2016 Summer Trip – Day 13

Thursday, June 9th – First full day at Zion. The time change threw our wake up times off a bit. Instead of awaking at 6:00am, we awoke at 7:00am. That is a late start for Zion. We were at the Visitors Center ready to grab a shuttle a bit before 9am and the lines to board shuttles were already quite long. Fortunately Zion does a great job with the shuttles. The lines were maneuvered quickly on to departing shuttles and before we knew it, we were off to Stop 7, the Weeping Rock.

2016 Summer Trip – Day 12

Wednesday, June 8th – Refit and reprovision. My concern for the axle seal and bearings on the driver’s side of the trailer had continued to grow since our time at the Meteor Crater RV Park in Arizona. Why was there grease coming from the end of the axle seal onto the tire rim? Why was it continuing? At fuel stops I would physically feel the axle temperature and compare it with the other side. There was no difference in the temperature. I was still worried. There was a van parked in the KOA that said 24/7 RV maintenance done on site. I called the number and an hour later I had a mechanic verify what was the best case scenario: excess grease from when the bearings had been repacked was making its way onto the tire rim. Although the house call was expensive, the peace of mind was worth it.

We got our laundry done at the KOA (it is good to change in a few $20s for rolls of quarters before the trip), Christa got the shopping done at the Walmart (across the street from the KOA), and I was able to swap out our propane tank.

Here is my note about propane. Last year I had two 20 gallon canisters with me. One hooked up to the trailer system and one carried in the bed of the truck. This year features no truck bed. I thought about carrying an extra canister in the back of the trailer (peace of mind with a spare canister of propane). Last year I only had to change out the canister once. The trailer really doesn’t use much propane. I decided to only go with one canister and no spare. The downside is that I have to swap out canisters even if I am not out. I guess in the end it is worth a bit of extra money to not have to lug a spare canister around.

2016 Summer Trip – Day 11

Tuesday, June 7th – Departure from Yosemite went pretty well. Although when I went across the street to the dump station at Upper Pines Campground, I forgot that my drain is on the driver’s side and had to drive through a second time to get lined up properly. The drive out of Yosemite on CA 140 was pleasantly uneventful, as I took my time.

The Chevron in Merced (just prior to CA 99) has the nicest bathrooms we have ever seen! CA 99 from Merced to Bakersfield was better than I-5 (note to self – always take CA 99). A good portion of it was three lanes. My jaunt over the Tehachapi Pass seemed a lot less white knuckle going east bound than the west bound trip.

Staggering heat awaited us on the east side. Temperatures soared above 100F as we passed Edwards Air Force Base, through Barstow, and on to I-15. The station wagon continued to be a solid performer with the temperature gauge steady. We passed the turn off for Death Valley and the temperature was 110F. Christa got a heat advisory message on her cell phone. That sounds about right.

At last we pulled into Las Vegas, our GPS guiding us down past the major casinos. Pulling a trailer through the middle of Las Vegas was not my idea of a good time. We made it to the KOA campground. I assumed that the campground would be on the outskirts of Las Vegas, covered in desert dust. Nope. It adjoined a full-blown casino. And that is where we had a fine dinner at the TGIF inside the casino (that gave a 20% military discount – unbelievable!). A shower before bed… hadn’t seen a shower in a while.

HF Email From The Mobile?

Last summer when we were camping in the national parks, there were many campsites where we had no cell phone service. I am not complaining about that, but our work around to communicate back home to the XYL often required a trip to the pay phone (sometimes hard to find). I thought about perhaps using APRS’s capability of relaying short pieces of text as emails. Part of the problem is that there are many areas of the parks that don’t have any APRS digipeater coverage (Glacier and Yellowstone National Parks for example). How to get a message through?

Then I remembered my MARS station (AEN5AC) in Iraq. I was using an ICOM IC-7000 and an SCS PTC-IIusb modem to pass MARSGRAMS from my location north of Baghdad to another station at the US embassy in Qatar. The pairing worked quite well and I was consistently able to connect and pass traffic using PACTOR 3 at the 1400 baud rate. Could I use a similar setup to provide an HF email option while camping this summer?

September 2007, Taji, Iraq - MARS Station AEN5AC
September 2007, Taji, Iraq – MARS Station AEN5AC

I dug out my SCS PTC-IIusb modem. I had not used it since shutting down the MARS station in June of 2008. Everything was still in the box. To include the cables necessary to interface the modem with an ICOM IC-706MKIIG… the same rig I use for HF mobile.

