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.
On Monday, September 12, 2022, I had one primary objective in mind: to test the Eton Elite Satellite portable shortwave radio.
Many of you know that besides being a QRPer, I’m also an SWL or shortwave listener. Over on my other blog, the SWLing Post, we post news, information, guest posts, and reviews covering the diverse world of shortwave radio and international broadcasting.
Occasionally, I evaluate new receivers and the Eton Elite Satellit is the latest shortwave portable from the Eton Corporation. It was meant to be their flagship, benchmark portable but unfortunately early production units were plagued with a bit of internally-generated noise. On September 12, I was trying to sort out just how much this internal QRM affected the radio’s performance.
South Mountains State Park (K-2753)
I wanted to go to a known RF-quiet area to check the Elite Satellit and the South Mountains State Park Clear Creek Access was an easy detour during my errands that day.
First thing I did after arriving on site was to put the Elite Satellit through some basic paces (AM/SSB, Mediumwave, Shortwave, FM, AIR, etc.). I also compared it with the Tecsun PL-990 portable.
I made a long list of notes and observations to send to Eton that afternoon.
After I finished the tests, I checked my watch and–woo hoo!–I had just enough time to squeeze in a short activation. I only had a 45 minute window, so this activation needed to be a very quick one.
I had a number of antennas in my pack, but chose the excellent PackTenna Mini End-Fed Half Wave that I cut for 20 meters. This is one of my go-to SOTA antennas since it’s compact, rugged, efficient, and easy to deploy even if your only option is a short tree or telescoping mast as is often the case on a summit.
I felt like 20 meters would be a worthy band for the time of day and recent propagation trends as well. Hopefully, it would be productive enough to provide the 10 needed contacts to validate the activation. If I needed, I could use it on 30 meters with either its internal ATU or (more likely) the Elecraft T1 that was also along for the ride.
After returning from Canada this summer, I had a number of projects on the table including three radios to evaluate and a number of DIY projects on our investment house. The home projects took priority, so for the month of August, I did very little in terms of POTA activating.
In September, there was one radio in particular I was very eager to take to the field (besides the Penntek TR-45L). That was my Elecraft KX1, “Ruby.”
Before leaving for Canada, Ruby went into surgery once again under the care of my good friend “Dr.” Vlado (N3CZ).
I couldn’t figure out why she kept dropping power output to nil after being on the air for 20-25 minutes. I knew Vlado would sort out the issue.
Vlado discovered the source was a cold solder joint that was failing when the radio would become warm from operating. He fixed this and checked a number of other spots on the board.
He then tested the KX1 on a dummy load for and hour and she performed flawlessly after the surgery.
He fixed Ruby in early June and then we went to Canada for two months. I never put Ruby on the air in Canada.
After our return to the States, I was eager to take Ruby out to the field again and that’s exactly what I did on Sunday, September 11, 2022.
Lake James State Park (K-2739)
Lake James State Park–along with South Mountains State Park–are the easiest parks for me to hit during my nearly weekly travels on Interstate 40. I feel so fortunate that both are superb POTA sites with loads of spots to operate.
I arrived in the late afternoon and to my surprise there was hardly anyone at the park (I think it was a little too close to evening mealtime for families).
I set up my station at a table close to the parking area just to keep things simple. I was looking forward to enjoying at least 30 minutes on the air and seeing just how well Ruby might hold up.
I decided to use the Tufteln End-Fed Random Wire antenna knowing it would be a quick to deploy and frequency agile.
I tried to use the KX1 ATU to tune the random wire, but I wasn’t pleased with the SWR. Frankly, it was doable (1.9:1 on 20 meters), but I wanted something much closer to 1:1 since I was already only pushing 2.5-3 watts output.
Keep in mind, the KX1’s internal ATU is not in the same league as the ones in the Elecraft KX2, KX3, or T1–the KX1 ATU has a much smaller matching range.
Also, I suspect Ruby’s ATU wasn’t built for optimal performance by the original builder. I do plan to re-work her ATU as best I can at some point in the future.
I pulled out the Elecraft T1, put the KX1 ATU in bypass mode, and hooked it up to the antenna. The T1 had no problem at all finding 1:1 matches across 40, 30, and 20 meters, of course.
After sharing a few photos by request comparing the size of the Mountain Topper MTR-3B, MTR-4B, and Elecraft KX2 yesterday, I took a few pmore photos by request comparing those same radios with the Elecraft KX1.
