Category Archives: POTA

Field Report: Some QRP POTA and SOTA at Hanging Rock State Park!

I’m not a summer-heat-loving guy. Quite the opposite, in fact. Give me cold weather and I can hike and camp forever.

On Tuesday, July 13, 2021, it wasn’t cold outside, of course, but I still wanted to fit in a park activation and hike. Despite the forecast highs of 90F/32C. I had almost the entire day to play radio, too–a rarity.

When I have an entire day to devote to radio, I can either hit the road and try to hit multiple parks–perhaps as many as 5 or 6–or I can choose to venture further afield and hit a new-to-me park.

I tend to choose the latter and that Tuesday was no exception.

North and north by NW of Winston Salem, NC, are two parks I’ve always wanted to visit: Hanging Rock State Park and Pilot Mountain State Park.

I devised a plan to first visit Hanging Rock, then Pilot Mountain. Both parks are close together geographically, but a good 30 minutes drive apart.

A quick check of the SOTA database and I discovered that there are actually two summits on Hanging Rock State Park’s grounds. One is off the beaten path a bit and would require some light map work, and the other–Moore’s Knob–is on one of the park’s main trails.  Since I was putting this whole plan together morning of, I opted for the “easy” summit as I didn’t have time to double-check topo maps, parking areas, etc.

Hanging Rock State Park (K-2735)

Travel time to Hanging Rock was about 1 hour 45 minutes. Once I arrived on site, I discovered that, like many state parks, the main visitor’s center is being renovated.

I easily found the parking area for the Moore’s Knob loop. It being a Tuesday, the parking lot only had a few cars.

Pro tip: with the visitor’s center out of commission, stop by the swimming area pavilion for some proper restrooms/washrooms!

I planned to take the full trail loop in a counter-clockwise direction.

I’m glad I did, too, as the bulk of the ascent was a long series of steps. I’m not a fan of steps, but I much prefer using them heading up a mountain rather than down.

Near the summit, there’s a very short spur trail to Balanced Rock which is worth a visit not only for the rock, but also the views.

It being a North Carolina state park, there are some obligatory warning signs about how falling off of cliffs can lead to injury or death. These warning signs aren’t as prominent as those at Crowders Mountain State Park, though!

Moores Knob (W4C/EP-001)

You can see my MPAS Lite vertical poking out of my pack. I brought it along in case I had no good tree options. In this case, I didn’t use it.

There’s no mistaking the summit as there’s a large observation tower on top that affords some spectacular views of the Blue Ridge Escarpment, the foothills, and Pilot Mountain (my next stop).
There were a number of hikers on the summit of Moore’s Knob and it was actually pretty gusty up there, too. I searched and found a nice little spot to set up that was sheltered from the wind, shaded, and even had trees tall enough to hang my Packtenna 9:1 UNUN random wire antenna!


Gear:

Set up was quick and easy on the radio side of things, but as with most SOTA activations, positioning my tripod to make a video was the tricky part. Since I’m sitting on the ground, it can be difficult to find the right angle so that the radio, key, and notepad are all in the frame. (See my video below).

I started calling CQ at 16:00 UTC on 20 meters. I had a reasonable cell phone signal on the summit, so I was able to spot myself. Problem was, though, my hiking app seemed to be draining my iPhone’s battery very rapidly (that and my aging iPhone 7 probably needs a new battery at this point). After spotting myself, I shut down the phone to save power.  I forgot to contact my buddy Mike (K8RAT) with a frequency, but he eventually saw me on the SOTA spots.

In a period of 29 minutes, I worked 20 stations on 20 meters.

Next, I moved up to 17 meters where I worked eight more stations in seven minutes.

I love effortless activations like this and part of me wanted to continue operating–even switching to SSB–but looking at the time, I knew I needed to hit the trail, make my way back to the car, and drive to Pilot Mountain.

I called QRT around 16:42 UTC and packed up my gear.

QSO Map

Not bad for 5 watts and a 31′ wire!

One highlight of this activation was meeting Jim (NA4J) who heard my CW from the summit and popped by to introduce himself. Although I trimmed out our conversation in the video (I’m not entirely sure he knew I was recording the activation), you’ll hear him in the first half of the activation.

Video

Here’s my real-time, real-life video of the entire activation:

Click here to view on YouTube.

The hike back to the car was very pleasant. It was a bit longer than the path I took to the summit, but the descent had no steps which made it a breeze.

I had a radio topic on my mind during that hike and actually pulled out the OSMO Action camera and made a bit of a “hike and talk” video.  It’s on the topic of ATUs and resonant vs non-resonant antennas. I haven’t yet decided if I’ll post it–the shaky camera might make some viewers sea sick! 🙂 We’ll see–maybe I’ll brave up and post it anyway…

Next, I drove to Pilot Mountain State Park for a quick afternoon activation. Although Pilot Mountain is a SOTA summit, too, it’s yet to be activated because the actual summit would require proper rock climbing, I believe.

Thank you

As always, thank you for reading this field report! And thank you to everyone who has supported me through Patreon and the Coffee Fund. I truly appreciate it.

I hope you find time this week to take your radios outdoors to play, or to hunt some parks and summits from your shack, backyard or vacation spot!

And for those of you working on your CW skills, don’t give up and don’t stress about it. Take your time and allow your brain to absorb code by simply listening. When you feel you’re able to copy even some of the contacts in the videos of my activations, you’re ready to start hunting CW activators!

You’ve got this!

73,

Thomas (K4SWL)


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What is it they say about the best-laid plans?

Ever have one of those days where nothing works out the way you had planned–?

Yeah, me too.

In fact–and this is purely a coincidence–today was one of those days for me!

Here’s how it played out…

A New-To-Me Park

This morning, I had an optometrist appointment in Hendersonville, NC and needed to fit in the appointment on my way to visit my parents for a couple of days. I don’t often venture out to Hendersonville so I looked up a few parks in the area and thought I might fit in a quick activation around lunch.

Keep in mind it’s been nearly two weeks since my last field activation, so this QRPer is having some serious withdrawal.

I looked at the map and realized that Green River State Game Land was a very short detour. I had meant to activate Green River last year and actually located an ideal spot for an activation via the NC WRC maps but never activated it. Since it would be awfully fun to fit in a new-to-me park en route to visit the folks, I mapped out my travels, scheduled the activation via the POTA website and notified my buddies Mike (K8RAT) and Eric (WD8RIF) so they could look for me on the air.

The optometrist appointment went well (thanks for asking) so I made my way to Green River Game Land. I had no problem finding the site–it was basically an open parking area off a rural road.

It was hot, though. My car’s thermometer measured 93F, the humidity wise high, and there were no trees to provide shade. I sat up the Chameleon MPAS Lite, a folding chair, and used the open hatchback of my Subaru as shade from the noon sun. It was *just* enough shade for my chair. I placed the Xiegu X5105 on my clipboard, connected the key, and turned on the radio.

QRM!

The first thing I heard on the radio is the last thing any activator wants to hear. Noise…lots of it.

The radio was tuned to 17 meters and the noise was approaching S9.  The noise was raspy and sounded like arching from power lines.  I looked at the road behind me where there were several power lines meeting at three different poles.

I checked 20 meters, 30 meters, 40 meters, and 60 meters. The noise was consistently loud across those bands.

I’m certain the noise was coming from a local power pole–it could have been a staple, nail, or something else that was arching.

It was so incredibly hot on site, I had no desire to attempt hiking into the game lands far enough to escape the noise. In my experience, power line/pole noise can propagate vast distances. Plus, again, it was just too hot.

Normally, I’d try to find another game land access point, but having already done a bit of research, I knew going to an alternate spot would be too much of a detour. This was the only access point along my route.

I decided, instead, to pack up my gear, continue my travels, and plot an alternate activation.

South Mountains Game Land

Photo from earlier this year.

