Last week, I activated Pisgah Game Land and Pisgah National Forest (K-6937 & K-4510)–things didn’t exactly go according to plan. I still achieved a valid activations–meaning, I logged ten contacts–but I cut my antenna too short.
In short: I cut my wire antenna too short and my KX1 and KX2 ATUs couldn’t find an acceptable impedance match on the 40 meter band. This pretty much forced me to make do with 30 meters and above unless I modified or switched antennas.
The 40 meter band tends to be my most productive band, particularly on days like last Saturday when I’m operating in the latter part of the afternoon.
Maybe it was stubbornness, but I was determined to make a valid activation with that four-feet-too-short antenna.
I first hopped on the air with my Elecraft KX1 (above) and logged a few contacts on 30 meters. I then tried 20 meters, but the band was dead.
Eventually, I pulled the Elecraft KX2 out of the bag with the hope it might actually find a match on 40 meters, but as I said in my previous post, that darn physics stuff got in the way.
That’s okay, though. Although the sun was starting to set and I didn’t want to pack up in the dark, I took my time and eventually logged ten contacts for a valid activation. I actually enjoyed the challenge.
I complain about my wire antenna, but in the end, it made the most of my three watts by snagging stations from New Hampshire, Ontario, Illinois, Arkansas and several states in between.
Against my better judgement, I made a video of this activation. As with all of my videos, they’re real-time, real-life, and have no edits. (They also have no ads.)
A few readers and subscribers had asked me to include the odd video where I actually do a full station set up including the installation of a wire antenna–that’s what you’ll see in this video:
At the end of the day, this was still an incredibly fun activation.
This was the first time I’ve ever completed a valid activation only using the 30 meter band.
Next time, though, you’d better believe I’ll cut my antenna to be the ideal length for 40 meters and above!
If you use a similar antenna with your KX1, KX2, KX3, or other transceiver, I’m curious what lengths you find work best for 40 meters an above. Bonus points for 80 meters. Please comment!
I don’t know about you, but part of the fun of playing radio in the field are the inevitable frustrations.
It might not feel like it in the moment, but when I eventually overcome the challenges of a mistake, I feel like I’ve truly accomplished something.
That was my little epiphany this morning: making mistakes has perhaps made me a better radio operator. Less-than-efficient field deployments have honed my skills and had a major influence on the gear I pack.
If you’ve read some of my (rather rambling) field reports in the past, you’ll note that I rarely do field activations with the exact same gear combinations each time. I feel fortunate enough that I can pair different radios with different antennas and different accessories. I get a small thrill out of not knowing exactly how well a combination will work, especially if I’m not activating a rare all-time new park or tough summit for that matter. In cases where getting to the site is a challenge in and of itself, I want to use a trusted combo of gear.
It’s that wee bit of mystery that attracts me to the field.
If I approached POTA more like a contest–where activation and contact numbers were my focus–I would have installed a mobile HF rig in my car a long time ago. I could rack up way more parks and contacts that way. It especially simplifies multi-site activation days since it effectively eliminates the time involved in setting up and later packing up gear. Mobile operating is the most efficient way to hit number goals: drive up to a site, start calling CQ, work your stations, then move on.
K-6937 & K-4510
Yesterday, I did a last minute “two-fer” activation of Pisgah National Forest and Pisgah Game Land. I had not planned to do an activation that day–temps never rose above 29F (-2C) at the QTH day and it also snowed and flurried all day long. Winds were very gusty as well, so it effectively felt much colder on the skin.
I wanted to hike up to the ridge line behind my QTH and do the activation but I knew up there temps would be lower and (worse) winds much stronger. Cold doesn’t really bother me, but strong winds do. This was also the first weekend my ankle felt almost normal after twisting it badly last month. It’s healing and I hope will be in shape for a long hike from my QTH to a six point SOTA summit next weekend with my daughter (K4TLI).
All of those factors combined pointed toward simply staying at home, drinking coffee, and reading a book.
But I really wanted some outdoor time. And I really wanted to make an activation with my Elecraft KX1, so I decided that instead of hiking up in elevation 800 feet, I’d drive down about 900-1,000 feet to a forest trailhead. That would get me on the air in a protected valley with less wind, less snow, possibly warmer temps, and much less hiking which would be easier on my ankle.
