Pacific Crest Trail Repeater Guide

A conversation about ham radio with a thru hiker

Compiled by AA6J Bill Jeffrey




HAM RADIO 12/11/03


Q. What I (and most everyone else) want is for the satellite phones to get less expensive as well as lighter.  But I can dream on forever on that one.


A. I'd suspect someday sat phones will be feasible. I know two people who carry them. As I understand, besides the issue of development costs, there's a balance between pricing them cheap enough to get enough customers and pricing them high enough to ration service over a limited number of satellites.


Q. Cell phones won't work particularly well or consistently on the PCT, so I guess for a few years ham radio is still the best option, if one carries a communication device at all. 


A. I'm not sure if they're the best option, but they're one option. They do have drawbacks, as I'll explain. Beside cell phones and satellites, other options include some form of email or voice mail, such as pocket mail, but these require a pay phone at the trailhead.


Q. Do you hike with one regularly? 


A. Yes. I actually got my ham license because I wanted a way to get help if one of my Scouts got hurt.


Q. Are the very lightest ones less efficient in getting out a signal?  If so, can the rigging of some kind of (wire?) extension to the antenna offset that and improve the ability to reach out?


A. I suppose a bit of explanation about ham radios might help. What I carry is a VHF-UHF handheld radio. These frequencies (144 MHz and 440 MHz) are pretty much line of sight, but they differ from the popular FRS radios in two ways. First, most have a little more power. My Yaesu VX5 has 5 watts, but isn't any bigger than the larger cell phones. Antennas are important. The rubber duck antenna that comes with the radios doesn't help much. A telescoping whip that extends several feet works wonders. You can also rig up a wire, but I haven't found that helps much, as the wire ends up in a tree to get it up high, but the tree blocks the signal. The other benefit is repeaters. Using a mountaintop repeater, the range can extend to the other side of the mountain, such as from the John Muir Trail (PCT) to Highway 395 in the Owens Valley - where Bishop and Lone Pine are.


Another type of ham radio is an HF, often thought of as short wave. These are usually a bit bigger, and require much longer antennas. There are low power ones available for backpacking, but they usually only have a watt or two. One night at home I heard a station calling very faint on Morse Code. He was several days into the Emigrant Wilderness and needed a phone call made, which I was able to do. Other than hobbyists, these are very rare in the wilderness, though.


Q. I gather from your earlier posting that generally on the PCT one could count on getting out to a repeater except in deep valleys.


A. I would hope this is true. I have a website where I note where I can reach what repeater on the trail. I only have data for where I've been, but there are a couple large areas where I had no repeater. Through the High Sierra, there are many stretches where it doesn't work - although you'll see it works at one spot at Rae Lakes, which the ranger there told me about. (He is also a ham.) Also, I had no coverage from Tuolumne Meadows to the north boundary of Yosemite Park. The only thing I would be able to do there is hope someone else came by. (You don't have to use repeaters. 146.520 is a simplex (non-repeater) frequency that is sort of popular, but there aren't many people out in these areas, and much less with ham radios.)


Q. To be candid, I hate to take the time to go through the basic technician licensing for both my wife and I unless it seems like it is the only sensible way to go. 


A. This is something only you can decide. The test is not too tough, but does require a bit of studying. My daughter passed when she was 11 with just three solid days of study - but she's a scary person! The VHF and UHF (with repeater access) do NOT require learning Morse Code.


Q. As a card-carrying scrooge and curmudgeon, I have even resisted getting cell phone service here at home locally, due to cost and the fact I can't use them when we hike most of the time.  Yet, if ham radio (without a monthly charge) could substitute adequately for a cell phone, then maybe that's the way to go. Do some folks keep their light, hiking ham radio transceivers (correct word?) in their cars in lieu of cell phones in an emergency?  One would think so, but with it not having a direct tie-in with a "land line," I imagine that is a rather 2nd-class solution in an emergency.


A. They don't necessarily substitute for a cell phone. There has to be someone else listening that you can ask for help. They won't usually let you call home across the country unless you can get someone to make a collect call for you. But, yes, I have a mobile radio in my car for emergencies, and find in the backcountry it is much more reliable than any cell service. Some repeaters also have ties to landlines, called autopatches, but these almost always require that you are a member of the club that owns that repeater to get access to the phone system - or get someone else to make the call for you. Locally, I have access to telephone service through the ham repeaters throughout San Diego and Imperial Counties, and have used it many times. Note that the repeaters usually only allow very short (1 to 2 minute) calls, so I keep the chit chat down and just pass the message I need (I'm running late, we're fine, etc.).


