There you are. One morning, America is going along all normal (like) and then suddenly flick. With nothing more than the eerie sounds of silence (with a nod to S&G) we pass back into the 1800s as a space-based weapon of unknown origins takes down the grid and the internet.
Calmly, you survey the panic building around you. Your checklist is complete.
- You have a little stash of guns, grub, gold, God (and Grey Goose – my aren’t you prescient?) stored at that retreat of yours, 150 miles away.
- Fishing, hunting, trapping gear, homesteading books, basic hand tools and the two “fresh survival seed packs” were updated 2-months back on a schedule.
- You have water, sanitary plans, and medical supplies for all.
- Your gas tank is full and not by accident.
- The car is prepped – always ready for a 2,000 mile drive with no squawks for the mechanics.
- All your family members think you’re nuts for getting everyone to pick up Technician class ham tickets and keep a charged Baofeng in their purse or school bag.
- You have a meet-up place (the home) and everyone knows which ham repeater to use “in the event of an actual emergency.”
- Why, there are even a couple of 200 watt solar panels and a cheapo charge controller at the cabin.
- And most of all, you have an AMAZING radio bugout bag. A reliable receiver and – if you have $300 bucks – a great portable transmitter and receiver (transceiver). With this, you have comms while the world doesn’t. Putting you one-up on everyone not so prescient.
Technician class licenses allow for HF Morse code. See the HF Band Plan here for license classes an privileges.
If It All Works?
The meet up goes as planned.
You will stay that way = ahead of the pack/mobs – for a simple reason: You will have (in a massively chaotized world) information first.
Your family knows it, too. You used the software program CHIRP to preload your VHF ham gear with local fire, police, regional weather NOAA channels, and even state patrol dispatch. You know sites – like this one – where all the basic data can be found.
As you get on the road, it will be a worrisome 3-hour drive to the country, but you leave at 3 AM knowing the criminal class is usually lazy. You reckoned the safest time of day (based on road rage risk sudies) would be 5 AM to about 10 AM. Safest time to avoid fatal traffic wrecks is 6AM to Noon. You’re thinking 9 or 10 AM, though, since the power’s off…
Arrival at Cabin 8:30 AM
Having the police and state patrol frequencies pre-progrmmed more than paid for itself on the way up. You avoided some “crazy’s” who were already getting into the Thunder Dome mood of things.
While the spouse gets the stove fired up for some Krusteaz and all that maple syrup you stashed, you review the work plans.
- Get a perimeter established.
- Set watches
- Check and count battery inventories.
- Go to the Comms bag and start working magic.
- Survey the AM, FM, and shortwave bands.
- A tune around the 40-meter ham band is eye-opening.
- Pull down NOAA Weather. Which, being “all-hazards radio” will have the latest official news and public safety reports. Give it tonight before the National Guard and curfews go into place.
- Hold a short family meeting.
- Plan the work.
- Work the plan.
WHY a Manpack HF Radio
VHF 2-meter and 440 MHz radios are dandy. But they have some shortfalls, one of which is they require either a) a repeater or b) line of sight.
For your shortwave information-seeking, an ATS-25 (widely available on eBay) is a great receiver for the money. They antenna for receiving is literally nothing special. A piece of wire over 15-feet long, insulated, and tossed up over a tree branch will be dandy. Noise floors will be amazingly low with the power off. It will get even quieter with the 48-hour cell tower backup batteries cascade offline, too.
Thing is, you want to go hunting and fishing. For this, you will be away from the cabin and all they will have is the shortwave receiver. You may be 3-6 miles away on uneven land. Line of sight isn’t an option and repeaters don’t all have backup power.
Fortunately, you attended the UrbanSurvival.com Manpack School!
Manpack Radios 101
A manpack radio is generally a backpack equipped with a radio and an antenna. Lots of additional accessories will be included. But first, let’s get a basic manpack set up.
As I described in a couple of previous articles, there are several very serviceable small HF transceivers on the market.
- The one shown in the build today is a USDX. $170.
- As good, or equal: the (tr)USDX that runs about $150.
- Up the food chain, see HF Signals.com for the uBITX 6+ series. Assemble it yourself (just basic tools and a handful of solder joints) for $209. It’s a fine radio (I have one and use it on the big antennas)
- Several entries for Chinese maker Xiegu are on Amazon and eBay. Popular (with slightly more power input) is the G90 model. Go for the one with the built-in antenna tuner, but don’t expect change from a $500 bill, lol. One up? Try on the specs of the Xiegu X-6100 which is just over $600 on the Zon.
