Amateur Radio and Overlanding

Keeping in touch, retrieving email, letting others know you are still alive and well, while overlanding in distant remote locations, can seem challenging in the age of instant and always-on communications over the Internet. But before the Internet was so nearly ubiquitous and pervasive in the western world, there was Amateur Radio. And it’s still going strong today.

Amateur Radio is a hobby that allows licensed operators to communicate with other enthusiasts around the world, and experiment with all aspects of radio, communications, and electronics.

Amateur Radio is also a is a vital part of global communications and a public service. It does not rely on internet or telephone links so it is a good back-up system when those systems fail. When modern communications fail in times of emergencies and disasters, licensed Amateur Radio operators often lend their qualifications, skills, experience, and personal equipment to provide voice and data communications to government and relief agencies. Amateur Radio operators don’t need cell towers, the Internet, or radio repeaters to relay messages, to or from anywhere in the world.

It’s for these same reasons this technology is relied on to stay connected while travelling to some of the most remote locations in the world, whether overland or by sea.

I like a broad spectrum of this hobby but my primary area of interest lies with QRP, the acronym used by Amateur Radio operators to describe operating at low power–generally defined as transmitting at a maximum of 5 watts.  Operating QRP means needing less and lighter gear. Consequently, QRP allows for portable operation where I can combine my love of travel and the outdoors with amateur radio and operate almost anywhere and communicate to almost anywhere.

The radio I overland and explore the world with is a Yaesu FT-818ND operating at a whopping 6 watts maximum raw, solid output power. That means I’m cheating with 1 extra watt of available output power. I don’t require 1500 megawatts — the legal allowable limit in the U.S.A. — to compensate for small hands or any other personal or equipment shortcomings and consistantly communicate great distances with the proper. When you know the science and do the math, you can appreciate the reasons for not needing mega watts to communicate wireless around the world.

The small Yaesu is small, light, efficient, rugged, proven to be reliable, well loved, and provides coverage of the 160-10 meter bands plus the 6 m, 2 m, and 70 cm bands, in all modes (voice, data, Morse Code). The 1.25 Meters – 222 MHz band is the exception, but then very few radios operate in that that band.

An important consideration in choosing the little FT-818 for overlanding long distances over rough terrain and being off grid for months at a time, was it’s proven ruggedness and low power consumption. The FT-818ND uses only 2.4 Amps on HF through 2 Meters, and 2.7 Amps on 70 cm and has a long history of holding up well in less than ideal conditions. Other QRP radios would physically fall apart in these conditions.

For about the past 20 years, Yaesu’s FT-817 radio has been the favorite portable transceiver for QRP enthusiasts, especially backpackers and SOTA enthusiasts. The FT-818ND is essentially the same transceiver built with one extra watt of output power and updated components to replace parts that are no longer available.

Considering that the dim light of a bicycle is generated by about 2.5 watts, it’s impressive that only 5 or 6 watts can carry voice, data, and Morse Code communications over unbelievable distances on a regular basis with QRP.

I’ve put together a list of Amateur Radio resources I use while overlanding.

73

Robert, VE9CDN

Step One

A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.

For me, with this famous quote, Lao Tzu is saying that great things are possible from humble beginnings.

I am planning to go for a drive. And see as much of the world as I am allowed. No set time frame. No hurry. Not trying to check off items off some bucket list. Not trying to see how many countries I can claim to have visited. For me, this will be no small feat. For me, this will be the ultimate road trip. Your Mileage May Vary.

In February 2008 a colleague fell ill with brain cancer. He had retired a couple of years earlier, but had been working part-time, filing in the hours, waiting for the day his wife was to retire. She was due to retire that April. They had sold their house, planned an extended European vacation, and planed to then travel around North America full-time in new their custom-built Winnebago motorhome. They didn’t have the opportunity to do any of that. He was gone a few months later.

There were things I wanted to see and do before it was too late for me. Paul’s sudden illness was my wake-up call for me. So a couple of weeks after Paul learned of his illness, I announced to my bosses I would be leaving later that year. On September 12, 2008, after working exactly 28 years for the same employer, at the age of 48, I took early retirement. The following day I was on my motorcycle heading for South America.

