Tag Archives: Travel Shortwave

Give Your Radios a Vacation!

In 2013, I wrote the following feature for the Monitoring Times Magazine.

Looking back, I realize that I never posted this article on the SWLing Post.

Since we’re in the midst of the summer travel season here in the northern hemisphere, I thought I’d post this feature from five years ago.

I’m also adding a number of photos I took at the Radio Canada International Sackville, New Brunswick, transmitting site–one of my stops on this trip. I only recently rediscovered these (400+) photos in my archive and I’ve yet to curate them and post a proper photo tour. Look for that in the coming months.

After you read this article, I’d love to hear where you plan to travel this year in the comments section of this post! Enjoy:


Phare De La Pointe À La Renommée (Marconi Station, Museum and Lighthouse, Quebec, Canada.

A Radio Vacation: escaping RFI in an off-grid vacation cabin

If you’re like me, a vacation–or, for that matter, any kind of travel–is an excellent reason to pack up your radio gear.  I nearly always travel with a shortwave radio, and typically with some portable recording equipment. If space allows, I also pack a small QRP transceiver–specifically, my Elecraft KX1–even if I know my opportunities to get on the air may be limited. But on an extended family vacation?  Well, that affords some excellent hamcation possibilities!

Last year [2012], our family had a golden opportunity: to spend an entire month in an off-grid cabin on the eastern coast of Prince Edward Island, Canada, some 2,500 miles from our home in the US.

Permit me to paint a picture of this little spot of paradise: the rustic cabin is nestled on a 22-acre site on a beautiful eastern bay. From the cabin’s large front windows facing the bay, there is a long-range view of Panmure Island and, further still, of the Georgetown marina.

The view from our off-grid cabin on Prince Edward Island.

As the site is wooded to the rear of the cabin, the environ feels very isolated from the rest of the world; no other homes or outbuildings are visible. And although off-grid, this little cabin sports simple versions of all of the comforts of home: propane gas meant that we always had hot water, a working refrigerator/freezer, and light after sunset in the form of two wall-mounted gas lanterns. Meanwhile, running water was provided by a unique “on demand” petroleum-powered pump.

 

While to some readers, this may not sound like paradise, this charming cabin gave our family a front-row view of nature’s varied character, from the shimmering sunsets over PEI’s famed terra cotta sands or the last stormy lashes of Hurricane Debbie, to the front-yard wildlife in the form of woodpeckers, owls, gulls, egrets, foxes, mink, and even “Black-Eyed Susan,” our resident raccoon. “Off-grid,” meanwhile, afforded all of us a refreshing break from those electronic devices we often become so –with the exception of radios, of course!

On the return route, we planned to take a driving tour of the Gaspe region of Quebec, via the New Brunswick Acadian coastline. Having made the decision to spend four weeks in the little cabin, I instantly started preparing my radio equipment.

Preparations

As you can imagine, an isolated off-grid cabin poses some serious power-supply challenges for a radio hobbyist, but the benefit is a completely RFI-free zone. In truth, not only was I ready for the challenge, I was enthusiastic about it!

It’s worth noting that on most days of the week, I wear two hats: that of radio hobbyist and that of radio-based humanitarian organization director, Ears To Our World (ETOW).  At ETOW, we work in classrooms located in very remote, rural and impoverished parts of the world, delivering appropriate support technologies, such as radios, to those who need them most. While in the isolated setting, I charged myself with the task of testing some of our solar and self-powered technologies–specifically, a portable power pack made by GoalZero called the Escape 150, and several portable panels and chargers made by the US manufacturer, PowerFilm Solar.

Living in an off-grid cabin for a month would give me the necessary time to evaluate the charge/discharge times and simulate the “real life” usage these items would experience in the developing world. Fortunately as a radio hobbyist, I had the means to put that powerpack to the test! My two radio-inspired passions combined harmoniously in this venture.

All told, all the radio equipment and power supplies I packed consumed no more space in our van than two standard suitcases. Even after packing, we found we had room to spare–the children in their carseats had plenty of room to swing their feet.  So, we set our compass on due north, and set out!

