Off Grid Ham: Portable Antennas For The Off Grid Ham

Wire antenna. Courtesy ARRL.org

Chris Warren at Off Grid Ham has a nice, longish article on Portable Antennas For The Off Grid Ham. Please see Chris’s article on his site for the helpful antenna diagrams.

We’re not special.

Off grid amateurs spend a lot of time focusing on the power source for their equipment. While that’s understandable, we musn’t be distracted from the rest of the amateur radio chain. This time we’re going to look at the other end of the system: portable antennas.

To be clear, off grid radio does not require a “special” antenna. Any antenna that can be used for conventionally-powered operating can be used for off grid. Since most off grid radio is done in a portable/temporary/outdoor setting, or for survival/prepper/EMCOMM purposes, some antennas are more suitable than others. Operators who live in apartments, have HOA restrictions, spouse objections, or otherwise cannot have a permanently mounted antenna are in this mix too. Portable Antennas

It’s not practical to go over every possible option as there are dozens of them; we’ll cover the pros and cons of a few of the most popular. If you’re a newcomer to amateur radio, you’ll gain some focus about different antenna choices. At the end of this article I will include links to more detailed information.

A word about portability. Portable Antennas

The definition of “portable” varies considerably depending on who you ask. “Portable” can mean anything from a large trailer full of equipment to a handheld radio in a shirt pocket. It’s up to each individual operator to decide what works for them. Most of the antennas described in this article are not “portable” in the sense that one could back pack all day with it (along with all their other gear). They will all fit in an average car and can be hand carried short distances.

The classic random wire.

There is hardly anything simpler, less expensive, and easier to understand than the random long wire. This antenna has been around since the beginning of radio and is still used today. They can be made from any conductive wire and erected in any fashion…

If you’re going with a random long wire antenna, you’ll need a separate antenna tuner. The integrated antenna tuners on modern radios will not likely be enough. You can try it and you might get lucky, but very few internal antenna tuners have enough range of correction to get a random wire down to the 50 ohm load the radio requires. I have an external tuner that feeds an unun with a ground plane wire for my random wire antenna; that modified setup works well plugged into my FT-817. Portable Antennas

The tradeoff for ease & simplicity is inefficiency. The antenna tuner does not “fix” this problem. Whatever losses are inherent to your random wire will still be there.

Other random wire considerations.

You’ll also have to consider that random wires are not self-supporting. How do you plan on getting your antenna off the ground? You can bring a PVC pipe or telescoping mast but lugging it along that may not fit with your definition of “portability”. Another option is to run your random wire up to a tree. That too may be problematic. Is there a suitable tree at your operating site? Be aware that many public parks in the United States prohibit attaching anything to the trees, even temporarily.

Some hams advise cutting the wire to be a certain length, or to avoid a certain length. This is done to make the antenna work better across all the bands. That’s fine, but then it’s not really a “random” wire. This may seem like semantic nitpicking  but if you are going to cut a wire to a specific length you may as well take it all the way and make a proper end fed or dipole antenna. My wire antenna truly is random; I have no idea exactly how long it is. For all its faults, random wires really do work, and there’s no beating the low cost and simplicity.

The magnetic loop. Portable Antennas

The magnetic loop is one of the most beloved and hated antennas in all of hamdom. I’m not sure why, but every time it comes up in conversation, strong opinions fly back and forth.

Magnetic loop antennas are a conductive loop, a variable capacitor, and a smaller coupling loop. The loop can vary in size, with some versions having less than a three foot diameter. In spite of their small size and odd appearance, mag loops are quite effective. Magnetic loops do not require a tuner and are excellent for restricted space applications, such as apartments, motorhomes, etc. One of the big benefits of magnetic loops is they do not need to be mounted high off the ground. Any elevation greater than one loop diameter is just as good as mounting it on a 100 foot tower.

Magnetic loop disadvantages.

Mag loop antennas have narrow bandwidth. This has a lot to do with the “Q” value of the antenna, which in turn is related to the antenna’s small size, but that’s more than we’ll get into this time around. If you change your transmit frequency, even a little, the antenna will need to be re-tuned. Therefore, you will need easy physical access to the loop. There are commercially made mag loops such as the MFJ-1788 with a remote tuning head. It’s an expensive option, so consider your needs and wants carefully. Also, mag loops will have very high exposed voltages, even at low transmit power levels. Although it’s not necessarily dangerous, if you touch a mag loop while it’s energized, you’ll likely get a very memorable jolt! Keep it away from children, pets, and untrained bystanders.

If you prefer to build you own, the internet is full of plans and tips for DIY versions. By the way, the loop does not have to be a perfect circle, or even be a circle at all. Octagons and other shapes are acceptable. Portable Antennas

In my opinion, magnetic loop antennas are highly underrated. Once you learn its quirky ways it will provide excellent results.

Vertical antennas.

