Coffee, QRP, & Question: Is any field kit more portable and versatile that Elecraft’s KX2/AX1 combo?

Lately, I’ve been kitting out another fully self-contained field radio kit that would be small enough to fit in my EDC (everyday carry) laptop bag–something super compact.

I’ve been getting some great ideas from those of you who have added your kits to the Field Radio Kit Gallery.

[By the way, if you’ve submitted your kit to the gallery and haven’t seen it yet, note that I’m posting these in the order received and there are many in the pipeline!]

I’ll likely build my EDC field kit around the Elecraft KX1 or the Mountain Topper MTR-3B, then pair it with a good wire antenna.

My EDC laptop bag: the Tom Bihn Stowaway

But this process got me thinking: if money was no object, and I wanted the most compact and versatile multi-band field kit, what radio and antenna system would I choose?

My answer? A kit built around the Elecraft KX2 and AX1 antenna.

In my experience, the KX2 AX1 combo is hard to beat. It’s compact, effective, low-profile, and you can set it up pretty much anywhere.

Let’s explore my reasoning here keeping in mind–in my world–this is a very deep rabbit hole to go down. I’ll do my best–no promises–to keep this as concise as possible:

Compact, Low-Profile, Self-Supporting, and Simple

Here are all of the components of my typical KX2 AX1 field kit:

This is all that is needed for a field activation.

And if you’re an SSB operator? You don’t really need a microphone because one is built into the KX2 (that said, I’d suggest you build a compact mic if you plan to do a lot of SSB operating).

If I wanted to make this kit even a bit more versatile? I’d add a kneeboard to the list. This gives one the ability to operate without a picnic table.

I recently published a video showing how the KX1 and AX1 can fit on a kneeboard.

Portable and Versatile

What makes this field kit so portable is that the KX2 is one of the most compact general coverage HF transceivers on the market.

It’s certainly the most compact (at time of posting) when you realize that two important components–the battery and ATU–are internal options.

The AX1 antenna is also incredibly compact–it comes apart in such a way that no one component is longer than about 6 inches. What you see in the photo above is the entire radio and antenna system.

Yes: A Compromise

Sure–and let’s get this out of the way right up-front–the AX1 is a compromised antenna, and being a massive fan of simple wire antennas myself, I know a properly deployed wire in a tree is going to provide better gain each and every time.

Also, people who live in more remote parts of the world–say, Hawaii, the Yukon, or Perth, Australia–where the amateur radio density is sparse within their propagation footprint, the AX1 will not be as productive as it is for me here in the eastern half of North America.

So why do I believe the AX1 is such a versatile antenna even knowing it’s such a compromise compared with wire antennas?

  1. You can set it up pretty much anywhere because you’re not disturbing the trees, ground, or others around you by deploying it. It’s completely self-supporting and incredibly low-profile. I’ve used the AX1 in spots where I just didn’t feel comfortable deploying a larger footprint antenna–here’s a good example.
  2. Speed of deployment: you can deploy the AX1 in two minutes. It’s insanely easy and saves time when you’re in a hurry. Check out this report for example.
  3. So far, this combination has never let me down. I’ve never had an issue completing an activation with it. Ironically, some of my fastest and most productive activations have been using the AX1.
  4. With the optional AXE1 40 meter coil, I can operate on 40, 20, and 17 meters easily. Most of the time, I can also find a match and operate on 30 and 15 meters. I’ve even gotten matches on 12 and 10 meters in the past. Sure, it’s not going to be efficient on all of those bands, but that’s seven possible bands in one portable antenna system. Keep in mind that the KX2 ATU does the heavy lifting here to find matches on 30, 15, 12, and 10 meters.
  5. I’ve also discovered that the AX1 propagation pattern includes local/regional contacts along with what I’d normally expect from any given HF band.
  6. With a simple mount, you can also operate from your vehicle like Alan (W2AEW). Of course, you can also mount the AX1 on a tripod like I did in this activation.

In short, the AX1 is a surprisingly capable antenna.

The downside? The price.

If you don’t already own a KX2, then the price of this entire system is pretty insane. If purchasing new, you’re going to be looking at something around $1650 US plus taxes and shipping. The AX1 antenna system with 40 meter coil and bipod is about $200 of that price.

