Listening to a local station with the BC-348-Q until we lose power.
Here at SWLing Post HQ we’ve been under a Winter Storm Warning since yesterday–it’s not set to expire until sometime tomorrow. This storm hasn’t been all snow–it’s a mixture of snow and ice. If this continues, I fully expect to lose power at some point today.
In general, we’re prepared to handle this sort of thing: our refrigerator and freezer are powered by solar and completely off-grid, we have a super efficient RAIS woodstove to keep us warm and of course, we have a generator at the ready if needed.
Playing radio off-grid
As I write this post, I’m listening to the Signal Corps BC-348-Q (photo above) which is tuned to a local AM broadcaster. It’ll fill my shack with local news/tunes and its vintage valves will do a fine job warming this small room until the power eventually goes out.
When it does go out, I’ll switch to my blackout buddy, the CommRadio CR-1A.
I find that the CR-1A is nearly ideal for off-grid and field listening, as long as you have a good external antenna. The internal Li-Ion battery powers the thing for ages and it has an incredibly capable receiver.
Of course, I also have an Elecraft KX3 and KX2 which can be powered by battery, but I tend to use the CR-1A for broadcast listening and save the KX2/KX3 for off-grid ham radio QRP fun.
In addition, I have the new battery-powered CommRadio CTX-10 transceiver in the shack.
I’ve been receiving numerous emails about this particular field rig because there are so few CTX-10 reviews out there even though it’s been on the market since late July.
Please note that I’ve been giving the CTX-10 a thorough evaluation over the past few weeks and plan to publish my initial review in the next few days.
Even though I live in a very rural and remote area with little-to-no RFI, when the power is cut, my noise floor still drops . We’re not immune–like most homes, we have power supplies and devices that emit radio interference.
It’s funny: most urban radio enthusiasts I know don’t fear power outages, they prepare for and embrace them! When all of those RFI-spewing devices go silent, it’s simply amazing what you can hear from home on frequencies below 30 MHz with pretty much any receiver.
Personally, as long as I have a means of 1.) powering my radios, and 2.) making coffee (extremely important), I consider myself properly prepared.
I’ve always got those two points covered.
Bring it, old man winter! I’m ready to play radio!
While browsing the Universal Radio used equipment index during lunch, I noticed Universal currently has a used CommRadio CR-1 (not the CR-1a) for $379.95. In my opinion, that’s a brilliant price for a used CR-1 in good condition.
You can buy used gear with confidence from Universal Radio; they back their items with a 60 day warranty and have excellent customer service
“I have continued to run A/B comparisons between my CR-1a and an NRD-515. Digital to Analog competition.
My NRD-515 has been a station favorite for many years. I find the two radios are pretty much equal in terms of performance. Sensitivity between the two are even. The wide range of BW filter options on the CR-1a are a real plus. My 515 has the stock 2.4 mechanical and the 500 hz cw filter.
The CR-1a with the portability, long battery life and internal speaker makes this one awesome receiver. I plan to use this radio when camping and recharging via a small solar panel should be a snap. A small QRP transmitter with T/R switching is the works.
I was really blown away by receiving an email from the president of Comm Radio concerning feedback I left on their website.
Big performance in a small package. 5/5+”
Thanks for your comment, Ray! Wow–The JRC NRD-515 is a classic. It’s great to hear that the CommRadio CR-1a stacks up so well against this benchmark.
Like you, I love the portability of the CR-1/CR-1a line. The internal battery powers it for hours at a time. I’ve hinted to CommRadio that they should design a small companion transmitter for portable QRP–link the two together and that would be one cool piece of kit!
You were tasked to track down a radio kit that would keep you in touch with the world, and potentially afford you some very unique DX. [If you haven’t read the full virtual radio challenge, including all of the limitations you might face, I encourage you to check out this post before continuing.]
Your Reader Responses
And, wow, what excellent responses–! First, I want to thank all who participated in this challenge. Much like the results from our first Reader Challenge, no two responses were identical. I sincerely hope you enjoyed this exercise as much as I enjoyed reading what you’ve sent to the SWLing Post!
Below you will find responses from readers, representing remarkable diversity in radio set-ups. Note that my comments follow; they are italicized and in bold.
Now, with no further ado…I welcome you to radio DX in Laya, Bhutan!
I would set up all this gear either on a panel or in a small box for the sake of tidiness. This, involving crimping kit, crimps and wire, could be done before departure. Say $20 for the bits.
Job just about done but not quite…. solar panels only provide power when the sun is out… need a biggish battery to accept the solar charge during the day and give it back at night.