Q. What am I really asking?  I dunno.  I seem to be flailing about in deciding whether to make the time investment in a technology that is now quite old


A. Ham's been around awhile, but is far from dead. We've had big fires here the last two years, and both times, ham radio was the ONLY communication in and out of several communities. We use ham radio as a backup to the sheriff radios as well.


Actually, there are many digital modes on ham radio, although I haven't used them much and don't know if they're available in the backcountry. Text messaging is possible using computers and radios, and repeaters have been linked around the world using the Internet.


Q. …and that I haven't seem to need in 23 years of long-distance trekking. Satellite phones would seem to be the very answer, but I fear it will be years, if ever, that the price and weight come down.


A. And that's the balance. I got a radio for Scout trips, which are hardly fast moving, long distance treks. Still, I carry the radio on all my trips, although I don't use it much.


A couple examples of use on the PCT:


* Reader and I hiked Section O in mid-May between snow storms. There was a lot of snow on the ground, and our wives were worried about us. (Go figure.) Half way through, I asked someone from Shasta City to call my wife collect and let her now we were fine. My wife was very happy to hear that. (and didn't mind the $5 collect phone bill.) Reader was impressed, although he carried a radio on the first part of his thru hike and never found it useful.


* In 1998 our Scouts attempted hiking from Bishop Pass south to Kearsarge Pass in late July. Snow levels were very high, and few thru-hikers were able to do the hike without a flip-flop. After three days of slogging through snow and wading chest-deep creeks, we realized it was going to be a struggle to finish on schedule, so we planned to bail out over Taboose Pass. I put out a call on a repeater in Owens Valley. Someone heard and called our former scoutmaster who lived in Independence. He came up on the radio and we planned our escape. It happened that the other person was an old Sierra guide, who gave us great info on the trail out. We checked in every night by radio, and the cars were waiting for us at the trailhead, instead of having to walk another ten miles across the desert (100 degrees) to a pay phone.


The bottom line is you have to decide what you think you need. I plan to thru hike in 2014 after I retire, with my wife supporting me by truck. Unless sat phones are significantly improved, we will use ham radios to meet up at trailheads.



A. As I may have mentioned before, "ham radio" covers a lot of spectrum. Most hams would be using a handheld FM radio in the VHF or UHF bands for hiking. The static you referred to is typically heard on AM modes, and usually at lower frequencies.





Q. The nice folks who are teaching our class are all emergency volunteers who, when asked, seem to indicate they don't think in terms of lightness of the radio or different antenna solutions.  They prefer solid and heavy with great outreach.  Yes, but...   The only local HAM I know who used to long-distance backpack bought his radio many years ago and is not up to date on new light, state of the art equipment.  Where do I turn for the best advice, across the board on everything (not just Yaesu) on the latest and best things to purchase (radio and antenna) specifically for lightweight backpacking - or have I stumbled onto another oxymoron?  If you were starting out fresh right now, would you stay with your "Yaesu VX-5 with a second battery and a good antenna" "about 10 ounces" or what would you buy or who would you turn to for the current best solution for ounce conscious trekkers??


You ended up with a Yaesu.  For my purposes, are there other companies with models that really challenge the VX-5?


I examined the Yaesu website and talked to their tech person. He also

endorses the VX-5R for the hiking that I (and you) do. Although the VX-7R is much better waterproofed, there are some negatives and I would think that keeping the radio double-ziplocked in my pack would do just as well (and be lighter).  The VX-2R looks oh-so-seductive, but I gather the lower power available limits it to an "around-the-town-on the-flat" sort of situation.  While the battery situation with the VX-5R looks good, I suppose it would be nice to be able to pull Lithium AA batteries from other things as a back-up.  Can't do it.


A. I just weighed my Yaesu VX5R and here are the results (the scale is not digital, so the decimals are estimated):


Radio without battery or antenna 5.3 oz

Battery 2.7 oz

Smilie 1/2-wave telescoping antenna 2.0 oz

TOTAL is 10 oz


A second battery brings it to about 13 oz.


You are correct in that the VX2 would not have enough power. You really want the ability to have 5 watts. The power can be turned down to save batteries when you are closer to town.


The ability to use regular (AA) batteries is not as good with the VX5 as I'd like, but that's because the radio is so small. There is a dry cell battery case available, but it only holds 3 AA cells, so power is something like 0.5 watt. This is an option if you want to just listen.


Another option is to go to an electronics store like Radioshack and buy a larger battery holder in whatever size you want and a plug so you can plug it into the radios DC-In jack. I have one radio I did this with, using a big rubber band to hold it to the back of the radio. It's not very elegant, but is an option. I don't use this backpacking.