The Last-Minute Antenna
When I use the KX1 in the field, I typically pack a very simple antenna: one length of radiator wire and one length of counterpoise wire–connected to a BNC binding post adapter, I let the built-in ATU sort out the match.
When I owned my first KX1, I had a magic length of radiator wire (the length of which I can no longer remember) that seemed to work amazingly well on 40, 30, and 20 meters.
On the way out the door, I decided to cut a new radiator and counterpoise out of scrap wire I use for antenna experiments.
Being a bit stubborn and also in a hurry to beat sunset, I did no Internet research to sort out the ideal lengths for 40 meters. I simply cut a 17′ length for the counterpoise and about 27.5′ for the radiator.
In the Field
After arriving on site, I deployed the antenna and tried finding a match on 40 meters with the KX1’s internal ATU.
I tried a few times hoping maybe the ATU would find something even semi-reasonable in terms of a match, but there simply wasn’t enough radiator to make it work. That was a shame because forty meters would have been the ideal band for yielding quick contacts this time of the afternoon.
I had options, but I wanted to make what I had work.
The activation took time and patience. The 30 meter band was now my best bet and it’s where I logged all ten contacts for a valid activation. I tried 20 meters where I had a 1:1 match, but the band was dead.
At one point, I switched out the KX1 with my KX2 that I also packed. I tried to find a 40 meter match with the superior KX2 ATU, but physics got in the way again. 🙂
40 meters was an option
Let’s be clear here: I could have easily cut 4′ off of the counterpoise and attached it to the radiator and I bet I would have gotten a match on 40M. Since the counterpoise was lying on the ground, its length was less crucial.
I also had a perfectly capable 40/20/10 en-fed antenna in my pack. Switching out the antenna would have only taken four minutes.
I bet I could have easily yielded 20 additional contacts on 40 meters because the band was in great shape. Almost without fail, 40 meters is my most productive band.
Working with limitations
Thing is, I’m starting to understand that I like working with self-imposed limitations.
Perhaps this is why I love QRP and low-power radio so much: I get a little thrill out of doing more with less.
Yesterday, even after I realized it would be a struggle to log my final three contacts on 30 meters, I persisted. One motivation was I’ve never completed a full activation using only 30 meters. With a little patience, I knew I could snag my ten contacts.
The only things making it a challenge were the facts that temps were dropping rapidly, winds were picking up, and the sun was setting. Hazel (the POTA dog) who so eagerly jumped in the car when she saw me put on my hiking boots earlier, was also starting to shiver.
Fortunately, after trying another short stint on 20 meters, I returned to 30 and worked two more stations in quick succession giving me a total of nine contacts.
It started to get darker, so I hunted and found an operator calling CQ on 30 and simply made contact with him. He wasn’t a POTA station, just a general CQ call. He kindly gave me his details for the logs.
I made a video of most of this activation and will upload it when I have a little bandwidth to do so. I’ll embed it in a shorter field report here on QRPer since I’ve described so much already.
Even though it was a challenge making ten contacts to accomplish a valid field activation with my time constraints, I’ll admit that I really enjoyed the challenge.
Next time I head to the field with the KX1, I’ll actually test the antenna prior to leaving the QTH.
In fact, I’m planning to make two radiators: one at an ideal length for 40 meters and above, and another–much longer–for 80 meters and above. Any advice and personal experience from KX1 owners would be much appreciated.
Perhaps most importantly, it’s only now dawned on me how much I enjoy making the most with self-imposed limitations or “trying to make lemonade with lemons.”
Do you feel the same? I’d love to hear your comments.
Yesterday, my family decided to make an impromptu trip to one of our favorite spots on the Blue Ridge Parkway at Richland Balsam–the highest point on the BRP.
Of course, it was a good opportunity to fit in a Parks On The Air (POTA) activation, but I had also hoped to activate Richland Balsam for Summits On The Air (SOTA) simultaneously.
It being well beyond leaf-looking season, we had hoped the BRP would be relatively quiet, but we were wrong.
