Scouting @ Home: Virtual Camping

Is virtual camping a real thing in Scouting? Well…it can be.

Update: On April 13th, BSA national published guidelines for completing rank requirements up through First Class while maintaining social distancing. See the question “Q: What changes have been made to rank advancement/camping requirements given the need to maintain social distancing during this time?” in the BSA COVID-19 FAQ.

Update 2: The FAQ has been updated with this statement: “No, virtual camping will not count toward the 15 nights camping required for membership in the Order of the Arrow.”

Short version:

  • Rank requirements through First Class, maybe, maybe not. [Now “yes”, see above FAQ.]
  • Camping merit badge, possible.
  • Order of the Arrow camping nights, it’s complicated. [Now not allowed, see above.]
  • National Outdoor Award, probably yes.

Do virtual campouts work for rank requirements through First Class? Tenderfoot requirement 1b says a “patrol or troop campout” and the requirements for other ranks specify “troop/patrol activities” and “overnight camping”. If the troop decides that the activity is everyone camping in their back yard, maybe. But the point of patrol and troop activities is to use the patrol method and learn Scouting with your peers. I’d like to see a patrol competition or something like that. Get the patrols to plan and the Patrol Leaders to lead.

Camping merit badge requirement 9A requires camping at “designated Scouting activities or events.” If the troop plans a backyard camping even coordinated over social media, is that a designated Scouting activity? Sure seems like it would be to me. Going to a Jamboree or to Philmont would count, and that isn’t a troop activity.

Do they work for Order of the Arrow camping? Clearly, they would be “Scout camping” and “under the auspices and standards of the Boy Scouts of America”. It does support unit camping. For most OA camping questions, like “Is an Adirondack shelter camping?”, the decision is up to the Scoutmaster. In this case, I would ask the local OA lodge leadership for advice.

How about the National Outdoor Award? Camping and hiking for this award must be for advancement credit or “approved and under the auspices and standards of the Boy Scouts of America”. This standard is very broad. It includes anything done as a part of Scouting. For example, family backpacking is accepted for the Backpacking merit badge. Because that was part of a merit badge, it is considered “under the auspices”. There is a clear explanation in this BSA blog post on interpreting “under the auspices”.

Welcome to the various definitions of camping nights in the BSA. They are a maze of twisty little passages, all different.

Is this as good as physical troop or patrol camping? Not even close. Physical camping requires far more decisions and planning, no running back into the house because you forgot to pack the chili powder.

Does this contribute to a healthy troop? Almost certainly. It is a new challenge, with new leadership obstacles and requiring more explicit planning. It could even improve the planning for future physical campouts.

How would this be planned? Pretty much the same as any well-planned Scouting event.

  • Planned by the PLC.
  • Choose a theme or goal for the event.
  • Review and manage safety risks.
  • Sell it to the troop.
  • Schedule and write down the troop and patrol activities, including duty rosters.
  • Get signups.
  • Do it!
  • Review it.

For an even more detailed list, use The Adventure Plan from the BSA.

And of course, the camping Portion of the Guide to Safe Scouting.

Do we need activity consent forms for this activity? Well, I guess, but mostly to assure that parents or guardians know what is going on. Other than that, I’m not sure they achieve anything for virtual camping.

These are exceptional times, so go ahead and try a virtual campout or two. We’ll all get together in one place as soon as we can.

Resources and Other Opinions

The BSA FAQ on COVID-19 does not mention virtual camping as I write this. Things may change, so check that page when you read this.

There are more ideas on the Scout on through COVID-19 page on ScoutWiki.

Sycamore District near Chicago has a Facebook video invitation to a virtual campout.

The National Capitol Area Council (the council that includes Washington DC) has published guidelines that say virtual camping does not count for advancement. These are for their council only.

Facebook post from Louis McBride (with minor copy-editing):

Hello all, national BSA volunteer with some areas to look at while understanding the importance of virtual camping. This seems to be a hot topic with many of you and need to understand the major points of it.

Virtual camping first of all is pretty down simple by the following points:

Every Scout must pitch a tent in their own backyard. Then they connect by Zoom, social media, or other electronic device to share camp stories or what they cooked for dinner with said unit to make this possible. Please follow what is stated as such in the handbook for any of their advancements. In the morning they can then jointly work one of the many other activities listed here: Camp Gadget, inspection of site, judging the location and how the tent is setup, the any other requirements that need to be completed, even show who is your camping buddy for your event!

Please make sure you follow the sweet 16 while in this, I.e follow the camping rules provided in guide to safe scouting. You can even do bugling merit badge and the like while they are doing this, but keep in mind to follow WHAT the requirements say in the handbook, and not create your own because that is not what this is intended of this.