Commercially made portable vertical antennas might be the most popular antenna for off gridders. There are many choices: Buddistick, Alpha Antenna, Chameleon, and others. They generally do not require a tuner and will operate over numerous bands. Unlike mag loops, verticals maintain good bandwidth without constant adjustments. And unlike random wires, they do not take up much linear space when deployed. They’re easy to set up and take down and self supporting. There’s a lot to love here. I personally use an Alpha Antenna FMJ and I must say it delivers on its promises.

The main disadvantage is the cost. Commercially made portable antennas are pretty dang expensive for what you are getting. I realize a lot of the price tag is related to research & development expenses, plus the relatively low production runs of these products. Because portable antennas can be a serious financial commitment for the average operator, it’s important to do your homework and make sure you’re getting an antenna that is appropriate for your operating goals. Portable Antennas

Everything else.

There are so many other antennas that we can’t realistically go through them all here. Some of these antennas are quite effective, others not so much. Still others are just more complicated versions of well established designs. Experimenting is a big part of the fun, so don’t be afraid to take a chance. Home brew antennas are typically inexpensive and can be recycled into something else if they don’t work out.

Resources.

Here is an Off Grid Ham article from 2016 that goes into detail about random wire antennas, including notes on how to build your own.

This awesome database gives DIY plans for over four hundred antennas. It’s one of my favorite antenna resources and I highly recommend you bookmark this one.

This lengthy (33 page) PDF goes into deep detail about magnetic loop antennas, including operating theory. If you are or want to be a mag loop geek, this one’s for you!

Here’s another very well written and illustrated article about mag loops.

Here is a handy on line mag loop calculator if you want to take a stab at building your own.

The Villages Amateur Radio Club published this very well done guide to stealth antennas for those living in HOAs, apartments, etc.

Finally, an easy to understand explanation of antenna Q values. 

AmRRON Mobile (Radio) Training Exercise, May 14-15

AmRRON is holding a radio operator training exercise this weekend – May 14-15, 2022. This exercise is being held on HF frequencies, using digital modes and off-grid power.

Get ready!  The AMRMRX 22 is a fun exercise involving fixed-site ‘Command’ stations and field mobile ‘Reporting’ stations, requiring the mobile stations to set up a field station, listen and then transmit, then pack up and move to another location and repeat the process!

Exercise begins:  Saturday, May 14th @ 0945 Local Time

  • 4 Segments – Three 2 hour segments and a 1 hour 4 th segment.

Scenario: X10 Solar Flare on 20220508-1200Z with full on CME impact
28 hours later (20220509-1600Z). Expected loss of Grid power,
communications including cellular telephone and internet.

All guidance and instruction documents are downloadable below for you to print and review.

AmRRON CORPS MEMBERS be sure to participate in this Wednesday evening’s ‘BREAKOUT CHANNEL’ AmRRON Z-Net Voice Net for discussing the exercise and the roles and participate in the Q&A session.

There are two documents to download and print:

  1.  AmRRON AMRMRX v1.4.pdf  (Overall Exercise Description and General Guidance)
  2.  Instructions to reporting stations AMRMRX v1.4  (These are specific instructions for deployment as a reporting station.)

Reporting Station Requirements:

  1. AmRRON member
  2. Portable or Mobile HF radio capability (low power acceptable).
  3. Multi band antenna capable of reception / transmission on 40 & 80M.
  4. Digital HF capability utilizing FLdigi suite and JS8call simultaneously.
    Transportation (A conveyance capable of moving the operator and all
    equipment a distance of 3 miles in under 30 minutes).
  5. Off grid power (preferably PV panel and battery or equivalent).
    Generator power is acceptable but use caution in transporting and using
    flammable liquids.
  6. Operation from your vehicle as a mobile station is acceptable.

OH8STN: Survival Radio & Emergency Communications Ukraine

This video comes from Julian/OH8STN.

In this episode we take a look at decentralized communication strategy using 2 way radio for emergency group communications, tactical communications, spotting, intelligence gathering and getting critical news and information over the radio, to the people.

We will look at HF Radios, hand held walkie talkies, SDR (software defined radio). We will also look at the best survival radio strategies for a civilian emergency response during war or occupation.

73 Julian

Tactical Wisdom: Being Honest About WROL Comms

Joe Dolio at Tactical Wisdom has written an article titled Being Honest About WROL Comms (h/t American Partisan) which talks a little about amateur radio experts versus regular joes. Another way of putting that might be high tech hardware versus whatever gets the job done. And yet another way to describe the article is to tell ham radio people to stop intimidating new radio users with an overwhelming discussion of encryption, overspec’d radios, radio spectrum, etc., and just recommend they get a Baofeng.

Being an amateur radio licensee myself as well as having once been someone who knew nothing about radio, I know how easy it is to be overwhelmed. The LVA has a good number of ham radio operators, but mostly because we have taught the license classes ourselves and encouraged everyone who can to get at least a Technician license. That said we’ve only asked people to arm themselves with a Baofeng radio, unless they really want to take the step to higher end radios or long distance communication. With most people in your mutual assistance group using the same radio, you can easily maintain a configuration containing your local repeaters and call frequencies to load on each person’s handheld, further reducing the “know how” each person needs. The Baofengs are also inexpensive enough to buy in bulk, then you can load the configs and give/sell them to your people.

