Radio, Revisited: Touring with wireless

Someone recently on an online forum asked about bringing a radio on tour. These days most people do not, and that was the consensus. But of course, I’m an outlier. I’ve been carrying a radio since sometime in the late aughts, pretty much when I started touring. “Radio” at first was whatever was bundled with my (usually crappy) Discman or walkman. Then I stepped up and got a standalone radio in 2010, an Eton Scorpion.

I like the ability to listen to music or news while I’m in camp or on a break, especially if I was traveling by myself. Plus, there are places where cellular service is still non-existent or spotty, like much of the mountain West. Having access to the Weather Band is invaluable in situations like this. For example, on the Cross-Continent Tour in 2011, I heard a forecast for high winds the next day in the exposed country east of Glacier National Park. So I opted to safely spend another day in camp rather than risk it on the road.* If I didn’t have the radio, I may have tried to bike in this potentially dangerous weather.

This isn’t the first time I’ve talked about taking a good ol’ fashioned radio on a bike tour. I did a roundup about the Eton Scorpion radio and a Kaito shortwave radio in 2012 and how it relates to bicycle travel. In early 2014, I got an Eton Raptor radio to replace the Scorpion. That radio is still alive and kicking, though that’s not what I bring on tour anymore.

In late 2016 I picked up a C. Crane Skywave Radio from REI. I was looking for something to replace the Raptor, as the Eton “emergency” radios don’t seem as durable as they should be. What steered me to the Skywave (besides its price**) was the fact that it has Weather Band and Shortwave! I hadn’t seen a portable radio that combined both before. (I’m guessing because Weather Band is North America specific, there’s not as much demand to include it on Shortwave radios.) At the time I still had my Kaito shortwave radio, but rarely used it on tour because of the lack of Weather Band. I’d only pull it out if the trip was short and the weather good, like when I went to Willamette Mission in 2013. Plus, the Kaito didn’t have great reception, I never pulled in any SW in town.

The Skywave ended up replacing both the Kaito and the Raptor. Now I could enjoy SW broadcasts on the road without losing the utility of Weather Band. I know that Shortwave isn’t anywhere as vital as it used to be, major broadcasters like the BBC and CBC have given up on their stations. Shortwave is now dominated by religious broadcasters, but I’ll pick up Radio Havana Cuba, Radio New Zealand, some Chinese broadcasters, and some other random radio. It’s fun to be out in the middle-of-nowhere on a clear and starry night and listen to broadcasts from the other side of the world. (Especially when there’s no cell reception!)

I don’t just use the radio on tour. Sometimes I’ll bring it when I’m reading or drawing in a park. I’ve also carted it with me down to the Columbia River waterfront at night, when the reception is best. (I can also pick up the control tower from nearby Portland International Airport on the “Air” band.) And the reception is surprisingly good even at home, as I’ve gotten SW broadcasts in the house. Also, the Skywave is good at picking up distant AM broadcasts at night. Even though the CBC no longer broadcasts on SW, I can pick up the AM broadcast from Calgary (1010 AM) pretty consistently.

It’s funny, though. I was really excited about the possibility of Shortwave when I learned about it as a kid. But either I didn’t have the money to buy one (I think the cheapest would have been $100 around 1990, a chunk o’ change to a 15-year-old), or I prioritized other things like stereo equipment and CDs. Then I forgot about it for awhile. Now the irony is I discover SW when it’s on the wane, oh well. I guess I just have to be iconoclast, eh? Now stop me before I buy another film camera. 😉

*The extra day also gave me the opportunity for my first ever bear sighting.

**And I used a coupon. Thank you, REI!

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7 thoughts on “Radio, Revisited: Touring with wireless

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  1. If I had been born 10 years earlier I would totally have been a DXer, trying to pull in distant signals at night. I did buy a good radio for DX in the early 90s, the GE SuperRadio III — but by then most stations were airing the same programs fed by satellite. So I might have pulled in Vancouver or Miami, but I was listening to the same stuff I could get in town.

    1. Yeah, the consolidation of radio is depressing. (And they wonder why people aren’t listening anymore.) Still, there are unique stations out there. I’m lucky that Portland’s got a few, including a couple low-powered FM stations. Low powered FM seems to be the way to go if you want interesting radio beyond NPR/college, but the inherent limitations built into LPFM mean you aren’t going to DX it.

      1. I was really interested to hear about LPFM via Radio Survivor (great website and podcast) – it’s something we just don’t really have in the UK beyond maybe hospital radio, or very limited-run ‘events-based’ radio to cover a small site.

  2. I hear you! I too came into the world of shortwave late in the game. I have some hope that it will go through a revival of sorts and we’ll get to hear more and better content coming through. And maybe it won’t. But there is something magical about pulling a broadcast literally out of the air from the other side of the world with your own little handheld radio.

  3. I love this roundup, Shawn. Short wave radio has fascinated me for most of my life. Listening to the ‘mailbag'(?) show on CBC when in my bedroom in London as a teenager made the world feel so much smaller. I still find my mind boggled over how the waves can travel that far. And despite the waning use of the technology, I love that I can still take my radio to the park or away on camping trips. Great post. Love your 1 October 2019 journal entry too!

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