Keep in note no glamping aka camping indoors, in cabins, in sheds, etc. A council Activity of virtual camping can occur too as a “council activity” and this goes with districts too. Also so all can understand there is no note about backyard is not camping in Guide to Advancement nor in any rank advancement. We are speaking about non-traditional motives.

Also note this too is that make sure this activity is authorized as a unit/district/council outing by making sure its on the unit/district/council calendar and approved if need be as to once its on the calendar that means it is an official program for that unit/district/council. If you have further questions you could just ping me on this, but I am not here to do policies debacles only to make sure the understanding is clear.

Backpacking Meal Planning: Sources for Ingredients and Meals

Tired of the same old mylar packet of freeze-dried stuff? Here are some sources for tasty prepackaged meals and for dehydrated ingredients so you can make your own. As I write this, a lot of the dehydrated ingredients are out of stock, likely due to new converts to emergency preparedness. I’m sure they’ll be back in stock by the time we are ready to go backpacking again.

PackIt Gourmet

PackIt Gourmet makes appetizing prepackaged meals, some of them unusual, like the Many Bean Salad. That takes a hour to rehydrate (cold water), but it is really tasty. They also sell ingredients and kits of ingredients. The black beans can be combined with minute rice, sun-dried tomatoes, dried onion, and some seasonings to make a homemade dehydrated trail meal. Add a can of chicken if you’d like some meat.

Pack-It Gourmet offers freeze-dried meat, which can be hard to find. With that and some grocery store items, you can package your own backpacking meals.

Outdoor Herbivore

Good source for vegetarian and vegan backpacking meals. As a bonus, they’ll show you how to grow sprouts on the trail. And their name rhymes.

Harmony House

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 $70 from most sources. This is a great way to get started with home-assembled dehydrated meals if you don’t have a dehydrator. Harmony House sells lots of different kinds and quantities of dehydrated and freeze-dried ingredients.

Harmony House also stocks a wide variety of textured vegetable protein (TVP), a vegan option for backpacking.

True Lime, True Lemon

Crystallized lime or lemon juice with no sugar. Add this to beans or Mexican food when it is finished cooking and the flavor will really pop out. It’s good with tea, too, if you are into that sort of thing.

Amazon

Dehydrated lentils, dehydrated garbanzo beans, coconut milk powder, all sorts of things are available on Amazon.

Your Supermarket

There are a surprising number of dehydrated ingredients in regular grocery stores. You’ll find instant rice, potato flakes, couscous, soup mixes, and more. Plus, you can use small cans of cooked chicken to provide protein. Check the international section for other dried foods. Look into freezer bag cooking to get idea and recipes.

Backpacking Meal Planning: Nutrition, Recipes, and Techniques

These are my favorite trail cooking references and cookbooks, with some explanations of why they are so good.

Trail cooking books

Nutrition and Ration Planning

The Backpacker’s Field Manual, Rick Curtis. ISBN: 1400053099

This is the best source for information on nutrition and hydration. It is the only book I’ve found that is specific about how much water to carry (page 71). The section is short, like all the sections. This is really a college text for outdoor programs and is was written for an outdoor leader training course at Princeton. It is not thrilling to read, but it sure does have the data.

Want to know how to make complete protein combinations in your meals? Check out the nutrition “N” diagram on page 68. Organize the categories in alphabetical order and choose any two neighbors. Yes, this will be on the test.

Nutrition N

NOLS Cookery 7th Edition, Claudia Pearson, editor. ISBN: 0811719812

The best reference on ration planning. You’ll learn about “ppppd”, pounds per person per day, and how to get healthy food that doesn’t weigh too much. This is the best resource on cooking fires and bear protocol (though Philmont bear protocol is different).

Most recipes use the NOLS style of cooking from scratch (with a few mixes) on the trail. Carry bulk ingredients, then combine them for meals. If you want to make bread in the backcountry, NOLS Cookery will tell you how. It is worth trying this style, if only to make Meal-in-a-Mug (page 111). Recent editions (6th and later) include some ultralight-style recipes that are made at home and rehydrated on the trail.

The Hungry Spork and The Hungry Spork Trail Recipes, Inge Aksamit. ISBN: 0997061812 and ISBN: 0997061839

The Hungry Spork: A Long Distance Hiker’s Guide to Meal Planning is the best reference for pre-planning meals for treks of a week or more, including a week-by-week schedule before the trip. The recipes are high-calorie thru-hiker food, suitable for hiking the entire Pacific Crest Trail or feeding hungry teenagers. Includes excellent information on sports nutrition for hiking; which foods to eat when so you keep your energy up on the trail.