I pulled out my spare IC-706MKIIG. Coming back to Kansas from Field Day in California back in 2009, my IC-706MKIIG quit on me. I ended up buying a second at the HRO in Denver and sent the broke one to ICOM. ICOM fixed it and returned it. I kept it in the box and it went back on the shelf. I did order a 6 pin Molex connector with powerpoles to allow for an easy power connection (#9). I connected the two cables from the modem to the rig. Once cable is for the data and plugs into the 706’s 13 pin accessory connection (#4). The other cable connects to the 706’s CI-V interface (#6) to have the radio change frequencies based on what station is being contacted.

Rear of IC-706MKIIG
Rear of IC-706MKIIG

I had the basic hardware of a HF email station, except for a computer. I would need one that would function out of the vehicle. This would probably require a laptop. I also decided for the ease of simplicity that the computer should be Windows driven (instead of Linux). Gasp! The bottom line is that the software and drivers required to send email via HF and use the SCS PTC-IIusb modem is Windows based. The answer ended up being an Dell XPS 15.
tux-sad

Using a Windows based computer helped me with a number of summer travel tasks that could not be accomplished by my small Linux laptop:
(1) Run the software required for HF email (more on Winlink and Airmail later)
(2) Run ARRL’s TravelPlus for Repeaters
(3) Run RT Systems radio programming software for my TM-D710A
(4) Run RT Systems radio programming software for my VX-8RGs
(5) Read the SD card from my Canon digital camera

Interestingly enough, the new laptop does not have a CD/DVD drive nor an RJ-45 connection for a LAN cable. Neither of these have been a show stopper yet.

ARRL’s TravelPlus for Repeaters

travelplus_repeatersI had purchased TravelPlus for Repeaters with the intent of installing it on my existing Linux laptop and running it under a VirtualBox Windows session (similar to how I run iTunes on my Linux laptop). However the software failed to install. I tried troubleshooting and looking at suggested fixes found on the forum sites but still had no luck. I tried installing TravelPlus using WINE. It installed but would not run as well.

Dell XPS 15 to the rescue. As the laptop does not have a CD/DVD drive, I copied the drive onto network storage. I then was able to install TravelPlus over the network and it is working without issue.

RT Systems Programming Software
The RT Systems programming software works fine under a VirtualBox Windows session. As I was moving all my vehicle related radio/computer tasks to the new Windows laptop, I attempted to install the programming software for the TM-D710A (used for beaconing the location of my vehicle and talking on VHF/UHF). Following a similar procedure that worked for TravelPlus, I copied the programming software from the install disks to a network drive. The software installation for the TM-D710A worked without a hitch. The software for the VX-8RGs (HTs we use for around camp and hiking) failed to load. The error said that I must use the original disk to install. A big challenge when the laptop doesn’t have a CD/DVD drive. The work around is that you find another Windows computer with a CD drive, load the software CD, then back on the driveless laptop, map the CD drive (like you would map a network drive). That worked and I was able to install the programing software for the VX-8GR.

HF Email Software
There are two main choices for software to allow for HF email: RMS Express and Airmail. I installed both. Airmail was the same program I used in Iraq and it offered easy configuration with the IC-706MKIIG and the SCS PTC-IIusb.

I now had all my equipment for a test run setup in my basement hamshack: spare IC-706MKIIG, SCS PTC-IIusb, and the Dell XPS 15 with Airmail. I connected the IC-706MKIIG to my Elecraft tuner and used my existing G5RV antenna. Airmail configures easily. The software has a list of stations offering mailbox services that can be viewed on a propagation chart by frequency and distance. Based on time of day, I selected a station in Texas that offered a 40M PACTOR 3 connection. Airmail allows me to click on the frequency in the propagation chart which then changes the dial frequency of the radio. After listening to see if there were any ongoing connections, I initiated contact. The modem lights flashed and the rig clicked between transmit and receive. The connection was made and I was able to send a test email as well as a position report.

Propagation Prediction & Frequency Selection
Propagation Prediction & Frequency Selection

Success! The position reports that go into the Winlink system are copied over into APRS. Now, even if I am not able to reach a digipeater with my VHF APRS beacon, I can send a position report over HF to let the XYL know where we are.

