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ARDF Update: Foxhunters Prepare for National and IARU Championships in Albuquerque


By Joe Moell, K0OV
ARRL Amateur Radio Direction Finding Coordinator

Who is best at finding radio transmitters in the woods? Could it be you? Plan to attend the 11th USA ARDF Championships to find out.

Fans of on-foot hidden transmitter hunts are getting ready for the most important event of their year: The annual USA Championships of Amateur Radio Direction Finding (ARDF) will take place in forests near Albuquerque, New Mexico September 14-18, 2011. USA’s national championships are being combined with the championships of International Amateur Radio Union (IARU) Region 2 (North and South America.)

The activities get under way on Wednesday, September 14 with a two-day optional training camp where beginners and experts can hone their radio-orienteering skills. Formal activities begin on Friday with a competitor meeting and an equipment testing session, called a model event. The championship 2 meter competition will begin early on Saturday in a nearby forest, followed by an awards banquet that evening. On Sunday, the 80 meter competition and medal award ceremony will take place in a different location. IARU standard rules for ARDF courses and transmitter timing will be followed.

USA’s ARDF Championships are open to anyone of any age who can safely navigate in the woods with handheld radio gear for several kilometers. An Amateur Radio license is not a requirement. Medals will be awarded for the top three finishers on each band in 10 age categories: six for males and four for females.

The World Is Invited

Previous ARDF championships in the USA have drawn competitors from numerous European and Asian countries including Australia, China, Czech, England, Germany, Japan, Russia, Sweden and Ukraine. There is a growing ARDF movement in Canada, and that country is expected to field a team to compete for the Region 2 medals. Of course, the majority of the participants will be from the United States.

Most of the radio-orienteers you will meet at the championships have competed before and are eager to improve their performance. If they win a medal or two, they may get an invitation to represent USA at the 2012 ARDF World Championships in Serbia. On the other hand, there are always many first-timers on the courses who are eager to learn more about the sport and to improve their skills by mingling with the experts. This is an especially good opportunity if your locality does not have much transmitter hunting activity. Afterwards, you’ll be able to go home and get it going there!

Organizers of the 2011 championships are members of the Albuquerque Amateur Radio Club (AARC) and the New Mexico Orienteers (NMO), led by Jerry Boyd, WB8WFK and Mike Pendley, K5ATM. These are the same folks who put on the very successful USA and IARU Region 2 Championships in 2001 and 2005. The 2011 competitions will take place in different forests that have been carefully mapped and field-checked in recent months. Boyd and Pendley have won medals at previous USA championships; Boyd was a member of Team USA at the ARDF World Championships in 2004, 2006 and 2010.

Typical ARDF practice sessions around the country are on the 2 meter band with narrowband FM transmissions. The most popular RDF setup for beginning on-foot transmitter hunters on this band consists of a measuring tape Yagi, offset attenuator and 2 meter FM receiver or transceiver. Outside of North America, 2 meter ARDF is almost always done with AM transmitters. The 2 meter transmitters in this year’s USA Championships will be on AM to accommodate the special ARDF receiver/antenna sets that are used by the Europeans and Asians, as well as by many experts here.

Your measuring tape beam and active antenna will work fine for AM. You can use the slope-detection method with your FM receiver. Better yet, receive AM with a multi-mode scanner or receiver such as ICOM’s IC-R20, Kenwood’s TH-F6A (B band only), Alinco’s DJ-X11T or Yaesu’s VR-500.

You will also want to compete in the 80 meter contest on Sunday, which will have CW transmissions near 3.58 MHz. With proper equipment, RDF in the woods is easier on 80 meters because the signals do not reflect from buildings and hills to cause confusing bearings, as sometimes happen on 2 meters. Loop and rod antennas are compact, easy to carry and give very sharp directional indications. See this page for information on RDF equipment for 80 meters that you can build or buy.

Secret Sites

For the ARDF World Championships, as well as prior USA championships, the competition locations have been closely kept secrets to prevent anyone from visiting them in advance to gain an unfair advantage of familiarity. Buses take the competitors to these sites from their lodging or from a nearby gathering area. Since 2006, the USA ARDF Championships have had “do it yourself” local transportation. The sites were announced one day in advance and each person was responsible for getting to and from them, eliminating the expense of hiring buses.

ARDF championships in New Mexico have always used buses and will again in 2011, for good reasons: It’s important to have everyone arrive and depart at the same time, parking at the sites is quite limited and buses will provide rapid evacuation of the area in case of a forest fire. Buses also make transportation much easier for visitors from outside the USA. The modest increase in registration fees will be offset (in most cases) by eliminating the need for out-of-area competitors to rent vehicles.

Buses must be contracted well in advance for good rates, so it’s important for competitors to register early. The organizers need an accurate head count and assurances that there will be sufficient attendees. If you plan to compete, please send in your registration now, or send an e-mail to the organizers to tell them that you plan to attend and when to expect your registration. Registration forms are in the official event website, as well as information about the group rate for lodging.

Electronic scoring has become the norm for championship radio-orienteering events, replacing the traditional pin punch systems and “clothesline” results displays of the 1990s and before. Competitors now carry a “finger stick” with a chip inside that registers the exact time of start, finish and each transmitter found. After crossing the finish line, the data in the chip is downloaded to a computer for tally of results. A new high-tech feature this year will be the opportunity for everyone in the finish area to monitor the scoring in real time on their WiFi-equipped devices as the competitors come in and download their sticks.

The optional training camp before the championships will be a separate event on September 14-15, with courses set by Marvin Johnston, KE6HTS. There will be individual instruction on ARDF for those who need it, plus lots of field experience on short and long courses. Expect short sprint events, where the idea is to find each transmitter in 60 seconds or less. You need not register for the training in advance, but Marvin would appreciate receiving an e-mail of your interest, so he can send details to you as the dates approach.

To see what it’s like to attend and participate in the USA and IARU Region 2 Championships, read the results and view the photos of previous events, including the 2010 USA ARDF Championships in Ohio. Be sure to notice the youth, ages 11 and up, who have taken to the courses and won medals over the years.

Liability Insurance for ARDF

A significant impediment to ARDF development in some localities has been the requirement for permits and liability insurance by parks and other venues. For instance, it is not uncommon for county or state park officials in California to demand $2 million of liability indemnity for a radio-orienteering session, even if the session is informal, no fees are charged to the participants and there are fewer than a dozen persons in attendance. The former ARRL Club Insurance Program under Marsh had a specific exclusion of liability coverage for “the activities of any participant in a game, contest, race or sporting event, including practice.” The company stated that on-foot transmitter hunting fit that definition.

As a result, some clubs putting on events at these sites have partnered with a chapter of the US Orienteering Federation, whose liability insurance covers sports. But USOF chapters aren’t in every state. The only other option has been to take out a short-term liability policy specific to the site at a cost of $200 -- or more -- per day. That’s unacceptable for an informal practice with a handful of participants.

I am pleased to report that the new ARRL Club Liability Insurance under Hays Affinity Group does not exclude radiosports in its liability coverage. If someone were to be injured at an insured club’s ARDF session and were to file a lawsuit -- claiming it to be the fault of the club or the indemnified venue -- ARRL Club Insurance will defend them and cover any resulting losses up to the limits of the policy; however, the bodily injury provisions of ARRL Club insurance (typically $10,000 medical coverage) do have a specific exclusion for sports. Individuals participating in radio-orienteering should always have their own healthcare coverage.

Is there a future champion in your club? For more information about the sport of ARDF, including the international rules, photos of championship events, ideas for local practice sessions and equipment suggestions for transmitting and tracking, see my Homing In website.