Two nights in Sackville, New Brunswick

En route to Prince Edward Island, it’s hard to miss the (now) former Radio Canada International transmission site in Sackville, New Brunswick. The massive site, with its array of curtain antennas and large sign, is a fixture on the Trans-Canada Highway. Only a few months earlier, I had learned that RCI had been dealt devastating cuts by the CBC and that Sackville’s days were numbered; as a result, I felt I had to make a pilgrimage to the site before it was dismantled.

I arranged to tour the site, and was warmly greeted in Sackville.  Though the staff were dealing with the oppressive news of the pending cuts, were bravely doing their professional best to carry out their duties as usual. The site was immaculate, the transmitters humming. On my tour, I took as many photos as my digital camera would hold, and soon I found myself taking up the cause, mentally working out an action plan to save it from total dismantlement. For many years, this site has been a landmark near the New Brunswick/Nova Scotia provincial line, and I hope in some capacity it will remain there, even for history’s sake. This relatively remote part of Canada has broadcast memorable events and news to every corner of our globe.  It seemed a shame to undo the work of so many previous years. And indeed, the petition I authored this fall has garnered over 600 signatures, so it is clear there are many that feel the same. The decision is now in the hands of politicians.

Photos of RCI Sackville

Many, many thanks to my amazing tour guide, Marcel Cantin, who gave me unfettered access to the RCI Sackville site. Merci bien, Marcel!

Arriving at the cabin

After leaving Sackville for Nova Scotia, we took the Wood Islands ferry across the Northumberland Strait and arrived at our cabin well before dinner time. The morning after arriving at our little off-grid cabin, I sprayed myself down with a little insect repellent and spent an hour installing an inverted vee. I’ve found that, instead of pre-building an antenna, it’s easier for me to conduct a site assessment and simply put the pieces together in a configuration that makes sense. That’s the great thing about temporary QRP antennas: no soldering required. I simply fed my antenna with ladder line, used a PVC “T” joint as a center insulator and large plastic buttons for the insulators at the end of the legs of my antenna.  I held the whole thing together with wire nuts and black electrical tape. Yet because it was electrically sound and balanced, it worked like a charm. Indeed, I didn’t even worry about the length of the radiating elements since I had my Elecraft T1 auto antenna tuner on hand.

That Sunday morning, I set up my entire ham radio and shortwave listening station all before my family was ready to venture out for the day. That afternoon, I worked stations in the US, Canada, and many of the islands in the Caribbean. I was delighted, to say the least.

Off-grid ham fun

My Elecraft K2 and Elecraft T1 combination was working beautifully on all bands down to 80 meters.  I found that, even with heavy use, the K2 required very little of my 30 aH battery. Each day, I charged the battery with two of my foldable 5 watt PowerFilm Solar panels fed in parallel (equating to 10 watts).   I never ran out of power for the K2 and had enough surplus to easily power some 12V LED lanterns, as well.

I was most impressed with the performance of my solar-powered Elecraft K2–no doubt, the very close proximity of salt water (perhaps 200 feet from the antenna) and the height of my inverted vee both helped. Though I worked some CW, I made more SSB contacts than I typically make while portable. I even found that I punched through a couple of pile-ups. Some kind operators also noted me on DX watch lists, and I found myself on the other end of mini pile-ups. Most encouraging were the numbers of other QRP stations I worked, even on SSB. In short, I was having a great time…!

SWLing

I brought four receivers with me on this trip, the plan being to compare their reception: a Winradio Excalibur, Bonito RadioJet, Sony ICF-7600GR, and a Tecsun PL-380. Shortwave radio listening in this coastal spot was nothing short of amazing. In my band-scanning, I heard many of the international stations audible from my southern-US home, like Voice of Greece, All India Radio, Radio France International, the BBC World Service, and Radio Australia.

Listening to the final broadcast of Radio Netherlands on Prince Edward Island.

Though I planned to do some serious 2 MHz spectrum captures on my WinRadio Excalibur, I had not taken one thing into account: the amount of noise that the built-in modified sine wave inverter on the GoalZero Escape 150 generated.  It overwhelmed the Excalibur and rendered listening useless. I could have easily remedied this, had I realized that the input on the WinRadio receiver required a steady 12VDC–I could have used an appropriate battery and never bothered with the inverter. The RadioJet, meanwhile, performed quite well, though my laptop’s battery had a hard time supporting itself and the receiver for more than an hour without the need of a total recharge. While the GoalZero Escape 150 power pack performed very well with DC usage, the inverter could drain a full charge in less than two hours of use.

