Several years ago, while camping at Upper Lena Lake in Olympic National Park, I met a fellow camper who had a “ham” radio. We got to talking and he talked about being able to pick up signals from all the way back to the main highway. I realized this could be a really useful form of communication, particularly in an emergency. It stuck in my mind, but several years went by before I ever acted on it.
Finally, just a few weeks ago, I passed my Technician Amateur Radio License exam, and was given my call sign: KJ7PLM. Since then I’ve gotten in deep, joining a local repeater group, the city’s amateur communication services group (which responds if emergency comms are needed), and investing heavy into radio gear (for someone who’s only been on the air for a week). I’m sure this hobby will inspire many more blog posts to come, but since I have (almost) completed my radio go bag, I thought I’d share what I’ve put together so far. There is so much more still to explore in this area (such as a go box using a higher powered, mobile radio, and a more robust home shack).
The core of my setup are two Yaesu VX-6R handheld radios. I chose the Yaesu VX-6R due to it’s robust durability and water resistance. Taking it in the backcountry, I’m likely to encounter all sorts of challenging environments. It also is likely to hold up should I ever face a long-term local emergency situation.
Getting two of the exact same radio provides redundancy should parts fail. A large part of my initial motivation was around communication when we are off the grid, which for us is not uncommon. So having two radios is pretty critical for us to communicate with each other (once my wife gets her license). And it makes it easy to keep them both programmed the same, I simply update the current programming and upload it to both radios. And the parts (from antennas to batteries to mics and headsets) are completely interchangeable.
They are analog only, but I’ve only barely started, so that’s okay for my current needs. I will get more into digital as I learn more, and someday I’m sure I’ll pick up a digital radio. But as starter radios, this is a great set. And so far, I love them.
The Home Shack
- Desktop charging base to hold the radio
- Yaesu MH-57A4B hand mic (not often used, I generally tend to use the radio itself as my hand mic, just because getting the mic on and off the threaded port is a bit of a pain)
- Yaesu SSM-64A headset (not pictured, currently lost in the US Postal Service) for when I’m at home but don’t want to wake or bother the family.
- SignalLink USB for digital over analog functions (still figuring it out, my first step is to play with WinLink)
- Two Midland T50P3 FRS handheld radios (they used to be FRS/GMRS until the FCC changed the bands to make all 22 simplex channels FRS)
- Wireless phone charger for my iPhone 8 Plus
- Garmin inReach Explorer GPS communicator and navigator
- 11-inch iPad Pro (as much a part of my mobile kit as my home shack)
- MacBook Pro 16-inch
Not a particularly complicated setup. But it works well. For now I’m using the OSJ J-Pole on a LeoFoto LS-223C mini tripod. But my next big project will be to install a Comet CX-333. I have most of the components needed. I’ll post more about that install once it’s finished. But the general plan so far is a non-penetrating roof mount (so I can move it around and see how the signal improves) and a broadband junction box to allow for future expansion once I drill through into my home.
The Go Bag
So, now what you’ve all been waiting for, my decked out handheld go bag. The bag is not “dialed in.” But it is a complete kit already. I have some new additions already on their way, and the bag itself is over stuffed, so I need to make some decisions about smaller items or a larger bag. But, overall it’s a great kit as it is now. So, with that said, here it goes!
|Yaesu VX-6R (2)||As with the home kit, my go bag centers around the pair of Yaesu VX-6Rs. Great solid radios. They are analog only, but super durable and water resistant.|
|Slim Jim J-Pole||This is a great portable antenna. It’s got 16 feet of lead line ending with an SMA-Male connector to plug in directly to the radios. In retrospect, I might have gotten one without the lead line so I could switch out lead line lengths, but in this scenario, I also have the open stub J-pole, so this would likely go with a minimal kit while the open stub stayed at base camp.|
|Signal Staff Collapsible OSJ||The OSJ (short for open stub J-pole) is an amazing, portable antenna. This antenna has been my go to anytime I need a little extra umpf to reach a repeater. This antenna can handle up to 500 watts, which is well beyond the 5W capability of my handheld. At some point in the future, this will pair nicely with a mobile radio go-box.|
|LeoFoto LS-223C||A compact, yet sturdy “tabletop” tripod to hold the OSJ.|
|Superbat SMA Magnetic Base||This is a handy little tool in a pinch. It allows me to take one of the handheld antennas and put it on the roof of a car. The thin cable and SMA connectors allow my to throw it on a car or a gutter, etc. (if I’m not in my own) to get the antenna outside.|
|VX-6R Rubber Duck Antennas (2)||The triband antennas that came with the radios. Really solid antennas|
