The Dayton Hamvention® is the most influential annual gathering of amateur radio enthusiasts in the world. It’s been around since 1952 and for much of that time it has taken place at the Hara Arena, a large multi-purpose facility just outside the city limits of Dayton, Ohio. It’s a three-day event that takes place in the month of May that fills the hotels and campgrounds in the surrounding area to overflowing.
Attendance peaked in the early 1990s at over 33,000 visitors making it easily then the largest ham radio convention on the planet.
Of course, if you just mention to a few of your friends that you’re planning on making the trip to Dayton at least one of them is bound to declare that “Hara Arena is a dilapidated old venue that deserves to be torn down”. While it’s true that the facility has seen its better days, it’s also true that this is a multi-day hobbyist event that attracts tens of thousands of visitors.
There is simply no way to facilitate that size of a crowd for three days in an ultra modern facility – at least not in a fashion that would be affordable to the average enthusiast. In fact, I suspect that the Dayton Amateur Radio Association will have few viable options for continuing the event if ever the Hara Arena is closed for good so it’s best that we all enjoy it while we still can.
I live just 100 miles from Dayton and have made the trip almost every single year since 1977. What follows are my own hints and kinks for the first-time attendee or for those who have attended a time or two but never had the full-immersion effect.
Plan, Plan, Plan
The best advice I could possibly give you for maximizing your adventure can be summed up in a single word: planning.
Dayton, Ohio is centrally located and served by its own international airport. The Greater Cincinnati Area airport (in northern Kentucky) is about 75 miles to the south. Other major airports nearby are in Columbus, Ohio (80 miles east) and Indianapolis, Indiana (125 miles west). I mention these other airports because if you plan to travel by air and will be renting a car anyway, airfares to/from these nearby airports could save you a bundle and it pays to investigate.
Since Dayton attracts so many visitors, and is the place where radio suppliers announce everything new and exciting for the coming year, it has also become the place for many national (and international) organizations to conduct their business too. Hamvention® officially kicks off on Friday morning and runs through Sunday afternoon but the facilities close by early evening on Friday and Saturday and at 2:00pm on Sunday afternoon. This leaves the evening hours for more radio revelry. Folks coming in from faraway will usually show up early – say on Wednesday night or Thursday. When you couple these extra days with the evenings you end up with a string of opportunities for many off-site events.
Popular examples are the DX and Contesting banquets which take place in nearby hotels on Friday or Saturday evenings. That’s why you really need to make plans months in advance. By visiting the Hamvention® home on the Web long before the actual event, you can find out about the long (and growing) list of affiliated events that take place around Dayton – but not necessarily at Hara Arena, and then plan accordingly. This is your chance to rub shoulders with Big Dog DXers and contest operators, visit the Air and Space Museum with the AMSAT folks, etc.
Once you get a feel for everything that goes on around the actual Hamvention® I think you will have a new appreciation for just how busy this event really is and why so many dedicated radio amateurs make the pilgrimage to Dayton at least once in their lifetime.
While you’re making plans for all the things you want to see and do in Dayton you should begin with your accommodations. If you just blow into town on Friday afternoon thinking you can easily find a hotel room you’re liable to end up one sad and disappointed puppy dog sleeping in your car. I’ve often heard people brag about having made no reservations and yet still finding a room, but that’s a gamble not worth taking. Almost all of the hotel rooms available in Dayton and the surrounding area are generally reserved six months to a year in advance for that weekend. And then on the very first day there are cancellations which no doubt account for the lucky find of a room or two. But don’t kid yourself; finding a room for that weekend is much more problematic than just buying a ticket so plan ahead.
Many clubs and groups reserve blocks of rooms and you can often find one by searching popular ham radio mailing lists and putting out a few feelers – months in advance of the actual event.
There are several campsites (KOA, etc.) within easy commuting distance of Hara Arena if you prefer. Again, spend the time to make your plans as early as possible and chances are you won’t be left out in the cold.
