My Motto? Less theory, more practice!

I don’t often read comments in ham radio forums and discussion groups. 

Recently, however, I was trying to dig up information on a field antenna design and the search results lead me to two articles and discussions on two of the most popular ham radio sites on the internet. 

I read through the comments and (you might have guessed) was really disappointed with the number trolls who seemed to thrive in that fertile environment. It blows my mind that discussions like these seem completely unmoderated. I assume it’s a conscious decision since we seem to live in a society that rewards drama and division–I assume this leads to more site traffic and thus more revenue.

It’s a shame. It would be incredibly discouraging to a new ham who is reading the same article and comments looking for ideas. Gives one the impression the hobby is full of (I’ll keep my language clean here) schmucks.

But I digress…

What was perhaps equally discouraging were all of the comments from those who were trying to explain to the authors how the antenna design in their article simply wouldn’t work.  Even when the author posted positive results/data from having used the antenna. 

While not all of the naysayers were being rude–and sometimes in their roundabout way I’m sure they felt they were being helpful–I can’t help but feel sorry for them.

The naysayers, that is.

Why? These are people who are afraid to experiment.

Less theory

I get comments like this on my YouTube channel and I don’t delete them if they’re courteous and respectful. (I do happily delete and block drive-by trolls!)

But quite often people will complain that, say, my portable vertical antenna simply can’t perform well without a proper radial field.  Or that my end-fed antenna doesn’t work without a dedicated counterpoise. Or that my speaker wire antenna is so inefficient “it’s like not having an antenna at all.” (From an email, true story.)

They’re not entirely wrong, but the funny part is, I’ll get these comments in videos and from field reports where I’ve had stellar activations.

In theory the antenna might not sound ideal…but in practice? Well, the results speak for themselves.

From an email: “Thomas, I’m sorry, but your speaker wire antenna doesn’t work. Stop promoting it. It’s like not having an antenna at all.” This is the QSO map from that activation.

I have ham friends who fall into this category of only worshiping at the alter of theory. 

They look at an antenna design or radio specifications, and what they see are all of the possible faults and inefficiencies. 

In almost every case, these are people who do very little operating in general and almost no operating in the field. It’s a little sad, but I think they fear hopping on the air with anything other than a textbook “perfect” radio and antenna system. 

More practice

My modus operandi is “try it.”

I’m not an engineer nor a technician. I’ve never formally studied radio or electronics other than what was needed to pass my Novice, Tech, General, and Extra ham radio license exams. 

Don’t get me wrong: I wish I had an engineering background because some of the people I admire the most on our planet are engineers. 

Instead, I tend to follow the doctrine of trial and error. 

In the case of antennas, for example, as long as I know I’m not going to do something that would harm my radios (or “let the smoke out”) I give it a go. Why not?

Theory and practice are both important, but keep in mind they don’t always line up.

Case in point: I’ve been experimenting recently with the super compact Elecraft AX1 antenna and, soon, the MFJ-1899T. 

In theory, the AX1 shouldn’t perform well and I’m sure it doesn’t compared with large aperture, higher-gain wire antennas.

In practice, however, it works incredibly well. One reader recently asked me, “When are you going to stop underestimating this antenna, Thomas?” FYI: I love that comment.

This might have a lot to do with where I live and being surrounded by a fairly high density of ham radio operators. Regardless, it works for me and has become a valuable tool in my field radio kit. 

My 28.5′ speaker wire antenna is in the same boat. It’s a simple random wire antenna with one counterpoise that relies on the impedance-matching abilities of an ATU to make the transceiver happy. 

It’s not terribly high gain, and it’s not resonant. Could it be more efficient? Oh heck yeah!

But at the end of the day, it works incredibly well. It’s easy to deploy, super cheap–you can even easily build it on-site! I’ve never had a failed activation with it, and I’ve even worked serious QRP DX.

Take that, theory!

Less theory, more practice!

This motto goes well beyond the realm of antennas.

If you’ve been studying and feel like you might just be able to pull off a CW activation? Go now and try! Don’t overthink it, just try!

What’s the worse-case scenario? You might have to send a lot of “?” and “QRS”–? Your fist might not sound as refined as a seasoned CW op? Who cares!?

Seriously: as a CW activator, I get excited when I hear an op who’s obviously struggling with a CW contact. They’re putting themselves out there and I’m proud of them! Frankly, it’s an honor to be one of the first stations they’ve ever worked and an opportunity to be a good CW ambassador. Embrace those initial CW sweats! 🙂 Go out there and try!