I called my buddy Mike, and told him I thought I’d try South Mountains Game Land. In the back of my mind, I had been wanting to visit one portion of South Mountains I activated in the winter this year. I thought, perhaps, it was actually near a SOTA summit on the game lands.

I pulled over at a gas station a good 45 minutes from South Mountains and tried to log into the POTA website to change my scheduled activation (so it wouldn’t spot me at the wrong park via the Reverse Beacon Network). Problem was, before logging me in, Google wanted to initiate a two-factor authentication since I hadn’t logged into the POTA site on my phone in a while. Google wouldn’t send me a text message to confirm, it wanted me to dig a confirmation code out of my Pixel 3 phone that I only use as a video camera and the Pixel 3 was inaccessible.

I had a hunch that I wouldn’t have mobile phone access on site, so I called Mike back and he agreed to correct my spot on the POTA network. (Thanks, Mike!)

Ten minutes from the game lands entrance, I noticed dark clouds had formed to my north. I pulled over and checked my weather app while I had Internet access. Sure enough, a large line of thunderstorms had formed and were heading my way, very slowly. I decided then and there I was not going to do an activation–my phone was already giving me severe thunderstorm warnings–but I thought I might at least explore the site and see if the road would actually lead to a SOTA summit.

Three minutes from the site entrance, the heavens opened. It was a proper gulley washer of a deluge, too–the type that forces you to drive at a snail’s pace and the type that causes flash-flooding. I turned down the game land road and then the lightening started popping too.

I threw in the towel.

Although a part of me would have enjoyed taking the dirt road several miles into the game lands, these rains were the type that wash out dirt roads and I had no intention of dealing with that too. Plus, it would be my luck…right? Right.

Still…

I’m really not that bothered because I actually enjoyed the drive today (save when I hit the storms) and I also found a place in Hendersonville that makes excellent Gyros!

That and I fully intend to do an activation or two tomorrow, weather pending.

We’ll have to see how it plays out. It’s all a part of the field radio fun!

73,

Thomas (K4SWL)

New River State Park: Pairing the Discovery TX-500, Elecraft T1, and PackTenna 9:1 UNUN

Last month, my family went on a camping trip to New River State Park and had an amazing time.

I first discovered New River much earlier in the year when I did a multi-park and summit run.  I really liked the park and, especially, the campground, so I decided to return with the family for some proper outdoor fun and relaxation.

Of course, the benefit of camping at a state park is being able to play radio pretty much anytime while on the park grounds. For a few days, it’s like you’re living in a park activation and can actually set up an antenna and use it over the course of multiple days.

It’s such a big departure from my typically short (45-90 minute) park activations.

When we first arrived at the New River State Park campground, I deployed my PackTenna 9:1 UNUN random wire antenna.

I brought two transceivers with me: the Xeigu X5105 and the Discovery TX-500–I pretty much split my operating the time equally between the two radios.

New River State Park (K-2748)

Although I spent much more time on the air than I normally do, I didn’t make videos of each session. One reason is I wanted to operate with earphones–especially since some of my sessions were later in the evening or early in the morning. I didn’t want to disturb my neighbors at the campground.

That and, especially with the X5105, I wanted to see what it would be like to operate with earphones for extended sessions. Prior to making videos of my activations, I almost exclusively used earphones in the field. I appreciate the sound isolation earphones offer–I also find they help tremendously with weak signal work. When I make videos, however, I don’t want to go through the hassle of recording the line-out audio separately in order to use headphones, so I use an external speaker.

I decided to record my Wednesday, June 23, 2021 evening session with the Discovery TX-500.

Gear:

This session started only a few minutes prior to the end of the UTC day which meant I had to watch the clock very carefully and clear my logs at the beginning of the UTC day (20:00 EDT).

In POTA and other field activities, if your activation straddles the UTC day change, you must keep in mind that any contacts made after 0:00 UTC can only be counted on the next day’s logs. This was not a problem for me because I had logged dozens of stations earlier in the day, but if you ever start an activation close to the UTC day change, you need to make sure you log your 10 contacts for a valid activation prior to 0:00 UTC.

Auto-spotting help

Another thing complicating my sessions at New River State Park was that I chose not to schedule my activation via the POTA website prior to our trip.

If you schedule your activation via the POTA website, anytime the Reverse Beacon Network picks up your CQ calls (in CW), the POTA spots website will scrape that information and auto-spot you.  It’s an amazing convenience for those of us who operate CW.

I chose not to schedule my activation days at New River because I had also planned to operate at another nearby park during my stay and I didn’t want the system to spot me incorrectly. That, and I thought I would have mobile phone coverage to self-spot.

It turned out that–contrary to my mobile phone company’s coverage maps–I had no internet service at the park. None.

In order to get spotted, I relied on my Garmin InReach GPS/satellite device to send short text messages to my buddies Mike (K8RAT) and Eric (WD8RIF). My pre-formatted message would prompt them to check the RBN for my frequency, then spot me to the POTA site manually.

I’m incredibly grateful to have had them helping me in the background. Everyone should have a Mike and Eric as friends!

Video

I made a real-time, real-life, no-edit video of the entire activation. Note that it took a while to get spotted, so the first ten minutes are simply me talking (it’s alright to skip that bit…it won’t hurt my feelings!).

Also, here’s a QSO map of that day’s contacts. Note that this includes stations I logged later in the UTC day (i.e. the following morning/day.

Due to some unexpected conflicts, our camping trip was shorter than we would have liked. We plan to visit New River later this year and spend much more time there. It’s a beautiful park!

Thanks for reading this short field report and here’s hoping you get a chance to play radio in the field soon!

73,

Thomas (K4SWL/M0CYI)

Portable Power Primer: A beginner’s guide to selecting the best battery option for your field radio kit

The following article originally appeared in the April 2021 issue of The Spectrum Monitor magazine:


I’ll admit it:  I’m a massive fan of field radio.

In 2020, I easily spent a total of 100 hours outdoors with my radios activating a total of 82 sites for the Parks On The Air (POTA) program alone. This doesn’t include hours and hours of SWLing (shortwave radio listening). It’s been great.

Taking radios into the field is so much easier to do today than it was in, say, 1985 or earlier, because we have so many more options for powering our gear in the field. Not only have radios become more efficient in operating off of battery power, but we now have so many affordable and lightweight rechargeable battery choices on the market.

In the following article, let’s take a look at some portable battery power options for your radio gear. By “portable,” I’m talking power options for those of us who load a backpack or carry case and head to the field.

To keep the scope of this article in check, I’m also going to focus only on rechargeable battery options. And rather than get bogged down in the nuances of battery chemistries, we’ll focus on the end result––the pros and cons of each battery type, and how practical they might be for your field application.

In addition, I’ll also limit discussion to batteries that can be purchased of-the-shelf rather than addressing homebrew options. While I love building things, I’m very cautious when dealing with battery charging because if not done correctly, the results can be dangerous. I prefer obtaining products from trusted suppliers who thoroughly engineer and test their equipment.

Let’s take a look at several types of batteries, and speak to their advantages…as well as disadvantages. Then––as we summarize our findings––let’s discuss how to choose the right option for your needs.

Consumer-grade rechargeable batteries

Let’s begin by talking about the lowest-hanging fruit in terms of portable power: everyday rechargeables in the form of 9V, AA, AAA, C, and D cells.

While, admittedly, these batteries are not typically an option because of their limited capacity and energy density, they can still be a very practical power source for portable receivers and even a few QRP transceivers.

Rechargeable battery chemistries have improved with time, thus I no longer purchase nickel-cadmium (Ni-Cd or NiCad) or legacy nickel metal hydride (NiMH or Ni–MH) batteries.

 

These days I almost exclusively purchase low-self-discharge nickel metal hydride (LSD NiMH) batteries, specifically, Panasonic Eneloop batteries (Amazon affiliate link).  Although they’re a pricey option compared with generic NiMH batteries, and might even be overkill for certain applications, I do love the shelf life of Eneloops.