- Going deeper into the wallet, the Yaesu FT-818 is on Amazon for a shade over $720.
- Absolute top of line would be the Elecraft KX-3 but they start in the $1,800 range and go to over $3,000 depending on how you “option it out.” Oh, they are also back ordered and one of the best receivers in ham radio.
On any of these radios, the ham radio community at eHam is great at posting reviews on almost anything. Google format is simply “eham,net review [radio model]” and you can sample other ham’s views.
Not All Radios Are Alike
Read, read, read. Does the radio have a special charger required? (USDX does need a 12.6V charger. Lithium-iron batteries are finicky. But with a switch it can run on 13.8V off a battery/solar panel combo.) See the specs on all the other radios for internal battery specs.
Charging and power levels are important. The more power, the more range under poorer conditions. Well, EXCEPT that also means more battery suckage. For short voice work, more power (10 watts) is good (depending on range). For longer distance conmms, less power and better antennas is the answer.
Speaking of Antennas: The connector which comes with your radio matters. Big Radios come with SO-239 female antenna connector which accept a PL-259 plug. Easy to crimp and solder if you have the tools. ($50 laying around?)
BNC connectors have always kept me at bay. I don’t like putting them on coaxial (coax) cable. So, I use a lot of PL-259 to BNC adapters (male and female depending on use case).
Things I love about the USDX? Well, a built-in Morse code reader so Elaine can see what is being translated from Morse in my head. Also Iambic keyer modes A and B are both supported.
In theory, I suppose, Iambic B mode might be faster for higher speeds (remember, I can still copy and send 30+ words per minute). But don’t worry about that until you bust 20 words a minute and master ANY keyer and can smoothly transition between a keyer and a semi-automatic key.
Or (screw it!) just use voice which is our focus here.
Remember lots of us “old-timers” are gear snobs. What will work? Doesn’t take much.
Class #1: Basic Manpack
The radio used this morning is the USDX set down to 4-watts to reduce strain on the final amplifier , a High Peak Simex Day Trekking pack, and the Harvest 2000 antenna. When an antenna is not perfectly “matched” (resonant at the right impedance) the radio final amplifier transistor(s) will generator more heat. Result is? Higher failure rate.
Remember when “doing radio” in an emergency that reliability is more important than raw power or even unit specifications. USDX specs are OK, but compared to higher-priced Kenwood, Icom, and Yaesu gear? Not even close.
The exercise this morning is not to build ultimate performance. That’s something far beyond this class. We’re making a backpack to talk over 1,000 miles, do it on less than a big flashlight worth of batteries and give change back from $400-bucks.
This is a COTS build. Old radio guys who may have prepped HF radios for places (in south Asia, for example, um…) all know this means a “Custom – Off The Shelf” configuration. Or as some operators I know call it “Buy and fly.”
Let’s begin by taking the radio, basic OB2000 antenna, and the backpack to a bench.
We will need to order a 10-inch so-239 bulkhead fitting. See this vendor on eBay. About $27. (So-259 – female and the corresponding plug PL-259 were developed for early UHF work and are commonly called UHF connectors.)
Step #1: Beginneth to Maketh
The first part of making a manpack is to connect the 10-inch bulkhead in the vertical position to the left side rail of your backpack. (If you are right-handed). You don’t want any interference with your (purely defensive! LOL) aiming arm. Like so, using back-to-back metal cable clamps.
The idea is the backpack holds the radio, spare batteries and a whole list of crap which we will get to. The top (on the right) is where the antenna plugs in and the bottom is where your PL-259 to female BNC (yep, another connector type) is plugged in.
You will also need a good quality 2-3 foot BNC male to male jumper coax (*at the bottom of antenna) to the BNC male plugging in to the radio…
Now, if you don’t have cable clamps, or all the tools be pend them up, this way and that, you MIGHT do the same outcome with three hose clamps, but it will not be as strong.
I tried various combo’s of hose clamps, but nothing was as good as 2 correctly sized cable clamps at each end of the bulkhead.
Step #2: Mount Antenna
Connecting backpack and antenna fitting (bulkhead connector) isn’t that hard.
Once the 10-inch bulkhead is in place, you will need a male-to-male PL-259 adapter. This one has the cover on it (save these since they keep dirt and rain out of things when hiking). One end goes into the bulkhead bottom and the other goes into the SO-239 antenna bottom: *View is of the top – use the other end – our photographer is an idiot!
Feeling like we can see daylight, already?
Step #3: Confirm Spacing
(Optional, coming article)
We are planning on building a ground system under this beasty to improve how it “gets out” or “talks.”
