Hello all, it’s about time I wrote a post about my camping trip my partner and I took a couple weeks ago. I took my trusty Lab599 TX-500 kit, a couple 20W GoalZero Nomad solar panels, headset, and table/chair combo up camping with our “new” 4×4. I wanted to do some HF QRP and some handheld UHF/VHF operation while I was out. I brought some of the same portable furniture that I used at the beach last post since it worked out so well.
The view was pretty sweet for this one. The smoke from the wildfires made everything a bit more hazy but pretty great none-the-less.
While operating HF I made a number of contacts, and the solar panels kept the 4.5Ah Bioenno LiFePO4 battery built into the HF QRP radio kit charged the whole day. The first HF contact I made was with Stefan, AF6SA who was working POTA in Eldorado Natoinal Forest (K-4455). His signal was 5/6 on at about 450 miles away on 20m. I also made a contact with VA3AAA, Stanley in Ontario, Canada. I was pretty excited to reach Ontario with a low power radio. That contact was also logged on 20m. I also made a contact with the K0GQ radio club in MO on 20m. All of these contacts were made between 5 and 10w using the Trail-friendly EndFedz EFT-10/20/40 antenna strung between a couple trees about 50′ apart and about 25′ above the ground.
I switched radios and bands to see if I could get into some of the repeaters in the Portland area (I could) with my Yaesu FT3DR and a Signal Stick antenna. I ended up on 2m and caught two hams on 146.520Mhz doing a SOTA activation: K7AHR and K7IW. I think they were on Lookout Mountain, but I can’t remember and didn’t properly log it. I was running 5W for those contacts.
Howdy all! This is a new post about my portable QRP radio kit and it supporting kits based around my Lab599 TX-500. Its a fairly self-contained kit but doesn’t have a couple key elements included in the actual box. It doesn’t have any equipment to hang the included trail friendly end-fed half wave dipole or battery charging equipment. I’ll include those elements in this post as well, but they don’t live in the HF radio kit itself. This will be a long post so strap in!
The QRP radio kit
Let’s start with how the HF radio kit is built out. It’s based around a small ammo can I got at a discount store. I wanted to have a fairly self-contained kit that was water resistant and durable and I also wanted the ability to charge and use the battery with the ammo can lid closed to protect against water and dust and ingress. This is by no means waterproof but I wanted to make sure it was at least splash and rain resistant since I do a lot of operating in the Pacific Northwest region of the US which is notorious for its rainy weather.
The kit’s battery is a 4.5Ah Bioenno LiFePO4 pack. In order to make sure I can leave that battery in the kit I had to devise a way to connect it to an external charger through the can. After calling the folks at Bioenno I was able to determine the barrel connectors included on their batteries are 5.2 x 2.1mm connectors. The panel mount water resistant connectors I used have 18 gauge wire that supports a max of 10A at 12V DC. I was also able to track down a pack of screw-on terminal barrel connectors as well to connect the battery inside the ammo can. This setup also allows the battery can stay inside the case while the radio is being operated which is good for water and dust resistance. I recommend testing your connections before you drill for both polarity and appropriate voltage levels. In my case they worked fine so I proceeded…
The first consideration in installing the connector is making sure the connector doesn’t interfere with the mechanism on the case that opens/closes it. After that you have to worry about the connector and wire on the inside of the case interfering with items in the case when it’s packed. I decided to place the connector in such a way that the radio laying on its side against the wall of the case would rest against the installed connector. Using a simple metal drill bit I was able to make a hole big enough for the panel mount connector just below the latch mechanism. I then removed any metal burs from the drilled hole and any turnings from the inside of the can to prevent rust, scratching, and short circuits. After installing the panel mount jack and the rubber water/dust cap I just screwed the positive and negative wires into the barrel connector that will hook up to the battery. To ensure no small metal parts caused a short I used hot glue to insulate and strengthen the connection points on the screw terminal barrel connector.
