Dale’s solution for enhanced CW field ergonomics

Many thanks to Dale (N3HXZ) who shares the following guest post:

Ergonomics of Operating CW in the Field

by Dale (N3HXZ)

About a year ago I started getting active in Parks On The Air (POTA) and Summits On The Air (SOTA). I had always been an avid hiker and backpacker, and though I am getting up there in years (recently retired!) these amateur radio opportunities were just the medicine I needed to rekindle my passion for the outdoors and amateur radio.

Thanks to Thomas (K4SWL) and his blog post and videos I was able to quickly come up to speed on the basics and get out into the field for CW activations.  I quickly discovered that operating CW in the field is quite different from operating at home. The creature comforts of a good chair, a level and spacious operating table, and isolation from the weather makes for a great experience in the shack, but is not available in the field, especially if you are backpacking to your destination. My early activations were sitting on a rock, or the ground, and using only a clip board to mount my rig (Elecraft KX2), locate my CW paddle, and place a notepad to record QSO’s.

While simple, this operating setup poses problems. Attaining and maintaining a flat workspace is tough in the field in order to keep things from shifting or falling off the clipboard, especially if you are not firmly seated. There is not enough space to set your wrist in order to steady your CW operating, and the notebook pages can flap in the wind, or the wind can blow your logbook clear off the table while operating. I realized I needed to upgrade my mobile station!

I established some basic criteria for a mobile station that looks to optimize operating ergonomics;

  1. The station must fit into a backpack
  2. The station equipment must be lightweight
  3. A stool or seat should be high enough to provide a level lap as a base for a flat workspace
  4. The flat workspace should be skid proof so items don’t move and large enough to optimize CW operating (wrist on the workspace) and fit the rig and accessories.
  5. The operating hand should only be needed for CW and recording in the log book
  6. The non-operating hand should be free to steady the paddle, swat away bugs and other creatures, wave to passers-by, and grab the water bottle!
  7. The logbook should be secured

After a lot of trial and error, I settled on the following simple equipment

The Portal stool is tall by stool standards, measuring 20 inches from the ground to the seat. This enable your lap to be horizontal to the ground and thus provides a level environment for the workspace (I’m 5’-10” tall). The stool is sturdy, and it has a side netting to store food, mobile phone, etc. while you are operating. Also, it folds up and can be inverted and placed in an outside pocket of a backpack, secured by straps typically on the backpack. The stool weighs 4.5 lbs and can hold a weight of 225 lbs.

The workspace is the AboveTEK Portable Laptop Lap Desk. It fits comfortably on your lap. The top has a non-slip surface with a heat resistant layer that can draw heat away from your rig. The unit has a retractable left/right pad tray which is ideal to locate your logbook (up to 5” by 7”). The unit weighs 2 lbs and it can easily slip into the laptop slot found in most backpacks. There is enough room for a rig, portable tuner, or other equipment.

I was on a recent SOTA expedition to Seven Springs in western Pennsylvania (W3/PT-003). The pictures below show the mobile station in action. With the stool, my lap is level and hence the workspace is level. The rig easily fits on the surface along with the paddle leaving plenty of room to properly align your arm and wrist for optimal CW. I also have plenty of room for my mobile phone, which comes in handy for spotting when in range of a cell tower. The logbook is on the retractable tray to the right. I use a rubber band to secure the right edge of the logbook to the surface and to prevent wind from lifting the pages.

While you can never create the optimal workspace that you have in your shack, I have found that this simple arrangement approaches the ideal ergonomics required for field work.  At a total of 6 lbs, the stool and lap desk are well worth the weight in my backpack!



19 thoughts on “Dale’s solution for enhanced CW field ergonomics”

  1. I love this setup, Dale and realize your larger laptop board might make it easier to use some of my larger/wider field portable radios like the KX3 and TX-500. My kneeboard has become an essential part of my field kit, but since it’s designed around being super compact, it can’t hold my radios with a bit larger footprint. 

    I’m especially interested in the taller field stool. The field stool I use now is brilliant, but is very prone to tip over because the base isn’t terribly wide. In addition, it sits close to the ground, so my operating position isn’t ideal. I’m putting your taller stool in my Amazon cart!

