Tag Archives: K4SWL

Post-Hamvention Activation with Friends

The 2024 Dayton Hamvention is in the books!

This morning, I’m still at our hotel in Dayton, Ohio, but about to pack up and head out. Eric (WD8RIF), Miles (KD8KNC), and I are heading for a day at the Armstrong Aerospace Museum, then, hopefully, a POTA activation on the way back to Athens, Ohio, where I’ll spend the night.

Tuesday morning, I’ll be up early and hit the road for North Carolina. Really looking forward to seeing my wife, daughters, and Hazel.

I thought I’d share a very brief POTA activation I enjoyed yesterday with friends.

Pater State Wildlife Area (US-9492)

Yesterday morning (May 19, 2024), Eric, Miles and I met up with Kyle (AA0Z), Brian (K3ES), Joshua (N5FY), and Charlie (NJ7V) at our hotel.

Eric, Miles, Brian, and I had planned to activate a park in nearby Indiana that afternoon, as Brian and I had never activated in that state. Joshua, Charlie, and Kyle were planning to join us on an activation in southwest Ohio en route. Unfortunately, Joshua was driving back to his home in Georgia, and Kyle was dropping off Charlie at the airport on his way home, so they couldn’t join us in Indiana.

Eric’s first POTA activation with his Elecraft KH1!

We arrived on-site a little after 10:00 AM local. Eric immediately set up his Elecraft KH1 in desktop mode using his new Tufteln KH1 Right-Angle adapter.

Brian set up under a tree with his Elecraft KX2 and a Tufteln random wire antenna.

The amazing Brian (K3ES)

I grabbed my Elecraft KH1 and we coordinated frequencies. Brian took 30 meters, Eric took 40 meters, and I took 17 meters (thinking either Joshua or Eric might move to 20 meters).

This was another instance where having a fully handheld, pedestrian mobile station truly offered a level of activation freedom.

The bands were in rough shape, but I kept my KH1 in hand and walked around the entire site with the CW Message memory sending out my “CQ POTA DE K4SWL.”

Over the course of 13 minutes, I worked five stations. All the while, I was holding the KH1, chatting with my friends, and petting a sweet local dog that instantly made friends with us.

This pup was a hoot!

This activation also gave me an excuse to try out the new Tufteln KH1 Antenna Angle Adapter which makes it a breeze to keep the antenna nearly vertical while holding the KH1 at a more comfortable angle. Thanks, Joshua!

Eventually, I moved to 20 meters and we all started working each other to help with our QSO count and to simply get each other in the logs. I logged two more stations, plus Charlie, Brian, and Joshua to make my 10.

Kyle (AA0Z) and his brilliant Toyota Tacoma POTA machine.

The idea was to hop off the air quickly so that Kyle and Charlie could use Kyle’s KX3 station to activate the park as well.

L to R: Kyle, Joshua and Charlie

Conditions deteriorated further, so we did rely on a few P2Ps with each other to help Charlie and Kyle finish and hit the road.

Charlie calling CQ POTA

Here’s my QSO Map, but keep in mind that several of the pins are incorrect as Charlie, Kyle, Brian, and Joshua were all on-site:

All in all, we had an amazing time and it was a nice, relaxed way to wind down after an incredibly active 2024 Hamvention and FDIM conference.

Joshua working us P2P with his KH1 and the the most compromised–yet completely effective–antenna of all: a dummy load!

I will report more on Hamvention and share a few photos later this week.

For now, I need to wrap up this post and hit the road! There’s an aviation museum and POTA in my future today!

Heartfelt Thank You

I will add this one extra note: I’m simply overwhelmed with the kind comments and conversations I had with so many of you who took the time to catch up with me these past few days. Thank you so much!

Cheers & 72,
Thomas (K4SWL)

My First POTA Activation with the New Elecraft KH1 Handheld QRP Transceiver!

Yesterday, I posted some initial notes about the Elecraft KH1 and mentioned that I hoped to perform a POTA activation later in the day.

I’m pleased to report that I was able to fit in that activation!

I’m pushing this report and video to the front of the line because so many readers are eager to see how the KH1 performs during a field activation. Instead of focusing on the park, in this field report we’ll be taking a closer look at the KH1 and my initial impressions after performing a pedestrian mobile POTA activation with it.

Packing the KH1

I had a very hectic schedule yesterday and was on the road in/around Asheville from 8:00AM to 2:00PM before an opportunity opened to fit in an activation.

After a quick trip back to the QTH for lunch, I packed the Elecraft KH1 field kit in my EDC pack (a travel laptop bag).

Herein lies my first impression of the KH1: even though I knew I had packed the entire kit, I felt like I must have been leaving something behind.

Sounds funny, but even though I pride myself on making fully self-contained field radio kits, I felt like there must have be something else I needed. The KH1 field kit just seemed too small, too lightweight, and too compact to have included everything I needed for an activation.

Intellectually, I knew that it included everything needed, but I still did a mental inventory:

  1. Radio? Check.
  2. Antenna? Check.
  3. ATU? Check.
  4. Paddles? Check.
  5. Battery? Check.
  6. Counterpoise? Check.
  7. Log book and pencil? Check.

