Without a doubt, the most popular type of question I receive from readers here on QPRer.com and over at the SWLing Post has to do with making equipment purchase decisions.
In the past two months, I’ve had numerous questions from QRPer readers asking my opinion about choosing between the new Icom IC-705, or the Elecraft KX2. In fact, as I started putting this post together this morning, I received yet another email from a reader asking my opinion about these two iconic QRP transceivers!
I love both of these radios for different reasons, so the answer is not an easy one.
Let’s discuss this in some detail…
I decided to make a video talking about the pros and cons of each transceiver and note the reasons why one might pick one over the other. My hope is that this will help inform a purchase decision:
On Monday, March 22, 2021, I performed three QRP field activations in one day. I started off the day with a visit to Three Top Mountain Game Land, and then headed to Mount Jefferson State Natural Area for a POTA and SOTA activation before heading to New River State Park.
When plotting my multi-site activation day, I picked Mount Jefferson because it’s a SOTA entity (W4C/EM-021). I only realized later that it’s also a POTA entity (K-3846). I mistakenly assumed Mount Jefferson was a county park rather than an NC state park. To do both a POTA and SOTA activation simultaneously is ideal!
Mount Jefferson (W4C/EM-021)
This was my first visit to Mount Jefferson and, frankly, I wasn’t sure what to expect in terms of hiking.
The park itself is amazing! North Carolina parks never let me down.
The entrance is near the base of the mountain and very close to the town of West Jefferson. The park road climbs up the side of Mount Jefferson –there are a number of spots to park, hike, and picnic.
I had not checked the trail map in advance, but I had read that the summit trail was accessible from the parking and picnic area at the end (top) of the park road.
I hopped out of my car, grabbed my SOTA pack, and very quickly found the trail head.
The trail is impeccably maintained and wide enough for vehicle use (no doubt these trails double as access for tower maintenance on the summit).
The hike to the summit from the parking are was incredibly short–about .3 miles. Normally, I’d want a much longer hike, but since I was trying to fit three site activations in a span of four hours, I didn’t complain.
On top of the summit, one is greeted by a typical cluster of transmission towers.
While I appreciate checking out antennas and towers, these are never a welcome site because they can generate serious QRM, making a SOTA activation difficult.
I searched around and found a spot to set up well within the activation zone but giving me a bit of distance from the towers.
My Yaesu FT-817ND was desperate to get a little SOTA action, so I decided to pair it with the Chameleon CHA MPAS Lite using the Elecraft T1 ATU to find matches.
After putting the FT-817 on the air, I was very pleased to hear that the nearby transmission towers and power lines weren’t causing any noticeable interference. This was a very good sign because, frankly, propagation was very unstable that day and I had real concerns about being able to work stations on 40 meters.
I hopped on the air and quickly realized I’d forgotten to hook my external battery up to the Yaesu FT-817ND. This meant I was running something closer to 2.5 watts as opposed to a full 5 watts. I decided to attempt the activation without the external battery and add it if needed.
I started operating on 20 meters and was very pleased to quickly rack up a number of contacts. I could tell that most of these contacts were via SOTA because I recognized the calls and primarily SOTA chasers.
Within 11 minutes, I worked 10 stations on 20 meters in CW. I was very pleased with how quickly those QSOs rolled in and how easily I logged the four needed for a valid SOTA and 10 needed for POTA activation–all on 20 meters.
Next, I moved to 40 meters where I worked two stations and 30 meters where I worked one. For sure, 20 meters was a much stronger band than 40 and 30 turned out to be.
After working 13 stations, I packed up.
Obviously, 2.5 watts was plenty for this activation!
I would have loved to stay longer, but frankly, I needed to stick to my schedule because I had one more park to fit in that day! (More on that in a future post and video!).
Here’s my QSOmap for the Mount Jefferson activation:
And here’s my full log:
Even though I was a bit pressed for time, I still made one of my real-time, real-life videos of the entire activation. I hope you enjoy:
Next up will be an activation of New River State Park. I hope to post this early next week.
