Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Portable Hamstick Dipole

A quick and cheap Hamstick Dipole



I got frustrated at not having a good way to string a wire antenna at the house and really wanted something portable for setting up an EMCOM station.  I happened to have a hamstick MFJ-1640T.

After reading what others have said, I picked up another MFJ-1640T ($14.95) and the dipole adapter MFJ-347 Double T Pipe Mount W/SO-239 $19.95

Total cost of the antenna system is around $50

The Double T Pipe Mount connects one HF stick to the center conductor and the other to the braid using a standard SO-239 connection.  It can be mounted either vertically (For DX?) or horizontally for NVIS.

Not having a good pole to use, I grabbed a 12' piece of wooden closet rod in the garage and clamped the mount to that.   I installed the antennas 1 at a time to the side of the mount that connects to the center conductor and tuned each to length as close as I could, then installed both antennas.  My Yaesu FT-897D with AT-897 tuner was able to check into nets in Kansas and Texas (300 to 400 miles).

This setup is very narrow bandwidth (watch the SWR on your antenna tuner as you tune up and down within the band. I was able to make contacts at 300 to 400 miles though.

Friday, August 19, 2016

America is not for the Timid

Who built America?  It was not timid people who braved the ocean in questionable ships to settle a wild new land.  It was not the timid who left the safety of civilization and settled the vast American West against all odds.  I think the only peaceful answer to these riots that defy the unsuccessfully militarized police forces is private citizens.  Lots of good people, willing to take a risk and step out of the timid lifestyle and take our neighborhoods back.  Those few Ferguson businesses that are being protected by armed proprietors should have bodies stacked out front like cord wood if the mainstream media was right that more guns mean more crime.  Instead, none of the looters have been shot by these businessmen who chose action over timidity.  Neither are those businesses being looted or vandalized.

Stop being so timid, America.  This doesn't mean grab a gun and shoot somebody.  Sometimes it just means getting your neighbors together and telling the bad guys to go home.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Travel Lightly

The bike is loaded and ready to roll in Pensacola, FL

The photo above is my bike loaded for an 8 day trip through 21 states.

When I travel by motorcycle, I see a lot of people with, well, different philosophies from mine.

I travel light. My longest trip so far has been 9 days, but I think the gear carried on that trip would suffice for a much longer trip. I pack 3 pairs of underwear, three pairs of socks and three T-shirts. This gives me four days on the road with clean clothes where it counts before stopping to do laundry on the fourth evening. Typically, I'll do laundry on the third evening if convenient just to avoid the stress of finding a laundromat when I really need one.

I went through a series of small duffels before achieving what I considered to be a success. The guys I sometimes travel with were quite entertained by the way some of my luggage would ride just fine on the highway only to slide off the side of the bike when I pull into a gas station. Eventually I found a small pack at a surplus store.

The new pack has straps on all sides for compressing the load when not completely full. It also has tie points at the bottom where I need them for securing it to the rack so that adjustments are not necessary when expanding it. Almost as important are the tie points (called molle loops) located all over the outside of the pack where I can tie my chaps and jacket if things just get too warm. I just added an 18" shock cord net over the top sometimes as a handy place to cram my jacket when it gets too warm.

Through experience, I have discovered I sometimes need rain pants. The pair I bought can be worn over my jeans and on laundry day the rain suit may be all I am wearing at the laundromat while my clothes are processing. After a three day monsoon in Ohio in 2008, I also pack a rain jacket (I wish I could find a pullover since the zipper just lets water in). It doesn't take up much room and it can save my leather jacket. Since this gear needs to be handy, I roll them both together and tie them to the front forks where some people carry a small tool kit. I keep them in a small military surplus bag to protect the rain suit from ultraviolet rays.

I didn't cut corners buying my leather jacket. A birthday present from my wife the year I got the bike, It has pockets I didn't even know about until I had been wearing it for six months. It has a snap-in liner which has not been necessary since I don't ride much when the temperature is below 40f. The two to three inch overlap on the zippered front keeps most of the draft out. It also has zip up vents in front and back which keep me cool when riding in desert country in August as long as the bike is moving. I apply mink oil followed by neutral shoe polish to the jacket before each trip so it repels light or brief showers, but I can wear my rain jacket over it if needed.

