Testing a new Tufteln knee board and antenna during this beautiful SOTA activation on Mount Mitchell

On the morning of November 4th, I woke up with one thought on my mind: “I need to activate Mount Mitchell before it’s too late!”

It’s not like Mount Mitchell was going to disappear, but I knew I was already on borrowed time since the long section of the Blue Ridge Parkway I use to drive to Mount Mitchell from Asheville typically closes in the early part of November for weeks at a time. The park itself will close to guests too–in fact, last year, it closed its gates as I drove out of the park! There are often other roads open to Mitchell in the winter, but they’re very much out of the way for me and frankly, weather can shift and the park close at the drop of a hat.

As the crow flies, Mount Mitchell is actually very close to my QTH. If I wanted, I could hike there directly from my home. I’ve yet to do this, however, because with the 3,000′ elevation change and the anything-but-direct trails that skirt the Asheville watershed, I’d need a full day or more to hike it one way. I will for sure do this sometime, but only when I can pack appropriately and reserve a campsite.

Morning drive

As soon as I surfaced that morning, I check the weather map. I noticed that the temp at Mount Mitchell was actually slightly higher than at my QTH. I looked out the kitchen window and could see fog in the valley. This meant one thing: inversion!

When we have inversion, the cold air is pushed down into the valley and warmer air can be found at higher elevations. The flip opposite of what you’d typically expect.

I ate a quick bite, grabbed come coffee, and hit the road.

As I drove past Warren Wilson College’s farm, it was absolutely gorgeous. I had to stop and take a photo or two [click images to enlarge].

The drive up to Mount Mitchell on the BRP was ideal: clear skies and quite warm!

Mount Mitchell State Park (W4C/CM-001 and K-2747)

In fact, I felt like I really struck it lucky that day. I didn’t even need a heavy jacket or gloves.

I parked my car and hiked/walked the very short distance to the summit observation tower.

I actually decided to record the short walk to the summit in my field activation video (see below).

The views from the summit of Mount Mitchell never disappoint.

Short walk to activation site

As you’ll see in the video, there were very few people on the summit of Mitchell that morning, but park rangers have requested that SOTA activators not set up at the true summit around or on observation tower. I get it: there are times when it gets very busy up there.

That’s okay, though, because the SOTA activation zone on Mount Mitchell is quite large–the summit is relatively flat compared to many summits.

There’s a spot just down the Balsam Trail where I typically set up: it’s pretty secluded and ideal for deploying a wire antenna.

New Tuftetln & N0RNM Knee Board Prototype

Last year, my friend, Carolanne (N0RNM), kindly 3D-printed and sent me a knee board that she featured in this article.

That knee board quickly became an invaluable part of my field radio kit. Basically, any time I’m do a trailside activation with my KX2 or smaller field radios, I use it. It provides me with a stable space to place my radio, operate, and log. It’s compact, but it gets the job done!

The N0RNM knee board was both a blessing and a curse, though, because I received a flood of inquiries about purchasing it! 🙂 Unfortunately, my only reply has been that Carolanne was not in a position to print and sell these. They actually require quite a lot of printer filament and time.

This year, I introduced Carolanne to Joshua (KO4AWH) at Tufteln. Joshua makes a wide range of 3D-printed products for the amateur radio market and his designs are quite clever. Joshua built a new knee board design based on Carolanne’s and volunteered to share a percentage of the profits with her.

Joshua is a good friend and gave me a prototype of the new knee board at the W4G SOTA Campout in mid-October. This SOTA activation was my first time using it and, in short, I really love it.

The pad where you place the radio is slightly larger than the one on Carolanne’s knee board; keep in mind, hers was built specifically for one radio (the KX2) and specifically to fit in one small pack (the Red Oxx Booty Boss).

Joshua’s design will actually hold a much wider radio–ones like the Discovery TX-500, Xiegu X5105 & X6100, Elecraft KX2, etc. because the user can attach elastic shock cords to hold the radio in place.

This TufteIn Knee Board is designed to be versatile.

For more information on the knee board, I would encourage you to check out the activation video below and read the description on the Tufteln website. I know Joshua is planning to make these in small batches because they do require quite a bit of time to print.

Joshua is selling these for $80 US, which may seem like a lot, but as I noted, these knee boards require quite a bit of printing time, and high-quality materials. Ideally, this would be the sort of product that would be best produced via injection molding, but the up-front costs of doing that would be incredibly expensive and likely require a crowdfunding initiative. By 3D-printing these, Joshua can make them to order.

New Tufteln Portable EFRW No Transformer QRP Antenna

I also brought yet another Tufteln prototype Joshua gave me at the SOTA campout: the new Tufteln Portable EFRW No Transformer QRP Antenna. This is an antenna design I casually suggested and Joshua came up with the product overnight.

The antenna is basically a super compact version of the 28.5′ speaker wire antenna I love so much. The antenna design is simplicity itself and is actually one of my favorite antennas–certainly the most affordable you can make as long as you have a good ATU.

The only issue with the speaker wire design is that when I’m doing trailside activations where the radio is in my lap as opposed to being on a picnic table, I do worry about the radio falling and landing on the BNC binding post adapter. That adapter does stick out quite a bit and I think it would have leverage to potentially do damage the antenna port in the unlikely even that the radio would fall.