Of course, the benefit here is Eneloops have that low self-discharge. They will maintain charge better at rest (i.e., when not in use) than legacy NiMH or NiCad batteries. From my real-word usage, I’m convinced that Eneloops also demonstrate better longevity over numerous charge/discharge cycles than many others.

All of my portable shortwave receivers that accept AA or AAA batteries are powered by Eneloops exclusively.

And although I’ve never done this myself, it is also possible to power highly-efficient QRP transceivers with Eneloop batteries, so long as you use a multiple battery holder to increase voltage and capacity to match both your rig and your desired amount of operating time.

WD8RIF’s AA battery holder

Keep in mind, though, that most transceivers will require a block of at least ten AA batteries to reach a voltage around 12 VDC. As you might imagine, it can be cumbersome after using your radio in the field to remove all ten of these batteries and charge them in a charger that can only hold, say, four batteries at a time. I personally prefer other options, but this one is certainly a fairly affordable, safe, and accessible option.

Note that in recent years, Panasonic started offering Eneloop Pros: while pricier than standard Eneloop batteries, they offer slightly higher capacity at the expense of overall longevity (roughly 500 versus 2100 total charge/discharge cycles). Since the voltage is the same, I’ve never felt the need to use higher-capacity Eneloop Pros.

Rechargeable Panasonic Eneloop AA batteries (non-Pro version):

  • Price: $2.25 – $4 US per battery, depending on the number in the package
  • Weight: 4 grams/.4 ounces per cell
  • Voltage: 1.2 V each
  • Longevity: Excellent, up to 2100 charge/discharge cycles
  • Ease of recharging: Simple via Eneloop OEM chargers
  • Solar- charging option: Eneloop originally marketed solar chargers, but doesn’t seem to do so presently

Sealed Lead Acid (SLA) Batteries

When I first became a licensed ham radio operator in the late 1990s, sealed lead acid batteries were the primary battery power source used for field radio operation.

At the time, these batteries were one of the best options for portable radio use because they could be purchased in a variety of sizes (based on amp hour capacity), and unlike flooded lead acid batteries, they required no maintenance––and being sealed, did not outgas.

While I’ve owned everything from 3 Ah to 15 Ah SLA batteries, I found the once-ubiquitous 7-8 Ah size to be the “sweet spot” in terms of portability and capacity.

SLA batteries are still among the most accessible high-capacity batteries on the planet. No matter where you travel, it’s likely you’ll be able to hunt them down in any hardware or electronics store. Our small local hardware store has a wide selection of these at their battery kiosk.

What are some of the pros of these batteries? In terms of “bang for buck,” the SLA is still hard to beat. You can purchase a quality 7.2 Ah 12-volt SLA battery for about $18-20 US (affiliate link). This would be more than enough battery to power a typical QRP transceiver for many hours on end. Chargers are also inexpensive––you can purchase a dedicated charger for about $10-15 US. Not bad.

In addition, 12-volt batteries are nearly ideal for amateur radio use since most transceivers are designed to operate with 12-13.8 volts DC +/- a modest margin.

There are some negatives compared with more modern battery chemistries, however. For one, SLA batteries are much heavier than the batteries we’ll discuss in the following sections. After all, they’re (still) made of lead!   In addition, the battery’s longevity will be negatively impacted if you discharge it too deeply.

With that said, if you take care of an SLA battery, it can give you five or more years of service life in the field, yielding an excellent value for the modest investment. If you have an application that requires relatively little capacity from the battery, you might get a very long service life, indeed. In 2011, I built a remote antenna tuner box around an LDG Z11 Pro ATU and a discarded 7Ah 12V SLA battery. At the time, this battery could no longer hold voltage long enough to be reliable in the field, but I knew the Z11 Pro requires very little in the way of power, so I thought I’d try it as a power source anyway. Since the remote ATU box isn’t near an outlet, I charge the SLA battery with a 5-watt solar panel I purchased used at a hamfest with a Micro M+ charge controller. A decade has now passed, and that SLA battery continues to power the Z11 Pro even through seasonal temperature variances of -10F/-23C to 90F/32C. Not bad! Again, keep in mind this application works because the Z11 Pro is so flexible in terms of power requirements––it’ll operate on 6-16 volts DC at 300 mA with a 20 uA standby current.

Clearly, SLA batteries are affordable candidates for back-up power in the shack during occasional power outages.

  • Price: Most affordable option per Ah of the batteries listed here
  • Weight: By far, the heaviest of all the battery options in this article
  • Voltage: Various, but 12VDC is very common
  • Longevity: Very good if properly maintained
  • Ease of recharging: Easy, via simple charge controllers
  • Solar charging option: Multiple types of charge controllers can be used with SLA batteries; among the listed batteries, the easiest and least expensive to charge via solar

Lithium-Ion (Li-ion)

 

Without a doubt, lithium-ion batteries have revolutionized the consumer electronics world.

Why are they so popular?

First of all, their construction allows for a variety of form factors ranging from cylindrical cells to slim packs and pouches so thin they can fit in an ultra-thin mobile phone, eReader, or tablet. They’re the easiest type of battery to accommodate in compact consumer electronics, and indeed, they power most of the consumer electronics we’ve put to use in the last decade.

Secondly, they have a very high energy density, thus pack a lot of capacity for the size and weight. Indeed, if size and weight are your primary requirements, li-ion batteries should be high on your list.

In addition, Li-ion batteries are ubiquitous and affordable because they’re used in so very many applications.

There are negatives, though, with these power sources. First and foremost, they’re very sensitive to over-voltage and over-current events that initiate a thermal runaway. To prove this point, I’ll share some first-hand experience from the early days of large lithium-ion packs…

Li-ion Horror Story

In 2011, I evaluated a lithium-ion battery pack with integrated 5V USB chargers and even a simple one-outlet inverter from one of the big names in portable power systems. At the time, this was a new battery pack and a relatively new technology, at least in terms of the energy density and compact size. After receiving the battery, I charged and discharged it perhaps twice during testing. I had a flight scheduled from North Carolina to California, and decided I’d take it in my carry-on bag to power my laptop in flight. It worked fine on the flight to KSFO. Once there, I recharged it.  On my return flight, it simply didn’t work. I thought perhaps I hadn’t plugged it in properly, or that the hotel outlet I used didn’t work. Upon arrival I emptied my travel pack onto the bed and plugged in the battery pack; it indicated it was taking a charge.

After doing a few projects around the house, I went back up to the bedroom and was greeted with an overpowering smell––almost like the pungent chemical odor of nail polish remover. I looked everywhere for the source of the odd smell.  Finally, I located it:  it seemed to be coming from the battery pack. Upon examination, I could tell the battery had begun to swell. As I lifted it up, I noticed that the bottom portion was essentially in a state of melting. As quickly as I could, I unplugged it and removed it from the room. I then discovered that in the thermal runaway process, it had begun burning through the sheets and mattress of the bed. Shocked, I suddenly realized it could have burned down my home.

Keep in mind, I was completely new to this battery technology, and this was years before thermal runaways made the news and airlines began restricting their transport. To my relief, the company from which I purchased the pack ended up pulling that model off the market, and even reimbursed me for the mattress and bedding. But it was a hard lesson learned.

If I’m being perfectly honest, this lesson had a major impact on my willingness to experiment with Li-ion battery packs.

The problem with the model of pack I had purchased was not the battery chemistry or construction, per se, but the charge controller). The fact is, Li-ion batteries require millivolt accuracy and a number of protections to detect and stop thermal runaway. Battery packs with multiple cells need a battery management system (BMS) that also balances the cells and monitors them closely. Fortunately, most manufacturers of the technology now understand this.

Modern Li-ion cells and chargers are much safer and more stable 

Since then, Li-ion battery chargers have become both orders of magnitude safer and more effective. Still, I only charge these batteries on a surface which, should the battery be tempted to melt down, would be less likely to be damaged or serve as a fire hazard. I also never leave them unattended during charging.

