The Amateur Amateur: Not-Quite-In-the-Field Station

By Gary Hoffman, KB0H
Contributing Editor
September 26, 2006

I just knew that I wanted a "field" station -- a portable station for emergencies -- but daydreaming wasn't getting the job done.

TV dinner tray supporting station

The infamous "problems and missing stuff" sheet.


A field station or driveway station?


The point of the exercise: To get some metal in the air.

I've always thought "field" stations -- a portable station for emergencies -- are really cool. My wife Nancy and I visited a demonstration of one not long after we first obtained our Amateur Radio licenses. It was a simple setup staffed by the Suburban Radio Club (now the St Louis and Suburban Radio Club), with one transceiver running phone and another running packet. Right then I realized that some day I'd like to have a field station of my own.

Fast forward to today: My desire to have my own field station never diminished, but I also never got around to putting one together. The fact that I still don't have one has reached a critical and embarrassing point, since I am now an Assistant Emergency Coordinator for the St Louis County Amateur Radio Emergency Service (ARES). My face gets a little red when I have to admit that I can't actually deploy in the field because I haven't yet assembled a station to take with me.

Maybe it was because I couldn't visualize the end product, but I just seemed to have a mental block about putting my field station together. I've read a lot about them. I know people who have them. If they came pre-packaged in kit form, I'd probably have one already. But as for putting one together from scratch, I just couldn't seem to get unstuck.

One clue to my paralysis came when someone asked, "What do you want to do with your field station?"

I didn't have an answer. I just knew that I wanted a field station, something I could set up in, well, the field, but I didn't have any clear idea of what it should do. When I thought about it, I'd start daydreaming about a complex all-weather multi-function station. I'd keep mentally adding to it until it had all the functionality of a satellite tracking station, plus all the amenities of a small resort hotel. Obviously, such daydreaming wasn't getting me anywhere.

At some point I forced myself to start thinking in more realistic terms. I scaled back my goals for the transceiver to 2 meter voice operation only, no bells, no whistles. I thought I could probably get such a radio pretty cheaply. But what else did I need?

Now I was back in paralysis mode. What kind of antenna did I need? What about the mast? How would I hold up the mast? Yikes! What I really needed was someone to guide me through the process.

Brainstorm! Perhaps I wasn't the only person in our ARES group who was having such difficulties, I reasoned, so I recommended that we form a "Field Station Team." The team's purpose would not be to build field stations, but rather to assist our group's members in putting together their own stations. Basically it would be a specialized mentoring team.

Since I am held in such high regard by our ARES leadership (or, more likely, because I had accidentally stumbled across a good idea), my suggestion was adopted. ARES member Ed Harris, KC0UKR, was chosen to head the Field Station Team.

When it comes to field stations, Ed is at the opposite end of the spectrum from me. Far from being confused and paralyzed, Ed has dozens of field station ideas and practically cranks them out in his sleep. I contacted Ed and declared myself to be his first "customer," but we had conflicting schedules and could never exchange more than a few words via telephone.

Then came the great day, the day that changed everything.

Ed agreed to give a presentation on field stations at one of our monthly ARES meetings. I was anxious to hear what he had to say. Apparently so was everyone else, since the room was packed. Ed's talk was a masterpiece and so geared to my specific problems that I thought maybe he was operating on the mental telepathy bands. Or perhaps my problems weren't all that unique.

Ed's talk wasn't heavily technical. It was designed to show us that building a field station was not that difficult a task (again, I felt as if he were talking directly to me). He explained that all of us, being Amateur Radio operators, already had some of the equipment we needed, and many of us had all of the items we needed to put together a field station.

It was a startling revelation. And true. Practically everyone in the room had a handheld transceiver and a spare mobile antenna. Those weren't the components of an elegant field station, but they could form the basis of a simple field station. Most of us could also devise a way to recharge the handheld transceiver's battery from our automobiles. Even better, many of us already had an old mobile rig that we could use instead of a handheld.

My own confusion wasn't about radios. It was about antenna masts and mounts. I'd found a number of high-tech, military spec products, most of which cost more than my fanciest transceiver. Ed explained, however, that something as simple as an extendable swimming pool pole could serve as a mast. Several other commonplace items also can be conscripted to hold a mast, including a loudspeaker tripod.

I felt much better after Ed's talk. I went home, took inventory of what I had and the next day ordered the items I did not yet have. A few weeks later I was ready to put together my first field station.

You know where you do this, right? In your own back yard. And in my case I quickly discovered that there was no place in my backyard where I could safely erect a mast. Every spot was either overshadowed by trees or was too close to power lines. So I switched to Plan B, which was to put together my field station in my driveway.

The very first thing that I did was to set up a TV dinner tray and something on which to sit. I put a sheet of paper on the tray and drew two columns on it. The first was labeled "Items that I've forgotten" and the second was "Things that don't work". (You can tell that I'm not an optimist.)

An hour and 32 trips to the basement for additional tools and parts later, I finally had what appeared to be a field station. I turned on my transceiver and made a test call. I got an immediate response. Surprise, surprise, I had a functioning field station! It was a joyful moment.

Although I said I have a functional field station, I can't go very far into the field. The station worked fine on my driveway, but it was attached by an invisible umbilical cord to my workshop and shack. The two-column sheet of paper had expanded into many pages, and I'm still trying to figure out how to reduce the list of tools and other support paraphernalia to something that will fit into my compact car.

My field station is still really a prototype at the moment, but I'm sure that someday it will be robust and truly portable. For the time being, however, I can only deploy to disasters in my own front yard. Ah well. I guess I'd better get back to that two-column sheet of paper again.

Editor's note: ARRL member Gary Hoffman, KB0H, lives in Florissant, Missouri. He's been a ham since 1995. Hoffman says his column's name -- "The Amateur Amateur" -- suggests the explorations of a rank amateur, not those of an experienced or knowledgeable ham. His wife, Nancy, is N0NJ. Hoffman has a ham-related Web page. Readers are invited to contact the author via e-mail, [email protected].

© 2006 American Radio Relay League

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