Thursday, July 17, 2014

Cen-Tech 3-In-1 Portable Power Pack

On my trip to Tioga County on Field Day, I wanted to try operating my Icom 7200 from battery power. As mentioned in my AAR, this didn’t happen because I had issues with my battery. So, shortly after getting back home I swung by Harbor Freight and bought a Cen-Tech 3-In-1 portable 12V power pack, item number 38391. I had a coupon so I was able to get it for $39.99 plus sales tax.

Cen-Tech 38391 3-in-1 Portable Power Pack with Jump Starter
Photo borrowed from HF.

The Cen-Tech power pack has three functions:
  • It’s a jump starter for vehicles with 360 cold cranking amps.
  • It has a small work light. It’s a 3.6 watt incandescent bulb and probably will get little to no use by me.
  • It has a 12V cigarette lighter-style outlet on the side for powering electronics.
All this is powered by a 17 amp hour sealed lead acid battery. Since it’s SLA, you must keep the battery charged or it will be damage. There’s a voltmeter on the front that allows you to check on the state of the battery.

The unit weighs about 14 pounds, so it’s easily portable.

Upon getting it home I removed the back cover of the power pack to verify that all of the connections were secure. That taken care of, I proceeded to charge it for 48 hours per the quick-start guide. Recharges should take 34 hours. Aside from a wall plug it also comes with a charger that allows you to plug it into a vehicle’s 12V outlet, but the manual warns you that it won’t charge the battery as well as mains power.

To go with the Cen-Tech unit I bought a Powerwerx Cigbuddy from Ham Radio Outlet.
Powerwerx CIGBUDDY
Photo borrowed from HRO.

As you can see, it’s a 12V cigarette lighter outlet to Andersen Power Pole adapter. This allows me to plug my Icom 7200 into the HF box.

As I write this I have the Icom 7200 monitoring 14.070 MHz and viewing PSK31 signals on the FLDIGI waterfall, on battery power.

Harbor Freight has a deserved reputation for varying quality when it comes to its products. This model was recommended by Sparks for use as portable 12V power supply* and so far it seems OK, but of course, only time will tell. At $40 it was worth a try.

We’re heading upstate again at the end of July and plan to bring the Cen-Tech battery pack with me for powering my radio.

*He posted a picture here and I asked him about it on Facebook.

Tuesday, July 08, 2014

Multi-Family Camping Trip AAR

From Jun 27 - 29, 2014 three of my friends and I took our respective kids up to Tioga County, PA for a camping trip. We had a total of 10 kids ranging in age from 8 to 11.

We are experienced campers, and have taken our kids on local overnighters, but this adventure was a lot more involved due to the distance involved and the fact that this time we were staying out for two nights. Along the way, we learned some lessons that are applicable to both recreational camping and a buyout situation.


We first met at the Cabela’s in Hamburg, PA. On other trips we’ve used FRS/GMRS radios for inter-vehicle commo. This time we ran into some difficulties with the privacy codes that were enabled on a couple of the radios, preventing us from hearing one of the other units. The privacy codes also caused inter-operability problems between Motorola and Midland units. Unfortunately, none of us had our radio manuals with us and we couldn’t figure out how to disable the codes. The codes just prevent you from hearing other FRS/GMRS users not sending the correct sub-audible tone. They don’t prevent other people listening in on you. IMO, they are more trouble than they are worth.

I’ve been working on my friends to get at least a Technician level ham radio license (I have my General and I’m studying for Amateur Extra). If we all then got the same model of radio programming them would be simpler, and of course we could just pick a simplex frequency on 2 meters to use without any privacy codes to worry about. Even HTs would work, especially with an external antenna.

CB would also be a viable option.

From Cabela’s we convoyed upstate with a planned break for lunch at a rest stop on I-80. We had packed our lunches ahead of time but the rest stop does have some of the park-style BBQ grills available for use, which could be handy. One of my friends used his canister stove and a French press to make coffee at the rest stop.

Our next stop was at Walmart in Mansfield. We had decided that rather than buying food ahead of time and having it sit in the hot vehicles for most of a day, we’d just get it in Mansfield, about a half hour from our destination. IMO, this was a mistake. As soon as we got out of our vehicles it was like unleashing a swarm of locusts. As we shopped we had to corral 10 kids running this way and that. It would have been better to just get the food and paper goods ahead of time, or to send one or two guys into town to shop, while the remaining vehicles continued on to our campsite, about a half hour away.

On the way up my girls were able to keep themselves occupied in the back of the car with their iPhones. One of them has an app that is teaching her French that she played with that for a couple hours. My wife and I aren’t into electronic parenting at home, but smartphones or tablets are great for keeping children occupied on a long road trip.