In winter, I'll pack a pair of mittens that can be worn over my gloves, although if the weather is cold enough to require mittens when I start, I probably am not going to go. In summer I'll pack an extra pair of gloves or wool liners for those cold mornings.

If there's any room left over, I pack a good quality army surplus poncho. These things are incredibly versatile to have around. I'm going to have to experiment with mine to see if it can be used to cover my pack on the bike during hard rains. If so, I can omit the little rain tarp I carry for covering the bag. I also like to carry one or two disposable ponchos to give away at accident scenes or to sleep on in questionable hotel rooms (see: Sturgis 2010 trip).

I don't carry an extra pair of shoes. The boots I wear are well made and in good condition. On my first nine day road trip, I wore my trusty cowboy boots that had served me so well for so long. So long, it turned out, that the soles wore through on the first morning. Now I check my shoes much more carefully. Sneakers might come in handy for going walking, but I don't seem to do any long hikes when I'm on a road trip, so I stopped packing them. There is a pair of shower shoes stuffed into a sleeve on the bottom of the pack but they haven’t been out since I put them in there when the pack was new.

If something happens that ruins my jeans, I'll just put on the rain pants and stop by the next Walmart for another pair. Every town in this country seems to have a Walmart. On laundry day, I wear my rain pants while the jeans are in the washer and dryer.

I do pack a paperback book and some snacks because down time happens. You can never know just when or where you'll be. It might also be a good idea to pack a bottle of water for emergencies. If you carry an emergency water supply, don't drink it as you go along or you will not have it when you need it most.

I wear a multi-tool on my belt and carry a cell phone in lieu of a full tool kit. These have served me so far, since I'm not much of a mechanic anyway and I have towing insurance for the bike.

(# items always in go-bag)


Assorted pack items:
 LED flashlight
 book (preferably light reading)
 ball point pen
#  small notebook
#  rain cover for my soft luggage (or poncho?)
 extra bungee cords beneath luggage on rack.
#  parachute cord
 Harley travel guide (US atlas and service locations)
#  non-tinted safety glasses in case I’m riding past sunset
 1/2 pint of whiskey (101 uses besides drinking)
 charger for phone
#  cigarrette lighter
 watch cap (in really cold weather)
 ball cap (in mild weather)

Clothing:
#  3 t-shirts
#  3 pair of socks
#  3 pair of underwear
#  warm gloves
#  shower shoes

spit kit:
#  deodorant (roll-on stands the heat better than sticks)
#  spare disposable contact lenses
#  contact lens case
#  disinfectant wipes (individually wrapped)
#  tooth brush and paste
#  dental floss (actually little floss bows)
#  ChapStick
#  suntan lotion stick
#  facial tissue pocket pack(doubles as toilet tissue when needed)
#  allergy medicine
#  analgesic (the older I get the more varieties I need)
#  sewing kit

Carried in pockets or on belt:
     phone
     multi-tool/knife
     wallet
     disinfectant wipes

Wear:
     helmet w/flip mask (flipping it up in slower traffic helps keep cool)
     Boots
     Socks
     relaxed fit jeans
     T-shirt
     dew rag (around neck)
     sunglasses
     leather chaps
     leather gloves
     leather jacket

Tied to front forks:
     rain jacket
     rain pants

Travelling Alone

My father remarked to me once that when he was in the Navy during WWII, that alone, he was welcome wherever he went. On the other hand, no matter how nice his companion sailors were, groups of two of more were greeted with either suspicion or hostility by everyone but bartenders.

Advantages:
♦      I ride when I feel like it.
♦      I rest when I don't feel like riding.
♦      I take lots of detours and don't generally consult maps.
♦      I tend to get more mileage while travelling more slowly in a day with less pressure.
♦      I feel that I am far more approachable to locals.
♦      I tend to be far more alert when I don't have anyone scouting ahead

For every benefit, there is a disadvantage of course and these too, must be taken into consideration.

Disadvantages:
♦      Personal safety
♦      Vulnerability to being stranded longer by breakdowns
♦      The ability to enjoy the scenery more when you aren't the lead bike.

I tend to look at travel as an adventure and therefore am generally very alert to my surroundings which is the first step toward successfully defending yourself against criminals. Another thing is that complete immunity from confidence scams is simply a matter of not being willing to take what you have not earned. Lastly, I have a concealed firearms license and the pistol I carry as a last line of defense has served me well so far.