If you’ve been afraid to activate your first park or summit because you might not have the right antenna or radio? Use what you have!

Make sure you have a means of being spotted on the network, and just go play radio. Keep your expectations low and simply enjoy the experience. If you have trouble with the activation, use it as a learning opportunity: check your gear and connections, see if you were spotted on the POTA or SOTA networks, check the propagation from that day. Don’t be hard on yourself. You’ll soon sort out any issues.

I promise: your persistence and your trial and error will pay off!

Just try.

I hope this didn’t come off as a ranty soapbox, but in this world where so much information is gleaned from online sources and the most negative and abrasive people are rewarded with the most attention, I humbly suggest you ignore them and do your own thing.

Be kind to others and to yourself. Just give it a go!

As I’ve said so many times on this blog, I urge you to channel Admiral David Farragut:

“Damn the torpedoes, full steam ahead!”

Thank you & 73,

Thomas (K4SWL)

43 thoughts on “My Motto? Less theory, more practice!”

    1. Brilliant French saying ,

      I’ve tried everything, all sorts of mash ups around the world and again and again a long wire with a counterpoise or end fed as got me extraordinary SSB distances with 20 watts or less over 15000 Km – next a mag loop on a beach, hopefully V31 land will produce good results with a KX3 a palm tree and mag loop/end fed, just waiting on the license.

    2. I would agree with get out there and try it there in try it and more practice and less theory.

      One thing I do find though is a lot of people who aren’t really very good at measuring results.

      I see a lot of posts on threads where people made 2 contacts and call it a “great antenna!”

      That said the author of the article does a good job of using PSK reporter and presumably some of the other tools to actually truly evaluate results., but at the same time, without looking for perfection.

      Do get busy and throw an antenna in a tree and put a $50 vector network analyzer on it and see what it looks like and then make a change in trying it again.

      One thing I well remember after learning to use AV and a is simply shifting the Direction the feed line led away from the antenna and finding out that was what gave the antenna great Q aka very flat across the band, Instead of a steep notch in SWR that made it workable only in one spot on the band.

      It is definitely way too easy to get involved in EZNEC looking for perfection and never actually build it.

      I find too that too many hams these days are looking for the “one antenna that will do absolutely everything ” and be lightweight and portable and capable of doing any band anywhere.

      Not every antenna you build is going to be absolutely perfect but if it’s good enough on one band put up a second antenna for the other band it really doesn’t matter.

      As the author said get out there and play with it and all I would add is learn how to be scientific about it and measure actual real world results with enough data points to support your conclusion and don’t be afraid to use tools like the $50 VNA.

  1. I Agree Thomas.
    There is no substitute for ‘having a go’
    Running QRP, there’s little damage you can inflict on yourself even if you get stuff wrong.
    Experimenting with antennas is one of the few things we really have left to do in our hobby. It’s great fun and hugely rewarding when you get it to work.
    A couple of weeks ago I was out on a POTA activation here in SW France. Unusually 40m, 30m and 20m were hopeless on my QRPGuys 3-band vertical (It has about a 16 ft radiator) but when I tuned to 15M, it was buzzing.
    I substituted the 3-band matching unit for my 49:1 Unun and was rewarded with a 1:1 SWR and S9+ signals across the band.
    I had only constructed the UnUn a couple of weeks before.

    Keep on experimenting. It’s what this hobby is all about 🙂
    73
    Bruce G4ABX

  2. Just do it. I agree. I started CW after a 20 year hiatus. I was nervous at first and then made my first CW contact in 20 years. Since then I have made over 200 CW contacts (thank you Tom for a couple of them) and 2 CW activations. Am I good at CW? I’m okay, but with every contact I make, I get a little better. My skills got better, faster once I got on the air.

  3. I think you are on the right track, Thomas. Whether a given antenna is the “best” has a lot to do with a person’s goals for the outing. When I go out to do a SOTA or POTA activation my main goal is to enjoy being outdoors, make the required number of contacts for it to be a good activation, expend as little effort as possible to setup the station, and HAVE FUN.

