First Time in Georgia… on the AT

On Saturday March 3rd a group of us left Columbia, SC for a Georgia AT Section. It was particularly interesting since another group had gone down on Friday morning for a short hike and campout, so we were going to do a key swap hike. It was also the AT Kickoff weekend at the Amicolola Lodge 40 miles south of us, so we were pretty sure everything would be busy. We weren’t disappointed.

We barely found a parking spot just down the road from the Mountain Crossings store at Neel Gap, and the 6 of us headed up the hill to the store. We saw the famous “shoe tree” where hikers throw their boots (for a reason unknown to me). 

After a brief visit inside, we started the bulk of the hike, which consisted of a roller coaster of steep ups followed by gentle downs. I can see why a large part of the hiking population gives up in Georgia. Parts of TN and NC seem much gentler, with short steep ups followed by rolling ridge lines and great views.
There wasn’t much water along this section of the trail. I stopped at a spring and was soon surrounded by a group of 6 hikers. One guy got the trail name “Colonel” because his last name was Sanders and his first bit of trail magic he got was a piece of Kentucky Fried Chicken. Two others were trying a thru-hike just like Colonel. Another couple were first-time section hikers, trying to fill a sawyer bag laying it down in the spring. They watched me fill mine with my red squishy bowl, and wound up borrowing it.

On down the trail we had split up pretty well. I ran into Mark and Mike, out in front of me, but Ron, Karen and Carol were behind us, having stopped at the store for a moon pie. Everyone I ran into seemed to be planning on spending the night at Low Gap Shelter, which was kind of concerning since I didn’t know how big the area was. Some shelter areas are nothing more than a little hut forced onto a hilltop, while others surround a large low spot or saddle between hills, with a wide tenting area.

I stopped as planned on the top of Wildcat Mountain, which is a “Summit on the Air” spot for Ham Radio activity. I set up my radio and wire, and started trying to call people. It was very noisy on the air, with lots of band fading and static, plus a CQ contest was going on, and it was hard to find a clear frequency. I finally gave up on my SotA stuff and just started trying to answer some contesters. I got one guy in West Virginia who gave me a clear signal report, and I was happy.

After that, I packed up and headed on. I had 5 more miles to go before dusk, and the sun was sinking. I made it into Low Gap with sunlight to spare, but it was behind a mountain and was edging on towards darkness. Thankfully Low Gap wasn’t the “shelter on the hilltop” kind of place, and there was a huge tenting area around it. We camped right off the trail on a slight slope, only going near the shelter for water, which had a nice flow of creek water next to it. The shelter itself was packed with thru-hiker hopefuls. After all, everyone is a section hiker until they get to Maine.

By this point I was exhausted. 2 hours of sleep and a 4 hour drive, plus a 12 mile walk uphill… I made my food and got in the hammock, after briefly talking to my hiking partners. The group had already swapped keys, so Jim, Pete, Dorothy, Chris, and Laura could drive our cars into town the following day. I intended on staying awake in the hammock for a while, but by 8pm I had fallen asleep. I woke up at 1am and hadn’t moved. My tent lights were still on, so I switched them off and fell asleep again.

At 6 I reluctantly awakened, needing to go to the bathroom. The sun wasn’t up yet, but the nearly full moon made it quite bright outside. I started laboring at packing some of my things, not wanting to give up the warmth of my hammock, as it was still 31 degrees outside. Finally I gave in and went to get water and make breakfast. When everyone started moving out, I slung the pack on and headed north, needing to do ten miles before getting to the car. It’s amazing that even though you eat the food and drink the water, the pack never seems lighter. In fact it almost seems heavier the second and third days.

Walking to the car was pretty much uphill all the way, with teasing downhills that lead to another uphill. Finally we reached another shelter with a privy (a kind of outhouse). I had run into Mark and Mike, but I was out of fuel by this time and in desperate need of the privy services. Thankfully it was still cold, so the privy didn’t smell. I took full advantage of it, before cleaning my hands and sitting in the sun to eat what was left of my food. I brought the perfect amount, as I ate everything I had before getting back to the car.

