As I mentioned in a previous post, if all goes according to plan (and we never take that for granted anymore) our family is plotting an extended road trip into Canada this summer. We’ve got most things lined up: a brilliant house sitter, an home base in Québec, a doggy “summer camp” for Hazel (my kind father-in-law), and, oh yes, a list of parks and summits I hope to activate.
What I’m still sorting out is the radio gear.
Let me be the first to admit that I’m blessed with a number of field radios (so be warned: this is going to sound very much like a first world problem) and there are aspects of each one that I appreciate. On a road trip like this, though, space will be at a premium. I can really only justify two compact HF radios and their associated accessories. I plan to bring at least one of my Bioenno 3Ah 12V batteries and charger as well.
Fortunately, I can take a few antennas. We have a roof top Thule cargo box that is actually perfect for my CHA MPAS 2.0, MPAS Lite, and TDL–they’ll fit on the floor of the box and essentially take up no room in it. Otherwise, the cargo box will be dedicated to all of our bulky camping gear.
My HF radios will have to fit in the car trunk/boot along with food, clothes and other supplies.
I already made a decision about one of the radios that will come with me. In fact, it was a bit of a no-brainer:
The Elecraft KX2
I’ve taken the KX2 on all of my major road trips since 2016. It’s incredibly compact, feature-rich, and can handle any situation I throw at it.
In fact, as with two previous years in Québec, I’ll use it to do a little shortwave radio listening (always an important aspect of my travels) and record the BBC Midwinter Broadcast to Antarctica.
Indeed, recording this particular broadcast has become an annual event over at the SWLing Post. It’s one of the highlights of my summer and always falls on my birthday.
The other thing about the KX2 is since it has an internal ATU, I can pair it with any antenna: resonant or not. If the need arises, I can also build an antenna from speaker wire, computer/phone cable, or pretty much anything that conducts.
And, of course, if I pair the KX2 with my low-profile AX1 antenna, I can operate anywhere. I do have a number of urban parks in Ottawa and Québec City that I plan to operate super low-profile and on foot.
The KX2 batteries require that I bring the rapid battery charger and that does take up a little more space (almost the same amount of space as the radio itself!).
As for a second radio…
I think I can get away with packing one more radio. That way, in the unlikely even I have an issue with the KX2, I would have a backup. Plus…hey…variety, right?
I don’t have the room to take my Mission RGO One, Icom IC-703 Plus, or Ten-Tec Argonaut.
I’ve even excluded the KX3 from the list because it wouldn’t offer me much more than the KX2 (just 160 & 6 meters, plus a little extra power output if needed it). The radio I choose needs to be one of my more compact, lightweight, and efficient models.
I’ve also left out the QCX-Mini because I want more than a mono band radio.
Hmmm…then again, the QCX-Mini is so extremely small, I could throw it in my glove compartment and no one would be the wiser [shhhh…let’s keep this between us, shall we?].
Here’s a quick run-down of some of the radios I’m considering and why:
The Icom IC-705
Though this is chunkier than some of my other radios, the IC-705 has an insane amount of functionality, covers HF, VHF, UHF and even D-Star (with a built-in database of local D-Star repeaters). It would be brilliant for the Midwinter Broadcast too since it has built-in digital audio recording.
Another big plus is that I can charge its battery pack with a common 5V MicroUSB charger. While it lacks an internal ATU, I have paired my AX1 directly to it using a homemade capacity hat and, of course, I’ll be bringing a couple resonant antennas too.
One big negative, if I’m being honest, is that it’s one of my priciest radios. I’d feel a bit nervous leaving it in the car at city car parks or remote trail heads for lengthy periods of time (the KX2, on the other hand, is so small I can literally take it with me everywhere).
lab599 Discovery TX-500
This one is very tempting. It’s super rugged, super compact, and if I’m doing a summit activation in wet weather, I’ll be happy I packed it. It’s also one of the most efficient general coverage HF transceivers I own, only needing 100-100 mA in receive. Since its input voltage range is DC 9-15V, I could actually power it with my KX2 battery packs.
It does lack an internal antenna tuner, though, and none of its accessories (due to the GX12 connectors) can be shared with the KX2. That means it’ll be a bulkier package even though the radio is so low-profile. I know it would be a superb choice, though, and I’d enjoy giving it heavy use.
I love the FT-817ND and it would do a fine job on this trip. Like the IC-705, it also opens up the world of VHF and UHF. It also sports both a BNC and SO-239 antenna port. It is a little heavier than some of the other contenders, lacks an internal ATU, is a little more power hungry, and lacks a CW or voice message memory function, though. Still, it is a rugged and reliable radio. That and I find it a pure joy to use.
Update: I forgot to include the X5105–thanks for the reminder, Marshall!
The X5105 is a serious contender for a lot of reasons. Like the KX2, it’s a proper shack-in-a-box. It covers all of HF (more than the KX2), has a built-in ATU, built-in rechargeable battery, and a built-in microphone. Unlike the X6100 (which I haven’t included for this very reason) it has excellent battery life.
