In our immediately previous article, we recommended the Baofeng UV-5R and/or the Baofeng F8HP as the best general purpose two-way radio.
When you buy a either radio, you usually get the radio in a kit that comes complete with standard Li-Ion battery pack, charger, carrying clip, wrist strap, rubber-ducky antenna, and earpiece/microphone. That’s a great set of goodies, all for about $35 or $65, but you should consider getting some accessories and additional items to add substantially to the radio’s performance and versatility.
You want to have a better antenna, you must have a way to program the radio, and perhaps you’ll benefit from a spare battery or two as well. Indeed, with the radios so inexpensive, you should also get one (or more!) spare radios, too!
We suggest the following as being the most useful add-on items to get for your Baofeng radio. Most of the following are less than $20, and some are less than $10, making them very easy buying decisions to make :
1. Improved Portable Antenna
The standard ‘rubber ducky’ antenna that the radio comes with has the benefit of being short (4¾”) and reasonably sturdy. But it is not an efficient radiator/receiver of radio signals.
You’ll get a massively improved range if you replace this with a longer/better antenna. As we discussed in our article on How to Maximize the Range of your FRS/GMRS Radio, replacing the antenna can more than double the range of your unit and more than quadruple the effective power being radiated (or received). We suggest you also read our two-part article on adding and optimizing an external antenna to your radio, too.
Noting the test results that were reported in by substituting a Nagoya 701 antenna for the standard antenna, this seems like a ‘must do’ item for everyone and all situations. The Nagoya 701 antenna is about the same weight, and 3″ longer (7¾”) but still more than sufficiently portable for almost all situations.
There are many other antenna choices as well as the Nagoya 701; we feel the 701 represents an excellent compromise between size/convenience, performance, and cost, but you’ll be delighted with pretty much any other dual band portable antenna you choose.
There is also a still longer Nagoya 771. This measures about 15¼” in length, but its greater length interferes with the portability of the radio and makes everything more awkward and clumsy, without adding any perceptible extra range.
One word of warning. We have heard reports of fake/counterfeit Nagoya antennas out there – one way to tell if you have a real one or not is to read the label on the bottom of the antenna. A genuine antenna will refer to the frequency ranges of the antenna in MHz, a fake may instead say NHz (instead of MHz). If your antenna has this error, then it is probably not a genuine Nagoya.
Note, when choosing a portable antenna you need to find one with a Female SMA type connector on its end, so as to mate with the male SMA connector on the radio itself. Otherwise, be sure to get the appropriate connector adapter as well.
Nagoya 701 antenna – $10 or less on Amazon. Truly the best value you’ll ever get for less than $10 on improving your radio’s performance and range.
One more thought : Antennas are semi-consumable items. That is, they are sometimes knocked about, and possibly damaged. They are also essential – no antenna means no working radio. At less than $10 each, we’d probably get one or two spares – maybe one spare for each four radios, ‘just in case’.
2. Programming Cable and Software
The Baofeng radios have 128 programmable channels that you can define, and in each case you can set a lot of different parameters for the channel, ranging from bandwidth to power to offset frequencies if used with a repeater and CTCSS/DCS type tones on both the send and receive side of the channel.
You can do this by hand, but it is cumbersome and slow to work through many different layers of menus to set all the attributes for each channel.
If you get a programming cable and software, you can do this all from your computer, with a nice large interface screen to work on, reducing the time it would take you from hours of frustration (and possibly making errors that are hard to identify and correct) to minutes of simplicity. Even better, you can download preconfigured files of repeater frequencies from several different websites that will automatically program up your UV-5R or F8HP for you.
Another huge time-saving is if you have multiple radios – you can create a series of configuration files and then quickly upload them to all the radios. This also ensures all radios are exactly configured the same, with much less potential for errors.
The cable runs from your computer’s USB port to the external speaker/mike port on the phone. As for the supplied software, ignore it. There is much better free software, that runs on PCs, Macs, and Unix type computers (see our upcoming article on how to get the best use from your Baofeng radio for details on this). But you do need the programming cable, even if you don’t need the included software.
A programming cable and software costs under $10 on Amazon. We consider it another ‘must have’ item. And, yes, you guessed right. At less than $10 each, this is another thing that it would pay to have at least one spare of – the cable isn’t just a cable, it also has some electronics built into it, so there is the possibility of failure. A second cable is cheap insurance.