The addition of the KX2 makes my EDC bag quite expensive as well. When I have my MacBook Pro inside, the KX2 brings this the total price of my pack contents dangerously close to $3,000.

If I lived in a city and used my EDC pack as a commuter bag, I would not risk taking my KX2 along for the ride on a daily basis. I’d worry about leaving it on a bus, train, or it being snatched from me.

I’d find a less expensive rig to pair with the AX1.

My MTR-3B, T1, and AX1.

My MTR-3B, AX1, and Elecraft T1 ATU, for example, are half the price of the KX2/AX1 combo.

Note that you can also pair the AX1 with pretty much any radio. I’ve paired it with the K2, RGO One, TR-45L (see photo above), KX3, MTR-3B and IC-705 to name a few. You will need some sort of matching device like an ATU or capacity hat.

Many other field antenna options

Of course, you can build a much more affordable kit using a wire antenna. 95% of my field kits use wire antennas and they’re pretty darn compact. In the end, this is the type of kit I’ll build for my EDC pack.

Earlier this year, I built a fully self-contained field kit around my Venus SW-3B–the kit is so small that it fits in a headrest pouch (check out this field report when I first tested it). It still relies on using a tree to support the antenna, but that’s rarely an issue where I live. I could use the AX1 with this kit, but I would need something to finish off the impedance match like (again) an external ATU or capacity hat.

There are also less expensive alternatives to the AX1 antenna system: compact antennas like the QRP Guys DS-1, Comet HFJ-350M, and MFJ-1899T.

Just keep in mind that each of those is a bit bulkier than the AX1.

What about the new KH1?

(Source: Elecraft)

Yes, I know Elecraft just released the KH1 handheld CW QRP radio–and to be clear, I’ve never wanted a radio more than I want the KH1–but it’s designed to be a pedestrian portable CW five-band radio.

As Elecraft points out in their KX2/KH1 comparison chart, it doesn’t replace the KX2.

The KX2 has a more versatile ATU, more power output, more bands (80-10M), SSB mode, and internal mic, etc. etc.

Time for a KX2/AX1 activation!

On Wednesday, September 27, 2023, I made my way to the Zebulon B. Vance Birthplace (K-6856). I called in advance and the staff told me that the picnic shelter had no reservations and I was free to play radio.

I brought along my new Snow Peak Giga Power stove to boil water and brew coffee.

If you’re a coffee snob (ahem…like me), here are the components of this coffee kit:

You’ll see all of this in the video below.

Setting up the KX2/AX1 combo was the easy part. Now it was time to see if I could log some hunters!


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On The Air

Since this must be the longest field report I’ve ever written, here’s a quick summary of my time on the air:

I worked 31 stations in a total of 42 minutes on 20 and 17 meters. I did give 15 meters a go, too, but the band was quiet.

Once again, the KX2/AX1 did an amazing job!


Here’s what this five 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.

I really do love this combo

So far, the AX1 has never let me down–if anything it’s only over-performed. Combining  the AX1 with a radio like the KX2 or KX3 does give you a level of portability and versatility that’s hard to beat.

I do think the new KH1 will open the door even further and I can’t wait to perform some SOTA and POTA activations with it. It’ll be wonderful to have an anywhere, anytime radio.

That said, I know I’ll still default to the KX2/AX1 combo when I plan to activate for longer periods of time and when I want to the option of more bands and SSB mode.

Thank you

You should get an award if you’ve made it to the end of this article. Thank you for joining me on this casual POTA 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.

Thanks for spending part of your day with me! Have an amazing week!

Cheers & 72,

Thomas (K4SWL)

34 thoughts on “Coffee, QRP, & Question: Is any field kit more portable and versatile that Elecraft’s KX2/AX1 combo?”

  1. I have to admit it, you are a master with that combo… I’ve watched you’re videos, and read your field reports. It’s an amazingly capable and compact kit.

    I’ve tried to pair down my KX2 kit, but always seem to come back to the already compact Elecraft supplied case. It’s stuffed full of all I ‘might’ need.

    I love your new Begali Adventurer, and the addition of the side rails, bravo & thanks Thomas!

    de W7UDT

    1. Thank you, Rand. Like you, I find that CS60 case very hard to beat. It’s typically bigger and bulkier than I need, but it does accommodate things so well.