The Hungry Spork Trail Recipes: Quick Gourmet Meals for the Backcountry is a collection of 30 recipes with detailed nutrition information, options for vegetarian, vegan, or allergy-friendly meals, and helpful reviews from meal testers. It is a bit like reading a very, very good blog on trail cooking.

Recipes and Techniques

NOLS Cookery

See above, this is the top references for the “NOLS” style of cooking sort-of from scratch. Carry things like biscuit mix, potato buds, cheese, and so on.

Freezer Bag Cooking, Sarah Kirkconnell.

Freezer Bag Cooking: Trail Food Made Simple is the first of a series of books by Sarah Kirkconnell on backpacking meals made with (mostly) supermarket ingredients. Many of them are designed to be packaged and rehydrated in a quart ziplock freezer bag, thus the name of the technique. For larger groups, these can be simmered in a pot.

This is a great approach for Scouts because it is much less expensive than prepackaged freeze-dried meals, and can be adjusted for preferences in ingredients and seasonings. Measuring and prep is done in a home kitchen, with simple rehydration on the trail.

I blogged one of her recipes with her kind permission, Veggie Exotic Couscous.

You can find all of her books at the Trail Cooking store.

Recipes for Adventure, Glenn Mcallister. ISBN: 1484861345

How to dehydrate ingredients and mixes at home, then rehydrate them on the trail. More useful if you have a dehydrator, but smaller quantities can be dried in an oven. This book is especially useful if you need to carefully control ingredients because of food allergies, religious requirements, or other reasons. Also, the food tastes really good. Also go to Glen’s website Backpacking Chef.

Lipsmackin’ Backpackin’, Christine Connors and Tim Connors. ISBN: 0762781327

Most of these recipes are entirely cooked at home, dehydrated, then rehydrated on the trail. If you want to use that style, start with this book. You will probably need a dehydrator and plenty of home prep time.

The Back-Country Kitchen, Teresa Marrone. ISBN: 0965153509

My personal favorite backcountry cookbook, because it has a wide variety of techniques and it’s all delicious. It covers everything from bread on a stick to venison with cherry sauce.

I’ve blogged about two recipes from this book, Italian Stick Bread and Lentil-Bulgur Chili (with her permission, since it includes the recipe).

What’s Cooking on the PCT?, Martin “Rainman” Leghart, Jr.

This has one recipe each from 48 different people, so it is a wild ride through cooking styles. It includes vegan bean chili stew, vegan hete bliksem (spiced apples and potatoes), big shakes or super oatmeal for big breakfast hikers, a couple of ramen pseudo-Thai meals, a Roman army lentil stew, Leebe bedouin bread baked in coals, loaded mashed potatoes, Thanksgiving in a bowl, and finally quick and dirty peach cobbler (using Louisiana Fish Fry brand cobbler mix). On top of that, half the profits go to the Pacific Crest Trail Association. Not bad for $10.

Dirty Gourmet: Food for Your Outdoor Adventures by Aimee Trudeau, Emily Nielson, and Mai-Yan Kwan.

I have not (yet) cooked from this book. Every time I look at it, I start planning a trip where I can cook from it. Take a look at the Dirty Gourmet website to see some recipes and get a feel for their approach.

Scouting @ Home: Cooking Merit Badge

You cannot complete Cooking merit badge at home, but you can make a solid start on it. Plus, your parents will be thankful for you taking care of several meals.

Cooking

Cooking is a core life skill. Our younger son was in Scouts before this merit badge was required for Eagle, but he learned to cook in our kitchen and on campouts. Later, he taught it to younger Scouts in his patrol. When he moved off campus in college, he was cooking for the seven people in his house, and teaching one of them to cook instead of serving expensive take-out.

Trail cooking hoover crop

The central requirements of Cooking merit badge are to plan and cook several meals in each of three categories. Two of these categories can be completed at home. The third can be planned at home for trail cooking.

  • Cooking at home: Plan three full days of meals (three breakfasts, three lunches, and three dinners) plus one dessert, prepare and serve one breakfast, one lunch, one dinner, and one dessert.
  • Camp cooking: These meals must be prepared and served “in the outdoors”. This can be a back yard or park, but no running back into the kitchen to get stuff that you forgot. Plan five meals and prepare three of them.
  • Trail and backpacking meals: These meals must be prepared and served “while on a trail hike or backpacking trip”. A Scouting trip is not required, so these technically could be done on a family trail hike. California’s current public health order only allows hikes for exercise or well-being, so I believe cooking on a hike is beyond the allowed activities.

