Archive for category Ham Radio

The search for radio minimalism

Posted by on Sunday, 21 October, 2012

There’s something exciting about doing more with less — that’s the philosophy behind the low-power ham radio subculture known as “QRP”. Try to build the tiniest radio you can, using the least power, putting out the tiniest signal, and still use it talk to somebody across the ocean. That’s the MacGuyver thrill!

I like to be able to operate morse code when I go on business trips, or just when I’m at the park. My own search for minimalism breaks down into one central goal: how little can I carry with me, and still have a working radio station? Carrying less creates more clever thrill, but also usually means sacrificing things too. For me, my search has broken down into two parts.

The Radio

I started out with a Yaesu 817, which is a tiny radio that does everything. However, it’s quite heavy (2.6 pounds) and eats battery quickly (around 400mA just on receive!) This forced me to carry an external battery. And because I often need to tune my antenna, I had to carry an external tuner. All in all, the parts filled a camera bag by themselves.

I then moved to a ultra-minimal TenTec R4020, which was much lighter (1.1 pounds), and used its eight internal AA batteries an order of magnitude more conservatively (55mA on receive!). Of course, it lacked other options: no voice/sideband ability, cryptic controls, primitive keyer, no filtering or noise reduction, only two amateur bands, and still no tuner!

I finally settled on the Elecraft KX3, which is truly mind-blowing. With 8 AA batteries, it weighs only 1.6 pounds, has reasonable current draw (150mA receive) and is 100% software-defined radio. It operates sideband or CW on every single band, and even does digital (PSK31) right on the device. It has more digital processing and filtering options than my giant IC-7200 base station. The controls are a joy to use, with two VFOs, auto-spotting of CW signal, noise reduction, multi-memory keyer, frequency memories, …the works. I literally stopped using my base station when this radio arrived; my base station felt too primitive and limited. The killer features for me were a built-in recharger for NiMH AA cells, and a built-in tuner(!)

The Antenna

A year or two ago, it seemed necessary to lug a whole separate portable antenna “kit” wherever I went. The Buddipole was the kit, and a great kit it is. Unfortunately, it’s a pretty sizeable 2 foot long bag full of metal clanky parts: tripod, extendable mast, assembled 10′ arms, tunable coils, counterpoise wires, guying wires, etc. Plus an antenna analyzer to get the tuning just right. That’s a lot of junk to carry.

Later I pared the equipment down to a mere “Buddistick”, which is a smaller vertical version of the Buddipole: a single clamp for a railing, with a small coil and arms/whip attached, and a single counterpoise wire. This fit in a small purse-sized bag.

Then I got more minimal: a PAR “Endfedz” antenna. It’s just a 40′ antenna with LC-matching box on the tip, which plugs right into the radio. Chuck one end in a tree with a water bottle, plug the other end in. It wraps into a bundle the size of a ziploc bag. Not bad. Still a slightly bulky package, though.

Finally I noticed on Elecraft’s mailing lists that the founders/designers described their own favorite “trail friendly” antenna: nothing but a teensy 1 ounce spool (26 feet) of 26 AWG ‘silky’ wire, #534 purchased from thewireman.com, and attached to a Pomona 3430 connector. The 3430 connector allows a longwire to be directly attached to the radio’s BNC port, and a second 16 foot wire is attached as a counterpoise by wrapping around a radio chassis screw. Both spools are tiny enough to slip in my jeans pocket; they feel like nothing but a long, teflon-coated guitar string! And of course it all works because of the radio’s internal tuner — I was able to tune 17m, 20m, 30m, and sometimes 40m with these two tiny wires. Had a nice morse chat from Chicago to Alabama on only 5 watts. In the picture below, you see the longwire coiled into my palm. In the picture of the KX3, you can see the two wires attached to the radio, and how it can all nicely fit in the padded case.

This, at last, is the long wire that I can slip into the edges of the KX3 radio’s padded case — no more carrying an “antenna bag” as a second package.

350 miles per watt.