APRS.fi showing Position Report  from WINLINK
APRS.fi showing Position Report from WINLINK

I then thought about the steps I would have to take of transitioning my IC-706MKIIG configured for HF mobile to be ready to work with the PTC-IIusb to send email. As the remote head is located up near the drivers seat, this would present problems with being able to observe the modem, laptop, and radio control head all at the same time.

Remote control heads for the IC-706MKIIG and TM-D710A to the right of the center console. APRS Avmap GPS to the left of steering wheel.
Remote control heads for the IC-706MKIIG and TM-D710A to the right of the center console. APRS Avmap GPS to the left of steering wheel.

What if I just dedicated the spare IC-706MKIIG rig to the task of HF email? It would save me time and bother in pulling and plugging cables. It would also give the camping option of being able to operate HF from outside the vehicle.

VHF/UHF antenna is forward, above driver's door. Tarheel antenna is mounted on a swing out jerry can holder.
VHF/UHF antenna is forward, above driver’s door. Tarheel antenna is mounted on a swing out jerry can holder.

Using an additional iPortable box, I rack mounted the spare IC-706MKIIG and the SCS PTC-IIusb. Now I will have a spare HF rig with me, so if one goes out I will still be operational. I also attached the Tarheel screwdriver antenna’s rocker switch to raise and lower the antenna on the side of the box. During normal HF mobile operations, the TurboTuner (connected to the other IC-706’s tuner connection and CI-V connection) manages achieving a correct match between the operating frequency and the screwdriver antenna.

I only have the one TurboTuner. The TurboTuner requires a connection to the CI-V. So does the SCS PTC-IIusb. My solution was to leave the TurboTuner alone. Instead, using the rocker switch, I can manually tune the antenna while visually observing the 706’s SWR meter.

HF Email Ready: SCS PTC-IIusb, IC-706MKIIG
HF Email Ready: SCS PTC-IIusb, IC-706MKIIG

To transition between using the 706 dedicated to HF mobile to the 706 now dedicated to HF email, I have to do the following:
(1) disconnect the antenna feedline from the TurboTuner
(2) disconnect the control line that goes from the TurboTuner to the Tarheel screwdriver antenna
(3) connect the antenna feedline directly to the HF email 706
(4) connect the control line to the rocker switch
(5) connect the laptop to the SCS PTC-IIusb via a USB cable
(6) connect the iPortable’s powerpole connection to the junction box in the back of the vehicle

… then I am ready to go. The iPortable box rests nicely on the vehicle’s tailgate, next to the laptop. All at about lawn chair height. Not only can I use this setup to send email via HF, but I can also use it for causal National Parks On The Air contacts as well.

What’s left to do:
(1) Constant cooling fan modification for both IC-706s (see AD5X’s article)
(2) An extended control cable for the Tarheel screwdriver antenna. This will allow me to further remote away from the vehicle, but still use the antenna.
(3) A length of antenna feedline for remoting.
(4) A length of powerpole-ready powerline to attach to either the travel trailer battery or directly to the spare vehicle battery… again for remoting away from the vehicle.
(5) I have a set of Heil headsets that worked with my IC-7000. I think if I get the AD-1ICM, I should be able to use them with the 706.
(6) A Heil HS-2 hand PTT switch to use with the headset.

The 2016 Summer Plans Are Shaping Up

It looks like the summer plans are coming together. In an effort to capitalize on the success of last summer’s trip, this summer’s agenda is a bit more aggressive. 60 days and eight national parks: Yosemite, Kings Canyon, Zion, Grand Canyon’s North Rim, Bryce Canyon, Glacier, Yellowstone, and Grand Teton.

I got the last reservations I needed on Friday. Yosemite seems to be the odd duck when it comes to reservations due to its popularity and scarcity of campsites in the Yosemite Valley. Last summer we were able to make only a day trip to the Yosemite Valley and had a wonderful time. But we only saw just a tiny bit of what the Valley can offer, not to mention anywhere outside the Valley.

For this summer’s trip, we have reservations for a few days at a campsite on the valley floor. Yosemite will be our first national park this summer. After Yosemite, we will head south to Kings Canyon/Sequoia National Park. Although I grew up in California and attended Boy Scout camp near Kings Canyon, I have never actually been there. Then we make our way to Zion National Park followed by the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. Heading back north, we will spend a few days at Bryce Canyon National Park. This area of Utah, Arizona, and Colorado is loaded with national parks. Some folks spend the summer making the “Grand Circle Tour” seeing all of them. Our Grand Circle Tour will have to wait until another summer. I have never been to Zion, Bryce, or the Grand Canyon. Our visit this summer should give me a good idea about this area and I will know if I will want to come back again to see other national park gems like Mesa Verde, Arches, Canyonlands, and Capitol Reef.