For camp cooking, one of the meals must be cooked “using either a Dutch oven OR a foil pack OR kabobs”. These methods pretty much need a wood or charcoal fire. The other methods require a fire or a light-weight stove. If you don’t have a backpacking stove, you might be able to use a patrol stove or borrow one from another Scout or an adult leader.

When using a stove, follow the BSA chemical fuels safety policy from the Guide to Safe Scouting.

Trail cooking big basin crop

To learn the basic techniques of cooking, I highly recommend How to Cook Everything: The Basics by Mark Bittman. This very detailed Amazon review explains why this book is so good.

The Cooking merit badge pamphlet recommends The Scout’s Backpacking Cookbook. I don’t agree with that and my review explains why.

The 2014 edition of the Cooking merit badge pamphlet recommended ground poultry and canned food for backpacking and trail meals. Those are both terrible ideas. I don’t know if that advice has been fixed, but I’d get backpacking meal ideas from the Backpacking merit badge pamphlet instead.

For both home and trail cooking, take a look at the Cooking chapter in your Scout handbook. The BSA one pot stew in that chapter is a tasty, easy recipe.

Finally, I’ve posted quite a few food and cooking resources on my blog.

Enough warnings and caveats and suggestions. Get cooking, and bon appétit!

You can find the requirements on the BSA site (PDF) or at the US Scouting Service Project (with a worksheet).

The Cooking merit badge pamphlet is available online from the BSA.

For more posts like this, check out the Scouting at Home category on this blog.

Scouting @ Home: Weather Merit Badge

As we move from winter to spring, this is a great time to step outside the house and learn about the weather. All the requirements for the Weather merit badge can be done at home.

Just two days ago, I saw puffy cumulus clouds over the Santa Cruz Mountains and long, higher altocumulus over our valley. After this merit badge, you’ll know what that means.

Weather

There is a great page at the National Weather Service with NWS resources for the Weather merit badge. It has maps, charts, and even a document listing careers in weather.

The San Francisco Bay Region has really interesting weather. If you want to dig into it, I highly recommend Weather of the San Francisco Bay Region by Harold Gilliam. You’ll learn about waterfall fog and why some Berkeley is often colder than Oakland. Check your library for a copy.

You can find the requirements on the BSA site (PDF) or at the US Scouting Service Project (with a worksheet).

The Weather merit badge pamphlet is available online from the BSA.

For more posts like this, check out the Scouting at Home category on this blog.

Scouting @ Home: Entrepreneurship and Salesmanship Merit Badges

Ready to run an internet-based business? Entrepreneurship merit badge will walk you through the business plan and Salesmanship will track your success.

In our neighborhood, a girl is selling bake-at-home bread dough. Weekdays alternate French bread and naan, with cinnamon rolls on the weekend.

We came across this sign on our daily walk and ordered as soon as we got home. The first weekend delivery of cinnamon rolls was already sold out, so we signed up for the Saturday evening delivery (for Sunday morning). Leave a pan on your porch, pay with cash or PayPal.

Bread dough sign

I had a cinnamon roll this morning. It was tasty.

Bread dough cinnamon rolls

Have an idea for a business? Start with these two merit badges.

Entrepreneurship

You can find the requirements on the BSA site (PDF) or at the US Scouting Service Project (with a worksheet).

The Entrepreneurship merit badge pamphlet is available online from the BSA.

Salesmanship

You can find the requirements on the BSA site (PDF) or at the US Scouting Service Project (with a worksheet).

The Salesmanship merit badge pamphlet is available online from the BSA.

For more posts like this, check out the Scouting at Home category on this blog.

Scouting @ Home: Hiking Merit Badge

Hiking is probably not the first thing that you associate with “shelter in place”, but our California order does allow walking and hiking for exercise and well-being. These hikes must be with the people you live with. Hikes for this merit badge do not have to be Scout hikes.

Hiking

Hiking merit badge requires:

  • One 5 mile hike
  • Three 10 mile hikes
  • One 15 mile hike
  • One 20 mile hike

For each of these hikes, you need to make a plan before the hike and write up a reflection after the hike.

During this period, we have additional safety concerns. Hike where you can maintain a six foot social distance. Your hiking companions must be people you live with. Do not hike in remote areas. If anything goes wrong, the search and rescue team volunteers will need to break their social distance and may need to self-quarantine afterwards.

Here are some hiking guidelines from the Peninsula Open Space Trust (POST).

