Damn its cold.

This weekend was supposed to be another section of the AT from the Pearisburg Virginia area. 28 miles into town from the south.

As you may have heard, there was a hell of a winter storm here in the southeast this week. Temperatures forecast last week were in the twenties. They got worse and worse, and road conditions got bad enough that getting there safely could have been an issue. Yesterday I looked at the forecast.

Wind chill of -16 and wind gusts of 32mph is a little much for me. I don’t mind temperatures into the teens as long as it gets above freezing the next day. But Three days in the woods at 20 and below sounded like it would suck.

So I’m sitting at home on the radio with a fire going thinking about our next adeventure. The “Donner Party hike” will go through the same area, but hopefully not as cold as the ACTUAL Donner Party had it. There’s a nice cold hike, and then there are some dangerous conditions that any weekend hiker should probably avoid.

I’m still waiting on my radio kit from India to arrive… so I can start working on a backpack radio to take to the woods. It has a nice little following online already, so if there are problems getting it working, there seem to be lots of people that will help.

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UGQ Tarp Review

I finally was able to take my new UGQ Tarp outside for a test run. I was packing some stuff for a future trip and realized I hadn’t put the new tarp up yet.

The UGQ Winter Dream I bought is 12 feet across the ridgeline, with some doors on the end. I think I got “Moroccan Blue”, but I really should have got the Royal Purple like I originally wanted. My old tarp was 11 feet long, and I had put a Grizz Beak on either end. The main problem with the Grizz Beaks were they require a bit of extra work hanging and tying off, after the main tarp is hung. They also can billow out a little where they overlap on the end of the tarps, so wind can be an issue sometimes. They also add a little weight over integrated doors.

My first hang didn’t go very well. I strung the tarp up, and the integrated ridge line got tangled up with everything else. I really started to piss me off. So I gave up, and drug the mass back into the house. I strung the tarp up in the bedroom and cut off the offending lines, and retied a few things. First of all, my tieouts were WAY too long. I shortened all of them, re-tied my ridge line, and added Dutchware Tarp flies on the tie-out lines to make everything a bit easier. Before bagging the whole thing, I wrapped the tie outs up so it would be harder to get them tangled. Then I jammed everything in the orange sack and went back out.

Once back in the woods, I had a MUCH better time of everything. The Dutchware Tarp Flies were a big help in putting the tarp up, and the new ridgeline helped get everything nice and tight. There were no tangled parts this time. I was really pleased with the size of the tarp, and the the way the door snaps worked. I am looking forward to tying the doors out instead of to each other, in order to have more space under the tarp. I should be able to have plenty of space to put my pack under the tarp and move around a bit.

I made a video where I hung the thing and took it down so if you are interested in this tarp and have 9 minutes to waste, feel free to take a look.

UGQ Tarp from Markus Amoungus on Vimeo.

100 Watts and a Wire – worldwide.

I’m amazed at the places we can talk just using low power on the amateur radio bands with some pretty low-tech stuff. I constantly hear people with 80 foot towers and antennas that cost more than my first car. I’m using a piece of speaker wire about 140 feet long with a little transformer 1/3 of the way from the end, strung between trees with some paracord.

Since getting licensed in October of this year, I’ve talked to 270 stations since then, covering a few continents and many states. It’s been interesting so far. The log I’m using is call Aether, for the Mac. Initially I was a little hesitant to buy it, because of the price, but I have found it to be well worth it. It looks up call signs as I type them, and shows a database I can sort by call sign. I can hear a foreign station with dozens of people calling, and scroll down to where his call sign would be and decide if I want to wait my turn in the pileup.

Another nice feature of Aether is the ability to export a data file compatible with Google Earth. So with a simple click of a button or two I can scroll around the globe and see where I have talked. The Mac makes it really easy to take screen shots as well.

Its interesting how Google Earth shows the signal propagating. Europe looks a lot higher on the globe than I expected. It is also interesting that I can see the way the signals bounce off the atmosphere. There are a lot of contacts on the east coast and west to Texas, Then almost nothing until California, Washington, and Oregon, showing that my signal is hopping over the midwest for the most part.

