Radioactive Camping Tips

Camping with Ham Radio is fun, but twice as complicated as just camping. There are two lists of things not to forget, the camping stuff and the radio stuff.

It helps if you have a special bag to pack antenna parts and supplies and another special case in which to put the rig. You can double check that everything needed, such as all cables, are in with the rig and accessories in the same box. The same with the antenna supplies, you can double check that as well. Then you only have to remember the rig box and the antenna sack, instead of all the little pieces already checked off and verified to be in the two larger units.

Small dome tents are nice. For Hawaii the kind that have a screen in the top of the dome, making a skylight are excellent. They come with a rain fly that goes over the top for rain and covers the screen area at the same time. Also pitching the tent in the shade is a great help to avoid that oven-baked effect. If the trades are up you can orient the door to catch the wind and get a ventilation going into the door and out the top.

Ground cloths are highly recommended. Soil will often prove wetter than it looks when you put pressure on it and a nice water proof tarp sort of ground cloth is necessary to keep the floor of the tent actually dry.

Let there be light, not heat

Lanterns such as propane lanterns, in tents produce a huge amount of heat and will rapidly cook you. You can make them work by leaving them just outside the tent door and let the light in the door, while keeping the tremendous heat outside. They work extremely well on picnic tables or other open areas where there prodigious light output is welcome.

Single candle lanterns are OK and provide just about the right amount of warmth for a cool night of operating. 12 hour light sticks, [Coglhan's 12 Hour Green Snaplight Lightstick] the kind you bend and then they glow, are great and very safe for making "moonlight" inside the tent all night long, but do not provide enough light to operate and make notes and log by. They are great to help you find things and avoid thrashing about when you awake in the middle of the night. A mini-magnalight with the top screwed all the way off works well as a miniature lantern. Several of these or one and a candle lantern makes just enough light to operate and log by.

Some tents have hooks built into the ceiling and these are very handy. Some have a pocket that hangs from the ceiling where you can put small stuff that you do not want to disappear, and your glasses if you wear them, when you go to sleep. The key to using a small tent is "everything has a place, and everything in its place", organization, or you will spend most of your time trying to find things, especially small critical items.

A good bug proof screen is a must. In many places you can get seriously swarmed by mosquitoes and there are other critters you do not want to find in your immediate area, especially in confined spaces, such as a centipede the size of a freight train.

Tent Size

The ratings of tents should be considered carefully. "Sleeps three" is based on some strange industry standard and simply cannot mean "people". Divide all such ratings by three or four to get the actual number of real humans that might fit into such a tent.

A decent tent is a great operating position as it protects from the elements quite well. It can be quite small and still work for one person and his rig. The rig box if carefully selected can become the rig table when the rig is unpacked and set up. The sleeping mat can become a place to sit crosslegged off the ground for operating. An extra pillow to elevate the backside a few inches makes this much easier on the knees.

It is really handy to have the rig ready to go at all times, like the middle of the night when you happen to wake up and feel like checking the bands. Some kind of additional covering such as a spare T-shirt can be thrown over it when not in use for extra protection.

Bigger tents can support camp chairs and a camp table inside plus several sleeping positions. Some are even big enough to stand up in. Some of the really nice tents have accessory "porches" that are completely screened for a really luxury ham shack on the go.

Some kind of mat for the "front door" of a tent is a good idea. It helps keep clean getting into and out of a tent in damp conditions. Right in front of the door of a tent, the ground takes a lot of abuse and will become a mud puddle given half a chance. I made one from a chunk of old plastic shower curtain that works well.

Wind driven rain can be a real problem for sites based on tarps suspended over picnic tables. The rain seems to slant in most effectively. A second tarp positioned around one side can serve as a wind break if you have enough tent stakes and ropes to support the strain of that much flat surface exposed to the wind. However, such sites are excellent for multiple participants as they allow for quite a few people around the rig or rigs.


Plastic tent stakes are nice, but the UV light in Hawaii degrades them quickly. Heavy spade like metal stakes are much more durable and offer a larger holding surface. A three-foot loop of rope padded with a T-shirt is effective for extracting tent stakes. If you get the length of rope just right you can use the power of your legs to generate a lot of pull on the stake in just the right direction.

The spade-like metal tent stakes are also excellent as a safety ground. The rig or tuner should be connected to one by a large diameter short wire. Do not expect it to work as much of an RF ground system, but it will help with static charge buildup and help keep some of the RF energy off the rig. Combined with a resonant counterpoise or two, it can become a quite decent RF ground as well. But there should always be a solid ground reference of some kind on any portable radio setup. The type of antenna switch that incorporates a spark gap or other static bleed is good, especially the kind that have a center ground position that grounds everything when not in use. These precautions help with static charge build up, but cannot be considered lightning protection.

If a lightning storm were to develop, you would do well to drop the antennas and get the coax as far from the tent as possible and take shelter inside. I have seen lightning hit a TV inside a living room while I was watching it. The TV exploded into a very large ball of fire along with the antenna rotator, and that was with proper ground protection and an eight-foot ground rod, cold water system, large diameter ground wire, etc. Being inside a small tent with a puny ground rod and coax inviting the strike from the lightning rod antennas outside to come visit, is NOT a good scenario.

Antennas are another matter. They can be as complex as commercial beams on towers or as simple as an end feed wire and counterpoise. It is a good idea to plan on more than one antenna, of different types, such as a vertical and a long wire. The antenna is going to be the main reason a radio/camping trip succeeds or doesn't, so this subject requires careful reflection. There are several types of portable antennas designed even for backpacking, such as the SLV and the Stake Stick.

Many antennas require a very good ground structure to work, such as 1/4 wave verticals and many end fed wires. These need to be good RF grounds. But even these antennas should have their own metal tent stakes applied as safety grounds at their base.

Power Sources

Batteries are a fine power source, but they are bigger than you think they are going to be when you do the math. A really big battery needs to be treated carefully. Get a plastic carry box for it so the terminals can be covered after everything is hooked up and any spills of acid will be caught in the plastic box. Also be very careful about anything connected to the battery. Have no exposed wiring. Any metal object lose on the floor of the tent will tend to move towards such areas and may cause a short. A short on a big battery is dramatic and dangerous, certainly not something you wish demonstrated in the middle of the night in a small tent!

Seriously, tape, cover, or otherwise protect all wiring connected to a battery. Disconnect the positive terminal of the battery as the very first thing you do when disassembling a rig. Disconnect the negative terminal of the battery as the second thing you do. When setting up the battery terminals should be the very last thing connected and the battery should be kept cased with its terminals covered until everything else is ready. For safety, every line hooked to a big battery should be protected with an appropriate fuse.

Some ambitious hams have designed wind generators and solar panels to keep batteries charged. You can get quite small gasoline generators that output 12 volts efficiently. These make great battery chargers to keep the main camp battery topped off.

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