Choosing which radio to take on an activation…

Many thanks to Greg (K8KET) who writes:

With so many great radios in your livery, how do you decide which one to take with you on an activation? I mean, outings other than when you are reviewing a particular radio.

Do you just grab them in a rotation to keep operating features fresh in your mind? Or do the radios have “personalities” that you match to the type of trip you are taking them on?

Thank you for your question, Greg, because I’ll admit, this is a decision I make each and every time I go on an activation run. I’m absolutely spoiled by having access to some of (what I consider) to be the best portable transceivers out there. I’ve acquired the bulk of these in the past four years.

You essentially answered your question  for me.


The Mission RGO One pairs nicely with a Nacho Salad

I enjoy rotating through my transceivers, ATUs, and antennas because I love trying different pairings. Sometimes, I decide what radio to take on an activation by looking at previous field reports and then pick one I haven’t used recently.

This post reminds me that I need to take the IC-703 Plus out soon.

I love using gear in rotation because, as you suggest, it keeps their operating features fresh in my mind. It’s nice to be actively working stations in the field and not struggle with the rig to find filter adjustments, memory keying, keying speed, mic gain, RF gain, etc. With so many small radios having nested menus, using radios in rotation helps my rig feature “muscle memory.”

Site pairing

With that said, I will ignore rotation if I’m going to a site and know that one model of radio might give me an advantage over another.

If I’m going to a park and plan to do a picnic table activation, for example, any of my radios will work. These tend to be the times I try new antennas and new accessories because I can bring spare gear if something doesn’t work properly.

My KX2 often gets picked when I know I might be sitting on the ground for an activation. It allows me to have an entire radio shack on the end of my clipboard.

But, if I’m taking a long hike to my activations site–say for SOTA–I will grab a rig that’s more portable, with more built-in features, and pair it with antennas I know I can deploy on the summit.


You’re right, I do believe each radio has a personality and this will sometimes influence my choice. I’ve been known to anthropomorphize my radios and, yes, even name them. Don’t judge me!

Here’s how I would describe the personalities of some of my favorites:

  • Mountain Topper MTR-3B: Wee, fun, effective, and bare-bones yet nearly custom for CW field activations.
  • Elecraft KX1: An effective, impressively portable, and reliable CW companion.
  • Elecraft KX2: The bees knees for a portable HF operator. Always ready-to-go, never intimidated by site conditions, a proper super compact HF Swiss Army Knife.
  • Discovery TX-500: If Jeep or Land Rover made an HF rig, it would be the TX-500. It’s ready for any weather, packs great performance, and is incredibly fun to operate.
  • Icom IC-705: All the comforts of a shack-grade, wide range, multi-mode transceiver, packed into a QRP brick.
  • Yaesu FT-817ND: The Toyota sedan of portable transceivers. Super reliable, rugged, and capable.
  • Xiegu X5105: An unrefined, competent, and rugged field performer. It’s a lot like one of those dogs that’s so ugly, it’s kind of cute.
  • Mission RGO One: A low-noise champion that has contest-grade receiver characteristics.  I love this performer’s unassuming, simple design.
  • Elecraft KX3: An HF portable champion. The KX3 will handle the roughest, densest RF environment you can encounter with the optional roofing filter.  Possibly the best performing CW rig I own.

So there you go.

I do go through a bit of a selection process prior to each outing and, honestly, it has become part of the fun for me.

Less is more, too

“I might not be a ‘pretty’ radio, Thomas, but I’ve been snagging parks and summits as well as the others!”

With that said, I could easily get away with only owning one or two of the radios listed above. Indeed, for most of my ham radio life, I’ve only owned one or two HF radios.

I actually enjoy being “stuck” with one radio, in fact.

During a normal year, my family will often travel to Canada for the better part of two months. Before leaving, I try to choose only one radio to go with me and it must double as a ham radio transceiver and shortwave listening receiver. It’s fun spending so much time with only one radio and getting to know its features, nuances, and personality.

How about you?

How do you choose radios? Do you feel like your radios have personalities? Do you name your radios? Inquiring minds want to know–please comment!

17 thoughts on “Choosing which radio to take on an activation…”

    1. The Yaesu FT-817ND and Yaesu FT-818ND seem to be the picks of the litter (or stable). 2023 is nearly half gone and yet YAESU has yet to come up with a replacement for these machines.

      It seems used is next to impossible to find. At least in the USA. A self selected winner and they seem to be missing out. And I, at least, a wanna be customer pay the price. I can’t imagine it is a lack of parts that is keeping production stopped. WHY would you ever end production before you have the replacement product shipping? A shame. Strong tech but poor marketing?

