My Red Oxx Micro Manager packed with a full radio field kit
Yesterday, my family packed a picnic lunch and took a drive through Madison County, North Carolina. It was an impromptu trip. Weather was forecast to be pretty miserable that afternoon, but we took the risk because we all wanted to get out of the house for a bit.
Although that morning I had no intention of performing a Parks On The Air (POTA) activation, my family was supportive of fitting in a little radio-activity, so I jumped on the opportunity!
A quick glance at the POTA map and I determined that the Sandy Mush State Game Land (K-6949) was on our travel route. Better yet, the timing worked out to be ideal for a lunch picnic and before most of the rain would move into the area.
Ready for radio adventure
I had no time to prepare, but that didn’t matter because I always have a radio kit packed, fully-charged, and ready for the field.
The Micro Manager pack easily accommodates the entire kit
This 20 year old blue stuff sack is dedicated to antenna-hanging. It holds a reel of fishing line and a weight that I use to hang my end-fed antenna in a tree or on my Jackite telescoping fiberglass pole. The sack also accommodates a 10′ coax cable.
The Elecraft KX2 transceiver, EFT Trail-Friendly Antenna, hand mic, CW paddles, C.Crane earphones, and wide variety of connectors and cables all fit in this padded Lowe Pro pack:
The advantage to having a simple, organized radio kit at the ready is that everything inside has its own dedicated space, so there’s no digging or hunting for items when I’m ready to set up and get on the air.
This level of organization also makes it easy to visually inspect the kit–missing items stand out.
Yesterday I parked our car at one of the Sandy Mush Game Land parking areas, deployed my field antenna, and was on the air in a matter of seven minutes at the most.
Technically, this should read “Activator” parking area! (A questionable inside joke for POTA folks!)
We planned for heavy rain showers, so I fed the antenna line through the back of my car so that I could operate from the passenger seat up front.
I also brought my Heil Proset – K2 Boom Headset which not only produces better transmitted audio than the KX2 hand mic, but it frees up my hands to log stations with ease. This is especially important when operating in the front seat of a car!
The great thing about the KX2 is that it’s so compact, it can sit on my clipboard as I operate the radio (although typically I have an elastic strap securing it better). Since all of the KX2 controls are top-mounted, it makes operation a breeze even in winter weather while wearing gloves.
Since I routinely use the KX2 for shortwave radio broadcast listening as well, I know I always have a radio “locked and loaded” and ready to hit the air. My 40/20/10 meter band end-fed antenna works well for the broadcast bands, as long as there is no strong local radio interference (RFI). When I’m faced with noisy conditions, I pack a mag loop antenna as well.
What’s in your radio go-kit?
Having a radio kit stocked and ready to go on a moment’s notice gives me a great sense of security, and not just for recreational ham and shortwave radio listening reasons.
Sometimes I travel in remote areas by car where I’m more than an hour away from the nearest town and where there is no mobile phone coverage.
If my car breaks down, I know I can always deploy my radio kit and get help from the ham radio community in a pinch. Herein lies the power of HF radio!
If you haven’t built a radio go-kit, I’d highly recommend doing so. Although I’m a bit of a pack geek, keep in mind that you don’t need to purchase special packs or bags for the job. Use what you already have first.
I’m plotting a detailed post about the anatomy of an HF radio field kit. In the meantime, I’m very curious how many of you in the SWLing Post community also have a radio kit at the ready–one based on a transceiver or receiver. Please comment!
Better yet, feel free to send me details and photos about your kit and I’ll share them here on the Post!
“Who makes and sells your canvas bag? Inquiring minds want to know!”
Frank was referring to the bag in the background on many of the radio shots–and he wasn’t alone in his inquiry. I received a few email messages and inquiries on Facebook about this bag.
Be warned: I’m an avid bag and pack geek. If you find the topic boring, you should run away now!
The Red Oxx “Lil Roy”
The Lil Roy might look like a typical canvas bag. But the Lil Roy isn’t made by the typical pack manufacturer–it’s made by Red Oxx Manufacturing in Billings, Montana, USA. Red Oxx gear isn’t just designed in Montana, it’s made in Montana. The two leaders, Jim Markel and President Perry Jones, are military veterans and bring mil-spec quality to all of their products.