  4. Great post, Thomas! I’m don’t think I’m a stupid person but antennas and antenna theory always gave me a headache. In fact, having the so called “right antenna” kept me from operating for a long time. This time around I’m using a 75’ long wire for my home station and experimenting with simple wire antennas when I’m portable with my KX2. I’m actually having fun and enjoy messing around with these highly compromised antennas and maybe even learning some theory in the process! Oh, and I love my AX1😊. NG8S

  5. This may be one of my favorite qrp’er articles. Every invention in history was somebody who took a chance. We’re not trying to figure out if Midway island is going to be attacked. No lives are on the line. It’s a hobby for me. Gets me out of the office. And cw is kinda like my guitar playing. My whole concentration is on what I’m doing.

    Anyway great article

    Mike AD8EV

  6. In the short time that I have been a ham radio operator I have observed that where you operate and the conditions under which
    you are operating, has as much, if not more, to do with your success than the technical specifications of the equipment you are using. Not trying to imply that technical considerations are not important, but they are only part of the equation. When evaluating new equipment purchases I tend view how people use the gear rather than get hung up over the technical specs. This is something I learned from my high school days when I was obsessed with stereo equipment (analogue turn tables, etc. Nothing digital back then)

  7. I agree with the “give it a try” philosophy. Where I used to live, my HF antenna was a wire loop in the loft. It was of indeterminate circumference (just laid around the perimeter of the loft) connected via a Balun of unknown ratio to a short length of old coax. Of course, many people told me it couldn’t possibly be any good!
    That antenna netted me 24 countries with 1 watt or less of SSB and a further 27 countries with 1 to 5 watts of SSB. Also I achieved the QRPARCI “1000 Miles Per Watt” awards for 40, 20, 17, 15, 12, 10, and 6m (yes, it worked on 6m!) all with 500mW of SSB.
    Not bad for an antenna that, according to the pundits, “can’t possibly be any good)….

  8. Reminds me of the old timer I grew up watching. He was a WWII radio man. He hardly ever got on the air. His antenna was never high enough, or large enough. 100 watts can’t work very far. Yet when he had a house guest from England the guy worked his buddies back home every morning with the trap dipole at 20 feet, a straight key and 50 watts.

    MI-QRP forever. K8JRO

  9. This post embodies everything I love about amateur radio! I thoroughly enjoy “doing more with less”, and it’s one way I have learned how to build the bigger, better ham radio widget.

    I have constantly been told mag loops suck, so I activated a park on a mag loop made from a 26″ bicycle wheel and the G90.

    I was told HF radio and handhelds are an oxymoron, so I made a video of a contact I made from CO to FL on my 5 watt X5105 with a homebrew base loaded 43″ antenna.

    People complain about activators using QRP and how they could do better for their activation and the hunters, so this weekend I successfully activated my park with a 3 watt Chinese SDR radio.

    The ones that really grind my gears (thanks Peter Griffin) are the ones that spend hundreds upon hundreds on a simple, basic portable antenna, and feel they have the best thing since sliced bread. I kind of feel sorry for these people, because in my mind they are getting ripped of. Yeah, it might look cool, and of course it will make contacts, but I bet 12 people could have shown you 12 different DIY antennas you could have made that will work as well OR BETTER. And you’d still have money left over!

    Most of my activations are with the FT-891 set to somewhere between 50 and 100 watts. But a lot of them are done with the KX2 at 10 watts. And sometimes, I’ll stare at all of them and just go “today is your day”, and just pick one out of the blue, and head to my park. That day, it might be 5 watts. I’m one of those “tell me I can’t, and I will” types. Experimenting is why I got into the hobby. I’ve made and used some pretty cool things. And I’ve made and tossed some pretty cool looking junk haha! I love this hobby, and I have no plans to stop doing more with less.

    Thanks for all the great blog posts Thomas. I don’t reply much, but I do enjoy all of them. Also, thank you for being a great CW ambassador. I’m a new CW op, and did my first CW activation earlier this year. I have you in my log at least once, need to make that a few more.

    Bob, W0BNC

  10. I’m so down with your comments. During the pandemic I built a 2m/70cm Moxon-Turnstile antenna for satellite work. Never experimented with antennas before due to some naysayers. The combo worked the way I wanted by picking up sats low on the horizon. After posting how well it performed for ME, a well known sat operator replied how ineffective my antenna was. I never responded. My intent was to pick up satellites from my QTH as they came from the west coast heading east; as I’d never been able to contact west coast operators. Albeit, it gave me 3 minutes of QSO time, that’s all I needed. My thought then & now. is why do golfers need to carry 14 clubs if they only use some occasionally. I feel the same with that antenna setup.

