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Ultralight AM/FM radios
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Dale Wambaugh
(dwambaugh) - MLife

Locale: Pacific Northwest
Ultralight AM/FM radios on 08/18/2012 12:40:07 MDT Print View

I like listening to the radio and I'm a real NPR freak. I have fiddled with a number of small AM/FM radios gleaned from garage sales and thrift stores and sifted information from the Web and thought I would share two of my favorites.

AM/FM radios

The radio on the left is the Sony SRF-S84. It is an all-analog AM/FM receiver and weighs 1.6oz with a single AAA battery. Sound and reception are excellent, in fact downright amazing for such a small radio. Signal selection is great, almost like having channels. The small tuning wheel can make it a challenge to get a really faint signal but running back and forth slowly usually does the trick. Keep in mind that I'm talking about signals that won't even register on other radios. It has a "Megabass" feature, a typical volume control wheel with on/off switch and a AM/FM mono/FM stereo slider. It has a stainless clip on the back that will fit straps to 1-3/8". Unfortunately, it isn't formally imported to the US, but can be found on eBay, Amazon, and other sources with prices from the high $30's on up.

The radio on the right is the Sangean DT-120. It is more digitally-oriented than the Sony and has a lot of convenient features that come along with the extra electronics: 15 presets, scanning, a 90 minute shut-off timer, extended bass switch, and push-button controls. Weight is 2.1oz with a single AAA battery-- just 0.5oz more than the little Sony above. I just got this one last week so I haven't had a chance to try it out in remote areas, but for all my experimenting at home, it should do just fine. With the digital tuning, you can't split hairs on really weak stations like you can with an analog tuner, but it will pull in most signals worth listening to. I was able to get an AM CBC station in Vancouver BC, 140 miles away! Battery life should be better than the Sony, not because of more efficiency in the circuits, but because it turns off after 90 minutes, so I can't fall asleep and leave it on. If you leave the headphones out, it will turn itself off in a few seconds, so it can't inadvertently be turned on while packed and run the battery down. it does have a lock switch that will accomplish the same and lock the settings when in use. Web prices run $36-$38. They make a clear version for use in prisons to make it harder for inmates to hide contraband.

Both radios came with acceptable earbud headphones. Many people have strong personal preferences to earbuds and they both use standard 3.5mm jacks, so you can use what you like. I do recommend experimenting with headphones as the ground wire on the headphones is what is used for the FM antenna. I have no problem with the vast majority of headphones I have tried, but one or two were noticeably worse, so if you have reception problems, try another set. When in remote areas, you can sometimes pull in weak stations by just turning your head. I have found that just re-arranging the slack cord on top of my sleeping bag at night can make a difference. AM reception in almost all small radios is accomplished with a ferrite bar inside the radio and reception can be changed by rotating the radio. I have hung the radio from the top of my shelter and improved reception too.

If you want a small radio on a budget, the Sony SRF-59 performs nearly as well as the SRF-S84 and can be found for around $15. I would swap out the headphones for earbuds.It will run up to 100 hours on a single AA battery. I don't have the exact weight, but it is just a couple ounces more than the SRF-84, IIRC.

Sony SRF-59

jerry adams
(retiredjerry) - MLife

Locale: Oregon and Washington
Re: Ultralight AM/FM radios on 08/18/2012 12:55:28 MDT Print View

I've been using Sony Walkman

4 ounces including ear buds and 1 AAA battery. Maybe 40 hours on one battery. Pretty good reception in the wilderness.

NPR is good. Canadian public broadcasting when I'm in the Olympics. 620AM in Portland or 1090AM in Seattle. I hate it when I'm, for example, on the East side of the Three Sisters and all I can get is Rush Limbaugh or the like.

I tried a Sangean portable, not the one you got, and it didn't pick up distant stations very good so not so good when in the wilderness.

Dale Wambaugh
(dwambaugh) - MLife

Locale: Pacific Northwest
Re: Ultralight AM/FM radios on 08/18/2012 13:51:44 MDT Print View

The SRF-M37W is convenient, but it isn't well thought of for sound quality or reception in the radio communities. Fine for local stuff. The SRF-59 is far superior and less expensive, but all analog.