Hard to believe, but it was all there.

Trust me: the first time you take your KH1 to the field, I bet you’ll feel the same way I did.

Blue Ridge Parkway (K-3378)

Because I was so short on time, I decided to activate the Blue Ridge Parkway which is the most convenient POTA entity when I travel into Asheville from Swannanoa.

It was cold and blustery afternoon the afternoon of November 1, 2023. At my QTH, I checked the temperature and it was about 34F. I knew it would be a bit warmer in town which is a good 1,000 feet lower in elevation, but I still grabbed my gloves on the way out the door. Glad I did!

As I mention in the activation video below, I wasn’t exactly on my “A Game.” I had received a couple of vaccines the previous day and my body was a bit achy as if I was starting to get the flu. But, of course, I wasn’t. Still… I didn’t feel 100%.

I arrived on site and set up couldn’t have been easier:

  1. Open the KH1 pack
  2. Remove the KH1
  3. Attach the counterpoise and string out on ground
  4. Remove whip from clips and attach to top of KH1
  5. Extend whip
  6. Turn on radio
  7. Find a clear frequency
  8. Hit the ATU button for a 1:1 match!

We’re talking a 30 second process even for someone who moves slowly.

Important notes about my KH1

Keep in mind the following notes that are relevant at time of posting this field report (November 2, 2023):

  • I am waiting on a firmware update to add:
    • CW Message Memories
    • CW Decoding
    • Internal Logging
  • I purchased the full “Edgewood” package but I don’t yet have my logging tray/cover yet. Elecraft plans to ship this within the next few days.
  • My KH1 is a very early serial number because I’m in the volunteer testing group.

The KH1 Speaker

The KH1 internal speaker is located on the bottom of the radio between the AF Gain and Encoder knobs.

I consider the Elecraft KH1 speaker to be a “bonus” feature. The speaker is small (1.1 x 0.65”) and limited in fidelity.

I had planned to connect my Zoom digital recorder to the KH1 and record audio directly from the headphone port during this activation. Continue reading My First POTA Activation with the New Elecraft KH1 Handheld QRP Transceiver!

An in-depth review of the Xiegu G106 QRP HF transceiver

Note that the following review first appeared in the May 2023 issue of TheSpectrum Monitor magazine.

Update: Also, please note that the G106 is on sale at Radioddity at time of posting. With our affiliate link pricing is only $264 US (see note at end of review). Please read this review prior to making a purchase decision!


An in-depth review of the Xiegu G106 QRP HF transceiver

by Thomas (K4SWL)

Last year––in May of 2022, that is––Xiegu announced a new compact field radio that would be added to their line of transceivers: the Xiegu G106.

Xiegu has really made a name for themselves over the past few years with several transceiver offerings, many of which have become very popular. Among these:

  • The Xiegu G90 is a 20-watt transceiver with an excellent built-in ATU. The G90 has become a very popular field radio over the past few years.
  • The Xiegu X5101 is a five-watt shack-in-a-box HF transceiver covering 160-6 meters. The X5105 has become a go-to QRP portable due to its fine built-in ATU and built-in rechargeable battery pack.
  • The Xiegu X6100 is much like the X5105, in that it’s also a shack-in-a-box QRP transceiver, but it leverages SDR technology to provide a beautiful color spectrum display and a host of features not found on its predecessors. Many have adopted the X6100 because its operating system is Linux-based and many enthusiasts have created their own X6100 interface that promised direct digital mode operation.

Because we’re seeing more products like these from Xiegu, the up-and-coming Xiegu G106 stirred interest.

Moreover, Xiegu has become a low-cost leader among HF transceiver manufacturers. In each of the reviews I’ve published about Xiegu radios, my summary statement is that each unit offers a lot of performance for the price. Xiegu transceivers don’t have the most robust receiver front-ends, and the audio is unrefined, but their rigs get the job done and have some serious “fun factor.”

So when I first learned about the new Xiegu G106, I was curious where it would fit into their product line.

Introducing the Xiegu G106

As I was capping off my summer in Canada back in August of 2022, Xiegu retailer Radioddity started shipping the G106. Radioddity had me on the list to send a loaner G106 for review, but  upon my return I found myself so busy that I didn’t immediately request it.

I did watch, however, K8MRD’s initial and updated review of the G106 on YouTube. While it was less than stellar––understatement alert––more relevant to me was that Mike shipped his second evaluation unit to me on behalf of Radioddity.

I connected that G106 to a dummy load, checked the transmitted signal on my SDRplay RSPdx spectrum display, and it simply didn’t look very clean. In fact, it looked worse than it did when Mike checked it only a couple of weeks prior.

I shared my results with Radioddity and told them I didn’t feel comfortable putting the G106 on the air; they asked that the unit be returned and checked out.

Fast-forward to January 2023, when I was once again contacted by Radioddity to see if I would like to field test an updated G106? I answered that I was happy to do so, because I was curious whether the G106 experience had improved.

In the spirit of full disclosure, keep in mind that Radioddity is a Xiegu retailer/distributor––the company is not the manufacturer, nor is it owned by Xiegu. They sent this G106 to me on an extended loan for an honest evaluation.

