WN5C: Notes from a homebrew POTA adventure

Many thanks to Sam (WN5C) who shares the following guest post:

Notes from a homebrew POTA adventure

Sam (WN5C)

I recently wrote about the homebrew transceiver I built to operate on a month-long trip through the American Southwest. Upon arriving back in Oklahoma here’s the final outcome: 27 days, 40 parks, and 669 QSOs. I honestly can’t believe that the rig went the distance, or that I made so many contacts on 2 watts or less!

The priority of this trip wasn’t radio, though. I’m an archaeologist and I’m starting a new research project that marries my historical interests with my love of two-way communication. In short, I’m studying the effects of how communication technology aided the American colonization and transformation of the western United States around the turn of the twentieth century. This means I walked and mapped single-wire telephone lines strung up in pine trees in northern New Mexico (used to connect fire lookouts with Forest Service ranger stations), a fascinating story of dramatic changes in land management. I also visited heliograph (sun-mirror signaling) stations established in southeastern Arizona by the U.S. Army Signal Corps in 1886 to assist in apprehending Geronimo.

Working Fort Bowie NHS (US-0815) in Arizona. The peak in the distance, Helen’s Dome, had a heliograph station on top. From the fort telegraph lines would have connected remote operations to the rest of the Army’s 1880s communication network. Next time I’m climbing up on top!

I look forward to relocating and studying the artifacts from more of these heliograph sites (mostly on remote peaks) to reconstruct this communication network and understand the lives of both the soldiers and the Apache, and how this novel surveillance system altered the battlefield. Based on the artifacts I’ve seen so far there are many cans of Army-issued proto-Spam and beer bottles surrounding the signaling station where American Morse Code would have been sent and received via flashes of sunlight. The original Field Day?

But back to radio. I covered a lot of ground and activated parks in Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, Colorado, and Kansas.

The POTA sites that I activated (click image to enlarge).

At some locations I was camping so I was able to do multiple long activations and work the lower bands well into the evening. These were some of my favorite moments of the trip, being the only spot on the POTA app and leisurely working with no time or weather-based worries. It also gave me a chance to hear callsigns I was unfamiliar with, essentially exploring a new area of the country.

Working closer states after hours on 30 and 40 meters at Colorado NM (US-0918).

For other times, due to time constraints or weather (thunderstorms or that it was unbearably hot), I got my 10 contacts and moved on. Sometimes I packed the equipment for a long hike, often carried it from the car to a picnic table, and a few times deployed my antenna and operated from my vehicle.

Not every activation was a grand adventure. Sometimes, like here at Rocky Mountain Arsenal NWR (US-0226) in Colorado, I worked from the passenger seat in the car.

Every activation was memorable in its own way. I worked folks from 44 states, five Canadian provinces, and an unforgettable contact from Italy.

A map of the contacts I made (not including those in northern British Columbia, Alaska, and Italy).

The radio held up surprisingly well. Aside from it looking like a Dalí painting as the 3D printed box continued to deform in the heat, and some hot glue remelting, the electronic components worked as they should. I look forward to printing a stronger case and making some upgrades going into the fall. I do now have a real respect for the engineering that goes into designing field radios, especially those that are thrown into a pack!

Setting up a portable shack on Vail Pass in the White River NF in Colorado (US-4410). This was near the end of the trip, the plastic case was looking pretty bad.

After I began feeling less anxious about the homebrew radio (it kept turning on!) I could start focusing on the trip itself: an amazing POTA adventure with an often-uncooperative sun. Here’s a few themes I noted.


When I started doing portable QRP radio a couple of years ago the sunspots weren’t as numerous as now, but neither was there a significant solar flare every day. On most outings I could reliably operate 5 watts on 20 meters and log a contact a minute. It was so good that I could get cheeky and use very compromised antennas.

This trip humbled me. My schedule was ambitious, as I was thinking if I camped in a location for a week I could Kilo, or that on a long drive I could activate a bunch of parks before arriving at my destination. But, as the Thunderbird Mk1 outputs about 1.5-2 watts, there was no way to brute force through the will of the sun.

Failing to activate Saguaro NP (US-0060) in Arizona. The RBN didn’t see me and I had no contacts in the half hour I tried in the 100-degree heat before I packed it in. If you look closely you can see the despair.

Even with a full-sized 20-meter vertical, boy did I struggle. My trip started ominously with the X-class flare and blackout on May 29th (when FT8 went dark) and only on rare occasions did I have some amazing runs or pileups from then on. Regularly I worked an hour or more for my 10 contacts. I quickly realized my folly for not installing a CW message function which would have made waiting for the band to open back up a little less monotonous (one of the planned upgrades).

I camped for the majority of the month, and for anyone who has had a similar experience you’ll probably agree on how much more attuned one gets to the natural environment when spending all your time outdoors. You notice little things like microvariation in the weather, the changes in moon phase, how animals schedule their days. This was the first time I felt oddly connected to something I couldn’t see but could hear, the ever-changing dance of the sun and the ionosphere. I had no control of this of course, so I just had to take a deep breath and enjoy the show.

