All amateur radio stations have the same five basic elements: a transceiver, an antenna, a power supply, a transmitting interface like a key or microphone, and a reception interface like headphones or a speaker. And of course, cables which connect all the aforementioned elements to the radio. There you have it! A complete amateur radio station!
So, I can just pack up whatever radio I have and get outside with it, right? Technically, yes you can. And should! The best radio is the one you have.
However, I believe that there is an optimal setup for any given scenario and for any given operator.
Portability and Capability
The interaction of portability and capability will influence what you can do with your portable radio station.
Portability: a radio station’s weight and bulkiness as well as its power draw on transmit and receive.
Capability: a radio station’s available bands and modes as well as its interface’s user friendliness.
Often, portability and capability are inversely related.
Less capable rigs are more portable. For instance, a mono-band cw-only QRP rig will be lighter and have lower power draw. This means less battery is required and could mean a less complicated antenna is necessary. Some command of Morse code is often required, but the code is easy to learn.
More capable radios are generally less portable. An all-mode all-band 100W radio can do everything but it can be bulky, require a large battery, and require a large antenna – or even more than one antenna – to get on all available bands at full power.
The Portability/Capability Interaction: Three Examples
Low Portability / High Capability
For a while, I did POTA activations using the only radio I owned: the Kenwood TS480-SAT. This was a great rig but it was the size of an unabridged dictionary, came complete with detachable head and multiple cables, which I lugged around in a Pelican case the size of a suitcase. My portable vertical antenna mounted on a painter’s pole. I sprang for the fancy Bioenno 12Ah battery, which is closer to the size and weight of a carton of milk than a tin of altoids. Even with the battery and radio packed into the case, I had both my hands and a backpack full of gear to haul out to some picnic table that was never too far away from my truck. The only way to make that setup more portable would have been to throw it all into a little red wagon.
I no longer own this radio. Sometimes I regret selling it because it was a fine rig. It had full power and a nice tuner built in. The receiver in it was also excellent. The filters could be adjusted with knobs on the control head without menu diving. The only reason why I sold it is because I wanted something I could take up a mountain. If you find a TS480-SAT for a good price, get it! But keep on your desk or in your vehicle if you can. It’ll wear you out lugging it around.
High Portability / Low Capability
These days, the radios that I use the most often are the Yaesu FT-818, the QRP Labs QCX-mini for 80m, and the LNR Precision Mountain Topper Three Bander (MTR3b). Perhaps I’m biased, but to call any of these radios “low” capability is to sell them short, even the ones that only do CW.
Now, all of these radios are QRP radios with a power output of 5 watts (well okay, 6 watts with the FT-818 but who’s counting), but they still have many of the most important features that heavier, bulkier, more power hungry rigs have.
The Yaesu FT-818 fits a lot of radio into the size of a medium sized book (5.3 x 1.5 x 6.5in). With this rig, you can operate on all bands (160m-6m, 2m, 70cm) and all modes (CW, SSB, AM, FM, digital with computer). I’ve yet to operate on all the bands this radio has, but I’m working on accomplishing that. The clear face and comparatively large tuning knob makes operating easy. There is some menu diving, but most of the settings are of the set-and-forget variety. Moreover, the included battery and speaker can cut down on complication.
The trade-off lies in its higher weight, power consumption, and wide filtering. While it’s certainly not back breaking at 2 pounds, there are much lighter options. Power consumption-wise, it uses between 300 and 450mA depending on the speaker output on receive. On transmit it can use up to 2.4A. As a consequence, you have to take some battery with you to feed this radio’s appetite. I already have the 12Ah battery so it’s usually the one I choose to pair with this radio. That brings the weight up to 6 pounds, 6 ounces (2.9kg) before an antenna, key, or anything else is added.
The one truly disappointing thing about this radio is its filtering. It is frustratingly wide for CW. However, I built a kit to fix this problem. Now it has audio filtering narrow enough for crowded conditions.
From here on out, I’ll be talking about CW-only radios.
The QCX family
For a kit radio, QCX-mini is an outstanding value and a ton of fun to build. After an evening of soldering, you have a single band radio that has wonderful filtering and low power consumption, all in the size of a deck of cards. It weighs a miniscule 205 grams, consumes 70mA on receive and 350mA on transmit at 12V.
For portable operation, it is a pleasure to operate. Tuning and volume knobs are large enough to work with gloves on. Menus are easy to access, if you need to access them at all.
Because it is a kit radio, getting the full five watts out of them can take some fiddling. Right now, my QCX-mini for 80m puts out 3.5 watts, I believe. All I would need to do is fiddle with the band pass section of the radio to get all five watts out of it.
Now, I don’t take this radio out as often as I should because mine is built for 80 meters, a great nighttime, wintertime band. I just need to bundle up and go camping a few times this winter to get this rig on the air.
The LNR Precision Mountain Topper MTR3b
My favorite out of all three of these radios would have to be the Mountain Topper. For me, it checks a lot of boxes and leaves little to be desired. The form factor is incredibly small, robust, and weighs 152 grams. The power consumption is only 20mA on receive and 700mA on transmit which means that I can operate for hours on a single charge of the battery pack. The receiver in this radio is stellar. It has a narrow filter and astounding selectivity. It operates on two of the most popular ham radio bands. The third one, 30 meters, is one of my favorites because of the nature of propagation and the lack of voice modes.
There are only two downsides for me. The lack of a true tuning knob makes it difficult to make quick frequency changes. The lack of an integrated volume knob is annoying, but I might be able to fix that. Both of these things are acceptable tradeoffs in my mind. Else, I would build up a QCX-mini for the band I operate on the most for POTA and SOTA….I might do that anyway.
Usually, compromises must be made whenever you want to operate portable.
However, limiting factors are often liberating. They serve to sharpen skills and leverage efficiencies. Portable rigs are often specialist rigs. They do one thing and one thing well: they transmit and receive Morse code with low power draw and low weight and bulk. This makes them ideal to throw into a pack and go somewhere far off the beaten path.
Now, the five essential elements of a radio station are not the only things I bring. There are other considerations, such as how to log contacts, how to ensure your safety, and last but not least, how to make the operating experience a pleasurable one.