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Ham Radio & the Great Outdoors

John Harper (AE5X) on December 1, 2003
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Ham Radio and the Great Outdoors

By mid-afternoon, I'd been hiking all day along the Appalachian Trail and was now on a ridge overlooking the Delaware River on the NJ/PA border. While a soft breeze cooled me, the orange and crimson hues confirmed that fall was here at last. The weather was perfect, water had been plentiful along the trail and the few fellow hikers I'd met had been filled with the same enthusiasm that drove me to be out here among the hills and trees. The other hikers and I were very similarly equipped - their backpacks, like mine, probably contained a small stove, some snacks, a tent, sleeping bag and perhaps something to read once the day's walk had ended. But instead of a paperback novel to relax with by the fire, my pack contained a complete 20-meter ham station weighing just under 2 pounds. In a very short amount of time, my tent would be pitched, dinner would be eaten, a 33' wire would be hanging from a tree branch and I would be enjoying an after-dinner chat with someone far away. Odessa, Texas or Odessa, Ukraine - they are equally likely.

One of the wonderful characteristics of ham radio is that it is actually several hobbies in one. I can think of no other pastime that offers the variety of sub-hobbies we have available within ham radio: DXing, ragchewing, public service - the list goes on. Not so commonly mentioned though is the ease with which ham radio can be combined with other activities, such as camping. Technological advances in the past few years have resulted in tiny, efficient transceivers whose performance to weight ratio was unheard of only a few years ago. Gone are the days of lunchbox sized rigs - my 20-meter trail rig is the same size, shape and weight as a (ham!) sandwich. Also gone are the days of " lantern batteries" that weigh as much as a tent. Taking a complete HF station into the woods can be almost as simple as a mere afterthought.

At least it seems that way now. There was a learning curve in the beginning as I tried to find the best combination of what to take, how to power it, how to pack it and what to expect from it. In the beginning, there were far more questions than answers. The answers came over a series of trips as I experimented with different rigs, power supplies and antennas. I've learned a lot over the years - most of it from practical experience - but what works best for one operator/camper may not be the best set of choices for another. What follows are the ideas that I've found to work best for me and my expectations on a given backpacking trip.

Since most of the small transceivers available are monobanders, the first choice to be made when taking a ham rig to the trail is: What band? The best bands from which to choose are 20, 30 and 40 meters. The higher bands are too susceptible to varying propagation conditions and are more likely to "close" for the evening just as you are getting set up to operate. The antenna length requirements for 80 and 160 meters make them more difficult to operate from the field. Antennas for these bands are not only larger and heavier but more difficult to install as well. To narrow the choices further, check the contest schedule for the weekend of your trip. If there is a major contest scheduled and you don't want to participate, 30-meters is the band to choose. Do you want to work DX from the trail? If so, then 20-meters has the greatest potential for "crossing the pond". For ease of contacts, 40-meters always seems to have plenty of operators willing to answer a CQ.

Now that the band has been decided upon, an antenna needs to be packed. For 20-meters, the easiest antenna to pack and install while still being capable of snagging a good amount of DX is an end-fed wire, either length with a single 17' radial laid out on the ground beneath the antenna. I usually use a T. Then I lie out the radial and attach both elements to a small tuner/SWR indicator. This very simple antenna takes 10 minutes to set up and has never failed to allow me to add DX stations to the logbook while on the trail with my 20-meter rig. As mentioned, installation and takedown is simple, even after a full day of hiking, tent-pitching and cooking dinner. The simplest and lightest antenna to install for 40-meters that yields consistent contacts from 100-400 miles is a no-feedline dipole 4-6 feet above the ground. This antenna makes use of NVIS (Near Vertical Incidence Skywave) propagation. Being so low to the ground, most of the RF from this antenna goes straight up and is refracted back to Earth within a 400-mile radius. Even with only 2 watts of output (my maximum from the trail), I get excellent signal reports. Instead of hauling heavy feedline, I attach my tuner directly to the center of this dipole, with a short 2' patch cord connecting the tuner to the rig. This is an excellent antenna on 40m if you don't intend to work DX on that band, however I don't recommend it on 20m as the higher frequency will generally go right on through the ionosphere rather than refracting back to Earth. For 30-meters, I've used both the antennas mentioned (scaled to the proper dimensions) with good results. Depending on the band you choose, the antenna can be stored in either 1 or 2 35mm film canisters. I strongly recommend using different colored wire for the different elements of the antenna, i.e. one color for the radiating part of the antenna and another color for the ground radial. This will greatly help in unraveling the wires should they transform themselves into a tangled mess in your pack.