With that said, I don’t think Li-ion batteries are to be feared. Obviously, many of us walk around with one tucked in our pocket all day––in our smartphones! They’re generally considered very safe now.  Of course, I’d only buy the best and would steer away from the lowest-costs units you might find on eBay and Aliexpress, as many of these products are made in places with little oversight or regulation.

Another interesting fact about Li-ion battery packs is that since their voltages are usually available in multiples of approximately 3.6 volts (e.g., 3.6, 7.2, 10.8, 14.4 and 18 volts), they are not always ideally suited for radios that require 13.8V input power. Some packs, however, have circuitry that provides an output voltage closer to your desired amount.

One Lithium-ion battery pack I’ve been using with my Mountain Topper MTR-3B, Elecraft KX2 and KX3 transceivers is a (very affordable) TalentCell rechargeable 3000 mAh Li-ion battery pack that provides both 12V and 5V USB power. It has built-in charging circuitry and is very compact. I purchased mine for about $25 on Amazon.com, and have been very pleased with it so far.

Summits On The Air operators often place priority on smaller-sized and lighter-weight power sources, and thus turn to Li-ion battery packs. Many SOTA friends have invested in high-quality balance charger/dischargers to maximize the life of their batteries, and have been happy with the performance they receive. A quality charger may costs upwards of $60, but is worth the investment if you choose Li-ion batteries as your portable power of choice.

  • Price: From affordable to pricey, depending on capacity and charger investment
  • Weight: The lightest weight portable battery options in this list
  • Voltage: Often in multiples of approximately 3.6 volts: (3.6, 7.2, 10.8, 14.4 and 18VDC)
  • Longevity: Good. Typically around 400-500 charge cycles if properly maintained
  • Ease of recharging: Simple, if a self-contained pack; more complex, if using multiple cells that need balancing
  • Solar charging option: Not advised (yet). There are a number of homebrew Li-ion solar charging projects on the web, but I believe this battery chemistry fares better with a balance charger connected to a stable AC power supply.

Lithium Iron Phosphate (LiFePo4/LFP)

I typically use my 15 Ah LiFePo4 battery pack when powering transceivers like the Mission RGO One that can push 55 watts of output power. I also use this battery to power my Elecraft KXPA100 amplifier on Field Day.

The final type of battery chemistry we’ll cover here is my favorite of the bunch.

There are good reasons why Lithium Iron Phosphate batteries have become one of the choice rechargeable batteries for field radio use.

  • LiFePo batteries are inherently stable and safe
  • They offer a longer cycle life than that of other Li-ion, NiMH, NiCad, or Lead Acid batteries–thousands of charge cycles as opposed to hundreds
  • LiFePO batteries have an excellent constant discharge voltage
  • LiFePo batteries use phosphates––as opposed to cobalt or nickel, which are supply-constrained and carry heavier environmental concerns
  • LiFePo batteries have a lower self-discharge
  • LiFePo batteries are very lightweight compared to SLA batteries
  • 3.2 V nominal output voltage means that four cells can be placed in series for a nominal voltage of 12.8 V, near ideal for most field radio gear

Any cons? Yes…while they’re lightweight, LiFePo4 batteries aren’t as compact as Li-ion battery packs.  But the primary negative here is the price.  At time of print, LiFePo4 batteries have the highest cost per Amp hour of the batteries discussed in this article. With that said, due to the excellent longevity of these batteries, the LiFePo may be the most cost effective option in the long term.

LiFePo4 battery systems sport built-in battery protection modules to address concerns like over-voltage and balancing.

How do LiFePo batteries stack up?

  • Price: One of the pricier options, when you include the battery and charger
  • Weight: Very light weight, but size tends to be larger than comparable Li-ion packs
  • Voltage: Excellent match for gear requiring 12V – 13.8 VDC
  • Longevity: Excellent. Thousands of charge/discharge cycles
  • Ease of recharging: Simple, using the provided charger (battery packs have a built-in charge controller)
  • Solar charging option: Bioenno sells charge controllers designed to work with LiFePo batteries, handy for the field

Without a doubt, the best-known LiFePo battery manufacturer in the world of ham radio is Bioenno Power. I’ve purchased their batteries exclusively and have been incredibly pleased with the quality, longevity, and performance of their products.

Choosing the right battery for you

Each one of these battery types have their pros and cons, and you can find lengthy, in-depth discussions online about the nuances of each battery chemistry. At the end of the day, however, what matters is which one best suits your particular application and provides your gear with the appropriate amount of voltage.

Here’s when I would reach for each of our types of batteries…

NiMH LSD AA batteries

WD8RIF uses Eneloop rechargeable AA batteries with his Elecraft KX3 field kit (Photo: WD8RIF)

If you’re willing to use a battery pack to run 8-12 cells in series to achieve your required nominal output voltage, Eneloop batteries are relatively affordable, lightweight, and of course, power an array of electronic devices in our world.

If you plan to use QRP power for short periods of time, these may suit your needs quite well. My buddy and Elmer, Eric (WD8RIF), has used Eneloop batteries to power his Elecraft KX3 for the majority of his Parks On The Air activations.

Of course, AA Eneloop batteries are also invaluable for those of us who have an arsenal of portable shortwave radios that accept AA cells!

Sealed Lead Acid Batteries

If you’re on a very tight budget and weight is less of a concern, SLA batteries are a great choice. They’re an especially affordable option if you plan to make a solar-powered battery pack since charge controllers are quite simple and affordable.

If you’re looking for a stationary back-up battery for home, these are an excellent choice, as long as you keep the charge topped up.

Li-ion Batteries

Backpacking or flying overseas, and size and weight really do matter? Purchase a Li-ion battery system. Li-ion cells and packs offer the highest energy density of any of the battery chemistries in this list. They’re incredibly compact––and as long as you use a quality charge controller with built-in protections, and you don’t damage or puncture an actual Li-ion pack––they should be quite safe, and you’ll be pleased with performance. Note:  Keep in mind some airlines have regulations about the size of Li-ion battery pack you’ll be allowed to carry on board, so do check before departure.

LiFePo Batteries

The 9V 3Ah Bioenno LiFEPo4 pack is very compact and pairs beautifully with the Mountain Topper MTR-3B as this particular transceiver prefers voltages at 12 volts and below.

If you’re looking for a simple, effective portable battery solution that is almost custom-designed to power radio gear, invest in a LiFePo4 battery and charger. I have everything from a 15 Ah 12V LiFePo4 battery that can power my 50 watt Mission RGO One transceiver, to a 3 Ah 12V pack I now use for 2-3 hours in the field at a time with my QRP transceivers. Bioenno has recently sent me a 9 V 3 Ah battery pack to test with my Mountain Topper MTR-3B––it’s incredibly compact, since it only needs three 3.2V cells in series. LiFePo batteries are also the ones I suggest for those who are new to the world of battery packs and want something that is hassle-free and simply performs.

 

I admit, I’m being transparent here about why I own a total of three LiFePo4 batteries from Bioenno Energy––they’re amazing and I know I can rely on them.

In summary…

…I would offer this final piece of battery-usage advice: whatever you do, don’t “cheap out” on your battery and charging system. No matter what chemistry you decide to purchase, buy the best quality you can afford. If using any variant of a Li-ion battery, heed my tale, and be sure any separate charge controllers you employ will protect your battery (and your home)!

And now…Go out there and have fun. I assure you:  when you take your radios––whether portable shortwave radios or ham radio transceivers––to the field, you’ll find you can escape all of the noises that so often plague us indoors. And out there, you, too, may find your radio bliss.

943 Miles Per Watt with the Yeasu FT-817ND, Elecraft T1, and 28.5 feet of speaker wire

When it comes to parks, I haven’t picked up many new-to-me “uniques” lately.

In truth, though, I’ve put more effort into activating unique summits which takes more time to plan, plot, and activate. SOTA has taken a bite out of my park uniques, but I’m good with that because to me it’s less about my park/summit numbers and more about the exploration and outdoor radio time.

