The other day someone asked why I hadn’t posted about ham radio. Good question, since this blog is dedicated to my “Backpacking, Camping, Hiking and Radio Adventures.”
Why radio? In Fall, 2015, Shortwave (SW) radio became a part of my life. I started with a Sangean ATS-909X and in the process, was reunited with “Physics 101,” part of my studies from decades ago. Frequencies, wavelengths, propagation…it sounded fascinating and fun. I listened to SSB (single-side band) and conventional SW transmissions and from there decided to earn my Amateur radio (Ham) license in Spring, 2016.
Getting anxious, I qualified for a Technician-level Amateur Radio License in December, 2015 . Studying for the FCC license reintroduced me to basic electronics I’d learned in the Army as a power generation specialist (mobile generation units powered by gasoline, diesel or turbine engines). With my FCC Ham license in hand, I began looking at radio equipment for a newbie Ham.
I connected with a new acquaintance, an expert in all things radio. As a knowledgeable amateur radio operator with 40 years of experience, an electrical engineer, a techie’s go-to guy for radio and computer assistance, and long-time radio class instructor, my questions were not new to him. For practicality, not knowing how long my interest in radio would last, he recommended a very low-cost, basic radio. My online search yielded two good online reviews about the radio by Giles Read in the UK, December 2010, and in QST Product Review, June 2011; plus some online forum comments over a one year period.
I heeded his advice, and then doubled down. I purchased two of the hand-held, dual-band radios (the 2m/70cm bands) — the TH-UVF1, made by TYT —manufactured in China, featuring a seven inch high-gain antenna, a lithium-ion battery, a plug-in AC charger/adapter and a mic. I had heard these relatively inexpensive hand-held transceivers (made by several manufacturers) described to as ‘throwaways’—an arguable description given owners’ varying experiences noted in online forums. Regardless, I bought two TYT units, two back-up Li-ion batteries, and a 12 v automobile charged Li-ion battery for use in the vehicle. Sometimes a bit of redundancy is justifiable. I’m a true believer in the adage about the weakest link in the chain ruining your day! Now, after traveling a long distance for a planned radio adventure, hopefully I’ve minimized the likelihood of radio-related problems. That’s the extent of my radio equipment thus far– two hand-held transceivers and ancillary back-up equipment. My goal is to become proficient in their operation by Fall, 2016 so…. practice, practice and more practice!
Another big step: joining a local amateur radio club with a large membership. They have several ‘nets’ operating on a weekly basis throughout the year. These are networks that facilitate on-the-air meetings of club members for social, technical, emergency or public service purposes. They provide a great way to gain experience operating my equipment, while learning the proper protocols for moving the on-air traffic. The club will expose me to a variety of new equipment and operating modes, and lots of new radio folks—all Hams!
On the horizon: membership in a smaller club that works with a local CERT unit (Community Emergency Response Team). The club is into emergency communications, with a couple operational “nets.” Both clubs sponsor several repeaters (basically a receiver located in a higher location that accepts weak- incoming signals and re-transmits them immediately at higher power, resulting in an expanded operating range for mobile and hand-held radios in the area. The repeaters will give me and my HT added coverage, and several types of repeaters using various operational protocols are located all around the country. Another learning curve to master.
More than a decade ago, I served as a volunteer CERT member specializing in first-aid triage before first-responders arrived on the scene. Alas, the program was discontinued; but I’d like to see it reactivated. Recently, I was certified as a Metro Skywarn Spotter (they report bad weather conditions to the National Weather Service), and I plan to join the Minnesota Division of Amateur Radio Emergency Service (ARES) in Fall, 2016.
I’ll be examining additional radio-equipment needs during this summer/fall, including evaluating the HT performance and identifying needs for a mobile transceiver, such as two-band vs four-band vs all-band, and ancillary power requirements. My preference currently is a four-band mobile rated at approximately 35-50 watts output. For comparison, my HT is rated at .5-5 watts. I realize there are always trade-offs in equipment, based upon what I want to do with the radio(s).
I have interest in low-power (QRP) and SSB modes, and am primarily interested in local/regional operations. But, I may need more than one mobile/desktop, in which case I’ll have to define my priorities, including travel, hiking/backpacking, emergency ops, etc. My first mobile unit may be for hiking out west in the mountains, along the Superior Hiking Trail in MN, and along the Presidential Range of the White Mountains in NH over the next few years. But, ARES communications probably require more power/more weight. The power requirements are a major consideration, ac/dc, voltage, amps, recharge/backup options, weight, cost, etc. Then, there are antenna options, bandwidth considerations, height restrictions, mobility, cost and more. This is where club memberships will come in handy, all that shared experience readily available.
As you can see, there is need for a lot of planning. I found a good article a while back, ‘I Got My License, Now What’ at hamradioschool.com. Be sure to check them out; they have a very large assortment of diverse information available on their site.
Seeking additional input from the start, I joined the American Radio Relay League (ARRL) when I got my FCC license. Their mission involves supporting Public Service— amateur radio at the local, state and national level, Advocacy— at the state/federal level, Education— promoting Ham radio in schools as a tool to teach science and technology, and Technology— publishing technical material for Hams in print and online, while publishing an excellent amateur radio magazine, QST. In short, ARRL has been advancing the art and science of amateur radio since 1914.
Another excellent source of high-quality, technical amateur radio information aimed at the off-grid radio audience is blogger Chris Warren of offgridham.com. Chris does an excellent job presenting technical information in a low-tech manner, putting safety first, in an effort to help folks meet their needs while getting the best bang for their buck. In a recent post, ‘Go Box Zen: Know Where You’re Headed Before You Leave’, Chris addresses the importance of planning for what you’ll need before you stock your Go Box. If you don’t know what a Go Box is, check his post! And just as important, arguably more important, is being prepared and competent to use the tools you pack. Don’t let ‘the weakest link’ hold you back. Other posts by Chris discuss photovoltaic charging systems, solar charge controllers, inverters, QRP-operations and more –a great site.
And don’t forget, there are additional sources of online amateur radio information posted in my blog’s Recommendations section above. Which brings me back to the initial question asking why I hadn’t posted anything about radio adventures in my blog yet. After reading Chris Warren’s ‘Go Box Zen…” post, I felt it was time to ‘talk radio’ in my blog.
I’m familiar with Go Bags, they are similar to Go Boxes in many respects, and the Internet is full of related sites. I recognize some need for redundancy and the importance of knowing how your gear works. Also needed is some ability to have common parts available for common breakdowns and being able to make those common repairs on the spot if possible –to keep yourself on-the-air and in-the-game! No weak links is the goal, they can make or break you in the field, and in more areas than just amateur radio.
As a backpacker, my goal is to meet my needs on the trail, while keeping things lightweight and manageable. Over the years, I’ve had a reputation for carrying too much weight —a condition I’ve arguably conquered over the past year or two. Yet, I’m confident my backpacking experience will prove helpful when it’s time to build my Go Box or Pack as it may be, for some low-power ops anyway.
My focus now is gaining proficiency with my radio equipment, and that’s the current adventure for me –perhaps you can relate. Identifying additional equipment needs and applying my skills will become the adventure in coming months, and I’m sure the experiences will only get better with time. I’ll keep you posted!
If you’re an ‘old Ham,’ or a ‘new Ham,’ share your experiences by adding your comments below. I’d love hearing from you. -73