Ham Radio & the Art of Bushcraft

Operating a radio in the great outdoors can be as simple as parking your vehicle, pulling a radio out of your pack, attaching an antenna to the top of the driver’s window and keying up. I have done that myself in the depths of winter when it’s too darn cold to really get outside and operate. But really, how much fun is operating inside the confines of a vehicle compared to trekking into the bush and setting up a portable station in the back country?

The Wild Rover

The Parks on the Air (POTA) program has attracted a lot of people to outdoor operating. POTA has become what some have called a “near contesting” activity. When competing for the POTA Rover awards (activating at least 5 parks in one UTC day) there is no time for long treks into the bush. Rovers must get the job done and move on. I would like to still be able to compete on that basis, but age dictates that I have to slow the pace down and enjoy the scenery along the way. Doctor’s orders dictate that I have to remain active so a nice compromise is to combine hiking and ham radio.

My home in Owen Sound, Ontario is surrounded by the Niagara Escarpment which is very rugged and sometimes downright dangerous in some places. There is a lot of exposed bedrock riddled with large fissures and unprotected cliff edges. Fortunately we are also blessed with millions of trees from which to hang wires and attach ridge lines. Fallen twigs and branches provide a plentiful source of kindling, fatwood tinder and lumber for making poles and shelter supports.

So it was only natural for me to learn a few bushcraft skills to enhance the experience. There are many good YouTubers providing a wealth of knowledge in the art of bushcraft and survival. The essential tools are a good knife and paracord – lots of paracord! Nature can provide almost everything else you might need, except a radio of course.

Keep Calm and Carry In

Job One is getting oneself, radio equipment, chair, table, shelter and maybe cooking and food supplies to the operating site. There aren’t any convenient picnic tables deep in the bush so you have to carry in whatever you need. If you have a lightweight QRP radio, a length of wire some paracord and a something waterproof to sit on, you can stuff it all into a backpack and you’re good to go.

As one gets older, comfort becomes a little more essential. I have back problems, worn out knees and a distinct lack of flexibility so I carry in a camping stool to sit on. My rig comprises a Yaesu FT-891 transceiver, Bioenno 12Ah LiFePO4 battery, LDG Z-11 tuner, a homemade clone of a Yaesu FH2 remote keypad and a CWMorse paddle key. Everything is completely assembled in a custom enclosure and is frankly just a little on the heavy side. Inside my backpack are a choice of wire antennas, radials and a telescoping whip. I also carry either a tarp and paracord or a small pop-up tent for shelter. Sometimes I also bring along a (very compact) butane stove with cooking vessel/cup/bowl, a spork and always at least a liter of drinking water.

So how in heck does an old, decrepit creature like me manage to get all that gear into an operating site after hiking a kilometer or more on narrow muddy trails with rocks and tree root obstructions? The trails often have steep rocky ascents and descents and wide rock fissures to cross. My secret? I have a mule. No, not the animal kind. It’s a home made one-wheeled cart that bears the weight of all my gear. All I have to do is to pull it.

VA3KOT’s Mule – made from scrap metal tubes and a bicycle wheel

In Ontario snow is a sure thing – every winter! When I want to get out to do a POTA activation and the snow is deep and crisp and even, wheels won’t help.

So I built a “radio sled” for hauling my gear out along the trails. It’s good exercise snow-shoeing while pulling the sled and it’s also a heck of a lot of fun.

Setting Up a Day Camp

The three priorities for survival are: Shelter, Water and Food in that order. If you are setting up a day camp for radio operations food may be optional – but I always carry emergency rations just in case. Some bushcrafters like to build a shelter from fallen tree branches, brush and leaves. I prefer to setup a ridge line, hang a tarp to create an A-frame shelter and I am done in ten minutes.

One of the most important skills to be learned from bushcrafters is how to tie knots. There are hundreds of different knots available; your choice will depend on how you wish to use them. For portable ham radio operations I recommend the Bowline, Taut Line Hitch and Trucker’s Hitch as a good start but there are many others to explore. An online search will provide lots of sources. If you have difficulty with knots a good alternative is to use toggles. I have found toggles to be faster and easier than many knots.

Here is an example of using a toggle to secure a ridge line around a tree. The traditional method of doing it involves tying a bowline, creating a bight through the bowline and securing it with a marline spike.

At the other end, tie a trucker’s hitch to tension the line. The traditional method works but a toggle at each end saves time and works just as well.

Now that your shelter is in place you can relax and maybe grab some lunch before getting on the air. I like to use my compact butane stove to boil some water in a stainless steel cup to make noodles. The traditional bushcraft method is to gather some kindling, shave some tinder with your camping knife, throw some sparks at the tinder using the back of your knife against a ferro rod and start a campfire. The campfire can then be used for cooking. Good tradition but it eats into radio time and that’s the real reason we’re out in the bush!

High Wire Act

Shelter is in place, lunch has been eaten, now it’s antenna time. Shall it be a vertical antenna or a wire up in the trees? Let’s start with a vertical like the Rybakov. My version of the Rybakov antenna involves suspending 26 feet of wire radiator from a telescoping fiberglass pole, with four 13ft radials on the ground at the base of the pole. The pole is supported by three guy lines held and tensioned by toggles. To prevent the base from slipping when the wind rocks the pole I dig a small divot with my camping knife. The divot is replaced when I tear down the station. The base of the pole sits in the shallow indent in the ground.

Quite often I prefer to launch a wire antenna using trees for support. Canada has 3 billion trees and many of them are right in my own area. However, of all the gifts with which I was born, a good throwing arm was not one of them. I like to joke that if I was a baseball pitcher I would be a world champion at picking off runners trying to steal a base – while aiming at the plate!

Fortunately for me, and others like me, there is something called “mechanical advantage” that comes to our assistance. I read other hams accounts of using an arborist’s throw bag to get a line high up into a tree. I am envious; I have tried it but …

So here is another bushcraft technique I use to achieve the same end. A great hiking aid is a wooden staff. Mine is about five feet long and helps me stay upright while negotiating difficult parts of a trail. I wound a paracord handle on it for comfort. I also attached a paracord loop with a soft canvas wrist protector that serves double duty. The canvas wrist protector opens up to form a pouch. One end of the pouch is secured to the staff, the other end is tied into a slip knot. My hiking staff now becomes a staff slingshot for launching my “sand grenades” up into a tree. The sand grenades are attached to lightweight mason’s twine to pull up my wire.

The staff slingshot is an ancient weapon of war used to launch rocks at an enemy and will propel its deadly projectiles a long distance. It was therefore designed to propel its ammo horizontally. It takes a bit of practice to learn the technique of propelling projectiles (in my case, party balloons filled with 4 ounces of sand) vertically, but I have been able to get lines up over 50 feet in a tree without too much difficulty.

To anticipate the obvious question of how do I pull “the mule” along while holding a 5-foot hiking staff? The answer is very simple. Instead of holding the handles, the mule is attached to a 3-point harness (a backpack actually) using small loops of military style webbing. If you look at the image of the mule, above, you may notice the eye-bolts on each handle. The webbing loops slip over the eye-bolts and allow me to pull the mule along completely hands-free, except on the most difficult parts of a trail.

Bushcrafters have devised many diverse ways of using simple tools and the resources provided by nature. Ham radio operators like myself and others who enjoy getting intimate with the trees, hills and streams can take advantage of many of those bushcrafting skills to increase the enjoyment of our radio hobby in harmony with nature.

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