All posts by Thomas Witherspoon

Field Report: Pairing the LDG Z-100 Plus, Icom IC-705, and Chameleon Emcomm III Portable

Last Tuesday (April 27, 2020), I grabbed my radio gear and my boots then headed to the Blue Ridge Parkway for a quick morning activation.

There were three factors motivating me: 1.) the weather was amazing 2.) I had three free hours in my schedule and 3.) I was eager to pair the LDG Z-100 ATU with the Icom IC-705 for the first time.

Hazel–my canine companion–was as eager to hit the field as I was.

“Let’s go, Dad!”

When she heard me grab my boots, she met me at the door with tail wagging.

I did plan to hit the Blue Ridge Parkway, but had not decided on an actual site. The lowest hanging fruit (easiest sites to reach from the QTH) are the Folk Arts Center and the Blue Ridge Parkway Headquarters. I wanted more altitude, though, so we drove to the Craggy Gardens Picnic Area.

This is a favorite spot for our family, but this time of year can be quite busy–especially around noon. I hoped that I could beat the crowds by arriving early.  We pulled into the parking lot around 9:00 AM and were one of the only cars there (score!).

Blue Ridge Parkway (K-3378 NC)

Hazel and I found a concrete picnic table overlooking the parking area and I quickly deployed the CHA Emcomm III Portable over a short tree with my arborist throw line. (Have I mentioned before how AMAZING an arborist throw line is? Why yes, I have!)

Gear:

On The Air

I made a video of the entire activation including pairing the Z-100 Plus ATU with the IC-705 via the supplied command cable.  In true K4SWL style, I didn’t read the Z-100 Plus owner’s manual or connect the Z-100 Plus to the IC-705 prior to recording.

Frankly, I forgot to read the manual I wanted to show what it was like pairing the Z-100 Plus and IC-705 for the first time without having even referenced the manual.  Fortunately, it couldn’t have been an easier process: connect the command cable, and go into the ATU function menu to activate the tuner.

I started my activation on 80 meters and–although the band was dead quiet–I worked K8RAT, WD8RIF, K4JAZ and ND1J in about six minutes.

Next, I moved up to 40 meters where I worked nine more stations in about thirteen minutes.

Finally, I moved to the 30 meter band where I worked two more stations in about five minutes.

One first for this activation was working K8RAT in north central Ohio on all three bands! His signal was incredibly weak on 30 meters, but I recognized his sideswiper “fist” or operating style.

At the end of the activation, I tested the Z-100 Plus by having it match the Emcomm III Portable random wire all the way up the band to 6 meters. It did a fine job.

No surprise here as the Z-100 Plus is a well-loved ATU that’s been on the market for quite some time already. At $150 it’s a proper bargain of an ATU. Unlike the mAT-705 Plus which only pairs with the IC-705, the Z-100 Plus is RF-sensing and can pair with any transceiver on the market.

Video

Here’s a video of the entire activation including pairing the Z-100 Plus with the IC-705 for the first time:

QSOmap

Here’s a QSO map of the entire activation:

This was a very enjoyable activation at one of my favorite Blue Ridge Parkway picnic areas. It was especially pleasant to have the place all to ourselves–a true rarity! I think Hazel was a bit bummed that our local red squirrels (we call them “Boomers”) weren’t out in full force. They’re proper “Squirrel TV” for her since she must be on a leash on the parkway and can’t chase them as she does at home.

If you’re ever travelling the Blue Ridge Parkway, this is a great area. As I mention in the video, the Craggy Gardens Picnic Area also borders a vast tract of land–accessible by a forest service road on the site’s driveway–where the Pisgah National Forest and Pisgah Game Land overlap for a POTA two-fer (here’s a previous report including this two-fer).

Craggy Dome–a SOTA summit–is also very close by. In addition, Mount Mitchell State Park is only 20-25 north on the parkway and offers up both a POTA site and SOTA summit. So many possibilities on this part of the BRP! One could easily activate four parks and two summits in the space of a few hours.

I hope you enjoyed this field report!

Thomas (K4SWL)

Field Report: Pairing the Yaesu FT-817ND, LDG Z-100 Plus, and CHA Emcomm III Portable at Tuttle Educational State Forest

On my way back to the QTH, April 21, 2021, I popped by Tuttle Educational State Forest for what I hoped would be a relatively quick activation.

The previous day I performed a SOTA activation of The Pinnacle and was still feeling the high from that brilliant solar flare propagation experience. Although I knew the solar flare effects were long gone over 24 hours later, I wanted to take in a quick hike and play a little radio: Tuttle was the perfect place for both.

Plus, Tuttle Educational State Forest is such a peaceful quiet place (that is, when no one is burning up rounds at the nearby shooting range). The park is never crowded and it has wide open spaces for playing radio.

My plan was to do a quick activation, then hit their longest trail loop through the forest.

Gear:

Tuttle Educational State Forest (K-4861)

Another reason I stopped at Tuttle was to test the LDG Electronics Z-100 Plus ATU.

In the spirit of full transparency, LDG sent this unit to me at no cost when they became a sponsor of the SWLing Post and QRPer.com recently (you may have noticed their ads in the right sidebar). While I was really curious how well the Z-100 Plus pairs with the Icom IC-705–using the supplied command cable–I didn’t have a (charged) IC-705 with me. Instead, I pulled out the trusty Yaesu FT-817ND and hit the air!

The Z-100 Plus is RF-sensing, so a command cable is never needed and the ATU will pair with any transceiver.

To use the Z-100 Plus with the FT-817ND, I only needed to hit the Tune button on the front of the ATU then send a string of dits or dashes for it to initiate a match search.

It was no surprise that the Z-100 Plus easily found matches with the Emcomm III Portable.

I started calling CQ on 80 meters and quickly worked my buddy WD8RIF in Ohio.

After a few minutes, I moved up to the 40 meter band where I worked four stations in about four minutes, then the band was quiet for a few minutes.