To power my rig in the field, I use 10 non-rechargeable AA alkaline batteries which give me about 6 hours of QSO time. On the trail, simplicity and dependability are more than virtues - they are requirements. I have found NiCads and gel cells to be either too heavy for the given application or too unreliable in their capacity from one charge to the next. I don't want to worry about the rules associated with charging various types of batteries and whether or not I followed those rules and didn't break them a time or two by "topping off" a battery before it was properly discharged. With alkaline batteries, I know I can rely on them to be ready to go right off the shelf. Another factor in favor of standard batteries is that of redundancy. My flashlight uses AA's and so do most of the GPS receivers that some hikers carry. It only makes sense to be as universal as possible with whatever power source you decide to use.

And no ham station is complete without the miscellaneous essentials: paddles & keyer (for a CW rig), earphones, logbook/pen and Ziploc baggie. And don't forget the patch cables and adapters to interconnect everything. There's nothing more frustrating than hiking 8 miles through the woods and then realizing that you forgot to pack the cable that connects the paddles to the rig! To prevent this from happening, set up your station completely before packing any of it. Then disassemble it and immediately stow it in a Ziploc baggie and then on into your pack. The baggie's function is to provide waterproof storage in the event of rain.

Although I have refrained from suggesting any specific transceivers, a few words on what to look for are probably in order. Obviously, size and weight are prime considerations. So are frequency coverage, current draw and whether or not the rig has a built-in keyer. If you are a CW operator who likes to build kits, you are in luck. There are a lot of high quality kits from which to choose. Even if you don't want to build your own, these transceivers are available on the used market already built and at least one manufacturer offers a completely built CW transceiver ideal for use as a trail rig. Phone operators have fewer choices but a few suitable rigs are available.

With a complete station weighing less than 2 pounds it is difficult to find a reason not to combine a great hobby with the great outdoors. There is some kind of amazing magic at work to be able to relax outside your tent as dusk falls and the western sky glows orange from the setting sun with a chorus of crickets beginning their nightly serenade as you make final adjustments to your rig and then begin calling CQ. Who will answer your call? Perhaps it will be YO2ARV or GI3OQR. - Or maybe 3D2AG and UA0AZ. They've all answered my CQ from the trail!

Details and accounts of various trips and equipment used can be found at:

John Harper AE5X

Member Comments:
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Ham Radio & the Great Outdoors  
by AE4X on December 1, 2003 Mail this to a friend!
Nice article, John. Good information.
And..oh, yes, nice callsign!

Rob, AE4X
Ham Radio & the Great Outdoors  
by WR8Y on December 1, 2003 Mail this to a friend!

I may be missing something from the article (reading this while at work):

1) What key / keyer do you use on the trail??

2) Do I have it right, that your power out is UNDER 2 watts?


RE: Ham Radio & the Great Outdoors  
by LNXAUTHOR on December 1, 2003 Mail this to a friend!
- very nice article... i prefer 17M over 20 or 40, but if you use the little BLT tuner, you can have it all if your rig is multi-band...

- solar is good too if you can get a lightweight panel, use a low-power txvr, and there's sunlight...


- some of the QRP CW folks use the pixie, which costs $9 and runs for a long, long time on a 9V, and fits into an Altoids tin...

- i recently took advantage of one of the remaining nice days here on the east coast and did my own 'mini' Field Day... went to a local park and used an SD20 (20' crappie pole) and a 10M extended double zepp (no trees were harmed in the process)... 5W is all you need, and i had lots of QSOs while sipping coffee and having a sandwich...