    Thanks so much for sharing this guest post!

    1. Thanks Thomas for posting the article. I’m curious what other equipment activators use in the field to optimize their experience! Larger footprint rigs certainly have room on the laptop board. The taller stool is very comfortable and not prone to tipping over. Just be careful of low hanging branches as your backpacking since the stool stick up a bit off the backpack. I’ve snagged a few on my journeys!

  2. Dale, I love the setup and thanks for the links to the stool and lap desk. While I’m very impressed with your configuration I might want to add either a leg strap, or perhaps two Velcro tabs to my field pants, so that the desk will remain firmly attached to my old body when I’m swatting at bugs, waving at curious hikers, or have a brain cramp and stand up without thinking, hihi. Yes, I’ve done that! In any case, brilliant work and I hope to work you someday. 73 WD4EWZ

    1. Thanks Bob for your comments. The Velcro strips could certainly come in handy. With everything located on the laptop board, I have found it quite easy grab the board with both hands and stand up to shake out the cramps! Looking forward to working you as well someday.

  3. I always get inspired by posts such as these and the way hams organise themselves. I always struggle on summits particularly those that are exposed and under less than ideal conditions. Thanks for the pictures showing your setup. Particularly like the laptop table that I could adopt for my KX3 and note pad (still have to use paper and pencil). 73 de M0AZE Mike

  4. Thanks Mike for your comments. I had always struggled in the field with the notebook; constantly moving it around as I tried to juggle between operating and recording in the log. The laptop board solves the problem, it moves it away from the workspace and once placed, only needs to be touched to flip page! 73’s

  5. Dale, thanks for posting! That relatively large laptop board is counterintuitive to me for backbacking, but I see how it may be a big help integrating my new little Asus and the 705. Great idea and thanks again for sharing?

    1. Hi Scott,
      Yes, the laptop board is counterintuitive. It requires a backpack large enough to hold the board. But if you have a PC sleeve in your backpack it fits nicely and take up little room being as thin as it is. Thanks for your comments!

  6. Great post Dale! My POTA activation style is similar to yours: backpack portable, with the need for a field operating station. I tend to use a standard clip board for my desk, using the clip to hold my log book. I also tend toward a low operating position (sitting on a rise in the ground, or a fallen tree), and I find having my radio on the ground can be a benefit, because it frees up “desk” space. I hold the key in my off-hand while using my strong hand to hold the pencil and operate the key. In a luxury shack (when I took along a chair) I have used a legal-sized clipboard to give sufficient space to keep the radio on the “desk”. Best 73!

    1. Brian,
      Thanks for your comments! I am glad you posted details of your field operating station. One reason for posting this was to see how other activators create their own portable station. Best wishes and 73’s!

  7. I use the lounger fold out chair. It feels great to sit in. BUT at 6’ and 225 , it’s a nightmare to get out of. I kinda roll out of it the older I get. Less than ideal for sure. Great options here Dale. Finding a good chair that is lightweight is near impossible for me. I’ll try this one. Kx2 on clipboard with same paddle you use. I’m scrunched up for a bit. No way the 891 would handle this setup. I opt for the nearest picnic table for that one hehe.

  8. Off-topic but I just have to say – what a refreshing change to come to a website like this where the comments are full of ideas and suggestions all working toward a common goal, “doing more with less,” as opposed so many other sites – including a good number of ham pages – where courtesy is rare and snarkiness all-too-common.

    My next adventure is with the new X6100 packed in carry-on going “Hotel Portable” so I won’t need a lap desk yet but this certainly has me thinking about some new kit arrangements for the summer.

  9. I echo what others have said – thank you for sharing this information. I am a new ham assembling my equipment and have an opportunity to do some portable operating this summer. This post gives me something to consider though I have the Yaesu FT-891 as my radio and I think someone else commented this particular setup wouldn’t work for that. But knowing one’s options helps.

    1. The 891 is a bit bigger than some of the dedicated QRP radios but it’s a terrific HF rig – I have one – with enough capability to be a home station (that’s my set-up) but small enough to break down and take on the road if you like. Maybe not fanny-pack portable but still a very flexible platform. Especially for a new ham (welcome!) I think the 891 is a nice choice that offers choices.