The next step is adding the battery to the ammo can. I wanted the battery to be semi-permanently mounted in the box so I opted to use 2 x 4″ Velcro strips to secure the battery to two surfaces in the box. the link for those strips is to Amazon but similar strips are available at many stores and websites. The optimum position for the battery seemed to be in a corner where I could install Velcro strips on two of the faces of the corner making it removable without drilling more hols in the can or dealing with metal and glue. Fit testing your equipment is also important when deciding where the battery will be installed. I did that by attaching the loop side of the 2 x 4″ Velcro strips I cut to size to the battery but not removing the plastic that would go on the hook side of the Velcro intended for the inside of the can. Once I was satisfied with the location of the battery and my ability to pack the kit I removed the plastic backing from the hook side of the Velcro and stuck the battery in against the back and corner of the can. I was then able to connect the pass through electrical connection and make sure everything worked properly including polarization of the battery connection. Failing to test the polarity could result in damage to equipment or even potential issues that would compromise the battery. It should also be noted that the radio’s rubber feet make the fit against the battery very tight.
Here’s the contents of the kit. Left to right, top to bottom.
Ammo can body with battery and pass through DC cable installed.
Plastic bag to hold small adapters and connectors.
Ammo can lid
Bioenno 2A AC to DC charger for LiFePO4 batteries
Lab599 TX-500 speaker mic and Raspberry Pi 4 dedicated to the kit
W2ENY headset adapter wired for a dynamic mic. (The included adapter with the TX-500 was defective from the start in such a way that I’d have to significantly shorten the cable, and I also wanted to use a different PTT button and my existing Heil headset with a dynamic mic element)
2x BNC barrel connectors to connect feed line segments together
1/4″ to 1/8″ TS adapter for PTT switches
1/8″ to 1/8″ TRS to TS adapter for ear buds connected to the speaker mic
90 degree male to female PL-239/SO-239 connector (convenience)
BNC to PL-230/SO-239 male adapter (for connecting to most of my other antennas)
DIY 1/8″ TS PTT button made from spare parts I had lying around
Putting the kit together layer-by-layer is pretty easy. The below photos illustrate how the kit is packed in 3 layers – bottom to top.
Depending on the deployment I may bring one or both solar panels with the charger kit, or sometimes I’ll just bring the charger kit for power metering to understand how much I’ve drawn my batteries down and at what rate I’m using power. You can check the Buddipole PowerMini’s product page to learn more about it and ways it can be used. In some cases with good sunlight a single 20W panel can provide around 1A (typical max power I’ve gotten from the panels), but in overcast conditions I might use both panels to get 1A peak power. It also might be a good idea to bring both panels to charge at about 2A. It’s especially nice if I expect to charge a phone/tablet and run a radio with a Raspberry Pi if I’m using data modes.
In the above photo you can see the two Goal Zero Nomand 20 solar panels. One of them is staged to show the top view of the panel and the other the bottom view. Each panel has a kick stand to hold itself up at various angles on the ground, cable with an 8mm plug, a USB charging port, and holes in the corners of the panel to suspend them. The Nomad 20s fold open to reveal three solar cells.
The solar charger kit consists of a Condor MOLLE compatible pouch that has a detachable main pocket which allows you to install and remove the pocket without disconnecting the MOLLE part from the webbing, and also has a loop for easily suspending hanging the kit from something. The kit contains the following items:
Condor MOLLE compatible pouch w/ paracord loops to hold and suspend the Buddipole PowerMini
Condor MOLLE compatible pouch attachment platform. This comes as a single unit with the pouch listed above.
West Mountain Radio PWRNode (4-way Anderson Powerpole connector)
DIY MC-4 to Anderson Powerpole connector (for a 100W solar panel not pictured here)
DIY 2.5″ Anderson Powerpole jumper cable w/10 GA wire (rated for 30A @ 12V DC)
DIY 6″ Anderson Powerpole jumper cable w/10 GA wire (rated for 30A @ 12V DC)
DIY 4″ Anderson Powerpole to Goal Zero male 8mm connector pigtail.
DIY 4″ dual Goal Zero female 8mm plug to Anderson Powerpole pigtail. This allows the two Goal Zero solar panels to be used simultaneously.
DIY 3′ Female Goal Zero 8mm to Anderson Powerpole cable.
