How to Set Up a Portable Satellite Dish

One of the biggest & scariest learning curves for those trying to upgrade their tailgates is the daunting task of setting up a satellite dish on campus to watch college football all day while you’re tailgating. We were in this position 4 years ago when we decided to give it a shot. Hopefully, our years of experience will help you get over this hump a little less painfully. Here is a step-by-step guide for setting up a satellite dish for portable TV.

1. Get a Subscription
If you don’t already have a subscription to DirecTV or Dish Network, investigate your options. Talk to friends, neighbors, and family, and find out what their experience has been. For portable setup, it is our opinion that DirecTV is the hands-down choice for several reasons (more to come on this subject in a separate post). However, we did use Dish Network for two years and were more-or-less successful.

2. Get Your Portable Equipment
Next, you’re going to need a portable satellite dish and receiver. You basically have a couple of options regarding your receiver: have a dedicated receiver for tailgating (meaning you’re paying every month for it), or use a receiver from your house (this requires you to disconnect/reconnect after every tailgate). Due to the occasi0nal unfortunate occurrence of leaving home with everything but the satellite receiver or some portion of it (power cord), this year we are finally breaking down and getting an additional dedicated receiver to keep with the tailgate equipment.  Except for looking impressive, an HD satellite dish, coax cables, and flat screen TV aren’t worth much without the satellite receiver!  Just a tip from our past experience!

In order to guarantee compatibility, you need to get the same type of dish that you use on your house. You can usually get a new satellite dish on eBay or a local after-market satellite store. Ask around, and call some places. We have gotten three different dishes over the years (first, a Dish Network one, then a DirecTV one, and then a DirecTV HD dish), and we have never paid more than $80 for one.

3. Figure Out How You’re Going to Mount the Dish
There are two main methods for “mounting” your dish on campus. The most popular is the tripod method. You’ll see a wide variety of tripods used on campuses, from 18″ tall ones to 4 feet tall ones. We have had the best success with the WINEGARD TR-2000 Tripod Antenna Mount. It is small, ultra-portable, and very stable.

The other method used for portable satellite dishes is what we call the “ground”  mount. Basically, mount a satellite dish arm to a small but heavy object – heavy plywood, a cinder block, etc., and set it on the ground. This is a highly stable way of doing this, but it is much tougher to adjust the dish when you are trying to lock onto a satellite.  Also, you are much more susceptible to an occasional obstruction of the dish’s “line of sight” to the southern sky.

4. Quality Connections are Important!
Don’t skimp on your coaxial cable or splitters–they need to be quality components. The lower end coax and splitters are built for basic cable – not HD Satellite signals. You will notice a significant difference when you are trying to get a signal. There is nothing more stressful than knowing that GameDay is on and not being able to figure out why your signal is too weak to get ESPN. Please, take our advice and get a decent quality coaxial cable and if you need a splitter, get one that is built for HD satellite programming.  Remember, your signal is only as strong as your weakest cable—a high quality signal running through your HDMI cable from your receiver to your HDTV can be greatly compromised if it has to travel across a cheap coax from your dish to your satellite receiver.

5. Figure Out Where to Put Your TV
This may seem premature, but go ahead and map out your tailgate before you start pointing your dish (step 6). We learned this the hard way. You’ll need a clear view of the southern sky to get a good signal, so setup your tailgate with this in mind.  Take into consideration glare on the TV screen and tailgater traffic near your dish.

6. Point Your Dish
There are two settings that you will need to use to adjust on your satellite dish before you start pointing it – azimuth & elevation. You can get these settings in the setup guide on your satellite provider’s menu screen. Usually, the program will ask for a zip code, and give you the values based on that location. If you are tailgating in the same area every week, you will not have to change this at all.  The “elevation” is an angular degree that you can adjust with a wrench on the back of your dish—if you’re using your dish on the same campus every week, you should only have to set this once.  The “azimuth” is the physical direction in the sky (south-southeast for example) in which you point the dish.  This is the step where you will point and listen for the audible alert on your satellite provider’s “Satellite Signal” screen (see below).

Once you have your dish configured with these values, you can start searching for a satellite by connecting the dish to the receiver, and following the setup screens online. We also recommend that you completely reboot/reset your receiver before starting this. Pointing a dish is possible as a one-man job, but it is much easier with two people. Trial and error will eventually bring about a decent signal. Keep in mind that your signal strength does not have to be 100%. We have gotten by with a signal in the 70′s plenty of times. While one person slowly points the dish, have another person (preferably) call out the signal strength. Once you get a decent signal, lock down the dish’s direction and fine-tune your signal if needed.

After a few times of doing this, it will be easier and easier. We have been in the same tailgating spot for three years now, and we know how to line up the dish using landmarks on campus before we even turn on the receiver. Your first few times will be painful, and then it will get easier every time.

If you are having an unusual amount of difficulty getting a signal, reboot/reset your receiver. If you are using Dish Network, you may actually have to call them on the phone to get your receiver to work properly (one of the reasons we changed to DirecTV).

7. Secure Your Cables
To prevent a sudden loss of signal in the middle of that 4th and Goal situation, stake down your coax cable between the dish and your tailgate. Kids and adults can easily snag a cable with a foot and move your dish and/or tripod and/or receiver. So be safe. It only takes a couple of minutes to secure your setup and ensure that you won’t be losing any equipment or missing the goal line stand later on!

8. Weather Considerations
Keep an eye on the weather—the occasional afternoon thundershower can sneak up on you if you’re not careful.  Have a contingency plan for how to protect yourself and your electronic equipment in the event of rain and communicate that plan to fellow tailgaters, ESPECIALLY if you’re planning to leave the tailgate under someone else’s care.

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3 Responses to How to Set Up a Portable Satellite Dish

  1. Richard Boyd says:

    War Eagle! We’ve been thinking of moving to an HD dish for next season. We’ve been using a SD DirecTV dish for about 8 years. I have HD at home. How much more difficult is it to set up and HD dish? We usually just point the SD dish in the general direction and move it until the strength is up while watching the 101 sattelite? Which one do you watch for HD or do you set one then check the others and tweak. I have had a few time where I was sweating it for a while with our dish 30 minutes or more but usually I have a good signal in less than about 3 minutes. Any advice/response would be appreciated. I have a small tv that I use to set up our dish (tip to you)..packaged in a clear storage box all set up with the directv box cables etc..then we usually unhook and plug into a projector.

  2. Natan says:

    Hi Richard. We did the same thing last season (upgraded to the HD dish). In our experience it is absolutely NO different setting up the HD dish with DirecTV. We tailgate in the same spot each week, so we pretty much know where to point the dish to start our signal-getting, and then it’s just a matter of tweaking the signal.

    I’d definitely recommend making the jump. As cheap as HDTVs are these days, why not? We have a dish and a receiver that are dedicated for tailgating during the season, but you could just as easily bring a receiver down each weekend. (I would not recommend taking the dish off the house, though).

    Good idea with the portable TV for your signal strength meter. We have our tv and dish built-in with our trailer, so we don’t need that any more, but it would have been great a couple of years ago!

    Let us know if you have any more questions – we’re happy to help out in any way we can!

  3. Richard Boyd says:

    Thanks a bunch! War Eagle! Ricky