  • Stay at home if you or others in your household are sick.
  • Explore nature nearby and try to choose less-frequented parks and trails.
  • Before visiting parks or preserves, check their websites for updated closure information. If a parking lot is full, crowded, or closed, do not go to the preserve.
  • Go alone or with members of your household only. Do not hold social gatherings. Stay six feet away from people you don’t live with.
  • Restrooms and other public facilities are closed; plan ahead before leaving home. Pack out all your trash.
  • Don’t stay too long — give others the opportunity to have a safe experience as parking will be limited.

Of course, we always use the buddy system, so no solo hiking.

Would a hike into the backcountry of Henry Coe State Park be a good idea? Absolutely not. That is lovely country and spring is the right season to hike it, but it is rugged and remote. Instead, plan a hike along the SF Bay Trail, which is nearly all close to towns and roads. The Bay Trail is 500 miles long, so you won’t run out of trail any time soon. The SF Bay Ridge Trail is another possibilities, but only segments that parallel roads, like along Skyline Road in the Santa Cruz Mountains.

If you have any doubts, choose a different hike. If the trailhead is crowded, turn around and choose a different hike.

Hiking merit badge requires a lot of hikes, so even if you cannot (safely) finish it during this shelter in place order, you can get a start.

You can find the requirements on the BSA site (PDF) or at the US Scouting Service Project (with a worksheet).

The Hiking merit badge pamphlet is available online from the BSA.

For more posts like this, check out the Scouting at Home category on this blog.

Scouting @ Home: Family Life Merit Badge

It is hard to imagine a merit badge better suited for “shelter in place” than Family Life. Let’s take a look at some of the requirements.

Family life

As you might guess, all of the requirements are done with your family or are discussions with your merit badge counselor. There are two requirements for projects that benefit your family, one individual project and one whole family project. Some ideas:

  • Plant a vegetable garden so you can make fewer trips to the store. Garden stores are closed, but hardware stores with garden departments are open, like our local Ace Hardware in Mountain View.
  • Plan and cook freeze-ahead meals for a week. You make the meals on Sunday, freeze them, then thaw and finish them each night from Monday through Friday.
  • Plan a week or more of meals that can be made from pantry items. Make the shopping list for these. For example, pasta puttanesca is made with pasta, canned tomato paste and crushed tomatoes, canned anchovies, jarred olives and capers. The Simply Recipes site has some resources for shelter in place shopping and cooking.
  • Organize your pantry to work better for long-term food storage.
  • Clean out and organize a garage, closet, games, whatever.
  • Bicycle maintenance day, adjusting brakes and shifters, oiling chains, whatever is needed.
  • Organizing school supplies for remote learning.
  • Update your family’s first aid kit and emergency supplies. Replace any out of date medications.
  • Clean out your fridge and freezer. Toss any expired food. Plan recipes to use the oldest items that are still good.

I’m sure there are other things you can think of that are important for your family.

In addition to the projects, you’ll make a list of household chores and track when you do them for 90 days.

You’ll also organize a family meeting to talk about several important topics. See the merit badge requirements for details.

You can find the requirements on the BSA site (PDF) or at the US Scouting Service Project (with a worksheet).

The Family Life merit badge pamphlet is available online from the BSA.

For more posts like this, check out the Scouting at Home category on this blog.

Shack Upgrade

For years, my “ham shack” has been equipment crowded on top of a crate surrounded by other crates and boxes. It was neither attractive or effective.

Can you find the radios? The VHF/UHF rig on the floor would be stacked on the dresser for the weekly Monday night ARES/RACES net.

Ham shack before

There isn’t a lot of space in the corner, so I spent quite a while looking for the right table or desk. I settled on a 24 x 36 inch hardwood table that looks like it belongs in a classroom. A deeper table would work better for radio gear, but this one fit the space, was reasonably attractive, and affordable ($172).

On Saturday, my new table arrived and the cleanup and reorganization commenced. The old crate is now a bookshelf next to the desk.

Ham shack after

With California’s “shelter in place” coronavirus order, the shack is doing double duty as a home office. The big monitor and keyboard are from work.

Ham shack desk

The power supply (adjusted to 15 V) and 100 W RF amp are under the monitor stand. Stereo speakers for the receiver (not the computer) are on top of the stand. I wrote about the speakers and audio amp in an earlier blog post. The dummy load (see this post) is behind the monitor. Farther to the right are the Elecraft KX3 and PX3 on an over/under stand from the North Georgia QRP Club. At the far right is a Yaesu FT-8900R VHF/UHF rig mounted in a Tac-Comm case. That can be quickly disconnected from power (PowerPoles) and the antenna (BNC) to be taken mobile or portable.

