K7MFC Field Report: Four Peaks, AZ

The Tonto National Forest in Arizona lifted all fire restrictions on Friday morning, so me and a buddy threw the camping gear and some radios in the truck and headed up the Four Peaks Road. For those unfamiliar with the area, about 30 miles north on AZ Highway 87 from Highway 202 in Mesa, AZ is the entrance to the Four Peaks Wilderness Area, part of the Tonto National Forest. After exiting the highway, it’s about a 20 mile drive on Forest Rd 143, which will take you all the way up to Browns Peak. This video from azoffroad.net shows what the drive is like. We made it up about 3/4 of the way before sunset and made camp at about 4500′. The next day we broke camp and headed to the peaks, where we encountered a locked gate. Some firefighters in a UTV arrived to unlock it for the public, but some idiot had apparently shot at the padlock attempting to open it themselves and damaged it so that the combination would not work. I noticed that one of the firefighters working on the gate was radioing for some tools, and observed frequency 168.35 MHz and tone 123.0 Hz in use on the his handheld. This is the FEDTRVL channel. This and FEDCOMN1 on 168.1 MHz are common channels used for communications between units that are traveling.

I did not photograph him or his radio, but it appeared to be a large Motorola handheld with an approximately 3 foot whip on it – maybe a 1/2 wave for that band? For any Arizona folks out there, I would encourage reading the Arizona Department of Forestry and Fire Management’s Wildland Fire Radio Communications Guide. It contains lots of good information on the radio systems and common/mutual aid frequencies used by wild land firefighters throughout the state. The ADFFM does a daily VHF broadcast of current fire conditions in the state – super useful for camping and offloading during the fire season.

I was monitoring the 2m band at this time as well on the Kenwood TM-281A in my truck. I heard lots of activity on 146.52 MHz as usual for the Phoenix area, and it was easy to hear all the local simplex traffic at this elevation. 147.52 MHz is a popular 4×4/offroad frequency for hams he in AZ, but I did not hear any traffic or make any contacts this day. I suspect there were not a whole lot of people out on the trails just yet, we headed out just hours after the USFS announced fire restrictions had been lifted. I was also able to hit the Arizona Repeater Association’s Mt Ord repeater on 146.36 MHz.

I was also monitoring the GMRS band and had my main camping HT, a Btech GMRS-V1:

From my location near the top of the peaks, I had a direct line of sight of about 75 miles to the White Tanks mountains on the other side of the Phoenix metro area. The Arizona GMRS Repeater Club has a 50W GMRS repeater at a commercial site atop these mountains at about 4000′:

As soon as I turned on the radio I heard another club member loud and clear and gave him a quick hello. I received a good signal report back, and I also made contact with another club member. Reception was a little bit spotty, but moving around along the western face of the Four Peaks from about 5000′ and above allowed me to have decently clear RX and TX to the AGRC repeater. I camp and do some off roading in this area regularly, and I’m glad to know that I can have reliable 2m and GMRS radio contact for emergencies once I get above the smaller hills. The majority of the stretch of dirt road leading to the peaks does not have cell phone coverage from my provider, Verizon.

After the gate was opened for the public, we continued to drive over the saddle and across the Maricopa/Gila county border, reaching an elevation of about 6000′ feet.

Continuing a about a mile or so down Forest Road 143, I came across this communications tower, just 20 or so feet off the road:

A quick hike up a trail nearby shows a better view:

The sign at the site indicated it was owned by American Tower Corporation, however it stated that an FCC registration number was not required. A site number and telephone contact numbers were provided:

From a layman’s point of view this site appeared to be not in use, especially considering its location along a publicly accessible road. The building looked like it was not being maintained, I think no antennas were actually on the towers, and there was junk scattered around the site. The attached building which looked like a diesel generator also appeared to be somewhat in disrepair. I’m currently doing a but more research to see if any more information about this location is available.

