Portable Off-Grid and QRP Ham Radio

Hello Operators.
Today on OH8STN Ham Radio we discuss a portable ham radio camping trip with OH8HUB. We found ourselves hot tent camping during a severe storm. With storm winds battering our shelter, the gusts made It impossible to deploy or capture any solar power. This left us with limited battery power for our off-grid radio comms training op and an excellent opportunity to study efficient off-grid communications (with a gun to our heads).

Although we drove a car to get to our camping site, once the camp was deployed, the car was off-limits. Of course, during a real emergency, we could have used the car to recharge our batteries. Staying true to the training op, we relied on the battery power we had available to us.

Our portable ham radio station was located at KP24IX. The place was perfect for a WWFF radio camp in the World Wide Flora and Fauna activation area: OHFF-0970. This was on Hailuoto island Finland, in the Gulf of Bothnia.
The storm brought in winds which made it impossible to safely deploy the PowerFilm solar panels, leaving us with finite battery power for the excursion. Luckily we had the Icom IC-705 and Lab599 TX-500 QRP radios, which are both extremely energy efficient rigs. Having energy-efficient radios was critical to not giving up on our goals and calling it a day.


Energy efficient rigs

These days there are quite a few energy-efficient QRP or low power rigs to choose from.

If you want more than 5-10 watts the Xiegu G90 is the most energy-efficient ~QRO HF/6M radio available today. It is also the most budget-friendly HF/6M radio on the market. This rig is often overlooked but is very capable and very efficient compared to its output power.

The Yaesu FT-818 is another option. Unfortunately, when compared to other QRP radios, it is at the high end of the current consumption scale. It still has lower current consumption than an FT-857 or FT-891, but higher than the next set of rigs. Watch on YouTube

The Icom IC-705 has the most built-in features while still coming in under 250ma current draw on RX, with many of those features enabled. It is incomprehensible how the IC-705 can have a color touchscreen, very pleasant display and still come in so low. Watch on YouTube

The Xiegu X5105 and X6100 are also all in one full-featured low current QRP radio. Like the 705 they are full-featured rigs. They do have the added benefit of an internal antenna tuner and internal battery built-in. Watch on YouTube.

The Lab599 Discovery TX-500 is the most energy-efficient QRP radio available today. Even better current consumption than the Elecraft KX2 and KX3. 10 watts output, simple controls, easy to read display, modular configuration and extremely low current consumption make this an interesting choice. Watch on YouTube

Although not field-rechargeable, the Elecraft KX2 is another excellent energy-efficient option. Its big brother the KX3 is field-rechargeable and has an equally impressive current consumption as its sibling. I don’t have either Elecraft radio for the channel yet. If they remain relevant, I hope to add them to the collection in 2022.


Operations

Data Mode Ops

I was operating data modes Winlink and JS8Call with the Icom IC-705 and small LiFePO4 battery pack. The PA500 Amp was used as a tuner but only being driven with 0.5 watts out. This gave an effective output power of ~10 watts. The IC-705 and PA500 amp current consumption were ~300ma. The Microsoft Surface has an internal battery, draws no current unless it is being charged. The Surface internal battery lasted the entire excursion with one quick top-up. This is the beauty of asynchronous communications. Unlike SSB or CW there is no requirement to listen to the radio all the time. You get on, check your messages, then put your computer back into standby mode and turn your rig off. The low current consumption radio can remain on to monitor other modes eg SSB if that is a requirement.

SSB WWFF Activation

OH8HUB worked SSB on the TX-500 radio and DIY EFHW 80m antenna with spiderbeam mast.
Other than to say I was very impressed with OH8HUBs performance activating this WWFF location, I’ll direct you to his blog post outlining our overnight activation, and his opinion of the Lab599 TX500 with a simple 80M EFHW antenna. Please read his blog and show some kindness.
OH8HUB Blog: https://oh8stn.net/3piMBoy


Storm was a good thing. The mixed feedback, not so much!

Lets talk about the excursion and some of the feedback received about it.