I don't find battery life to be a big problem carrying just 2 batteries, as I usually leave my radio off except for when I need it. I know others who talk all the time when hiking (one friend has a large (2') antenna bolted to his pack frame). They go through lots of batteries, and some use solar chargers as well. Too heavy for me, and I use the radio as a tool rather than entertainment.


As for other radios, you just have to go look at them. If you are near an HRO or AES store, go in when they're not too busy and ask lots of questions. I think Icom and Kenwood have similar radios. I still like the VX5 and, in spite of some neat features on the VX7, would probably stick with the VX5 for its size.





Q. couple things that jump out at this beginner's eyes are the fact that the Yaesu is $130 less and that the Yaesu has "10 auto-scan weather channels" as opposed to the Kenwood's "weather channel RX mode."  Not exactly sure what the latter means, but I'll get there.


A. I don't know how Kenwood's works. On the Yaesu there is a button you hold or a second or so and it goes into weather mode. It has all ten NOAA weather channels. It's scannable, but I usually just tune through them for the one I want. NOAA doesn't reach everywhere into the backcountry, but where it does, it's nice to get verification of what's going on on the other side of the mountain.


Q. I can't tell from the blurb in front of me.  Is your Lithium-Ion battery rechargeable?


A. Yes. I suppose it could be charged with a solar charger on the backpack. I keep my charger in the car so if base camping or dayhiking I can charge one while using the other.



REALITY 3/19/04


Q. There's always someone to bring my feet back down to earth. I thought you might be interested in this response from an old timer in CA to whom I had sent, on a lark, a few questions after reading something he had posted about backpacking and ham radio.


"I believe it is unrealistic to expect 2-meter transceivers to be useful for anything other than direct, line of sight communication with one another.  Yes, there are repeaters which are capable of relaying a VHF signal far beyond the line of sight range, but I can tell you from experience that you will rarely be able to access a repeater from anywhere in the heart of the Sierra, even with a "gain" type antenna.  I certainly don't want to dissuade you from getting your technician license as ham radio is a wonderful hobby.  But I am confident you will be disappointed with the ability to communicate beyond what you can see, regardless of the transceiver make or model you choose.   If you are interested in one-on-one communication within a mile or two, FRS radios would work just fine. I hope I haven't thrown a monkey wrench in your plans."


A. I'm not sure what your intent is with radio. Since your wife is with you, you don't need it for hiking coordination. If you want something "just in case," ham radio is still your best bet.


I agree - much of the heart of the Sierra has no repeater coverage. This means that unless another ham is nearby AND has their radio on the same frequency as you (and in that case it should be 146.520), no one will hear you. However, you will be able to reach repeaters from probably every pass, so at least once a day you'll have the possibility for contact with the outside world if needed. I've found a few places down low (Rae Lakes is one) where you can still get a repeater. In northern Yosemite I was able to hit a repeater from passes, but there's hardly anyone living there, so no one answered. Is this perfect? No. Is it better than nothing? I think so, but you have to decide for yourself.


Probably the only thing that would guarantee reception would be a satellite phone. I know at least one backpacker that carries one. For him, cost is no object, and they and their minutes aren't cheap. They also won't work in deep canyons or heavy tree cover.


And as the old timer said, it is a great hobby. We have a group that meets on the repeater on Friday nights to plan hikes and canoe trips together.





q. However, a phone call last night with the gentleman who MAY

help us with van support this summer reveals that 40 years ago he was licensed in amateur radio.  He got excited when I told of our Ham radio classes and said he would contemplate taking the tests in April. This would open up the blessing of communication with the van.  I don't, at the moment, see how that will/would change our thinking about equipment chosen and bought.


A. Exactly what I hope to do. At a minimum, you go simplex and are line of sight with more power than FRS. Most of the time, you have a repeater and a range up to 50 miles or more.


Q. 146.520


A. There are not any standard emergency frequencies. 146.520 is the 2-meter "national simplex calling frequency." In theory, this means people would call for other station here and move to another frequency. In practice, it is the most popular simplex (non-repeater) frequency.


Q. Technician Class, 6 meter would be the best at slight bending or reflection in the mountains. But when I mentioned the expandable 1/2 wave antenna - and they had one there - the comment was made that it was really good for 2 meter, but not particularly for 6 meter.  Should one have 2 antennas, if 6 meter is slightly better in the mountains?  Maybe much later in the class I wouldn't ask simplistic questions.


A. There are 2 problems with 6 meters:

1. There just aren't that many people on 6 meters, and very few repeaters. I've used it only a couple times to see if it worked. (We have a 6 meter repeater in our area built by a couple hams/engineers  who are about the only ones who use it.) In the more remote areas, there aren't that many people anyway.