I decided to simply post these on QRPer.com in case they could also be of help to someone else:
At least ninety percentof all of my radio operations happen in the field. Whether I’m in a park, on a summit activation, or I’m out camping, I’ve always thoroughly enjoyed “playing radio” outdoors. In fact, it was the joy of field radio––and the accompanying challenge of low-power operations––which launched my labor of love in the world of ham radio.
I’ve been running QRPer.com now for fourteen years, and during that time, the questions I’m asked most deal with selecting a field radio. Turns out, it’s an incredibly difficult question to answer, and we’ll touch on why that is before we dive into the reasons one radio might hold appeal over another for you.
Instead of offering up a list of field radios on the market, and reviewing each one—and, to be fair, there are so many these days—I’ll share with you a series of questions you might ask yourself before making a radio purchase, and follow up with a few bits of advice based on my own experience.These deceptively simple questions will help hone your decision-making. Finally, I’ll note a few of my favorite general coverage field radios and share what I love about each.
Spoiler alert: It’s all about the operator, less about the specs
When searching for a new radio, we hams tend to take deep dives into feature and specification comparisons between various models of radios. We’ll reference Rob Sherwood’s superb receiver test data table, we’ll pour over user reviews, and we’ll download full radio manuals before we choose.
While this is valuable information—especially since radios can be quite a costly “investment”—I would argue that this process shouldn’t be your first step.
I’ve found that enjoyment of any particular radio—whether field radio or not—has everything to do with the operator and less to do with the radio’s actual performance.
A realistic assessment of yourself
The first step in choosing a field radio is to ask yourself a few questions, and answer them as honestly as you can. Here are some basic questions to get you started in your search of a field radio:
Question 1: Where do I plan to operate?
If you plan to operate mostly at the QTH or indoors with only the occasional foray outdoors, you may want a field-capable radio that best suits you indoors—one with robust audio, a larger encoder, a larger display, and more front panel real estate.
On the other hand, if you plan to take your radio on backpacking adventures, then portability, battery efficiency and durability are king
Of course, most of us may be somewhere in between, having park activations or camping trips in mind, but overall size may be less important as we may be driving or taking only a short walk to the activation site. When your shack is a picnic table not too far from a parking lot or even an RV, you have a lot more options than when you have to hike up a mountain with your radio gear in tow.
Question 2: What modes will I operate the most?
Are you a single mode operator? If your intention is to only use digital modes, then you’ll want a radio designed with easy digital mode operation in mind.
If you plan to focus on single sideband, power output may be more important and features like voice-memory keying.
If you plan to primarily operate CW, then the radio world is your oyster because it even opens the door to numerous inexpensive CW-only field radios.
If you plan to primarily operate CW, I would strongly suggest going low power or QRP. I’ve often heard that 5 watts CW is roughly equivalent to 80 watts single sideband. I tend to agree with this. CW field operators hardly need more than 5 watts, in my experience.
My hope was that these little Li-Ion cells might power my Elecraft KX1 long enough to complete a field activation.
The KX1 is a marvel of QRP engineering, in my humble opinion, and it was the first super portable transceiver I owned that could be powered by internal batteries.
When the KX1 was first introduced, Elecraft recommended using non-rechargeable Advanced Lithium AA cells from Energizer and Duracell. These batteries sported a rather flat discharge curve and could power the KX1 for quite a while. Of course, the downside is they’re single-use and expensive. Six of those cells would often set me back nearly $9 or $10. Before I started doing POTA and SOTA, I kept a set of advanced lithium cells in my KX1 for casual, impromptu QRP in the field.
Doing frequent field activations–which tend to have much more transmitting time than casual Qs–it’s just not sustainable to purchase these cells, so I tend to power the KX1 with an external battery.
I couldn’t resist the thought that I could use USB rechargeable batteries in the KX1, so I forked out $60 (mild gasp!) for a set of eight AA batteries (these are purchased in packages of 4).
The cool thing about the Pale Blue batteries is that they can be directly charged from any 5V USB power source. Each battery sports a Micro USB port and its own internal battery/charge management system.
I was well aware these batteries would not power the KX1 for hours at a time, but I was hoping they could for at least 30-45 minutes.
One of the things I love about our state and national parks is that no matter how often I visit, there’s almost always something new to discover.
This is especially the case as the seasons change from winter to spring.
