As I mentioned in a previous post, I do love rotating out radios I take to the field. Shuffling radios not only helps me remember a radio’s features and menu system, but it helps me understand any advantages one radio might have over another.
One radio I use at the QTH a lot is the Mission RGO One. I reviewed this radio for The Spectrum Monitor magazine, and later posted the review on The SWLing Post. It has been a few months since I posted a field report and video using this rig yet it’s one readers ask about all the time because this is a small production run radio.
Before heading out to Lake Norman State Park on August 9, 2021, I grabbed the Mission RGO One, the Chameleon CHA LEFS sloper, and my 15Ah Bioenno LiFePo4 battery. I knew this combo would serve me well as propagation that day was in the dumps!
Lake Norman State Park (K-2740)
Lake Norman is such an effortless park to activate. They’ve a huge picnic area, large trees (for both antenna support and shade!), and are typically not incredibly busy during the week. I love Lake Norman because they also have a very nice Lake Shore Trail I enjoy hiking post-activation.
That Monday morning, as I drove to the park, it was approaching lunch time and I did worry that some of my favorite picnic spots might be taken, but when I arrived, I was happy to see I pretty much had the place to myself!
Setting up the CHA LEFS sloper antenna takes a couple minutes longer than a standard end fed antenna only because the feed point is elevated and the radiator slopes down from the feed point. Since I typically do activations on my own (with no extra hands to help), I find that a little extra antenna prep equates to a quicker overall deployment.
My procedure for deploying the CHA LEFS
First thing I do is identify a good tree limb at least 45′ or so high and also identify an unobstructed path for the sloping radiator to travel.
Prior to hoisting the antenna, I stretch out the radiator and attach it to a tree or support (using the supplied paracord) in the direction I want the slope to follow.
I then use my arborist throw line to snag the desired tree limb and I connect the end of the throw line directly to the CHA LEFS’ feed point. Chameleon provides Paracord for hoisting the antenna, but the great thing about the arborist throw line is that it’s more than strong enough to handle this job. It saves the extra step of pulling paracord through the tree.
Next, I attach a 50′ length of coax (PL-259s on both ends) and stretch the coax out in the opposite direction of the CHA LEFS radiator. Doing this keeps the antenna from spinning and tangling the radiator and coax as it’s hoisted into the tree.
Finally, I simply pull the throw line and raise the antenna feedpoint to the desired height. Again, I like a height of at least 40-45′, but lower will still work. As I raise the antenna, I do put a little tension on the coax feedline just to keep it from swinging around the throw line or radiator.
Of course, if you have two people, one person can simply stretch the coax as you’re raising the antenna feedpoint which will also keep it from tangling.
In truth, the amount of extra time to deploy the CHA LEFS as opposed to, say, an end-fed half wave is maybe three minutes.
I picked the Mission RGO One because it has an amazingly quiet receiver and handles QRN like a champ. Plus, being a tabletop radio, it also sports a proper speaker, large controls, and up to 50 watts of output power if needed.
Although I’m a QRPer, on days with horrible propagation, I have been known to increase the power beyond 5 watts if operating SSB especially. This year, I set out to validate all of my park and summit activations with 5 watts or less, so at least my first ten contacts at a park will be QRP.
I thought I’d start by calling CQ on the 40 meter band in CW. Within 15 minutes, I snagged the ten contacts needed for a valid POTA activation. I was very pleased with this.
Since I had mobile phone service, I checked the POTA spots and worked AA3K (Park To Park) then moved to the phone portion of the 40 meter band.
During the exchange with AA3K, I did pump the power up to a cloud-scorching 20 watts! A proper rarity for me.
I then worked an additional five contacts in about 8 minutes in SSB. Very satisfying!
Here’s my QSO map of the entire activation. The red polylines represent SSB contact, the green are CW:
I was very pleased with the results especially after reading reports from other activators that same day who really struggled to get their ten.
