When I head out the door to activate a summit, if it involves a long hike, I reach for one of my super compact QRP transceivers like the Mountain Topper MTR-3B, Elecraft KX1, or KX2. If you’re carrying your entire station and all of your hiking provisions in your backpack, it’s best to keep the load as light and compact as possible.
I purchased the single-band QRP Labs QCX-Mini last year specifically with Summits On The Air (SOTA) in mind. My QCX-Mini is built for 20 meters which tends to be my most productive SOTA band.
The QCX Mini has a rugged, utilitarian feel: basic controls, two line backlit LCD display, and a sturdy aluminum enclosure. It’s super compact.
One of the first things I did was build a dedicated field kit around the QCX-Mini. Everything–save my throw line–fits in my Spec-Ops Op Orders pouch:
I’ve now taken it on a few activations, but the very first outing was on Monday, December 7, 2021.
That afternoon, my daughters attended an afternoon art class that was only four miles from our QTH as the crow flies, but took 45+ minutes to drive. Gotta love the mountains!
I had no complaints whatsoever about the drive, though, because it was within five minutes of the Zebulon Vance Historic Birthplace; one of my favorite local POTA spots!
Zebulon B. Vance Birthplace (K-6856)
After dropping off the girls, I drove to Vance and was happy to see that no one was occupying their one picnic shelter. Even though the Vance site is relatively spacious and they’ve numerous trees along the periphery of the property, it’s a historic/archaeological site and as a rule of thumb I only set up at picnic areas in parks like these.
It was a breezy day and temps were hovering around 44F/7C. These are ideal conditions in my world.
Many thanks to Josh for sending me this X6100 so promptly and performing the first firmware update!
I took delivery of the X6100 last week after returning from vacation in the Outer Banks. It was bittersweet as I was soeager to check out this new radio but simply had too many projects on the table to complete before Christmas day.
That and in the morning light after our return, my daughter pointed out that one side of my horizontal delta loop antenna had fallen to the ground. Fortunately, I was able to fix the antenna in short order. It’s certainly time to push the schedule up for completely replacing this 10 year old wire antenna!
X6100: Known issues
I had gotten a few messages from X6100 early adopters like Scott (KN3A) and Rich (KQ9L) noting that the current firmware version (the December 7, 2021 release) had taken care of a few initial bugs, but there were still a few outstanding points that specifically affect CW operators. Most notably:
Noise reduction (or DNR) in CW mode severely distorts audio
CW message memories can be stored and saved but cannot yet be played back on the air (SSB message memories are fully functional, however)
Fine tuning is limited to 10 Hz steps at the moment
Someone had also noted possible CW keyer timing issues.
At the same time, I had read mostly positive comments about SSB operation from QRPer readers and subscribers.
Frankly, knowing Xiegu’s history of pushing the production and distribution timeline ahead of a radio being fully-functional and properly tested, I expected a few bugs and issues that would need to be sorted out in firmware updates.
To be very clear: I’m not a fan of the “early adopters are the Beta testers” philosophy. I wish Xiegu would thoroughly Beta test their products so that they were more polished and fully-functional right out the door much like we expect from the likes of Elecraft, Icom, Yaesu, and Kenwood. There are almost always minor post-production bugs to sort out even with these legacy manufacturers, but issues should be of the variety that somehow slips past a team of Beta testers who actually use the radio.
On Sunday, November 28, 2021, my family needed a little time outdoors after a Saturday full of home projects.
I packed my field radio kit in the GoRuck Bullet Ruck, then we jumped in the car and drove to the Clear Creek Access of South Mountains State Park (the same site in my previous POTA field report).
South Mountains State Park (K-2753)
It was a gorgeous day and we had the park to ourselves. First thing we did was hike the short Lakeview Trail loop.
This trail is only 1.3 miles long, but offers up some beautiful views.
Hazel also came along and enjoyed the sights, smells, and even got her feet wet in a stream!
Fortunately, no one was using the one solitary picnic table at the Clear Creek access, so we claimed it!
First thing I did was launch a line and deploy my 28.5′ speaker wire antenna.
I knew it would pair perfectly with the Elecraft KX2!
The new N6ARA TinyPaddle
This activation also gave me an excuse to check out a paddle my buddy Ara (N6ARA) recently designed.
He calls it the TinyPaddle:
An appropriate name, because this key is wee! Ara notes:
As someone who likes bring experimental gear to summits, I have had paddles break on me multiple times. […] I don’t like carrying the extra weight/volume of a second set of paddles, so I designed my own “TinyPaddle” for backup as a middle ground option. It weighs roughly 3.7g and is 1.2cm x 1.2cm x 5.0cm in size.
He’s right, the TinyPaddle could tuck away even in the most compact of field kits. You’d never know it was there.
Here’s the TinyPaddle connected to the side of my Elecraft KX2:
Ara sent this key to me for frank feedback (prior to doing a small production run of them) knowing I’d not only check it out in the shack, but (of course!) take it to the field.
