Arctic Circle Off Grid 2023

Near the end of May 2023, Julian OH8STN will be joined above the Arctic Circle by Ed WQ2U, and Oliver DL4KA for an off-grid data communications field test above the Arctic Circle.

Hello Operators

Each year on the channel, our goal is taking what we’ve learned in previous seasons, using these experiences to develop even more efficient methodologies for off-grid comms. Once we have firm improvements in place, those concepts are put to the test in the field. That is where we are now!

Follow the expedition on APRS.Fi

This time out, Oliver DL4KA, Ed WQ2U and Julian OH8STN will be testing new developments in methods and hardware enablers, for off-grid/grid down power, synchronous & asynchronous communications, and robust hardware for field communications. The areas covered this year are portable power, pragmatic data communications, antenna efficiency, gear reliability.

Location KP26X~

We’ll be operating from KP26 near Rovaniemi Finland, just above the Arctic Circle. In terms of energy, this location is completely off-grid. No power, no water! There is a Laavu near by, so hopefully we can use this for food preps and cooking. This is a location you’ve seen on the channel before. It is on the top of a “foothill” (bigger than a foothil, smaller than a mountain. No word in English) and perhaps a Summits on the Air summit. I’ll confirm this later on.

Terrible video, but it was a fun adventure.

Communications gear

Primary Station: Lab599 TX500, DIY599 PA500, BAT500

This time I’ll be using the Lab599 TX500. This radio will be augmented by the DIY599 amplifier, which should get me over the north pole. Powering the station is the DIY599 BAT500 and PowerFilm amorphous solar panels from the folding series. This station will focus on Winlink Robust Packet sessions, HF APRS with Robust Packet, and APRS messaging.

Secondary station: (TR)uSDX

I’ll be running the (TR)uSDX for all things data. FT8, JS8Call, Winink, perhaps even VARAC. The (TR)uSDX,will be coupled with the Microsoft Surface, and Digirig mobile. I’ll use an 80M OCF Dipole antenna from N9SAB, to get my signal out to the world.

The Digirig will manage audio levels and PTT for the (TR)uSDX, while the Microsoft Surface will provide a user experience for Winlink. I’ll also be testing Robust Packet with WoAD (Winlink on Android Device), with the Samsung Galaxy S22 Ultra. HF APRS via 30 meter RPR network with the Teency TNC and (TR)uSDX.

Pack & Sleep accommodation

As with most of these excursions, home for Snapper and I during the expedition will be a Nortent Tipi 4. The tipi 4 is relatively lightweight and easy to carry. I would certainly appreciate a lighter tent, with the same internal space some day. For now, this is what we havw. We can easily fit 2-3 operators (close friends) and their gear, in this Norwegian tipi tent. if required. Hopefully it’ll just be a man and his dog.

Ed and Oliver will use Hamocks for sleeping. Not sure of Ed’s sleep system, but Oliver is using my DD Frontline Hamock and under quilt. I’ll also bring along a tarp, to give them some sheltered operating space.
The original idea was to deploy the bunker (Nortent Gamme 4) as a second tent. Ultimately, we are trying to keep weight down, so the bunker stays at home. Seperating our sleep area from our operating area will allow a quiet sleeping or resting space, away from (what I expect will be) constant radio chatter. Traditionally, the Gamme 4 (aka The Bunker) was used for this purpose. It is heavier than the Tipi tent, but offers more internal space. Hopefully the tipi and tarp are adequate substitutes.

Man-Portable Ham Shack & Shelter

I have already done a video on camping equipment used on the channel. Although I’ll drop that down below this text, it’ll probably be time to update the camping gear video.

Robust Packet Radio Project

This year there is exciting new hardware in the community, enabling man-portable Robust Packet radio capabilities, in the field. Where we once required larger and sometimes cumbersome hardware modems, we can now take advantage of lighter-weight man-portable robust packet hardware for HF APRS, Winlink and KB/KB Chat on HF. To this end, we will be testing a new Robust Packet TNC variant, based on the TEENSY RPR TNC. This one is designed to be as small as possible, lightweight, man-portable, and available reasonably cheaply.