  11. One of the BEST articles to encourage amateur radio operators to get out there and TRY IT. We learn from mistakes and trying again will always lead to a discovery of acquired knowledge.

  12. Thank you Thomas and all the commenters’.

    This is a hobby and fun, even if I’m not sure what will work.

    73
    Wb8yxf

  13. Although one starts with theory, cannot just throw something up without some means to start, practice is fun. I like theory, I like understanding how things work, but also like seeing the theory put into practice to see how well it works. Most that criticize practice are those they really dont understand the theory.

    If you dont try you will not succeed from my list of quotes.

    Some thoughts for those that say no way.
    All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveler is unaware. Martin Buber
    Do what you can, with what you have, where you are. Squire Bill Widener
    Experience is the name everyone gives to their mistakes. Oscar Wilde
    Progress is not possible without deviation. Frank Zappa
    A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. Lao Tzu
    The most effective way to do it, is to do it. Amelia Earhart
    The greater the difficulty, the more the glory in surmounting it. Epicurus
    Sometimes you win, sometimes you learn. John Maxwell
    It’s kind of fun to do the impossible. Walt Disney
    Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go. T.S. Eliot
    The scariest moment is always just before you start. Stephen King
    Never be limited by other people’s limited imaginations.Mae Jemison
    People waste their time pondering whether a glass is half empty or half full. Me, I just drink whatever’s in the glass. — Sophia (Estelle Getty)
    When someone tells me “no,” it doesn’t mean I can’t do it, it simply means I can’t do it with them. — Karen E. Quinones Miller
    Take the first step in faith. You don’t have to see the whole staircase, just take the first step. — Martin Luther King Jr.

    1. my Favorite is from Richard Feynman:

      “It doesn’t matter how beautiful your theory is, it doesn’t matter how smart you are. If it doesn’t agree with experiment, it’s wrong.”

      I appreciate both groups, the theorists keep the experimenters from going full on “black magic”, and the experimenters actually build something. Both have their place…

  14. Sowing division and drama, eh? Kind of sounds like what you are doing.

    Plenty to learn from practice, and plenty of downright-silly practical mistakes that can be easily avoided with a little theory knowledge. I shy away from anyone who thinks they have all the answers. “This antenna is fantastic, look at my DXCC” is just as dumb as “That antenna won’t work, don’t bother even trying.” Remember the bed-spring challenge. You can make contacts with virtually nothing. That’s a lesson for both sides of the drama.

    I would recommend an interested ham buy a big roll of wire, and some torroids, and build all the common balun transformer ratios, and experiment. Learn how the different wire configurations are supposed to work, given the theory, and how they work in practice as well. If you don’t know some theory, you won’t be able to interpret the data intelligently, and if you only have the theory, you have no data!

    1. Interesting. So again, my point is “less theory, more practice.” Not “all practice, no theory.” If encouraging others to go out there and play radio, build stuff, try stuff, and experiment is divisive and dramatic, then paint me guilty OM! 🙂

  15. Great article Tom.
    I forget so easily how important it is to fail at something every day for growth. (Stress-Recovery-Adaptation)

  16. These are amazing comments–and spoken like true Elmers–thank you for sharing them. 🙂

    Cheers,
    Thomas

  17. nothing ventured, nothing gained…

    ‘put up 1st ever efhw, over weekend, after bit of trimming and random length counterpoise connection to chain link fence, success on all bands including working a POTA activator in NW IN 20m !

    Now I need to play with different wire orientations

    72s de Randy, k8zfj

  18. In the IT business I’ve been in for many (too many) decades, we say: “In Theory, there is no difference between “in Theory and in Practice” but in Practice there is usually a lot of difference, and that’s OK.”

    Yes, go try it… QRP… barefoot… QRO, Builds, Antennas, CW, Digital, Voice, Video, Images, invent your own… whatever is legal. It is a VAST hobby. My favorite answer is “D: All of the above.”

  19. Great article Thomas.

    Two years ago I sold my FT-817 after owning it since 2001 and in that time never really used it as I didn’t think the 5 watts would be good enough as small antennas were compromises and it would be a waste of effort. Too much theory and not enough practice….

    Having stumbled across your youtube channel I have seen the success you have with, what you freely admit, are compromise antennas. But you have a lot of fun and success along the way.

