Traveling light, SWLing right: the best shortwave radios for travel

This article originally appeared in the March 2014 issue of The Spectrum Monitor Magazine.


SWL Travel Gear - Grundig G6

With spring around the corner, my thoughts drift toward the outdoors…and especially, toward travel. Those who know me know that I love travelling, anywhere and everywhere–and that I prefer to travel light, with only one bag. In fact, I can easily live for two weeks out of a convertible shoulderbag/backpack (the Timbuk2 Wingman) that’s so compact, I can fit it under the the seat of even the smallest, most restrictive aircraft. I never have to check luggage unless the nature of my travel requires extra supplies (I run Ears To Our World, a non-profit that donates radios and other technologies to powerless regions in the developing world).

My Timbuk2 Small Wingman is very compact, yet holds everything I need--including radio gear--for two weeks (or more!) of travel.

My Timbuk2 Small Wingman is very compact, yet holds everything I need for two weeks (or more!) of travel.

So, why not pack everything you could possibly ever want on a journey?  While this remains an option, travelling light has many advantages over the take-it-all traveler’s method. First, it gives one incredible freedom, especially when travelling by air or train.  I never have to worry about being among the first to be seated in an aircraft, nor do I worry about my luggage not making a connection when I do.  Second, it’s kinder on the back and shoulders, and easier to maneuver wherever I go–no wheels required–whether in a busy first-world airport or bustling third-world street market.  Third, I always have my most important gear right there with me.  And finally (I must admit) I find light travel to be fun, an entertaining challenge; the looks on friends’ faces when they meet me at the airport to “help” with my luggage is, frankly, priceless.  Seeing me hop off a flight with my small shoulder bag, friends ask in bewilderment, “Where’s your stuff?” It’s music to my ears.

You would think that having such self-imposed restrictions on travel–carrying a small, light bag–would make it nearly impossible to travel with radio. On the contrary!  Radio is requisite, in my book–er, bag.  I carry a surprising amount of gear in my small bag:  once at an airport security checkpoint, an inspector commented, “It’s like you have the contents of a Radio Shack in here–!” But more significantly, each piece–and radio–is carefully selected to give me the best performance, durability, versatility, and reliability.

So what do I look for in a travel radio? Let’s take a closer look.

SWL Travel Gear - full selection

Travel Radio Features

While the CountyComm GP5DSP only has average performance for its price class, it has three different ways of auto tuning stations quickly, an alarm function and the display will even indicate the current temperature. Its unique vertical, thin body might be easier to pack at times, depending on your travel gear.

The CountyComm GP5DSP has three different ways of auto tuning stations quickly, an alarm function and the display will even indicate the current temperature. Its unique vertical, thin body might be easier to pack at times, depending on your travel gear.

In a travel shortwave radio, I search for features I wouldn’t necessarily pick for home use, where I’m mainly concerned with raw performance. I don’t want to carry an expensive receiver while traveling, either: $100.00 US is usually my maximum. This way, if I accidently break the radio (or my gear gets stolen), I won’t feel like I’m out very much money.  I also prioritize features that benefit a traveler, of course; here are some that I look for:

  • Small size: Naturally, it’s sensible to look for a travel radio that’s small for its receiver class for ease in packing.
  • Overall sturdy chassis: Any travel radio should have a sturdy body case that can withstand the rigors of travel.
  • Built-in Alarm/Sleep Timer functions: While my iPhone works as an alarm, I hate to miss an early flight or connection, so it’s extra security when I can set a back-up alarm.
  • Powered by AA batteries: While the newer lithium ion battery packs are fairly efficient, I still prefer the AA battery standard, which allows me to obtain batteries as needed in most settings; a fresh set of alkaline (or freshly-charged) batteries will power most portables for hours on end.
  • Standard USB charging cable: If I can charge batteries internally, a USB charging cable can simply plug into my smart phone’s USB power adapter or the USB port on my laptop; no extra “wall wart” equals less weight and less annoyance.
  • ETM: Many new digital portables have an ETM function which allow auto-scanning of a radio band (AM/FM/SW), saving what it finds in temporary memory locations–a great way to get a quick overview of stations.  (As this function typically takes several minutes to complete on shortwave, I usually set it before unpacking or taking a shower. When I return to my radio, it’s ready to browse.)
  • Single-Side Band: While I rarely listen to SSB broadcasts when traveling, I still like to pack an SSB-capable receiver when travelling for an extended time.
  • RDS: Though an RDS (Radio Data System) is FM-only, it’s a great feature for identifying station call signs and genre (i.e., public radio, rock, pop, country, jazz, classical, etc.)
  • External antenna jack: I like to carry a reel-type or clip-on wire external antenna if I plan to spend serious time SWLing. Having a built-in external jack means that the connection is easy, no need to bother with wire and an alligator clip to the telescoping whip.
  • Tuning wheel/knob: Since I spend a lot of time band-scanning while travelling, I prefer a tactile wheel or knob for tuning my travel radio.
  • Key lock: Most radios have a key lock to prevent accidentally turning a radio on in transit–but with a travel radio, it’s especially important to have a key lock that can’t be accidentally disengaged.
  • LED flashlight: Few radios have this, but it’s handy to have when travelling.
  • Temperature display: Many DSP-based radios have a built-in thermometer and temperature display; I like this when I travel anytime, but especially when I’m camping.

