Here’s the brief summary of the checklist, for those who want a quick packing list:
- Radio(s) that you know how to use
- Power source(s) more than sufficient to last all day
- Food and liquids for the day
- Full tank of gas
- Layered clothing adequate for anything West Marin might throw at you
- Sun protection
- Pencil and paper
- Clock or wristwatch
- Printout of course map and communications plan for your event
- Optional table and shade canopy
- Other things you might find useful
With that out of the way, the more detailed list, with discussion and explanation, follows.
Volunteer Amateur Radio operators from the Marin Amateur Radio Society provide communications services for a number of events in Western Marin county and southwestern Sonoma county. Most events are hikes, bicycle rides, or running races. Radio communications are provided at a variety of fixed locations, typically rest stops and/or checkpoints, and communications are also provided by mobile operators who patrol the course in cars, motorcycles, on foot, or perhaps with other conveyances.
Because of the wide variety of events, locations, and courses, there can be no universal packing list for public service events. The following is an attempt to provide a list of gear which some volunteers have found to be helpful in the past. It’s somewhat biased toward setting up a fixed station instead of a course patrol. It is mostly intended to help new volunteers who have little or no experience working at public service events, but some old hands may find some useful ideas, as well.
You don’t need all of this stuff! And you may need some things that aren’t on this list. This is only a list of reminders to think about as you come up with your own packing list for a particular assignment at a particular event.
Don’t let a lack of gear discourage you from volunteering. There are some events and locations where a handheld with small antenna is all that is required. There are also opportunities to be very helpful by assisting in operating a station which another amateur has set up. New volunteers are paired up with experienced volunteers for training purposes, regardless of equipment. Let the volunteer coordinator know your equipment and capabilities, and there will be an opportunity for you.
You always have the opportunity to improvise creatively and try new things, though realize that people are depending on your communications ability during a public service event. So if you’re going to try something very new and innovative, you might want to bring an old standard backup in addition.
When deciding what to bring to a particular location for a particular event, it is very helpful to check with an operator who has previously operated at the location to which you are assigned. The sites vary on how much radio gear is required to reach the repeater, how much space you’ll have to set up, and how close you may park a car to the operating location. Many sites allow you to work inside or right next to your car; others may require you to lug your gear for a bit of a hike.
A note about handheld tranceivers: HT’s are very useful, and should usually be a part of your equipment list. However, they have their limits. With their stock antennas, they will only reliably transmit into our repeater systems from a few of the best locations. Furthermore, if you need to transmit a lot, they will get hot and their batteries will not last long. At many locations, a higher powered mobile will be required, and such a radio is nearly always preferred, when possible.
For the benefit of net control and your fellow operators, please use enough transmit power and antenna to provide a consistently clean, fully copyable signal into the repeater. This may not always be possible from all locations if you’re mobile (especially pedestrian mobile), but should be achievable from all of the fixed locations. A small bit of hiss or scratchiness is OK, but heavy noise and frequent dropouts make communications extremely difficult for everyone. The gear required for a good signal varies depending on location, but a vehicle-powered mobile unit, combined with a reasonably efficient vehicle-mounted antenna, is sufficient for most areas. There are some more difficult sites which call for more elaborate arrangements. And there are some easier sites where a handheld will work, but an antenna upgrade will often be required.
There is a tradeoff between transmitter power and antenna efficiency, and this also has some effect on battery requirements. At several sites, you can either use a handheld transmitter with an excellent antenna or a higher power transmitter with a fairly basic antenna. A better antenna may let you turn your power down and increase battery life. There’s no such thing as too much antenna.
If you have the opportunity, try to go to your assigned location in advance of the event, and ask for a radio check. Find someone whom you can trust to give an brutally honest report, or better yet, arrange for someone to record your signal. Don’t be satisfied with a polite report of, “I caught most of that”. This sort of radio check is most valuable if you do it far enough in advance of the event so that you have time to make any required changes to your setup.
If you are operating as a pedestrian mobile on a course, you have little choice but to use an HT, but you should probably try an antenna upgrade beyond the stock antenna. Even with a better antenna, communications will probably be difficult at certain spots along the course. We have used various strategies to lessen the gaps in communications, including strategically placed cross-band repeaters, gain antennas on the HTs, etc.
This is a list of what to bring. For some operating tips on what to do, see here.
- Tranceiver. A 50 watt mobile will work in many more locations than a 5 watt HT. Two meter capability is required; that is our primary band. 70 cm (440MHz) capability may be useful in some circumstances. We may use some 70 cm repeaters, especially as backup, and sometimes a cross-band repeater will be set up to improve coverage in selected areas. We don’t normally use other bands for public service events.
