Anatomy of a Field Radio Kit Part 2: Kit Types, Preparedness, and the Golden Rules

The following review was first published in the July 2021 issue of The Spectrum Monitor magazine. Read Anatomy of a Field Radio Kit Part 1 here.


Part 2: Anatomy of a field radio kit

Last month, I took us down the rabbit hole of field radio kits by discussing some of the most basic components of a field radio kit in Part 1.

This month, we’ll take a deeper dive into the types of radio kit you might choose to assemble based upon your activity goals.  And finally, we’ll look at my “golden rules” of field kits, which I hope you’ll find useful.

Types of field radio kits

I configure and outfit my radio kits based on the environment in which I plan to deploy and operate, and which determines in no small way just what I need to pack besides the basics.

I roughly divide my field kit types as follows…

The Field Day or “Picnic Table” Kit

This is probably the most popular type of field kit in the world of amateur radio. Picnic table kits are designed with portability in mind, but not designed with distance hiking in mind. This is a very popular type of kit for Field Day or park activations through POTA or WWFF.

These kits are typically packed in a backpack, a Pelican-type utility case, or a self-contained and field-ready box.

My picnic table kit is packed in a large Red Oxx C-Ruck rucksack. If I haven’t already made it clear, I’m a self-professed pack geek and I love this Red Oxx Pack because it has large zippered pockets on the outside, a rain flap with storage on top, and one large compartment on the inside.

I keep a lightweight washable blanket on the floor of the pack’s main compartment to act as padding for the gear, but also to use when I want a soft surface for operating (or a little additional warmth). I tuck my radio, accessories pack, clipboard, tablet computer, arborist throw line, and vertical antenna components into the main compartment on top of the blanket. Since the pack has room to spare, if it’s a cold-weather outing, I can easily include gloves and an extra wind-breaker or other layering jacket.

The left side external pocket holds my wire antennas and paracord lengths used for configuring the antenna. I also keep a water bottle in this pocket, and would also clip bear spray onto the side here if I felt I needed it, since that must remain easily accessible. As a mountaineer once said, “bears don’t wait for you to dig the bear spray out of your pack.”

The right side external pocket holds my battery and a portable Anderson Powerpole DC distribution panel.

The front pocket contains a full first aid kit, sunscreen, bug spray for ticks and mosquitoes, a blaze orange vest (for activations in game lands), a headlamp, map, and a protein snack bar or two (like an RX Bar, Cliff Bar, or the like) if I’m not in bear territory.

The top flap pocket contains lightweight items like my logging notebook, waterproof pouch, pencil, and a spare set of pocket CW paddles.

This kit can provide everything I need for a full Field Day station, or to activate a lakeside state park.

Again, many operators choose to build their “picnic table” kit in a waterproof, rugged case or even a large hard-sided case with rack-mounted components, but this works for me.

The SOTA Kit

This is my favorite type of kit as it assumes the operator is going to hike into the site. It is configured with many of the same supplies as the picnic-table pack, with some important differences:

First of all, weight and size are factors that must be considered if you plan to hike with your radio gear. My SOTA kit contains the lightest-weight transceivers, batteries, components and accessories. The backpack is lower-profile and designed to carry on narrow footpaths. The pack is also completely waterproof and very comfortable.

Ask any active SOTA operator: over time, a SOTA pack will magically shed weight as any and every extraneous item is purged, and every essential made as compact and as lightweight as possible.

One other big difference with my SOTA pack compared with the other packs mentioned here? Safety gear.

As much as I want to minimize what I take in my SOTA pack to keep the weight and bulk down, there are some safety items that are simply required:

  • A paper map of the trail network I’m using and a real analog compass. If my phone or GPS dies, I want backups I can depend on.
  • A rechargeable LED headlamp. This is non-negotiable, because if something happens to delay your return hike and you find yourself in the dark, a headlamp (or flashlight) is a life saver. Period.
  • Extra provisions: I carry more than one protein bar, extra water, and even a compact Lifestraw should I need to filter drinking water on my route. I also always have a knife. 
  • Being pragmatic, on day-long forest hikes we should also bring a small scoop/shovel and a little toilet paper. I always carry TP designed for camping: a super compact, lightweight roll of tissue that’s quickly biodegradable.

Also, emergency supplies…

I hike in the mountains of western North Carolina, where in the spring, summer, and fall, tree canopies can be thick, and the weather fickle and unpredictable. It’s easy to get disoriented especially if a trail isn’t well marked, if the weather turns quickly, or if you’re hiking late and the sun sets.

