This morning, I finally remembered to do a firmware upgrade on the lab599 Discovery TX-500. I’ve been in the terrible habit of only remembering to do a firmware upgrade when I’m in the field. Much like remembering to repair your roof while it’s raining! 🙂
I’ve been so incredibly impressed with the Lab599 team’s dedication to continuously upgrading and improving this already phenomenal little radio. It’s such a pleasure to take to the field.
UK TX-500 availability
I also understand that lab599’s UK distributors, Nevada Radio and Waters & Stanton, will soon have their first batch of Discovery TX-500s (first part of October 2021, if I recall). Waters & Stanton (and possible Nevada) may even have a handful of units unallocated yet. It’s best to call them to check status and possibly reserve one.
Upcoming RadCom Review
Speaking of the UK, my full review of the Discovery TX-500 will appear in the November 2021 issue of RadCom.
Lab599 has just announced that firmware v1.10.04 has been published for the Discovery TX-500 and is available for download on their website.
New: Audio modes
The new firmware adds two switchable audio modes: 1W “Normal” mode and 3W “Outdoor” mode. Although I’ve always felt the audio gain on the TX-500 was excellent, this will give even more granular control of volume levels.
New: Antenna SWR Monitor
Lab599 has also added an SWR monitor and display. They describe it on Twitter:
“This new function will provide you a graph to determine characteristics of the antenna (SWR) in the range of the selected band.”
They shared the image above of the TX-500 display and have already added this along with details in their downloadable user manual.
Many thanks to Carolanne (N0RNM) who shares the following guest post:
A Booty Boss Micro Radio Kit
by Carolanne Fisher N0RNM
I am a bit of a tinkerer and an aspiring POTA activator, so when I received my Elecraft KX2 a couple of weeks ago with its way-too-big carry bag, I immediately started to think about ways I could keep the KX2 protected on the trail in a much lower-profile, light-weight, and easy-to-carry kit that would always be ready to go. The trick was to find a case of just the right size, with plenty of built-in organization and flexibility to build the kit around. I found what I hoped would be exactly what I was looking for from the excellent Red Oxx Manufacturing company (redoxx.com) — a soft-sided compact bag they call the Booty Boss Waist Pack. At least the specs looked good…
I am certain that whoever designed this bag did it specifically with the KX2 in mind. It is small enough to take anywhere, yet it fits my entire setup, including the radio, an extra battery pack, an AX1 antenna, complete with its 40 meter extension coil, 2 counterpoises, along with other necessities perfectly. I printed and spiral-bound a small note pad, shoved in a few accessories, and I was ready to rock and roll. The bag is even lightly padded for a bit of peace of mind. I am a CW-only kind of op so a mic is not a concern, especially since if I absolutely needed to use phone, the KX2’s built in mic would serve perfectly fine.
I tested the bag during several “back-porch activations” and everything seemed to work great. That is until I tried to use it under more realistic conditions — without the shaded picnic table to deploy on and the comfortable chair to sit on. Sitting on a rock while balancing the radio on my knee with its floppy AX1 antenna, and note pad while actually tying to send code proved to be a bit more than I could handle. It was clear that something like a clipboard was necessary to complete the micro radio kit, but a normal-sized clipboard would completely break the one-tiny-bag ethos.
A couple of years ago I designed and 3D printed a portable folding easel to support my sketchbook, watercolors, water etc. when out and about nature journaling or urban sketching. It worked great for that so I made a smaller version, added a recess for the radio and made sure it had room for the notepad. In order to fit in the bag, the size, even when opened to its full 8” x 9.5” size is a bit cramped, but with the addition of a leg strap, like a pilot’s lap desk, it it does the trick.
Here is everything currently in the bag and how it all gets stowed:
Front zip pocket
13’ and 33’ counterpoises for use with the AX1
An extra 28.5’ random wire antenna with 50’ of mini throw line attached (fly fishing backer line with two 1 oz. fishing weights) along with a 17’ counterpoise
Front main compartment
Folded radio desk
Two small interior pockets
Spare KX2 Battery
Interior zip pocket
Spare set of paddles w/ KX2 attachment and cord (by Peter GM0EUL)
Copy of my radio license
Rear main compartment
Ax1 antenna (whip, 20 and 40 meter coils) lying the bottom
KX2 (fits in the bag with the KXPD2 paddle attached)
Large slip pocket
The KX2 fits flat on its back or up on its kick stand in its custom sized recess. A sticky gel pad (from Amazon) placed in the recess pretty much “glues” the rig to the desk until you want to remove it.
Although I don’t use it all that often, the AX1 is my all-purpose, quick-to-set-up and a snap-to-put-away antenna. I mount the bipod inboard to the radio (over the BNC connection) so it fits on the desk to provide support. I wedge the bipod out from the rig with a spare pencil or a stick from the trail placed between the rig and the front leg to take some of the twist pressure off the BNC connector.
Although the micro radio kit holds everything I need to make contacts, there are plenty of times that I like to have a more luxurious set up — a folding chair and table, my Alex Loop antenna, tripod, lunch, iPad, etc. Or perhaps I’m off for a multi-day and need an external battery, a solar charging system, food, shelter, etc. This scenario is precisely where the micro radio kit really comes into its own. It is tiny enough to slip into just about any bigger bag or placed on the waist belt of a backpack. No more wondering if you remembered this or that bit of radio kit or loosing track of things you borrowed from another kit. If you actually did forget something extra you thought you packed, not to worry, the micro radio kit has everything you need right inside to make contacts.