Although not a commercial effort, the Teensy RPR TNC follows in the footsteps of the former SCS Tracker. The SCS Tracker production was ended in 2020, due to parts availability issues. Hopefully this new Teensy based RPR project will spark community interest and excitement, leading to a ready-to-go kit.

APRS and Packet Radio
Although popular, traditional APRS, WInlink, and packet radio on VHF relies on a heck of a lot of infrastructure. Simplex connections are possible, but Digieaters and igates provide the bulk of traffic capability on VHF/UHF. There is also the issue of extremely limited range on VHF/UHF, using man-portable gear.
In contrast, HF APRS and Robust packet radio on HF provide range measured in the thousands of kilometers or miles. HF also allows us to achieve the same goals as our VHF counterparts. APRS, APRS messaging, Winlink, and Packet Radio on HF with the same amount of output power as VHF, albeit at lower bandwidth and throughput. Still, very little infrastructure required, which fits the off-grid strategy of this blog and channel EXTREMELY well!
Food for thought!

We’ll be testing this Teensy RPR TNC variant with:

  • Data communications with the Teensy TNC project
    • Robust Packet
    • HFAPRS with Robust packet
    • HFAPRS Messaging with Robust packet
    • Winlink email with Robust packet
  • Time permitting, we’ll also be testing the Robust Packet BBS functionality.

Remote Winlink Gateway (work in progress)

Oliver DL4KA is also planning to deploy an emergency fill-in Winlink gateway. This gateway will be a compact man-portable design, with rapid deployment in mind. At the very least, the gateway will be accepting Robust Packet connections, with access to CMS. As this is still work in progress, it’s mentioned here in brief. As more information comes in, I’ll update the article to reflect it.

Additional data mode communications (time permitting)

  • JS8Call for KB/KB QSO
  • FT8 for QSO

Portable Power

It is no secret that I love the low-weight and utility of PowerFilm Solar panels. Although many of you ask for alternatives to the lightweight, low-light performing PF panels, each time I head out on a hike, I am instantly reminded why I leave these heavier alternatives at home. 2-4x the weight is a complete no-go. So PowerFilm solar panels will covert sunlight to DC for this expedition.

Another goal of this expedition is showcasing Improvements in portable station power. This time we’ll be testing the BAT500 from DL4KA, combined with lightweight folding panels from the PowerFilm Solar folding series. If you have not watched my video introducing the BAT500, I’ve left a video just under this text.

The BAT500 LiFePO4 intelligent power supply is a lightweight, rugged, man-portable battery storage system, with integrated solar charge controller, and battery management. With one input and 3 outputs, it reduces our cable mess, while simplifying our battery storage deployment options. Our PF folding solar panels will be directly connected to the BAT500 for charging. In turn, the BAT500 will power our radio, amplifier, and computer gear.

Man-portable solar power has always been the holy grail of field communications. During this trip we’ll be deploying PowerFilm Solar lightweight, folding, amorphous solar panels. These panels will provide a continuous source of current for our battery storage systems and computers.

We chose the folding series over the Crystalline because of the distance we must hike, from our drop-off location, to the campsite. Ounces = Pounds = PAIN!

Gear reliability

One aspect which is always thought about but rarely spoken about is station reliability. Ultimately, gear which can’t survive getting on site, staying on site, and doing the job it is there to do, is useless! As operators complain about the high cost of lightweight & reliable gear, many have instead chosen budget Chinese-made gear with a lower price, and often lower reliability. During this expedition, we will push our gear to extremes. It will be interesting to see how our gear handles the environment, duty cycles, and expedition load.