Vulnerability to being stranded for longer than group riders is another question. I rented a truck last year to move some household items. Out in the middle of nowhere, the check engine lights started glowing. Not wanting to be charged for a blown engine, I pulled over in a comfortable spot, called the 800 number for service and sat down to wait for help. I found the four hour wait relaxing and enjoyable as it gave me time to read more of the book I was carrying and again, the handgun helped to keep me company.

While I enjoy the opportunity to ride in a formation where someone else is scouting the road ahead for hazards, I find it tedious to the point that if I'm there too long, my mind wanders from the business of staying alive. Most groups have a leader who is always the front rider and that doesn't work for me. I prefer everyone taking their own turn at scouting.

Various rules of the road my companions and I have developed:
1:  Everyone rides his or her own ride. Peer pressure is neither exerted nor responded to. EVER!
2:  We agree on top speeds and comfortable cruising speeds in advance and based upon the least experienced rider's comfort level.
3:  We agree in advance on whether to get on freeways. Generally we avoid them and rarely notice any extra drive time because of it.
3:  Everyone should know what the hard gasoline range as well as the preferred distance between stops is for the other riders and stops should be scheduled around the person with the shortest range or preferred distance.
4:  The lead bike decides where we get gas or eat or take other stops. When one bike gets gas, all the bikes get gas.
5:  If you aren't the lead rider and need gas, food or another stop, simply overtake the lead rider and pull in to the stop of your choice. The rest of us will follow.
6:  You are responsible for the rider immediately behind you. If you lose sight of that rider, you should slow down or stop or turn around as the situation demands until you can re-establish contact. The riders in front of you should do likewise in a safe manner when they see you are no longer there.
7:  Ride in staggered formation as this allows better visibility of the bikes behind you. Leave plenty of space between bikes and allow traffic to move through the line if needed. Two second spacing sounds great, but leads to tedium on more than a very short ride.
8:  If following traffic wants to pass, the trailing bike should slow down enough to allow the following vehicle to safely pass with a minimum exposure to head-on traffic. This also opens up space for the car to dip into between you and the rider in front of you in case of an emergency. Remember, if the car or truck passing you has a choice between bumping you off the road and a head-on collision with whatever might be coming at him, you lose.
9:  Use the generally accepted hand and foot signs to warn riders behind you of road hazards and group maneuvers. This does not mean that everyone wants to have the week-old dead squirrel pointed out to them.

Other Thoughts

Circle the parking lot when pulling into a new place, especially if you expect to be out of sight of the bike. This applies to restaurants, gas stations, motels and anyplace else where you intend to park the bike. This gives you the opportunity to find the safest place to park as well as seeing who is lurking in or around vehicles.

When parking, I often park closer to the street if there are too many people hanging around the entrance. This way, someone approaching your bike where it is all alone will stand out. It makes troublemakers nervous to stand out. If anyone is in the parking lot, make eye contact with them. They are much less likely to steal anything from you if they think you might recognize them later.

Take time to enjoy and record some of the sights as you see them. Don't count on them repeating, and don't rely on your memory. Keep the camera handy and shoot lots of digital photos. You can always delete them later, but rarely will you get a second opportunity for that once in a lifetime shot. This has been my biggest failing in past trips.

If you are traveling to a single destination like a rally, think about asking the hotel where you have reservations if they will accept a freight or mail delivery of most of your clothing so they don't have to be carried on the long haul.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Just Get on the Air!

I got my ham radio license back in 1970 and let it languish and expire because of the daunting task converting a WW-II surplus radio transceiver to work on amateur frequencies.   Back then, getting a new ham on the air almost always meant building his or her own radio and the newbie was relegated to Morse code, so the hobby was not for those with only a casual interest.

When I retired, I found more time, studied and took my test to get a license again.  As soon as my license number came in, I applied for a vanity license to revive my silent key Dad’s call sign.  It was his enthusiasm that got me started on radio and very likely his troubleshooting techniques that carried me through a successful career in data communications.

Having newly retired, once licensed, I went out and got a good used radio and power supply.  The costs of putting up a big tower, rotator and multi-element beam antenna were daunting to me.

Experienced hams were quick to dismiss my concerns about the high costs of getting on the air.  They all insisted that all I needed was some wire and a high place to string it.  Trouble is, I had no high place and towers were expensive.  There were also a couple of large honey-do projects with my name on them and I would feel guilty erecting a tower or even a push up pole.