When we learn about lost hikers, often they’re day hikers who became disoriented, got lost, and weren’t prepared. Indeed, day hikers are––according to numerous sources, including National Geographic––“the most vulnerable in survival situations.”

As a SOTA day hiker, I don’t want to become a statistic. I pack a compact emergency sleeping bag and “space blanket,” both made of a reflective mylar material that’s waterproof and can keep me warm if I got stuck in the forest overnight. I have a small SOL emergency kit with a number of handy emergency items. I also carry a first aid kit designed for hikers. And I pack an extra waterproof layer as well as a high-visibility lightweight vest. These are such affordable, compact, and lightweight items, why not take them along? I never hike without them.

Another item I personally think is worth the money, especially for those who often hike in remote areas, is a personal locator beacon or Garmin InReach device. I have a Garmin InReach Mini and love it. Not only does it use the Iridium satellite network for true professional global SOS assistance, but it also allows me to send text messages from nearly anywhere, which is (pro tip alert!) a great way to spot yourself to the POTA or SOTA network when you have no mobile phone coverage. These devices retail for around $350 US and the plan I have (the most basic) is about $13/month. I consider this brilliant insurance.

Consider getting one of these devices, especially if you ever hike alone or go off the beaten trail.

The Modular Kit

I keep one fully-stocked modular kit that is based on a picnic table pack. The difference from my picnic table kit is the modular pack contains accessories in individual compact pouches and stuff sacks containing antenna gear, batteries, mic/key, etc. The modular pack essentially has everything but the radio, because it’s built to incorporate any radio I may wish to take along.

I’m a huge fan of Tom Bihn travel trays to organize my modular kits

Items like ATUs, antennas, cables, adapters, etc. are pretty universal, so they’re loaded in this pack and ready to go. When I’m packing to hit the field, I pull out the transceiver and put it in the pack. I keep one empty pouch in the pack in which I load items specific to this transceiver: its power cord, microphone and any other accessories this radio might require.

The modular kit is actually what I reach for the most because I’m often testing and reviewing transceivers and don’t want to build out a full kit for a specific radio that might be returned to the manufacturer or sold after review.

The modular kit is also an excellent option for a radio operator who only has one transceiver used for both shack and field. I have been in this situation before, and so I purchased an extra mic, paddle, and power cable that I packed in the modular field kit. When I wanted to hit the great outdoors, I only needed to unplug the radio and throw it in the pack. Easy!

The Micro Kit

My Elecraft KX1 Micro Kit

I built a Micro kit around my super compact Mountain Topper MTR-3B CW transceiver. The entire station fits in a small waist pack and can easily slip in my laptop bag, travel pack, or even the car glove compartment.

The venerable Mountain Topper MTR-3B

The micro kit is designed around only the most basic essentials needed to get on the air. It’s as compact as I can make it, but contains everything needed to get on the air. My Micro kit travels with me even when I’m not sure if I’ll be doing any portable operations but just might have the chance, and for that reason, I often find the opportunity.

My MTR-3B Micro kit contains:

Micro kits are fun to build, and always test the bare minimum of supplies needed to get on the air.  They present a challenge to the operator to see what he or she can do with less, and in circumstances that may be less than ideal, pushing the very limits of field operation to the extreme. Micro kits are just the thing to take on trips and vacations even when you don’t plan to operate, but never know when an opportunity might suddenly arise.

Field Radio Kit “Golden Rules”

Based on real-life experience and––let’s be frank here––mistakes, I’ve created a set of Golden Rules that I adhere to. If you learn nothing else from this field radio kit anatomy lesson, please take this advice to heart.

Golden Rule 1: Don’t borrow from one kit to feed another.

When your self-contained field kit conveniently has the adapter, battery, or cable assembly you might need in the shack when you hook up a new radio, there’s serious temptation to pull it from the pack and use it in the shack. That’s exactly what I did during the National Parks On The Air program in 2016. I borrowed one PL259 to BNC adapter and cable assembly to test a review radio in the shack. The next day, when I reached the park after a long drive, I had no effective way to connect my antenna to my radio. Lesson learned. 

Worse case scenario: if you absolutely must borrow from a field kit, attach a note to your pack listing what you borrowed, and promising yourself to return it promptly. Still…better to not to borrow.

Golden Rule 2: Use your pack’s organization system; every item should have its own dedicated spot.

You might have gathered from my field kit descriptions that I like keeping station components grouped and organized together in their own dedicated pouches or pockets in my packs. If I’m using a Pelican case, I make sure each component has its own space in the pick foam padding.