All this will be is a 4-5″ round piece of aluminum plate (6061 or firmer) with some holes in it. This will put “ground rods” under the antenna.
A 5/8th’s hole in this plate will go between the top nuts at the top of the bulkhead connector – about 3/4’s of an inch down so the antenna screwed on doesn’t hit the plate:
Step #4: Admire Your Work
I’m a “positive reinforcement” guy. Love to do part of a project then lean it up against some shop furniture and just admire it and think about whether there are ways to improve on what’s been done so far.
Step #5: Set Antenna Length
The Harvest OB2000 antenna has a wire with “banana jacks” which are plugged in for the appropriate band you’re using.
This length is adjusted by a “slip fit with Allen set screw.” So when you go schlepping about the woods, you DON’T want to lose the Allen wrench. Put it “snuggish” into the end of the bottom part of the two-piece whip that mounts over the coil.
Of course, it will fall out anyway at the worst possible moment. Add tape. You do trek with duct tape, right?
But, at least you will know where the “trail begins” on your quest to find it.
Step #6: Set Whip Length
Late at night, pouring down rain, you need to contact someone 25 miles away. Mountainous terrain, so VHF is out. Repeaters are down. What should the whip length be set to?
The Harvest (OB2000) instructions offer good starting points. But they do so in centimeters, so before packing up for a radio walk- about, see the marvel stolen from the wife’s sewing gear?
Just in case, consider what I did: Convert the manual sheet to an Excel and then do an inch’s round-off to go in the pack, too:
Alternative Antenna Tuning
You can set an antenna to the correct length by “estimation and interpolation.”
Steps are as follows:
- Transmit on the desired frequency. (An agreed-upon frequency is called a channel – got it?)
- Look at the SWR (antenna transmitter “standing weave ratio” meaning lost power and efficiency) reading which the USDX provides (set up ahead of time in the menu system).
- Say our “channel” is 14.200 MHz. We transmit and notice an SWR of 2:1. Means Transmitter – which is looking for a 50-ohm )impedance is AC requivalent of resistance) and has found a 100-ohm antenna.
- Not good enough? Transmit on a lower frequency, say 14.150 MHz.
- If the SWR is better, it means the channel frequency may be improved on the 14.2 MHz operating channel by shortening the antenna.
- If the SWR is worse, it means the channel frequency can be improved by lengthening the antenna.
So far, so good.
Step #7: Charge Everything
Yeah, no one wants this part, but short-cut charging time means shortcutting operating time, too. So we do it.
Step #8: Line Up to Load Out
This is going to look convoluted and out of order. There is a reason.
You see, something I picked up from flying airplanes around the country is that when people do the “same thing” each time, they skip, shortcut, and cheap because “rote” is not what high-functioning humans do, am I right?
Randomizing for Success, I call it:
Let’s go through the minimal packing for real comms:
- A – RADIO
- B – ANTENNA MOUNTED TO MANPACK
- C – CHARGER FOR RADIO (12.6v)
- D – MICROPHONE
- E – BACKUP FEEDLINE FOR HIGHER ANTENNA
- F – 1.5 KW BACKUP OCFD ANTENNA 140 FEET LONG
- G – ANTENNA TUNING LENGTHS
- H – CHARGER FOR JUMPSTARTER
- I – JUMP STARTER
- J – JUMPSTARTER TO BATTERY CABLES
- K – MASON’S LINE (HI VIZ) (In covert ops, use black or camo). Kevlar or paracord is better for other than on-the-move use.
- L – ANTENNA SHORT AND LONG BNC JUMPERS (1.5 AND 3 FT.)
- M – MEASURING TAPE FOR ANTENNA
- TO THE RIGHT OF THAT SPACE MALE-MALE PL-259 ADAPTER
- Spare antenna band jumper cable.
Step #9: Optional and Useful
The ATS-25 (or ATS-20) general coverage receiver is not shown. Toss this in if you’d like. It’s worth it to have a second radio.
A copy of the ARRL black and white printed Band Plan which you can download here. Official Observers aren’t keen on people getting out of bounds.
On the backside of One Second After the survival strategy will be 99% listening. If you do transmit, being a half mile from camp potentially is a smart thing to do, depending on direction finding teams and killer drones coming to a neighborhood near you.
Not shown is a double battery clamp 10 feet long. This is used to clamp on the top of the bulkhead connector (ground side of antenna) and may be run to anything nearby that will act as a better counterpoise. I have used fence wires (barbed is good) but don’t use electric fences!!!~!~
I have also used railroad tracks which are the most kick-ass ground there is!