  2. The new KH1 may give that combo a bit of a challenge – but admittedly it’s not been mass tested. Time will tell

  3. I would add one more caveat about the AX1 – It will do some amazing things now, but things won’t be the same when the sunspot cycle fades. Don’t get me wrong, I use low power and compromise antennas all the time, and I’m a fan. But, full disclosure is good 🙂

    1. I was totally spoiled in the early 80’s. Five watts on 15 meters would consistently get JA’s and VK’s in the morning. Those days were fun. A rig like the KX2 or KH1 would have been a joy.

    2. I hear you. Thing is, I’ve used the AX1 when there were no sunspots at all. We had some very rough propagation in 2019 and 2020. The AX1 has yet to run into any issues. Again, part of the magic here is being the DX as an activator.

  4. What about a lenght of wire and an alligator clip ? You could launch the wire up a tree branch, connect the clip to the top of the whip and get down to 40 meters 😀

    1. For sure. But if I launch a line in a tree, it’ll be for a wire antenna. 🙂 Typically when I use the AX1 it’s because I want to go for super portable and low-impact. 🙂 Very good point, though, for folks who don’t have the 40M coil. Only caution would be to have strain relief or the clip oriented in a way that it wouldn’t tug the whip when it’s breezy.

  5. I fully agree with everything you’ve said here! After reading about the KH1 on Saturday, on Sunday I was inspired to go out with my KX2 and AX1 for a pedestrian mobile (/PM) activation. The only other component to the station was a small Bioenno battery in a small shoulder bag. I made a dozen SSB contacts using the internal mic, pretty much covering the entire country from CA in the west to VA and GA in the east, and FL and TX in the south to WI, MN, and ND in the north (plus MO in the middle). This really is the most fun, capable, and compact rig I’ve ever owned. (With the addition of a belt-mounted set of CWMorse Pocket Paddles that I keep in my KX2 bag I can easily do CW /PM also.)

  6. Re: your photo of the MTR 3b(LCD) paired with the T1. The xcvr doesn’t have a SWR rollback circuit. Thus, your rig could see a large fluctuation in SWR using the T1 until tuning is complete. Wouldn’t it be safer to use a Z-match or at least and SWR bridge between the rig and the T1?

    Good write-up. I learn ever sso much reading your posts and watching your POTA/SOTA video.

    Thanks & take care, 72/73 de AE5ZX

    1. You are probably right about that. I think, however, I was running the MTR-3B with 9V instead of 12V (I very rarely run it with 12V) so I believe the finals could handle the mismatch while the ATU is at work. Max output would have been 3 watts. At 12V+, I think this could be an issue.

  7. What is that angled paddle you are using with the KX-2 radio? It looks like a custom paddle and differs from the one I got from Elecraft. Would like to know where you got it and how you like it. If you want to send direct reply my email is [email protected] Thanks and 73 and see you on POTA.

    1. Hi, Jim,

      There’s a link to it in this post. It’s a Begali Adventure Dual paddle.


  8. Great field report, as always!

    Have you ever tried adding an additional counterpoise wire(s) to the AX1? Maybe in the tripod configuration?

    I am picking up the AX1 from the post office today– going to pair w/ FT-818 for my maiden CW POTA activation.

    Thanks for everything you do.


    1. I haven’t yet, but I do plan to. I think it would help with efficiency! The more radials, the more better! 🙂

  9. As I mentioned in a guest post once (, an antenna similar to the AX1 in some ways is the DS1 antenna. It’s probably not quite as good as the AX1, but I use it pretty often . Among others, I’ve activated from a picnic bench in Canada, from a rock in a military battlefield, and recently completed a number of contacts sitting with my grandson in a picnic area at Ft. Drum, including one with Thomas K4SWL himself while he was sitting at Lake Norman (and he was only running 1 watt). But whether the AX1 or the DS1, I agree that the KX2 and a tabletop base-loaded whip is a ton of fun and about as portable as one can get. Thanks for posting this.

  10. I can deploy the Chameleon MPAS Lite in 5-7 minutes and I’m good from 80-10 meters. More expensive than the Ax-1, but better.

    1. For sure. The reason I use the AX1 is because the antenna is so insanely compact, it can fit in any bag or pouch out there, pretty much. It’s also incredibly lightweight. The MPAS Lite is an amazing antenna and deploys quickly, as you say, but I can’t fit it in my EDC pack and it’s even a bit heavy for SOTA (the spike it the really heavy part), although I hike with it frequently anyway!