That trip was epic for me. It provided me with a taste of what was possible. Of what was out there. Of the rich and diverse cultures. The history. The people. I travelled from the east coast of Canada, across North America, into Mexico and through Central America. After shipping my bike to Columbia I rode through much of South America and reached Ushuaia, the end of the road, the most southern city in the world. Then I rode back. But I wanted in more. I knew I was fortunate to be able to retire at such a young age, even if it was with a reduced pension. And I was taking advantage of it.

It’s now 10 years later. I’ve done a lot of travelling since. And I have much more to learn. I want to experience more. See more. Smell the smells and taste the tastes. And I want to do it overland again.

There is no better way to travel, to experience different cultures, foods, sights, people, places, then to do it at your own leisurely pace. Come and go as you wish. Travel at your own tempo. Explore remote areas. Visit regions that have no public transport. See a dirt road leading to a secluded beach? Let’s go! So, step one, I need to decide on which vehicle will carry me on this next part of my journey.

I still have my motorcycle. But I’m no longer a spring chicken. My back aches some mornings and I don’t need to prove I’m tough. Never have. I want (need?) more comfort now. I’m looking for a vehicle with four wheels. A vehicle that can carry a bed. Sleeping in my own bed, especially in areas where there are no good clean rooms available, will be golden.

The vehicle must be strong, honest, capable. A ubiquitous, reliable vehicle that lacks pretension and is economical to operate and maintain anywhere in the world. I will need 4WD for those certain parts of Asia, Africa, and the Americas I want to include. Not many vehicles fit into that mold these days.

Gas guzzling V-8’s are out. Anything that guzzles is out. No loud exhausts. No big fat tires. Nothing to accentuate an owner’s inadequacies. Diesels fit the bill but are increasingly being banned from European cities and may soon be banned from countries altogether. They damage the air and our health. Can’t say I blame politicians for taking those steps. I like to breath clean air. Modern, cleaner-burning diesel engines choke up quickly with the low-quality diesel found in eastern European countries, Africa, South America, and other parts of the world. So, that excludes modern diesels.

My trip through South America was virtually trouble free. I found that my BMW R1200GS Adventurer was too fat and heavy for this, but it carried me securely throughout the whole 65,000 km trip. It carried me all the way and didn’t complain. I had prepared her well. But then one week after I returned home, it would not start. It was dead. Everything I tried had no effect. So I towed it 2 hours to the closest BMW dealer. After a few days, they found the problem. It wasn’t something they had seen before. It was electrical. A small part. But they didn’t have a spare in stock. In fact, the part wasn’t available anywhere in Canada. It would have to come from Germany. The bike was out of commission for almost 6 weeks before I got it back. Ruined much of our short summer. I can’t imagine how I would have gotten it fixed if this had happened in the Amazon.

All modern vehicles have complex electronics. For this reason, I’d love to find an older overlander, made in the mid-80’s before manufactures added mission-critical electronics to them. They were mechanical, simple, and I could fix them myself in case of a breakdown. Even with my limited mechanical skills. I don’t want to be facing an electrical problem somewhere in remote Africa, Tuktoyaktuk, or Siberia. Nobody would. It’s hard enough trying to find someone able to fix a car’s ignition immobilizer issues here. In Canada. Where my dealer, with all their manufacturer trained technicians, is only 20 minutes away. Ask me how I know. I’ve now had my car towed to the Toyota dealer 4 times with the same no-start issue.

The obvious choice seems to be, at least to me, an older Toyota. Toyota’s are world renowned for their reliability. Toyota is king in Africa. The Land Cruiser and Hilux are, arguably, the pinnacle overland trucks. Land Rover Defender owners might counter. And since diesel is on it’s way out, a Toyota with the ultra reliable 4-cylinder engine that runs on regular unleaded gasoline (petrol) would be ideal. The 3RZ-FE, as it’s known, can be found in many regions around the world, so parts and consumables would be readily available across Toyota’s wide network. The little 3RZ-FE is not the smoothest, but it puts out, more or less, 150 ponies, has plenty of torque for a small 4-cylinder, and is relatively economical. Fuel is often scarce in some remote parts.