And speaking of cold, Dayton, Ohio in May is a total crapshoot when it comes to weather so bring everything. The weather has been less of an issue since the event organizers pushed the weekend from late-April out into the middle of May. But sloshing around in cold rain is no fun and neither is paying $20 for a two-dollar rain cover. You will see that in the flea market – those little cheap, plastic rain coats all folded into a pocket sized pack selling for two dollars when the sun is shining but soon as the first drop of rain falls the price skyrockets! Bring appropriate rain gear and both warm and cool clothing and you’ll be covered.
Make certain the shoes you bring along are comfortable – you will walk most of the tread off of them and nothing can make you as miserable as having tired, sore feet.
A small bottle of sunblock is good to have as well as a hat.
The Radio Amateur is Considerate
Toting valuable old booty out of that massive flea market can be problematic. I’ve seen guys pulling the kind of suitcase that has wheels (like you see in an airport) and a handle all around. I’ve seen grocery store shopping carts and two-wheel trucks carry load after load from flea market to automobile. Nothing is too surprising but on this point please allow me to climb on my soapbox about one particular bad practice that is proliferating…
Many hams strap on a backpack. These seem pretty handy for carrying the smaller parts and brochures that one would accumulate while surfing the big event for hours at a time. Most even have a handy holder for a bottle of water or other cold drink. But whatever you do, do not place your hand-held radio in the backpack with the antenna sticking out. More than once in my life I’ve been standing ten deep in line at some booth trying to see the latest and greatest while some moron in front of me with a backpack nearly pokes my eyes out with the rubber duck or telescoping antenna from his radio that he can’t even see.
I’ve determined that next time I’m in this position I‘m going to snap the antenna off and walk away!
Another bit of backpack rudeness is having this same hand-held facing backwards with the volume turned up all the way. Again, I’ve been in a deep line behind this numbskull when the squelch breaks and 100dB of sound blasts into my face.
Use your brain, be considerate of your fellow hams, and think about things like that, huh?
Gates Open on Friday
Okay, so let’s say you’ve made the journey, you’ve got a hotel room, and it’s Friday morning and you’re headed to Hara Arena. What to expect?
You should check to see if a bus or shuttle transportation is available from where you’re staying to Hara Arena. Letting someone else do the driving takes all the hassle out of getting to and from your hotel and usually these shuttles provide drop off right at the front door as opposed to parking in some remote lot. The only downside is having to pay attention to the schedules so you don’t get left behind – and the fact that you can’t carry heavy items out to your car.
If you’re going to drive then you have multiple parking options. One of the most popular is to park at the Salem Mall about a mile and a half from Hara Arena on the same road. The location for parking is setup ahead of time and city buses run continually between the mall and the arena. You can purchase a bus pass for a very reasonable amount along with your ticket for the event and you will be all set. This is about the optimum parking situation for drivers since you will be parking on pavement, dropped off/picked up at the front gate, and security patrols this parking lot regularly.
Paid parking does exist. Lots are across the road from Hara Arena and within fairly reasonable walking distance but take note – this is a big grassy field when the weather is dry and it’s a big mud hole when it is not. Other options come and go with each passing year so look around. Nearby residents often sell off their front and backyards for as much as they can get!
If you have VHF/UHF FM capability and you’re not certain where you’re going, tune to one of several talk-in frequencies and request some assistance. Volunteers of the Dayton Amateur Radio Association are hands down the best in the talk-in business – as they should be. Each year they direct thousands of people around highway construction and other impediments to get swarms of folks to and from Hara Arena. As you might expect, the talk-in frequency is very busy and considering that there are only so many ways to get to Hara just listening for fifteen minutes will probably provide all the instruction needed.
Check the Hamvention® Web site for the talk-in frequencies.
