POTA in the Dark: Problem solving as the sun sets and the clock is ticking on my UTC day

Have you ever had an activation that didn’t quite go to plan?

Yeah. Me too.

Truth is, it’s just the nature of field radio that things sometimes break, behave erratically, and/or some key component goes missing. When you’re lugging your gear around in a pack and deploying it outdoors in a wide variety of settings it’s a much less “controlled” environment than, say, in the shack.

When a problem arises, you have to work that problem in the field to get on the air and complete the activation.

If you watch my activation videos, you’ll note that I try to include everything in them–including mistakes and mishaps.

Mishaps that lead to a failed activation happen less frequently than they did when I first got started in the world of field radio. Over the years, I’ve refined my field kit and made sure I’ve got the right spare components and tools to solve minor issues I might encounter.

That said, I felt like my activation attempt of Lake James State Park on Wednesday, October 5, 2022 was a total comedy of errors. It seemed like an extra layer of complication presented itself each step along the way as I tried to activate that park.

Lake James State Park (K-2739)

The plan was to leave my home around 17:15 local, arrive at the park around 18:00, set up my Icom IC-703 Plus, pair it with a 40 meter end-fed half-wave, hop on the air and work stations until about 19:00 (23:00 UTC) at the latest, then pack up and continue driving another hour to my final destination.

Here’s how it actually played out…

I had all of my bags packed and ready to go at 17:15, but as I was ready to leave, I discovered a plumbing leak under our kitchen sink. It required immediate attention (obviously) so I grabbed my tools, pulled everything out from under the kitchen sink, found the leak, and sorted out the issue. Thankfully, I had some spare plumbing parts at the house. This only delayed my departure about 30 minutes.

I arrived at Lake James around 18:30 and had the entire park to myself.

My real goal at the park was to take the Icom IC-703 Plus out for a little fresh air. It had been ages since I put it on the air in the field. The last time I tried to use it in the field, the internal keyer was tripping up due to a little RF coming back to the radio from my end-fed half-wave. This is a known issue with the Icom IC-703–it’s more sensitive to RF than any other radio I own.

This time, I planned to eliminate the RF with the inline common mode choke built into my Chameleon 50′ cable.

I grabbed my throw line, MM0OPX EFHW and had the antenna deployed in record time.

You can’t tell from the photos because my iPhone does a great job with low-light, but the sun was setting quickly even as I set up the IC-703. I knew I’d be finishing the activation in the dark, but I had a headlamp handy so wasn’t concerned (again, never leave home without a headlamp!).

I turned on the ‘703 and the 40 meter band was chock-full of signals. A very good sign!

Then I switched the 703’s meter to the SWR setting and sent a couple of dits on an open frequency to confirm a low SWR.

The SWR was off the charts poor, pegging the SWR meter at 9:1 (or worse?).


First thing I did was check the connections. My Chameleon coax has PL-259s on both ends which is great because the IC-703 has an SO-239 antenna port. I removed the cable from the ‘703, re-inserted it, then checked to make sure the connection was secure.

I then checked the antenna end of the feedline. The MM0OPX EFHW has a BNC connector (which I prefer) so to pair the Chameleon feedline, I used an SO-239 to male BNC adapter. I removed the adapter, reinserted it, connected it to the antenna and double checked that it was connected securely as well.

Back at the radio, I checked the SWR again and nothing had changed; very high SWR.

It then struck me that perhaps the ATU was engaged on the IC-703–I’m not as familiar with it as I am my other radios so perhaps the internal ATU wasn’t in bypass mode. I cycled the ATU, but again nothing changed.

Then I decided to see if the IC-703’s ATU could simply sort out the mismatch. I pressed the ATU button and…no…the ATU couldn’t find a match.

Again, my light was fading and my worry was that something was wrong with the IC-703. The coax was high-quality and in great shape, the connections were secure, my visual inspection checked out, and the MM0OPX EFHW is also very high quality antenna and I had only recently used it with amazing success. The antenna was also deployed beautifully. There was no other apparent reason for such a high SWR.

I packed up the IC-703 Plus and pulled out the only other radio I had in my pack: my new-to-me Elecraft KX1.

Meet Ingrid.

You might recall an article I posted yesterday noted that I acquired a second KX1 and named her Ingrid.

I pulled my KX1 out of the pack, hooked her up to the Chameleon coax line (using another SP-239 to BNC adapter), switched her to 40 meters and did a quick SWR check.

Ugh. The SWR was still very high.

I knew then it wasn’t the IC-703. The only logical thing to do was take my 50′ cable out of the picture and hook up a 20′ BNC-to-BNC RG-316 feedline.

As I disconnected the cable from the antenna, the wire radiator simply broke off the end of the matching unit.



I looked at the end of the radiator wire and it seemed it was holding on to the matching unit with only a couple strands of wire. This, no doubt, was the reason the antenna was doing a brilliant job receiving, but having a high SWR in transmit. This was all my fault, too. I hadn’t yet properly attached the radiator to the MM0OPX EFHW. I’d planned to crimp a connector and solder it to the radiator, but I kept forgetting to do that at the QTH.

I re-stripped the end of the radiator wire and secured it to the MM0OPX EFHW, re-attached my RG-316 cable, check the SWR on the KX1 and (yes!) a perfect, solid 1:1 match.

Everything was working perfectly–no doubt the poor radiator connection was the problem. The next day, however (and you’ll learn about this in a future field report), I discovered the main problem turned out to be a faulty SO-239 to BNC adapter.


By the time I sorted out the antenna problems and played musical chairs with my radios, the sun had set. It was dark.