After the shelter was a brief up and then a long 1000 foot descent into Unicoi Gap parking area. The parking area was full, as a local ministry set up a hiker feed with hamburgers and water. The burgers were overcooked, but tasty any way. I met two deaf people with their hearing interpreter, and a blind guy named “Vaper” who was being helped slowly along the trail by his seeing-eye wife. They would do around 5 miles a day. I was amazed at his resilience, as it is all I can do not to break my ankle on the rocks, and I can see them.

Back at the van, the whole party united once again, and we headed down to Helen, Georgia. As we were leaving the Unicoi lot, we saw a hiker looking for a ride into town. We had seen him at Neels and at the Shelter. He had black curly hair and a brown/green outfit and pack on. I kept calling him Frodo because from a distance his face and hair strongly resembled the hobbit. We gave him the trail name, to spare him from such indignities as “Donkeybutt” or “stinky”.

The video in this case was a bit difficult to make, as I had to deal with two groups going two directions over multiple days, so I just kind of tossed the pictures wherever. Anyway, if you walk from Neel Gap to Unicoi, you’ll see this stuff..

 

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QRP on the AT.

This past weekend I had the chance to test out my little uBITx radio while backpacking. Maybe it wasn’t such a good thing to try.

First of all, the radio is pretty light, but it’s not weightless. The radio, the antenna, battery pack, case, etc. all weigh in about 4 pounds. Not that bad, considering. BUT – it was still winter, and winter hiking means carrying extra clothes and such. Also, on the first day there wasn’t going to be a lot of water so I had to carry a little extra, and water is heavy. 2 liters of water weighed the same as my radio stuff. Thirdly – because of cold weather and flu, I hadn’t backpacked or really exercised much since there was a tree in the den with brightly colored boxes underneath. So I was out of shape carrying a lot on my back, walking up 3000 feet the first day.

But I set out with my backpacking friends for a jaunt across part of Georgia. About 1:30 I stopped and figured I had about 45 minutes to an hour to myself. The first chore was setting up the antenna. I’m using #26 wire with a silicone casing, which makes it about the diameter and feel of a rubber band, without the stretch. I tossed it into a tree and then had to run out 66 feet of wire. That doesn’t sound like a lot, but in the woods, that’s a lot, because there isn’t much space free of limbs. I wound up draping it over the limbs of 3 trees.

I sat my radio on the rock and put the antenna straight out towards the horizon right through the empty space towards the little pile of rocks, about 25 feet up or so. Having glued the little antenna “matchbox” to an empty spool of household wire was a big help, because it gives me somewhere to wind up the wire and its support cord.

The rest of the setup was easy. Plug in the battery pack, the headphones, the mike, the antenna, and turn it on.

The bag is a LowePro Adventura 140. It holds everything but the antenna spool. The radio is in a custom 3D printed case ($25) which weighs very little. The battery pack is a 12v 6ah battery, which also has a 5v output so I can charge my iPhone overnight on the trail. Its a little bulky, but really no heavier than my Anker 20ah 5v battery pack I have at home for the phone, which is half the physical size.

So I started tuning around. The 66 foot wire gives me both the 20 meter and 40 meter bands (7mhz and 14mhz). I was immediately surprised by the noise. 20 meters around lunchtime is always full of foreigners on the low end, and US people on the higher end. The entire band was full of people. Then I realized it was a contest. These people were sitting at home running hundreds of watts, and I was on the top of a mountain running a glorified walkie-talkie. I tried broadcasting my location as a “Summit on the Air” location. I had even picked out a peak to work from, Wildcat Mountain W4G/NG020 but it was no use. I dropped to 40 meters, and tried again. Same problem, either nets of people talking that couldn’t hear me, or contesters firing off numbers rapid-fire back and forth, trying to talk to as many people as they could in a weekend. No time to try to pull a weak station out of the noise. To make matters worse, the band was fading in and out like waves on the seashore. One second you could hear someone from Italy coming in clear, and then he was gone, and twenty seconds later, he was back.