I then moved up to the 30 meter band and worked four more stations in about seven minutes then silence again.

At this point, I only needed one more contact to validate my POTA activation to have ten stations logged, so I moved up to the 20 meter band and in about four minutes worked two more.

If I didn’t have a limited amount of time and a strong desire to fit in a hike that afternoon, I might have called CQ a while longer on 20 meters and possibly even 17 meters, but I called QRT after a total of 36 minutes on the air.

Herein lies the advantage of having a portable ATU: it gives you frequency agility. On days when propagation is rough, and contact roll in slowly, a good ATU will allow you to find matches on multiple bands so your transceiver will be happy pushing RF through a non-resonant antenna length. I love resonant antennas, but it’s hard to beat the flexibility an ATU gives you.

[My next video, by the way, will feature the Z-100 Plus connected to the IC-705. ]

QSOmap

Here’s how my contacts looked that day on a QSOmap:

Video

Here is one of my real-life, unedited videos of the entire activation:

I was so busy making the activation video, I didn’t think about taking photos of my rig.

During the hike, however, I did snap these two:

It’s fun returning to the same parks and seeing how the flora changes with the seasons. There’s always something new to see.

I think the next time I activate Tuttle, it might be from the trail–I located a couple of spots that would be ideal for a park bench activation! That might make it feel a bit more like a SOTA activation (although, there are no summits in this forest).

Thanks again for reading through this activation report. Please comment with any questions or feedback. Very curious what LDG Z-100 Plus owners think of this ATU.


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Return of the lab599 Discovery TX-500!

Last year, I was lucky enough to obtain a lab599 Discovery TX-500 QRP transceiver for review on the SWLing Post.

It was a bittersweet experience because 1.) I really liked this transceiver, and 2.) I could only keep it for one week!

One week?!? (Now I can’t get this BNL song out of my head.)

Typically when I receive a loaner transceiver for review, I like to keep it a minimum of 4 weeks, but actually ask for up to 6 or 8 weeks. I like spending quite a lot of time with a new transceiver so I have an opportunity, for example, to take it on multiple field trips, pair it with a wide variety of antennas, and also using it in the shack.

My time was limited with the TX-500 last year because I had one of only a handful of pre-production units in the US (one was being used for FCC testing). Josh, from Ham Radio Crash Course, sent me the TX-500 after he spent a week with it, and I sent it Ham Radio Outlet where it would be eventually used as a demo unit.

When I took delivery of that TX-500 in late August 2020, I immediately hit the field. In one week, I performed seven park activations and also spent a great deal of time with the TX-500 in the shack.

For more details, click here to read my full review of the TX-500 on the SWLing Post.

In short, I really like the TX-500 as a field radio. Sadly, however, I didn’t have an option to purchase one anytime soon. There was already a massive backlog or orders at Ham Radio Outlet and lab599, like other manufacturers last year, experienced production delays due to Covid-19.

Last autumn, I asked lab599 if they would consider sending me another TX-500 on extended loan when they had a unit available.

Yesterday, I took delivery of a new TX-500!

Of course, I’ll be taking this unit to the field ASAP and plan to make a number of videos readers have requested comparing the TX-500 to the KX2, KX3, FT-818, and IC-705.

Although I’m not a fan of “unboxing videos,” I did make one of the TX-500 yesterday only moments after I took delivery. Why? Frankly, because I believe the box design itself speaks to lab599’s attention to detail.

I’ll admit right up-front that this video is a bit of an unrehearsed stream of consciousness ramble as I tried to share some of my thoughts about the TX-500. You’ve been warned:

Again, I’m looking forward to taking this weatherproof rig to summits and parks soon, so expect some field reports and videos featuring the TX-500.

In the meantime, please let me know if you have a TX-500 and consider sharing your thoughts and comments!

Activating The Pinnacle: Amazing SOTA & POTA fun with the Elecraft KX2 and Chameleon MPAS Lite

Last Tuesday (April 20, 2021), I decided to make a detour to a park I had never visited before: Crowders Mountain State Park (K-2726).

It’s actually quite odd that I’ve never activated this park during the weekly trip to do a little caregiving for my folks: Crowder’s Mountain State Park is a reasonable detour especially compared to some of the more remote parks I’ve visited recently.

What’s really impressive about Crowders Mountain is that although it’s not as large as a national park and it’s very close to the city of Gastonia, it has no less than two unique summits that qualify for Summits On The Air: The Pinnacle and Crowders Mountain.

Both summits are accessible from the main park visitors’ center via a well-maintained trail network.

The propagation forecast looked pretty grim and after my last activation, I thought I might increase my chances of success by hiking to both summits in one visit. This made sense because I would only need 4 contacts per summit to have a valid SOTA activation and I could combine the contacts from each summit to hit 10 total contacts to activate the state park.

I decided to call the park and ask how long it would take to hike to both summits: the ranger told me “about 5 hours, or less if you’re fast.” That meant that once I added in my setup/pack up times and on-the-air time, I would be staring at a minimum of 7-8 total hours.

I (wisely) decided to pass on that opportunity. I simply didn’t have enough time in my schedule for that many hours at the park. That, and I didn’t want to feel rushed–I wanted to enjoy my outdoor time.

I decided instead to activate one summit and simply plan on spending more time on the air then plan to come back to the park for the second summit on a different day.

Before going to bed Monday night, I checked out the trail map and decided to activate The Pinnacle.

Crowders Mountain State Park (K-2726)

I arrived at Crowders Mountain State Park around 11:00 AM local–the weather was nearly ideal.

I had pre-packed all of the radio gear and supplies in my GoRuck GR1 rucksack, so once I arrived, I grabbed the pack, put on my hiking boots, a hat, and hit the trail.

I’ve read that Crowders Mountain State Park can get very busy and it’s no surprise as the park is within easy reach of Shelby, Gastonia, and the Charlotte Metro area. Fortunately, I was visiting on a Tuesday morning, and while I saw at least 30+ cars parked in the main parking lot, I passed other hikers only a few times on the Pinnacle trail. It’s a sizable park and can easily swallow 30 groups of day hikers!