I love the design of Red Oxx bags–they’re not tactical, but they’re not really low-profile or urban either. Markel describes the design as:
“Tactical strength without looking like you’re going to war.”
I was first introduced to Red Oxx gear in 2012 when I traveled to a meeting in Denver with my good friend Ed Harris (who is an SWLing Post reader).
Even though Ed and I had traveled together in Belize and had known each other for quite a while, I never realized he was a one-bag traveler like me. Once the topic came up, we proceeded to talk about our main travel bags. Ed showed me his Air Boss by Red Oxx.
The Red Oxx Air Boss.
I instantly fell in love with the overall quality and the bold Red Oxx design.
All Red Oxx bags are manufactured to the company’s high standards, including the Lil Roy…
Four portable radios, an antenna reel and earphones all easily fit into the Lil Roy with room to spare.
Though it looks like a canvas bag, the Lil Roy is made of 1000 weight CORDURA nylon. Red Oxx uses super strong UV resistant threads in the stitching and into every seam. Each stress point is box stitched.
Red Oxx uses large, pricey #10 YKK VISLON zippers on all of their bags. They slide beautifully and if you don’t zip up the bag completely, the zippers won’t slide back open–they essentially lock into place. They’re even field-repairable.
Inside the Lil Roy you’ll find two “stiff mesh” pockets on each inside wall with Red Oxx Mil-Spec snaps to keep things contained.
FYI: If you ever want to check the quality of a bag or pack, flip it inside out and look for frays, bad stitching and incomplete seams. Cheap bags are loaded with them–you won’t find one thread out of place on a Red Oxx bag.
While the Lil Roy is a small bag, I’ve found that it holds a lot of stuff. This month, I’ve had no less than four radios to beta test and review. I found that the Lil Roy can hold all of my portables and accessories, making it easy to grab the whole lot and take them to the field for testing.
While in Canada this summer, I had to do all of my radio listening and testing in the field. I was able to pack my portable radio and my recording gear into the Lil Roy with room to spare.
Listening to the 2017 BBC Antarctic Midwinter Broadcast from the back of my vehicle in Saint-Anne-de-Beaupré, Québec, Canada.
I’ve also packed my CommRadio CR-1a, NASA PA-30 antenna and all assorted cables for a little weekend travel and radio fun. The Lil Roy easily accommodated everything. In the photo below, I simply placed the CR-1a inside (on top of the CC Skywave and CC Skywave SSB) to show how much room there is to spare:
So are there any negatives? Perhaps one: the Lil Roy was never designed to carry radio equipment, so there’s no padding inside.
Indeed, I believe Red Oxx initially designed Lil Roy for someone who wanted a bag to hold their car chains. Of course, most customers use the Lil Roy as an electronics organizer–something to hold tablets, Kindles, cables, etc. Some even use it as a packing cube.
Since there’s no padding in the bag, I’m selective about what I put inside and how I pack it. Most of my portables have soft cases that protect them anyway. When I put something like the CommRadio CR-1a inside, I enclose the radio in a soft padded sack. Even though the sack makes the CR-1a bulkier, the Lil Roy can still easily accommodate it.
In general, Red Oxx gear is considered pricey by most standards. After all, you’re purchasing products wholly designed and made in the United States, so US wages are baked into that price. On top of that, Red Oxx backs all of their stuff with what they call a “No Bull” no question’s asked Lifetime Warranty. Because of this warranty, Red Oxx gear holds its value amazingly well. The warranty still holds even if you purchase the bag used.
I also believe when you’re purchasing from Red Oxx, you’re supporting a good local company that does one thing and does it very well.
The Lil Roy retails for $35 US. I think it’s a fantastic value for a simple, rugged bag that can be used in a variety of applications. The longer I’ve had it, the more uses I’ve found.
I tend to want a little more protection and space so I use a tactical military type shoulder bag for my portable radio kit. It hangs nicely off the back of the passenger’s seat in my car and allows me to keep my PL-660, spare batteries, portable wire antenna, earphones, frequency lists, and other gear all together in a handy pack.
JC’s shoulder pack
The price is about $13.60 w/ free shipping. It’s a great bag for my portable kit, and it’s built pretty sturdy. Any extra protection is better than none for a radio used out in the field.
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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