so many these days—I’ll share with you a series of questions you might ask yourself before making a radio purchase, and follow up with a few bits of advice based on my own experience.These deceptively simple questions will help hone your decision-making. Finally, I’ll note a few of my favorite general coverage field radios and share what I love about each.
Spoiler alert: It’s all about the operator, less about the specs
When searching for a new radio, we hams tend to take deep dives into feature and specification comparisons between various models of radios. We’ll reference Rob Sherwood’s superb receiver test data table, we’ll pour over user reviews, and we’ll download full radio manuals before we choose.
While this is valuable information—especially since radios can be quite a costly “investment”—I would argue that this process shouldn’t be your first step.
I’ve found that enjoyment of any particular radio—whether field radio or not—has everything to do with the operator and less to do with the radio’s actual performance.
A realistic assessment of yourself
Question 1: Where do I plan to operate?
If you plan to operate mostly at the QTH or indoors with only the occasional foray outdoors, you may want a field-capable radio that best suits you indoors—one with robust audio, a larger encoder, a larger display, and more front panel real estate.
On the other hand, if you plan to take your radio on backpacking adventures, then portability, battery efficiency and durability are king
Of course, most of us may be somewhere in between, having park activations or camping trips in mind, but overall size may be less important as we may be driving or taking only a short walk to the activation site. When your shack is a picnic table not too far from a parking lot or even an RV, you have a lot more options than when you have to hike up a mountain with your radio gear in tow.
Question 2: What modes will I operate the most?
Are you a single mode operator? If your intention is to only use digital modes, then you’ll want a radio designed with easy digital mode operation in mind.
If you plan to focus on single sideband, power output may be more important and features like voice-memory keying.
If you plan to primarily operate CW, then the radio world is your oyster because it even opens the door to numerous inexpensive CW-only field radios.
If you plan to primarily operate CW, I would strongly suggest going low power or QRP. I’ve often heard that 5 watts CW is roughly equivalent to 80 watts single sideband. I tend to agree with this. CW field operators hardly need more than 5 watts, in my experience.
And if, like most of us, you plan to operate a variety of modes, then you’ll want a radio that is multi-mode.
Question 3: Will I plan to operate in contests?
If you plan to operate in a contest environment with RF-dense signals, then you’ll need to take a closer look at Rob Sherwood’s receiver test data table, because you’ll want a radio with a decent front-end that can effectively block adjacent signals. Just keep in mind that with few exceptions (we’ll mention a few below), contest-grade receivers are typically packaged in contest radios; meaning, larger, less portable radios.
If you’re only planning to do summit, park, and/or island activations, then this is less of an issue unless, of course, your activation happens to coincide with Field Day or a CQ Worldwide contest.
Question 4: Am I more of a chaser or activator?
Are you the sort of operator who sits on a frequency and calls CQ in the field at a park or summit? Or are you primarily a “chaser” or “hunter” who scans the bands and answers others’ calls? If you’re the latter, band-scanning takes priority.
Many super-compact field radios have very basic tuning functionality as they assume you may be calling more than chasing. If you’re hunting other stations, though, a good encoder and smooth tuning all of a sudden take priority.
I’ll give you a specific example. As an activator, I love the Mountain Topper series radios (the MTR-3B and MTR-4B). These radios lack an encoder and instead rely upon basic up/down button presses to band scan. There’s also a direct frequency entry function that you work by sending the frequency via Morse Code with your key.
When I hop on the air in the field, I usually find a clear frequency and start calling “CQ SOTA” or “CQ POTA,” as the case may be. Other than changing bands and seeking the odd site-to-site contact, I don’t tune around much; I don’t have the need. But when I’m at home and hunting other stations on this radio, I realize the tuning is a bit cumbersome. The MTR series radios were never optimized for band scanning; they assume you’ll find a clear frequency and operate from it for extended periods, which suits this field rig.
Question 5: Packing 100 watts or going QRP?
If you plan to do more chasing, DXing, and/or contesting with your field radio, you might opt for a model that can push up to 100 watts of output power. There are a number of field portable 100-watt radios on the market like the very popular and affordable Yaesu FT-891 that are relatively compact and very portable. Keep in mind that 100-watt radios will require a larger capacity battery than a similar QRP radio, even if you’re running low power.