Posted by on Saturday, 10 March, 2012

Today was our first near-60 degree day in weeks, so I excitedly went up on the new roof deck of our garage (completed last October, just in time to be too cold to use!) Time to try some ‘field work’ and see if I could contact anyone on 17m from my nice elevated view of the sky.

I grabbed the Buddistick, and in 5 minutes clamped it to the deck railing. It’s really no more than the HF mobile antennas you see attached to car bumpers: a balun, a coil, and twelve feet of collapsible whip. I leaned it tightly against the pergola to brace against the 30mph wind, ran a single 13′ wire radial along the ground, and poof — my analyzer showed a 1.2 SWR across the whole 17m band. No tuner needed!

I originally brought up my 100 watt base tranceiver out of the basement shack up onto the roof. Unfortunately, I discoved that the AC outlet up there was totally dead. The garage opener works, the lights work, but the outlets were dead; time to call the contractor and ask what’s up.

So I fell back on my usual QRP travel radio, the Yaesu 817ND, running on a battery. It only does 5 watts, but heck, that’s fine for CW.

My brother (an astronomer) told me that a huge huge CME hit the earth last Friday. Sure enough, I was getting an S8 noise floor across the band. Yikes. I heard a couple strong SSB conversations, but after a while I just ‘flipped’ the VFO to the local VHF repeater. I think I gave both Tom KB9AJM and Bob KB9SAR heart attacks — they never hear me on 440mhz. :-) Bob told me that HF is expected to be ‘down’ for the next few days because of the awful space weather.

Well heck with it. The solar flux was 140, so I called CQ anyway on 18.085 at a measely 10wpm. Somebody almost immediately came back to me at 5wpm! But holy cow, I could barely hear them buried in the noise — I’d estimate an S3 within an S7 noise floor.

I suddenly remembered to make use of the ‘magic upgrade’ I put on my 817 radio: the DSP circuit. Friends, let me tell you, this product sold by W4RT is astounding. It’s just a tiny pushbutton drilled into the top of the tiny radio, but it activates DSP noise reduction as good as anything I’ve heard on a huge base-station radio. It’s FAR more effective than the 500hz Collins mechanical CW filter I had installed. I turned up DSP to the maximum, and it sounded like I was floating underwater with nothing but pure CW tone coming from my responder. I simply couldn’t have copied him without it!

In any case, it turns out to be Frank WB7NZI from Washington State. We give each other 539 signal reports, but the QSB is rough, and conversations take a long time at 8wpm. But heck, 1750 miles on 5 watts? That’s 350 miles per watt — not too shabby!

Field QRP still gives me a thrill, for sure. I really need to give a demo presentation of the Buddipole kit at a monthly meeting sometime.

17m Buddistick and Yaesu 817ND

Connecting Android to my Ham Radio

Posted by on Tuesday, 27 December, 2011

I finally conjured up an electronics project which scratched an itch of mine — while simultaneously allowing my buddy and I to design a custom hardware/software solution.

The Problem: ham folks use morse code ‘keyer’ devices to aid them. It’s basically a tiny computer that plays a morse code message in a loop. You program messages into a few memories on the device, then tell the device to play “CQ CQ CQ DE NN9S” in a loop while waiting for someone to hear your hail. Or maybe you program the device to give standard canned responses when you’re participating in a radio contest. Either way, I had this realization that the smartphone in my pocket was essentially a supercomputer; why on earth was I bothering to assemble little IC devices with 5 or 10 flash memories to do this job? My phone was infinitely more powerful.

So really, the question boils down to this: assuming we can write a phone app that plays any morse code we want, how do we convert a ‘beep’ sound into a signal that my radio thinks is equivalent to “pressing the straight key”?

The radio’s connector is quite simple: it sends a small current out of a jack. If the current comes back to it, it thinks you’re pressing down on the straight key (closing the circuit). The straight key is just a physical switch.

So Jack AI4SV (my mentor/elmer) designed a circuit below which uses a common NPN bipolar transistor as the switch; we simply need to tickle the transistor’s base with a bit of current from the phone’s audio, and poof, the transistor closes the radio’s circuit and the radio sends a ‘beep’ out the antenna.

