Technical Articles

Hams on the Go Part II—Making Practical Decisions Away from Home

In Part I of Hams on the Go, we discussed the basics of what you need to get on the air when you’re mobile. Now it’s time to look at the practical side of operating on the go. Whether it’s a hotel room, vacation condo, or a campsite, you’ll need to adapt your station setup to the operating environment. Better yet, you should consider stacking the deck in your favor, such as getting a room in an optimal location or finding a spot higher than the surrounding terrain.

Operation Recon

A little advance research can help you make better choices. Check out your destination’s website for available pictures and other data. If you need more details, ask. When my family stayed near the Outer Banks this summer, we made sure our room was on the highest floor and had a reasonably spacious deck facing the ocean.

When it comes to hotels, many of us just take whatever room is available. If this is a first visit to a hotel, look over the grounds before you book the room. As a rule, choose a room on a higher floor. Always ask for a room facing the outside of the hotel instead of one overlooking an internal courtyard.

If your hotel has outside access to individual rooms, ask for one at the end of a row. This will minimize foot traffic in front of your room, where you might want to run your feedline through the front door. This gives you more options, such as running the feedline to a portable vertical antenna set up on the ground with a tripod support, or attaching it to an existing antenna on your vehicle.

Don’t overlook alternative solutions that may be available. We stopped at a hotel in Illinois overnight, only to find windows that were sealed shut—not uncommon these days. However, there were a few picnic tables outside in the shade of some 20-30 foot trees. A wire sloper antenna, radio, and battery were all that was needed to make some QSOs.

HF Inside and Out

My experience with most indoor antennas has shown they aren’t particularly efficient and can pick up lots of QRN. Magnetic loops like the Chameleon F-Loop 2.0 Total Kit or MFJ-1786 can be a workable solution—they’re efficient for their size and very portable. They are also directional, which can help in reducing noise. The only downside is magnetic loops have a narrow bandwidth and must be retuned as you change frequencies.

Chameleon Loop Antenna

Typically on arrival, you’ll want to survey the area to see what possibilities there are for placing an antenna outside. On the HF bands, an external antenna will normally give far better results than anything you can rig up inside the room. Small vertical antennas like the Comet HFJ-350, MFJ 2286 Portable HF Antenna, MFJ HamTenna whip, or even a small screwdriver antenna like the Yaesu ATAS-120A can work for you, particularly if you are higher than the ground floor and have windows that open or balcony access. They can be set up using a combination of a mobile mounting and a small clamp attached to the window frame or railing. Do not skimp on the number of radials for verticals. Outside radial installation is preferred, but you can run them inside if necessary.

Wire antennas can be an inexpensive and stealthy way to go. Sometimes there’s a suitable tree outside that could support a wire. To get the wire out of the window, attach a weight to the end of the wire and feed it out of the window and down to the ground. Use a weight that would not accidentally damage a window, such as a small bag or tennis ball filled with shot or a leather throw bag. If you use lead fishing weights, wrap them with some scrap cloth and secure with some electrical tape. 

When you get down to ground level, use the weighted end to place it in the tree. Remember, the wire needs to be high enough to be above people walking, cycling or driving by. If you’re operating outside, follow this same procedure from the ground.

Dangling only a weighted wire antenna from the window isn’t always the best solution, since it should be away from the structure for best performance. On the upper bands (20m and higher) using an inexpensive telescoping crappie pole can extend a wire end away from the building—think one half of the dipole out the window run against a counterpoise.

VHF and UHF

If HF operation isn’t possible, VHF and UHF operation with an HT is by far the easiest way to get on the air—even from inside a room. All you need to do is make sure that you have info on the local repeaters, which can be found in the ARRL Repeater Directory or one of many smart phone apps. VHF and UHF operating from a hotel doesn’t involve a lot of setup and can be improved by replacing the rubber duck antenna with something more substantial.

More substantial means a larger rubber duck antenna, a portable J-pole, (known as a Slim Jim), or some kind of magnetic mount mobile antenna. To form a counterpoise, place the antenna on a large piece of metal such as a pizza pan or cookie sheet. Several 19-inch wire radials attached to the coax shield can be substituted instead.

One other VHF/UHF option is to use a hotspot with the PiStar operating system connected to the Internet and a digital HT that supports D-STAR, System Fusion, or DMR. Just about every hotel and resort has Wi-Fi connection. Instead of just communicating locally, you can work DX around the world. Echolink, an app for iOS and Android, provides similar functionality via the Internet with a smartphone instead of an HT—but you still need a ham license to use it.

Grab and Go

Whether you’re a diehard ham operator or someone looking for a spare-time activity while traveling, portable operations can be a lot of fun and sharpen your radio skills. Many experienced operators have found operating on the go yet another way to enjoy the hobby.

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