Looking to get started with APRS

KC1ODR

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Hey all! New ham technician here, got my license last fall and my first radio through my club is the BaoFeng UV-5R. I've enjoyed slowly using it and have made a few brief transmissions.

A big reason I got into amateur radio in the first place was the idea that communication is still possible when other forms have gone out. That's also how I found APRS, which sounds really cool for the ability to transmit packets including GPS coordinates to others. I spend time "off the grid" doing things like snowmobiling and motorcycling, and I'm curious if APRS is something I can use to stay in touch with others when other forms of communication fail.

I've looked into many radios, but only a few seem to stand out with this...the Kenwood TH-D74 and TH-D72, and perhaps the AnyTone AT-D878. I realize these HTs have features I may not understand for a very long time and the Kenwoods are out of production, but I did find a local TH-D74 with a lot of extras for $600.

With a lot of setup, is this "dream" of sending packets and keeping people informed of where I am in the woods, perhaps even in an emergency, even possible? I know something like an inReach may be better suited, but considering I got into ham radio and enjoy it, I'm ready to learn much more. Thank you!
 

mmckenna

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With a lot of setup, is this "dream" of sending packets and keeping people informed of where I am in the woods, perhaps even in an emergency, even possible? I know something like an inReach may be better suited, but considering I got into ham radio and enjoy it, I'm ready to learn much more. Thank you!
Yes, it'll do that, but there are cheaper ways than buying a $600 radio.
And, it's not a foolproof "when all else fails" system. The APRS network relies on I-Gates to get the packets into the internet. Those internet connections are susceptible to the same outages that may effect internet access for everyone else, cellular carriers, land line, etc. The benefit is that the network can route to other I-Gates in some situations when another one isn't available.
In addition, the system is run by hams using their own equipment and internet connections, so fully dependent on a volunteer being there and keeping their gear up and running.
APRS is not a guaranteed system, and there are lots of areas of the country that have no APRS coverage, at least that's what I found several years back.

I've been a ham for a long time, I've dabbled in APRS, and I have a number of resources at my disposal. When I'm out in the back country, I still carry a Garmin InReach or a PLB for emergencies. I'm not willing to rely on volunteers to get my emergency call to first responders. I've tried that in the past, and 2 out of 3 times, it's failed.

But APRS can be a lot of fun to play with and a good resource if you just want someone to be able to track your location. I had a Kenwood TM-D710 for quite a few years and liked it, but I eventually sold it. I'd probably not invest in a radio like that again, or even a portable version. Too expensive for my tastes. You can purchase one of these units for a lot less money and get your location out:
Byonics - MicroTrak Might be a better solution, and leave your existing radio for voice use.
 

ko6jw_2

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You don't mention Yaesu FT-2 and FT-3. Both have GPS and APRS built in. Also FTM-400 and FTM-300 mobiles. Kenwood is no longer making the TH-D74. APRS is very useful if you are in range of a digipeater. Locally we have used it to track relief vehicles for bike events. The problem is that the course goes through some dead spots for our diigipeater. Vehicles disappear and then pop up again.

APRS can also be used to send short text messages.

I would not suggest using it in the back country for emergencies.

An InReach or InReach+ is a much better choice. They aren't cheap and there is a subscription required for texting. However, they will work under most but not all conditions. Also you can send messages to non-hams.

By all means enjoy ham radio, but don't rely on it in an emergency.
 

KC1ODR

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Thank you both for the feedback, so maybe I need one of those GPS/APRS portable radios or the Byonics, but also an InReach at the same time. Not worth relying on! Perhaps someday I can work on a digipeater of my own where it's needed.

Is there a way to see locations of digipeaters to have an idea of if APRS will work at all in a certain area? Thanks!
 

AK9R

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Digipeaters are just data repeaters. Their purpose is to extend the range over which the APRS packets you send can be heard. They repeat the APRS packets that they hear using various rules to determine whether or not the packet should be digipeated. APRS digipeaters don't need Internet access.

Igates listen for APRS packets and then inject them into the APRS-IS, so, by definition, Igates need Internet access. Note that the APRS-IS is not a database. It's a live stream of APRS packets from all over the world. Some websites, such as APRS.fi, capture the date from APRS-IS and present it on maps along with making other data available.
 

