Field Report :POTA Activation K-0228, Stuart B. McKinney National Wildlife Refuge, Great Meadows Unit
by Conrad (N2YCH)
January 21, 2023
Parks On the Air’s Support Your Parks weekend event for winter 2023 is the third full weekend in January and I found myself without my Jeep. I sold my ten-year-old Jeep Wrangler and my new Jeep wasn’t due to be delivered until the following week, leaving me without my “POTA activation vehicle”. I ended up borrowing my XYL’s MINI Countryman to activate K-0228, but let’s face it, a MINI is not a Jeep. It didn’t have all of my “stuff” in it. I needed to get creative about what to bring along with me that would fit easily in the MINI, yet work well enough to activate the park.
I started with my backpack kit which contains an Elecraft KX3, battery, Signalink and computer (for FT8 and logging).
It includes everything I need to transmit and it’s easy to toss in the car. I just needed to decide on what antenna to use. Since it’s winter here in Connecticut and pretty cold outside, this would be an “in-the-car” activation and without the Jeep, my antenna options were limited. I could have brought my Sotabeams Tac-Mini which could fly my PackTenna EFHW up about 20’. However, anchoring the mast would be a challenge in the cold weather. In the end, I decided to bring my Buddipole tripod and nested mast, which are compact and fit in a small bag which fit right in the passenger seat. Continue reading MINI Portable: Conrad’s POTA field report from Stuart B. McKinney National Wildlife Refuge→
I often get asked “how hard is it to fly with ….”, or “what does TSA say about …” as my job has me flying a fair amount throughout the year. In fact, I’m writing this now while waiting to board my flight for a week in Georgia and Alabama, after having just gone through TSA.
In a recent QRPer post by Thomas, I posted a comment about my frequent travel with ham gear and Thomas gave me a gentle “hint hint” nudge to write up my experiences on the matter. I thought this trip would be a good time to share my experiences in traveling with ham gear in my check-on baggage, as well as my carry-on baggage and my process for each. I’m always interested in learning from other’s experiences, so if you have some ideas for the good of the community, please share them in the comments below!
Before starting this article, and out of curiosity, I checked my past calendar and figured out that I passed through TSA screening about 26 times in 2022. I would say that, since starting my current role four years ago, I have at a minimum hit that number each year.
To address the main question I get about ham gear (antennas, radios, batteries, etc.) and TSA, surprisingly TSA has very little interest in any of it.
In all of my trips through the x-ray machine, TSA has never once pulled my bag out to further investigate what was inside. They have asked about my thermal camera, but never my ham gear. Full disclosure, I am TSA Pre-Check which does exclude me from having to remove laptops, iPads, etc. However, on a recent non-business trip with my wife and kids to visit family in Mexico, I wasn’t pre-check and they still didn’t care about any of my radio gear.
Since I’m limited on the amount of stuff I can physically carry on the plane, and my work gear requires me to check a bag anyway, I have divided my radio gear between what I want with me on the plane, and what I’ll just pick up when I collect my bag at baggage claim.
I have settled on a hard sided suitcase after having to replace some of my work arc flash PPE (personal protective equipment) when baggage handlers cracked my arc flash face shield. After upgrading to a hard sided suitcase, I started adding more ham equipment I would otherwise worry about getting damaged. In the image below you can see what, at this point, I’ve included in my checked bag.
From top left to bottom right: Raspberry Pi kit (more photos on that below), CWMorse paddle in a dollar store container with cable, Buddipole PowerMini, charging cradle for HT, SignalStuff mag mount for HT in rental car, hand mic for HT for use in rental car, throw line and weight, AlexLoop w/ Amazon Basics tripod, US Road Atlas
The idea behind the Pi and AlexLoop antenna is I can work HF digital no matter where I am. This is more fun than watching TV in a hotel, but also gives me digital capabilities to send emails or texts over HF if I am stranded without service of any kind. The mag mount and HT hand mic allow me to use my HT in my rental car as a mobile radio. The same SignalStuff antenna on my HT can be transferred to the mag mount easily once I step into the car. Continue reading Flying With Ham Gear and Navigating TSA→
I wanted it for full-duplex satellite work (funny: many satellite enthusiasts call a pair of 817s the “Yaesu FT-1634”)
The unit I purchased was like-new with all original accessories and side rails for $350 shipped.
Although my first FT-817ND has a Collins narrow CW filter installed, I decided to build one for this second unit as well. That way, I could grab either radio on the way out the door to activate a park or summit.