As a tiny everything necessary, nothing extra radio bag, the Booty Boss micro radio kit is, well, the BOSS!
– Carolanne (N0RNM)
Thank you so much for sharing this, Carolanne! As you know, I’m a massive fan of Red Oxx gear and also own the Booty Boss. It’s simply brilliant that you can even pack a folding radio desk inside! Thank you so much for sharing your field radio kit with us.
Recently, I found myself in an embarrassing situation: I was being interviewed on the Ham Radio YouTube channel Red Summit RF, when someone in the chatroom asked how many HF QRP radios I currently own?
How many…? It dawned on me suddenly that I didn’t know the answer.
Throughout my life as a radio hobbyist, I’ve owned a number of transceivers, but I’ve never owned so many at once as I do currently. Since I was licensed in 1997, I’ve owned up to two or three transceivers at once. But things really started changing for me in 2020. And I blame the Covid-19 pandemic.
Our family loves to travel––but during the pandemic, we were essentially grounded. I keenly missed the travel. So, as I’ve mentioned in previous articles, I turned my attention to more regional destinations––and often took the family along––by activating local parks through the Parks On The Air (POTA) program and local summits through the Summits On The Air (SOTA) program.
As a result of this activity, I also began reviewing and evaluating more and more QRP transceivers––and, if I liked them (as I all too often do) purchased them following the review period.
Fact is, I thoroughly enjoy trying out radios, putting them through their paces and engaging all their bells and whistles; I enjoy shaking up my field activations by employing different radios with different antennas and accessories on each outing . I also enjoy writing up field reports and including activation videos on my blog, QRPer.com. Altogether, radio activation gives me a great deal of satisfaction, as does encouraging others to give it a go.
I have been a fan of QRP operating since I got licensed in 1983. The sticker in the picture is a joke a good friend who is not into CW or QRP, so I include it in my field pictures.
My interest in ham radio had reached a point I was getting away from the hobby. In 2020, I learned about Parks on the Air (POTA) and Summits on the Air (SOTA). I got hooked on activating parks and summits, and now I mostly do QRP CW, much like Thomas Witherspoon, K4SWL does.
Over the past year, I’ve been refining my antennas and radios in the field. I have different radios and antennas for different reasons, and to just mix it up a bit. Occasionally, I will take my IC-7100 or IC-7300 out into the field with my Bioenno 20aH battery, if I’m not planning to hike or go far from the parking lot, or if the bands are just not cooperating.
Back in November 2020 I had my left knee replaced so I had lots of down time and made an important purchase for field activities – an IC-705. It is fantastic and does everything I want it to do without a lot of wires. I’ve also owned and sold within the past 18 months a Yaesu FT-891 (which I sold when I got the IC-705) and had both the Xiegu G90 and X5105. I would expect one day to get another FT-891 as it has amazing filtering and pulls in weak CW signals better than any radio I’ve owned. The G90 and X5105 are okay, however I was not impressed with the G90 from the start for out in the field. There were just too many wires in order to set up and use with my portable laptop computer if I was taking that along.
The X5105, which I had high expectations for, disappointed me in the fact that storing and using CW memory keying is not user friendly. The nice thing about that radio is, no microphone, no problem, I had some success using the 5105 and got great audio reports.
I’ve been looking ahead to my projected retirement and hopes of through hiking the Appalachian Trail in 2026. Although the IC-705 is an excellent field radio, all mode, VHF/UHF/D-Star/HF/6 meters, I already know for a 7 month hike from Georgia to Maine, it will just be too bulky in my backpack. I have heard really good things about the QCX-mini, however I’m an appliance operator and not good with kit building and soldering.
I saw there are options to purchase an assembled QCX-mini, so I decided to check out a 40 meter radio. It took about 2-1/2 weeks before it arrived at my QTH on Saturday afternoon. I hooked it up to one of my HF antennas in my yard used for my IC-7300 that was resonant on 40 meters. I had to use my Heil headset in order to hear the audio, plugged into the 3.5 mm jack. I used my CWMorse paddle and tuned around the band. I called CQ several times before finally I heard WA0USA in Palm Beach, FL calling CQ. I called him and got a 579 report and he was a solid 599. We chatted for about 10 minutes, and he was running a kW while I was using 5 watts. It felt good to know that I was being heard.
Sunday morning I had time to go activate a local park (K-1418) before some afternoon commitments. I had also recently purchased a link dipole for 20/30/40 meters off eBay from N9SAB. I had tested this antenna out a couple of times last week, so I wanted to pair it with the QCX-mini. I went with little expectations about the little mini, so I also packed my IC 705 just in case I needed it to complete my 10 contacts to have a successful activation. To my surprise, I spotted myself on the POTA page, and in 45 minutes I had a total of 26 QSOs in my HAMRS log! It was amazing and I think I found the perfect combination for true lightweight, portable operations.
I was so impressed with this activation that last night I ordered the 20 meter QCX-mini! These can be ordered from qrp-labs.com and they have a lot of other kits available as well. The kit itself is $55, and I opted to have it assembled ($45) and purchased the enclosure ($20).
This little radio is very user-friendly. I was able to easily access the menus, customize it to my liking, including the paddle, preset frequencies, several stored CW memories, and was on the air calling CQ Saturday evening without seeking out the instructions.