The monitor stand is a “Thank You” gift from when I worked at HP. I’d helped out some folks in another division, so they sent me one of the monitor stands they made in their sheet metal shop. It is a beauty, thick aluminum, with stiffening ridges along the front and back edges, and nicely painted in official HP instrument dove grey.

Time to quit rearranging stuff and get on the air!

Social Distancing and the Scout Staff

Having a hard time judging the six foot distance needed for coronavirus social distancing? Bring along your Scout staff!

The modern BSA staff is a great deal for $5.99. It is five feet long, so you’ll need a bit of arm extension.

I recommend getting a crutch tip for the bottom end of your staff. It gives you better grip and extends the life of the staff. A 1 1/8 inch crutch tip will fit the current BSA staff.

Some of the classic Scout staves are six feet or even six and a half feed long. This is my dad’s staff with my 6’2″ self as a measuring stick.

Scout staff walter

Just another thing to add to the list of uses of a Scout staff.

To compare the sizes, this is our collection of hiking staves. The mid-sized one is from a large sassafras shrub. A friend collected it in Arkansas and made this for me. The shortest one is the current BSA Scout staff. It seems really short here, but it is a very practical size, especially for youth. The tallest one has marks at one inch intervals for the top foot.

Scout staff collection

For more posts like this, check out the Scouting at Home category on this blog.

BSA Emergency Preparedness Award

No, not the merit badge, the award. It even has a dedicated spot on the uniform, on the left pocket flap. This can be earned by individuals from Tiger Cubs up through council adult volunteers. There are also unit, district, and council awards. Youth awards are approved by the unit leader, so there isn’t much paperwork.

Emergency preparedness award

See the requirements for the different levels for the details. Click through to the application to see the approvals. Your Scout shop or National Supply will have the Emergency Preparedness Pin ($2.49).

The requirements include some unit activities and courses, so they might be hard to do from home. Still, this is a good time to get started and to add it to the annual calendar.

I qualified for my award under the district Scouter requirements. I’ve taken Wilderness First Aid multiple times, which is a superset of a basic first aid course. I’m an ARES/RACES amateur radio volunteer for our city. I’ve taken the FEMA Introduction to Incident Command System course (and others) for my city volunteer work. And so on, the requirements are a good list.

Finally, this is one of those rare awards that is approved for both uniform and civilian wear (“may be worn either on the uniform or on nonuniform wear, centered on left pocket flap” in the Guide to Awards and Insignia). Maybe I need a second pin for my ARES/RACES vest.

For more posts like this, check out the Scouting at Home category on this blog.

USMC Antenna Handbook

If you’ve been looking for a practical, free introduction to antennas, the US Marine Core Antenna Handbook (MCRP 8-10B.11, 2016) is a good place to start. The book is especially good for simple HF antennas that can be put up at home or in the field.

USMC Antenna Handbook

The PDF is 193 pages. The main section of text is 160 pages, with a very good 20 page glossary at the back.

If you enjoy learning about antennas from this handbook, your next step should be the ARRL Antenna Book. If you’re not ready to shell out $65 for the 1024 page 24th edition of that book, check your local library. Older editions are less comprehensive, but they still have lots of great info. My 12th edition from 1970 is still useful. Antenna physics has not changed over time, just our understanding of it.

Let’s go over some of the sections of the USMC Antenna Handbook to see the strong and weak points.

Radio Waves, Propagation, and Noise

These sections are very good, especially about HF propagation. It could cover VHF/UHF multipath a bit better. Repeaters are not mentioned. Those are common in amateur radio, but apparently not in the Marine Corps. Serious VHF/UHF amateurs dig into other kinds of propagation not covered here, like tropospheric ducting, meteor scatter, moonbounce, aircraft scatter, and so on. Those are advanced topics, so it is reasonable to not cover them here.

Transmission Lines

This is not my favorite section, but the mistakes here are very common in popular explanations of transmission lines. Unbalanced vs balanced is not a helpful way to think of transmission lines. All kinds of transmission lines carry a mix of differential (balanced) currents and common-mode (unbalanced) currents. Also, it talks about baluns as balanced-to-unbalanced transformers, but they are most useful as common-mode chokes. Still, this is a fairly standard introduction to the subject.

HF Antenna Selection

Very good section, with lots of ideas for how to actually get wire into the air for horizontal dipole or vertical ground plane antennas. You won’t find coverage of ham favorites like the G5RV, off-center fed dipole, Carolina windom, or even the end-fed half-wave. The antennas covered here are all simple and proven.

This chapter does discuss NVIS (near vertical incidence skywave) propagation, something that is fairly recent in amateur practice. The first QST article on NVIS was in 1995 and it has only become popular in the last 10-15 years.

