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.