Our vehicles consisted of two minivans and two SUVs: a Toyota Sienna, Honda Odyssey, Honda Pilot, and a Nissan Xterra. The minivans are great for hauling a lot of gear, get decent gas mileage, and have a lot of amenities. The Pilot is a nice ride with a good amount of storage space, and handles the rough driveway of my friend’s land better than the minivans. My Xterra is the only true offroad capable vehicle in the group, but it lacks cargo space compared with the others. I had to use a roof top cargo bag to augment the inside space, since I couldn’t lower the rear seats as I normally do on camping trips.


Once at camp we setup three tents (one of which is huge and handled one adult plus 7 girls). The large tent is a Walmart Ozark Trail 10-person tent and has been used during all seasons, even though it’s a three-season tent. The design is well thought-out but now that it’s a few years old, the fiberglass poles are starting to break. During our Spring trip one split and we repaired it with duct tape. This time, two more split and had to be repaired by wrapping them with bailing wire and then covering the wire with duct tape. (I keep both in my truck toolbox.) The lesson here is that if you’re going to rely on China-Mart quality control you must be prepared to fix it when it fails.

The other tent was a Coleman (not sure what model) and didn’t give us any problems.

The third tent was my REI Basecamp 6, which I’ve used numerous times and never had a problem with. The other tents had plain blue tarps underneath but I sprung for the REI footprint when I bought mine. For warm weather like we had I wouldn’t mind a little more ventilation, but for cold weather use you can really button up and keep out the wind. Since we pitch camp on top of about a foot of gravel, this time I brought along 4 landscaping spikes that I had laying around for use as stakes. They worked well but I couldn’t remove two of them. Two were stuck fast so I just pounded them in flush with the ground when I struck the tent, so they wouldn’t be tripping hazards.

Finally, the property has a 16’ x 24’ steel-roofed pavilion that we use to get out of the sun or rain. At some point my friend is probably going to wall it in, have a cement floor poured, and then we’ll have a cabin to use.

We used a mix of cots, foam pads, and air mattresses for beds. I used my Big Agnes air mattress and while it’s well-made and doesn’t leak, unless I’m sleeping under a tarp, from now on I’m going to squeeze my cot into the truck no matter what. At 46, cots are easier to lay down and get off of, and give you storage space underneath.

Most everyone used a sleeping bag but I used my old, GI-issue, woodland camo poncho liner. Nighttime temps got down into the 50s. I was comfortable in my woobie, a t-shirt, and shorts, but my daughters were a little cold even in the 40* rated sleeping bags, so they put on hoodies inside their bags. This demonstrates how small kids often don’t handle cooler temps as well as adults.


During our time there we realized that children raised in a modern American middle class household have no concept of water discipline or a limited supply of things like paper plates, bottled water, or paper towels. For example, we setup a 7 gallon jug and unless we watched it like hawks, the kids were prone to using it just like a faucet, i.e., turn it on and leave it open while washing hands. None of the adults remembered to bring a big container of hand sanitizer, which would have conserved a lot of water.

Likewise, some of the kids were prone to grabbing a bottle of water, taking a few sips, forgetting where it was, then going and getting another bottle when they got thirsty again. We took to marking their initials on a water bottle and then locking the cases in a vehicle. We experienced the same thing with paper plates and bowls.

One of the guys didn’t bring enough spoons and forks for his kids so we ran short. We were also short on cups. I suggested to him that he get a Rubbermaid Action Packer box and put all his camping gear in it so that it’s always ready to go. Going forward, each kid will be issued a cup and a spork and be held responsible for it.

Checklists are a good way to prevent you from forgetting things.

In the past we’ve done a lot of cooking on the campfire but last year a park style grill was put in at the site. This is easier to use because it’s at a convenient height. Hot dogs, hamburgers, sausage, and steak was cooked on it using Kingsford briquettes. We use a couple chimney starters to get the briquettes going. Saturday night we made chili (win a cast iron Dutch oven, using briquettes for heat.

Breakfast on Saturday and Sunday was oatmeal. We used my Kovea Spider butane canister stove to boil water in both a Walmart grease pot and a Kelly kettle. I also used the Kovea stove for making coffee in a stainless percolator. (I know it’s a figment of my imagination but coffee tastes best when made in the perc over a campfire, but this time I didn’t have to clean soot off of it.)

My water jug will leak a little when laid down so you can use the spigot. I’ve taken to keeping a roll of Teflon plumber’s tape wire tied to the handle, and use it to seal the cap threads.