The old Sony SRF-M80V "armband" radios are good and have weather band, along with the defunct TV audio channels. The SRF-M85W is good, but beware the similar looking SRF-M85V: it uses just one AAA battery which looks great, but reception on the one I had was terrible. You can find the SRF-M80V in thrift stores and garage sales for a few dollars.

Also beware of the Grundig Mini 400 sold at REI. It is one of the few items I have returned. I was totally disgusted with the performance. I was surprised, as Grundig usually does a good job.

If you are really get out in the boonies, the County Comm GP4L radio has several shortwave bands as well as AM/FM and you get a speaker and an LED flashlight. 85g/3oz without batteries and about $38 with US shipping. If you rig up a long wire with an alligator clip and attach that to the telescoping antenna, you can get incredible distant reception on SW. I had one and would run a wire to the strap of my trekking pole in shelter mode and then to a tree or bush--- not for lightning storms!

Bob Gross
(--B.G.--) - F

Locale: Silicon Valley
Re: Ultralight AM/FM radios on 08/18/2012 13:55:09 MDT Print View

You know, guys, that AM broadcast band will carry AM station signals over a long distance, maybe 500 miles or more. FM broadcast band is intended to go no more than maybe 100 miles. That is just the nature of the beast.

Also, if you have analog tuning on an FM receiver, and if you are trying to closely tune back and forth to pick out just that one station, you are using _FM_selectivity_. Once in a while, you will see some numbers for this listed in the product specifications. Normally you get good selectivity only in a big radio. FM reception can be improved on most of these little ones by stringing up five feet of wire as an antenna. You could wrap that around a tent pole.

I admit to having carried a tiny radio like this before, but only on solo trips, and only on a cold and rainy night in the damp shelter.


jerry adams
(retiredjerry) - MLife

Locale: Oregon and Washington
Re: Ultralight AM/FM radios on 08/18/2012 14:13:03 MDT Print View

I had a Sony with the now defunct TV channels but it wore out. I used to sometimes listen to TV when I was out in the wilderness.

That was it - the Grundig Mini 400 sold at REI - very poor reception - I returned it also.

Country Comm GP4L is good? 3 ounces + 1.75 ounces for 2 AA batteries - 150 hours is enough for any trip I'de do.

So, you think reception is better than SRF-M37W?

I like the digital tuner. It seems like they reject near-by stations better.

Dale Wambaugh
(dwambaugh) - MLife

Locale: Pacific Northwest
Re: Re: Ultralight AM/FM radios on 08/18/2012 15:00:59 MDT Print View

Yes, I think the County Comm's reception will beat the SRF-M37W. The ferrite bar is larger for AM, as well as longwire options and the long telescoping antenna is used for FM as well as SW. Keep in mind that the Gp4L is analog *tuning* with digital *readout.* The digital presets on the Sony are handy, but analog tuning is better for weak reception.

I had to go back and look at the reviews I saw for the SRF-M37W. Reception was not so much an issue as background noise and sound quality. Background noise becomes more important with weak stations--- read remote area reception.

Yeah, 150 hours would be 37 4-hour nightly sessions. The County Comm has clock and alarm functions too. Very handy when beach hiking and skirting tides.

If you want to get some more insight into these little radios, Dr. Xin is well known for making mods to them. Google "Xin's radio mods" and you will get some interesting reading. He likes to improve the circuits by replacing the capacitors with higher quality components. Look at for an eyeful.

I've heard that the FM broadcasts are designed for 25 mile reception. I've found in driving all over Western Washington that stations do indeed drop out at about 25 miles, then pick up a little better father out. I don't know the physics of that. It may just be the hills and antenna locations.

You can boost most headphone-style FM radios by winding a small loop of light wire around the headphone plug-- thin enough that it won't keep it from making full contact. You are just extending the ground wire. I wonder if a pass-through connector couldn't be wired up from 3.5mm plugs and jacks to tap the ground wire and allow an antenna wire to be neatly plugged in. The photos below are from

Extending an FM antennaExtending an FM antenna

Edited by dwambaugh on 08/18/2012 15:16:22 MDT.