  10. Great article.

    Although I am not into backpacking and hiking with my rig, the info is very good because sometimes we dont have access to a picnic table or shelter.

    One thing that would be good to add is some sort of attachment to the lap desk top so could attach to say a tree, make a table out of using a small tree. Bet could be easily done.

    I do have a small light table I often carry if I see I will not have access to a table. Have used a number of times for POTA events. But it would be rather large for a back pack.

    Always like seeing Hams come up with good ideas.

    73, ron, n9ee

  11. The lapdesk is cool, but I stole the SotaBeams idea some years ago and created my own “flight deck” lap or knee station, and I especially like that I can mount everything before leaving the house, and the entire kit skips into a padded backpack, fairly secure ready to go (unless I endo on my bike).

    In the pic (from 2014), I am using a youkits radio, but when that burned up, I replaced it with a KX1 I built shortly before Elecraft quit selling the kits. I added the built-in ATU, so no longer need the Elecraft TI, but obviously you can add anything. I swap out every component on the cutting board as I feel like using them (currently, a KX1 with stainless set of magnetic-base Chinese paddles). I think I originally used a drill bit and soldering iron to melt the holes, and rubber bands to hold down the gear, making everything pretty flexible. As an example, if I wanted to mount my battery pack, I’d just create new rubber band notches to accommodate. New key? New notches, etc. The rubber bands aren’t very elegant. I could buy ranger bands, or uniform-colored bands, but it really just has to function, right? The cutting board with equipment slips in and out of my backpack easily, and since starting to use some smaller EFHWs, the pack gets lighter and lighter.

    I have to figure out a jig to create the roughly u-shaped notches to be consistently the same size (and not slice my bands), as my holes look awful, but a little sanding after they have been drilled (or melted) and notches I create work fine.

    Nothing new here. Just my stolen idea. I hope you can see the pic linked below and that it adds to the convo.



  12. Excellent, thank you. As I work at getting all set up to do hiking and more POTA/SOTA work, this information is invaluable. It keeps me motivated. I have not done a SOTA yet, but plans are in the works, such as getting in better shape to hike up a mountain etc.
    I plan on using these ideas and incorporating them into my gear.
    Again thank you both.

    Fr Richard

    1. Richard, I’m so impressed with you making strides into the world of field radio. You’ve been steady, on-track, and you have the right spirit of curiosity! All wonderful things, my friend.

      The “in shape” thing? It’s a major motivation for me. I’m always needing to shed some weight, and it just so happens I love hiking and radio. Could there be a better match? 🙂

      Really hope to work you P2P or S2S this year!


  13. I have several setups, but still in a need of improving them. Every activation trip always teaches me that there is a lot to improve.

    1) Since I don’t have a shack-in-the-box like KX2 or X6100, there’s still too many cables, battery-rig-tuner-antenna, furthermore, headphones and key. This needs to be put together before the trip, since I don’t have much time and need to deploy fast. There’s also usually a bad weather, cold, rain, mist, dark, etc. It’s great to have a whole sunny afternoon, sitting in a shelter in a park, with table, where one can plug everything together. But this is almost never the case. Most often, I sit on a rock, cover my equipment against rain and wind. –> I now have a camera bag (small!) with IC-705, tuner, powerbank and all the stuff cabled together. Just open, unwind a piece of coax, attach to ANT and turn on the radio. My key has magnets, so I usually put some metal piece into some flat pocket of the bag and attach the key on it. Works quite well and I can have the bag almost closed when operating, so the radio is protected against getting wet.

    2) My current ultralight setup (based on Venus SW-3B + Elecraft T1 tuner) needs similar storage, where everything could be already cabled together. But I face another problem — in winter, temperatures way below 0°C, I need to protect the equipment against cold too. Thinking of some straps that would allow me to hang the battery and rig on my body under the jacket, so it could keep warm. Also, operating the key with frozen fingers in gloves makes no good, so probably the key needs to be under the jacket too. All this is still in an “idea phase”, but I think it’s necessary for winter operation, and looking forward to try that out.

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