I had mentioned previously about my disappointment with the Xiegu X5105 and not being able to easily store and recall memories. Not a problem at all with this little radio. I enabled the decoder feature just to test it out, and it decodes better than the G90 or X5105, including very weak signals. The size is a fraction of the size of the X5105 and total weight for everything, including the Bioenno 12v 3aH battery is less than 2 pounds and it all stores very nice.
These quick videos were taken this evening before storms hit; that’s why you will hear lawnmowers in the background. I wanted to first show a demo of the receive decoder and how well it decodes even weaker signals:
My biggest complaint about the X5105 was how the memory was next to impossible to use. I do a quick demo how to access a stored message and send it over the air. I also have it set to repeat every 6 seconds:
I did make a couple of changes to the radio setup. I did not like having to use the headset, so I went on Amazon and purchased a mini portable 3 watt mobile phone speaker line-in speaker with 3.5mm audio interface (affiliate link). That cost under $15 and works extremely well. It has a built in charger that plugs into a micro-USB to charge the battery when not in use. I also have a cell phone holder that fits perfectly on my Neewer stand I purchased several months ago for my IC 705, and it sits nice and firm on the table. I may not take that to the field if I’m doing a lot of hiking.
Here are some other details about the QCX-mini from their website:
The Optional enclosure is black anodized extruded aluminium, very sturdy and elegant. The enclosure size is 95 x 63 x 25mm without protrusions. The top and side panels are drilled and cut to match the QCX-mini with laser-etched lettering. The enclosure includes four self-adhesive feet.
Special portable-friendly features:
Small size: 95 x 63 x 25mm enclosure (plus protusions)
Low current consumption (for example 58mA receive current, with 12V supply and display backlight off)
Low weight, 202 grams
Sturdy extruded aluminium enclousre
All-metal BNC short connector, bolted to enclosure
List of features:
Easy to build, two-board design, board with main circuit and connectors, display panel board with LCD; all-controls board-mounted on a press-out sub-board. No wiring, all controls and connectors are board-mounted
Professional quality double-sided, through-hole plated, silk-screen printed PCBs
Choice of single band, 80, 60, 40, 30, 20 or 17m
Approximately 3-5W CW output (depending on supply voltage)
High performance receiver with at least 50dB of unwanted sideband cancellation
200Hz CW filter with no ringing
Si5351A Synthesized VFO with rotary encoder tuning
16 x 2 yellow/green LCD screen
Iambic keyer or straight key option included in the firmware
Simple Digital Signal Processing assisted CW decoder, displayed real-time on-screen
On-screen real time clock (not battery backed up)
Full or semi QSK operation using fast solid-state transmit/receive switching
Frequency presets, VFO A/B Split operation, RIT, configurable CW Offset
Configurable sidetone frequency and volume
Connectors: 2.1mm power barrel connector, 3.5mm keyer jack, 3.5mm stereo earphone jack, 3.5mm stereo jack for PTT, 3.5mm stereo jack for CAT control, BNC RF output
Built-in test signal generator and alignment tools to complete simple set-up adjustments
Built-in test equipment: voltmeter, RF power meter, frequency counter, signal generator
Beacon mode, supporting automatic CW, FSKCW or WSPR operation
GPS interface for reference frequency calibration and time-keeping (for WSPR beacon)
CAT control interface
Optional 50W PA kit
Optional aluminium extruded cut/drilled/laser-etched black anodized enclosure
Just a quick note on the link dipole. It is well made and I had a 1:1 SWR on the CW part of the band, which is perfect. I did put the IC 705 to work when I attempted to work a couple of SSB stations on POTA, and at 7.235 the SWR was only about 1.3:1, so minimal loss. Check out the N9SAB antennas on his eBay site. His shipping is very quick. I took a picture of the balun with the included choke in the package I purchased, and the second picture is the link between the 20 and 40 meters. It works great.
I mentioned my goal about hiking the Appalachian Trail in 2026. I’m sure there will be other multi band mini size radios available by then and I’m hopeful QCX will have one in 5 years for me to use. My goal is to activate summits along the way while taking breaks from the hiking, or at night before calling it an evening. Since I’ll be on the A.T. I’ll also have lots of opportunity to activate POTA as well. Most thru hikers are not hams and they are always concerned about no cell phone coverage. I won’t have that issue and I’m confident I’ll be able to be in touch with other hams throughout the journey.
Thank you once again Tom for allowing me to post on QRPer. I think I finally have a QRP radio that you have not tested or purchased yet. I hope your readers find this short article useful.
Scott – KN3A
Scott Lithgow (KN3A) is a regular contributor on QRPer.com. Click here to check out his previous posts.
With so many great radios in your livery, how do you decide which one to take with you on an activation? I mean, outings other than when you are reviewing a particular radio.
Do you just grab them in a rotation to keep operating features fresh in your mind? Or do the radios have “personalities” that you match to the type of trip you are taking them on?
Thank you for your question, Greg, because I’ll admit, this is a decision I make each and every time I go on an activation run. I’m absolutely spoiled by having access to some of (what I consider) to be the best portable transceivers out there. I’ve acquired the bulk of these in the past four years.
You essentially answered your question for me.
I enjoy rotating through my transceivers, ATUs, and antennas because I love trying different pairings. Sometimes, I decide what radio to take on an activation by looking at previous field reports and then pick one I haven’t used recently.
