Tag Archives: One Bag Travel

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

Troy found the perfect gear bag

vespa-ebagTroy writes:

Hi Thomas,

I know, beyond SW Radios, your secondary passion is which ‘bag’ will you use to pack your radios for a trip. I have admired your photos of your Eagle Creek Pack w/ Tecsun PL-380 & Sony AN-LP1. I searched high and low for something like your Eagle Creek pack and I stumbled across this $19.99 gem: the Vespa Mini-Backpack.

It’s sold by eBags on their web site, via Amazon and also via eBay. Despite all three sites being the same vendor, eBay is the least expensive as they offer Free Shipping through that site [though looks like the price just nudged up a bit]. At $19.99 I’m amazed at what I can get into it: A 1st GEN iPad cloaked in a thick leather case with bluetooth keyboard, a PL-390 (I love the ETM for travel) and what I think is the most underrated Grundig of them all – the G6 Aviator (I have the BA Edition). Plus I still have room for my TG34 Antenna, my iSound 4 USB Wall Charger, (2) USB Cables, some spare rechargeable AA Batteries and a dual USB Car Adapter that can recharge my iPad and iPhone.

Oh yeah, the Vespa has a cell phone pouch on one of the pack’s shoulder straps. All for $19.99 delivered from eBay. I have to admit, I haven’t had it long enough to testify to its durability but it seems to be built fairly well despite its price point.

Here are the first two links – you can easily find the eBay links (it comes in a variety of colors though it appears white is out of stock):

http://www.ebags.com/product/vespa/basic-backpack/208461?productid=10120760

http://www.amazon.com/Vespa-Mens-Nylon-Backpack-Black/dp/B004LFX9IA

At twenty bucks I may buy a spare.

Thanks, Troy! You know me well; I love backpacks and travel gear. You probably know eBags have a pretty strong following and good reputation amongst one baggers. I’ll have to check out this little bag. Thanks for sharing!

One bag + radio = the way to go

Though I only travel with one carry on bag, it doesn’t mean I can’t accommodates my shortwave radio/recording pack.

Having just returned from nearly three full weeks of traveling, I’m more convinced than ever that my just-one carry-on bag approach makes absolute sense. In one bag, I’m able to take everything I need, including casual and business attire, toiletries, first aid and, yes, of course, my portable shortwave radio (never leave home without it!) and my Zoom H1 recorder.

One bag freedom

Years ago, while working for a fiber optics company in Europe, I learned the trick to keeping my cool during frequent air travel was simply to avoid, at all costs, checking in baggage. Over the course of several years, I honed the contents of my travel bag down to the bare essentials, and even for longer trips in developed countries, made the (correct) assumption that any supplies I required could be found at my destination.

My circa 1999 Eagle Creek convertible laptop bag has traveled thousands of miles. It’s just big enough to accommodate everything I need for several days or even weeks travelling.

For twelve years now, I have been using one of three Eagle Creek carry-on convertible bags. Two of these plain black bags look much like the ubiquitous vertical rolling luggage you see every day in major airports, but they hide two secrets: each can be converted into a full-fledged backpack, and each meets the most stringent standards for carry-on luggage. They’re also built to take a beating, which they’re getting, and have a lifetime warranty.

The third Eagle Creek pack is basically a roomy laptop (and radio) bag (see photo on left). It has no wheels, and can be worn with a shoulder strap…or, again, converted into a simple two-strap backpack.

When traveling alone, I can easily get by with only the third and smallest of my Eagle Creek pack: the laptop bag. It has a very roomy, padded compartment for my laptop, a middle compartment where I fit my bundled clothes, first aid, and radio pack (which also holds my Kindle), and a front section with organizers for office supplies and a convenient place to stash my travel docs and passport. It’s also a very simple to make this pack virtually pickpocket-proof.

This laptop bag quickly converts into a backpack–a useful feature when it’s fully loaded and you need both arms free.

Check-in-proof!

The benefit of using this particular Eagle Creek laptop bag (important: the one without wheels) is that–even if I’m being loaded in the last zone of a flight, even if the flight is fully booked, and even if the flight is on a De Havilland Dash 8-100–I always find a place for my bag on board, and never, ever, have to gate-check my bag. It will fit in a small overhead compartment, or at the very least, under the seat in front of me.