As you can see in the circuit, we take the ~.5V signal from the phone’s audio output jack and transform it into about ~5V. From there, we use a full-wave rectifier to convert the AC into DC, then eventually send that current into the transistor. The capacitor is there to smooth things out.

The other half of the project, of course, was writing an Android app to act as a versatile memory keyer. The open source code is available on Google Code, and the application is freely downloadable from Android Market.

In the video below, you can see a live demo of the prototype hardware & software in action:

I then built a ‘permanent’ version of the hardware using a perma-proto board from adafruit.com, which you can see here sitting inside an old dice box:

AKA keyer project

And here’s a screenshot of the final Android app. I can confirm that the hardware/software combo successfully drives my Yaesu 817-ND portable radio!

How to trick-out a portable ham radio

Posted by on Sunday, 20 November, 2011

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m very much into the portable, low-power subculture of amateur radio. On business trips, I like to find random hilltops (just like my mentor does), set up a simple vertical whip antenna, and then use my tiny battery-powered radio to start chatting with people around the country. It’s really quite a thrill.

The Yaesu FT817-ND is a really popular radio for this kind of thing. It’s tiny, battery-powered, only weighs a couple of pounds, and puts out 5 watts of power. Backpackers and hikers love it. That said, there’s still a huge aftermarket of “mods” you can add-on to make it more pleasureable to use. I thought I’d share some of these mods here with other aspiring low-power hams.

Here’s a guide to the different additions:

  • A: Bulldog morse code paddles. These tiny paddles are made from sewing notions (buttons) and a tiny binder clip but work great and have a magnetic base that sticks to the radio. They’re no longer made, but a newer version screws to the side of the radio.
  • B: DSP noise filter. This is an internal module installed for me by the fine folks at W4RT, who specialize in 817 upgrades. It almost completely destroys the static noise floor, just like the noise reduction in my big radio. The change is dramatic and invaluable.
  • C: 300hz CW filter Just a standard mechanical Collins filter for making morse-code much more intelligible; offered as an accessory directly from Yaesu.
  • D: Speech compressor. Another W4RT mod installed within the hand microphone, it supposedly emphasizes the mids and trebles of the human voice, making my voice much more intelligible to others when using SSB over 5 watts. Others have told me that I sound really clear with it!
  • E: Kranker knob. Another W4RT mod which makes the main dial much more usable — both for fine and rapid coarse-tuning.
  • F: Peg legs. Cute little foldable feet from Palm Radio, which tip the radio upwards towards your eyes. It’s amazing what an ergonomic difference this makes.

Of course, once I’m actually in the field, I use an Elecraft T1 tuner (about the size of a deck of cards!), and an A123 nanophosphate 4.6AH battery for up to 8 hours of operation in the field.

Two more radio expeditions

Posted by on Sunday, 31 July, 2011

Well, after successfully carrying the Buddipole on a plane to Silicon Valley and making a couple of 2000-mile contacts on 5 watts (see this blog post), I’m happy to report that I’ve had two more happy expeditions: one to Iowa, another to Oregon. I’m going to start collecting location-specific patches and sew them onto the Buddipole bag as it travels!

During a lovely family vacation to Dubuque, Iowa, I had a chance to sneak out of the hotel after dark with the antenna and Yaesu-817ND bag. I walked down to the west bank of the Mississippi river, and managed to set up a 40m horizontal dipole about 10′ high just before the sun set. Luckily, the bank sloped down 20 feet diagonally to the water, and I think the entire surface of the river acted as a gigantic reflector for my horizontally-polarized signal. Using only 5 watts, I had a lovely ragchew with a gentleman in North Carolina. Only one quick smartphone-picture was made of the antenna’s base before it got too dark:

Last week I was at a conference in Portland, Oregon (very close to the Buddipole makers!) and did a quick Google Earth inspection of the terrain. I located the highest hill in town — Council Crest is over 1000 feet high — and then took a bus up there at dawn. Here’s the equipment just before I left the hotel room, the Buddipole bag and the radiostation bag (containing radio, tuner, analyzer, and 4.8Ah nanophosphate lithium ion battery.)