Of course, I made one of my real-time, real-life, no-edit videos of the entire activation. If you’ve never seen one of my videos before and have a strong dislike of professional, well-polished YouTube channels, you’re in for a treat! 🙂
Post-activation–and despite the heat and humidity–I hiked the length of the Lake Shore Trail; roughly six miles. I highly recommend this trail if you can fit it into your schedule.
As always, thank you for reading this report and thank you to those who are supporting the site and channel through Patreon and the Coffee Fund. While certainly not a requirement–my content is always free–I really appreciate the support.
Here’s wishing everyone a little radio fun this week!
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.
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
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)
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
…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.
I mentioned in a previous post that I recently did a thorough clean-out of my shack and home office. It took two full days, and kept me out of the field during that time, but I’m very pleased with the results.
After re-arranging my grab-and-go QRP rigs on their dedicated shelf, one rig was very conspicuous: my LnR Precision LD-11.
Thinking back, it has been ages since I used it in the field–possibly more than a couple of years, in fact. As I packed my bags Sunday morning for a multi-day trip to my hometown, I grabbed the little red LD-11 and stuffed it in my main radio bag. It was time to take it to the field!
Lake James State Park (K-2739)
I didn’t have a lot of time to play radio Sunday afternoon, so Lake Jame State Park was a no-brainer. There, I know I have a number of picnic table options, mobile phone service, and it’s a modest detour off of Interstate 40. Low-hanging fruit in my POTA world.
There was snow on the ground Sunday afternoon, but it was 36F/2C so not terribly cold, just damp.
Due to snow melting in the trees, I set up my station in a picnic shelter where things were dry.
Like the FT-817ND and G90, the LD-11 has no memory keying in CW or Phone. Memory keying is such a useful feature for park and summit activations because it frees up your fist and voice while calling CQ or sending 73s. With the LD-11, I’d be doing all of this “old school” which is absolutely fine for a short activation.
On the air
Although my EFT Trail-Friendly antenna should be resonant on 40, 20, and 10 meters, it was not Sunday because I’m almost certain I’ve finally damaged the radiator coil. I’ve deployed this antenna well over 150 times and yanked it out of countless trees when it got stuck. It’s lasted much longer than I would have ever guessed.
When I tried transmitting on 40 meters, I got a high SWR. Instead of replacing the antenna with another one, I simply hooked up the Elecraft T1 ATU and found a match. This is one good reason why you should always pack an antenna tuner. While employing an ATU might not be as efficient as using a resonant antenna, it can save your bacon in a situation like this and will certainly get the job done (especially if your only goal is a valid field activation).
After matching the antenna, I hopped on the 40M band and logged five CW stations in short order. Obviously, the antenna was working “well enough”–!
As I’ve done with a number of my recent activations, I started recording a video at this point. I started it after my first five CW contacts due to a lack of space to record a 60 minute video (this one turned out to be 40 minutes and change).
I then moved up to the 20 meter band where I worked one CW station, then switched modes to SSB where I was surprised to work Jon (TI5JON) in Costa Rica, Steve (WA4TQS) in Texas, and Paul (NL7V) in North Pole, Alaska.
This was one of those rare instances where my QRP SSB signal snagged more distant stations than my QRP CW signal.
I’m certain, however, had I spent more time on 20M CW, I would have logged a number of other distant contacts. Here’s my QSOmap from the activation–not bad for 5 watts into an inefficient antenna:
All-in-all, I was very pleased with the activation. Even though I was making do with a faulty antenna and even though my CW was a little sloppy since I wasn’t quite used to the LD-11 keyer timing, it was so much fun!
I do love the little LD-11 and would certainly recommend grabbing a used one if you find a good deal.
As I mention in the video, the LD-11 is no longer manufactured and it never will be again. The main engineer behind the LD-11, SKY-SDR, and ALT-512–Dobri Hristov (LZ2TU)–passed away in 2020. Dobri was a well-respected fellow and distinguished ham radio operator/DXer. I corresponded with him quite a few times in the past. Sadly, when Dobri passed away, he took the design of all of these rigs with him. His brief period of sickness leading to his death all happened within a year.
