POTA Field Report: Pairing the Elecraft KX3 with the AX1 antenna and seeking distant stations

Although I’m a huge fan of wire antennas in the field, since I started using CW during my Parks On The Air (POTA) activations, I’ve really enjoyed experimenting with compromised portable antennas.

Typically, there’s a trade off with field antennas:

High-performance antennas tend to take more time to install. Some of my highest performance antennas are dipoles, doublets, delta loops, and end fed wire antennas. All of them require support from a tree if I want maximum height off the ground. Some (like the dipole) require multiple supports. While I actually enjoy installing wire antennas in trees, it typically takes me at least 10 minutes to install a wire antenna if it only needs one support and one counterpoise.

Compromised or low-profile antennas may lack performance and efficiency, but are often much quicker and easier to deploy.

In my opinion, field operators should keep both types of antennas in their arsenal because sometimes the site itself will dictate which antenna they use. I’ve activated many sites where wire antennas simply aren’t an option.

That was not the case last Tuesday, however.

Tuttle Educational State Forest (K-4861)

On Tuesday, December 29, 2020, I stopped by Tuttle Educational State Forest (K-4861)–one of my favorite local state parks–for a quick, impromptu activation.

I had no less than four antennas in my car that day and Tuttle is the type of site where I can install pretty much anything: they’ve a spacious picnic area with large tables, tall trees, and parking is close by. Tuttle is the perfect place to deploy not only a large wire antenna, but a large radio if you wish since you don’t have to lug it far from the car.

But en route to Tuttle I decided to take a completely different approach. One of the four antennas I had in the car that day was the Elecraft AX1 antenna.

Without a doubt, the AX1 is the most portable antenna I own. It’s so compact, I can carry it in my pocket if I wish.

When I first purchased the AX1, I was very skeptical and assumed it would only work when “the stars aligned”–days with better-than-average propagation and lots of POTA hunters/chasers looking for me.

The first time I used the AX1 in the field, it impressed me (understatement alert).

The second time, same thing.

In all of my AX1 activations, however, I had only operated on the 40 meter band where the antenna’s footprint looked more like a NVIS antenna than a vertical. Meaning, most of my contacts were in neighboring states like Tennessee, South Carolina, Virginia, and Georgia (typically, those states are in my 40 meter skip zone).

The reason I hadn’t tried 20 or 17 meters with the AX1 is because I would start an activation on the 40 meter band and accumulate enough contacts to achieve a valid activation. Since I’m often pressed for time, I simply didn’t bother configuring the antenna for the higher bands.

Time for that to change!

The question I wanted answered at Tuttle: could the AX1 antenna work “DX” stations? By DX, I mean POTA DX, so distant states and provinces primarily–not necessarily other countries.

Gear:

On the air

I paired the Elecraft KX3 with the AX1 at Tuttle. This was the first time I’d ever tried this particular transceiver/antenna combo.

After setting up, I started on the 20 meter band and called CQ for a few minutes.

The first two stations I worked were in Texas (KF9RX and K5RX).

The third station (W6LEN) was in California.

California!?!

Honestly, it was/is hard for me to fathom how in the world 10 watts into a tabletop telescoping whip antenna could work a station exactly 2,083 miles (3,352 km)–and three time zones away–from my picnic table. I’m sure W6LEN has a great antenna on the other end, but I bet he would be surprised to learn that my 10 watt signal was being radiated by such a wee antenna.

 

 

I then worked stations in Florida (K2WO), Minnesota (N0UR), and New Hampshire (W2NR) and decided to move to 17 meters.

On 17 meters I worked W2NR in New Hampshire once again.

I should note here that each time you work a station on a different band or with a different mode, it counts as a separate contact in POTA. In other words, my contacts with W2NR on 20 meters and 17 meters counts as two logged contacts toward my overall QSO count. I’m very appreciative of hunters who go out of their way to work me on different bands and modes: those extra contacts help me achieve a valid activation in short order.

I then moved to 40 meters and worked stations from Tennessee, West Virginia, Ohio, and Michigan.

Video

Here’s a video of the entire activation. It’s a long video as it starts at set-up and continues until my last contact. There are no edits in this video–it’s a real-time, real-life deal and contains all of my bloopers:

Note that in the video I had the KX3’s volume maxed out so that it could be picked up by my iPhone microphone. The KX3’s wee internal speaker was vibrating the chassis ever so slightly. On the 40 meter band, it resonated enough that it moved the encoder slightly. Next time, I’ll plan to bring a portable external speaker (if you have any suggestions of good ones, let me know).

And here’s a QSOmap of the activation:

Click to enlarge.