- Instructions. Before the event, you should pre-program your radio with the frequencies and CTCSS tones according to the frequency plan you’ll get in advance. However, as a good operator, you must have the ability to adjust things and reprogram your radio in the field. Carry the manual, a commercially available quick guide to your radio, or a “cheat sheet” of notes you make up yourself. Between the knowledge you store in your head and the instructions you carry on paper, you should have the ability to change your radio to a new repeater or simplex frequency, adjust transmit power, listen to either the output or input frequency of a repeater, etc.
- Plentiful power. You need to have much more than enough battery capacity to operate all day. There are various ways of accomplishing this. If you’re operating handheld, have a spare battery or two and/or a way to recharge your existing ones in the field. Handheld radios that provide a full 5W output using alkaline AA batteries have an advantage over those that only use small rechargeable batteries, since you can just buy more alkalines to last longer. If you’re operating a mobile rig at a fixed location, a lead-acid battery of the size used for a car should handle almost any transmitter for a day’s event. A deep cycle group U-1 battery is smaller than most car batteries, weighs about 25 pounds, and has about 35 Ah of capacity, which is virtually always enough to operate a 50W radio for more than a day at a rest stop.
- Antenna. A stock “rubber duck” on an HT will only work in the most favorable locations. A long handheld antenna is better. A “tiger tail” may help in some situations. A quarter-wave magnetic mount placed on a good ground plane like the roof of a car will often perform well. An efficient antenna elevated on a mast is better, and if it’s directional with lots of gain, that’s better still. When working on 2 meters, especially in fringe and multipath areas, moving just a foot or two can make a huge difference in signal quality. That may be a reason to prefer a fixed antenna mounted on a parked vehicle or a mast instead of a handheld antenna which drops in and out as you accidentally move it around. Either type may need a bit of adjustment to find a “sweet spot”, but with a fixed antenna, you only need to adjust its placement once. If you want to work the Big Rock repeater from Walker Creek, you’ll probably need a Yagi with three or four elements, on top of a tall mast, along with a 50 watt mobile radio and good feedline. If you put an antenna on a mast, you’ll need some way to secure it so that it doesn’t blow down in the wind. Guy lines may be one way to do this. If there is any danger of people walking around them and tripping over them, it’s probably a good idea to mark them with something visible like surveyor’s flagging tape. Always use standard precautions regarding keeping antennas very far away from power lines.
- Cables and adapters. Don’t forget power cables, antenna cables, and various BNC/SMA/VHF adapters as appropriate. Many people keep a bag full of “just in case” cables and adapters. It’s especially useful if you’re paired up with another amateur and want the flexibility to adapt one person’s radio to another’s antenna or battery. For 12V power, many amateurs have standardized on Anderson Powerpoles to allow for easy interchangeability.
- Alternate receiver/Spare HT. For events that use multiple repeaters, it’s nice to be able to listen to all frequencies. Even if the event is using only one frequency, there are sometimes reasons to have an spare HT or second receiver. Typically, a small HT with a built-in antenna works well for receiving, even in locations where such a radio would have a difficult time transmitting into the repeater. A small handheld may also be useful for listening when you have to step away from your main transmitter temporarily. One style of operating is to transmit from a higher powered radio permanently mounted inside a vehicle, but use an HT for continuously monitoring net control as you leave the vehicle and walk around the rest stop, talking with event staff and participants. If you are paired up with another operator, you might use HTs to keep in touch locally via a simplex frequency if one of you needs to be away temporarily. There’s rarely a good reason to leave an HT at home, even if you’re not planning to use it for your primary station.
- Headset. Useful in certain noisy locations. Some rest stops/checkpoints/finish lines may have amplified music, PA announcers, or noisy cheering crowds.
- APRS gear. For some events, we may use APRS for tracking vehicles and/or pedestrian mobile operators. If you have APRS capability, either to beacon your position, to monitor the positions of others, or to digipeat, let the volunteer coordinator know when you sign up.
- Multimeter. If you have one and know how to use it, consider taking it. If you’re a ham who doesn’t have one or doesn’t know how to use one, get one and learn how to use it. You won’t necessarily need to use it every outing, but it can help you monitor the state of your battery and can help troubleshoot fuses and wiring.
- Spare Fuses. If using a radio that has a fuse, either internally or somewhere in the power cable, it’s good to have a spare or two. That’s especially true if you have any plans of improvising connections on site.
Personal Comfort and Safety.
- Layered clothing. Summer weather in West Marin is notoriously variable and unpredictable, with wind, fog, and microclimates. The weather along the 101 corridor is a very poor indicator of the weather in West Marin. Regardless of what the weather forecast says, and regardless of how beautiful it looks as you depart home in the morning, at least bring a variety of layered clothing to stay comfortable in blustery 55 degrees, sweltering 95 degrees, or anything in between. You may see both of those conditions at one location during one day.
- Sun protection. Sunburn can happen even in cool foggy weather, so bring sunscreen, wide brimmed hat, long sleeves, etc.