Camping at Santa Rosa Lake State Park (US-2714) in New Mexico. Fun fact, those clouds were part of a 60 MPH gust front that rearranged my campsite and operating position.

But when those contacts arrived they felt good! Especially when I didn’t have cell service and had to rely on the Reverse Beacon Network to spot me. As I was traveling to new locations with strange band conditions, I didn’t know who would call me back and so anticipation was high. There were 669 little stories, only some of which I know. Justin KW6SEA contacted me with 500 mW on an attic dipole (very cool!). Rodolfo I4RHP from Bologna, Italy persistently kept calling as I was working after hours at the Tombstone Courthouse until I copied his call, I wonder if he likes westerns? Mike AL7KC kept finding me from North Pole, Alaska which seemed like a big deal every time (best 239 reports ever). And my elmer Perry N5PJ kept checking in every time he could hear me.

I’m not really into the gamification of radio, but I am competitive and set goals for myself. Sure, I would have liked more parks and contacts, but this trip taught me to relax, look up from the notebook and paddle, and enjoy where I’m playing radio.


I have a lovely neighbor who espouses a philosophy of “finding enough.” Simply put, it’s about separating needs from extraneous wants and being happy with what you have, a way of simplifying one’s life. I’m not very good at this but I think about it a lot.

Sometimes radio and technology in general feels like the antithesis to this philosophy, something new and exciting and necessary is always around the corner. But in building and operating a very simple radio I started to think about what is necessary to be successful and happy in QRP portables ops.

Working in the Carson NF (US-4513) along the Rio Santa Barbara in New Mexico, one of the most beautiful places in the world. The quite-loud babbling brook did let me know that I need to add more AF gain, however.

Of course, finding enough is a personal thing and will be different for everyone. But I realized I really don’t require much. Part of the fun about operating a homebrew radio is working within its limitations. I felt this limitation keenly with my power output which I solved with being patient. My receiver could be a bit more frustrating as its direct conversion and receives both sidebands. This leads to a headache when trying to work Field Day (on my last evening I worked 10 contacts to be part of the event and had my fill). Receiving both sidebands can also be a pain when someone is working higher than you and in no fault of their own is coming in as clear as day on your frequency. That just means I needed to be flexible in finding an open and quiet place on the band, or filtering out a QSO with my brain.

I was worried that I didn’t have time before the trip to install all the “bells and whistles” I wanted, for example the keyer speed potentiometer wasn’t functional and instead I just set it to 19 WPM. And you know what? It worked just fine! If someone is slower I just sent with Farnsworth spacing, it’s how everyone learns anyways nowadays. It’s another thing that would be nice to have, but wasn’t truly necessary. On the other hand, I always thought CW message functionality were a bit of a gimmick and didn’t include it, but this trip taught me that messages absolutely are essential.

I also thought about the bands I worked, as I built the radio to include six (40, 30, 20, 17, 15, and 10 meters). While I enjoyed working 40 and 30 meters in the evening the higher bands didn’t get the use I thought they would. In fact, in this point of the solar cycle 20 meters is the perfect all-around band, and I would have been happy with just that if I had to simplify further. A 20-meter monoband transceiver is my next project, something small that can be tossed in a bag and work the world.

For me, using simple radios has two advantages. The first is that I feel more connected with the bands, and with how operators worked back in the day. The other is that I can really appreciate other more advanced technology I have. Even though it’s primitive my Kenwood TS-520 base station feels like the future when I use it, a fun exercise in setting expectations.


Spending a month away from my family and friends, much of it by myself, took adjustment and was often difficult. But getting on the radio for a few hours a day tied me into a community which I don’t think I appreciated until I needed it. This cracked me up because I’ve never been a ragchewer and quite like short exchanges. Even so, the joy I received from someone at home giving me a “559 OK” or someone I just met say “GM SAM” felt like a real connection.

Working the gray line at Chiricahua NM (US-0917) in Arizona.

I find CW POTA to be a welcoming and supportive group of good people. On those hot afternoons when the ionosphere was unsettled I came to rely on the POTA regulars who helped me finish an activation, and were obviously straining their ears to make it happen. And it works the other way as well. I received a few emails on my trip from newcomers to CW who let me know that our exchange was their first ever CW QSO, and I made sure to follow it up with encouragement to keep going.

And the community is large! Even though I knew my signal was weak I sometimes wondered why operators weren’t calling me back. It was illustrative when my friend Bill KF7OHM visited me at Colorado National Monument with his FT-891. The bands were in mediocre shape and he cranked the radio up to 50 watts to finish his SSB activation. For fun I tried a few CW CQs using his call (didn’t want to cheat my summer of QRP) and at 50 watts I felt like a god. The pileups! I know it’s only 2 S-units but sometimes decibels matter, and hunters are always out there. Maybe I should build an amp…

I truly appreciate the support from many of you who have reached out during and after my trip, and to all those who called me back as I sent countless CQs into the ether. I look forward to continuing to hear you on the air. Best 72, Sam

18 thoughts on “WN5C: Notes from a homebrew POTA adventure”

  1. Sam,

    This is a wonderful report. The homebrew QRP radio operation opens up so many subtle aspects of our hobby, from practical to philosophical.

