Emergencies can happen any time on your truck camper adventures. Being able to call for help can mean the difference between life and death. The trouble is, most of the places where I camp have no cell service at all. They’re pretty remote. This inability to reach the outside world inspired me to get my Ham Amateur Radio General Class License and install a High Frequency (HF) transceiver in my camper. So far, this has proven to be a very reliable way to communicate.
Notice I specified the HF band. The VHF band (50 MHz and above) relies on line of sight propagation and does not provide long distance coverage especially when there is no access to repeaters. HF on the other hand (14 MHz and below) propagates by refracting or bouncing off of the ionosphere and can travel very long distances. I routinely talk to Europe with my 100 watt HF transceiver and homemade wire antenna. So amateur radio can provide a reliable method of communication from anywhere on the globe. Assembling an amateur station for the camper is relatively straightforward and this article will provide an overview of how that is done. To communicate using HF you will need at a minimum:
- Amateur radio license: General or Amateur Extra
- Radio: HF Transceiver
- Power source: 12 volts DC for most HF radios.
- Antenna: Suitable for whatever HF bands you plan to use
- Feedline: Generally coax to connect the antenna to the radio.
- GPS: Or some way to know your exact location
More about each of these below:
First things first. Transmitting on the amateur bands requires a license. There are three levels, Technician, General and Amateur Extra. To transmit voice on the HF bands requires a General or Amateur Extra license. If you know or want to learn CW (Morse code), some of the HF bands allow CW privileges for Technicians. But having at least a General class license will provide access to more of the spectrum and significantly increase your likelihood of making contacts.
There are many resources to study for the exam. The Amateur Radio Relay League (ARRL) has study books for each level of license and there are many online resources for ham radio study. I like the flash cards that can be found online. Once you are ready, you can find a ham radio club in your area that offers testing.
Modern HF transceivers typically cover 160 meters (1.8 MHz) through 6 meters (54 MHz). Older radios may not have 6 meters, but that’s okay. I consider the most important bands to be 20, 40 and 80 meters. If your radio covers them you are good to go. Most HF radios have 100 watts of output power. This is adjustable and you can turn down the RF output power to conserve your batteries if you’re camping off-grid.
The Power Connection
Connect the radio to a 12 volt battery with an appropriate fuse. Install the fuse as close to your battery as possible for the greatest protection. Today, most radios come with power cables that have fuses already installed at the source end, but if you extend the wires from your battery, you will have to add a fuse. If you do extend the power wires, use heavy gauge wire to minimize the voltage drop. Many Hams (including me) standardize on Anderson Power Pole connectors for power connections. This gives you the flexibility to move your radio if you need to.
I also like to take the radio outside when I’m camping and make contacts, while sitting around the fire. I made a power cable out of an old battery charger cable that clips to the outside power port on the camper. It has power pole connectors, so I can easily remove the radio from the camper and plug it in outside.
I’ve good luck with simple homemade wire dipole antennas. I’ve a slingshot/fishing reel gizmo that I use to shoot fishing line over a branch and pull up rope to tie the wire antenna and pull it up. You can also use an arborist bag, bow and arrow, rock on a string, or even a drone to get the line up. You can also hang a wire antenna on a mast. When I don’t have trees, I use a hamstick dipole. It uses two rigid antennas that I can put up on my telescoping mast. Safety first. When raising an antenna or mast, always check to verify that no power lines are in the vicinity.
Opinions on which antenna to use varies widely. Considerations for camper antennas include portability and ease of setup. Antennas fall into two general categories, wire antennas and rigid antennas. Wire antennas are simply pieces of wire suspended above the ground. Wire antennas can be rolled up and travel very well. Wire antennas can be built easily from readily available materials and suspended using rope over tree branches. Rigid antennas are useful when it would be difficult to put up a wire antenna (like in an open field where there are no trees). I think it’s a good idea to have at least one of each type to maximize your ability to get out no matter where you are camping. Rigid antennas require some type of mast. A telescoping painter’s pole is a cheap way to get an antenna up about 20 feet. Search the web for information on the various types of antennas. They all work and it’s just a matter of finding one that works for your situation.