- unfortunately, i'll never experience the joys of backpacking and ham radio... my XYL's idea of 'roughing it' is staying in a Holiday Inn instead of a Radisson...

RE: Ham Radio & the Great Outdoors  
by AE5X on December 1, 2003 Mail this to a friend!

A keyer is built in to the rig(s) I use - for a paddle, there are several choices as well. I use:

The rigs put out about 2 watts. I use one of four small transceivers depending on what band I want and a few other factors. A couple of them are capable of a bit more than 2 watts but I usually turn them down to conserve battery power. My rigs of choice are here:

Ham Radio & the Great Outdoors  
by AD7DB on December 1, 2003 Mail this to a friend!
I see no mention's been made yet of the HF Pack group. Their URL is This sort of thing is what they do. Check it out.

[I am not affiliated with this group in any way. This was not necessarily an advertisement for them nor an endorsement.]
RE: Ham Radio & the Great Outdoors  
by KC8VWM on December 1, 2003 Mail this to a friend!

>>>[I am not affiliated with this group in any way. This was not necessarily an advertisement for them nor an endorsement.] <<<<

Did your lawyer write that? geez it's only a message forum...

Great article. Anyone have any good suggestions for keeping your equipment dry or waterproof in the field?

Secondly, I was wondering if operating say an Icom 706 in the portable knapsack bag poses any problems with heat dissipation etc. Anyone have experiences in this area?



Ham Radio & the Great Outdoors  
by KF4LFG on December 1, 2003 Mail this to a friend!
The Adventure Radio Society ( has a number of interesting articles and activities including contests.
RE: I had fun too!!!!  
by W3NRL on December 1, 2003 Mail this to a friend!
John; you wrote the article so well i had fun too, i thought i was with.
nice one
RE: I had fun too!!!!  
by W3JJH on December 1, 2003 Mail this to a friend!
Thanks for a good article.

A minimalist rig is great for camping. A bag full of AA batteries can be a bit heavy during a long trek--especially if you have to lug the dead ones back home with you! I've found that my 32-W Unisolar flexible solar panel rolls up to exactly the OD of the stuff sack for my sleeping bag; the bag nests snugly inside the solar array on my pack frame. The panel and a charging regulator weigh less than two spare battery packs. That's a welcome reduction in pack load for a week of camping.
Ham Radio & the Great Outdoors  
by W5EEX on December 1, 2003 Mail this to a friend!
John- This is a great article...wish there would be more like it here. I too am interested in QRP and portable operation and really enjoy reading about the "adventures" of others. Thanks again and 73.
Ham Radio & the Great Outdoors  
by KG4YJR on December 1, 2003 Mail this to a friend!
Enjoyed the article John and checked out your home page. seems you've run into more bears at your home than when you are out in the wild.

Ham Radio & the Great Outdoors  
by WR8Y on December 1, 2003 Mail this to a friend!
Comment number two:

I'v GOT to get a serious field radio - the DX-70 is nice, but NOT QRP, NOT a power-miser, AND too heavy.

RE: Ham Radio & the Great Outdoors  
by KL7IPV on December 1, 2003 Mail this to a friend!
KC8VWM... I was worried about the heat myself and I asked a tech at the Icom days last week about that. They say it isn't a problem. I am still not sure since the fan comes on often even when just listening. I am looking for a .25"X3"X6" heat sink to put on the radio cover to draw some of the heat out of it. I also use a 12VDC 7AH battery carried in a camera case to power my IC706. I get about 3 hours listening time with about 25 minutes SSB time from it before it needs to be charged.
RE: Ham Radio & the Great Outdoors  
by KQ6XA on December 2, 2003 Mail this to a friend!
Nice Article, John.