Any given morning during that vacation, you would find me lounging in front of the cabin’s large glass windows–often watching the sunrise–and listening to CKZN in St. John’s, Newfoundland, on 6,160 kHz–a CBC Radio One shortwave relay in Newfoundland. Though I can hear CKZN back home when conditions are just right, it’s faint.  On PEI, however, it was armchair listening as I sipped my morning java.

Sadly, I lost two shortwave broadcast companions on that trip to PEI: Radio Canada International, and Radio Netherlands Worldwide, each of whom played their final broadcasts.  In both cases, I listened. Most notable were RNW’s final hours, as they actually broadcast tributes throughout the day, targeted at North America. I actually made several recordings from our cabin, and have posted them online: https://swling.com/blog/2012/07/radio-netherlands-says-farewell-in-style/

Marconi stations

Top of the Cape Bear Lighthouse

What’s more, I even got to relive a little radio history in our travels. On PEI we visited the Marconi Station at the Cape Bear Lighthouse. According to lighthouse staff, this little station was one of the first (they will claim, the first) to receive the distress call from the Titanic.

View from the Cape Bear Lighthouse

An amazing bit of history from this wind-battered, rusting little lighthouse perched on the edge of a small cliff now being undercut by the Atlantic waters, as are so many along that eroding coast. The station tour includes a lot of radio history to this effect, but unfortunately the radio operation display is completely inaccurate: I seriously doubt any Marconi operator used a Heathkit to hear the Titanic distress signal. (Consequently, if any generous radio historians have a Marconi station they would like to donate, this deserving Lighthouse Society would greatly appreciate the fitting gift.)

On the final leg of our trip, we visited another Marconi Station at a breathtakingly beautiful lighthouse–Pointe-à-la-Renommée–where it stands on a bluff overlooking the mouth of the St. Lawrence on the very northeastern tip of Quebec’s Gaspé peninsula. This station, sited by Marconi in 1904, has many historic displays with original photographs spanning the decades, copy from messages sent and received, and a guided history of the station. Pointe-à-la-Renommée also features a very respectable collection of telegraph keys and Marconi console receivers.  But the red lighthouse itself is the real show-stopper, with its gorgeously-faceted crystal above a charming lighthouse keeper’s house and cluster of outbuildings, on the green wind-swept bluff dotted with wild strawberries, and surrounded by the dark blue Atlantic waters far below.

Photos from Pointe-à-la-Renommée and the Marconi museum

Field Day with the Charlottetown Amateur Radio Club

Field Day coincided with our summer vacation, too, and I hated to miss hanging out with my local ham buddies on my favorite event day of the year. I decided to attempt to turn this relative misfortune into an opportunity: before we left on vacation, I did a bit of research and learned that there would be a Field Day event near Charlottetown, PEI.  After a few inquiring emails, I discovered that this Field Day site was only twenty minutes from where we were staying. The stars had clearly aligned.

One of the Charlottetown Amateur Radio Club members working SSB contacts.

On Field Day, I was greeted most warmly by the good folks at the Charlottetown ARC. They instantly took me in as one of their own–offering food and drink, and chatting with me as if I had always been a part of their club.  Best of all, when Field Day officially began, they put me on the mic on 20 meters. Evidently, they decided it would be fun to hear me announcing their callsign on the air in my southern accent. They got what they asked for! From the moment I took the mic, I had almost an instant pile-up; not because of my accent, however, but because Charlottetown offered one of the few stations on PEI, and the opportunity for participants to log the Maritime section.

I spent the better part of Saturday with them and hated to leave. Upon returning to the cabin and my family, I found that my artistic wife had created a little birthday present for me: a watercolor painting of my Vibroplex single-lever paddle.  Truly, the key to my heart. (Ahem!)

It was a wonderful Field Day, after all.

Looking back

Both the family vacation and my personal “hamcation” were a treat, and I’m ready to do this all again in the near future. Having such an extended stay made all of the difference, as I didn’t have to squeeze radio in, nor was it in competition with our other plans. Rather, radio became the thing I turned to when we were relaxing in the cabin, when my kids were drawing or playing, and my wife painting or reading–during our laid-back interludes between exploratory outings and adventures.

