There are tons of things you can do, so many that it's hard to sum up. It also combines well with other hobbies. Or it can be a symbol or inspiration of its own kind, an objective reminder that more science in your life is a good thing.
One of the biggest advantages is the practically free education. If you upgrade your license you'll learn a lot of really fascinating stuff. I really wish I knew about propagation and differences between the various bands and band schedules back when I was a kid, fooling around with my dad's Patrolman radio. I also learned how effective logging can be, and have applied that in just about every area of my life.
Finally, there's just something about breaking the silence and making that call when you're out in the middle of nowhere. Even if you're the world's biggest introvert, you might end up helping somebody by keeping your radio turned on and tuned in.
This statement really piqued my curiosity. Would you mind expanding on it?
In many areas of life, I knew I was really far too subjective due to my research into my personal psychology (I'm a professional coach) and wondered about different ways I could be _more_ objective without actually becoming an external sensing-measuring device. :-) Reading about logging tools like SINPO helped me intuitively identify new ways of logging & spreadsheeting my way through different activities and situations.
As an example, when I get sick, I now engage this logging skill rather than just feeling my way through the illness, and I get to see some really cool emergent properties of this new personal system. I usually monitor my vitals in addition to writing down some subjective 1-10 ratings of how I feel in terms of general wellbeing, nausea, depression, and anxiety as the day passes. I have an autoimmune condition and while I can't just take a pill and cure that, my logs have shown me the peaks and troughs of amplitude within every passing hour of severe illness, when those illnesses come. I discovered that as I watch this data I can be more nuanced about the way I treat my sick time, and ended up actually getting productive work done that I _wanted to get done_ while "sick", by recognizing the high points and patterns in rest and energy buildup. "Riding the waves" with more precision, so to speak. There is also the analytical side of this, where I'll occasionally look back through my logs and see icons like a circled "!!!" which means "wow you tried something new here and it worked amazingly well, please add this to your toolkit for this activity from now on."
Because you're effectively engaging more of your "sensor suite," you kind of feel more like the space ship that can navigate the asteroid field vs. the one that really gets banged up. When you fold in the analysis step, it's like you're now better able to approach even more treacherous asteroid fields--your machinery is getting upgrades over time.
Incidentally, when I meet up with a doctor, I can be much more accurate about what happened and when.
I do the same logging thing at work, and now keep logs as part of just about every project. In some cases this is a literal mini-blog on a web page, and in other cases it's a text file tucked somewhere 15 folders deep, and in still other cases it's a small mark in the margin of a paper journal page.
I also discovered that this helps with other hobbies. I run RPGs for my kids and develop my own table-top RPGs, and keeping a log is a huge tip for a really effective campaign. Later on the log can become a published, written narrative (e.g. Record of Lodoss War), or mined for new ideas.
I used to struggle to keep a personal journal, but I've since found that I can more easily approach the practice by starting from the "Stardate" mindset and being a tad more robotic regarding current circumstances than I can by trying to keep the personal history that used to come to mind when I'd consider journaling.
Another thing I've learned is that we are extremely brittle about this practice, as a society. Our thinking about keeping logs tends to be black & white (a common sign of lack of education on the matter) and we hesitate or think in terms like "OCD" when people around us really leverage this practice. IMO this is really unfortunate.
Anyway I hope this expands on it a bit!
1. https://qz.com/507727/a-man-who-recorded-his-every-sneeze-fo... (example)
In Emacs one has org-mode, in Vim, vimwiki, even for plain Notepad, one can easily create a time log by pressing the F5 key. It will fill in the time and date automatically. Create a text file like day_log.txt, open it at the start of your day and press F5 key to fill the date and time. Just add couple of words on what you want to note. Done.
As for the hardware issue, his notebook was kept because he was an important person. Average Joe's notebook had a much greater chance to go into the landfill.
That's the same for today persons' digital files: Average Joe laptop goes to landfill but I'm sure presidents and whatever's files are archived by State or their families, same as they did for the paper notebook back then.
That's some wisdom
Words to live by.
