On the morning of November 4th, I woke up with one thought on my mind: “I need to activate Mount Mitchell before it’s too late!”
It’s not like Mount Mitchell was going to disappear, but I knew I was already on borrowed time since the long section of the Blue Ridge Parkway I use to drive to Mount Mitchell from Asheville typically closes in the early part of November for weeks at a time. The park itself will close to guests too–in fact, last year, it closed its gates as I drove out of the park! There are often other roads open to Mitchell in the winter, but they’re very much out of the way for me and frankly, weather can shift and the park close at the drop of a hat.
As the crow flies, Mount Mitchell is actually very close to my QTH. If I wanted, I could hike there directly from my home. I’ve yet to do this, however, because with the 3,000′ elevation change and the anything-but-direct trails that skirt the Asheville watershed, I’d need a full day or more to hike it one way. I will for sure do this sometime, but only when I can pack appropriately and reserve a campsite.
As soon as I surfaced that morning, I check the weather map. I noticed that the temp at Mount Mitchell was actually slightly higher than at my QTH. I looked out the kitchen window and could see fog in the valley. This meant one thing: inversion!
When we have inversion, the cold air is pushed down into the valley and warmer air can be found at higher elevations. The flip opposite of what you’d typically expect.
I ate a quick bite, grabbed come coffee, and hit the road.
As I drove past Warren Wilson College’s farm, it was absolutely gorgeous. I had to stop and take a photo or two [click images to enlarge].
The drive up to Mount Mitchell on the BRP was ideal: clear skies and quite warm!
A Review of the LnR Precision Mountain Topper MTR-4B V2
by Thomas (K4SWL)
I confess, there is something that I’ve come to believe is almost a rite of passage in the SOTA (Summits On The Air) community. And, no, I’m not talking about activating an All Time New One (ATNO) summit, or completing a particularly challenging activation on a snow-capped peak.
I’m talking about owning one of the iterations of the amazing “Mountain Topper” pocket-sized QRP CW transceivers designed by Steve Weber (KD1JV).
This little radio first caught my attention at a Four Days In May (FDIM) QRP conference over a decade ago: a ham friend in the SOTA community proudly showed me a very early version of the Mountain Topper that he built from a kit. The first thing that struck me was how impossibly small and extraordinarily lightweight it was. But when he showed me the 9-volt battery he used to power it––a power supply not only small, but convenient––I was mesmerized.
Over the years, the Mountain Topper has evolved. There have been many models, ranging from two bands to five. To my knowledge, they’re no longer offered in kit form, but LnR Precision manufactures and tests these in North Carolina, and they’re better than ever in terms of features and performance.
At present, the MTR-4B V2––the second version of the four-band Mountain Topper––is the only model in production, and if you’re hoping to acquire one, due to supply chain issues (at time of publishing) there’s a rather long wait time. They retail new for $350 US, and frankly, the used ones I’ve seen posted in ham radio classifieds ads have been equal to, or even over, the listed price for a new rig. Obviously, demand for these radios is much higher than supply.
So, how could it be that this minuscule QRP radio performs well enough to produce some serious DX from a remote summit…so well, in fact, that people are willing to wait in line for one?
Magic or method?
As any CW operator will tell you, the magic is in the mode. CW is such an efficacious mode that it cuts through the ether like a knife, even when conditions are less than favorable.
Obviously, pint-size radios like the Mountain Topper are QRP––low power––so designing them around such a simple mode is a very smart choice. CW transceivers are much less complex than a similar SSB transceiver, thus have less components, less mass, and are in general more affordable (when compared to those with similar receiver performance).
In addition, the Mountain Topper is designed with the field activator in mind: specifically, SOTA activators, but of course, POTA (Parks On The Air), WWFF (World Wide Flora and Fauna), IOTA (Islands On The Air), or any other popular “-OTA” field activity. As a field activator in one of these programs, you are the DX. This means chasers and hunters are actively seeking your signal, and thus you are not competing with blowtorch stations to punch through a pileup.
I can also assure you that standing on a tall summit also gives you a brilliant starting point for your QRP signal. Some of the best DX I’ve ever worked has been from a summit.