3. Spare Batteries
In truth, the units get excellent battery life from its provided battery. For the UV-5R, it is rated for 1800 mAh and is a 7.4V Li-ion type battery. The F8HP comes with a slightly more powerful 21oo mAh battery. Both are said to give ‘up to 12 hours’ of life, presumably with a duty cycle of something like 90% listening to nothing, 5% listening to a received signal, and 5% transmitting. Some reports have suggested that people have got more than 12 hours life out of it.
You can get additional batteries as spares, of course, and at as little as $5-10 each, you’d be well advised to get a few. You can never have too many batteries, right? There is also an extended capacity battery available – some models claim 3600 mAh and others 3800 mAh – probably they are the same battery, just with different capacity claims. These are appreciably more pricey – $22 – $25 each.
So in theory, you can get more battery for your money by buying standard sized batteries, and perhaps it is better, if you think you’ll need more reserve power, to simply stick a spare standard battery in your pocket than to use one bigger, heavier, and more expensive battery.
Both types of battery are of course available at good prices on Amazon.
4. Car Power Adapters
There are two types of car power adapter for these radios. The first is a replacement battery back – you take off the regular battery and slide in this back instead, which runs via a coiled cord to a cigarette lighter power supply.
The other option is intriguing, and you should get one of these too, whether your radios will be used in vehicles or not. It is a cord that plugs in to the cigarette lighter (or other 12V source of course) at one end and plugs into the power-in socket of the charger unit that was supplied as standard with the radio at the other end.
The interesting thing about this device is that it gives you a convenient way of powering the standard charger and recharging batteries if your mains power is down. The other unit doesn’t recharge the battery, it replaces it instead.
Both are helpful and useful. Normally we use the battery back replacement unit when we have a unit in a vehicle, but we have one of the other connectors as a ‘just in case’ unit so we are prepared if there’s a future grid-down scenario we need to cope with.
Both types of units can be had for under $10 each at Amazon.
5. Mobile Antenna
If you plan to use your unit in your vehicle at all, then it makes sense to replace your already upgraded Nagoya portable antenna with a true ‘mobile’ type antenna mounted to the exterior of your vehicle. This will further improve the range with which the radio can send and receive signals.
Again, we suggest you read through our two-part article series on upgrading/replacing your radio’s antenna for a thorough discussion of this issue.
As for specific antennas, perhaps the least expensive and good performing antenna would be the Tram 1185, which costs about $30. The only disadvantage is the wind noise that whistles through its coil; and if this is a nuisance, you could consider a more expensive antenna with a solid loading device rather than an open coil.
Note you will probably need an adapter to match the fitting on the end of the antenna lead to the connector on the radio body (you need an SMA-F type connector to screw into the radio body output connector). In the specific case of the Tram 1185 (which ends with a PL-259 connector), this adapter does the trick perfectly.
External antennas on cars have finite lives. Not only are they slightly stressed as you drive along the freeway at 70mph, but sooner or later, you’re going to drive underneath an object with little clearance, and it is going to collide with your antenna. Maybe the first few times, the antenna will survive, but eventually it will mechanically fail. It might break off its mounting, it might break in the middle if it is a multiple element antenna, or in some other way fail. If the antenna lead is just going through the seal in the vehicle’s door, then depending on the pressure being placed on it, maybe sooner or later the coax cable will short out. So you need some spares.
But use this to your advantage. Don’t simply order a bulk quantity of identical antennas to start with. Order two different antennas, and then experiment to see which one you prefer in terms of performance and price. Then if you get a third antenna, you either know which of the first two is the better choice for you, or maybe you experiment further and get a third different antenna, giving you still more understanding of the ‘best’ antenna in your situation. You can then use that information to know which antenna make/model to get more of in the future.
6. External Speaker/Microphone
On the face of it, this might seem like a fairly unnecessary extra accessory, Sure, if you think you might have a use for it, you can get a speaker/microphone unit that connects via a coiled cord to the handset. That way you can have the radio clipped to your belt or securely mounted in the car, and conduct a conversation using the speaker/mike unit (which also has a push-to-talk button on it). But if you need to change any of the radio’s settings, then you’d of course still need to access the transceiver itself.
But there are two important benefits that come from using one of these. One has to do with safety, the other with the range you’ll get from your radio.
