Last Chance Go-Box

K7JLJ.com

Published: 08.25.19, Updated: 11.23.19

THIS IS AN OLD POST, I HAVE SINCE CHANCE MY MIND ON WHAT I WANTED IN THIS SETUP. YOU CAN SEE MY CURRENT SETUP HERE.

I recently posted my EMP Proofed EmComm Setup after having set back an HF & VHF solar powered comms system. I believe it's a solid setup, but the idea of locking gear away and not operating on it until the grid drops is a less than optimal option to me.

I'm of the opinion that you really must practice with your gear if you are going to be efficient with it and given the layered menu nuances of the FT-817, I just felt that socking it away was not the best plan.

If everything is torn apart and in an ammo can, I know that I will not be as likely to use it as my base station or a "go-box" setup that just needs an antenna added.

During our recent Snow Storm Experience I realized how nice it would have been to have the ability to grab a "go-box" and throw it in the vehicle I was taking to work during that time. It would have allowed comms via the state 2M repeater after it came back up or HF NVIS comms between my wife at home with no power and me to let her know if I was working over, not slid off the road on my 50 mile commute.

My idea of a "go-box" is one that allows me to have a 2M/HF setup ready to operate with no added setup/install other than adding an antenna to the box and a system that has the ability to provide it's own solar power.

As I started thinking about building the all band FT-817 into a self-contained package, I came across the article: Go Box Zen: Know Where You’re Headed Before You Leave which helped greatly on making me define my mission for the box before I started.

In the end I came up with the following list of items which formed my "Last Chance Go-Box" you see below. What I decided was that I really wanted a "shack in a box" that covered ALL areas of HAM radio, including digital modes. Something that could replace my home unit if it were knocked out by an EMP / CME event (the box is kept in a Faraday Cage when not in use) but be small/light enough to remain mobile.

Since this setup could someday be my "last chance" of communications in a grid down scenario, it needed to be self contained more than anything else, with the ability to operate under it's own devices while remaining portable.

While the solar system inside the box is a very minimal and non-continues use setup, it will get power back to keep it in action after running the batteries dead. It's intended as a last ditch system as I have several solar systems ranging from 30W-100W at the house.

So what was MY criteria for a "go-box?"

UPDATE: I've decided that while possible, the whole digita modes with an Android and Wolphilink is just not worth the trouble. I will stick to digital modes on the base unit (Ten-Tec Eagle) and Linux Laptop and keep this setup as voice only.

  • Solar powered w/own battery
  • Vehicle accessory powered
  • ALL BAND / ALL MODE
    • SSB, CW modes primary
  • Quick & Easy setup / tear down (under 15min)
  • Tuner free operation (most efficient antennas, less to go wrong)
  • Water resistant
  • Impact resistant
  • "Light" & Portable

PRESENT CONFIGURATION

Click Here for Video of setup and components.


Solar Generator, Main Radio Case, CHA MPAS Antenna

My Solar Generator for a renewable power source.


Main unit is self sufficient but no solar recharging, 3aH battery only. Can be recharged via vehicle only.

Components


GENERAL CHARACTERISTICS

SETUP

Open lid, connect antenna and transmit.

One of the top items on my build check list was a fast setup and tear down. I wanted everything connected and ready to go with the exception of the antenna.

SIZE

Finding a balance between portable and a fully functioning HAM Shack was difficult. I ended up with a lot of stuff in one container but managed to keep the size/weight ration under control.

I'm OK with that as this setup was not meant to be a SOTA rig, even though I hope to participate in SOTA with the FT-817 next year.

COMM MODES

HF COMMS

Primary mode is always going to be SSB, it's just a fact of life! CW operators are a close second, with digital mode guys bringing up the rear, but JS8Call is changing all that IMO.

CW is the original "digital" mode:
Given it's ability to bust through poor propagation, It motivates me even more to learn it, and most CW operators are already operating QRP on battery powered rigs.

If you really want to be EmComm ready for grid-down scenarios, CW should be your primary focus.

Unfortunately, I'm a 5WPM guy right now and do not practice so CW is still on the back burner. I could get a message through if I had to all though it would be painfully slow and since I'm not proficient. I'm leaving a dedicated key out of the go-bx and would be using the FT-817 mic buttons for CW.

Digital modes are fantastic for getting through also, but have a much steeper learning curve, require specialized equipment, and unlike CW which has the majority of operators working QRP in the field, I get the feeling that most digital mode guys are running HRD on base units.