You’ll probably notice there are a lot of seemingly redundant connectors and pigtails in this kit. There’s a reason I carry so many adapters around, and that is to make sure I can run as little cable as possible to achieve connections between system components. Being able to use shorter cables help limit voltage drop, but having the option to use a longer cable to connect the solar panels might mean I can stay in the shade and keep my solar panels in the sun. The short Anderson Powerpole jumpers included in the kit can help me connect to the battery or connect a PWRNode to the PowerMini. The Anderson Powerpole connectors on the side of the PowerMini don’t allow you to connect the PWRNode directly to it, and even if they did you’d lose two of the four connections on the PowerMini side of the PWRNode. In most cases this kit powers the entire radio doing phone and data, a phone and tablet, etc. Most of the time the equipment barely uses the battery while operating during the day and I have a full battery to use at night for the radio and lights.
Antenna hanging kit
Last but not least we have the antenna hanging kit. It’s great to have a radio and a way to power it, but if you can’t get your antenna where it needs to be it’s all for nothing. This part of the kit rounds off the portable radio station. It’s designed to work with a number of wire antennas I have – a Par EndFedz 6m antenna, the Chameleon EMCOMM III Portable, and the Par EndFedz EFT-10/20/40 trail friendly antenna that lives in the HF radio kit. In the case of the trail friendly antenna we require two points of suspension for horizontal dipole operation – the end of the wire antenna and the transformer component. Being in Oregon and setting up my radio station in the region quite a bit I frequently rely on trees as antenna supports, and thus also pack an arborist’s weight as part of my equipment to assist in hanging the line. It adds a lot of weight but is definitely worth it. Using rocks and other tree branches works but definitely comes with snagging risks and the possibility your line will come off of the wight you’re using to get the line up… especially when it comes to rocks. I carry 4 aluminum tent stakes with paracord loops and quick links for attaching line. Those are bound during transport by a piece of paracord I tied together to make the clanking of the tent stakes go away and to keep them from flopping everywhere. There are four aluminum tent stakes in the kit because I might want to anchor my Chameleon EMCOMM III in 3 or 4 spots depending on antenna configuration. I have two 75′ high visibility paracord hanks wound around Chameleon wire winders that can support two ends of antennas that are in a horizontal dipole configuration. Each hank of paracord has a quick link attached for connecting to the ends of an antenna or suspension point, and the arborist’s weight for deployment. I can leave one of the paracord hanks behind if I want to set an antenna up in a configuration that only requires one suspension point like an inverted V. I added a small loop of paracord to the Chameleon wire winders in one of the corner holes to take the weight of the assembly off of the elastic band that wraps the paracord when the hank is being stored or transported. The locking carabiner is used to hold everything together, clip the kit onto something like a backpack, or hang it from a pocket during setup. The specific carabiner I’m using is probably overkill but I had it laying around so I used it. There’s also another loop of paracord attached to the carabiner which acts as a more comfortable carrying handle and for storage by hanging from a door knob.
Black paracord cut small into smaller pieces for use as a handle, 2x wire winder strain relief loops, and a keeper for the tent stakes (don’t ask me how I figured out how to tie that. I can’t really tell you how I did it except that I did a lot of experimentation.
2x Chameleon wire winders
6x threaded quick links (4 on stakes, 2 on the 75′ paracord)
2x high visibility 75 ft paracord hanks w/ 3M high visibility strip included for working on the antenna suspension at night
Note the paracord attachment point run through the quick links that make sure they don’t come out of the holder or make a bunch of noise. Both loops of black paracord go through the carabiner, but if you remove the attachment point with the quick links from the carabiner it’s easy to just pull the quick links off.
This is a more detailed view of one of the two paracord hanks. Both are set up the same way. The paracord is wrapped around the Chameleon wire winder and is held on the winder using the built-in elastic band which is wrapped around the paracord and secured with the pictured notches. The quick link is attached to the throw/attachment end of the paracord, and the quick link is also attached to the small black loop of paracord to take strain off of the elastic band during transport. This design uses the quick link, black paracord loop, and plastic wire winder plate to take the weight of the assembly when attached to the carabiner.