On the other hand, if your primary activity will be activating parks, summits, islands, lighthouses, and the like, you can likely get away with only running a QRP radio. QRP opens the door to much smaller, more efficient, and more portable radios.
As an activator, you are the DX: chasers and hunters are listening for you. Out of the hundreds of times I’ve engaged in park and summit activations, I’ve only run more than 5 or 10 watts a handful of times, and many of those times it was during a group field event like Field Day. I’ve never found a need to operate more than QRP power whether operating CW, SSB, or digital modes when doing site activations. Why? I like the challenge!
I would suggest that if you plan to operate primarily SSB, you might consider a low-power radio that can output as much as 10 watts; I find that power level to be a sweet spot for SSB. Indeed, many QRP contests consider 10 watts SSB to be QRP.
Question 6: Will I travel with this radio?
One of the brilliant things about field radios is how portable they are. If you plan to travel with your radio, what will be your mode of transportation? Will it be by car, by truck, by air, by boat/canoe, by train, by motorcycle, by bicycle, or by foot? Or will it be a combination of these?
If you plan to primarily travel with your radio by car, for example, you might not be too concerned about size and portability, so long as it fits comfortably in your vehicle. On the other hand, if you plan to take your radio in a carry-on bag while flying, you’ll want a model that’s compact, lightweight, and that can accept a wide variety of power sources.
Answer honestly…visualize future activities you will actually explore
Again, the important part with questions like these is to determine what features are important to you before you start your market research and comparisons. The radios with the most features and highest specifications aren’t necessarily the best radios for your own particular operating style.
This is a very quick way to whittle down the choices prior to any deep investigation.
And if you’re brand new to ham radio or field radio, begin the decision process with this very basic exercise…
Log some field time!
Why? Imagine buying a car or SUV for off-roading without having ever gone off-roading before. Without a little of that real-life field time, you may not know what type of suspension, traction system, tires, or clearance you prefer. You’d have no way of knowing from experience what you would appreciate––or what you might miss––in your future purchase.
The same principles apply in the world of radios. My first HF transceiver was an Icom IC-735. Looking back, I’m not sure anyone would consider it a “field” radio, but it held its own during a number of Field Days, camping trips, and QRP contests…and it taught me a thing or two.
I loved a number of things about that radio in the field: great audio, large encoder, good CW and SSB characteristics, up to 100W output power (far more than I needed!), superb ergonomics save the little slider switches, and overall a great receiver.
There were some things I didn’t like, too: it was fairly heavy and bulky enough to be outside the realm of backpacking. It was also power hungry and thus needed a larger capacity battery.
When the Yaesu FT-817 was introduced to the market, I was one of the first people to snap one up. My experience with the IC-735 rapidly taught me that I didn’t need 100 watts of power and that I would give up those comfortable ergonomics for a radio that was much more compact, lightweight, and a bit of a battery-miser. I was incredibly pleased with the FT-817 and could appreciate how innovative it was at the time because I had that previous experience with the IC-735.
If you own or have access to a transceiver now and it can be battery powered (the majority can) try taking it to the field and note what you do––and don’t––like about it in that real-world experience.
If possible, try before you buy
This may sound like a lofty goal. Most of us don’t live within a reasonable drive of a ham radio retailer and it’s not like field transceivers are as ubiquitous as, say, comparably-priced iPhones and iPads.
But this is where your local radio club can be a wonderful resource. Most radio clubs have email groups you can join, even if you’re not a member. You can post a message asking if anyone in the local club has the model of radio you’re seeking––? You might be pleasantly surprised by the responses. On numerous occasions I’ve met up with other hams in the field and let them check out various radios I own which they’re considering. It’s fun to do this, and you might even learn a few tips and tricks about the radio prior to purchase…not to mention, make a friend or two. It’ll certainly give you some observation and/or hands-on time to decide if you like the menu structure and even ergonomics. Besides…it can’t hurt to ask. Most hams love to connect with others and share their experiences with various radios.
When deciding on a field radio, focus on usability, not on specifications
As mentioned above, we radio folks really love digging into specifications, feature lists, and comparing performance on Rob Sherwood’s brilliant Receiver Test Data table. It makes sense: we usually want the best performance for the price and to see how models compare. Specs give us a basis for comparison.
