MSR Wins Again

The troop’s MSR WhisperLite stoves just keep going, even though the Scouts lose the windscreens. But we can buy replacements. Now, the stuff sacks are just worn out, but I e-mailed MSR and they are available as parts, though not listed on the website.

MSR stuff sacks

So, for $10 each, our stoves have brand new stuff sacks to keep the soot off the rest of our gear. They don’t say “WhisperLite” like the old ones, but they are pretty obviously MSR stove bags.

The next time I need a backpacking stove, I’ll think about who might have spare parts for me twenty years from now. MSR will be high on the list.

A Gift for your Backpacking Chef

We can all find dehydrated onions, but what about dehydrated carrots or cabbage? Make sure that your backcountry chef has what they need.

The Harmony House Backpacking Kit is a collection of eighteen packages of different kinds of freeze-dried vegetables. Each package is one cup of freeze-dried vegetables in a zip-lock bag. The kit is about $50 from most sources.

Backpacking kit

I got this for Christmas a few years ago and it has been great. Whenever I want to make a backpacking meal, I just dip into the backpacking pantry.

Here is the list of the vegetables in the kit, each item is one cup of freeze-dried veg:

  • Carrots (2)
  • Diced Potatoes (2)
  • Green Peas (2)
  • Tomato Dices
  • Sweet Celery
  • Cut Green Beans
  • Sweet Corn
  • Green Cabbage
  • Mixed Red & Green Peppers
  • Chopped Onions
  • Black Beans
  • Northern Beans
  • Lentils
  • Red Beans
  • Pinto Beans

The perfect companion to this gift is a backpacking cookbook. I recommend Trail Cooking by Sarah Kirkconnell and The Back-Country Kitchen by Teresa Marrone. The first is focused on backpacking meals, the other covers the full spectrum from backpacking to cabin cuisine. Might as well get both, I can’t choose.

The Backpacking Kit from Harmony House.

The Backpacking Kit from REI.

The Backpacking Kit from Amazon.

Radio Scouting: The Operator Patch

My wife doesn’t understand the patch thing, but Scouts know that it isn’t real Scouting until there is a patch. The BSA patch for licensed radio amateurs has been available since 2013 and has an official spot on the uniform. If you have an amateur radio license, you should wear this patch.

BSA radio patch

This is not a temporary patch. It goes on the right sleeve below the Quality Unit patch. If you don’t wear a Quality Unit patch, it goes below the Patrol emblem. If you don’t have a Patrol emblem, well, figure it out. I hear that the new Guide to Uniforming and Insignia is nearly ready.

It is a skinny patch and a bit tricky to sew on, but that shouldn’t be a problem, because it stays there.

ScoutStuff sells the patch on-line. It is only $1.59, but the cheapest shipping for me was $7.50. I recommend getting it from your local Scout shop.

This has been a very popular patch. It sold out almost immediately when it was first offered.

Sage Venture made a custom run of the patch with a Venturing Green background and a Sea Scout white background. I’m sure you could custom order from Sage Ventures if you’d like that. You can see the designs here.

Radio Scouting: Hike Safely

The Hiker Responsibility Code says “Be stay together” on the trail. BSA rules require adequate supervision. But how do we stay together and be safe on a troop hike with thirty or forty Scouts? We can hike in independent groups, each with two adults and a crew first aid kit. Or, we can stay in touch with radio communications.

Crew 27 in our area has a scheme for coordination on a hike. Each independent group has a radio. The last group, “sweep”, has adults and a radio. All groups check in every 15 minutes. If a group cannot communicate with sweep, they halt and wait for the groups behind them to get closer. A hike group can relay messages to and from a forward group.

T 14 at Henry Coe 2006 crop 1

What kind of radio? FRS/GMRS (Family Radio Service, General Mobile Radio Service) radios are affordable and don’t require a license. They work over a fairly short range, maybe a half-mile in the mountains or a forest for FRS channels (0.5 Watt transmit power) or farther for GMRS channels (1 or 2 Watts).