So if you find one of these fine transceivers, keep in mind that some internal components (LCD screens, ICs, etc.) might be hard to replace if they fail. These radios are built well, however, so I wouldn’t expect something like that to happen for a very long time.
It was a lot of fun using the LD-11 during this activation and I certainly plan to put it in rotation from now on. Wherever Dobri is now, I like to think he’ll feel those LD-11 signals running through the ether!
Any other LD-11, SKY-SDR, or ALT-512 owners out there? Please comment!
Last week, I thoroughly enjoyed taking the Yaesu FT-817ND to the field.
While the ‘817 lacks features I’ve come to appreciate during field activations like voice and CW memory keying, it’s still an incredibly fun and capable radio.
Last Monday (January 18, 2021), I had an opportunity to visit Lake Norman State Park (K-2740) and perform an activation around lunchtime. Lake Norman is convenient to my hometown of Hickory, NC and these days I typically spend at least a couple nights there doing a little caregiving for my parents. It’s rare my schedule is clear at lunchtime to fit in an activation–typically it’s later in the afternoon.
As with my recent activation at Lake Jame State Park, I paired the Yaesu FT-817ND with my Par End-Fedz EFT Trail-Friendly 40/20/10 meter resonant antenna.
It was an incredibly fun activation and one of the few recently where I racked up some great QRP contacts across the 20 meter band before moving to 40 meters.
Here’s my QSOMap of the activation (red lines are phone, green are CW):
As with most of my activations, this one was relatively short. Rarely do I have more than 45-60 minutes of on-air time during a POTA sortie.
I also made another real-life, real-time, no-edit video of the entire activation. If interested, you can view it via the embedded player below or on YouTube:
I’m long overdue a multiple park run, so will start strategizing soon! The Parks On The Air program has also added a few new park in North Carolina, but none appear to be in the western part of the state.
Oh, and Phillip, thanks for prompting me to take the ‘817 to the field again. It is a gem of a rig and I think it might suit your needs very well!
When my buddy Don told me he was selling his Icom IC-703 Plus a few weeks ago, he caught me in a (multi-year long) moment of weakness. I asked his price and followed up with a PayPal transaction without giving it a lot of thought. It was a bit of an impulse purchase, if I’m being completely honest, but he definitely gave me a “friends and family” discount. (FYI: Don is the same enabler that made this purchase happen.)
I’m thinking the IC-703 Plus might be a good first HF rig for my daughter (K4TLI) and, of course, it’ll be fun to take it to the field from time to time.
Of course, the best way to get to know a radio, in my opinion, is to take it to the field. So that’s exactly what I did last week (January 13, 2021).
Blue Ridge Parkway K-3378
Against my better judgement, I decided to make a video of the activation. I mean, what could possibly go wrong operating a radio for the first time in the field? Right–?
I picked out an “easy” park for this activation: the Blue Ridge Parkway.
Although most of the parkway around Asheville, NC, is closed to vehicle traffic, the Folk Art Center is open year round and a very convenient spot for POTA.
I paired the IC-703 Plus with my Chameleon MPAS 2.0 vertical antenna. I was curious how easily the IC-703’s internal ATU could match the MPAS 2.0: turns out, pretty darn well!
I started the activation on 40 meters phone (SSB).
Almost immediately, I logged a few contacts and that quickly built my confidence that even the default voice settings were working well on the IC-703 Plus.
I then moved to 40 meters CW and used the CW memory keyer to call CQ (I pre-programmed this before leaving the QTH that day).
Then I experienced a problem: when someone answered my call, my keyer didn’t work properly. For some reason, it was sending “dit dash” strings from both sides of the paddle. I’m not entirely sure what happened but assume there was either a radio glitch or a small short in my paddle cable. After fiddling with the IC-703 for a bit, I pulled out my Elecraft KX2 and finished the CW portion of my activation. (Always carry a spare radio, I say!)