Ultimately the storm threw us a curve-ball but created an excellent opportunity for understanding the basics of operating in a “real” grid down or “stuck” off-grid scenario. There has been lots of positive feedback in the video comments, but also those who “just don’t get it”. “Why didn’t you use the car to charge your batteries?” is the most annoying of the feedback. It would be a fair question if I were almost any other YouTuber, but I’m not. Normally I operate man-portable. Hiking, biking, skiing (poorly) but usually human mobility is my thing. I often “feel” like using a vehicle is somehow “cheating” from a training perspective. I say this because It is far too easy to carry everything and the kitchen sink in a vehicle, rather than what is thoughtfully carried. The method is in the process, planning, preparation and training, not how much we can carry. Does that make sense!? For this reason, I am stubbornly happy to get a ride, ride drop off then hike, … but will never “escape” to the safety of the vehicle, once my camp is deployed. Doing so would be dishonest, wouldn’t teach me anything, so I just don’t do it. If fact the “escape to the car” aspect doesn’t even come to mind. We stayed in the tent even though at times it seemed like it was about to blow away. Yes it was nerve-racking at times, but the experience gave us priceless insight not possible without experiencing the storm up close and personal. The point here is we train so we can be effective in all kinds of weather. Perhaps for someone sitting behind their computer screen not having field experience, they can’t see how someone would purposely “ride it out” in a tent, when a vehicle is sitting a few meters away. I guess that depends on the individual and how he/she is wired.

Still, the storm helped validate many of the concepts presented on the channel during 2021. Increased efficiency, lower current consumption, dumping the current hungry rigs for man-portable work (and hoping manufacturers develop a QRO low current rig). Despite the mixed feedback, the trip was worth it.

Perceptions

SSB VS Data
Other feedback (friendly feedback) on this video focused on data comms versus SSB. I once said it is ridiculous to base a communications plan entirely on SSB. I still find this an accurate statement but it requires some context. It is not that I don’t enjoy SSB (I do), it is because wide-bandwidth modes like SSB are less efficient than narrow-bandwidth data modes. It is the same reason you can work a station with JS8, FT8 or CW, which can’t even be heard with SSB. It simply takes much more power to push that SSB signal through the ether, than an FT8, JS8 or Vara HF signal. It is simple physics. SSB is good for real-time tactical comms when it is possible.

Windows is bad
The other strange perception is somehow the Surface Go tablet is not energy efficient. It is! In fact is draws roughly the same power than a Raspberry Pi 4B while it’s charging. It draws less current the the RPi when the battery is full and being kept topped up. Moreover, having its own internal battery, screen, … makes it much simpler to use in the field. I understand these perceptions. We mistakenly believe all things Windows are bad! I would agree Linux as a portable operating system is much more efficient than Windows. I could also say most of the trouble we have with Windows is caused by an inexperienced operator not knowing how to lock down their machines. Measurements count, not feelings. The day I can run a full featured Winlink client with Vara HF on a Linux tablet, I will dump Bill Gates in a lake. 🙂

Objectivity
Try to remember my personal opinions are rarely injected into a topic. Testing until failure then present the results is the best way forward. We should never start out with the desired answer, then try to validate. Let us utilize the testing and present results objectively. That is the only way we learn.

Compared to other YouTubers
Again some feedback saw the need to compare what I do, to other YouTubers. Other channels get out for an hour or two at a time, publishing talking head videos multiple times per week. Not a bad thing. By now though, one would think we can see the difference between someone operating in warm weather for an hour or two at a time, versus what I do! A brief outing without even the need to recharge batteries is not off-grid! Day long or Multi-day excursions force us to face our comms deficiencies. Short excursions not so much. Field testing needs time “in the field”. There is no way around that. Anyone taking shortcuts is sharing entertainment, not education.
With that said, Day long or Multi-day excursion are hard to document and hard to edit. I publish them whenever possible, but won’t rush the process. With that in mind, here is a YouTube playlist of many of my excursions including this one.

Man-Portable and Human mobility for off-grid ham radio

Gear Load-out

The following is the list of the equipment used, related videos, and links to view more information or to purchase the gear. To be clear, I don’t always carry all of this luxury. When man-portable most of the luxuries stay at home. Still, it is nice to have a “proper cup of coffee, sleep in a “real” bed or use a wireless full-featured radio in the field. It is also important to be reasonable with what is carried.

In addition to radio and camping gear, cameras and camera copters are also carried. Batteries for them, chargers, cables, … everything required to document the excursion from multiple angles. This is much more difficult than simply recording a talking head. I digress! I will one day document the camera equipment separately.

Radio Gear

Icom IC-705:

The Icom IC-705 slices, dices, chops, … This is my primary radio for one reason. It has everything built-in for portable data operations. GPS, audio interface, a screen my old eyes can see and read, HF, VHF, UHF, …

GigaParts USA: https://oh8stn.net/32Emj8w
PileupDX EU: https://oh8stn.net/3l8Ar0b


Lab599 Discovery TX500:

The Lab599 TX-500 is a fairly incredible radio. It shows us that if manufacturers wanted to, they could build a lightweight, energy-efficient field radio. I believe everyone passionate about QRP portable ops and having the budget, should pick up one of these as a second radio. I know that sounds crazy, but this radio is special.