I love using gear in rotation because, as you suggest, it keeps their operating features fresh in my mind. It’s nice to be actively working stations in the field and not struggle with the rig to find filter adjustments, memory keying, keying speed, mic gain, RF gain, etc. With so many small radios having nested menus, using radios in rotation helps my rig feature “muscle memory.”
With that said, I will ignore rotation if I’m going to a site and know that one model of radio might give me an advantage over another.
If I’m going to a park and plan to do a picnic table activation, for example, any of my radios will work. These tend to be the times I try new antennas and new accessories because I can bring spare gear if something doesn’t work properly.
But, if I’m taking a long hike to my activations site–say for SOTA–I will grab a rig that’s more portable, with more built-in features, and pair it with antennas I know I can deploy on the summit.
You’re right, I do believe each radio has a personality and this will sometimes influence my choice. I’ve been known to anthropomorphize my radios and, yes, even name them. Don’t judge me!
Here’s how I would describe the personalities of some of my favorites:
Mountain Topper MTR-3B: Wee, fun, effective, and bare-bones yet nearly custom for CW field activations.
Elecraft KX1: An effective, impressively portable, and reliable CW companion.
Elecraft KX2: The bees knees for a portable HF operator. Always ready-to-go, never intimidated by site conditions, a proper super compact HF Swiss Army Knife.
Discovery TX-500: If Jeep or Land Rover made an HF rig, it would be the TX-500. It’s ready for any weather, packs great performance, and is incredibly fun to operate.
Icom IC-705: All the comforts of a shack-grade, wide range, multi-mode transceiver, packed into a QRP brick.
Yaesu FT-817ND: The Toyota sedan of portable transceivers. Super reliable, rugged, and capable.
Xiegu X5105: An unrefined, competent, and rugged field performer. It’s a lot like one of those dogs that’s so ugly, it’s kind of cute.
Mission RGO One: A low-noise champion that has contest-grade receiver characteristics. I love this performer’s unassuming, simple design.
Elecraft KX3: An HF portable champion. The KX3 will handle the roughest, densest RF environment you can encounter with the optional roofing filter. Possibly the best performing CW rig I own.
So there you go.
I do go through a bit of a selection process prior to each outing and, honestly, it has become part of the fun for me.
Less is more, too
With that said, I could easily get away with only owning one or two of the radios listed above. Indeed, for most of my ham radio life, I’ve only owned one or two HF radios.
I actually enjoy being “stuck” with one radio, in fact.
During a normal year, my family will often travel to Canada for the better part of two months. Before leaving, I try to choose only one radio to go with me and it must double as a ham radio transceiver and shortwave listening receiver. It’s fun spending so much time with only one radio and getting to know its features, nuances, and personality.
How about you?
How do you choose radios? Do you feel like your radios have personalities? Do you name your radios? Inquiring minds want to know–please comment!
Most of my on-air time is in the field. While I enjoy operating from the shack, I’ve discovered I especially enjoy operating in the great outdoors.
Besides being a fan of hiking, camping, and the great outdoors generally, I also am particularly fond of radio field gear. I like portable transceivers, portable antennas, battery packs, and all of the accessories that make field operation efficient and enjoyable.
I appreciate the emergency communications skills I’ve developed in the field, too. Should the need (or opportunity) arise, I now keep a complete field kit packed and ready to go at all times, and can even deploy all of it within just ten minutes. In my early days of ham radio operation, I might have easily spent thirty minutes setting the antenna, alone…especially on Field Day, with folks watching me struggle to untangle wires and cables, followed by the undoubtedly entertaining attempts I made to put a line into a tree to deploy the antenna. But after deploying a variety of antennas hundreds of times now, I find that––while I’m still not perfect––I finally have a bit of skill and the process of tossing up a line is becoming much swifter and smoother.
Confessions of a pack geek
If I’m being honest with myself, I admit: I also simply get a thrill out of kitting out my field packs, as well as organizing and tweaking them over time. Yes, (don’t judge me!) I actually like packing up my field gear.
I think my passion for organizing and packing gear goes back to a former career when I lived in the UK, Germany, and France, and was required to travel throughout Europe frequently. Originally inspired by travel guru Rick Steves, I’ve always appreciated the footloose feeling of having all of my travel gear in one lightweight pack. I don’t like checking in luggage, but love the freedom of grabbing my backpack and skipping the baggage claim carousels. And I also like knowing that, even though my gear is compact, it contains everything I need.
I’ve become something of a “less-is-more” traveller. Two years ago, for example, I traveled for one week using what Frontier Airlines classifies as a “personal carry-on.” My Tom Bihn Stowaway pack, which only measures 14.0″ (w) x 9.4″ (h) x 8.1″ (d), carried everything I needed for a conference, including my own presentation gear.
Packing for that trip was great fun as it really challenged me to decide what was essential and what was not. My iPad doubled a computing and presentation device, for example, but I also packed a small flashlight and a mini first aid kit, which I felt were important. Of course, I also carried a small portable Shortwave/AM/FM radio and my Yaesu VX-3R handheld…also vital, as I can’t leave home without radios!
Getting started with a field kit
Putting together a field radio kit is so similar to packing for travel: you must first do an assessment of what you need, starting with the basics––then organize it, pack it, and test it.
In my world, this is a very deep topic. We’re going to break down this topic into two parts.
This article, Part 1, we’ll dive in:
first, going over the obvious components of a basic field radio kit;
second, discussing the benefits of going low-power (QRP) if that appeals
In Part 2, we will:
look at variations of kits based on activity, and finally
review what I consider the “golden rules” of a good field radio kit
The basics of a field radio kit
First, let’s go over the basics of your field kit, considering that that these primary components will dictate your bag, pack, or case size.
