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!
On Thursday October 15, 2020, my family made an impromptu trip to Mount Mitchell State Park to enjoy the amazing weather and gorgeous fall colors.
The Blue Ridge Parkway and Mount Mitchell State Park were predictably crowded with tourists, although nowhere near as crowded as the following three days which were “peak” leaf color days.
After arriving at the park, we claimed one of the little picnic areas tucked away from the crowds. After a picnic lunch, I set up the station, my wife painted, one daughter caught up on her favorite book, and the other daughter took a deep dive in her recently acquired Yaesu FT-60R (and also helped me log).
And Hazel, predictably, slumbered.
I swear that dog is only awake maybe one hour a day.
On this particular activation, I didn’t want to deploy a wire antenna. Being the highest elevation east of the Mississippi river, the trees are short .
I consider the WRC vertical to be a “compromised” antenna especially in our region which is rocky and has poor ground conductivity. But at times like this when the park is crowded, it’s a great low-profile way to get on the air–and it’s self-supporting! In any other year, I’m actually okay with my radio set-up being conspicuous–I love telling passersby about ham radio and Parks On The Air–but at the moment I choose to keep my social distance.
When I use the WRC antenna, I typically pair it with one of my favorite transceivers: the Mission RGO One.
I like to pair the RGO One with the WRC vertical because the RGO One is capable of 50 watts of output power (the real max for the WRC), which I feel makes up for a bit of the antenna compromise. I typically start at QRP levels and increase wattage if I get no response.
At Mt. Mitchell, I rarely have internet access via my mobile phone, so I rely on the Reverse Beacon Network to spot me to the POTA network when I call “CQ POTA.”
Within a minute of calling CQ, I started logging stations. Thanks RBN!
I operated for almost an hour off and on. I took a few breaks during low activity to help my daughter with the FT-60R. At one point, she was in hysterics over a conversation she picked up on a local repeater. (Hysterics in a good way, fortunately. I do worry about some of the conversations I hear on local repeaters at times!)
Here’s my tally from Mt Mitchell:
Mt. Mitchell is one of our family’s favorite state parks and is accessible from my QTH via the Blue Ridge Parkway.
Unfortunately, the Blue Ridge Parkway is often closed during the winter, so we hope to make at least one more trip to Mitchell within the next few weeks.
I’ll add that this was the third time I’d taken the CW Morse“Pocket Paddle” to the field. It’s a brilliant set of paddles. It’s has a fantastic field-adjustable response. I’m uncertain if they’re on the market yet–CW Morse sent them to me for evaluation in the field.