Connecting it all
While this isn’t necessarily directly related to the composition of the kits I described above I decided to diagram out how the station is wired up for my typical use and add this section after I wrote the original post. You’ll note that some components are only used in data operations, and some are only hooked up when needed. For example, I won’t need the light unless it’s dark, I won’t want to use the Raspberry Pi unless I’m doing data comms or using the documentation server. In addition I won’t have any of the USB buddies that I don’t need hooked up at any time because they draw power, and unless I want that power to go to something I just won’t use it. If I’m deploying at night and don’t expect to stick around until morning I won’t deploy the solar panels and add the hassle of managing those additional cables and connections. In any case, this is basically how it’s all wired up for my typical deployments. Sometimes I’ll use different components such as a 100W solar panel instead of the 20s, or add a travel router and a USB buddy to the data deployment depending on my situation and available power/battery.
Wrapping it up
So, this is the kits! I don’t always use the trail-friendly antenna with this radio, but it’s what I include in the kit by default. I also use a Samsung Galaxy tablet and sometimes a customized travel wireless router in conjunction with this kit when I do data mode work to interact with the Raspberry Pi 4 in this kit and / or one of the other ones I have set up, but that’s a whole other post.
Good news everyone! I finally made a long-distance contact running QRP (10w) on SSB. I was able to complete a QSO with N8II in Jefferson County, WV on 20m during a WV QSO party from the top of Mt. Tabor. The distance between our stations was about 2,290 miles. I had been attempting to contact the station all day on and off since about 16:30 Pacific time. I was able to reach a couple stations in the Portland, OR area and one of them suggested that my portable antenna might be hung too low (at about 20′) and doing NVIS instead of getting out so I re-hung both ends of the antenna an additional 6′ higher and tried again. I had attempted to enlist K7AJK’s help to test my station’s audio to see if I was having RF feedback, but it seems he was in one of my antenna’s nulls. The next set of attempts I was able to nearly complete a QSO with N8II, but failed to get my full call and location across. I hit pause on attempting contact for a few minutes to attempt some other frequencies and 40m. After coming back and making another attempt I was finally able to make the contact with a bit of difficulty, but there you have it!
As a side note I did some JS8Call work on 20m and 40m as well. The furthest signal report was about 2,000 miles away! Not bad for a portable QRP station.
A few extra feet of antenna elevation can make all the difference!
Minimal power can go a long way.
If you want to use a headset with a radio make sure you bring a PTT.
Two 20w solar panels did a good job of powering the entire setup until the sun got low enough that trees covered them. I barely used the battery in 5 hours of operation.
Don’t position your station under the feed line. It might cause RF feedback.
Bring extra water. I didn’t have enough for 5 hours.
Alright, so, all this actually happened on May 29th. I just haven’t been able to sit down a put a post together so here we go! My partner and I decided to take a trip out to Oakridge, OR to avoid the setup for camping but to at least see some sweet nature (nature is neat). Read this before following that link. Naturally I decided to take the opportunity to do some transmitting, and the setup at Salt Creek Falls was the only setup I documented so here it is. We started by following the trail down to the lower observation area at the falls which is pretty great. It was a hot day and the mist coming from the bottom of the falls was pretty refreshing. I climbed back up to the top of the path to make a sked, or, prearranged SSB contact with Kevin, K7AJK in Portland, OR. I also grabbed some water from a stream on the way up for my Sawyer straw.
It only took about 35 minutes to set the station up. Most of that was me failing like a complete amateur to get the paracord where I wanted it in two trees that were spaced about 80 feet apart using an arborist’s throw weight. For this contact we were going to attempt to do 80m NVIS so I strung my Chameleon EMCOMM III portable in a horizontal configuration, which is the configuration recommended by Chameleon for NVIS work. I have some bad pictures of both paracord runs attached to the antenna below, but because they’re bad so I’m not leading with them. What I didn’t capture in a photo was the fact there was a big hump between the trees and the antenna was only 6′ above the top of the hump between the trees, thus making the antenna not work as intended with the ground as a reflector. I still had a reasonably low SWR when transmitting on the Lab599 TX-500 but in retrospect I suspect the hump and poor atmospheric conditions might have resulted in difficulty getting out. I tuned to one of our prearranged frequencies and attempted to make contact once every 5 minutes for one hour. At two points I heard him calling but he didn’t get my replies. I’d later find out that a few of his calls were done at 100W and I could barely hear him. I’m not sure if this was due to bad space weather, poor antenna configuration, or both. I should have also been able to reach K7AJK as he was about 130 miles away which should be outside the NVIS skip zone (see Fig 3 here). It was a bummer but the bright spot is that I did manage to make some digital contacts using JS8Call despite not being able to reach K7AJK.