I did have a vague idea of wanting to focus on emergency communications which is one reason I wanted a portable system.  Logically that means short distances, so UHF/VHF radios would play a key role here.  I accumulated several handy talkies of various models and manufacture as well as a couple of mobile radios.  I spent some time coming up with ways of quickly throwing up low-cost ad-hoc repeaters in case needed.  That wouldn’t reach outside some disaster areas so I wanted more.

Somewhere along the way I had picked up a couple of “HamStick” antennas.  The manufacturer of the HamStick has been out of business for years, but look-alikes are available from various sources.  These are mobile antennas for vehicle mounting with whip ends that are slid in and out to tune them to best resonate within a specific frequency range.

A big limitation of a HamStick type antenna is that you need a different one for each band.  On the other hand, they are very inexpensive ($14.95ea for the MFJ version).  I had no real wish to transmit while tooling down the highway and being retired, I no longer drove as much, but my goal was for a portable station and this seemed like a pretty portable solution.

I set up the HF rig with the HamSticks (MFJ-1640T and MFJ-1620T) for 40 and 20 meters respectively.  They gave rather dismal results and in fact I made no contacts using either, although I could dimly hear some stations, none of them was loud enough to bump the S meter above the background noise.  Couple that with not really knowing how to use the radio, and I went off the HF airwaves for over a year and a half.  Before you ask, the answer is no.  I didn’t ask anyone for help.

I was reading on a survival forum about the Buddi-Pole antenna system.  This is a family of portable antenna systems with shorter coils than HamSticks and instead of a single whip wire, they have telescoping elements.  Their deluxe system comes with two elements and a hub system so it can be rigged as a dipole antenna.  Like the HamSticks, a different coil is needed for each band, but the Buddi-Pole coils are small and packaged neatly in a carry bag along with a compact tripod and short mast.  This caught my attention and the reviews seemed positive.  

I was already saving up the considerable money involved in owning such a system when I saw an article on doing the same thing with a dipole adapter MFJ-347 Double T Pipe Mount W/SO-239 ($19.95ea).  This connects two HamStick antennas back to back with one being connected to the center conductor and the other being connected to the outer braid of the transmission cable.  

I swung by the local ham radio store and picked up the adapter and a second MFJ-1640T and MFJ-1620T HamSticks.  Unlike the Buddi-Pole, this combination breaks down to about five feet long, but that still fits behind the seat of my pickup.  There are obvious performance issues with an antenna only about 25 feet long that should be 66 feet long, but it does work and at an attractive price.  I got checked into traffic nets as far away as 400 miles that first day on 40 meters.  

That setup got put away and I didn’t think about it again as life got busy.  I had purchased a 40, 20, 10, 6 fan dipole when I found a good deal because it would fit within the limits of my small backyard and just kept thinking I would eventually get a push up pole to erect it.  I got the antenna out for last year’s field day and got a contact with Gordon West which thrilled me to no end, but at home, I still had no HF setup.

This week I set aside a couple of days and set my Yaesu FT-897D with AT-897 auto-tuner bolted to the side and set up my HamStick dipole on an telescoping painters pole 12’ high in my back yard.  I commandeered the step ladder my wife uses to fill bird feeders and used Velcro to strap this makeshift mast and keep it from falling over.   Powering the radio up, it came up in the middle of the morning 7290 traffic net loud and strong.  I brought it off frequency and hit the auto-tuner just to be sure, then went back and waited for my turn to check in.  Got through on the first try and hit more traffic nets that same morning.  Not bad for a portable antenna 12’ off the ground.

Enjoying myself that first day with contact on various traffic nets, I decided to try the fan dipole the next morning.  After all I am mostly interested in regional communications, so NVIS should work pretty well for me.  I strung the antenna up with the peak of my inverted v at the top of my twelve foot painter’s pole and the ends drooping down to about five feet before being secured to the privacy fence at each side of my yard.

My contacts that day were to various traffic nets on 40 and 20 meters and included reports of good signal in Boston and Virginia.  From my location in rural northeast Texas that was a maximum range of more than 1,400 miles.   Granted it was a good day and I couldn’t even hear a station in Dallas (100 miles away).