So, for the average CW SOTA activator, QRP is preferred because QRO simply isn’t necessary––indeed, in my opinion it’s a bit of an overkill. At least that’s been my experience now with my few hundred SOTA, POTA, NPOTA, SOTA, and even one Lighthouse On The Air activations.
It was so great to spend an extended weekend camping, hiking, and hopping on the air with other SOTA activators.
I especially enjoyed getting to know Joshua (KO4AWH)–the fellow behind Tufteln products— over that weekend. He needed a campsite and since my buddy Monty had to pull out of the trip due family activities, I was happy to share the tent site with him. It actually worked out quite well since we could then pair up and car pool to our SOTA and POTA activations.
What follows is a field report for two SOTA activations Joshua and I did back-to-back on Friday, October 14, 2022.
The trail head for both of these summits was only a few miles from our campsite at Lake Winfield Scott.
Note that I used the same gear during both SOTA activations all packed in my Spec-Ops Brand SOTA backpack.
Black Mountain and Big Cedar essentially share the same trailhead at the Woody Gap Recreational Area parking lot on Highway 60.
We were on site early enough to grab a parking space. Keep in mind that it was Friday during leaf season, so there were quite a few hikers on the trails that day! In fact, by midday, the parking lot was overflowing with cars.
Almost by flip of coin, we decided to hit Big Cedar Mountain first. Turns out, Joshua had actually hiked to this summit in the past and even met a SOTA activator en route (and I believe this might have been his inspiration to try Summits On The Air!).
The first production run of these paddles sold out very quickly, but I just received the following message from CW Morse about the new paddles:
We’ve finally gotten caught up and will be shipping out Monday & Tuesday [Nov 21/22]! Also have a few more in stock. Making another batch as well.
CW Morse sent me a set of these paddles to evaluate at no charge to me (keep in mind, they’re both a sponsor and affiliate of QRPer.com) and I got a chance to use them Thursday afternoon.
I love these paddles!
In fact, I think these may become my preferred compact paddles.
I like the size of the finger pieces/pads. They’re large for such a tiny paddle, which I believe gives them a solid feel while keying. I prefer a larger contact surface area as opposed to thin finger pieces.
The response is very precise, too, and the action can be adjusted by a supplied Allen wrench.
I agree with a few readers who’ve already received their paddles and noted that the carbon fiber reinforced PETG material make the key grippy and very easy to hold.
The size and design is very similar to the SOTA paddle N0SA sold out of last year in a matter of a few hours.
Bonus POTA Activation!
Thursday afternoon, my daughters attended a two hour meeting not even a stone’s throw from the Blue Ridge Parkway. I had *just* taken delivery of the new N0SA paddles, so grabbed the shipping box from CW Morse, my new-to-me Elecraft K2/10 (more on that later!), and my PackTenna Random Wire antenna.
I only discovered that my daughters’ meeting was so close to the parkway about 10 minutes before leaving the QTH. This was one of those bonus activations that deserved a little happy dance, especially since I could spend a good 1.5 hours on the air–a proper luxury for this busy father!
I’ll post a full field report and activation video in a couple of weeks, but in a nutshell, 30 meters was on fire. I’d planned to work 20, 30, and 40 meters (to test the K2’s internal ATU) but 30M was so dang busy, I never had time to QSY.
I had not put the K2/10 on the air yet, so all of the settings were default and it had been a few years since I used a K2, so had to re-familiarize myself with the settings. Thirty meters was so consistently busy, I didn’t have a breather to tinker with the settings.
The new N0SA SP4 paddles worked flawlessly.
I expected nothing less from an N0SA design, but still–the feel and action is superb.
I think this paddle may become the new benchmark for where price and quality meet.
I feel like CW Morse could be charging $112.95 instead of $82.95 for these and I would still be very pleased with that price. I’m glad they’re not, though, because sub-$100 pricing does give new CW ops an affordable quality mini paddle option.
Based on so many reader recommendations, I purchased a BaMaKeY TP-III paddle recently. It’s also a wonderful paddle, but cost me 157.25 Euro which is nearly twice the price of the SP4 paddles. While I think the TP-III paddles are brilliant (and I’ll soon post a review) I actually prefer the N0SA SP4 paddles (note that this is my own personal preference–both are amazing keys). I prefer the SP4’s larger finger pieces.