One other note about this, during this weekend the repeaters of Dayton are simply deluged with activity and it’s not uncommon to hear all manner of malicious interference including foul language and the like. Take it with a grain of salt and don’t let it put you off. I don’t know why some people find pleasure in abusing the system like this, it certainly isn’t good amateur practice but it happens and there isn’t a lot anyone can do about it.
Be sure to check the Hamvention® Web site for information in advance if you have special parking/access needs. More than once I have seen people yelling and screaming at parking attendants and event volunteers because they didn’t make prior arrangements before just pulling up to the front gate on opening day with someone in a wheelchair and rudely demanding a close place to park. There are rules and they are enforced and if you’re so inconsiderate as to demand special access without making arrangements in advance, you simply don’t deserve to get in – and you probably won’t.
Also check ahead of time about the availability and cost of electric scooters that can usually be rented on site if you require one.
Assuming you have made it to Hara and are ready to enter the facility you will need a ticket. You would have saved a little money by purchasing them in advance but you will be able to buy tickets on the day of the event – typically there are no single day passes. Your ticket is good for the entire three days so don’t lose it or you will be buying another one to get back. There are vendors who will happily laminate your ticket and give you a lanyard to hang it around your neck for five or ten bucks but I’ve always avoided this unnecessary expense.
Most first time visitors don’t understand that Hara is a large complex that includes many buildings that are interconnected. Most of the largest exhibits take place on the main arena floor but there are several other buildings and you will either need a map or be willing to walk and walk and walk. Here again, you need to make plans in advance if you want to even have a small chance of seeing everything there is to see. My own routine is based on the weather. If the weather is favorable on Friday morning then I spend that entire day outside in the flea market so if it rains on Saturday, I’m already done outside and can spend the rest of the weekend indoors and out of the rain.
Flea market outside, and all the new stuff is inside. That’s about the size of it though there are a few exceptions so be sure to look closely as your travel both areas.
Forums and license testing all take place inside and for that you will also need to plan. Study the information available before you go and make notes about the particular forums you would like to attend. Seek out the location for those rooms and get them square in your head so you can find them again when the time comes to attend.
Smell the Noise
If it happens to come up a big shower then everyone who is outside rushes inside and believe me, being in such close proximity to 25,000 wet radio hams can be difficult and overload your sense of smell – everyone will appreciate your liberal use of deodorant!
On the morning of the first day the place is as clean and sanitary as it is going to get. Visit the restroom by 3pm that same day and you will definitely notice the effects of twenty-five thousand human beings. There are usually port-a-pots setup out in the flea market area but I’d avoid them unless you can hold your breath for a minute or two at a stretch. These kinds of logistics aren’t pleasant to cover but I figure forewarned is forearmed.
The food at the big event is, well, it’s hamfest food. Hotdogs, hamburgers, brats, etc. They all smell pretty good on the grill by 11am. The food is usually provided by schools and other fund-raising organizations. The concessions are staffed by volunteers who aren’t food prep professionals. Your purchase of a hotdog and a soft drink will help fund some local school’s softball team or a church choir looking to purchase new gowns. You’re going to pay more than you want for very mediocre foodstuffs but it’s for good cause so smile and enjoy that hotdog – but plan to eat your largest meal of the day far from Hara Arena.
Elbow to Elbow
If you’ve never been to Hamvention® then you need to prepare yourself mentally and emotionally to be lost in a very large crowd. Expect to be so deep in humanity at some points that it will take you twenty minutes to cover fifty yards. People stop and loiter in front of the most popular booths and hours of such close contact can really get into your head. Take deep breaths, step outside frequently, laugh and try to enjoy it. But I’m not kidding, standing completely surrounded by a sea of people is probably not for the very claustrophobic.
Dayton is the place where manufacturers show off their new goodies and where dealers come to unload their inventory. Generally speaking you will find great deals on new gear but do a little comparison price shopping online before you arrive. Determine ahead of time what is and is not a good price on gear you may be interested in and bring your notes. Don’t forget to bring your credit cards too and whatever you do, don’t depend too heavily on cash. There’s an ATM machine right out front of the main entrance but I watched a fellow one year go berserk when after standing in a long line for the ATM and finally getting his turn, the machine was completely out of cash. It pretty much ruined his day so plan accordingly.