A nice wet cell 12 volt battery will do the job but that won’t be allowed on the ‘plane..what to do??
After flying into Bhutan at Paro and busing to Thimphu I would take time out to buy a 12V automotive battery. At first I considered a couple of 6V motorbike batteries but have been advised that motorbikes are uncommon in Bhutan but cars and trucks aren’t. No probs on-carrying that by truck, horse and porter so thats the 12V storage sorted.
Connect solar panel to charge regulator to my battery to my computer power supply and radio charging cables . Throw my wire antennas over the handy tree, pour single malt, put feet up……
Total cost excluded the 12 volt battery … about $600… Oh and must not forget to replace the supplied AA’s in the PL-660 with Sanyo Eneloops and also a few extra sets as spare…. and a copy of WRTH.
I must admit a bit of an advantage with this…. my boat is an off-grid installation and my wife was in Bhutan a few years ago.
Frank, I love how simple you’ve kept this set up. You are very wise to acquire a 12V auto battery locally, when you arrive in Thimpu. While Bhutan isn’t as commercially “developed” as many other countries, you can find basics like batteries, connectors, fuses and accessories in the capital city of Thimpu. Your experience off-grid on the open sea and with Bhutan, in general, have served you well. Thanks for your entry!
from Tim Rahto
[Note: Tim was so enthusiastic about this challenge that he proposed three different kits: one with a transceiver and two receive-only.]
Your radio challenge inspired me to ignore everything else I have to do today and write you up a response. [You’re welcome, Tim!]
I know your contest refers to shortwave listening and not ham radio, but we are talking about Bhutan here. According to QRZ, there’s only 9 callsigns in the entire country, with three of those belonging to radio clubs, special event stations, or DXpeditions. With that in mind, I put my station together with transmitting as well as receiving in mind.
Option 1: Yaesu FT-857D
For a radio, I chose the Yaesu FT-857D. I have one in my truck, and it’s survived four years of mobile operation without a hiccup. About the only knock I have on this radio is that the AM bandwidth is pretty wide for shortwave listening, but you can always put it into sideband if needed. It’s small, portable, and puts out 100 watts. Perfect!
Some would say I cut corners on the antenna, but I don’t think so. Considering the remote nature of the location and the need to keep things light and mobile, I went with a simple dipole. Easy to build, simple to repair, and works pretty well. I went the ‘roll your own’ approach and bought an Alpha-Delta dipole kit and wire for the antenna, and 100′ of coax to feed it all.
Tim, no doubt you had a lot of fun piecing together your radio kits! In each case you chose quality components–a smart decision since you want longevity and reliability in the field. I think there would actually be enough financial flexibility in each case to include a small back-up portable like the Tecsun PL-380 or similar. As you must know, the Lowe HF-150 is a surprisingly small tabletop radio with excellent performance; it would be easy to slip in a backpack or suitcase. Thanks for your entries!
For power storage, I’d go with sufficient numbers of AA size LSD NiMH batteries to be wired up into several 12V battery packs for solar charging… heavier than Li-Ion, but considerably cheaper, more durable, and should easily last through 2-years, where li-ion wouldn’t.
Probably throw a $100 Kaito KA1102 radio in there. The 1103 is infuriating. A long, long spool of wire for use as antenna once setup. And other bits and pieces.
Amazon says I’m $600, or $800 including the netbook, without really trying to find good deals. Lots and lots of accessories still needed, like 12V cell phone chargers, diodes and/or solar charge controller. I’d also throw-in other comforts, like plenty of different LED flashlights and lanterns, good external speakers and headphones. Plus lots of USB thumb drives just loaded up with movies and TV.
Rex, I like the idea of the KTOR pedal power when solar conditions are not favorable. in truth, using solar requires a little pre-meditation whereas pedal power could work anytime. Thanks for your entry!
from Timothy Johnson
Hi! This is a great challenge. I would take my Tecsun PL 660 and buy a solar AA charger. (And maybe $400 worth of AA duracells!) And for my backup……My Grundig FR200!
What? No gazillion dollar receiver with a four mile wire strung up?
Correct! It’s a fun challenge in a great location. I want to use the radio I use now to see what I can pick up. It’s a good location to pick up stations from the otherside of the world that I normally can’t get, but dream about what it would be like. The PL 660 isn’t a slouch when it comes to receiving, and it has SSB and the Airband! This is a fun challenge and it’s a great time to enjoy listening to the shows, not just seeing what I can get. Up in the mountians, I would need to rely on my shortwave for news around the world. I mean, what day is complete without Radio Havana Cuba’s slant on the news? I would hope over there I could get Iran’s Voice of Justice!