Finding our way back to I-15, we will head north, north, north…. up to Glacier National Park. Glacier was on of our stops last year and Glacier rivals Yosemite in beauty (my opinion). Glacier also has a lot less people. We will spend a week on the west side of the park and then a week on the east side (even less people). There were lots of things we did not have time to see last year and there are many things we would like to see again. We have reservations at St. Mary Campground now, but I would be thrilled to get one of the first-come first-served spaces at Many Glacier Campground. We’ll see.

Back on I-15 and heading south, we will find our way to the northern entrance into Yellowstone. Yellowstone was another park we visited last year and I am looking forward to this return trip. We are starting our stay at the Canyon Campground, located centrally on the eastern side of the figure eight loop. From here I hope to explore the Mammoth Hot Springs and the old Army garrison. We will probably make one or two twilight trips into the Lamar Valley to see the wildlife (at a safe distance). Then we move down to Grant Campground, located on the western portion of Yellowstone Lake. I would enjoy a day trip out to the Norris Geyser Basin as well as exploring Lewis Lake to the south.

Our last national park this summer will be Grand Teton. This year I have reservations at their RV park on Colter Bay. This place has full hooks up for our trailer which may be helpful as temperatures climb a bit in July. We never got to explore much of Jenny Lake or look around the Moose Visitor Center which has a few attractions nearby.

Then we’ll make our way back home to Kansas.

A few goals for this summer’s trip:
– Have fun and make sure the schedule does not become oppressive. The time alloted for Yosemite, Glacier, Yellowstone, and Grand Teton should allow for a relaxed schedule.
– Balance taking pictures with having fun. I usually error on the side of not taking pictures in order to make sure I am enjoying “the moment”. I think there is a balance. There are those who spend their vacation looking through the screen of a cell phone as they swing around a selfie stick. Not for me.
– Make a few NPOTA contacts. I plan on getting an HF rig installed in my vehicle by mid-March. My intent is for casual operation and to keep a paper log.
– I have toyed with the idea of using my PACTOR III modem to allow for an email capability. There are many locations I will be this summer that does not allow for cell or internet access. If I can design an easy way to integrate the modem into the mobile setup, testing it with a mini-laptop and am sure it will work without issue… I may do this.

Grand Teton National Park – June 2015

Mid-America RV Show

We went to the Mid-America RV Show in Bartle Hall at the Kansas City Convention Center. All kinds of RVs, from micro light travel trailers to million dollar buses.

I enjoyed looking at the Class A motorhomes. These are the size of a Greyhound bus. Inside, the enmities are breathtaking. Washer/dryer. Walk in closet. Full-sized shower. Tile. Everything made me think of what the presidential suite in an upscale Las Vegas hotel would look like.

Our ideal RV is a travel trailer:
– not longer than 25′
– has two axles
– bunk beds
– queen sized bed
– slide out for the dinning area

Picking an RV is definitely a matter of trade offs. It all comes down to what you want to be able to do with your RV. Live in it full-time? Spend the winters in Florida? Attend NASCAR races? Visit the in-laws? Right now, our goal is to have an RV to support summer camping trips to national parks.

Camping in national parks generates a number of requirements:

(1) limitations in length. Most national parks have relatively small campsites. If the campground has larger sites, they tend to be few in number…. maybe only one or two. Greyhound buses are off the list. Campsite options open up with a trailer under 25′ in length.

(2) no hook-ups. No electricity. No water connections. The trailer needs to be able to dry camp (or boondock) for a week.

(3) for touring the actual park, there can be limitations in vehicle size. Again, no Greyhound bus. It makes life a lot easier to leave a travel trailer at the campsite when touring a park then trying to maneuver around even a Class C motorhome and find a parking spot.

I have my own requirements:
(1) RV storage. We can use the storage lot at our local military base which is steeply discounted. This comes with size restrictions. If we get a longer RV that could force us to store off post, generating a significant increase in our current storage fees.