All the major dealers will accept your credit cards while almost all of the flea market sellers will only accept your cash.
Federal Express and/or United Parcel Service usually have a booth inside where you can pay to have them lovingly ship that new transceiver or amplifier home for you. This may be especially handy if you’re traveling from far away as it will likely get home before you do and you won’t have to lug it around or worry that it will be stolen from your automobile or hotel.
When All Else Fails
Here’s a tip if you’re traveling with friends or planning to meet someone at Dayton: forget about your hand-held radio.
I always find it cute when walking into the arena on opening day behind two newbies who say, “let’s use 146.55mHz simplex to stay in touch – no one will think to use that frequency”. Do the math – you are going to be in an environment where there will be twenty to thirty thousand radio hams – fully half of which will be trying to use a hand-held FM radio. All of the available frequencies will either be saturated or the interference from so much RF in such close proximity will nearly insure that you will never see your friends again if you’re relying on radio at Hara Arena.
Instead of trying to use the radio, plan on meeting inside the main arena up in the seats. These are marked off by section and can be very easily found. If you tell your friend to meet you in “section 21 near the top at 1:30pm” then you can be fairly certain that both of you will arrive at the same point. Besides, you’re going to be dead-tired from all the walking and your feet will appreciate a thirty minute break taken in these comfy seats while you and your buddy share all the cool things you’ve seen and purchased.
Don’t forget to fill out your ticket stub and get it in the big barrel as soon as possible. The hourly drawings at Dayton are the best of any such event you will ever attend and the main prizes are always best of breed equipment. Buy your ticket in advance and fill it out before you get there. Otherwise, take a pencil or pen because it’s never fun to have to wait in a long line just to use a pencil to get your ticket in the barrel…
Wrapping it Up
Arrange your departure from Hara Arena each day to coincide with your own needs. If you are using a private shuttle or public bus you need to be aware of the time for the last departure or else you’ll be left behind. Back at your hotel you can prepare for the evening event if you’ve made plans. The larger events like the DX or Contest dinners will have an open bar an hour or so before the actually banquet begins. Notable speakers will entertain you while you dine and then afterwards you can begin looking for one of the many hospitality suites where, after swapping a few more tall tales over a cold beer or two, you will be more than ready to crash in your bed.
But set your alarm, the next morning rolls around quickly and it all begins again!
Most of the flea market vendors will be packing it in and headed for home before noon on Sunday. Earlier if the weather is bad. Plan on hitting the flea market hard on Friday or Saturday. By Sunday almost everything that is going to sell has been sold and most of the sellers are getting anxious to wrap up the long weekend. But amazing deals have been known to develop out of this exodus. I’ve seen some guys walk up and offer someone $50 for a table full of gear and the flea market seller takes it to keep from carrying it all home. I guess nothing ventured, nothing gained?
See you in Dayton
Make no mistake, the Dayton Hamvention® is a ham radio adventure. It’s my opinion that every radio enthusiast should attend at least once in their life, if you can afford it. I understand that travel and lodging isn’t cheap and that same money could buy a lot of new gear. Still, the camaraderie, the sights, the smells, the experience can’t be duplicated in any other way. Rubbing shoulders with thousands of your fellow amateurs and a handful of your radio heroes is a unique experience that only happens once a year and it only takes place in Dayton, Ohio.
I hope to see you there some day soon!
One More Thing…
I’ve come across more than a few radio amateurs who travel to Dayton from abroad. They often spend a little extra time in the US and one particularly popular destination is the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Indianapolis is less than 150 miles from Dayton and the month of May is a busy one in Indy. Time trials and practice runs take place all month long and then the Indy 500 race is usually run a week or two after the Dayton Hamvention®.