    That said, I hope your research becomes publicly available. This subject of communications history in the American West sounds absolutely fascinating!

    Thanks es 72

  2. Great story, and some adventure, right?
    Interested in the antenna you were using, homebrew or store-bought?

    1. Thanks! I was using the JPC-12 which turns out to be pretty fantastic, I was delighted how well it worked on 30 and 40 meters. It works well for 20 meters as well, but if I was simply going to stay on that band I also bought a 17 foot whip (cheap on AliExpress) to screw into the JPC-12’s base and give me a full-sized 20 meter vertical. Easy to deploy and necessary for those poor conditions.

        1. The JPC-12 comes with a length (maybe 20 feet?) of ribbon cable. I just separated out the 10 strands and laid them out in a star pattern, didn’t worry about tuning the radials because I worked multiple bands.

          When I was camping in the mountains I threw a 27?-foot random wire with a 9:1 unun 40 feet into a tree. I tuned it with my ATU-10 and that seemed to work well. All my antenna options are pretty compact so it made sense to pack everything and try out different configurations. For most of the trip there weren’t many tall trees so the vertical was my primary antenna.

  3. Great adventure Sam! Thanks for sharing your story. I am envious of you. Glad you’re back in OK safe. See you on the air.
    Randy, N5ILQ

  4. What an excellent bit of writing here! Thanks for that. (Idid wonder a bit if you shimmied up that saguaro plant to attach an antenna.) I’ll go see if I can find out exactly how the military heliograph apparatus worked.

  5. What a great after action report as it not only covered the POTA aspects of the adventure but some of the details of your findings along the way. Thanks for sharing Sam.

    Irv – K3IRV

  6. I’m speechless. I just can’t find the words to express how impressed I am by all aspects of your adventure, from the homebrew radio to the courage and endurance required, to the personal accomplishments you achieved. I am honored to share our fantastic hobby and love of QRP and portable operating with you!
    And, I hope to someday read more about your research and your findings!
    72 de KR8L

  7. What a fascinating report. I can’t decide whether I was more fascinated by your archeological explorations or your POTA experiences or your radio, what an awesome journey and thoughtful and detailed report. Hopefully you’ll be able to keep this community updated on all your investigations. Awesome license plate too!

  8. Great story Sam! Glad I was able to drop by and visit you for at least one day. And thanks for the help with my POTA activation.

  9. This blog post reads like an award winning short story, you have the gift of communication in several respects. QRP CW gets in your psyche, it has a kind of simplicity and authenticity that other ways of operating do not. It shows you the magic of radio every time from days when noone hears you to those when Europe comes back. When the bands are open, you pack up with a buzz, and you go over the question for hours and days afterwards… ‘how could that have been possible?’.

    73 Paul VK3HN

  10. A truely awe-inspiring report Sam, I love reading about Portable ops in other countries to my own. And I agree with your comment about CW POTA ops being so welcoming, its such a lovely community to be a member of. Best &2, Lee M0VKR

  11. Sam, it was great working you CW on June 20th from PA to CO, late in the evening on 30 meters. My QRP rig and yours linking up through the ether was magic. When I saw your QRZ page, I was amazed and thrilled to have had a QSO with such a unique station and operator. The contact ranks among the very best in my decades as a ham. Best 72,
    — Bill W3WJ

  12. Great article! I thought you sounded familiar. Nice to meet another local QRPer! You helped me get started on my 520 restoration at Elmer night!

  13. What a delightful description of a Parks On The Air adventure combined with Archeology. Archology was my favorite class attending Ft Lewis College in the 60’s. At the time Ft Lewis was The Center for Southwest Studies. There were many Anasazi ruins scattered around the area and the class was privileged to visit several of them during Professor Smith’s course. Thank you for sharing a wonderful story. I think it is the most compelling POTA activation I have ever read, notwithstanding the many others I have read. I usually skip through the POTA activations, yours I read every word. Thank you for sharing.

  14. I really enjoyed this report, takes me back to the thing that got me into amateur radio. Operating a small radio on CW from a tent somewhere away from civilization has always had a certain fascination for me.

    Time to do it again, thanks for the inspiration!
    73, Rudi de ZS6DX/ZS2M/ZS1BT/V51VE

  15. Great report Sam! I also often combined digging and radio and I think you would be happy in Europe where there were so many wars and you can easily dig up not only old cans, but cartridges, mines and the remains of radio stations.
    Your feelings are familiar to everyone who has learned Zen by being alone with nature. Direct conversion and the absence of noise, this extraordinary combination is little known to modern amateurs who try to fight with ultra-modern technologies with even more modern noises in cities and villages.
    All the best from Ukraine!

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