Off Grid Ham: Go Boxes

Dan Passaro’s shack in a can.

In this article, Chris Warren of Off Grid Ham spends a little bit of time talking about ham radio go boxes. For ham radio enthusiasts, the radio go box is mostly commonly used when responding as an emergency communications volunteer or for fun, portable radio communications while camping or hiking. But the go box holds a place for preppers, too, even if you aren’t an amateur radio licensee. Even if your plan for emergencies is to “bug in” (stay put at home) there are disasters which may force you out of your home, and you will want some kind of portable communications ready to go – whether that is ham radio, FRS, GMRS, MURS, CB or just a kit for keeping your cell phone charged up.

Go Box Zen 2.0

I didn’t realize it’s been over three years since the last time Off Grid Ham specifically addressed go boxes. If the internet discussions and on air chatter are any indicator, it’s a very popular way to operate. It’s way past time to revisit the humble ham radio go box and come up with some fresh ideas.

In the last three years I’ve noticed an uptick in ham radio go box deployment. There are even entire social media pages dedicated solely to go boxes (or bags or whatever your thing is). I think there are several reasons why. Many operators live under homeowners’ association rules that severely limit having a fixed antenna. Theses operators may have no choice but to hit the road. Others want something they can take camping, for SHTF purposes, or EMCOMM. The various special event stations from parks and other significant places may be driving the trend too. There’s also new equipment manufacturers offering low cost gear. This opened possibilities to people who could not otherwise afford a dedicated go box.

As before, this is not going to be a step-by-step how to on building a ham radio go box. There are too many variables and too many individual choices for me to come up with a plan that works for everyone. Instead, we’ll go over some concepts to consider and questions you’ll need to answer before you begin.

Defining priorities.

What is the Number One priority for your ham radio go box? It it portability? DX-capability? Data modes? Keeping the cost down? Before you can construct a go box, you have to decide what trait is the most important. From there you can work in secondary needs. As with everything, there will be compromises, and some things are mutually exclusive.

The main reason ham radio go boxes do not live up to expectations is because they were not built to expectations in the first place. Or possibly, what you thought was a Number One priority turned out to be not such an urgent issue after all. Years ago my first go box was a huge fail because my Number One priority, cost savings, meant giving up so many other smaller things that they made the cost savings not worth it.

ham radio go box
The main parts of my new & improved, much lighter ham radio go box. Left is a 27 watt folding solar panel. Top is a DC power box which includes a 13 amp-hour lithium battery and the charge controller. Right is a random wire antenna. Not shown: Alpha Antenna FMJ.

I used an old Yaesu FT-757 GX II radio. I also dug up an inverter, a solar controller, an FT-2900 2-meter radio, a 100 watt solar panel, and some various plugs and connectors. All of this stuff I already had. I built a nice wood box to mount everything in. My out of pocket cost for the entire project was less than $100.00, and most of that was for a 35 amp hour SLA battery. It looked impressive. I felt like a boss!

Well guess what? I achieved my goal of keeping the cost down, but my ham radio go box was so clunky and heavy that I didn’t care. Between the battery, the wood box, and all the other stuff, I could barely move that beast by myself. There wasn’t much “go” in that go box, unless I invested in a forklift too. I thought saving money was my Number One priority but I gave up too many other attributes to make it worthwhile.

That was my lesson in not only defining priorities, but also considering what else I have to give up to attain that priority. I inadvertently buried the cost savings under all the other problems. I used that go box only once or twice, then dismantled it.

What comes next?

After admitting defeat in my first attempt at a ham radio go box, I reexamined my priorities…

Click here to continue reading at Off Grid Ham.

Related:

OH8STN: Grid Down Comms

Instructables: KE0OJE’s Ham Radio Go Box

Instructables: Radio Go Box (Ham, MURS, GMRS, FRS)

HARC Net: Amateur Radio Go Kit (pdf)

 

Peak Prosperity: Survival Learnings from a California Fire Evacuee

Today’s survival lesson comes from Peak Prosperity‘s Adam Taggart enumerating some of his lessons learned from mandatory evacuation from California fires.

As I type this, there are over 16 large wildfires currently burning across northern and southern California. Hundreds of thousands of residents have been displaced. Millions are without power.

My hometown of Sebastopol, CA underwent mandatory evacuation at 4am Saturday night. I jumped into the car, along with our life essentials and our pets, joining the 200,000 souls displaced from Sonoma County this weekend.

Even though I write about preparedness for a living, fleeing your home in the dead of night with a raging inferno clearly visible on the horizon drives home certain lessons more effectively than any other means.

I’d like to share those learnings with you, as they’re true for any sort of emergency: natural (fire, flood, hurricane, tornado, earthquake, blizzard, etc), financial (market crash, currency crisis) or social (revolution, civil unrest, etc).

And I’d like you to be as prepared as possible should one of those happen to you, which is statistically likely.

Your survival, and that of your loved ones, may depend on it.

No Plan Survives First Contact With Reality

As mentioned, I’ve spent years advising readers on the importance of preparation. Emergency preparedness is Step Zero of the guide I’ve written on resilient living — literally the first chapter.