You can use an app like "ISS Detector" to get alerts when the ISS is over; that one also has an IAP that will show you any amateur radio satellite that's over your head, as well as the uplink and downlink frequencies. (Last time I was listening to cubesat AO-92, my social "nerd antenna" apparently went up to about 1 MW transmitting and I ended up pointing into the clear blue sky a lot while explaining to interested random passers-by why people still use ham radio. :-))
(That amazing feeling post-contact...funny that he left in those clips, but I definitely identify with the adrenaline rush. :-))
Be sure to check out #hamradio and #hamr on Twitter, and /r/amateurradio on Reddit. Edit: And your local club, too! And welcome!
Even though my household weren’t HAM’s at the time, he’d “call” us every few days through a “phone patch” to give status updates in the middle of the Pacific.
Basically, he’d make connections to various HAM’s somewhere, trying to find someone who could do a “phone patch”. That person would then connect the audio to their phone, call my house collect, and we could have a two-way conversation. Pretty cool stuff.
Back in the 90’s when I had my license I thought packet radio was cool as hell. Checking your email in the middle of a field? Amazing. Of course that’s all obsolete now.
And then just for the ultimate geek factor. You know what the very first communication satellite was, right? The moon! HAM’s still do “moonbounce” communications to talk to people on the opposite side of the planet by bouncing signals off the moon. Requires very directional antennae, and brings with it the ultimate latency. But that’s some serious geek cred there.
(From Steve Blank's "Secret history of Silicon Valley" talk.
Checking mail on the BBS on the MIR space station. Kids these days trying to get an extra 10m range out of their wifi...
I was "the radio guy". Which was good because my attempt at being the "motor guy" didn't end so well.
Was it more software or hardware? I write software for a living so that’s what I’m more interested in; don’t know about parent comment, though.
So amateur radio was a very cost effective way to communicate with like-minded people with very rapid payback. That said, a lot of people just liked chatting with strangers from far away places.
 There were commercial services and BBS's but they were also relatively niche until the late 80's largely due to the actual cost of the phone call as described above.
Just after the turn of the century we had a fully functional station for long distance terrestrial communications (HF) and satellite communications (including amateur satellites and the ISS). Much of the station could be disassembled and relocated for operations in the field, specifically Field Day. Members had various technical projects ranging from building the station (antennas, feed lines, and radios), to software defined radio. Other people had tangential interests which fit in well with the group. In other words, there was a lot of experimentation.
Amateur radio is a lot like computers: there are those who build the tools and those who use the tools. Both groups serve a purpose (many of the users are involved in community service and emergency communications). What you choose to do largely depends upon what you are interested in.
I've talked (in morse code) to people on the air that are former US Navy radio telegraphers, submariners, Air force mechanics etc. That generation is heading into their golden years and many of them will be gone in 10-20 years. It's interesting to hear about their lives in their own words.
I've made contacts to Moscow Russia on 100 watts, Asia, most of Europe and most of the States in the US.
I've also built the tiny QCX in that article by soldering and hand winding toroids. Fired it up and made a contact several hundred miles away on a tiny amount of power. I used an arduino to create a scratch built keyer with all my own circuts and code. Then I hooked it up to my paddles, set the speed and used it for tons of contacts.
In short, it can be a very satisfying hobby if you are nerdy enough.
As a listener myself ("SWLer") my next project is to make a radio to pick up telemetry from small cubesats.
Kinda like using a gun in the commission of a felony...is a felony.
Or being arrested and the only charge is resisting arrest.
See Indiana’s law: https://codes.findlaw.com/in/title-35-criminal-law-and-proce...
It's a feeling of power and independence that is very lost with the Internet to me. With the internet - I'm connecting to something very very large. With ham - I'm building my own. I'd see it as the same draw as setting up your first website in the late 90's/early 2000's, with the visitor counters and comments sections. Each interaction is a treasure.
That was all before the arrival of software defined radio. Radio math as computer code.
