As I mentioned in a previous post, I’m starting to sort out the gear I’ll take on a long road trip this summer. I still haven’t quite decided which radio will accompany my Elecraft KX2, but the lab599 Discovery TX-500 is on my very short list.
I pulled the TX-500 yesterday to do a firmware update and found my logbook for an activation I made on February 16, 2022. For the life of me, I couldn’t remember writing the field report for that activation.
I checked my YouTube channel and, sure enough, buried at the bottom of my video list was the activation video marked as “unlisted.”
That bit of time between mid-February and mid-March was crazy for me. I was in isolation for a week (thanks Covid) and had a very hectic family schedule. I accumulated a small backlog of videos then and this one was lost simply lost in the shuffle.
Here’s the report and video from that activation:
Clear Creek Trail
It was Wednesday, February 16, 2022, and I was driving to my parents’ house to help them with a few projects. I had enough time to make a little detour to the Clear Creek Access of South Mountains State Park (K02753) and had two things in mind: a good hike and trailside activation.
The weather? Man oh man was it was fickle.
On the interstate, I got caught in a proper downpour and traffic slowed to a crawl.
I thought about throwing in the towel then, but I made a promise to myself that I would continue driving to the park if it wasn’t raining when I approached the park exit on the interstate.
Although I live in the mountains of North Carolina and am surrounded by SOTA summits, it’s much easier for me to activate a park rather than a summit.
Parks can be quite easy: find the park on a map, drive through their main entrance, find a good picnic table to set up, and next thing you know you’re on the air! Of course, wildlife management areas and game lands can be more tricky, but typically you can drive to the activation site.
Summits–speaking as someone who activates in North Carolina–take much more planning. If it’s a new-to-me summit, I typically need to:
find the GPS coordinates of the true summit
map out the drive to the trail head
read through previous activation notes (if they exist) to find out
what type of antenna/gear I might pack
and any notes I might need to find the trail or bushwhack to the true summit (quite often published, well-worn trails don’t lead to the actual summit)
look up the trail map and make sure I have a paper and/or electronic copy
pack all needed gear for the hike, activation, and emergencies
sort out the time it will take to travel to the site, hike the full trail to the summit, activate, and return home
If you ask most any SOTA activator, they’ll tell you that the planning is part of the fun.
It really is.
One summit I’ve had on my activation list for ages is Craggy Dome (W4C/CM-007). Out of the higher summits in this region, it’s one of the easier ones for me to reach from the QTH. In fact, as with Lane Pinnacle, I could simply hike from my house directly to the summit (although one way to Craggy might take the better part of a day). The trailhead is about a 50 minute drive, and the hike about 30 minutes.
SOTA notes and All Trails indicated that Craggy Dome’s trail isn’t always easy to follow and that it’s steep and slippery.
Craggy has been activated loads of times, though, so I wasn’t concerned at all.
Living here and knowing how much brush there was on the manway to the summit, I knew that Craggy would be a pretty easy summit if I could activate it after the parkway re-opened for the spring and before the mountain “greened-up”; about a five week window.
My schedule opened up for an activation of Craggy Dome on the morning of April 21, 2022 and I was very much looking forward to it.
I wouldn’t be alone on this hike either. Bruce (KO4ZRN), a newly-minted ham, contacted me and asked if he could join me on a hike and simply be an observer during a SOTA activation.
As you might have noticed from past field reports, I’m a big fan of the LnR Precision Mountain Topper MTR-3B. It’s a wee CW-only transceiver that is almost perfectly designed for summit and park activating. It’s so lightweight and compact, you barely notice it in your backpack.
Thing is, the MTR-3B is no longer produced and I’m not sure if it ever will be again, but Steve Weber (KD1JB) hasn’t stopped making iterative improvements to the Mountain Topper design and LnR hasn’t stopped producing them.
In late 2020, LnR introduced the new MTR-4B which replaced the MTR-3B and added a few extra features that many of us had been asking for including:
Easy access to sidetone volume control (with a dielectric screwdriver)
A built-in SWR meter
A wider voltage range and higher output power (up to 5 watts)
And the 80 meter band in addition to 40, 30, and 20 meters
The MTR-4B also has an attractive red gloss chassis.
And the right and left sides of the chassis even protrude a bit to better protect the front panel buttons and switches when the unit is flipped over on its face. Nice touch!
One of the great things about being me is I am often at the receiving end of incredibly generous people who like supporting what I do.
QRPer.com is a pure labor of love and I’d do what I do without any compensation, but it’s an honor when anyone goes out of their way to thank or support me.
Seriously: the kindness I feel here restores my faith in humanity.
In January, a reader (who wishes to remain anonymous) approached me with a deal I simply couldn’t refuse. He is a very seasoned and accomplished field operator but has only recently been upping his CW game. I believe as a reward to himself for starting CW activations later this year, he told me he wished to order a new MTR-4B.
What he proposed was to purchase the radio from LnR and have it drop-shipped to me. He wanted me to have the opportunity to review this little radio and log field time with it as well. He told me I could use it for months before shipping it to him and not to worry about it getting scratched or showing other signs of field use.