Doing this means that you can quickly scan your pack or case and verify if something is missing––an important skill when packing up in the field after something falls on the forest floor.

I first learned to do this during my days of corporate travel. To this day, I can tell you how and where I packed all of my travel gear in my one carry on pack. It made for efficient, effortless packing, deployment, and repacking.

Golden Rule 3: Be so familiar with your field kit that you can pack it with your eyes closed.

Now that you’ve subscribed to Golden Rule 2, it’ll be easy to get to know your field kit. meticulously pack everything the same way each time you use your kit.  Take a tip from our visually-impaired ham friends:  at home, try packing and unpacking your gear without looking.

This may sound a bit over the top, but I have been in a situation where I needed to pack up in the dark because my headlamp batteries suddenly died (this was in pre-rechargeable headlamp days). Since I knew my pack so well, I confidently packed and checked everything before leaving the site. I had a solid mental inventory, and even to the touch, any missing item would have been conspicuous by its absence. I got it all home safely.

Golden Rule 4: No matter how compact the kit, carry important spares.

I define “important spares” as the weak links in my field kit. You know, the bits that can bring an abrupt halt to your field fun if they break, fail, or are lost in the field. Here’s a short list of my important extras:

  • Extra important adapters: A spare PL-259-to-BNC adapter, for example
  • Fuses: If your rig’s fuse blows, can you still operate? Carry an extra fuse or two.
  • Spare cable assembly: Cables and feedlines are consumables. They will eventually fail. If I have any space, I’ll carry an extra 4 foot RG-316 cable.
  • Extra battery for ATU: My Elecraft T1 uses 9V batteries, so I always keep a spare.
  • More than one pencil/pen for logging (or have a backup for your computer logging)
  • Alligator clips, cable ties, a little roll of tape, thin wire for improvised antenna.  All of these are small inexpensive items that could come in handy should you need to improvise.

At the end of the day, Golden Rule 4 is about keeping you on the air if a small item is lost or fails. Check your field kit and decide if you need duplicates of some small items, and take them along.

Golden Rule 5: Always have a plan to protect your rig from rain and water.

I always pack a mylar space blanket in my SOTA pack (see above in the emergency supplies section) and a rain jacket that folds up into a small stuff sack. These items can protect gear if rain pops up suddenly while operating. It’s still wise to carry a poly zip bag large enough to hold at least your transceiver in case of severe weather or if your hike leads you to fording a river.

Poly bags are inexpensive and accessible. Still: splurge for the thickest quality poly bags you can find.

Golden Rule 6: Use a quality pack or case

I’m an outlier in that I will pay $300 for a good backpack. A certified pack geek, I love supporting small manufacturers who design and manufacture all of their products here in the US. While I’m a supporter of international trade, I find that here in the US, we have some outstanding backpack companies.

One of my favorites, Red Oxx, manufactures all of their products in Billings, Montana. I love the design, engineering, and craftsmanship of their packs and I know they’ll never fail me in the field. The last thing I want is for my backpack’s main zipper to pop off when I’m sitting on a summit facing a 4 hour hike back to the trailhead. This will never happen with a Red Oxx pack, and even if my bag was damaged somehow, they will fix it or replace it free, for life.

I recently purchased a Red Oxx Micro Manager for my Discovery TX-500 field kit.

But you don’t need to spend as much money on backpacks or cases as I do. Simply make sure you’re buying a quality product with solid stitching, quality YKK zippers, weather-proofing, and from a company with an excellent reputation who will help you out if something breaks, busts, or tears.

Golden Rule 7: Prepare and plan for your environment.

This rule cannot be overstated:  be prepared.

Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Will there be trees to hang my antenna, and are the trees accessible and tall enough?
  • Will I have mobile phone service? Are there local repeaters I can hit from the site?
  • Worse case scenario, what weather emergency might I encounter?
  • Am I hiking, camping, or visiting an area with potentially dangerous wildlife?
  • Does someone know what time I should arrive on site and when I should be home? Will someone notice if I go missing? (Again, an important consideration if hiking alone.)

Plan accordingly.  And take one more essential thing:  your common sense.

Golden Rule 8: Deploy your entire kit at your home before hitting the field.

Don’t head to the field with a new field kit without having set up the entire kit and gotten on the air from your home, first. You really need a real-life “shake-out” before heading to the field, as this will help you discover the small items you might have forgotten to include. Better to discover these prior to travelling!

Doing this costs nothing. I also use it as an opportunity to time how long it takes me to do a full deployment which then helps me plan my time and schedule. You need to account for how long it takes to deploy and re-pack your gear if your schedule is tight.