So where does the G106 fit into the Xiegu product line?  It’s being marketed as a low-cost, entry level, multi-mode QRP HF transceiver that leverages 16-bit CODEC sampling to provide the user with a lot of radio for the price. It’s basic, and meant to be so, in that  it’s only a transceiver; there is no built-in ATU or battery. The G106 is marketed as a bare-bones portable HF transceiver.

I feel like it hits this mark.

The G106 doesn’t have a lot of features or controls one might expect in other Xiegu radios, but it has more features than any other modern HF radio I know of in its price class (see features list below). Indeed, I can’t think of any other 80-10 meter general coverage QRP transceiver that retails for $320 or less. The G106 has this market niche to itself for the moment.

Overview

When I first received the G106, I was a little surprised:  it was even more compact than I had imagined.

The sides of the G106 are rounded and the chassis extends beyond the encoder and front controls of the radio, thus the interior is quite well protected in the event the radio is dropped. This is one of the few QRP field radios on the market that doesn’t need an aftermarket cage. I’ve been transporting the G106 in an old hard shell headphone case a friend gave me. The case isn’t large, but it easily holds the G106 and a power cord with a bit of room to spare.

 

The G106 sports a small monochrome backlit display that’s very easy to read in the shack or in the field with full sunlight.

Besides the weighted encoder (which has soft detents), the volume control, and microphone port, there are also four multi-function buttons located under the small display on the front panel. On top of the radio, there is a power/backlight button, mode/pre-amp button, and two band buttons that also can be pressed and held to change the frequency cursor position. The internal speaker is also mounted on the bottom of the top cover, just behind the top panel buttons.

On the back of the G106, you’ll find a BNC antenna port, ground/earth lug, key port, COM port, 8 pin ACC port, and a DC input port.

The most conspicuous omission is a headphone or external speaker port. I would have expected this in a QRP field radio because operators often prefer using headphones in the field rather than a speaker. I know that some G106 owners have built their own RJ9 audio plug to port out the audio to headphones. There is a headphone port on the supplied speaker mic, but CW-only operators might prefer a more direct way to connect earphones in order to keep the bulk of their field kit to a minimum.

What is surprising is that the G106 has a very basic spectrum display that is actually quite useful!

Ergonomics

The ergonomics of the G106 are overall pretty good…but a bit quirky. To be honest, giving the user access to numerous functions and features on a radio this small is always going to affect ergonomics; there’s only so much control-surface real estate. Continue reading An in-depth review of the Xiegu G106 QRP HF transceiver

Thank you, QST!

Many of you have reached out this week congratulating me on the article that features my work in the April 2023 issue of QST. Thank you all for the kind words.

I’m truly honored that QST would feature my work here on QRPer.com and my YouTube channel in their pages. Steve (K5ATA) wrote a very gracious article, and frankly, I don’t know what to say other than thank you!

I’d like to thank all of you, readers, for making QRPer.com what it is today with your contributions, guest posts, field reports, hints & tips, and words of encouragement to others in the comments section. I’m honored to have even played a modest role in your radio journey, and your feedback and contributions have taught me so much, which, I feel, has made me a better field operator.

So…Thank you!

Treetop Antennas: Featured with my friend Wlodek (US7IGN) on BBC Radio 4 Short Cuts

I’m very honored to be featured with my good friend Wlodek (US7IGN) in a short radio documentary on BBC Radio 4 today.

Wlodek is long-time reader and subscriber here on QRPer.com and the SWLing Post. Wlodek lives in Kiev, Ukraine and we keep in touch these days over email. Like me, he is passionate about field radio work and before the Russian invasion, you’d often find him in nearby forests experimenting with some pretty impressive field antennas.

Sadly, when Russia invaded Ukraine earlier this year, it very quickly brought an end to all of that for Wlod. Not only were amateur radio operators not allowed to transmit under the state of emergency, but it’s no longer safe to venture into nearby forests.

Radio producer, Cicely Fell, learned about our love of all things field radio and put together an audio piece that airs today on BBC Radio 4:

BBC Radio 4 Short Cuts

From the forests of North Carolina, USA to the city of Kyiv, Ukraine – two ham radio enthusiasts seek each other out and a voice from the past prompts a dialogue on listening between a rabbi and a radio producer.

Click here to listen via the BBC Radio 4 website (note that the audio can be streamed shortly after the program airs today).

Many thanks to Cicely and her talented team at Falling Tree Productions for spending a little time with us in the forest and on the air! Truly an honor.

Chuffed…

I’m not much into awards and certificates, but I’ll freely admit that this letter absolutely made my day:

Whoever nominated me for this, thank you. Thank you very much.

73,

Thomas (K4SWL)

Anatomy of a Field Radio Kit Part 2: Kit Types, Preparedness, and the Golden Rules

The following review was first published in the July 2021 issue of The Spectrum Monitor magazine. Read Anatomy of a Field Radio Kit Part 1 here.


Part 2: Anatomy of a field radio kit

Last month, I took us down the rabbit hole of field radio kits by discussing some of the most basic components of a field radio kit in Part 1.