I followed the orange-blazed trail to the summit of The Pinnacle.

The hike was very enjoyable and, frankly, not what I would consider strenuous, but it had enough elevation change to feel like a proper hike. I allowed an hour to reach the summit, but it only took about 40 minutes or less.

Near the summit, there’s a fork in the trail: if you take a right, it leads to the summit, if you take a left, it’ll lead you on a much longer Ridgeline Trail that will eventually take you into Kings Mountain State/National Park–you’d better believe I’ll try that one day in the future! It would be fun to activate two parks and a summit all on foot.

I took a right at the fork and the .2 mile long trail zig-zagged up the side of The Pinnacle.

I was a little surprised to be greeted by the sign above.  It’s true that the summit area is quite rocky and you have to watch your step, but this warning is a bit extreme in my opinion (especially since the SOTA activation I did with my daughter recently was orders of magnitude more dodgy!).

If you are activating The Pinnacle and don’t want to climb up the rocky path, no worries. I’m certain the area where the sign is located is well within the SOTA summit activation zone.

The Pinnacle (W4C/WP-010)

Although The Pinnacle is only a “one point” summit, when you reach the top you’re greeted by some impressive views.

The Pinnacle and Crowders Mountain are both outlying mountains so are the tallest points in the area offering beautiful, long-range vistas.

There were perhaps a half dozen hikers hanging out on the summit. I found a quite spot to set up on the side of the summit only a few meters from the top.

Gear:

On The Air

During the hike, my buddy Mike (K8RAT) sent a text noting that propagation on 40 meters was non existent. He suggested I play on 20 meters and above, possibly including 30 meters.

Later on, I found out that Mike was 100% correct. Several POTA activators that day mentioned on the POTA Facebook group that 40 meters was completely wiped-out.

I installed the Chameleon MPAS Lite vertical antenna next to me. I’ll admit that I was a little worried it might be too rocky to plunge the MPAS Lite’s stainless spike in the ground, but it turned out not to be the case.

The CHA MPAS Lite has really proven itself as an invaluable SOTA antenna. While the stainless spike adds weight to my pack, it’s less fussy than dealing with guy lines and telescoping fiberglass poles and much quicker to set up.  You do need enough ground to plunge that spike into, but if there are trees and bushes on the summit, it’s probably doable!

I started recording a video (see below) of the activation, spotted myself to the SOTA network (even though it would have likely auto-spotted me via the Reverse Beacon Network)  and hopped on 20 meters.

Solar Flare!

I had no idea at the time, but we were experiencing a solar flare which explained why 40 meters was completely wiped out.

The effect on 20 meters was simply epic.

I called CQ and was instantly rewarded with a long, continuous string of stations. Within 26 minutes, I had already worked 23 stations with 5 watts and the MPAS Lite vertical. A stark contrast to my previous POTA activation.

The view from my shack

And here’s the thing: the flare opened up 20 meters to local/regional stations as well. I worked stations as close as South Carolina, Georgia, and Tennessee–this is simply unheard of normally. Of course, stations on the west coast were also booming in.

I was a little surprised I didn’t log any European stations on 20 meters, but I suspect they were having a difficult time competing with the strong signals from North America during the flare.

I short: the band opening was amazing fun and even renewed my faith in our local star just a wee bit. (Ha ha!)

After playing on 20 meters, I decided to try 17 meters.

Wow! Without a doubt, I worked more stations on 17 meters in short order than I’ve ever worked during a field activation. In 10 minutes, I worked 12 stations. As with 20 meters, the flare opened up stations that would normally be in my 17 meter skip zone.

Here I was worried about logging the ten stations needed to validate my park activation!  After logging 35 total contacts, I decided to pack up.

Here’s a QSO Map of the activation (click to enlarge):

Video

Here’s one of my unedited real-time, real-life videos of the entire activation:

(Click here to view on YouTube)

Although the weather app on my phone wasn’t showing any afternoon thunderstorms nearby, there were some patchy dark clouds forming on the other side of the summit and the winds were shifting, so I decided to call it a day and enjoy the hike back down the mountain.

Fortunately, the clouds never amounted to anything but I don’t take my chances with spring weather–it’s fickle, especially along the North Carolina/South Carolina line. That, and frankly, I needed to stick to my travel schedule.

I took my time on the way back down and simply soaked up the outdoors.

I love doing field activations of all types, but I’ll admit that I’m becoming addicted to Summits On The Air because of the hiking opportunities it presents.

There are few things in the world I enjoy more than hiking.

When I’m on a trail, all of my concerns seem to dissolve.

Perspective

On the return hike, I passed by a group of three hikers. All of them were staring at their phones while hiking and one tripped on a tree root in the path. They caught themselves before hitting the ground.

I’ll admit I was thinking at the time that mother nature was saying, “Hey! Wake up, disconnect and enjoy the beauty around you! You need some perspective!” 🙂

I’m already looking forward to visiting Crowders Mountain State Park again.  I believe I’ll return within a month and hike to Crowders Mountain, activating both the summit and park.

Sometime, I’d like to hit the trails as soon as the park opens and, perhaps, activate both Crowders Mountain and Kings Mountain parks on foot. That would likely take an entire day when I include the time on the air, but it would also be a lot of fun.

I was telling my wife yesterday that I actually enjoy writing up the odd field report on QRPer. It hit me that there are a couple of reasons why…

For one, a number of readers have reached out and thanked me because they enjoy living vicariously through my field reports and videos.  I get it. My family and I enjoy watching YouTube videos of travelers around the world. We avoid the personality-driven channels and focus more on those that are less “produced.” It gives us an opportunity to travel to, say, Spain, France, Finland, or Turkey when we can’t presently do so. It pleases me to no end thinking that my reports and videos could, even in some very small way, offer a little vicarious travel to others.

