Lunch break? Time for a rapid SOTA/POTA activation!

by Vince (VE6LK)

As always there are lots of links within the article. Click one! Click them all! Learn all the things! ? Also, it’s with thanks to the management at who give me this outlet for creative writing.

While on business travel in Northern Alberta recently, I found myself with a slow workday and a few hours owed from lunches not taken that week. A quick plan was hatched and out the door I went after ensuring that all at work was going to be fine without me for 2-3 hours. But before I get to that story…

While travelling to and from this site, I’ve made it a mission to activate as many ATNO [All-Time-New-Ones, ie. never-activated parks] as possible within POTA. I plan these 500km trips with some small side journeys to these parks or natural areas and to break up the otherwise long drive along the foothills of the Canadian Rockies up and down the Highway 22 (aka. Cowboy Trail) corridor. It’s truly a lovely drive and I don’t mind it in the least.

Now back to my late-day lunch break adventure…

With the nearest park to me (VE-3162, Whitecourt Mountain) already activated but only on phone, I figured I’d activate it on CW and do more QSOs than the other activator just for good measure. I can’t believe that a park this close to a townsite had only one activation before I got there to activate it.

If that isn’t enough, it’s also a SOTA entity [VE6/ST-102] with a broad and not-steep slope making the activation zone quite wide. On top of that I can do this two-fer as a drive-up! This worked in my favour as I parked my truck within the activation zone! This SOTA entity had been done a couple of times already so I knew that electrical noise would be my nemesis.

For those of you that may have disremembered, I’m in shape -round- and that shape doesn’t easily climb summits, so a drive-up is totally my kind of summit. But I had to get a move on as there were only two hours left on the Zulu timeclock.  At my hotel room I had more gear, but being nervous nelly that I am at times, I do not leave my KX3 in the room unless there’s a safe. Given that the KX3 gets lonely without companions, I ensure that it always has a battery, antenna and key along for the ride so they keep each other happy as can be 🙂 I had just enough of my portable kit with me to make this happen.

A quick drive up this steep and very rough *cough* road *cough* and I had arrived, and I was suddenly thankful for high ground clearance, 4 wheel drive and brand new all-terrain tires. This Natural Area is well known as being the highest ridge for many kilometers around, has no less than a dozen communications towers on it along with the powerlines for those, and it’s also known for its popularity in the hunting community. As I had no international orange clothing with me and it’s hunting season, I parked my truck nearest to the fire lookout which is a designated “no shooting” zone.

A quick listen on the HF radio in the truck confirmed the noise, as well as a fast listen to the IARU beacons beforehand while enroute told me this would be a rough one with QSB and odd propagation for this time of day, 1515h local and about 1.5h to sundown on this mid-November day at this latitude.

It’s about 45F out at this point and the sun dwindling as is the temperature, so I moved quickly. A couple of lawn chairs made for a fine rest for my somewhat padded tuchus, and the other chair an impromptu table for the radio gear.

The AX1 counterpoise wire was elevated off the ground about 2′. I wanted to experiment with this configuration for a while, but quickly determined it to be a poor idea as I was constantly re-tuning to eliminate high SWR given the antenna, my CW key and I were all in very close proximity. Until I got it dialed in, with the wire and gear positioned just so, I’d tune up to low SWR, then the second my hands touched the key the SWR would go all wonky. Reposition and try again (aka lather rinse repeat) and I got it dialed in some 6 tries later. Super-frustrating!

SOTA set-up with two camp chairs

For the SOTA part of this activation, and while I was within the confines of the POTA entity, I attempted to log with two instances of HAMRS, one log on my laptop and another on my phone. Juggling those two and the CW key in my lap were very difficult and I won’t do that again. As I write up this article I’m remembering the motto to keep it stupidly simple; for me that means logging on one thing only next time, be it paper or my laptop.

I posted a spot to SOTA via SOTAmāt and was overwhelmed with callers almost at once – I didn’t think this happened, I thought to myself. I’d later see that RBN picked me up for my POTA planned activation so I had both POTA and SOTA hunters calling me. Whoops, I didn’t mean to do that as I wanted to hear some S2S action first, but anyway I can’t change it now and it made the SOTA activation go quite quickly. Eight callers later (including WG0AT!) the sun was now down below the trees and it got cold quickly, so I stopped calling, packed up and moved into the truck. Any QSOs in the truck would only count towards POTA, but at least I’d be warm 🙂

What’s SOTAmāt and how do you configure it? This short video will tell you.

Just for grins, when I got back into the truck I moved up 1kHz so that RBN spots could show me the difference between my AX1 and the ATAS-120A on the truck. I set the FT-857D for the same power to level the playing field. My only takeaway from the chart below is that the added metal of my F-350 as a ground plane helped with antenna efficiency as it yielded about a 1 S unit difference.

RBN shows difference in S/N between antennas

With a few minutes remaining in the Zulu day, I quickly dropped to 40m for a Discord-coordinated contact with Jesse VE6JTW at his home. While that was unsuccessful, I was able to fit in a couple more QSOs before the Zulu clock ran out and I had to get back to work anyways.

Don’t leave it in the hotel, take it with you!

List of gear used for this activation:

It’s as easy as one-two-three

SOTA and POTA while travelling are as simple as one-two-three if you 1. have your gear, 2. know where you are going, and 3. have the time.

Maps and pre-planning are essential

Most of quick execution is about preparation, things like studying maps and reading the notes of others if they exist. For this quick activation I did about an hour of prep before I hit the road, not including a refresher on how to activate and upload a log to SOTA as I’d not done that in a year. Tools like the Alberta Parks website and their satellite imagery, then compared with Google Maps satellite imagery, Google street view (if it exists), printouts of the location with hand annotations of local road names written on them are part of my standard preparation.

The view while descending from the summit

Activations while travelling make for a fun diversion from work and encourages me to get out of the truck for a stretch (and radio!) break on the long drives.

72 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, and view the projects and articles on his website.

4 thoughts on “Lunch break? Time for a rapid SOTA/POTA activation!”

  1. I enjoyed reading about your activation and have a suggestion for setting up the AX1. I use a lightweight collapsible tripod that’s actually a photography light stand to mount the AX1. It gets it about 6 feet high and I use 3 13’ radials angled at 45 degrees. I made an adapter to quickly attach the 3 radials using power poles. The adapter attaches to the thumbscrew on the tripod mount. On the other end I put alligator clips which makes it easy to clip onto grass,shrubs or tree branches if available. I can get the whole setup done in about 3 minutes and have never failed to get an almost perfect match with the KX2 or 3 tuner. I use a 6’ chunk of RG 316 between the antenna and radio which seems to be plenty to get it enough distance away from my chair/stool or picnic table. This works great from 15M through 30, and I can use it in a pinch on 40 with the AEX1. The reason I chose the light stand is that it’s lighter than a camera tripod and doesn’t have all of the swivels,handles etc that get in the way. It’ll slip right into the side straps of my backpack. Might be worth looking into.

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