My first SOTA activation with the new Elecraft KH1 handheld QRP transceiver!

On Friday, November 3, 2023, I had planned to activate Mount Mitchell–the highest summit in eastern North America. I need to activate Mitchell soon because I’ve yet to activate it for SOTA in 2023 and when winter weather sets in (quite early at that altitude) the park is inaccessible.

Unfortunately, last week, the National Park Service closed an 8 mile portion of the Blue Ridge Parkway due to (no kidding) park visitors feeding and trying to hold bears at the Lane Pinnacle Overlook.

I won’t get on my soapbox about how people are so out of touch with nature that they feel human interaction with bears is a good thing. It breaks my heart because as we natives of WNC say, “a fed bear is a dead bear.” Bears that become comfortable with humans become (at best) a nuisance and (at worst) aggressive.  This is bad for people and it’s bad for our bears who are otherwise shy and avoid humans.

Okay, I said I wouldn’t soapbox about this…

That 8 mile section being closed meant that what would have been a 50 minute drive to the summit of Mitchell turned into a 90 minute drive. Round trip, I simply couldn’t fit that in my day, so I made alternate plans.

Another summit on my list to activate before year’s end was Richland Balsam.

Richland Balsam is actually the highest summit on the Blue Ridge Parkway and is, in fact, at one of my favorite points along the parkway.

That  Friday morning, I dropped my daughters off at their classes and drove an hour or so to the Haywood-Jackson Overlook.

In the valley, as I started my drive to the parkway, past the Cradle of Forestry, it was 30F/-1C. I was concerned that on the summit–nearly 4,000′ higher in elevation–that the temp would be closer to 20F. Fortunately for me, as I gained elevation, the temperature climbed too. We were having inversion that day so the higher altitudes were actually warmer than lower altitudes. This is not uncommon in the fall and was very welcome that particular Friday morning!

Richland Balsam (W4C/WM-003)

Only three weeks earlier, there would have been no free parking spots at the Haywood-Jackson Overlook overlook–it would have been packed.

Fortunately for me, all of the leaf-lookers had gone and I literally had the place to myself. What a luxury!

And the temperature? A balmy 43F/6C.

The hike to Richland Balsam is one of the easiest along the parkway.

At the north side of the parking area, you’ll see a trailhead for the Richland Balsam Nature Loop Trail.

I wish my iPhone camera could haver truly captured how the moon looked in the sky.

The trail isn’t long; I believe the entire loop is just shy of 1.5 miles.

Although I didn’t set out to do this, I ended up making a video of the entire loop trail hike along with the activation (of course, you can skip over those parts in my activation video below).

Sadly, one thing you won’t be able to enjoy in my video? The smell. The air is filled with the fragrance of balsam trees along the entire trail–it’s just amazing!

The summit of Richland Balsam is at 6,410 feet ASL (1,954 meters).

The summit is covered in trees which is brilliant for SOTA activators. Another luxury is that there are two benches within the activation zone. I did pack my Helinox Zero chair as a backup, but didn’t need it.

SOTA with the KH1

Setting up my KH1 for a SOTA activation couldn’t be easier or faster. I show the whole process in my video at a very casual pace.

Since I was using the 4′ whip antenna for this activation, all I had to do was attach and extend the whip, deploy the counterpoise, and turn around the paddles from their transport to operating position.

It’s all so easy it feels like you’re cheating.

Instead of standing to activate, since my KH1 logbook tray had not yet arrived (it’s due to arrive today, in fact) I decided to sit on the park bench and use my kneeboard to support my logging notebook.  This was much more comfortable than leaning down to log while standing to operate.

Since I was also making a video of the activation, I opted to connect my Zoom H1n this time to record the KH1’s headphone audio. During my last activation, I subjected the KH1’s wee speaker to an intense pileup–this time, I wanted to better represent the KH1’s audio by porting it out directly.

Note that I did use the Auto-Gain control of the Zoom H1n during this activation and it did cause some thumping in the audio. Next time, I’ll simply adjust the line-in gain appropriately and turn off the auto gain completely. That said, I think you’ll get a much better idea of the KH1’s superhet audio in this recording!


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On The Air

Richland Balsam is not only a SOTA summit, but it’s also within two POTA entities: the Blue Ridge Parkway (K-3378) and Pisgah National Forest (K-4510). I didn’t spot myself on the POTA network because both of these entities are heavily activated and I wanted to give DX SOTA chasers and S2S (Summit-to-Summit) contacts a chance to punch through with less competition.

I tuned to 14,061.5 kHz, hit the ATU button, repositioned my counterpoise, then started calling CQ SOTA. Since I had announced my activation on the SOTA website–and even though I was earlier than my announced time–I was auto-spotted to the SOTA spots page.

I worked my first ten stations in nine minute thus validating the POTA activation and SOTA activation (FYI: SOTA only requires for unique contacts).

The pileup was impressive and incredibly fun to work through.

I ended up logging 33 stations in 34 minutes–all on 20 meters. I was happy to work quite a lot of European chasers and many on the west coast as well.