2. The antenna on the VX5 just isn't that good for 6 meters. A 1/2-wave antenna for 2 meters is roughly 3 feet long. For 6 meters it would be 9 feet long. Design can shorten this, but you can see the problem.


2 meters is by far the most popular, so I find it most useful in the backcountry. 70 cm (440 MHz) would be second, but it is even more line-of-sight.


I did have a conversation at home one night with a hiker in the wilderness north of Yosemite on 40 meters Morse code. If I haven't told you it already let me know. 40 meters at night can have incredible range. He only had 1 watt and I heard him direct to San Diego no problem and made the phone call for him. The downside to these HF frequencies is you never can be sure just where in the world you will make contact.





Q. I don't know if I will ever get to 40 meters.


A. It's certainly not for everyone. I would not carry it, but the story of how it worked in this case was interesting.


Q. For some reason, my early understanding was that repeaters were repeaters... and would relay whatever was being fed to them. I hadn't realized that they were "meter specific."


A. Not just meter specific, but they only listen on one frequency and only transmit on one other frequency (fancy remote bases excluded).


Q. "The Smiley antenna would likely be helpful to increase VHF range but  there are caveats to consider - all mechanical.  Compared to a "duckie", when the Smiley is extended, it is  about as likely to break as bend under severe duress.  In addition, the antenna will apply a relatively large moment force at the radio's antenna connector.  The potential to damage the radio's antenna connection is increased over a duckie. It is not common, but I have seen it occur.”


A. Yes, this is a problem. My first handheld radio, an Icom T22A, had this problem. I broke the antenna connector off the circuit board several times, requiring either expensive repairs or begging an electronically-inclined friend to fix it for me. I found myself using one finger to help support the antenna when it was extended. Fortunately, I have not had this problem with the Yaesu. However, I leave the antenna off when stored in my pack, and don't walk with this antenna on and the radio hooked to my belt.


Q. 2M Hint: For either a duckie or the Smiley, simply connecting a 19 1/2" wire to the ground portion of the antenna connector and letting it dangle below the radio (away from hand a bit) may increase range.  It becomes the ground counterpoise side of the antenna rather than (or in addition to) the radio case.


A. Interesting. I can see where it might help, but I learned just enough about electronics to pass the tests. I was told, and once found, that standing on snow worked better than standing on dry soil nearby, probably for a similar reason.


Q. Hmm... Had another thought...  You may be able to make the Smiley work on 6M by clipping on a temporary whip extension wire of the proper length.


A. Maybe, but the length needs to be pretty close to correct or the radio can be damaged electronically.


Q. "Also have done tests using the standard issue antenna and the one described below.  The PRYME is best. Bill, not that you have tried every antenna in the world, but how might this compare to your Smiley?


A. I have a Pryme antenna, but not the telescoping one. I've heard they work well. One thing I like about the Smilie is that the base is rubber, so it does bend a little bit before breaking it or the radio.


Q. This same gentleman went on to rave about the VX-7R and said that on Yahoo there was an enthusiastic 7R group.  My understanding was that the basic difference between the 5R and the 7R was primarily (and maybe only) the waterproofness of the 7R.  To me, that's what double ziplocking at stream crossings is all about.  I, at present, can't spot any superiority to the 7r.  I've asked him, but haven't heard back yet.


A. Waterproofness, and it adds 220 MHz. However, 220 is only at 300 milliwatts, so it will only work near town. 220 used to be more popular than it is now, and is still not common in the backcountry. However, some in California really like it because of the Condor Connection which is a series of linked 220 repeaters reaching from San Francisco to San Diego.


Q. toward not making the effort to renew the license, which would put me in the position of buying some sort of small receiver for the van and just being able (or trying) to communicate one way with them... which is certainly better than nothing.  The problem of course is that you would never know if you got through. Is there a name for such a unit, other than "receiver?"


A. A receiver would work. Usually you would use a scanner (which is a type of receiver).


Q. BTW,  what does "73" stand for?


A. 73 means "best regards." 88 means "love and kisses" and obviously not used as much. Since the meaning is already plural, "73" should not be made plural as "73's" is redundant.They are shortcuts, along with the various Q signs, generally for Morse code, often on HF, but many feel inappropriate for VHF and UHF (like 2 meters). 73 is now commonly used as a closing in an email between hams as well, like...






various and sundry 3/24/04


q. I'm eating up your radio thoughts.  I'm gonna crunch this thing through as quickly as I can, because I know I'll then have the time-consuming challenge of learning how to use and program the radio, once in hand.