The exception being those like OH8STN who are bringing digital QRP/QSO to the field in new ways each year.

Just as you will no longer see any 1500W "Big Gun" SSB signals in a grid-down scenario lasting past 3 months because the generator fuel has run out, I think most of the digital modes will be off the air also because of the reliance on base units and lack of solar setups. I hope I'm wrong.

VHF COMMS

One thing I never did was buy a cable to program my FT-817 via CHIRP, instead I entered a few channels via the painful process of hand entry on the faceplate.

# CHANNELS
4 TAC channels
2 Cross-band repeater channels
1 W7PRA Oregon State Repeater System
2 US 2M/70CM Simplex Freqs
3 MURS channels

With CHIRP and RepeaterBook imports, that list can be expanded to 200 memory locations in less than 10 minutes time.

With that in mind, I decided that it would be worth the effort to pre-program all of the repeaters for Oregon, as well as all the FRS/GMRS, MUR, etc. freqs and EMS freqs, so that it could also be used as a "bubba scanner."

I recently found a BT/CAT interface (HC-05) that I purchased about four years ago off ebay for use with an Android App called 817 Comapanion and while it worked, the 9600 baud rate made for an annoying delay in the interface. It also would not connect to my laptop for some reason. So without that connectivity, it was worthless as a means to program via CHIRP.

Enter the BlueCAT. The BlueCAT does several things better than the HC-05 model.

  1. It removes the lag time when using 817 Comapanion.
  2. With the RepeaterBook software, I can switch to any repeater in my area ON THE FLY with the press of a screen button on my Android device.

That means, I can "hop" nearest repeaters on the W7PRA Repeater System as I travel down the Interstate without having to look at or touch the radio.

UPDATE: I recently switched to the Iphone 11 Pro so no more BlueCat for me unfortunately. Looks like I will be programming a bunch of freqs into the FT-817 soon. :(

ANTENNAS

HF ANTENNAS

While HF wires are not as quick to setup as say a CHA-MIl Whip and Hybrid-Micro, they are much cheaper, more efficient, can operate without a tuner, and when you only have 5W to send you need to make sure most of it is getting out, not "warming the wire".

My experience with the Mil Whip has been very disappointing when used with the FT-817 because of the location I'm at. Nothing against the design itself, as I have tested it in other areas and had good success getting my signal out, but in my current QTH and with the current propagation, it does not make the trip most of the time.

Getting out of the draw I live in requires an NVIS element to any antenna I use and the Mil Whip doesn't provide me an efficient launch point even when laid over horizontally. The meager 5W and compromised MIL Whip just can't get the job done. If I had 20W moving through it, I'm sure the results would be better, but long story short, it's never going to be as good as a resonant antenna.

UPDATE: I am using the MPAS setup now and learning it's limitations when restricted to the Mil Whip. The speed of setup makes it worth having in the kit IMO, if time and location permits the sloper is always choice.

Since a high priority use for the "go-box" would be to contact the wife on 80M NVIS from work 50 miles away so using a more efficient wire just makes sense, not to mention the size restriction the box puts on any antenna I might add to the system.

I have found that an EFHW "sloper" or NVIS Dipole works best with 5W and without the requirement for a tuner, so it's kind of a no-brainer to me.

The EFHW antennas definitely win in the "ease of setup" category and the QRP Guys 80M EFHW w/ 135ft of Wireman 535 #26awg fit the bill perfectly as did my fist QRP antenna, the LNR Trail Friendly.

VHF/UHF ANTENNA

For the 2M/70CM component, I decide on the Super Elastic Signal Stick for unmounted use as it's flexible, strong and the builder doesn't sell hype. Will see how it performs.

antenna

The MFJ-1721, my goto car antenna, for when driving and operating.

For home use as a last ditch HAM Shack rig, I plan on setting up a discone on the roof for non-HF freqs.

IN CLOSING

I'm reminded of the USMC Rifle Creed, in that "this is my go-box, there are many like it, but this one is mine" and for better or worse, I feel it should do the trick.

SOTA activations next year will be a good test for working out any bugs, and a few trips to work in the rigs to practice some NVIS contacts with home will also prove out if it will do all I intended for it to do.

My advise to anyone thinking about a "go-box" would echo the Offgridham article...

Plan before you buy, decide what you need/want before you spend. Then execute in a "workmanlike manner" that you can be proud of!

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