Taking a look at the antenna system I had run, I saw it was composed of some rather simple components.  A 1:1 balun, which costs under $40, a handful of insulators for securing the ends of the antenna wires.  The antenna wire itself was 14 gauge stranded wire with a Teflon jacket.  

What I am trying to say is just get on the air.  Tinker some.  Invest in an antenna tuner and keep the power down until you know how well matched your antenna is, then get on the air.  The optimal antenna could easily run you millions of dollars, but getting on the air and making some serious contacts is rather easy and cheap.  

Just do it.


Sunday, October 4, 2015

Intro to HAM Radio for the Prepper

Prepping is more than just about preparing for the end of the world.  If the world is ending, then what is there to prepare for?  Some people will tell you not to bother with technology because an EMP will take out all the electronics anyway.  What if the catastrophic event doesn’t involve an EMP?  My own philosophy includes things that may or may not be available to me after an event.  My self-training involves skills I may never use.  You can’t be prepared for every possible scenario, so you have to make your own decisions about the path you take.

In information security, we had a rather simple formula with rather complex permutations.  
1)  List all the possible problem scenarios.
2)  For each scenario listed in step one list the following
  a.  What is the likelihood of an occurrence
  b.  What is the consequence
3)  Based on a balance of the answers in step 2, prioritize your actions to prevent the events listed in step 1
Using a formula similar to this one, automobile crashes happen pretty often, so we do what we can to prevent human injury when it does happen.  Someone dropping a cinder block from an overpass doesn’t happen very often, so although the consequences could well be fatal, we still have moon roofs on many vehicles.

If you want to hide in a bunker until the heat is over, then emerge you should ask yourself what you are likely to emerge to.  If this is what you intend to do however, you will need a good receiver.  Some would say a shortwave receiver and if you go that route, make sure it has true single sideband (SSB) capability so you can listen to more than just the voice of Xyz-stan or the People’s Republic of Bananas to keep you informed of what is happening around you.  Without a radio receiver, you have no way of knowing when it is safe to emerge.  For better information, get a general coverage HAM radio receiver and perhaps a pocket Morse code reader.

For everyone else, I will assume there are others on your list of co-survivors.  This being the case, I am going to suggest that your need for two-way communications with people is roughly the same as the closeness of your relationship.  

Getting Started
After SHTF, there is not going to be any FCC bothering you, but if you plan to communicate during an emergency and after SHTF, you need to practice before hand.  The license required to communicate over the two most popular frequency bands for HT HAM radios is the entry level “Technician” license.  This requires a very simple test which focuses on what you can and cannot do with a Technician HAM radio license.  HAM radio equipment does not have some of the Consumer Product Safety Bureau’s safeguards, so real damage to the equipment can result from handling the radios without knowing what you are doing.  The potential damage becomes more dramatic and more expensive with the higher levels of license, but more on that later.  

Assuming you have decided on HAM radio for communications, you should consider getting the entire family licensed although, it might be good to get one person to go through the process to see if it is going to be a part of your preparations.  Study guides are available online and many are free.  Testing is around $15 and goes toward compensating the Volunteer Examiner (VE) expenses.  (Yes, the testers are volunteers and any licensed HAM can become a VE.  There is no charge for the license and it is good for ten years.  There is no testing for renewal of your license, you just get online and re-register.  Once you have a family member licensed, you might consider making license study a part of your family’s together time to get everyone up to speed.  The Technician license requires very little study.

The Handheld Transceiver
(Also known as an HT or sometimes Handy Talkie)
Your household is of paramount importance to you, so equipping everyone in the house with the means to communicate within your household ranks pretty high.  Whether you go with Japanese or Chinese radios is a matter of economics and personal preference.  I have heard many disparaging stories about cheap Chines HT radios.  Mine have been dropped from my motorcycle at freeway speeds, subjected to drenching rain storms and a host of other hazards to technology.  I have not found them to be any more susceptible to failure than the Japanese radios.  Japanese HT radios “feel” more solid, but cost as much as ten times as much as the Chinese.  There are a very many people who disagree with me on this, so it is up to the individual to make a call here on Japanese versus Chinese.

Better than stock antennas will be a great idea for the radios, but don’t toss the old antennas because they are going to come in very handy later.  I have some long, bendy antennas, magnetic mount antennas for use when in vehicles and even some roll-up antennas that can be hoisted into trees for more height.