AK9R

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Here's a list of radios through the years with various levels of APRS capability built-in:

Anytone:
AT-D868UV (also has DMR digital voice)
AT-D878UV (also has DMR)
AT-D878UVII (also has DMR)
AT-D878UVII Plus (also has DMR)

Kenwood:
TH-D7 (no internal GPS receiver)
TM-D700 (no internal GPS receiver)
TH-D72
TM-D710 (no internal GPS receiver)
TM-D710G
TH-D74

Yaesu:
VX-8 (no internal GPS receiver)
VX-8D (no internal GPS receiver)
VX-8G
FT-1D (also has Yaesu System Fusion digital voice mode)
FT-1XD (also has YSF)
FT-2D (also has YSF)
FT-3D (also has YSF)
FTM-100D (also has YSF)
FTM-300D (also has YSF)
FTM-350
FTM-400D (also has YSF)
FTM-400XD (also has YSF)
 

KE5MC

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...snip...

Is there a way to see locations of digipeaters to have an idea of if APRS will work at all in a certain area? Thanks!
Try aprs.fi, map based with aprs data overlaid. I've not use in a long time, but tried it just now. Working persons UI and a little old fashion, but very useable.
Mike
 

edweirdFL

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I have a Kenwood TH-D74 and it's a nice, no extra wires required portable APRS solution.
I'm using a made in China Sainsonic Digipeater/iGate and have it placed in my attic with a Icom IC-208H to offer low level coverage for my area.
I picked up a Mobilnkd APRS TNC that I can use with HT or mobile that doesn't have APRS built in when I use my cellphone and a program with it.

Many of the stations using APRS in my area are doing it via TCP/IP over digital modes (via digital mode repeaters that support it) and cellular data.

To check coverage you can use the APRS.fi website or aprsdirect.com (my favorite)
 

kb2ztx

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Your first choice should be a inreach or similar devise. For $15.00 a month you know you have access to help.

As other said there are a myriad of radios to choose from. If your going down that road get one that is an all in one. trying to plug cables in and different devises when needed isn't worth it. The FT1D is a rock solid unit if you can find them used.
 

mmckenna

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Your first choice should be a inreach or similar devise. For $15.00 a month you know you have access to help.

As other said there are a myriad of radios to choose from. If your going down that road get one that is an all in one. trying to plug cables in and different devises when needed isn't worth it. The FT1D is a rock solid unit if you can find them used.
I'm paying $12.79/mo for mine, and I'm happy with the service/investment. While I have not needed it for an emergency yet, it's been really handy for periodically pinging the wife and letting her know I was still alive and where I was. That alone makes it worth it to her.

A one way PLB will cost a bit more up front ($200-$250), but requires no ongoing charges. Will get you help in an emergency.


Some good options on radios above. It's been a bit since I played with APRS, and I wasn't aware there were so many options now. An all in one solution that doesn't rely on multiple devices and cables makes life a lot easier.
 

vagrant

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I use a Byonics RTG in my vehicle.
I have several of the handheld and mobile units AK9R listed.
I host a RX only APRS iGate. A nearby ham hosts a text only digipeater, so operators can send and receive messages.
The area I am in is covered/overlapped with several higher altitude digipeaters, two of which we each manage.

...all that and I still use a Garmin Inreach SE+ and would go to that first before fooling around with APRS. The other ham has one as well. Additionally, here is something to consider, what if the emergency is yours? Would whomever you are with know how to operate APRS and send a message? ( For those that do not know, on the Garmin device you simply press a single button to call for help while keeping it out in the open )

APRS is fun for tracking and directing you to another operator in the area. We really use it for that as cellular is not an option where we go back up in the Sierra Nevada range. Currently the Yaesu FT3 is selling new. If you don't mind used the D72 is nice, the D74 costs way too much used. The Yaesu FT2 is also fine.
 

KC1ODR

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This has all been hugely helpful, thank you! I didn't realize there were so many more radios with APRS built-in. From all I've heard here and read, I definitely think a PLB or inReach device is the way to go.

I had thought I could avoid a monthly fee by getting a nice, expensive radio upfront and going ahead with APRS as needed. I suppose family and friends could use those websites above to see my station, but as was mentioned, if I'm the one needing help, just being stationary probably wouldn't get that across, especially if there's no signal in the mountains of Vermont.

