Part 1

Planning Your International Trip

Note: The pictures on this page are clickable for larger images or detailed information

This series of articles are being written from the perspective of a USA licensee traveling to and operating in a foreign country. It is also assumed that you will be traveling to relatively common destinations, and not planning a DXpedition to Heard Island or some tiny rock in the Pacific barely above high tide.

Since QRP equipment is small and easy to transport, combining QRP operation with visiting overseas destinations is a relatively easy and fun activity. All it takes is careful preparation and planning, obtaining the necessary foreign licenses and some thought about ways to set up your portable station once you arrive. Many of the European nations that are popular destinations have very easy licensing requirements and are fun locations to operate from.

The first step, the planning process should start as early as possible. Be aware that since obtaining some foreign amateur radio licenses can take several months, so it's never too early to start planning your trip.

What rig should you take along?

Most of the QRP transceivers available today can be used while traveling, although it's a good idea to try to make the total size and weight of the station as small as possible. Remember that you will be carrying everything through airports and hotels (up the stairs in many cases) so keep it light.

Most likely the rig that you are using right now will work fine while on the road. If it is in good operating condition and has the features that you are comfortable with, then perhaps it should be considered .

How rugged is your rig? Transceivers with electronic frequency readout instead of mechanical dial pointers probably will be better as they may be less likely to be damaged in transit. Believe me, baggage handlers are rough on your suitcases.

If possible, carry the transceiver in your carry-on hand baggage rather than placing it in your checked suitcase.

Try to protect your transceiver by packing it in a protective box. I found a wooden cigar box that will hold either a NorCal 40A, NorCal 20 or an Elecraft K1. This one was purchased in a local tobacco shop for one dollar (minus the cigars). The rig is further protected with bubble packing.

 

What mode?

Probably CW operation will be the best mode to use. CW contacts are much easier with QRP power levels than phone so unless you really dislike the code, make a CW rig your first choice.

What bands?

The choice of bands is subject to personal preference, although the antenna size requirement should be considered in this process. I prefer 40 and 20 meter bands for portable operation as they have lots of activity. Perhaps 20 meter antenna size and better DX propagation makes this the best choice of band.

Note that when overseas, the bands may have different frequency assignments than North America. In Europe, the entire 40 meter band is 7.000 to 7.100 for both CW and phone. Likewise, two meters is 144 to 146 MHz. Research the destination country to see what frequencies are available to use for your license class.

How much power should I run?

While one and two watt rigs are a little smaller, transceivers capable of the full 5 watts probably will be more easily capable of making QSO's from hotel rooms using marginal antennas.

What about power supplies?

Little one and two watt rigs can be operated very nicely from AA battery packs, eliminating the need for bulky power supplies. Five watt class rigs will need either a larger battery or an AC operated power supply.  Check out the compact CUP-36 13.5 volt power supply from Milestone Technology, at the URL link below.

Many overseas countries use 240 volts AC as the standard line voltage instead of the 120 VAC you have at home in North America. Also, it may be 50 Hz line frequency instead of 60 Hz. As part of your planning process, inquire about the AC line voltage available at your destination. Also, the wall power receptacles are totally different from what you have in the USA and Canada and they also vary from one country to another.

Some hotels may have a 120 volt outlet in the bathroom for electric shavers, but don't plan on using this for your rig. The number of outlets to be found in overseas hotels is often limited to one or two for table lamps and TV set.

You will either need a power supply capable of running from a 240 volt line or a voltage converter transformer to step down the 240 line voltage to 120. Also, you will need a set of adapter plugs to convert the foreign power receptacle to an American wall plug.

You can purchase travel power converter transformer sets at some of the big-box discount stores or on-line. Most have a transformer with round European 240 volt power pins and a set of adapter plugs to convert it to several different styles of wall receptacles.

Some have switches for two different wattage ratings. These should work for QRP rigs, although I would suggest testing the power supply setup at home first before your trip. I discovered that my dual wattage (300/1600 watts) transformer makes a terrible RF hash noise in my receiver when switched to the 1600 watt position.

Look at your transformer and see if it has a line fuse (it probably has one). Purchase a couple of spare fuses at Radio Shack and keep with the transformer. Pack a short extension cord for your power supply in case the hotel room outlet is not located in convenient location.

Some of the newer switching type AC power supplies are designed for both 120 and 240 volt lines. These would make a very nice travel power supply. Just remember that you will need a foreign line plug to fit the electrical outlet. Most likely, one of the adapter plugs in the travel transformer kit pictured above will work to adapt the US plug to the foreign outlet.

What about an antenna?

For 20 meters, I have had pretty good results using a half wave wire, end fed using a little homemade tuner and a quarter wave counterpoise wire. The same wire, can be used as half of a 40 meter dipole by changing the counterpoise to another 33 foot wire and a short coax direct feed. By using very thin gauge wire dropped out the hotel window or tossed into a nearby tree, it can be a low profile setup.

I have pre-made several 33 foot lengths of 24 gauge black insulated wire with small alligator clips on one end. The other end can be tied to a 1 ounce fishing sinker and tossed out the window. From a 4th floor hotel room in London, I tossed this into the top of a tree and worked all over Europe on 40 meters with a NorCal 40A.

I discovered that ringer coils from the old-fashioned 1950's style mechanical telephone ringers have hundreds (maybe thousands) of feet of very thin gauge wire wound on them. This wire is almost invisible once unwound and can be used for invisible covert antennas. These old phones can be bought for next to nothing at garage sales.

After dark, it is usually possible to get some wire outside, provided the windows can be opened. Many older European hotels do not have screens on the windows, so also look at opportunities for using window mounted whip antennas.

I made a homemade copy of the B&W travel antenna with a window mount. It is a six foot telescoping antenna from Radio Shack on the end of a wood coil form with a tapped 20/40 meter loading coil. Not real pretty, but it has worked where wire antennas can't be used. It is used with counterpoise wires inside the room.


 

Click on the picture for construction details on this antenna

 

Test your portable setup.

Before you leave for your trip, run a complete test of your portable setup. Lay out everything you will be taking and see if you have all the stuff you need, down to the last details like tools and spare fuses. Probably you will want a box to organize and transport the station accessories and tools.

Make a check list of every item that you need to put a station on the air, from the power plug to the antenna tip. Hook everything up and get on the air from home using your intended portable antenna and power sources. Does it work?

Click on the picture for a list of stuff to take along

What did you forget? It would be very disappointing to arrive in Paris and have forgot a coax adapter or your cable for your paddles.  Take your rig along on your next trip out of town and see how it works away from the the comfort of your home and see what you forgot.

What about 2 meters?

Yes, go ahead and take a 2 meter HT along if you have one. You will find overseas hams use 2 meters much the same as here at home, with lots of repeaters to be found. Watch your band limits as the band may only be 144 to 146 MHz. The band plan will not be the same as the US with different repeater and simplex channels.

UK repeaters may use 1750 Hz burst tones to activate the repeater as an alternate to sub-audible "PL" tones. Once activated, you can carry on a QSO normally.

Do a Google Internet search for 2 meter band plans and repeater information before your trip and you will find that 2 meter operation will be a rewarding exercise while traveling around overseas.

 Forward to Part 2 - Foreign Licensing Information

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Updated June 15, 2016