The FR-200 would be my back up to use if the solar charger breaks, or it’s cloudy for awhile. It’s a great portable with a built in dynamo. Plus its fun to use. Scanning the dial on an analog dial makes for relaxed listening. Kick back, pour whatever the locals drink, and see what comes in!
As an english/science teacher, I could introduce the students to the world and improve their english skills, while they teach me some of their language.
Anyway, great challenge!
I have had a lot of experience with the Grundig FR200. Unfortunately, it’s no longer available new from Grundig, but the same model is available from sellers on eBay as the Tecsun Green 88. Not only does it work well from the hand crank (2 minutes of cranking yeilds 40+ minutes of listening), but it also runs for 80+ hours on a set of AA batteries. It’s a durable radio as well. Thanks for your entry!
a) Install Linux (Fedora), GNU Radio, and other software for RTL SDR.
b) additionally install fldigi, multimode, HFfax software, NOAA weather decoder
c) make a QFH (Quadri Fillar Helix Antenna) for 137MHz NOAA satellite reception also usefull for VHF 2m reception, upon arrival at the destination. The wooden stick and batten used for it can be available free at the destination.
Total expences = 100+52+109+5+1.3 = 267.3 $
Still one have 1200 – 267.3 = $932.70
That’s an innovative SDR kit and certainly well within budget. In fact, you would have over $900 to purchase a backup radio, batteries, power generation and antenna accessories! Thanks for your entry!
from Cap Tux
Cap’s Virtual Radio Challenge Submission
As the challenges main objective is to listen to international broadcasters and DXing you only need a small portable receiver with very little power consumption. There are a lot of very capable receivers on the market now to fit the bill.
Remember, lugging a big receiver to the other side of the world is not going to be fun (and risk it being damaged en-route).
As the village is completely off the power grid I propose to use a small portable receiver & power source with a fairly good storage capacity i.e. at least 5 good charges from a fully charged source should give you a good few weeks of heavy usage.
Receiver: Tecsun PL-660 Receiver – A very capable shortwave receiver with MW/LW/FM with SSB and runs from 4 x AA rechargeable 1.2v Ni-Mh batteries.
This receiver is also capable of running/charging from a sustainable USB power source.
The PL-660 also has an auto scan and store that will sweep shortwave and store any stations it finds into memory, saves you tuning about.
You can charge this using a USB Charger for the Tecsun PL-660.
You may be lucky and have FM reception within range (unlikely, but possible), a general coverage receiver in most cases is not equipped with VHF BCB FM reception i.e. NRD-525, IC-R75 are not equipped with VHF FM.
In order to know what frequencies you need to tune into, realistically you will only have the first season i.e. A15 shortwave schedules for your target shortwave broadcasters.
You will not know the next seasons frequencies, you will need to listen into your favourite broadcaster nearer the time to get next seasons frequencies. Load the current seasons frequencies onto your laptop, or print them off.
The PL-660 has an external antenna socket by way of a 3.5mm socket, a long wire can be used. Personally, I would take my home-brew passive Mag Loop antenna which can fold up easily, why? in case of thunderstorms that could send static down an external long wire to the receiver, rendering it unusable.
You could always hang the long wire around your room to minimise static from thunderstorms. You get a long wire bundled with the PL-660, no need to buy another,
Sustainable charging power source for the receiver:
23000mAh Li-Po battery pack with solar panel (USB port & various outlets for laptop charging).
Technically you could ditch the 3 x AA internal batteries and power the Tecsun direct from the battery pack via the mini USB cable, however, assume you would want to run it autonomously from the charger or go out and about for a spot of Dxing. I propose purchasing 12 x 2400mAh rechargeable Ni-Mh batteries.
A phone or tablet is going to be a liability if dropped, a small netbook is going to be more robust for travelling and will have a longer running time from each charge.
I would also charge the laptop from my solar charger as it has a 19.5v option for charging. The MSI Wind U180 gives around 7.5 hours on a full charge (Loads of options for a netbook though).
The stock battery is about 7200mAh which the solar charger is more than capable of fully charging.
Tecsun PL-660: £64.64 incl shipping (all other shopping items include shipping)
Total: £318.28 ($517.06)
As this is well within budget you could buy two of everything for redundancy.
If AM BCB is your only concern a Tecsun PL-310ET will fit the bill, very small/light and cheap at around £32. There is also less chance of a small £32 radio being stolen.
In the end, I would probably take both my PL-660 & PL-310 as the PL-310 will give me the flexibility when out hiking or travelling within Bhutan and also acts as a backup radio.