(2) Using my current vehicle as the tow vehicle limits me to only travel trailers. The tow vehicle can pull a bit over 8000 lbs but it would be best to limit the weight to only 2/3 of that capacity.

(3) The wheelbase of the tow vehicle is 112″ (9’4″). When researching on the internet, the general rule that you find is that for a wheel base of 110″ you can tow a 20′ trailer. For every additional 4″ to that wheel base, you can add one additional foot. Others say that by adding a weight distribution hitch and sway control, the general rule can be bent to a certain degree. Our current travel trailer is 21’8″. Using our weight distribution hitch and sway control, there have been no issues. Another important factor that is mentioned is the actual weight of the tow vehicle (heavier being better). The tow vehicle weighs in at 5765 lbs. (about 500lbs heavier than my old Toyota Tundra). I feel that I could comfortably pull a trailer that was slightly longer than what we currently have (up to 24′).

(4) I would feel safer pulling a trailer with two axles. If a blowout occurs on one of the trailer tires, I believe it would be easier to minimize the issues inherent with a blowout if there were another set of tires. With only one axle, if you loose a tire I think you could anticipate significant axle damage (at a minimum).

There is the option of getting a larger tow vehicle. A larger tow vehicle would generally allow for a longer travel trailer. Dedicating a pick-up to haul a fifth wheel is another option. However, I am currently happy with my tow vehicle and want to remain in the limits of the vehicles capabilities.

So.. what is wrong with our current trailer? Honestly, what we now have works fine. Two draw backs of our current travel trailer (2014 Coachmen Clipper 17BH) are (1) the bed size and orientation and (2) the small space for the dinning table. Generally – the space gets tight inside if all four of us are in there.

Here are some possible candidates to replace the Clipper 17BH:

Rockwood Mini Lite 2306 (23’7″)
201BHXL Cruise Lite FS Edition (23’7″)
Keystone Bullet Crossfire 2070BH (23’10”)

All of these models use a Murphy bed for the master bed which allows for side access. During the day, the bed is pulled to a vertical position leaving a coach underneath. This opens a great deal of room inside the trailer. All these models also have two axles and significantly larger refrigerators.

National Parks On The Air


From the ARRL: “Throughout 2016, Amateur Radio will be helping the National Park Service celebrate their 100th anniversary. Hams from across the country will activate NPS units, promote the National Park Service and showcase Amateur Radio to the public.”

This should be an exciting event for me. This past summer I got to enjoy some extended travels through a few of our national parks (visited a total of 5). This coming summer I am planning the same but hopefully am going to be able to visit even more.

While I do not intend to conduct any extended activations, I do plan on getting onto the HF bands from my mobile while I am at the parks.

I am getting closer to locking in my summer travel’s calendar. Most parks start taking reservations at six months out… just about there.

ARRL is already selling quite a bit of National Parks On The Air (NPOTA) swag. One item that I have ordered is the NPOTA map, which I’ll post in the room where I will do my trip planning.

I will need to think through how I cam going to do my logging. For QSL cards, I can use postcards from the park and stamp them with each park’s National Park Passport stamp.

Lesson Learned #2 – Tinder, Kindling, Fuel

During our local camping experiences back in the summer and fall of 2014, I had to relearn how to make a campfire. Sad to admit it too, as I spent many years in the Boy Scouts and did earn my Eagle Scout. When we started camping (after we bought the travel trailer), I struggled to get a campfire going.

Recognizing my shortcoming, I went back to the manual.

What I had forgotten was the tinder and the kindling. Before the larger logs that serve as the main fuel for a campfire can actually be used, very small tinder must be used to ignite kindling. For tinder, I mostly use paper. I found that while traveling this past summer is that I would get a fair amount of paper from the different campgrounds and visitor centers. I would use that as the tinder. I brought kindling with me. Stored in a box, I collected very small, dry sticks that were broken up into small pieces.

My lesson learned is that I need to maintain and bring a box with tinder and kindling.

Another lesson I learned (on our most recent campout to Perry Lake) was that after a campfire has initially started and it is a campfire that I am going to use to cook food, then dump coals on it. I had a bag of coal in the trailer that I had been given by a British couple when we camped at Glacier National Park. They were wrapping up their trip and I took it off their hands. I used the coals in conjunction with using a pie iron to cook dinner on our last campout of 2015. The coal worked really well (as coal does) in keeping a nice even temperature for cooking.