Boston Marathon Amateur Radio Survival Tips

I've participated in the Boston Marathon for the past two years and here's some survival tips for new hams. This is inspired by W3ATB's original Survival Guide. (Although it should be noted that the guide has been superseded by newer documentation.)

Be prepared

As the Scout Motto goes, BE PREPARED. The Boston Marathon is probably the preeminent public service event in all of amateur radio. (My opinion, of course.) Mind you, the course spreads over 26.2 miles from Hopkinton, Massachusetts to Boston, Massachusetts.

You need to be prepared in various ways.

1. Make sure your radio is programmed beforehand. Whether you have a top of the line Kenwood or a bottom of the barrel Baofeng or somewhere in between, make sure it is programmed with the various repeater and simplex frequencies before the event. Make sure you have the offsets and tones correct also. You don't want to be hand punching in frequencies and tones on the front panel at the volunteer meetup, it wastes valuable time. You may get lucky and have another ham with a programming cable for your radio or you may not. 

The ICS-205 form with all the frequencies and tones. is usually released a few weeks beforehand on hamradioboston.org, so check it out and start programming. Usually, one of the hams will release a CSV which you can load in the radio programming Swiss army knife of a program known as CHIRP or whatever software you use to program your radio. Take advantage of it. In closing, I'll say it again, make sure your radio is programmed beforehand.

2. Make sure you have adequate radio accessories. What do I mean by adequate? You should have the following:
  • A headset and shoulder mic. The Marathon is a very loud event, you're going to have lots of cheering spectators yelling, screaming and ringing cowbells and the lot. You need to be able to hear your radio and what others are saying.
  • Extra power. Depending on your assignment you could be on your station for a couple of hours up to dozens of hours, your battery may not make it all the way, so bring a fully charged back up battery. Or better yet...
  • Extra radio. Bring a backup just in case something happens with your primary, if your radio goes down and you don't have a backup, you're essentially useless.
  • No stock antennas. An aftermarket antenna for your radio is highly recommended. Stock "rubber duckies" are a compromise, they work well when you're near a good, strong repeater, but you may not have that luxury on the course due to coverage or a weak spot. So go and get one.
3. Dress for the weather. Even though Spring begins every year on March 20th, New England weather is a strange beast in April. It could 32°F and snowing, it could 50°F and raining or it could be 85°F with sweltering heat and humidity. You need to dress for the weather. Take it from me, I learned the hard way my first year when it was a monsoon of freezing rain, I just wore cargo pants and non waterproof boots, with a fleece jacket underneath my volunteer jacket along with a poncho. My upper half stayed warm and dry, the lower half did not and my boots got ruined. Dress for the weather.

4. Pack light. 2013 changed everything. The days of any type of backpack are over, unless it's see through. Bring a small waist pack and carry as much as you can on your person, cargo pants are highly recommended. If you bring a backpack, you're liable to be searched or stopped by local law enforcement which takes away from your listening watch. The only slight exception is if your doing transport on the medical sweep bus, because a mobile radio with a mag mount is recommended for those assignments. Nevertheless, transport buses could be boarded and searched so be prepared for that and cooperate with law enforcement. Pack light.

5. Read the documentation. Even with all my advice, this is not official guidance. Everything official is posted on hamradioboston.org, by the BAA Communications Committee staffed by fellow amateurs. Everything you need is there. Plus, there is a forum where you can ask questions. I highly recommend checking it out.

In closing

Again, these are just tips. The official documentation is what you should rely on. Nevertheless, don't be daunted by all this. Step up and make yourself available. The Boston Marathon is an exciting event and helps you get baseline of what amateur radio public service is all about, and what better way then on the biggest stage of them all.

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