The great thing about CW Morse is that they have the capacity to handle customer demand of the SP4 paddles–this is something N0SA couldn’t do as a one-man show. I think CW Morse also has economies of scale working in their favor and, no doubt, this is how they continue to be the market leader in terms of quality for price.
If you’ve been looking for quality mini paddles for your compact field kit or shack, look no further. These are a no-brainer. You’ll love them.
Naturally, as with any camping trip or extended travel, I’d put a lot of thought into choosing the portable transceiver and field kit to take along.
The great thing about camping at a state park is that I can “activate” that park via the “Parks On The Air” (POTA) or “Worldwide Flora and Fauna” (WWFF) programs pretty much anytime: early morning, late afternoon, or even in a late shift well into the night. Or, of course, all of the above. Since my activation site is also where I’m eating and sleeping, my radio usually gets heavy use.
Before leaving on that April camping trip, I knew what radio I wanted to operate the bulk of the time: my Yaesu FT-817ND. For a lot of reasons which I’ll delve into later, I think the FT-817ND (or its latest iteration, the FT-818ND) is an amazing QRP field radio.
Despite unstable propagation and a little campground QRM that moved in over the weekend––no doubt from a neighboring RV, chock full of noisy switching power supplies––I found the FT-817ND activation to be a most enjoyable experience. I posted a few field reports and activation videos from my New River activations on QRPer.com.
The thing is, each time I publish a field report using the FT-817ND, I receive a string of questions from subscribers and readers. Questions such as…
Should I buy a new FT-818 or a used FT-817?
Why do you like the FT-817ND so much?
What’s the difference between the 817 and 818?
How does the FT-817/818 compare with _____ radio?
Most queries, however, are a version of this comment from reader David:
“We have such a wide array of QRP rigs available to us these days, I’m curious what brings you back to the Yaesu for activations? It’s bigger than our more modern radios, with no ATU and more current draw. I’m just wondering if there is something that you find it does particularly well, or if it’s just ‘because I like to use it,’ which to me is an entirely valid reason, too! My 897 served me well, as does my 891; I’ve had Yaesu handhelds forever, so I’m certainly a fan. I don’t own an 817/8 but they have a devoted following so I just wanted to get your perspective on it.”
Or as another subscriber distilled the question:
“Why choose a legacy design like the 817/818 when newer QRP transceivers have better overall field specs and features?”
Of course, these types of questions are simple enough when it comes to asking, but when it comes to answering, much more complex.
Of course, as I said in my recent TSM article about choosing a field radio, one’s love of a particular radio is by definition quite subjective, and this certainly applies to my response…we all have our own personal preferences. But behind these preferences are objective facts, such as product’s unique features, specifications, and form factor; let’s take a look at these.
As I noted last week, I participated in the W4G SOTA campout at Lake Winfield-Scott Campground in the Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest in north Georgia.
In short? It was amazing!
I thought I’d share a few photos and memories…
Campsite and friends
These SOTA campouts typically involve an announcement via the W4 SOTA group then we all make individual reservations at the chosen campground. Since we’re not reserving the whole campground as a block, we tend to share our individual camping sites with others who might not have been able to reserve a spot.
At Lake Windfield Scott campground, the SOTA group did reserve one large group campsite, but only a couple months ago it was canceled by the park service due to a trail maintenance group that needed it.
Typically, I camp with my friend Monty, but he had other family plans that weekend.
As you can see in the photo above, both of our tents fit on the tent pad with absolutely no extra room to spare. 🙂
It was such a pleasure getting to know Joshua. What a kindred spirit and super nice fellow.
We ended up doing all of our SOTA activations together as you will see in upcoming activation videos and field reports.
Joshua is as pack and organization obsessed as I am. A proper pack nerd! I really enjoyed checking out his bags, cases and all of the brilliant accessories that are a part of his field kits.
He brought both an IC-705 and TX-500 along for the ride. He logs in the field using the HAMRS app (same one I do) but on an iPad Mini (see photo above) and I must admit that the size of the iPad mini is nearly ideal–much better than a phone for logging.