You can wind up 35 and 70 foot lengths of “horse fence tape” with fittings to use as additional antenna counterpoise. Hell, just laying it on the ground works.
Step #10: Pick a Morse Key
Obviously, if you’re one of those puny “non-digital humans” who can’t copy Morse Code in their head north of 2o WPM, this part is not for you. But a good bit of the joy of manpack low-power HF radio operations is picking the code key for the occasion.
Let’s step into Ure’s office and look at a corner of the collection, shall we?
By the numbers:
- 1 – Nye-Viking “regular hand key.” This one has a really nice – almost velvety touch to it. Not unlike the “clackety” Lionel J-38 series. These last were “the standard” in WW II.
- 2- The Vibroplex Lightning series. This was the first dit-making key. The Major got the Standard, but the Lightning has always been reasonably light and quite good.
- 3- This is a custom-made “cootie key” – also called a “side-swiper.” Don’t use it much, but there is a non-automated way to send with a side-swiper that’s really fun. Use it when making SKCC contacts now and then.
- 4- Finally, a Vibroplex paddle-type keyer. This one was put out to pasture when I bought the 6-pound behemoth Vibroplex The VibroCube.
The reality of prepping – if you want to try digital modes in a global catastrophe – has not sunk-in. You NEED Morse – which is “digital in your head.” At “one second after” computers, bitcoins, financial markets, and life in the 2020s will be gone. Frontier comms.
Now you’re ready: Stuff the rest of the bag with Mountain House beef stroganoff and trail jerky plus a LifeStraw. 9 MM on the hip, good boots, tent, and a 2-meter rig for the weather and local comms if available. Magnesium fire-starters or char cloth. Insect repellant, inhaler…trail med kit…yessir. Good for a couple of days. Spare P38 can openers just in case. Field knife and first aid kit, trauma pack.
It’s a long walk to Dayton Ohio for the Hamvention this year. May 20-22 this year. I won’t make it.
Still, any damn foot can spend $50K on high end towers, Step-IR antennas nearly the size of parking lots and they are marvelous. Oh jeez are they ever! How about $16,000 competition-grade radio (Icom 7850) and $10,000 linear amplifiers? I know many who do.
But, low power – manpacking – it’s like the difference between a 5-speed in a Porsche and a high-end Lexus 4-series. One takes skill to time shift points from a corner entrance (braking) in and smoothly power through a long twisting turns 3-4-5 at Laguna. The other is posing for dinner and a show.
The former is a kick in the ass and what driving is all about in “performance mode.” The latter is stately and just always works. Ham radio lines out the same way.
Radio Operator Skill Measurement
If you really want to know who has high operator skill, ask them what their “Best Miles per Watt” level is.
My personal best is 2,500 miles and 4 watts. Over 500-miles per watt. Anything over 100 miles per watt on HF is “working” while 300+ miles per watt moves into “not an idiot” country.
This is the electronics versioni of Big Game Fishing.
Ought to think about that code and joining the Straight Key Century Club, too. Who knows? You might do well as an already-digital human! We were all slow learners, once. Hell, I still am.
Does It Work?
Hell yeah. Even with the antenna tuned to 14,200 (swr 1.3) we were able to hit the Maritime Mobile Services Net up the band on 14,300 without retuning the whip length. (Voice, not code, lol.) 1,200 miles and the net control was an S6 with S5 noise here. This was before the improved ground radial system at the base of the antenna.
With the transmitter putting out 4 watts, that’s 300 miles per watt – respectable (on voice) but nothing for the record books (Morse or continuous wave (CW- Morse) rules) here. Still, imagine a zero-noise world and having a plan.
Get a couple of cheap Timex’s too. Radio batteries are saved by batteries. See any comment posting by “William and the Radio Ranch” for the UrbanSurvival meeting frequencies and timings.
Seem like a worthwhile exercise? Imagine talking from Seattle to Portland on a flashlight. That’s the skill set here.
Listening draws only a fraction of the power that transmitting takes. Conserve energy. Use the big back-up wire antenna when possible. Locate 1/2 mile from your camp to avoid radio-direction-finding zeroing in on your makeshift home when transmitting.
Control any emissions – smoke smells can lead a team and baddies right to your fire (and maybe dinner!). Don’t smoke, same thing.
Buy a combat vet a beer (well, maybe not John Kerry, lol) and talk about real live or die. Or, talk to the grisly old NCO who looked after manpacks going up “the trail” to repair sensors…
Write while the batteries charge!
George@Ure.net AC7X SKCC 19433