Category Archives: Grab And Go

POTA Field Report: Welcoming party plus QRP DX fun with the Discovery TX-500 & MFJ-1984LP

On Friday, September 10, 2021, I made a detour to the Table Rock Fish Hatchery (K-8012) on my way back to the QTH.

I love this site: it’s fairly remote, has tall trees, loads of space to set up antennas, convenient picnic tables, incredibly friendly park rangers and, most importantly, a welcoming party.

Welcoming party

These two greet me each time I’m at Table Rock. They’re incredibly friendly and now that they know I’m a complete and total sucker for dogs, they hang around and get attention for quite a while.

This time, I think they even recognized my vehicle because they were there as I opened the door. Continue reading POTA Field Report: Welcoming party plus QRP DX fun with the Discovery TX-500 & MFJ-1984LP

Video: A tour of my Red Oxx “Micro Manager” Discovery TX-500 field radio kit

Shortly after acquiring a lab599 Discovery TX-500 earlier this year, I did what I always do: invest an insane amount of time in researching and configuring a dedicated field radio kit.

As I’ve mentioned numerous times, I’m a serious pack geek, so this is incredibly fun for me even though the choice is often difficult.

I like to buy packs and cases from manufacturers in the US and Canada when possible, so started searching through all of the options.

Requirements

The Discovery TX-500

I wanted a pack that was compact, versatile, and offered proper padding (even knowing the TX-500 is a rugged little transceiver). I don’t handle my packs with kid gloves, so I expect them to cope with sometimes rough field conditions and still protect the gear inside. I also like a certain level of organization inside the pack.

I wanted the kit to be relatively compact, but large enough to hold the transceiver, all accessories and connections, logging pad and pencil, paddles, a proper arborist throw line, portable ATU, and a 3Ah LiFePo4 battery. A the end of the day, I wanted this TX-500 field kit to be fully self-contained.

For more on my field radio kit strategies and philosophies, check out Part 1 and Part 2 of my Anatomy of a Field Radio Kit series.

In the end, I adopted a pack with which I’m already very familiar…

The Red Oxx Micro Manager

Product image via Red Oxx

Red Oxx is my favorite pack company and if you’ve been a reader for any length of time, you’ve obviously seen a number of their bags and packs in my field reports.

Back in 2016, when they introduced the first iteration of the Micro Manager EDC bag, they actually reached out to me–as an existing customer–knowing that I had been looking for a good radio pack with proper padding (many packs don’t require side padding and internal padding). They sent me a prototype of the Micro Manager for my feedback and then incorporated some of my suggestions.

My KX2 NPOTA Micro Manager kit

I ended up using the Micro Manager as my dedicated Elecraft KX2 field kit which served me very well during the National Parks On The Air (NPOTA) event.

I also purchased a Micro Manager for my wife who quickly turned hers into a mobile art studio!

She chose a red Micro Manager!
Her field-ready art kit

Much like my buddy Steve (AC5F)–whose XYL creates some amazing water color art in the field–my wife (K4MOI) is also an artist and loves to paint/draw during park and summit activations. Her art kit is always at the ready and she’s traveled with it extensively over the past five years.

The Micro Manager is a pack carried over the shoulder, much like a messenger or laptop bag.  Those times when my field activations require a lengthy hike, I’ve simply pulled all of the items out of the Micro Manager (since I do modular packing, this is super easy), else I’ve even been known to stick the entire Micro Manager pack into a backpack!

Over the years, Red Oxx has made iterative upgrades to the Micro Manager including a pleated front pocket, slip-in external pocket, and they started lining the internal pocket with a more flexible and thinner dense foam padding. The new padding not only fits the TX-500 better than the first Micro Manager version did, but I believe it will have enough dimension to accommodate the TX-500 battery pack when that’s available next year.

Inside the Micro Manager I also use a Tom Bihn Large Travel Tray to hold all of the TX-500 accessories: key, microphone, ATU, battery, and cables.

I own a number of these large travel trays and highly recommend them. I especially like the ballistic nylon versions for radio kits as they open and close so smoothly.

Video tour

I made a short video tour of the TX-500 Micro Manager kit before a recent activation at Table Rock:

Clci here to view on YouTube.

TX-500 Micro Manager Kit Contents:

I’ve used this pack for a number of field activations and couldn’t be more pleased. Looking back at the contents, it’s funny: the pack and almost every single item inside (save the notepad and pencil) are made in the USA while the radio is made in Russia! A bit of international harmony going on here!

If you have a field pack for the TX-500 (or any radio), I’d love to know more about it. Please consider commenting with details or even submitting a guest post with photos!

73,

Thomas (K4SWL

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.

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

Guest Post: A Booty Boss Micro Radio Kit

Many thanks to Carolanne (N0RNM) who shares the following guest post:


A Booty Boss Micro Radio Kit

by Carolanne Fisher N0RNM

I am a bit of a tinkerer and an aspiring POTA activator, so when I received my Elecraft KX2 a couple of weeks ago with its way-too-big carry bag, I immediately started to think about ways I could keep the KX2 protected on the trail in a much lower-profile, light-weight, and easy-to-carry kit that would always be ready to go. The trick was to find a case of just the right size, with plenty of built-in organization and flexibility to build the kit around. I found what I hoped would be exactly what I was looking for from the excellent Red Oxx Manufacturing company (redoxx.com) — a soft-sided compact bag they call the Booty Boss Waist Pack. At least the specs looked good…

My Booty Boss Micro Radio Kit, packed up and ready to roll. The color isn’t exactly “low-profile,” but I figure there is more than enough black and gray in the world.