I decided to do my activation at South Mountains State Park using only the TinyPaddle.
Before taking it to the field, I had some concerns that the TinyPaddle might turn in the 3.5mm key port on the side of the KX2 as I used it. Once plugging it in, though, I could tell that it would not be a problem at all. The paddle is so lightweight and so sensitive, it’s simply not an issue. In fact, it would be rather difficult to use it in such a way that it would shift in the 3.5mm port.
On The Air
Knowing in advance that it was a contest weekend (the CQWW), I decided I would stick with the WARC bands during this activation.
I tuned the speaker wire antenna to 10.112 MHz on the 30 meter band.
The 30 meter band was more crowded than usual as many other POTA/SOTA/WWFF and casual operators sought refuge from the signal density on 40 and 20 meters.
Since I had the family with me and since we’d spent most of our time at the park eating a late picnic lunch and doing a casual hike, I allotted only 20 minutes of air time for this activation. I was hoping I could validate the activation with 10 contacts in that amount of time.
I started calling CQ with the N6ARA paddles. First thing I noticed was how sensitive and precise they were. Although the TinyPaddle is a mechanical paddle (with spaced contacts), they feel more like a capacitive touch paddle they’re so sensitive.
I started calling CQ POTA and soon logged KE4Q.
A few minutes later, I worked AI8Z, followed by W5WIL, WO0S, WA2JMG, AA0Z, WA2FBN, N0VRP, KA3OMQ, W9SAU, and K1MZM.
With a total of 12 stations logged in 21 minutes, I went QRT.
Here’s what 5 watts into a 28.5′ speaker wire did on 30 meters that fine day (click map to enlarge):
Here’s a video of my full activation. Hazel was being very camera shy; for some reason, she doesn’t like the OSMO Action camera. My wife and I think it must resemble something she’s seen at the vet’s office? We may never know!
Ara is obviously a talented engineer. I’m always impressed with devices like this that are so simple, yet so effective.
The TinyPaddle is going to live in my KX2 field pack as a backup to the KXPD2 paddles which have actually failed me in the field before.
That time the KXPD2 failed me…
I mention in the video that I once needed to use my Elecraft KXPD2 paddles to communicate with my buddy Mike (K8RAT) to share my SSB frequency for a very rare park activation I activated in the spring of 2020. After plugging the KXPD2 paddles into the KX2, I found that I could only send “dits.” I couldn’t even set it up to send as a straight key from one side of the paddle.
This forced me to drive 25 minutes to a spot where I had cell phone reception to contact Mike with info for a spot, then drive back to the site. That effectively shortened my activation of this ATNO park by 50 minutes!
I sent Elecraft the photo above and they quickly identified the problem: turns out, one of the center posts had loosened and fallen out. They immediately sent me a replacement post free of charge (typical Elecraft customer service).
I use the KXPD2 paddles quite a lot because they mount directly to the front of the KX2 making it possible to use my kneeboard during SOTA activations. Since that mishap in the field, I tighten the KXPD2 posts at least once a month and also carry a precision screwdriver with me in my field kit.
A proper backup!
But having the TinyPaddle now is even extra insurance that a paddle failure won’t stop me from completing my activation!
When I made the video, I wasn’t certain if Ara was planning to do a production run of these or not. I’m very pleased to see that he has!
I hope you enjoyed this field report and activation.
I’d like to send a special thanks to those of you who are 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.
My daughter Geneva (K4TLI) took a few extra photos at the park that day. Enjoy!
Do you know what it’s like when you have a new radio and you can’t wait to take it to the field?
Yeah, me too!
Even before I received my QCX-Mini in October 2021, I already knew where I’d take this pocket-sized, single-band QRP CW transceiver for its first field activation: Mount Mitchell (W4C/CM-001).
Mitchell is the highest summit east of the Mississippi river and only about 6 miles from my QTH as the crow flies. I had yet to activate Mitchell this year for SOTA although I have activated it for POTA/WWFF several times. As I’ve probably mentioned in the past, Mount Mitchell park is my “happy place.” Our family loves this site and we visit it frequently to hike in the spruce-fir forest.
Because I receive so many tips from readers here on QRPer, I wanted way to share them in a concise newsletter format. To that end, welcome to QRPer Notes, a collection of links to interesting stories and tips making waves in the world of radio!
VU3HZW’s News blog primarily for South Asian Amateurs
Many thanks to Saquib (VU3HZW) who writes:
My name is Saquib VU3HZW from North Eastern India. Your blog is a trove of knowledge for any QRP operator. Your style of writing is awesome!
We would be pleased if you [and your readers] could read some of the articles and give us some valuable feedback. This is just an honest attempt by us to create a vibrant amateur radio news blog primarily for South Asian Amateurs.
Good luck with the new site and thank you for sharing it with us, Saquib!
