Knowing Where to Chew the Rag with Your Ham Radio

By H. Ward Silver

Ham radio users may find themselves looking to chew the rag. Although ragchewing isn’t listed on any band plan, you can find ragchewers in common areas of every band.

HF bands

Below 30 MHz, all the bands have a similar structure. CW (Morse code) and digital modes occupy the lower third (more or less), and voice modes occupy the upper two-thirds (less or more).

You can find contacts of different styles on a typical HF band. You find the ragchewers mixed in with the long-distance (DX) contacts at the low end of the band. This is oversimplified, of course, but gives you an idea of how to start.

You can always find CW at the low frequencies of the HF bands. The faster operators tend to be at the bottom of the bands, with average code speed dropping slowly as you tune higher.

Digital signals nearly always cluster close to the published calling frequencies listed in the band plans for that particular mode unless a major contest or some other event is going on. Stations spread out higher in frequency from there.

You may think that ragchewers are buffeted from all sides, but that’s not really the case. Ragchew contacts take place all the time, so they tend to occupy just about any spare bit of band. To be sure, in the case of disasters (when a lot of nets are active), major operations from rare places, or weekends of big contests, the bands may seem to be too full for you to get a word in edgewise. In those cases, try a different band or mode; you’ll probably find plenty of room.

When the bands sound too full to use, try reducing your receiver’s sensitivity. It could be overloading or just making it too easy for you to hear noise. Turn off the preamp, turn down the RF Gain, or turn on the attenuator … or all three! You will probably be able to hear just fine, and the noise and “crud” will be a lot less objectionable. While you’re at it, turn off the Noise Blanker, which can generate distortion all by itself if strong signals are present.

The FCC can declare a communications emergency and designate certain frequencies for emergency traffic and other communications. Keeping those frequencies clear is every amateur’s responsibility. The ARRL transmits special bulletins over the air on W1AW, by email, and on its website if the FCC does make such a declaration. The restrictions are in place until the FCC lifts them.

VHF and UHF bands

On the VHF and UHF bands, you usually find ragchewing in the repeater sections, although wide-open spaces for an SSB, CW, or digital conversation are available in the so-called weak signal segments. Scan the wide-open spaces away from the repeater channels and you may come across a local group using a frequency as their “watering hole.” Join in and say hello!

The bottom portion of the VHF/UHF bands is referred to as weak signal, although that’s really a misnomer. The reason for the name is that contacts via CW and SSB can be made with considerably weaker signals than on FM. Most of the weak-signal signals you hear are sufficiently strong for excellent contacts, thank you!

The table below lists the calling frequencies and portions of the VHF/UHF bands. The operating style in this portion of the bands is similar to HF as far as calling CQ and making random contacts go, but the bands are far less crowded because propagation generally limits activity to regional contacts.

VHF/UHF CW and SSB Calling Frequencies
Band Frequencies (In MHz) Use
6 meters 50.0–50.3 CW and SSB
50.070, 50.090 CW calling frequencies
50.125 and 50.200 SSB calling frequency; use upper sideband (USB)
2 meters 144.0–144.3 CW and SSB
144.200 CW and SSB calling frequency; use USB
222 MHz (1 1/4 meters) 222.0–222.15 CW and SSB
222.100 CW and SSB calling frequency; use USB
440 MHz (70 cm) 432.07–433.0 CW and SSB
432.100 CW and SSB calling frequency; use USB

The digital repeater networks create Internet-like ways for people with similar interests to find each other. For example, the WIRES-X network has “rooms” and the DMR system has “talk groups.” These function similarly to the analog FM calling frequencies in that they are great ways to connect with other stations with a minimum of searching.