Secondly, writing up these reports gives me an opportunity to re-experience some of my field time and sort through photos I might have taken along the way. Although it takes a few hours to write a report, I truly appreciate the experience.

Thank you, dear reader, for spending time with me during this outing!


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Paul’s updated RF Exposure Calculator

Many thanks to Paul Evans (VP9KF), who writes:

Yes, after a couple of years of regulators trying to bring their new rules into effect, the new RF Exposure Calculator is available at:

http://hintlink.com/power_density.htm

v2.0 denotes that the new rules to be introduce on 2021-05-03 are included.

There are a number of follow-on documents yet to follow from FCC,ARRL, Ofcom and RSGB in order to fully correct the documents which have covered amateur radio ‘exemptions’ in the past. There are now no exemptions except for 0 dBm (1 mW) or less for ANY service under the FCC (not just the amateur radio service). The new rules both sides of the Atlantic are different but cover all RF emitters. The only not fully finalised are the wireless high power, low frequency chargers intended for electric vehicles (a daft, inefficient way to charge them).

If you have questions, use the Help page indicated (‘CHANGES’). This is still untidy because it has grown into coverage of USA, UK and EU regulations, including some that are not technically in effect until 2021-05-18 in the UK by Ofcom. EU transition, when you see how it’s already done, is a mess.

Multiple sources are not included. There are differing views on this subject, some of which may yet be amended and have certainly been over-complicated by the regulators.

The biggest thing to note is that in the USA and the UK practically all radio amateurs must now do an assessment of their RF Exposure levels with virtually NO exemptions. The UK rules are more onerous in some ways, with everything over 10 W requiring examination and with portable and mobile stations needing (somehow) to justify their results. Imagine being on a public hilltop with your transceiver for HF or 10 GHz?

Both sets of rules include exposure limits for technically trained professionals and for members of the ‘public’; with 6 minute and 30 minute power averaging. They assume that members of a ham’s household are ‘trained’. If somebody else wanders over your property, they are not.

The massive FCC document (169 pages) makes for hard reading and either contradicts itself in some places or leaves some questions un-answered. However, it is a ‘final’ document and not a draft and comes into force on 2021-05-03. If you have an existing station you can wait 2 years to comply by calculation. If you have a new station or you change anything, you need to comply by calculation after 2021-05-03. Put up a new dipole on 80 m? You’ll need to comply.

Move house? You’ll need to comply. Go out on Field Day? You’ll need to comply. How it gets policed by the FCC is anybody’s guess. In the UK, Ofcom can monitor your signals undercover and knock on your door and ask you to produce your calculations from 2021-05-18 onwards (no two year grace period!).

Enjoy your new 5G maniac induced RF Exposure regulations, even when a huge distance away in the RF spectrum.

Completing a field activation when band conditions are poor

Sure…the sign is a little rough, but the site is nearly ideal.

Lately, when I hit a park or summit to do an activation, I allow a little extra time.

We’re truly in the doldrums of the solar cycle at present, but we’re heading into Solar Cycle 25 with the promise of more sun spots and better propagation.  (At least, the ARRL is banking on it!)

If you’ve been doing field activations these past few years, you know how to cope when there are few or no sun spots. You might get less DX contacts, but you can still validate an activation easily enough.

But some days, propagation is unstable or wiped out altogether based on the particles, winds, and CMEs our local star might decide to hurl our way.

Last week (April 12, 2021), I stopped by a new-to-me site: Table Rock State Fish Hatchery.

It was very much an impromptu activation as I decided to visit the site on my way back home after spending time with my parents. Max (WG4Z) mentioned that he had recently visited the site and it had easy access–I checked the map and saw that it was, perhaps, a 30 minute detour.

Table Rock State Fish Hatchery (K-8012)

I arrived on site and found a number of concrete picnic tables and a load of trees ideal for suspending a wire antenna.

Before I deploy an antenna–a wire or vertical–I always check for power lines or cables in the vicinity. This site did have them so I deployed my antenna in such a way that there would be no possible way they could touch.

Always look for power lines!

My buddy Mike (K8RAT) told me in advance that this would be a challenging activation because band conditions were so rough, so I decided to deploy my Chameleon CHA MPAS 2.0 antenna as a random wire instead of a vertical.

I didn’t have my instruction sheet for the MPAS 2.0 so forgot to use the strain relieve at the base of the antenna (not a big deal) and I added a counterpoise wire. I knew it would radiate well.

Next time, I won’t forget to attach the strain relief!

I paired the Icom IC-705 with my mAT-705 Plus ATU knowing this would give me frequency options across the bands. Setup was actually very simple.

Gear:

I hopped on the air assuming 40 meters might be somewhat fruitful.

Turns out, it was not.

Contacts were slow coming and I could tell conditions were very unstable. In the span of 30 minutes, I had only worked five stations. That’s a very slow rate compared with a typical activation.

I eventually made my way to the 60 meter band and was very happy to rack up an additional three contacts in fairly short order. (I often forget about 60 meters, but it’s a brilliant band and proper blend of 80 and 40 meter characteristics.

When I felt like I’d worked all available stations on 60 meters, I went back up to 40 meters and finally added three more contacts in 20 minutes.

If I’m being honest, this activation felt like a proper struggle. I was fully prepared to call it quits without having logged 10 stations to validate my activation simply due to my schedule. This activation took me to the threshold of my available time.

In fact, I recorded one of my real-time, real-life videos of the activation, but decided I wouldn’t even bother posting it because…well…it would be too long and had so few stations calling in.

In the end, though, and against my better judgement, I uploaded the video to YouTube because, frankly, activations like this are a reality in 2021.

Video

In fact, once I returned home, I looked at the POTA and SOTA discussion groups and there were numerous reports of failed and troublesome activations that afternoon with ops running much more than QRP power.