I switched back to 20 meters and gave up trying to find my own frequency. I hit a few contesters but was drowned out by the bigger radios with better antennas. Then Finally I got through to one guy who read my call sign back to me in one try. I wrote his call number down and thanked him “From the Appalachian Trail” and moved on. I tried a few more people. None of the foreigners could hear me, and a couple people said I was just too light to get a good read on. So I packed up my stuff and left. After all, I had 5 more miles to walk.

A few things I learned:

My antenna support line was way too long. It kept getting tangled. When I got home, I cut it in half. I also cut down the support line for the spool of wire, as it can hang no more than 15 feet away from me any way, because that’s the length of my feedline.

I made a second antenna that was half the length. I figured 33 feet would work better in the woods, trying to put it up. The problem is, it was too short for both 40 and 20 meters. It worked 20 meters GREAT, but on 40 it was out of tune. So it looks like I’m back to the longer antenna, if I plan more carefully with my setup I hope it will be okay.

My battery pack is actually a little too big. I played with the radio for close to an hour and I lost one dot out of 5 on the battery pack. I charged my phone overnight and didn’t lose another dot. So, I could get away with a smaller, lighter version. I’ll stick with it, though, because it was $35.

I got a new mike (or mic if you want to use the common abbreviation). My homebrew one has been reported as being very “tinny” and almost free of any bass response. So I ditched my home made mike and got a decent lapel mike from amazon, which sounded pretty decent on my shortwave receiver set across the room from me.

Oh – and the guy I talked to. Strange call sign. His address was listed as West Virginia, but the call sign was from the Cayman Islands. I’m going with West Virginia I guess…

All in all it was a good hike. We had fun, and walked up a lot. But maybe I’ll leave the radio stuff for warmer months where I carry less clothes.

By the way: QRP is “ham speak” for low power, under 10 watts, which was what I was running.

So pissed at Vimeo, the free ride is over.

I got an email last month from Vimeo, and I’ve been pissed at them ever since. Here’s my thing… Vimeo promised free hosting for videos as long as you didn’t upload more than 500mb a week. That’s not an easy thing to do, if you make a moderate movie with more than ten minutes of stills and video, its easy to push 500mb.
But, I soldiered on. Now, suddenly they are ending the free side, unless you host less than 5gb total. Since I’m up to 7gb, I either have to delete stuff, or pay per month. I’m not paying $10 a month to host videos that make no money and get like 23 views. That’s crazy. So I don’t have much choice, I think I have to go back to YouTube.
Ugh, I hate YouTube. The thing about Vimeo was it was always kind of an artsy sort of place. No morons driving around in their cars ranting about the atheists or the jews or the globe being flat. No twerking idiot teenagers or  guys in their backyard blowing stuff up while shooting a video vertically and getting you seasick with their phone wandering all over the place.
Vimeo was for people that cared not only what they were representing, but how it was presented. Also – no forced ads. They didn’t stop the videos to show ads, and they didn’t have popup ads in the middle.

So now I’m looking for a new place. Apparently theres another site called “dailymotion” that does pretty much what Vimeo did, but they push an ad at the end of your video. I can live with that, since once my video is over, you could just close it and not watch the ad, much like skipping out on the credits at the end of a movie. So hopefully I will be able to use it for my backpacking and ham radio stuff.

Until then, I guess I can put up my final Vimeo video…

Ham and Hiking

I haven’t been any where in a while. It seems the family has taken turns with colds and flu, and the winter hasn’t been very kind. Two hiking outings have been cancelled due to extreme weather – down to -17 with wind chill at one point.

However, I’ve been having fun on the ham radio, I’ve gotten a lot of states and 4 continents so far this winter. I’ve been looking for a way to mix hiking and Ham radio. I took my 2 meter handheld on my last trip, but got nothing. Apparently in the mountains, 2 meters isn’t great. I got a longer antenna which works better, but I’m still not sure how well it will work.

But – back in December I ordered a radio kit from HF Signals in India. An engineer over there designed a little radio controlled by an arduino microcomputer, sort of like a raspberry pi. The computer is barely the size of the 16×2 display, and fits behind it. The computer takes care of most of the radio functions, and controls a board which switches between filters and such as necessary. The whole thing is 6 inches square, puts out ten watts, and is 2 inches high. The radio came last Tuesday, and I began the simple process of putting it together.