Actually, I assumed since I was using the IC-703 for the first time, there could be hiccups as I did not do a full rig reset prior to putting it on the air–settings were essentially what they were when Don had the radio.
Here’s one of my real-time, real-life no edit videos of the entire activation, if you’re interested:
Back home, I connected my CW Morse paddles up to the IC-703 and it worked perfectly. Even though I checked the connections in the field, I must assume one of the plugs simply wasn’t fully-inserted. It hasn’t repeated this since.
Despite the CW snafu, I’m very pleased with the IC-703 Plus so far. I like the size for tabletop operating and it’s actually surprisingly lightweight.
If you own or have owned the IC-703, please comment!
While I tend to use small, field-portable transceivers on many of my Parks On The Air (POTA) activations, I also love using tabletop transceivers when I have a picnic table available or decide to use my portable table. Tabletop radios often provide more power output when needed and better audio from their built-in speakers.
Although I have an Icom IC-756 Pro transceiver, and an Elecraft KXPA100 amplifier that I can pair with my KX2 and KX3 (or any QRP transceiver for that matter), my favorite tabletop fiel;d radio at present is the Mission RGO One 50 watt transceiver.
In short: it’s a brilliant, simple, tabletop transceiver that’s very happy in the field and a pleasure to operate. My RGO One has the optional built-in antenna tuner (ATU). The rig designer is allowing me to keep this unit on extended loan as I help him evaluate and test updates and upgrades.
While I’ve used the RGO One on numerous POTA activations, I don’t believe I’ve ever made a video of it in use, so I decided to change that last week with another one of my real-time, real-life, unedited (lengthy!) videos of this activation (see video below).
Lake Norman State Park (K-2740)
As I’ve mentioned before, I love activating Lake Norman State Park because it has numerous spots for setting up my gear. While I actually prefer activations that require a bit of hiking, it’s nice from time-to-time to activate a state park that has so many widely-spaced picnic tables under tall trees. That, and my right ankle is still healing after I twisted it in December, so I’m avoiding any proper trail hiking until it is better.
I made this activation of K-2740 on January 4, 2021.
Since I have Internet access at Lake Norman, I can check out the POTA spots page on my phone or tablet and self-spot as well as see spots of other activators.
When I have Internet coverage like this–and I’m not pressed for time–I try to work as many Park-To-Park contacts as I can before I start calling CQ POTA myself.
As I mention in the video, one of my 2021 goals is to obtain a valid activation of each park with only five watts or less. This means that each time I start an activation, at least my first ten stations logged will be with a max of five watts of power. I would actually make the goal for all of my 2021 activations to be 100% QRP, but I evaluate gear regularly and part of that process is to push wattage limits so it’s simply not realistic.
This isn’t actually a crazy goal because a number of my transceivers max out at five watts or less, and I know it won’t be an impediment as I activate parks in CW.
In SSB, though? It makes it a bit more challenging, but certainly not impossible and I’m always up for a challenge!
So I started this activation by trying to work a few Park-To-Park contacts but first cranked the RGO One power down to five watts. Trying to be heard over other hunters in SSB was difficult, but CW was much easier.
After working a few P2P stations, I started calling CQ on the 40 meter band in SSB. I worked about four stations, then switched to CW and worked seven more on 40 meters.
Since I’d snagged my ten contacts for a valid activation, I moved up to 20 meters phone (SSB), cranked up the power to over 40 watts, and started calling CQ POTA and racked up an additional 11 contacts for a total of 26 contacts logged at this activation.
Here’s my QSOmap:
Note that I left the callsign labels off the map this time to make it a little easier to see the geo location of the stations I worked.
Typically, there’s a trade off with field antennas:
High-performance antennastend to take more time to install. Some of my highest performance antennas are dipoles, doublets, delta loops, and end fed wire antennas. All of them require support from a tree if I want maximum height off the ground. Some (like the dipole) require multiple supports. While I actually enjoy installing wire antennas in trees, it typically takes me at least 10 minutes to install a wire antenna if it only needs one support and one counterpoise.