Cap, I’m impressed with how frugal and portable you’ve kept your radio kit. Adding the Tecsun PL-310ET is a great idea. I imagine there would be superb opportunities to do mediumwave DXing with the ‘310. As a bonus, when traveling within the country, the PL-310ET would be easy to carry and use en route. Thanks for your entry!
FunCube Dongle Pro+ and Toshiba Encore 8″ running SDR# in a London park
To recap, the tablet-based SDR set-up costs $643. My experiments with FunCube Dongle Pro+ and SDR# software have convinced me that this combination makes for one of the best shortwave listening experiences in its price range. Here are a few reasons why:
– FunCube Dongle Pro+ is a sensitive SDR.
– SDR# has an excellent noise reduction algorithm that often turns laborious DXing into comfortable listening. It also has a robust synchronous detector, which, combined with its passband tuning and noise reduction algorithms can unbury almost any station from the surrounding co-channel interference.
However, given the remoteness of the location and the fact that there is no reliable electricity grid to speak of, we need a few extras:
You may recall that in my portable SDR solution there are two sets of batteries that need to be recharged:
– Toshiba’s built in Lithium Ion battery (via its USB port)
– 4xAA batteries for the Gomadic 5V Power Pack (used for supplying extra power to the SDR)
First, let’s get a compact, foldable solar panel:
1. Powerfilm F16-1200 20W foldable solar panel
I would go with Powerfilm F16-1200 20W foldable solar panel (buy it here for $210.99). Disclaimer: although I’ve never used any of the PowerFilm products or accessories, I have read good reviews of them from other radio enthusiasts. When folded, this solar panel measures merely 27.9cm x 16.5 cm – slightly smaller than an A4 notepad. Once fully opened, however, it can deliver 20W of power (15.4V, 1.2A), enough to charge the Toshiba tablet and 4xAA rechargeable batteries simultaneously.
The spares can be used in the following ways:
– To power the backup portable shortwave radio
– To have another batch ready when the batteries insde the Gomadic USB Power Pack run out.
– Using Gomadic, to charge the tablet outside daylight hours, for more daytime listening.
Now onto charging the tablet itself. For this I would use the Powertraveller Spidermonkey 4-Port USB Charger Hub at $38.76. Again, I haven’t used this product, but according to the specifications it can charge up to 4 USB devices and accepts input power between 5V and 30V. The reviews are largely positive, so it seems like a safe choice.
5. Powertraveller Spidermonkey 4-Port USB Charger Hub
Living off the grid has the advantage of there being minimal man-made radio interference. For this reason we can use a larger antenna than in my original proposal. I suggest buying 40m of POLYS18 Copper-Clad Steel Antenna Wire from Universal Radio (the total comes to $31.44), cutting it halfway, and attaching each half to one of the two antenna terminals on the Wellbrook HF Balun, mentioned in my previous article, thus creating a dipole.
12. BNC Socket to Composite 3.5mm Male Jack Plug Adapter
The subtotal for all of the above comes to $556.71. Adding on $643 for the tablet-based SDR solution brings the total to $1199.71, just 29 cents below the budget limit!
London Shortwave: since you frequently take this same portable SDR kit to the field, I have no doubt that it would perform well in rural Bhutan. Using a PL-310ET as a backup and even thinking to bring a couple antenna accessories shows how thoroughly you thought through this exercise. Knowing the copious amounts of radio noise (QRM) you deal with in London, you might decide to stay in RF quiet Laya after your assignment is over! Thanks for your entry! Readers: check out London Shortwave’s blog for more portable SDR fun.
from “Broad Wing”
Primary Radio – Comm Radio CR 1A ($614.95)
(Radio is light weight and very durable. It also picks up SSB etc. Even though it used up half the budget I figured it would be the best to have. It has an internal rechargeable battery. I can be charged with Goal Ten Battery Pack or Solar Panels)
Secondary Radio-Kaito KA-600 Voyager ($60.00)
(This radio is my back up as it has several ways to charge the batteries, solar crank, and electric when I can get to a city that has electricity. it should also be dependable. It also has a built in flashlight. This antenna uses AA rechargeable batteries.)
(I have used this antenna and find it to be very durable and a very good DX antenna for shortwave. It is made by a gentleman called Low Bander on e-bay.)
Secondary Antenna – Tinatena All Band Active ($32.90)
(I thought that if in the dead of winter, my primary antenna broke, and there were a couple feet of snow outside, I could use this one for a backup and not have to go out in the snow or storm. This antenna uses 9 Volt batteries.)
Antenna wire 12 gauge 50 feet ($27.94)
(Wire would be used to build a long wire antenna if needed or for repairs of the Super Sloper Antenna. Wire will also be used to hook up 2- 12 Volt sealed batteries to primary radio.)