Being Honest About WROL Comms excerpt:

Radios

Let’s get a little housekeeping out of the way…my dear amateur radio friends, please refrain from the hysterical screeching about how wrong I am until the end; I think you’ll admit that what I say here has merit. Also, if you feel the need to discuss the FCC in the comment section, please understand that we are talking about true WROL communications, so understand that I don’t care about the FCC then. Sorry, but if we are TRULY talking about WROL comms, the FCC is not an issue. Agreed? Cool.

Some advice from the Ultimate Tactical Handbook:

Fools find no pleasure in understanding
but delight in airing their own opinions.

Proverbs 18:2

The cold hard truth about WROL comms, which I take a lot of heat for, is that not everyone on your team needs to be a top-tier amateur radio guy and not every single person needs to have a $500-$600 handheld and a $1500 vehicle mount/base station radio. Sorry, amateur radio friends, but it’s true. Let me explain before you argue.

The VAST majority of your communication needs will honestly be INTRA-team communications. In other words, short range UHF-VHF comms among members of your team, relatively close to each other. The day-to-day communications will be everyone going about their business with their handheld radio in case they need to call for help or spread the alarm.

For example, the guys at your watch posts will have radios. A couple of people you send down to the local stream for water will need radios. Hunting parties…. radios. An OP 700 meters out, radios. None of these radios need to be a top of the line ultra-cool-guy frequency-hopping radio.

Cool Guy Digital Radio Amazon Link: https://amzn.to/3ukGvXk

I know, encryption sounds cool. It makes you feel high speed. The truth is, I can achieve the same thing with my own brevity codes and code names for locations (I know, amateur guys – FCC says no codes – see above). Some of the push back I get on this is “but the government” or “them Russkies”; I assure you that you can’t buy any radio as a civilian that a nation-state can’t crack if they want to. The truth is, you aren’t that important and if a nation-state has localized you to the point that they are listening to your short-range comms, you’re done anyway. They’re already within a couple of miles of you and it’s only a matter of time.

I don’t say this to discourage, but to ENCOURAGE you all. Every time I get asked about radios for people just getting started and I recommend something like a Baofeng for new people, a bunch of very helpful, but highly discouraging Hams pile on, overwhelming that new person with a list of every $500 to $800 handset that is the BARE MINIMUM they need, and people get frustrated.

Here’s another tip:

Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification.

Romans 14:19

Now, having said that (listen up ham guys), you definitely need a licensed and skilled amateur radio operator as your communications chief. This person can make sure that your team has a set of radios that they can use to make long range contacts and gather information from outside sources, scan for others, and coordinate with other like-minded groups, but NOT EVERY PERSON needs this capability. Find a solid radio hobbyist and make them your comms chief. My good friend NC Scout holds a series of great courses on WROL comms (we have one coming up in Michigan), check out his classes at http://www.brushbeater.org.

Yes, Hams, I get it. You are very enthusiastic about your hobby and very helpful. Sometimes, though, in your zeal you intimidate and discourage new people.

So then, what does the average team member need? Some type of handheld VHF/UHF radio for local comms. I personally have had no issues with the Baofeng, and to be fair, those who do are trying to use it for more than what it’s intended for. For basic, point-to-point communications in a local radius, it’s sufficient. No, it won’t go 20 miles, but no handheld will by itself. Any handheld that can accept VHF/UHF programming with 4-8 watts is all you need for each member…(continues)

QSO Today Virtual Ham Expo, March 12 & 13, 2022

The QSO Today Virtual Ham Expo takes place this weekend, March 12 and 13, 2022.

Opens : March 11th, 1800 PST, or March 12th, 0200 UTC
Presentations Begin:  Saturday, March 12th, 0800 PST,
                                          or 1600 UTC
                                          Sunday, March 13th, 0800 PDT,
​                                          or 1500 UTC
The Expo platform will remain open until April 10th, 2022 for on demand presentations. 
​Tickets are $10.00 until Expo opens, then $13.50 until April 10th

Click here to register.

Click here for presentation schedule.

About the Expo

Amateur radio is like a big circus.  It has its main tent with three rings in the center.  In those rings could be Contesting, DXing, and Rag Chewing.  However, amateur radio now has a “midway of a thousand smaller tents” according to Eric Guth, 4Z1UG, founder of the QSO Today Virtual Ham Expo, and host of the QSO Today Podcast, a interview program featuring the most interesting amateur radio operators.  It is exactly this midway that the “Expo” was founded to explore.  

The Covid-19 Pandemic closed ham radio conventions, hamfests, and monthly meetings all across the World in 2020.  It was because of these closures that Eric, 4Z1UG, got the idea to create an on-line, and virtual convention that has all of the elements of a real ham radio convention, similar to the most notable live conventions.  