A. Play with it early, but understand there are a lot of features you will probably never ever use. Focus on programming repeater frequencies

(including PL (CTCSS) tones) into memory.


Q. Mods.... you know, initially I thought I'd never be interested, but it occurred to me that it might be good if the radio could be modified to hear and/or communicate ONLY in an emergency on Forest Service frequencies.  Do you happen to know what frequencies they use and have you considered this?


A. I think each Forest has its own freqs. Either get a scanner guide or search Google for the forest your want and a word like frequency or scanner. I would never use and government (including USFS) frequency unless it was a true emergency, meaning the potential loss of life or body function you are suffering is worse than going to jail or a heavy fine - although they "might" have compassion. You will probably find a number of people using these on FRS frequencies, however.


Q. Do you own other antennas to use locally, other than the Smiley Super Stick II?  I mean, other than the one that comes with the radio?


A. I have another Smiley that works on both 2 meters and 440, although the gain on 2 meters is not as great as the single-band antenna. I also have an antenna with a very thin 2-foot whip which works sort of neat in town on the two bands, although not as well as the Smiley. In a car or truck it works much better to have the antenna on the roof. There are cheap (MFJ) magnetic mount antennas that work much better than anything inside the vehicle, esp. since the metal of the car blocks an inside antenna. You can just run the antenna cable out a window and use an adaptor (or two) to convert to the SMA. If you ever get serious about ham (doesn't sound like it), you'll find yourself wanting a true mobile radio as they are easier to use while driving. Therefore, my VX5 really only gets used while hiking


Q. Have you learned any tricks to keep the numbers from wearing off?  I've read spraying with polyurethane and the Yaesu tech guy said maybe nail polish. Any thoughts?


A. I have not had any problem. Yaesu does sell a case for about $20 that has a clear plastic window protecting the keys.


Q. It was the Yaesu guy who mentioned the 2 sizes of Lithium batteries.


A. Hm, I'll have to look at that.


Q. You said, “Listen to the  repeater and move around while looking at the S-meter to see where the signal is strongest. One night I had to stand on top a boulder for one repeater, while a different repeater was better six feet to the side"


I wish I could stand next to you once when you did this. I, at present, know nothing about listening to a repeater, etc.  In time, I trust.


A. If you just listen to someone else talking, there is a meter on the radio that showing signal (S) strength. On most HTs, like the VX5, it's a line of LED segments. The longer the line, the stronger the signal. By moving to where the receive signal is strongest, it makes sense that the repeater will likewise hear me stronger there too.


If no one is talking on a repeater, if you push the PTT (Push To Talk) button for a second a release, most repeaters transmit a carrier (squelch tail) for a second or so. This is sometimes called kerchunking or something like that. You can swing the radio around quickly to see where it might be stronger. It is impolite to kerchunk repeatedly, and you should always give your call sign when doing so, at least for the first and last time, so you aren't mistaken for a lid (lousy operator) or a kid who found his dad's radio.


Q. I just hit me that if the van support man does indeed go ahead (I don't think it's gonna happen) and get licensed again, he would also have to have as  big an antenna as I do.  I'm planning on buying 2 HT's if he does, in that my wife would have that in the fall. But I hadn't thought about the need for matching antennas until just a minute ago.


a. I'd suggest the van man get a magnetic mount antenna as any antenna will work better outside the van than inside. There are available in different sizes (bigger usually means more gain), but even a cheap MFJ will work fine. I think they start at $15 for the small size and go to about $30 for a high-gain antenna, so they're about the same price as a telescoping whip, but, again, being outside the metal of the van helps too.



MORE 3/25/04


Q. You said, “One night I had to stand on top a boulder for one repeater, while a different repeater was better six feet to the side.”


I'm into that thinking after, 2 years in a row, we were attempting James Peak in CO on the CDT. Weather was critical due to horrendous storms approaching. The weather radio, both years, would not pick up anything at all until you moved to the exact left end of the rear bumper of the truck.  It made the spot quite memorable for me and one more good yarn to tell.


A. Same idea.


Q. Regarding the 2 sizes of Lithium batteries:  The Yaesu fellow was not definite in his recommendations... a bit "Well, it probably might be a little better."  Far from a ringing endorsement.  My understanding is the regular one is

FNB-58LI  7.2V/1100mAh and the slightly larger one is

FNB-80LI  7.4V/1300mAh

If you learn something negative about the latter, won't fit etc, please give me a quick shout.