40 foot solar panel extension cable MC4 converter ($22.99)
(This kit and the extra solar panel should charge up my batteries if the weather permits. The solar panel can be hooked up in tandem to provide quicker charging times or used on separate equipment. The Goal 10 charger will charge my Comm Radio when the power is low, and I can connect the radio to the kit when the sun is out just to recharge. When the sun is not out, or I have a long time without sun, I can use the Secondary Radio to conserve batteries.)
Set of batteries sold with 24 AA 2000 mAh, NiMH Batteries low discharge ($42.34)
9 Volt batteries, 4 pack ($15.96)
2- 12Volt 7ah sealed lead acid rechargeable batteries ($32.00)
Total Cost: $1198.73 -$ I200.00= $1.27 under budget. Good for a pack of crackers to take on the plane to munch on.
I am not buying any connectors as the primary antenna comes with coax and connector. All prices include shipping and handling charges and can be received in 7-10 days. In two years I will report back to you and tell you how the trip went.
I think choosing the CommRadio CR-1a as the centerpiece of your set up is wise. The CR-1a is very rugged and engineered to last. Most importantly, you can power and charge it on a wide range of voltages (6-18 VDC). That’s power flexibility! Thanks for your entry!
from Eric McFadden (WD8RIF)
What a fun thought-experiment!
For the shortwave listening station radio, I’d buy a Sony ICF-SW7600GR portable shortwave receiver. It’s stable, sensitive, selective, provides SSB and synchronous-detector, and runs on common AA cells. It’s available for about $132 on Amazon but I’d probably buy from Universal Radio.
I’d buy an Emtech ZM-2 “z-match” tuner ($65 in kit form, $90 built, direct from Emtech) to use between the Sony and the random-length wire antenna; I’d adjust the tuner’s two knobs for maximum noise in the receiver. A 3′ RG-8X coax BNC-to-BNC jumper ($6 at Universal Radio) plus a BNC-female to 3.5mm-male adapter (#4546, $3 at Universal Radio) would be used to connect the Sony to the tuner; the wire antenna would connect directly to the tuner’s binding post. A short length of wire could be used as a ground-connection or counterpoise, if desired. I’d also take a pair of solder-less alligator clips (less than $1 each, many sources) and a solder-less 3.5mm plug (I have one of these but haven’t yet found a source for a new one; I might have to make one) in case I would want to (or need to) use the random-wire antenna without the z-match tuner.
The receiver uses for four cells; one of the panels could (probably) charge a set of four cells each day and the Eneloop chemistry would allow the charged batteries to remain charged while not in use. The second 8-pack of Eneloops and the second Powerfilm solar-charger provide redundancy. It’s unlikely that one evening’s listening on the Sony would discharge a set of cells so it wouldn’t be a problem if the solar panel needs more than one day to fully charge a set of four cells.
If I choose the kit version of the z-match tuner and don’t buy an MFJ-1910 mast, the total comes to $449.
I am an amateur radio operator and would want to take along some sort of transceiver. Given my druthers, I’d take my Elecraft KX3 and forget about the ICF-SW-17600GB but that’s against the rules of this Challenge.
Since I can’t take my existing KX3, I’d buy a YouKits HB1B Four Band CW QRP Transceiver (80/40/30/20m, $300 from YouKits), a Whiterock MK-33 single-lever CW paddle ($30 from Electronics USA), two pairs of inexpensive over-the-head stereo earphones (~$10/ea), a ten-cell AA holder (#10AAT, $7 at Batteries America), and another set of 2000mAh AA Eneloop cells. I’d use the same random-wire antenna I deployed for the listening post, and the same Emtech ZM-2 z-match tuner to match the transceiver to the random-wire. The 8-pack of Eneloops plus two cells “borrowed” from the extra set purchased for the listening post would be used to make a 10-cell battery-pack for the transceiver. Using both Powerfilm chargers would probably allow me to fully-charge ten cells in a two-day period. I’d have to balance the charging needs of the listening post and the ham station but I think it wouldbe workable.
The cost of the ham station comes to $382.
The rules of the Challenge were unclear about whether the cost of a tablet/smartphone/PC was to come from the $1200. Either way, I’d probably limit myself to a 7″ tablet such as the Nexus 7 I bought myself last year for $150. A Powefilm USB + AA Foldable Solar Panel ($80 from Amazon) could be used to charge such a 7″ tablet. (And the same panel could be used to charge cells 9 and 10 of my 10-cell ham radio battery pack, allowing me to charge the ten-pack in a single day instead of needing two days.)