So why the new FT-818ND?
It was always my plan to eventually replace out one of my FT-817NDs with an FT-818ND. Here are the reasons:
I was having difficulty finding a TXCO. The FT-818ND has a TCXO-9 high-stability oscillator built-in.
I wanted one of my two radios to be a late model.
I had planned to buy a Yaesu FT-818ND sometime in 2023. Possibly at the 2023 Hamvention.
When Gavin (GM0WDD) informed me that Yaesu was discontinuing the FT-818ND on December 28, 2022–only moments after the announcement was made–I immediately hopped over to DX Engineering and purchased one. I realized that the remaining inventory of new radios would be depleted in short order and I was right. By the following day, all major US retailers were out of stock.
Are FT-818ND prices going to soar?
No. I don’t think so.
The FT-817 and FT-818 have been on the market since 2001. In that time, Yaesu has sold bazillions of them. Seriously. These pop up in the classifieds and at hamfests all the time because there are so many floating around out there in the wild.
The FT-818/817 is sort of the opposite of a rare, limited-production-run radio. If you’re looking for a used ‘818, I think you’ll find that the prices are relatively stable.
I would discourage you from paying a premium for an FT-818ND.
Next steps with my ‘818ND
I am going to set this unit up for POTA and SOTA activations; it can do double duty for satellite work.
I’ll remove the Portable Zero side rails from one of my other 817s and attach them to the FT-818.
I initially planned to yank the narrow CW filter out of my 2nd Yaesu FT-817, but that just seemed cruel. If/when I sell that radio, I would like to give the buyer a narrow CW filter option.
I also purchased RT System’s programming software and cable for the FT-817/818. I’ve adopted RT systems for all of my other VHF/UHF radios, so it’ll be easy to load, change, and clone all of the frequency memories. I’ll be nice having both SOTA calling frequencies and repeaters pre-loaded on my radios.
I’ve thought about actually making a no-edit video of building/installing the CW filter and side rails.
While the announcement by Yaesu may have prompted me to pull the ‘818 trigger a few months early, I have no regrets whatsoever.
The only challenge I’m going to face down the road is trying to sell the “extra” FT-817ND.
Then again, I’ve thought about keeping the third one decked out in the TPA-817 pack frame (see photo above) and lending it out to local POTA/SOTA newbies who want to test out the healing waters of QRP.
K-1716, Silver Sands State Park, Milford, Connecticut
January 13, 2023
By: Conrad Trautmann, N2YCH
A digital mode multiband transceiver for $69? Yes! QRP Labs has the QDX kit available for $69 US. Add $20 if you would like a very nice black anodized aluminum case to mount it in and if you want it assembled and tested add another $45. Visit the QRP Labs web site for all of the details (QDX 4-band 5W Digi transceiver (qrp-labs.com)
How well can a $69 digital transceiver work? Read on…
I ordered my QDX kit back in May 2022. It arrived in June, I assembled it and ran some tests at home. It worked well on FT8 into my home antennas. It interfaces nicely with WSJT-X and I liked the idea of using a low power transceiver to band hop on WSPR. My QDX is an early four band version, which does 20, 30, 40 & 80 meters. I set it to band hop on all four bands not remembering that my multiband offset center fed dipole is not resonant on 30 meters. Since the QDX does not have a tuner, it didn’t like the higher reflected power of a two minute long WSPR transmission into a bad load and smoke resulted. I was fortunate that the failure was isolated to the RF power amplifier transistors and replacing those got me running again. This was my own fault, not the transceiver. Now, it band hops on 20, 40 and 80 meters with no issues, I eliminated 30 meters from the hop schedule.
I share this important story at the beginning of my field report as a warning to anyone considering using a QDX to be very careful when connecting an antenna to it. Since the QDX does not have an internal antenna tuner, you either need a resonant antenna or must use an external tuner to provide a 50 ohm load with low SWR to the QDX. The QRP Labs groups.io site has a number of posts from users with different tuner suggestions.
Now comes the fun part. I visited Silver Sands State Park, K-1716, located on Long Island sound in Milford, CT on January 13, 2023 in the afternoon. While it was Friday the 13th, I had nothing but good luck. Knowing I would be running QRP power, I decided to use what I consider to be my best 20 meter antenna. It’s a modified version of a Buddipole, which I call my “no coil” Buddipole dipole. I use a Buddipole VersaTee mounted to a WILL-BURT Hurry Up mast, which is a push up mast that extends to about 25’ high. The dipole consists of two Buddipole 32” accessory arms, one for each side of the VersaTee and two MFJ 17’ telescoping whips, extended to just about 17.5’. This provides a very broad bandwidth and low SWR on 20 meters. See the screen shot of my antenna sweep from the RigExpert analyzer below.