Once up there, the bus informed me it wouldn’t be back till 4pm, ugh. Oh well. So I took in the great view of the whole city and valley; it was easy to see Mt. Hood on the horizon.

Setup was fairly straightforward. I spent 30 minutes building a no-compromise 20m quarter-wave vertical, with two wire radials hanging down onto the stone walls. After fooling with lengths, I could get the SWR down to about 2:1 to 2.5:1 across the whole band.

The total height was close to 10m tall.

And then I quickly set up the radio station.

During my three hours of activity, I spent an equal amount of time trying to make contacts and explaining myself to all the passers-by. Most people thought I was trying to “sample” the atmosphere or something. Another person who was an EE engineer (but not a radio ham) seemed to think that 5 watts was a ‘huge’ amount of radiation, and I couldn’t seem to talk him out of it.

I did manage to make three contacts on low power — two via voice to Alberta and B.C., and one morse-code contact to Oregon. When the other guy said my morse tone was “drifting around”, that’s when I knew the battery was dying and time to pack up!

Since I was alone up there, I had to spend an hour hiking downward through thick forest trails. My favorite part was the four-way intersection.

…but eventually I made it to the zoo, and from there was able to hop on the light rail back to the convention center!

First cross-ocean contact!

Posted by on Saturday, 23 April, 2011

I’ve been a ham almost a year now, but due to my extremely low antenna (a dipole only 20′ high across my tiny urban backyard), I’ve never been able to make contacts outside North America. I’ve managed to reach 33 U.S. states so far — as well as Canada and a small Carribean island, I still haven’t hit another continent yet. The fundamental problem is that wires strung low tend to reflect energy off the ground, and thus the radiowaves hit the sky straight above the antenna; for real long-distance ionospheric skipping, one needs the radio energy to shoot toward the horizon. This is why I’ve been planning on putting up a higher loop antenna this summer.

In any case, today I made my first breakthrough — a voice contact from Chicago to Italy. Finally!

I thought it would be fun to participate in a low-power “backyard” contest today, so I set up my Buddipole in the center of my backyard, using the same 20 meter vertical configuration that I used on the Silicon Valley hilltop a couple of months ago. I’m still surrounded by other houses and buildings, but heck, a vertical antenna is known to hit the horizon easier than a horizontal one. Worth a shot!

If you look at the photo, you can see the antenna is about 25 feet high. It’s not easy to see that there are also two wire radials sloping down to the side-fences, as well as three guy-lines. The winds were gusting to 20mph today, but the guys held the thing securely, despite the antenna swaying in the breeze just like the tall trees.

At first I used low-power (5 watt) morse code using my tiny radio and a lead-acid battery, and made a nice contact with Salt Lake City, Utah (a new state for me!). I then made a basic voice contact with a guy in South Dakota; there was a busy contest going in that state this weekend. After that, just for kicks, I decided to drag out the BIG radio from the shack and run an extension cord for AC power. I turned up to 100 watts of transmission, and discovered a guy in Italy taking calls. After 20 minutes of hoping he’d hear my callsign, he finally acknowledged me and gave me a 5 & 7 report –not bad for 100 watts! The ionosphere was good for 20 meters today, and you can tell the sunspots are really picking up compared to a year ago when I first started out. In any case, this was a new distance record for me: about 4800 miles.

In the picture below, you can see both my radios, with the tuner in the middle.

Watching your brain change

Posted by on Tuesday, 8 March, 2011

A late night blog meditation!

Thesis: I seem to get crushes not just on hobbies, but on the bizarre skills required for them.

Take a look at banjo: is there anything more bewildering than listening to Earl Scruggs play a solo at top speed? To a bystander, it’s an astounding blur of continuous arpeggiation, with accents in just the right places. It’s a bit like watching a tap-dancer go nuts with his fingers instead of feet. When I started listening to bluegrass, I fell in love: I must learn to do that crazy thing.