On Tuesday (July 6, 2021) however, I added one more unique to my 2021 park count: Mountain Island Educational State Forest (K-4858).

This park is actually a modest detour during my weekly travels, but I’ve never popped by for an activation. You see, unlike other state parks I visit, Mountain Island isn’t yet open to the public on a daily basis. On their website, they state that visits must be arranged in advance, so I reached out to them the morning of July 6 and they promptly replied, welcoming me for a visit and activation that very same day!

Off the beaten path

Since this state park isn’t yet open to the public, I didn’t see the typical brown highway signs pointing me to the park entrance, but Google Maps steered me right to the front gate where there’s a sign.

The gates were unlocked and open, so I pulled into the property and met with two of the park staff who were incredibly kind and accommodating. They were both familiar with the Parks On The Air (POTA) program which made it much easier for me to ask about spots where I could set up my station.

First, though, I wanted to know more about Mountain Island Educational State Forest so I asked ranger Laura about the history of the site.

Turns out, Mountain Island is the newest Educational State Forest in North Carolina and has been in the works for more than 20 years.

The Forest is a vast conservation area that protects 12 miles of shoreline on Mountain Island Lake in the Catawba River Basin. This lake is the primary drinking water supply area for Charlotte, Mecklenburg and Gaston Counties. She told me that one in 23 North Carolinians rely on this area for their source of water.

Much of the land was originally owned by Duke Power who put it up for sale in 1998. Conservation groups purchased the land from Duke’s real estate agency in 1998 and put it into a conservation easement. The land is actually in two counties (Gaston and Lincoln) and a portion in the city limits of Gastonia.

The NC Forest Service now manages the forest and supports the public-private partnership with the counties, municipalities, and conservation groups.

Mountain Island has been actively educating school groups and the public about the river basin and local flora/fauna for many years by appointment. Currently, a new education center is being built on the property and will soon be open to the public with regular business hours. Being so close to population centers, I imagine they’ll stay busy!

Shade

Park ranger Laura was kind enough to allow me to set up under a huge tree in front of their ranger station.

I was grateful for the shade: it was 92F (33.3C) and humid.

There were no picnic tables under the tree, but I happened to have two folding chairs in my car. I used one as a table and the other as a chair. I flipped over my GoRuck GR1 backpack to make a stable base for the Yaesu FT-817ND.

Gear list:

On The Air

I was super pleased to put the Yaesu FT-817ND back on the air. It’s been a while since I’d used it in the field because my review radios (TX-500, X5105, etc.) have taken priority.

I love the FT-817ND and believe it’s actually an exceptional transceiver for CW and SSB ops. The CW full break-in QSK is wonderful and I actually like the mechanical sound of the T/R relay switching (if you like pin diode switching, you should look the other way, though!). With the 500Hz CW filter installed, the front end is pretty bullet-proof, too!

This was the first time I had paired the FT-817ND with my 28.5 foot speaker wire antenna. The random wire antenna needs a good ATU to match impedance, so I employed the Elecraft T1 this time (soon I’ll also try the LDG Z-100A).

I had planned to do a little SSB work, but quickly realized I’d forgotten the FT-817ND microphone. A shame because this site actually has excellent mobile phone service so I could have spotted myself to the network. Next time–!

I started on 40 meters CW and worked ten stations in 21 minutes. That’s a perfect pace for me!

Next, I moved to 20 meters where I worked six more in 9 minutes.

I was incredibly pleased with how well the speaker wire antenna performed–especially on 20 meters.

From the Piedmont of North Carolina, I worked Montana, Texas, New Hampshire, and Italy with 5 watts into $4 worth of speaker wire.

I did a quick back-of-the-envelop calculation and discovered that I yielded about 943 miles per watt!

To be clear, IK4IDF did all of the heavy lifting in our contact with his 9 element Yagi, but still it’s awfully exciting to put DX in the logs with only fair propagation.

Video

Of course, I made a real-time, real-life video of the entire activation (save the set-up and take-down):

Click here to view on YouTube.

Onward and upward!

I packed up quickly because I had a SOTA activation planned that afternoon on Anderson Mountain. I’ll post a field report and video of that activation soon.

Rev 4 FT-817 Buddy Board

Also, I’m about to start soldering together G7UHN’s new Rev 4 FT-817 Buddy Board! Revision 2 worked wonderfully, but revision 4 now includes a CW memory keyer among other upgrades! (Woo hoo!)  All of the components are now in the shack–just a matter of soldering them together and programing the Arduino Nano. Andy, if you’re reading this, expect a call from me soon, OM!

Thank you!

I’d like to thank all of you for reading this field report and I’d especially like to thank those of you who contribute to QRPer.com via Patreon and our Coffee Fund. While my content will always be free and QRPer is very much a labor of love, your support helps me purchase gear and supports my radio travels. With that said, if you’re saving up for your first radio or need to invest in your own kit, I’d rather you support yourself.

My goal with QRPer is to champion field radio operations and encourage others to discover the benefits of playing radio outdoors!

Have a wonderful week!

73,

Thomas (K4SWL)


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Field Report: Let’s build a super simple antenna on-site and activate this park!

Until 2016, I had never purchased a commercial field antenna; I built all the ones I had ever used.

These days, I take a number of commercial antennas to the field and use them in my real-time videos and I really enjoy deploying and using them. My buddy Eric (WD8RIF) reminded me, though, that I hadn’t actually used a homebrew antenna in ages. He was right!

You see, while I believe commercial field antennas can be incredibly durable and compact, it’s important to note that antennas are one of the easiest components of an amateur radio system to build yourself. They require only the most simple of tools and are very affordable. And the best part? They can perform as well as those that are available commercially.

I also get a great deal of pleasure out of building things.

A simple goal

I’ve mentioned in previous posts that I often set a little goal that runs in the back of my mind for each park or summit activation I make.

On Monday, June 14, 2021, I made a simple goal: buy my antenna wire en route to Lake James State Park, build the antenna on site, and complete a valid Parks On The Air (POTA) activation.

A very simple antenna

I also decided to employ my Xiegu X5105 since 1.) it’s one of the most affordable general coverage QRP transceivers I own and 2.) it has a built-in antenna tuner (ATU).

One of the cool things about having an ATU is that, if it has the matching range, you can allow it to do the “heavy lifting” in terms of matching impedance.

Although I’d never put the X5105 to the test, I suspected its internal ATU would have the matching range to forgo building a 4:1 or 9:1 transformer and simply pair it directly with a random wire.

All I would need was a 28.5 foot length of wire for a radiator, at least a 17 foot length for a counterpoise, and a BNC to binding post adapter.

The antenna would benefit from multiple 17′ counterpoises, but I really wanted to keep this setup dead simple to prove that anyone can build an effective field antenna with a very minimum amount of components.

Even though I have plenty of wire lying around the house to build this simple antenna, I wanted to pretend I had none to prove that any wire would work.

And to add just a wee bit more challenge, I also limited myself to shopping for antenna wire between my home and the park without making a serious detour from my route. That really limited my options because there isn’t much in terms of commercial areas between me and Lake James State Park.

The wire

As I left the QTH, I decided that the best spot to shop was a Walmart in Marion, NC. It would only be a four minute round-trip detour at most.  I had a hunch that Walmart would even have speaker wire which would be ideal for this application.

In my head, I imagined I would have at least three or four choices in speaker wire (various gauges and lengths), but turns out I had a difficult time finding some at Walmart. We live in such a Bluetooth world, I suppose there isn’t much demand for it these days. A store associate helped me find the only speaker wire they had which was basically a 100 foot roll of the “premium” stuff for $17 US.

While I would like to have paid a fraction of that, in the end it’s not a bad price because once you separate the two conductors, you have double the amount of wire: 200 feet.

