When I head out the door to activate a summit, if it involves a long hike, I reach for one of my super compact QRP transceivers like the Mountain Topper MTR-3B, Elecraft KX1, or KX2. If you’re carrying your entire station and all of your hiking provisions in your backpack, it’s best to keep the load as light and compact as possible.
I purchased the single-band QRP Labs QCX-Mini last year specifically with Summits On The Air (SOTA) in mind. My QCX-Mini is built for 20 meters which tends to be my most productive SOTA band.
The QCX Mini has a rugged, utilitarian feel: basic controls, two line backlit LCD display, and a sturdy aluminum enclosure. It’s super compact.
One of the first things I did was build a dedicated field kit around the QCX-Mini. Everything–save my throw line–fits in my Spec-Ops Op Orders pouch:
So when George (KJ6VU) asked if I would be interested in talking about backpacks and gear bags as a guest on the Ham Radio Workbench podcast, I agreed without hesitation.
What I love about the HRWB podcast are all of the truly deep-dives into a wide variety of topics. Quite often, topics are well outside my particular interest area, but the more I listen, the more I’m drawn in. The hosts’ enthusiasm is infectious.
It was an honor to join this fine team for a few hours of workbench projects, ham radio, and pack geekery.
If you’ve never listened to the HRWB podcast, I’d encourage you to check it out and subscribe. I think you’ll agree that the hosts–George, Mark, Mike, Rod, and Vince–have an amazing chemistry.
Thanks again, guys, for inviting me on the show. As I said after the recording, it was great “being on the other side of the lawnmower.”
Do you know what it’s like when you have a new radio and you can’t wait to take it to the field?
Yeah, me too!
Even before I received my QCX-Mini in October 2021, I already knew where I’d take this pocket-sized, single-band QRP CW transceiver for its first field activation: Mount Mitchell (W4C/CM-001).
Mitchell is the highest summit east of the Mississippi river and only about 6 miles from my QTH as the crow flies. I had yet to activate Mitchell this year for SOTA although I have activated it for POTA/WWFF several times. As I’ve probably mentioned in the past, Mount Mitchell park is my “happy place.” Our family loves this site and we visit it frequently to hike in the spruce-fir forest.
First of all, thank you to everyone who tried to hunt me this morning while I activated Mount Mitchell Summit and Park!
When I posted an announcement about the activation this morning, I didn’t expect much of a response due to the short notice. I don’t typically announce my activations, but the Mitchell SOTA activation was a special one for me because it’s my favorite NC park and also fairly local (well, as the crow flies from the QTH).
This was a “welcome back to winter conditions” SOTA activation and I knew it would be in advance.
The drive to the summit, starting around 1,000M ASL (3,000′) was in heavy, heavy fog. The ceiling was low and I thought perhaps the summit would peak through, but I was wrong. It was also foggy on the summit and about 33F (0.5C) per my car.
It was a gorgeous site though as the summit was covered in rime ice.
There were maybe two other visitor cars in the park–after all, most go to Mitchell for the views and there were none this morning.
I found a nice spot in the woods well within the activation zone, but not at the observation deck on the summit.
I’m not sure if I called CQ more than twice with the QCX Mini before I was slammed with a steady pile up with many stations from Europe.
The QCX performed well and obviously the PackTenna 20M EFHW did as well, but the little amplified speaker connected to the QCX-Mini struggled with the variation in signals and tones. It sort of fell apart on me and after logging, perhaps, 30 stations, I switched out with the KX2.
If you chased me and I wasn’t able to copy you, my apologies. It was tough to hear signals via that little speaker–everything simply blended together.
I’ll be writing a full report in due time once I have the video uploaded in a couple weeks, but suffice it to say, 5 watts and a wire worked this morning. Here’s the QSO Map:
The QSO map doesn’t include a number of stations on the west coast either.
A struggle for K4SWL
My hands were a wee bit stiff as they dealt with the cold/damp conditions, so my fist was (as I had predicted) rather sloppy. 🙂
I was also struggling to type in callsigns correctly into the HAMRS app on my phone and that certainly messed with my rhythm handling QSOs.
This was my first cold activation since March. I’ll get back into winter mode soon and toughen up again!
The little speaker, combined with so many contacts zero-beating me, turned into a 5-7 second long steady tone in the pile-up. I seriously contemplated running split to spread everyone apart, but I’ve never seen that done with POTA or SOTA so didn’t attempt it.
Seasoned SOTA CW activators would’ve certainly found the pile-up much more manageable.
When I went QRT, I happened to turn on my HT and had the SOTA simplex frequency locked in. Two second after turning on the HT I heard KN4LRO on Round Mountain (W4T/SU-029) and worked him S2S. My first VHF S2S!
The SOTA/POTA/WWFF activation was AMAZING fun, though. One of my favorite SOTA activations to date. Again, I made a video of the activation and will write up a proper field report within the next couple of weeks.
As I left the park, I found it odd that I was the only visitor there. As I approached the front gates (again, in heavy fog) I saw why: they had closed the park and were only allowing people to leave, not enter.
I felt pretty darn lucky to snag Mount Mitchell this morning.
I’ve said this before, but Mount Mitchell is truly my special, happy place.
In the meantime, I’d love your suggestions and links to proper, capable amplified portable speakers. I need something much better to pair with the QCX Mini, MTR3B, and KX1.