The UV-5R and F8HP manuals say you should keep the radio at least an inch from your head when transmitting, so as not to have problems with strong radio signals possibly harming your head and brain. While the radio’s frequencies are lower than cell phone frequencies, they are also potentially at least ten times stronger, so just as how it is good practice to always use a headset with a cell phone to keep the cell phone radiation level to a minimum, it is good practice to use some sort of similar device with your handheld radio transceiver.
The other benefit is that if you don’t have to have the radio close to your mouth to speak in to it, you are free to locate it somewhere else for best signal transmission and reception. You can hold it away from yourself, so your body isn’t soaking up as much radio energy, and you can hold it up a foot or two over your head (you’d be amazed at how much extra signal boost this one simple thing will do).
The good news is the radio comes complete with an included earpiece and microphone, which is all you really need to address these two issues. But if you don’t like sticking earpieces in your ears, then an external microphone/speaker is something to consider.
They are not expensive, and when we looked at the low $10 – 15 or so cost of these accessories, we ended up getting a couple.
7. SWR Meter
You’ll need one of these to tune a mobile antenna to your radio (this is explained in the second part of our antenna series).
If you have a friend already with a VHF/UHF SWR meter, you might think that all you need to do is borrow his. Sure, that would work for now, but you’ll find that you’ll be wanting to refer back to it surprisingly often – any time you move or change your external antenna, and, of course, WTSHTF, who knows where your friend and his SWR might be.
So we recommend you buy one to keep as part of your radio kit.
Using a SWR meter to tune your antenna will give you better range and protect the transmitter circuitry – it really is a must have device. There are good $40 units such as the Workman 104, and better $60 dual/cross needle units such as this one. You only need one.
You may also need to get more adapters to connect the SWR meter to the antenna and to the radio – if you can’t tell what you need, simply get the unit and see what can be connected and what you still need after it arrives.
8. Anything Else?
What else might you want? Maybe a protective case for the radio – they’re only $10 – $15, although with radios costing only $40 a piece, there’s not a great deal of need to spend too much on protecting them! On the other hand, in an uncertain future, you might not be able to buy replacements for love nor money, so taking care of your radios is just plain sensible.
Especially if you wear them on your belt, there’s every chance you’ll occasionally bash them in to things, and for sure, you’ll drop them on the ground sometimes, too. So protective cases are probably a good idea.
Maybe a directory listing repeater frequencies (although we found the directory most useful for pointing us to websites of local repeater frequency coordinator groups and then accessing their more up-to-date lists).
And maybe some type of base station antenna to mount on your house/retreat roof, but that’s another subject worthy of its own separate discussion.
The best value two-way HT type radio for most purposes is the Baofeng UV-5R or its slightly more powerful and expensive newer sibling, the Baofeng F8HP. They are both capable of transmitting on Ham frequencies, GMRS, FRS and MURS unlicensed frequencies, and land-mobile frequencies too.
The radio by itself will benefit from adding additional options to it. We suggest the following should be on your ‘shopping list’, but you don’t need to buy everything all at once.
- Baofeng UV-5R HT – about $35 each – as many as are reasonably required for your group, plus some spares
- Baofeng F8HP HT – If you have a slightly bigger budget, you get a lot more radio for about $30 more cost per unit. More range, better antenna, more power, greater battery capacity
- Nagoya 701 replacement handheld/portable antenna – less than $10 – one for each radio that will be used in a portable application, plus some spares
- Tram 1185 or other mobile antenna – about $30 – one for each vehicle that will have a radio in it, plus some spares, plus connector adapters as needed to match antenna connector to radio connector
- Spare batteries– about $5 – 10 each – most of the time, the standard battery will be sufficient for an ordinary day’s operations, but it is good to have a few spares ‘just in case’ or for extended operations and in anticipation of batteries eventually failing and needing replacement.
- Mobile battery replacement and 12V charger power supply – about $5 – 10 each. Any time you expect to have a radio in your vehicle for more than a short time, it makes sense to switch from battery power to vehicle power. So we’d recommend one of these for each vehicle that will have a radio in it on a regular basis (the same as your plan for mobile antennas) plus a spare or two. The 12V charger power supply is a great product too, and we’d suggest one or two of those also.
- Programming cable and software– less than $10 – we’d probably get two, just to be on the safe side.
- External speaker/microphone – $10 – 15 – or otherwise use the included earpiece with each radio.
- SWR Meter – units are available in the $40 and $60 price range. You only need one, but you do need one to ensure best antenna matching on external antennas.
Properly equipped, you’ll find your Baofeng radios a great choice and very helpful for your local/tactical communications.