I am certain that whoever designed this bag did it specifically with the KX2 in mind. It is small enough to take anywhere, yet it fits my entire setup, including the radio, an extra battery pack, an AX1 antenna, complete with its 40 meter extension coil, 2 counterpoises, along with other necessities perfectly. I printed and spiral-bound a small note pad, shoved in a few accessories, and I was ready to rock and roll. The bag is even lightly padded for a bit of peace of mind. I am a CW-only kind of op so a mic is not a concern, especially since if I absolutely needed to use phone, the KX2’s built in mic would serve perfectly fine.

A peek into the top of the fully packed bag. I replaced the carrying strap that came with the bag with a Red Oxx Claw Non-Slip strap to make a more secure carry.

I tested the bag during several “back-porch activations” and everything seemed to work great. That is until I tried to use it under more realistic conditions — without the shaded picnic table to deploy on and the comfortable chair to sit on. Sitting on a rock while balancing the radio on my knee with its floppy AX1 antenna, and note pad while actually tying to send code proved to be a bit more than I could handle. It was clear that something like a clipboard was necessary to complete the micro radio kit, but a normal-sized clipboard would completely break the one-tiny-bag ethos.

A couple of years ago I designed and 3D printed a portable folding easel to support my sketchbook, watercolors, water etc. when out and about nature journaling or urban sketching. It worked great for that so I made a smaller version, added a recess for the radio and made sure it had room for the notepad. [Click here to download the SketchUp file of the radio desk.] In order to fit in the bag, the size, even when opened to its full 8” x 9.5” size is a bit cramped, but with the addition of a leg strap, like a pilot’s lap desk, it it does the trick.

The complete current contents of my micro radio kit. Total weight: 4.3 Pounds

Here is everything currently in the bag and how it all gets stowed:

Front zip pocket

  • 13’ and 33’ counterpoises for use with the AX1
  • An extra 28.5’ random wire antenna with 50’ of mini throw line attached (fly fishing backer line with two 1 oz. fishing weights) along with a 17’ counterpoise

Front main compartment

  • Folded radio desk
  • Note pad
  • Pencil

Two small interior pockets

  • Binder post
  • Spare KX2 Battery

Interior zip pocket

  • Spare set of paddles w/ KX2 attachment and cord (by Peter GM0EUL)
  • Spare pencil
  • Copy of my radio license

Rear main compartment

  • Ax1 antenna (whip, 20 and 40 meter coils) lying the bottom
  • KX2 (fits in the bag with the KXPD2 paddle attached)

Large slip pocket

  • Ear phones
Kit fully deployed with the KX2 on the custom radio desk.

The KX2 fits flat on its back or up on its kick stand in its custom sized recess. A sticky gel pad (from Amazon) placed in the recess pretty much “glues” the rig to the desk until you want to remove it.

Although I don’t use it all that often, the AX1 is my all-purpose, quick-to-set-up and a snap-to-put-away antenna. I mount the bipod inboard to the radio (over the BNC connection) so it fits on the desk to provide support. I wedge the bipod out from the rig with a spare pencil or a stick from the trail placed between the rig and the front leg to take some of the twist pressure off the BNC connector.

Although the micro radio kit holds everything I need to make contacts, there are plenty of times that I like to have a more luxurious set up — a folding chair and table, my Alex Loop antenna, tripod, lunch, iPad, etc. Or perhaps I’m off for a multi-day and need an external battery, a solar charging system, food, shelter, etc. This scenario is precisely where the micro radio kit really comes into its own. It is tiny enough to slip into just about any bigger bag or placed on the waist belt of a backpack. No more wondering if you remembered this or that bit of radio kit or loosing track of things you borrowed from another kit. If you actually did forget something extra you thought you packed, not to worry, the micro radio kit has everything you need right inside to make contacts.

As a tiny everything necessary, nothing extra radio bag, the Booty Boss micro radio kit is, well, the BOSS!

– Carolanne (N0RNM)


Thank you so much for sharing this, Carolanne! As you know, I’m a massive fan of Red Oxx gear and also own the Booty Boss. It’s simply brilliant that you can even pack a folding radio desk inside! Thank you so much for sharing your field radio kit with us.

How I pack out my GoRuck GR1 for POTA and Overnight Travel

As I’ve mentioned a number of times on QRPer and on the SWLing Post, I’m a pack geek.  I enjoy organizing and packing my gear for field radio activities and travel.

Last week, I made a very quick overnight trip to visit my parents. My time during this trip was very limited and I did not plan to fit in an activation, but Monday morning, I was able to knock out an errand very early and that freed up a couple of hours in the early afternoon. Fortunately, prior to leaving my QTH, I decided to pack a few travel items in my GoRuck GR1 pack along with a field radio kit built around my Elecraft KX2.

I never leave home without a field radio kit because I never know when an opportunity to play radio might happen.

On the way home Tuesday, I popped Lake Jame State Park and fit in a quick, last minute activation.  Moments before arriving at the lake, I received a request from one of my YouTube subscribers asking if I would make the occasional video showing what’s in my radio packs and field kits.

I’ve been meaning to make these videos but, frankly, often forget when I arrive at a park or summit because I’m just a little too focused on starting my activation.

Since I had some overnight items in my pack, it wasn’t a typical SOTA or POTA field kit, but I decided to make the video anyway. After all, I love watching videos about how others pack and organize their radio and travel kits. But then again, I’m a pack geek. I did mention this right–?