One other highlight was working Josh (WU7H) in Washington state because he is also in the Elecraft KH1 volunteer testing group. Of course, he contacted me on his KH1, so this was my first KH1-to-KH1 contact! Woo hoo!

I had hoped to hop on 17 meters, but frankly, I was out of time. I still had a long drive back to town and a few stops before picking up my daughters.


Here’s what this five watt handheld radio with 4′ whip SOTA activation looked like when plotted out on a QSO Map (click image to enlarge):

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.

The bee’s knees!

I truly love the KH1. For an activator like me that often has only short windows to do activations (due to my schedule and family activities) it opens the door to more time on the air.

In fact, I’m convinced using the KH1 gave me an extra 5-7 minutes on the air. It would have taken me about that long to deploy and pack up a wire antenna.

Obviously, if you look at the QSO Map, you’ll see I had no issue working DX either.

Since I took delivery of this KH1, we’ve been inseparable. I’m finding it quite fun just to pull it out of its pack and hop on the air at completely random places. In fact, after this activation, I drove to my daughter’s school and had 20 minutes to kill, so I hopped on the air and hunting a couple of POTA stations from the parking lot.

If you’re the sort of person who loves this level of portable CW HF fun, you’ll have no KH1 buyer’s remorse.

Many of you have asked me to make a comparison video of the KH1 vs. KX2 vs. MTR series radios and I will do this soon.

The hike back: A few photos…

As I mentioned, I actually ended up filming the entire Richland Balsam hike.

Along the way, I took a few photos I thought I’d share here:


Thank you!

Thank you for joining me on this fun SOTA 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)

14 thoughts on “My first SOTA activation with the new Elecraft KH1 handheld QRP transceiver!”

  1. Let me do a play on Bob N4REE’s comment:
    Attitude matters! If you think you can make QRP with a compromise antenna work, you will make it work (most of the time). And yes, altitude helps, but I have done this from a bottom of a hole in the ground (not literally, but sometimes it feels like it when you have steep hills and mountains in all directions blocking your sight and signal).
    Thanks for another 2-way QRP QSO!

    de Karl Heinz – K5KHK

  2. Huh, we have the exact same saying about bears here in Wisconsin!
    I am happy to say that I have never yet experienced buyer’s remorse about any radio, ever, and I am looking forward to getting a KH1 into my hands fairly soon.
    I visited a few sites for future POTA and SOTA activations yesterday, hiking them with my full gear load (X6100 and miscellaneous accessories) and its 11+ pounds weight might have been the best sales pitch for a KH1 yet! Thank you for these informative and beautiful posts, Thomas!

  3. Karl is correct, attitude matters! As a long-time QRP and pedestrian mobile enthusiast, I place strong reliance on Gooch’s Paradox, one statement of which is “RF gotta go somewhere” (credit: David Newkirk, W9BRD). I recently found another version of the Paradox that applies equally well: “Things must be believed to be seen.” Yes, if you believe you can make contacts, then you will.

  4. Hey folks attitude is important, but I said altitude, as in Height.
    Getting my antenna 17′ off the ground is better than 10′ off the ground. My AX1 works better on a tall tripod than on a short table or bench.
    Getting that antenna up at 6400′ at the top of a beautiful mountain has to be better yet. Hmmmm, maybe it was the view?

  5. That KH-1 has me drooling… I can’t at all justify buying one, but that has never stopped me before.

    As far as altitude & attitude, both help. Thomas, I have no words, just admiration. Great field report!

    72! de W7UDT

  6. The portability of the KH-1 is what I keep looking at. I had to pull the trigger earlier today. Thomas, your comment of how quickly you can deploy is another thing that I’m drawn to.



  7. Did Wayne really neglect to have 10 meters in this radio? Why would you do that?
    The paddles coming straight out of the bottoms makes me think you need to hold this radio vertically when you are using the 4’whip option. That could get tiring. You still have the option of the BNC connector and a different antenna.
    Sure is a neat looking radio.

  8. Wayne didn’t forget about ten… There are a number of interviews and podcasts with Wayne on YT. In more than one of them he has explained that the challenge was to keep the size of the KH-1 to the size of the battery. To do that with the electronics in question, the frequencies in the radio had to be contiguous (that is, next to each other). Therefore…no ten. Cheers! 73

  9. Wayne didn’t forget about ten… There are a number of interviews and podcasts with Wayne on YT. In more than one of them he has explained that the challenge was to keep the size of the KH-1 to the size of the battery. To do that with the electronics in question, the frequencies in the radio had to be contiguous (that is, next to each other). Therefore…no ten. Cheers! 73 JQ7BJB

  10. I wonder why I should spend around 1500 bucks for such radio! For me that is just overkill. Would rather go for a misers approach. Keep it simple, cheap and light.
    Much more fun.
    Still, nice radio and interesting to see what can be done.
    vy 73 Matthias DF2OF

  11. Thanks for the video hike and really enjoyed your monologue. You are a fountain of information and thank you for sharing.

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