It’s hard to photograph thin wire antennas in trees from the ground.
Don’t forget to take pictures when you mess up.
Better antenna placement yields better results. I didn’t properly assess the height of the hump relative to where the antenna was hung or account for the antenna sagging in the middle near the top of the hump.
Sometimes the space weather doesn’t cooperate and you can’t account for it.
Take all sorts of pictures when operating, especially in an interesting environment. I did some drive-by VHF Winlink work going through Eugene, OR and also did some HF work and SWL on the beach at Crescent Lake as well. None of that includes my improvised sun shelter made from part of a shelter tent and some branches sawed off of dead trees near the beach shored up with rocks.
A notable plus is that the 20W GoalZero Nomad 20 solar panel is enough to keep the radio station up and running doing both phone and data work in good and intermittent sunlight. I typically get 1A out of the panel in decent sunlight. The 12Ah Bioenno battery was fully recharged within minutes of the QRP radio transmitting both at Salt Creek Falls and Crescent Lake.
So, we decided to go car camping this weekend and naturally I decided I’d bring my QRP rig and HT (handheld transceiver). The goal was to sleep in the back of our car and cook using a propane camp stove while not paying for a camping spot. I also wanted to see how well my QRP setup worked with fewer resources including charging and little space to store the setup and supporting equipment. For this I picked my Superantenna/Chameleon Mil Whip 2.0 kit and Lab599 TX-500 kit. Neither kit includes feed line. Keep that in mind while reading…
On a Friday after work we packed the car and left. A couple hours later we made it to our spot on the Oregon coast with some decent moonlight between spurts of rain. We made dinner in a fairly heavy wind out of the back of the car. We could hear the relaxing sound of crashing waves against rocks that we could barely see. After having some dinner we set up the folding mattress in the car and settled in for the night.
After waking up and getting ready we made some breakfast and coffee on a nearby park table. We had to wait till the rain stopped to make food but I was able to make some coffee in the rain without issue. I was half way through my coffee and food when I realized I didn’t pack any feed line! Fortunately we were close to a town that happened to have a store open that morning which had a box of left over parts labeled “CB Radio Parts”. There was a small RG-58 coax cable with PL-239 ends and thus my problem was solved! I purchased the cable and got underway for our hike.
We did a short hike and as we neared the end of the hike we found a small but well worn trail leading off the main path, so we took it in search of a spot where my partner could water color and I could set up and operate. Not too far down the offshoot trail we found a fairly open patch of moss with a fallen tree that I could use as a bench. I set up the Superantenna using the ground spike for simultaneous HF and 2m operation using the Superantenna MC2 and MP1C, topping the loading coils with my Chameleon Mil Whip 2.0 for increased SWR bandwidth over the titanium whip that comes with the Superantenna kit. Unfortunately the photo I took of the deployed antenna was corrupted by the time I got to uploading it. The UHF/VHF side of the Comet CF-706 duplexer was connected to my Yaesu FT3D so I could attempt contacts on the 2m calling frequency (146.520Mhz) and monitor/send 2m APRS packets.
