When I head out the door to activate a summit, if it involves a long hike, I reach for one of my super compact QRP transceivers like the Mountain Topper MTR-3B, Elecraft KX1, or KX2. If you’re carrying your entire station and all of your hiking provisions in your backpack, it’s best to keep the load as light and compact as possible.
I purchased the single-band QRP Labs QCX-Mini last year specifically with Summits On The Air (SOTA) in mind. My QCX-Mini is built for 20 meters which tends to be my most productive SOTA band.
The QCX Mini has a rugged, utilitarian feel: basic controls, two line backlit LCD display, and a sturdy aluminum enclosure. It’s super compact.
One of the first things I did was build a dedicated field kit around the QCX-Mini. Everything–save my throw line–fits in my Spec-Ops Op Orders pouch:
After the QCX-Mini’s insane debut on Mount Mitchell in November, I was eager to hit the field with it again.
A window of opportunity opened on the morning of Thursday, December 9, 2021, so I packed my new Spec-Ops EDC backpack with the QCX-Mini kit and drove 1.5 hours to Flat Top Mountain off of the Blue Ridge Parkway near Blowing Rock, North Carolina.
The drive to Flat Top was amazing. Fortunately for me, one long section of the Blue Ridge Parkway was still open and because it was essentially a dead-end road (with one end blocked) I might have passed three other cars in 20 miles of driving. It was absolutely brilliant!
Second time’s the charm?
You might (or might not) recall that I attempted Flat Top Mountain in October, but winds were gusting too high that day for it to be safe. Anytime you plan to hike a summit and the wind at the trailhead is bending trees, dislodging dead branches, and pushing you around, you can bet it’ll be even more intense on the summit. The last thing I wanted to be hit in the head by a dead tree limb.
Although, it was a little gusty that Thursday morning, it was nothing like that day in October.
Flat Top Mountain (W4C/EM-026)
I parked at the Moses Cone Memorial Park at BRP milepost 294. I had the whole parking lot to myself that chilly morning.
The path to the Flat Top trail head was easy to find from the parking lot: simply make your way toward the Blue Ridge Parkway from the restroom area and walk under the stone bridge.
The elevation gain is very gradual and the 2.5 mile trail–all the way to the summit–is a carriage path. Unlike some other summits I’ve activated, there’s absolutely no guesswork nor bushwhacking involved.
If you’re new to SOTA and live in western North Carolina, this is a great beginner’s summit.
I was very tempted to climb the tower before my activation, but it was actually quite windy and 32F/0C on the summit. I wanted to deploy my station and get on the air before my body cooled down from the hike.
The winds were actually quite strong from the south, so I located a spot on the north side that was shielded by a grouping of rhododendrons. Wind can have a dramatic effect on your body temperature, so it’s always best to avoid it if you can.
I dropped my SOTA pack and started setting up!
- QRP Labs QCX-Mini (20M version)
- Spec-Ops Brand Op Order Pouch
- Packtenna Mini EFHW antenna & PackTenna 20′ RG-316 BNC/BNC
- Muji A6 Notepad and Koh-I-Noor .9 mm Mechanical Pencil (affiliate link)
- N0SA SOTA Paddle (note: no longer in production)
- Spec-Ops Brand T.H.E. Pack EDC
- Bioenno 3 aH (9V) LiFePo Battery (Model BLF-0903W)
- Ham Radio Workbench DC Distribution Panel
- Mini Arborist throw line kit: Tom Bihn Small Travel Tray, Marlow KF1050 Excel 2mm Throwline, and Weaver 8 or 10oz weight
- Rite In The Rain Weatherproof Cover/Pouch (affiliate link)
- Camera: OSMO Action Camera (affiliate link)
Since the QCX-Mini has no built-in speaker, I paired it with an Insignia brand speaker from Best Buy that I picked up during a “Black Friday” sale. I had tested the speaker at home and it did quite well, but turns out it had real issues in the field. At one point in the activation, I was once again forced to pull out my KX2 since the speaker kept shutting down. Perhaps the speaker battery just didn’t like the cold temps?
To be clear, if I hadn’t been making a video of the activation, I would have simply used earphones with the QCX-Mini for the duration and left the speaker at home. When I’m not recording an activation, I always use earphones anyway as they’re far superior for weak signal work and sound isolation.
Since this activation, I’ve purchased a Sony SR-XB12 speaker and have been very pleased with it. A big shout-out to Rhett (KB4HG) and a few others who suggested it!
On The Air
I started calling CQ SOTA and was almost immediately off to the races. I enjoyed a near-constant pileup on 20 meters for the entire activation.
In 43 minutes I worked 34 stations. This includes the time it took for me to break out the KX2 when my amplified speaker died.
I made a video of the entire activation, so if you’re interested to see how it played out, you can essentially do so essentially in real time. As always, this video is unedited, unscripted, and ad-free. Also, there’s no blooper roll because the video itself is the blooper roll!
Here’s how my roughly 3 watts into an EFHW plotted on a map:
PackTenna + QCX-Mini = Success
I’ll add here that I absolutely love pairing my PackTenna Mini EFHW with the QCX-Mini. As demonstrated in this activation and my previous one at Mount Mitchell, it obviously makes for a very potent SOTA combo.
Since the 20M EFHW is resonant, there’s no need for an ATU in the mix. In addition, the 20M EFHW is short enough that it could be supported by a telescoping mast or–if you’re not over the tree line–pretty much any short tree. Being an EFHW, the SWR is pretty forgiving even if the deployment isn’t ideal.
The PackTenna winder is also super compact so it easily fits in my QCX-Mini field pouch with room to spare.
I get a great deal of pleasure writing these activation reports and reliving the moment. I humbly hope you get some benefit from them as well.
I’d like to send a special thanks to those of you who have been 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.
Thank you for all of your kind comments and compliments. I really appreciate it.
Now let’s go out there and play radio!
Cheers & 73,
Woo hoo! Bonus Photos!
Congratulations for making it this far down the report! You deserve a reward. I took a few extra photos from the summit tower and on my way back down Flat Top Mountain. I hope you enjoy!
Flat Top Manor was built by in 1901 by Moses Cone who was a very successful local textile entrepreneur, conservationist and philanthropist. It’s so fitting that this beautiful bit of architecture and these expansive grounds (which includes no less than two SOTA summits) are now protected by the National Park Service for all to enjoy.