You may have noticed a common theme in my field reports: basically, it’s rare that I plan out an activation more than 24 hours in advance.
Indeed, due to my “dynamic” (I think that’s a good word for it?) family schedule, I often don’t plan an activation more than one to two hours in advance.
But last month, I saw an opportunity open on Wednesday, January 26, 2022. Basically, I had from early morning until late afternoon to play radio.
At first, I thought about striking out early and hitting some of the parks that are a little further afield–parks I hadn’t visited in a couple years, or some new-to-me parks.
Then, I hatched an idea to activate two SOTA summits. Both would qualify for bonus winter points and both were technically doable in the time I had allotted. It would involve about 9-10 miles of hiking in addition to 3 hours of driving plus allotting for the time I’d actually spend on the air. It would equate to a very early departure and some steady hiking.
That Tuesday evening, I started putting the plan together, downloading all of the maps, preparing my SOTA alerts, and packing my SOTA pack. I spent the better part of an hour plotting and planning these activations.
Then the realization hit me: the trails I’d be hiking were likely covered in snow and ice which would slow me down considerably especially since my Yaktrax Traction Chains hadn’t yet been delivered. I realized the schedule was just a little too tight. There’s be no room for mishaps and if I made the trip I really wanted to hit both summits in the same day. So, I saved all of my maps, links, and notes to do this multiple SOTA run in the near future.
Back to the drawing board!
I decided that I did like the idea of doing multiple activations in a day, so why not fit in a RaDAR run?
RaDAR (Rapid Deployment Amateur Radio) is basically an activity that can be combined with summits and/or park activations and the idea is simple: you complete multiple rapid field deployments within 24 hours.
If you’d like more information about RaDAR, check out this webpage. Parks On The Air even has a few awards for RaDAR runs–it would be fun to apply for one of them (thanks, WD8RIF, for the heads-up!).
I so rarely have enough time to consider more than two or three activations in a day that the idea of fitting in four or possibly five activations was very appealing.
On Thursday, October 7, 2021, I was driving back to the QTH and had a hankering to do an activation. There was only one problem…
Lots of rain…
As I was driving on Interstate 40 west-bound, I passed through bands of rain producing torrential downpours; the kind that brings interstate traffic to a crawl. Weather-wise, this is not typically when I would contemplate a park activation. I did a quick mental inventory of what I had in the car. Turns out I had the Icom IC-705 and the Elecraft KX2.
I also had the Elecraft AX1 portable antenna. Having used the KX2/AX1 pairing under picnic shelters with success, it was a no-brainer what I’d use at Lake James.
Most North Carolina state parks have covered picnic shelters that are first-come, first-serve or can be reserved (at no small expense) for group gatherings. There’s a really nice large picnic shelter at the Catawba River access of Lake James State Park–in fact, I took shelter there earlier this year during an activation.
A few weeks ago–on July 12, 2021–I popped by Lake James State Park to do a quick activation with the Icom IC-705. It had been a while since I’d used the ‘705 in the field and the little rig was begging to go outdoors.
Here’s the funny part: I completely forgot about that activation! Two days ago, while browsing my photo archive, I noticed the video I made of the activation and, of course, the memory came flooding back.
In my defense, it has been a crazy summer and the weeks/days seem to all blend together in my head.
Thing is, this activation was memorable for a bad reason: QRM (human-made radio noise). It was also memorable for some of the folks I worked on the air.
Lake James State Park (K-2739)
I arrived at Lake James and was a bit surprised to practically have the place to myself.
I found a picnic table with a view of the water, deployed my speaker wire antenna, and set up the IC-705. As with all of my activations, I was only running 5 watts.
Propagation was–you guessed it–forecast as very poor.
It felt that way when I hopped on 40 meters at first as the band was pretty quiet..
Still, I managed to log 5 contacts on 40 meters (two in SSB, three in CW) before moving up to 20 meters which served me well.
I worked a total of eight stations in nine minutes on 20 meters.
If you watch the video, you’ll hear how nasty the QRM was at times.
