Elecraft KX-1This story is about a guy who fell while hiking and broke his leg. He was alone. But he was prepared and did not panic. He took steps to stabilize his condition then used Amateur Radio to request help. Because he had proper equipment and didn’t panic, he was then able to both guide the rescue to his location and wait it out until they could arrive.

I really haven’t blogged much about Ham Radio in a long time, then I get two great items that might be interesting to even non-Hams in a week.

The Everett WA Herald wrote a story about it, but a much better account is at the ARRL web site.

The Herald article is the typical newspaper story that gets the facts almost right – it’s low-power, not low-voltage – but does bring a good story to the public, so we’ll excuse that minor detail.

People are always amazed that you can communicate with anyone at all using just a few watts of power. Radios like the one pictured (which is not necessarily what the hiker used, but an example) can run for days, even weeks, on just a few common AA batteries. The fact is it’s easy to talk to someone, you just can’t always choose who or where! It’s often much harder to talk to someone only a few miles away than hundreds. The hiker ended up contacting another Ham 800 miles away. It could have easily been 1800 miles away, or even another continent under different conditions or another frequency band. Presumably if he had a choice, he chose the band he thought would be best for the time of day and a shorter distance, while providing a likelyhood of others listening.

Even if the low power/long distance doesn’t amaze people, the idea that anyone could use Morse Code to communicate does. Unless you’ve learned to do it, it’s a foreign idea, in fact, a foreign language, but once you learn it, it’s easy. I learned to use Morse Code – the Hams call it CW – as a teenager, and it’s never gone away. I can still copy 30+ words-per-minute (a respectable speed) even though I only use it occasionally. Some people get rusty or forget it, but it’s so ingrained in me that I don’t. It’s like riding a bike.

It’s one of Ham Radio’s dirty little secrets – using CW/Morse Code, makes using low power possible, even easy, because it’s so efficient. Had the hiker had to speak into a microphone with a transmitter with only a few watts, he might have had to try a lot longer to be heard. Higher power would have meant larger batteries and equipment, so he wouldn’t have had it with him while hiking. It’s the low-power/Morse code combination that’s the one-two punch.

Once you’ve done it all in Ham Radio, the whole thousands of watts, and big antennas and expensive equipment doesn’t hold much of a challenge. Talking to people with flea-power and a wire strung in a tree while camping or hiking is more challenging and a very popular sub-culture of Ham Radio. And it turns out, a lifesaver.

While, the fellow could have used an emergency beacon like a EPIRB, he didn’t have one. He used what he had with him and used it effectively. He did have a GPS, so he could give an exact location, which probably help greatly as well.

The low-powered radios operate on simple power sources effectively. A few AA batteries can work quite a while. A small gel-cell battery with a solar panel can keep it going indefinitely. They are extremely portable and can be carried in a backpack, ready to go anywhere. Simple antennas can be effective with certain techniques to get them up high in the air. All this makes them potentially a powerful tool in case of an emergency that makes other means of communication unavailable.

The small inconvenience of having to talk to another Ham in Montana to get a message back to Washington is minor when there was no other way to reach out. In fact, in a natural disaster, often you have to communicate out of the disaster area more than you do inside it.

I thought this was a good story, worth sharing, not just for the sake of the rescue story, but also because of it’s illustration that Ham Radio and Morse Code both are not obsolete but still viable and popular skills in a hobby that’s taken a back seat to more exciting things like the internet or cellphones lately.