Compromised or low-profile antennas may lack performance and efficiency, but are often much quicker and easier to deploy.
In my opinion, field operators should keep both types of antennas in their arsenal because sometimes the site itself will dictate which antenna they use. I’ve activated many sites where wire antennas simply aren’t an option.
That was not the case last Tuesday, however.
Tuttle Educational State Forest (K-4861)
On Tuesday, December 29, 2020, I stopped by Tuttle Educational State Forest (K-4861)–one of my favorite local state parks–for a quick, impromptu activation.
I had no less than four antennas in my car that day and Tuttle is the type of site where I can install pretty much anything: they’ve a spacious picnic area with large tables, tall trees, and parking is close by. Tuttle is the perfect place to deploy not only a large wire antenna, but a large radio if you wish since you don’t have to lug it far from the car.
But en route to Tuttle I decided to take a completely different approach. One of the four antennas I had in the car that day was the Elecraft AX1 antenna.
Without a doubt, the AX1 is the most portable antenna I own. It’s so compact, I can carry it in my pocket if I wish.
When I first purchased the AX1, I was very skeptical and assumed it would only work when “the stars aligned”–days with better-than-average propagation and lots of POTA hunters/chasers looking for me.
The first time I used the AX1 in the field, it impressed me (understatement alert).
In all of my AX1 activations, however, I had only operated on the 40 meter band where the antenna’s footprint looked more like a NVIS antenna than a vertical. Meaning, most of my contacts were in neighboring states like Tennessee, South Carolina, Virginia, and Georgia (typically, those states are in my 40 meter skip zone).
The reason I hadn’t tried 20 or 17 meters with the AX1 is because I would start an activation on the 40 meter band and accumulate enough contacts to achieve a valid activation. Since I’m often pressed for time, I simply didn’t bother configuring the antenna for the higher bands.
Time for that to change!
The question I wanted answered at Tuttle: could the AX1 antenna work “DX” stations? By DX, I mean POTA DX, so distant states and provinces primarily–not necessarily other countries.
I paired the Elecraft KX3 with the AX1 at Tuttle. This was the first time I’d ever tried this particular transceiver/antenna combo.
After setting up, I started on the 20 meter band and called CQ for a few minutes.
The first two stations I worked were in Texas (KF9RX and K5RX).
The third station (W6LEN) was in California.
Honestly, it was/is hard for me to fathom how in the world 10 watts into a tabletop telescoping whip antenna could work a station exactly 2,083 miles (3,352 km)–and three time zones away–from my picnic table. I’m sure W6LEN has a great antenna on the other end, but I bet he would be surprised to learn that my 10 watt signal was being radiated by such a wee antenna.
I then worked stations in Florida (K2WO), Minnesota (N0UR), and New Hampshire (W2NR) and decided to move to 17 meters.
On 17 meters I worked W2NR in New Hampshire once again.
I should note here that each time you work a station on a different band or with a different mode, it counts as a separate contact in POTA. In other words, my contacts with W2NR on 20 meters and 17 meters counts as two logged contacts toward my overall QSO count. I’m very appreciative of hunters who go out of their way to work me on different bands and modes: those extra contacts help me achieve a valid activation in short order.
I then moved to 40 meters and worked stations from Tennessee, West Virginia, Ohio, and Michigan.
Here’s a video of the entire activation. It’s a long video as it starts at set-up and continues until my last contact. There are no edits in this video–it’s a real-time, real-life deal and contains all of my bloopers:
Note that in the video I had the KX3’s volume maxed out so that it could be picked up by my iPhone microphone. The KX3’s wee internal speaker was vibrating the chassis ever so slightly. On the 40 meter band, it resonated enough that it moved the encoder slightly. Next time, I’ll plan to bring a portable external speaker (if you have any suggestions of good ones, let me know).
I should also add that I’m very pleased with my new Bioenno 3aH LiFePo 12V battery. You can see it in the photo above–it’s slim, lightweight, and very compact.