I keep forgetting that there’s a source of intermittent radio interference at the Lake James visitors center. The spot where I set up the station was only 25 meters or so from that building. I believe the center was responsible for the QRM I first experienced during the activation. Whatever the device is generating the QRM, it doesn’t last for long periods of time–it cycles.
The second batch of QRM was emanating from a small boat that pulled up to the dock in front of my site. It was nasty and completely wiped out the 20 meter band. When the owners turned off the boat and stepped onto the dock, the noise stopped completely. Later, when they got back into the boat, the noise started again. I have to assume it was something in their motor causing the QRM. I suspect they may have been using a DC trolling motor.
POTA activations often feel like a gathering of friends. I often see many of the same callsigns in my logs and it’s a lot of fun working them each time.
Also, it’s a lot of fun to work stations further afield. At Lake James, I was very pleased to work NK7L in Washington State, IK4IDF in Italy, and HA9RE in Hungary. My back of the envelope calculations tell me that I was pushing 1,000 miles per watt when I worked Elemer (HA9RE). To be clear, all of the work was done on his end as he has some world-class ears; just check out his QRZ page!
For some reason when I logged HA9RE, I copied VA4RE. I’m not sure why, but after packing up it hit me that I had logged him incorrectly (funny how brains work!). I reviewed the video on-site and confirmed it was indeed HA9RE.
Here’s my QSO Map:
I was also very pleased to finally work Dave Benson (K1SWL). He’s very well-known in QRP circles for his amazing Small Wonder Labs kits. Dave’s a great guy and, of course, loves playing radio in the field.
Here’s my real-time, real-life, unedited video of the entire activation. Apologies in advance as I really needed a wind screen over my microphone that day–I had the mic and camera a little too close.
Loop next time!
The next time I hit Lake James, I plan to deploy a Chameleon loop antenna. I think it will have a significant impact on the QRM levels at that particular part of the park. Of course, I could easily move further away from the noise source (that’s the easiest solution) but I’d like to see how effectively a loop might mitigate the QRM. That and it’s been years since I last used a compact mag loop antenna in the field.
Again, thank you for reading this report and thank you to those who are supporting the site and channel through Patreon and the Coffee Fund. While certainly not a requirement–never feel an obligation to do so (especially if you’re investing in your first station, for example)–I really appreciate the support.
Here’s wishing you some outdoor radio fun in the near future!
Until 2016, I had never purchased a commercial field antenna; I built all the ones I had ever used.
These days, I take a number of commercial antennas to the field and use them in my real-time videos and I really enjoy deploying and using them. My buddy Eric (WD8RIF) reminded me, though, that I hadn’t actually used a homebrew antenna in ages. He was right!
You see, while I believe commercial field antennas can be incredibly durable and compact, it’s important to note that antennas are one of the easiest components of an amateur radio system to build yourself. They require only the most simple of tools and are very affordable. And the best part? They can perform as well as those that are available commercially.
I also get a great deal of pleasure out of building things.
A simple goal
I’ve mentioned in previous posts that I often set a little goal that runs in the back of my mind for each park or summit activation I make.
On Monday, June 14, 2021, I made a simple goal: buy my antenna wire en route to Lake James State Park, build the antenna on site, and complete a valid Parks On The Air (POTA) activation.
A very simple antenna
I also decided to employ my Xiegu X5105 since 1.) it’s one of the most affordable general coverage QRP transceivers I own and 2.) it has a built-in antenna tuner (ATU).
One of the cool things about having an ATU is that, if it has the matching range, you can allow it to do the “heavy lifting” in terms of matching impedance.
Although I’d never put the X5105 to the test, I suspected its internal ATU would have the matching range to forgo building a 4:1 or 9:1 transformer and simply pair it directly with a random wire.
All I would need was a 28.5 foot length of wire for a radiator, at least a 17 foot length for a counterpoise, and a BNC to binding post adapter.
The antenna would benefit from multiple 17′ counterpoises, but I really wanted to keep this setup dead simple to prove that anyone can build an effective field antenna with a very minimum amount of components.
Even though I have plenty of wire lying around the house to build this simple antenna, I wanted to pretend I had none to prove that any wire would work.