And so I practiced. And took lessons. And practiced. And practiced. Arpgeggios everyday. I would listen to clips of Earl’s recordings slowed down to half speed, analyzing — note by note — each little trick and lick. After a few months, I noticed one day that Earl was starting to slow down whenever I listened to his albums. Was something broken in iTunes? Wait, no… Suddenly my brain was starting to decompose the stream of notes in real time. The blur was actually a bunch of distinct phrases, some which I knew how to play already. And the more I practiced, the slower his recordings became. It’s fascinating to watch your own brain adapt!

And now ham radio. Morse code is clearly a useful tool — it cuts through static like a katana through whipped cream. It propagates much farther than voice and requires almost no power. But ugh — listen to those folks on the air doing it! It’s a cacophony of irritating high-speed beeps. It’s like my kids banging windows with their little toy wooden hammers. Make the noise stop!

But hey, let’s jump in anyway. Listen to a tutorial CD, learn one letter at a time. Practice hearing each character at slow speeds. Practice, practice, practice, for several months. At some point, I gain the courage to reach out and have a slow speed conversation with a stranger over the air. Never mind that I’m shaking and sweating and so nervous that I’m only able to copy half of the characters coming back to me. Over time, the more I do this, the less nervous I get, and the fewer characters I miss.

Then the same revelation comes back this week: “Man, why is it so hard to find people doing high speed morse on the airwaves these days?” Is everyone slowing down? Oh wait. It’s me. My brain is changing again! Morse code doesn’t sound irritating anymore. The beeps are obviously broken into clear section, clear characters. The tones are haunting… almost relaxing. The whole experience is a bit like a calming vacation.

I turn on the radio, and in voice (sideband) mode, the filter is quite wide. I hear endless grating hiss.

I narrow my filter to 1/6th the width, which is best for picking up code. Suddenly the hiss turns into a whispering valley of calm. It’s a bit like being in an indoor swimming pool: endless harsh echoes of screaming families reverberating around you — and then dunking your whole head underwater. A beautiful solitude. A sound of deep watery solace.

Then turn the dial till a code conversation appears. Listen to the letters float by! Like tiny drumbeats of beautiful tone, perfectly spaced. It almost puts you in a trance.

I know my brain has changed, because I can no longer read emails while listening to morse code. It used to be background noise, but now it’s actively messing with my language centers, competing with my ability to read text.

First Amateur Radio “DXpedition”

Posted by on Wednesday, 16 February, 2011

As my buddy Fitz will testify, I burn through new hobbies like flies on a hot dog. When I got my extra-class amateur radio license only six months after starting the hobby, my co-workers asked me if I had “won yet”, and asked to see my “achievement badges”. I guess there’s some truth there.

My job at Google requires that I do about 8-10 short trips per year (to other offices or conferences). Back when I was in my banjo phase, I obsessed about carrying a banjo on every plane so that I might seek out local bluegrass jams (I even had a folding banjo!). In my photography phase, I carried a giant DSLR and heavy lenses in my carry-on bag, and would taking photographic walking tours of each city. And now, in the era of Ham Radio, I obsess about how to carry an entire portable radio station with me in a gymbag.

And so that’s exactly what I did last week when I visited Mountain View (Google’s headquarters in Silicon Valley.) Into my gymbag went the same stuff from my trip to North Carolina:

The final gymbag was ~20 pounds, and was thoroughly swabbed and inspected by the TSA in both directions of travel. I guess they’re ok with sealed lead-acid batteries, because, well… they’re sealed.

The real star of this writeup is the Buddipole. After my own homebrewed antenna experiments failed to pan out in hotel rooms last autumn, I discovered this product. It’s not so much an antenna, but an erector set for improvising any sort of antenna you wish. It comes with a fantastic cookbook (written by fan NE1RD) that shows a zillion different tested configurations. Within a tiny little 2-foot long bag, you get a tripod, 10 foot mast, multiple radiator elements, counterpoise wires, guy lines, and changeable coils.

(This is not me, but the creator of Buddipole, holding the bag:)

The idea is that you can build a straight horizontal dipole (up to 26 feet long!), and “tap’ the coils to change the electric length. Or you can build a vertical antenna, with either rigid or wire counterpoises at random angles. Or you can make up your own Y or L shaped designs — whatever works for you! With an antenna analyzer at hand to adjust your invention, you can get it tuned perfectly. Or if not tuned perfectly, the autotuner helps span that last little bit of impedance mismatch.