Some of my nerdy friends can't stand analog voice and CW, preferring instead to push bandwidth limits on the microwave bands, doing mesh networks, etc.
Hehe, we can't all be hardcore HF/AM godfathers like Timtron WA1HLR. Big signals from home, big signals from WBCQ :-)
Some do, just like the internet. You're random to me, and we're conversing. Remember "chat rooms" and similar (IRC)? Mostly anonymous people talking to each other. Yes you might have some people you "know" in there, but there are strangers as well.
It seems like the majority of serious amatuer radio hobbyists are retired man, many of whom have a background in military communications or electrical engineering.
At marathons and such the Hams are the ones with the antennas and the frequencies to get around the physical terrain and help bridge police departments.
I can also use it for communication when the cell networks go after a few hours without power (new england ice storms).
When 911 happened we had massive communication network failures and the Hams were the ones that were desperately needed by emergency crews to get messages in and out.
I remember a time when someone on the CB got 64kbps connection to the internet through packet radio, faster than dial up!
It's a bit like how mucking around with microcomputers was very cool back in the day, but now why would you bother when you can run a C64 in an emulator? But there is something nostalgic about it that makes me sometimes want to buy and old computer.
Once you dive into Retro-computing, you'll find loads of us getting and keeping old kit running, with a whole host of strange old and new add-ons, with new bits of kit being designed and built everyday. It's a really fun (but expensive) hobby!
There are a million different areas in this hobby. Chatting with random people is just the most obvious (and boring) one.
They can be made while your hands are otherwise occupied (driving, flying, etc.)
They don't require web access (can be done while in the middle of a forest, or 10,000 feet above the ground)
They lessen the chance of being DDOSed by a bored teenager
Doing them while within range of the internet may be less efficient, but they're also not limited by the internet.
On a well run event you have "net control" which is basically a central point that you pass messages to and they pass them out. They're usually an experienced ham set up with a good antenna, and a reasonably powerful transmitter, at a location that can hear from and speak to everyone even if people with handhelds can't hear each other because of distance or terrain. There's a convention for getting permission to speak and how messages are conveyed and passed on.
In my particular case, we set up an antenna for ham frequencies and public service frequencies, officers from our town are deployed, and can talk to us on their police radios but frequently can't speak with each other because we're not in our home town and don't have our repeater (other towns use other frequencies). So I relay messages between officers and I relay messages to and from net command.
Also, if you think about what happens when an emergency (like the Boston Marathon Bombing) happens... imagine how much slower and more disorganized the response would be if all the departments had to make cell calls to each other and wait for each to get off teh line... the central point would call one police dept. Then they'd call the fire. Then they'd call.... and now people are dead because you can't communicate with more than one person at a time.
it's just WAY more efficient than cell phones.
We normally have somebody free who can travel to any field station if they have equipment problems etc.
Most events pay a small fee for our help, which goes to the local club.
What I mean by "a stack of radios" is at the two races I've marshalled that had radios, they had half a dozen license-free walkie-talkies like  which they handed out. The "stack" was figurative, as they wouldn't have stacked up very well.
I assumed you'd be the only license holder and you'd somehow co-ordinate between the license-free radios. If you could get half a dozen license holders, obviously it's a different matter!
(The license-free radios didn't work at either race)
That was a lot of fun, each country contacted. The far you go, the more you are happy :)
Expect it to fail all at once. You will not be disappointed. What this means in terms of the value of amateur radio is not hard to figure out.
> Now you or your signal often have to travel hundreds of miles (as the crow flies) to find a central office that is required for call completion, even between two phones 10 feet apart.
And people generally think this is okay. Until something big happens and everyone reacts to it by trying to call other people, the central office gets overwhelmed, and the entire system stops working right when it's needed the most.
Then you get something like AWS or Azure outage. And you see engineers saying "it's fine, there are so many services down, no one expects out to work".
Then you get something like that big Oculus Rift shutdown. No big deal, right? But do you know that that some industrial control systems use certificate signing?