My farthest Southern contact was near the tip of South America. I am not sure because of fading, but I think I may have hit a station at the south pole research station, but there were so many people making so much noise, I couldn’t confirm it. Unfortunately the person that was down there running the Antarctica ham station has left, and I will have to wait for him to return.

 

Europe is always interesting. There seem to be two or three guys in the Czech Republic that are always on 20 meters (If your car radio dial went down that far, it would be channel 14.3 instead of, for example, 103.3). I have talked to both Yuri and Yannez, and they generally have a pile of people trying to contact them. I look forward to hopefully working more of Europe and even Africa.

My next project is getting my trail rig working so I can take my ham stuff on hiking trips. I think it would be really nice to be able to sit down for lunch, toss a wire up into a tree, and make a few contacts from a mountain top. The other thing I was thinking, if I could get on a bald mountain top, I could plant my trekking poles in the ground and run the wire between them. Either way I think it will bring a fun new activity to hiking and backpacking.

Summit On The Air

On my last trip along the AT, I took my little amateur radio walkie-talkie, but I was relatively disappointed. It seems that 2 meters (145mhz or so) is mostly dead. I heard a couple of people talking but I called and I couldn’t reach anyone. I bought a slightly longer antenna that’s supposed to help, but without something extremely directional, VHF is still sort of limited.

I really prefer High Frequency stuff, which is what I got into Ham Radio for to begin with. I would love to do some HF stuff. My favorite bands are 80, 40, and 20 meters, which are around 3.8mhz, 7.3mhz, and 14.25mhz. In general, however, HF stuff that you can hike with are very small radios that only do morse code, or larger, heavier, expensive radios in the realm of about $700, but that can run upwards of $1800.

Ouch.

So I was very happy when I stumbled upon something that fits a lot of different categories.

The uBitX (Micro BitX) radio transceiver is made in India and seems almost too good to be true. It’s:

  1. Cheap. Under $125 tested and shipped from INDIA.
  2. HF. It covers 3mhz to 30mhz, which covers the bands I like, plus some upper bands I don’t usually use, and even into CB.
  3. It involves some DIY stuff. Basically you get two completed and tested circuit boards. and some switches, and have to supply your own box.
  4. It runs from 8AA batteries.
  5. The computer part of the radio is very similar to a raspberry pi, which I’m used to working with anyway. The radio can be modified if you really want to, and if you screw up the OS, you can reload it.

The web site is: http://www.hfsignals.com/index.php/ubitx/

Since the uBITx puts out only 10 watts at the max, it is easy to carry a very small antenna such as this one, the “Trail Friendly”, an antenna designed for trail use.

https://www.lnrprecision.com/store/EFT-10-20-40-Trail-Friendly-p39885475

The radio and antenna combination looks very promising as a hiking setup for CHEAP. Even cheaper than a walkie-talkie. I have seen a few built online, and the reviews are generally positive. The nice thing about HF is it goes MUCH farther. Under the right conditions it hits as far as Europe, but conditions are quite variable and a lot of the time you can hear people several states away but not many people locally. I speak with a group nightly on 80 Meters, where I can hear people from West Virginia and Kentucky, yet people in my own state I can’t hear.

There is something called “Summit on the Air”, where people try and work other places from mountaintops. There’s something similar called Parks on the Air, where people work contacts from State and National Parks.

If the uBITx works out like it sounds, I would love to build one for myself. Its interesting when so much radio stuff comes out of China and Japan, and then something very promising comes out of India that sells out in the first day of being available. 

Appalachian Trail to Pearisburg

This weekend myslef and 5 meetup group friends went to Pearisburg, Va to do a 26 mile hike. It involved two nights at shelters and 4500 feet of ups, and 6000 feet of downs, so we really got a workout.

We started early for us, leaving Columbia at 5am. We arrived at Angel’s Rest Hiker Hostel about 4 hours later and were shuttled to road 613, 26 trail miles north of Pearisburg. Along the way we passed the Mountain Lake Resort, where they filmed Dirty Dancing (Kellermans). The lake is gone, but the buildings are still there.