Bioenno 3aH LiFePo battery

I should also add that I’m very pleased with my new Bioenno 3aH LiFePo 12V battery. You can see it in the photo above–it’s slim, lightweight, and very compact.

I purchased it during Bioenno’s Black Friday sale. I was a little concerned it might not have enough capacity to carry me through multiple activations–my other LiFePo batteries re 4.5 and 15 aH–but that does not seem to be the case at all! Not only did it provide nearly an hour of intense use on this activation, but it also powered three activations the previous day–all four activations on one charge! Brilliant!

Radio magic

As I mentioned in a previous post, this was one of those activations that reminded me of the magic of low-power radio. It was incredibly fun!

For all of those phone/SSB operators out there, I will eventually see how successful I can be doing a phone-only activation with the AX1 antenna. I’ll plan to make a video of it as well. I’ll need to plan this for a day when I have more time to spend on the air and at a site where I know I’ll have internet access to spot myself to the POTA network.  SSB isn’t quite as effective as CW when operating with a setup this modest. Still–it can be done! It just requires a little more patience. Please let me know if this sort of thing would interest you.

Until then, Happy New Year and 73s to everyone!

Cheers,

Thomas (K4SWL)

15 thoughts on “POTA Field Report: Pairing the Elecraft KX3 with the AX1 antenna and seeking distant stations”

  1. I would definitely be interested in seeing an SSB activation with this setup, particularly this antenna. Great post!

  2. Hey, that was an interesting post – thank you. I tried the AX-1 in a TERRIBLE location and with just 2.5W on my FT-818 just for fun and was amazed to find I’d achieved 240 miles per watt (SSB) contacts!

    I can’t wait to try it from an elevated position on my KX3 and IC-705. It’s a magical little antenna!

  3. For those of you that the price of AX1 is a little out of reach for, have a look at the DS1 from Qrp guys.com. I bought their kit including the 40m add on coil and it works great. You can build these yourself from the ground up but I believe is supporting those guys because they are so focused on QRP stuff and I suspect this raises money for their club. The first contact with my DS1 was to Belgium with the KX3. I’ve also has many respectable rag chews from Pennsylvania to Florida with the antenna. Granted the KX3 puts out 10-13w but it’s mind boggling to look over and see about a 30 some inch antenna on a tripod and working stations 800 miles away. I have experimented with a longer counterpoise than they recommend which seems to help it tune better. SWR is always 1.5:1 or less. I tune it with a RigExpert analyzer to the middle of either band and use a tuner across the band.

    Granted the DS1 is made out of Pex tubing from your local home store but it’s the exact same concept as the AX1 at a fraction of the price.

    https://qrpguys.com/ds1-antenna

    Curt

  4. It would be great to watch a SSB POTA activation video to compare it with what the CW activations are like. Looking forward to it!

  5. Tom, First let me say I am one liking your full length un-edited videos….

    I learn a lot about your antennas, radios, and other equipment (example: I purchased the Maxexpedition bag used for AX1/AXE1 after seeing your video using it with KX2…and I just ordered the CWMorse Pocket Double Paddle key)….and I really enjoy the park information, workflow, etc. In short, I like them!

    I recall the thankfulness I had when I ran into John, K3JH and Glen AB3TQ (SK) who took me under their wing to get me started on SOTA with all the intricacies of planning, setup, activating, etc. We would typically need 2-3 hour 1-way drive to get to summits in Pennsylvania from Delaware.

    I find your full-length videos similar….teaching me the steps for POTA activations…

    I am learning Morse Code….and I think a video about your learning the code would be great…including method/software tools used, how you built up your speed, head copying skills, logging, etc.

    A couple of questions:

    I would have thought you could have attached both counterpoises wires initially for the AX1/AXE1 (or any antenna) vs. one at a time for each band??

    I am curious if you would prefer a Mag Loop vs. the AX1/AXE1 for a more effective performance antenna….yet still “RADAR-ish” for quick set-up activations? Or is it a factor of wanting a complete activation without necessarily having a ton of more chasers…e.g., a time factor? Also, I am guessing that the AX1/AXE1 has less setup time given the general need for a tripod and capacitor tuning with the mag loop, plus it is so much smaller…less to carry???

    Finally I assume you found the frequency “LOCK” long-press button process? (To lock it, hold the KHZ switch in for about 3 seconds. You’ll hear a beep if switch tones are enabled (MENU:SW TONE), and a lock icon will appear above the “A” on the LCD. Long press KHZ switch to un-lock). I use it all the time because I’ve found I prefer to stand-up during a SOTA activations (I use a repurposed camera strap attached to my Side-KX plates….and accidental bumping of the VFO would drive me a little nuts during a QSO logging workflow).

    Thanks again for your videos!!!