Hams love to see how far they can reach with their signals — what they call ‘DXing’. They also love to take trips to remote islands or jungles and set up portable stations, what they call a “DXpedition”. My own DXpedition started when I got up at dawn and headed over to a tiny salt-water lake in the public park just north of the Google campus. Some folks at Ham Radio Outlet had recommended it to me, since an antenna over salt water gives nearly perfect ground reflection.


View Larger Map

I showed up and started by building a 10 meter vertical antenna, with two 30 degree counterpoises.

And here you can see me holding the tiny radio, hooked up to the antenna.

Alas, the 10m band was mostly inactive, and I had to start my workday. So after 7 hours of meetings, I teamed up with another ham co-worker (N1VF) and we scaled the hill just between the campus and the lake. Quite a view up there! We then built a full-sized half-wave 20m vertical antenna, since vertical antennas tend to have low takeoff angle and hit the horizon better than horizontals. Of course, on the hilltop we already had a 360 degree view of the horizon. :-) In the photo below, you can see my buddy next to the antenna. We have 3 guy lines coming off of it, and 2 wire counterpoises (about 17′ long each) drooping down to the ground.

We then sat on the hilltop for an hour, as the sun slowly set over the ocean. Nobody replied to our CQ hails on morse code, but we did hear a guy in Colorado talking to a guy in Australia, both with directional beam-antennas. Pretty neat. Eventually we made voice contact with a guy in Wisconsin; apparently he was able to pick up our tiny 5 watt signal because he too had a beam-antenna pointed towards his friend in Hawaii. The highlight of the hour, however, was when we made voice contact with a ham just outside Fairbanks, Alaska — that’s about 2500 miles away. For 5 watts, not too shabby!

After packing everything away, I managed to grab a snapshot of the setting sun as we went down the hill.

Overall, I consider the expedition a success. Alaska is a hard state to “achieve” in the game of ham radio, and I’m proud to have it in my logbook. The Buddipole really impressed me to no end. I will heartily recommend it to anyone who ever travels, camps, whatever. I plan to use it quite a bit for Field Day next June.

First successful homebrew gear

Posted by on Tuesday, 11 January, 2011

As I mentioned before, one of the joys of ham radio is to invent engineering challenges and then solve them as cleverly as possible. And it’s a great excuse for hardware hacking. Over the weekend, I built a teensy morse-code radio (on a single fixed frequency!) called the Rockmite… but I’m still trying to debug why it’s not working.

Meanwhile, a much simpler project arrived at my door: a tiny circuit board that turns any two pieces of metal into morse code paddles. By simply making touch-contact with the metal, the resistance triggers the ‘dits’ and ‘dahs’. My goal was to combine this with my existing keyer (a device that creates perfectly-timed morse code, which sits between your paddles and your radio.)

Here’s a short video showing the two circuit boards hooked up by temporary wires:

I first tried fitting the keyer board, paddle board, and a 9V battery all into an altoids tin, but alas — the keyer board’s controls were too tall for the tin, and I didn’t feel like disconnecting them and mounting them directly to the walls of the tin. But then I had a great idea! If the paddle board only needed 6V to operate, I could stack two coin-cells together. And then the coin cells and paddle board could be stuffed into the keyer’s existing black plastic enclosure!

Notice how the two coin cells are tucked into a slitted styrofoam peanut. To change the batteries, I just yank the electrodes out of the peanut, drop new batteries in, then re-stuff the elecrodes back in. Meanwhile, I hooked up the batteries to a toggle switch added to the back of the device. I had to drill an extra hole for the paddle wires to come out as well. Here’s the finished product:

And finally, a short video where I demonstrate how it works:

A huge thanks to Dale N0XAS for the picokeyer circuit and to Sumner WA1JOS for his touch keyer board. Great fun to combine them!