Vince Contreras
(pillowthread) - F

Locale: like, in my head???
GP4L FTW! on 08/18/2012 15:36:37 MDT Print View

And acronyms for the win too, apparently...but really, the County Comm radio is stellar.

Dale Wambaugh
(dwambaugh) - MLife

Locale: Pacific Northwest
Re: Ultralight AM/FM radios on 08/18/2012 15:40:07 MDT Print View

Another one that is usable is the Panasonic rf-sw200. It isn't as strong on the reception side, but loaded with features-- worth it if you run across one at a yard sale. 3oz with a AAA battery and stripped of the armband. The top faceplate is metal!

Panasonic rf-sw200

It is roughly 4" tall and 3" wide. You can find many "pocket radios" with aspeaker for the weight and size. Don't play one next to my campsite!

Edited by dwambaugh on 08/18/2012 15:42:24 MDT.

David A
(DavidAdair) - M

Locale: West Dakota
Re: Re: Ultralight AM/FM radios on 08/18/2012 16:08:48 MDT Print View

Thanks for the reviews Dale. I like my GP4L well enough but something lighter like the S84 would be easier to justify during the summer months. I like having a speaker since it helps my dog "turn off" his ears and relax. I suppose a set of those individual ear phones would be loud enough?

Jerry - Did you use the weather band much on the SRF-37W? How reliable was the WB reception in the back country?

Also, maybe we should consider trading radios, as my GP4L seems to pick up way too much NPR and not enough Rush Limbaugh.

jerry adams
(retiredjerry) - MLife

Locale: Oregon and Washington
Re: Re: Re: Ultralight AM/FM radios on 08/18/2012 17:11:32 MDT Print View

The only place I ever got the weather band to work was like on the Straight of Juan Da Fuca. But, there were AM stations that had an occasional weather report. So, to me, the weather band is pretty useless.

On the East side of the Three Sisters you get two "Rush Limbaugh" stations. On the West side you get an NPR station 550AM. I guess I'll have to stay on the West side and you can stay on the East side : )

Dale Wambaugh
(dwambaugh) - MLife

Locale: Pacific Northwest
Re: weather band reception on 08/18/2012 18:15:43 MDT Print View

Here is a link to state-by-state information on NOAA broadcast locations. Note the column with power info; for example, there are 16 stations in Washington ranging from 50 watts to 330 watts.

I would assume the emphasis is on coastal regions and those areas with wilder weather like tornadoes and hurricanes.

I too would look for weather info from local AM stations if I couldn't get NOAA reception.

Years ago we were camped at Cape Alava, on the Olympic Park beaches. One morning, I was listening to an overseas SW broadcast to hear that there had been a tsunami warning around the Pacific Rim the night before. It wasn't a concern in our area, but it did strike me how blissfully we slept with our campsite maybe 6 feet above tide line. The screeches of fighting raccoons in the trees over our heads were far more a concern.

Perhaps someday we will have satellite communication with iPhone-sized devices, with weather maps and the like.

I still love the magic of broadcast radio with all this music and information just floating around the air to be caught and enjoyed for the cost of a little radio and a couple batteries.

I have used a number of XM satellite radios and like the concept a lot. Unfortunately it is tied to a couple organizations that are struggling to stay in business--- read "flaky." For wilderness use they have the same reception issues as GPS and the limitations of rechargeable batteries.

Edited by dwambaugh on 08/18/2012 18:17:01 MDT.

Walter Carrington
(Snowleopard) - M

Locale: Mass.
am/fm radio on 08/18/2012 19:19:02 MDT Print View

Keep in mind the characteristics of AM and FM propagation:
AM daytime: you will get local stations out to 50 to 100 miles, occasionally more.
AM night time: 1000 miles is easy. Stations at 1000 miles will often be stronger than local stations. I.e., it's not hard to pick up Chicago stations from Mass.
AM will usually perform better in winter than summer (less noise). There are not many good AM radios these days, even for home use; even some expensive tuners will often be lousy for AM.