The grand-total of all of this stuff comes to $1,061, leaving enough to purchase a second ICF-SW7600GR to take as a spare.
I know this is just a mind-experiment but I’d love to hear what the HF bands sound like so many miles from any RFI sources!
Eric, I like how you’ve balanced your ham radio and shortwave listening needs in this kit. While there was no restrictions to keep you from using a KX3 (both a superb transceiver and general coverage receiver), your set up allowed for more extras and back-up supplies. Since a basic kit version of the KX3 costs about $930 (shipped) it would have eaten up much of your budget. Since I own a KX3, my first inclination was to design a kit around the KX3 as well (if the budget would have even been $100 more, I probably would have). With your kit, you have a little money to spare, plenty of antenna-making supplies, a fantastic antenna tuner for both SWLing and QRP, a benchmark portable receiver and a capable four band QRP CW transceiver as well. Great job! (Readers, Eric has an excellent website devoted to ham radio and QRP–his projects are beautifully documented.)
from RS Wood
By the sound of it, this is a Peace Corps assignment. May as well ask a former Peace Corps volunteer!
I’d personally recommend you keep a low profile: traditional peoples like those you find in Bhutan will see your fancy antenna on the roof and assume you’re a spy or something. I’d go for a portable shortwave – something in the $150-$300 range from Sangean or Tecsun, as well as a $35 indoor, powered antenna (they run on AAA batteries). Buy a second radio as backup.
For internet use, assume you’re going to be offline for long periods of time. Get a netbook, not a tablet/smartphone, and one or two USB hard drives for storing your stuff. Ditch gmail/hotmail and get an account from which you can download email and store locally when you’re in town (fastmail.fm, toast.net) – look for POP3, not IMAP. Idea is: you go into town, plug in somewhere, download and store your stuff locally, and can use your machine at your house, with no connection to the internet, to write. You might be able to get a GSM modem if service extends to your post; that’s another reason to have a machine with USB slots into which you can stick a USB modem (yes, dialup) or GSM (cellphone) modem. Used netbook on ebay should run you $200; add another $200 for external harddrives you bring stocked with stuff (ebooks, etc.).
Lastly, bring as many notebooks, pens, and books as you can. Speaking from experience, you’ll find yourself doing more reading and writing, and less internet. And I repeat: keep your radio low-profile. Whip out the huge radio and antenna and your neighbors will distrust you, seriously.
Good cultural points! This is true. In the past, I have given this same advice to aid workers traveling to impoverished urban areas. Not only does a conspicuous setup attract attention, but also (sadly) theft–not just of your radio, but anything else in your house. Fortunately, I have only heard positive reports from Bhutan–houses without locks, that sort of thing. Thanks for your entry!
from Ariel Jacala (NY4G)
For starters – I would either build from scratch or buy a new Elecraft K2. Since I would be on assignment for 2 years, I would need to be able to repair my gear. A K2 is built from through hole components so it is repairable. All I would need are some spare parts for the components that are known to be failure prone – mostly diodes. I would consult with W3FPR for his recommended list of spare components from his experience of repairing hundreds of K2s. If I can find a used one with a SSB module, so much the better. I would volunteer to build one for someone else just to get the build experience.
The next thing is toss up. Cabelas sells 500 watt generator for $350 dollars or do I get a small amp. Provided I can get gasoline from the villagers, the generator will make living here at least bearable – for lights, charging batteries and another power source other than the sun. The amp goes for $300 – a Hardrock50 which I have built. Is it worth the extra 6 or 7 dB from 10 watts? You bet. In an emergency I can use the extra 40 watts or for a long overdue ragchew in English.
There you go
Transceiver, batteries, solar panel with money to spare. – about $350 left.
Ariel: Very smart of you to consult Don Wilhelm (W3FPR) as he is the most knowledgeable source of info about the K2 and any weaknesses it may have. I have a K2 and completely agree–it’s probably the most capable transceiver that can be field serviced. The only weakness of the K2 (for this hypothetical trip) is the fact that it does not have a general coverage transceiver. For any broadcast listening, you’d want to use some of that $350 surplus for a portable receiver–easily accommodated in your budget! I know you Ariel, and am willing to bet that most of your radio time would be in the ham bands! Thanks for your entry!
from Anil Raj
Spend two years in Bhutan, off-grid and with no internet… Wow! That is probably the most extreme scenario one can think of! However, not completely alien to me as I work in the energy business setting up power plants in off-grid areas http://www.omcpower.com/
These are my thoughts:
Click to enlarge.
