How to optimize low solar activity days for your activations

by Vince (VE6LK)

(As is Vince’s usual, this article is full of educational and fun links – click on as many as you wish)

Picture this ..  you are getting a bit twitchy due to lack of POTA activation and you have run out of Potaxxia. Further, You publicly stated a New Year’s eve goal to make at least 200 POTA CW activation contacts per month for 2023 (there may have been beer involved), and now you must stay accountable to your goal and you are currently behind plan. It’s too early in the season to be lawn mowing while listening to podcasts such as QSO Today, Ham Radio Workbench, ICQ Podcast, AP/DZ or Soldersmoke. Thus, chasing contacts is [always] a good use of your time.

Lastly, if you are like me, the the solar indices are still an art form being learned and the numbers for today aren’t all in the green zone.

One of many charts that help decode the magic behind propagation values – click through for source webpage

So you begin to wonder just how much effort it’s worth to load up your gear and try to activate. You think to yourself that there won’t be much action on bands other than 20m which has been noisy lately, so why bother as it’s at least a 45 minute trip to the nearest POTA entity.

With this background, on Saturday I placed myself in the city at the nearest-to-home spot I could park in the south part of Calgary adjacent to VE-5082, the Trans-Canada Trail. I was trying to make the best of what I perceived to be a rough conditions day and had no real plan except a convenient location requiring minimal effort for a minimal return. My expectations were, sadly, met in this regard.

The author in a suburban and *very* RF noisy place that he won’t return to.

I was at the edge of suburbia with large homes on my left overlooking the ravine and pathway on my right. To say it was RF noisy would be a colossal understatement. I made 18 painful contacts in an hour and I’m sure people called me but I didn’t hear them given the S7 noise floor on 20m. At least I made one DX contact to Denmark along the way. Overall feeling frustrated, I went back home.

Sunday morning rolls around and again I wonder “is it worth it”?

PEP TALK TIME — it’s always worth the effort! Ignore the silly talk in your head, load up the vehicle and get headed towards a park to activate!

Here’s how I stave off the blues on weekends like the one I just enjoyed: I hit the road and then I start listening for the NCDXF/IARU beacons!

The NCDXF/IARU International Beacon Project run a series of time-coordinated CW beacons on 10, 12, 15, 17 and 20m. Five of the eighteen beacons are on the bands at any one instant in time. On a three-minute cycle, they first transmit their callsign, then four one-second dashes at 100W, 10W, 1W and 100mW on a ten second interval. These beacons are more predictable than when K4SWL decides to do a 100mW activation! Further, it’s an easy way for you to listen in for a bit and hear, for yourself, what parts of the globe are making it to your receiver. Given the power stepped approach to their transmissions, you’ll hear exactly what a 10dB drop sounds like too.

BeaconAid for iPhone, one of the many apps available

“But I don’t know CW” you cry! Do not despair, there’s an app for that, in reality a whole bunch for various platforms! Take a look at Tools for Listeners at the top of their webpage and select a tool that’s right for you. I’ve had one on my smartphone for years, and my Palm Pilot before that.

Sunday was different in that it would be a 2 park day, a mini-#POTAthon if you will, but it didn’t start out that way. It started with a relaxing drive along the foothills of the Canadian Rockies to Chain Lakes Provincial Park VE-1168. While driving along Alberta Highway 22 southbound on a sunny Sunday, I planned out what bands I’d operate on when I landed at the park to maximize my contacts.

Given my perception of soft conditions, I was mostly aiming for contacts in North America. I noted that on 15m I could hear 4U1UN, on 17m 4X6TU, LU4AA, CS3B, 4U1UN and W6WX, and on 20m just 4U1UN and W6WX . On 12m I heard only W6WX (normally, CA is an easy hop for Alberta) and on 10m I heard zilch. I also listen to 27.185, CB Channel 19, as if I hear anything I know that 10m is probably open too. It’s an unofficial beacon frequency as far as I’m concerned. The band plan was firmed up and all it took was listening to five different frequencies for a total of under 20 minutes.

My activation at Chain Lakes was as pleasant as I hoped. The ice on the reservoir was still thick although melty on the surface, and one brave soul drove their truck out to go ice-fishing as I looked on in disbelief. They later drove off the ice without incident.

My contacts weren’t without their challenges. I’d not done a long CW activation in a while and I suffered brain lock/fatigue several times, mixing up 1’s and 6’s along with D’s and G’s. Despite being at only 16WPM, I had to send QRS PSE more than once to some that answered me at a full 25WPM, argh.

Hunters, if you can’t turn down your speed at least add some spacing – thank you for coming to my TED Talk.

Overall, hunters were patient with me, and I with them.

Four bands, 90 minutes and 33 contacts later, I started to head for home. But first I stopped at the newly-added VE-6094, The Okotoks Erratic or, as we locals call it, the Big Rock. This one’s near my home in Okotoks, so you can expect to hear me operate from Big Rock often in the future. Don’t confuse this with operating from the tap room at Big Rock, for it isn’t a POTA entity however it has some redeeming qualities. Ahem.

View from the parking lot, a 5 minute walk from the rock

The area is a Provincial Historic Resource and, as such, is protected given its geological and cultural importance. The town name of Okotoks is derived from the Indigenous Blackfoot peoples word for erratic – “okatok”.