This month, we’ll take a deeper dive into the types of radio kit you might choose to assemble based upon your activity goals.  And finally, we’ll look at my “golden rules” of field kits, which I hope you’ll find useful.

Types of field radio kits

I configure and outfit my radio kits based on the environment in which I plan to deploy and operate, and which determines in no small way just what I need to pack besides the basics.

I roughly divide my field kit types as follows…

The Field Day or “Picnic Table” Kit

This is probably the most popular type of field kit in the world of amateur radio. Picnic table kits are designed with portability in mind, but not designed with distance hiking in mind. This is a very popular type of kit for Field Day or park activations through POTA or WWFF.

These kits are typically packed in a backpack, a Pelican-type utility case, or a self-contained and field-ready box.

My picnic table kit is packed in a large Red Oxx C-Ruck rucksack. If I haven’t already made it clear, I’m a self-professed pack geek and I love this Red Oxx Pack because it has large zippered pockets on the outside, a rain flap with storage on top, and one large compartment on the inside.

Continue reading Anatomy of a Field Radio Kit Part 2: Kit Types, Preparedness, and the Golden Rules

Anatomy of a Field Radio Kit Part 1: Basic components and advantages of going QRP

The following review was first published in the June 2021 issue of The Spectrum Monitor magazine:


Part 1: Anatomy of a field radio kit

by Thomas (K4SWL)

Whether it’s the ARRL Field Day, Winter Field Day, a QRP contest, or, more likely, a Summits On The Air or Parks On The Air activation, I look for any and every excuse to hit the field with my radios.

Most of my on-air time is in the field. While I enjoy operating from the shack, I’ve discovered I especially enjoy operating in the great outdoors.

Besides being a fan of hiking, camping, and the great outdoors generally, I also am particularly fond of radio field gear. I like portable transceivers, portable antennas, battery packs, and all of the accessories that make field operation efficient and enjoyable.

I appreciate the emergency communications skills I’ve developed in the field, too. Should the need (or opportunity) arise, I now keep a complete field kit packed and ready to go at all times, and can even deploy all of it within just ten minutes. In my early days of ham radio operation, I might have easily spent thirty minutes setting the antenna, alone…especially on Field Day, with folks watching me struggle to untangle wires and cables, followed by the undoubtedly entertaining attempts I made to put a line into a tree to deploy the antenna. But after deploying a variety of antennas hundreds of times now, I find that––while I’m still not perfect––I finally have a bit of skill and the process of tossing up a line is becoming much swifter and smoother.

Confessions of a pack geek

The Red Oxx C-Ruck loaded and ready for the field!

If I’m being honest with myself, I admit: I also simply get a thrill out of kitting out my field packs, as well as organizing and tweaking them over time. Yes, (don’t judge me!) I actually like packing up my field gear.

I think my passion for organizing and packing gear goes back to a former career when I lived in the UK, Germany, and France, and was required to travel throughout Europe frequently. Originally inspired by travel guru Rick Steves, I’ve always appreciated the footloose feeling of having all of my travel gear in one lightweight pack. I don’t like checking in luggage, but love the freedom of grabbing my backpack and skipping the baggage claim carousels. And I also like knowing that, even though my gear is compact, it contains everything I need.

I’ve become something of a “less-is-more” traveller. Two years ago, for example, I traveled for one week using what Frontier Airlines classifies as a “personal carry-on.” My Tom Bihn Stowaway pack, which only measures 14.0″ (w) x 9.4″ (h) x 8.1″ (d), carried everything I needed for a conference, including my own presentation gear.

My Tom Bihn Stowaway personal carry on convertible pack with everything I needed for a one week trip including a conference.

Packing for that trip was great fun as it really challenged me to decide what was essential and what was not. My iPad doubled a computing and presentation device, for example, but I also packed a small flashlight and a mini first aid kit, which I felt were important. Of course, I also carried a small portable Shortwave/AM/FM radio and my Yaesu VX-3R handheld…also vital, as I can’t leave home without radios!

Getting started with a field kit

Putting together a field radio kit is so similar to packing for travel: you must first do an assessment of what you need, starting with the basics––then organize it, pack it, and test it.

In my world, this is a very deep topic. We’re going to break down this topic into two parts.

This article, Part 1, we’ll dive in:

  • first, going over the obvious components of a basic field radio kit;
  • second, discussing the benefits of going low-power (QRP) if that appeals

In Part 2, we will:

  • look at variations of kits based on activity, and finally
  • review what I consider the “golden rules” of a good field radio kit

The basics of a field radio kit

First, let’s go over the basics of your field kit, considering that that these primary components will dictate your bag, pack, or case size.

A transceiver

The lab599 Discovery TX-500

Since I’m a bit radio obsessed, I have a number of QRP transceivers I like to take to the field.  But if you have selected one transceiver you plan to dedicate to field work, or simply have only one transceiver, period, you can build a kit around it (and see my note below about “modular” kits). If budget allows, you might consider buying a radio specifically for field use, so it can always be packed and ready to go.