      1. Yes hard to find a FT817/8. I have one, bought new in early 2000s, have added the Collins CW filter, on my 3rd PA. I think Yaesu has looked at the QRP market and it would take a lot to develop a replacement and then only have a rig that has little advantage. When the FT817 came out there were few good QRP rigs so it was alone. Did take some time for QRP to take off, few did it. I think POTA from ARRL in 2014 really sparked the QRP interest. So much has changed for QRP and lots of rigs to choose from. So Yaesu might be thinking why spend all that effort to make a new rig with all the competition. FT819 with IF DSP and tunable IF filters and built in tuner, but others now do, Xiegu G90 & X6100. I dont think Yaesu could do for those prices, but Icom’s IC705 at twice the price seems to be working for them. 73, ron, n9ee

    1. The X6100 looks like very nice rig, similar to the Russian lab599 Discovery TX-500 QRP transceiver . But have not seen pricing for the X6100. I bet over $800.

      1. Yes good this news to choose a QRP radio. However, why don’t you speak about Yaesu FT-818ND witch replace FT-817ND? isn’t it better? Otherwise, in Xiegu, the X6100 after the X5105 ;-). Have you got a table of comparaison (advantages/inconvenients) between this QRP on the market? Thanks.

        1. Fablola, yes a table would be excellent idea.

          As for FT818 it is very much the same as the FT817, 818 has 6W output vs 5W for 817. Not much difference other than that. But is excellent QRP rig, just is old tech, no DSP (has option for AF DSP that is useless) and need to buy IF filters for like CW.

  1. I say choose the radio you have. Do some planning, try to get up a good antenna, but this also is use what you have.

    For QRP activation or just having fun in a park or where ever one can do well with many different radios. Even a Pixie on a few AA batteries with a end fed.

    If the activation you do are much more fun then maybe consider a better rig and antenna, but plan. No need for a full Field Day station with 2kW generator, 100W rig and tri-band beam at 40 ft. My plan and design is being able to get my set up up in 15-30 minutes, but do want a good rig and antenna that can be configured to be easy and quick if you plan it right.

  2. I agree. I own a KX2, KX3, and the IC-705 and I do find myself reaching for the KX2 most of the time. As of late, I have been having issues in my area with QRM so I have been using the KX3 a lot. The IC-705 I have been using mainly to explore digital modes.

    I would be interested in hearing your views on antennas.

    Bill Cosgrave

    1. For parks and other QRP in the wild events I use a 40m OCF dipole with 20 ft portable flag pole (comes down to about 5 ft for transport) with umbrella stake to hold it. I use small #24 wire that allows for each and quick installation. It works on 10, 20 & 40m. I have also used couple HamStick back to back as dipole. Works ok. Have same for 40m, but really not very efficient.

      My main reasoning with antenna for QRP outings is get one that performs rather well, but easy and quick to put up and take down. I’m only at an event for 4-5 hours so dont want to spend a lot of time.

      I want to try a end-fed. So many use these. From what I have read performance is determined by length, need to make the length right for the band you want to use.

      One question on the KX3. I have friend with one and we were out and tuning a CW stations. He hit a button on the rig that really cleared up the signal. Dont think it was a narrow filter as can be done with KX3, but seemed to be some source of DSP feature. Can you tell me about it.

  3. My smallest radio is a Small Wonders DSW-20 but do have to attach a battery, paddles and a resonant 20 meter dipole. It all packs in a lunch box size case. BUT it is limited to one band.

    My next most portable is a YouKits 4 band QRP rig which came with an OCF dipole so a tuner was not required.

    The radio that got me started in POTA is an Elecraft K1 with 20m and 40m and had a good ATU and speaker.

    Most recently the Icom 705 with an LDG Z100Plus Tuner and an MFJ 1984 antenna that does everything and is my favorite because of Tom’s Videos.

    All are fun to play radio in the field.

    NO, my radios don’t have names.

  4. I’m still new to QRP but have a KX1, HB1B and recently got a used SW-3B (man that’s tiny). This weekend I will finally get around to finishing up my homebrew 20/30/40 linked dipole and hopefully test it out. Thanks for all the content so I can live vicariously through your adventures and plan mine. No names yet for radios, but I could get there soon…

  5. “Ugly dog”…. Indeed! It’s loyal though. ?
    You need to add the QCX mini to that little lot. When properly built and adjusted, it’s a fantastic radio and surprisingly capable.

  6. If I am in a park I’ll try and take my KX2. If I’m backpacking it’s gonna be the MTR3. That’s just a tiny, lightweight rig that works great. Do you use the same key or switch with radios? Obviously the KX2 has one.

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