All that said, I do think investing in both would be good in the long run! I just may start with the life-saving device first. Sad to see the nice Kenwoods are out of production, so I'll have to check that Yaesu FT3 out.
 

ko6jw_2

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There is no foolproof solution. Yes APRS stations are linked and APRS.fi is a great resource. In this area there is no cell, ham repeater or APRS once you're in the backcountry. Something like the Garmin Inreach+ is the only good option. Also provides maps on a limited basis (small screen). Battery life is an issue for extended trips (leave it off when you don't need it).

By the way, I would not rely on a Baofeng for backcountry communications. Not water resistant let alone submersible. Generally not rugged enough. My VX-6R is submersible to 1 meter for 30 minutes. FT-60's are a good option even after 20 years on the market.

With regard to the FT-3. It has built in APRS as we said. Yaesu system Fusion automatically sends your position without APRS to other Fusion users. Limited use if you don't have a YSF repeater in range. YSF can send texts and low res images with the optional speaker/mic/camera.

Remember if you design a foolproof system only fools will use it.
 

KC1ODR

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Good point, the Baofeng was not something I was thinking of taking in the woods, one of those other radios would be my next best option! Hopefully, the InReach system isn't considered foolproof, then.

Thank you all for your help!
 

mmckenna

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I had thought I could avoid a monthly fee by getting a nice, expensive radio upfront and going ahead with APRS as needed.
A PLB (personal locator beacon) which is just a EPRIB in a suitable case, does not have any monthly fee. You buy the device and it's good for many years. At some point you need to replace the batteries. Right way to do that (retaining certification/warrantee) is to send it in and they charge a hefty sum to install new batteries.
There are lots of guides on the internets that will show you how to replace them yourself. I did mine about a week ago, no issues.
But if you use this for work/guide stuff where others are depending on you, for liability reasons, it's a good idea to pay to have the new batteries installed.

I have one of these. No longer produced, but you get the idea:
 

kb2ztx

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I'm paying $12.79/mo for mine, and I'm happy with the service/investment. While I have not needed it for an emergency yet, it's been really handy for periodically pinging the wife and letting her know I was still alive and where I was. That alone makes it worth it to her.
That's about the same thing I use mine for most of the time. Lot of tower sites have no cell in the mountains so i use my preset message to say i'm on site or leaving so she knows. With the safety plan its a great deal and preset messages don't cost. And the ability to send to someone else is a plus for me, instead of an PLB.
 

KC5AKB

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When looking at the APRS and any radio use the best antenna system you can. A ht and a rubber duck might not make it to the igate but a mobile and a 1/4 wave antenna on the roof will.
Antenna,Height and location are key.
There has to be a receiver near you for it to put your signal on the map.
 

KC1ODR

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That ResQlink is a cool idea, nice to just have it and forget about it.
Good point about the antenna, truthfully I’d like to have a home setup at some point with a nice antenna. Is it with it to get a house mounted antenna with something like a UV-5R?
 

k7ng

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IMHO, radio isn't worth anything at all unless you can reach someone/something with it. So the first thing I think about is how to put up the best performing antenna I can, under the circumstances I am confronted with. Unless there is NO other choice, a 'rubber duck' antenna on a HT type radio should be out of consideration. A 1/4 wave mobile antenna (they're only 19" long, after all) whether vehicle-mounted or on your house (with suitable ground plane) should be your minimum. What kind of radio gets attached to that antenna is a matter of choice.

APRS is a great way to keep your friends and family informed about where you are during a road trip, thanks to aprs.fi, but there are lots of places where there isn't any APRS coverage... which adds to what has been said repeatedly, it shouldn't be your first choice for emergency communications of any type.
 

ve2ihs

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I've managed to get aprs running on older radios with TNC. This may be option for you also. But for the trouble free, I have the kenwood TH-D72, great little thing with everything included. I also have a Kenwood TH-D7 which I like because it's a bit smaller, but it's older and doesn't have integrated GPS, you can manually set gps coordinates. The other rig I have setup requires TNC unit and cables and GPS. I tried the nuvi with an older mobile kenwood, it's great I can see stations in my vehicle on the gps display. Now if I had another specific TNC I could actually text people with the GPS unit itself. I have yet to find that tnc.

A whole myriad of options are available. Chose your evil. But for grid down situation, remember most of the cell antennas in urban areas have 4-8 hours batteries, and very few have actual gas generators, it's a matter of time when they fail, other than that, they restrict available line for emergency services. Your local repeater may be in the same boat with power. So direct communication, i.e. simplex, is the best imo for shtf.
 
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