Trail heads were absolutely jam-packed and overflowing with visitors and hikers. We’ve noticed a sharp hiker uptick this year in western North Carolina due in no small part to the Covid-19 pandemic. People see hiking as a safe “social-distance” activity outdoors, but ironically, hiker density on our single-track trails is just through the roof. One spends the bulk of a hike negotiating others on the trail.
The trail head to Richland Balsam was no exception. Typically, this time of year, we’d be the only people parked at the trail head but yesterday it was nearly parked full.
Being natives of western North Carolina, we know numerous side-trails and old logging/service roads along the parkway, so we picked one of our favorites very close to Richland Balsam.
We hiked to the summit of a nearby ridge line and I set up my POTA station with the “assistance” of Hazel who always seems to know how to get entangled in my antenna wires.
Taking a break from using the Icom IC-705, I brought my recently reacquired KX1 field radio kit.
I carried a minimal amount of gear on this outing knowing that there would be hiking involved. Everything easily fit in my GoRuck Bullet Ruck backpack (including the large arborist throw line) with room to spare.
I took a bit of a risk on this activation: I put faith in the wire antenna lengths supplied with my new-to-me Elecraft KX1 travel kit. I did not cut these wires myself, rather, they are the lengths a previous owner cut, wound, and labeled for the kit.
With my previous KX1, I knew the ATU was pretty darn good at finding matches for 40, 30, and 20 meters on short lengths of wire, so I threw caution to the wind and didn’t pack an additional antenna option (although I could have hiked back to the car where I had the CHA MPAS Lite–but that would have cut too much time from the activation).
I didn’t use internal batteries in the KX1, rather, I opted for my Bioenno 6 aH LiFePo battery which could have easily powered the KX1 the entire day.
I deployed the antenna wire in a nearby (rather short) tree, laid the counterpoise on the ground, then tried tuning up on the 40 meter band.
The ATU was able to achieve a 2.7:1 match, but I don’t like pushing QRP radios above a 2:1 match if I don’t have to. I felt the radiator wire was pretty short (although I’ve yet to measure it), so clipping it would only make it less resonant on 40 meters.
Instead, I moved up to the 20 meter band where I easily obtained a 1:1 match.
I started calling CQ POTA and within a couple of minutes snagged two stations–then things went quiet.
Since I was a bit pressed for time, I moved to the 30 meter band where, once again, I got a 1:1 match.
I quickly logged one more station (trusty N3XLS!) then nothing for 10 minutes.
Those minutes felt like an eternity since I really wanted to make this a quick activation. I knew, too, that propagation was fickle; my buddy Mike told me the Bz numbers had gone below negative two only an hour before the activation. I felt like being stuck on the higher bands would not be to my advantage.
Still, I moved back up to 20 meters and try calling again.
Then some radio magic happened…
Somehow, a propagation path to the north west opened up and the first op to answer my call was VE6CCA in Alberta. That was surprising! Then I worked K3KYR in New York immediately after.
It was the next operator’s call that almost made me fall off my rock: NL7V in North Pole, Alaska.
In all of my years doing QRP field activations, I’ve never had the fortune of putting a station from Alaska in the logs. Alaska is a tough catch on the best of days here in North Carolina–it’s much easier for me to work stations further away in Europe than in AK.
Of all days, I would have never anticipated it happening during this particular activation as I was using the most simple, cheap antenna possible: two thin random lengths of (likely discarded) wire.
People ask why I love radio? “Exhibit A”, friends!
After working NL7V I had a nice bunch of POTA hunters call me. I logged them as quickly as I could.
I eventually moved back to 30 meters to see if I could collect a couple more stations and easily added five more. I made one final CQ POTA call and when there was no answer, I quickly sent QRT de K4SWL and turned off the radio.
I still can’t believe my three watts and a wire yielded a contact approximately 3,300 miles (5311 km) away as the crow flies.
This is what I love about field radio (and radio in general): although you do what you can to maximize the performance of your radio and your antenna, sometimes propagation gives you a boost when you least expect it. It’s this sense of wireless adventure and wonder that keeps me hooked!
The seller, who lives about 2 hours from my QTH, described his KX1 as the full package: a complete 3 band (40/30/20M) KX1 with all of the items needed to get on the air (save batteries) in a Pelican 1060 Micro Case.