Here is a map showing the entire length of Forest Road 143/Four Peaks Rd, going up and over the peaks to connect AZ Hwy 87 to AZ Hwy 188 and Roosevelt Lake:

The radios in my truck:

And of course some truck pics too!

After this, we headed down the eastern face of the four peaks and out of range of the PHX 500 repeater. The day ended with a swim in Apache Lake as we drove back down to the desert along the Apache trail and into the 100 degree temps! Another successful trip in to the Arizona wilderness, and a definitely never leave without a radio.

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K7MFC mobile shack: 2013 F-150 Lariat 4×4

I’ve been piecing together my mobile shack since purchasing my current truck about a year ago. I have everything finally done (j/k – I know it’s never “done”), so here’s a quick post to share my temporarily complete install. This post is especially for the Ford guys out there wondering about installing roof antenna mounts on their truck equipped with a sun roof. Antenna placement will be somewhat limited with a sunroof, but it does not present any real complications during the install process nor does it prevent installing multiple antennas on the roof. Hopefully this post can answer some of the questions I had regarding radio installs in an F-150.

First – the truck: 2013 Ford F-150 Lariat 4×4, 3.5 EcoBoost. I purchased this truck about a year ago, and it’s running strong with over 100k miles on the clock. This truck is my daily driver to the office job, but it does truck stuff too!

Next – the radios, from top to bottom:

Uniden BCD996P2 – I’m usually listening to Arizona DPS, local PDs, Phoenix & Mesa fire dispatch, and lots of other agencies/systems. Local news comms have been of interest lately too – they don’t keep hush hush on the radio about incidents.

Kenwood TK-8180 (UHF – GMRS) – I’m mainly active on GMRS while in my truck, and I’m usually on the Arizona GMRS Repeater Club’s 550 repeater. Daily traffic and weather nets for your commute – check us out!

Kenwood TM-281A (2m) – This radio is primarily for off-roading and back country comms. The 2m band is popular with Jeep/4×4 folks, and there is lots of activity out in the Arizona mountains or desert. Plenty of 2m repeaters on high peaks throughout the state with lots of people listening makes this an important communication tool when I’m camping well beyond cell phone service. Around town I’ll usually monitor 146.52 and chat occasionally.

My F-150 is the Lariat trim, and Ford likes to use the center console shifters in these and higher trims. This significantly limits options when considering a radio install, and my only realistic option was to use the center console under the arm rest. This is far from ideal – it places the radios far out of the driver’s normal field of vision, and operating any controls requires taking your eyes way off the road. Ideally, I pull off the road and park to use any radio controls that aren’t just a single button press.

However, this installation configuration does offer one benefit that is important to my install – it keeps the radios out of sight. The theme of my F-150 install is to be a bit “stealth” or low key, and not stick out like a sore thumb or otherwise attract attention to myself as a result of the radios. When the center console arm rest is closed, no radios are visible from outside or inside the truck, and there is nothing to entice any potential thieves.

Let’s start from the beginning! To power the radios, I ran 10ga wire (with a 30A inline fuse) from the battery and chassis ground through the firewall and up through the center console. This gen F-150 has a rubber grommet on the driver’s side firewall with a nipple that can be cut off and wire fed through, making running the power from the battery and coax from the front fender mount antenna very easy. This pic I found on F150forum.com shows it better than the photo I took:

Power is run to a Blue Sea Systems fuse block and each radio has its own fused circuit:

To secure the radios, I made a mounting rack from some 3/4″ plywood and some 1″ pine:

I attached the legs to each radio, then the legs are attached to the base with some bolts and wingnuts. I slide the base into the center console like this:

And then I’m able to drop the radios onto the base, then slide in the bolts and tighten the wingnuts. The radios are secure and the base fits snugly in the center console storage area. Here is the completed install showing the full length center console:

Operating the radios obviously requires keeping the arm rest up, which is another pretty major drawback:

This is something I may address in the future. I would ideally like to have a custom console cover made which would be removable so it can be out of the way completely when I have the radios on.

