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Amateur Radio In the Backcountry? 376

Posted by kdawson
from the ham-on-the-hoof dept.
bartle writes "I spend a lot of time hiking in the Colorado Rockies. Cell phone reception is very unreliable and I'm curious if carrying a small amateur radio would make any sense at all. I don't want to add too much weight to my pack; from what I gather, a radio weighing a pound would give me at most 5 to 10 watts of transmitting power. I have no idea if this is enough to be effective in a mountainous region, and I'm hoping some experienced Slashdot hams could give me a clue. I'm only interested in acquiring a radio and license if it is a lot more effective and reliable than the cell phone I already carry. Otherwise I'll just wait for Globalstar to bring back their duplex service and buy a next-generation SPOT messaging device. (I know some Slashdotters will want to suggest a modern SPOT or Personal Locator Beacon; these are suitable for the worst kinds of emergencies, but I'll point out that reliable communication can help prevent small crises from becoming big ones.) Are small amateur radios effective in the field, or are vehicle rigs really the only way to go? Or am I better off just waiting for satellite?"
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Amateur Radio In the Backcountry?

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  • by cgrant (167910) on Saturday July 24, 2010 @03:38PM (#33015502) Homepage

    Most frequently you're going to be talking to a repeater, so it depends somewhat on where you are in relation to the repeater. Having said that 5-10 watts is a lot of power compared to a cell phone.

    KA0ZRW - now in WA

    • by sentientbeing (688713) on Saturday July 24, 2010 @03:53PM (#33015618)
      Yes. Most frequently you're going to be talking to a repeater, so it depends somewhat on where you are in relation to the repeater.
      • by rwade (131726)

        It took me entirely too long to get this joke. Wow -- I'm aging, eh?

      • He could use a satellite repeater, couldn't he?
        • That is a good point, but the antenna tends to be fairly cumbersome. The process and results of working amateur satellites would make it a somewhat dangerous communication method on which to rely with in trouble in the wilderness...

          • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

            by gyrogeerloose (849181)

            The antenna issue can be dealt with [makezine.com] but how would he know how to find the satellite out in the backcountry? He'd have to lug a laptop with sat tracking software installed along with him. Besides, working satellites can be pretty tricky. Not only do you have to track the moving bird with your antenna, you have to continually adjust your frequencies to compensate for the Doppler Effect. The OP doesn't even have his ticket yet; it might be a little much to expect an inexperienced operator to make a satellite c

      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by Phoobarnvaz (1030274)

        Yes. Most frequently you're going to be talking to a repeater, so it depends somewhat on where you are in relation to the repeater.

        Make sure you program the repeaters into the radio before you head out. These are available at many area ham radio websites. In addition...it would be worth the time/money to buy an extra battery...along with a battery adapter which uses AA batteries.

    • by rwade (131726)

      Original poster indicated that his primary area of focus is coverage in the Colorado mountains. I do not have specific first-hand knowledge of the coverage area for amateur VHF/UHF in Colorado, but this repeater map [ccarc.net] could be a good reference, though it is dated 2006. It's authors indicate that a 2009 version is for sale in print.

      A preliminary skimming indicates coverage in several mountain cities. I'm no radio engineer, but I would imagine that the Estes Park repeater would probably do him pretty good in Ro

      • by bvargo (1863448) on Saturday July 24, 2010 @05:19PM (#33016310)

        Original poster indicated that his primary area of focus is coverage in the Colorado mountains. I do not have specific first-hand knowledge of the coverage area for amateur VHF/UHF in Colorado, but this repeater map [ccarc.net] could be a good reference, though it is dated 2006. It's authors indicate that a 2009 version is for sale in print.

        A preliminary skimming indicates coverage in several mountain cities. I'm no radio engineer, but I would imagine that the Estes Park repeater would probably do him pretty good in Rocky Mountain National Park -- at least in the highlands...

        In addition to the above, there's a decent coverage map for Colorado Connection [colcon.org] here [colcon.org], but some of the repeaters (especially Durango) are missing from the map. Colorado Connection is one of the larger repeater systems in the state, consisting of almost twenty linked repeaters.

        I'd still recommend a SPOT or similar system though; you never know where trouble might strike.

        • by rwade (131726)

          In addition to the above, there's a decent coverage map for Colorado Connection [colcon.org] here [colcon.org], but some of the repeaters (especially Durango) are missing from the map. Colorado Connection is one of the larger repeater systems in the state, consisting of almost twenty linked repeaters.

          Googling around, I did note that ColCon map, but immediately disregarded it. In addition to leaving out Durango, the Estes Park repeater [evarc.org] is clearly missing. Just doesn't seem like that great of a coverage map.

        • by ptbarnett (159784) on Saturday July 24, 2010 @07:01PM (#33017052)

          In addition to the above, there's a decent coverage map for Colorado Connection [colcon.org] here [colcon.org], but some of the repeaters (especially Durango) are missing from the map.

          It's been a long time since I was there, but at the time, the Durango area (and northeast to the Vallecito Reservoir) had solid coverage in the 144 MHz (2 meter) band. There was a solar-powered repeater operated by a local club on top of a mountain, broadcasting at 100 watts.

          I had an interesting discussion with one of the club members about the perils of maintenance -- the road to the site was only open in the summer. The repeater went down for some reason (lightning strike?) before the road opened one spring, and they had to hire a helicopter to fly someone to the site to repair it.