The KX1 I owned in the past was a four bander (80/40/30/20M) and I already double checked to make sure Elecraft still had a few of their 80/30 module kits available (they do!). I do operate 80M in the field on occasion, but I really wanted the 80/30 module to get full use of the expanded HF receiver range which allows me to zero-beat broadcast stations and do a little SWLing while in the field.
The seller shipped the radio that same afternoon and I purchased it for $300 (plus shipping) based purely on his good word.
The KX1 package
I’ll admit, I was a bit nervous: I hadn’t asked all of the typical questions about dents/dings, if it smelled of cigarette smoke, and hadn’t even asked for photos. I just had a feeling it would all be good (but please, never follow my example here–I was drunk with excitement).
Here’s the photo I took after removing the Pelican case from the shipping box and opening it for the first time:
My jaw dropped.
The seller was right: everything I needed (and more!) was in the Pelican case with the KX1. Not only that, everything was labeled. An indication that the previous owner took pride in this little radio.
I don’t think the seller actually put this kit together. He bought it this way two years ago and I don’t think he ever even put it on the air based on his note to me. He sold the KX1 because he wasn’t using it.
I don’t know who the original owner was, but they did a fabulous job not only putting this field kit together, but also soldering/building the KX1. I hope the original owner reads this article sometime and steps forward.
You might note in the photo that there’s even a quick reference sheet, Morse Code reference sheet and QRP calling frequencies list attached to the Pelican’s lid inside. How clever!
I plan to replace the Morse Code sheet with a list of POTA and SOTA park/summit references and re-print the QRP calling frequencies sheet. But other than that, I’m leaving it all as-is. This might be the only time I’ve ever purchased a “package” transceiver and not modified it in some significant way.
Speaking of modifying: that 80/30 meter module? Glad I didn’t purchase one.
After putting the KX1 on a dummy load, I checked each band for output power. Band changes are made on the KX1 by pressing the “Band” button which cycles through the bands one-way. It started on 40 meters, then on to 30 meters, and 20 meters. All tested fine. Then I pressed the band button to return to 40 meters and the KX1 dived down to the 80 meter band!
Turns out, this is a four band KX1! Woo hoo! That saved me from having to purchase the $90 30/80M kit (although admittedly, I was looking forward to building it).
The only issue with the KX1 was that its paddles would only send “dit dah” from either side. I was able to fix this, though, by disassembling the paddles and fixing a short.
Although I’m currently in the process of testing the Icom IC-705, I’ve taken the KX1 along on a number of my park adventures and switched it out during band changes.
Indeed, my first two contacts were made using some nearly-depleted AA rechargeables on 30 meters: I worked a station in Iowa and one in Kansas with perhaps 1.5 watts of output power.
I’m super pleased to have the KX1 back in my field radio arsenal.
I name radios I plan to keep for the long-haul, so I dubbed this little KX1 “Ruby” after one of my favorite actresses, Barbara Stanwyck.
Look for Ruby and me on the air at a park or summit near you!
After rumors surfaced about the demise of the Elecraft “K1” line, Wayne Burdick (N6KR) made the following announcement on the Elecraft email reflector, specifically mentioning the original K1:
We should have made a formal announcement here. Yes, we discontinued it because certain parts are hard to come by now, making it no longer cost effective for us to manufacture.
It was a great product for us, and I used mine for years, taking it on many trips. I thought of it as a “Sierra on Steroids” at the time (referring to an earlier design I did for the NorCal QRP Club). But we’ve moved on to more versatile field radios, including the KX2 and KX3.
I’ve owned both the K1 and KX1 and they performed amazingly well. I suppose that’s why I also invested in both the KX3 and KX2 transceivers. I suppose all good things must come to an end.
I still own a K2/100 and I certainly hope Elecraft continues to support this fine transceiver. It’s unique in that it’s about the only American-made transceiver kit on the market that’s easily serviceable by a non-technician. It’s also a rock-solid performer and, frankly, has a cult following of its own.