I even read a report of one unlucky operator who was attempting his first ever POTA activation during that same span of time. He was not able to gather his 10 needed contacts and felt somewhat deflated. I shared my story with him because I think he feared either his gear or his technique were to blame. He was running SSB which would have put him at even more of a disadvantage that day.

Still…I had fun!

A bad day in the field is better than a good day in the office, right? Right!

While I might have been frustrated with the poor propagation, it didn’t stop me from enjoying this outing. The weather was beautiful, and I even had a canine welcoming committee pop by for a visit (you can see that in the video).  I also worked a number of friends that day on the air including (I later found out) one very new CW operator.

Although you can’t see it in the photos or video, the Fish Hatchery is close to Table Rock which is a beautiful mountain here in western North Carolina. The drive to the site is quite scenic.

I don’t do POTA, SOTA, or WWFF for the numbers–I do it because I love playing radio outdoors.

Time is your friend

My activations are normally very short because I squeeze them into my weekly schedule. Keep in mind that, regardless of propagation, you can almost always get your 10 contacts with enough time. It also helps if you’re activating a site that is either rare, or if it counts for multiple programs (I’ll often find SOTA summits that are on state or national park land).  Chasers from multiple programs are a good thing!

I’d encourage you to check band conditions before leaving home and simply plan to spend more time on the air if conditions are poor. Bring a book with you and put your CW or voice memory keyer to work while you dive into your favorite novel. 🙂

Keep in mind that sometimes our local star will surprise us with amazing band openings. The activation after Table Rock was a case in point. Stay tuned!

Have you struggled to complete an activation recently?  Or have you struggled as a hinter/chaser? Please comment!

My path to learning CW and activating parks and summits

One of the most common questions I receive on my YouTube Channel is on the topic of how I learned CW and started doing CW field activations.

I’ve often told new hams or those who want to learn CW that there is no “one path” to learning CW. Mine was certainly not a straight path, and I believe very few are.

I will state up-front that there are a number of resources out there for learning CW, including apps, programs, audio recordings, and clubs.

One resource with a loyal following is the Long Island CW Club.  I’ve heard so many rave about their program, it’s certainly worth exploring.

My Path to CW

I first learned about amateur radio in high school from a Curtis Mathis TV repairman house call. As he diagnosed an issue with our living room television, I held the flashlight and probably asked dozens of questions about the components inside. He eventually looked at me and said, “Have you ever heard about amateur radio?

After showing him the shortwave listening station I’d put together in my bedroom (all centered around a Zenith Transoceanic), he suggested I stop by a local RadioShack and pick up study material for the Novice license.

In 1988, the first steeping stone into amateur radio required learning enough CW/Morse Code to pass a simple five word per minute test along with a written exam.

I eventually purchased Gordon West’s exam prep package which included the book and cassette tapes to help with my studies.

I was in high school at the time, though, and involved in a lot of extracurricular activities including my high school marching band, scouts, I volunteered at our local community theatre, was in a brass quintet, played bass in the high school jazz band, and I even played Tuba for our local college band. I had too much on my plate already. Then, I did my undergraduate studies including a year in France and put off my license even longer.

After graduating college/university in 1996, I worked briefly at a RadioShack and found the time to start studying again. Through the encouragement of my good friends and Elmers Mike (K8RAT) and Eric (WD8RIF), I studied the written material for my Novice and Technician exams, and also the cassette tapes for my 5 word per minute CW exam.

In early 1997, I took and passed all three components to snag my (then) “Technician Plus” license.

I planned to learn 13 words per minute to pass my General class license, but the FCC actually dropped the code requirement altogether.  I passed my General in 1998 or 1999, and moved to Europe and the UK for a few years with my employer.

After moving back to the States, I tried to get back into CW, but again put it off thinking the learning curve would be too great.

Then in 2007, I had a break in employment and had free time at home. I pulled out those Gordon West tapes and worked through the entire course again.

The moment I could confidently copy all of the letters, all of the numbers, and a few abbreviations, I called my buddy Mike (K8RAT) and asked him to meet me on the air.

I was nervous, but I was communicating with a friend who was happy to slow down to 5 words per minute (not an easy task, mind you, when you’re used to 20WPM+!).

Mike and I had a daily morning QSO and that built my code speed up to 13-15 WPM in short order.

I learned that after your brain assimilates each Morse Code character, it’s then all about recognizing the sound of each character and abandoning any in-head translating of dits and dashes which slows you down. This is the ideal approach to any language: you need instant recognition to build speed. It’s not hard to do and, in fact, and our brains are wired to do this automatically.

After I started building confidence with code and doing 3 way 13 WPM ragchews with Mike and Eric on 80 meters, I started another huge project: building a house.

The house build took the better part of three years and it absorbed all of my time (that and my wife and I also had toddlers at home!).

We eventually moved into our house and I set up a permanent shack. I would occasionally hop on the CW bands, but usually just to test CW performance for transceiver and receiver reviews.   In other words, I let my CW skills slip again.

Parks On The Air

It wasn’t until last year (2020) during the pandemic that I decided to build my CW skills to a point that I could complete a Parks On The Air (POTA) CW activation.

What was the motivation?

1.) POTA and SOTA activators who schedule their activations can be automatically spotted via the Reverse Beacon Network (RBN). This means if you’re at a site that has no mobile phone coverage, the system may automatically spot and re-spot you from your CW CQ calls.  Since 60% of the sites I activate have no mobile phone or Internet coverage, this was a HUGE motivating factor.

2.) Let’s face it: CW is the ultimate mode for the portable operator. CW is simply more efficient and effective with your power output than voice modes like SSB, AM, or FM. Unlike modern digital modes, which are also more efficient than voice modes (think FT8/FT4), you need no special equipment or a computer as an interface.

3.) CW is a skill and, frankly, I wanted to improve that skill. I knew CW activations would be a wonderful motivator and excuse to practice.

Morse Runner

In May 2020, I started using a free program called Morse Runner to prepare for CW activation and potential pileups. Click here to read about my experience with Morse Runner.