          I'd still recommend a SPOT or similar system though; you never know where trouble might strike.

          I'll second this. SPOT [findmespot.com] transmitter/locators are really inexpensive, and will provide a much more precise location if you need help. You can also use it to send a simple "I'm OK" status message periodically, and later use it to plot your locations from which you sent the message.

          • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

            by ptbarnett (159784)

            the Durango area (and northeast to the Vallecito Reservoir) had solid coverage in the 144 MHz (2 meter) band. There was a solar-powered repeater operated by a local club on top of a mountain, broadcasting at 100 watts.

            Yes, it's bad form -- but I didn't look this up before I hit submit.

            I believe this is the repeater that I remembered: DURANGO, Eagle Pass - K0EP [repeaterbook.com]

    • by Dan East (318230) on Saturday July 24, 2010 @07:56PM (#33017458) Homepage Journal

      Speaking of repeaters, a really good option is to have a good mobile dual band rig in your car, capable of what's called crossband repeating. Basically the idea is you transmit from your HT (handheld) on one band (like 70cm), which is received by the rig in your car and retransmitted on another band (like 2m) preset to the input frequency of a local repeater. If the local repeater has autopatch (most do) then you can make phone calls, or in an emergency just call for help to any of the people listening to that repeater. Also many repeaters are networked, so you can communicate across many hundreds or thousands of miles if you wanted to get in touch with a specific person (like a buddy that listens in for you while you're on hikes).

      Both the wattage and antenna gain of a mobile (car-mounted) rig are orders of magnitude better than any HT rig (due to FCC regulation of wattage allowed for handheld transcievers, antenna size, and even vehicle groundplane), so you could reliably work repeaters dozens of miles away in that scenario.

      Oh, on another note, many HTs are now multiple band (my Yaesu handheld transmits on 4 bands!), and thus the OEM will include an antenna that is only mediocre across all the bands the HT supports. For best performance you should use an antenna specifically tuned for the band you are going to use. I used 70cm for your HT in my example above, because antennas for that band are nice and short which is good for portability. Then you can have a high gain 2m on your car that can really reach out and touch repeaters far away.

    • by Andy Dodd (701) <atd7@co[ ]ll.edu ['rne' in gap]> on Monday July 26, 2010 @10:37AM (#33029738) Homepage

      A little more technical detail:

      Most small/compact (handheld) amateur radios are UHF/VHF units. (Usually called HTs, for Handheld Transceivers) The two most popular ham bands are the 2 meter (144-148 MHz) and 70 cm (approx. 440 MHz, I'm a bit rusty and haven't touched my radio in a few years.)

      VHF/UHF communications is line of sight based, so unless you're within LOS of a repeater, you probably won't be able to do much, unless you have friends nearby with similar units. You can operate VHF/UHF HTs in a unit-to-unit (Simplex) mode, but most people use them to talk via repeaters. Repeaters listen on one frequency and transmit on another, usually with an offset of 600 kHz in the 2 meter band. Even if you are in coverage of a repeater, it's not always guaranteed someone will be listening.

      APRS (Automatic Packet Reporting System) can report your position with periodic position broadcasts. This could let friends track your movements whenever you're in coverage of an APRS gateway or digipeater, for example at http://aprs.fi/ [aprs.fi]

      There are also portable solutions for HF (global) communications (frequency 30 MHz), but the most portable solutions (suitable for a backpacker) will only do Morse code and not voice.

      Getting a license is pretty easy and cheap (no Morse code required for the Technician license that allows VHF/UHF operation, and the FCC may even be allowing operation on the HF bands without a Morse test now - I'm not sure if they've updated their rules based on the ITU rule changes a few years ago), so I would recommend starting the process of studying and finding an exam session now.

      Andy Dodd
      N2YPH

  • by v1 (525388) on Saturday July 24, 2010 @03:38PM (#33015504) Homepage Journal

    and don't work well in the mountains unless you and the other guy are both within line of sight of each other. Repeaters can help work around the LoS problem but there probably aren't many in the area you are considering.

    jacking up your power can only help so much. it's not like the higher power blasts through the mountains. Higher antennas can help, but if you're already in mountains, you are probably outgunned in the height department.

    Some form of satellite is probably going to be your best bet. Or some lower frequency (LF/HF) that will cover variable ground terrain better.

    • by mmontour (2208)

      Or some lower frequency (LF/HF) that will cover variable ground terrain better.

      One radio to look at is the Yaesu FT-817ND. It's a relatively compact battery-powered unit that covers HF as well as VHF and UHF bands. However this unit is still much heavier and bulkier than a modern 144 MHz handheld.

      Question for the original poster - who do you want to talk to? Is this mainly for communication within a group of hikers? Is it to reach someone at a nearby city, and if so will that person also have a radio? Do you need to make a telephone call from your radio?

    • by speleo (61031) * on Saturday July 24, 2010 @03:58PM (#33015666) Homepage

      I agree. I've used cell phones, VHF/UHF HTs, and satellite phones in the backcountry and if reliable emergency communication is your primary concern a satellite phone like Iridium is your best bet.

      You can get portable high frequency ham radios that can talk over the horizon, but they start go get a bit bulky and require an more complex antenna setup for best results.