73---Bonnie KQ6XA
RE: Ham Radio & the Great Outdoors  
by W3BIG on December 2, 2003 Mail this to a friend!
A few suggestions for keeping ham gear dry in the field:

(1) I take along an FT-817 with auto-tuner and everything I need when I make canoe excursions in the wilderness. I use a shock-proof and waterproof Pelican case. These cases are primarily used by photographers, but the cases, which come in a wide variety of sizes and configurations, are great for radio gear as well. They offer superb protection for sensitive equipment under all conditions. They can be ordered from any good photographic dealer.

(2) Another great way to keep radio gear dry and safe is a dry-bag. These waterproof bags can be found in most outdoor stores in the canoe/kayak department. They are designed to keep important items dry when paddling. They also come in a wide variety of sizes and can hold anything from HTs to smaller transceivers.

Good luck in your outdoor ops. 73 from Bob, W3BIG
RE: Ham Radio & the Great Outdoors  
by AE5X on December 2, 2003 Mail this to a friend!
Thanks for the comments folks. For waterproofing, I use Ziploc bags and they work great. Anything else is too heavy! 73,

John AE5X
RE: Ham Radio & the Great Outdoors  
by WA8WWL on December 2, 2003 Mail this to a friend!
Hi everybody, I would like to share the experience I had this October. I went up north in Michigan to an Island called Bois Blanc on a bow hunting trip. I landed there in my Piper Cherokee and camped in a small tent right next to the grass runway that is on the island. I stayed for 5 days and the hunting was not to good but I had a lot of fun on my radio. My setup consisted of a Kenwood TS-450SAT with a 75 meter dipole made of 22 gauge hookup wire and RG-59 strung up in the trees next to the runway. For power I used a jump battery purchased from the local auto parts dealer. From this battery I got about 6 hours operation over a two day period. After that I plugged the battery into a wall charger plugged into an outlet in the utility hanger on the field and then operated for two more days. Initially I just worked my buddies on 75 meters in the evenings, I had a sched already worked out with them. But then I found that the built in tuner worked on every HF band into the 75 meter dipole. 15 meters was open in the morning when I came in for lunch and I was able to get into Germany and Portugal no problem.
Although I admit that my setup which weighed about 40 pounds did not lend itself to backpacking. I still was completely independent and enjoyed operating from the tent. I also admit that I really wasn't what you would call QRP at 100 watts.
Anyway it only took me about fifteen minutes to set everything up and even less time to take it down but my friends were fairly impressed and were interested in hearing what my hunting and other experiences for the day were like.
Ham Radio & the Great Outdoors  
by AE7I on December 2, 2003 Mail this to a friend!
Thanks for an excellent article with several tips which will benefit me on future backpacking trips. I haven't tried an HF/backpacking trip yet, but plan to next season.

I have taken my QRP rig with me on an off-road motorcycling adventure and found it fulfilling to enjoy QSO's while taking in the beauty of the country. For power, I connected to my bikes battery through an accessory plug.

Thanks for the tips!

Craig, AE7I
RE: Ham Radio & the Great Outdoors  
by WB2WIK on December 2, 2003 Mail this to a friend!
Nice article, John!

You've done far better than I have at efficient packing and using modern gear. A picture of one of my many "great outdoors" operations appears with my bio here on, and that particular operation involved packing 80 pounds of gear on my back and climbing the highest point in the Catskills (Slide Mountain) with it. The pack represented nearly 2/3 of my body weight at the time, not a fun climb.

I'll use some of your tips in the future!

BTW, I've hiked almost 2100 miles of the Appalachian Trail (not all at once!) and know pretty much where you were when you discussed the ridge overlooking the Delaware on the NJ/PA border; I used to live quite close to there.


Steve, WB2WIK/6
RE: Ham Radio & the Great Outdoors  
by K3ESE on December 2, 2003 Mail this to a friend!
Hey, here's another one:

Recently I built one of Elecraft's new KX1 xcvrs - with the option for 30M, and an internal antenna tuner, and made-to-fit unique paddles. With six internal Lithium batteries, it weighs somewhere around a pound, and fits in a pocket, needing only a couple of light coils of wire (antenna, counterpoise,) to be a complete three-band (20,30,40M) station, putting out about 1.5W.