I loved this idea because, as a reviewer, it isn’t financially viable to buy each and every radio I would like to review. I do like asking manufacturers for loaner radios, but LnR is a small manufacturer and make these units to order. I know them quite well and they simply don’t have extra loaner units lying around the shop–much like new automobiles these day, each one produced is already spoken for.
I accepted his offer with gratitude. I looked forward to getting my hands on the MTR-4B!
But that wasn’t all: this kind reader has actually been sending me coffee fund contributions that will add up to half the price of a new MTR-4B should I decide to purchase and add one to my own field radio arsenal! I tried, but I couldn’t talk him out of it.
So there you go. I’m so incredibly grateful.
As LnR Precision states on their website, there’s roughly a 6-8 week lead time on the MTR-4B. I took delivery of this unit in early March.
As with all LnR Precision products, it was packed amazingly well.
I wasn’t sure what to expect in terms of size, but the MTR-3B is only slightly bulkier than the MTR-3B (indeed, in my activation video below, I compare the two).
I love the hotrod red paint job!
This unit arrived during what turned out to be a crazy time for me–one where there was nearly a four week period with no field activations. That’s how crazy!
I did play with the MTR-4B in the shack, however, during that time and logged numerous POTA, WWFF, and SOTA activators. I even had a couple of 80 meter rag chews.
Many field ops were surprised that the MTR-4B didn’t use the forth band position for 17 or 15 meters and I tend to agree. In the field, efficient 80 meter antennas are a bit bulky for the likes of a summit activator. Then again, when in the shack or for extended camping trips? I find 80 meters a brilliant band for evening rag chews and late night DXing.
Not sure how much I’ll use 80M in the field, but I do appreciate this additional band!
I pushed the last field report and activation video to the front of the line so that I could show how CW message memory keying worked in the TR-35’s updated firmware. It was, in my opinion, a major upgrade!
What follows is my field report from April 1, 2022: my first POTA activation with the Penntek TR-35. This video was made a week or so before I learned that WA3RNC was working on the new firmware.
Since I have a busy family life, I always look for opportunities to fit a little field radio time into my schedule.
My policy is to always keep a radio field kit in my car or truck so I can take advantage of any last minute opportunities.
On the morning of Wednesday, April 20, 2022, I was scheduled to take my car in for warranty/recall servicing at the dealership. I decided in advance that if the service could be completed in two hours or less, I’d relax in their waiting room with my MacBook, drink a cup or two coffee, and attempt to make a dent in my email backlog.
If the service was going to take longer than 2 hours, I decided that I’d use one of their loaner/courtesy cars and activate a nearby park.
The dealership is about 45 minutes from my QTH and I’ve activated most of the parks nearby it, save one: Holmes Educational State Forest. I’ve been wanting to activate this park for ages, but my travels these days simply don’t take me in the direction of the park very often; it’s a good 75 minute drive from my QTH.
Uncertain how long the dealership would need my car, I grabbed my SOTA backpack that had a full field kit inside based on the Penntek TR-35 transceiver.
Why the TR-35? Because I was testing new firmware that added a huge upgrade: two CW message memories!
Suffice it to say, I was itching to see how well the new message memories work during a proper activation.
Front of the line
Since this upgrade was just made public, I thought those of you who either own the TR-35 or are plotting to purchase the TR-35, might want to see it in action. For this reason, I pushed this video and field report ahead of all of the others in my pipeline.
The really weird part about publishing this video so quickly is that one of my next field reports and videos will actually feature the first time I took the TR-35 to the field about 3-4 weeks ago! Back then, CW message memory keying wasn’t even on the table.
I arrived at the dealership around 9:00 AM (local) and the first thing I asked was, “So how long do you think this will take?” The representative looked at the work to be performed and said, “Three or four hours, likely. If you’re in a rush, maybe two hours.”
I decided I wasn’t in a rush because I’d much rather be playing radio at a new-to-me park than sitting in a waiting room.
I asked if I could borrow one of their courtesy cars and he replied, “We assumed you might want one Mr. Witherspoon, so we already reserved one for you.”
I get a little thrill out of checking out new parks and summits.
When going to a new-to-me site, I typically do quite a bit of research in advance. With parks, I look up directions to the entrance, hiking trails, park boundaries, and try to sort out the best potential activation sites on a map. With a summit, it can be much more complicated, but reading previous activator notes really saves a lot of headache. That’s especially the case here in the States where many summits are on private/gated land and/or could require bushwhacking off trail with no mobile phone service.
Then again, returning to a site I’ve been to before is also quite nice. I know what to expect and that often opens up the door to more confidence with time planning, antenna choices, and what to pack in terms of gear.
On Friday, March 25, 2022, I re-visited a site I hadn’t been to in nearly a year: Rendezvous Mountain Educational State Forest.
What’s great about Rendezvous is that it’s both a POTA and SOTA site.
On top of that (no pun intended) the activation zone of SOTA summit 2543 (W4C/EM-082) is on a road where Rendezvous Mountain Educational State Forest (K-4859), and Rendezvous Mountain State Game Land (K-6941) overlap. One activation yields two parks and one summit!