      With an Iridium phone you can get it out, lock onto a satellite and be talking to someone in minutes. You do need to see a sizable portion of the sky, though -- they don't work very well in dense forest. And keep in mind 911 doesn't work on Iridium so have some numbers programmed in. The cell phone revolution seems to have rendered actually remembering someone's phone number a lost art.

      • by nospam007 (722110) * on Saturday July 24, 2010 @06:38PM (#33016870)

        "With an Iridium phone you can get it out, lock onto a satellite and be talking to someone in minutes." ...and you can rent one for 40$ a week.

      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by jfroot (455025)

        And keep in mind 911 doesn't work on Iridium so have some numbers programmed in. The cell phone revolution seems to have rendered actually remembering someone's phone number a lost art.

        This is untrue. 911 does work on Iridium and is handled by an outsourced company called Intrado. Additionally, you do not need an active account or SIM for 911 to work. Which makes an Iridium Sat phone a great emergency back-country tool.

  • by cgrant (167910) on Saturday July 24, 2010 @03:44PM (#33015558) Homepage

    You might try to find a local ham radio club and ask what their experiences in the area are, and specifically where you're going to be hiking.

  • I would expect that outfitters in that area who providing hiking supplies and such may have some idea as to what your best options are. Surely you know a place or two local to your area with experienced hikers that you can consult? Just an idea, maybe you've tried that already.

  • Satellite phone (Score:3, Informative)

    by hansbrix (1732368) on Saturday July 24, 2010 @03:50PM (#33015594)
    Inmarsat. It works in the mountains of Afganistan.
  • Don't do it! (Score:2, Informative)

    by Suzuran (163234)

    Ham radio is a HOBBY for people interested in communicating by radio, and the technical development of same.

    It is not a replacement for your cell phone. It is not a replacement for ship-to-shore-email services. It is not a replacement for wi-fi.
    We are not the Police/Fire Reserve. We are not the DHS Auxiliary. We are not the NOAA Field Agents. We are not an emergency communications service.
    (We -can- do this stuff as a matter of Last Resort, "When All Else Fails", but that is not our primary purpose! Many peo

    • Re:Don't do it! (Score:4, Insightful)

      by jridley (9305) on Saturday July 24, 2010 @04:01PM (#33015690)

      Uh, actually, one of the primary reasons that the FCC originally and still allows amateur radio the really impressive set of bands and technologies that they are allowed is that they ARE there for emergency communications.

      What do you think Field Day is all about?

      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by Suzuran (163234)

        Field Day is about operating under minimal conditions. This can be useful in an emergency but that is not its SOLE or MAIN focus. It is not a training exercise for any branch of the military or law enforcement.

        • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

          by gyrogeerloose (849181)

          Field Day is about operating under minimal conditions. This can be useful in an emergency but that is not its SOLE or MAIN focus. It is not a training exercise for any branch of the military or law enforcement.

          It's also about getting amateur radio out there in front of the public in order to attract people to the hobby. There's a low-level disagreement in my ARC about whether we should continue to have our Field Day activities in the same remote mountain campground we've been using for the last few years or move them to somewhere more accessible to the general public just for that reason.

          73 de KJ6BSO

          • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

            by Suzuran (163234)

            I can agree with that. We had a lot of visitors at our Field Day site. I was lucky enough to have an opening to Europe on PSK31 when a bunch of cub scouts came through. It took them awhile to wrap their heads around the idea of there being no internet or phone service involved. The number of people who understand the tech behind the devices they use daily is dangerously small.

            I hope you get out of the hills and get good results; If you aren't showing your work, you're not working!

            • I can agree with that. We had a lot of visitors at our Field Day site. I was lucky enough to have an opening to Europe on PSK31 when a bunch of cub scouts came through. It took them awhile to wrap their heads around the idea of there being no internet or phone service involved. The number of people who understand the tech behind the devices they use daily is dangerously small.

              I hope you get out of the hills and get good results; If you aren't showing your work, you're not working!

              I've pretty much stayed neutral on the topic (spending a weekend in the mountains is kind of nice, after all) but am beginning to lean in the direction of doing things more publicly. I think it's better for the hobby as a whole.

              Changing the subject, the recent increase in sunspot activity is great, isn't it? Last night I worked a station in Buenos Aires on 40m PSK31. 40 watts, 6000 miles--that's the kind of thing that makes ham radio a kick in the ass.

              Drop me a line, maybe we can set up a digital QSO. E-mai

    • by Nethead (1563)

      Shhh! How do you think I get the local emergency management to pay for my toys!

      tribalhams.net

      73 de w7com

    • Ham radio is a HOBBY for people interested in communicating by radio, and the technical development of same.

      Actually, the amateur bands are set aside for almost non-commercial, non-music, non-broadcast use whatsoever -- that's kind of the beauty of it...

    • Re:Don't do it! (Score:4, Interesting)

      by stevew (4845) on Saturday July 24, 2010 @04:36PM (#33016020) Journal

      You really need to get off your high horse.

      The guy has a license - so that means he passed the same test as you did. He thinks it might be a reasonable safety option - and he's trying to verify that opinion. If he winds up using it for an emergency, then he well within the basis and purpose of the service. If he doesn't use to do anything else but talk to some buddies while he's hiking - he STILL is within reasonable and normal usage.

      So PLEASE drop out of lecture mode.