Since I’m a bit radio obsessed, I have a number of QRP transceivers I like to take to the field. But if you have selected one transceiver you plan to dedicate to field work, or simply have only one transceiver, period, you can build a kit around it (and see my note below about “modular” kits). If budget allows, you might consider buying a radio specifically for field use, so it can always be packed and ready to go.
There are a number of transceivers on the market that are designed with field use in mind. Some are compact, power-stingy CW-only QRP transceivers that might only operate on three ham radio bands, while others are 100-watt general coverage transceivers that even have built-in antenna tuners––there’s a wide range of options.
Look for field-friendly, built-in options like:
CW and voice-memory keying;
SWR and power meter readings;
a battery voltage indicator;
low current consumption;
the ability to lower power to at least one watt;
an internal battery option; and
an internal antenna tuner option
And the more such options are already built into your field rig, obviously, the less separate accessories you’ll need to pack and keep track of in the field, which is a good thing.
Some of my favorite field-ready general-coverage transceivers currently in production are:
The Elecraft KX2 A full-featured, inclusive, and compact 80-10 meter transceiver that’s truly a “Swiss-army knife” of field operation (see November 2016 TSM review)
The Elecraft KX3 Benchmark performance, wide array of features, and compact design
The lab599 Discovery TX-500 Military-grade engineering, weatherproof, spectrum display, and benchmark current consumption for a general-coverage radio (see October 2020 TSM review)
Mission RGO One Top-notch performance, 50-watts out, and excellent audio (see November 2020 TSM review)
The Yaesu FT-817/818 Rugged chassis, 160-6 meters, VHF and UHF multi-mode, both BNC and PL-259 antenna inputs
The Xiegu X5105 Affordable, 160-6 meters, 5 watts output, built-in ATU, and built in rechargeable batttey
The Xiegu G90 Affordable, relatively compact rig with built-in ATU, color screen with spectrum/watefall, good audio, and 20 watts of output power (see August 2020 TSM review)
The Icom IC-705 Benchmark performance, a multitude of features, exchangeable battery packs, 160-6 meters, VHF and UHF multi-mode, D-Star, GPS, WiFi, Bluetooth (see February 2021 TSM review)
The Yaesu FT-891: Affordable relatively compact radio with detachable faceplate, 100 watts output, and excellent audio (see November 2017 TSM review)
An important side note for field contests: if you plan to use a field transceiver in an event like the ARRL Field Day and/or another popular radio contest, make sure you choose a transceiver that can handle tightly spaced signals in an RF-dense environment. This is not the time to pull out a lower-end radio with poor receiver specifications. Use Rob Sherwood’s receiver test data table as a guide.
An antenna––and a means to deploy/support it
This particular topic, alone, might warrant a three-part series of articles. So, to keep the scope of this article realistic, let’s just say that you should build or buy an antenna that can comfortably handle the wattage you’re pushing into itin all the modes that you operate, considering that some 100-watt SSB-rated antennas might melt or arc if you run 100 watts CW or FT8.
I would suggest you consider having at least one resonant antenna, like an end-fed half-wave (EFHW) that might cover 40 and 20 meters without the need of an antenna tuner to match the antenna impedance to your rig.
Some of my favorite portable antenna systems?
I’m a big fan of Chameleon Antennafor their ease of deployment and benchmark build quality. Their prices range from $145 for the Emcomm III random wire, to $550 for their MPAS 2.0 vertical antenna system. These prices are near the top of the market, but Chameleon antennas are all machined and produced in the US and the quality is second to none. These are antennas you might well pass along to the next generation, meaning, really heirloom-worthy kit!
PackTennas, likewise, are pricey for such a compact product, but they are also beautifully engineered, lightweight, and designed for heavy field use. PackTenna produces an EFHW, 9:1 UNUN random wire, and linked dipole models. They’re some of the most compact field antennas on the market that can still handle as much as 100 watts of power output.
Wolf River Coils verticals are affordable, compact, and resonant––thus an ATU isn’t needed. It will take some time to learn how to adjust the coil during frequency changes, but they work amazingly well. I have the WRC Take It Along (TIA). Their antennas are designed to handle 100 watts SSB, 50 watts CW, or 20 watts digital.
Vibroplexsells a number of compact field portable antennas and is the manufacturer of Par End Fedz offerings. I’m very fond of the EFT Trail-Friendly and the EFT-MTR.
MFJ Enterprisesalso has a few portable antennas in their catalog, and it’s very difficult to beat the price and performance of their antenna gear. I have their $50 EFHW antenna (the MFJ-1982LP) and love it.
I’ve also had tremendous fun with the uber-compact Elecraft AX1 antenna. Unquestionably, it’s the most compact and quickest-to-deploy antenna I own. It’s designed to pair with the Elecraft KX2 and KX3 using the optional internal antenna tuner.
There are a number of other antenna manufacturers who cater to portable operators. For example––although I’ve not yet had the opportunity of testing their antennas––SOTAbeams is highly regarded among SOTA enthusiasts.
Short on cash? No worries; you can build your own! In fact, until 2016, I had never purchased a field antenna; I built all my own. EFHW antennas and random-wire antennas are no more than a carefully-wound coil, a female antenna connector, an enclosure or mounting plate, and some wire. Some of the most active field operators I know homebrew all of their antennas. It’s easy, affordable, and fun!