I purchased it during Bioenno’s Black Friday sale. I was a little concerned it might not have enough capacity to carry me through multiple activations–my other LiFePo batteries re 4.5 and 15 aH–but that does not seem to be the case at all! Not only did it provide nearly an hour of intense use on this activation, but it also powered three activations the previous day–all four activations on one charge! Brilliant!
As I mentioned in a previous post, this was one of those activations that reminded me of the magic of low-power radio. It was incredibly fun!
For all of those phone/SSB operators out there, I will eventually see how successful I can be doing a phone-only activation with the AX1 antenna. I’ll plan to make a video of it as well. I’ll need to plan this for a day when I have more time to spend on the air and at a site where I know I’ll have internet access to spot myself to the POTA network. SSB isn’t quite as effective as CW when operating with a setup this modest. Still–it can be done! It just requires a little more patience. Please let me know if this sort of thing would interest you.
Just a heads up that Bioenno Power is having a 2020 Thanksgiving sale and offering a 10% discount with the coupon code “THANKS”.
I’m a huge fan of Bioenno’s batteries and just pulled the trigger on yet another LiFePo battery. This time, a compact 3 aH battery. This will be more than enough battery to play QRP for hours without recharging.
Side note: I’m also working on a project for my parents converting their living room lamp into a DC LED lamp with battery backup. Their power outages seem to be so frequent as of late, I know they’ll appreciate a lamp that will work regardless if the power grid is up or not. I’ve already purchased a 12V LED Edison-style bulb and now will pair it with a 4.5 aH Bioenno battery.
I almost exclusively use Bioenno LiFePo 12V batteries which actually output closer to 13-13.5 volts in use and can even briefly be a bit higher immediately after charging.
Most amateur radio transceivers (including the IC-705) typically have a bit of voltage flexibility and will operate a below 12 volts and tad higher than 13.8 volts. QRP radios especially. You’re wise, though to always check (the MTR-3B is a notable exception as it prefers a max of 12V).
In fact, I just checked the IC-705 specs and its voltage requirements are 13.8 V DC ±15% (12V – 15.87 volts). The IC-705 can actually run on much lower power because the Lithium Ion pack that is supplied with the IC-705 (BP-272) is only 7.4 VDC when charged.
Since I had already set up my phone to record the video above, I decided to make a couple more.
I thought there might be some value in making real-time videos showing what it’s like operating CW and SSB during a POTA activation. The videos have no edits and haven’t been trimmed. It’s as if the viewer were there at the activation sitting next to me at the picnic table.
Operating CW with the IC-705
After setting up my station, I first started on the 40M band in CW. I meant to start the camera rolling during tune-up, but forgot to hit record. The video begins after I’d made a few CW contacts, but shows what it’s like changing bands and relying on the Reverse Beacon Network (RBN) to pick me up then the POTA website to auto spot me.
My video cut off abruptly due to a low battery message. I had to give my iPhone a quick power charge to make the next video.
Operating SSB with the IC-705
After operating CW for a while, I plugged in the hand mic that ships with the IC-705 for a little SSB action. My main goal with this video was to show how I call CQ and use the voice keyer memories in order to manage the field “work flow” process. I also speak to how important it is to either self-spot or have a friend spot you to the POTA network while operating phone.
I spent so much time setting up and running the camera, I wasn’t actually on the air for very long, but I easily managed to achieve a valid activation and had a lot of fun in the process.
I’m not a pro “YouTuber” as I say in one of my videos. I much prefer blogging my experiences rather than “vlogging,” I suppose.
Still, I think I’ll do a few more “real-time” videos of POTA activations and speak to the various techniques I use to activate parks. Since these videos aren’t edited for time, they may not appeal to the seasoned POTA activator or QRPer–that’s okay, though. My goal is primarily to assist first-time POTA activators.
Have you been activating Parks or Summits lately? Do you have any advice or suggestions I failed to mention? Or do you have suggestions for future topics? Please comment!