Although the frugal guy in me cringed, I bit the bullet and purchased their speaker wire. To be clear, though, I could have found another source of wire in that Walmart, but I preferred speaker wire for this application. And $17 to (hopefully!) prove a point? That’s a deal! 🙂

Lake James State Park (K-2739)

Once I arrived on site, I found a picnic site I’d used before with some tall trees around it.

I cut 28.5 feet of the speaker wire and split the paired wires so that I’d have two full 28.5 foot lengths.

Next, I stripped the ends of the wire and attached banana jacks I found in my junk drawer. Although these aren’t necessary as the binding post adapter can pair directly with the wire, I though it might make for a cleaner install. In the end, though, I wasn’t pleased with the connection to the radiator, so dispensed with one of the banana jacks.

Next, I deployed the 28.5 radiator with my arborist throw line, and laid the other 28.5 half on the ground (the ground of this antenna would pair with the black binding post, the radiator with the red post).  I only needed 17 feet of counterpoise, but once it couples with the ground, I don’t think any extra length makes a difference (although less than 17 feet likely would).

The antenna was essentially set up as a vertical random wire with one counterpoise.

My new speaker wire antenna in all its glory.

Gear:

On The Air

I’ll admit: I was a bit nervous putting this antenna on the air. Although I felt the X5105 ATU *should* match this antenna, I had no idea if it actually would.

Fortunately? It did.

At this point, if you don’t want any spoilers, I suggest you watch my real-time, real-life, no-edit, no-ad, video of the entire activation (including buying and building the antenna!).

Click here to watch the video.

Otherwise, scroll for my activation summary…

I was very pleased that the X5105 found a match on the 40 meter band.

I started calling CQ in CW and validated my activation by logging 10 stations in 13 minutes.

Honestly: it doesn’t get much better than this.

I logged three more stations on 40 meters CW, then moved up to the 30 meter band where the X5105 easily found a match.

I worked one station on 30 meters before heading back down to the 40 meter band to do a little SSB. I logged three SSB stations in five minutes.

Mission accomplished!

In the end, I logged a total of 17 stations including a P2P with K4NYM.

Not bad at all for speaker wire!

After the activation, I tested the X5105 ATU by trying to find matches on other bands–I was able to find great matches from 60 meters to 6 meters. Most impressive!

X5105 battery

You might recall that I attempted to deplete my X5105 internal battery at my last (rather long) activation of Lake Norman State Park.  I wasn’t able to deplete the battery at that activation, but I finally did at this one.

All I can say is that I’m incredibly impressed with the X5105 internal battery.  This was my fourth activation from one initial charge on May 16.  The battery lasted for 20 minutes, taking me well beyond the 10 contacts needed to validate this park. I’ll now consider taking the X5105 on a multiple SOTA summit run!

Short Hike

Even thought the heat was intense and the humidity even more intense, I decided to take in a 2 mile hike post-activation. I snapped a few shots along the way.

This is the Christmas Fern which derives its name from a few characteristics: its resilience to early season snows maintaining a dark green color beyond Christmas, and because folks believe its leaves are shaped like Santa’s boots or even Santa on his sleigh.

Improvements

I’ll plan to add more counterpoises to the speaker wire antenna as I know this will only help efficiency.

In addition, I’ll plan to build even more antennas with this roll of speaker wire. If you have some suggestions, feel free to comment!

Thank you for reading this field report!

Cheers,

Thomas (K4SWL)


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POTA Field Report: Attempting to deplete the Xiegu X5105 internal battery at Lake Norman

Each time I head to a park or summit, I have a goal in mind.

With summits, it’s getting to the summit and activating it because, sometimes, that can be a challenge in and of itself. I’m not exactly Sir Edmund Hillary, so I’m happy when I make it to the top of any summit!

Parks, however, offer me the chance to experiment with transceiver/antenna combos, test gear, and explore hikes. Parks tend to be more accessible and spacious than summits and even have shelter options if weather is questionable.

I don’t even attempt afternoon summit activations if they require a decent hike and there’s a good chance of pop-up thunder storms.

On Monday, June 7, 2021, it was hot and incredibly humid in the Piedmont of North Carolina. That early afternoon, little patches of showers were passing through the region delivering brief, isolated downpours.

The weather forecast also predicted a high likelihood of thunderstorms that afternoon. (Turns out, they were correct.)

Those were not conditions for a SOTA activation, rather, I decided to pick out a park I knew could offer up some shelter options. Lake Norman was an obvious choice–there’s a very nice covered area at their visitor’s center and also two large picnic shelters at the other side of the park. Lake Norman it was!

Goal

I drove to Lake Norman State Park with one goal in mind: deplete the Xiegu X5105 internal battery. I had assumed the battery would only power the X5105 for perhaps two activations on one charge.

Boy, was I wrong.

I charged the X5105 before this activation on May 17, then I completed this short activation on May 18. I never expected the battery to keep going, but it did.

Now three full weeks later, I decided I would deplete the battery at Lake Norman because that afternoon I had a decent amount of time to play radio in the field. In my head, I was prepared to squeeze perhaps 30-45 minutes more air time out of that one May 16 battery charge.

Lake Norman (K-2740)

I arrived at Lake Norman State Park and scouted out a site. Fortunately–it being a Monday in the early afternoon–it wasn’t busy and all three shelters were available.

I chose to set up at a shelter at the far end of the main picnic area.

Gear:

The humidity was so thick that day,  I was sweating just walking around the site. I noticed in my activation video (see below), I was breathing as hard as I would hiking to a summit even though I was just tooling around the picnic shelter.

I had no doubt in my mind that if a thunderstorm developed, it would be a doozie! (I was right about that, too–keep reading.)

On The Air

I paired the Xiegu X5105 with my Chameleon MPAS 2.0 mainly because I wanted to see how easily the X5105 ATU could match this multi-band vertical. Turns out? Quite easily.

I expected the X5105’s battery to deplete to the point that I would need to use an external power source to complete the activation, so I connected my QRP Ranger battery pack, but didn’t turn it on. I knew that when the radio died, I could flip the QRP Ranger’s power switch and perhaps only lose a few seconds of air time.

I hopped on the air and started calling CQ. I planned to operate the X5105 until the internal battery died, then (if needed) continue operating with the QRP Ranger until I logged my 10 contacts for a valid activation. Post activation, I planned to hike one of the Lake Norman loop trails.

Normally, I would mention the number of contacts I made perhaps noting the bands that were most productive. Instead, if you’d like to experience this activation with me, you might consider watching the activation video.

Video

Here’s my real-time, real-life, no edit video of the entire activation including my full set up.  My summary of the activation follows–keep scrolling if you’re open to a spoiler.

Please note that this is the longest video I’ve ever published, so don’t feel any pressure to watch it in its entiretity:

Impressed

Let’s just say that the X5105 sold me.

The activation was incredibly fun and I logged 20 stations (18 CW and 2 phone) from Alaska to Spain with my 5 watts and the MPAS 2.0 vertical.  Propagation conditions were only “meh” but since I had the time to play radio longer, I was able to take advantages of little openings as they happened.

X5105 Battery

The X5105 won.

I simply gave up on trying to deplete the internal battery because I was running out of time to fit the activation and a much needed hike that afternoon before thunderstorms moved in.

I operated over 90 minutes with constant CQ calls and the battery never made it below 10.2 volts.

A most welcome surprise.

No mic, no problem!

During the activation, I remembered that I had been asked by readers and viewers to include more SSB work.

Problem was, I left my X5105 mic at the QTH (nearly 2 hours away by car).

I remembered though that, like the Elecraft KX2, the X5105 has a built-in microphone.

I decided to give that mic a trial by fire and, by golly, it worked!

Not only did it work, but it worked well.

The X5105? A keeper.

It was at Lake Norman that day, I decided the X5105 was a keeper.

That evening, I reached out to Radioddity–who lent this X5105 to me–and offered to pay full retail price for it either in cash or via ad credit

Since Radioddity is a sponsor on my other radio site–the SWLing Post–we decided that, since their ad was coming up for renewal soon, I would simply extend their ad time an equivalent amount of months as the full value of the X5105 ($550 US). This saved them from having to cut a check in two months.  Worked for both of us.