On this trip we’ll be deploying with:

  • Field reliability of comms gear
    • Lab599 TX500
    • PA500 Amplifier
    • PA500E Expedition Amplifier
    • PowerFilm Solar folding series solar panel
    • OCF dipole and EF antennas from Tim Ortiz N9SAB
    • Microsoft Surface Go 2/3

QSO and QSL cards

Currently trying to organize Expedition QSL cards and perhaps a QSL manager.
The idea is any operator with a valid callsign, sending a message over RF, which is received by our stations and receiving a confirmation reply, can receive a QSL card. Most likely, the QSL Cards will be sent direct (unless we can find a QSL manager). Additionally, some form of online QSL card might be made available.

The easiest way to ensure you get a QSL card, is by sending a Winlink Message to the expedition. Winlink will be up and running the duration of the excursion. The only requirement is your message must be sent over RF. Telnet messages will be ignored.

APRS Messages are also welcome and encouraged! Just do your best to get the message out over RF, regardless of how it gets routed to me.

Use the Winlink template “Quick Message” to send a message to the expedition. Using this template will ensure we get uniform messages, which are easy to read and reply to. At the very least, you’ll receive a reception acknowledgment. If things aren’t too crazy, you’ll also receive a personal message and thanks. Address and/or tactical callsign will be released closer to the expedition date.

Message format

Pragmatic data comms

It is always a pleasure to bring pragmatic HF data communications to the community. There are often comments left on the channel asking for more SSB, more CW, and even digital voice modes. Although traditional modes are interesting, synchronous and asynchronous HF data and messaging are the apex of my own ham radio interest. Off-grid comms and HF data go hand and hand with one another. Still, this is only true if we experiment, field test, and put in the time to increase our knowledge. This is part of the reason Robust Packet is being introduced on the blog and channel. HF APRS, Winlink with Robust Packet, Stand-alone BBS on HF, RPR chat, … The introduction of new more accessible hardware, along with robust data will certainly increase our operating efficiency fixed station, and in the field. For more on a Combined Robust Packet network psanning Packet Radio, APRS and Winlink, check out this link.

Supporting Arctic Circle Off Grid 2023

These expedition have been ongoing since 2018. Sometimes they are bigger, sometimes smaller. Either way, every year there is at least one major field test, putting what we’ve theorized on the channel, to the the test in the field. In order to finance the Arctic Circle Off Grid Expedition, you could spend an evening watching what I’ve done previously, atching the following YouTube Playlist.

It is also possible to support the expedition in other ways.

Companies supporting Arctic Circle Off-Grid 2023

The following companies are supporting the expedition in some way. They have not asked anything in return, but I know they would appreciate some support from many of you. Moreover, I would greatly appreciate you all, supporting these enablers.

If your company would like to support the Arctic Circle Off-Grid 2023 Expedition or place a banner on this website, please get in touch by sending an email to “oh8stn-sponsor at gmail dot com”, through the about page of my YouTube channel, or read this post for more instructions.

Final thoughts

It may often “appear” as if nothing is happening with the channel or blog. The truth is, there is always something happening in the background. Research, testing, strategizing or problem solving the issues we have with off-grid communications and portable power. It just isn’t always possible to capture it all on film, until the process is close to complete. So be patient! Also know that it is truly a blessing to share these concepts and ideas with all of you.

This blog will be updated periodically to include more information about the expedition.

Julian oh8stn
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Looking for other ways to support the channel?

Support the channel by shopping on ebay, at Battery Hookups or GigaParts.
For GigaParts and Battery Hookup, use my callsign for a small discount.
Alternatively, drop a little something in the TipJar. It really makes a difference.

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  1. OH8STN QRP IS KEY Thank you for presenting a vast knowledge of valuable information,
    well thought out and put together. In the state the world is in right now, when apocalyptic events are on our doorsteps your skills and teachings are priceless.

  2. Hi Julian! I’ve never been all that interested in QRP, or HF digital comms but thanks to your videos and blog, I am looking forward to exploring a new aspect of the hobby. I’ve purchased the (TR)uSDX and a digirig to begin my adventures. If it works out, I see a TX500 and maybe even a PA500 in my future.

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