Although I’m not always the neatest person (my wife is probably chuckling at this gross understatement), I’m a meticulous and very organized pack geek. What you see in the video is exactly how I pack when no one is looking. 🙂

I’ll add here that if you’re interested in field radio kits and packs, I’d encourage you to check out my Anatomy of a Field Radio Kit series; Part 1 has already been published and Part 2 will be posted later this week.  In Part 2, I take a much deeper dive into safety gear I take on SOTA activations.

Gear

In the video, I mention that I would attempt to link to all of the items in my pack. I spent time sorting out links this morning; many links go straight to the pack manufacturer because the packs I use typically have no distributors other than the manufacturer, I have also purchased a lot of the smaller items on Amazon, but many can be found in big box stores like Walmart, Target, Canadian Tire, etc.

Activation items

Extra Travel Items in the GR1

Health & Safety Items

US Pack Companies I love…

  • Red Oxx (my favorite overall)
  • Tom Bihn (brilliant tailored/urban travel bags)
  • GoRuck (note that not all are made in the USA these days)
  • Spec Ops Brand (incredible value for tactical packs)

If I missed something, let me know in the comments.

Video

Like all my videos, this one us unscripted, made in one take (unedited), and also has no ads:

Out of order…

So this video was made prior to an activation at Lake James last week. I’ve mentioned before that my Internet speeds at the QTH are worse than dismal, but since this pack video was relatively short, I was able to upload it ahead of the activation video (it took 1.5 days to upload this 2GB file).

The activation video will be published in another week or so depending on my access to some proper broadband service.

Any other pack geeks out there?

I would love to share photos, descriptions, and/or a video of how and what you pack for field activations.  If you’re interested in submitting a guest post, please do so!

Also, I’d love to hear about your favorite packs and how well they’ve held up with time.

Feel free to comment and thank you once again for hanging out here at QRPer.com!

Dan’s homebrew Icom IC-705 protective case

Many thanks to Dan (KQ8Q) who writes:

Hi Tom,

I saw your recent video post of an activation using the IC-705 and I thought you might appreciate one of my recent related projects. Earlier this year I purchased an Icom IC-705 and because I planned to carry it backpacking for Parks and Summits on the Air, I knew I needed some type of physical protection for it since it would be knocked around a bit on rocks and rough surfaces and during transport. The only cases I could find did not fit my vision; they were either too expensive or too flimsy. So I decided to fabricate my own.

I purchased a 9″ x 18″ sheet of 1/8”, 5052 aluminum. I bent it (with LOTS of effort) in two places which created a “U” channel. The lengths were 4.5″ x 3.5″ x 4.5″. I then cut off the excess and used it to make the side pieces. I then did some research on aluminum brazing which led me to purchase some “AlumiWeld Rods” from Harbor Freight and a canister of MAP gas. I then cut the pieces for the front and sides and brazed them in. You may notice the amateur looking joints on the sides of the armor.

I also wanted to have a mic and key port on the front of the enclosure so as not to be continuously connecting and disconnecting those items directly from the radio and for convenience.

The entire assembly was planned to fit perfectly in the plastic orange ammo box also shown. It is made by a company called Sheffield which is in the U.S.

The radio mounts in the armor via the AMPS pattern screw holes on the bottom. I believe they are 4mm screws… not supplied by Icom. The radio is also electrically connected to the armor via the four screws as well as the shields of the mic and keyer ports.

I recently added the vent holes on the top panel for a less than obvious reason. Although they do serve a dual purpose, my primary reason for adding them was to avoid blocking its GPS reception, but factors of cooling and weight reduction do apply.

73 de Dan (KQ8Q)

This is an absolutely brilliant project, Dan, and to my eye, there’s nothing amateur about it. The coating looks fantastic and I like all of the effort you put into stand-off space to protect the rig and connections. Mounted in that orange box, I think you’ve got an all-weather solution. 

Thank you for sharing this project, Dan!

Anatomy of a Field Radio Kit Part 1: Basic components and advantages of going QRP

The following review was first published in the June 2021 issue of The Spectrum Monitor magazine:


Part 1: Anatomy of a field radio kit

by Thomas (K4SWL)

Whether it’s the ARRL Field Day, Winter Field Day, a QRP contest, or, more likely, a Summits On The Air or Parks On The Air activation, I look for any and every excuse to hit the field with my radios.

Most of my on-air time is in the field. While I enjoy operating from the shack, I’ve discovered I especially enjoy operating in the great outdoors.

Besides being a fan of hiking, camping, and the great outdoors generally, I also am particularly fond of radio field gear. I like portable transceivers, portable antennas, battery packs, and all of the accessories that make field operation efficient and enjoyable.

I appreciate the emergency communications skills I’ve developed in the field, too. Should the need (or opportunity) arise, I now keep a complete field kit packed and ready to go at all times, and can even deploy all of it within just ten minutes. In my early days of ham radio operation, I might have easily spent thirty minutes setting the antenna, alone…especially on Field Day, with folks watching me struggle to untangle wires and cables, followed by the undoubtedly entertaining attempts I made to put a line into a tree to deploy the antenna. But after deploying a variety of antennas hundreds of times now, I find that––while I’m still not perfect––I finally have a bit of skill and the process of tossing up a line is becoming much swifter and smoother.

Confessions of a pack geek

The Red Oxx C-Ruck loaded and ready for the field!

If I’m being honest with myself, I admit: I also simply get a thrill out of kitting out my field packs, as well as organizing and tweaking them over time. Yes, (don’t judge me!) I actually like packing up my field gear.