There is one interesting antenna that is new to me, the vertical half-rhombic. This requires a fair amount of space, up to 1000 feet, but is unidirectional and only needs one support.

VHF and UHF Antenna Selection

This section is a bit less useful because it relies on specific military antennas instead of describing types of antennas. For example, the OE-254 is a bow-tie vertical dipole, a low-Q, high-bandwidth antenna, but they just call it an OE-254.

Military VHF/UHF antennas need to work over a wide range of frequencies, but amateurs can use antennas optimized for the small number of bands that we are allowed to use. The most common single- and dual-band ham antennas are not described here, designs like collinear phased verticals, Yagi-Uda beams, haloes, Moxon beams, J-poles, and so on.

Field Repair and Expedients

Read this before ARRL Field Day! Here are some suggestions of what to do when an antenna insulator breaks.

Improvised insulators crop

Antenna Farms

Some really good advice on choosing antenna sites, useful even if you are just putting up one antenna. I don’t think I’ve seen this covered in detail in any other book. A lot of hams will end up with at least two antennas, one for HF and one for VHF/UHF, so this is a worthwhile read. We won’t normally be considering security measures like barbed wire and automatic weapons, so you can skip to the Technical Considerations section.

And that’s all! Enjoy learning about antennas.

Wheat Berry Surprise

I improvised a dinner with wheat berries and veg. Tina asked what I was making and I said “Wheat Berry Surprise”! This starts with Mark Bittman’s Cooking Grains, The Easy Way then I threw in more tasty stuff.

I used wheat berries (whole wheat kernels), but you can use any grain you prefer. Likewise, the greens could be chard, dandelion greens, turnip greens, etc. Most greens will cook more quickly than the lacinato kale. I tossed in some chickpeas for protein.

Wheat berry surprise

Ingredients

  • 1 cup wheat berries
  • 4 cups broth or water (I used chicken broth)
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil (approx.)
  • 1 medium onion, diced
  • 3 carrots, diced
  • 3 stalks celery, sliced thin
  • celery leaves, chopped
  • 1 bunch lacinato (dinosaur) kale, chard, or other greens, cut into ribbons
  • 1 can chickpeas, drained
  • 1 bay leaf
  • several sprigs fresh thyme
  • 1+ teaspoon salt (omit or reduce if using salted broth)
  • a few grinds of black pepper

Preparation

Put the wheat berries, thyme, bay leaf, and broth (or salted water) in a pot. Bring to a boil and simmer for 30-40 minutes or so. The wheat berries will be softened but chewy when done. See Bittman’s recipe for details.

While the grains are cooking, cut up the onions, carrots, and celery. The carrots should be diced small enough that they will cook while being sauteéd. I always add the leaves from the celery bunch because I like a bit of extra celery flavor.

Wash the greens. I find it easier to wash lacinato kale after it is cut. Strip the leaves from the stems, cut across the leaves, then put the ribbons in a salad spinner. Fill it with water, agitate the leaves, dump, do that again, then spin dry.

In a medium-sized pot (3 qts?), heat the olive oil, then sauteé the mirepoix (onions, carrots, celery ribs and leaves) until soft, about 10 minutes. Grind some pepper into the mix toward the end. Add some salt, if you want. If the wheat berries aren’t done, turn off the heat and cover.

When the wheat berries are done, remove the thyme twigs and bay leaf, then drain.

Turn the heat up on the pot with the mirepoix. Add the chickpeas and stir. Put about 1/4 cup of water in, then layer the kale on the onions and carrots, then dump the wheat berries on top of everything. Cover. The kale will cook with the steam from the water and the heat from the wheat berries on top.

After about 5 minutes, check the kale for doneness. It should still be a little chewy.

When the kale is cooked to your satisfaction, stir everything together and serve.

Technique

Stripping kale and chard off the stems with a knife is slow and fussy. Every time I did it, I thought that professionals must do it some other way, because this was taking way too much effort and time. Then I read about this fast technique in Samin Nosrat’s book Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat (see page 232).

You strip the stem out with your hands. Lay the leaf down on a cutting board, put two fingers astraddle the stem at the base of the leaf, then grab the bottom of the stem and pull up and out. The stem will come out and the leaves will be ripped off. Bits may stick to the stem or the stem might break, so tear off any remaining bits until you are satisfied. Stack the leaves at the back of the cutting board and they’ll be ready to chop.