Last year, it took a bit of research to make this discovery. I studied both the park and game land maps, then compared those with a Cal Topo map. If interested, check out that field report here.
I arrived on site around 12:45 local. The park was void of visitors–I almost felt like I’d arrived on a day when the gates should have been closed.
As I grabbed my SOTA backpack out of the back of the car, a ranger pulled up in his truck and asked if I was planning to hike. I told him about my plans and asked if it was okay that I hike the forest service road to the summit. He said, “Sure. But when you reach the prison crew doing brush cutting on the road, make sure one of the guards sees you before you attempt to pass them.”
A few weeks ago, I received an email from Brooks (KO4QCC), a newly-minted ham radio operator who asked to tag along on one of my POTA field activations.
Brooks, it turns out, lives within spitting distance of a number of parks I regularly activate here in western North Carolina. He mentioned he was interested in observing an activation to learn a bit about deploying a field radio kit and, of course, to learn what it’s like to be on the air.
Brooks was also plotting the purchase of his first field radio kit and was very interested in the Icom IC-705 and MFJ-1988LP End-Fed Half-Wave (EFHW) antenna.
Of course, I welcomed him to join me but since we both have busy family lives–and my schedule especially took some twists and turns in March–it took a few weeks before our schedules aligned.
I asked Brooks if he would consider actually doing the activation himself instead of simply observing or tag-teaming it. I’m a big believer in hands-on radio time.
Brooks loved the idea!
On Sunday, March 27, 2022, a window of opportunity opened in our schedules and we agreed to meet at Tuttle Educational State Forest (K-4861). I packed my:
As I’ve mentioned before, I’m not really a “YouTuber” so I’m not actually inclined to capture every moment on video, but it struck me that others may appreciate experiencing (vicariously) what it’s like to do a park activation for the first time.
Prior to meeting, I asked Brooks if it would be okay if I made a video of his activation adding that there was absolutely no pressure to do so–just a thought. I’ll be the first to admit that if I were in his shoes, I’m not sure if I’d want a camera capturing my first activation jitters for all to see.
Brooks loved the idea–as he, too, saw value in this sort of video–so I brought my camera along for the ride.
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.
Today was crazy: when I woke up I thought it would be a good idea to attempt a first activation of DA-0171 in central Berlin after dropping off the kids at day care. So I grabbed my KX2 bag and jumped on my bike.
Shortly later I arrived at the park and pulled up my 40-10m EFHW and started calling CQ on SSB 40m.
It took me about 30 mins to realize that the KX2 was regulating the power down to 5W since both the internal and the external 4Ah battery I took with me were nearly dead.
I had one QSO with a German station and felt I wasn’t really heard anywhere. Then my KX2 started showing “low batt”.
It’s funny because attempting an activation isn’t really what one would call a very important thing, but I do develop quite an ambition if I have decided to get it done. So my only chance was using CW even though I am all but ready for that.
Fortunately I didn’t run into a classic pileup which would have been super overwhelming for me, but instead about every 2 minutes someone would reply to my call and in a very patient fashion – including one P2P QSO with an operator from Italy.
So all in all I completed 13 QSOs on a “low batt” warning of my KX2.
CW literally saved by butt and I am a very happy person. Without your work for the ham radio community this would not have been possible. So many thanks again.
On a different note: Last weekend (kit building seminar with the club) I had my first DX QSO. It was K3LU who picked up my call from my KX2 and a random wire 9:1 Unun antenna (L-Shape on a mast) with 28 and 17ft legs. I had to sit down and open a beer not able to do anything for about an hour but smile. Such a motivating event and I am happy he was such a great operator instantly QRSing with me and repeating his call. I am in touch with him and looking forward to receive his QSL card which will probably go in a frame.
I also finished the TR-35 and must say I am super impressed. It runs very quietly and the reduced concept is something I really appreciate. When will you take it into the field?
All the best & 73s de Leo (DL2COM)
Oh wow, Leo! I love this–thank you so much for taking the time to share your experience.
First of all, thank you for the kind comments–I’m honored to have even played a minor role in your CW activation. In truth, this is all chalked up to your determination and bravery! I’m guessing what you discovered is what I discovered during my first CW activation: not only is it not as bad as I had imagined, but it was actually fun and got the adrenaline pumping! 🙂
I’m now happy to know that when I hit the Low Battery warning on my KX2, I still have some time left! In truth, the KX2 is so efficient, I’ve made six individual CW 5 watt activations on one charge of the internal battery without even hitting the low battery warning.
Again, this story just makes my day. CW is such a fabulous, efficient, and magical mode! Good on you for diving in, OM!
I also think it’s brilliant that you worked Ulis (K3LU). You couldn’t have worked a better op for your first CW contact–he’s the real deal and a wonderful fellow. Not only that, but he has some amazing QSL cards!
And the TR-35? I couldn’t agree with you more. I did an activation with the TR-35 last Friday so a video and field report is forthcoming!
Thank you again, Leo! I hope others share their experience hitting CW for the first time (hint, hint!).