Mistakes and miscalculations might make us better field radio operators

I don’t know about you, but part of the fun of playing radio in the field are the inevitable frustrations.

It might not feel like it in the moment, but when I eventually overcome the challenges of a mistake, I feel like I’ve truly accomplished something.

That was my little epiphany this morning: making mistakes has perhaps made me a better radio operator. Less-than-efficient field deployments have honed my skills and had a major influence on the gear I pack.

If you’ve read some of my (rather rambling) field reports in the past, you’ll note that I rarely do field activations with the exact same gear combinations each time. I feel fortunate enough that I can pair different radios with different antennas and different accessories.  I get a small thrill out of not knowing exactly how well a combination will work, especially if I’m not activating a rare all-time new park or tough summit for that matter. In cases where getting to the site is a challenge in and of itself, I want to use a trusted combo of gear.

It’s that wee bit of mystery that attracts me to the field.

If I approached POTA more like a contest–where activation and contact numbers were my focus–I would have installed a mobile HF rig in my car a long time ago. I could rack up way more parks and contacts that way. It especially simplifies multi-site activation days since it effectively eliminates the time involved in setting up and later packing up gear.  Mobile operating is the most efficient way to hit number goals: drive up to a site, start calling CQ, work your stations, then move on.

K-6937 & K-4510

(Photo credit: K4TLI)

Yesterday, I did a last minute “two-fer” activation of Pisgah National Forest and Pisgah Game Land. I had not planned to do an activation that day–temps never rose above 29F (-2C) at the QTH day and it also snowed and flurried all day long. Winds were very gusty as well, so it effectively felt much colder on the skin.

I wanted to hike up to the ridge line behind my QTH and do the activation but I knew up there temps would be lower and (worse) winds much stronger. Cold doesn’t really bother me, but strong winds do. This was also the first weekend my ankle felt almost normal after twisting it badly last month. It’s healing and I hope will be in shape for a long hike from my QTH to a six point SOTA summit next weekend with my daughter (K4TLI).

All of those factors combined pointed toward simply staying at home, drinking coffee, and reading a book.

Hazel was ready for some field radio fun, though. (Photo credit: K4TLI)

But I really wanted some outdoor time. And I really wanted to make an activation with my Elecraft KX1, so I decided that instead of hiking up in elevation 800 feet, I’d drive down about 900-1,000 feet to a forest trailhead. That would get me on the air in a protected valley with less wind,  less snow, possibly warmer temps, and much less hiking which would be easier on my ankle.

The Last-Minute Antenna

When I use the KX1 in the field, I typically pack a very simple antenna: one length of radiator wire and one length of counterpoise wire–connected to a BNC binding post adapter, I let the built-in ATU sort out the match.

When I owned my first KX1, I had a magic length of radiator wire (the length of which I can no longer remember) that seemed to work amazingly well  on 40, 30, and 20 meters.

My new-to-me KX1 came with two lengths of wire: one 23′ and one about 20′. Although I made a fun and successful activation with this setup, the radiator was simply too short for the KX1 to find a decent match on 40M.

On the way out the door, I decided to cut a new radiator and counterpoise out of scrap wire I use for antenna experiments.

Being a bit stubborn and also in a hurry to beat sunset, I did no Internet research to sort out the ideal lengths for 40 meters.  I simply cut a 17′ length for the counterpoise and about 27.5′ for the radiator.

In the Field

After arriving on site, I deployed the antenna and tried finding a match on 40 meters with the KX1’s internal ATU.

No go.

I tried a few times hoping maybe the ATU would find something even semi-reasonable in terms of a match, but there simply wasn’t enough radiator to make it work. That was a shame because forty meters would have been the ideal band for yielding quick contacts this time of the afternoon.

I had options, but I wanted to make what I had work.

The activation took time and patience. The 30 meter band was now my best bet and it’s where I logged all ten contacts for a valid activation. I tried 20 meters where I had a 1:1 match, but the band was dead.

At one point, I switched out the KX1 with my KX2 that I also packed. I tried to find a 40 meter match with the superior KX2 ATU, but physics got in the way again. 🙂

40 meters was an option

Let’s be clear here: I could have easily cut 4′ off of the counterpoise and attached it to the radiator and I bet I would have gotten a match on 40M. Since the counterpoise was lying on the ground, its length was less crucial.

The EFT Trail-Friendly end fed antenna was also in my pack.

I also had a perfectly capable 40/20/10 en-fed antenna in my pack. Switching out the antenna would have only taken four minutes.

I bet I could have easily yielded 20 additional contacts on 40 meters because the band was in great shape. Almost without fail, 40 meters is my most productive band.

Working with limitations

Thing is, I’m starting to understand that I like working with self-imposed limitations.