I think my passion for organizing and packing gear goes back to a former career when I lived in the UK, Germany, and France, and was required to travel throughout Europe frequently. Originally inspired by travel guru Rick Steves, I’ve always appreciated the footloose feeling of having all of my travel gear in one lightweight pack. I don’t like checking in luggage, but love the freedom of grabbing my backpack and skipping the baggage claim carousels. And I also like knowing that, even though my gear is compact, it contains everything I need.

I’ve become something of a “less-is-more” traveller. Two years ago, for example, I traveled for one week using what Frontier Airlines classifies as a “personal carry-on.” My Tom Bihn Stowaway pack, which only measures 14.0″ (w) x 9.4″ (h) x 8.1″ (d), carried everything I needed for a conference, including my own presentation gear.

My Tom Bihn Stowaway personal carry on convertible pack with everything I needed for a one week trip including a conference.

Packing for that trip was great fun as it really challenged me to decide what was essential and what was not. My iPad doubled a computing and presentation device, for example, but I also packed a small flashlight and a mini first aid kit, which I felt were important. Of course, I also carried a small portable Shortwave/AM/FM radio and my Yaesu VX-3R handheld…also vital, as I can’t leave home without radios!

Getting started with a field kit

Putting together a field radio kit is so similar to packing for travel: you must first do an assessment of what you need, starting with the basics––then organize it, pack it, and test it.

In my world, this is a very deep topic. We’re going to break down this topic into two parts.

This article, Part 1, we’ll dive in:

  • first, going over the obvious components of a basic field radio kit;
  • second, discussing the benefits of going low-power (QRP) if that appeals

In Part 2, we will:

  • look at variations of kits based on activity, and finally
  • review what I consider the “golden rules” of a good field radio kit

The basics of a field radio kit

First, let’s go over the basics of your field kit, considering that that these primary components will dictate your bag, pack, or case size.

A transceiver

The lab599 Discovery TX-500

Since I’m a bit radio obsessed, I have a number of QRP transceivers I like to take to the field.  But if you have selected one transceiver you plan to dedicate to field work, or simply have only one transceiver, period, you can build a kit around it (and see my note below about “modular” kits). If budget allows, you might consider buying a radio specifically for field use, so it can always be packed and ready to go.

There are a number of transceivers on the market that are designed with field use in mind. Some are compact, power-stingy CW-only QRP transceivers that might only operate on three ham radio bands, while others are 100-watt general coverage transceivers that even have built-in antenna tuners––there’s a wide range of options.

Look for field-friendly, built-in options like:

  • CW and voice-memory keying;
  • SWR and power meter readings;
  • a battery voltage indicator;
  • low current consumption;
  • the ability to lower power to at least one watt;
  • an internal battery option; and
  • an internal antenna tuner option

And the more such options are already built into your field rig, obviously, the less separate accessories you’ll need to pack and keep track of in the field, which is a good thing.

The Elecraft KX2 has a built-in ATU, battery pack, and even attachable CW paddles!

Some of my favorite field-ready general-coverage transceivers currently in production are:

  • The Elecraft KX2 A full-featured, inclusive, and compact 80-10 meter transceiver that’s truly a “Swiss-army knife” of field operation (see November 2016 TSM review)
  • The Elecraft KX3 Benchmark performance, wide array of features, and compact design
  • The lab599 Discovery TX-500 Military-grade engineering, weatherproof, spectrum display, and benchmark current consumption for a general-coverage radio (see October 2020 TSM review)
  • Mission RGO One Top-notch performance, 50-watts out, and excellent audio (see November 2020 TSM review)
  • The Yaesu FT-817/818 Rugged chassis, 160-6 meters, VHF and UHF multi-mode, both BNC and PL-259 antenna inputs
  • The Xiegu X5105 Affordable, 160-6 meters, 5 watts output, built-in ATU, and built in rechargeable batttey
  • The Xiegu G90 Affordable, relatively compact rig with built-in ATU, color screen with spectrum/watefall, good audio, and 20 watts of output power (see August 2020 TSM review)
  • The Icom IC-705 Benchmark performance, a multitude of features, exchangeable battery packs, 160-6 meters, VHF and UHF multi-mode, D-Star, GPS, WiFi, Bluetooth (see February 2021 TSM review)
  • The Yaesu FT-891: Affordable relatively compact radio with detachable faceplate, 100 watts output, and excellent audio (see November 2017 TSM review)

And if you’re primarily a CW operator, you’ll have some incredibly compact radio options like the CW-only Mountain Topper MTR-3B or 4B, or the Elecraft KX1 (used).

An important side note for field contests: if you plan to use a field transceiver in an event like the ARRL Field Day and/or another popular radio contest, make sure you choose a transceiver that can handle tightly spaced signals in an RF-dense environment. This is not the time to pull out a lower-end radio with poor receiver specifications. Use Rob Sherwood’s receiver test data table as a guide.

An antenna––and a means to deploy/support it

The CHA LEFS sloper

This particular topic, alone, might warrant a three-part series of articles. So, to keep the scope of this article realistic, let’s just say that you should build or buy an antenna that can comfortably handle the wattage you’re pushing into it in all the modes that you operate, considering that some 100-watt SSB-rated antennas might melt or arc if you run 100 watts CW or FT8.

I would suggest you consider having at least one resonant antenna, like an end-fed half-wave (EFHW) that might cover 40 and 20 meters without the need of an antenna tuner to match the antenna impedance to your rig.

Some of my favorite portable antenna systems?