There are a number of transceivers on the market that are designed with field use in mind. Some are compact, power-stingy CW-only QRP transceivers that might only operate on three ham radio bands, while others are 100-watt general coverage transceivers that even have built-in antenna tuners––there’s a wide range of options.

Look for field-friendly, built-in options like:

  • CW and voice-memory keying;
  • SWR and power meter readings;
  • a battery voltage indicator;
  • low current consumption;
  • the ability to lower power to at least one watt;
  • an internal battery option; and
  • an internal antenna tuner option

And the more such options are already built into your field rig, obviously, the less separate accessories you’ll need to pack and keep track of in the field, which is a good thing.

The Elecraft KX2 has a built-in ATU, battery pack, and even attachable CW paddles!

Some of my favorite field-ready general-coverage transceivers currently in production are:

  • The Elecraft KX2 A full-featured, inclusive, and compact 80-10 meter transceiver that’s truly a “Swiss-army knife” of field operation (see November 2016 TSM review)
  • The Elecraft KX3 Benchmark performance, wide array of features, and compact design
  • The lab599 Discovery TX-500 Military-grade engineering, weatherproof, spectrum display, and benchmark current consumption for a general-coverage radio (see October 2020 TSM review)
  • Mission RGO One Top-notch performance, 50-watts out, and excellent audio (see November 2020 TSM review)
  • The Yaesu FT-817/818 Rugged chassis, 160-6 meters, VHF and UHF multi-mode, both BNC and PL-259 antenna inputs
  • The Xiegu X5105 Affordable, 160-6 meters, 5 watts output, built-in ATU, and built in rechargeable batttey
  • The Xiegu G90 Affordable, relatively compact rig with built-in ATU, color screen with spectrum/watefall, good audio, and 20 watts of output power (see August 2020 TSM review)
  • The Icom IC-705 Benchmark performance, a multitude of features, exchangeable battery packs, 160-6 meters, VHF and UHF multi-mode, D-Star, GPS, WiFi, Bluetooth (see February 2021 TSM review)
  • The Yaesu FT-891: Affordable relatively compact radio with detachable faceplate, 100 watts output, and excellent audio (see November 2017 TSM review)

And if you’re primarily a CW operator, you’ll have some incredibly compact radio options like the CW-only Mountain Topper MTR-3B or 4B, or the Elecraft KX1 (used).

An important side note for field contests: if you plan to use a field transceiver in an event like the ARRL Field Day and/or another popular radio contest, make sure you choose a transceiver that can handle tightly spaced signals in an RF-dense environment. This is not the time to pull out a lower-end radio with poor receiver specifications. Use Rob Sherwood’s receiver test data table as a guide.

An antenna––and a means to deploy/support it

The CHA LEFS sloper

This particular topic, alone, might warrant a three-part series of articles. So, to keep the scope of this article realistic, let’s just say that you should build or buy an antenna that can comfortably handle the wattage you’re pushing into it in all the modes that you operate, considering that some 100-watt SSB-rated antennas might melt or arc if you run 100 watts CW or FT8.

I would suggest you consider having at least one resonant antenna, like an end-fed half-wave (EFHW) that might cover 40 and 20 meters without the need of an antenna tuner to match the antenna impedance to your rig.

Some of my favorite portable antenna systems?

I’m a big fan of Chameleon Antenna for their ease of deployment and benchmark build quality. Their prices range from $145 for the Emcomm III random wire, to $550 for their MPAS 2.0 vertical antenna system. These prices are near the top of the market, but Chameleon antennas are all machined and produced in the US and the quality is second to none. These are antennas you might well pass along to the next generation, meaning, really heirloom-worthy kit!

Packtenna 9:1 UNUN Random Wire
The PackTenna 9:1 UNUN

PackTennas, likewise, are pricey for such a compact product, but they are also beautifully engineered, lightweight, and designed for heavy field use. PackTenna produces an EFHW, 9:1 UNUN random wire, and linked dipole models. They’re some of the most compact field antennas on the market that can still handle as much as 100 watts of power output.

My Wolf River Coils “TIA” vertical antenna

Wolf River Coils verticals are affordable, compact, and resonant––thus an ATU isn’t needed. It will take some time to learn how to adjust the coil during frequency changes, but they work amazingly well. I have the WRC Take It Along (TIA). Their antennas are designed to handle 100 watts SSB, 50 watts CW, or 20 watts digital.

The EFT Trail-Friendly

Vibroplex sells a number of compact field portable antennas and is the manufacturer of Par End Fedz offerings. I’m very fond of the EFT Trail-Friendly and the EFT-MTR.

The MFJ-1984LP EFHW packs a lot of performance for the price

MFJ Enterprises also has a few portable antennas in their catalog, and it’s very difficult to beat the price and performance of their antenna gear. I have their $50 EFHW antenna (the MFJ-1982LP) and love it.

The Elecraft AX1 attaches directly to the BNC port on the KX3 and KX2.

I’ve also had tremendous fun with the uber-compact Elecraft AX1 antenna. Unquestionably, it’s the most compact and quickest-to-deploy antenna I own. It’s designed to pair with the Elecraft KX2 and KX3 using the optional internal antenna tuner.