  11. Love the whole idea of field gear kits. Hat’s off to you!
    Not everyone can afford $190 for a gear bag though. I found an incredible value in Cabela’s Catch-All Gear Bag for $12.99. It’s 15.75″L x 9.8″W x 7.8″H & weights 1.3 lbs. It has 3 exterior pockets for your accessories. Well worth a look!
    I have 3 field kits now and this bag serves them all. I was blown away by the quality and price.

    1. There some good bags and pouches on aliexpress for $2-$10 if you don’t mind a couple of weeks for shipping.

    2. Thanks for the recommendation! Yes, I’m a bag snob and the reason why many of my packs cost so much is that they’re made in the USA. There are many excellent quality packs out there, like you say, for much much less cost. I’ve purchased lots of gear from Cabela’s over the past three or four decades!

  12. As a bit of a QRP addict with quite a collection of gear, I have to say that the most versatile piece is the KX2 (handheld, portable, base or mobile) and paired withe AX1 it does allow for rapid deployment that fits in with my schedule.

    Is the combo the most effective? No; but it is one of the most fun!

    Now about the KH1….

    Richard MM0RGM

  13. Of the 2 faint QSOs, Utah was understandable, well over 1200 miles for you.

    The other, mine in FL, was another AX1 at work, on a TR-45L. Short distance might have been a factor, only a few hundred miles from NC to FL. My AX1 is an “indoor” antenna, used from my screened back porch (we call it a lanai in FL).

    New category AX1 to AX1 ! The AX1 really is impressive for being so small.

  14. Hi! Thank you for another great activation video!

    I was wondering how you would compare, performance-wise, the AX1 and a magnetic loop (I’ve seen you sometimes have used one in other videos). They have similar installed footprint on the table, although the magloop is larger to transport but needs no radials, but I’d like to know your opinion on this. Thank you!

  15. I am curious why you did not use the PAE Kx22 heat sink end panel set. I have used that on my KX2 for seven years and it is very effective at avoiding power rollback at 60 C PA temperature.

    After more than 40 years of portable QRP HF operation, I still have ZERO interest in “pedestrian mobile.” At end of a backpacking day I like to set up my home-made from 14 ga. Flexweave 40m to 10m resonant dipole (using links to set proper length). It can easily produce a 30 dB improvement on receive and transmit over the best and most expensive portable vertical in side-by-side comparisons. I never want to hold my KX2 while using it, and I have found the KXPD2 to be the worst iambic paddles I’ve ever tried to use. I use an old set of inexpensive knee-mount paddles (Paddlette) that work much much much better for me. I use a Bioenno 1209A 9 Ah external battery for portable power.

    I have two very strong reservations about serious KX2 design errors that were totally avoidable:
    (1) The black case paint is a solar energy sponge that results in high case and PA temperatures when exposed to the sun. There is absolutely nothing good about that.
    (2) Cheap difficult to replace electromechanical encoders of poor durability and life span were incorporated into the KX2…a portable radio that common sense should have shown would need proper optical encoders more than other Elecraft radios.

    1. Hi, Mike,

      I’ve never added the heat sink panel because I simply don’t need it. I’ve never had power roll-back in CW or SSB. I don’t do digital modes with my KX2 (if I did, I would add a heat sink).

      I hear you about pedestrian mobile. Frankly, it’s an acquired taste and I think most PM operators are in the minority of the ham radio world–a niche within a niche. I find it kind of fun just to shake things up!

      You’re right in that the black paint does absorb sunlight–this is why Elecraft painted their new KH1 in a light grey. That said, my KH1 has never overheated or gotten hot to the touch. This is likely because I’m rarely in direct sun–I always try to seek shade if possible when I operate.

      I’ve had my KX2 since the summer of 2016 and have yet to have any issue with the encoder. It continues to work flawlessly. That said, on the plus side? When the encoder fails, I can order one from Elecraft for less than $5 and replace it myself! 🙂 This is one of the reasons I don’t worry too much about my KX2 when it’s packed for SOTA or other backpacking trips. It’s rugged enough that it has survived all of my adventures so far. 99% of the time, it is used in the field. It’s extremely rare I use it in the shack.

      Thanks for the comment!


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