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Sunday, August 12, 2012

Ask a Retro-Grouch Bike Tourist: Should I bring a radio on tour?

Huddled under a picnic shelter in Castle Rock, WA, listening to the Weather Band to see if the f*!king rain will ever let up. Northwest bike touring at its finest.
Hello friends! Here I start a new series of blog posts where I answer questions about bike touring, whether it be questions people actually ask me, questions I want to be asked, questions I think people would ask me, or questions I ask myself. Have a question? Feel free to leave it in the comments below or email me directly. 

Today's question: Shawn, I notice that you carry a radio with you when you bike camp/bike tour. Why? What purpose does it serve? Should I bring a radio on my next bike tour?

Ah yes, good question!

I've used a radio for several years on my bicycle camping and touring excursions. The one I currently use is an Eton Scorpion radio, and I'll talk extensively about this particular radio in a bit.

To many, bringing an old-fashioned radio seems like an anachronism in these tech-savvy times. Why would I need a radio? Isn't that something you'd do in the 1970's, when you have no other choice? There's so many devices out there: smartphones, not-so-smart phones, iPod touches, tablets, netbooks, Kindles, etc. These devices either use wifi or the mobile phone network to give us instant access to all teh informations in the world. Why would you need a radio when you could simply bring one of these?

Well, for one good reason: there are some places on a bike tour where neither a cell phone signal nor wi-fi are available. Now I know this may be hard to comprehend if you live in a densely settled metro area in the East Coast of the United States, but here in the West there are dead zones where no cell signal is present. Yes, some carriers are better than others, but if I head east into the Cascade Mountains, the only areas that I might hope to find a signal is on a highly trafficked corridor or near a town. All those other beautiful, lightly travelled forest roads? Nada. Heck, I couldn't even get service at Battle Ground Lake State Park, just 25 miles as the crow flies from Portland.

Any basic radio that you can find today will have at least FM and/or AM. And this is better than nothing. But it's wiser to pick a radio with Weather Band, at least in the U.S. and Canada. While the pickings are slimmer and the radios a bit more pricey, having instant access to weather and other emergency information 24/7 is very useful in bike touring, especially in remote areas. There were a few times on tour last year that we were thankful to have the Weather Band radio, when severe weather was on its way or overhead.
My battered Sony Walkman model WM-FX488. The reception wasn't great, but it at least had the weather band. And could also play tapes, bonus!
This Kaito radio (KA1102) does get SW, if I feel like listening to Radio Cuba on a tour. Not so useful for finding local weather.

Outside the US and Canada, if I was going to use a radio that had more than AM/FM, I would definitely use one with a Shortwave band. There are less and less shortwave options in North America as the years go by (no BBC World Service, boo), whereas Weather Band is non-existent overseas.

That leaves one with two options: speakerless options or ones with an internal speaker. Speakerless units are definitely smaller, but I never like the reception quality for most of them, and very few come with Weather band. So internal speaker units it is.

The one I've owned for the last two years is the Eton Scorpion. It's a decent little radio with quite a bit of functions:
  • AM/FM/Weather
  • Flashlight
  • Solar panel or hand crank to charge
  • Can be used as an emergency charger for cell phones and other electronics
  • Can be used as a speaker for an iPod and the like
  • Bottle Opener (?)
It's primary feature, the radio, works well, as it has digital tuning and a telescoping antenna. (Weather radios that use an analog dial for tuning are a pain in the ass to tune.) The speaker is adequate, not spectacular, but you're not going to get Bose sound quality out of a speaker so small. And when I get bored of what's on the radio,* I can always plug in my iPod.

And it's small. Not "Ultralight Bikepacker" small, as a true weight evangelist would balk at its 10 oz weight. But it's small enough that it doesn't feel like a burden. It also helps that it has a carabiner, so I can clip it to the top of a panier and have it charge in the sun all day.

And what about that solar charger panel? It works, but like any solar charger, it charges nowhere near as fast as plugging it into the wall. If I leave it exposed to the sun for a day or two, I'll get a decent hour or two charge out of that. And the solar panel charges the battery, not directly power the unit, so even if you turn on the radio underneath the bright, bright sun, if there's no charge in the battery it will quickly turn off. The crank is adequate, a good 30 seconds of cranking will get about 10 minutes of charge.

As stated, it's a decent little radio. If I was going to rate it, I'd give it 3.5 out of 5 stars. It's main deficiencies are the quality of construction. Even though it's water-resistant, enough damp or cold weather will suck the life out of the battery. As for the battery, it's one of those funky rechargable ones you'd find on a cordless phone (remember those?), not AA/AAA, which would be much more useful. The telescoping antenna will break eventually, and same goes for the crank. I've even managed to break a carabiner once. Thankfully REI has a liberal return/warranty policy, because while I've used the same model of radio over the last two years, I've gone through almost a half-dozen units in that time due to the damages listed above.

And now it appears that REI has stopped carrying the Eton Scorpion, which meant the last time I returned one I had a pain of a time getting a replacement. I could have gone for a cheaper unit that was about the same size, but didn't have the same functionality. And there are newer, better models of Eton radios that improve on some of the deficiencies found in the Scorpion, like using AAA batteries and the ability for the radio to be charged via USB. But these ones are twice the size of the Scorpion. So I'm sticking with the Scorpion for now, warts and all, until something similar sized but feature rich comes on the market.

Now the question remains: Should YOU get a radio? And that's a question you can only answer yourself. Hopefully all this information has helped your decision making abilities. Yep, you can get weather information on your iPhone. But there's just something about listening to a radio, especially without using headphones. I realize that commercial radio in North America has pretty much went down the toilet, but there's still NPR and CBC, college radio, and a smattering of community stations to be found. It was always nice listening to the news in the morning while making breakfast. It kept me informed about the world outside my little bike tour. And now from listening to Weatheradio Canada through the Prairies, I have the never-changing forecast burned into my head: Mainly sunny. 30 percent chance of a shower. Risk of a thunderstorm. Low 11, High 25.
While I am a proponent of radios, even I realize this radio might be a tad too...big.

I realize that going on a bike tour, especially into rural areas, is a way to get away from it all. But it's nice to have a little connection to "The Real World" from time to time. Robert from Rootless In Place figured this out on his cross-country tour, and purchased a crank radio. Maybe you'll do the same.

And here's a video review of the Eton Scorpion by the Path Less Pedaled.
*How can I ever get bored of Creepy Robotic Voice reading the weather?


  1. Yay, I love this series idea! Keep them coming, please!

  2. Yep, +25 C on the Canadian Prairies exactly at this very moment!

    I have a similar looking old large radio (in later photo) in my office :-)

    Thanks for the informative write-up.


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