|Elastic Signal Stick, Dual Band (2)||These are great antennas. 19 inches fully extended, but can be tied in a knot for storage in the go bag. They only have 2 of the available bands for the VX-6R, but the reception on them is great and I’ve heard rivals the Diamond triband handheld antenna. One is pictures above, the other is still being shipped to me.|
|Comet HT-224 (2, not pictured)||These are ordered but not yet delivered. They are triband antennas that should just fit in my current bag. They are 11 inches as opposed to the 14 inches of the Diamond equivalent. Although the extra length would assuredly provide better signal, it would not fit in the current bag setup, and I was going for portability.|
|Paracord and throw weight||This is for the Slim Jim J-Pole|
|RG8X Coax and Adapters||I have two lengths of coax in my go kit (10 feet and 25 feet) along with several different adapters (SO-239 female to female for joining coax, SO-239 to BNC, BNA to SMA-M, for connecting to different cords I might find in the field.|
|USB Cords||I have a variety of USB cords for power and data transfer (micro, lightning, type C)|
|USB to Mic Cord||For programming the radios. Only one at the moment, might be worth getting a backup in the future.|
|Leatherman Wave||Got this as a gift a long time ago (perhaps in high school?). It’s a great multi-tool. A bit heavy for backpacking purposes, but works great for my radio bag. Perfect for loosening and tightening the OSJ and many other handy tasks.|
|Various Hex Wrenches||Just a handful of odd sized wrenches specific to my radio gear.|
|Various radio charging cables||AC, 12V DC Car plug, and two USB cables for charging the radios in various situations.|
|Anker 20Ah USB Battery||For charging stuff on the go. It’s perhaps a bit big for these purposes, but my wife tends to use our 10Ah battery.|
|Goal Zero Lighthouse Micro||Small flashlight/lantern. I’m usually carrying a source of light (or two) in my everyday carry or my camping gear, but it’s good to have one here just in case. Charges via USB.|
|Goal Zero Nomad 7||Solar charging panel. Can charge just about anything with a USB cable. If I end up off grid in a comms scenario, this will help provide some power on an ongoing basis.|
|Yaesu MH-57A4B hand mic||Great if I’m setting up a base station in a car, tent, building, and want to mount the handheld somewhere. Also can be used on the trail if I want to get the handheld higher to capture a better signal.|
|Yaesu SSM-55A Earpiece||Not pictured (still in transit). For portable operations when there’s already too much noise in the room or I’m trying to be covert (sleeping family).|
|Yaesu Clip-14 (2)||These are pretty much essential for the VX-6Rs. The included clips are worthless, and slip off my pack every time I lean over. It’s a sure fire way to lose them off a mountainside.|
|Yaesu FBA-23 Battery Case||For using AA batteries with the handhelds. This is mostly in an emergency backup. I only have one, but it’s worth considering a second.|
|Extra Yaesu FNB-80LI||Backup battery in case the existing ones run out. Again, only one, but it’s worth considering a second. The Yaesu brand ones are pricey though, and I’m hesitant about a 3rd party brand without hearing a thorough review.|
|Manuals and Paperwork||In a plastic bag, I have the full VX-6R manual, my FCC Amateur Radio License, my GMRS license, a guide to the memory channels on my radio, and a small note pad.
Outside the plastic are laminated The Nifty Mini-Manual and Quick Reference guides for the VX-6R.
|Pens (3)||Simple ball point pens for taking notes. Nothing fancy here. Just ones that I like.|
|USB Drive||Any old drive. This has lots of radio-related information on it:
I use Carbon Copy Cloner to automatically copy the current versions of files and new manuals, licenses, etc. from my laptop to this drive whenever I plug it in.
|Government Issued Style Mechanics Heavy Duty Tool Bag||Got this bag off Amazon for $15. It barely fits everything, so at some point I may need to make decisions about what to remove or to upgrade to a bigger bag. I really like the size of this bag and want all my gear to fit in it. So for the time being, I struggle (first world problems and all). It’s a great bag. Seems like it will hold up well. I love the canvas material.|
On the Trail
My whole go kit weighs a bit over 13 pounds, so obviously I’m not bringing it on the trail with me. Plus there is overlap in my regular hiking gear and this bag. For the most part, on regular hikes, I’ll bring the following:
- One Yaesu VX-6R
- Elastic Signal Stick
- Extra battery
- Slim Jim J-Pole
Depending on the situation I may bring these in addition or instead of:
- Comet HT-224 (if I think I might use the 220 band)
- Goal Zero Nomad 7 or a USB battery and USB charging cable (if I’ll be on the trail a while and care about keeping connected)
- The handheld mic or earpiece (if I’m planning on doing a lot of comms while on the move)
Just the Beginning
As already mentioned, I’m just getting started, so who knows how my kit and shack will grow. But I’m most definitely off to a solid start. Now it’s time to cut myself off and spend some time on the radio waves before making my next move! But keep an eye out, I hope to install my rooftop antenna and post about that soon.