PileupDX https://oh8stn.net/3xsVu2k


Chameleon MPAS 2.0:

The Chameleon MPAS 2.0 is my Go-To broadband antenna system. I use this when I need an easy to deploy antenna for regional/DX comms, but need to hop around from one frequency or band to another. It’s 5:! the transformer provides a low SWR across most of HF, making it possible to dial in the antenna with a modest antenna tuner. It is extremely fast to deploy, has a reasonable pack size, and can be transformed into a long wire (random wire) end fed. It alleviates the need to leave the shelter to adjust/retune the antenna, in poor or extreme WX.

GigaParts USA: https://oh8stn.net/3cRY3BJ
PileupDX EU: https://oh8stn.net/3D6Lmxi


Super Antenna MP1:

The Super Antenna MP1 is my go-to easy-to-deploy antenna system when I need a resonant antenna, have no tuner and plan on sitting on a band of frequency for hours or days at a time. It is a shortened 1/4 wave vertical. Small pack size, reasonable weight, and easy to deploy. I like to use it for data modes when I need to sit on a single band or frequency for long periods.

Available from New Super Antenna https://oh8stn.net/3phe7Tf


Rig Expert Stick Pro:

The Rig Expert Stick Pro is carried for troubleshooting HF/VHF/UHF antenna problems in the field. It is a new piece of kit added to my gear during 2021. It is the only antenna test equipment I carry these days. You’ll see the Stick Pro and AA-2000 Zoom presented on the channel pretty soon.

GigaParts: https://oh8stn.net/3nWgDyV
eBay Global: https://oh8stn.net/3loHwty


Camping Gear

Nortent Gamme 4

The Gamme 4 from Nortent is what I call “The Bunker”. Bunker because it does an incredible job of protecting its occupants from extreme weather. It is not a lightweight shelter, but it does provide a base camp style experience in nearly any weather conditions. This is my primary shelter for the deep winter months.


Nortent EU: https://oh8stn.net/3lfxWJy
Canadian Preparedness North America: https://oh8stn.net/3FUhPsJ


Nortent titanium tent stove:

The Titanium camping stove is incredible. It weighs nothing, folds up small and flat, and can heat the entire shelter. This is my go-to wood stove for all but the harshest of winters.

Nortent: https://oh8stn.net/3p6RPnh


Titanium French Coffee Press:

The titanium coffee press or French press is a luxury that needs to come along. I don’t drink alcohol, don’t do drugs, but a proper cup of coffee is something that can be appreciated after a long hike, or erecting the station. This is a new addition to the station. My previous French Coffee Press was an addition to my JetBoil. Since the JetBoil doesn’t work at this latitude or in these brutal temperatures, I prefer using the wood stove or pocket folding stove to melt snow for a proper cup of coffee.

Ebay Global https://oh8stn.net/3prQ4Bg
Amazon EU https://oh8stn.net/3xEN8F2


Finnish MO5 Sleeping bag

Varusteleka: https://oh8stn.net/3CUZxFO


Camping cot:

Amazon https://oh8stn.net/3d4Ng7k

eBay http://oh8stn.net/3xJZBXW


Final thoughts

This channel has always been about showing people and operators what is possible. How to go further with less, how to power our stations, how to communicate without being tied to the radio at the hip. It has even been about showing the community how “tradition” has kept us from moving ham radio forward technologically. More than anything else, my goal has been and will remain inspiring, motivating and helping create extremely capable, competent radio operators to support the EMCOMM, Preparedness, Off-Grid or group communications communities. I will never be a talking head channel! This is and will remain a source of field-tested knowledge.

Lots of effort goes into these posts. Researching each component, software application, pragmatic field testing. When you see these posts, the mistakes and blunders have already been filtered out. If you find any value in that, share this post and/or buy me a rootbeer.

73
Julian oh8stn
YouTube http://www.youtube.com/c/oh8stn
Buy me a rootbeer: https://paypal.me/oh8stn/2usd

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7 Comments

  1. Don’t worry about the nay-sayers and YT infotainers. You know, I know, and the smart viewer of your media know that one can never spend too much time on training — especially on training with intent. Pity the fool who doesn’t understand that rapid, flexible, and opportunistic maneuver is just as important in portable off-grid and QRP ham radio as it is in other considerations. This is another outstanding effort.

  2. this is why I like watching your videos! you show us the good and the bad and don’t sugar coat anything at all. just keep doing what you are doing and don’t worry about the rest!
    73,
    K4ARTY

  3. Julian, hi!
    What can you say about SSB on 5w on Ic705?
    I’ve read a lot of opinions than there is no life with such small power (

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