IC-705 Mic A/B button CW Keyer Challenge
Many thanks to Keith (GW4OKT) who points out that the Icom IC-705’s A/B buttons can be set up to send dits and dashes. It doesn’t allow for proper iambic keying and, as Keith admitted, isn’t terribly easy in practice. Nevertheless, he gave it a go and provided these short videos operating the IC-705 at 20WPM CW:
On Thursday, October 7, 2021, I was driving back to the QTH and had a hankering to do an activation. There was only one problem…
Lots of rain…
As I was driving on Interstate 40 west-bound, I passed through bands of rain producing torrential downpours; the kind that brings interstate traffic to a crawl. Weather-wise, this is not typically when I would contemplate a park activation. I did a quick mental inventory of what I had in the car. Turns out I had the Icom IC-705 and the Elecraft KX2.
I also had the Elecraft AX1 portable antenna. Having used the KX2/AX1 pairing under picnic shelters with success, it was a no-brainer what I’d use at Lake James.
Most North Carolina state parks have covered picnic shelters that are first-come, first-serve or can be reserved (at no small expense) for group gatherings. There’s a really nice large picnic shelter at the Catawba River access of Lake James State Park–in fact, I took shelter there earlier this year during an activation.
On Monday, October 4, 2021, I was set to have a lunch with my good friend, Taiyo, who happened to be in town from Japan. We decided to grab some take-out and meet at a picnic area halfway between my QTH and where he would be staying during his visit. Turns out, the Vance Birthplace (K-6856) fit the bill perfectly–especially since rain showers were in the forecast all day and Vance has a covered picnic area.
I didn’t have an activation in mind that Monday because my focus was on spending time with a friend I hadn’t seen in years, but I brought the KX2 field kit with the AX1 antenna…you know...just in case.
After running a number of errands in town and grabbing some take-out lunch from Whole Foods market, I still ended up arriving at Vance about an hour early, so I pulled the KX2 and AX1 out of the car.
UPDATE 09 (Oct 2021): Larry (N0SA) informs me that he sold all of his SOTA Paddle inventory as of last night. In other words, very quickly. If he produces another run of them, I’ll post it here on QRPer.com!
A couple weeks ago, Larry (N0SA) reached out to me and asked if I’d like to evaluate a new set of precision field paddles he’s designed. Having purchased a set of 3D-printed paddles from N0SA last year, I didn’t hesitate.
Larry simply calls this model the SOTA Paddle. An appropriate name because this paddles is incredibly compact, lightweight, and perfect for hiking and backpacking. They also have a short Allen wrench cleverly stowed within the paddle body for any adjustments in the field. The Allen wrench is locked in in such a way, there’s no possibility it’ll fall out either. Clever!
They come with a high quality three foot cloth braid cord with molded 1/8” plug.
Over the past week, I’ve taken these paddles to two different park activations with the Elecraft KX2 and AX1 antenna.
My activation videos and field reports are perhaps a week down the road yet, but I couldn’t help but post my initial impressions.
So how would I describe N0SA’s new SOTA Paddles–?
The Bee’s Knees!
I love them.
These truly feel like precision paddles. They’re entirely constructed of aluminum and stainless steel parts.
Although the body/frame of the paddles are open, they feel incredibly sturdy. No doubt, they’ll survive the environment inside a backpack or field kit.
They’re very compact, yet feel perfect in the hand.
Larry also includes 6 pieces of 3M dual lock for mounting the paddles on a clipboard, radio, or any other surface.
As readers know, I love my CW Morse Paddles–they represent an amazing amount of quality at such an affordable price.
If you’re in the market for a compact precision aluminum key, however, I can recommend these without hesitation.
Here’s the deal as I understand it: Larry may only make a couple small production runs of these. He does this as a fun side hibby, not for scaled-up production and distribution. I believe he may have as many as 20 units available soon.
Again, you’ll see the SOTA Paddles in action in upcoming videos, but I wanted to mention it here on QRPer so that–if this sort of thing interests you–you might have a chance to place an order before the first and/or second production runs are spoken for.
The price is $125.00 US (each) plus $15.00 for priority mail shipping. You’ll have to inquire if located outside the US (I’m not certain if he ships internationally).
Payment can be made via PayPal to his email address which is his callsign @att.net. (You can also check out his contact details on QRZ.com.)
Email him with questions and to check availability in advance.
Larry is a long-time reader of QRPer.com, so he might add notes in the comments section.
Speaking of which, thank you so much, Larry, for sending me these paddles. They are simply amazing.
Sometimes when I’m activating a park or summit and work someone who, like me, is activating a park or summit for a Park To Park (P2P) or Summit To Summit (S2S) contact, in my head I wonder what their station and operating situation looks like on the other end.
At least one instance was uncovered recently when Dan (WB8JAY) reached out and shared a video he took while working me in a P2P contact. It’s awfully fun to hear what my signal sounded like on his end.
This video reminds me how CW distills the communications down to only those dits and dahs; unlike SSB, for example, where you might hear background noises and extra chatting during an exchange, in CW it’s just pure code.