W4 SOTA Campout, extra long hikes, and my headlamp is definitely my safety blanket

This past weekend (October 15-17, 2021) I was off-grid and offline…but not off the air.

It was bliss.

I joined the W4 SOTA Campout–a group of Summits On The Air (SOTA) activators and chasers primarily from the Southeast US–in Nantahala National Forest at Standing Indian Campground. Due to my schedule, I was only there two nights, but it made for a  great weekend reset.

I have no activation videos from the weekend (save one short video for Patreon) so thought I’d share a few memories, thoughts and photos from the weekend in a post.

Bumpy start

Due to some last minute drama from our vacation rental guest, I was quite distracted as I left the QTH on Friday at noon. So distracted, I left my main SOTA pack (above) sitting next to our back door. I didn’t realize I left the pack behind until I reached the campground–some two hours away from home.

It’s rare that I do this sort of thing, so when it does happen it can be really frustrating. I didn’t allow that to happen though; I simply used it as an opportunity to adapt and improvise!

Fortunately, I did bring my lab599 Discovery TX-500 and Xiegu X5105 field kits. Once I set up my (circa 1995) tent, I deployed up the Xiegu X5105 and speaker wire antenna on the picnic table at my campsite.

Fortunately, the campground is located in the middle of Nantahala National Forest (K-4509), so anytime I played radio at the campsite, it was a park activation!

Knowing there would be no internet or cell service at the campsite, I scheduled an activation of K-4509 lasting from Friday noon until Sunday noon. Anytime I hopped on the air–in theory–and called CQ, the Reverse Beacon Network would find me, and the POTA website would scrape my details from the RBN and auto-spot me.

I’m very pleased I did this in advance because my other fail-safe–my Garmin In-Reach Mini satellite messenger–was back at the QTH safely packed in my SOTA bag. I would not be using it to ask for a spot from my friends.

Friday evening, I was invited to join some of the W4 SOTA campers at a brewery in Franklin, NC, but I politely declined. It’s so rare I have have an evening completely to myself, I wanted to savor the moment.

That afternoon and evening, I operated POTA, listened to my Tecsun PL-330 shortwave portable, and enjoyed one of my favorite adult beverages (Highland Oatmeal Porter). I kept dinner simple too–I boiled some water in my Kelly Kettle and made a pack of Mountain House Chicken and Dumplings.

I hit the sack early and started reading Foundation by Isaac Asimov. I finished a few chapters before nodding off.

Saturday

My goal Saturday morning (in the rain) was to piece together a SOTA kit around my TX-500. Although the TX-500 kit is completely self-contained in my Red Oxx Micro Manager bag, for a long hike I prefer a backpack over a bag I sling over my shoulder.

Fortunately, I keep an ultralight Tom Bihn Daylight Backpack in my car that I use as an emergency backpack. It easily held the TX-500 kit along with water and other hiking provisions.

I got a somewhat late start hiking because I needed to run into town for mobile phone service because I needed to connect with my wife about our guest.

By the time I packed my improvised SOTA pack, it was about 9:45AM. I decided to hit what I assumed was one of the easier SOTA summits in the area: Standing Indian (W4C/WM-014).

Standing Indian had a number of trailheads and access points since the Appalachian Trail (AT) crosses over it. I knew that it was possible to hike from the campground to Standing Indian, but I couldn’t find the trailhead.

I inquired at the campground office at the same time as two other hikers who were also seeking the same trailhead, so I ended up joining them (Patricia and Christie).

The long, long hike

The first 1.5 miles of the trail were not exactly easy. It was rocky/gnarly and quite wet from the heavy overnight and morning downpours. There were numerous creek crossings: a few with bridges, but most required jumping from rock to rock. Fortunately, my boots are waterproof!

At one point, we lost the trail and had to backtrack. This added a good mile or more to our hike. We took it all in stride, though, because it turned into a gorgeous day and the weather was near ideal after the front moved through.

Eventually, we made it to the intersection of the AT and followed it all the way to the summit of Standing Indian. At one point, we walked the ridge line to Standing Indian summit and were treated to 360 degree views.

It was stunning…

I thought that the summit of Standing Indian was a bald based on what another hiker told me the previous day. Turns out, it was not–well, the proper summit and activation zone were not, I do believe there was a bald somewhere nearby.

From left to right: Me, Christie, and Patricia.

Never leave home without an ATU

By the time we reached the summit, it was about 14:30 local and I didn’t want to hang around for long. We had a decent hike back to the campground on a new-to-us trail.

My hiking friends (Christie and Patricia) wanted to hear me play a little Morse Code, so instead of taking the (much easier) VHF path to activating the summit, I pulled out the Discovery TX-500, Elecraft T1, and my Chameleon CHA TDL.

I’d packed the Chameleon Tactical Delta loop believing we’d be hitting a bald summit and I wanted to test the TDL on 20 meters to see if it could achieve a DX take-off angle.

The true summit, however, was not a bald so I had to set up the TDL among trees.