    • by StarKruzr (74642) on Saturday July 24, 2010 @07:14PM (#33017160) Journal

      "Don't do it." FUCK you, chief. Who are you to discourage a potential future Ham based on what YOU say the Amateur service is "for?" People become Hams for all sorts of reasons. The FCC specifies what we may NOT do on amateur bands, and gives reasons for establishing them in the first place, but EVERY use permissible is entirely valid and should be encouraged to further the hobby.

      So this guy starts out with a backpack HF rig to make sure he has a way to get messages out of the wild, and then what? You should know how this goes if you've been in the hobby as long as you say you have. You start out with a specific purpose, and then one thing or another starts interesting you, and before you know it you're watching the waterfall for PSK31 on HF and trying to DX with Zimbabwe a couple months later.

      I became a Ham BECAUSE of the service's emergency provisions. I watched a plane fly into the North Tower of the WTC and kill my cousin and her coworkers in Cantor-Fitzgerald, and then heard about ARES and RACES volunteers stitching Manhattan's emergency services together so they could communicate in the wake of having their repeaters turned to ash. I heard those stories and said "I want to be on that team. THAT'S how I'm going to contribute." So I got a license, and got elmered by some of the guys who volunteered on Wall Street, and eventually started learning about how huge the hobby is and how much you can do with it. I found out about MARS and Skywarn and EchoLink and IRLP, and all the incredible things you can do with just a little dual-band HT, and I was hooked. Now my friends and I talk on a number of the local repeaters in town (I've since moved) on a regular basis.

      But according to you, I never should have started, because emergency services are not the "primary purpose" of the Amateur Service. Kill yourself. I can't stand curmudgeonly old fucks like you who think if you didn't start on CW on 10m you're somehow illegitimate. Get over yourself.

      • by Suzuran (163234) on Saturday July 24, 2010 @10:10PM (#33018228)

        I didn't say anything like that, and you're just projecting your hate for someone else on me. Did someone burn you at some point? Anyway, let me try to break it down for you.

        This guy is not interested in "becoming a ham." You saw 9/11 happen and felt a need to contribute to the situation. You saw the other hams doing their thing and wanted to join them. So you did. However, this guy is different. He does not want to contribute like you did. This guy DOES NOT CARE about ham radio. All he wants is to replace his cellphone with something that "works better". Did you not read his post?

        Anyway, so pretend he decides to go along with it. He gets a license and spends a few thousand getting a mobile rig, starts trying to make "phone calls" and all of a sudden he's got people listening to his "phone calls" and maybe some talk over the top of him and oh my gods what kind of stupidity is this? So he yells at these other people to go away, since this is his private conversation and they shouldn't be listening, which is of course missing the point to you or I who expects a radio to be a radio, but to him it's a big expensive cellphone that doesn't work the way he expects. So after a few months of this he gives up and sells the equipment and tells all of his friends (and their friends and so on...) that ham radio is an expensive waste of time full of jerks who listen to your phone calls. This is of course false and seems comically implausible to your or I, but he doesn't understand that!

        This sort of scenario is not at all uncommon, and every time it happens it is the fault of the hams who refused to step in and provide guidance or worse, hams who misrepresented what the service really is - under the misguided idea that we are somehow obligated to grow our ranks at any cost. Not everyone is a "potential new ham". You have to evaluate THEIR wants and needs and expectations and give them enough information to properly decide for themselves whether or not they should continue.

        All I am trying to say is that if you are expecting ham radio to directly replace some other service, and nothing more, you are going to waste everyone's time and a lot of your money. Ham radio is a hobby and not an appliance. I would rather you not have a license than have an expired license and a misguided hate of ham radio. I fail to understand how that makes me an "old curmudgeon" who should commit suicide. It does not help anyone for someone to have a license and no understanding of what that license means.

  • HF/low power (Score:3, Informative)

    by freebase (83667) on Saturday July 24, 2010 @03:53PM (#33015616)

    Short answer is that it depends.

    Are you going to learn morse code? It's not required for a license anymore, but a QRP (low power) rig on 40 meters can work hundreds or thousands of miles with a decent antenna if the atmosphere is right. QRP rigs can be extremely small and light, too.

    Yaseu has the FT-817 all-mode all-band radio that comes in at about 1.2kg (just more than 2.5lbs) including the antenna and battery. It's about 5"x6"x2" as I recall, with about 5W max output. It definitely gives you options.

    • Re:HF/low power (Score:4, Interesting)

      by steveha (103154) on Saturday July 24, 2010 @06:53PM (#33016980) Homepage

      a QRP (low power) rig on 40 meters can work hundreds or thousands of miles

      When I got my ham radio license, the instructor told the class a funny story.

      There was this old guy out hiking, and the old guy carried a 40 meter Morse code radio. The guy hurt his leg and could not continue. Some hikers came along and offered help; the old guy told them "pitch my tent, help me inside, and throw this antenna wire up into the trees." That's all he wanted, and after they did that, they walked away (they never followed up with anyone).

      So the old guy started tapping out his emergency report. One old ham operator, hundreds of miles away, was monitoring the 40 meter band and got the report. And in fact you had to be hundreds of miles away to get it; the report wasn't possible to pick up close by. So the ham operator in another state got on the phone to the Snohomish County Search and Rescue, to tell them what was going on.

      Our instructor works for the Search and Rescue department, and he disbelieved the initial report. "Did you say the 40 meter band?!?" When S&R got to the park, they couldn't pick up the signal; they had to use cell phones to talk to the guy in another state to communicate with the guy who needed help.