Handy dropped us at the road crossing of the AT, and sent us on our way. I had taken my newest toy, my Ham radio walkie, but pretty much every other luxury I left at home. On day 2 we were expecting very little water all day, and would be carrying a lot of extra water weight on our backs. I left behind the camera, the GPS, my string of battery powered LED lights, and even the liquor. Sometimes you have to make sacrifices.

A few miles in (and downhill!) we reached Bailey Gap Shelter, where we stopped for lunch. It was a nice shelter with water flowing. We started spreading out after Bailey Gap, as we tend to do. By 4pm we all arrived at Pine Swamp Branch Shelter, our home for the evening. Officially, the shelter is closed because of all the dead trees around it, but they have been cutting the dead trees down. They were laying all over the place, but it didn’t leave much space for tents and hammocks.

Paul and I looked at the map and decided to just go up the hill a ways, in order to get some of the morning’s 1800 foot ascent out of the way, and to find a better campsite. Often there are unpublished campsites along the trail  large enough for a couple of people. I filled my 3 liter camelback and got another 2.5 liters in my Platypus bag, and we started up. The extra weight was immediately obvious on my back and legs. We walked up the hill for an hour, almost to the top. Finally we reached a section that had less slope than the rest and opened up onto a wide hill area with plenty of trees. My thighs had done about all they could and were quivering with every step. I stopped and asked Paul how much farther he wanted to go. He looked around and told me we were fine right there.

We dropped our packs and set up camp, and wound up cooking our food right in the middle of the trail, because it was the only flat spot not covered in leaves that might catch fire. Up on the ridge we had a nice view of the sunset, and we had cell phone service. I couldn’t reach anyone on the radio, although I could hear broken conversations from a repeater many miles away. I was feeling a little sick from the hard uphill right at the end of the day, ate a little of my Pepper beef and rice and wound up burying the rest.

It was getting cold quickly once the sun went down, so Paul and I retreated to the tents. I had set up with one end of the hammock and tarp facing downhill and toward the valley to the west. My Grizz Beak was closed behind me, and the wind changed to blow from my foot end and kept billowing the tarp and rustling the Grizz Beak. With a full day of hiking and 2 hours of sleep the night before, I was soon out. I woke up once to pee at 330, and the next time it was 7am. By the time I was mostly packed and heating my coffee water, Paul was packed and ready to go. I waved him goodbye and drank my coffee.

Several minutes later I was ready, and walked out. It was nice being alone for a bit, knowing that Paul was ahead and the rest of the group was behind in case something happened to me. It was one of those moments when I truly felt alone. I walked until about 930, stopped for a quick snack, and the kept going. Around noon Mike caught up with me and we spent most of the day walking along together. The trail was a strange mix of lots of rocks then smooth leaves and dirt and then tons of rocks.

True to the map and what we expected, there was no water most of the day. Mike and I finally came upon a small campsite and found the trickle of water we expected. Mike had a pump and was able to quickly get several liters out of the ground, enough for both of us for the remainder of the trip. We waited around about 40 minutes and the rest of the group caught up.

While they went for water, Mike and I packed up and headed out. It wasn’t far from there to Rice Field Shelter, which tops my list of most awesome shelter views so far. The shelter itself was set back into the trees, at the edge of a field overlooking Peterstown, West Virginia. The sun went down over the hill to our west as the moon came up to the east. For a minute they were both in the sky, a beautiful full moon and the orange setting sun. The town lit up beneath us, twinkling lights in the darkness. It felt a lot like being in space, standing over the town on the ridge.

The night was a lot warmer than the previous one, and Thomas started a fire for us. Apparently Paul and I missed a good fire the previous night in the  shelter, and we were glad to have the official fire-starter of the group back with us. Although I had cell service again (we could almost see the tower over the hill), and I was looking forward to watching something on DirectTV   Now, I lay down in the hammock about 8pm and was out before I knew it. I woke up about 2 am and then had a fitful sleep the rest of the night.