I’d be interested in your thoughts/views/opinion/reasoning for that. I am hoping to get a KX-2 soon and was planning to get the aluminum knob that you recommended.
Excellent question. I did, indeed, swap out the nicer aluminum knob with the stock lightweight knob. I meant to write a quick note about that last year.
I did this after watching a presentation by Wayne Burdick (N6KR) for the QSO Today Expo last year.
Here’s the video queued up to the spot where Wayne mentions why he doesn’t recommend anything other than the stock plastic encoder:
In the video, I believe he’s really referring to heavier encoders rather than the lightweight aluminum one, but I still pulled it thinking I was perfectly happy with the plastic one and would accept the compromise. Anything to extend the longevity of my KX2.
The video is a fascinating look at how the KX2 was designed and developed. I would encourage you to watch the entire video when you have the time.
On Monday, March 8, 2021, I had a very rare opportunity: nearly a full day to play radio!
I debated where to go the night before and I had a lot of ideas. Do a multi-park run? Activate some new-to-me parks a little further afield? Hit a SOTA summit?
While it was very appealing to plan a multi-park run for POTA/WWFF, I really wanted to stretch my legs and activate a summit. The weather was glorious and it dawned upon me that we’ll soon be entering the season of afternoon thunderstorms which will, no doubt, have a negative impact on my summit plans for the next few months since afternoons are typically when I have time to do activations.
After examining the map, I decided to go to Elk Knob State Park. The summit of Elk Knob is a SOTA site and the park is in both the POTA and WWFF programs.
When people tell me running QRP is like “trying to play radio with both hands tied behind your back” I’ll show them this video. 🙂
While the hike, the weather, and the signals were all in my favor, I’ll admit I wasn’t on my “A Game” that day. We all have days like this where we struggle to copy, to keep up with the flow of contacts, and to send correctly.
In recent weeks, I’ve gotten a number of emails from readers and viewers who said they had a less-than-smooth SOTA or POTA activation and felt a wee bit embarrassed on the air when they struggled copying.
But you know what?
This is all about having radio fun in the field, enjoying a hike, taking in the views, and soaking up the beautiful weather! It’s not a contest and we have nothing to prove to anyone.
I can also promise you that any chaser/hunter who has ever activated a field site will completely understand if they have to send their call a couple extra times or if they (heaven forbid!) have to re-send their call after you incorrectly copy a character.
This is totally normal.
Be easy on yourself and enjoy the ride. Even on days when I don’t feel like I’m 100% in the groove, I find doing a summit or park activation clears my mind and resets my soul.
My policy? When a mistake is made laugh it off and move on!
Here are a few extra photos from the Elk Knob hike:
On the morning of Wednesday, March 10, 2021, I would have never guessed that by noon I would be standing on the summit of Rocky Face. That morning, I had planned to activate the summit of Baker’s Mountain–a park and summit I know very well as I’ve hike the trails there almost monthly and the mountain is a stone’s throw from my parents’ home.
That morning, when I arrived at Baker’s Mountain Park and the gates were shut, I remembered that they are closed on Wednesdays.
I was determined to hike to a summit, though, so I grabbed my iPhone and launched the SOTA Goat app, then searched for nearby summits. That’s when I noticed Rocky Face which was *only* a 40 minute drive from Baker’s Mountain. I had heard of this 1 point summit and park, but had never been there, so why not take a little road trip and explore?
Rock Face (W4C/WP-006)
It was a very pleasant drive which was made all the better by gorgeous sunny weather.
When I arrived on site, I was surprised to see just how well developed this park was. There were two different parking areas, a visitor’s center, picnic area, rock climbing face, playground, and numerous trails. There’s even a large area for outdoor events.
I took the “Vertical Mile Challenge” to the summit (which I would recommend) and was more of a workout that one might imagine for a 1 point 576 meter summit.
The trail was very well maintained. The ascent up the granite slope offered some welcome views of the surrounding area.
I was a little surprised to find some Nodding Trilliums blooming on the side of, and even on the path. A sure sign spring is on the way!
March 10th was also one of the warmest days of the year so far.