REI has a good guide to outdoor FRS radios.

If a patrol wants to hike with more separation, each group (including sweep) can have someone with an amateur radio license. An amateur radio HT (Handheld Transceiver, often called a “Walkie Talkie”), has more power (5 to 8 Watts) and a range of one or two miles, especially with an improved antenna. Some HT’s only cost a little more than FRS radios. The least expensive models change frequently, but good models tend to cost between $30 and $70. You pay more for ease of use, ruggedness, and a better antenna.

The test for the Technician amateur radio license is not that hard. It is a 35 question test and you need to get 26 correct answers (74%). All the questions are public, so you can practice as much as you want, free. The site is a good place to practice. It isn’t a trivial test—even though I have the highest level of FCC amateur license, I just missed two questions on a practice test.

Try a Technician test and see how close you are. There are study programs and amateurs who are willing to help (“Elmers”). I’m willing to help.

Radio scouting

Radio Scouting: Emergency Preparedness Merit Badge (and Beyond)

E. Prep. merit badge requires the Scout to take part in an emergency mobilization and make a plan for emergency service. Why not let your local amateur radio ARES/RACES group help out?

Amateur radio operators work with their local communities to prepare for emergencies. They do this with drills, frequent radio practice, and public service (which is also mobilization practice). Many groups have a radio communications net every week. Scouts can also work with CERT (Community Emergency Response Team) and other emergency volunteers.

Let’s look at the three parts of requirement 8 for the Emergency Preparedness merit badge.

8a. Prepare a written plan for mobilizing your troop when needed to do emergency service. If there is already a plan, explain it. Tell your part in making it work.

What kind of emergencies can happen in your town and how can Scouts help? The Palo Alto emergency volunteers just had training to supervise sandbag stations in preparation for potential flooding from the El Niño rains. Some of our residents are older and probably should not be shoveling sand and loading sandbags into cars. This is a perfect opportunity for Scouts to volunteer. They should already know how to work effectively in groups and dress for rain.

Make a plan to provide volunteers to fill sandbags and load them into cars. Find out how many sandbag stations there are, pick a crew size, then make a schedule for shifts. Plan how to contact your troop. After you go over it with your merit badge counselor, you might take it to the city office of emergency services, because it could be a big help.

As part of your plan, you should follow the BSA Service Project Planning Guidelines and the BSA Tool Use Guidelines.

8b. Take part in at least one troop mobilization. Before the exercise, describe your part to your counselor. Afterward, conduct an “after-action” lesson, discussing what you learned during the exercise that required changes or adjustments to the plan.

You can’t really do this requirement unless your troop (not a merit badge midway class) does emergency service. So talk to your SPL about what kind of emergency service your troop can do. Put at least one emergency service event on the troop calendar each year, participate, and this requirement will be easy.

To research ideas, you and your SPL can talk to the Emergency Coordinator (EC) for your local ARES/RACES organization. They’ll have a good grasp of local emergency planning and can give you more contacts.

8c. Prepare a personal emergency service pack for a mobilization call. Prepare a family emergency kit (suitcase or waterproof box) for use by your family in case an emergency evacuation is needed. Explain the needs and uses of the contents.

ARES/RACES volunteers call their personal emergency service packs a “Go Kit”. In our area, we have a “2-Hour Carry Kit” and a “12-Hour Go Kit”. You can use these Go Kit lists as a starting point: PDF Go Kit list, MS Word Go Kit list. The weather in your area will probably require different gear. In our area, we don’t have snow or sub-zero weather.

How do you find your local ARES/RACES group? Ask your local office of emergency services, usually part of the police or fire department. Or ask the fire chief, they should know. You can also search for “ARES RACES” plus the name of your county. There is often a county group that coordinates city groups, for example, this list of city ARES/RACES contacts is on the Santa Clara County ARES/RACES page. Other examples: Williamson County (TX) ARES, Marion County (IN) ARES, and so on. This list of links to ARES/RACES groups might also help, though some links are old and dead.