A. The larger one should last about 20% longer (1300/1100). The power out of the radio would be the same.


Q. I am going to get the Rapid Rate Charger, for quicker motel room use on days off.


A. Good idea.


Q. I've been in touch with Smiley. They are checking with their tech about a more flexible antenna they have as to whether it would match the  super stick. I'll let you know if there are any surprises.


A. Let me know if they have a better idea.


Q. One "expert" told me to consider a 1/4 wave antenna with 4 foldable arms that extend out from the antenna.  I don't know enough about 1/4 vs ½ waves to understand this yet.  But I'm groping along, trying.  It would seem to my current untutored mind that regardless of foldable arms, a ½ wave has to be better than a 1/4 wave.  No?


A. The foldable arms sound like a ground plane: one 1/4 wave vertical radiator and four horizontal radials to act as a ground. Sounds a bit heavy for backpacking. A 1/2-wave has more gain (power) than a 1/4-wave. I think a 5/8-wave is even Better, but don't really understand all the theory.


Q. The glossary in Now You're Talking leaves out some things, I suspect.

Am I to understand your use of FRS is what our 2 little "personal family" radios we bought from Radio Shack give off/use?  Regarding FS frequencies, you say, " You will probably find a number of people using these on FRS frequencies, however.   Is this legal?  There are no restrictions on those little radios that I'm aware (if I'm right about what you mean by FRS).


A. Ham radios can only legally be used in the ham bands (and a few exceptions for MARS (Military Affiliate Radio System) and CAP (Civil Air Patrol). Using them on FRS (family radio service - yes, your little radios) is illegal, but I've seen it done. Using them on FS (USFS - Forest Service) would not be a good idea at all unless you were dying.


Q. You said, " Focus on programming repeater frequencies (including PL (CTCSS) tones) into memory.”


My glossary just says "private line" for PL. 


A. PL or Private Line is a way of using a sub-audible tone to tell a radio whether or not to listen. Many of the little FRS radios have this feature as well, calling it a subchannel (although it's really the same channel with the tone on it). The main use of PL in ham radio is to keep a repeater from hearing a radio unless they really want to use the repeater. For example, say a repeater is on a high mountain using 146.730. Fifty miles away, on another mountain, is a different repeater, also on 146.730. If they don't have different PLs, they will hear each other, and interfere with each other. If they each had a different PL, they would only have hams transmitting with that same PL. PLs are common in urban areas, and less common but not unusual in more remote areas. My PCT Repeater Guide lists the PLs of each repeater if it has one.


Q. Does that mean private phone numbers through an autopatch?  Unfortunately, all the autopatch ability in our home area has evaporated, I'm told.  Bummer. 


A. No. Autopatch is a different animal, although you usually need to have PL turned on to reach the repeater with the autopatch. Most autopatches around here also have "secret" codes you have to enter using the DTMF keypad on the radio (just like a telephone) to turn the autopatch on before dialing the number. This restricts use to those who pay for maintaining the repeater. I've heard of some that let anyone use it, but that is rare. Autopatches are usually restricted to calling only local numbers, or at least in a specified area, and usually hang up on you after a minute or two. They're intended for quick calls (I'm running late, see you in an hour) and not chit chat (How was your day, blah blah blah). If you need a phone call made and don't have autopatch access you can often get a local to make the call for you. Autopatches aren't used a whole lot anymore as everyone has cell phones. Before cells, they got a lot of use. I still use the ECRA autopatch a few times a year when I'm way out in the desert where nothing else works, and joined that club just for that reason.


Q. As to "programming repeater frequencies," what I guess you are saying is that what I need to do is sit down with your web list of repeaters in the Sierra and program them in now, as well as anything local here that I can learn about.


A. Yes. If they're in the radio memory, you can just dial up the memory "channel" you want instead of punching in the frequency and the PL.


Q. Great idea and info about the " magnetic mount antenna" for the van. Makes a lot of sense.  I guess I need to do that regardless of his getting licensed or not. He would need it to hear me.


Q. " get a scanner guide"...  Uh, OK, what do I ask for and where?  Are there different types? 


A. Check your local electronic store (Radioshack?) A friend of mine, Rod, has a great website that lists thousands of radio web sites, including a number of online scanner and repeater guides. . Or just go to Google and search for the agency you want and a keyword like "scanner" or "radio".


Q. Mods:  Any discussion is based on the assumption of listen only except "in extremis."  No need for warning here.  I'm a coward (no jail time, thank you.