While I don’t have a portable that meets 100% of the above travel radio wish-list, I do have several that score very highly.  I also rank my travel radios by size, as sometimes limited space will force me to select a smaller radio.

Here are a few of the radios I’ve used and/or evaluated for travel–I’ll break them down by size. Note that all portable radios have alarm/timer functions, unless noted otherwise.

My Tecsun PL-380 and the small Eagle Creek pack that also holds my Zoom H1 recorder, earphones, audio cables, external antenna, spare batteries and Kindle.

I often grab the Tecsun PL-380 for travel. It’s an ultra-portable that truly performs and even has a selection of six AM bandwidths.

Ultra-portable:

Tecsun-PL880-SWLing-Post-0528

Full-Featured Portable:

I have also been known to travel with an SDR (software defined radio), especially if travelling to an RF-quiet location where I could make spectrum recordings. While SDRs all require a computer (laptop) to operate, those best suited for travel derive their power from the same USB cable plugged into the PC. Neither of the SDR models below require a power source other than what’s provided by their USB cable.

A screen capture from my Toshiba Satellite Windows 7 laptop (click on image to enlarge)

The RadioJet is an excellent travel radio: it’s an excellent performer, über-rugged and is powered by one USB cable.

“Black box” radios (SDRs & PC-controlled radios):

  • RFSpace SDR-IQ • Pros: Small size, works on multiple operating systems (Windows, Mac, Linux) • Cons: front end can overload if close to strong signals
  • Bonito RadioJet • Pros: Great performance, low noise floor, good audio, flexible graphic interface; • Cons: Windows only, limited bandwidth on IF recordings, no third-party applications (note that the RadioJet is technically an IF receiver). Check out our full review.
The CommRadio CR-1

The CommRadio CR-1

Tabletop:

Seriously? A travel-ready, full-featured tabletop–? Until last year, I would have argued that it was impossible to travel lightly with a full-featured desktop radio in tow.

My view changed when I got my hands on the CommRadio CR-1 tabletop SDR. Indeed, other than it being pricey ($600, as compared with $100 portables) this rig is ideally suited to travel!

The CR-1 has an array of features–most everything you’d expect from a tabletop radio–and even covers some VHF/UHF frequencies. Its built-in rechargeable battery not only powers it for hours at a time, but meets the strict airline standards for battery safety. The CR-1 can also be powered and charged via a common USB cable. It’s also engineered to be tough and is almost identical in size to the Tecsun PL-880.

CommRadioCR-1PowerKnobThough I’ve never needed to do so, you can even remove its resin feet to save still more space. Its only less than travel-friendly feature is the fact that it’s quite possible to accidently power up the CR-1 by bumping the volume button during travel–a problem easily remedied, however, by simply twisting an insulated wire around the stem of the volume knob (see photo).

The importance of a Go-Bag

The SpecOps PackRat

The Spec-Ops Pack-Rat

I keep a dedicated “go-bag” with radio and supplies–specifically, the Spec-Ops Brand Pack-Rat–packed and ready to travel, at the drop of a hat. Why? First of all, I know exactly what I’ll be taking, no need to ponder if I have everything.