The rocks are the size of a three-story apartment building. They total 9x18x41 metres in size, weigh 16,500 tonnes. In freedom units they are simply freakin’ huge. They were deposited by glacial movement some 10,000 to 30,000 years ago. These are the largest glacial erratics in this part of Canada and quite possibly anywhere. It’s not uncommon to find erratics scattered on farmland in this area.

The author’s QSL card

My activation here -an ATNO, the site’s first- netted me 24 contacts in 33 minutes on two bands. My keyer suffered a static hit and I had to resort to -gasp!- sending by hand for about half of it. Nonetheless I’ll call the activation a win!

We’ve been so very fortunate with great solar conditions of late, thus it’s easy to fall into a funk when they aren’t as good as they were yesterday. But shake off those low-SFI blues and take some time to explore the NCDXF/IARU Beacon Project website. Read up on the fascinating history behind it and the supporters of the project (thank you Kenwood and Icom!). Check out the apps that make using this service trivially easy.

But most importantly, make use of this fantastic resource and get on the air!

Thank you to the hunters who make my trips feel accomplished and to those of you that offer words of encouragement about my various activities. I appreciate you all.

73 and dit dit,


First introduced to the magic of radio by a family member in 1969, Vince has been active in the hobby since 2002. He is an Accredited examiner in Canada and the USA, operates on almost all of the modes, and is continually working on making his CW proficiency suck less. He participates in public service events around Western Canada and is active on the air while glamping, mobile, at home or doing a POTA activation. You can hear him on the Ham Radio Workbench podcast, follow him on Twitter @VE6LK, peek at his anemic YouTube presence (subscribe!), and view the projects and articles on his website.

13 thoughts on “How to optimize low solar activity days for your activations”

  1. Thank you so much for sharing this timely post, Vince!

    You’re right: the cure for the propagation blahs is to simply go out there anyway and enjoy the experience. Yesterday, I did a quickie park activation at South Mountains State Park and propagation was pretty crappy. Still, I was outdoors, playing radio, making some contacts and enjoying the experience.

    Today, I plan to do an activation as well knowing full-well that our local star might not cooperate. That’s okay, though. Damn the torpedoes…full speed ahead! 🙂

    Thanks again for this wonderful report, Vince!


  2. Excellent write up, Vince. I need to hook up with you one weekend, when both you and I are free from the ‘candystore’.

    I know the pain of a high noise floor (pretty sure you were not in my hood as a neighbour’s computer PS generates a -59 dbm wideband spur centered at 7 MHz, next time you are by, you should experience it) Lucky for me VE-0648 abuts the subdivision, so it is quick walk to relative silence.

    You are right, regardless of how bad the bands are, just operate, some times you are pleasantly surprised of what you get. Paraphrasing the old fishing axiom, a bad day hamming is still better than a good day working.

    P.S. Going to doodle a pair of glasses and a stash on the erratic…

    73 de Greg

  3. Great article, learned a lot about HF beacons, thanks so much. I live in a very noise friendly neighborhood, going through the bands listening for the beacons has been educational. Night time is usually a LOT better. It will be interesting tonight when I try the same beacons.


    1. Hi Mitch,
      One thing you can try doing is charting your observations by band and by time of day. Observe over each day of the week to get a baseline and then compare it from time to time. And then you’ll know when you can maximize it all when at home.

  4. Great post Vince! I’ve already bookmarked several of the online resources. Wow!

    We should all realize, these online resources are as important a tool, as any we may carry afield.

    I also can appreciate operating ‘quasi- mobile’ inside your vehicle. It’s been a cold wet winter, and however you deploy, or site your station, a park is a park.

    Thanks again Vince.

    1. Hi Rand,
      Thanks for your comments. The cool think about the beacons is that they are predictable. Even without an app or internet access and with only your wristwatch, you can still count the number you hear in a 3 minute cycle. If you hear all 18 then the band is wide open and if you only hear a few well the good news is the band is open to somewhere! so just give it a try anyways.

  5. Excellent article! And your writing style is a a lot of fun to read. Reminds me of some of Ernest Gann’s self deprecating humor.
    Also learned a few things from the links. I’ve had my general ticket since the 80s and have always preferred CW and also aspire to one day suck less. That may never happen though.

    Keep up the great articles.

    1. Hi Vince,

      I worked you at VE-6094, 01:05:13, 12 Apr 23 on 20 M. Then a half hour later I found this post. FB OM. Thanks for the QSO. and the fun write-up.


      John K4ARQ

    2. Hi Dan,
      As I’ve learned the hard way, it only sucks less if you put effort into it and keep up the momentum. Fortunately for me I’ve found a fun way to do this. At the end of the day my CW Academy instructor was 100% correct – just get on the air!

    3. Thank you Dan for your compliments.
      Sucking less at CW, as I’ve learned, means you have to be the change you want to be. Step forward out of your comfort zone and try more things. Thomas encouraged me to do that nearly a year ago and I haven’t looked back, so now I encourage you to do the same.
      vy 73,

  6. That was fun to read! 🙂 In a related matter, I really wish more hams would know of (or care about) the IBP and understand why 14,100kHz is not the international antenna tuner project frequency, or that 14,099.98kHz is still a particularly egoistic choice for a spot even during contests. I even had some FT8 ending up on 18,,110kHz recently but that’s luckily a rare exception, unlike 20m where the IBP frequency can end up completely worthless for days here in Europe.

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