    73, Jim / AC3B

    1. Hi, Jim,

      Thank you so much for the kind compliments and thank you for the suggestion about making a video about learning CW.

      To answer your questions:

      I would have thought you could have attached both counterpoises wires initially for the AX1/AXE1 (or any antenna) vs. one at a time for each band??

      Yes, most likely so. In fact, once a counterpoise is on the ground, it matters much less about length, etc. With that said, for 40M, I find I need that full length of the 40M counterpoise.

      I am curious if you would prefer a Mag Loop vs. the AX1/AXE1 for a more effective performance antenna….yet still “RADAR-ish” for quick set-up activations? Or is it a factor of wanting a complete activation without necessarily having a ton of more chasers…e.g., a time factor? Also, I am guessing that the AX1/AXE1 has less setup time given the general need for a tripod and capacitor tuning with the mag loop, plus it is so much smaller…less to carry???

      I like mag loops and will soon be evaluating a Chameleon loop antenna. For those rapid deployments, the AX1 is hard to beat for CW activations. Otherwise, a portable, self-supporting vertical like the CHA MPAS Lite or MPAS 2.0, or the Wolf River Coils TIA is hard to beat. It’s true that if you have a goal to hit a load of parks in one day, pile-ups aren’t necessarily your friend because they make activations last longer. Still, I can never leave a string of hunters hanging and only when I’m forced to leave due to time constraints do I leave with people still calling.

      Finally I assume you found the frequency “LOCK” long-press button process? (To lock it, hold the KHZ switch in for about 3 seconds. You’ll hear a beep if switch tones are enabled (MENU:SW TONE), and a lock icon will appear above the “A” on the LCD. Long press KHZ switch to un-lock). I use it all the time because I’ve found I prefer to stand-up during a SOTA activations (I use a repurposed camera strap attached to my Side-KX plates….and accidental bumping of the VFO would drive me a little nuts during a QSO logging workflow).

      I did! Thank you. So in truth, I’m a terribly multi-tasker. When recording a video of an activation, and logging to paper and my tablet, I get a bit flustered and can’t remember the most obvious things. 🙂 I won’t forget the lock now. Also, I’ll change the freq steps from rapid back to normal tuning. 🙂

      Thanks again, OM!
      Thomas
      K4SWL

  6. A very nice little GREAT antenna…. With my kx3 ssb 15 w and AX1 antenna I made a qso from Geneva Switzerland to Brasil…….. Very nice result. 73 qro HB9GUR

  7. Hi Thomas

    I am having problems with my AX1+AXE at 40m.

    Is you combination resonant at 40m without a tuner ?
    Mine is not resonant within the 40m band and that surprises me.
    Best SWR in band, without the KX3 tuner, is 10.95:1 which again surprises me.

    Thanks

    1. Hi, Robert,

      The AX1 requires an ATU to match everything but 20 meters. Here’s what the operator’s guide says:

      The Elecraft AX1 is a compact telescoping whip that disassembles into 6” (15 cm) pieces, so it will fit into small “grab & go” bags… or your back pocket. On the basic unit, a two-position switch selects 20 meters (resonant) or 17/15 meters (a low-loss match can be achieved using an antenna tuner on both bands). The AXE1 Extender (pg. 7) adds 40 and 30 meter coverage (ATU required).

      I would definitely recommend reading through the manual on this antenna:
      https://ftp.elecraft.com/AX1/Manuals%20Downloads/E740330-C3,%20AX1%20owner's%20manual.pdf

      Hope this helps!
      Cheers,
      Thomas

  8. I have followed the manual most carefully and followed it to the letter including elevating the counterpoise. I must admit I read the lines you referred to as meaning a matching unit is needed on 30m not 40m; which would be fair enough.
    I can’t get my brain around, why would Elecraft make a specific coil for 40m and NOT have it resonant in the 40m band?
    Irrespective … even with the KX3 “tuner” it works on 20m but not 40m.

    1. Hi, Robert,

      I completely understand. In my case, I overlooked the fact that 20 meters could be resonant on 20M before doing my first activation.

      So I’m not an antenna expect, but my guess is that Elecraft designed the AX1 to be paired with one of their radios sporting the built-in ATU. I’m also guessing they were trying to keep the 40M coil as short as possible to keep the segment pocket sized. The compromise may have been that the coil simply gets the 40 meter match to within the ATU range.

      I have had no problems using the AX1 so far and have yet to actually elevate the counterpoise. I’m sure that would help my signal in no small way on the 40m band.

      I’m not sure why you can’t get a match on 40.

      Cheers,
      Thomas

  9. Great little BIG antenna. I made a qso from Geneva, Switzerland to Brasil with my KX3 15 w ssb… very happy with. 73 qro HB9GUR

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