      So, the moral of the story is: if you want to whistle up help, maybe a 40 meter rig isn't the best way to go.

      Personally, I'd carry a 406 MHz personal locator [equipped.com] beacon.

      steveha

  • > ...experienced Slashdot hams

    Homer: Mmm... experienced Slashdot hams.
  • In a word... (Score:4, Informative)

    by gyrogeerloose (849181) on Saturday July 24, 2010 @03:54PM (#33015634) Journal

    ...no.

    There's no amateur radio transceiver that weighs in at less than a pound that would give you the kind of power or reliability you're looking for. Also, unless you're willing to put in the effort to obtain at least a general class amateur radio license, you'd pretty much be limited to the VHF/UHF segments of the amateur bands, which are not good in mountainous terrain unless you are certain you'd be in range of one or more repeaters during your trips. If you were willing to learn Morse code, you would have access to a small portion of the 40 meter band with an entry-level (technician) ticket but then you'd have to carry some sort of long wire antenna and be able to get it up into a couple of trees if you want a realistic hope of making any sort contact.

    I'd say that either use a vehicle mounted amateur radio rig that can put out 100W or so--there are several neat little units available, but they don't come cheap, around $1000--or just enjoy the outdoors without worrying about communication. Hell, I packed into the Sierra Nevada for years without a cell phone (they hadn't even been invented at the time) or any other sort of link to the outside world. I liked it that way.

    73,

    de KJ6BSO sk

  • by RKBA (622932) on Saturday July 24, 2010 @03:57PM (#33015652)
    They're here [google.com] now, although they are a little expensive.
    • by $pace6host (865145) on Saturday July 24, 2010 @06:58PM (#33017032) Journal
      The Inmarsat iSatPhone PRO [outfitterconnect.com] isn't too bad (hey, at ~$600, it's in line with the original list price of the first iPhone!), and you can rent it from those guys (outfitterconnect.com) if you're just going on a trip off the net for a while. Advantages over amateur radio are simplicity, GPS location services built in, no need for an exam / license, direct connectivity to the world wide phone network, and it's 24/7 always available. Oh, and I almost forgot, it has BlueTooth! Seriously, if the idea is just to have it for emergencies, there's even an EMS plan for ~$16/mo that has no minutes built in, w/ ~$1.50/min rate for calls. If you don't ever plan on calling anyone because you enjoy being out in the wilderness all alone, but want to have that safety backstop of being able to reach someone in an emergency (and give them lat/long of where you are), that sounds ideal. Just don't drop it in a river or land on it when you fall off the rock face.
  • by mpoulton (689851) on Saturday July 24, 2010 @03:58PM (#33015672)
    I'm involved in wilderness search and rescue in remote areas of Arizona. We have no cell coverage in most of the areas we work in, and only have sheriff's radio repeater coverage in about 50%. Amateur radio repeaters cover most of the rest. My commercial VHF radio is programmed with all the regional ham repeaters in addition to the sheriff's frequencies and every other wilderness public safety frequency used in the region. If I'm going into certain areas with especially bad coverage, I'll also carry a quad-band handheld (VX-7R) and an external 25W VHF amplifier. No matter what gear you have, location matters most. It is often necessary to climb the nearest ridge to make contact with a repeater, since valleys are usually completely dead spots. The only effective way to communicate from a deep, narrow valley is with HF, or at least 6M with over 100W of power. We use low-band VHF at 120W between vehicles and do fine in very rough terrain. So yes, carry radio gear. Know your area's repeaters well, though, and be prepared to seek higher ground in order to communicate. A SPOT locator is a very good idea in addition, though, and serves a completely different purpose from other communications gear.
    • by molo (94384)

      Hi, could you expand on your use of a 25W VHF amplifier? Is this a commercially available unit? And with what antenna do you use it?

      Thanks.
      -molo

  • by Achra (846023) on Saturday July 24, 2010 @04:02PM (#33015700) Journal
    Yes, a ham radio can get you much better range and ability to contact the nearest town without much weight. Much better than a cellphone. Cellphones are line of sight around the 2ghz range, they stink without a repeater nearby. Don't bother with a handheld HF rig, unless you know morse code you're not going to get any skywave propogation via phone at 5w. Pick up a 2m monoband handheld transceiver and a portable 2m yagi to go with it. You'll be able to reach an easy 50 miles with FM voice modes and hit the repeater in the nearest big town. This assumes that there is not a mountain in the way, of course.. You're not going to be able to get radio THROUGH a mountain. Ideally you're up on the side of a mountain. I understand that you'll be worried about weight, but it seems to me that being able to contact civilization is pretty important if you run into real trouble. I can recommend this portable 2m yagi: http://www.arrowantennas.com/arrowii/146-3ii.html [arrowantennas.com] and really any 2m monoband HT will do you well, don't pay for the bells and whistles. The old HTX-202's work great (if you don't mind paying a pound or 2 for your radio). With regard to getting a technician class amateur radio license, the code requirement is long gone and it should be pretty trivial for most slashdotters to obtain a ham radio license nowadays. One last thought: AO-51. There are low-earth orbit amateur radio satellites that can be worked with handheld transceivers and a good dual-band yagi. The passes are short (15 minutes) and the process takes some practice, but you could definitely get out a distress call that way, no matter what the terrain is.
  • X-Band Repeat (Score:4, Interesting)

    by dracocat (554744) on Saturday July 24, 2010 @04:08PM (#33015758)

    If you move forward with this, one option is to setup your car as a repeater. You can park your car at the trailhead and turn on the repeater in your car. Then the idea is to hopefully hit your car from your handheld, then your car can hit a repeater. In addition to the additional radio in the car that supports Cross-Band repeating, you will need to add a battery or two to your car, and a fresh one in the trunk.

