How to Listen to Ham Radio at High Frequency

For ham radio operations, most of the traditional shortwave bands between 1.8 MHz and 30 MHz are broadly organized into two segments. In the United States, Morse code (CW) and data signals occupy the lower segment, and voice signals occupy the higher segment.

Within each of these segments, the lower frequencies are where you tend to find the long-distance (DX) contacts, special-event stations, and contest operating. Casual conversations (ragchews) and scheduled on-the-air meetings (nets) generally take place on the higher frequencies within each band.

How to organize ham radio activity on HF bands

Below are some general guidelines on where you can find different types of activity. Depending on which activity holds your interest, start at one edge of the listed frequency ranges and start tuning.

While tuning, use the widest filters your radio has for the mode (CW, SSB, or FM) that you select. That way, you won’t miss a station if you tune quickly, and finding the right frequency when you discover a contact is easier. After you tune in a contact, you can tighten your filters to narrower bandwidths, limiting what you hear to just the one contact.

Band CW, RTTY, and Data Modes Voice and Image Modes
160 meters (1.8–2.0 MHz) 1.800–1.860 MHz (no fixed top limit) 1.840–2.000 MHz
80 meters (3.5–4.0 MHz) 3.500–3.600 MHz 3.600–4.000 MHz
60 meters (5.3-5.4 MHz Permitted, but the signal has to be centered in the channel. 5330.5, 5346.5, 5357.0, 5371.5, and 5403.5 MHz (voice, CW, RTTY, and data only)
40 meters (7.0–7.3 MHz) 7.000–7.125 MHz 7.125–7.300 MHz
30 meters (10.1–10.15 MHz) 10.100–10.125 MHz CW 10.125–10.150 MHz RTTY and data Not permitted
20 meters (14.0–14.35 MHz) 14.000–14.150 MHz 14.150–14.350 MHz
17 meters (18.068–18.168 MHz) 18.068–18.100 MHz (no fixed top limit) 18.110–18.168 MHz
15 meters (21.0–21.45 MHz) 21.000–21.200 MHz 21.200–21.450 MHz
12 meters (24.89–24.99 MHz 24.890–24.930 MHz (no fixed top limit) 24.930–24.990 MHz
10 meters (28.0–29.7 MHz) 28.000–28.300 MHz 28.300–29.7 MHz (most activity below 28.600 MHz)

If every voice that you hear sounds scrambled, your rig is probably set to receive the wrong sideband. Change sidebands, and try again.

Because hams share the 60 meter band with government stations, there are special rules for operating on this band. Read the rules for 60 meter operation before getting on the air.

How to adjust high frequency bands for time of day

Because the ionosphere strongly affects signals on the HF bands as they travel from point A to point B, the time of day makes a big difference. On the lower bands, the lower layers of the ionosphere absorb signals by day but disappear at night, allowing signals to reflect off the higher layers for long distances.

Conversely, the higher bands require the Sun’s illumination for the layers to reflect HF signals back to Earth, supporting long-distance hops or skips. (With the exception of sporadic effects, the ionosphere is much less a factor on the VHF and UHF bands at 50 MHz and above.)

Here are general guidelines on what you might hear on different HF bands at different times of day.

HF Band Day Night
160, 80, and 60 meters (1.8, 3.5, and 5 MHz) Local and regional out to 100–200 miles. Local to long distance, with DX best near sunset or sunrise at one end or both ends of the contact.
40 and 30 meters (7 and 10 MHz) Local and regional out to 300–400 miles. Short-range (20 or 30 miles) and medium distances (150 miles) to worldwide.
20 and 17 meters (14 and 18 MHz) Regional to long distance; bands open at or near sunrise and close at night. 20 meters: Often open to the west at night and may be open 24 hours a day.

17 meters: Follows the same pattern but opens a little later and closes a little earlier.
15, 12, and 10 meters (21, 24, and 28 MHz) Primarily long distance (1,000 miles or more); bands open to the east after sunrise and to the west in the afternoon. 15 meters: A good daytime band, especially to the Caribbean and South America, closing right after sunset.

12 meters and 10 meters: Usually have short openings in the morning and afternoon (unless there are lots of sunspots).

10 meters: Often used for local communications 24 hours a day.
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