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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

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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Guest Review: CW Morse Single-Lever Keyer Paddle

On October 10, I took delivery of a CW Morse (https://cwmorse.us/) “Red Single Paddle Morse Code Key With Base” (https://cwmorse.us/product/red-single-paddle-morse-code-key-with-base/) which Tom Witherspoon, K4SWL, had sent me to review for this website. CW Morse had sent Tom several keys to review and Tom, knowing I am a fan of single-lever paddles, sent me the CW Morse single-lever paddle to review.

CW Morse "Red Single Paddle Morse Code Key With Base"

CW Morse "Red Single Paddle Morse Code Key With Base", inside view

I will admit it: I wasn’t expecting much from a 3-D printed CW paddle, but I was very surprised by the quality of the build and the feel of the paddle.

The “Red Single Paddle Morse Code Key With Base” is a nice mix of 3-D printed frame, lever, fingerpiece, and cover with steel ball bearings, metal contacts, steel centering springs, and a heavy steel base. (See photos, above.)

The mailman delivered the paddle on October 10  and I started using it almost immediately as a cootie-key / sideswiper to hunt Parks on the Air (POTA) activations. (A cootie-key or sideswiper is a manual key in which the operator moves a paddle alternately side-to-side to manually create the dots and dashes of Morse Code.) The paddle worked very well as a cootie and I made six POTA QSOs using the paddle on the afternoon of the 10th. Unfortunately, when I tried to use the paddle for my nightly ragchew-QSO with K8RAT, the paddle stopped centering properly and I had to switch to another key to finish the QSO. A day or two later, I studied the CW Morse key and found that I was able to loosen the nut at the lever pivot-point a little bit to reduce drag. After this simple adjustment, the paddle has worked beautifully without further need for adjustment.

The “Red Single Paddle Morse Code Key With Base” features adjustable gaps on both sides of the lever. These gaps are easily adjusted using the supplied Allen wrench or with bare fingers. The spring tension is not adjustable and the paddle’s feel is pretty light.

The steel base, while small, is quite heavy and the four rubber feet provide excellent traction on my radio desk. I have a pretty heavy fist and this paddle is almost heavy enough that I can send with my right hand without holding the paddle with my left hand.

Now, a disclosure: I have been using semi-automatic bugs and fully-manual cootie keys so long now that my keyer fist is absolute rubbish. I did use the paddle to drive an electronic keyer for one ragchew-QSO and the paddle worked very well in that mode and it had a nice feel–any mistakes made in keying were not the fault of the paddle but of my own inability anymore to judge how long to hold the dash-paddle.

I’ve been using this paddle as my go-to cootie-key for over half a month now and as a cootie key the “Red Single Paddle Morse Code Key With Base” excels. The gaps were easily adjustable and the feel of the paddle as a cootie is just fantastic. This key has, at least for the moment, become my favorite hamshack cootie-key.

The “Red Single Paddle Morse Code Key” can be removed from the steel base for field or portable use and I did remove the key from the base to try it in this configuration. Unfortunately, I didn’t like the feel of the paddle in my left hand, primarily because the two mounting rails make the key feel awkward in my hand. CW Morse does offer a dual-lever field paddle (https://cwmorse.us/product/pocket-double-paddle-morse-code-key/) and I think a similar design with a single lever would make an excellent field paddle or cootie key. (Read about Tom Witherspoon’s experience with the dual-lever field paddle here: https://qrper.com/2020/10/pota-field-report-pairing-the-icom-ic-705-with-the-elecraft-t1-and-cw-morse-pocket-paddles/.)

Bottom Line: I have been very pleased with the “Red Single Paddle Morse Code Key With Base” and I can recommend it for any CW operator who needs an inexpensive but well-made single-lever paddle.

Author interview: Dennis Blanchard’s (K1YPP) “Three Hundred Zeroes: Lessons of the Heart on the Appalachian Trail”

Dennis Blanchard (K1YPP) at Four Days In May 2012

This year, at the Four Days in May (FDiM) Dayton QRP gathering, I had the pleasure of meeting Dennis Blanchard (K1YPP) and his wife, Jane, as Blanchard signed copies of his book, Three Hundred Zeroes: Lessons of the Heart on the Appalachian Trail. I had previously heard about Blanchard’s book, and it was great meeting the author in person.  Both he and his wife were most friendly, and I instantly felt a connection–after all, he is a fellow QRPer!