    Like others have all pointed out, the handheld frequencies are all generally line of site. This could mean that in a real emergency, you may need to climb to the top of the nearest peak to actually have line of site to anyone. Then once on the top of the peak you may find that your cell phone works as well!

    Amateur radios work great in the backcountry in communicating with your own party in a different campsite or at a base camp while you continue on up to a summit.

    The SPOTs as you have already researched works pretty well. I especially like the non-911 "Help" button, which just sends a predefined message to someone. I think this is a great feature, as you may need someone you know to start hiking up to you to help you out, but may not need a full Search and Rescue.

  • You can rent satellite phones.
  • QRP [qrparci.org] is the art of using small, low-power equipment to talk to the world. But do it for the love of the game, It might get you out of trouble, but there are no guarantees.
  • re portable radio (Score:2, Informative)

    by freddieb (537771)
    If you get your ham license, a 2 meter handheld might fit the bill. Look at the ARRL (arrl.org) repeater handbook and see if there are 2 meter repeaters in the vicinity of where you hike. Hams like to place repeaters on the highest mountops when they can so you may find there are signals available. Amateur hand helds are very small and light. A technician class amateur license is easy to obain. There are also personal emergency locater beacons (PLB's) similar to the EPIRBS carried by ships and aircraft th
  • by the_rajah (749499) * on Saturday July 24, 2010 @04:17PM (#33015858) Homepage
    Modern VHF/UHF handi-talkies are, well, handy if you've got repeaters that you can reach. The other alternative is HF low power rigs that can also be quite small and portable. If you don't mind learning the code, it can be extremely effective. Here's a mountain rescue story [gritzmacher.net] that involves just that.. If you take this approach, you can arrange scheduled times and frequencies when someone will listen for you. The great thing about this is that the person can be half way across the country.

    I'll second the opinion about the Yaesu FT-817 as a great portable "DC to Daylight" rig that can run SSB and FM voice modes as well as CW (code) on most of the commonly used bands from HF to UHF. It's a little larger, but is extremely capable. The Icom IC703 is another portable rig. See one in use hiking in Colorado here [youtube.com].

    I've been a ham for 53 years now and have run the kilowatt rigs with big beam antennas over 100 feet in the air, but I have the most challenging fun with a 4 watt CW rig and a wire or mobile antenna.
  • Like a couple of other folks have said, it depends on several factors.

    If you're thinking of a handheld with a rubber duck antenna, their wattage is typically 5 or below, and range on the rubber ducks suck. You can carry an additional compact antenna, but it only helps so much.

    Line of sight to the other station (or repeater) is more or less required, and antenna height really helps on 2m for that reason. If you're in good shape and can get to a summit with LOS, great. If you're crippled up and can't "see"

  • by panZ (67763) <matt68000@hotmail.com> on Saturday July 24, 2010 @04:23PM (#33015902)
    As someone who has climbed the world round, it is important to find out what means of communication the area you are in use first. If you don't want to research much, sat phones and SPOT are awesome. For instance, in many parts of the Alaska Range, rangers monitor family radio transmissions and broadcast weather updates on their channel. Those little radios have gotten pretty good range over the years and are used to coordinate rescues all over Denali, Mt. Forker and Huntington. There is also line of sight CDMA phone access in many parts of the states where GSM fails leaving the european climbers begging to use your phone from time to time. SPOT beacons are great though. There are 3 levels of message you can broadcast as you probably know. The mid-one is akin to saying "I'm in trouble, here's where I am but don't alert the authorities". If you're absolutely concerned with being able to consult a doctor or ranger at any time, get a sat phone. You don't have to depend on Globalstar either. Iridium is still functional and outside of North America, Thuraya is fantastic. I've used BGAN for data access in the deepest, darkest parts of the world but at $6/mb, you'll want to keep it to emails. I've also rented Iridium phones for use in Nepal. They are light, cheap-ish, rugged and still completely functional despite ownership changes. You can rent or own cheap handsets and buy minutes when you need them. If you have global rescue insurance through a club like the American Alpine Club (AAC), you can initiate an insured rescue call from a sat phone anywhere in the world or just call friends and family when you are lonely.

    Most importantly though, don't rely on technology to get you out of a jam. Avy beacons fail, GPSs die, radios don't reach people on the other end. They are all wonderful, life saving tools but odds are you won't need any of that stuff. Read the Wilderness First Responder medical book, read Freedom of the Hills, etc. Go prepared. A vast majority of the time, you'll be able to get yourself and other people help without 'calling' anyone.

  • by tftp (111690) on Saturday July 24, 2010 @04:23PM (#33015908) Homepage

    As I understand, you need the radio for a purely utilitarian purpose - to talk to specific people. You are not a ham yourself (not yet, at least) and likely the people you want to talk to are not hams either (otherwise you'd ask them, not Slashdot.) This means none of you can legally (or effectively) use ham radio. This can be corrected; ham license exams are not complicated, I took three on the same day, from no license to extra, but I have radio background and I'm not new to ham radio (I was first licensed around 1980, I think.) A man from the street will have lots of problems with higher level exams unless he understands things like the theory of linear circuits, complex impedance, and such.