Q. " If you ever get serious about ham (doesn't sound like it)"


Ok, fella, don't count me out yet.  Seriousness about ham depends, I guess, like beauty, on the eye of the beholder.  I'm really serious about its outdoor use and potential.  I'm also intrigued by the guys who have 50 watt mobile units in the cars that can act as repeaters, taking in a weak call and sending it on stronger.  That sounds good to me someday.  I think all this has to grow on one as one gets more competent in its use.  One problem for me is that I have had zero electronics in my background and all the REALLY serious hams around here seem to be retired engineers, with big home units, towers, mobile units and expendable cash!  Retired profs don't have the retirement income retired engineers do, for sure.  Also, time.  It takes time to chat with distant lands (plus earning a higher certification in order to do so).  Interest in helping in community events, emergencies, etc, sure!  Even more so when I get to be good at what I'm doing with ham.  As a nationally certified Wilderness EMT, I offered to work with the local emergency squad but due to the 15-18 minute travel time to reach them, they weren't interested.  I've since let it lapse.  Let's just say my interest is strong in ham, but at the moment, more narrowly focused.  I wouldn't be taking the class and getting certified if I weren't's just at present on a more primitive level than you more experienced guys.


A. Ham radio is what you want it to be. I started because I wanted emergency communications when I took a Scout troop into the boondocks. It's grown on me from there. My daughter was licensed about when I was, when she was 11 years old. It's also great for rescue work. Many Search & Rescue groups use it in addition to their commercial frequencies. I'm in a group called RACES (Radio Amateur Civil Emergency Service) which was originally organized by FEMA and in our County is part of the Sheriff Department. We use both ham radio and law and fire radios in disasters and special events. We have two large trucks, one of which has over 2 dozen radios and 40 antennas on the roof, including a folding tower, and a telephone switchboard. The other has a bit fewer radios, but a conference table for 12. Lots of fun, and lots of good service to the community. I'm sure your Wilderness EMT will be put to good use.



aa = antenna anxiety


A. I'm far from an expert when it comes to antennas. I find something simple that works and don't replace it when the next new thing comes out. That said, from the Smiley website


SUPER STICK II-------------------------------------->

Super Stick II 5/8 wave , flexible base loaded telescopic antenna is the standard for field use whether in the countryside of city. It provides 6 to 9 db gain and is usable in 2 positions. Fully extended or fully collapsed.

It is a true 1/4 wave when collapsed. Available in the following bands.

118 - 174 MHz. Modular construction features replaceable telescopic section, tuned coil/spring. Available with any TA Base.


So, you can order it with the SMA to fit the Yaesu without an adaptor. An adaptor costs a few bucks more, adds a bit of theoretical loss to the signal, and is one more thing to break.


Yes, I suppose any long antenna puts extra strain on the connector. The

Simley has a coil/spring at the bottom (very similar to the plain rubber duck antenna that comes with every HT) which takes a bit of stress off. I often place my index finger along this to help support it. Yes, you shouldn't touch antennas when transmitting, but HTs are only 5 watts and the rubber insulates.


Q. How did you arrive at your Smiley antenna choice?


A. As I recall, the store recommended it after I told them what I want. The popular choice was called the Hot Rod. The company that made them went out of business (I think someone else took it over since). The Hot Rod was rigid without the rubber coil/spring the Smiley has.


Q .Extensive comparison on your part, in which case I'm being somewhat dense in duplicating your efforts?


A. Normally I'm that finicky, but I don't think so. I didn't see much else. I know one guy who has something he claims has more power, although side-by-side tests show it wasn't much, and whatever it was had a rigid coil at the bottom AND half way up. Talk about rigid and stress on the radio.


Q. In your view, a wire J-pole is totally out of the question above treeline?  Hanging off a bearbag rope strung between two big boulders wouldn't do?  Suspended from 2 trekking poles clamped together and held (by one grimacing wife, or husband)?  Just plain too much time and trouble?


A. I tried a Pocket J-Pole, which can be bought, or made from some twin-lead TV wire and a connector. I tried hanging it from a tree, and found I couldn't get out. Using the telescoping antenna just a few feet away out from under the tree, I got out fine. My gut instinct is that the tree attenuated the signal, such that the gain from the antenna was offset by the loss from being in the tree. Rigging from boulders, etc. - way too much work for me. Also, some places, like in Upper Basin and near the Sawmill Pass Trail junction, I had to move around to find the best signal. Listen to the repeater and move around while looking at the S-meter to see where the signal is strongest. One night I had to stand on top a boulder for one repeater, while a different repeater was better six feet to the side. OTOH, maybe using a long tent pole from a hoop tent might get the J-pole high enough to work while nothing else does. Antennas are like stoves – everyone has an opinion.


Q. Lithium-Ion batteries:  I see they come in two sizes?  Is there a  negative to getting two of the slightly larger ones?  Do they both fit HT and charger the same?


