QRP by Lantern Light: A CW/SSB sunset POTA activation at Lake James State Park

The one thing about doing POTA activations in the winter is being aware of just how short the days are. It seems like, lately, I’ve had a number of activations that have spilled over well beyond sunset.

With POTA, running out of sunlight really isn’t a big deal. As long as I have a headlamp (I always do) and/or a lantern, I can continue operating as long as the park is still open to guests.

With SOTA, running out of sunlight can develop into a serious situation, especially if you’ve bushwhacked to a summit in unfamiliar territory. Even with a headlamp, it can be difficult finding your way back to an established trail.  I’ve never scheduled a SOTA activation that pushed sunset unless I’m comfortable with the path to the summit.

If I’m being honest, I think a part of me actually enjoys doing POTA activations after sunset. It feels a lot like camping.

On Sunday, December 4, 2022, I was on the road once again and could not help but squeeze in a POTA activation at Lake James State Park.

It was late afternoon and I knew I’d be pushing sunset, but I had my little LED lantern just in case I ran out of sunlight (hint: I did!) and I was ready to play some radio: both CW and SSB!

Lake James State Park (K-2739)

It was a grey, chilly day and there were no other cars in the parking lot at the Catawba River Access. I had the whole park to myself until closing time at 7:00PM.

I chose a picnic table by the lake, putting some distance between me and the visitor’s center which has been known to spew radio interference (QRM) in the past.

I brought along my Elecraft KX3 for this activation.

The KX3 is one of my top field portable radios, but I rarely take it to the field these days for a couple reasons:

  1. It’s my main shack radio and is hooked up to my KXPA100 amplifier 100% of the time (although I rarely run enough power that the amplifier engages). I do much of my park/summit hunting from home with the KX3.
  2. Since I purchased my KX2 in 2016, I tend to take it to the field instead since it’s *that* much more portable. It’s like a smaller version of the KX3 with nearly the performance and only lacking 160 and 6 meters.

But I do love my KX3. It’s a benchmark radio–and one of the best field transceivers on the market.  You will see a few field reports with it each year since I try to give all of my radios a regular dose of fresh air!

Setting up

After recording the intro to my activation video (which I tried to do before the sun actually set), I decided to film the antenna deployment as well.

I debated which antenna to use at the site. I decided upon the super easy-to-deploy 28.5′ “no transformer” random wire antenna by Tufteln (see link in the Gear section below). I first demoed this super simple antenna on Mount Mitchell during a SOTA activation. It’s basically two lengths of 28.5 foot 26 AWG wire connected to a BNC connector on a small 3D printed mount which provides strain relief.

This antenna is basically my super simple speaker wire antenna, just in a more compact form factor.  Since there’s no transformer, the antenna relies on an ATU to do all of the heavy work of sorting out impedance matches.

Since this antenna is so short, it’s a breeze to deploy.

Speaking of deploying antennas…in the activation video, I do speak at some length about the bare-bones throw line kit I used for this activation.


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On The Air

My goal with this activation was to start with some CW and end with some SSB. I want to do more SSB this year when I have a radio capable of SSB and when I have enough time.

I started calling CQ on the 20 meter band in CW, pushing 5 watts. I quickly noticed that the noise level was elevated. Whatever the local source of QRM was, it had pushed the noise floor high enough that it was a struggle to identify any station less than S6/7 or so. If you tried to work me that evening and I couldn’t hear you, that’s why.

Still, within 18 minutes I worked thirteen stations on 20 meters. I then decided to QSY and test the waters on 40 meters.

Fortunately, 40 meters had a notably lower noise floor. In SSB, it sounded fantastic, actually.

I spotted myself and started calling CQ POTA pushing 10 watts. I worked about 16 stations in twelve minutes with no problems at all.

I would loved to have kept calling CQ POTA, but frankly, I needed to pack up and leave the park before they closed. Also? I was looking forward to grabbing some dinner.

I announced a final call and hopped off the air.  It wasn’t easy to do, in truth, because I felt like there were so many stations yet to work.


Here’s what this activation looked like when plotted out on a QSO Map. Note that the green lines are CW contacts and red lines SSB contacts:

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.