- Food and drink. These are often provided by the event staff at rest stops, but not always. Where provided, the menu can tend toward light snacks, electrolyte replacement drinks, fruit, and granola bars. If you’re not completely sure about the availability of appropriate liquids and nutrition at your particular assigned station at your event, it’s wise to be self-sufficient. Hydration can be especially important on warm days.
- Safety vest. Not often needed, but some stations may put you close to road traffic, and a fluorescent reflective safety vest can provide extra visibility and safety for these locations. It can also serve to indicate to the public that you are a “go to” person for information.
- First Aid Kit. As radio operators, we are not responsible for providing first aid for the event. Often, there will be Red Cross volunteers or other staff performing this function. Nevertheless, it’s not a bad idea to carry the same type of first aid gear as you would carry on a personal hiking trip with friends and family. Don’t carry first aid items that you don’t know how to use. (Careful readers of that last sentence will note that it’s logically equivalent to advising you to know how to use every piece of gear you bring).
Logistics, Facilities, and Miscellaneous.
- Full tank of gas. Don’t plan on finding fuel in West Marin. If you ignore this advice, you can try your luck at reaching Greenbridge Gas in Pt. Reyes Station (415-663-8654) or Bo-gas in Bolinas (415-868-8800), but expect to pay dearly for the convenience. There is no gas at Stinson Beach, Muir Beach, Olema, Tomales, Marshall, Inverness, or the other small settlements in West Marin.
- Pencil, paper, and wristwatch. Handy for passing messages to event staff, and for keeping a log. It’s good to jot down major things as they happen, along with a time stamp, so you don’t have to ask net control how long ago it was that they estimated ice would be coming in 20 minutes.
- Course map and frequency plan. These are normally distributed on the website, and/or by e-mail, at least a few days before the event. Print them out and take paper copies. If you’re at a fixed station using a table, suggest you tape the map to the table, with a prominent “YOU ARE HERE” indication, oriented so that event participants can read it. Event participants will often ask questions about the route.
- Camera. The club would like photos of station locations, for the benefit of future operators. Take pictures of anything you think would be interesting or useful, and send them to the webmaster after the event. Useful subjects might include the general layout of rest stations, your placement of antennas, any guidance or road signs that might be helpful in driving to the station, or anything you wished someone had told you about before working on that site. Fun photos of radio operators in action are also appropriate.
- Table. If you’re operating at a fixed location that has enough flat space, a small folding table can be a good place to put your gear. You might skip the table and operate a mobile rig from inside your vehicle even at a fixed location, but being outside at a table can make it easier to interact with others.
- Shade canopy. If you set up a table, some sort of shade canopy over it may make things more comfortable. Be sure you have a sturdy way of anchoring it against wind. A beach umbrella might be a smaller, lighter alternative to a full-sized canopy.
- Folding chair. Sporting goods stores sell camp chairs which can provide a comfortable spot to rest. Some of these include built-in shade umbrellas, which are another alternative to a full-sized shade canopy.
- Painter’s tape/masking tape. Handy for taping papers to tables to prevent them from blowing away.
- Nametag with callsign. Optional, but you’ll often meet other ham radio operators as people move about the course. It can be helpful to put names, faces, and callsigns together. A nametag can also help other non-radio people call you by name when they speak to you. You are an ambassador for ham radio when you’re dealing with the public, and a nametag is one way to project a friendly and approachable attitude.
- Cell phone. Coverage is spotty and unreliable in much of West Marin, which is why we primarily use our radios. Nevertheless, a phone might sometimes work. In the fringe coverage areas, phone batteries will be drained quickly, even if the phone is in standby not making calls, so you may want to bring a way to charge your phone.
- Laptop/tablet/other computing device. Probably not needed, unless you need it for APRS or some other digital mode. Assume Internet service won’t be available unless you make arrangements to provide it. A laptop might be a handy device for logging and for storing frequency plans and such, but a paper and pencil probably works as well, and doesn’t depend on a power supply.
- Entertainment/light reading. Optional. You’ll be busy much of the time, and even when you’re not terribly busy, you should be maintaining close watch on your radio. If you want to bring something to occupy your time, make it something that can tolerate frequent interruptions.
- Flashlight. Most events won’t require this, but a few events go late into the dark evening hours, and some start before sunrise.
- Method for carrying everything. Often, you can drive your car right to an operating location. But sometimes, parking may be at a distance from the best operating place. In order to carry the gear from the car to the operating position, people have been known to pack their stations in backpacks, or on wheeled carts or wagons.
Finally, here is one example of a station setup. At this event, there were three repeaters in use, so the station has one mobile rig on the primary repeater, with two other small radios set up to monitor the alternate repeaters. The main transmitter’s antenna is not shown; it was a J-pole on a 15 foot mast.