On March 20, 2022, I carved out enough time in my afternoon to fit in a quick activation of Tuttle Educational State Forest. My main goal, in truth, was fitting in a nice hike–the weather was beautiful, although it was rather gusty.
I needed a little “radio therapy” that day as I had been spending time in the hospital with my mom who had a nasty case of pneumonia. This was a few weeks ago and she’s feeling much better now, thankfully, but those hospital weeks in March were pretty stressful for all of us.
Field activations are such an effective way for me to get in a little exercise, a little radio time, and clear my mind; again, proper “radio therapy.”
Tuttle Educational State Forest (K-4861)
For this trip, I packed the Elecraft KX1 field kit which included my K6ARK EFHW antenna since that was the last pairing I’d used int he field (click here to read that report). I did, however, transfer the KX1 to my new Pelican 1060 waterproof case.
For February, I decided to purchase and build a counterpoise-less end-fed half-wave kit from from Adam (K6ARK). This kit is available on Amazon.com for a mere $19.95 (affiliate link).
The build itself is pretty straight-forward and not terribly complicated. With that said, you do need a fine soldering iron tip and a little dexterity to manipulate these super tiny components. Adam includes instructions for building an EFHW with a counterpoise, without a counterpoise, or a random wire antenna. The coil can be configured as a a 49:1 Unun, 9:1 Unun, or 1:1 Balun.
If you choose the EFHW route you will need to solder one surface-mount capacitor on the board. If you’ve never worked with surface mount components before, take your time and use a good magnifying glass.
Blue Ridge Parkway (K-3378 NC)
On Monday, February 21, 2022, on my way back from town, I hopped on the Blue Ridge Parkway and drove to one of my favorite roadside spots on a grassy hill surrounded by trees.
Since I configured the K6ARK kit as a counterpoise-less EFHW, I wasn’t entirely sure how stable the SWR would be in the field. For this reason, I was a wee bit nervous pairing it with my MTR-3B since that little radio lacks an SWR meter and really needs a good match.
I might have mentioned in a previous post that I named my little Elecraft KX1 “Ruby.”
I name all of my field radios that are permanent; ones I never plan to sell or trade at any point in the future. Ruby is firmly in that keeper list.
Why do I anthropomorphize field radios? That’s perhaps a discussion for a different day but I reckon it’s because I feel they have a lot of character and are, quite literally, trusted companions. They go with me on travels, hikes, and all sorts of outings.
So Ruby is actually the second KX1 I’ve owned.
The first one I purchased in 2008 as a reward to myself for learning CW (see photo above). I enjoyed that KX1 until 2016 when I sold it to help fund the purchase of my KX2.
I immediately regretted selling it, although it helped that I sold it to an amazing person.
In October 2020, I purchased Ruby and wrote a post about how great it was to be reunited with this gem of a radio.
At the time, I had no idea what a great deal I had landed.
Ruby turned out to be a four band radio (it was advertised as three), included the built-in ATU, and the package came with a simple wire antenna, three different coaxial DC plugs, a Pelican 1060 waterproof case, earphones, and a set of KXPD1 paddles. All of this for $300 US shipped.
I took Ruby on a number of field activations and couldn’t have been happier
Intermittent issues surface
In the summer of 2021, I started noticing some odd behavior.
Sometimes, after turning on the power switch, the rig wouldn’t completely power up. Instead of the typical two clicks we KX1 owners are accustomed to hearing, I only heard one click and neither the display nor any of the functions worked.
This was an intermittent issue–the next day it might power up as it should.
I did a little troubleshooting: I completely disassembled it, visually inspected all of the solder joints, and removed/cleaned and reinserted the firmware chip. This had no effect at all.
So, I took Ruby to one of the best radio repair technicians in the world who also happens to be one of my best friends: Vlado (N3CZ). He actually does a lot of repair and even has a radio repair website.
Vlado will be the first to tell you that the worst problems to diagnose are those that are intermittent; it takes much longer to trace the source of the problem.
A few days later, Vlado sent me a message notifying me that the patient (Ruby) was on the operating table and surgery was about to begin. (See why I call him “Dr. Vlado”–?)
Vlado checked the circuit board very carefully. He found a few solder joints that needed work including a couple on the chip holder. In fact, he completely desoldered the chip holder and soldered it back in properly. Keep in mind here that the KX1 was only ever available as a kit, so quality had everything to do with the skill of the original builder.
He re-assembled Ruby and she worked perfectly.