I’m a big fan of Chameleon Antenna for their ease of deployment and benchmark build quality. Their prices range from $145 for the Emcomm III random wire, to $550 for their MPAS 2.0 vertical antenna system. These prices are near the top of the market, but Chameleon antennas are all machined and produced in the US and the quality is second to none. These are antennas you might well pass along to the next generation, meaning, really heirloom-worthy kit!

Packtenna 9:1 UNUN Random Wire
The PackTenna 9:1 UNUN

PackTennas, likewise, are pricey for such a compact product, but they are also beautifully engineered, lightweight, and designed for heavy field use. PackTenna produces an EFHW, 9:1 UNUN random wire, and linked dipole models. They’re some of the most compact field antennas on the market that can still handle as much as 100 watts of power output.

My Wolf River Coils “TIA” vertical antenna

Wolf River Coils verticals are affordable, compact, and resonant––thus an ATU isn’t needed. It will take some time to learn how to adjust the coil during frequency changes, but they work amazingly well. I have the WRC Take It Along (TIA). Their antennas are designed to handle 100 watts SSB, 50 watts CW, or 20 watts digital.

The EFT Trail-Friendly

Vibroplex sells a number of compact field portable antennas and is the manufacturer of Par End Fedz offerings. I’m very fond of the EFT Trail-Friendly and the EFT-MTR.

The MFJ-1984LP EFHW packs a lot of performance for the price

MFJ Enterprises also has a few portable antennas in their catalog, and it’s very difficult to beat the price and performance of their antenna gear. I have their $50 EFHW antenna (the MFJ-1982LP) and love it.

The Elecraft AX1 attaches directly to the BNC port on the KX3 and KX2.

I’ve also had tremendous fun with the uber-compact Elecraft AX1 antenna. Unquestionably, it’s the most compact and quickest-to-deploy antenna I own. It’s designed to pair with the Elecraft KX2 and KX3 using the optional internal antenna tuner.

There are a number of other antenna manufacturers who cater to portable operators. For example––although I’ve not yet had the opportunity of testing their antennas––SOTAbeams is highly regarded among SOTA enthusiasts.

Short on cash? No worries; you can build your own! In fact, until 2016, I had never purchased a field antenna; I built all my own. EFHW antennas and random-wire antennas are no more than a carefully-wound coil, a female antenna connector, an enclosure or mounting plate, and some wire. Some of the most active field operators I know homebrew all of their antennas. It’s easy, affordable, and fun!

In fact, some antennas are no more than a bit of speaker wire matched with a good ATU.

A power source

A 3Ah Bioenno 12V LiFEPo4 powering my LD-11 transceiver

I’ll keep this point brief because we recently covered the topic of batteries in detail in our previous feature.

Make sure you choose a battery that is sized appropriately for your transceiver power output. I will say that I’m a huge fan of LiFePo4 rechargeable batteries for their voltage range, lightweight design, and longevity. Being primarily a QRPer, I typically use 3 to 4.5 amp hour batteries as they’ll carry me through as many as three or four activations without needing to be recharged. For longer field deployments, or when I’m powering my 100W KXPA100 amplifier, I’ll use my 15 aH Bioenno LiFePo4 pack.

I use my 15Ah Bioenno LiFePo4 pack for QRO transceivers

Again, check out our Portable Power Primer for a deep-dive into the world of portable power.

A key, mic, and/or computing device

It should go without saying that you need to pack these, but I have gone to the field with operators who forgot their key or mic and asked if I had a spare.

Keys are fairly universal, but keep in mind legacy transceivers often want a ¼” plug while newer rigs typically accept an ⅛” plug. Microphones, however, vary in port type and pin configuration based on the manufacturer and model. You could damage your mic or rig if you plug in a multi-pin mic that was designed for a different transceiver. Most mics that use a ⅛” plug are universal. Still, check before you plug it in if using an after-market or non-OEM mic.

Of course, choose a key, microphone, or boom headset that’s compact and rugged so that’ll be easy to pack and will stand the test of time.

I also always pack a set of inexpensive in-ear earphones. These can dramatically help with weak-signal interpretation.

Also, if you plan to operate a digital mode, you’ll likely need some sort of computing device. Even though I rarely operate digital modes in the field, I often pack my Microsoft Surface Go tablet in case I change my mind.

My Microsoft Surface Go tablet

In addition, I like logging directly to N3FJP’s Amateur Contact Log application directly in the field to save time submitting my logs later. Soon, I’ll be using the new HAMRS field log on my iPhone.

Speaking of logging…

A means of logging

I like compact notepads like Muji and Rite In The Rain for field use.

As simple as it is, it’s very important to take at least some paper and a pencil for logging your contacts. I like using small, pocket-sized Muji notebooks (affiliate link) for logging, and if the weather is even a little questionable, I’m a huge fan of getting my contacts down in Rite In The Rain mini notebooks (affiliate link) or notepads using a good old-fashioned pencil.

I like logging to paper and sometimes simultaneously logging to my Microsoft Surface Go. I have completed phone-only field activations where I only logged to my Surface Go tablet: in those cases, I snap a photo of my N3FJP call log, just in case something happens to my tablet between the field and the shack! Having endured enough technology failures, it gives me peace of mind to have at least one other backup.

Keep in mind that when you’re activating a park or summit, the folks calling you are relying on you to submit your logs to the appropriate programs so that they can get credit for working you. Many times, this might also help their awards for a state, county, or grid square. Always submit your logs after an activation even if you didn’t make enough contacts to validate the activation (POTA requires 10 contacts, SOTA requires 4 logged). It helps other folks out.

A pack or case

If you have a field radio kit, you’re going to need a means to organize and contain it for transport. There are at least three types of systems used for field kits.