I've just finished reading The Machine Stops by E. M. Forster. If you think about it, the kind of systemic failure he describes is not as ridiculous as it might sound. Over time, people start taking large technical systems for granted, like forces of nature.
Mesh networking standards exist that can take good advantage of cell phone hardware. Several of the phone handset operating systems are already theoretically capable of supporting it (if they weren't so locked down).
At the very least, in emergencies, cell phones should be able to network point-to-point between each other.
The barriers to doing that currently today are more political and economic than technical. It would be great to try to tear those barriers down.
All this stuff sounds interesting to me (buying and learning new equipment/techniques/etc) and I can see the possible benefits of emergency preparedness. But what I don't see is how this is really a viable hobby (for me). It seems like the daily practice of it is... boring. If I want to talk with people, I can use the internet.
On the emergency preparedness front, hell, just buy a $50 handheld radio and learn how to use it, and throw the thing in a safe spot (along with the manual and extra batteries) and forget about it.
What are the real payoffs as a hobby that you practice frequently, I mean. I don't mean to be dismissive. Amateur radio clearly has utility in specific circumstances, but I just don't understand why, after a day of browsing reddit and HN (and working!), I'd want to sit down to the radio and try and do the same thing with an antiquated piece of equipment.
I mean, I'd love to be convinced. I love tech just as much as the next guy.
Plenty of other stuff is boring and mostly useless, e.g. most of the raspberry pi stuff I've done. A $20 Google Chromecast or Roku is wayy less of a PITA than a rPi media center but I did it anyway to learn to hack it together. Same thing with a lot of radio stuff.
And at like $30 bucks for a baofang and about a week or two of study for the technician license it's not a lot of cost or effort.
So what would I do with it? Aside from a backup when hunting, just talkin w/ folks -- I'm in central Canada, so it's a far apart place with spotty internet access -- and I consider messing with radar tracking and even something more like a look-down-shoot-down style of radar, mostly as a hack to see if I can do it.
Lot of demand for Radio Engineers if you want to do full-time cell phone or wifi stuff, too.
If there are two groups of folks, and they each have a ham in them at least the groups can relay messages to each other.
I probably should do that...
But after we got hit with a hurricane it was pretty nifty to have ham radio friends who were able to exchange messages with hams near families in unaffected areas. I don't remember seeing any pragmatic uses for ham radio in that particular disaster, but those lines of communication was great for morale.
Practical skill with communication technology also gets you an 'in' with those in charge of things, even if you were a nobody before.
My survival plan involves
- 12v systems from car batteries
- VHF/UHF short range communication
- HF as money permits
- low power FM broadcast station
- simple low current broadcast studio
- legacy PCs and notebook PCs, Linux & Windows 7 (custom mods for better/convective cooling, slower clocks, long
- massive libraries of ebooks, music, audiobooks and old radio shows
- selected paper reference works (now is a great time to buy!)
Note that solar panels do NOT make this list, not in any massive way. It's about available funds and priorities now.
Historically, there is a whole lot of prescident for it's functionality.
By all means, though, having water and store-able food is an excellent thing to do regardless.
Just anecdotally, having a radio and knowing how to use it is way higher on my list of personal prep than owning a firearm and knowing how to use it.
What is the easiest way for me to start listening in and discovering what's out there on the airwaves? Do I have to buy hardware or are there purely software/online options? Also I live in Thailand so most of the local chatter would probably be in Thai which is hard for me to follow.
Reverse Beacon Network and PSKreporter are excellent tools to see how people's signals are propagating:
The 78 MHz transceivers must have a Yellow case, while the 245 MHz transceivers must have a Red case.
These radios are widely used by small businesses (taxis, guards, etc) right across Thailand. Once you start looking, you'll see them everywhere.
Thailand also has a very active Amateur Radio Community, with many expats licensed. see https://www.qsl.net/rast/
The previous King of Thailand was a Patron of Amateur radio, so access to licensing was taken very seriously by the authorities.
The HF Ham bands are as busy as ever, while the Shortwave Broadcast bands are chock full of mainly Chinese stations, who incidentally play some amazing music.