To be clear, this has never happened to me, but I first approached Joshua because I thought he might be able to design a super simple, low-profile BNC board that could replace the BNC binding post adapter. I was planning to build one myself by simply mounting a BNC connector on a small piece of plastic.

This is the antenna he came up with and it works beautifully:

The antenna winder holds the two 28.5′ wires and the BNC board as well.

Do you need one of these? Not necessarily because it works the same as the $4 (or less!) speaker wire antenna.

Then again, if you do a lot of field portable work, you might appreciate the low-profile connection and the overall size and weight. This antenna fits very cleverly on a compact winder and includes high-quality 26 gauge wire.

Again, you could easily build one yourself, but I think Joshua is able to produce these quite affordably.

Setting up

With my new knee board and antenna prototypes in hand, I was ready to hit the air!

FYI: I actually include most of the set-up and pack-up process in my activation video below.


On The Air

I hopped on the air and used my Elecraft KX2’s internal ATU to quickly find a match on the 20 meter band.  Of course, I had previously scheduled this activation, so the RBN should have taken care of all spotting.

I started calling CQ SOTA and  logged four contacts for a valid SOTA activation in 2 minutes!

I logged my first ten contacts for a valid POTA activation in 8 minutes!

The 20 meter band was so fruitful, I never needed to QSY to a different band. In fact, when the contacts started to die down just a bit after I logged my 31st hunter/chaser, I simply called QRT.

Frankly? I needed to hit the road!


Here’s what this 5 watt activation using two 28.5′ wires as an antenna 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.

So much fun!

This must be one of the longest field reports I’ve ever written, but I wanted to give a proper introduction to the TufteIn prototypes and, frankly, I love sharing details about Mount Mitchell as it is very much my “happy place.”

That activation was the perfect start to what turned out to be a bit of a crazy and hectic day.

I call POTA and SOTA my “radio therapy” and it truly is.

When I’m in the field playing radio, all of my worries and obligations seem to melt away.

Thank you

Thank you for joining me on this activation!

I hope you enjoyed this (wordy) 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.

Thanks for spending part of your day with me! Here’s wishing you and yours the very best of the season!

Cheers & 72,

Thomas (K4SWL)

13 thoughts on “Testing a new Tufteln knee board and antenna during this beautiful SOTA activation on Mount Mitchell”

    1. Thank you, Phil! Yes, Mitchell is a beautiful park and the trails on it are superb. Definitely put it on your bucket list! 🙂

    1. Thanks so much! Yes, I think Joshua will have some in small batches. The board is incredibly handy especially for a KX2 owner like you!

      Cheers & 73,

  1. Tom, this opening picture of the video (with the fog and the gate) is absolutely stunning! I’d love to see puzzles based on it – I would buy them without a second thought!

  2. Terrific, one of your best vids this year. I’m really glad you came back to pile-up advice at the end. Another good practice I noticed you did effectively: when you were asking for repeats on a specific call, you ignored tail-enders who were trying to steal the Q. When you coudn’t get the full call you were trying to work, you did QRZ when you had to start over, but did not just take the tail-ender. I think this is a good practice because if you took the taik-ender you might end up with a ton of tail-enders !
    Keep up the great work!! Ron W6AZ

    1. Thank you, Ron. Very perceptive! I always stick to the person I’m asking to repeat unless they disappear. I completely ignore tail-enders and listen through them, if anything. I feel like answering tail-enders only encourages more to do that. Plus, in many cases, this is the most effective way of working weak QRP stations and other activators.

      So glad you liked the video, OM!

  3. Lindo este lugar EUA é um país dos sonhos, lugares lindos paisagens maravilhosas , aqui no Brasil é o pior lugar de se viver, governos corruptos e não temos nada porque o governo nos tira tudo

  4. I’m wondering, if calling “S2S?” every now and then would work to pick up other SOTA stations? In pile-up like this, they just get lost and are covered by stronger QRO chasers. I’m sure I’ve heard S2S couple times on your video, but most probably I wouldn’t if I were “in real action” ? So this trick could do is job, maybe…?
    Technically, portable stations (most of the stations in Europe use the /P suffix to indicate that fact) or other SOTA activators have a precedence over QRO base stations. And responding to the stronger signals usually takes away the opportunity to work with people on other summits (as they are most often somewhat weaker). That’s basically why I’m wondering about it. What’s your experience, Tom?

    1. I’ve been actually thinking the same thing, Damian. In fact, during a SOTA activation in October, I did this. Probably two times during the activation, I sent out an “S2S?” just to see if a summit activator was there. The pileup was so thick, I would not have heard one easily. I need to remember to make that routine–for some reason, didn’t even cross my mind on Mitchell.

      So, yes, a great suggestion when the pileups are crazy!

      1. Haha, if you think it’s a good idea, I also try to make that routine 😉 I’m on the beginning on my CW adventure (I made my first contacts in October this year), and during each activation I’m 100% focused on trying to copy what I hear, so there’s no brain resources left to do any extra actions. On SSB however, I rather remember to randomly call out /P and S2S/P2P stations whenever I have to deal with such a thick pile-up.
        And, Tom, keep up the great work! I’ve been learning CW and getting used to the CW exchange on SOTA/POTA activations by watching your videos. So I owe you a lot 😉

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