Clearly, the single largest limitation is going to be the availability of reliable power. A quick look at a solar insolation map for the region makes it clear that solar which would normally be the most convenient source of power cannot be relied upon in this case.
My choice for reliable power would be a combination of a solar charger with a set of Eneloops and the BioLite stove since all it needs to generate useful power are twigs and sticks. It generates about 3 – 4 Watts which can comfortably power a small radio. I’m pretty sure the stove would come in handy in the winter to keep warm as well! The daily ritual of lighting a small wood fire to listen to the radio might eventually become a meditative experience… Price $ 118.00 + $130.00 + $20.00
My choice here is the Sony 7600GR. It is time tested having been on the market for over a decade. In my opinion it has by far the most robust build quality in it’s price range. SSB is a must, and the Sony performs well in this department, and the AM sync is a bonus feature. The main reason for my choice however, is the frugal power consumption – about 50 mA. The Sony also happily runs off a 5 V supply like a USB charger which simplifies the power issue significantly. Price $ 130.00 on Ebay
Headphones are a must to keep power consumption low and my choice here are the “Sleep Phones” http://www.sleepphones.com/ The fantastic thing is that these also keep your ears warm (Himalayan winters) and of course you can use them in bed without the discomfort normal headphones or earbuds usually give. Price $ 40.00
Being a ham, it is obvious that a transceiver will have to be a part of the plan. Any of the traditional general coverage transceivers available today would immediately break the energy budget and not be viable for more than a couple of weeks. Here my choice is the Mizuho MX-14s handheld. This tiny rugged 20 M transceiver puts out 2 W on SSB and CW, fits in my pocket and hardly draws any power. My plan would be to keep it for emergency use only in case a license is not possible. I have used one of these for several years and know what is possible with 2 Watts and a good antenna. Power is from a set of Energizer AA lithium batteries which can hold a charge for up 20 years.
My choice would be the HyEndFed antennas EFHW and the most suitable would be the 20 M version which would work fine as a random wire for the Sony receiver as well as and End Fed Half Wave for the transceiver. These antennas are built to a very high spec with silver plated wire with teflon insulation etc. Price including feeder and adapters $ 120.00
So, all the bits and pieces together add up to about $ 1000.00 which is comfortably inside the budget. I would definitely spend the rest on woollen socks!
Anil, this is brilliant! What I like best is that your kit is based on your experience both with alternative energy and the equipment you’d plan to use. Having built a solar house myself, I also consulted a solar isolation map when first tackling this Bhutanese challenge. You’re right: unless you have a semi-permanent PV system to trickle charge a battery anytime you have solar gain, you could be disappointed if relying on portable solar alone. Though I had heard about the BioLite, I’ve never used one. I’m very tempted to buy one now. I see where it could provide two important resources at once: heat and power. I also love the idea of the Mizuho MX-14s HT transceiver; though it’s limited to 20 meters, that would be one of the best and most useful bands if you decided to get on the air. I’ve read that the Mizuho is nearly bullet-proof. Still, like Ariel with the K2, I would consult Mizuho MX-14s users in advance of the trip and perhaps stock up on components that commonly fail. Looks like they would be relatively easy to replace in the field (with an inexpensive battery-powered soldering iron). Thanks for your thoughtful entry!
What fun! Thank you all…
I know this sort of challenge may not appeal to everyone, but I really enjoy it. This sort of exercise forces you (though safely) outside the comfort-zone of a home radio set-up. Your responses are truly innovative.
Thanks, again, for your participation! If your response wasn’t included above, or I didn’t respond to you directly, please let me know: it’s possible I skipped over yours by mistake as there were quite a few responses to collate, and my email is managed by a rather discriminating SPAM filter.
Meanwhile, if you think of an alternative set-up–or would like to add your own to this post–please comment below!
I already have more than six future reader challenges waiting in the wings: all based on real inquiries from readers. I hope to post another in the near future.
If you’re a regular reader, you’ll know that I’ve been on the road for the past three weeks, and have enjoyed some quality radio time in New Mexico and Colorado. While I brought four portables along (the CommRadio CR-1, the Sony ICF-SW7600GR, the Tecsun PL-380, and the Tecsun R1212A), when conditions were favorable and I wanted to chase a little DX, I chose the CommRadio CR-1.
I’ve sung the praises of the CR-1as a great travel radio in the past, when it accompanied me on several shorter trips, but this particular road trip afforded me some quality time with this little rig.
What makes the CR-1 such a great radio for travel?