On the summit, there were actually a couple of picnic tables–a total surprise which made this SOTA operation feel somewhat luxurious!
On The Air
I set up the Elecraft KX2 and Chameleon MPAS 2.0 which were still packed from a SOTA activation two days earlier at Elk Knob (I’ll post a report of that activation in the near future).
I had not charged the Lithium Ion pack in the KX2 after the Elk Knob activation, but I assumed I’d still have enough “juice” to get me through the Rocky Face activation at 5 watts.
I started by calling CQ SOTA on 20 meters. A friend told me that propagation was very unstable, so I feared the worst. Fortunately, 20 meters was kicking (40 meters much less so).
Right off the bat, I worked stations in France, Germany, Slovenia, Quebec, Spain, and all of the west coast states of the US. It was so much fun and exactly why I love QRP and playing radio in the field.
As I switched from 20 meters to 40 meters, some hikers passed by. Turns out it was my cousin and her husband–what a surprise! Of course, they had no idea what I was up to, so I ended up explaining not only SOTA, but amateur radio and why I was using CW (yeah, I cut that bit from the activation video below).
They moved on and I hit 40 meters which was hit harder by the poor propagation. Many stations I regularly work were a good 2-3 S units lower in signal strength.
I am certainly looking forward to some stable propagation eventually! Still…very, very pleased with the 24 stations I worked and the QRP DX as well.
Here’s a QSOmap of my contacts–all from 5 watts and a vertical:
Last Tuesday (March 2, 2021), I needed to make a quick trip to south Asheville and pick up some gear I had ordered from REI. Of course, I had a hankering to fit in a Parks On The Air activation. I contacted my buddies Eric (WD8RIF) and Mike (K8RAT) and mentioned I might make a visit to the Blue Ridge Parkway [it’s always a good idea to have others look for you in case your unable to spot yourself on the bands].
By the time I jumped in the car, though, I talked myself out of doing the activation. Propagation was poor and I had a maximum of 30 minutes to fit in a valid activation.
After picking up my gear at REI, I realized, though, that a 30 minute limit made for an awfully fun challenge.
I had to pass by the parkway to go home, so why not? Right?
I did a quick check and, yes(!) I had the Elecraft KX2 and CHA MPAS Lite antenna in the car.
Before leaving REI, I scheduled my activation on the POTA website so that the site would know to auto-spot me if the Reverse Beacon Network picked me up.
Blue Ridge Parkway (K-3378)
I arrived at the parkway in very short order. I decided to do the activation at the Blue Ridge Parkway Visitor’s Center and Headquarters. Normally, I avoid this location because it’s busy and the best spots to set up a radio are in the path of visitors walking around the perimeter of the grounds.
It was a cold, overcast Tuesday morning so, as I expected, I almost had the place to myself.
I deployed the CHA MPAS Lite vertical in very short order–perhaps 3 minutes. Since I had also packed my Pixel 3 camera/phone and tripod in the car, I even recorded a video of the full activation (see below).
In short? I snagged my 10 contacts in about 19 minutes on the air–all on 40 meters CW. Not too bad for a Tuesday morning with five watts and a vertical.
Here’s a QSOmap of the contacts I made:
I also had a first at this activation! I worked ND9M/MM. To my knowledge, I’ve never worked a maritime mobile station at a park activation–certainly not in CW! The map above omits this contact since the location was unknown.
When I submitted my log to Bill DeLoach (our regional contact for POTA logs) said I really need a “Wham Bam!” award for this quick activation. Ha ha!
I’ll let you in on a little secret. Don’t tell anyone, but I held off making my first Summits On The Air (SOTA) activation until the stars aligned and I could activate one particular summit completely on foot from my QTH.
Last Thursday (February 25, 2021), my daughter and I hiked to Lane Pinnacle (W4C/CM-018) and performed my first Summits On The Air (SOTA) activation.
Why did I wait so long?
We live in the mountains of western North Carolina where (obviously) there are numerous SOTA summits to activate.
But I wanted Lane Pinnacle to be the first.
