Having a bunch of hardware and the power to run it is all fine and good, but if your antennas aren’t capable of getting the signal out all of those radios are useless.
My first priority was to have a good VHF/UHF antenna system. A magmount on the roof of your car is OK, but for local line-of-sight communications the gain and height of your antenna are very important. I also wanted something that I could easily transport and erect by myself.
After some investigations I decided to aim for a simple lightweight mast system that I could mount to the trailer hitch on my car. The base for this setup is a hitch mount flagpole mount. For the mast I chose the MFJ 1904H. This mast solves a lot of potential problems for a portable mast system: it is 5 feet long when collapsed making it easily transportable in my car, it is non conductive and will not interfere with any antennas mounted on it, and despite being made of fiberglass it is fairly sturdy (each tube wall is 1/8″ thick). I don’t intend to heavily load this mast so this should serve my needs well. In order to achieve a tight fit between the flagpole mount and the mast I used a section of 2″ PVC pipe as a spacer. When fully extended the top of the mast is about 21 feet high.
For the VHF/UHF antenna I chose the Two Way Electronix Dual Band Slim Jim. As someone who uses a J-Pole antenna as my base VHF antenna, I am very familiar with how well these antennas perform. The Slim Jim is a J-Pole made from 450 Ohm ladder line so that it can be rolled up for easy storage and transport. I mount the antenna to the mast using a nylon bolt and wingnut the passes through the insulation at the top of the antenna and a hole drilled in the top fiberglass section. This setup is very light weight and has virtually no wind loading which makes guying the mast unnecessary (under average wind conditions).
For HF I did considerable research regarding what type of antenna is appropriate for emergency communications. A lot of ham radio is focused on making contacts at great distances (DX). This necessitates a low angle of radiation from the antennas being used. For a dipole this means that the antenna should be at least a half wavelength above ground. The most common HF bands used for EMCOMM are 40 & 80 meters (one half wavelength on 40 meters is about 66 feet, 132 feet for 80 meters). For EMCOMM purposes, however, we generally only need to communicate within a couple hundred mile radius of our location. This requires a Near Vertical Incident Skywave (NVIS) propagation path. It turns out that this makes our lives a lot easier since a dipole can be used for NVIS when it is mounted much lower than it would typically be. Instead of trying to get a dipole very high, mounting it at 15 to 20 feet is ideal for this application. Another benefit of this approach is that at this height the dipole loses almost all of its directionality and is essentially omnidirectional.
HF Antenna #1 – Loaded Dipole
My 80/40 Loaded Dipole was built specifically to be center supported by my 21 foot fiberglass mast. It is lightweight, only 78 feet long (60% of a typical 80 meter dipole), and resonant on both bands.
HF Antenna #2 – End Fed Half-Wave
Similar to the Loaded Dipole, my 80/40 End Fed Half-Wave antenna is resonant on the two most common EMCOMM bands. It is also only 76 feet long (58% of a typical 80 meter dipole) and is quick and easy to deploy in the field as a sloper when a single strong support (tree, pole, etc.) is available.
HF Antenna #3 – Folded Skeleton Sleeve Dipole
When space and strong antenna supports are available my 75/40 meter Folded Skeleton Sleeve Dipole makes for an excellent EMCOMM antenna. It is resonant on both bands and is only 107 feet long (81% of a typical 80 meter dipole) making it somewhat more space efficient without reducing performance through the use of loading coils like my Loaded Link Dipole and End Fed Half-Wave.
HF Antenna #4 – Hamstick Dipoles
In an effort to maximize portability and reduce both setup time and the footprint of my antenna system I bought 80 and 40 meter versions of MFJ’s hamstick dipoles (MFJ-2240, MFJ-2275). These are heavily loaded antennas that use a base section consisting of a coil wound on a fiberglass rod with a stainless steel whip on the top. While a small loaded antenna will not have the efficiency or the bandwidth of a full size antenna, it is considerably smaller (15 foot span). The dipoles are lightweight and my fiberglass mast seemed plenty strong enough to support them.
Performance (updated February 2017)
I have done 24 hour WSPR tests of both the Loaded Dipole and End Fed Half-Wave antennas and they perform similarly, which is to say they are quite effective antennas. I used the End Fed Half-Wave during Winter Field Day and was able to easily make contacts on both 40 and 80 meters using both SSB and PSK31.
To test the Folded Skeleton Sleeve Dipole my Ham Radio club used it during Field Day 2016 and made over 350 contacts. They even loaded it up on bands other than 80 and 40 meters and it performed well. I would say this is definitely the best antenna of the four, however, it is also the largest and heaviest.
I have yet to do much with the Hamstick Dipoles, but I plan to do some testing in the future.