I have much, much more to say about the X5105 and will do so in an upcoming review.

In short, though? It’s not a perfect radio by any means, but I feel like it really hits a sweet spot for the QRP field operator.

I enjoy putting it on the air and it’s an incredibly capable little transceiver.

I’m very pleased to now put it in rotation with my other field radios. Look for it in future reports!

QSO Map

Here’s the QSO Map for this activation (click to enlarge):

Hike and dodgy weather

After packing up my gear, I walked over to a nearby trailhead and checked out the trail map. I was prepared to take a very long hike that afternoon despite the heat and humidity, but I also knew conditions were ripe for a thunderstorm.

I decided to take what appeared to be a fairly short loop trail along the lake. Looking at the map, I assumed the trail might be 1 mile or so long.

The hike is well-worn and well-marked, so there’s no getting lost here. That’s one of the reasons I didn’t bother looking at my GPS map or even consulting the trailhead map in detail.

Instead, I simply started hiking the Lake Shore Trail loop. It was gorgeous. Here are a few photos (click to enlarge):

The skies started getting dark, though, and I heard a little distant thunder.

I decided it might make sense to consult my phone for the weather map.

A line of thunderstorms had developed and they were sweeping toward me. Time to pick up the pace of hiking!

It was at this point I realized I had underestimated the length of this loop trail. Part of me was quite pleased that it was longer than I anticipated, but the part of me that didn’t want to be caught out in a t-storm wanted to get back to the car ASAP.

I checked another weather map a few minutes later.

I decided that jogging the rest of the trail made sense!

Turns out the 1 mile loop was something closer to 3 miles when I included the walk back to the car.

I did make it back to the car in time, though, right before the heavens opened.

It’s no exaggeration to say that I was sincerely concerned about the possibility of tornadoes in that storm front.

The skies were dark enough that streetlights turned on and the rain was incredibly heavy with strong wind gusts. I saw flash flooding and driving conditions were nearly impossible. I parked next to a brick building in the town of Catawba and waited for the strongest part of the storm to pass. I was also very grateful I wasn’t still on the trail by the lake!

Of course, the storm passed and I expected conditions to be a little drier behind that front, but I was wrong. I think the humidity level increased to 150%. Ha ha! No worries, though, as I was on my way to air conditioned space!

Thanks so much for reading this field report and stay safe out there!

73,

Thomas (K4SWL)


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An amazing SOTA activation on Mount Pisgah (W4C/CM-011)

Here in the Asheville, NC area, there’s one mountain that almost anyone can recognize by sight: Mount Pisgah.

Mount Pisgah is prominent because not only is it one of the taller summits bordering the Asheville basin, but it’s also home to the WLOS TV tower and and a cluster of public service and amateur radio repeaters.

I’ve been eager to activate Mount Pisgah for Summits On The Air (SOTA). Along with Bearwallow Mountain, and Mount Mitchell, it’s one of the most popular SOTA summits in the Asheville area.

One reason for its popularity is because it’s so accessible. Not only is there a dedicated, large parking area at the main trailhead off of the Blue Ridge Parkway, but it’s also an easy hike from the excellent Pisgah Inn, restaurant, and camp grounds.

Being so accessible from the BRP, the Mount Pisgah trail also receives a heavy amount of foot traffic. Being locals, our family tends to skip this trail when we’re venturing along the BRP because it can be so congested at times.

Mount Pisgah (W4C/CM-011)

On Tuesday, June 1, 2021, Hazel and I decided to hit Mount Pisgah fairly early and avoid the crowds.

We arrived at the trailhead around 8:15 AM and there were very few cars there–a good sign indeed!

Hazel was chomping at the bit to start our hike!

The trail is only about 1.5 miles with a 700 foot elevation gain, so not strenuous.

It was blissfully quiet and we only passed two other groups of hikers on the way up.

I’ll admit that I was keeping an eye out for black bears, though. We saw bears very close to the trailhead entrance on the BRP that morning. I may have mentioned before that black bears are not something to be feared here in western North Carolina; they typically avoid people and your chances of being fatally injured by a black bear are incredibly slim–right there with being struck by lightening.Still, the black bears that wonder near populated spots like Pisgah along the parkway are often fed by tourists and lose their fear of humans. Not only that, but they even expect people to be food dispensers. Not good. As we say around here, “a fed bear is a dead bear” because feeding bears leads to aggressive behavior and the poor creature’s eventual euthanization.

But I digress!

Hazel and I reached the summit and were happy to find that we were alone. Pisgah’s summit can get very crowded as there really isn’t a lot of space–only a large viewing platform next to the massive tower.

When we arrived on site, the summit was surrounded in clouds.

I briefly considered operating from the viewing platform, but knew I would have to cope with a lot of curious hikers while trying to operate CW. Since I’m not a good multitasker, I decided to do what many SOTA activators do: carefully pass under the tower and find an activation spot on the other side of the summit.

Hazel and I found a small overgrown trail used primarily by those working on the tower. I deployed my station in a small clearing.

Gear:

For this activation, I chose my Elecraft KX2 and paired it with the Chameleon CHA MPAS Lite which has quickly become one of my favorite SOTA antennas.

I deployed the CHA MPAS Lite perhaps 15 feet away from my operating spot, in the middle of a spur trail. I was able to extend the 17′ vertical without touching any branches. I rolled out about 20-25′ of counterpoise wire along the ground.

After setting up, it dawned on me that I’d forgotten my clipboard.  No worries, though! I simply flipped over my GoRuck GR1 pack and used the back as an operating surface.

On The Air

Not only was this a summit activation, but also a park activation–indeed, a two-fer park activation at that! The summit of Mount Pisgah is in both Pisgah National Forest (K-4510) and Pisgah State Game Land (K-6937).

If I’m being honest here–since I’m not a “numbers guy” and don’t follow my activation counts closely each year–it’s very tempting not to announce or count this activation in both the SOTA and POTA programs since K-4510 and K-6937 aren’t rare entities. The main reason for this is because, back home, I end up doing double entry with my logs: loading them via the SOTA online log submission tool, then entering them in N3FJP or TQSL for submission to the POTA and WWFF programs. It can be very time-consuming doing this.

I am working on a way to “massage” the ADIF file data so that I can submit it to both programs with less effort.

But, of course, I announced the activation on both SOTAwatch and the POTA site. At the end of the day, I’ve never *not* announced a dual SOTA and POTA activation because I can’t help but think it might offer up the sites to a new POTA hunter. It’s worth the extra log entry later.

Another plus with activating a site in two programs is that you’ll likely be spotted in both thus increasing your odds of logging the necessary contacts to validate your activations.

Turns out, snagging valid activations that Tuesday morning was incredibly easy. And fun!

Fabulous conditions!

I started on 20 meters CW and logged fifteen stations in eighteen minutes.  The band was energized because not only did I easily work stations from France, Slovenia, and Spain in Europe, but also stations all over North America from the west coast to as close as the Ohio valley and into Canada.

I wanted to play a little SSB, so I moved to the phone portion of 20 meters and spotted myself on the SOTA network. I worked five stations in eight minutes. Fun!

Next, I moved up to the 17 meter band and stayed in SSB mode. I worked five more stations in nine minutes. Had I only activated this site in SSB on 20 and 17 meters, I could have obtained both a valid SOTA and POTA activation in 17 minutes.

Even though I knew I needed to pack up soon, I decided to hit the CW portion of 17 meters before signing off.  I started calling CQ and was rewarded with sixteen additional stations in eighteen minutes.

Phenomenal!

All in all, I logged 41 stations.

Here’s the QSO Map of my my contacts–green polylines are CW contacts, red are SSB (click to enlarge):

A welcome interruption!

If you watch my activation video, you’ll note that as I moved to the 17 meter band and started calling CQ, another hiker popped in and introduced himself.