I used to go camping in the 1970's and had a shortwave radio that I would listen to for hours. The variety of stuff I could hear was vastly greater than what I can hear today.
It's actually a pretty bad time for HF right now because of low solar activity; in fact, it's probably one of the worst times in recent memory to try doing HF beyond SOTA.
Not true, the lower HF bands (80m through 20m) are excellent and there is worldwide communication happening all the time.
It's only bad if you recall periods of high sunspot activity with superb 10m and 15m conditions. Certainly something to look forward to in the next few years but not a show stopper in the least.
Also, there is now significantly more weak signal activity than in previous sunspot cycles thanks to FT8 (linked below) and MSK144.
And, FWIW, this HN post is titled in a way that makes it more useful/relevant to the general audience. The original title is aimed at existing enthusiasts.
FT8 bores the crap out of me unfortunately.
New modes like FT8 really allow hams to work in at this crappy solar level. Pricing on HTs has gone down a lot due to the now illegal Chinese knockoffs, so Satellite work and local stuff is more accessible.
Personally I've only done FT8 for the last year and its great. I've been able to make contacts 8000mi+.
But WebSDR is pretty amazing technology. The ability for concurrent users to operate radio via internet could find broad adoption. I'm just not sure what drives it. It might be nice, in an autonomous vehicle future, for example. For idle passengers in neighboring cars to communicate with each other via voice.
University of Twente (Netherlands) Wide-band WebSDR
In ham terms, this is know as “band openings”, eg when ionospheric conditions allow hf at a given frequency to refract off the ionosphere.
The radio is a lot of fun. (I love Morse.) But a sizable percentage of the radio-ers make you want to do something else.
I would be interested in the results.
But overall hams embody the best aspects of science and engineering culture and DIY/maker culture.
Most of the subgroups bave active online communities and are more focused in their on the air activities, and a bit less inclined to shoot the breeze about Fox News talking points.
CW tends to be nice and some of the “rag chewing” (casual conversation) is remarkably thoughtful and there are some really interesting people. Doing conversation well on Morse is a bit of an art form.
But you often run across a lot of anger. Some of it is grumpiness-- I have other hobbies and in other hobbies it is not the case that the culture is that things are bad and sure to get worse-- but there is absolutely also an aspect of craziness. I have heard, for instance, a local ham with a UK accent being berated at length on a local repeater for being a foreigner.
I don't get the anger. If you have the leisure to do something that you say you enjoy, why are you mad all the time?
The most recent incident for me was that I was on voice during a Sunday morning making some calls and someone with max power starts talking over me. When I say the frequency is in use, I am told that everyone knows this is his frequency on Sundays, and then he goes back to spouting hateful stuff with what is, I presume, the same group he always spouts it with. That'll keep you off the radio for a while.
One of the things I like about Morse is that I find that the people pride themselves on their manners. But there are other things also, including just that I always thought it was neat, since I was a kid.
This is a very small part of ham radio, but sometimes people who are new to it encounter those signals first because of how strong the signals are (3.5 MHz signals are often extremely strong after dark over a distance of a few hundred miles).
If you are new to radio and you start tuning around the HF bands without much of antenna, these might be some of the only signals you are aware of, and because of this the uninitiated sometimes generalize that this is all that hams are/do.
And because of the high average age of amateurs, the data point of 75 meters seems to be a case in point that all hams are old/crotchety and/or survivalist/conservative.
But in reality, there are so many dimensions to the hobby that making the generalization about a few geezers is extremely off base. For some, the fun is in building the gear and then making a few contacts to test it out. For others it is radiosport contests or moonbounce, for others it's mountain tops or trail friendly setups, for others it's meteor scatter, restoring antique circuits, etc.
So if it were a book and had a cover, the cover might be the 75 meter pig farmers, but there is a lot more going on that is worth exploring if one has some innate interest in the subject.
Shame, I was interested in reading about this.
I get a buzz out of the low power stuff and don’t see the fun in pumping out signals using 1 or 2kw of power. I have sent and recieved low power messages 6k miles using less than 5w.
