Dennis reminds us how much times have changed for portable ops

Many thanks to Dennis (WQ7O) who shares the following article:

POTA – Getting There

by Dennis (WQ7O)

POTA activity seems to be popular and growing. I have been a ham since the 60s and I am excited by how fun POTA hunting and activating this “new” radio sport can be. I have heard it called “Field Day” every day.

Drawing on decades of hamming experience, I contemplated how we got here. I remember my first field day and the effort required. Basically, equipment meant to be used in an indoor and fixed environment was adapted for portable use. Let’s take a look at what that might mean.

Power supplies that operated on DC were available but expensive. Looking at say, a Drake

TR-4, a popular transceiver at the time, the rig cost $700 in 1968 dollars. The power supply and speaker ran another $200 or so. You’ll need a mic and key, which were not included. Few tuners were available. You could go for a Johnson Matchbox. Drake made the MN-4 and

MN-2000 to match your TR-4. Count on another $200 or so. If you are a CW op and you want a keyer, the Hallicrafters TO keyer and a Vibroplex paddle were another $200. The gear described here would just fit on an office sized desk and don’t ask about the weight.

Now just gather that up and take it to the park, right? Well for starters the DC supply was for mobile use not portable use. You won’t operate for long off a battery with the amperage needed to warm all those tubes. So, bring along a generator and that’s what we did. BTW, we used a truck to transport it all because we needed it. Backpacks weren’t useful.

Antennas were all for fixed use as well. We brought a tri-band yagi and lashed it on a mast to the truck. We ran some wire antennas and we were on the air. Antenna analyzers simply did not exist, we tuned around and graphed it by hand.

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This may sound much like a modern field day but hardly the “light and fast” deployment of a SOTA/POTA activation. Also, take it from me, running tube gear in the field is tough. I had a Gonset Communicator (2 meters) issued to me by our ARES group. It was about 100 times the displacement of your trusty handheld and many times the weight.

So since the 60s, the microprocessor, large scale integration and SDR technology have reduced the size and power requirements for all the gear we use. Today a radio that fits in a pocket can include a rechargeable power source, an antenna tuner and run from 160 meters through UHF offering all modes.

From lead acid, NiCads, NiMH, Lithium Ion and now LiPO batteries, the availability of reliable and portable power sources to power rigs and accessories is a fairly recent development. The increased efficiency coupled with decreased power demand have set us free. How many of us have quick deployment solar panels to keep those batteries topped off during extended operation? It beats the noise, smell and mess of gas cans and a generator. Also, you do not want to backpack a lead acid battery for a SOTA activation. Too much weight and not enough power.

Then there is the internet. If you do POTA like I do POTA, you go to the web page and look for spots. How many would you find without the spots and the RBN? When an activation is deployed one of the first actions is to spot it on the POTA app. Thus, as with other digital modes, the internet becomes an integral part. We could do POTA without the internet, but it would be a whole lot harder. And our taken for granted cell phone brings the internet right to the picnic table.

Image Source: Universal Radio

What about the gear? What should we use and how available is it? Early rigs for portable and QRP use were not plentiful or feature rich. The styling of the popular Penntek TR-45 is reminiscent of the Heathkit “Benton Harbor Lunchbox.” At the risk of understatement, the features do not compare.

The manufacturers responded. We weren’t all going to home brew our QRP rigs. So came the Yaesu FT-817. In 2001, Yaesu introduced the 817 which did all modes, 160 through UHF, ran on batteries, fit in your backpack and was affordably priced. Suddenly, portable operation was possible, versatile, affordable, reliable, practical and fun. We were freed from attics, basements and garages and embraced nature.

I recently built a QRPLabs QCX mini. This tiny rig has more features than we ever knew we needed when we were operating that Drake TR-4. If you want more bands the LNR Mountain Toppers are wildly popular. Other manufacturers, large and small, increased the offerings with different form factors and features.

This included antennas. An early entry was the Buddipole. Many cottage industry entrepreneurs followed and today the selection of quick and easy deployment antennas is broad and deep. From a whip antenna to attach to the rig itself to wire antennas for 160, there are a lot from which to choose. Don’t forget that 3D printing also accounts for a lot of our accessories like keys, cages, stands and winders.

Want to add a tuner to your station? The Elecraft T1, I built mine as a kit, is a superb, self contained tuner and offers broad, automatic matching running on a 9 volt battery. Since the T-1, LDG, MAT MFJ, Icom and others have offered great tuner choices that travel easily as part of your kit.

Anyone who owns a Baofeng knows that the Chinese have entered the ham radio market. While the quality and availability of these rigs can be an issue, they are quite affordable. This brings in new users who learn the hobby and progress to greater things. I have heard hams criticize the quality of MFJ products. MFJ makes the accessories the major manufacturers don’t and at popular prices. When there are more licensed operators, the manufacturers can offer more products at better prices as markets expand. Xiegu HF radios have powered many activations with its built-in battery, tuner and microphone. If POTA and QRP were not driving activity would Icom have brought out the IC-705? The Elecraft KX-2 and 3, the Lab 599 TX-500 and these types of boutique radios answer market demands.

The “Prepper” movement evolved from natural disaster “EmComm” and operating “off the grid” has increased the demand and thus the supply of gear. Building a portable kit has gotten easier and more affordable with a broad selection of choices and options. More is better.

