Free advice for rovers

(Updated May 15, 2009)

We all know what free advice is worth, but I offer the following in hopes that some of you may avoid the idiotic mistakes that I have managed to make over the years.  These are in no particular order.

1.  Microphones. If you have multiple radios, tag the microphones so they can be identified.  If possible, have them widely separated in the vehicle.   This helps avoid cross-band contacts. If you are operating mobile, rig your microphone cables so they cannot possibly interfere with the steering wheel.  I learned this one the hard way when I wrapped the wheel with a mike cable and ended up in a ditch! 

2.  Velcro. This is great stuff for securing microphones, splitter switches, etc.  Radio Shack sells some super stuff that can even secure radios.

3.  Fuses.  Fuse all leads, and do yourself a favor, put a fuse in both the positive and negative leads.  Be sure to carry spares.

4.  Batteries.  Test your deep cycle batteries at least a week before the contest.  This gives you a chance to replace them or charge them before the contest.  Use a hydrometer.

5.  Power.  Don't connect anything to the cigarette lighter plug that pulls more than an amp or two. 

6.  Computer Logging.  If you are logging with a computer, carry back-up paper logging sheets.  Don't forget a pencil.  Be sure that you check the time on the computer and make sure that it is correct.  This will save a lot of editing later.  When you get done with the contest, immediately save a copy of the log to a backup disk - do this before doing any editing.  You can expect to spend some time editing your logs.  This is done on the honor system, and you cannot count incomplete or incorrect entries, though  you can edit entries within reason..  I have made some magnificent goofs, generally by having the wrong time in the computer.  You also need to do some test runs with your software.  Contests are not a good time to learn how to use a program!

7.  Feed lines.  Color code and tag all feed lines.  Invest in one of those little labelers that sell for about $30 at Costco.  Label each end of each feed line with the band that it is set up for.

8.  Label your transverters - fore and aft.  Use the label maker to make band labels for the front and real of your transverters.  This will help avoid feed line mix-ups!

9.  Maps.  Buy lots of maps.  I recommend the DeLorme map books for starters.  The freebie Washington and Oregon maps have latitude and longitude lines on them.  I go over these lines with a highlighter and mark in the grid numbers in magic marker.  You can expect to work some newbies that don't know what grid they are in, so you will have to help them out a bit.  Be sure to have them repeat the grid so you have a legal contact.  The Benchmark map books are also excellent, and show topo better.  Personally, I think that you need both the DeLorme and Benchmark books.

10.  Rover book.  Make up a rover book.  Mine is a 1 inch three ring binder with transparent covers.  I put maps in under the plastic covers for quick reference.  I have a lot of operating information in the book - frequencies, local maps, lists of hams by grid and their six character grid locator, etc.  

11.  Compass. Don't leave home without one.  Get one that will shoot accurate bearings.  The old fashioned lensatics are great, but there are some new ones on the market that are a lot handier.  Go to a marine supply shop and ask for "bearing compasses".

12.  Care and feeding of KB6KQ (SK) loops.  I have been using Norm's loops for years and have had excellent service from them.  I mount these antennas on rigid racks on my truck, and I have had some trouble with parts shaking off them.  I talked to Norm about this, and he suspects that it is caused by a combination of vibration and severe updrafts because of where they are located.  I often use the antennas while pulling a 5th wheel trailer, and the aerodynamics of the outfit causes some pretty strange wind currents.

I have not talked to anybody else that has had a problem with them shedding parts, so I suspect that I am putting them to unusually hard use.  I'd sure like to model the whole layout in a wind tunnel.  Anyway, I tape all of the screws down with PVC tape to keep them from vibrating loose.  On the six meter model I have used wire-ties to secure the braces to the elements over the screw heads.  I have also made stays for the 144 MHz antennas that are very similar to the braces that Norm uses on the 6 meter model.  I built them out of 3/8" fiberglass rod (easily obtainable at farm supply houses - they sell them for electric fence posts) and they have lasted well.

13.  Spare parts.  Carry a full inventory of spare nuts and bolts for your antennas.  

14.  Tools.  Nearly all antennas use 7/16" and 1/2" nuts and bolts.  You can buy a combination wrench with these sizes at most auto parts houses - ask for a "battery wrench".  It is very handy to have this combination on one wrench - it saves a lot of time hunting for tools, and they are small enough to fit into your pocket.  You need to make a list of the tools (especially wrenches) that you need to work on your gear, and then make sure that you bring them along.  There is nothing worse than finding that you did not pack an oddball wrench that is necessary to adjust an antenna.  I carry my tools in a GI canvas tool bag. 