    I need to flip to more practice and less pontificating, as other commentators have said mistakes can be as valuable as success.

    Anyway really enjoying the activation films and reading articles on this website as it is a great source of information.

  20. according to some very educated folks, it should not be possible for the bumble bee to fly, yet it goes right on flying, totally ignorant of the discussion about it. back in the early days of ham radio, it was a new frontier, and cut and try and experimentation was all they had, until some really brilliant folks like edwin howard armstrong came along to explain not only the how, but the why as well.

  21. I was told my qrp setup working from my car using ham sticks was a severely compromised station. I just completed my 200th contact on that station with 4 POTA activations.

  22. This. 100% this. This is how I approach most things in life, not just ham radio and more often than not it works out. And when it doesn’t I learn from my mistakes and try again. Excellent article, thank you for writing this!

  23. All this talk about experimenting and some seat of the pants wire works has got me fired up. I got a license last year and picked up a wad of gear but really haven’t put much effort into using the wire antennas or even the 2m yagi I built from old TV antenna parts. I am motivated by all this “just give it a go” attitude. I Will be getting my act in order to give it a go soon and I plan for a winter of QSO’s. Thanks for a great article, Tom. Joe G.

  24. Great write up. I am trying to get my code speed back after passing 20 wpm many years ago. Love watching your videos of the activations. Guess I need to get that keyed purchased and get out there and operate. Thanks for the words of encouragement.
    de WOHL

  25. I like to refer to my “Ruby Slippers” theory of QRP: If you believe it will work then it will. Oh, and it’s “obvious” that the AX1 will not work at all; that’s why I called Electaft and asked them to add one to my KX2 order — after seeing how much success you’ve had with it. 😉

    1. Ha ha ha! I love it! The “Ruby Slippers theory of QRP!”

      I still think the AX1 might be powered by witchcraft!

      1. This morning I put on my Ruby Slippers and went outside with my new KX2 and AX1 (and AXT1 and AXE1). I no sooner turned the rig on than I worked a station on 20m SSB. We had a nice ten minute chat. Then a went down to 20m CW and worked an OX3 station. Then I mounted the AXE1 and verified that I could get a good match, but it was too chilly (35 degrees) to do any more. (I had been so anxious to get out that I hadn’t put on a coat or hat.) I guess it works. 😉 (You can see pix on the KX2 FB Group.)

  26. Well, looks like you hit some spot with this topic! Again, right up my alley, and I agree with all the comments. We all know these discussions on-line and on-air. Congratulations on all the contacts you made without an antenna BTW. 🙂

  27. Thank you for this article. I came to this hobby about 6 years ago as an absolute beginner. I had a field biology background. No electronics, no physics, no nothing. I read the ARRL manuals and got help from my club’s members to get set up. I took it from there.

    With some questions, I have been gigantically plastered with theory over the years with less “go for it” guidance and consequently I am left with the feeling that I have to be very careful, using only vetted methods (hopefully with appreciated, babying guidance by a friend alongside (not possible these 20 past months)) so I don’t blow anything up — like my precious new KX2 or my face.

    I just really appreciate this piece. Thanks.

    1. This all reminds me of the time many years ago that I was camping in the U P of Michigan and I had my Argonaut 509 transceiver sitting on the seat beside me and coax going to a 40 meter HUSTLER mast and coil on the rear bumper. I was listening to a lower side band station in Chicago calling “CQ 40” while watching the waves on Lake Superior. I finally answered him and he gave me a 59 report. He asked me what I was running and I told him “a Ten-Tec Argonaut.” He was not familiar with the radio and finally asked me how much power I was running. “Five watts PEP input” I answered and he suddenly could not hear me well and went QRT.

  28. First of all, I have some kind of background on electronics, and I love reading about antennas and making them for years. This said, last sunday I was on an SOTA activation, using a non-resonant end fed dipole. I certain moment, the SWR ratio went up. I didn’t see any matter, so I pressed the tune button again and followed with it. A few minutes later worked a fellow ZL chaser. The I noticed that one side of the dipole was hunging…

  29. Hello Again,

    THEORY IS:

    We understand everything and nothing Works!

    PRATICING:

    It is when everything works and we don’t know why!!

    HERE:

    Sometimes we succeed to both: and nothing works and nobody knows why!!!

    Have a nice week-end all, see you on the bands

    73 Mike VE2TH The QRP’er

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.