25 May 2024

Field Fixes

I love operating radios in the field. It's fun, and it gets my old arse out of the shack in into the sunlight (insert vampire jokes here). I love testing various radio/antenna/feedline/power source combinations out in the wild. It's challenging, builds confidence and expertise and, like I said, it's a ton of fun. 

If you spend any time in the field with radios and all the associated accessories at some point you'll need to fix or modify something. Cut and strip wire, tighten screws, crimp connectors, scrape corrosion, cut string & cord, and much more. You'll need a tool kit, but a kit that is appropriate to the situation.

Not this - 

More like this -

A bit of a confession. I love radios, but I really love knives and cutting tools. I've been fascinated by knives since I was a young Cub Scout (I'm 67, so do the math). I have a very extensive collection of both custom and production blades, and for years I wrote about knives and related issues on my A Fine Blade blog. So consider this post a mash-up of radios, blades and tools.

Most of the repairs and modifications we might need to do on a short POTA or SOTA deployment are pretty lightweight, and that's what I'll focus on here. You need a light and easy to carry tool kit that can handle the most likely issues that may pop up. Again, cutting and stripping wire, cutting string & cord, crimping connectors, etc. You may also need to make light repairs to your gear - tightening screws, fixing knobs, moving board jumpers, that sort of stuff. For a short field excursion all the tools you need should fit in your trouser pockets, or on your belt. 

We are blessed to live in the Golden Age of Pocket Tools, so putting together that small field tool kit is both easy and fun! The grandpappy of pocket tool kits - they've been doing it for over 100 years - is Victorinox, the Swiss Army Knife folks. They make pocket knives that sport an amazing array of useful tools, things like scissors, screwdrivers, saws, pliers, awls, cork screws, tweezers, and more. I've been buying, using, and losing Victorinox knives for over 45 years, and the level of quality they bring to a mass produced pocket toolkit is amazing. The fit and finish is beyond what few other manufacturers can bring to the market anywhere near the price point of a Victorinox knife. If a Victorinox pocket knife has a drawback it's that they are somewhat lightweight and not suited to heavier twisting or prying tasks. So don't buy one and expect to be able to disassemble your F-150 with it. But for the myriad of minor tasks you will be faced with on a short deployment, the Swiss Army Knife is ideal. But which one? Victorinox makes several dozen versions of their knives - there is no single 'Swiss army knife' - the name denotes a market niche, not a single design. Here's my list of minimum feature requirements:

  • Scissors
  • Phillips screwdriver
  • Flat tip screwdriver
  • Corkscrew*
  • Magnifying glass
  • Awl
  • Package carrying hook (surprisingly useful for twisting lengths of wire together)
Of course, with just about every Swiss Army Knife you'll get at least one, and usually two, knife blades, and tweezers.

* What's going on with the corkscrew? I'm not opening bottles of wine on field deployments. Well OK, I'm not just opening wine bottles on field deployments 😁. Victorinox offers a set of small (eyeglass screw size) screwdrivers that fit into the corkscrew and are remarkably effective for small repairs. 

The one Victorinox model I recommend that has all of what I need out of a knife is the Explorer. It hits the sweet spot in terms of features. Everything I need, nothing I don't.

Victorinox Explorer

And yet, a Swiss Army Knife can't do it all. You still will need an effective set of pliers, wire cutters, a file and a more robust cutting blade. This is where the second part of your field tool kit comes in. You'll need a multi-tool, like one of those made by Leatherman, Gerber, SOG or even Victorinox. I've owned multi-tools made by each of these manufacturers, and all are very good, but the industry standard is the Leatherman, so that's what I'll focus on for this discussion.

Tim Leatherman started his multi-tool business after breaking a knife while trying to repair a car on a road trip back in 1975. He knew he needed something more heavy duty than a pocket knife, a tool that also in incorporated pliers. His first design, the PST, was an immediate hit. Today Leatherman makes over a dozen models and leads the industry. What does the multi-toolkit offer that a Swiss Army Knife doesn't? 
  • Heavy duty needle nose pliers
  • Wire cutter
  • File
  • Saw
  • Ruler
Although I own a number of Leatherman multi-tools, my personal recommendation is the Rebar model. It seems to hit the capabilities and price point sweet spot.

Leatherman Rebar

While there is some overlap in capabilities between the Victorinox Explorer and the Leatherman Rebar, they compliment each other very well. With both of these tools in your POTA bag you'll be well set to handle any repair issues that pop up.

The fun in all of this, though, is that there are literally dozens and dozens of possible brands and models you can choose from. Putting together your own portable tool kit means picking from a broad array of options from a long list of models and manufacturers. What better way to waste a Saturday night, eh?

So what is your field tool package? I'd love to hear what other hams take with them when heading out for a day of field operations. What do you toss into your POTA or SOTA bag to handle the unexpected but all too common repair tasks that pop up? Let us know!

W8BYH out

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