There are a number of other antenna manufacturers who cater to portable operators. For example––although I’ve not yet had the opportunity of testing their antennas––SOTAbeams is highly regarded among SOTA enthusiasts.

Short on cash? No worries; you can build your own! In fact, until 2016, I had never purchased a field antenna; I built all my own. EFHW antennas and random-wire antennas are no more than a carefully-wound coil, a female antenna connector, an enclosure or mounting plate, and some wire. Some of the most active field operators I know homebrew all of their antennas. It’s easy, affordable, and fun!

In fact, some antennas are no more than a bit of speaker wire matched with a good ATU.

A power source

A 3Ah Bioenno 12V LiFEPo4 powering my LD-11 transceiver

I’ll keep this point brief because we recently covered the topic of batteries in detail in our previous feature.

Make sure you choose a battery that is sized appropriately for your transceiver power output. I will say that I’m a huge fan of LiFePo4 rechargeable batteries for their voltage range, lightweight design, and longevity. Being primarily a QRPer, I typically use 3 to 4.5 amp hour batteries as they’ll carry me through as many as three or four activations without needing to be recharged. For longer field deployments, or when I’m powering my 100W KXPA100 amplifier, I’ll use my 15 aH Bioenno LiFePo4 pack.

I use my 15Ah Bioenno LiFePo4 pack for QRO transceivers

Again, check out our Portable Power Primer for a deep-dive into the world of portable power.

A key, mic, and/or computing device

It should go without saying that you need to pack these, but I have gone to the field with operators who forgot their key or mic and asked if I had a spare.

Keys are fairly universal, but keep in mind legacy transceivers often want a ¼” plug while newer rigs typically accept an ⅛” plug. Microphones, however, vary in port type and pin configuration based on the manufacturer and model. You could damage your mic or rig if you plug in a multi-pin mic that was designed for a different transceiver. Most mics that use a ⅛” plug are universal. Still, check before you plug it in if using an after-market or non-OEM mic.

Of course, choose a key, microphone, or boom headset that’s compact and rugged so that’ll be easy to pack and will stand the test of time.

I also always pack a set of inexpensive in-ear earphones. These can dramatically help with weak-signal interpretation.

Also, if you plan to operate a digital mode, you’ll likely need some sort of computing device. Even though I rarely operate digital modes in the field, I often pack my Microsoft Surface Go tablet in case I change my mind.

My Microsoft Surface Go tablet

In addition, I like logging directly to N3FJP’s Amateur Contact Log application directly in the field to save time submitting my logs later. Soon, I’ll be using the new HAMRS field log on my iPhone.

Speaking of logging…

A means of logging

I like compact notepads like Muji and Rite In The Rain for field use.

As simple as it is, it’s very important to take at least some paper and a pencil for logging your contacts. I like using small, pocket-sized Muji notebooks (affiliate link) for logging, and if the weather is even a little questionable, I’m a huge fan of getting my contacts down in Rite In The Rain mini notebooks (affiliate link) or notepads using a good old-fashioned pencil.

I like logging to paper and sometimes simultaneously logging to my Microsoft Surface Go. I have completed phone-only field activations where I only logged to my Surface Go tablet: in those cases, I snap a photo of my N3FJP call log, just in case something happens to my tablet between the field and the shack! Having endured enough technology failures, it gives me peace of mind to have at least one other backup.

Keep in mind that when you’re activating a park or summit, the folks calling you are relying on you to submit your logs to the appropriate programs so that they can get credit for working you. Many times, this might also help their awards for a state, county, or grid square. Always submit your logs after an activation even if you didn’t make enough contacts to validate the activation (POTA requires 10 contacts, SOTA requires 4 logged). It helps other folks out.

A pack or case

If you have a field radio kit, you’re going to need a means to organize and contain it for transport. There are at least three types of systems used for field kits.

A backpack or soft-sided case

My GoRuck BulletRuck is a brilliant SOTA pack

Since I enjoy the option of hiking with my radio gear, I love using backpacks. Although I’ll speak to this more next month in “Part 2,”, I choose quality packs that have at least one waterproof compartment and are comfortable to carry on long hikes. I also try to look for packs with Molle or some sort of external strapping so that I can attach portable antenna masts or even my hiking poles to the exterior of the pack.

A waterproof case or flight case

Ruggedized, weatherproof cases come in all sizes. This Pelican 1060 can house my entire KX1 radio kit.

Many field operators who want extra protection for their gear––especially when they don’t plan to hike or carry their gear long distances to the operating site––like hard-sided cases. I have built field radio kits in waterproof Pelican cases and appreciate knowing that I could drop my kit in a whitewater river, and it would likely survive the adventure unscathed. If you are one of these operators, look for quality watertight cases from brands like Pelican and Nanuk with interiors lined in pick foam padding that allows you to perfectly accommodate and safely protect your radio and accessories.