If you are an ARES/RACES member, consider becoming a merit badge counselor. This merit badge is required for the Eagle rank, so it is very popular. Last year, 46,069 Scouts earned this merit badge!

Emergency Preparedness merit badge patch  world Radio Scouting patchARES color logoRACES color logo

Note on abbreviations: Amateur radio emergency volunteer groups can be called “ARES” (Amateur Radio Emergency Service, an ARRL-sponsored group), “RACES” (Radio Amateur Civil Emergency Service, a government-sponsored group), or “ACS” (Auxiliary Communications Service, the organizational department name used when deployed). In most cases, there is one group that changes hats for different events, and we call it “ARES/RACES”. For more detailed descriptions and even more acronyms, read the Santa Clara County ARES/RACES FAQ.

Radio Scouting: Patrol Camping

Patrols should camp out of earshot from each other and the adult leaders. But how do we provide adequate adult supervision in that situation? With radio communications, of course!

An ideal troop campout has patrols camping separately, probably 100 feet to 100 yards apart from each other. The SPL and ASPL(s) camp separately. The adults should also be at the same distance. But in that configuration, how do the adults provide “qualified supervision” as required in the Sweet Sixteen of BSA Safety? And how does the youth chain of command from Senior Patrol Leader (SPL) to Patrol Leader (PL) work?

This is the supervision requirement from the Sweet Sixteen:

Every BSA activity should be supervised by a conscientious adult who understands and knowingly accepts responsibility for the well-being and safety of the children and youth in his or her care. The supervisor should be sufficiently trained, experienced, and skilled in the activity to be confident of his/her ability to lead and to teach the necessary skills and to respond effectively in the event of an emergency. Field knowledge of all applicable BSA standards and a commitment to implement and follow BSA policies and procedures are essential parts of the supervisor’s qualifications.

The major part of that is training and experience, so the adult needs to be comfortable with their level of oversight while leaving room for a boy-led troop.

With FRS hand-held radios, the Patrol Leaders can communicate with the Senior Patrol Leader, and the adults can monitor the discussion. FRS radios are quite effective at 100 yards, even through trees.

Patrol Leaders can report back to the SPL, or can ask questions. The adult leaders can listen to the traffic. If quick intervention is needed, adults can break in on the discussion. If the SPL needs mentoring, the Scoutmaster can walk over, perhaps with an announcement on-frequency that they are visiting the campsites.

Radio communication should always be backed up with “management by wandering around”, as I learned at Hewlett-Packard. A casual stroll through the campsites with a few questions can uncover a lot of information.

What does this cost? Good quality FRS radios are available in the $20-40 range. A troop with four patrols would need six radios, one for each PL, one for the SPL, and one for the Scoutmaster.

If the youth leadership has amateur radio licenses, they could use hand-held radios with greater range. Amateur hand-helds (HT’s) start around $50.

Radio scouting pin

Transmit Audio and Compression with the Elecraft KX3

This is long, but it combines multiple recommendations from the KX3 and Elecraft mailing lists into a single procedure.

First, update to the latest KX3 firmware. There was a new compression algorithm in 1.50 and fixes in 1.61 and 2.30.

Then, get your KX3 manual. If you can’t find a paper copy, download the latest KX3 Owner’s Manual. You will be looking up a few menu settings.

The audio adjustments are done in separate steps:

  1. Transmit audio equalization (TX EQ).
  2. Microphone bias config.
  3. Microphone gain.
  4. Compression level.


Adjust TX EQ. The KX3 manual explains equalization settings under RX EQ, which works the same as TX EQ. See the section titled “Receive Audio Equalization” (page 20).

About half of the energy in speech is in the low frequencies, but that only adds 5% to intelligibility. So cut those and put all the power into the high-effectiveness frequency bands.