I use the first aid kit in my truck on pretty much every camping trip for scrapes and cuts. This trip was no exception. On the second day my youngest stubbed her toe on a tent stake and peeled back some skin from the tip of her right pinky toe. I was able to patch her up but had to bum some triple antibiotic ointment from one of the other guys. This was a reminder that I needed to do the annual inventory and replenishment of my first aid kit.

As I mentioned in the section about shelter, I had to break out my toolkit for some onsite tent repairs. I keep a small bag with basic hand tools, duct tape, bailing wire, electrical tape, and WD40 in my truck at all times. I’ve also used the kit to fix air mattresses. One time we had to wire a valve shut, while this time another guy’s mattress had a pinhole leak that I was able to patch with duct tape. Make sure you bring good duct tape. "Duck” brand is good, as is Gorilla tape. The 3M brand duct tape that I’ve bought recently at Lowe’s is not up to snuff, in my experience

One of my buddies brought a Thermacell and damn, it works great. He set it on the table where we do food prep and it kept all the bugs away. I did pick up a few black fly bites when I was away from the area covered by the Thermacell. I need to add some After-Bite to my first aid kit.



All the kids had the chance to catch bluegills and one got a small catfish. We like the Zebco Dock Demon fishing rod sets with spin cast reels you can buy at Walmart.(I’d avoid the Dock Demons with spinning reels if you’re buying it for a kid, unless you want to spend a lot time untangling fishing line.) They are a good size for smaller kids and are cheap. They also seem better made than the rod sets sold specifically to kids, e.g., the Spiderman or whatever themed sets.

When dealing with 10 kids it’s only a matter of time before someone gets hooked. We used only barbless hooks, made by squashing the hooks’ barbs with a pair of pliers. This also makes it more like that the fish we release will survive. I have a small multi-tool that I got at Cabela’s for about $10 that I keep in my tackle box and used for this. I also used it to remove hooks from the mouths of fish.


My friends and I also got to get a little shooting in on Saturday afternoon. I helped one guy zero the red dot on his new AR-15 and he also tested out the CMMG .22 LR conversion that he bought for it at Cabela’s. We were pleasantly surprised to see that it ran OK with CCI Standard Velocity ammo. He noticed that even after less than a full box of ammo his receiver was filthy inside, so keep in mind the need to clean it before switching back to 5.56 if using one,

I got some plinking in with my 1948-vintage Remington 550-1 semiauto .22. I tried two kinds of .22 LR in it: Remington .22 CBees and Aguila .22 LR Subsonics. It functioned just fine with either. Both rounds were pretty quiet out of the 24” barrel. The Aguila ammo shoots OK but seems to be on the dirty side, even for .22.


This turned out to be a total total SNAFU on my part. Our trip coincided with ARRL Field Day, when amateur radio operators practice under field conditions.

First, I had a problem trying to get my Hawaii EARC end fed antenna up in a tree. My slingshot didn't have enough oomph to launch a 1 oz. sinker tied to some 550 cord high enough, and then it broke. I should have used fishing line or maybe mason’s twine for the leader rope, since they are lighter. I may want to use a heavier sinker, as well, so it can drag the leader line down through left branches. Another option would be to use a plastic water bottle with the line tied to it, and just toss it up. I wound up finding a downed sapling and used that as a mast, with the end of the wire duct taped to to the top. It wasn't quite as along as I would have liked but it would have worked OK, I think, had the radio worked.

After I got the antenna up, my Icom 7200 radio wouldn't power up from my battery. {Insert string of profanities here.} I just got a clicking sound when I hit the power button. The battery had been on a trickle charger but it may just well be shot.

I'll be using a different option for power next year and an alternative means of hoisting my antenna. For power, last weekend I picked up a Centech 3-In-1 Jump Starter and 12V Power Supply at Harbor Freight for $39.99 + tax using a coupon. It has a 17ah SLA battery inside. I decided to get this particular one because (1) it’s cheap, and (2) it was recommended by Sparks. Before plugging it in for its initial charge I removed the back panel and verified that all the connections were snug. The downside to the SLA battery is that I need to top it off every month or so, or the battery will go bad.

Next time I may just bring my Jackite 31’ telescoping fiberglass pole instead of relying on a wood pole cut onsite. It’s one more thing to bring but being much lighter, will be easier to erect.


Our kids all had a great time and I don’t think any of the dads picked up too many new gray hairs. It reinforced the necessity of trying out your gear and testing your plans before you rely on them in earnest. It was a lot of fun and good practice if we ever find ourselves in a bugout situation.