But Rob Sherwood will be the first to tell you that pretty much any of the transceivers in the top twenty of his list are all superb radios with contest-grade front ends and filtering. I would further argue that any of the radios in the top 50 of his list are well within spec for a field radio.
My point is, in the field, specifications carry less weight; field-specific features and “fun factor” have more to do with your appreciation of any given radio.
Case in point: One of my favorite field radios is the Elecraft KX1 CW transceiver. Rob has never tested it, but I’m certain it would not merit a high score on his famous list. It’s not designed with contesting and DXing in mind; has no roofing filter options; and the variable filter is far from “surgically” precise, to say the least. Rather, it was designed to be an ultra-portable, ultra-capable field radio, and…wow…does it ever accomplish this! I find that the KX1 is a pure joy to use in the field.
That said, I do have some field radios with higher specs like the Elecraft KX3, KX2, and Icom IC-705, and I do love them as well. But for the field–especially if this is your first field radio–I’d worry less about those specifications and focus on usability and the features you sincerely appreciate.
When looking through radio reviews in your research, however, be a little cautious of radios that are known to overload and/or have poor audio with high noise floors. When we’re operating in the great outdoors, we often escape urban RFI and radio interference, so radios with a lower noise floor will allow you to pick out weak signals more easily. I find that harsh audio makes long radio sessions fatiguing to the ear.
Again, it’s all about you and your operating style
If I haven’t made this point multiple times already, I sincerely believe the search for a field radio has more to do with the operator. Be honest with yourself, and if you can, try before you buy.
The reason why I dislike advising people about which field radio they should choose? The answer is quite simple: my favorite radio might not turn out to be their favorite. And that’s okay. When it comes to hams, we’re a varied group, and we all appreciate different things.
Example General Coverage radios
With this said, I’ll close this article by sharing a number of popular general coverage, multi-mode transceivers designed specifically around portability, mobility, and/or field use. I’ve limited this list to radios that are currently in production, and the bulk are indeed QRP radios. For each radio, I’ll share what I love about it and why I appreciate taking it to the field. And while these rigs aren’t perfect, none have negatives strong enough to keep me from enjoying them in the field. And so…in no particular order…here’s my field radio round-up:
Yaesu FT-817/FT-818 series
This is a workhorse of a little QRP transceiver and can be purchased new for under $650 US. Performance is superb and enhanced by optional narrow filtering (though narrow CW filters are becoming more rare). I love the QSK, even though relay clicking might put off some ops (I personally enjoy the mechanical feedback).
The 817/818 is one of the few field radios on the market that sports both an SO-239 and BNC antenna port which the user can select. These rigs also not only have full HF coverage but multi-mode VHF and UHF, as well. This series has been on the market for more than two decades at this point (let that sink in for a bit!) so it has solid support and following.
The design of the 817/818 radio became such a cash cow for Yaesu, in fact, that it’s still on the market 20 years after introduction! It wouldn’t likely have enjoyed this market longevity if the design wasn’t simply amazing.
The KX3 front-end filtering is some of the best in the business and absolutely benchmark when the optional roofing filter is added. It has a wonderful optional internal ATU that will match almost anything. It also sports multiple CW and voice message memories.
The ergonomics are superb. The KX3 has been around for almost a decade, yet they hold their value on the used market because they’re such stellar performers and are so reliable. When fully loaded, they are also some of the priciest field radios on the market.
Mission RGO One
I’m a huge “RGO One” fan. Being a tabletop radio that’s much larger than my portable HF transceivers, I wouldn’t choose it for a summit activation requiring a lot of hiking, but it’s lightweight for a tabletop radio, nonetheless.
It’s a wonderful CW and SSB machine, and sports a receiver that’s so quiet I’ve often wondered if I forgot to hook up the antenna to it.
Audio is fantastic and filtering just superb. The RGO One is a radio I love using when I want to push more than QRP power since it can output as much as 50-55 watts. It has proper contest chops so can handle pretty much any RF environment.
It’s hard to believe a radio as capable as the G90 can be purchased for $450 US. While not a benchmark performer, it is a fun radio to use in the field for both the CW and SSB operator. I like the mini color spectrum display and the detachable front faceplate.
The G90 can also output as much as 20 watts, which is quite handy when you need more than QRP power. The built-in ATU is superb and can quickly match almost anything you hook up to it.
