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 hike is what I would call “easy.”
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 only passed two hikers on my journey to the summit.
For the record: I prefer deer sightings over bear sightings.
You know you’re on the summit of Flat Top Mountain when you arrive at the observation tower.
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!
My hike ended where it started: Flat Top Manor at the Moses H. Cone Memorial Park.
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.
14 thoughts on “SOTA & POTA with the QRP Labs QCX-Mini and Packtenna EFHW on Flat Top Mountain”
Looks like a cool place.
My QCX Mini’s (40 and 20m) shipped today. Notification email showed them being shipped from Turkey. I was confused at first wondering what did I order from Turkey?
But a 2nd email was from qrp labs.
Now on to the vid
Yes, the QCX series is dispatched from Turkey. I received my QCX-Mini within a couple of weeks. There was a short hold-up in customs.
It’s been close to 2 months. Tracking is showing Monday del but we’ll see.
Also, that capacitance key from Russia showed up Wednesday. That was 50 days. It’s pretty neat. Works well
My key took 38 days, Russia -> Poland -> Burnaby, BC Canada (suburb of Vancouver). The last two weeks were spent in Canada, Customs or wherever. (No duty or tax was charged.) I let Eugene know when it finally arrived, and he replied within a few hours.
I don’t do CW so I can’t tell what your are sending. But when doing a combined SOTA and POTA activation how do you call CQ? Do you can CQ SOTA or CQ POTA? Alternate between them or what?
So I *tend* to call CQ SOTA more often on joint activations. That’s mainly because I do 1 to 2 summit activations for every 10 park activations. Frankly, SOTA activations are often so busy, I’m not calling CQ a lot. When it’s slow, however, and a joint park activation, I do rotate between CQ SOTA and CQ POTA.
There’s really no wrong way and chasers in both programs are used to hearing both CQs because joint park/summit activations aren’t terribly rare.
Great “blustery day” photos, Thomas!
Awesome place to visit it looks, got to find some time to head that way in a couple months. Thanks Thomas.
Great SOTA/POTA activation. I had no idea about the severe QRM. No wonder you did not get my call sign into the log.
The complete unedited video is the only way to watch an activation.
Hi Thomas, nice place and good activation (and nice pics too), just an idea, if you’ll get there again, consider bringing the CHA MPAS vertical and installing it up the tower (an elastic rope should help), I believe it may be an interesting experiment 😀 !
Oh yes–actually, I have the UCM clamp, so it would be easy to do. Someone else wrote suggesting the same thing! I may give this a go. It’ll all depend on the weather that day. That spot is very exposed so if it’s windy & cold, it could be difficult to do a video (it was impossible the day I was there). I’m planning to activate it again in 2 months, so we’ll see! 🙂
you may consider bringing a longer coax, so that you may operate from ground with the antenna up the tower 😀
I’m new to SOTA and want to do my first activation soon. I’ll wait for warmer WX! Hi! I notice you don’t send your summit number much (if at all). Is everyone seeing your activation spot and the info is there? Being a contested, doesn’t all your info have to go over the air? Thanks Tom. Good job
In SOTA, the only time you really should give your summit info is if you make a Summit-To-Summit exchange (S2S) or if someone asks. If you listen to SOTA contacts in CW, you’ll hear that they almost never give the summit designator. For one thing, it’s quite long, but almost all other chasers (save, perhaps, an S2S) will already have the designator from the spots page.
Good luck on your SOTA activation!