By H. Ward Silver

Depending on how much you like collecting and bargaining, hamfests or a ham radio convention might be for you. Despite online retail being everywhere, hamfests — ham radio flea markets — continue to be some of the most interesting events in ham radio. Imagine a bazaar crammed with technological artifacts spanning nearly a century, old and new, small and massive, tubes, transistors, computers, antennas, batteries … you’re probably worn out just thinking about it.

Ham radio conventions have a much broader slate of activities than hamfests do; they may include seminars, speakers, licensing test sessions, and demonstrations of new gear. Some conventions host competitive activities such as foxhunts or direction finding, or they may include a swap meet along with the rest of the functions. Conventions usually have a theme, such as emergency operations, QRP, or digital radio transmissions.

Finding and preparing for hamfests

In the United States, the best place to find hamfests is ARRL’s Hamfests and Conventions Calendar. Search for events by location or ARRL section or division. The calendar usually lists about 100 hamfests. Most metropolitan areas have several good-size hamfests every year, even in the dead of winter.

After you have a hamfest in your sights, set your alarm for early morning, and get ready to be there at the opening bell. Although most are Saturday-only events, more and more are opening on Friday afternoon.

Be sure to bring the following things:

  • An admission ticket: You need a ticket, sold at the gate or by advance order through a website or email.
  • Money: Take cash, because most individual sellers don’t take checks or credit cards.
  • Something to carry your purchases in: Take along a sturdy cloth sack, backpack, or another type of bag that can tolerate a little grime or dust.
  • A handheld or mobile rig: Most hamfests have a talk-in frequency, which is almost always a VHF or UHF repeater. If you’re unfamiliar with the area and don’t have a GPS unit to guide you, get directions while you’re en route.

    If you attend with a friend, and both of you take handheld radios, you can share tips about the stuff you find while walking the aisles.

  • Water and food: Don’t count on food being available, but the largest hamfests almost always have a hamburger stand. Gourmet food is rarely on hand; expect the same level of quality that you’d find at a ballpark concession stand. Taking along a full water bottle is a good idea.

Buying equipment at hamfests

After parking, waiting, and shuffling along in line, you finally make it inside the gates, and you’re ready to bargain. No two hamfests are alike, of course, but here are some general guidelines to live by, particularly for hamfest newcomers:

  • If you’re new to ham radio, buddy up with a more experienced ham who can steer you around hamfest pitfalls.
  • Most prices are negotiable, especially after lunch on Saturday, but good deals go quickly.
  • Most vendors aren’t interested in trades, but you do no harm by offering.
  • Hamfests are good places to buy accessories for your radio, often for a fraction of the manufacturer’s price if they’re sold separately from the radio. Commercial vendors of new batteries often have good deals on spare battery packs.
  • Many hamfests have electricity available so that vendors can demonstrate equipment and maybe even a radio test bench. If a seller refuses to demonstrate a supposedly functional piece of gear or won’t open a piece of equipment for inspection, you may want to move along.

    Unless you really know what you’re doing, avoid antique radios. They often have quirks that can make using them a pain or that require impossible-to-get repair parts.

  • Don’t be afraid to ask what something is. Most of the time, the ham behind the table enjoys telling you about his or her wares, and even if you don’t buy anything, the discussion may attract a buyer.
  • Be familiar with the smell of burned or overheated electronics, especially transformers and sealed components. Direct replacements may be difficult to obtain.
  • If you know exactly what you’re looking for, check auction and radio swap sites such as eham.net and qrz.com before and even while attending the hamfest if you have a smartphone. You can get an idea of the going price and average condition, so you’re less likely to get gouged.
  • The commercial vendors will sell you accessories, tools, and parts on the spot, which saves you shipping charges.

    Don’t forget to look under the tables, where you can occasionally find some real treasures.

Finding conventions and conferences

Conventions tend to be more extravagant affairs, held in hotels or conventions centers, that are advertised in ham radio magazines as well as online. The main purposes are programs, speakers, and socializing.

The two largest ham radio conventions are the Dayton Hamvention, held in Ohio in mid-May, and the Internationale Exhibition for Radio Amateurs, held in Friedrichshafen, Germany, in early to mid-summer. Dayton regularly draws more than 20,000 hams; Friedrichshafen, nearly that many. Both events have mammoth flea markets, an astounding array of programs, internationally known speakers, and more displays than you can possibly see.

ARRL national and division conventions (listed on the ARRL website) are held all over the United States. Radio Amateurs of Canada also hosts a national convention every year. These conventions typically attract a few hundred to a few thousand people and are designed to be family friendly. They also provide a venue for specialty groups to host conferences within the overall event. These smaller conferences offer extensive programs on regional disaster and emergency communications, direction finding, QRP, county hunting, wireless networking on ham bands, and so on.

Some conventions and conferences emphasize one of ham radio’s many facets, such as DXing, VHF and UHF operating, or digital technology. If you’re a fan of a certain mode or activity, treating yourself to a weekend convention is a great way to meet hams who share your tastes and to discover more about your interests. Here are a few of the specialty conventions held around the United States each year.

Specialty Conventions
Name Theme
Islands On the Air (IOTA) The IOTA award program and operating from islands
Microwave Update Techniques, Tools, and Technical topics about operating above 1 GHz
QRP Four Days in May Low-power operating and equipment
International DX Convention (hosted alternately by the Northern and Southern California Contest Clubs) DX and contesting
SVHFS Conference (hosted by the Southeastern VHF Society) VHF, UHF, and microwaves
International EME Conference EME (Earth-Moon-Earth) operating
Digital Communications Conference (hosted by ARRL and TAPR) Digital communications