FM is generally limited to local stations. In deep valleys you might get no stations even with a really good radio and good antenna. On mountaintops you might get stations to 150 to 200 miles. Reception is similar to TV. Adding on some sort of wire antenna will sometimes dramatically improve reception.

A couple of radios with much above average am performance and pretty good fm are:
Kaito KA-1103 or Degen DE1103 (same radio) about 10 ounces. Has Short wave also. If you really want to try and get your home sports teams on AM while hiking this might be worth carrying.

GE superradio I,II or sometimes III. Cult AM radio. Too heavy and bulky for backpacking, but for home use perhaps the best AM reception of any modern inexpensive radio; expensive amateur radio units will be better but much more $$$. Unfortunately, more recent versions of the SR III are the same external appearance but truly lousy performance.

Dale Wambaugh
(dwambaugh) - MLife

Locale: Pacific Northwest
Re: Superadios on 08/18/2012 20:54:45 MDT Print View

I smiled at the mention of the GE Superadios. Great radios with a big speaker for little cash. They use SIX "D" batteries! But the idea of hiking with one reminded me of coming down from a mountain lake to see a bunch of college kids headed up the hill in sweats, baseball caps and flip flops, not one "essential" between them and one kid with a boom box on his shoulder, thumping away. [insert pithy Shakespeare quote with 'fools' in it] Maybe you could short a battery and get a fire started.

GE Superadio III

Edited by dwambaugh on 08/18/2012 21:09:23 MDT.

Andy F
(AndyF) - F

Locale: Ohio
Re: Ultralight AM/FM radios on 08/18/2012 21:28:00 MDT Print View

The Sansa Clip MP3 player has an FM receiver built in. Not counting earbuds, it weighs 0.85 oz (24 g).

jerry adams
(retiredjerry) - MLife

Locale: Oregon and Washington
Re: Re: Ultralight AM/FM radios on 08/18/2012 21:39:28 MDT Print View

How many hours will the Sansa last before battery is dead?

There's one MP3 player that says it's 50 hours - that could be usable - too bad you can't have spare batteries

Dale Wambaugh
(dwambaugh) - MLife

Locale: Pacific Northwest
Re: Sansa and others on 08/18/2012 22:28:48 MDT Print View

I have a Sansa and I like it. The FM reception is fine for urban stuff, but it can't compete with the dedicated readio receivers. The advertised battery life is 15 hours. One nice feature is the built in mic and voice recording, so you can keep a spoken journal as you go. It would be fine for areas with good reception and overnighters. Can't beat it for tiny and light.

I would love to see one of the alkaline battery AM/FM radios with MP3 capabilities on an SD card. There are some good radio/mp3 players with more guts than the Sansa, but they all use rechargeable batteries.

Lexar made the MDA256-100, a small MP3 player that used one AAA battery and had 256mb internal memory and used up to 2GB SD cards. It would also do voice recording. Meld those features with something like the Sony SRF-S84 and you would have a good hiker's music box. It is about the size of a Zippo lighter.

Lexar MDA256-100 Digital Media MP3 Player

Dale Wambaugh
(dwambaugh) - MLife

Locale: Pacific Northwest
Re: am/fm radio distance on 08/25/2012 09:58:30 MDT Print View

I was wrong about the CBC station I pickred up at 660 AM. I thought it was in Vancouver, but it turned out to be Calgary --- 675 miles away. Weak, but audible.

John Abela
(JohnAbela) - MLife

Re: Ultralight AM/FM radios on 08/25/2012 10:16:20 MDT Print View

The Sangean DT-400W has been used on the PCT by a few different hikers over the last few years.

jerry adams
(retiredjerry) - MLife

Locale: Oregon and Washington
Re: am/fm radio distance on 08/25/2012 11:02:28 MDT Print View

I was just getting Portland 1190AM on ridges in the Wallowas during the day - about 300 miles away.

But then I have to listen to Rush : (

Dale Wambaugh
(dwambaugh) - MLife

Locale: Pacific Northwest
Re: Sangean DT-400W on 08/25/2012 11:37:36 MDT Print View

The Sangean DT-400W gives you a speaker and weather bands--- at the cost of weight and size. You get a clock too. Nice rig!