Make sure you choose a battery that is sized appropriately for your transceiver power output. I will say that I’m a huge fan of LiFePo4 rechargeable batteries for their voltage range, lightweight design, and longevity. Being primarily a QRPer, I typically use 3 to 4.5 amp hour batteries as they’ll carry me through as many as three or four activations without needing to be recharged. For longer field deployments, or when I’m powering my 100W KXPA100 amplifier, I’ll use my 15 aH Bioenno LiFePo4 pack.
It should go without saying that you need to pack these, but I have gone to the field with operators who forgot their key or mic and asked if I had a spare.
Keys are fairly universal, but keep in mind legacy transceivers often want a ¼” plug while newer rigs typically accept an ⅛” plug. Microphones, however, vary in port type and pin configuration based on the manufacturer and model. You could damage your mic or rig if you plug in a multi-pin mic that was designed for a different transceiver. Most mics that use a ⅛” plug are universal. Still, check before you plug it in if using an after-market or non-OEM mic.
Of course, choose a key, microphone, or boom headset that’s compact and rugged so that’ll be easy to pack and will stand the test of time.
I also always pack a set of inexpensive in-ear earphones. These can dramatically help with weak-signal interpretation.
Also, if you plan to operate a digital mode, you’ll likely need some sort of computing device. Even though I rarely operate digital modes in the field, I often pack my Microsoft Surface Go tablet in case I change my mind.
In addition, I like logging directly to N3FJP’s Amateur Contact Log application directly in the field to save time submitting my logs later. Soon, I’ll be using the new HAMRS field log on my iPhone.
Speaking of logging…
A means of logging
As simple as it is, it’s very important to take at least some paper and a pencil for logging your contacts. I like using small, pocket-sized Muji notebooks (affiliate link) for logging, and if the weather is even a little questionable, I’m a huge fan of getting my contacts down in Rite In The Rain mini notebooks (affiliate link) or notepads using a good old-fashioned pencil.
I like logging to paper and sometimes simultaneously logging to my Microsoft Surface Go. I have completed phone-only field activations where I only logged to my Surface Go tablet: in those cases, I snap a photo of my N3FJP call log, just in case something happens to my tablet between the field and the shack! Having endured enough technology failures, it gives me peace of mind to have at least one other backup.
Keep in mind that when you’re activating a park or summit, the folks calling you are relying on you to submit your logs to the appropriate programs so that they can get credit for working you. Many times, this might also help their awards for a state, county, or grid square. Always submit your logs after an activation even if you didn’t make enough contacts to validate the activation (POTA requires 10 contacts, SOTA requires 4 logged). It helps other folks out.
A pack or case
If you have a field radio kit, you’re going to need a means to organize and contain it for transport. There are at least three types of systems used for field kits.
A backpack or soft-sided case
Since I enjoy the option of hiking with my radio gear, I love using backpacks. Although I’ll speak to this more next month in “Part 2,”, I choose quality packs that have at least one waterproof compartment and are comfortable to carry on long hikes. I also try to look for packs with Molle or some sort of external strapping so that I can attach portable antenna masts or even my hiking poles to the exterior of the pack.
A waterproof case or flight case
Many field operators who want extra protection for their gear––especially when they don’t plan to hike or carry their gear long distances to the operating site––like hard-sided cases. I have built field radio kits in waterproof Pelican cases and appreciate knowing that I could drop my kit in a whitewater river, and it would likely survive the adventure unscathed. If you are one of these operators, look for quality watertight cases from brands like Pelican and Nanuk with interiors lined in pick foam padding that allows you to perfectly accommodate and safely protect your radio and accessories.
Portable ready-to-deploy cases
Although this option is almost outside the scope of this article, many emergency communications enthusiasts love having their gear loaded in rugged, portable––often rack-mounted and hard-sided––cases that they can simply open, hook to an antenna, and get right on the air. These systems are often the heaviest, least “portable,” and less suited for long distance hikes, but they’re often completely self-contained, with all of the components, including the power, hooked up and ready to go on a moment’s notice. While a system like this would be impractical for many Summits On The Air sites, it could be ideal for a park or island activation where you’re never that far from your vehicle.
Optional: Antenna cable
This doesn’t sound like an option, but it’s true. I’ve often operated my Elecraft KX3, KX2, and KX1 without a feedline at all: I simply attached two wires to a BNC binding post, and connected that to the radio. It makes for a super-compact setup.
Even an 8-12 foot feedline can make it easier to configure your operating position in the field. If you want to keep the feedline as low-profile as possible, especially if you’re operating QRP, consider investing in a quality RG-316 feedline terminated with the connector that fits your radio and antenna.
Optional: Antenna Tuner/Transmatch
Again, this topic could easily warrant a multi-part series of articles, but I’ll sum this one up in a nutshell: while I love (and even prefer) using resonant antennas that require no antenna tuner, I almost always carry a radio with a built-in ATU or an external portable ATU like the Elecraft T1 or ZM-2.
Why? Because an ATU will give you a certain amount of frequency agility or freedom. If I’m using an antenna that’s resonant on 40, 20, and 10 meters, but there’s a contest that day and the bands are incredibly crowded, I might use the ATU to find a match on 30 meters or 17 meters, thus finding a little refuge and space to operate. Also, sometimes antenna deployments aren’t ideal––due, for example, to site limitations such as dense vegetation that may alter the antenna deployment and thus its resonance. An ATU can at least keep your transceiver happy with the SWR when your resonant antenna might not be perfectly resonant.