    You certainly can go ahead and get a ham radio license for yourself, if that is interesting to you in any way (there is more than one way to enjoy ham radio.) But you probably can't tell your friends, parents, or whoever is on the other end, to go and get a license - that's probably beyond most people's abilities, just like it is for me to learn classical dance :-) People are all different.

    However if you only want communication then getting a ham radio and license doesn't make much sense. If I want to fly from SF to Paris I don't want to study for a pilot license; I buy a ticket, and a professional pilot will do all the flying for me. It is cheaper, simpler, safer, and lets me do things that I want to do - not what I have to do.

    Technically, ham radio in emergency is the absolute best way to make a contact with another ham. Even satellites are not as reliable. Ham radio depends primarily on equipment that you (and the other guy) have. No need for expensive satellites that may or may not be in the sky or otherwise operational. There are many ham bands, and you can always find a band that works at the time of need. HF bands will work for short range communication pretty much at any time (using the ground wave.) In mountains NVIS makes sense. V/UHF is not likely to work there because distances are large, terrain - rough, and repeaters would be scarce. To be well prepared for an emergency you need to have an HF rig, and if you can do CW (at any speed) it's even better.

    An experienced ham would probably take a small transceiver with him into mountains; either HF or HF+VHF. He wouldn't need much of an antenna - any long wire would do fine at his elevation. In good conditions he'd be able to communicate with the whole USA with mere 5W; in bad conditions he'd be able to contact a local ham to report an emergency (and he'd have his GPS coordinates.)

    A new ham most likely won't be able to fully utilize the spectrum that he has access to (depends on his license.) He'd bring a UHF HT with him, and he wouldn't be able to hear anything. Also repeaters are tricky sometimes, they require PL tones and you need to know them in advance to elicit a response from a silent repeater. So you must come prepared.

    In your situation it would be safer for you if you rely upon commercial methods of communication. They are better supported and they require hardly any experience. If you need the radio only to report an emergency then you can get a beacon for that. If you want to talk to your friends from the top of a mountain then you need a satellite phone (and lots of money to pay for it.)

  • by Osama Binlog (1305857) <bruce@centerstage.com> on Saturday July 24, 2010 @04:23PM (#33015910)
    Assume you will *not* have any communication.

    They fail because of the lack of coverage, the charge in the battery or the fact that no one else will be able to figure it out (if you are the one hurt).

    Some simple precautions go a long way: the buddy system, first aid kit, topo map and compass, planning your route, extra food and water, notify friends of your departure and return. These do not cost as much and will do a lot more.

    I used to carry a 2 meter rig when I went backpacking with the scouts. I found there was no coverage - except near cities.

    The back country is a great place. But, it is terribly unforgiving for any lack of preparedness.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by dkleinsc (563838)

      More to the point, if you are generally unprepared for whatever you're doing, and call for a rescue, your rescuers will hate you. My sister worked for several years as an EMT in an area that's popular with outdoor adventurers of all stripes, and they never begrudged someone who was well-prepared but ended up with a broken leg due to bad luck, but absolutely loathed people who had no clue what they were doing and ended up causing a risky search-and-rescue because of their own stupidity.

  • QRP classics published by the ARRL is probably the reference work.

    The book "the electronics of radio" by Rutledge; Cambridge University Press, ISBN 0-521-64645-6 makes understanding and building such a HF radio easy(r).

    Other useful works would be the ARRL antenna handbook, and the ARRL radio amateur handbook. Of course packing a mirror, whistle and survival kit are also recommended. Hope this helps

  • HF / CW (Score:4, Interesting)

    by N7DR (536428) on Saturday July 24, 2010 @04:37PM (#33016024) Homepage

    FWIW I live in Colorado.

    Most responders seem to assume some sort of VHF but, as a few people point out, that's not really a great idea because there are big gaps in repeater coverage in the mountains.

    However, 5W (or less) on HF CW would be ample for emergency communications, and you wouldn't have to worry about whether there's a repeater nearby. There are lots of designs for lightweight QRP (i.e., low power) single-frequency (or limited-frequency) rigs that would be suitable. I'd probably go for one that transmitted on 40m, just because there's more CW activity there, so you're more likely to be heard quickly than on, say, 80m.

    I don't hike in the mountains, but if I did I would definitely carry such a rig with me. It only needs to save your life once.

  • Do it. I can hit a repeater that's 40 miles away using a 5 watt handheld in my house. Mountain to mountain, I've done 150 miles (Cadillac to Washington). It's not fool-proof, and you'll have to know a lot more than you would with a cell phone. Map the local repeaters, know the tones...

    That said, for the cost, a spectacular tool. I've used mine to start a search & rescue for friends of mine who were lost in a place with no phone service. I bring my VX-8r whenever I go backpacking.

    KB1PNB

  • Might work, but as other posters mentioned things like the mountains may be the reason for the signal loss rather than the amount of power.
  • by drwho (4190) on Saturday July 24, 2010 @07:32PM (#33017306) Homepage Journal

    I find it distressing that so many posters here have talked about VHF/UHF only, and in relation to repeaters. There's more to ham radio than that, there's more to portable ham radio than that. The satellite option was at least interesting. The antennas don't have to be large (look up arrow antenna), the problem is calculating where the satellite will be and when, and then getting through the massive amounts of traffic on said satellite.