Hunting

I also started hunting CW activators in the POTA program from home. The exchange is pretty simple, so it was easy to do. This also gave me the opportunity to learn common exchange communications and abbreviations.

Contests and DX

I started working DX stations in CW. As I mentioned in a previous post, the exchanges are very formulaic.

I also made a point of working CW stations in the 2020 ARRL Field Day and during the 2020 13 Colonies event.

My first CW activation

I’ll admit that I was nervous, but Hazel was pretty darn relaxed.

As I started to build a little confidence on the air–and before I had could talk myself out of it–on July 25, 2020, Hazel and I took my field radio kit to the Blue Ridge Parkway and I completed my first CW activation. Click here to read the details.

In short? It was actually a bit easier and more enjoyable than I had imagined.

Although I would get some butterflies at the start of the next few CW activations, CW quickly became my mode of choice. Why? For one thing, CW is a very narrow mode which means it’s super easy to find a clear frequency. CW also copes with QSB, QRN, and QRM much better than SSB. Frankly, there are also less LIDS on the CW bands.

There’s another reason that’s hard to explain, but I’ll try: when I operate in CW, I find that it takes my mind off of everything else going on in the world. When I’m listening to and sending code, it becomes my focus and somehow it’s very relaxing. I find it a bit of a refuge.

Finally, I have an appreciation of radio history and nostalgia so it’s fun to operate such a simple, early mode that’s still so incredibly effective.

What was your CW Path?

So there you go! CW is now my mode of choice. Even though I don’t even have one year of CW activations under my belt at time of posting, I operate it 95% of the time I’m in the field. I still love phone contacts–don’t get me wrong, I’m not a CW-only guy–but I prefer CW these days.

I would love to hear about your path to learning CW. What tools and resources did you use? Did you have any mentors that helped you along the way? Are you still learning CW? Please comment!

Rendezvous Mountain Field Report: Activating three individual sites on one summit!

Last Wednesday (April 7, 2021), I managed to block out most of the day to play a little radio in the field. When I have opportunities like this, I usually take one of two approaches: either make a multi-park and/or summit run, or go further afield and activate a site or two on my bucket list.

I chose the latter.

Two of the very few sites from my 2020 Park Bucket List that I hadn’t managed to activate were Rendezvous Mountain Educational State Forest and Rendevous Mountain State Game Land. When I created my bucket list, both of these parks were very rare: one was an all-time new one, the other had only been activated once. In 2021, they were still rare but both had activations logged.

When two park entities are this close together, I will do my at-home research in advance and search for a spot where the boundaries of the two parks might overlap opening an opportunity for a one activation two-fer.  Although there are exceptions (like Elk Knob)  when a park and a game land share a common name, there’s a decent chance their boundaries overlap, possibly even in an accessible area.

Fortunately, I discovered last spring that Rendezvous Mountain did indeed have an accessible spot where both the game land and state educational forest meet. I pinpointed it on Google Maps and embedded the URL in my park bucket list spreadsheet:

I can’t overstate how important one of these lists is to an activator who loves exploring different  sites. When the weather outside is horrible and activating isn’t a good option, spend your time indoors doing research for a day when you can hit the field!

Tuesday evening, I decided to finally hit this Rendezvous Mountain two-fer. Since the weather was forecast to be beautiful, so I also wanted to fit in a proper hike, so I started searching for a nearby summit as well.

Click to enlarge

Turns out, there was a SOTA summit called “2543” (named after its height above sea level in feet) that was accessible from a Rendezvous Mountain Educational State Forest parking area. An easy four mile round-trip hike. Score!

Next, I found the 2543 summit on a topo map and compared it with the location I’d already plotted for my two-fer. Turns out, they were very close to each other–likely within 100 meters. I was able to confirm with confidence that the summit and game land could be activated at the same time. The state forest map was a little too vague to confirm its exact boundary.

I originally found this site using the NCWRC maps and topo/trail maps.

Here’s the interesting part: the game land parking area I planned to use was within 50-100 meters of the SOTA summit. If I wanted to, I could easily turn this summit into a drive-up activation. But again, I wanted to hike, so I plotted a trip to the parking area of Rendezvous Mountain Educational State Forest.

My plan was to hike to the summit, activate it and the game land as at the same time, then hike back to the Rendezvous Mountain Educational Forest’s parking area, grab a picnic table and activate the state forest separately.

I arrived on site around 11:30 and spent a few minutes confirming that I was hitting the correct trail (as there are multiple trails in this forest).

The trail head is at the last parking area, simply keep following the paved road which quickly turns into a gravel/logging road.

Turns out, it couldn’t be easier to find the summit trail (should you decide to make this same activation): simply drive to the last parking area in Rendezvous Mountain Educational State Forest, and continue walking up the road past the metal gate. This road will take you past the visitor’s center, turn into a gravel road, then pass the fire tower road on your right.

Simply continue following the main road for two miles. There are a few branches on this road and I did take one thinking I was sticking to the main road, but quickly discovered it was a dead end and had to back-track. In general, follow the most traveled road and you’ll be fine.

The summit is fairly nondescript since it’s lower in altitude and covered in trees. Look for a short spur road, two miles in, near the game land gate (where you could park if you wanted to do a drive-up activation).

As I hiked to the site, I realized that the logging/access road is actually the boundary between the game land and the state forest. A promising sign!

When I arrived at the short spur road that ended on the summit of 2543, I was very pleased to discover that the game land/forest boundary followed the spur road and was all well within the SOTA activation zone! Brilliant!

Rendezvous Mountain State Game Land (K-6941), Educational State Forest (K-4859), and
SOTA Summit 2543 (W4C/EM-082)

The game land, state forest, and summit all met on an old road bed that was flanked by tall trees.

This meant that I could activate all three sites in one go and–since there’d be no need to activate the state forest separately–still have enough time to perhaps activate Kerr Scott Game Land later in the afternoon on my way home.

