By Joe Moell, K0OV
ARRL Amateur Radio Direction Finding Coordinator
Some call it foxhunting, but no animals are ever harmed. The hunt trophies are gold, silver and bronze medals. Will you win one this year?
The biggest event of the year is coming soon for fans of on-foot hidden transmitter hunting, also called foxtailing, radio-orienteering and Amateur Radio Direction Finding (ARDF). Beginners and experts will gather in the mountains east of San Diego for the 12th Annual USA ARDF championships during the week and the weekend after Memorial Day. There they will test their abilities, refine their equipment and learn the best techniques from one another. Some will take home medals.
Activities will get under way on Wednesday and Thursday, May 30-31, when an optional two-day “training camp” will take place. This is a wonderful opportunity for immersion in bearing-taking and course strategy, with experts to help. Orienteering maps with elevation contours and color-coded terrain markings are new to many on-foot foxhunters, but the camp will instill confidence in using them to navigate in unfamiliar forests.
The official championships opening will take place on Friday, June 1. Friday’s schedule also includes additional practice and equipment testing sessions, followed by a meeting for orientation and rules review. The 2 meter contest will take place in the woods on Saturday, and a banquet and awards ceremony will follow that evening. Sunday’s schedule includes the 80 meter contest and another awards ceremony, timed to end in mid-afternoon to accommodate those who must hurry home.
This year’s primary sponsor is the Los Angeles Orienteering Club, with assistance from San Diego Orienteering and the mobile transmitter hunters of San Diego County. Marvin Johnston, KE6HTS — one of North America’s ARDF pioneers — is General Chair of the organizers. A member of USA’s first team to the ARDF World Championships in Hungary back in 1998, Johnston has returned many times since, both as a competitor or juror. He won medals in competition at the USA ARDF Championships in 2002, 2003 and 2005, and organized the USA ARDF Championships in 2004 and 2007.
National ARDF Championships are for individuals only; no teaming or assistance on the course is permitted. Participants are divided into six age categories for males and five age categories for females, in accordance with standard IARU rules. Medals for first, second and third place will be awarded in each category.
Results of these championships, as well as those of last year’s championships in Albuquerque, New Mexico, will determine who will receive invitations to take on radio-orienteers from about two dozen countries later this year. ARDF Team USA 2012 will travel to Kopaonik, Serbia for the 16th ARDF World Championships, September 10-16. A maximum of three competitors in each age-gender category may be on a nation’s team.
What Is It Like?
International ARDF competitions have taken place in Europe for more than 30 years. Foxhunters have represented the US for more than a decade, but most hams still don’t know much about the sport. I am often asked “What is it like to compete at our national championships?” First, understand that anyone with reasonable physical abilities can participate. A ham license is not required and there are no age limits, but you must be able to run or walk through the forest and carry your radio direction finding (RDF) gear for 5-10 kilometers. The medal winners will be covering each kilometer in 15 minutes or less.
It’s best if you have your own handheld RDF sets for each course, AM (or FM) on 2 meters and CW on 80 meters. If you don’t, check with the organizers in advance to find out if gear will be available for loan. Measuring tape Yagis and offset attenuators are easy to construct, and they work well for on-foot transmitter tracking on 2 meters. Small loop-and-rod antennas are ideal for 80 meters.
Course operations are in accordance with IARU rules, which are uniform throughout the world. As a competitor, you will be assigned a starting number by lot. The lowest numbers go first in the 2 meter event on Saturday, and last on Sunday in the 80 meter competition. Competitors start at exact five minute intervals. You may be starting with up to four others, but they will all be in different categories.
Ten minutes before your start time, you will receive your orienteering map and, if you wish, you can tape it to a map board that you provide. You will clear and check your electronic scoring tag. Five minutes before start, you will get your receiver/antenna set, which will have been impounded up until that time. You may not turn it on, but you can approach the starting line. Timed tones will give you a “GO” to start at the appointed time. You will run up the marked starting corridor to the end, at which point you will be out of sight of the waiting competitors and you may turn on your receiver. From then on, it’s up to you to find all of your two, three, four or five required transmitters (depending on your category) and get to the finish line.
Each of the five fox transmitters is on for 60 seconds at a time in numbered order, and then the cycle repeats. Fox #1 sends “MOE” continuously in Morse code, then #2 sends “MOI,” #3 sends “MOS” and so forth. You don’t need to know CW, because the number of dits tells you which fox is on.
An electronic scoring box attached to an orange and white orienteering flag is close to each fox transmitter. You do not have to find the actual transmitter or antenna, just find the flag and dip your scoring stick into the box. The transmitters may be attended, but the attendants won’t give any clues. You may not make radio transmissions or ask for assistance from others on the course, unless you are injured and need medical help.
You may find your foxes in any order. Your map will have the start marked on it with a triangle, and the finish marked with concentric circles. Use it to figure out approximately where the foxes are, and then pick a route that gets to each — and to the end — with least distance traveled, to minimize your time. Try to deduce which required fox is farthest from the finish and go for that one first, and so on. Keep track of your position on the map at all times so you don’t get lost. If you lose your place or lose your map, you can take bearings on the transmitter at the finish (which is on a different frequency) to help you get home. Keep an eye on your watch. You will be told the time limit for the days course (usually in the two to three hour range) and you must get to the finish before that time elapses or you will be disqualified. If time gets short, you may have to forego bagging that last radio fox.
There is another corridor at the end, leading to the finish line. Be sure to run the length of that corridor so that those waiting can cheer you and take your picture. You did it!
Take the Plunge
The organizers are waiting for your registration for the championships. My Homing In website has the latest event announcements and updates. You can download a registration form and learn about options for lodging or camping. There are also pages of photos and stories from previous USA championships, including last year in New Mexico. You can subscribe to a special group mailing list for participants and others interested in these championships.
Make this the year that you try ARDF, our hobby’s fitness activity. You might even win a spot on Team USA to the next ARDF World Championships. See you there!