Portable ready-to-deploy cases

Although this option is almost outside the scope of this article, many emergency communications enthusiasts love having their gear loaded in rugged, portable––often rack-mounted and hard-sided––cases that they can simply open, hook to an antenna, and get right on the air. These systems are often the heaviest, least “portable,” and less suited for long distance hikes, but they’re often completely self-contained, with all of the components, including the power, hooked up and ready to go on a moment’s notice. While a system like this would be impractical for many Summits On The Air sites, it could be ideal for a park or island activation where you’re never that far from your vehicle.

Optional: Antenna cable

An ABR Industries RG-316 cable assembly

This doesn’t sound like an option, but it’s true.  I’ve often operated my Elecraft KX3, KX2, and KX1 without a feedline at all: I simply attached two wires to a BNC binding post, and connected that to the radio. It makes for a super-compact setup.

Even an 8-12 foot feedline can make it easier to configure your operating position in the field. If you want to keep the feedline as low-profile as possible,  especially if you’re operating QRP, consider investing in a quality RG-316 feedline terminated with the connector that fits your radio and antenna.

Optional: Antenna Tuner/Transmatch

A portable ATU with RF-sensing like the Elecraft T1 will give you an amazing amount of frequency agility. I’ve been known to use the T1 to tune my CHA Emcomm III random wire antenna on 160 meters..

Again, this topic could easily warrant a multi-part series of articles, but I’ll sum this one up in a nutshell: while I love (and even prefer) using resonant antennas that require no antenna tuner, I almost always carry a radio with a built-in ATU or an external portable ATU like the Elecraft T1 or ZM-2.

Why? Because an ATU will give you a certain amount of frequency agility or freedom. If I’m using an antenna that’s resonant on 40, 20, and 10 meters, but there’s a contest that day and the bands are incredibly crowded, I might use the ATU to find a match on 30 meters or 17 meters, thus finding a little refuge and space to operate. Also, sometimes antenna deployments aren’t ideal––due, for example, to site limitations such as dense vegetation that may alter the antenna deployment and thus its resonance. An ATU can at least keep your transceiver happy with the SWR when your resonant antenna might not be perfectly resonant.

But the main reason I carry it? A portable ATU gives you operational flexibility.

QRP or QRO?

I have operated QRO in the field with my KXPA100 amplifier on Field Day.

Its good to keep in mind that many of the station accessories listed above need to be matched to the output power of your transceiver and modes you use.

Many ham radio friendships have been placed in jeopardy over the question of either using QRP (low power) or QRO (high power) for field operations. This is a shame. Some operators have very strong opinions, but the truth is, there is no right or wrong answer.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I operate 97% of the time at QRP power levels––in my world, this means five watts or less. Personally, I enjoy the challenge of low-power operating.  But I also appreciate the portability QRP gear offers.

The wee Mountain Topper MTR-3B

Speaking pragmatically––and this fact really isn’t open to debate––QRP and lower-power transceivers and accessories tend to be more efficient, more compact, and lighter than their higher-power siblings.

Most of my QRP transceivers weigh anywhere from two to five times less than their 100-watt equivalents. If you’re operating mobile (from a vehicle or camper/caravan, for example), an eight to twelve pound difference might not be a big deal. But the moment you’re hiking several miles to a mountain summit, weight becomes an important factor.

QRP transceivers have modest power requirements: everything from battery, to antenna, and even to tuners, are smaller, lighter, and more compact.

When operating QRP, you don’t have to worry as much about RF coming back to the radio from, say, an end-fed antenna. If I’m pushing over 20 watts into an end-fed half wave or end-fed random wire, I’ll likely want an in-line RF choke to keep some of that energy from affecting my transceiver or giving me an RF “tingle” when I touch the radio chassis or my key. Too much RF coming back to the transceiver can also affect things like electronic CW keying. But at five watts? I don’t worry. This is almost a non-issue, unless your transceiver happens to be very RF-sensitive indeed.

And even though I’m predominantly a QRPer, I definitely do pack radios like the 50-watt Mission RGO One and occasionally my Elecraft KX3 and KXPA100 100-watt amplifier, especially for an event like Field Day where my club is operating at higher power. I simply size up my gear appropriately. Again, this is especially important with your antenna, feed line, ATU, and battery selections.

If you primarily activate parks and are never far from your vehicle, it’s quite easy to accommodate a 100 watt transceiver like an FT-891, for example. Of course, if you wish to operate low-power and save your battery, simply turn down the output power. If you plan to hike a lot with your gear, then get your mind around QRP!

Stay tuned for Part 2!

In Part 2 we’ll dig into some of the details, looking at different approaches to field radio kits and some guidance and suggestions based on my real-life experience (read: operating mistakes).

Click here to read Anatomy of a Field Radio Kit Part 2.


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Heard VK0EK on the radio

[QRPers: Please note that the following is a re-post from my shortwave radio blog, the SWLing Post.]

Heard Island (Image: VK0EK)
Heard Island (Image: VK0EK)

Regular SWLing Post readers know that I’m a ham radio operator (call sign K4SWL). Being a shortwave radio enthusiast, of course, I spend most of my time on the air in the HF portion of the amateur radio spectrum. Contacting distant stations and connecting with other ham radio operators around our little planet gives me immense joy.