Transmitting low power signals, like wspr, using a raspberry pi is great fun. And before anyone mentions it I do run my noisey signals through a low pass filter :-)
For currently operating hams: do you just deal with it, or is there something you can do to protect your privacy?
However, as far as I know, even if you change your listed address, your _past_ addresses are still published, unfortunately. There was some movement towards ending that, but I don't think it was successful.
If that had been the title and the main point, he'd be emphasizing a lot more than the great cheap HF gear that's now available. (There's a lot more that's really awesome in AR than what you can do with basic HF gear.)
Also no digital modes, and max bandwidth (25 KHz? don't remember) limits what you can postprocess in the computer.
Otherwise, they're fine for low bandwidth stuff. They work great as ghetto amplifier for 433MHz applications.
To get started I'd rather recommend a RTLSDR dongle, they're under $10 and you can listen (though not transmit) from 24 MHz to 1.7 GHz at 2MHz bandwidth: you can capture images from weather satellites at ~145MHz, scan for weather stations at 433 MHz, various telemetry at 868/915 MHz, airplane tracking, L-band satellites... for some of these things you'll need some sort of filtering and amplifying though.
Are there any entry-level (price wise) handhelds you'd recommend? It's not always hugely easy to carry my laptop around with me sometimes.
Otherwise, a Baofeng DM-5R should do the job, it has digital modes compared to the cheaper and more popular models. Still limited to FM in analog, which is a pity for airband (where, by the way, you should never ever transmit in).
It has a Bluetooth SSP that lets you write packets in KISS protocol which gets bits on the air(APRS adds a lot more on top of this).
There are all sorts of ways that you can go with packet radio. Here are a couple ideas:
1. Start monitoring APRS traffic in your area.
I have a blog post that I wrote about repurposing a $5 scanner from a swapfest with a broken USB headset from a junk drawer, and turning it into a receive-only APRS igate.  I run that on a raspberry pi, you can see the current status of it here: 
You can do this with an RTLSDR, or a Baofeng into your laptop's microphone, etc. This is the easiest way to just listen and hear for yourself that there is traffic around you, and I think that will motivate you to get further into it.
2. Start putting cool packets onto APRS!
If you have a Baofeng, you can make a cheap TNC out of a USB soundcard, an appropriate break-out cable (available for ~$15 on Amazon), and any computer running soundcard TNC software. I strongly recommend Direwolf if you are playing with a Raspberry Pi (or just a laptop running linux), and APRSDroid if you have an old phone in a drawer. Something to watch out for is the quality of the signal that you put out, you need to tweak the volumes so that things aren't being overdriven. Nobody will hear you otherwise, and you'll be jamming the band for others.
A cool project idea is to put together a Baofeng-powered APRS security system in your car, with the radio stowed in the trunk and tied into the ignition switch. You could track your car at any time! (I started a project like this but never finished it --- the Baofengs use something weird like 7.4V, and my Raspberry Pi was powered at 5V, and I never could think of a proper solution for my ground loops, and how to put it together in a clean package. I have a TH-D72A with a built-in GPS and TNC that I use for APRS in my car on longer trips, for now.)
I bought a cheap weather station, and I was able to get wee_wx to start pulling data from it, and sometime over Christmas I'm hoping that I'll find the time to start putting that data onto APRS. The sky is really the limit, there are dozens of interesting data formats on APRS besides positional data and weather data.
3. Non-APRS packet radio!
This is where the real fun is. Here in Wisconsin I have the following site to see where traffic is .
One of the craziest things I've done in Ham radio is hooked my TH-D72A up to my laptop, connected via raw commands to a neighboring station speaking AX.25, left a message on his BBS, and then issued a command which had me hopping from his VHF receive to his HF rig, which forwarded me onto another BBS over HF. The connection was very broken up, but enough came through that I know it happened, and that was enough for it to put a wide smile on my face.