Several experienced ops gave similar recommendations for TX EQ. These settings are from Jim Brown (K9YC) and I used them without any change.

Freq. Band 50Hz 100Hz 200Hz 400Hz 800Hz 1600Hz 2400Hz 3200Hz
EQ -16dB -16dB -16dB -3dB 0 0 0 +3dB

The 3.2kHz boost is optional, use it if it works for you. I did not.

This chart shows this equalization and compares it to the well-known Heil recommendations for Elecraft. I chose the settings for Heil’s wide-range electret element (iC), since that seemed most similar to the CM500 electret mic. For easy comparison, I subtracted 4dB from the Heil settings. This normalizes them to 0dB in mid-range and uses the KX3 maximum cut (-16dB).


Mic Bias

If you are using a Yamaha CM500 headset or other mic that gets mic bias from both the tip and the ring, you can do one of two things for better transmit audio.

If you don’t know whether your mic takes bias from ring, turn off mic bias. If you still have audio from the mic, it does take bias from the ring contact.

The best option is to use a $6 stereo splitter to disconnect the logic bias from the mic. For details, read my earlier post on better audio from your Yamaha CM500.

If you have one of these mics and don’t have a splitter, turn OFF mic bias. This will increase the mic output. Ring on the mic connector is always biased by the KX3 PTT Up/Down logic. That logic supply is noisier than the mic bias supply, so you may want to adjust TX GATE to 1 or 2. That should kill any low-level buzz between words. This is not needed for the Elecraft MH3 mic.

Mic Placement and Gain

Set the TX power to 0.0. Turn off compression (KX3 manual, page 14).

Choose your mic position. Many people like to position a microphone just off the corner of the mouth. This can reduce pops from plosives (P, B, and T). It also reduces breathing noise so you won’t sound like Darth Vader on the air.

Adjust mic gain as described in the KX3 manual under “Basic Voice-Mode Setup” (page 15). While speaking, adjust mic gain for about 5 ALC bars (see below). Try to get four bars solid and one bar flickering. It is harder than it sounds.


After all that, turn on compression and find the right amount for your voice.

To evaluate compression, use the two digital voice recorder (DVR) buffers and headphones. Record into a buffer then play it back for evaluation. This is better than listening simultaneously with TX monitor (that includes bone conduction) or on-air evaluation (with even more variables).

Read about how to use the DVR in the KX3 manual under “Digital Voice Recorder” (page 21).

Record a message into one DVR buffer with no compression. I used “CQ SOTA Kilo Six Whiskey Romeo Uniform” with repetitions. That has plenty of sibilants and hard consonants (the “K” and “X”) to make problems with too much compression. I recommend including some K’s, T’s, P’s, and S’s in your test message.

Then record the same message with a medium level of compression in the other buffer. The KX3 manual suggests starting with a level from 1 to 10. Make notes. Listen to the two buffers and choose the winner. Try a different level for the other buffer (make notes). Repeat with different compression levels until you are satisfied.

You may want to come back and recheck in an hour or so. My ears got acclimated after several rounds of A/B comparison.

A final on-air check is a good idea, too.

Then remember to turn the TX power back up!

Final Notes

I ended up with mic gain set at 51 and compression set at 20. Any more compression than that and I heard too much distortion. This was with MCU firmware 2.33.

When you change microphones, turn off compression and reset the mic gain. Then turn compression back on.

If you want to experiment with TX EQ settings, use the DVR A/B comparison method, then recheck compression.

Special thanks to a pair of experienced hams who shared their knowledge. I always read their posts.

  • Lyle Johnson, KK7P: He suggested using the DVR to evaluation compression settings. He also worked out the interaction of the logic bias and mic bias and posted the original detailed analysis and workaround to the Elecraft KX3 mailing list.
  • Jim Brown, K9YC: An experienced contester and audio professional, he is a prompt and patient elmer with help on mailing lists, conference presentations, and papers. It is all published on-line and I recommend you read and study his work.