2m Hamming Off-Road

You recently got your ham ticket and are eager to experience ham radio while four wheeling.

Installing a mobile 2 meter/440 radio

You’re ready to make the leap to a mobile radio. Great! Even though this is your first rig, installing isn’t as difficult as it might seem. Of course, if you’re not comfortable buying the parts or doing the work, find a handy helper. Ask your Elmer or contact a local ham radio club.

This is not a step-by-step review. I just want to provide you on overview of the process and encourage you to do it yourself. Radio use and access is very personal. I want you to be happy and comfortable with your radio installation.

Take your time on planning and installing the mobile radio. Use the steps below to break your project up into discrete manageable parts.

  • Install the radio
  • Provide it with “clean” power
  • Add an external speaker
  • Install the antenna

HT

In the meantime, get on the air with a quick and inexpensive option using a handheld radio (referred as “HT” – short hand for handy talky) and removable antenna. Long term you want the big power from your mobile radio!

HTs are available from a variety of suppliers. Do some research to find the right one for you. Most today are dual-band, covering both the 2m and 440 MHz (70 cm) bands.

The products you need include:

– Handheld radio and at least one extra battery pack.

– Mag mount or window clip-on antenna. Either can be used with a mobile radio, too.

This arrangement is essentially plug and play. The biggest challenge involves locating the antenna. Many 4WD vehicles don’t have trunks or hard roofs, so you’ll have to experiment a bit.

Try the hood or a fender. Do you get static or engine noise? Try the side opposite the AM/FM radio antenna to create space between the antennas.  Some guys attach to the swing arm for the spare tire (extra grounding may be needed).

Mobile Rig placement:

You want the rig accessible but not interfering with your field of vision or any controls on the vehicle. The radio and mic should be within easy reach.

Does your radio have a detachable front panel? Many 4WD vehicles have “secret compartments” that are great for hiding the body of a radio. But you’ll also need a spot for the front panel. Place it where there is minimal eye movement.

Some generalities apply to any type of mobile radio:

– Keep it away from direct sunlight and source of moisture (like under a seat).

– Make sure there is sufficient air flow around the unit. Even at low power the radio generates a fair amount of heat.

– The 9-pin DIN socket, on the back of the radio, should be accessible for ease of programming. Keep away from the dash panel, shifter or other part.

– Mount into metal using bolts. That’ll be more solid than trying to screw into plastic. Keep as many wires as possible out of sight and neatly stowed.

– Ground directly to the battery. Grounding to the body with the multitude of computers and circuits in modern vehicle, can result in interference with the radio or the vehicle operation.

Do you need ideas on where to locate your radio? Google – Ham radio install <insert your vehicle> and click on images.

Use clean power:

By this I mean tap the battery directly, for both positive and ground leads. The 12v power outlet works fine for an HT, but won’t handle the power needed for a mobile rig. Make sure both leads are fused, too. 12 ga. wire or larger is preferred.

Anderson Power Poles

Consider using Anderson Powerpoles and RIGrunner connector blocks. Powerpoles have standardized red and black leads designed to make connections easy—and error free.

RIGrunners are like power strips used in the home. They’re designed for Powerpoles and allow you to connect multiple devices to a single power source (the battery, in this case). Mount the RIGrunner to the inside of the firewall or hide in the glove compartment. Attach Powerpoles to the radio’s power leads, and use a grommet any time you run wire through the firewall.

RIGrunner

 

RIGrunners come in various sizes. Right now you’re focused on installing your 2m/440 ham rig. But even the smallest RIGrunner can support several devices. You have the flexibility to add an HF rig, CB radio or other devices later.

External speaker:

An external speaker is all but a necessity for four wheeling. The radio’s built-in speaker doesn’t put out much volume, and can be really difficult to hear while bounding around off road. A separate speaker is inexpensive and can be mounted where it’ll do the most good.

Antenna installation:

Having used a mag mount antenna already, you should have a good idea where to mount a permanent antenna. Of course, you can continue using the mag mount; there’s no requirement that you change.

If you’re uncomfortable drilling a hole, find a buddy. Done right, there is minimal damage to the body and you won’t have to worry about rust creep.

Next is the issue of cable. Antennas come with coax, and it’s generally RG-58 (1/4” thick). You could augment that with a thin style, like RG-174 or RG-188. Run a short section (keep it short to minimize signal loss) under a door frame, lift gate, or tailgate. Buy a barrel connector, too, so you can attach to the antenna cable. This option can also be used with a mag mount or window mount antenna.

With all the bouncing around we do while off road, barrel connectors can loosen over time. The result is static on the radio. As part of the 360 inspections, check the barrel connector on the coax, too.

One thing I should point out. Regardless of the type of antenna you use, it probably will have to be tuned. This requires an SWR meter designed for VHF and above. Make sure you test under normal operating conditions.

Installing a 2m/440 mobile radio may at first seem intimidating. But if you break it down into the various steps, you see that it’s a fairly straightforward process. If you still need help, there are numerous ham radio operators in your area willing and able to help. Ham radio operation adds an interesting and safety-oriented dimension to four wheeling.

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