That same 2693 cc engine was available in the North American Toyota 4Runner from 1996 to 2000. And like the engine, that truck has an excellent reputation. But the 4-cylinder wasn’t very popular in the U.S., where gas is cheap, and so it was discontinued in favour of larger (and thirstier) engines that Americans desire for their high-speed, multi-lane Interstate highway system. So very few examples, especially those that haven’t been abused, are heavily modified, or with high mileage and beat up and rusty, are on the market. Or at least I’m having a hard time finding even a single one in Canada, or the U.S.

So now I’m looking at importing from overseas. Canadians can import almost any vehicle from the U.S. thanks to NAFTA. And we can import almost any vehicle that is at least 15 years old from other countries. Japan is an obvious source. Many gently used examples are available there, and for a good price. Roads in Japan are well kept and the Japanese tend not to abuse their vehicles. Good choices, I think, include:

  • The 1995–2002 Toyota Hilux Surf (RZN185). It’s the same 4WD marketed in North America as the 4Runner.
  • The 1996–2002 Toyota Land Cruiser Prado Series 90 5-Door Longer-Wheelbase (RZJ95) is essentially a slightly larger version of the 4Runner/Surf, but Toyota didn’t bring that vehicle to North America. Land Cruiser reliability and character is almost legendary. This version shares many interchangeable and therefore easily available (for me) parts with the North American 4Runner. In the U.K. is was called the Land Cruiser Colorado.
  • The later, larger, and more luxurious Land Cruiser Prado Series 120 (RZJ120) was also available with the 3RZ-FE from it’s introduction in 2002. Another 2.7 litre, designated the 2TR-FE, replaced it starting in August 2004.
    • As a side note, Andrew St. Pierre White unfortunately stated the 120 looks like a girl, not that this would bother me, but YMMV.
    • The Series 120 was re-purposed for the North American market as the Lexus GX 470. It was available only with a greedy 4.7-liter, 32-valve, four-cam, V8 to better tackle shopping mall parking lots, and better manage school drop offs and pick ups.
  • Some older Hiace vans (RCH47) had the same Toyota 3RZ-FE engine, and available with 4WD. The Hiace would offer more interior room than either the Surf or Prado, are available in much of the world (but not in North America), but I don’t yet know about their reliability. But hey, it’s a Toyota, so it should be good. If there’s no immobilizer issue, right?

If you know of another vehicle that fits my criteria (strong, capable, ubiquitous, reliable, lacks pretension, economical to operate and maintain, petrol), please do let me know.

Vehicles designated as Japanese Domestic Market (JDM) (as well as vehicles built for the UK, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and others) have the ‘disadvantage’ of being Right Hand Drive (RHD).

It’s only a disadvantage as some countries don’t allow RHD vehicles on their public roads. A fellow overlander recently informed me that in Asia, Saudi Arabia, Oman, and Kuwait are known to ban them. Bahrain and Qatar are often said to. In Central America, Costa Rica and Guatemala don’t allow RHD vehicles. In South America, Chile and Bolivia are rumoured not allow them on their roads. I thought the list was shorter.

But some of the countries that ban RHD vehicles are already difficult for Canadians to travel into. But as I travel, and with the faint hope that selfish politics gives way over time, perhaps I’d be welcomed into these countries, should I end up with a suitable left-hand drive (LHD) chariot.

I’m also looking at importing a suitable vehicle from Europe. As I live on the east coast of Canada, shipping costs would be less than shipping from Japan, and I could more easily find a LHD vehicle.

On the other hand, there are many destinations I hope to visit that drive on the left side of the road: New Zealand, Australia, Ireland, United Kingdom, Bhutan, Hong Kong, Indonesia, India, Japan, Macau, Malaysia, Nepal, Pakistan, Singapore, Thailand, Botswana, Rwanda, Kenya, Burundi, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, Swaziland, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia, Zimbabwe, South Africa, Guyana, and Surinam.

If I get a RHD Land Cruiser or Hilux, it will take you much longer to get anywhere, as everyone will want to ask about it. Going through the drive-thru lane at Tim Horton’s might be interesting (I might have to drive through in reverse), as will the North American and European toll booths. I’ll also have to practice patience in countries that drive on the right side of the road, as passing will be more difficult on anything other than a multi-lane highway.

But in reality, probably not a whole lot of passing happens in a small 4 cylinder overland truck. And as I said at the start of this post, I have no a scheduled to keep.

First steps. For me. Your mileage may vary.