The First QSO Today Virtual Ham Expo was in August 2020 where over 15,000 amateurs attended on the Expo weekend, attending on their computers over the Internet instead of in-person.  Over 80 presentations were made, with live Q&A on Zoom webinar, and attendees could come back over a 30 day on-demand period to view the recorded presentations that they missed.  

We discovered something unique in August from surveys that we made following the expo.  Sixty percent of the attendees, almost 9000 hams do not go to live expos, preferring to stay at home.  The Covid-19 Pandemic has made this all the more important.  

The Expo has also become the place to discover more niches in amateur radio through the presentations given at each one.  In March 2021, while there was some difficulty with the platforms, over 6000 hams came and viewed almost 100,000 presentations from the over 80 that were offered in March.  Our Expo in August 2021 had over 90 presentations in 8 tracks of amazing amateur radio content. 

The QSO Today Virtual Ham Expo returns on March 12th, 2022 and has become a twice yearly event.  We hope to see you there!

Comm Academy April 9, 2022

Seattle’s emergency communications and amateur radio conference known as Comm Academy will be held on April 9, 2022. A YouTube playlist of last year’s presentations can be found on the CommAcademy channel. Some organizations that have participated in the conference include Amateur Radio Emergency Services (ARES©), Auxiliary Communications Services (ACS), EOC Support Teams, Radio Amateur Civil Emergency Service (RACES), Civil Air Patrol, Coast Guard Auxiliary, REACT, CERT, and MST.

During the pandemic, the number of presentations has been reduced and the format has changed to virtual. 2022’s academy will be streamed on their YouTube channel, and there is no advanced registration required this year.

QRPer: Amateur Radio in Ukraine Banned Under Martial Law and State of Emergency

This article from QRPer talks about how amateur radio has been banned in Ukraine under the current state of emergency. This may be in part to protect the civilian population from Russian strikes that use radio detection to find targets, but also to prevent the release of Ukrainian troop movements or other defense activities. RigExpert antenna analyzers and, perhaps, Lab599 appear to be based in Ukraine, so these amateur radio products may also become scarce.

I have a number of friends (and many QRPer readers) in Ukraine, so it’s difficult to think of much else this morning after news of the invasion. From Reuters:

Russian forces invaded Ukraine on Thursday, assaulting by land, sea and air in the biggest attack by one state against another in Europe since World War Two.

Missiles rained down on Ukrainian cities. Ukraine reported columns of troops pouring across its borders from Russia and Belarus, and landing on the coast from the Black and Azov seas.

Explosions were heard before dawn and throughout the morning in the capital Kyiv, a city of 3 million people. Gunfire rattled, sirens blared, and the highway out of the city choked with traffic as residents fled.

The assault brought a calamatous end to weeks of fruitless diplomatic efforts by Western leaders to avert war, their worst fears about Russian President Vladimir Putin’s ambitions realised.[]

Trevor (M5AKA) shared the following message via Twiter from Anatoly Kirilenko (UT3UY) of the Ukrainian Amateur Radio League: I’ve friends in both Ukraine and Russia and none of them want what’s happening here. My heart goes out to them. As with many of these situations, citizens have so little to do with the political, financial, and military interests of their leaders.

2021 Tri-Cities Hamfest, May 1st

The Spout Springs Repeater Association Hamfest will be held in the Tri-Cities at d’s Wicked Cider House located at  9312 W. 10th Ave., in Kennewick on May 1, 2021 at 10:00 am.

***Vendors/Sellers*** You MUST Pre-Register! Email The SSRA HERE

*** Parking Limited – Carpooling Highly Recommended ***

  • Outdoor Swap Meet – Seating Available, Picnic Tables
  • Indoor FCC Testing Sessions  9 AM/  Noon / 3 PM (Electronic/Paperless) Get your call sign in as little as 2 days! Pre-Registration Required HERE.
  • Foxhunting Tape Measure YAGI Workshop
    • Non-SSRA Members – Pre-Register and contribute HERE (Deadline 4/20/21) to build your own YAGI, all of your materials provided for a $40 contribution, which includes your 1 Year Membership in the SSRA!Current SSRA Members – Want to participate? Please click HERE to donate.
  • HF Get on the Air Station / Demonstration
  • Tri-Cities $5 Foxhunt Hunt begins at 4 PM (1st Place Grand Prize valued at $180, Plus Runner-Up prizes!) $5 cash donation accepted prior to start of the hunt to be eligible for prizes.
      • Food / Drink Available On-site. D’s Wicked Cider House offers Breakfast/Lunch/Dinner- Biscuits & Gravy, Sweet & Savory Waffles, Woodfired Pizza, Adult Beverages, etc.
  •  
  •  
  • SCHEDULE OF EVENTS
  •  
  • 0800- Vendor Access 
  • 0900- FCC License Testing Session 
  • 1000- Public Access 
  • 1030- HF Seminar 
  • 1200- FCC License Testing Session 
  • 1330- Fox Hunting Seminar with Yagi antenna build clinic 
  • 1500- FCC License Testing Session 
  • 1615- “$5 Fox Hunt” Briefing 
  • 1630- “$5 Fox Hunt” w/Grand Prize provided by D’s Wicked Cider ($180 Value!) 
  • 1800- End of Events 
  • 1830- Prizes Awarded at D’s Wicked Cider House/Conclusion of Events
  • *** Dinner Available at D’s Wicked Cider ***

Click here to download a PDF flier for the event.