Packing up in the dark

I believe that field radio operators should know their field kit so well that they could literally unpack and repack their main field kit blindfolded. I can do this with all of my dedicated field kits because everything in the kit has its own dedicated space and it’s conspicuous when something is missing.

In this case, I was using the KX3 which doesn’t have a dedicated field field kit because it typically lives in the shack. Still, I have a routine for how I pack up and I don’t deviate from that routine because it insures I account for the antenna, throw line, feed line, radio, battery, key, other accessories, and the radio itself.

I’m not a creature of habit with other parts of my life, but I self-enforce routine in the field. I feel like being methodical about packing up saves me from leaving critical components in the field especially at night when lighting is poor.

If you don’t have a routine for setting up and packing up your field gear, I’d suggest you give it a go. Start by making a check list, then commit it to memory by physically doing it.

Seriously, try to pack and unpack your main field bag in your home with your eyes closed. It’s the best way to build a mental map of your field kit.

Our radio gear isn’t cheap, so it’s worth the investment in time, I say!

Thank you

Thank you for joining me on this early evening activation! I really enjoyed this activation despite the QRM.

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.

Thanks for spending part of your day with me!

Here’s wishing you an amazing weekend

Cheers & 72,

Thomas (K4SWL)

3 thoughts on “QRP by Lantern Light: A CW/SSB sunset POTA activation at Lake James State Park”

  1. Wonderful blog again this time around. I have not done a night time activation, though had thought about it recently, due to the darkness comes early as we all know this time of the year.
    I like the antenna configuration and may look into one for my setup. However, I have not used a wire in the tree yet, as I normally use my Silvertip Vertical or a hamstick. Even when I hiked up for a SOTA, I took the vertical. Yes, I know and understand, I need to learn to use a wire or sorts and practice launching it into a tree, etc. First and only time I tried, I failed and lost the antenna to the tree. Again thanks. Oh, would you share your checklist?

  2. Love this post Thomas! I’ve done dozens of night SOTA activations, mainly out of necessity since I work during the day and SOTA offers me an opportunity to get some exercise during the week/evenings. A few things I have found critical for night activations:

    – Illumination – a good headlamp and maybe more importantly, a good tactical flashlight are critical pieces of gear. My headlamp is only about 350 lumens, but the tactical flashlight are about 500 lumens in a much more focused beam, allowing me to see a way down the trail. It offers a good balance between portability, brightness, and battery time. Make sure you take extra batteries, and if they’re NiMh batteries, that you’ve charged them recently as they discharge over time!

    – Navigation – With visibility limited, night navigation is exponentially more difficult than during the day. However, there are a few tools that I use to tip the scales in my favor. First, having multiple redundant navigation tools is critical. I personally use a Garmin watch capable of high-resolution navigation. The watch lets me know when I’m on or off-course, which direction I should be headed, and provides a map view and statistics of my route. I also use the CalTopo navigation app on my phone so I can analyze my route and terrain and see exactly where I’m at. Lastly, I take a laminated paper map and compass as a failsafe. It rarely comes out of my pack, but it’s good to know it’s in there. Important thing about bringing a compass is that you’ll want to practice compass navigation occasionally to keep your skills sharp.

    – The right radio gear – I’ve personally found that early evening navigations can do great on 40m, but well after the sun goes down running QRP, I’ve found the most luck on 80m. After experimenting with various antennas, I’ve found that a 74′ radiator + 17′ counterpoise random wire antenna together with a tuner provides good-enough performance on 80m and very good performance on 40m. I used to set up a half wave 80m antenna at night, but that posed some major challenges due to the extreme length of the antenna, which is part of the reason I carry a smaller antenna now. Sounds like you had similar luck with your random wire as well!

    Night activations can be a lot of fun. The quiet of the evenings, the thrill of covering ground at night, and as you mentioned, the camping feel to it, make it really fun to hike and activate.

  3. Tom,
    I have enjoyed reading your blog posts. I followed the pack link in the gear section and I gotta say the comment about pack addiction struck close to home. What is it about Cordura fabric anyway? When I’m in Fort Collins, I walk by the Topodesigns store and often find I have wandered in unbidden. 73 Eric WD8KNL

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