    Repeaters are great, but they only work when you're in range. If you're going to be in the rockies, there will be a lot of times when mountains will block reception. When on hilltops, you may get TOO MUCH reception, from far away, that makes it difficult to use the one repeater you're trying to.

    If you buy a more expensive HF rig, you can get communication even from down in a ditch. Usually, HF communication uses large antennas and the curvature of the earth makes the signal bounce off a layer of the ionosphere far away, and because of the angle, land even farther than that, sometimes bouncing off the earth back to the atmosphere, etc. But the problem with this is it tends to be unpredictable. There are predictions that can be made, but they're only general. A bigger problem, for the backpacker, is that these signals are almost always far away. the NVIS method, "Near Vertical Incidence Skyway", involved signals that go nearly straight up to the ionosphere, and then almost straight back down again. The result is hopping over mountains and fairly predictable communication with low interference. An advantage is that the antenna doesn't have to be high off the ground, in fact it's REQUIRED to be close to the ground...but stretch out horizontablly, not vertical like a walkie-talkie antenna. As the antennas tend to be larger for the HF band, you'd have to make camp and set up your hunk of wire a few feet above the ground before getting on the air. There are other issues with NVIS, the only one of importance being that the frequency which you tune to, in order to facilitate communications, varies throughout that day. But it does so in a predicatable manner.

    If you get the Yaesu FT-817, you get a small radio that's just a little bigger than a walkie-talkie, that covers both HF bands, VHF, and UHF...so you can use repeaters or NVIS as available. The battery and charger than come with the FT-817 are crappy, go for the aftermarket W4RT produced models. There's an aftermarket antenna called "Miracle Whip", that is much better than the antenna included with the unit, is small and easy to use. You might also want to buy a portable solar panel. The ones made by Brunton are nice. Get the 12 Watt version, the six watt one isn't enough to charge your radio quickly.

    Last piece of advice: don't just wait until you're out in the field to get familiar with the equipment. Get practice using it, with all its accessories in various configurations, BEFORE you go camping. It will be well worth the practice.

    FT-817, W4RT battery, charger, Miracle Whip, solar panel -- package can be acquired for under $1000 (much less, in my case).

  • by nblender (741424) on Sunday July 25, 2010 @09:51AM (#33020802)
    I have my amateur radio license in Canada and use my transceivers fairly regularly out in the back woods... I have a mobile unit (Yaesu FT8900r) and a handheld (Yaesu VX-3R)... With the correct antenna on the handheld, at 2M and 1.5W, I was able to hit a repeater 75km away, line of sight. In the backwoods, not so wonderful. We usually set a truck to cross-band repeat for long distance simplex communication. There is a repeater in the area as well but it is not frequented by other hams since it is a private repeater which backhauls APRS to town. We use it also to talk to one another for an annual offroading event that we put on. In the past we have used it to relay medical status update information from town back to a group still out in the woods. One of our members lives within line of site of the repeater and can hit it from the truck in his driveway.
    My only reason for having a ham license is to communicate with my club members as outlined above. I don't involve myself with the greater 'ham' community other than to pay my membership dues in the local repeater society to help support the ongoing maintenance of the repeater network. In listening to some of these guys talk while on my way to work, I envision a rescue call going something like so:

    - K2BRK Mayday Mayday Mayday. Anyone listening
    + K2BRK K2HLP what is the nature of your emergency
    - I've injured my back and I'm trapped under a log in the Shwitzer valley. I need help.
    + Wow. The Shwitzer valley is a long way away. What rig are you using?
    - A yaesu vx-3r and a yoyodyne G8 SMC antenna. Please send help.
    + Oh, I have one of those antennas. It's a good unit. I paid $38 from YingCo on eBay. Thank you for the contact K2BRK. K2HLP clear.

    Just kidding. I suspect most basement Ham radio geeks are literally waiting for the day where they can assist in some sort of emergency situation.

  • by RockDoctor (15477) on Monday July 26, 2010 @04:36AM (#33027084) Journal

    Rent one when you're going out. Return it to the vendor when you get back.
    Weight is appropriate (I met an RAF mountain rescue team trialling an early one about 15 years ago ; eminently packable, though hardly light weight) ; dimensions are appropriate ;reception is appropriate ; available for rental without too much difficulty.
    Cost is the biggest reason for not owning one. Which is why there is a reasonable market for them for rent. Do roadworks in the middle of nowhere (cellphone-reception-wise, that can be almost anywhere) and it very quickly gets to be a justifiable business expense.

    But frankly, I'd look at the human factors first. If you're on your own, what are you doing that you can't face the thought of crawling on a broken knee for a few days to get back to "civilisation" ? ; if you're in a group, why don't you have confidence in the ability of your group to get assistance and get you off? ; if you're leading a party, why don't you have confidence in yourself to get your party to safety while managing casualties. If you've not addressed those human factors, then you can be guaranteed that your technological fix will short a circuit (or have a flat battery) at precisely the wrong moment.

    Murphy's Law : if it can go wrong, it will.
    Extended Murphy's Law : if it can go wrong, it will go wrong, in the most inconvenient possible way, at the most inconvenient possible time.

    Murphy was an optimist.

In any formula, constants (especially those obtained from handbooks) are to be treated as variables.

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