The last morning, Paul, Mike and I left first, to a gorgeous view of the fog down in the valley. It was almost all downhill from there, with the exception of a tough fast 300 foot climb near the end. Thanks to the cell phones, I was able to call the second group and hatch a plan: We would call the shuttle driver early, who would pick us up at Narrows Road. Then we would go back to the hostel, Mike would return with the truck and grab the other 3 hikers and we could go eat. It worked out really well, and thanks to the Hostel owner and some free time while we waited, I got a shower and a shave.

Of course we had to try some local cuisine, in the form of La Barranca Mexican Restaurant, where Mike confirmed that the #5 special pretty much is the same everywhere: Two Enchiladas, Rice and Beans.

Overall I was only disappointed with the Ham Radio. Apparently 2 meters (146mhz) is nothing like HF. Its almost like a totally different radio service. I made some general calls to anyone listening, but never got anyone. It would have been GREAT if some of the other hikers had a license – we could have talked to each other once we spread out. I was pleased though that the battery lasted the whole trip, despite being cold overnight.

 

 

A return to Panthertown

This weekend I returned to Panthertown, a place I haven’t been in about 2 years. Between AT hikes and work, I haven’t been able to get back. But this weekend I agreed to help out with my friend’s Backpacking 101 trip. There were 11 of us signed up for a nice easy hike over two days, with temperatures  in the 60s and 50s. There was a chance of rain, but nothing terrible.

We met in the parking lot where we usually carpool from, and there were only 9 at the time. By 7:15 we needed to go, and headed out. After a wrong turn or two we found the trailhead and got the packs on, and tromped off into the woods. Our first stop was Schoolhouse falls, a nice low falls about 20 feet off the water, with a hollowed out section that you can walk on, behind the falls. It’s always a fun trip, especially when there’s a bit of ice on the rocks. The water was quite high this time, but thankfully there was no ice.

We left the falls and headed up. There is only about 600 feet of elevation gain for the whole hike, but its all at once, 300 feet the first day and 300 feet the second day, in one swoop. It really lets you know how far out of shape you are. We reached the top of the hill and looked out over the valley. By now it was time for a snack, so we sat on the rocks in the sun and talked about things. About the time we were about to leave, a woman walked out of the woods. She asked if we were a meetup group.

It turns out she was one of our group members that missed the carpool group, and tried to keep up with us after a traffic light caught her. She took an entirely different direction and was able to find us based on the map she picked up in class. We were very impressed with both her road navigation and her map-reading ability, as Panthertown is a tough place to navigate if you’ve never been to it.

With our new hiker, we headed down the hill and found the next set of falls at Granny Burrell. The water was high enough there wasn’t much rock to stand on without getting wet, and the beach was totally washed out. We headed on up to the shelter to set up camp. When we arrived, we found the camping area mostly deserted except for a single tent and bear bag, with a fire smoldering in the fire ring. No one was home. The camping area has grown up a lot since I last stayed there, the briars have taken over several good tent sites. Someone needs to come in with a machete and clean it out a bit.

It was short work for everyone to pick a site and set up. About the time most of the tents went up a group of about 20 hikers came through and looked forlornly at the shelter, as it had started to rain. They kept on walking north, which was a good direction to go since across the creek there is a great open camping site, just without the tin-roofed building. We ate snacks, sat around and talked, and then some went ahead and cooked dinner. At first it looked like the night hike was going to be a no-go, but the rain quit before sunset and I asked if anyone wanted to night-hike.

Five of us headed down the trail, with one giving up before we reached the turn to go up the cliff face. She turned back and the rest of us made the 200 foot switchbacking trail hike up to the top of Big Green, where we watched the last of the sun’s rays dip behind the mountain. A cold mist rolled in and we headed back down about 10 minutes later. By the time we got back to the twisting, turning, wet path leading off the top of the outcropping, it was fully dark. Coming off a mountain in the dark is always a fun challenge, especially with mud and standing water in spots. We walked into camp, talked a little while, and then headed off to our tents.