Inside the bag, everything has its place: my portable SW radio, my Android tablet, my D-Star Icon ID-51a HT, DVAP (DV Access Point Dongle), my Zoom H2n Handy Recorder, earphones, charging cables, batteries, small notebook, clip-on wire antenna, etc.

If something’s missing, there’s an obvious blank spot in my bag. I also know exactly where and how it fits into my carry-on bag, so if it’s missing, it’s conspicuously missing. Since I’ve been using this go-bag, I’ve never left anything from my pack behind. Incidentally, this is how I pack the rest of my bag, as well: everything has its place, and any gap will draw my attention to exactly what’s missing.

SWL Travel Gear - Spec-Ops Pack-Rat Open

There’s another benefit to having a dedicated go-bag: when flying, before I place my carry-on under the seat in front of me or in an overhead compartment, I can pull the go-bag out of my carry-on and have my Android tablet close at hand with other electronics.  As an added bonus, when going through airport security, all of my electronics can be easily removed from my flight bag by taking out just this kit.

 SWL Travel Gear - Spec-Ops Pack-Rat Contents

I’ve had many versions of the Go-Bag over the years, and they’ve all done a great job. What I love about the Spec-Ops Brand Pack-Rat, though, is the fact that it’s military grade–very durable–opens with all of the main storage pockets on the inside, has a bright yellow interior which makes it easy to see the contents (even in the dimness of a night flight), and it’s just the right size to hold my usual travel gear. The Spec-Ops Brand Pack-Rat also carries a lifetime, no-matter-what, guarantee.

There are thousands of similar packs on the market, and you may already have one, but you should look for something with multiple storage pockets. Small packs I’ve used in the past that only had one or two main compartments made it easy to leave something out when packing.

Radio travels

The travel radios I reach for most often. Top Row (L to R, Top to Bottom)  Tecsun PL-380, Sony 7600GR, CommRadio GP-5DSP, Grundig G6, Tecsun PL-660, and the CommRadio CR-1

The travel radios I reach for most often. Top Row (L to R, Top to Bottom) Tecsun PL-380, Sony 7600GR, CommRadio GP-5DSP, Grundig G6, Tecsun PL-660, and the CommRadio CR-1 (Click to enlarge)

When I spent a year in France during my undergraduate studies in the early 1990s, shortwave radio was my link with home. I would listen to the VOA–the only source of English I permitted myself to hear–like clockwork, each week. Today, although I travel with a smartphone which can tune in thousands of stations, I always choose to listen to radio. Besides, if the Internet goes down or if–heaven forbid!–your trip takes you into a natural disaster, it’s radio that you will turn to to stay safe and informed.

If you take anything away from this reading, I hope it’s that even when you’re presented with travel restrictions, you won’t hesitate to take your hobby, in the form of a portable radio and a few accessories along. It contributes measurably to the fun of travel, as I’ve discovered when I’m able to tune in local and international stations so different from those I hear at home.  Or sometimes, it’s just the opposite–it’s the chance to pick up a favorite broadcaster or program while you’re on the road.

After all, for me and other travelers like me, the world’s familiar voice is radio.

SWL Travel Gear - Full View

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23 Responses to Traveling light, SWLing right: the best shortwave radios for travel

  1. Tom Stiles says:

    Excellent article, Thomas.

    Another Tom

  2. Sudipta Ghose says:

    Great and thought provoking!

  3. Mark Fahey says:

    This is a great article! A few days ago I enjoyed the PDF (print) version a few days ago in Spectrum Monitor, this web version has even more photos of how and what you pack – great. I am ordering a go-bag for sure.

    I am very close to giving in and purchasing a Microsoft Surface Pro-2 to run Perseus software when traveling primarily for remote receiver mode (i.e. I can DX from various receivers around the world by using hotel room WiFi etc). Has anyone use a windows tablet device for this type of use when traveling?

    Cheers,
    Mark
    Sydney

    • Thomas says:

      G’day, Mark–

      What a great idea. I turned your question into a post with the hopes that, perhaps, someone our there has tried this with a Windows tablet.

      And, yes, you of all people should have a go-bag!

      Glad you’re enjoying the Perseus.