I’ve been meaning to write a post about my Elecraft KX1, because, of all of the rigs I own, it’s the most-often-used, thus the clear favorite in my stable. But: this morning, I read John Harper’s (AE5X) excellent assessment of the Elecraft KX1 vs. the Ten-Tec HB1B. He provides some significant numbers to consider when comparing these two lightweight CW-only QRP rigs, and makes a great case for elevating the newcomer HB1B over the KX1–at least, for some readers.
I’ve had my Elecraft KX1 for over three years, and, in all honesty, absolutely love it. But, let’s face it: if I didn’t have one, if I had never touched nor used one, I would be seriously tempted by the HB1B–for its price, for the fact that Ten-Tec sells it (I’m a long-time Sevierville radio fan), and for the fact that it’s not a kit. Oh, yeah: and because it works very well.
However, having used the KX1 for so long, I know that the HB1B (at least in its current state) could not replace my KX1. But before I explain why, I would like to make some strong points in favor of the HB1B.
The Ten-Tec HB1B
At least on paper, the HB1B has better filtering, a better display, and generally speaking, more bells and whistles than the KX1. Best of all, it comes fully assembled.
Why is this last point an advantage–? For a number of talented QRPers reading this, building the kit is the best part! I know, I get it…And to tell the truth, I want to be like you kit-builders out there! But I am only now getting into kit building, and building my confidence in kit-building. I’m sure there are many others out there like me. For these QRPers, please note: the KX1 is not a beginner’s kit. I did not build mine. When I bought my KX1, I purchased it from a KX1 beta tester and professional engineer. The soldering and overall build quality are top-shelf.
Moreover, no matter how great an Elecraft radio is, it’s only as good as the person who built it. If the builder does sloppy work, your rig’s longevity and performance may suffer. Since you’ll likely be taking the KX1 with you everywhere, and it’ll experience a fair amount of movement (aka, hard knocks), this is especially important.
If, like me, you’re not prepared to take on building a KX1, fear not!–you should simply purchase from someone who knows their stuff: Elecraft can suggest some builders (including the amazing Don Wilhelm, W3FPR) or you can simply purchased a used KX1 fully-assembled. Or, you can simply purchase the fully-assembled HB1B.
So, why do I not find the HB1B enticing?
Yes, the Ten-Tec HB1B comes ready to roll. Still, could it replace my KX1? I don’t think so. Two HB1B deal-breakers for me:
As AE5X mentions, there is no internal antenna tuner option.
There is no way (at least, on this version) to attach paddles directly to the rig.
Portability + Simplicity = QRP Fun
Why are these features so important? Well, my KX1 has an ATU, four bands, and an attachable paddle. One of my favorite things to do with my KX1 is, while traveling, to pull it out of its Pelican case, toss a 28′ wire into a tree, and lay a ground wire. As I stand there, I can hold the KX1, tune the antenna (easily 40M and up, with the internal ATU) and work stations my favorite way: while standing up. I can also (if I like) sit for a moment, then jump up again, walk a bit, and generally move freely–just not possible with sit-on-a-table units.
Additionally, everything I need fits inside a Pelican 1060 case. The Kx1 itself is an all-in-one unit–nothing external to attach, unless I want to. Oh, and I can also operate the KX1 with gloves on in below-zero conditions.
Why would I want to operate standing up? Fact is, where I go, I’m only operating for thirty minutes or so, and in places where there’s no convenient spot to settle down or get too comfortable. In many cases, I’m operating on a whim–when I can grab a few minutes in a busy itinerary, or on a hike or day trip. With the Kx1, this is remarkably easy to do. I can have my KX1 on the air in four minutes or less, in most cases–and that includes the time to hang a wire–! Packing up is also quick. This kind of operation feels as free as flying a kite. Spontaneity at its best.
Part of that functional synergy comes from the fact that there are no additional components to hook up (i.e., no external tuner, external paddles). With the HB1B, I would be forced to either build a set-up, so that I could stand and hold the transceiver, tuner and paddles, or I’d have to…sit down.