Lots of other simple things have come together to bring us to the “10 minute setup” of the QRP SOTA/POTA activation of today. A whole room full of heavy, power hungry gear has been reduced to a device that literally fits in a pocket. Add a wire and you are on the air. My ham career began as a boy with a tube driven Heathkit transmitter with crystal control fixed frequency in the attic of our family home. I don’t think anybody appreciates more than me opening a backpack and in a few minutes setting up a modern station, wherever I am. QSOs around the country and around the world roll in with a few watts and a wire.

CQ POTA…73 de WQ7O

11 thoughts on “Dennis reminds us how much times have changed for portable ops”

  1. I started out QRP in 1979 with a HW-8 Heathkit. I didn’t know about the community at large. I was a kid in my high school sophomore year and made lots of contacts. The HW-8 was all I could afford! I’m sure lots of people used that radio portable.

  2. The Heathkit ‘Twoer’ was my first transceiver.
    My Parents and Grandparents put together and purchased me the kit for my 13th Birthday.
    It was such a fun task to assemble and test it — on a dummy load as I didn’t yet have my licence.
    (I had passed the Radio Amateur’s Exam (RAE) when i was 12 but wasn’t allowed to apply for my licence until I was 14)
    The Twoer was used as the main rig and mobile (in my Dad’s car) with a home brew inverter. It worked rather well (for a super regen RX!)
    There was lots of AM simplex activity in those days as Repeaters were just being talked about and FM was the ‘new thing’ everyone was experimenting with.
    Portable was done with 2 extra 12v car batteries in the car boot (‘car trunk’ for our western cousins.)

    It was a VERY exciting time for VHF Ham Radio.

    Bruce G4ABX

  3. like Dennis, in mid 60s, tubes and xtal control (HW-16) were norm for the newbies.
    Following several yrs in army, and finishing college, ham bug bit again, this time with a TT 515 ;relatively small, lightweight, and affordable perfect for apartment dwelling with an indoor linked dipole. What a joy to operate compared to tubes & xtals !
    today, about two Ic-705 would consume same space as the 515.
    my Elmer’s (k8zfj, the 1st) shack, was a large 2 tiered desk filled with vhf Clegg gear and a very nice Collins setup with tower attached to home.
    ‘Wish he was around today to experience our evolving technology.
    72s de k8zfj #2

  4. In 1978 I geeked out my ’70 Chevelle muscle car (just for a while) by having an FT-101EE on the transmission hump. At the time, I considered it “portable”. Little could I have imagined what the future would bring.

    John AE5X

  5. Even in my short in comparison 23 years things have changed so much. I would have never guessed with a setup that basically fits in the palm of your hand could do the things they do today.

    Awesome article! 73 de WV8T

  6. In 1968, Ten Tec began. A solid state only company, they were riding the QRP wave. I think just modules at first, and CW, but five years later there were complete rigs, and soon SSB. It seemed a “long time” before they sold more than 5W.

    And you could always build your own rig. In QST in 1972, there was an 80M SSB rig, about 5W because people were still adjusting to transistors.

    And as mentioned, in rthe early seventies Heathkit had a string of transistor CW rigs.

    As for VHF, 2M FM took over from FM, and you could get surplus Motorola handie talkies. But by 1972, at least Standard sold onefor the ham market.

    1971 is a few years more in the past than 1971 was from the 1921 transatlantic test.

  7. First thing I thought about when I began reading this was my uncle’s old Heathkit Two-er. Then I scrolled down a ways and there was the “Tener”. Those have a look that’s hard to forget.

    I started with an HW-16 and one crystal my uncle gave me on 40m. Think that was 1979 and I was about 10 years old. I managed to get the outboard VFO some time later and with my inverted V I was merrily off about the novice bands.


  8. Great write up Dennis! I’m much newer to the hobby with just under my first decade in (9 years). I think I’ve heard you chasing POTA while I have also been chasing POTA, and with your 7, call thought you may be close. After checking, we’re less than 10 miles apart!

    I’ve activated more parks in other states than our own, and if you wanted I think it’d be fun to get together some weekend for a local joint activation.

    72, Michael

  9. I remember these rigs. In 60s Novices had phone privileges on 2m, but few used it. No repeaters. When repeaters did get going the 2m Novice phone privileges were removed.

    One word of caution for the EleCraft T1 tuner, great tuner. Dont store it with the 9V battery inside. It can drain the battery. The CPU can be running. I learned this at our last QRP park event this past Saturday, connected my T1 tuner to my IC705, LEDs lit, but would not energize the latching relays to tune. Battery was near dead.

    73, ron, n9ee

  10. Thanks for a wonderful post, Dennis!

    You’re not alone in appreciating what we take (almost) for granted now.

    It’s the late ’60s, and a buddy and I never missed a Field Day. We had the run of an abandoned Nike base on the highest spot in town. It even had A/C power on site- no small consideration in vacuum tube days. The real attraction was a large structure with a concrete slab 30 feet up. This was accessed by a caged ladder.

    So….. I went up that ladder with my Hammarlund HQ-170- no small feat. Lesser equipment, including a card table and folding chairs, were hoisted up the outside of the building by rope.

    Being as ready as we could be, we clipped onto the power line for some free electricity. The power had been disconnected.

    Our FD total that year: 0. The following year, we improved on our total with B+ supplied by a Dynamotor. Deafening noise in the receiver. One contact with a station ten miles away. I’m still in touch with that buddy, and we laugh about it now.

    Needless to say, we really have it good these days! I still do Field Day (1B-Battery) and love it. It goes a *lot* better than it did many years ago.

    73- K1SWL

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