My Elecraft K2 turned out to be a superb off-grid transceiver

I did learn a few things about playing radio completely off-grid.  First of all, my QRP field events (like Field Day, FYBO, FOBB, etc.) had me totally prepped for off-grid ham radio. In fact I didn’t forget a single connector, battery, tool or accessory. Setting up my outdoor wire antenna was a simple matter and I had fun on the bands, even though propagation wasn’t always perfect.

What did surprise me was the number of times I turned to my portable shortwave radios over my PC-controlled receivers. Simply put, a good portable radio connected to a random length wire antenna gave the right amount of performance vs. battery consumption. Though the SDRs performed better when hooked up to my inverted vee, they used quite a lot of battery resources since both my laptop and the receiver had to be powered.

If I could go back in time, I would have left the Excalibur at home, brought a general coverage portable transceiver and/or a dedicated tabletop receiver like my Alinco DX-R8. Capturing spectrum on a very RF quiet island location is very appealing, though. To make it work, it would require that I bring a separate 12VDC power supply and spare laptop batteries.  With a modest PV system to recharge the batteries, it would also require constant planning–deciding when and where to listen, in order to recharge.

Most of all, I discovered that no matter where you go, as a ham radio operator, you will find others in your fraternity that will take you in. Field Day is one of my favorite days of the year and spending it with the good folks of the Charlottetown PEI Radio Club made it all the better. Not only did they get a kick out of hearing a southern accent announce their station on the air, but I got a kick out of being on the other end of Field Day pile-ups.

Hamcations don’t have to be month-long ventures, however.  Even squeezing a little radio time in can be fun. A portable shortwave radio tucked into your suitcase on an extended business trip or a portable QRP transceiver on a week at the beach can add to your holiday fun–and if you’re lucky, create a few memories, and possibly even friends.

My Pack List

Transceivers

Receivers

Accessories/Tools

  • One multi-band dipole
  • Sony AN-LP1
  • Grundig roll-up antenna
  • Radio tool box (connectors, tape, crimpers, wire, etc.)

Power

  • Qty 2 PowerFilm Solar 5 Watt foldable PV panels (FM15-300N)
  • Qty 3 PowerFilm Solar AA Foldable Solar Chargers (AA)
  • Qty 1 GoalZero Boulder 15 Solar Panel
  • Qty 1 GoalZero Escape 150 Power (Battery) Pack
  • Qty 1 30 aH gel cell battery in waterproof case

Again, I’d love for readers to share their upcoming travel and radio plans. Please comment!

Dean seeks input for his holiday radio adventure

Many thanks to SWLing Post contributor, Dean Denton–our intrepid 13 year old DXer–who seeks a little input from the community. Dean writes:

I am going on holiday in July this year, to Fuerteventura in Islas Canarias, near west Africa.

This will be the first time I will be going on holiday, you will probably know the feeling. Because I am a hardcore radio-fan, I will of course bring my Tecsun PL-660, and I will be posting clips on my YouTube Channel, EuropeDX.

Please could you give me, some vital tips when going on holiday when DXing?

The Canary Islands are in close proximity to North West Africa, so I will be DXing: Morocco, Mauritius, Algeria, Western Sahara, Senegal and others.

To those who are reading this post, I am compiling a list of tech that I am bringing with me. Please help add to this list, off of your experience of being abroad.

Here is the list:

  • Shortwave Radio, Tecsun PL-660, for the immersion.
  • Tecsun AN-200 Loop antenna, for pulling AM stations.
  • Travel adapter, we all need one.
  • Portable MP3 player, to listen to music
  • A Portable Digital TV, for watching movies on USB.
  • An action camera w/lapel microphone, for capturing videos.
  • FM Transmitter, to show the locals what music is!
  • 4G Mobile Data Router, internet is a basic human requirement.

Please suggest more!

I think that the AM and FM DXing will be breathtaking. The Canary Islands are located where I will be able to pick up African radio stations, but also Transatlantic Brazilian and American stations. Due to the high pressure and high temperature, FM Tropo is not rare in the Canary Island’s climate. Enabling this, it will spark my YouTube channel.