A backpack or soft-sided case

My GoRuck BulletRuck is a brilliant SOTA pack

Since I enjoy the option of hiking with my radio gear, I love using backpacks. Although I’ll speak to this more next month in “Part 2,”, I choose quality packs that have at least one waterproof compartment and are comfortable to carry on long hikes. I also try to look for packs with Molle or some sort of external strapping so that I can attach portable antenna masts or even my hiking poles to the exterior of the pack.

A waterproof case or flight case

Ruggedized, weatherproof cases come in all sizes. This Pelican 1060 can house my entire KX1 radio kit.

Many field operators who want extra protection for their gear––especially when they don’t plan to hike or carry their gear long distances to the operating site––like hard-sided cases. I have built field radio kits in waterproof Pelican cases and appreciate knowing that I could drop my kit in a whitewater river, and it would likely survive the adventure unscathed. If you are one of these operators, look for quality watertight cases from brands like Pelican and Nanuk with interiors lined in pick foam padding that allows you to perfectly accommodate and safely protect your radio and accessories.

Portable ready-to-deploy cases

Although this option is almost outside the scope of this article, many emergency communications enthusiasts love having their gear loaded in rugged, portable––often rack-mounted and hard-sided––cases that they can simply open, hook to an antenna, and get right on the air. These systems are often the heaviest, least “portable,” and less suited for long distance hikes, but they’re often completely self-contained, with all of the components, including the power, hooked up and ready to go on a moment’s notice. While a system like this would be impractical for many Summits On The Air sites, it could be ideal for a park or island activation where you’re never that far from your vehicle.

Optional: Antenna cable

An ABR Industries RG-316 cable assembly

This doesn’t sound like an option, but it’s true.  I’ve often operated my Elecraft KX3, KX2, and KX1 without a feedline at all: I simply attached two wires to a BNC binding post, and connected that to the radio. It makes for a super-compact setup.

Even an 8-12 foot feedline can make it easier to configure your operating position in the field. If you want to keep the feedline as low-profile as possible,  especially if you’re operating QRP, consider investing in a quality RG-316 feedline terminated with the connector that fits your radio and antenna.

Optional: Antenna Tuner/Transmatch

A portable ATU with RF-sensing like the Elecraft T1 will give you an amazing amount of frequency agility. I’ve been known to use the T1 to tune my CHA Emcomm III random wire antenna on 160 meters..

Again, this topic could easily warrant a multi-part series of articles, but I’ll sum this one up in a nutshell: while I love (and even prefer) using resonant antennas that require no antenna tuner, I almost always carry a radio with a built-in ATU or an external portable ATU like the Elecraft T1 or ZM-2.

Why? Because an ATU will give you a certain amount of frequency agility or freedom. If I’m using an antenna that’s resonant on 40, 20, and 10 meters, but there’s a contest that day and the bands are incredibly crowded, I might use the ATU to find a match on 30 meters or 17 meters, thus finding a little refuge and space to operate. Also, sometimes antenna deployments aren’t ideal––due, for example, to site limitations such as dense vegetation that may alter the antenna deployment and thus its resonance. An ATU can at least keep your transceiver happy with the SWR when your resonant antenna might not be perfectly resonant.

But the main reason I carry it? A portable ATU gives you operational flexibility.

QRP or QRO?

I have operated QRO in the field with my KXPA100 amplifier on Field Day.

Its good to keep in mind that many of the station accessories listed above need to be matched to the output power of your transceiver and modes you use.

Many ham radio friendships have been placed in jeopardy over the question of either using QRP (low power) or QRO (high power) for field operations. This is a shame. Some operators have very strong opinions, but the truth is, there is no right or wrong answer.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I operate 97% of the time at QRP power levels––in my world, this means five watts or less. Personally, I enjoy the challenge of low-power operating.  But I also appreciate the portability QRP gear offers.

The wee Mountain Topper MTR-3B

Speaking pragmatically––and this fact really isn’t open to debate––QRP and lower-power transceivers and accessories tend to be more efficient, more compact, and lighter than their higher-power siblings.

Most of my QRP transceivers weigh anywhere from two to five times less than their 100-watt equivalents. If you’re operating mobile (from a vehicle or camper/caravan, for example), an eight to twelve pound difference might not be a big deal. But the moment you’re hiking several miles to a mountain summit, weight becomes an important factor.

QRP transceivers have modest power requirements: everything from battery, to antenna, and even to tuners, are smaller, lighter, and more compact.

When operating QRP, you don’t have to worry as much about RF coming back to the radio from, say, an end-fed antenna. If I’m pushing over 20 watts into an end-fed half wave or end-fed random wire, I’ll likely want an in-line RF choke to keep some of that energy from affecting my transceiver or giving me an RF “tingle” when I touch the radio chassis or my key. Too much RF coming back to the transceiver can also affect things like electronic CW keying. But at five watts? I don’t worry. This is almost a non-issue, unless your transceiver happens to be very RF-sensitive indeed.

And even though I’m predominantly a QRPer, I definitely do pack radios like the 50-watt Mission RGO One and occasionally my Elecraft KX3 and KXPA100 100-watt amplifier, especially for an event like Field Day where my club is operating at higher power. I simply size up my gear appropriately. Again, this is especially important with your antenna, feed line, ATU, and battery selections.

If you primarily activate parks and are never far from your vehicle, it’s quite easy to accommodate a 100 watt transceiver like an FT-891, for example. Of course, if you wish to operate low-power and save your battery, simply turn down the output power. If you plan to hike a lot with your gear, then get your mind around QRP!