And to add just a wee bit more challenge, I also limited myself to shopping for antenna wire between my home and the park without making a serious detour from my route. That really limited my options because there isn’t much in terms of commercial areas between me and Lake James State Park.
As I left the QTH, I decided that the best spot to shop was a Walmart in Marion, NC. It would only be a four minute round-trip detour at most. I had a hunch that Walmart would even have speaker wire which would be ideal for this application.
In my head, I imagined I would have at least three or four choices in speaker wire (various gauges and lengths), but turns out I had a difficult time finding some at Walmart. We live in such a Bluetooth world, I suppose there isn’t much demand for it these days. A store associate helped me find the only speaker wire they had which was basically a 100 foot roll of the “premium” stuff for $17 US.
While I would like to have paid a fraction of that, in the end it’s not a bad price because once you separate the two conductors, you have double the amount of wire: 200 feet.
Although the frugal guy in me cringed, I bit the bullet and purchased their speaker wire. To be clear, though, I could have found another source of wire in that Walmart, but I preferred speaker wire for this application. And $17 to (hopefully!) prove a point? That’s a deal! 🙂
Lake James State Park (K-2739)
Once I arrived on site, I found a picnic site I’d used before with some tall trees around it.
Here’s how I prepared the antenna:
First, I cut 28.5 feet of the speaker wire from the roll and split the paired wires so that I’d have two full 28.5 foot lengths.
Next, I stripped the ends of the wire and attached banana jacks I found in my junk drawer. Although these aren’t necessary as the binding post adapter can pair directly with the wire, I though it might make for a cleaner install. In the end, though, I wasn’t pleased with the connection to the radiator, so dispensed with one of the banana jacks on site, and later dispensed with the other one as well. The connection is actually stronger without the banana jacks.
I then deployed the 28.5 radiator with my arborist throw line, and laid the other 28.5 half on the ground (the ground of this antenna would pair with the black binding post, the radiator with the red post). I only needed 17 feet of counterpoise, but once it couples with the ground, I don’t think any extra length makes a difference (although less than 17 feet likely would).
The antenna was essentially set up as a vertical random wire with one counterpoise.
I then plugged the BNC binding post adapter into the rig, hit the ATU button, and was on the air.
All I can say is that I’m incredibly impressed with the X5105 internal battery. This was my fourth activation from one initial charge on May 16. The battery lasted for 20 minutes, taking me well beyond the 10 contacts needed to validate this park. I’ll now consider taking the X5105 on a multiple SOTA summit run!
Even thought the heat was intense and the humidity even more intense, I decided to take in a 2 mile hike post-activation. I snapped a few shots along the way.
I’ll plan to add more counterpoises to the speaker wire antenna as I know this will only help efficiency.
In addition, I’ll plan to build even more antennas with this roll of speaker wire. If you have some suggestions, feel free to comment!
While I love the opportunity to head outdoors and play radio, I also love shaking up my field kit and trying different combinations of radios, antennas, and other station accessories.
When using new-to-you gear, though, a best practice is to set everything up at home before you hit the field. This way, you can confirm that you have everything you need and you can also familiarize yourself with the gear prior to activating a park or summit.
Last Sunday (May 2, 2021), I threw caution to the wind. Well, sort of. At the very last moment, I decided to squeeze in an activation en route to my sister’s home to do some brush-cutting and yard work.
Basically, I was chomping at the bit to take my lab599 Discovery TX-500 to field.
You see, in August 2020, I received an early pre-production TX-500 to evaluate for one week. In that seven day span, I activated seven parks with the TX-500 and enjoyed every minute of it. Because the loan period was limited, I packed a lot of TX-500 air time that week, then wrote this review for The Spectrum Monitor magazine.
As I mentioned in a previous post, if I would have had the opportunity to buy that loaner TX-500 last year, I would have. It wasn’t an option, though, as so few working models existed at the time. Now that I had a TX-500 in hand again, I couldn’t wait to hit the field with it.
Last Sunday, the weather was beautiful in western North Carolina, but clouds were moving in and we expected scattered showers in the latter part of the afternoon. The last thing I wanted to do was my sister’s yard work in the rain, so I needed to make the activation a speedy one.