Why? Well, it’s the one summit I can hike to directly from my house with my daughter Geneva (K4TLI) and enjoy a proper father/daughter day hike.
I had planned to do this hike last year, but I injured my ankle and let’s just say that the hike to Pinnacle isn’t a beginner’s run. I knew my ankle would need to properly heal before the journey.
This is also more of a late fall to very early spring hike due to the amount of thick foliage we knew we would have to mitigate. It’s so much easier to keep your bearings when there are no leaves on the trees nor on the green briar!
Last Thursday, I felt confident that my ankle was up to the task. We had a break in the weather as well with moderate temps and lots of sunshine (this, after several days of rain). We knew things could be muddy and slippery, but we also knew that with my busy schedule this might be our last chance to hit the summit before the mountains green up.
So we packed a lunch, plenty of water, radio gear, and (of course) emergency/first-aid kits while trying to keep our backpacks as light as possible.
Hitting the trail!
The first part of the hike requires trailblazing to a ridge line. The distance is short, but the ascent is steep (about 800 feet). We hike this portion regularly, so knew how to pick our path and avoid the steeper, slippery bits.
On the ridge line, we intersected an established single track trail and enjoyed the hike across a couple of smaller summits until we intersected the Blue Ridge Parkway.
If I’m being honest, I had some serious concerns that the trailhead to Lane Pinnacle would be closed. This portion of Blue Ridge Parkway is currently closed to motor vehicles (for the winter season) and I had noticed a number of “trail closed” signs on other portions of the parkway.
If the trail was closed, I planned to simply activate the parkway and Pisgah National Forest for the POTA program. I never hike on trails that have been closed by the park service because I like to obey the rules and I certainly don’t want to paint SOTA activators in a bad light.
When we crossed the parkway, we were incredibly pleased to see that the trailhead was open.
The ascent from the parkway to Lane Pinnacle is about 1,000 feet (305 meters) of elevation gain over a pretty short distance. The trail we were taking–turns out–was primitive. It basically lead us straight up the slope (no switch backs following lines of elevation, for example) and simply fizzled out about one third of the way up. We could tell it isn’t traveled often at all (although we did find a massive fresh bear track in the mud on the trail!).
I bushwhacked our way to the top–at times, the slope was about 45 degrees and slippery, but we easily found our way to the summit where our goat path intersected the Mountains To Sea trail.
We found an amazing overlook and took in views of the Bee Tree Reservoir as we ate our lunches.
Geneva grabbed her dual-band HT and made the first summit contact with our friend, Vlado (N3CZ) on 2 meters FM.
On the Air
I knew there would be short trees on the summit of Lane Pinnacle, but I also knew that I wanted to get on the air as soon as possible to allow extra time for our hike home.
I did pack a super compact wire antenna, but opted instead for the Chameleon CHA MPAS Lite vertical. I paired it with my Elecraft KX2.
The great thing about the CHA MPAS Lite is how quick it is to deploy–it might have taken me all of three minutes.
Since it was noon, I decided to start on the 20 meter band. I found a clear frequency, started calling “CQ SOTA” with the KX2 memory keyer, and spotted myself to the SOTA network via the excellent SOTA Goat app on my phone.
I had also scheduled my activation on the POTA website in advance because Lane Pinnacle is in Pisgah National Forest (K-4510). My buddies Mike (K8RAT) and Eric (WD8RIF) were also helping to spot me in the unlikely event I wouldn’t have cell phone service on the summit.
Within 20 seconds of submitting the spot to the SOTA network I had a CW pileup.
In all of my hundreds of field activations, I can’t think of a single time that I generated a CW pileup on 20 meters in such short order with five watts and a vertical.
The first station I logged was N1AIA in Maine. The second station was F4WBN in France. The race was on!
It took every bit of CW skill I had to pull apart the stations on 20 meters. It was so much fun!
I eventually worked Spain and all of the west coast states (WA, OR, and CA) and numerous stations throughout the Rockies and Midwest.
I then moved to 40 meters where I worked stations in the Mid-Atlantic, Ohio Valley, and in the Southeast.