Notes and Variations

Salt is a personal taste. Like beans, wheat berries can be tasty with a bit more salt. The broth I used has 530 mg of sodium per cup, which is about 1 teaspoon of table salt in 4 cups. To be precise, Pacific Foods Organic Free Range Chicken Broth has 2130 mg of sodium in 4 cups. Table salt has 2325 mg in 1 teaspoon. Diamond Crystal Kosher Salt, what I use, has 1120 mg of sodium in 1 teaspoon. So, take my recommendations with a grain of salt and trust your own taste buds.

Use vegetable stock to make this vegan.

Add pancetta (reduce or omit the salt). Get four ounces cut into small cubes (about 1/4 inch). Instead of olive oil, brown the pancetta slowly to render the fat. When it is done, remove with a slotted spoon and put in with the wheat berries. Continue with the recipe, sauteéing the mirepoix in the rendered fat. If there isn’t enough, add a little olive oil.

BaoFeng HTs and Spurious Emissons

The January edition of QST has some disturbing data about dirty transmitters in BaoFeng HTs.

Amateurs are responsible for their transmitters being clean, but most of us don’t have the test equipment to check that. Also, manufacturers must meet the FCC regulations for every transmitter sold.

The ARRL Lab set up at hamfests and tested the HTs that hams had with them. Over four years, only 5% to 9% of BaoFeng HTs passed the test. Alinco, Icom, Kenwood, and Yaesu had 100% pass rates. Wouxon improved from 83% to 100% over the years.

QST 2020 01 HT Testing

From “Technical Correspondence”, QST, January 2020, pages 60-62. This chart is on page 61. QST is available online to ARRL members. This is a link to the article online.

The FCC rules for spurious emissions are in 47 CFR § 97.307 – Emission standards.

What if you already own a BaoFeng, like me?

Run low power. This will reduce the amount of power in the spurious emissions. Reducing the power from 5 W to 0.5 W should reduce the spurious emissions by 10 dB. The spurs still won’t be 40 dB below the carrier, but they will be lower in terms of absolute power. It can’t hurt. It will make your battery last longer, too.

What if you want an inexpensive HT?

Instead of a $50 BaoFeng, save up a bit more for a $75 Yaesu FT-4XR. From my research, this is the only HT under $100 from a major radioo vendor.

The FT-4XR uses the same chipset as the BaoFeng, so it has roughly the same feature set. But it has a clean transmitter and better interference rejection in the receiver. It also has ham-specific firmware, like automatic repeater offsets. That should make it easier to use.

The FT-4XR also uses the same antenna connector as BaoFeng, so aftermarket Nagoya antennas might fit. I would probably try the Nagoya NA-771 for $17, which might fit. I’ve heard recommendations for the Diamond SRJ77CA ($27).

I linked to DX Engineering’s page above, but the FT-4XR is available at similar prices from Ham Radio Outlet, Gigaparts, and other ham stores. Amazon has it at a higher price ($83), oddly.

BaoFeng UV 5R Yaesu FT 4XE

How did this happen?

It appears that the BaoFeng radios were designed for the much more lenient Part 90 emission regulations and do not meet the amateur radio regulations.

An article by AD5GG compares BaoFeng UV-5R emissions to Part 90 (private land mobile) and Part 97 (amateur) regulations. The BaoFeng meets the weaker Part 90 limits, where spurious emissions are not to exceed -20 dBc (dBc is relative to carrier). Part 97 limits spurious emissions to -40 dBc, 100X lower than the Part 90 limit.

Designing for the Part 97 limits requires additional low-pass filtering on the output. The new parts may only be pennies, but it would require a new board design. Maybe new versions of the BaoFeng HTs will be designed to the stricter standards, but I’ll have to see proof of that. The UV-5R is up to the third generation, at least, and still not compliant.

How to get an Amateur Radio License

What are the steps for getting your first amateur radio license?

Start by taking an online test for the Technician license. It is easy and free. You will probably do better than you expect. After the test, note the areas that you need to study. hamexam.org is my favorite online test site. You only need a C (75% correct) to pass.

K6WRU license blur

Now that you know what to study, get a study buddy, get some study materials, or best, both. The No Nonsense Technician-Class License Study Guide by Dan Romanchik (KB6NU) is free as a PDF and is exactly what it says. Study the sections where you are having trouble and keep taking practice tests until you are happy with your scores. Download it from the KB6NU study guide page.

Take a break from your studying to find a license test session. That will give you a deadline. Use the ARRL license exam session search to find a session.

There might be a fee for the exam, up to $15. You can take tests for all of the license levels at one session, so go ahead and take the test for General. You might pass!

After that, find a mentor to help you get on the air. In amateur radio, we call these people an “Elmer”. Use the ARRL club search page to find one near you. On the Web, try the Amateur Radio Elmers Facebook group.

Choosing a radio? That is a different post.