October 18, 2011

Operating Far Afield

Our first love has always been the great outdoors.  We enjoy hiking, biking, fishing, photography, camping, and a myriad of other outdoor activities.  As the saying goes, a bad day in the field is better than any day in the office.

Amateur radio and the pursuit of the great outdoors make a wonderful combination.  At its most basic level, all it takes to combine the two is to bring a radio with you when you head out the door.  The current crop of HTs (Handy Talkie) are amazingly lightweight and portable as compared with the "bricks" or man-packs of earlier generations.  Contemporary HTs are easily slipped into a jacket, vest pocket, or onto a belt without adding bulk or much weight.

The big advantage of an HT is that it is a completely self-contained hand-held station with a mic, speaker, receiver, transmitter, and antenna.  Most commercial HTs operate in the VHF (2m / 6m) and UHF (220Mhz and 440Mhz) range.  Though there are HT's available covering HF (10m and 40m).  We often bring our Kenwood TH-F6A on our expeditions.  It is a great little radio and covers three bands 144Mhz, 220Mhz, and 440Mhz.

The most common use of an HT is to communicate via a repeater.  The repeater helps extend the effective range of communication for relatively low wattage HTs (typically 5 watts or less).  Repeaters are quite useful; however, a contact made via repeater in most cases is disqualified from contributing toward an award or contest.  Simplex (station-to-station) and satellite operations with HT's are also popular with the added advantage that these contacts typically do qualify toward awards and contests.

When operating with intention of earning credit toward an award or in a contest, an essential requirement is to log the contact.  Minimally you need a writing instrument, paper, and a time reference.

For logging we use the same pencil we used in college, a 0.7mm Pentel mechanical drafting pencil.  It is durable, reliable, erasable, economical, writes in any orientation, clips to your pocket, and the 0.7mm lead doesn't break easily.  We have found that pencil holds up better in wet conditions (less messy) as compared to ink.

For manually logging, we have tried everything from lined paper to paper logbooks.  Rain and snow are rather unkind to paper logs.  Our solution to logging in wet conditions in the field is a 3x5 inch water-proof, tear-proof, spiral bound log book.  It works perfectly with pencil.  Each page has a printed header, so you capture the contact information in a uniform manner.  The size is nice too.  Easily fits into a jacket or pants pocket.

When verifying a QSL, date and time are important.  Hams long ago adopted UTC as a standard for logging contacts.  UTC allows hams in two different parts of the world to document the same date and time in their logs and QSL's.  At home, our computer logging program automatically logs the contact at the correct date / time in UTC.  However, in the field, it is up the operator to log the contact in UTC which requires either a clock set to UTC or a calculation to convert from your local time to UTC.  Even though the conversion is fairly easy, it is still easy to get confused in the heat of operations and log the contact incorrectly.  Of course, you could bring your computer with you at the expense of weight, complexity, and risk of damaging the relatively fragile device.

We discovered a wonderful watch from Timex which solves this problem.  The Timex Expedition watch offers dual-time zone capabilities in an attractive and rugged package.  We use the dial-hands for local time and set the second integrated LCD watch to UTC in the 24hr format.  The indigo feature lights up the watch face which is handy in low-light conditions.  All-in-all this watch keeps UTC on our wrist at all times and makes accurate logging a breeze.  We also appreciate that it looks great too.

One of our very favorite amateur radio activities in the outdoors is operating from a mountaintop.  The distance a low power HT can obtain with a clear line-of-sight from atop a mountain is remarkable.  This summer we made several 2m contacts from Cadillac Mountain in Maine with our HT.  A few years ago we operated from the summit of Mount Washington at 6288ft.  There really is nothing quite like working stations with a view from the top of the world.

Hope this has inspired you to get out-of-doors with your portable radio and make some contacts.  Ham radio and the great-out-doors go well together.  Keep it simple and travel light with an HT, waterproof log, and a pencil.  Don't let the bulk, expense, and weight of elaborate stations, antennas, power sources, computers, and all the other trappings keep you indoors.

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