In the end, I had to keep my total time on the air short because I wanted to take my time finding a path from the summit back down to the Blue Ridge Parkway.
In 30 minutes I worked 30 stations. I’m not a seasoned CW operator, so this was quite the accomplishment.
Here’s a QSOmap of my contacts:
I was chuffed! What a fabulous activation to kick off my SOTA adventures.
This time, I did not make a video of the actual activation. For one thing, I didn’t want to carry a folding tripod for the camera and I didn’t want to ask my daughter to film it either. I wanted to keep things as simple as possible to make the most of the airtime I had.
I really wish we could have stayed on the summit for an hour longer making contacts, but I knew it would be wise to allow extra time to descend Lane Pinnacle especially since I knew a front was moving through later that day.
I decided it would be easier to do my own bushwhacking back down the mountain rather than try to retrace our previous steps. We took our time and I followed elevation lines to make it slightly less steep. Since I took a more south westerly descent, when we reached the parkway, we had to hike north to reach the original trailhead.
The rest of the hike was totally uneventful and incredibly fun. The weather held and we took in the views, the wildlife, and invaluable father/daughter time.
That was the first strenuous hike I had done in months due to my ankle, so let’s just say I was feeling “spent” after our 6.5 hour adventure taking in 2,000 feet (610 meters) of elevation to the summit.
I knew it was bad when I even dreaded walking upstairs to take a shower. I think I remember telling my wife, “I’m never building a house with stairs again!”
Now that I’ve got Lane Pinnacle in the books, I’m ready to start hitting the summits! I’ve got a lot of pent up SOTA energy!
My goal is to activate a total of ten this year. That may sound like a modest number, but since at this point I’m less interested in “drive-up” summits, it’s more difficult to fit SOTA summits into my schedule than, say, typical POTA/WWFF parks.
In fact, I’ve already plotted my next SOTA activation and hope to do it within the next couple of weeks. It’s also a meaningful (to me) summit.
How about you?
Are you a SOTA activator or are you planning your first SOTA activation soon? Please comment!
In both instances, I did not use an ATU because the EFHW is resonant on the bands where I operated. I bypassed the internal ATU in my KX2 and, of course, the IC-705 has no ATU.
I’ve got a very busy few days ahead including a presentation tomorrow at the Virtual Winter SWL Fest (the topic being QRP transceivers). In lieu of writing a full field report, I’ll simply share the (partial) video I made at the activation.
I’ll admit it, I was not on my “A Game” at that activation. Not only did I forgot to press the start button on the camera, but I also struggled copying CW more than I usually do. I had a lot on my mind that afternoon, though, and really felt pressed for time.
I don’t mind sharing this experience, however, because we all have days like these.
The elastic straps inside the pouch keep the elements of the antenna organized and separated. They don’t hold the sections tightly in place, but they do the trick.
I store the two AX1 counterpoise wires (one for 40M, the other for 20/17) in its interior zipped pocket.
The Fatty pouch also stores a small Muji notepad and mechanical pencil (for logging).
I actually keep a logbook specifically for the AX1 because it’s so fun to see just how many miles per watt I’ve achieved with this pocket antenna.
I also like the clam shell opening.When I arrive on-site, I open the case and everything is arranged and prepared for assembly (which takes all of 2-3 minutes). Since every piece of the AX1 assembly has its own dedicated spot in the Fatty pouch, I can tell at a glance if I’ve forgotten something.
In the spirit of full discoure, you should know that besides being a radio enthusiast, I’m also a hopeless pack geek. I almost exclusively buy backpacks and travel gear from smaller manufacturers mostly located here in the USA. I support companies like Red Oxx, Tom Bihn, and Spec-Ops Brand to name a few. I have even helped pack companies with their designs and pre-production evaluations (much like I do for radio manufacturers).
Maxpedition is a US-based company that manufactures much of their gear in Taiwan (I believe). Although I originally purchased this Fatty pouch and two other Maxpedition pouches about six years ago, I can say their their quality and durability are superb. The zippers all work fluidly, seams are well-stitched, and I’ve never had one fail on me in any way. Their gear is more affordable than most of the packs I typically purchase.