So, yes, I had a pre-designed bug-out plan in place when the evacuation warning was issued. My wife and I had long ago made lists of the essentials we’d take with us if forced to flee on short notice (the Santa Rosa fires of 2017 had reinforced the wisdom of this). Everything on these lists was in an easy-to-grab location.

The only problem was, we were 300 miles away.

Reality Rule #1: You Will Be Caught By Surprise

There are too many variables that accompany an unforeseen disaster to anticipate all of them. Your plan has to retain enough flexibility to adapt to the unforeseen.

In my case, we were down at Parents’ Weekend at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo, where my older daughter recently started her freshman year.

As the text alerts warning of the growing fire risk started furiously arriving, we monitored them closely, reluctant to leave the festivities and our time with our daughter. But once the evacuation warning came across, we knew it was serious enough to merit the 6-hour mad dash home to rescue what we could.

The upside of that long drive was that it gave us time to alter our bug-out plan according to the unfolding situation. We decided my wife and younger daughter would go directly to safety; that reduced the lives at risk in the fire zone down to just 1 (mine). And I used the phone to line up neighbors who could grab our stuff should I not be able to make it home in time.

The learning here is: Leave plenty of room in your plan for the unexpected. If its success depends on everything unfolding exactly as you predict, it’s worthless to you.

Reality Rule #2: Things Will Happen Faster Than You’re Ready For

Once an emergency is in full swing, things start happening more quickly than you can process well.

Even if developments are unfolding in the way you’ve anticipated, they come at an uncomfortably fast rate that adrenaline, anxiety and fatigue make even more challenging to deal with.

Just as The Crash Course chapter on Compounding explains how exponential problems unfold too fast to avoid once they become visible, it’s very easy to get overwhelmed or caught off-guard by the pace required to deal with a disaster.

The Kincade fire started at 9:30pm the night before I left Sebastopol for Cal Poly. When I went to bed that night it was a mere 300 acres in size. Two days later it was 25,000 acres. (it’s currently at 66,000 acres).

It went from “nothing to worry about” to “get out NOW!” in less than 48 hours.

Watching who fared well during the evacuation and who didn’t , those who took action early out of a healthy sense of caution had much more success than those who initially brushed off the potential seriousness of the situation.

Here’s how much of a difference timely action made:

The ‘evacuation warning’ advisory became a ‘mandatory evacuation’ order at 4am on Saturday night. My car was ready to go and I was on the road out of town within 5 minutes.

Several friends of mine left home just 45 minutes after I did. By that time, the fleeing traffic made the roads essentially immobile. My friends had to turn back to ride things out in their homes, simply hoping for the best.

So I’m reminded of the old time-management axiom: If you can’t be on time, be early. In a developing crisis, set your tolerance level for uncertainty to “low”. Take defensive measures as soon as you detect the whiff of increasing risk; it’s far more preferable to walk back a premature maneuver than to realize it’s too late to act.

Reality Rule #3: You Will Make Mistakes

Related to Rule #2 above, you’re going to bungle parts of the plan. Stress, uncertainty and fatigue alone pretty much guarantee it.

You’re going to forget things or make some wrong choices.

Case in point: as I was evacuating, the plan was to take a less-traveled back route, in order to reduce the odds of getting stuck in traffic. But, racing in the dark and checking in on the phone with numerous friends and neighbors, muscle memory took over and I found myself headed to the main road of town. Too late to turn back, I sat at the turn on, waiting for someone in the line of cars to let me in.

It then hit me that perhaps no one might. Folks were panicked. Would someone be willing to slow down to let me go ahead of them?

Obviously someone did, or I wouldn’t be typing this. But that mistake put everything else I’d done correctly beforehand in jeopardy.

So, as the decisions start to come fast and furious, your key priority is to ensure that you’re focused on making sure the few really important decisions are made well, and that the balls that get dropped won’t be ones that put your safety at risk.

Forget to pack food for the cat? No big deal, you’ll find something suitable later on. Miss your time window to evacuate, as my friends did? That could cost you your life.

Reality Rule #4: When Stressed, All You Care About Is People & Pets

A good bug-out plan covers preparing to take essential clothes, food & water, medications, key documents, communications & lighting gear, personal protection, and irreplaceable mementos.

But when the stakes escalate, you quickly don’t care about any of those. It’s only living things — people, pets & livestock — that you’re focused on.

The rest, while valuable to have in an evacuation, is ultimately replaceable or non-essential.

I very well might have rolled the dice and stayed down at Cal Poly if it weren’t for the cat. But family is family, no matter how furry. I just couldn’t leave her to face an uncertain fate. And I believe strongly you’ll feel the same about any people or pets in your life — it’s a primal, tribal pull to take care of our own. If you don’t plan for it, it will override whatever other priorities you think you may have.

So prioritize accordingly. Build your primary and contingency plans with the security of people and animals first in mind. If there’s time for the rest, great. But if not, at least you secured what’s most important (by far)…

Click here to continue reading at Peak Prosperity.