How high should your antenna be? The short answer is it depends. Thirty feet or so is a good goal, but lower will work. I’ve made contacts with a wire antenna that was only about 10 feet off the ground. The ideal height actually varies with the frequency.
Feedline (generally coax) is used to connect the transceiver to the antenna. Use good feedline and keep it as short as practical.
The term band refers to frequency groups that are set aside for amateur operation. HF bands set aside for Ham radio use include:
- 160 meters or 1.8 to 2 MHz
- 80 meters or 3.5 to 4 MHz
- 40 meters or 7 to 7.3 MHz
- 20 meters or 14 to 14.350 MHz
Search the web for the ARRL Band Chart for a more complete picture of the Ham bands. What band to use? The short answer is 20 meters is a good daytime band. The 40 meter band is better at night, but also works during the day. The 80 meter band is mostly a night time band. There are other bands, but if you have access to these three, you should be able to make contacts no matter where you are. If I had to pick just one, I would pick the 40 meter band.
Obviously you will need to be able to convey your exact location. So a GPS unit or some other knowledge of exactly where you are is important.
Test your setup at home
Put it all together and test it at home to reveal any problems with the setup. I’ve had bad connectors, interference from my inverter and forgot to bring key parts of my antenna.
Also consider a checklist, especially if you have equipment that is shared between the camper and the home station. I’ve a dedicated radio in the camper and the hamsticks and several wire antennas also stay in the camper. But things like my antenna analyzer and multimeter go back and forth. Having a checklist will reduce the risk of leaving something behind.
And remember safety when you set up your equipment. Your personal safety and the safety of others. Keep antenna wires and supports away from areas where others may be walking. It’s all common sense, but sometimes in the field we make things work in creative ways. So it’s always good to take an assessment after everything is set up to verify it is safe.
In my Palomino SS-1251 truck camper, I have a Yaesu FT450 and an LDG antenna tuner that is matched to the radio. The HF radio lives in the camper. It’s mounted with wing nuts so I can take it out easily. Almost all of my operating is done outside. Having the tuner gives me the flexibility to use sub-optimal antennas on multiple bands. I have tuned up my 20 meter dipole on 40 meters and even 80 meters and made contacts. It’s not the most efficient way to get out because much of the output power is dissipated in the tuner instead of radiating from the antenna where it belongs. But if it allows you to easily get on a band where you can make a contact, that’s the goal here.I have several antennas. In addition to the 20 meter wire dipole, I have two 20 meter hamsticks that I can setup as a dipole and put it on my telescoping fiberglass mast. This is what I do when I don’t have trees to string up the wire antenna. I also have hamsticks for several other bands, but I haven’t really used them much. At home I have a multiband antenna called a ZS6BKW. It’s a wire antenna about 90 feet long and fed with 45 feet of ladder line. It actually works on six different bands without a tuner. It wouldn’t pack up as well as the dipole, but getting six bands might be worth the extra hassle.
In the meantime
If you don’t have your General license yet, join your local amateur radio club and find the active 2 meter repeater in your area and get on the air. Hams are a helpful bunch and you can learn a lot just by being active on 2 meters. You may have to try several local repeaters to find the most active one. In my area, I can access more than 10 repeaters, but most of them are relatively dead. Keep trying and you should find one that is active. Amateur radio clubs are also and excellent resource. They typically meet once a month and usually they have a radio room (shack) where members can go and use the equipment. Even as a technician, you can operate under someone else’s call sign (control operator) if they are present.
You can also listen in on HF before you get your General ticket. Websdr gives you access to the HF bands without any investment at all. When you go to websdr.com, you can tune in to the HF bands and listen to the activity. This is a good way to get familiar with the etiquette and lingo. And don’t forget that as a Technician, you have privileges on some of 10 meters and all of the 6 meter band.
This has been a basic introduction to operating amateur radio on the High Frequency bands. I’m guessing it will generate as many questions as it answers, so please add your comments and questions below.