The dust has settled and the car has been emptied of coffee cups and ham gear. I've unpacked my bags and begun to organize all the little bits and pieces that followed me home from Dayton. This was a great Hamvention weekend. It was my third year in four and by far the best time yet. On the long drive back to New Jersey, I had some time to ruminate on what made this trip so much better than the last. I've come up with several ideas, but four stick out most. Best of all, they aren't specific to Dayton. So, no matter what Hamfest you might be heading to, here are four way to get more out of the experience:
People in our lives generally fall into three categories: people we enjoy, people we don't, and people we have to be be around whether we enjoy them or not. When going to the Hamfest, only take the first kind of people. This might sound simple, but don't pass over it too quickly. Consider that Ham radio--and by extension a Ham Fest--is not for everyone, whether you enjoy them or not. So take someone you enjoy, who also enjoys Ham radio and you'll have a great time. Drag along a friend, spouse, or mother-in-law that cannot understand why you, "waste all that time in the garage fiddling with your radio," and you're both in for some serious spurious emissions that may make RF burns the least of your worries.
The draw of Amateur Radio is complex. There are the Emcomm types, the CW purists, the PSK314787096505 digital modes types, the "Good Buddy this here ham radio sure beats CB" types, and there are people that want to bounce signals off satellites or the Moon or Mars (at least that's what there antennas suggest). The point is, no matter what you've tried in Ham Radio, there is at least one more things you haven't tried. If you're at a Hamfest, chances are someone there knows about it. Go ask questions, sit through a forum,or grab some literature. You never know what you'll discover. For instance, I learned that my Raspberry Pi, is a really good platform for building a repeater controller at the Embedded Linux Forum this year at Dayton. Why did I go to that forum? It was the only one where I could find a seat. Did I enjoy it? Yes. Now I have another avenue to explore in Ham radio.
It is SO easy to come home from a Hamfest with a trunk full of junk. There is a lot of STUFF at any Hamfest, but chances are, you don't need that much stuff. In fact, you might not need any stuff at all and that's perfectly acceptable. The best way to avoid all the Junk in the Trunk is to avoid carbohydrates (sorry I was trying to hold back, but I couldn't resist). The best way to avoid buying a bunch of stuff you don't need is to go with a plan and maybe a list. You might not find what you're looking for, but that gives you an excuse to go to the next Hamfest (win-win). With a solid plan you will be focused on finding something useful.
Another thing: don't give up. I went to Dayton with a few small bits and pieces on my list: toroids, connectors, a few semiconductors, but at the very top of the list was an Elecraft K1. I've wanted one for a while, but shelling out the money for a new one has been impossible. For months I've been convincing myself I'd find a used one at a Hamfest. When none showed up, I doubled down on Dayton. Like they say, "If you can't find it at the Dayton flea market..." Well, I couldn't and it bummed me out. I was just about to blow some money of something else to satiate my QRP thirst when I spotted a K1 sitting on a table where it didn't belong. Ten minutes later, I was walking off with it after striking a deal that even my XYL thought was reasonable. The point is, know what you're looking for, don't give up, and keep you eyes open.
Ham Radio is social. So be social. It's one thing to know people's on-air voice, but when you can meet them face-to-face, it makes the on-air meetings more interesting and meaningful. Talking to and meeting new Hams is also a great way to initiate more on-air contacts and it's also a great way to find new friends. If you're shy, join a group or a club and slowly wade in to the social interaction. Before you know it, you 'll have more people to go to Ham Fests with and more people who sympathize and offer alternatives next time your XYL puts her foot down on your plan to run a radial field through her rose garden.
Hamfests are a blast. So find one nearby or even one not so nearby and make a day of it. With some forethought, a few friends, a willingness to learn, and a purpose for going, you'll be sure to have an amazing time. Just remember, it's easy to spend money at a Hamfest, but it's how you spend your time there that counts.