I was in Ocean City, Maryland, and noticed the fence by the dunes were made of vertical slats of wood held together by three twisted pairs of wire...hmmm...
I used the top wire, three feet off the sand and several hundred yards long, as an antenna, by clipping onto it with a set of clipleads, laid a counterpoise on the sand, and worked an op in central Massachusetts.

Not DX, but pure hamming fun! I plan to find more items to load up with my "mini-teaspoon" of power - I'm sure the DX will be coming when conditions are right!

QRP ops is a little like fishing, for me: the fishing, itself, is the fun and the goal. The catching is also fun, and varies from a lot to none.


Fun = Skill / Power!

Lloyd, K3ESE
RE: Ham Radio & the Great Outdoors  
by AD7DB on December 2, 2003 Mail this to a friend!
KC8VWM commented:
>>>[I am not affiliated with this group in any way. This was not necessarily an advertisement for them nor an endorsement.] <<<<

Did your lawyer write that? geez it's only a message forum...

No, I'm not a lawyer. And I don't play one on TV. I just wanted to make sure that what I wrote wasn't taken to be a big commercial plug in some way! :)

Dave AD7DB

"Well it's 40 below, got a heater in my truck..." - the best kind, a ham radio that gets hot!
RE: Ham Radio & the Great Outdoors  
by KC8VWM on December 2, 2003 Mail this to a friend!
No prob Dave.

Ham Radio & the Great Outdoors  
by KE6YOC on December 3, 2003 Mail this to a friend!
Nice article!

I like to take my HT skiing and see how far 5 watts will go from a mountain top.

RE: Ham Radio & the Great Outdoors  
by G4GOY on December 3, 2003 Mail this to a friend!
I work away from home a lot and during the summer months I prefer to go camping rather than stay in a hotel or B&B (lots of people think I'm mad!!). Anyway, I always take my HW8 (running about 2W) with me on these trips and operate entirely on 20m. The antenna I use is a 10m vertical wire (as near vertical as possible, although it often has a small horizontal section at the top), thrown up into a handy tree. This is matched at the bottom with parallel LC network before going straight into the counterpoise required.

I have been pretty successful using this setup, managing to work stations in W, VE and YB as well as many European stations (from my /P tent QTH in the south of England). I love it!!

Best 73

John, G4GOY
Ham Radio & the Great Outdoors  
by NJ0E on December 4, 2003 Mail this to a friend!
great article john; i had perused your web site
some time ago after seeing your article on the
adventure radio society site. i enjoy taking my
40 meter small wonder labs rockmite backpacking.
also power it from a pack of 10 aa's, use an
emtech zm-2 antenna tuner and a 40 meter doublet
fed with 300 ohm tv twinlead. for keying i use
the whiterook paddles you mentioned. the whole
setup fits in a 1 gallon ziplock bag.

it's suprising what you can do with half a watt
on cw!

often take it to guadalupe mountains national
park in west texas; a great park for backpackers.

hope to hear you on the air someday.
scott nj0e
Ham Radio & the Great Outdoors  
by K7VO on December 4, 2003 Mail this to a friend!
Hi, John, and everyone else,

The type of operation you describe is pretty much my favorite part of ham radio. When hiking I operate a mix of SSB and CW, and I have a workable station I can use while walking on SSB :) I generally use either a Tokyo Hy-Power HT-750 6, 15, and 40 meter handheld or else a monoband Mizuho HT. It's lots of fun and you can get out :)

RE: Ham Radio & the Great Outdoors  
by HIGH on December 5, 2003 Mail this to a friend!
To reduce weight, you can use lithium AAs to cut the weight by 40% over normal alkalines. You will get much better current out of them and much better cold weather performance. You can also substitute a CR123A lithiums for each pair of alkalines to really cut your weight, but you cut your battery life in half. Lithium isn't cheap either.

That KX1 looks pretty spiffy, but kind of costly.