15.  Four-In-One screwdrivers.  These screwdrivers come with four heads - two slotted, and two Phillips, plus with the heads out they can be used as a nut driver.  Don't leave home without one.

16.  GPS.  A GPS is a must for rovers.  I have a Garmin GPS-III+ and love it.  Here is a listing of GPS units that support Maidenhead grids.  You can program the locations of known sites and use the "Go To" function to provide exact distances and compass headings.  This is especially handy for microwave work.

17.  Make a list.  Not just a list, but a LIST!  I keep mine on the computer and update it for every contest.  The list should be exhaustive and include every single thing that you will need.  Especially important are the tools - you don't want to end up in the boonies missing a metric wrench that is necessary to adjust an antenna.  You need a pre-operational check list to check out all of your equipment.  Contest time is not the time to be adjusting power levels on the IF for transverters, setting CW keyer speeds, etc.

18.  Carry a roll of toilet paper.  I learned this one the hard way and it cost me two nearly new bandanna handkerchiefs.  It is also a great idea to carry a plastic bottle with a secure lid in case you can't find a rest stop or private area on a long stretch of road.  'Nuff said.

19.  Get some signs.  I had a pair of magnetic door signs made up at a booth at Dayton that say "Emergency Communications - N7CFO".  Somehow these signs make the whole works "Official" and as a result people tend to leave me alone.  I am all in favor of spreading the good word about amateur radio, but face it, I don't have a lot of free time during a contest.

I also have magnetic signs that go on the back of the truck with my call and "146.58".  146.58 is the PNW standard for FM simplex operation during contests, and who knows - it might get me another contact one of these days.

20.  Windows.  An easy way to get feedline into your car or truck is to use a length of foam pipe insulation on a roll-up window edge.  The foam will flex to allow the coax into the vehicle, and seals the window so you don't have road noise, drafts and bugs.  Don't forget to make a drip loop.

21.  Loom your coax!  I first saw this done on a computer network installation, and it is a slick trick and is easy to do.  I have made up harnesses of my coax and "loomed" the cables.  This makes it a lot easier to keep track of which cable is which, and keeps things a lot neater.  I suggest that you set up the looms in place - this will enable you to set up turns in the cable so it will fit in specific places.  See the photo.

loom.jpg (68248 bytes)

22. Clean house!  Prior to a rover operation, go through your vehicle and clean out everything that is not needed for the trip.  You will be living behind the steering wheel for two days and you will be limited to what you can reach from that position.  Clearing the decks will make life a lot easier and will reduce confusion.

23.  Secure everything!  I use over a hundred wire-ties to set up my rover station.  If you tie stuff down it will be there when you go looking for it, and you will be a lot safer if you have to make a panic stop or get into an accident.  Items like batteries, speakers, inverters (I use one to power the laptop and one for the rotor) and small radios could become deadly missiles if you get into a jam!

24.  Carry emergency gear.  I carry MRE's, a good flashlight, jumper cables, drinking water, a sleeping bag, rain gear, etc.  More than a few rovers have had to spend a night in the brush because of weather conditions, a break-down, or whatever.  This may sound like no big deal, but many people die each year from hypothermia, and a few common sense precautions can save your life.

25.  Use GPS waypoints.  Establish waypoints at known portable and rover locations, and if you get a chance, visit your friends and set a waypoint at their QTH.  This gives you a quick and easy way to get a beam heading to a desired area.  I also suggest that you set waypoints for the summit of major mountains in the area if you intend to bounce signals off them.  That way you can properly point antennas at night or on cloudy days.

26.  Antenna mounting.  Mount the tallest mobile antennas on the driver's side.  You will catch a lot less brush that way since they will be closer to the center of the road.

27.  Gloves.  Invest in a pair of fishing or mechanic's gloves - the ones with a soft stretchy back and a rubberized palm.  They make all the difference in the world when you are setting stuff up in cold or rainy weather.

28.  LED headlamp.  WE7X turned me onto these.  Get a good quality one.  They are incredibly helpful when you are setting up or tearing down in the dark.

29.  Safety vest.  W7DHC suggested this one for roadside stops.  It could save your life!  Buy one of the bright orange or green reflective vests like construction workers use and wear it if you are pulled off the road working on your gear, etc.  They are also handy in case of mechanical breakdowns.