As a result of this meeting, I recently decided to purchased a copy of Three Hundred Zeroes on my Kindle eBook reader. Though I’ve always been a fan of turning pages on a traditional book, the eReader does afford one instant gratification, as you can order it on-the-go and start reading immediately.  And that’s exactly what I did…

The result? I’m very glad I took the time to read Blanchard’s Three Hundred Zeros.  Though I don’t like to spend much time away from my young family at present, I’ve always thought it would be a wonderful challenge and adventure to through-hike the AT (Appalachian Trail); reading this book was a vicarious opportunity to do so. Indeed, my favorite trail, the BT–the Bartram Trail, which follows the path of early American naturalist and explorer William Bartram–which I hike when I can, and whose NC chapter I’ve served as a board member for nearly 10 years now, parallels the AT at different points.  So the temptation to hike (and QRP, of course) continues.

“This photo was taken in NJ. Shortly after I took these photos, and walked down the trail about a 100 feet, a bear came over to check the table to see if I had left anything.” (Photo: K1YPP)

Blanchard’s book gives me hope. Three Hundred Zeroes is a well-documented, informative, and–despite his truly serious heart condition–often humorous journal-style account of his successful thru-hike of this 2176 mile trail. His writing style is very informal and likeable, focusing on the many personal interactions that make the trail hiker’s experience unique, and interweaving his day-to-day accounts with trail lore and history.

In contrast with the arduous journey Bill Bryson describes his well-known (and hilarious) book, A Walk in the Woods, in Three Hundred Zeros Blanchard calmly and routinely deals with misadventures and hair-raising encounters with wildlife, rolling with the punches and somehow emerging unscathed. He describes the journey as “long stretches of boredom, punctuated by brief moments of excitement” in the lively and unpredictable form of bears, mice, snakes, and even other hikers, to some degree. Blanchard was obviously a great hiking companion, thus rarely hiked alone–no doubt, other hikers sought his company.

A closeup of Dennis’ AT Sprint 3A taked at Four Days in May (Click to enlarge)

With QRP in mind, I had a few questions for Blanchard after reading his book.  He has kindly taken the time to respond to QRPer‘s questions, as follows.

QRPer:  I always thought that the AT would be a lonely place, but your book certainly changed my mind. Were there many stretches of trail where you were completely alone while trekking or camping at night?

Blanchard: There were times when I was alone for extended periods. However, “alone” is a relative term. Throughout the day I would encounter other hikers going in the other direction, or people that were slower or faster than I. In 180 days on the trail, I think I had three nights when I camped alone.

“2007-Damascus, VA was where I operated Field Day in 2007. It was shortly after this that I left the trail for the heart surgery.” (Photo: K1YPP)

QRPer: What was your favorite stretch of trail?

Blanchard: That’s difficult to answer…The trail is so varied and weather can change one’s views of any section. For me, it was a coin toss between the New Hampshire White Mountains and the 100 Mile Wilderness in Maine. The remoteness of both areas was just so spectacular. Of course the high altitudes made for great antenna opportunities as well.

QRPer: Did you bring a radio to listen to local AM/FM or shortwave?

Blanchard: For most of the hike, I carried a Yaesu VX-1R 2/440 handi-talkie. I think I used it about three times on two-meters. In a few situations, such as up in the White Mountains, I used the VX-1R to tune in NOAA for weather news. It also has AM/FM and on a few very rare occasions, I tuned into local stations for news. Would I carry it again? I don’t know. It is wise to have something for emergencies, and the radio wasn’t too big or heavy, but it was extra weight.

QRPer:  Specifically, what ham gear did you take with you? Do you have a photo?

Blanchard:As noted in the book, I did carry a home-brewed 80/40 meter CW rig for the first 600 miles. For the rest of the hike I carried Steve Weber’s ATS-3A. The radio was powered by six Energizer disposable lithiums, in a home-brewed battery pack. The pack could also charge my cell phone and power the 2-meter VX-1R radio. I used a 51 foot random wire for the antenna and some counterpoise wire, usually about 15 feet. Altogether, the gear weighed around two pounds.