I wish Maxpedition made a padded case that would fit my IC-705, Elecraft KX3, or even the Elecraft KX2 (although the Lowe Pro packs Elecraft sells seem to work well). I’ve never tested Maxpedition slings and backpacks, but I may give one a try soon. I would love input from any readers who are familiar with larger Maxpedition packs.
Some of my most enjoyable field activations are those involving the least amount of equipment and accessories. Maybe it’s my “less is more” mentality, but it is amazing when all I need to get on the air is one radio, a feedline, logging notebook, and a simple antenna.
That was my set-up earlier this week (February 8, 2021) when I activated Kerr Scott State Game Land–a site I hadn’t visited since last summer.
Kerr Scott State Game Land (K-6918)
I was the first person to activate Kerr Scott State Game Land back in June of 2020.
“[I]f you don’t have a “spot” of your activation on the POTA site, it’s like you don’t exist.”
This was truly a tipping point that lead me down the path of doing CW activations in order to benefit from auto-spotting via the Reverse Beacon Network (RBN). Only a couple weeks after this activation, I made my first CW activation and the rest is history. While I still use SSB during activations, CW has become my favorite mode even though I’m still not that great of an operator.
I speak about this a bit more in my activation video below.
Once I arrived on site, I deployed my EFT Trail-Friendly 40/20/10 meter end-fed resonant antenna.
The last few times I deployed this antenna in the field, it hasn’t been resonant on 40 meters and I suspect this is due to damage to the coil near the end of the radiator. I decided I’d give it one last test by suspending it in an overhanging tree branch about 50 feet high so it would not touch other branches.
When I turned on the KX2, I set the internal ATU to “bypass” and tested SWR. Sadly, it was unacceptable, so I re-activated the ATU to get a good match.
My buddy and fellow POTA activator, Steve (KC5F), reminded me recently that the radiator on this antenna can be replaced with enough wire to make a simple end fed half wave. That’s probably what I’ll do because, frankly, this antenna has served me so well for five years and over 150 park activations I’m not ready to simply toss it. I will need to order some proper wire for the EFHW, though!
On The Air
Since I have no mobile phone/Internet service at this site, I decided to make this a CW only activation, hopefully taking full advantage of auto-spotting to the POTA spots page.
I started on 40 meters because I had pre-arranged with my buddies Mike (K8RAT) and Eric (WD8RIF) to listen for me on 7063 kHz. I did this in case auto-spotting wasn’t working, which does happen from time-to-time. It’s always important to have a back-up if possible especially for sites (like this one) that carry significant travel time.
I hopped on 40 meters, called CQ POTA and within 29 minutes, I logged 26 stations. That’s about as much activity as I could possibly expect during a Monday morning activation!
Next, I moved to 20 meters and started calling CQ. The first station I worked was CU3BL in the Azores, then WD5GRW in Texas, AB6QM in California, then IK4IDF in Italy, and finally KH2TJ in California.
I then moved to 30 meters and worked N5GW in Mississippi before going QRT with a total of 32 stations logged.
Not at all bad using 5-10 watts!
Here’s a QSOmap of this activation (click to enlarge):
I made a real-time, real-life, no edit, no advertisements video of this activation. Feel free to check it out if you like:
One of the things I rarely mention in my videos and field reports is how much I love the trips to/from an activation site. I’m a traveler at heart and while I’ve been fortunate enough to travel to and live in some pretty amazing countries and cities, I still have a deep appreciation for simply driving through the countryside and taking in the scenery. I appreciate the mundane as much as I do the majestic. It’s a beautiful drive.
Kerr Scott Game Land is located in the little farming community of Boomer, NC which, I understand, was named after its first postmaster, Ed “Boomer” Matheson.
Before it was called Boomer, the community was known as Warrior Creek–the very creek running through Kerr Scott Game Land.
Even though I know there’s no connection, when I hear the name Boomer I can’t help but think of the incredibly cute and cheeky red squirrel that we WNC natives call “Boomers.”