Funny: As I started listening to the QSO Today episode, I thought Paul sounded familiar then realized that Paul was one of the presenters of the QSO Today Virtual Ham Radio Expo in August. Here’s that presentation–well worth your time:
This past weekend (October 15-17, 2021) I was off-grid and offline…but not off the air.
It was bliss.
I joined the W4 SOTA Campout–a group of Summits On The Air (SOTA) activators and chasers primarily from the Southeast US–in Nantahala National Forest at Standing Indian Campground. Due to my schedule, I was only there two nights, but it made for a great weekend reset.
On the morning of Thursday, September 23, 2021, I had one thing on my mind: SOTA!
It had been well over a month since my last SOTA activation and I was eager to hike to a summit and play radio.
It had been raining for a few days but overnight, a front moved into the area that swept out all of the clouds. We were finally feeling proper fall weather.
It was gorgeous outside and I made up my mind I’d fit in a summit activation.
I was visiting my parents in Hickory, NC, so I knew I’d have to drive a bit to activate a unique (to me) summit. On top of that, I knew I’d be alone and trails would be very muddy after days of rain. I decided to stick with an easy hike, so picked Flat Top Mountain (W4C/EM-026) off of the Blue Ridge Parkway.
I announced my activation via the SOTA website and drove about one hour to the trailhead of Flat Top Mountain.
Shortly after acquiring a lab599 Discovery TX-500 earlier this year, I did what I always do: invest an insane amount of time in researching and configuring a dedicated field radio kit.
As I’ve mentioned numerous times, I’m a serious pack geek, so this is incredibly fun for me even though the choice is often difficult.
I like to buy packs and cases from manufacturers in the US and Canada when possible, so started searching through all of the options.
I wanted a pack that was compact, versatile, and offered proper padding (even knowing the TX-500 is a rugged little transceiver). I don’t handle my packs with kid gloves, so I expect them to cope with sometimes rough field conditions and still protect the gear inside. I also like a certain level of organization inside the pack.
I wanted the kit to be relatively compact, but large enough to hold the transceiver, all accessories and connections, logging pad and pencil, paddles, a proper arborist throw line, portable ATU, and a 3Ah LiFePo4 battery. A the end of the day, I wanted this TX-500 field kit to be fully self-contained.
In the end, I adopted a pack with which I’m already very familiar…
The Red Oxx Micro Manager
Red Oxx is my favorite pack company and if you’ve been a reader for any length of time, you’ve obviously seen a number of their bags and packs in my field reports.
Back in 2016, when they introduced the first iteration of the Micro Manager EDC bag, they actually reached out to me–as an existing customer–knowing that I had been looking for a good radio pack with proper padding (many packs don’t require side padding and internal padding). They sent me a prototype of the Micro Manager for my feedback and then incorporated some of my suggestions.
I also purchased a Micro Manager for my wife who quickly turned hers into a mobile art studio!
Much like my buddy Steve (AC5F)–whose XYL creates some amazing water color art in the field–my wife (K4MOI) is also an artist and loves to paint/draw during park and summit activations. Her art kit is always at the ready and she’s traveled with it extensively over the past five years.
The Micro Manager is a pack carried over the shoulder, much like a messenger or laptop bag. Those times when my field activations require a lengthy hike, I’ve simply pulled all of the items out of the Micro Manager (since I do modular packing, this is super easy), else I’ve even been known to stick the entire Micro Manager pack into a backpack!
Over the years, Red Oxx has made iterative upgrades to the Micro Manager including a pleated front pocket, slip-in external pocket, and they started lining the internal pocket with a more flexible and thinner dense foam padding. The new padding not only fits the TX-500 better than the first Micro Manager version did, but I believe it will have enough dimension to accommodate the TX-500 battery pack when that’s available next year.
Inside the Micro Manager I also use a Tom Bihn Large Travel Tray to hold all of the TX-500 accessories: key, microphone, ATU, battery, and cables.
I own a number of these large travel trays and highly recommend them. I especially like the ballistic nylon versions for radio kits as they open and close so smoothly.
I made a short video tour of the TX-500 Micro Manager kit before a recent activation at Table Rock:
I’ve used this pack for a number of field activations and couldn’t be more pleased. Looking back at the contents, it’s funny: the pack and almost every single item inside (save the notepad and pencil) are made in the USA while the radio is made in Russia! A bit of international harmony going on here!
If you have a field pack for the TX-500 (or any radio), I’d love to know more about it. Please consider commenting with details or even submitting a guest post with photos!
This month, we’ll take a deeper dive into the types of radio kit you might choose to assemble based upon your activity goals. And finally, we’ll look at my “golden rules” of field kits, which I hope you’ll find useful.
Types of field radio kits
I configure and outfit my radio kits based on the environment in which I plan to deploy and operate, and which determines in no small way just what I need to pack besides the basics.
I roughly divide my field kit types as follows…
The Field Day or “Picnic Table” Kit
This is probably the most popular type of field kit in the world of amateur radio. Picnic table kits are designed with portability in mind, but not designed with distance hiking in mind. This is a very popular type of kit for Field Day or park activations through POTA or WWFF.
These kits are typically packed in a backpack, a Pelican-type utility case, or a self-contained and field-ready box.
My picnic table kit is packed in a large Red Oxx C-Ruck rucksack. If I haven’t already made it clear, I’m a self-professed pack geek and I love this Red Oxx Pack because it has large zippered pockets on the outside, a rain flap with storage on top, and one large compartment on the inside.