I would standardize your household on one make and model if possible to ensure parts interchangeability and programming ease.  (With a PC programming cable and free software, you can get one radio set up the way you like and copy that configuration to the PC to be “dumped” to each of the other radios.  Whatever brand you select, a dual-band is a very good idea.  The two bands I would seek are 2 Meter and 70 centimeter.  (The bands refer to the approximate wavelength of the radio signals and you don’t really have to know a whole lot about that at this point.)

The reason for these two bands will become obvious later on.  One limitation to these bands is the signal will not bounce off the ionosphere, so when they reach the horizon, they just keep going in a straight line.  HT to HT distance is extremely variable, but don’t believe anyone who tells you that more than five miles can be relied upon for an HT on these two bands.  More Wattage might help punch through heavy trees or some buildings, but you are not going to see a big range improvement.

I have seen a teen with 4 Watt Chinese HT costing around $30, along with a home built antenna she put together from metal tape measures communicating via satellites in orbit.  This is all about line of sight and the higher the antennas are, the longer the line of sight.

The Chinese radios can typically be configured (illegally and I strongly caution against it unless and until SHTF) to transmit on HAM, MURS, Marine VHF, Commercial VHF and UHF, GMRS and FRS frequencies.  This means that post SHTF, your choice of frequencies opens up quite a bit.  Many will receive NOAA weather radio broadcasts as well as local commercial FM radio broadcasts.

The radios you choose should also have dual-watch capability.  This simply means that it will switch back and forth between two frequency presets very quickly and stop on either one if it hears a “valid” signal.  Different manufacturers have different ways of referring to the two “sides” of the dual-watch radio.  Some refer to the Variable Frequency Oscillator (VFO) as in VFO-A and VFO-B, while others will just call them side ‘A’ and side ‘B’

One potential use for this feature would be if you have neighbors with similar radio preparations, you can set aside one frequency programmed into memory as a “named channel” called “Group” for instance.  In addition, you might have another channel for members of your household to contact each other without having to bother the entire neighborhood.  This channel might be your family name.  By the way, there is enough bandwidth to assign every household a different channel and there are enough memories on most radios that you can program all the neighborhood radios exactly the same.  The Jones household would set VFO-A to “Group” and VFO-B to “Jones”.

Once you have some HT radios to play with, get online and look up HAM radio repeaters in your area.  This is where finding an “Elmer” or mentor can really save you some time.  There are probably repeaters within reach of you that are free for you to use.  These may be owned by individuals or HAM clubs in your area.  What a repeater does is gives you a very high antenna with sensitive receiver and a good transmitter.  The primary repeater in my town allows anyone within about a 20 mile radius of the center of our town to talk to anyone else within that radius.  

There is an article on my blog about repeaters.  For the moment we need to talk about “tone” operations.  The most frequently used are variously called Continuous Tone-Coded Squelch System (CTCSS) and Digitally Coded Squelch (DCS).  These codes are not audible to the end user, but your radio may need to encode a special tone in the outgoing transmission that tells a repeater that you are not just accidentally tuning your transmitter to the repeater’s frequency.  You can set your preset radio channels to either send or receive or both send and receive these tones.  CTCSS is the most common in HAM use, so you can assume that’s what I’m referring to here.

When a channel is configured to receive tones, this means that in addition to “hearing” carrier from a transmitter, your radio will need to detect the correct tone in order to enable the speaker.  This is what I meant above by a “valid” signal.  There are some good uses for configuring receive CTCSS, but if there is none configured on your HT it will still work just fine with any analog repeater.  The transmitted CTCSS is what must match the repeater in order to function.

Programming
All HT’s are difficult to program because there are few buttons, so each must perform many functions.  I would urge you to learn to program your chosen radios manually because you may need that ability at some point.

Most of your programming is going to be via computer and USB cable.  You’ll hear lots of people talking about how difficult one brand or another is to connect to the PC.  This has zero to do with the radio, but plenty to do with the fact that the radios (pretty much every brand) are expecting a type of serial interface not found on PC’s for the last fifteen years (called RS-232).  This means that the lump on the USB programming cable pretends to be an RS-232 on the radio side, while acting like a USB cable for the computer.  This requires special drivers for your operating system and there is where your problem lies.  There are a lot of Internet resources for getting these drivers working if you have trouble.

Other thoughts on the HT
The uses for HT radios go way beyond the obvious.