      Cheers,
      Thomas

  4. Kevin Saunders says:

    Hmmm…the CommRadio GP-5DSP, looks suspiciously like my Tecsun PL-360. I love it though. Very light and dependable.
    http://www.amazon.com/Tecsun-PL-360-Digital-Portable-Shortwave/dp/B004QJKO52

    • Thomas says:

      Hi, Kevin,

      Yes, I’m pretty sure it’s a PL-360 under a CommRadio model. CommRadio takes pride in developing equipment that will perform well in low temps. It’s possible there may be some mods to accommodate this, but I’m taking a guess here. So there may be a tweak or two (electronically), but it’s a PL-360 for sure.

      Cheers,
      Thomas

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  6. Ronald says:

    Hi Thomas,
    So where is the rest of your luggage? Clothes etc? You must be a master in packing your bags!
    All I see are radio and and accessoires. Anyway happy traveling :)

    Cheers;
    Ronald
    Auckland, NZ

    • Thomas says:

      Hi, Ronald,

      I could write a small book on the art of packing luggage. :) In the photos above where you see the contents of my bag, my clothes are all on the right side of my bag and my button-up shirts lay flat in a folding pack underneath everything. You would be surprised what will fit in that much space.

      There is always compromise in one bag travel. Anything over 5 days, for example, pretty much requires that I do laundry. If I’m staying with friends, this is no problem. If I’m in a hotel, most have a relationship with a local laundry service. I mainly reserve this for my shirts and trousers. I can easily wash socks, undergarments and undershirts by hand (I actually carry a little soap for this).

      Winter travel is the toughest since clothes are often a bit bulkier. It requires that I wear the bulky stuff when flying.

      What you can’t easily see is that I also have my laptop in that bag-there’s a slot on the back of the bag that holds it. I travel with a MacBook Air, which is super thin, and pretty rugged.

      I use many of the packing methods you’ll find on this excellent site: http://www.onebag.com/

      So, I’m sure this is more detail than you care to know, but I’m a bit of a geek/anorak about this stuff!

      Cheers,
      Thomas

  7. Kevin Saunders says:

    Great articles BTW. Keep them coming! :)

  8. Marty Delfin says:

    Hmmm– thanks for the pointers. I am off to the south coast of Spain for a week and taking along my trusty Sony ICF-77, hopefully for some good African DX.

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  10. lee says:

    I nominate the Degen DE1121. Decent sensitivity, good SSB, instant and up to three timed recordings, removable media player, tuning knob, easy and plentiful memory, regular batteries (except for the media player, it has an unusual rechargeable battery – I recommend buying a spare). It is smaller than the DE1103 and larger than the DE1102. I prefer the audio from the DE1102 but the ergonomics are annoying…gimme a tuning knob. I have a G6 but the SSB is too fiddly so the paperback sized DE1121 is the go-to for travel. I also bring my rtl-sdr kit with the Ham-It-Up upconverter, which fits nicely into a small bag I got from a Virgin Atlantic flight years ago. The two radio setups I use now take up half the space of the Sony 2010 I traveled with when I was young! 73.

    • Thomas says:

      Since the DE1121 has been discontinued for a while, I hadn’t considered it. Very interesting to hear, Lee, that the 1121 does a good job recording on shortwave. As you say, no one has made a portable that does a good job of this. I have never actually listened to an 1121–I’ve heard that it was a little cumbersome to operate, but also heard good comments about performance.

      Thanks for your suggestion!

      Cheers,
      Thomas

  11. Anil says:

    Hi, excellent article thanks! I would like to suggest another candidate that is really hard to beat and is fantastic value when you buy a used one – The Yaesu FT-817 Low Power Transceiver. It has outrageously good General Coverage performance and a massive LF – UHF coverage receiver. It has the same paperback footprint as many of the travel radios you review and a built in battery pack albeit a fairly low capacity one. When it comes to extracting weak signals out of noise and interference it is head and shoulders above the rest with a switchable pre-amp, variable RF gain and attenuator, pass-band tuning, narrow filters etc.

    73s

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  13. Thanks for one of the best articles of late in TSM or for the bloggers

    I will be checking out the pack rat organizer and upgrading my swl travel receiver. It is lighter than a ft-817 no doubt

    • Thomas says:

      John, you are too kind! Thanks for the compliment.

      You will love the Pack Rat. I’m plotting to purchase another one this week, no less.

      Cheers,
      Thomas

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