QRPer: If you were to do the hike again, would you take the same equipment?

Blanchard: I’m not certain I would carry the VX-1R again. I didn’t use it much and it is extra weight. However, the NOAA weather, and 2-meter capability could prove extremely useful in an emergency.

QRPer:What was it like coming back off the trail once you completed it? Any especially notable things about how you perceived the world around you? Did it change you? Any culture shock?

Blanchard: The only real “culture shock” was riding in automobiles. Everything seemed to move so quickly. I much more enjoy walking and biking now. I would be happy if I never had to drive again.

“KD2VX, Kathy, was the trail angel that helped out with my hike up in New Hampshire. She is a QRP fan.” (Photo: K1YPP)

QRPer: How many other hams did you meet on the AT who were either through-hiking the AT, or hiking sections?

Blanchard: Since we [hikers] don’t wear being a “ham” on our sleeve[s], I can’t really say how many hams I encountered. The few that I was aware of were mostly section hiking. One benefit of setting up my QRP station along the way was public visibility for ham radio. On a number of occasions I inspired my fellow hikers to look into ham radio when they returned home. I’ve even had a few readers of the book write me to tell me they went off and got a ham license based on inspiration from the book.

QRPer: If any other QRPers are inspired by your story, and are thinking about hiking the entire AT, how much money should they budget for such an adventure? Based on what I read, there are a number of budgetary considerations for shuttles, food, gear, and the like.

“Duncannon, PA was were I operated Field Day. The station table was a few rocks I moved around.” (Photo: K1YPP)

Blanchard: The answer to this question depends on how many “creature comforts” one wishes. Hiking as I did, with stops along the way about every 5-10 days, can cost about $1-$3 a mile. Those on a tight budget could do it for much less, and those that enjoy getting to hotels and eating in fancier places could spend more. Most of the shuttles were really not that expensive, at least those that cater specifically to hikers. The hostels are a real bargain, compared to standard hotels, but one may have to tolerate annoyances, such as snoring and people coming and going at unusual hours. If you’re a light sleeper, this could be an issue.

QRPer: On zero days [based on your descriptions] it seems like hikers simply stuff themselves with food. I’m really curious what you typically ate on the trail?

K1YPP’s 2008 Field Day “table” in Duncannon, PA (Click to enlarge, Photo: K1YPP)

Blanchard:The short answer is: I ate everything. I’m not fussy, and don’t have any diet limitations. If someone is diabetic, or vegetarian, it is still possible to undertake such a hike, it just might require more preparation. My typical day was a few Pop Tarts first thing in the morning, or hot oatmeal on cold days, followed by an on-trail mid-morning snack, such as a Snickers Bars or trail mix.

Lunch was usually something that didn’t need cooking. Roll-up tortillas, or bagels with peanut butter won out most of the time. In the colder weather, bagels and cream cheese was a favorite. Gatorade powder mix, or hot chocolate in cold weather, was my favorite drink for lunch.

The evening meal was usually a pasta-based affair, or couscous. I really preferred the couscous; it is very light to carry, needs very little energy to cook, and is loaded with nutrients. I would usually stir in some dried vegetables with it, or dried meat. As a side I would carry a dried sausage, such as pepperoni, which could also serve as a snack for lunch. I usually carried some desert items as well, such as cookies or dried fruit. Of course energy bars would supplement all of this along the way. Many hikers preferred candy bars, but I tried to avoid them in the warmer weather since they melt.

Overall, even though the diet sounds bland, it wasn’t bad. Of course, whenever we hit a town, I would stuff on everything in sight. I actually did eat well, but couldn’t find enough calories to maintain my weight. I ended up losing 35 pounds at the end of the hike and looked like a refugee.

Well, Dennis–all I can say is that I hope you’ve gained back some of those lost pounds, continue to be in good heart-health, and are able to enjoy a little QRP on your forthcoming hikes.  Thanks very much for taking the time to answer our questions; we wish you the very best!

You can purchase Dennis’ book from Amazon.com or Barnes and Noble and visit his website at threehundredzeroes.com.