Comm Academy, Apr. 10 & 11, 2021 – Online

The 2021 Comm Academy will be held online this year on April 10 & 11, 2021. In the past this has been an excellent venue for learning more about emergency/disaster communications, especially with amateur radio.

Two days of training, talks, and information on emergency communications on this year’s theme:
Disasters Here, There, and Everywhere – Are We Ready?

Headquartered in Seattle, Comm Academy is two days of training and information on various aspects of emergency communications. Organizations attending include:

Amateur Radio Emergency Services (ARES©)

Auxiliary Communications Service (ACS)

EOC Support Teams

Radio Amateur Civil Emergency Service (RACES)

Civil Air Patrol, Coast Guard Auxiliary

REACT

CERT

All those interested in emergency and amateur radio communications are welcome. Learn, network, and share your experiences with others.

As it has in all of its 22+ previous iterations, the conference will feature expert speakers on a wide variety of topics, from radio and messaging technologies to communications techniques to tales from the “trenches.”

More than just a collection of online presentations, Comm Academy 2021 will be an interactive event, with participants able to converse with presenters and other attendees.

Registration link.

Link to schedule

OH8STN: Grid Down Ham Radio Texas

Amateur Radio operator OH8STN, Julian, talks about grid down ham radio and the recent Texas winter/ice storm and power outages.

Hello Operators.

Today we are talking about grid down ham radio communications, while the Texas power outage is fresh in our minds. This short film should add some much needed context about our grid down communications preps, training, and ultimately sustaining ourselves while supporting our group, during a grid down scenario.

73 Julian oh8stn

For more preparedness related content about the power outages in Texas, also listen to the Survivalist Prepper podcast Lessons Learned From Texas With Sara

OH8STN: Effective Communications

Amateur radio operator and vlogger Julian, OH8STN, has a short post up on Effective Communications, especially in emergency communications.

Hello Operators.
As the field of content creators increases each day (a good thing), it is still important to separate the bull-hockey, from what’s real.
Here are two areas any preparedness comms related content creator, should be able to demonstrate:

  • How can we as a community, measure the effectiveness of our communications plan?
  • Are you able to get messages in or out “at will”,, without grid power, from any location, at any time of day or night?

The fact is, It may be a nice and fun to watch distraction, but we can’t bet our lives on buzzwords, the “I’m not an expert” disclaimer, or on content created solely for entertainment purposes. Preparedness communications related content should be educational, and MUST add value to the discussion. If it doesn’t, we certainly shouldn’t be modelling our own comms strategy, based on what we see in a staged video or post.

So how can we combat this? I believe most content creators come to this topic, with the best intentions. However, to keep us on the straight and narrow, it is important that you the readers, viewers, followers consuming this content, constantly (but politely) call out creators. Challenge us to explain, to demonstrate, to show the process of discovery, and to answer the questions “how & why?”. Any honest Elmer with good intentions will welcome the challenge, since it helps us improve our own communications preparedness, over the long term. Anyone showing resistance to this idea is probably just a parrot, emulating what he or she sees from those who are actually putting in the work.

A true measure – Someone recently said their comms gear was “effective”, because they were able to have a QSO with a random operator. An operator who probably did most of the heavy lifting, for the modest QRP station. In this example, station effectiveness is a misconception.

A random, unplanned QSO will never be an example of station effectiveness, unless that contact can be consistently repeated, any time of day or night, from any location, without pre-scheduling. This is our number one goal for EMCOMM & Preparedness comms.

This is the reason I don’t rely on Parks on the air, Summits on the air, RaDAR, or contesting field days as a measure of communications preparedness. They are nice as a method of practice for setting up or tearing down a field station, but not for preparedness. Even this might be a stretch, since these events are rarely done in poor weather conditions. We can tweak these events to make them more effective, for our own needs (recommended).

The reality is, Ham radio as a “hobby” is generally about meeting other operators by chance, over the air. In contrast, communications preparedness or EMCOMM is more about reaching out to a specific station, from any location, despite the time of day or night. Reaching that specific station is much more difficult, than having a QSO with someone you happen to meet on the air. We might not even know which station is “the station”, until we are knee deep in mud, trying desperately to get those messages in or out. When we can do this with a great percentage of success, we are on the right path.

So, make us work for your views. Content creators will thank you for it down the line.