In addition, the X5105 is relatively compact, rugged, and is one of my least expensive general coverage radios.
My only gripe with the X5105 is the audio which I find a bit harsh when using earphones. It’s fatiguing when listening over long periods of time. Also, it only has one easily accessible CW message memory and no beacon mode. Still, a lot of pros with this radio!
Mountain Topper MTR-3B Field Kit
One easy addition would be the Mountain Topper MTR-3B. Not only is it one of the smallest radios I own, but I’ve also built an ultra- compact field kit for it that includes everything I’d need to hop on the air. All I’d have to do is grab the MTR-3B kit and throw it in the car. It’s so compact, in fact, I could take it on pretty much any family hikes.
The negatives are that it only covers the 40, 30, and 20 meters and is CW only. Also, I’d need an ATU if I wanted to use non-resonant antenna. To film activation videos (since the SW-3B lacks an internal speaker) I’d need to take my Sony digital recorder along for the ride which also complicates post-production.
On the plus side, the MTR-3B is the most efficient CW radio I own, only needing 15 mA in receive. Another bonus is I can power the MTR-3B with my KX2 battery packs, the 11.1 VDC is nearly a perfect match and keeps me the better part of a volt below the max. Plus I find the MTR-3B an amazingly fun radio to operate.
Mountain Topper MTR-4B
When the kind soul who has lent me the MTR-4B for review learned that I was going on this trip, he encouraged me to take it along for the ride. That is also very tempting!
I believe I could simply pull the MTR-3B from its field kit and replace it with the MTR-4B and its power cable (the coaxial power port is a size or two larger than that of the MTR-3B). I’m not sure if I’d ever use the 80 meter band with this radio on this trip, however. At this point, I’m not planning to take a resonant 80 meter antenna which would mean that I’d have to bring my Elecraft T1 or Emtech ZM-2 external ATU to use that band.
On the plus side, as with the MTR-3B, the 4B is insanely efficient and could also use my KX2 battery packs for power.
As with the MTR-3B, I’ve a dedicated ultra-compact field kit built around the SW-3B. I do plan to add KN6EZE’s side rails and cover to my SW-3B although I do worry it might make for a tight fit in the mesh pocket of my Tom Bihn HLT2 pouch.
The SW-3B has many of the advantages/disadvantages of the MTR-3B and 4B. It does have a dedicated RF and AF gain control, but only one CW message memory and I suspect I’ll be using message memories a lot on this trip for calling CQ. Then again, this is such a low-cost radio, if something happened to it during the trip, I’d quickly recover. It, too, could use my KX2 battery pack.
Again, the TR-35 has many of the same pros/cons as the MTR-3B, MTR-4B, and SW-3B. Only downsides compared with those three is that the TR-35 is slightly larger and its current consumption is around 100 mA which is low by pretty much any standard, but higher than the MTR series and SW-3B.
Then again, the TR-35 has a superb receiver, and four bands I use a lot in the field: 40, 30, 20, and 17 meters. With the new firmware, it also has two programmable CW message memories; less than the Mountain Toppers, but more than the SW-3B. Ergonomically, it’s a leader among super compact CW only field radios.
I have a very strong inclination to take the KX1. It has four bands (the same as the MTR-4B: 80, 40, 30, and 20) and a built-in ATU. Also, the paddles can be attached directly to the radio; a huge plus in field operations. The internal batteries (AA cells) don’t power it for very long, but I could run it for ages on one of my KX2 battery packs (externally). In other respects, the KX1 has many of the same pros/cons as the MTR-3B/4B, SW-3B, and TR-35 (no speaker, CW only, and limited frequency range compared with my KX2, IC-705, and TX-500).
The KX1 is one of my favorite all-time radios, so it’s incredibly tempting to take it. Then again, it’s also my oldest field radio and has already had a couple of issues that needed addressing. Indeed, I’m sorting out another small issue with it at present. I’d hate for a problem to arise so far from home.
Since my first activation with the (tr)uSDX, I’ve been tinkering with it in the shack. It is such a capable and fascinating little radio and I’ve warmed up to it a bit more. The audio is harsh, though, and I know I won’t reach for it as often as I would my KX2 for this reason alone. Then again, it is incredibly compact, efficient, and even sports SSB with a built-in mic. It might be fun to connect it to my AX1 or 17 meter MFJ telescopic whip and use it like an HT.
Perhaps I could fit it in the glove compartment, too? I don’t want to press my luck. I’m imagining my wife opening the glove compartment in route and radios falling out of it like a horn of plenty. My family knows me as a champion of one-bag travel–even for car trips. I coerce them into taking the least amount of luggage as possible. If they see that I’ve stashed contraband it might harm my already dubious reputation with them even further. They know I’m a hypocrite when it comes to this radio stuff.
I am seriously undecided.
If you were in my shoes and wanted to include an extra radio to compliment the KX2, which one would you pick and why? Please comment!