Here’s a photo of the antenna in the air.
The temperature on this January day was a mild 55 degrees so I was able to set up my equipment in the back of my Jeep. Here’s everything I needed to do the activation. Since the antenna is resonant, I did not use a tuner.
My iPhone gives you an idea of just how big the QDX is, which is sitting just to the right of it. There are only three connections needed, the antenna cable, a 12V power cable and the USB cable. I was using my Bioenno 9ah battery for power. I brought the Bird Model 43 with a 25 watt element in it to monitor the output power and also to measure the reflected power, which barely even nudged the meter. It was effectively zero watts reflected. In the photo above, I was in a transmit cycle and you can see the power meter just a touch above 5 watts. On the computer, you can see a mini pile-up of six hunters in the queue. One thing to note about the QDX is that you can’t adjust the power by lowering the PWR slider in WSJT-X. It’s recommended to leave that at maximum. The way to adjust output power is to adjust the power supply voltage. In this case, the Bioenno had a full charge, so the radio was running full power.
I began the activation without spotting myself, just to see who’d hear me. Here’s a map of the pskreporter showing my spots.
I eventually spotted myself so hunters would know what park I was at. I was amazed that during my activation, I never ran dry or had to call CQ POTA, there was a steady stream of hunters the entire time. The QDX does a fine job receiving, here’s a screenshot of WSJT-X including the waterfall to show what it was receiving.
So, how did the $69 radio do? In a one hour and 17 minute activation, I completed 46 FT8 QSO’s. Here’s my coverage map.
I managed to complete three park to park QSO’s, too. One park called me and I called the other two who heard me and answered. I use JTAlert which helps me keep track of the order of who called. I always try to answer the hunters in the order they called me. I’ve set up a Directed CQ alert in JTAlert for anyone calling “CQ POTA” which helps me to see who else is at a park while I’m activating. If I’m able to contact them, I use the POTA spot list to include their park number in the SIG_INFO field of my log, which is N3FJP. N3FJP is handy to use since I start a new log for each activation and I’ve configured it to upload to LOTW and QRZ when I’m done for the day.
Another thing worth noting is that there is no speaker on the QDX. I’m one of those digital operators who actually listens to the cycles while I’m on the air. It provides a certain cadence to hear each cycle go by so you know what to be looking at or clicking on and when. With no sound coming out of the QDX, it forces you to find that cadence by looking at the computer screen. For me, it means watching the receive audio levels and the progress bar to see if I’m transmitting or receiving. The QDX does have a single red LED on the front panel that will flash during transmit cycles, which is also a helpful indicator.
I’d say the results shown here speak for themselves. I had a steady stream of hunters, I had just one or two QSO’s that needed a second RR73 to confirm and the coverage was as good as most activations I’ve done with more expensive radios and more power. Despite the self-inflicted hiccup I experienced at the beginning, I’d say that If you’re looking to try activating digital for Parks On The Air or even for your home, the QDX certainly works very well and provides a lot of value for the money.
I try to start each year by doing a POTA or SOTA activation on New Year’s Day.
POTA actually issues a certificate for completing an activation on New Year’s Day so there are typically loads of activators and hunters working the bands. It’s an ideal time to play radio.
This year, we had a number of family activities on New Year’s Day, but I made a little time to fit in an activation during the late afternoon at my most accessible spot on the Blue Ridge Parkway: the Southern Highland Folk Art Center.
As with my last activation, I suspected I would be operating in the dark, so I brought my LED lantern along for the ride.
Although not intentional, this New Year activation had a lot of new-to-me stuff involved!
New VK3IL Pressure Paddle
The prior evening–on New Year’s Eve–while my wife and daughters were watching a classic movie movie marathon, I used the time to heat up the soldering iron and work through a few kits and projects that had been sitting on my desk.
Quanity of 1: Three conductor wire with a (typically) 3.5mm plug (note that I had one of these in my junk drawer)
Keep in mind: the components are surface-mount. If you’re not used to working with SMD components (ahem…that would be me) I suggest buying a few spares of each in case you lose or damage one or more during the build.
