How to Talk Simplex on Ham Radio

A few years ago I re-immersed myself into ham radio. The hobby is quite complex and I was born at night but not last night, so how hard could it be to talk simplex to another operator just a half-mile away? Well, sit down as you might learn something.

I passed my technician’s test on March 8, 2003, but it took three days to be officially licensed. The FCC granted me privileges to operate with the call sign – KC8VYI.

I didn’t know squat about ham radio. A business acquaintance in Idaho had urged me to get my license. For about two years I dabbled in radio and attended several club meetings in my hometown of Cincinnati, OH. I just couldn’t get comfortable and the people at the club meetings were distant and not welcoming.

I dropped out of the hobby and boxed up my radios.

Fast forward to June of 2011 where I met Lee Hillsgrove, Sr. at an exciting public service event on the sides of Mt. Washington, the tallest peak in New England – home of the world’s worst weather.

That rainy Friday in June, I was a complete beginner and had no idea how to turn off the European 1750 Mhz burst tone on my brand new Yaesu VX-7R. I felt like an idiot. Lee tried to help me, but as we ran through the settings buried deep in the memory chip of the HT, we got nowhere fast.

I was bound and determined to figure it out and did hours later. It was a good feeling.

But the Talking-Simplex monster was still lurking in that fancy Yaesu VX-7R.

Four months later, I was to meet Lee for breakfast before we worked all day providing communications for the NH Marathon. Driving to breakfast I made a bonehead mistake.

Being a newbie in ham radios, this happens just about every time I touch a radio.

Lee and I were to meet somewhere in Bristol, NH. We were coming from different directions, he from Danbury and me from Meredith. The local repeaters in this area provide so-so coverage in this pretty hilly area, so Lee suggested we use a simplex frequency.

Lee’s an expert radio operator. Because neither of us knew what diners would be open, we decided to coordinate where to eat when we got close to one another. The plan was to be on 146.500 MHz.

You know what they say about best-laid plans, don’t you? Well, I was able to transmit and Lee heard me just fine. However, when he transmitted back to me, I could clearly see his signal via the S-meter on the screen of my Yaesu VX-7R, but no sound came out of the HT. Yes, I did have the volume up. He was deaf to me, if you get what I mean.

Because he was an experienced operator, he instantly knew what the problem was. But alas, he couldn’t tell me how to fix my radio settings because I couldn’t hear him.

It was so easy. I had my Tone Squelch setting set to On and had a preset tone set up.

You may not think that’s a big deal, but the purpose of these Continuous Tone-Coded Squelch System (CTCSS) tones is to keep a radio quiet until it hears a simultaneous sub-audible tone during the voice transmission.

These CTCSS tones are very low frequency audio tones, usually less than 300 Hz, and are overlaid on the primary radio frequency you want to talk on. These also are helpful in activating repeaters. But that’s a subject for another day.

These CTCSS tones are much like a key is to a door lock. If your radio is set up waiting to hear the tone, it’s not going to *open up* (create audio) unless the transmitting radio is equipped with the *key* (the same CTCSS tone).

Since my radio was set to listen for such a tone, it did it’s job and sat there oh so quietly not letting Lee’s transmission out of my speaker. Remember, I could see his radio signals activating the S-meter, but there was no audio.

It’s also mandatory that you turn off the + / – repeater shift function on the radio. If you don’t you’ll be transmitting out at .600 Mhz higher or lower on the simplex frequency in the 2-meter band you’ve chosen to operate.

For example, if I would have had my HT set to a -, negative shift, setting, I would have transmitted out at 145.900. In this case, Lee would not hear what I was transmitting because my radio was not transmitting on his receive frequency of 146.500!

It’s always those little things.

Lee was smart enough to switch to a local repeater frequency that was able to provide both of us with a modest signal. In a mild panic, I had enough sense to try this and I caught up with him. Minutes later we sat down for breakfast.

Once Lee had my HT in his hands, he was  able to get my radio working perfectly in less than 30 seconds. He turned off my tone squelch, pressed my talk button and it automatically made his radio chirp.

Additional Simplex Operating Tips:

Altitude is everything. When you operate in simplex mode, you want your radio waves to reach out as far as possible, especially if you’re working with a low-wattage handheld (HT) radio like the Yaesu VX-7R. It only transmits at 5 watts. But 5 watts broadcasting from on top of a mountain can carry quite a distance indeed.

If you’re blocked by terrain, trees, buildings, etc. simplex might only reach out a mile or so and even less.

Remember that propagation changes as the sun rises into the sky and excites the atmosphere. You may be able to work simplex early morning and evening with great success at a given distance, but have issues at high noon and midday.

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