A second operation
I put Ruby back on the air for a few months, but then in December 2021, a variation of the same issue resurfaced. This time, the “two clicks” in startup took a couple seconds longer than it should. Then it simply stopped working altogether.
Vlado wanted Ruby back in surgery ASAP, so I dropped her off at his “Emergency Room.”
Since the problem was no longer intermittent, Vlado quickly sorted out the main issue: a faulty encoder.
I should note here that since the KX1 hasn’t been produced by Elecraft in many years, there’s always the fear that a replacement part might already be “unobtainium.”
I called Elecraft support and fortunately for KX1 owners everywhere, the encoder is one Elecraft uses in a few of their radios. They have a healthy inventory and the part costs less than $5.00. Woo hoo!
Admittedly, when I placed the order, I also order a few extra parts I thought could fail in the future and might be difficult to find: 3.5mm jacks, pots, and even the LED screen. If I was paying shipping anyway, why not add a few extras? The parts are all very reasonably priced.
The KX1 doesn’t seem to have a lot of unobtainium in it–I seem to recall though that the firmware chip can no longer be ordered from their website and neither can the pushbuttons. I bet you could find other pushbuttons if needed, though.
I had the encoder shipped directly to Vlado and he completed Ruby’s operation in short order. Thank you, Vlado!
To the field!
I’m so happy to have Ruby back on the air! We’ve chased numerous parks and summits in the past week and I took her on an activation Monday, pairing her with my recently-built K6ARK EFHW antenna.
I’ll post an activation report and video in the coming weeks.
Elecraft KX1s have become as rare as hen’s teeth lately. You’ve no doubt noticed this if you’ve been looking for one. I’m sure I could sell my KX1 package in a heartbeat for twice more than I paid a year and a half ago. It’s a little insane, really, but I get it.
If you’ve been looking for a used KX1, I would offer the following notes/advice:
Since these were only available as kits, you might ask the seller about the original builder and/or have them take photos of the soldering work inside prior to purchasing.
Assume issues might arise with time. With radios like this, I mentally set aside at least a couple hundred dollars for future replacement parts and/or repairs.
Keep in mind that as with any other radio that’s a bit long in the tooth, you may find that some components are simply no longer available. That’s the risk we take being custodians of these cool little rigs.
Actively looking for a KX1 at time of posting (Feb 2022)? Note that interest in particular radio models waxes and wanes over time. With a little patience, you’ll eventually find one. I’ve seen this happen with so many other radios over the years.
The KX1, as with most Elecraft radios, comes in a number of configurations and you need to be aware of this if purchasing. Some only have two bands, some have three, and some have four. I’m not certain if band modules are still available via Elecraft, so you might get stuck with the configuration you purchase. Also, the internal ATU was an option; don’t assume the one you’re purchasing has the ATU.
KXPD1 paddles are very difficult to find these days. It’s a big bonus if your radio comes with them. Not everyone likes these paddles, but the version I have now seem to work really well, actually. N6ARA Tiny Paddles are a brilliant little replacement, but you might wish to make a 3D-printed holder to attach the the paddle point on the front of the radio to take a little strain off of the 3.5mm jack inside.
I should also add that Vlado is a brilliant repair technician and has worked on numerous Elecraft, Icom, Yaesu, Kenwood, and Ten-Tec models over the years–if it’s solid state, he can repair it. If you ever need his services he can be reached via his website HamRadio.repair.
Also, Dave (W8FGU) is an Elecraft employee that is devoted to their legacy radios like the KX1/KX1/K2, etc. He’s a great guy, brilliant resource, and I believe can also arrange repair, if needed.
Enough blogging: I think Ruby and I will chase a few summits now while I finish my morning cuppa’. 🙂
I’ve been so busy these past few weeks, it only hit me yesterday afternoon (Dec 30, 2021) that if I wanted to activate another park or summit in 2021, I needed to do it that same afternoon. I knew that we had plans for today and would visit with friends.
Looking back at 2021
As I’ve mentioned before, I really don’t follow my park and summit statistics with any regularity. For me, each activation and opportunity to play radio is a reward in and of itself.
I’m not a competitive fellow but I’ll admit that I’m in awe of those activators who are! Some have truly mind-blowing activation numbers. I’d encourage you to check out the POTA and SOTA leaderboards!
For SOTA, I set a vague goal of activating 12 summits in 2021–roughly one summit per month.