Appalachian Trail Backpack 1999

At the trailhead

In April 1999, the weather in northwest New Jersey was warming up ahead of schedule. Winter was over, spring was in full bloom and the Appalachian Trail along the Kitattinny Ridge in the Delaware Water Gap was calling. I’d just recently finished building a Norcal 40A from Wilderness Radio and was amazed with the performance from such a small box measuring only 2 X 4.5 X 4.5 inches. A set of earphones, ZM-2 antenna tuner, Morse paddles from Whiterook and a battery pack made from 10 C cells (non-rechargeable alkaline) along with a built-in freq counter completed the rig. It all fit into a gallon size ziplock bag which in turn fit into one side pocket of my Kelty external frame backpack. Also in the backpack was an MSR Whisperlite stove, fuel, tent, 0 degree sleeping bag/pad, water/iodine, food, maps and rope. Two weeks before the planned hike, Mayra surprised me by asking if she could join me. I’d thought of asking her, but with her being a city girl, it never ocurred to me that she might be interested. I was more than happy to have her come along.

Day 1

We drove in seperate cars to the end-point of the hike at Stokes State Forest and left Mayra’s car there. Then we both got in my car and drove to the trailhead where we would begin our hike. Our packs hoisted onto our backs, we posed for pictures and then headed into the woods. Upon entering the Appalachian Trail at this location, all signs and noises of civilization quickly receded as we hiked along trout-laden Dunnfield Creek with its lush fern canopy and cool cascades. It felt good to be on this adventure and even better that Mayra was with me. We settled into our pace and made small adjustments to our backpacks as we “broke in” to the trail. After 5 miles we came to Sunfish Pond, a beautiful glacial pond that would have been more beautiful to day-hikers. But to us it was more of a pit stop which allowed us to take off our boots and inhale some groceries. Numerous streams in the area also allowed us to refill our water bottles along with the requisite iodine. Thirty minutes later, we’re hoofing it again.

Soon after lunch, we came to our umteenth bear warning, this one as a signpost complete with photos snapped by other hikers of the bears they’ve seen along this section of trail. Mental note: Don’t forget to tie up our food tonight.

Dinner, radio and….sleep!

After 11 miles for the day, our poor tired feet came to an area that neither Mayra nor I knew existed. We had arrived at the very top of the Kittatinny Ridge and were rewarded with incredible 360-degree views. I snapped a quick picture of Mayra enjoying the vista, then we looked at each other and knew we’d camp here for the night. A perfect flat area at the base of an oak tree provided a level spot for our tent and an antenna support for the quarter-wave wire vertical I planned to erect for the QRP rig. Perfect!

We pitched the tent, unrolled our sleeping bags to allow them to fluff out before bedtime and then set about the most important task of all: preparing dinner. I got the stove going while Mayra unpacked the food, water & plates, etc. Dinner eaten, Mayra collapses in the tent and retreats into her sleeping bag – tired/happy, sleepy/excited – all at the same time. I let her rest and decide to see what I can do with the Norcal. In addition to the 33′ wire strung up in the oak tree, I layed out a single ground radial, also 33′ in length. The ZM-2 had no trouble tuning up this antenna and stations filled the dial from 7000-7055 kHz. I heard a W8 calling CQ and answered him. He came right back, giving me a 579 to his 589. We talked for 15 minutes while I explained where I was and that I was talking with him on C batteries. He was surprised and, to be honest, so was I. We’d hardly seen any people all day, had hiked 8 hours over rocks and hills and now here I was on a huge hilltop with the sun going down and talking with someone 800 miles away using a tiny 14 ounce rig and penlight batteries! A few other stations were worked, most of them in the midwest and south from 500 to 1000 miles away. All gave good reports with no mention of chirp or drifting as battery voltage decreased. I regret not staying up later to wait for the European DX to roll in, but I was beat after a full day of lugging a 40-pound pack up and down the rocky hills of NW New Jersey so after an hour of operating, I turned the rig off and joined Mayra in the land of Nod.

Campsite on the ridge

We slept well that night despite earlier concerns of the numerous black bears in the area. The truth is, we were too tired to care whether bears “visited” us or not, as long as they were quiet about it.
The next morning brought us a nice sunny day. I made a brief contact with a W1 near Boston on 7040 kHz. He was also QRP and we exchanged 569 reports with heavy QSB. The band was changing, but no matter – time to pack up and get going. The antenna came down effortlessly and everything went back into its ziplock bag and on into the pack. The whole setup and tear-down went smoothly with no sign of Murphy. Throughout the trip, I was happily impressed with the ruggedness and reliability of the rig, tuner and paddles. No problems whatsoever. I couldn’t think of anything I would have done differently or any substitutions to equipment I would have made.

We finished our hike later that evening with a twisted ankle and a huge meal of something neither of us usually eat – fast food. After numerous meals/snacks of freeze-dried cook-it-with-boiling-creek-water camp food, we both gorged ourselves on good-ole American cheeseburgers. Then the hour long drive home where a hot shower never felt so good.

Lessons Learned

Mayra enjoying the view

  • I measured the voltage of my battery pack the next morning and found that 12 QSOs during an operating time of perhaps 1.5 hours had reduced the battery voltage from a bit over 15 volts to 12.5 volts. I was glad I used C batteries rather than the AA’s I had initially considered but I do want to find out how long alkaline AA’s will last. Other camping trips may consist of having the rig along as a means of keeping a regular sked with one or two stations, resulting in less operating time (less ragchewing) overall. If I can get away with lighter batteries, so much the better.
  • In the same theme of a lighter backpack, I’d like to make a “tunerless” trip by using a resonant antenna, probably a dipole, and thus leaving the tuner at home. I am concerned about being able to put up a dipole easily and having the SWR remain consistantly low from one days’ installation to the next. Also, would the weight of the coax negate the fact that I don’t need a tuner? Probably not. Perhaps there’s a compromise somewhere.
  • On this trip, 40 meters seemed like the ideal band. Range of contacts and ease of contacting stations are factors that make 40m a great band. QRP still amazes me in that if I can hear a station, I can usually work it. And with the Norcal 40A, I can hear a lot. I want to try a similar camping trip with a 20 meter rig but I think I’ll come back to 40.
  • Most of my QSO’s on this trip were right around 7040 kHz. I did go down to 7005-7015 looking for DX but didn’t really care if I worked any or not. It was fun enough just to work someone from the next state. With that in mind, I could take my SST along on future trips and save a little weight and bulk. It covers from 7037-7045 kHz. No built-in freq counter, but with such a limited tuning range, that’s no big deal. The built-in TiCK covers the keying and memory.