73
Julian oh8stn
YouTube http://www.youtube.com/c/oh8stn
TipJar https://paypal.me/oh8stn/1USD

OH8STN: Portable Ham Radio Motivation

Julian, OH8STN, has a new video created to try to inspire radio operators to create their own portable/off-grid stations in Portable Ham Radio Motivation. Julian has written and vlogged a lot about off-grid emergency radio communications as well as portable radio operation as their much overlap between the two.

Hello Operators.
These are a series of portable ham radio station clips. Their purpose is inspiring and hopefully motivating ham radio operators, to build & ultimately deploying portable off grid ham radio stations for themselves.

With increasing limitations placed on our ham shacks, freedom of movement, personal liberties, … operating an off grid ham radio station might just be one way to take back our passion for ham radio emergency communications, and communications preparedness.

American Partisan: Commo Questions Answered

NC Scout at American Partisan answers some radio communication questions from readers, including one about terrain/vegetation and the effect on signal in Commo Questions Answered.

I’m starting up a regular post series where I field your questions on communications-related topics. There’s a TON of questions I get emailed every week that normally revolve around the same concepts or topics, so this is going to be a good way to get them out there for more people to index and use. Keep in mind none of this is a replacement for what you’ll get in the RTO Course, where I literally take you from basement-level knowledge and build you up to creating communications infrastructure where there otherwise would be none, taking it up a notch in the Advanced RTO Course teaching you techniques on operating in non-permissive environments.

MT01 asks:

I know we practice the jungle antenna in the scout course, and course graduates talk a lot about using it. I’ve attached a photo that shows they type of terrain and vegetation that covers the majority of the area where I live, aside from agricultural fields/orchards. It seems like the jungle antenna is not the ideal choice in this terrain. Should we consider ourselves lucky that our signal won’t be blocked by trees? Should be use portable yagi antennas like the Elk antenna line? Is it better to just keep with the rubber ducks? My assumption would be rubber ducks for intrasquad comms and yagi for squad to HQ. We’re also experimenting with some AREDN mesh for certain digital/computer network communications, but aren’t to the point of using it portably, yet. Just wondering your thoughts. I know that most of your posts are going to be tilted toward your local terrain and vegetation, but if you need an idea for a post maybe one on radio or scout operations in more open terrain.

This is an outstanding one. Taking it from the top, vegetation absolutely has an impact on your signal. The higher in frequency you go, the worse it gets. (reference: PRC-64 report in Jungle conditions and tactical jungle communications study) This is one of the reasons why VHF is a better choice in rural terrain over UHF. But then again, that might also be a reason to choose UHF in a rural area. Your signal won’t be blocked completely, but it will get scattered, and possibly to the point it won’t be readable. This makes a big difference when using digital modes, especially DMR. Either way, as you know from the RTO Course, a 4-5w handheld radio can do much when coupled with an antenna purpose-built for the frequency. Jungle antennas are omni-directional, meaning they transmit in all directions at once (as well as receive), so they’re best suited for two tasks:

  1. When you’re needing communications over an entire area, such as a retreat setting.
  2. When your patrol is literally lost (can’t get a fix on your location) and you need to make communications with a Recovery team.

Regarding directional antennas, this is ALWAYS the preference when transmitting to mitigate the DF threat. Not to jump on a rant here, but there’s a reason patrol planning takes as much time as it does in the real world (usually a week, sometimes longer). Among those tasks is mapping out transmission sites and planning the azimuths to transmit your communications. Yeah, its a lot of work. Yeah, its hard. This ain’t for everyone. And if your life depends on it you learn to do it right. You know this, but a lot of other people reading this probably don’t (and will LOVE to comment about exactly how much they don’t know). But long story short you should always be communicating with directional antennas provide you have the ability to do so. In your environment (sagebrush), it’d be a good idea to add a cheap camera tripod to the mix and run your antennas off that.

Inter-team communications are at the Tactical Level– meaning they’re immediate in nature, coordinating fire and maneuver in real time. The range needed is usually short, less than 1km or so, and the standard duck antenna is fine in this role. And contrary to popular belief, only one person on the team needs a radio- the element Leader. That’s it. Anything more than that leads to a breakdown in the command and control capabilities. When you’re going beyond that, to relay critical information to and from a central command point, such as a Tactical Operations Center (TOC) in a Guerrilla Base, this is where the directional communications become a requirement.

On the mesh networking topic…this is a good one. For a local use setup, its good for linking. Just keep in mind you’re not gonna get a ton of range out if it- its meant for a local area, such as a retreat or G-camp. And the second someone attempts to link it to the regular internet, its potentially compromised.

YT asks:

Check the answer in the last paragraph above.

Another topic that I would like to learn about: covert antennas (at home and on vehicles). I live in a subdivision that has nosy neighbors and a restrictive home owners association, so Ham antennas aren’t allowed.

Are there relevant use cases for remote transceivers? If we don’t want to radiate from home, but our gear’s at home, how can we transmit without undue DF risk?