Rather than dipole antennas, is there anything smaller and easier to set up (or with virtually no setup? Especially when there are no trees? (new at this)
Ham Radio & the Great Outdoors  
by FORMER_AF0H_RH on December 5, 2003 Mail this to a friend!
A folded dipole made from tw twinlead is increadibly compact and lightweight. The one I made and used for just such an outing provided great results. And, with a tuner can run any band above the design frequency fairly well. Mine is even fed with twinlead right to the rig. Yes, the pl-259 is soldered right to the twinlead going into the meter/rig. No balun, no tuner, no nothing - and is flat across the band with no rfi problems. Don't believe it? Try it.
Ham Radio & the Great Outdoors  
by NJ0E on December 5, 2003 Mail this to a friend!
one other major consideration that is sometimes
overlooked; the current consumption of the qrp
commercially manufactured "all mode" rigs is *more*
than an order of magnitude greater than the better
monoband cw qrp kit radios. for example, the yaesu
ft 817 popular with the 'hfpacker' group draws 450
ma during receive, 250 ma when receiving and
squelched. the icom ic703 is about the same. in
contrast, my small wonder labs sw40+ draws between
15 and 20 ma during receive. the wilderness radio
sst and norcal 40 have similar receive current
drains. i would never seriously consider taking a
commercially manufactured all mode rig on extended
backpack outing; i would have to carry too many
batteries! the advice i would offer to anyone
interested in operating while on an extended
wilderness backpack is to sharpen your cw skills
and plug in your soldering iron. :)
scott nj0e
Ham Radio & the Great Outdoors  
by WA2JJH on December 8, 2003 Mail this to a friend!
Checked out those minirigs. One does get much for $150.
I wanted to make mod my FT-100D for ultra low rx poer consumption. The rig you use is a mere 55ma on RX.
That is great.

The FT-100D needs help in low power RX.

1)Since the TX power is adjustable in 100 steps, keep the TX power under 3 watts is fine.

2)The big problem is the RX draw.
A)The Back light is variable in 100 steps. Turn the back light off.
b)Use headphones keep the audio at an absolute minimum.

c)If possible use squelched RX.

If all measures are done, RX will draw about 300ma.
A far cry from your 55ma, but then again we have more of a receiver to power.

I built the whole shack in a re-enforced Anvile brief case. Cheapo MFJ tuner/swr meter. Spool of 18 guage wire. Pre-cut inverted V for 15/40 M.

Sorry I am such a city slicker! My field operation was central park!

I used 8 alkaline or lithium D cells.

This Shack in an Anvile breif case is really for emergency ops. I built it after 9/11

Anvile, Calzone, or haliburtan cases are the best.
New they may cost $300. Got one used at a flea market.
$10.00. The metal was a little rusty. This case has seen too many days in the rain.
A little steel whole and elbow grease, whola!


Ham Radio & the Great Outdoors  
by WB2PJH on December 9, 2003 Mail this to a friend!
You might want to consider using NiMh batteries. I've been using them exclusively for a couple of years now and they do not have the problems of nicads, hold a charge nicely, and don't have a memory. I have a set of AAs in my handheld and they last a surprisingly long time.

--Dave WB2PJH
Ham Radio & the Great Outdoors  
by AA3K on December 10, 2003 Mail this to a friend!
On my first trip to Dayton in 2002 my friends convinced me to buy an Icom 706MkIIG. I've been taking this on camping trips with the family (either tent or pop-up camper) ever since. After the kids go to bed and my wife relaxes with a book, I commandere the picnic table and off I go.

Our campsites typically have electricity so powering the radio is not a problem and trees hold up dipoles very easily.

Recently I made a Slinky dipole with some cheap ones I found in a dollar store and with a tuner it works well.

I also found a sportsman hardsided padded case at Wal-Mart which carries everything except the antenna and coax very securely.

Logbook of the World says "Go work some new ones!" when you log out, and with the compact size of many rigs these days, there is no reason not to when your out in the field.

Mark N3GNW
Ham Radio & the Great Outdoors  
by KE4ZHN on December 12, 2003 Mail this to a friend!
A great way to operate QRP from the woods John, nice article.
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