Golden Rule 9: Leave No Trace

Not only do I always pack up any and all trash I might create at a park or on a summit, whenever possible, I also pick up others’ trash I notice in my surroundings.

I follow the seven “Leave No Trace” principles.Not only does it leave our amazing outdoors and public lands in excellent shape for others to enjoy, but it reflects very positively on amateur radio operators.

I’ve activated Kerr Scott State Game Land three times. Oddly, all three times I’ve met the same park ranger who has been fascinated by my radio gear and Morse Code operation. Even though the site I activate is separate and remote, his weekly checkup of the site coincided with my activations. Last time I was at the site, he drove up just as I was picking up litter on the ground––several fast food bags and packaging spread all over one portion of the parking area. He thanked me for cleaning up others’ litter. I drove home that day knowing that he might now think of ham radio operators as the sort of people who respect the lands he protects. That made me feel good; in picking up those bags, I’d done my bit for the hobby as well as the park.

At the end of the day, we as ham radio operators need to respect our “outdoor” shacks and make them a better place for everyone.

In summary: Radios and their operators are happiest in the field

My final bit of advice? Don’t wait too long to hit the field and get on the radio! 

If you have all of the components you need––even if they’re not the most ideal for the field––go anyway. The experience you gain each time you activate a summit or park, or participate in an event like Field Day, will benefit you for years to come.

I can promise you this: when you hit the field, you’ll get to experience what it’s like to operate without urban radio interference. And trust me when I say, that’s a treat. It’s yet one more factor that makes outdoor radio operation so incredibly and positively addictive!

To the field!


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11 thoughts on “Anatomy of a Field Radio Kit Part 2: Kit Types, Preparedness, and the Golden Rules”

  1. Great article, Thomas! I continue to learn from you, Obi-Wan…

    A glaring omission: what about that field coffee mug? Undisclosed secret sauce for how you brew coffee in the field? Inquiring minds want to know!

    73,

    1. So funny! I debated putting that in the article because I was already pushing *way* over the word count for a typical TSM article.

      I’m planning to do a separate post about my field coffee kit including a video! You’re right: it’s an essential. 🙂

      73,
      Thomas
      K4SWL

  2. Thank you Thomas for your articles, knowledge, and Ham spirit. I am a beginner at going to the field/park/sota with radios. And I do hike alone most of the time. I’m getting closer to heading out: antenna is here, battery next week. Radio is almost ready (UBitx v6).
    Your info is valuable for me!
    73
    Wb8yxf

  3. Yes, great article on field operations.

    There seems to be two types of QRP outdoor events most use. 1. the back pack and hiking into the wonders of the forest and hills with setup on the ground or a big rock. and 2. those going to a good park with shelters and picnic tables.

    Nr 1 is great for those with lots of time and energy to hike and find a location they need. Nr 2 is more for the Ham just wanting to get out of the shack and do a few hours with friends.

    Nr 2 is great for a club event with some not operating and maybe just want to come along, often marry a club picnic with the event.

    I do the nr 2 and my gear is the same except for the back pack. I put my gear in a secure case with all except the antenna which is a 40m OCF dipole and 20ft portable flag pole. All takes less than 20 minutes to assemble. It is not setup for transporting far, can make a few trips to the vehicle.

    Both can be fun. But for me the primary fun comes from the Ham Radio operation.

  4. Hi Thomas,
    What pack is is in the picture of your SOTA kit (has a maple leaf logo)? I ask because I want to find a dual purpose (SOTA/POTA) pack alternative to the Icom pack for my IC-705 and tuner that will protect both devices and accompanying gear.
    Thanks,
    Mike

  5. Great tips, Thomas! Two more that I would like to add after years of doing radio in the field-

    1) After you have packed everything up to head back home, sit down and relax a minute. Look around, enjoy the view. Also take a minute to check around your operating area to spot what you may have dropped or forgot to pack. One time I actually forgot to pack the antenna up and had to go back for it!

    2) If anything needs fixed or adjusted, do it rightvwhen you get back. Dont use my method of jury-rigging and making do for 3 or 4 outings.

    I enjoy your articles!
    N8TGQ

    1. I agree. I do this for two reasons, 1. to make sure I have all my gear loaded, do this with all in my Jeep and look around to make sure and 2. as Rick says to just enjoy the place. Parks are very nice to just set a visit, all the trees and sounds. I often do this at the beginning to get a feel of the place for helps with planning the setup.

      73, ron, n9ee

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