Though the compromise is that I travel light, the great benefit is that I never have lost any bags, rarely miss a connecting flight (it typically takes at least five extra minutes to claim even a gate-checked bag), and I zoom in an out of an airport. I have the luxury of sitting back and reading while I watch others panic at a gate, waiting for their appropriate “zone” to load.

From my seat, I watched US Air load wheeled carry-on luggage that they required some unfortunate passengers (who were already on the plane!) to check in.

Over the past decade, air travel has really changed. Most of the domestic flights I took throughout Europe a decade ago used to be only about two-thirds full. Here in the US, it appeared to be roughly the same. Today, however, airlines have cut back their offerings and frequently overbook flights. In fact, on a recent flight returning from Denver International Airport, the airline warned of penalty charges if passengers attempted to carry on more luggage or weight than allowed. The airline was making anyone with a wheeled bag–no matter how small–check it in.

Since I was in the eighth row seat, and I only had my Eagle Creek laptop bag on a shoulder strap, I waited until almost everyone else had boarded before I got in line. I walked straight into the 737, pulled my radio pack out of my laptop bag, stowed the laptop bag in the overhead compartment, and settled into my seat. No sweat. Meanwhile flight attendants were taking extra baggage from travelers in the back of the plane and checking in their luggage on the spot. Though their bags met overhead compartment criteria, there simply wasn’t enough room.

Confession time: So, I am something of a pack addict…!

My wife recently pointed out that, besides radios, I have too many packs. I’m convinced I do this because I’m always searching for the best, most versatile way to travel. Most of the packs I buy these days are smaller ones to compliment my Eagle Creek packs. I’m a choosy pack connoisseur, too: I often save my dollars and seek something made in the US–or in Europe, Australia or South Africa (true of pack-maker Karrimore, at one point). I don’t typically like the mass-produced stuff, which I find is not as well-made. My original three Eagle Creek packs were made in the USA, but after the company was featured on the American TV talk show Oprah, receiving the host’s endorsement, the unfortunate result is that the company’s products have since (in my opinion) been compromised and manufacturing moved overseas, likely to keep up with new demand.

Red Oxx actually designed their Air Boss bag for one-bag travelers like me. It even meets the strictest international carry-on standards.

Since a good friend just sang US company RedOxx’s praises, I’m currently drooling over the RedOxx’s Air Boss and SkyTrain. Both look like they would do the trick, but make me slightly nervous because they are a couple of inches larger than my trusty-if-“rusty” Eagle Creek laptop bag, in two dimensions. If RedOxx’s uber-affordable Extra Small Aviator Bag had a shoulder strap and could accommodate a small laptop, I would even consider trying that bag–perhaps in combo with their Gator Carry-On Bag, this would make sense (but that would make for two bags, not sure about that).

Could I fit all of my stuff in the Red Oxx extra small aviator bag? T’would be a challenge!

I suppose I could also consider the US company Tom Bihn Tri-Star, though it is probably more bag than I really need.

Note that although these bags are pricey, all come with a no-hassle, no-questions-asked, lifetime warranty–the Redd Oxx warranty, in particular, is worth a read–both companies are also noted for excellent customer service and the bags should last my lifetime.

Unless, that is, I find another that I want to test drive. Filled with of radio gear, of course. Ah, well…My wife appears to be right.

Have radio, will travel

I suppose the reason I’m entertaining this slightly off-topic travel subject is not just due to my recent travel, but because I’m now enlightened enough to realize that traveling light never means traveling without a radio. With some careful planning and packing, choosing the right bag–and travel-companion radio–the whole world is waiting for you.  And you won’t find yourself spending your travel time–and radio listening time!–watching bulky suitcases drift round on the conveyor belt at baggage claim, as you wait for yours.

Anyone else out there have a similar bag addiction?  Got one you like? Radio travelers, share your thoughts!

If you are into one-bag travel, you should check out the following excellent sites (thanks for the links, Ed):