Stay tuned for Part 2!

In Part 2 we’ll dig into some of the details, looking at different approaches to field radio kits and some guidance and suggestions based on my real-life experience (read: operating mistakes).

Click here to read Anatomy of a Field Radio Kit Part 2.


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Phillip discovers the TPA-817 B pack frame

Many thanks to Phillip (VE3OMI) who writes:

Hello Thomas,

[…]I came upon this interesting mount setup for the Yaesu FT-818 via Armando – KP4YO. I saw his setup on his QRZ page and was intrigued, as the rig seems to be able to stand up on its back side even with a pretty large whip installed.

(via KP4YO on QRZ.com)

Seems the gist of it is to bring all of the rear mounts and connections to the front.

Quite interesting and certainly looks “beefy”!

Product description from Armoloq:

The TPA pack frame provides a modular platform for configuring your Yaesu FT-817 and FT-818 into a quickly deployable base, mobile, field or mil style man pack configuration.

The concept was to design an effective, small form factor frame that when installed, would allow relocation of all rear inputs, minus power and ACC connection, to the front of the radio, provide standoff at the rear of the radio for permanent cable attachment, and also provide protection when used in the field.

The relocation platforms provide a sturdy mounting point for attaching commercial or mil type VHF/UHF whip antennas. All accessory mounts are interchangeable and can be oriented to suit your operating situation.

The TPA pack frame is a 2 piece frame that is secured to the radio via 8, side chassis mounts. The frame is CNC laser cut from 5052 aluminum and powder coated with a matte black finish. The TPA provides protection to the radio body and control head with a wrap around design while allowing access to the top oriented MODE and BAND buttons, as well as the battery compartment.

Click here for full details and photos.

Thank you for sharing this, Phillip! I’ve never seen this pack frame/cage before and I’m not even sure how I’d use it for the type of field work I do, but I’m willing to bet that it’s the perfect solution for those wanting an uber-rugged cage for Emcomm and/or as a manpack. I love products like this that transform gear into military-grade kit!

Anyone out there use the TPA-817 B? Please comment!

Organizing and packing field radio accessories–three products I love!

As I was packing up my radio gear at the last activation I posted (click here for that field report), I paused to make a quick video and talk about my rucksack, my accessories pouches, and a winder I like to use with the MFJ-1984LP antenna.

Here are the products I mentioned:

GoRuck GR1 USA

This is one of my favorite rucksacks for SOTA activations. I like the fact that it’s low-profile, structured, and feels great on the back even during extended hiking sessions.

It’s also insanely rugged, weatherproof, and (frankly) over-engineered.

My GR1 was made in the USA by GoRuck. This company specializes in packs that are essentially designed to be used and abused.  They’re all backed by a lifetime warranty. You pay for this kind of quality, though.

I purchased mine perhaps 3 years ago during a closeout sale on this particular color variant. When combined with my educator’s discount I think I paid around $210-220 US for it.

I originally bought it because I’m a huge fan of one-bag travel (read an article where I mention this on the SWLing Post). I discovered that the GR1 meets most airline regulations as a “personal carry on.” This means even with discount airlines and regional “puddle jumper” aircraft, I know I can always take it on board and never need to check it. I can easily travel one or two weeks out of this pack.

The TX-500, clipboard, and my logging pads all tuck away nicely in the GR1’s slip-in rucking plate pocket.

But in the field, the GR1 has the perfect amount of capacity for any of my QRP transceivers along with antennas, ATU, cables, and other accessories.

Click here to check out this pack at GoRuck.

Large Tom Bihn Travel Tray

Being a one-bag traveller (and certified pack geek) I’m also a massive fan of US pack designer and manufacturer, Tom Bihn.

I have a number of their packs, pouches, and organizers.

Without a doubt, one of my favorite TB items is the Travel Tray. It’s a brilliant concept: take this with you on a trip, open it up as a tray in your hotel room, and place all of your valuables in it. By doing this, you don’t have to search your room for your watch, keys, wallet, glasses, phone, etc. When you leave the room, all of those easy-to-lose items will be in one place. If you’re in a rush to catch a flight, grab the whole pack by the drawstring, secure it, and throw it in your carry on! It’s a simple, genius little sack/tray!

I also use these to organize radio accessories in my field pack. For example, I have one now dedicated to the TX-500. In the Travel Tray, I store all of the TX-500 adapters and cords, the speaker mic, a set of CW Morse Pocket paddles, a PackTenna EFHW, some RG-316, and a 3 aH LiFePo4 battery. I even carry a spare Muji notepad in it in case I forget my logging pad. With this little bag and the TX-500, I have everything I need to hit the air!

Note that I much prefer the large TB Travel Tray. My wife has both a large and small travel tray, but I find that the small one is just a little too small for most everything I wish to put in it. The large one’s outer diameter is large enough that you can also store a short coil of RG-58 coaxial cable/feed line in it.

Click here to check out large Travel Trays at Tom Bihn.

I love these so much, I purchased two more this week: one in black and one in coyote.

Thingiverse Wire Winder

This particular winder is red because that’s the filament my daughters had loaded in the printer at the time!

Before we purchased a 3D printer (an Ender 3 Pro) I would make wire winders out of anything I could find.  With a 3D printer, however, it’s so easy to make a winder sized perfectly for your application.

You may have seen winders in various colors in my video field reports–they all come from a simple project file on Thingiverse.

This winder is super easy to print and to enlarge or shrink. If you don’t have a 3D printer, likely someone you know does! Ask them to print this for you. They’re incredible useful.