It also helps to cover the finished board in heat shrink not only to protect the board and make it easier to grip, but most importantly (if you’re me) hide your electrically-sound yet unsightly surface mount soldering job.
The build might have taken me 20 minutes.
New FT-817ND Narrow CW Filter
Some time ago, I purchased a second FT-817ND with the idea of doing full-duplex satellite work. I later realized I could be taking the second FT-817ND out to the field more often if I simply had another narrow CW filter installed, so I built one.
This New Year’s Day activation was actually the first time I’d taken this particular FT-817ND and its new narrow filter out to the field!
New Armoloq TPA-817 Pack Frame
Earlier this year, I also decided that I wanted to outfit my 2nd Yaesu FT-817ND with an Armoloq TPA-817 pack frame. The idea was to experiment with building a rapid-deployment field kit around it.
The one thing about doing POTA activations in the winter is being aware of just how short the days are. It seems like, lately, I’ve had a number of activations that have spilled over well beyond sunset.
With POTA, running out of sunlight really isn’t a big deal. As long as I have a headlamp (I always do) and/or a lantern, I can continue operating as long as the park is still open to guests.
With SOTA, running out of sunlight can develop into a serious situation, especially if you’ve bushwhacked to a summit in unfamiliar territory. Even with a headlamp, it can be difficult finding your way back to an established trail. I’ve never scheduled a SOTA activation that pushed sunset unless I’m comfortable with the path to the summit.
If I’m being honest, I think a part of me actually enjoys doing POTA activations after sunset. It feels a lot like camping.
On Sunday, December 4, 2022, I was on the road once again and could not help but squeeze in a POTA activation at Lake James State Park.
It was late afternoon and I knew I’d be pushing sunset, but I had my little LED lantern just in case I ran out of sunlight (hint: I did!) and I was ready to play some radio: both CW and SSB!
Lake James State Park (K-2739)
It was a grey, chilly day and there were no other cars in the parking lot at the Catawba River Access. I had the whole park to myself until closing time at 7:00PM.
I chose a picnic table by the lake, putting some distance between me and the visitor’s center which has been known to spew radio interference (QRM) in the past.
I brought along my Elecraft KX3 for this activation.
The KX3 is one of my top field portable radios, but I rarely take it to the field these days for a couple reasons:
It’s my main shack radio and is hooked up to my KXPA100 amplifier 100% of the time (although I rarely run enough power that the amplifier engages). I do much of my park/summit hunting from home with the KX3.
Since I purchased my KX2 in 2016, I tend to take it to the field instead since it’s *that* much more portable. It’s like a smaller version of the KX3 with nearly the performance and only lacking 160 and 6 meters.
But I do love my KX3. It’s a benchmark radio–and one of the best field transceivers on the market. You will see a few field reports with it each year since I try to give all of my radios a regular dose of fresh air!
After recording the intro to my activation video (which I tried to do before the sun actually set), I decided to film the antenna deployment as well.
I debated which antenna to use at the site. I decided upon the super easy-to-deploy 28.5′ “no transformer” random wire antenna by Tufteln (see link in the Gear section below). I first demoed this super simple antenna on Mount Mitchell during a SOTA activation. It’s basically two lengths of 28.5 foot 26 AWG wire connected to a BNC connector on a small 3D printed mount which provides strain relief.
We need to do a little time-travel in this short field report…
In 2022, I accumulated so many activation videos that I have a small backlog and some that got lost in the shuffle. The following activation report is one that I meant to post in November, but it got lost in the shuffle.
So let’s time-travel…
On October 20, 2022, I pulled into Tuttle Educational State Forest to enjoy quick a POTA activation with my Penntek TR-45L.
I remember now that I wanted to hold off publishing this video until John (WA3RNC) at Penntek had time to ship the bulk of the radios from his first production run of fifty units. Demand has been very high for this sweet rig and for good reason: it performs brilliantly, is fun to use, sports amazing audio, and (with its Apolloesque design) strikes the right nostalgia chord for many of us.
Tuttle Educational State Forest (K-4861)
I had a very short window to do this activation–a maximum of 45 minutes or so. You see, I still had a good 1.5 hour drive back to the QTH and needed to pop by the post office to pick up parcels before they closed at 17:00 local.
I had planned to pair the TR-45L with my PackTenna random wire antenna and use the 45L’s Z-Match tuner, but I discovered I’d packed the PackTenna 20M EFHW instead.