Are you prepared for Radio First Aid?

by Vince (VE6LK)

(As is Vince’s usual, this article has a bunch of links – click on as many as you wish for the full experience)

Before I go too far into this topic, I wish to first offer hearty congratulations to Thomas Witherspoon for having one thousand posts on! Woo-Hoo!

Do you pack a Radio Field First Aid kit?

On my recent trip to VE3-land I had a few opportunities to practice set-up with my gear–away from the safe place that is my truck–to ensure I’d brought everything for my trip to Hamvention and activations along the way. I did forget an audio cable, however a visit to a local dollar store solved that problem inexpensively.

So, unless you pack two of everything -because two is one and one is none– you should expect that something’s going to fail or break along the way. What you never know is when or how that’s going to happen. I wouldn’t be writing this story if it had not happened to me before.

This time it was on a Sunday outing to VE-1512, the McLaughlin Bay Reserve Wildlife Area in Oshawa Ontario and far away from the comforts of my shop at home. Tucked away not far off of the 401 Highway, this nature reserve is a calm and peaceful oasis just minutes from urban life. I saw kayakers, hikers and trail runners during my visit.

Setting up my Comet HFJ-350M, I added the jumper cable to set the antenna for 20m and then I started to push the antenna down into the ground onto the stake. And that’s when my hand slipped and I broke the jumper cable connector, busted off in the hole.

Broken pin that triggered my outward potty mouth

For the inquisitive among you, my inner potty mouth made a brief outward appearance, ahem.

Clearly every time hereafter, I will add the cable only when the antenna is in the ground.

A small selection of tools

Fortunately I had the foresight to pack some hand tools:

As I packed this kit my thinking was it would cover off all of my unexpected needs. For this particular unexpected repair, these tools were perfect. They all fit nicely in a zippered mesh pouch a bit larger than a pencil case.

Broken pin which triggered my outer potty mouth

You can see the damage in the photo above where the pin sheared off cleanly. Comet does sell replacement cables for those that go missing, but that won’t help the pin stuck deep in the hole. I was unable to remove the pin in the field, so I hatched a plan to re-appropriate one of the 16AWG jumper cables I brought along, chopped one end short, cut the end off the Comet cable, stripped back a bit of insulation and grafted the two wires together.

Leatherman ES4 from Radio Shack

To solve the other half of this issue, I was able to push and cut back a bit of the insulation on the HFJ-350M so that I could attach the alligator clip to it as seen in this photo below. Thus this isn’t as much about a repair as a workaround – but still, it got me on the air and that is what matters most. Unceremoniously, I declared the quality level as officially good enough and went on with the activation.

Fix in use. I wrapped the joint up in tape afterwards and soldering is in order as well.

This workaround lengthened the cable which affected tuning, but that’s easy enough to compensate the total length of the antenna by shortening the whip a tiny bit. That approach, or rely on the antenna analyzer to tell me which way to go 🙂 … speaking of antenna analyzers …

N6ARA MiniSWR beta, RigExpert Stick XPro and KX3 all in agreement

Once I verified the workaround functioned as intended, I was able to test out a pre-release/beta version of the N6ARA MiniSWR device, my purpose for this activation. Seen in the photo above on the antenna connector of my KX3, the MiniSWR will be a device for radios up to 5W and that sits in-line with your antenna and provides visual feedback on your antenna’s SWR via built-in LEDs. They show status up to 3:1, very helpful for many QRP radios that do not have a built-in SWR status.

This kit took me an hour to build. I believe it will be sold as a partly assembled kit with only the toroid to wind. My build time was about an hour and the build instructions are excellent quality. Mine shipped with a 3D printed case that does not completely cover the item. Needless to say RF burns are a thing and you should not handle the device while transmitting.

A couple of borrowed camping chairs made for my operating position this day.

So on this day, save for a few visits from friends on the air, an unexpected repair and testing a to-be-released product, the activation was otherwise uneventful.

At the time of writing this post, the N6ARA MiniSWR has not yet been released to production, and the pin is still stuck in the hole for 20m. I’ll continue with a workaround until I can get back to my shop with better tools.

I’m always looking to improve my kit, so in the comments please let me know what’s in your Radio Field First Aid Kit.



First introduced to the magic of radio by a family member in 1969, Vince has been active in the hobby since 2002. He is an Accredited examiner in Canada and the USA, operates on almost all of the modes, and is continually working on making his CW proficiency suck less. He participates in public service events around Western Canada and is active on the air while glamping, mobile, at home or doing a POTA activation. You can hear him on the Ham Radio Workbench podcast, follow him on Twitter @VE6LK, peek at his anemic YouTube presence (subscribe!), and view the projects and articles on his website.

10 thoughts on “Are you prepared for Radio First Aid?”

  1. Hi Vince, always enjoy hearing about your (mis)adventures. As far as the RFIK goes, the oddest things I’ve added lately-after wishing I had them: 1) a 6 inch jumper of SMA and BNC feedline to troubleshoot potential bad feedline, and can be cut to make a pigtail to splice onto the main feedline if needed; and 2) a hot glue stick and lighter for odd mechanical reinforcement / repairs that can’t be done with tape and zip ties. Still looking for a good tiny rugged VOM, tho, is yours an old analogue RS or?

    1. Hi Scott, I like these suggestions to add in for sure.
      My meter is digital, not wildly accurate however this is acceptable for “is my battery charged” and “is there continuity” needs.

  2. My inner potty mouth made a brief outward appearance, ahem. LOL my friend you too? Geez what is ham radio coming too? At least you weren’t on the air. What an excellent presentation. I love the daily posts on this site. Great stuff.

  3. The Leatherman Squirt ES4 has been ‘unobtainium’ for some time. What is a similarly sized substitute?

    1. Hi Matt,
      I am unaware of a single tool like this on the market and hoping someone else will know of one. In a case like this I’d just find a small pair of wire strippers/cutters and/or get really good at stripping wire with a knife. This is a field repair after all – and better work to be done back on the bench at home.

  4. I always carry a Leatherman Squirt in my pocket – it solves about 90% of the problems in my life! I use a full size Leatherman on big projects. I plan to copy your list and have a real repair kit.

    Do you think that some zip ties would be good to add?


    1. Hi Mike,
      Yes – but – not the el cheapo ones from just about anywhere. All too often temporary fixes become permanent and the inexpensive ones have a nasty habit of breaking when you least expect it. The brand names (Panduit comes to mind, there are others) take up the same space and won’t leave you frustrated that you snugged it up too much and it broke just when you need it the most.

  5. Other than a pocket knife I do not carry much for repair in the field. I prefer to have back ups, spare cables, various power cables. I dont like doing quick repair of connectors in the field, usually cannot do as I like, so have a back up. Things like fixing antenna wiring I will do, but that is about it. I also like being able to monitor my power sources for can trouble shoot lots of things with this. 73, ron, n9ee

    1. Hi Ron,
      For sure there is a balance between carrying spares or doing repairs. For this two week trip I needed to choose the latter. When near home I do the former, because two is one and one is none in terms of redundancy.

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