But the TX-500 wasn’t the only piece of new gear. I also recently ordered and received a PackTenna 9:1 UNUN random wire antenna. I wanted to see how well it would perform, too, so I decided to pack my Elecraft T1 ATU and give it a go, too!
For the record: when you’re in a hurry, it’s not only a really bad idea to hit the field with a new radio and antenna, but to also throw the entire field kit together in 5 minutes before walking out the door.
On the drive to Lake James, I mentally packed and re-packed the field kit trying to decide if I might have left out a crucial component (say, an adapter or cable). I also made the decision not to make a real-time, real-life video because 1.) this would surely turn into a very clumsy deployment, 2.) I was pressed for time and didn’t want to set up the video, and 3.) I only had my iPhone with me to make the recording which would mean I would be giving up Internet and mobile phone access at the park which is important for spotting purposes.
I reminded myself that the goal of my YouTube channel is simple: real-life, unedited examples of field radio operating.
All of us, at some point, use new equipment in the field and we stumble through the process as we give the system a shake-out. So why not record it, right?
My iPhone battery had about 80% capacity. I knew if I tried to use the personal hotspot while recording the video–so that I could spot myself on the Microsoft Surface Go tablet–it would run down the battery in 20 minutes or so. I immediately put my iPhone in airplane mode to preserve the battery.
Lake James State Park (K-2739)
I know this park quite well and assumed it would be busy on a beautiful Sunday afternoon. It was, in fact. I was confident I’d find a good operating spot, though, because they’ve a large picnic area and loads of tall trees to support wire antennas. And mid-afternoon, it was unlikely all of the picnic tables would be occupied.
I found a nice spot to set up and deployed the PackTenna in short order.
Since my iPhone was doing video duty, I didn’t take extra photos.
I hooked up the Elecraft T1 and attempted to find a match on 40 meters. I thought I did find a match at first, but it turns out that the T1 was in Bypass mode. I didn’t have my reading glasses handy, so thought I saw a great match on the TX-500’s display. Turns out it was floating around 2:1. Still: not a bad match.
I worked five stations, then moved to the 30 meter band. It was then I finally realized the T1 was in bypass mode. I found my spectacles, read the front panel of the T1 and remedied that in short order (I can never remember the button press combo to toggle bypass mode!).
I tuned 30 meters and got a great match.
On 30 meters, I worked two stations.
I then moved up to 20 meters where I worked two more.
Then I moved back down to 40 meters where I topped off the activation with an additional three contacts for a total of 12 as I called QRT.
I’m very grateful to my buddy Scott (KN3A) who worked me on three bands all while he was activating a park in Pennsylvania! Thanks for those P2Ps, Scott!
In fact, I’m grateful Scott took the time to work me on multiple bands because it help bring my numbers above the 10 stations needed for a valid POTA activation.
After going QRT, I quickly packed up my gear (which was easy because there were so few parts), and started the 45 minute drive to my sister’s house. Fortunately, the rain held off the whole time I did the yard work!
I’m so happy to have a TX-500 back in the field radio arsenal.
Shortly after this activation, I officially purchased this loaner TX-500 unit from lab599. As I said in my “unboxing” video, there was no way I was sending this unit back. 🙂 Now I won’t feel bad if it gets dinged or scratched!
I’m sure the TX-500 will be in heavy rotation for a while. Please comment if you have any questions about this radio or the 9:1 UNUN PackTenna. I’d be happy to answer your questions!
I’ve been a ham radio operator since 1997, but until 2016, I had never purchased a pre-made portable antenna–I had always built my own.
During the 2016 NPOTA (National Parks On The Air) program, however, I purchased the EFT Trail-Friendly end fed 40, 20, and 10 meter resonant antenna and it quickly became my favorite field antenna. I found that it was simply built better than I could have built a similar antenna at home.
Pre-made antennas, though, come at a cost. Most time-tested, trail-friendly, portable antennas will typically set you back $90 US or more. You can make similar antennas much cheaper especially if you already have some of the parts (wire, toroids, RF ports, enclosures, etc).