Thank you for reading this, and I hope the SWLing community help me. If you would like to contact me, email me at europedx(at)gmail(dot)com.

Yours,

Dean.

Thanks, Dean! You’re talking my favorite topics: radio and travel!

I know we have a number of readers who live in the Canary Islands.  No doubt, you’ll get to experience some serious radio fun across the bands.

In terms of tips, I would suggest you assume your accommodation could be plagued with radio noise and you may be forced to find an outdoor spot to do all but your FM DXing. If you know where you’re going to stay, check it out on Google Maps and see if there’s an obvious safe spot to play radio outdoors. Of course, it helps if your accommodation has an outdoor space like a balcony, patio or garden.

Looks like you’ve got a pretty good checklist there. Here are a few additional items I typically take on a holiday DXpedition:

  • Earphones/Headphones (never leave home without them!)
  • A small back-up radio (if you have one–something like a Tecsun PL-310ET)
  • A copy of the World Radio TV Handbook (though I don’t take the WRTH if space/weight are too tight–I rely on apps with offline schedules like Skywave Radio Schedules [Android] or Shortwave Broadcast Schedules [iOS])
  • Extra set of AA batteries for the PL-660
  • Small headlamp or flashlight for night time outdoor listening
  • Notepad and pencil for logs

SWLing Post readers: How do you plan and what do you take on radio holidays? Please feel free to comment and share your advice!

A review of the Red Oxx “Lil Roy”: an excellent radio kit bag

Yesterday, I posted some photos of the yet-to-be-released CC Skywave SSB and a number of readers had the same reaction as Frank (K4FMH):

“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’m considering purchasing the Red Oxx Mini Boss or possibly Skytrain in the next few months to replace my Timbuk2 Small Wingman.

Told you…I’m a pack geek! Don’t say I didn’t warn you! 🙂

Click here to check out the Lil Roy at Red Oxx Manufacturing.

Post readers: Red Oxx is one of three quality pack manufacturers I support–Tom Bihn and Spec Ops Brand are two others. Do you have any favorites?  Please comment!

The C. Crane Skywave SSB: A sneak peek!

Tuesday afternoon, I took a number of portable radios to the field: the Tecsun S-8800, Tecsun PL-880, Digitech AR-1780, C. Crane CC Skywave and the new C. Crane CC Skywave SSB.

Last week, I received a pilot run (pre-production) CC Skywave SSB from C. Crane to test and provide feedback. My unit, of course, is still subject to cosmetic changes and engineering tweaks.

Since this is not a final iteration of the product, I won’t comment or review performance other than to say that if you like the original CC Skywave, you should love the new CC Skywave SSB.

C. Crane has kindly given me permission to post a few preview photos.

CC Skywave SSB Photos

First thing you’ll notice is that the CC Skywave SSB is essentially identical to its predecessor in size and shape.

Indeed, the CC Skywave SSB fits the original Skywave’s carry case perfectly. If you’ve purchased a custom protective case–like this one— for the original Skywave, it’ll fit the CC Skywave SSB like a glove.   As you can see above, the front panel design has changed, though. The CC Skywave SSB accommodates four additional function buttons and sports a re-designed speaker grill (similar to the CC Pocket Radio).  Nice touch! C. Crane thought to use that little piece of real estate behind the backstand.

As many of you know, I’m a one-bag-traveler-kind-of-guy who never leaves home without a shortwave radio. On one bag travels, of course, I only carry one full-featured portable. Space is too precious to carry two.

Listening to the 2016 BBC Midwinter Broadcast to Antarctica while traveling in Canada with the CC Skywave.

The original CC Skywave has pretty much been my go-to travel radio since it was released. I’ve taken it everywhere.

I’ve also taken the amazing Sony ICF-SW100 and the full-featured Grundig G6 (which even includes the AIR band) on trips when I wanted access to single sideband mode–something the original CC Skywave lacked. (Note that both of these radios are now discontinued.)

But when traveling in North America or by air, I really appreciate the Skywave’s excellent NOAA weather radio and access to aviation frequencies on the AIR band. Very handy features for the traveler who likes to stay informed.

By adding single sideband mode to an already capable ultra-compact travel radio, C. Crane has created a welcome radio traveling companion indeed.