I tuned the antenna using my NanoVNA for 20m and started working SSB phone. I attempted to respond to a number of calls and tried calling to no avail. After 40 minutes of trying between 5 and 8.5W I decided to switch to JS8Call. I have yet to make a phone contact on my Lab599 TX-500 on any band. I’m hoping I can just chalk this up to being run over by higher power stations. As I was setting my station up for digital comms I noticed something unexpected – the maidenhead coordinates in JS8Call hadn’t been updated automatically as js8cli would normally do, and I also noticed the time on the Pi varied by a minute from my cellphone. That’s highly unusual as the GPS unit typically corrects any RTC drift that might occur. The next step was to check my GPS unit’s LED through the vent holes in the case. It’s flashing one second on, and one off. For the specific Adafruit Ultimate GPS board I run that means the GPS hasn’t acquired a lock. I waited a few more minutes and found that it still hadn’t acquired a lock and decided to check the board for any broken or loose connections. Since the entire setup allows me to disassemble it without tools I did to inspect it. I found no loose connections or other apparent issues. It was time to reboot by fully removing power as had worked sometimes in the past. Still no luck following a full power down / power up sequence! I then leveraged my phone and tablet GPS units to get a position. My phone eventually got a location and grid square using the HamGPS application, but my phone had been on and tracking satellites for the entire hike. My Pi and tablet had been off. This is interesting because I had an OK view of the sky despite the very tall trees surrounding the patch. I hoped my GPS unit wasn’t damaged or malfunctioning and decided to manually set my JS8Call location from my phone, automatically acquire a timing offset from other stations in JS8Call and move on. I had a couple stations hear my heartbeats but couldn’t make contact with any operators directly. I also attempted to send an SMS message to a friend but alas no one was hearing my transmissions as the band seemed to have closed. Overall not the best luck, but it was time to head back to the trail head so we had daylight to drive out and make camp.
I decided to hook the gear up in the back of the car as my partner got the dog ready to head out in order to determine if my GPS unit was actually broken. I hooked everything up to the big battery that was in the trunk and after a minute or so the GPS lock LED flashed once every several seconds. This indicated a lock, so I fired the tablet up, logged into the Pi, and checked the reports with cgps, a test GPS client provided by the gpsd-clients package. They lined up with where we were. Even though I could see sky clearly through gaps in the canopy the GPS unit wasn’t able to acquire satellites in the time we spent in the clearing.
After arriving at camp and rigging the car for sleeping I set the radio up for shortwave listening and got my Yaesu FT3D connected to the duplexer after this photo was taken. It was a windy and chilly but great day. It was time for a beverage and some relaxing SWL and taking in the scenery before turning in for the night. I used the same setup as I did on the hike, except with a tripod for the antenna and no radials since I was receiving only. We were able to hear a number of stations, but settled on Radio Havana English (6.0MHz if I recall correctly) since they were playing music instead of the typical religious content with creepy-sounding voices you typically hear on US shortwave stations like WRMI in this part of the US.
Lessons learned: – Don’t forget your feed line. I got lucky enough that I could acquire some, but if this was a disaster or if I were on a hike/camping in a remote location I would have been unable to operate. – Even though you can see a lot of sky in an area, it doesn’t mean your GPS can acquire satellites. Be prepared with some mechanism to acquire and set your location and time for something like JS8Call. – When documenting something take a couple pictures in case one of them gets corrupted.
This is just a quick post about some light operating I did out in the forest today while getting some target practice in since I’m not really a sports person. The weather was fairly cold, between 35 and 40 degrees F with alternating rain and snow. This post is mostly about what running QRP in decent conditions can do. I set my Lab599 TX-500 up with my Superantenna / Chameleon Mil Whip 2.0 antenna combo and my offgrid Raspberry Pi and access point this morning to see how far I got out from the outdoor “range” we were at. I powered the whole setup with my Bioenno 40Ah LiFePO4 battery and threw my GoalZero Nomad 20 folding solar panel on just to take some of the load from the battery as it’s just a standard practice I engage in.
The idea was that I was going to try to run JS8Call at QRP on 20m for a few hours. The power levels I ran were 1w, 5w, and 7.5w (for a couple minutes) throughout the day. I generally settled on 5w as I was heard from the southwest, south, along the east coast, midwest, and AK. Bumping the power to 7.5w didn’t really yield any additional responses to my heartbeats so I reduced power to 5w and stayed there for most of the day. My furthest contact via heartbeat and “QTH?” commands was KC1GTU at FN41 (about 2,250NM away at 5w).
Make sure you set your grid locator correctly in JS8Call. Anyone seeing my station would see me at CN85qm, about 45 miles away from where I really was at CN85hs. (Update: JS8CLI solves this problem.)