Turns out it was Steve (WD4CFN).

As Steve was setting up his own SOTA activation on Mount Pisgah next to the observation deck, his wife, Patty, heard my voice off in the distance giving a signal report.

Steve and I had a quick chat and coordinated frequencies so we wouldn’t be on the same band at the same time and interfere with each other.

 

After finishing my activation, I stopped by the observation deck and spent some time with Steve and Patty as Steve finished his SOTA activation and packed up his gear.

Steve was also using an Elecraft KX2 and strapped his telescoping fiber glass mast to the side of the observation deck to support a wire antenna. Very effective!

Hazel and I hiked back to the trailhead with Steve and Patty. It was so much fun talking ham radio, QRP and SOTA with kindred spirits. What an amazing couple!

Steve and Patty were actually on a multi-day camping trip in WNC and planned to hit two more summits by end of day. In fact, I got back to the QTH *just* in time to work Steve (ground wave!) at his second summit of the day. It was fun hunting someone I had just spent time with on a summit!

Steve and Patty: Again, it was a pleasure to meet you both!

Video

Here’s my real-time, real-life video of the entire Mount Pisgah SOTA activation:

A memorable activation indeed

Hazel and I both needed a little trail time that Tuesday morning. Hiking to the summit in the low clouds, taking in the views, enjoying a stellar activation and then meeting new friends? It doesn’t get any better than this.

I’ll say that I do love the Elecraft KX2 and CHA MPAS Lite combo. It makes for a compact and effective SOTA pairing that can be deployed so quickly.

A couple months ago, I ordered a SOTAbeams Tactical Mini fiberglass telescoping pole. I plan to pair it with my QRPguys tri-bander kit antenna.

If I’m being honest, though, I find that the CHA MPAS Lite is so quick to deploy–like 2-3 minutes tops–I’ve yet to take the Tactical Mini and Tri-Bander to a summit.  No worries, though, as I will eventually deploy this pair on a summit. Admittedly, I need to work on my mast guying skills in advance–let’s just say that I’m still in that awkward stage of struggling to manage each guy line as I try to keep the Tacmini vertical during deployment. I welcome any tips!


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DAY4: A SOTA Adventure To Remember (Conclusion)

I hope the first two parts of my SOTA journey with Mark, NK8Q, has been interesting reading. It is really tough to put into words what the trip meant to me. Back in November I had my left knee replaced, and was preparing myself to possibly not be able to enjoy the luxury of being able to walk, run, hike and backpack. I never would have dreamed by the time this SOTA journey started that I already would have walked a half marathon on the new knee, nor be able to hike up summits. I have been truly blessed to be able to continue to do the things I enjoy. SOTA and POTA over the past year has renewed my interest in the hobby.

After we left Stony Man Mountain, we headed to the campground we were staying at along Skyline Drive. We lucked out earlier in the day by randomly arriving around 11:45 a.m. at the campground and even though the sign said it was full, the park ranger said to wait 15 minutes because there could be some checkouts right at the cutoff. We waited it out and at noon the ranger confirmed we had a campsite! Perfect…after 2 days of staying in motels, I finally got to camp in my new tent.

Once settled in, I thought it would be a good evening to set up my antenna and operate a little “late shift” on POTA – Shenandoah National Park (K-0064). I was just a bit too far off the A.T. to make it a “twofer”.  This yielded 16 QSOs and then called it  a night.

The next morning was also the last day of our SOTA trip. I woke up after a pretty restless night due to the fact my old body cannot tolerate being so low to the ground. I believe the last time I slept in an actual tent was in 1981 in boot camp at Parris Island. I am now a hammock camper and it sure feels much better on the back. So, back to the story. After breakfast we packed up and drove to the first of two SOTA summits before heading home.

The first was Pinnacle Overlook (W4V/SH-005). The climb took an unexpected wrong turn from the parking lot but quickly rectified. The hike to the summit was fairly steep, but there was beautiful flowers and rock formations and the summit was aptly named The Pinnacle. What a beautiful view of the Shenandoah National Forest.

We saw several thru hikers on our hike both up and back down the mountain after the activation. Several were interested in our ham radio operations. I found a perfect spot to operate from right along the Appalachian Trail and off to my left I could look over and see the view. I had 20 QSO’s and the bands were in decent shape.

It was time to head back down to the parking lot and continue our journey to the next stop, Hog Back Overlook (W4V/SH-007). There wasn’t much of a view once we climbed to the top of Hog Back, but met more through hikers, including one lady who was wearing a hat from Boston Marathon. Her trail name was GiGi, which is her Grandma name, which is also my wife’s Grandma name. She decided at age 65 she was going to hike the entire A.T. and had already run the Boston Marathon, so this was a bucket list item for her. I told her hiking the entire A.T. is my goal in 2026 when I’m retired and was nice to know there are hikers in our age group that are still able to accomplish these things. We gave her some trail magic, and Mark and I continued on our way to the top of the summit. There wasn’t much besides an old building which may have been a ham radio shack at one time, and some towers but not much of a view. We did a fairly quick activation and I had 12 QSO’s before packing it up. (I almost thought I heard the sound of banjos playing up there.)

We made a couple of other stops along the Skyline Drive, one was for the tunnel that was built along the route, and another stop to see the scenery from the outlook. It was time for me to start heading back to Lancaster County, which was about a 4 to 5 hour drive and Mark had two other summits he wanted to visit. What I did not expect to see at the one stop to look at the views was a lady who was sitting along the rock fence painting. I asked her if I could take a picture of her holding the picture she was painting and she gladly agreed. It took her about an hour to paint it and was finishing up when I arrived. After I left I regretted not thinking to ask her if I could have purchased the picture!

I arrived home around 5:30 pm on that Sunday evening and was completely exhausted. Mark sent me a text and told me at his next summit he was on the trail and saw GiGi again.

Thankfully, I had taken Monday off for a vacation day because I was exhausted from all the traveling Mark and I had done in 4 days. In addition to the driving, we did a lot of walking to the summits and operating. It was an experience neither of us will ever forget. We are already starting to plot our plans for next year for another adventure.

I’d like to thank Mark for putting this trip together and plotting out which Summits to do on each day and the best way to navigate to each destination. The hikers on the trail were all wonderful, and some of them asked questions about what we were doing, especially when we had our fishing poles at the summit with no trees. I used the HAMRS program for the 4 days, and other than some operator error, the program worked flawlessly. I especially would like to thank Thomas Witherspoon for allowing me to share my story on QRPer. Tom is an awesome ham and we share many of the same interests for POTA or SOTA, and we both enjoy antenna experimenting and our passion for QRP operating. Thank you again Thomas for the opportunity to share my experience, and I hope you enjoyed my SOTA experience.

73 Scott Lithgow
KN3A

Guest Post: “German spies are eavesdropping on you!”

Many thanks to my friend Ollie–an SWL in Germany–who shares the following guest post:


German spies are eavesdropping on you!

I recently made the first all-night listening sessions at the German North Sea coast for this year. On the night of June 10th/11th I picked up 2 POTA SSB activations over here and I thought you guys might find it mildly interesting what that sounds like here. 🙂 Condx were just going down from “slightly elevated” to “regular solar minimum” values that evening.

RX was an Icom IC-705, antenna is a 10m/33′ lazy monopole (running 10m wire vertically up a fiberglass pole, no counterpoise, no matching network, balun, flux capacitor, just a wire and pretty conductive ground).

Video: KI5OLV activating K6574 (Lower Neches Wildlife Management Area, TX), around 1:40 UTC

Video: W8CFS activating K-1552 (Warren Dunes State Park, MI), around 23:00 UTC, condx to the stateside were dipping at that time

I don’t know that W8CFS had brought to his park, KI5OLV brought an IC-7100 and was running its 100W into a hamstick antenna on his truck. Nothing to learn from that really, I’m just happy I can hear y’all! 🙂

73s, Ollie