Overnight was no big deal. The temperatures never got very bad, and the rain didn’t return in force. It either misted or condensed on leaves, to be shaken loose by the wind, but either way it was just enough to let you know it was wet outside, and to disguise the noise of anything wandering through the woods. The next day everyone was alive and no food had been molested by critters, so all in all it was a good night.

After breakfast, we slowly packed up in the morning wetness, made breakfast, and then a group of us faster camp-breakers yet slower walkers decided to head out and up. The slower-packers yet faster walkers stayed behind. About 5 of us headed down the trail and up the now much more challenging Big Green trek. At the top we debated sticking around and waiting on the slower packing people, but knowing the the other guide probably knew the way out, we laid out an arrow in limbs and kept walking. After a ridge line hike the rest of the trip was downhill to two water crossings. The last stop before the end of the day was a little campsite at Greenland Creek Falls trail.

While we were putting on our shoes after a water crossing, the second group showed up at the campsite. All but three of us headed off to see Greenland Creek Falls, which is quite impressive. Three  of us stayed behind to watch the packs and rest. When the group was reunited (with one being slightly wet after falling in the creek), we headed up the gentle climb out to the parking lot. The weather the second day stayed overcast and just cool enough to hike in and be comfortable, without freezing us when we stopped.

All in all, a very fine hike.

 

 

 

Radio Shack: You’ve got questions, we’ve got blank stares

It’s been almost a month since my last post. I’ve been very busy but I haven’t done any hiking stuff. I was planning to help with a newbie backpacking class, but some stuff happened and I couldn’t go. I will NOT let that happen to me again. It’s sometimes very depressing when you look forward to an event for a month and then you get screwed out of it. BUT – I’m going hiking again the first of November, and it will be cool again so it should be fun.

In other news, I PASSED my amateur radio tests. I studied for about 3 weeks, using two books by Gordon West, Hamstudy dot org online, and two ARRL iPhone apps. I read every flash card, wrote down the stuff that gave me problems, and took a Technician and General test every day. By the end of the second week I was taking at least two practice tests a day, and the final week I was taking upward of 6 practice tests a day, three for each class. It got to where I didn’t even need to do the math any more. I could pick out key words in a few seconds and say, “Yep, that’s 112 inches”.

I went to take the exam, and it was only me and one other person in the room. They let us start a few minutes early, and in about 15 minutes I had knocked out the first test. They graded it and handed me the second one. I missed 0 on the first test, and 1 on the second test. I REALLY hate the parts of the radio. I don’t need to know that a balanced modulator does something to the audio and something intermediate frequency something. Do you need to know what a magnetron is to nuke a potato? I don’t think so, Tim. But, I got by. They handed me my test slip and by Monday afternoon I had my call sign. The FCC may be the most efficient branch of the Federal Government.

The first thing I did after building a little shelf and putting in my radio, was spending several days fixing up a decent antenna. After fretting and spending more time on the ladder and drilling more holes than I wanted into brick, I had an off-center fed dipole, which I can raise and lower using two trees as anchors.

My first contact was to Virginia, and my farthest (I think) is Massachusetts. It’s a bit weird, I’m sort of an introvert by nature. Sure, I can type on here but I don’t have to carry on a conversation. It’s mostly one-sided. On the radio, everyone can hear and usually there are several people talking and you have to wait for someone to shut up long enough to say something. I feel like I’m just walking up to someone’s table at a restaurant and sitting down for dinner.

I have been playing with digital modes a little. Those are fun, because you can communicate with people but you don’t have to talk on the microphone, and you can get people farther away with less power. My first digital contact was to Venezuela on 25 watts. 25 watts! That’s like less than most of my light bulbs in the house, and I talked to someone in Venezuela, using a piece of old speaker wire in a tree 132 feet long. I spent this afternoon building a cable, so I don’t have to hold the microphone up to my computer speakers. The internet is pretty bad ass when it comes to cheap and easy radio stuff.


I intend to get a little handheld sooner or later for hiking. It won’t be able to reach as far, but it’s getting to be winter time, and the thing that sucks about winter hiking is laying in the hammock for 11 hours, when you only are sleeping about 7 of them.