The G90 also feels quite rugged and it appears to hold up well, even over the long haul. I have a couple of friends that have been using the G90 as their dedicated field radio for several years now.
The FT-891 has CW and voice-message keying, which is so important in a field radio. The ’891 also has wonderful filtering, a low noise floor, and robust audio. It is, without a doubt, one of the most popular radios used by park activators.
The audio and receiver are adequate for the field, and certainly worth the $530 US price tag. So far, I’ve been super pleased with the X5105’s battery life, once it is fully charged. It’s also a very complete package–everything is included in the box. Simply charge the internal battery, hook it up to a wire antenna, and you’re on the air.
I actually keep my X5105 in one of my vehicles all the time for impromptu field radio fun.
The IC-705 is truly one of the most advanced portable transceivers on the market. Like the FT-817/818, it has HF, VHF, and UHF coverage and is multimode across the spectrum. The IC-705 also has built-in D-Star, wireless connectivity (WiFi and Bluetooth), built-in GPS, and a detachable battery pack.
It’s a choice radio for digital mode operators. The ’705 has one of the best interfaces for CW, and includes voice-message memory keying.
One really unique thing about the IC-705, and why I choose it for travel, is that the battery pack can be recharged via a common MicroUSB charger often used with legacy Android phones. No need to bring an extra power supply with you on a flight!
Lab599 Discovery TX-500
The TX-500 is a wonderful field radio. When weather conditions are iffy, this is the radio I grab. It’s weather resistant and can easily handle unexpected rain. It’s also very lightweight, super durable, and even sports CW and voice-message memory keying.
The ergonomics are perfect for a field radio, too. The form factor is unique in that the chassis is one piece of CNC machined aluminum, super slim, yet insanely rugged.
The TX-500 is also the most efficient general coverage transceiver I own, needing only about 100-110 mA in receive. A most impressive field radio!
The X6100 packs a lot of features for the price. Like its older sibling–the X5100–it is a true shack-in-a-box radio; simply hook up an antenna and you’re on the air.
In my recent review, I refer to it as a “mixed bag,” and while that’s true––it’s quite prone to overload in the presence of broadcasters and other nearby signals, and I would never choose it for Field Day or a contest––it does sport a number of features digital mode operators love.
It even includes some level of wireless connectivity that may be improved with future firmware updates. Digital mode operating is pretty simple with the X6100.
While I feel like its receiver is the least effective performer in this sampling, it still manages to be a fun radio to take to the field, and I’ve enjoyed a number of successful activations with mine.
If you’re looking for a Swiss Army knife of a portable HF transceiver, that would be the KX2. Without a doubt, it’s one of my all-time favorite field radios because it can handle anything I throw at it.
The KX2, like the X5105 & X6100, is a true shack-in-a-box if you add the optional internal ATU and optional internal battery. It has a built-in mic that works very well––no need to take a mic on your SOTA activation if you want to save space.
Performance is brilliant as well; the KX2 can handle RF dense environments, like contests, remarkably well. As a CW operator, I love the fact that I can attach my KXPD2 paddles to the front of the radio, a brilliant addition if I’m operating from my small field kneeboard. If I’m uncertain what I might encounter at a park or summit, I’ll often reach for the KX2, because it can truly handle it all.
Many more options…
Again, this short list of radios above doesn’t even include the ultra-portable CW-only radios that I love so much, nor does it include a number of great field radios that are no longer available, at least not new.
My intent was just to share with you what I love about each of these solid rigs. I’m fortunate to own so many at present, but frankly? Any of these rigs would suit me quite well if I could only have one dedicated field radio. Indeed, the majority of these would serve me well if I could only own one radio, period, that would do double duty as both shack and field radio.
And in conclusion…?
If you remember only one thing from this article, let it be this: choosing a field radio is all about you as the operator and thus your own personal preferences.
Again, do be honest with yourself and choose the radio that you feel you’d enjoy the most; worry less about specifications, but rather focus on the features and usability for the modes and activities you plan to do.
And most importantly? Know that you don’t need the “perfect” radio to hit the field. Just get out there and have fun. Field radio is addictive in a wonderful and rewarding way! Don’t delay that radio gratification, go ahead and begin…I strongly suspect you’ll start a habit you’ll enjoy for many years to come.