In a rural setting a long range intercom system could be useful.  An HT radio can be used in an alarm system.

Beginning Base Operations
The good news is our next step up doesn’t require a license upgrade.

Once your household communications is up and running, you will want to expand your circle of operations.  As long as your community has working repeaters, this shouldn’t be a problem for you.  As many have pointed out, the repeaters in operation are a potential weak point in a grid down situation.  As long as they are there and not congested, use them.

The reason I mentioned 2 Meter and 70 centimeter bands specifically is the proliferation of mobile dual-banders that support cross-band repeat.  A mobile radio is one designed to be mounted in a vehicle.  Mine is mounted in a simple box with external speaker and microphone bracket attached so it can be lifted right out of my truck for desktop use at events and at home.  Two great things about a mobile radio as opposed to an HT are power and antenna.  

Power for HT radios is almost always below 10 Watts, whereas mobile dual-banders will put out from 40Watts to 85Watts.  This power is less important than the antenna, but it still counts.  There is so much power loss in coax cable that using an HT at your home base connected to an outside antenna up on a pole will sometimes perform less than the stock antenna.  Also, as I mentioned above, those extra Watts can help to punch through trees and buildings.

I have a good antenna on my truck with a magnetic mount and have good performance with that setup.  When used at home, it is connected to a tower mounted antenna that is of a size that would be impractical on a vehicle.  Remember from above, antenna height increases your range, so the higher you can mount it, the better.  Dual-band antennas are not bulky enough to stand out in most cases, so the risk of someone spotting your antenna at this point would be minimal.

From this point forward in your explorations, nearly every HAM radio you see will require a power supply of 13.8Vdc.  In engineering terms, this is 12Volts.  Automotive alternators put out quite a bit over 12 volts, so the radios were designed with the preferred voltage of 13.8Vdc.  They run just fine on the 12Vdc from an automotive battery when the engine is shut off, so don’t let this throw you.  For the house, you will need a DC power source that will provide enough amperage to drive your radio.  (Check the specifications on your selected radio but the more Watts out, the more Watts you have to put in).

Now to the fun part.  When your family only had HT radios, everyone had to stay within a couple of miles of home or be out of touch.  Using the cross-band repeat function on your mobile radio in combination with an elevated antenna in your home, you can increase the range of the HT users to somewhere between a five and ten mile radius from your home.  In addition, you can now communicate with neighbors via their mobile radios (either direct or via cross-band) at ten to twenty miles.  If you have a larger community of friends, you may have to relay message traffic between households, but you can see how this can build quite a large area of operations.

In addition to increasing the range of the HT radios, I have found that when I am around the house or otherwise using the mobile radio's cross-band repeat function, I can turn the power on my HT down all the way to make the charge last longer and even use a tiny little two inch antenna that doesn’t get in my way as much as the whip antennas.

Going Whole Hog
I am only briefly describing the more advanced areas here.  To treat it right, requires many articles and the hobby begins branching more rapidly here into specialized areas.  Many areas could be used to advantage by a prepper depending on what an individual or group decides will work into their plans.

The next step in your radio preparations might be to make the leap into High Frequency (HF) operations.  In order to do much operating on these bands you’ll need to upgrade your license to General.  There is a little more learning here but much of it simply builds on what you already know from the Technician license.  I believe that as your preparations progress at least one person in your mutual assistance group be capable of HF operations.  Since one is none and two is one, you might want to have a couple of people up to speed before the hammer falls.

HF signals will actually bounce off some layers of the ionosphere and be absorbed by others depending on a lot of factors.  To get your signal over the horizon, this is what you must do.  To determine where your signal might once again come down to earth, you are talking about something like calculating a bank shot in a three dimensional pool game.  You can get really scientific about this or you can just get on the air.   Antennas can be elaborate or simple.  I have seen people with several thousand dollars “invested?” and others with some scraps of wire and all getting similar results.  You can’t purchase success in HF radio, and the best operators I have seen do it on the cheap.

Getting on the air before things go south on us is critical because there is a lot more to HF operations.  There is an etiquette without which, you will likely be ignored even after SHTF.

I am going to break down HF communications into two categories for the purposes of preppers.  Strategic and Tactical.

Strategic Communications
Knowing what is happening in other parts of the world are not going to impact you today or tomorrow, but over the long haul, you still want to know.  In HAM speak, we call long distance communications DX.  This type of contact requires some skill (for transmitting), but you can certainly tune through the bands and listen.