It was so dark, I considered not making an activation video as I knew it would be very low quality. Then I realized that if I didn’t make a video, I’d likely never write a field report and share the experience of problem-solving the high SWR. I feel sharing this sort of thing might help others who run into similar situations in the field and serve as a reminder that…hey!…this happens to everyone at some point.

So I turned on the camera and started the video. Apologies in advance if you watch it because lighting is less than ideal. The camera struggled with the shifting light of my headlamp.

On The Air

Keep in mind that this was the first time I’d used this particular KX1 in the field. It had all of the settings the previous owner had used. I had such a short amount of time to complete this activation before the end of the UTC day (which would have pushed me into another separate activation of the same park) I decided to forego programming the CW messages memories.

I started calling CQ POTA and…WOW…a pileup ensued.

Evidently there were a lot of ops out there who had eaten their dinner and were ready to hunt POTA activators!

I worked sixteen stations in 18 minutes and called QRT only about 15 minutes before the end of the UTC day.


I still had a one hour drive ahead of me and needed to pack up my gear in the dark, so I kept the activation short. Had I been on time that day, I would have stayed on the air for an hour or more to work the pileup, but that time was eaten up with problem-solving.

Since my hand-written log were difficult to read in the video due to lighting, here’s a clean copy of my logs:

I’ll admit that my CW copying skills and my fist were not in top form that evening. You’ll hear numerous mistakes in my activation video. That’s okay, though, because we all make mistakes and, frankly, no one is there to judge you during an activation. It’s all about having fun and connecting with your over-the-air family.


Here’s what this 3 watt activation looked like when plotted out on a QSO Map:

Activation Video

Here’s my real-time, real-life video of the entire activation.  As with all of my videos, I don’t edit out any parts of the on-air activation time. In addition, I have monetization turned off on YouTube, although that doesn’t stop them from inserting ads before and after my videos.

Note that Patreon supporters can watch and even download this video 100% ad-free through Vimeo on my Patreon page:

Click here to view on YouTube.

The KX1 Logging Lamp Rocks!

One of the coolest features of the Elecraft KX1 is its built-in LED logging lamp.

I think it’s one of the most simple and genius things ever put on a field radio.

This little logging lamp made my activation so much easier as it adequately illuminated my log book. Although I had a headlamp, the logging lamp provided a consistent white light over the logs. It could really save an activation if an op forgot to bring extra lighting.

I wish Elecraft would have put a logging lamp on their KX2 which is otherwise a nearly perfect field radio.

Indeed, I wish all manufacturers put a logging lamp on their field radios. It’s such a simple, affordable, and meaningful addition.

No doubt, the logging lamp is yet another reason I love the KX1 so much.

I must say that Ingrid performed beautifully during her first field activation!

Thank you

Thank you for joining me on this rather dark activation.

I hope you enjoyed the field report and my activation video as much as I enjoyed creating them.

Of course, I’d also 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.

As I mentioned before, the Patreon platform connected to Vimeo make it possible for me to share videos that are not only 100% ad-free, but also downloadable for offline viewing. The Vimeo account also serves as a third backup for my video files.

Thank you so very much!

Cheers & 72,

Thomas (K4SWL)

9 thoughts on “POTA in the Dark: Problem solving as the sun sets and the clock is ticking on my UTC day”

  1. Thomas,

    Great article, I plan to watch the video too…

    RG316 is all I use now. Deploying a EFHW with the end tied to the tip of my 6m mast, leaned up against the branches of a well situated tree. Takes maybe five minutes.

    A good LED headlamp is also requisite. Check out the Petzl… it’s super small, and plenty adequate.

    1. I’ve almost completely adopted RG-316. The 50′ Chameleon cable is the only exception and I tend to use it when I deploy larger antennas or when the antenna needs to be at a distance from the operating site.

      I have a Petzl rechargeable headlamp that I absolutely love. I’ve purchased some for my wife and daughters, too.

  2. I can only echo the observation:

    the KX1 logging light rocks!

    and yes, that should ideally be something on every field radio.
    I’ve never used that feature (yet!), but I’ve always appreciated that it’s there!
    Congratulations on the successful activation ! The 16 stations in 18 minutes is impressive, too; a good rate even for a serious contest station!

  3. Awesome demonstration of POTA persistence! I am really happy to have made your log!

    Your after-dark activation reminds me of a hike at the end of December 2021. A friend and I completed two 2-fer activations along a 4-1/2 mile stretch of the K-4239 North Country Trail. We left around 2 pm, completed the first activation quickly in the open woods, then hiked to the second location, an Adirondack Shelter about 3 miles up the trail. We arrived at dusk, and by the time we finished it was full-on dark and snowing. That left a mile of unfamiliar, snow-covered trail to hike in the dark. Challenging, but memorable!

    1. Oh wow, Brian!

      Yes, that sort of situation is memorable but at the time quite nerve-wracking! It’s in times like those that one can really appreciate well-blazed trails.

      Thanks for hunting me that day, OM!

  4. My first SOTA activation was in the dark, and not on purpose. Times like these make for memorable trips.

    There’s plenty of room in the case of a Mountain Topper for a field light… could be a cool project.

  5. Excellent video and commentary as per your norm. I always learn something from you and will heed your advice. I hear you about an “off day”, very hard to predict and sometimes my hands just won’t do what I tell them and mistakes happen more frequently than usual. When that happens, I send an “AS” and take a break, turn down the speed a touch or better yet, switch to my straight key. I much prefer the straight key, but it is more work and can be more fatiguing when the pileup builds! Take care and thanks again.

  6. Hi Thomas,

    what a day, glad it worked out so well in the end!
    I like those QSO maps you use, where do they come from? And do you put the location in manually (probably not), or does this only work for hams registered on the POTA website or something..?

    73, Tobi

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

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