Since I’m not running morse code (I don’t know it, and don’t intend to learn any time soon), I got to skip the whole morse key jack and just put a resistor across two wires. 

After that was done, I wired up the encoder, which is a fancy way of saying the combination tuning and select knob. With it you can tune the radio and jump between bands, calibrate the frequency display, and access setup functions. It has five little solder pins, two of which have to be connected together. The other major front panel connection is the volume control knob, which only has 3 wires, but gave me a headache.

The problem with the volume knob is that the schematic and the instructions don’t agree with the order of the yellow and orange wires. Apparently both work, but if you add stuff on later, like a signal meter, the order matters. So, I did it the way the radio engineer on the facebook group told me to. The last step was the mike jack and the headphones, along with the push-to-talk switch. Those three things were pretty easy. I didn’t want to test transmit yet, so I wired up just the headphone and mike jack and powered it up.

It worked great on my oversized mouse pad. Seriously, if you have the chance, buy a 36″ by 18″ mouse pad. It covers the whole desk, it insulates, and it feels good on the arms. I tuned around but I didn’t hear anything, as the antenna wasn’t hooked up, but there was quite a bit of digital noise. I was told that when I put it in a case a shortened the leads, it would be quieter. So I waited on my case.

What you see above is all you really get. Some knobs, jacks, a mike element, two boards, some wire, two resistors, and instructions to go to the web site and follow the wiring instructions. It’s up to you to fabricate a case, get an antenna, and build your mike cable.

So I ordered a case from Wolfland Hobby in Minnesota. He does a lot of stuff, including 3D printing. Apparently there are plenty of 3D case files around, and I ordered a printed case since I don’t have a 3D printer. It took a week to get here. It was a lot more purple than I thought it was going to be, but this is a case for the woods, so at least I won’t lose it.

The first step was to partially assemble the case and glue the back on, and then solder up the other connections, before shortening the leads on the front panel stuff. The case fit like a dream, but the screw points were a bit more fragile than I hoped. Two of them cracked right off the bat. I’m not sure about the long term durability of 3D printed stuff, so I’ll look towards a different case eventually. I think the front and back panel will be okay, but if the rest was a solid metal case I think that would hold up better.

After rewiring, I had a problem. I wasn’t hearing anything. My first thought was that the headphone jack wasn’t working, so I messed around with the jack and the wiring to the Audio connector, but nothing changed. Then I popped the leads for the potentiometer loose from the connector and put the thing on a meter. Two of the three leads tested good, and I got an open circuit on the third one. I put two resistors in the connector, a 10K across the  end leads to simulate the pot, and a 2K from the middle to one end to simulate 2/3 open. I switched the radio back on and the audio came out clear. After poking around in the knob, I finally just removed and resoldered the leads, and it started working again. Apparently I had a bad solder joint somewhere.

My push to talk switch I just put in the middle of the mike and headphone jacks. The button fit in the pre-drilled hole easily enough, and I took a piece of breadboard and soldered the wires to it on the back, so the breadboard and wires will hold it on. I added a dab of E6000 glue to it, hoping to stabilize everything.

The last step was to make a microphone cable, which I did by soldering on a cable to the mike element, pushing the mike down into a old metal case for a laser pointer pen, and filling the thing with hot glue.

The radio runs fine, although I’m a bit disappointed in the tuning. It is REALLY twitchy. Sometimes it jumps a lot and sometimes it takes forever to tune across the band. In the background is my main radio, the Yaseu 450D, which does 10 times the power output.

I took the pink box outside and set up an antenna and a receiver, and it sounded decent when I transmitted. The band is crap today, partially due to the last Coronal Mass Ejection from the sun, and I’m only doing 10 watts, but I was happy enough with the transmission. Once I get the battery pack for this from Amazon, I will be able to take it out in the woods somewhere and test it. The nice thing about this is, the whole thing fits in a little camera  bag, with the antenna, feedline, mike, and headphones. The battery pack wont fit in the bag I have, but since I’ll be taking it hiking, I’ll have my full size backpack, and it will fit in the side pocket.

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.

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.