4. If you live in Seattle, check out HamWan.
Hams are allowed to run standard 2.4GHz Wi-Fi equipment at higher power than normal people, provided that we stick to the FCC requirements (station identification in the form of our SSID, no encryption, etc.) I really don't know much about this project, but it's cool stuff. Fun to see what WiFi is theoretically capable of. 
Are you sure about that? It doesn't sound right to me, since 2.4GHz is not a ham band. But I would be happy to be corrected!
13 centimeters – 2300–2310 MHz (lower segment), 2390–2450 MHz (upper segment)
- Easy start but without punctuation. You might want to add that https://ankiweb.net/shared/info/950182698
- Pretty good but hard to start with https://ankiweb.net/shared/info/3645353967
- There are a few more Decks: https://ankiweb.net/shared/decks/morse%20code
I learned visually at first and the amount of effort it took to unlearn it was unbelievable. You have to learn by hearing the audible character and have your brain immediately translated it through shear practice and repetition.
If you have to convert it to a visual dot dash symbol in your head you will be too slow to ever have a conversation on the air.
For example, they are morse code only.
Do a google search on "Crystal Set", or go to
Moonbounce is challenging even for experienced hams.
I didn't take this hobby over to Europe when I moved, and let my license lapse. How's the community over here (specifically the Netherlands)?
But I was at SHA2017 where we had a temporary repeater hoisted up on a cherry-picker, and someone who had boated in was doing APRS (I brought my HackRF so could dabble on the edges of legality :)
But one of these days, soon I'm sure, I'll get my HAREC thing sorted and convert it over.
For HF, you do need a large antenna, but it's not necessarily what people think of when they think "antenna" - i.e. not a tower with a giant vertical rod. An HF antenna can just be a piece of cable of the right length and type, properly arranged; and it's usually strung more horizontally than vertically. Using trees for that is pretty common, too. Something like this:
For VHF and UHF it matters that your antenna is very high up (on a pole, roof, or whatever w/line of sight if you want more than a couple blocks) more than your antenna 'size'. So even VHF/UHF/Microwave you still need something "big" unless you're just communicating with your next door neighbor.
There's no magic in RF. The cell system for phones only works because they pay the big bucks to put cells on every high point they can.
And, of course, beyond that, you'd just use repeaters anyway. There's no shortage of VHF and UHF repeaters, and because they take care of antenna height on their side, it's not uncommon to hit one 10-15 miles away with a handheld.
You want your antenna length to be some fraction of the wavelength, e.g. 1/1, 1/2, 1/4, etc. As the antenna length fraction gets smaller, it will have a less signal and more noise.
Ham radio bands are much lower frequency than wifi, bluetooth, GPS, or cellular. The wavelength is equal to the speed of light divided by the frequency, so lower frequency bands need bigger antennas.
So for example, the wavelength for a 144 Mhz you might use for amateur radio voice is 2 meters, whereas the wavelength of 2.4 Ghz wifi is only 0.12 meters.
The advantage of lower frequencies is they travel farther. AM radio is a lower frequency than FM, so it travels farther than FM.
There are also "compromise" antennas that use inductors and other trickery to be shorter. Are they efficient? Not great, but people make contacts on them everyday. (I have a 4-5 foot antenna that can operated on the same bands as my 65 foot antenna although it's not super efficient.
There are loop antennas that are tiny and portable but they can get expensive.
Also their are people that use an antenna tuner to tune a random piece of wire or even their gutters to get a workable HF antenna.
As far as VHF/UHF, there are compact handhelds with an antenna less than 12 inches long.
1: For example https://www.yaesu.com/downloadFile.cfm?FileID=12831&FileCatI...
Also magloops are fun but are also a compromise.
Big antennas are desirable but simple (and low) wire antennas work remarkably well, and are what most people use.
Is it comparable to a smartphone?
Gerber file, bill of materials, etc are freely available. I'm looking at modifying the design into a beacon for a rocket radiolocation project.
A typical low-power shortwave station will fit comfortably in my spare space in a backpack, as described at the link.
If you don't need all-band coverage, there are smaller, lighter transceivers available.