You can see the state forest sign on the left, the game land sign on the right–both within the SOTA activation zone.

Point of clarification about park boundaries and “two-fers”

POTA is fairly clear about where park boundaries are in terms of counting a park in an activation, “The activator and all the equipment you use must be within the perimeters of the park, and on public property. […] If the park is part of a trail system or river, you need to be within 100 feet of the trail or river.”

In order to claim a two-fer, there needs to be park overlap. Technically,  you can’t straddle a map line between two (non-river/trail) park sites and activate them as a two-fer because you and your equipment can’t be in both places at the same time if there’s no property overlap. In POTA, there is no buffer area around a park unless it’s a trail or river.

SOTA is specific and gives you a 25 vertical meter activation zone which forms a contour line around the true summit (not a secondary, nearly as high area). Little room for interpretation here.

For Rendezvous Mountain, I decided it was a POTA two-fer because I activated on a road that is also a marked and blazed trail used for recreation/access for both the game land and forest–and both of these areas are a part of the over-arching Rendezvous Mountain State Forest.

Had this been a boundary defined by an imaginary (surveyed) line without a common trail or road, there would have been no point of overlap, thus no two-fer.

This was actually the first time I had been in this particular situation. All of the other multiples I’d activated in the past had vast areas of geographic overlap.

Again, no one but the POTA activator actually knows the truth, and it would be incredibly rare that anyone would ever question you after your logs have been submitted. There is no POTA Police and it’s not even a contest–it’s a group activity. It’s all about following the rules to the best of your ability, exercising due diligence,  and being honest with yourself.

Now where was I?

Gear:

At the site, I used my new compact arborist throw line bag.

It worked even better than I had expected.

I was concerned that the line wouldn’t deploy as smoothly as the line does from my larger arborist storage cube, but it deployed perfectly!

On the air

I deployed my Vibroplex EFT-MTR end-fed antenna across the road bed and connected it to my Elecraft KX2 with attached KXPD2 paddles.

This made for a very compact and simple setup: in situations like this, I love the compact size of the KX2 since it can easily fit on my clipboard where I also log on paper.

I also brought along my Google Pixel 3 and made a video of the entire activation (see below).

Propagation was very unstable, but I hoped that this site would be rare enough to attract SOTA, POTA, and WWFF chasers thus helping me log my needed 4 for SOTA and 10 for POTA/WWFF.

I first hopped on 20 meters CW where I quickly worked seven stations in eight minutes–from Utah and Arizona, to France, Spain and Germany. An excellent start!

I then hopped on 30 meters (using the KX2’s ATU instead of removing the SMA cap on the EFT-MTR), and worked one station in Missouri.

Next, on 40 meters CW, I logged another six stations in six minutes.

I then connected the microphone and worked a Summit-To-Summit contact on 20 meters SSB. I was very pleased to put K4AAE/P in the logs because I had difficultly working other stations on 20M SSB.

Finally, I moved to 40 meters SSB and worked a total of four stations in five minutes.

All-in-all, a total of 19 contacts logged in a total of 45 minutes on the air.  Not bad for QRP on a poor propagation day!

QSO Map

Video

I made one of my real-time, real life videos of the entire activation. Check it out below or via my YouTube channel:

Photos

As I hiked back to the car, I took my time and enjoyed the weather, the hike, and the solitude. Here are a  few extra photos from the camera roll:

Thank you for reading this field report!

If you ever pass by North Wilkesboro, North Carolina, I highly recommend this site. It’s very rare that you find a site that is a SOTA, POTA, and WWFF entity and that can be activated by a pleasant 4 mile RT hike, or as a drive-up.

I’ll plan to hit Rendezvous Mountain again next year!


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Could you activate a park or summit in CW only using a CW decoder and memory keyer?

The Xiegu G90 in CW Decode mode (note the text at the bottom of the display)

As more and more radio operators hit the field to activate parks and summits, many want to turn to CW to benefit from Reverse Beacon Network (RBN) spotting and also to take advantages of the inherent efficiencies of CW at QRP power levels.

Thing is, CW is a skill so there is a learning curve associated with it.

The learning curve is actually more modest than you might think, which is the reason there are so many new operators employing this earliest of communication modes.

A reader recently asked if he thought he could get away with doing a park activation for POTA using the built-in CW decoder in his transceiver and an external memory keyer pre-programmed with a wide variety of exchanges and signal reports. He even thought about using a keyboard-based keyer as opposed to paddles or a straight key.

The idea would be to get on the CW bands for experience as he’s learning CW. At present, he doesn’t know CW at all, but he’s starting to learn.

His question was simple, “Could I activate a park with this sort of setup?”

My reply? “Possibly. It would likely be frustrating.”

Before getting into a field activation, let’s talk about one area where even modest CW skills can be used to snag contacts.

Working short exchange DX in CW

There are a number of  DXers who effectively rely on CW skimmers, keyboard sending, and pre-programmed exchanges in order to work DX.

How do they do this? It’s simple, really:

DX exchanges are incredibly simple and formulaic.

For example, in order to work a typical DXpedition the only CW one really needs to know is what one’s own callsign sounds like in CW at a relatively high speed.

To work a DXpedition in CW, for example, I would only need to program the following two messages in my CW memory keyer:

  1. K4SWL” (my callsign)
  2. 5NN TU DE K4SWL” or ” K4SWL 5NN TU” or even simply “5NN TU

That’s it, really. Here’s how it would play out…

I simply press the memory button with my callsign to call the DXpedition.

When the DXpedition sends back my callsign and possibly a signal report (“K4SWL 5NN“), I then press the memory button with my reply (“5NN TU“).

My only skill would be knowing what my callsign sounds like in CW at 20-30 WPM. That’s actually very easy to learn.

The reason why this procedure is so easy is because you only need to recognize your own callsign in CW; the DXpedition at the other end is doing all of the hard work by picking callsigns from the pileup and replying.