But the main reason I carry it? A portable ATU gives you operational flexibility.
QRP or QRO?
Its good to keep in mind that many of the station accessories listed above need to be matched to the output power of your transceiver and modes you use.
Many ham radio friendships have been placed in jeopardy over the question of either using QRP (low power) or QRO (high power) for field operations. This is a shame. Some operators have very strong opinions, but the truth is, there is no right or wrong answer.
In the spirit of full disclosure, I operate 97% of the time at QRP power levels––in my world, this means five watts or less. Personally, I enjoy the challenge of low-power operating. But I also appreciate the portability QRP gear offers.
Speaking pragmatically––and this fact really isn’t open to debate––QRP and lower-power transceivers and accessories tend to be more efficient, more compact, and lighter than their higher-power siblings.
Most of my QRP transceivers weigh anywhere from two to five times less than their 100-watt equivalents. If you’re operating mobile (from a vehicle or camper/caravan, for example), an eight to twelve pound difference might not be a big deal. But the moment you’re hiking several miles to a mountain summit, weight becomes an important factor.
QRP transceivers have modest power requirements: everything from battery, to antenna, and even to tuners, are smaller, lighter, and more compact.
When operating QRP, you don’t have to worry as much about RF coming back to the radio from, say, an end-fed antenna. If I’m pushing over 20 watts into an end-fed half wave or end-fed random wire, I’ll likely want an in-line RF choke to keep some of that energy from affecting my transceiver or giving me an RF “tingle” when I touch the radio chassis or my key. Too much RF coming back to the transceiver can also affect things like electronic CW keying. But at five watts? I don’t worry. This is almost a non-issue, unless your transceiver happens to be very RF-sensitive indeed.
And even though I’m predominantly a QRPer, I definitely do pack radios like the 50-watt Mission RGO One and occasionally my Elecraft KX3 and KXPA100 100-watt amplifier, especially for an event like Field Day where my club is operating at higher power. I simply size up my gear appropriately. Again, this is especially important with your antenna, feed line, ATU, and battery selections.
If you primarily activate parks and are never far from your vehicle, it’s quite easy to accommodate a 100 watt transceiver like an FT-891, for example. Of course, if you wish to operate low-power and save your battery, simply turn down the output power. If you plan to hike a lot with your gear, then get your mind around QRP!
I admit it! I’m in love with BHI Ltd.’s DSP noise reduction accessories. I’ve owned most of their popular models like the DSP Desktop Speaker, and have installed BHI low-level audio modules in six different receivers and transceivers.
How is it that an audio-based DSP noise reduction accessory can be so effective? Only BHI knows, but they clearly have top-notch algorithms that rival the best of noise reduction circuits in contemporary Yaesu transceivers. (Personal bias alert: I find Yaesu’s approach to noise reduction (“DNR” in Yaesu-speak) to be quite superior to ICOM’s, and this is what got me thinking about improving the transceiver with an internal BHI NEDSP1901-KBD module in the first place.)
The noise reduction feature in the IC-705 and its IC-7300 base station counterpart is merely “OK” in my opinion, but the addition of BHI’s NR makes a significant difference in S/N and intelligibility of signals. It’s simple enough to use an external BHI product and connect it to your rig’s speaker or headphone’s audio path, but it adds wiring and complexity. The ICOM IC-705 modification described in this article is a neat, clean, internal solution needing no external wiring or power supply.
“[W]hat’s the toughest HF QRP transceiver on the market? I want a rig with good field performance and features, but I what I really want is something rugged…something that might survive falling off a rock or log while I’m doing a little SOTA.”
It was a no-brainer to me: either the lab599 Discovery TX-500 or Yaesu FT-818/817.
I feel lucky in that I’ve acquired a number of excellent QRP transceivers over the years. Most of my field-worthy radios are acceptably rugged, but the TX-500 and the FT-818/817 really stand out.
The Discovery TX-500
The Discovery TX-500 was designed from the ground up to be a rugged, weather-resistant portable radio that could operate in challenging environments (think the extremes of Russia where it’s manufactured).
If I’m heading outdoors and it could rain or snow? I’ll be grabbing the TX-500 for sure. It’s a brilliant portable radio
Yaesu FT-818 or FT-817
While the Yaesu FT-818/817 has no serious weather-proofing, it does have an incredible study chassis like the TX-500 and was obviously designed for outdoor use. Both of my FT-817NDs have side rails and with those in place, I really feel like it would easily survive falling off a rock or log. In addition, I’ve heard stories of the FT-817 surviving some hard falls–that goes a long way for me. No doubt, it’s a study little rig!
The X5105: A close runner up?
I’ll admit that the Xiegu X5105 feels like a very study radio as well. The chassis is made of an aluminum alloy and feels rigid. Mine has a polycarbonate screen protector. I also like the fact that its buttons and the main encoder are all low-profile. It’s still pretty new to me, but it’s obvious Xiegu designed the X5105 to be rugged. If it fell off a rock during a SOTA activation, I wouldn’t worry too much.
Admittedly, I feel like the X5105 wouldn’t be terribly weather-resistant–the buttons are somewhat recessed and the button openings are quite large, likely allowing water intrusion. Of course, I haven’t cracked mine open yet (it’s still under warranty and is sealed), so I’m assuming there’s no effort to stop water intrusion internally.
Do you need a “rugged” transceiver?