Most of you also probably know that I’m a fan of all things Antarctic, so it should come as no surprise that I really wanted to work VK0EK: the Heard Island DXpedition.

Thing is, my life has been so hectic lately, I’ve barely been home during the Heard Island DXpedition (March 29th – April 11th). And the days I have been home, VK0EK’s signals have been incredibly weak.

In short: timing and propagation were all working against me.  And VK0EK was soon to pack up and come back home. I was becoming desperate…and beginning to lose hope that I’d make any contact with this unique and rare entity in the isolated stretch of ocean between Madagascar and Antartica.

"Antennas with a clearing" on Heard Island (Photo by Bill, AE0EE)
“Antennas with a clearing” on Heard Island (Photo by Bill, AE0EE)

My hope was waning.  Then, Tusday evening, I gave a presentation about shortwave radio at the Blue Ridge Amateur Radio Club. On the hour-long drive home, I stopped by my good friend Vlado’s (N3CZ) to confess my troubles to the radio doc.

Now it just happens that Vlado has a much better antenna set-up to work DX than I do, and what’s more, (close your ears, fellow QRPers) he has an amplifier.

Most importantly, though, Vlado is a keen DXer.  He’s got 330 countries under his belt, and ever up for a challenge, routinely pushes himself to accomplish more with less. In January, with members of the local club, he entered a QRP challenge; he had 100 countries worked by the following month, all in his spare time. And a few years ago, Vlado actually built a radio of his own design and worked 100 countries within two months (you can read about that here).

So, of course, he was game to help me make a contact…even if it was a long shot.  A very long shot.

Juan de Nova

When I arrived at Vlado’s QTH around 21:00 local, VK0EK was impossibly weak, so we focused our efforts on 30 meters and FT4JA: the Juan de Nova Island DXpedition (another all-time new one for me).

A portion of the FT4JA antenna farm. (Image: FT4JA)
A portion of the FT4JA antenna farm. (Image: FT4JA)

After more than an hour of calling, FT4JA finally heard my call and (woo hoo!) I was confirmed in their log.

But what about Heard Island?

penguin-chow-line4_6-1600px

After working FT4JA, we moved down to 40 meters where VK0EK was slightly louder than before. Well, maybe it’s not impossible, I thought hopefully. Just next to it.

Between QSB (fading) and tuner-uppers, my ears were bleeding trying to hear Heard’s minuscule CW signal–so faint, so distant were they.

After only about ten minutes of steady calling, Vlado made a sign to get my attention, and we strained to listen, very carefully.

VK0EK came back very faintly with just one letter incorrect in my call–it was enough that I didn’t catch it at first. But Vlado heard it, and after sending the call back a couple of times, then the report, VK0EK confirmed my call with a signal report, and I reciprocated.

Vlad and I leapt to our feet, yelling, “WOO HOO!” (and hopefully didn’t wake up any of Vlad’s neighbors).

Heard Island is actually running an online log that is updated live. We immediately looked there to confirm I was in their log, and was greeted with this great circle map and a line from Heard Island to my call sign in the States. Vlado made this screen capture as a momento:

k4swl VK0EK 40m cw 0231 april4 2016

Here’s to good friends and mentors

In one incredible evening, I snagged two all-time new ones–and I owe it all to my good buddy, Vlado. Most importantly, I’ve been learning so much from him as he patiently coaches me through some weak DX with serious pileups. Plus it’s just always fun hanging around Vlado, the best broken radio doctor I know, to whom “challenge” is…well, a piece of cake.

Thanks Vlado, for your enthusiasm and patience–I’m lucky to have a friend like you!

October 10: Let’s talk shortwave…and astronomy

PARIdish

I’ve been invited to speak at the Pisgah Astronomical Research Institute (PARI), a non-profit educational radio astronomy observatory (and former NASA tracking station as well as one-time NSA installation), in the mountains of western North Carolina.

I’ll be speaking about shortwave radio, of course–both its technical and cultural aspects–on October 10, 2014, at 7:00 pm EDT.  Afterwards, there will be a tour of the PARI campus, and an opportunity to stargaze with both amateur and professional astronomers.

Many thanks to my buddy, Ken Reitz, who shared this article about my presentation in the area’s local county newspaper; here’s my statement about the presentation:

“Shortwave radio is an international communications medium that has been in existence for nearly one hundred years,” said Witherspoon, “yet this vintage technology supports an ever-evolving multicultural landscape that, remarkably, remains relevant today. The Internet and mobile technologies have made the dissemination of information more readily accessible to many, yet shortwave radio remains viable and dynamic, and in many ways still outstrips the Internet.

“I plan to share some of shortwave radio’s diverse voices and investigate some of the technology used to receive them. So, if you are a shortwave enthusiast, or simply interested in learning more about shortwave, this program is for you and will be suitable for all ages.”

Read the full article here–and if you can make the journey, join us for shortwave and astrological fun. There is a small charge for the evening; all proceeds go towards PARI’s mission of providing public education in astronomy.

PARI is a stunning radio astronomy campus which will no doubt be accentuated by the mountains’ fall leaf colors on October 10. For PARI’s location, click here.