Wayne’s inspiration for the KX1
Thinking back to a Dayton Hamvention several years ago, I seemed to remember that Wayne Burdick, N6KR (co-founder of Elecraft) was inspired by just this sort of off-the-cuff operation. To confirm this, I asked Wayne, just this morning, if I was on track with that. He offered this very thorough (and insightful) response:
I had been designing portable QRP gear for my own use for many years, including the “Safari 4″ (documented in three issues of QEX magazine in 1990). The Safari-4 was 3x5x7”, but it was fully self-contained, including an attached keyer paddle, internal 1-Ahr gel cell and manual antenna tuner, wattmeter, SWR bridge, and 4-band coverage. But it was too large for backpacking. Later, I designed some far smaller rigs with very good performance for NorCal and Wilderness Radio, including the SST, NC40A, and Sierra.
Then I started Elecraft with Eric, WA6HHQ. After we had success with the K2 and K1, I pitched the idea of a smaller version of the Safari-4 to Eric.
There were two inspirations for this. Back in the 70s, W7ZOI (Wes) created his “Mountaineer”, which was a crystal-controlled 40-m QRP rig that was very simple to use, very small, and self-contained, in that battery and paddles were built in. But it had no VFO, no ATU, a single band, and no frills. Taking what we’d learned in the K2 and K1 designs, I figured we could pack a great radio into this same size using updated technology. It had to cover at least 40 and 20 meters, and the idea was to use latching relays to minimize current drain and simplify band switching. We also used a DDS chip for the VFO–not quite as pure as crystal control, but just as stable, and totally adequate for a portable radio.
The other inspiration was my idea for an attached, but easily removable and mechanically reversible, keyer paddle. This became the KXPD1. I literally woke up at 5 AM with this idea. I realized immediately that this was the enabling technology for a hand-held radio, and I got busy with the design.
Having spent time camping and hiking with other rigs, I also knew that the ATU had to be built in. This allows the use of ad-hoc, wire-in-a-tree antennas, which is the secret to quick setup. It was a challenge creating an ATU that’s just 1 x 5″, but it worked. We spent weeks refining the rig and the ATU to work with typical field antennas, adjusting the component values to cover 40 and 20 meters. When we added the 30-m module, we found that it handled this well, too.
Most of my KX1 operation involves not even sitting down. I literally stop on the trail at a scenic overlook, pull the daypack around and extract the rig, toss a wire into one or two trees, and I’m on the air. I love this kind of operation. I’ve gone so far as to operate while sitting in a tree (an “inverted vertical”–a dangling wire–works amazingly well). Having to futz with add-ons can be fun, too, but it discourages “instant” operation. I like to quote Ade Weiss, W0RSP, from his book The Joy of QRP: “If there is a place, and you can get to it, you must operate from there.”
You can’t overlook performance and features, either. The KX1 is stable in all operating environments and draws only about 35 mA. It includes a variable-passband crystal filter that can be widened out to copy AM and SSB signals, and can even do cross-mode (transmitting in CW while receiving LSB or USB). It has a full set of frequency memories and CW message buffers. For blind hams (or when you’re too tired to keep your eyes open), the KX1 has a 100% Morse-audio-feedback system. I tested this firmware with my eyes closed, and the result was very well-received by the blind amateur community.
Thanks for the history, and your inspiration, Wayne. Love it!
When you hold and operate the KX1, this legacy is all too apparent. Thoroughly thought through–down to a built-in LED lamp for logging–and, without a doubt, the original inspiration for several radios that followed: the HB1B, the MFJ 92XX series, and the Hendricks PFR3.
My guess is that the next generation of HB1B will have some of these clever features.
In the meantime, if you’re in the market for an inexpensive, CW-only, very portable QRP rig, and you’ve no plans to embark upon impromptu operation, the HB1B could be your rig. Based on my experience with Ten-Tec, if they sell it, they’ll give you excellent customer service. That is the beauty of these two choices, both Elecraft and Ten-Tec are excellent companies to do business with.
I only think I’d give up my KX1 for…the new KX3, and I’m not even convinced I’d do that, yet. The KX1 has become my little travel buddy. Time will tell, though. Check back here–if I’m wooed by another QRP radio, I may eat my words.
By the way, as I mentioned at the beginning of this post, the inspiration to finally write down my thoughts on the KX1 came from John Harper (AE5X) who has an excellent QRP blog that you should certainly add to your favorites! And thanks, again, to Wayne, both for his response, and for his original ideas that continue to make QRP so liberating.