As I deployed all of my radio gear, I attracted a mini crowd of hikers: three more day hikers, and two AT tru-hikers. I was distracted and made a big error: I assembled the CHA TDL components, and tried to drive the steel spike into the ground while talking with a hiker. But turns out I wasn’t driving the spike into the ground at all, I was driving one of the telescoping antennas into the ground!

I pulled the telescoping antenna out of the ground and discovered the tip broke and the top three sections were damaged–I couldn’t extend them. I was forcing it into rocky ground after all.

Undeterred, I deployed the lop-sided TDL, hit “TUNE” on the T1 ATU and got a 1:1 match on 20 meters.

The 20 band was incredibly quiet. I thought for sure I wasn’t receiving a thing since one side of my loop was completely compromised.

I started calling CQ and within a minute EA2IF answered with a 559 report (bless you, Guru!).

Spain. With a broken antenna and 5 watts of power.

I worked four more stations in rapid succession all in the 1 region of the US, then I powered off the radio before I could hear anyone else calling me. I had achieved a valid activation and packed up quickly: we had more miles to log before sunset!

We hit the return trail…

Headlamp = Safety Blanket

Having put together my impromptu SOTA backpack from components in my car, I knew I’d miss something important.

You might recall from my two-part field radio kit series–specifically Part 2–that I take my SOTA packs seriously because day hikers should carry certain emergency supplies just in case things don’t go according to plan.

Turns out, I forgot my headlamp.

This was a huge omission, in my opinion.

In the autumn, leaves pretty much cover the trails, so hikers rely on trail blazes more than they do in the spring or summer. Add a little darkness to the situation and it can get disorienting very quickly.

Although I knew if we hiked at a steady pace, we’d be back at the campground well before sunset, I worried what might happen if something went wrong; say, one of us broke an ankle.  The only flashlights we had were our smart phones and, while a nice fall-back option, they’re not nearly as good as a proper headlamp or flashlight.

I made a mental note to order new rechargeable headlamps for each of my daypacks so, no matter what, I’d have one when needed!

We arrived back at the campsite around 17:30 local having logged a total of 13.5 miles with 2,507 feet of elevation gain. That’s a long hike in my book.

Despite our little detour, forgetting my headlamp, and damaging my antenna, it was an absolutely amazing hike and SOTA activation.

Potluck

When I returned to my actual campsite post-hike, I found that my buddy, Monty (you might remember him from this activation) arrived and had already set up his tent.

Dean (K2JB)–one of the W4 SOTA Campout organizers–hosted a potluck at his campsite.  I didn’t have time to make prepare anything for the potluck prior to leaving the QTH, so Friday I stopped by the grocery store and picked up a couple twelve packs of local brew and some sliced cake.

Everyone brought contributions of food and drinks to the potluck, but Dean was the star as he made a number of insanely delicious dishes in his Lodge Dutch Ovens.

I wish I could convey the aroma of wood smoke from the camp fire combined with charcoal briquettes on the Dutch Ovens and Dean’s amazing stew, cornbread cake, and cherry cobbler.

It was a proper feast for all the senses.

Combine all of that with SOTA friends who enjoyed exchanging their stories, their ideas, tips, and laughs? It was proper bliss.

Monty and I left the potluck around 21:00 or so and lit another fire at the campsite. We sat up until the wee hours drinking oatmeal porter and enjoying the amazing night sky.

Sunday

Monty and I both woke up a bit later than normal (I wonder why?).

I made a pot of coffee with the Kelly Kettle, pulled out the Xiegu X5105 from its Red Oxx Hound pack and hit the air. Since I’d made a blanket activation announcement on the POTA website, it only took a couple of calls before I was spotted via the RBN.

I worked another 20 or 30 stations in CW.

Monty made some breakfast burritos and we enjoyed a little more time by the campfire as it was about 38F/3C or so that morning. We eventually packed up the tents and left the campsite leaving no trace at 12:00 (the latest possible check-out time)!

I don’t think either of us wanted to go back to the “real world” quite yet.

Time to plan another campout!

Thank you

Thank you for coming along with me on this report from my SOTA campout weekend.

I know of at least one or two QRPer readers that were at the W4 SOTA campout. It was so great connecting again in person.

Also a special thanks to those of you who are supporting the site and channel through Patreon and the Coffee Fund. While certainly not a requirement–as my content will always be free–I really appreciate the support.

I’d love to hear if you’ve camped out recently or plan to do so int he near future. What radios will you take? Please comment!

73,

Thomas (K4SWL)

4 thoughts on “W4 SOTA Campout, extra long hikes, and my headlamp is definitely my safety blanket”

  1. This is certainly an argument for those otherwise gimmicky camera/sstv mics. I wonder if one of those could be made for the lab599 with a little RPi inside a mic…

  2. I’m actually sitting in a campsite now listening to the NL Playoffs…today I was with the Boy Scouts and using my backpacking rig. MTR3B and PAR EF 40-20-10. I take that one on every campout or backpacking trip. The scouts know that at least once a day I’m gonna set up and operate. They all get a kick out of hearing what stations I work. Thanks for a great write up and blog.

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