Internal battery powers the CR-1 for hours at a time (meets FAA regulations, too; you can pack it and fly with confidence)
Charge or power the radio from a generic phone USB charger or 12 V power supply (indeed, the CR-1 can be powered from a variety of sources–anything from 6-18 Volts)
Mil Spec tested and tough
Compact footprint; this one is as small as most shortwave portables
OLED display that works from a variety of viewing angles
Resin feet can even be removed if packing space is severely limited
Very quick to deploy
The CR-1, hooked up to my Zoom H2N digital recorder, on the balcony of our Keystone, Colorado condo
One con of the CR-1 is that its front panel function buttons are not backlit. Fortunately, there are only six buttons, so it was easy to commit them to memory: I did so much outdoor nighttime listening, I can now operate the CR-1 in the dark.
Although the CR-1 is basically a tabletop SDR, it reminds me very much of the Palstar R30C I once owned and Lowe receivers I’ve used in the past–simple and effective.
The photo at the top of the post was taken in the back garden of a friends’ home in Taos, NM. Though you can’t see this in the photo, it was hooked up to a Par Electronics EF-SWL wire antenna at the time. It took five or so minutes to hang the EF-SWL in a tree, but took me only a few seconds to pull the CR-1 from a small flight case, plug in the antenna, and have it on the air. I charged the CR-1 prior to the trip so I didn’t even need a power supply. In fact, the internal battery powers the CR-1 long enough, I only charged it perhaps twice on the whole trip.
A flight case I purchased for $3 at a charity store holds the CR-1, the Sony ICF-SW7600GR and the Tecsun PL-380. This case is fairly bullet-proof, protecting the contents even if dropped or heavy items are placed on it.
The CommRadio CR-1a
CommRadio recently introduced the CR-1a, identical to the CR-1 in every respect but with the addition of a USB I/Q output, making it a very capable SDR when connected to a PC–and simplifying the update process to one step (the CR-1 requires two steps).
In conclusion? My appreciation for this rig has grown. If you’re searching for a capable travel receiver, certainly consider adding the CommRadio CR-1 or the CR-1a to your list of considerations.
Post reader Rob Wagner (VK3BVW), in Australia, could receive the broadcast on three frequencies (5,875, 5,985, and 7,350). He’s included clips of each broadcast on his excellent blog, The Mount Evelyn DX Report.
As for me, I was traveling to visit family yesterday afternoon when the broadcast started. I knew from listening endeavors on previous visits that receiving a broadcast indoors at their home is not feasible; there is some sort of power line noise in that area that overwhelms anything on the short or medium wave bands, unless the station is very strong.
To cope with this noise, I knew I would need to move my operation outdoors, away from the house, and employ an outdoor antenna. So I packed the following, all into my small flight case: the CommRadio CR-1, a NASA PA-30 15 foot passive wide-band wire antenna, and the Zoom H2n Handy Recorder
I hung the PA-30 antenna in a nearby tree, spread a wool army blanket on the ground for lounging, and put the mini flight case to use as a stand to hold the radio and recorder. The CR-1 required no external power supply, as its internal battery had been charged in advance (one of the reasons I love this little receiver for travel).
To try out the set-up, I tuned around the bands. Conditions were rough, thunderstorms were in the region, but I was most impressed that I could hear several broadcasters on 31 meters. I knew that the BBC broadcast would be a tough catch; after all, none of their transmissions were targeting my part of the globe–rather, the opposite!
When I tuned to the BBC broadcast on 7,350 kHz, here’s what I heard:
This is (very) rough copy; for five or so minutes, you’ll hear me switching between AM/USB and LSB to find the best mode for the signal. I also check the other BBC frequencies to see if any were more audible.
In the end, using ECSS (zero-beating the signal in USB) seemed to work best.
For fun, I had also brought along the Tecsun PL-660–a choice portable radio for weak signal DX. I tuned to 7,350 and could just hear the BBC signal in the noise, but voice and music were unintelligible.
What did I get out of the experience? Good copy? Alas, no.
But there’s nothing like the fun of playing radio outdoors! Even though the copy was rough, propagation deplorable, and static crashes abundant, I thoroughly enjoyed the experience. Moreover, I was amused to note that while I listened (and sweated) outside in the very hot, muggy conditions of the American southeast, a few scientists huddled near the extremely chilly southern pole at that exact moment, were tuning in the exact same broadcast. It somehow made the heat bearable.
That’s the remarkable camaraderie of radio: truly, a wireless community.
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 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.
Travel Radio Features
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.
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.
Sangean ATS-909X • Pros: Good performance, RDS, nice display; • Cons: priciest of the full-featured radios
Sony ICF-SW7600GR • Pros: Study chassis, great performace • Cons: no tuning knob, poor ergonomics
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.
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
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.
Though 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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Spread the radio love
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