A. I didn't know there was. All I see on Yaesu's website is FNB-58LI  Lithium Ion Battery 7.2V / 1100mAh There may be third-party vendors that make others. I don't see a problem getting a bigger one, but can't say if they'd fit the charger.


Maha has replacements for lots of radios, and cheaper too. Thanks for the info.


Q. Did you buy (or get free shareware) any of the computer programs that help one program the 5R?  Do you have a recommendation?


A. I bought the one Yaesu sells, which is made by RT Systems .


I then got the free EVE software which I like better, using the cable that came with the Yaesu. It's easier to use, IF you follow their instructions carefully.



sPOTTED THIS 3/29/04


Q. The best performance for an antenna mounted on a hand-held radio is a half-wave whip such as the AEA HotRod and others. These will have some sort of matching "coil" assembly at the base, and often are telescoping

because the total length is 30" - 40" or so. You do NOT want to use a 5/8 wave antenna here - it is longer, more awkward, and doesn't work as well.


A. Sounds right. The Smiley I have is 1/2 wave. 5/8 wave would require a ground plane which is not practical in the field.


Q. Depending on your application there may be other possible improvements. I've used an antenna mounted on a pack frame and connected to the HT with coax cable. A roll-up J-pole that can be thrown over a tree branch and hoisted up 20' off the ground will make a big improvement, but isn't practical to use while in motion. I have several of the tape-measure yagis that I use while running through the woods - they are cheap to build and provide more gain than almost anything else (except more height!) but you have to point them in the desired direction.\


A. I defer to the engineers on what works better. It makes sense that a J-pole up high would work better than a telescoping whip at arms level, assuming you were in the right position on the ground for the repeater. I guess I'm just lazy. I have a friend who has mounted a mobile antenna on the metal frame of his backpack.


A yagi would be a BIG help, as they are directional, but the bulk and weight adds up.



ANTENNAS 3/29/04


Q. You said, “I have a friend who has mounted a mobile antenna on the metal frame of his backpack”


Watch that low branch!   Crack... too late!


The imagination goes wild. If your friend can do that, why can't I get a Smiley half-wave (5/8, as yours) and fashion a non-metallic connector that allows me to attach it to the end of my trekking pole, held aloft?

("Say, who's that guy over there trying to get struck by lightning?")

I obviously have too much time on my hands... which I don't, actually. 


I told you about adding the dangling 19.5" wire ground to the ground of an HT antenna and getting 3 dB additional out of it in class?  You were probably well aware of this, but here are two items I saw on the internet which add that you are helped if you point the ground toward the intended repeater.

"An effective expedient to improve a flexible antenna is to attach a counterpoise (19.5" long for the 2-meter band, or 6.5" for the 70 cm band) of stranded wire, crimped and soldered to a battery clip or ring terminal which will fit over the antenna connector. Reinforce the soldered connection with heat shrink to resist flex. When attached to the outer collar of the BNC connector or the antenna shield, the counterpoise prevents transmitted RF from coupling with your body. This enables it to perform like a center-fed dipole, instead of an "end-fed dummy load!" The main lobe of the radiation pattern can be "aimed" by, grasping and pointing the end of the counterpoise in the direction  where you need a stronger signal."

"A simple and inexpensive improvement that can be made to the "rubber duck" is the addition of what is called a "tiger tail". You can make one of these using a quarter-wavelength (19-1/4" for 2 meters) piece of #14 through #20 stranded wire, crimped and soldered to a battery clip.

Reinforce the soldered connection with heat shrink tubing or tape to resist flex. Clamped to the outer collar of the BNC connector on your HT antenna, it acts as a counterpoise so that RF from the HT doesn't couple with your body. A "tiger tail" is directional and can be used to change both radiation angle and direction. It gives best simplex performance when pointed in the general direction of the station you are trying to "hit"."


A. Thanks for the tiger tail info. I'm not sure if an HT antenna would or would not work if not mounted directly on the radio. It seems to me it's using the radio itself as the counterpoise. I suppose it might with the tiger tail. I'm going to try that and see how it works.





Q. Our 5R arrived yesterday, just in time to take it to our last class and show the group.


I found that the Lithium Ion 80LI does indeed fit the 5R.  The salesman assured me it did and made sure it fit before sending everything to me.  A printed slip of paper says "The enclosed FNB-80LI is a Lithium Ion Battery Pack for the VX-5R. The FNB-80LI is a direct replacement for the original FNB-58LI Lithium Ion Battery Pack."  For a little price adjustment, I ended up with 2 of the 80LI's. 

Back Radio Station AA6J

Copyright Bill Jeffrey 2005.

Last update April 11, 2005