Pursuing the perfect “portable” ham radio setup

Posted by on Friday, 26 November, 2010

The joy of amateur radio seems to be to create new engineering problems and then solve them cleverly, thus fulfilling the MacGyver fantasy of every hacker and maker. The reward is the ability to have conversation with other such geeks, and swap stories about how clever you were. About 80% of on-air conversations seem to be about what kind of antenna each party is using, how they got it up, and what sort of equipment they rigged it to.

There seem to be three main types of amateur radio “setups”. The most important is the base station: this is your home base, with your Big Antenna attached to your Big Radio, running into your main “ham shack”. Just as popular, however, seems to be the mobile rig: the radio and antenna you build into your car. Most folks set up UHF/VHF antennas with a range of a few miles, and thus chew the rag with local hams while stuck in slow commutes. Sometimes folks will install much larger 6-8′ antennas on the backs of their cars, so they can do long-distance communication (hundreds of miles) using longer wavelengths… at the expense, of course, of making their car look ridiculous.

Finally, there’s the portable rig. This setup combines with MacGyver fantasy with the Wilderness Explorer fantasy. Put on the hiking boots, sling a tiny pack over your shoulder, then scale a mountain and see how many far-away folks you can reach. Because such tiny radios have tiny batteries, the amount of power they produce is tiny as well. But heck, the lack of power is an attraction — it’s another engineering challenge to overcome, right? :-) When you’re running at very low power (5 watts or less), you’re very much at the mercy of the ionosphere. You transmit and hope radio-wave propagation is on your side. This is also why morse code still thrives as a strong subculture within the hobby — despite the fact that it’s no longer required for any license. Morse code propagates extremely efficiently; it’s goes the most distance per watt, and is so much easier to pick out of noise than a human voice.

So where do I stand now, six months into this hobby?

My base rig is great. I have a nice mid-level radio attached to a basic 100 watt end-fed half-wave dipole. It only speaks on a single ham band (40 meters), but this is more than enough for me to make great contacts and practice my skills.

Mobile rig? No way. Not only would my wife kill me if I put a big ugly antenna on the car, it’s probably not safe. If talking on mobile phones while driving is dangerous, it stands to reason that talking to hams is just as bad.

But portable rig, aha! Yes. I go camping a couple times a year (as does my radio mentor), so I’ve been steadily building up a “go pack” for my outdoor adventure reverie. I finally got to test it out when visiting eastern North Carolina this week. Here it is, all unpacked:

The thing is attached to a 40′ wire antenna whose far end I strung up in the air (onto the a 40′ branch of a pine tree):

For indoor use, I can attach a 15″ VHF antenna and a 6′ whip for long wavelengths:

And best of all, everything fits into a tiny little REI mini-pack (except the big battery):

At last, I have a kit that not only works for camping, but can be carried on a plane for my many business trips.

Here are the essential components:

  1. The radio: a Yaesu 817ND. This amazing little unit can do all amateur HF frequencies, as well as VHF/UHF. So tiny!
  2. Antennas: for FM UHF/VHF, a Diamond SRH320A whip, or alternately, a 6′ roll-up 2m J-pole from MFJ; for indoor HF, a WonderWand whip; for outdoor HF, a PAR Endfedz 40/20/10m dipole (in a separate grocery bag.)
  3. For input/output: a Heil Dual-Sided Traveler headset, and Kent TP-1 morse code paddles. If I don’t want the weight of the heavy brass paddles, I have tiny Bulldog BD-1 paddles that magnetically stick to the radio and weigh only an ounce.
  4. For power: the radio comes with a rechargeable NiMH battery, but it barely lasts an hour or two. Also, the radio has a dirty secret: it claims to do 5W of transmit power, but this only happens when attached to a power supply. When running on internal battery, it only transmits 2.5W. So when indoors, I use a MFJ portable switching power supply (a glorified wallwart) designed just for the 817. When outside, I use a Werker 12V 9AH lead-acid deep-cycle battery, purchased from a Batteries Plus chain store; the battery and the end-fed dipole wire are the only things that don’t fit in the travel bag.

I suppose the result here is that I now also have an “go” bag for emergencies. When the zombie apocalypse comes, I just grab the pack and run!