Click here to view on Thingiverse.

Video

I made a very short video talking about all of these products post-activation:

Click here to view on YouTube.

Guest Post: Creating pick and pluck inserts for radio cases

Many thanks to Mark Hirst, who shares the following guest post:


Pick and Pluck Foam

The old adage of ‘measure twice and cut once’ is very apt when using pick and pluck foam. The inserts are not cheap and mistakes are hard to rectify.

Whether you are preparing a large case with several items in a shared insert, or focussing around a single item, planning the layout is key.

Item weight is also a factor to consider, as this will affect decisions on wall thickness between items and the case.

Finally, how hostile is the environment likely to be? Is the case going in your backpack or car where you’re in careful control, or is going to be subject to careless handling by others?

Planning the layout

Once you’ve settled on a case size and how much padding you need, a non-destructive way of planning the layout is to use cocktail sticks.

These can be inserted into the corners of the foam segments to trace the outline of the radio and any items such as controls and ports that may extend from the body.

Since the size of the segments is in fixed increments, matching the exact dimensions of the radio is down to pure luck. I would go for a slight squeeze on the radio body if feasible to make sure it’s always in contact with the foam, but give some breathing room around the controls and ports.

The example below is a case I use for backpack transport. It has rather thin but adequate side walls for that purpose. I prioritised wall thickness facing the front and back of the radio, and also on the side opposite the carry handle. Note how the foam comes right up against the body of the radio, but leaves the front controls with some clearance.

Outlining using cocktail sticks

This has the benefit of keeping any sudden shocks away from the controls, and also reduces the number of places where foam is subject to tearing and compression when the radio is inserted and removed.

The completed insert

Separating the foam

The best place to start is along the planned route of a long side wall. Use your thumbs to separate the surface of two segments on one side from two segments on the other.

Once the surface tear has got going, you should be able push a finger down between the four segments, extending the tear till it reaches the bottom of the foam. At this point, you have a cut all the way through.

Separating the foam

Now you can peel the foam apart at the upper surface in each direction, using your forefinger to again push down between the segments to complete the separation down to the lower surface.

Work carefully around the cutouts and protrusions accommodating the controls. The protrusions are potential weak points at this stage, so be sure to proceed slowly.

If you need to practice, you can always start by separating segments deep within the section that will be removed till you get the hang of it.

Reinforcement

While pick and pluck means you don’t need special tools or templates to cut the foam, the remaining material in your insert is inherently weaker than a solid structure.

The solution I’ve used is to fill the residual cuts with a solvent free adhesive. Solvent free adhesives are often aimed at children for safety reasons, and while there are solvent based adhesives for foam, the one I used dries clear with a resilient flexible bond that is stronger than the foam itself.

I run a finger gently along the exposed walls, edges, and around the protrusions. This makes the potential weak points and stress areas immediately apparent as segments naturally separate along the pick and pluck cuts.

Armed with a tube of adhesive and a finger (usually a thumb), you can gently open the weak point and then run the nozzle of the tube down the cut, dispensing generous amounts of adhesive as you go. The two sections of foam close up as the nozzle passes by, with the adhesive soaking into both sides. As long as you don’t go overboard, the adhesive will stay within the join and you won’t have to wipe away any excess.

Reinforcing corners

Side walls are not subject to the same stress as protrusions, but you will probably still spot sections with deeper cuts that need attention, and you will definitely want to reinforce the corners.

Reinforcing sidewalls

I’ve allowed at least a day to be sure the adhesive has set. It’s worth going over the insert again to see if you missed anything the first time round.

The Adhesive

The Bostik solvent free adhesive resembles runny white toothpaste when dispensed from the tube, but dries clear when set.

Inevitably, when I tried to find more of it recently, I discovered that the easily recognisable colour and branding had made way to a confusingly generic scheme shared across a variety of different adhesive types from the manufacturer.

I found this old listing for Bostik 80518 on Amazon UK, and another here on Amazon US. Based on the product number, a modern equivalent seems to be here.

I’m sure there’s nothing unique about this particular product, other than I’ve found it to be foam friendly over the years. Aside from being solvent free, its ability to seep into the foam is a key asset.

Since the first step of creating an insert leaves you with a potentially discardable piece of foam anyway, you have plenty of raw material to experiment with if in doubt.

Additional Reinforcement

Even if you have been generous with the side walls of your foam insert, a heavy radio might demand some additional work to ensure the longevity of the foam.

While the example case shown above worked OK to start with, I noticed that the floor of the case and the side wall facing the back of the radio were taking a beating.

The problem was caused by the feet of the radio, cooling fins, power and antenna connectors. During transport, these were pushing into the foam with the full weight of the radio behind them. Subject to such concentrated point forces, I could see that the foam wasn’t going to last.

Using very thin and very cheap flexible plastic cutting boards from my local food market, I cut out panels which spread the point compression across a much wider area.

Additional Reinforcement

Now when I put the case into a backpack, I ensure that the radio is sitting on its tail with the cooling fins against the rear panel.

Conclusion

While it’s possible to create ad-hoc transport solutions for radios, there’s nothing quite as satisfying as a sturdy padded case that is made to measure. The cases are forever, but the foam needs care and attention, so I hope these tips help you build a lasting solution for safely transporting your pride and joy.


Oh wow! Thank you so much for this timely post and for helping me as I kit-out a Pelican case for my Icom IC-705.

Readers, click here to check out Mark’s previous post about the case he uses for his Yaesu FT-891.

Thanks again for sharing your best practices, Mark!