Perhaps this is why I love QRP and low-power radio so much: I get a little thrill out of doing more with less.

Yesterday, even after I realized it would be a struggle to log my final three contacts on 30 meters, I persisted. One motivation was I’ve never completed a full activation using only 30 meters. With a little patience, I knew I could snag my ten contacts.

The only things making it a challenge were the facts that temps were dropping rapidly, winds were picking up, and the sun was setting. Hazel (the POTA dog) who so eagerly jumped in the car when she saw me put on my hiking boots earlier, was also starting to shiver.

Fortunately, after trying another short stint on 20 meters, I returned to 30 and worked two more stations in quick succession giving me a total of nine contacts.

It started to get darker, so I hunted and found an operator calling CQ  on 30 and simply made contact with him. He wasn’t a POTA station, just a general CQ call. He kindly gave me his details for the logs.

Lessons learned

I made a video of most of this activation and will upload it when I have a little bandwidth to do so. I’ll embed it in a shorter field report here on QRPer since I’ve described so much already.

Even though it was a challenge making ten contacts to accomplish a valid field activation with my time constraints, I’ll admit that I really enjoyed the challenge.

Next time I head to the field with the KX1, I’ll actually test the antenna prior to leaving the QTH.

In fact, I’m planning to make two radiators: one at an ideal length for 40 meters and above, and another–much longer–for 80 meters and above. Any advice and personal experience from KX1 owners would be much appreciated.

Perhaps most importantly, it’s only now dawned on me how much I enjoy making the most with self-imposed limitations or “trying to make lemonade with lemons.”

Do you feel the same? I’d love to hear your comments.

3 thoughts on “Mistakes and miscalculations might make us better field radio operators”

  1. Tom, my POTA go-to antenna is a wire vertical consisting of a 28-1/2′ radiator and three 17′ counterpoise wires lying directly on the ground. The KX3’s internal ATU can easily find matches on 20, 30, 40, and 60m for this antenna when I feed it through a 4:1 unun mounted at the KX3’s BNC connector. The KX3 can find a 2:1 match for this antenna on 80m, too, though I suspect that radiation efficiency is low on this band. I used this same antenna without an unun or balun during most of 2016’s National Parks on the Air and the KX3’s internal ATU almost always found a good match on 20, 30, and 40m. Very occasionally, the ATU wouldn’t find a good match on one or another of the bands, presumably due to differences in deployment at the parks, and it was for this reason that I stopped using a dual-banana-to-BNC adapter in favor of the 4:1 unun.

    Part of the magic of the 28-1/2′ radiator is that it is easily deployed as a vertical by supporting it on a 31′ Jackite of 33′ MJF fiberglass telescoping pole, which means that set-up at each park can be very quick.

  2. Tom I do things sort of opposite-every once in a while I go out to favorite sites with my nanovna and a bunch of wire, transformers, connectors and tuners.
    I spend a few hours just trying different ideas and setups, trying to maximize what I can do with what stuff.
    When I hit on a good setup, then I may get the MTR3b out and see what it looks like on the RBN.
    There’s no pressure to get contacts and I get my exercize running back and forth between the ends of the antennas.
    Its all about learning and having fun!

  3. Tom,
    This post and the experience outlined in it, is exactly what I love about Amatuer Radio! Yeah, I enjoy talking to people and making new contacts, but I approach my activities in this hobby as a constant opportunity to learn and expand my knowledge!
    So things going wrong during operation are OKAY in my book! Really glad to see how you continued to push forward and look for any path that would lead to a successful activation! That was awesome!
    Since I have been out of the hobby for a few years, I am anticipating lot of “learning opportunities” during this weekends winter feild day! I will be working with a new to me radio the KX3 and some new portable antennas, a base-loaded verticle, the 40-20-10 endfed wire antenna you use and now I am thinking of trying a wire antenna cut from a length of wire that I have in the house. I did just purchase an antenna analyzer from RigExpert, so will get familiar with that use it learn about the antennas I am going to be using. Yes the KX3 has an amazing tuner for sure, but that does not always gaurentee effective radiation for the frequency you want to operate. So being able to understnad how the antenna will perform ahead of time or be able to adjust when deployed will be important.
    Anyhow, I do plan to record it with a video camera and watch it afterwards when I am not in the heat of the momemnt to see what I can learn from the whole activity, much like I get the benifit from learning from your videos!
    Incidentally, I must say you have a wonderful website full of information that I plan to fully read thru, I just finished reading your post on the arborer’s line and throw techniques! Thank you for that, I bought some of the suggeted items and can now practice the throwing techniques outlined!
    Thanks again for sharing your experiences and passion for this wonderful hobby!
    de n1one

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