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.
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:
- Elecraft KX2 with internal ATU and internal KXBT2 battery
- Elecraft KXPD2 paddles which attach to the front of the KX2
- Elecraft AX1 with optional 40 Meter coil and Bi-Pod
- Log book and pencil and/or HAMRS app on phone
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
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?
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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, 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?
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:
- Snow Peak Giga Power 2.0 Stove
- Snow Peak GigaPower 110 Gold Fuel Canister – 110g
- TOAKS 750ml pot
- Snow Peak 450 Mug and Hot Lips
- GSI Outdoors Ultralight Java Drip
- Dynamite Roasting Suplicar Clemencia (ground at home)
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!
- Elecraft KX2 with Windcamp X2 Side Rails and Cover
- Elecraft KXBT2 Li-Ion Battery Pack
- Elecraft AX1
- Begali Adventure Dual (with KX mounts)
- Blue Ridge Overland Gear Headrest Velcro Pouch
- GraphGear 0.9mm 1000 Automatic Drafting Pencil
- Rite In The Rain Top Spiral Notebook
- Camera: original OSMO Action Camera (the OSMO 3 is the current version) with Sensyne Phone Tripod
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:
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.
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.
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,