That’s up to you.
One of my favorite portable transceivers is the Elecraft KX2. I’ve taken it everywhere. I’ve dropped it, it’s rolled off my clipboard, I’ve got caught in the rain with it, and I’ve even slid and fallen on my backpack when it was stored inside. I wouldn’t classify the KX2 as a “rugged” transceiver, yet it’s survived all of this without even sporting side rails (like its bigger brother, the KX3).
At the end of the day, if you like to operate in extreme conditions, put ruggedness at the top of your priority list. Otherwise, simply protect your transceiver in transport with a good waterproof case or padded/waterproof pack. If you’re worried about rain or water, bring a rain jacket or portable fly/canopy to protect you and your rig during operation.
Did I miss something?
What radios do you consider to be some of the most rugged on the market? I’m certain I’m overlooking some. First hand experience would be most welcome! Please comment!
Well, to be honest, it was a purchase I planned to make, but not until much later this year or early next year.
Except I didn’t.
Don’t judge me.
Last Sunday, I hopped over to the QTH.com Classifieds to price out a nice 100 watt radio for a friend whose daughter is new to the hobby.
Normally, I use the search functionality at QTH.com and seek out classified ads for particular radio models. Since I wanted to offer him several examples, I decided to simply load all ads for that day and skim through the list.
The very first item that came up on the list was a Yaesu FT-817ND. I opened the ad and looked at the photo.
The owner was selling the radio along with everything that originally accompanied it–the box, antenna, manuals, the whole lot–plus side rails he’d purchased and installed. He described it as “like new” with only five hours of operating time on it. He said he was selling it because, “I just can’t do QRP.”
I honestly think I appreciate the FT-817/818 now even more than I did after it initially hit the market. I’ve been enjoying the FT-817ND in the field and have used it in a number of park and summit activations.
But that’s not why I purchased this one.
I’ve been wanting to get in on a bit of satellite action as, perhaps, a bit of a stepping stone into QRP EME (I mean, the antennas point upwards, right?) and also my ham daughters are both interested in satellites.
My future QRP full-duplex portable satellite system
Ages ago, I’d seen and read about hams who’d paired two FT-817s or FT-818s to create a full duplex portable satellite station.
My buddy Eric (WD8RIF) reminded me about this earlier in the year, too, and it stuck in my head because I really liked the idea.
Why? Besides all of the advantages of using a full duplex station, two FT-817s is still a very portable set-up. Hypothetically, I could use it for both satellites and HF during a park activation. Plus, two portable HF radios, right? Right! What’s not to love–?
Seriously: I see the system as quite a value when compared to other full duplex systems including pricier HTs.
I had not done research about FT-817ND pricing before pulling the trigger–indeed, I still haven’t–but I felt $350 shipped was fair. I know I’ll get $350 of fun out of it!
After taking delivery and unboxing it, I expected it to show normal signs of wear, but the seller described it accurately: it was like new. In fact, it still had the protective film on the screen (yes, I pulled it off) and I could tell the microphone had never even been taken from the box. It was flawless and included every single original accessory mostly in the original bags.
I like the side rails, too: They prop up the radio at a perfect viewing angle. I have no idea who made these, but they’re nice.
Speaking of side rails…
I’ve been very pleased with the Portable Zero side rails and bail that came with my first Yaesu FT-817ND.
Using a dual FT-817ND system in the field, though, I’ll require either a bag to hold them, or a dual side rail system.
Turns out, Portable Zero makes side rails that hold and space two FT-817/818s perfectly. I gulped a bit when I saw the price, though.
Still: they obviously make a great product and, for me, it’s an elegant solution. Before I bite the bullet, though, I might investigate homebrewing something or see if there are other options.
In fact, if you’ve seen other solutions–or have owned the Dual Escort yourself–please comment!
The bag would allow me to house both transceivers, a battery, cables, digital recorder and basically everything I’d need to operate full duplex portable in the field.
Another advantage of using the bag would be that I wouldn’t need to remove the side rails I already have on each FT-817ND (assuming the camera bag could accommodate them). In addition, the bag might make for less dangling cables as I operate.
The fact that numerous satellite gurus like Sean (KX9X) use this same bag is a pretty strong recommendation.
Arrow heading my way
On the advice of Eric, and numerous other portable satellite ops, I ordered an Arrow 146/437-10BP Satellite Antenna.
I assume I’ll use the the BNC connectors on the front of the radio rather than the SO-239 connectors on the back.
The FT-817ND I purchased last year came with a 2kHz Inrad SSB filter. I replaced it with a 500 Hz Collins filter I purchased from Steve (WG0AT)–thanks, Steve!
I opened the new FT-817ND yesterday morning and installed the SSB filter. It sounds great.
If I chased you in POTA or SOTA yesterday, and you logged me, it was with the new FT-817ND running 2.5 watts off of the included NiMH battery pack.
I gave the FT-817ND a thorough work-out and it seems everything functions as it should.
Any other dual FT-817/818 owners out there?
If you have any advice about mounting or packing dual FT-817/818s, I’m all ears. Also, if you use the FT-817/818 with an Arrow antenna, I’m curious what you use in terms of cable assemblies.
I’m a complete newbie to the world of amateur satellites, so any tips or hints are most welcome.
This weekend, I’m going to the first hamfest I’ve attended in 19 months. Let’s hope I can resist other impulse purchases! For what it’s worth, I’ve zero buyer’s remorse about this purchase!