Anyone could learn how to work these short DX exchanges in CW over a weekend. It’s not always as easy and straight-forward as the example above (sometimes, for example, the DX may only send back a portion of your callsign with a question mark)  but it is possible to work short exchange DX and DXpeditions without knowing much CW at all.

CW Skimmers vs. Built-in transceiver decoding

At home, you can also use powerful CW skimmers on your computer–sometimes via SDR applications–to decode CW across the bands.  In the field, you could also use a laptop or tablet to do the same thing. The Reverse Beacon Network (RBN) uses CW skimming to spot CW activators 24/7. It’s obviously pretty effective.

This particular reader was asking about using their transceiver’s built-in CW decoder along with pre-programmed CW exchanges.

I’ve reviewed numerous transceivers with built-in CW decoders. Some work better than others.

Transceivers decoders are typically pretty basic and not terribly adaptive. Some struggle with code that varies in speed–for example, it might  expect received code at the same speed your keyer is set to. That doesn’t always happen, of course.

Also, most transceivers will only interpret code that is completely tuned in properly–many have CWT and auto tuning functionality to center the frequency on the received signal.

If your transceiver likes the code speed and if you’re properly tuned in, you could get a very good read of the code being sent to you.

However, transceiver decoders (at present) will get confused by:

  • multiple signals (i.e. a CW pileup)
  • sloppy sending (junk in, junk out!)
  • signals that drift
  • and depending on the operator’s skill, straight keys, semi-automatic keys, and side-swipers (or “cooties”) can also confuse them

In other words, transceiver decoders are simple and typically are looking for standard, electronically-keyed code that’s properly tuned-in. They’re better at handling a rag-chew with a friend rather than the dynamic environment of multiple CW ops calling a site activation.

With this said, some transceivers are better at CW decoding than others. Your mileage will vary.

But the real rub?

When activating a site, you are the DX.

When you’re activating a park or summit, the burden of interpreting incoming callsigns falls on you. Built-in transceiver CW decoders are not good at pulling apart multiple callsigns being sent all at once. In fact, all of the transceivers I’ve used in the field only have one line of decoded text that scrolls across the screen.

If you activate a park and only one chaser/hunter calls you at a time, they’re spot on your frequency, and sending clean code, you probably could effectively use your transceiver’s CW decoder and pre-programmed messages to complete an exchange. This “ideal” situation would likely be fairly rare, in truth.

Your brain is a better

Your brain is much better at adapting, so there’s just no escaping building your CW skillset if you want to activate a park, summit, island, or any site where you are the DX.

Good news is, there are a number of applications, courses, and programs out there to help you build CW skills.

One place to start is the Long Island CW Club. I’ve heard so many success stories from their program. (Please comment with suggestions that have helped you!)

And when you’ve learned just enough CW to hop on the air, I highly recommend using the free Morse Runner application to practice handling small pileups.

Also? Chase first!

Before attempting a CW activation and getting frustrated by the experience, I would try chasing at home first using your transceiver’s decoder.

Chasing is a situation where you can make the decoder work better for you, because you’re only focusing on one target signal (an activator) at a time.

I did a lot of chasing as I was working on my CW activation skills. I also chased ARRL Field Day contacts and made a 13 Colonies “Clean Sweep” employing a bit of CW. Since the CW exchanges were so formulaic, it wasn’t all that difficult.

Side Note: DMX-40

Ironically, as I was writing this article, I learned about a product made by the company PrepComm called the DMX-40. I believe a reader may have commented with a link at some point.

The DMX-40 is basically a 40 meter self-contained QRP transceiver designed to send and decode CW.  The idea behind the DMX-40 stems more from an emergency communications point of view: you won’t need to learn CW in order to use it during emergency or one-on-one communications.

I’m tempted to test the DMX-40 to see how well it works in the real world. So far, I haven’t seen a review where it’s truly put through the paces in real-time. I might ask the manufacturer to send me a loaner if there’s interest. Let me know in the comments if you think it might be worth reviewing.  I am curious if it would work for the odd CW rag-chew and/or chasing CW park and summit activators. I assume, based on the product description and specs, its CW decoder would be much more robust than, say, the decoder in my Elecraft KX2.

Summary

Being completely transparent here, I’ve had this article in my drafts folder for the past three or four weeks. I initially wrote it thinking it would be a pretty simple answer. In truth, though, I’ve never attempted a CW activation only using my transceiver’s decoder.

There may be some savvy operators who could make this work using a CW skimmer and keyboard-based keyer with macros, but I think it would be an operation in frustration. I think it would discourage me more than anything else.

I do think there’s a place for CW decoders. In fact, I found the one in my KX3 incredibly helpful as I started chasing CW signals on the air from home. I never completely relied on the decoder, I simply used it to confirm what I though I was hearing. It built my confidence.

In the end, I believe it’s easier to simply learn some CW. It’s not really that difficult and I firmly believe it’s good for your brain!

Comments?

Please comment if you regularly employ a CW decoder, have completed a field activation with one, or if you simply used one while learning CW. I would also love to hear from folks who use CW skimmers and what applications they use. Indeed, I’d love to hear any of your considerate thoughts on the topic.

Which should you buy? The Icom IC-705 or the Elecraft KX2?

Without a doubt, the most popular type of question I receive from readers here on QPRer.com and over at the SWLing Post has to do with making equipment purchase decisions.

In the past two months, I’ve had numerous questions from QRPer readers asking my opinion about choosing between the new Icom IC-705, or the Elecraft KX2. In fact, as I started putting this post together this morning, I received yet another email from a reader asking my opinion about these two iconic QRP transceivers!

I love both of these radios for different reasons, so the answer is not an easy one.

Let’s discuss this in some detail…

I decided to make a video talking about the pros and cons of each transceiver and note the reasons why one might pick one over the other. My hope is that this will help inform a purchase decision:

Click here to view on YouTube.

Do you own both of these radios? Or did you recently decide to purchase one instead of the other? Please comment with your thoughts and opinions!