Tactical Communications
For tactical planning and operations, you need to know what is happening within a few hundred miles of your location.

The antenna setup for DX communications above is slightly different than the one you will need for tactical coms.  The DX antenna sends out signal more or less horizontally and this causes a “skip” zone so that you will not be received (for example you may have a skip zone of 40 to 600 miles.  This means that anyone within 40 miles of you can hear you just fine, but from 40 to 600 miles, your signal doesn’t get close enough to the ground to be received.

For a radius of 300 to 400 miles, you need to use Near Vertical Incidence (NVIS) sky waves.  This is a fancy term for point it up, it hits the ionosphere about 250 miles up and splashes back down all around you.  This allows two people in neighboring mountain valleys to talk as if the intervening mountain was not there.  The equipment for NVIS operations is simple, portable and does not have to be expensive.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Why Should a Doomsday Prepper Get a HAM License?

I see posts on lots of boards from people who think they have no need of a HAM license because when the SHTF they can go on the air without worry about licenses. It isn't that simple.

Others worry that getting a license will make them a target for thieves who use the publicly available license information to figure out who has valuable radio equipment to steal. Perhaps they worry that the government will use the license list to confiscate the radio equipment once martial law is imposed.

If you think not having a license "hides" you somehow from government notice, I think you are dreaming.  The government would have a great deal of difficulty confiscating all the transmitter equipment from licensed hams in the country, even Russia has hams now.  An experienced ham can cobble together a transmitter from a few parts that fits in an Altoids can and will reach anywhere in the world.  Therefore, I doubt the government would even try.  Transmitting during a situation where the government has suspended the right to transmit would require some special consideration that licensed ham operators would be far more likely to know and get away with than someone who just bought a radio and wrapped it in tinfoil expecting to use it post SHTF.

Three Categories of SHTF Radio Needs
1   Tactical communications.  This is information for the next hour or day and can likely be accomplished with handheld or mobile FM radios in the 2 meter/70 centimeter range.  On the suface, there isn't as much to learn about this mode since it takes place within your current horizon (around 5 miles or less for handheld units).  Getting a license and some experience can help you learn how to tweak antenna systems to get more mileage and set up ad-hoc repeater systems to extend your range.
2   Strategic communications (2 way).  To plan your next week or month, you need to be in touch with people within a few hundred miles of yourself.  For this you need HF radios using Single Side Band (SSB) and Near Vertical Incidence Skywave (NVIS).  The band selection for this is critical and depends on time of day, solar activity and other conditions that you have no hope of understanding without both studying the licensing materials and practicing.  For an amateur, even one with limited experience, this is not such an obstacle even though the equipment required is rather simple and the antenna system can just be a piece of wire, placement of that wire becomes critical for NVIS operation.
3   Strategic news gathering (shortwave listening) can be accomplished by anyone with a broadband receiver and some wire, although the right eqiupment can make it more successful.  This requires neither license, training or very much experience at all.  While this type of radio use will likely be very important, rebuilding our nation will have to start from the local communities outward and without two-way communications, there is little chance of forming alliances with anyone beyond shouting distance.

If your goal is tactical communications with your next door neighbors, then get a blister pack radio from the neighborhood sporting goods store.

If your goal is to listen to the stronger shortwave stations in the world, then get a shortwave receiver which is available all over the place.

I recommend you build a strategy based upon what your personal goals are.  My goals are not for everyone, but increasing the number of people equipped to communicate effectively both strategically and tactically is a big part of my planning.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Social Media is not a new thing

Decades before the invention of the Internet, the personal computer or even the mainframe computer, "Social Media" existed.  Those afflicted with the addiction would shut themselves into a room (usually darkened except for a desk light and the eerie glow of electronic gadgets that were a mystery to outsiders.  The rest of the family tried not to disturb the "social gatherings" taking place in that special room.  Social gatherings involving people located all over the world.  People who would never meet, and whose only knowledge about the "others" in the gathering is what each person chose to reveal about himself.  I say "him"self because even in the first part of the twentieth century, those addicted to social media were largely males.  The time required was enormous, sometimes 24 hours straight.  The conversations on this early social media ranged the gamut of topics, but the most frequent topic was simply how to build the "social network" and reach more people.

That's HAM Radio.