This is actually a very common question. Check out this reference: https://amzn.to/3pvVUQx
It was one of the references we used when learning about HF antennas in non-permissive environments and one that I still reference today. That’s the central idea behind teaching students to build antennas in class, so they understand the underlying concepts behind them. Couple that with John Hill’s excellent work on wire antennas: https://amzn.to/3mQZ4fC
And finally, Sandman sends:

So I’ve been thinking about adding a man portable 11m rig to my signal repertoire to add a way for field ops to establish comms with a fob or hq. Also been thinking about fldigi over 11m. Do you have any experience with this?

11m, also known as Citizen’s Band (CB) radio in the US, is quite a capable tool for use in the field and one that won’t attract a ton of attention when used for underground purposes. FL Digi absolutely is capable over it, especially with some of the narrowband modes such as PSK-31 or RTTY.

If I were rigging up a manpack, I’d bypass kludging a mobile unit into service and simply run a handheld. They fit fine in a surplus MBITR pouch. Just make sure you build a REAL antenna for it. The stock rubber duck on handheld CB antennas are garbage at best. To run FL Digi over them it can be as simple as holding the mic up to the audio on the mobile device and transmitting, but its much cleaner (and less headache) to rig up a dedicated audio output to audio input (on the radio). We so this in the RTO Course with Baofengs using the APRS K1 cable, which makes it pretty simple. I’ve never built one for a handheld CB (or any CB for that matter), but they’re plentiful for a MARS/CAP modded Amateur radio rig (and I have done that).

Anyhow- great questions and as always I look forward to hearing from y’all.

American Partisan: 2 Meter Radio – A Primary Tool

2 Meter Radio – A Primary Tool is a brief primer on the utility of amateur radio use in the 144-148 MHz range. It has considerably more utility than a phased plasma rifle in the forty watt range.

Son of Thunder: 2 Meter Radio: A Primary Tool

Originally appeared on Signal Corps Ministry. – NCS

2 meter band radio (referring to the electro-magnetic wavelength) for amateur radio operators are the frequencies between 144.000 mhz and 148.000 mhz. The modulation most commonly used today is FM. and packet (data). There are amateur radios that are capable of SSB which is permitted but not as widely used. The band (part of the VHF range of bands) is divided into segments for different uses phone (voice), packet, and repeaters being the most common. In emergency radio communications (referred to as ECOM) the 2 meter band is often called the ‘first mile/last mile’ band, meaning it is the communication link between local events and personnel on the ground to their command and control centers (2 meter band for public safety and first responders is more commonly referred to as the public safety spectrum, starting where the amateur radio band ends at the top end) . For local amateur radio operators and first responders, it is probably the most used and most valuable resource for communications in the community. It is also the one of the primary bands you get access to with the easiest and entry level Amateur Radio Technicians license. Most 2 meter amateur radios available today include the public safety spectrum along with the amateur portion but without the ability to transmit on the public safety spectrum unless the radio is modified for use by authorized persons. For situational awareness in your community, having public safety frequencies programmed in the radio’s memory allows one to monitor events, especially using the scan setting most radios today have. While a strictly 2 meter/public safety spectrum radio is highly useful, many people get radios that also include the 70cm band (in the UHF range, also typically used with FM and phone signals). These radios typically add a broader range of frequencies that can be received and monitored but not transmitted on, such the AM airband and other agencies and utilities that use the remainder of the upper VHF range and the lower end of the UHF, sometimes including the 1.25 meter amateur band which a small segment of frequencies from 222Mhz to 225Mhz. Radios that have 2m and 70cm capability are commonly called ‘dual banders’; less popular are ‘tri banders that include 2m, 1.25m, and 70cm.

Having a 2m radio in your vehicle is a must, a dual bander is even better. It is extremely popular and versatile. You can communicate and move in real time, an essential capability in responding to your community’s needs. Having one in your home is almost as important, to be able to make calls for assistance, and to be the reciprocal base station to the mobile stations. In fact I would highly recommend having 3 radios to fully take advantage of 2m and 70cm bands: a home/base dual bander radio, a mobile dual bander, and a HT dual bander (HT is short for handheld transceiver, also more well known as a walkie talkie.) With each household having a base station, mobile vehicle, and a handheld for each individual, you are more prepared to handle any situation by magnitudes. Repeaters for the 2 meter band and 70cm bands are quite literally everywhere (see the Repeater Directories entry on the resource library page of this site). If your interest in this site’s articles were to stop after reading this article, you would have awareness of one the most important communications tools available for maintaining safety, security, community interdependence and cohesion there is, one that is strictly maintained by the community and will work in a grid down situation which would deny cell or internet traffic.