Next up – the antennas. No install thread would be complete without some antenna pics, so here’s what my roof looks like now:

On the driver’s side is a Laird QWB450-796 1/4 wave UHF antenna for the TK-8180 (GMRS) and on the passenger side is a Laird QWB144 1/4 wave VHF antenna for the TM-281A. The scanner antenna is a Larsen 150/450/800 on the front driver’s side fender. All antennas were purchased from The Antenna Farm:

For the roof antennas, I used two Tram 1251 NMO mounts from The Antenna Farm:

To drill the roof antenna mount holes, I used a Laird X-ACT 3/4″ hole saw I purchased form ProComm in Phoenix, AZ:

As I mentioned above, the sun roof on the truck significantly limits antenna placement. With the sun roof fully open, I was able to place both antennas 12″ from the rear of the roof to clear everything. Not ideal, but there is just about enough ground plane and it should work OK. Holes marked and masked – measure twice, cut once!

I put down a towel as a protective layer above the headliner when it was dropped down in order to catch all the mess from drilling and sanding. I used gorilla tape to keep the coax from flopping around off road, and ran both cables behind the rear passenger side airbag, down the rear pillar and under the door trim up to the center console.

The fender antenna mount is a Larsen NMO L bracket fender mount for Fords, which I also purchased from The Antenna Farm. I sanded, primed, and painted it black to match the truck:

All antennas are black to keep with the low key look. They are nearly invisible at a distance, blending into the background or the black color of the truck itself. Here’s a few more shots of the truck and antennas:

Misc progress shots:

I have a few backup radios in the truck as well. I keep a Midland 75-822 CB radio hidden in the center console. CB is still pretty popular with 4×4 folks and it comes in handy from time to time on the dirt roads. I have it paired with a Wilson Lil Wil mag mount antenna I keep stashed under the rear seat. It’s actually a pretty decent CB setup and I can get out a few miles reliably, which is about as good as one can expect from a cheap CB.

And I also keep a cheapo Baofeng UV-5R in the glove box just in case.  Another important piece of radio tech I consider part of my mobile shack is the factory Ford SYNC/SiriusXM receiver. Satellite radio operates in the 2.3 GHz section of the S band, and in addition to the music, sports, and news channels offered, up to date traffic and weather incident data is also available. SiriusXM also provides weather and navigation data for aircraft and marine subscribers as well.

Here is the first iteration of the install shortly after buying the truck, just a single Motorola CDM1250 for GMRS:

F-150: Every Day Carry

Recently I discovered reddit.com/r/VEDC, a community dedicated to discussing essential tools and supplies one should carry in their vehicle at all times – your “vehicle every day carry.”  I made a post in r/VEDC, but I will share it here as well.  I like to keep my truck pretty well stocked with tools and supplies that I may need to handle a car emergency, breakdown, or minor injuries.   Just about every item in my vehicle inventory has been used, or I was in a situation where I wish I had a certain tool or item so I added it to the collection for the next time.  I found some inspiration from the internet as well as from real world experience.  Flat tires, dead batteries, and small repairs are common when driving and camping in the Arizona mountains and desert.  I need to be able to repair my vehicle, or remain safe until help can arrive.  It’s also not uncommon to find a stranded motorist when off-roading, so I like to be able to offer help when possible.

First, the truck – a 2013 Ford F-150 3.5 EcoBoost:

Inventory:

And what isn’t pictured is probably the most important safety item you should be be carrying – water.  Living in Arizona this is especially important.  I learned this quickly after moving to this state when a serious accident backed up a mountain highway in both directions for miles.  It was summer, and highway patrol officers were walking up the highway, handing bottles of water to the motorists.  An unplanned extended stay in the desert in the summer time without water and air conditioning can get dangerous fast!  So if I’m going to be more than 15 minutes from a Circle K, I’m packing a gallon or two of water just in case.