He also used the SDR-Control app to connect wirelessly with his IC-705 and operate digital modes.
We activated a total of three summits during the weekend (Big Cedar,Black Mountain, and Yonah Mountain). It would have been easy to activate six or more if that was the goal–the area is chock full of accessible summits.
As many of you know, I’m a bit of a backpack geek (okay, that’s an understatement).
If you don’t believe me, listen to the Ham Radio Workbench episode where they invited me to take a deep dive into my world of packs, bags, and organization. It’s not for the faint of heart or the short of time. (It was seriously fun, though!)
You would think being a pack geek that I would produce more videos showing a breakdown of what’s in my packs and how I organize them. The irony is I watch numerous videos on YouTube of how others pack out their various field and travel kits.
I’ve had several requests to do a video about my main SOTA pack which is designed around the Spec-Ops Brand T.H.E. Pack EDC tactical backpack (see above). I think the reason why I haven’t made a video and post yet about this pack is because I knew it would be quite detailed and, frankly, take a lot of time to detail.
That said, here we go!
Designed to be modular
This particular pack is not set up to be a fully self-contained field backpack for just one radio. Quite the opposite: I use its main compartment to hold a wide variety of modular field kits I’ve put together.
What do I mean by “modular”–?
As I prepare my pack to hit the field, I decide which radio I plan to take; typically that radio is in a pouch, bag, or case of its own that contains radio-specific connectors and accessories.
My activations will likely be super short so that I can fit in multiples within a day. That said, our campground is in Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest (K-4473), so I should have longer evening sessions on the air.
At SOTA events like this, you can get away with only carrying an HT: it’s easy to work other activators Summit-to-Summit (S2S) on VHF since there are so many other SOTA ops on nearby summits.
I will still do HF, though, unless I’m really pressed for time. I’ve packed a wide variety of radios and antennas. In fact (typical me) I’ve packed more than I know I could possibly put on the air in one weekend.
I don’t expect to have mobile phone or internet service other than when I’m en route to or on summits. Obviously, I won’t be checking email during this time.
Frankly, there’s nothing better than a little offline & on-the-air time!
A SOTA road trip from Berlin to Tuscany via the Alps and back
by Leo (DL2COM)
Flashback March 2021: I am sitting on a couch in the countryside 2h north of Berlin, Germany. It’s a rainy day and my 1-year-old kid just fell asleep on my chest. I am watching Youtube and enjoying the feeling of just having maintained the chainsaw after a productive run preparing firewood.
Then suddenly something special got washed into my feed: Adam K6ARK activating a summit in CW somewhere on the U.S. West Coast. I thought: I have no idea what this wizardry is but this is exactly what I want to do. Right here, right now. Well I have a child to take care of, the next mountain with a prominence of >150m (~500 feet, min. requirement to be a valid SOTA summit) is 3h away, I don’t know what ham radio is, I have no license and what the heck is CW.
Jump to July 2022: I am sitting in my car commencing a vacation road trip to the south of Tuscany, Italy. Due to the chaotic luggage situation at EU airports and unreal prices for rental cars my family and I had decided that we would be better off if I drove down while my wife and kids took the plane without having to check in any bags (btw: best decision ever).
Our schedule allowed for me to leave a few days early so I could make room to do a little bit of hiking and throw in a few casual SOTA activations because why not. On top I saw that there were a few never activated summits in close proximity to where we planned to stay. I could feel my heart pumping already followed by a strong reassuring feeling radiating from the well-thought-through contents of my backpack in the trunk. Am I ready? Who cares. I am on my own now. I had completed a quick 1-pointer activation in May and a few POTAs but what was planned now was a different level.
Going into detail about every summit would go beyond the scope of this article so here are just a few highlights: The first leg down to the Garmisch-Partenkirchen area went by in a wink (7h drive). I passed most of the time rehearsing CW by singing license plates out loud. The fun peaked with plates along the lines of M-OT-9990 or E-SI-5545. It’s all about melody and timing, remember. I met up with my buddy Chris whom I hadn’t seen in a long time and who agreed to join me on the first hike up Zirbelkopf (8-points summit) to witness the cult activity I had tried and failed to explain to him beforehand.