Generally speaking, the 2 meter frequencies are a ‘line-of-site’ radio wave which means exactly as it sounds: a FM 2 meter signal will propagate through clear air until topography interferes or it goes out into space. If you imagine a tangential line from a point on a circle, that point being your antenna and the circle being the surface of the earth, that is how this signal basically works. A FM signal can, potentially, follow the curve of the earth over the horizon by as much as 15% as the bottom of the radiowave drags on the surface of the earth. Transmitter height, signal strength and atmospheric conditions are always a factor as well. 70cm signals have less range, but do have a particular advantage of being more viable inside building and structures. They are a good choice for shorter range communications (shorter than 2 meter) which can be used for the advantages of security and privacy in conjunction with other practices. Antenna polarization plays an important role in FM transmissions: the vertical antenna transmitting a signal is best received by a vertical antenna. Although there is a significant loss in power, a horizontal antenna will better picked up by another horizontal antenna. It is not commonly done, but this technique also can create a security advantage. In an area with a lot of topographical changes, a 2 meter FM radio wave will drag, reflect, and bounce; this can result in an elliptically polarized wave. This can be best observed when holding a HT radio: while receiving a transmission, slowly rotate (up and down, left and right) your antenna to see if your reception improves. Also requesting the transmitting party to ‘better their position’ can improve how well their signal is getting out, the major adjustment is holding up the HT higher. A HT held directly in front of your body restricts transmission and reception by 180 degrees; this could be desirable, but if you’re trying to get help from anyone available, holding your HT high and using a speaker/mic can incredibly increase the reception of your signal.

Quick recommendations: the Yaesu FT-2980R is an incredibly robust and powerful radio. See my field deployment radio ‘Go’ Box:

It also has a packet TNC and USB interface but more on that later. It is a great mobile unit and base unit. Kenwood also makes a great 2 meter only radio: TM-281A

I also use the FT-60R and in my truck a FT-8900R Quadbander as well as the FT-7900R in my shack. Again, there are many good models out there, I just have used these mostly and can recommend them based on my use of them, not for any other reason.

As a member of the Body of Christ in your community, a person whose role is to acquire the skills and capabilities to serve, lead, and minister to your church, it is imperative to get the licensage and radios necessary. Action item: lead your community by studying for your Technicians license, get your license, and budget your resources to get radios. Then help others to do the same. Train and use these tools regularly. When you train, do not just chat on the radio; practice all the skills you would use in a very bad day scenario. As an autonomous communication infrastructure in your community, any member may have to respond to an urgent need, and so everyone needs to have the complete skillset at their fingertips and be able to use it competently. This is no light matter as radio use and net discipline (to be discussed further in another article) can be the difference between life or death, no joke.

If you are called to serve then let nothing stand in your way of being a proficient and professional radio operator (this applies to any role and function in your community; this is the fallen world and corruption abounds, the great opposer is always working to deceive and mislead. We must be out front. Put on the Armor of God and stand!). It is incumbent on each of us to acquire the skills and hardware, learn and train how to use it, and teach and train others how to use it. Then continue training regularly.

Brushbeater: Antenna Polarization and COMSEC

NC Scout at Brushbeater has an article on Antenna Polarization and COMSEC (communications security).

So you’re out there on a patrol, the commo window is open and you need to make a Cyril Report back to your TOC. Your RTO sets up the yagi getting ready to make contact, checking and rechecking the azimuth. He glosses back over the transmit and receive frequencies to make sure everything is set, double checking the report to make sure nothing was missed, and getting the approval from you, the Team Leader. You notice one small thing- the Yagi is horizontal, not vertical, and a slow grin grows on your face.

You’ve got a good man on the Team who paid attention.

There’s one element to small unit communications that usually gets zero attention- antenna polarization. Let’s take a look at our most common denominator at the basic level- the Baofeng UV-5R. Its a VHF and UHF FM two-way radio. FM nearly always uses vertical polarization, meaning in simple terms, the antenna is straight up and down.

In a conventional environment we do this for two reasons. First, pretty much everyone else is vertically polarized when communicating via FM, and second, there’s 9db of loss between a vertical polarization and horizontal polarization. Wait, what?

Like how we measure light in Lumens, signal strength radiating from an antenna is measured in decibels (db) of gain or loss. With each 3db of gain, we double our effective radiated power (ERP) in terms of signal strength. With each 3db of loss, we cut our strength in half. This is measured in orders of magnitude, meaning that with each 3db, the strength doubles on itself (4w x 2= 8w x 2= 16w, etc). Taking that into account, the difference in strength between horizontal and vertical polarization is 9db- quite a difference. If someone is using a vertically polarized antenna to attempt to intercept my transmission, they’d likely be using vertical polarization. After all, why wouldn’t you? Nearly all FM transmissions are vertically polarized, its common practice. But if I change my operating practice to account for this, now they’re going to have a harder time both intercepting and getting a bearing on me.

Not impossible, mind you. But much harder. And that’s on top of my other operating practices, such as transmitting on one frequency and receiving on another, keeping my transmissions as short as possible, and making sure I’m always using directional antennas. It goes without saying that your intended receiving station should be matched in polarization. Its a basic practice that, when coupled with my other techniques, turns inexpensive equipment into much more formidable gear for clandestine or unconventional forces operating in the field.