That price point is very attractive because I believe if I built this antenna myself and needed to buy new parts, I might easily sink $20-25 in it.
Most MFJ products are manufactured in the USA and the company has an incredibly extensive and diverse selection of items in their catalog. Why I had forgotten they also sell antennas is a mystery to me.
MFJ is well-known for offering products that are basic, affordable, and accessible (they’re available directly from the manufacturer and through most major radio retailers across the globe). I wouldn’t expect their antennas to be engineered like Chameleon Antenna, for example, but I would expect them to work well and get the job done.
I know the folks at MFJ and (in the spirit of full disclosure) they even sponsor QRPer.com, so I reached out to them and asked if I could evaluate their MFF-1984LP which is their most affordable field wire antenna. They kindly sent one my way and I took it to the field last week.
I should add here that MFJ welcomes critical reviews, which is one of the reasons I asked them to be a sponsor. That and, well before they knew me, I was an anonymous customer and they repaired my MFJ roller inductor tuner for free a good two or three years after the warranty expired. My experience with MFJ has only been positive.
The antenna looks exactly like the product photo in their catalog (see above).
For a field antenna, the coil enclosure is a little on the large side (especially compared with my EFT Trail-Friendly), but it’s still very backpack-able. Knowing MFJ, they kept costs at bay by using one of their standard enclosure boxes for this antenna.
The enclosure also has an open grill to allow the coil to dissipate heat (see above). I found that a bit surprising since the core is so large inside, but I assume some heat must be generated if you’re running 50% duty at a full 30 watts (the maximum rated power). The matching network impedance ratio is 49:1, so there will be loss and heat.
The 66 foot radiator wire has a dark jacket that glides nicely over tree limbs and doesn’t encourage tangling when unwinding.
The end insulator is made of a thin plastic/composite material that is lightweight and shaped so that it won’t snag on tree limbs.
To the field!
Hey–the proof is in the pudding, right? Let’s put this antenna on the air and make a real-time video of the activation!
Last Wednesday (February 17, 2021), there was a break in the weather so I made a detour to Lake James State Park (K-2739) en route to visit my parents for a few days. I left the house without deciding what park to activate, but picked Lake James because I knew I would have access to tall trees and my pick of operating locations.
Deploying the MFJ-1984LP is no different than deploying any other wire antenna. It was super easy using my arborist throw line. That thin, rounded end insulator did certainly glide through the tree branches with ease. No hint of snagging.
On The Air
I connected the antenna directly to my IC-705 with no ATU in-line. Hypothetically, I knew this antenna should be resonant on 20 meters where I planned to start the activation.
Keep in mind that pre-made antennas are often designed to be a tad long and need to be trimmed so the operator can tweak the resonant point for their preferred spots on the band. Since I tend to use the lower part of the band for CW, I typically leave my antennas with a resonant point somewhere on the upper side of the CW portion of the bands. It’s not super critical for EFHW antennas because they tend to have ample bandwidth to give a full meter band good matches.
I had not trimmed the MFJ-1984LP, but decided it should be “resonant enough” for my purposes.
I found a clear frequency on 20 meters and checked the SWR. It was spot on at 1.3:1 on 14,031 kHz! Woo hoo!
I started calling CQ and collected several stations in short order despite the poor propagation that day.
I then moved to the 40 meter band and discovered the antenna also gave me an excellent match there. I started calling CQ POTA and was rewarded with a steady stream of contacts.
I imagine I could have racked up a lot of contacts at that activation, but I made up my mind that I wanted to fit in another quick activation afterwards, so cut it a bit short.
In the end, here’s a map of my 18 contacts made in 26 minutes of on-air time:
Not bad for five watts and a wire!
I made a real-time, real-life, no edit video of this activation which starts shortly after I deployed the MFJ-1984LP and ends a few moments after my last QSO. Against my better judgement, it includes all of my mistakes (including my inability to form the number 4 that day!):
No antenna is perfect and each time I start a product review, I keep a list of pros and cons. Here’s my list for this EFHW antenna:
Very affordable at $49.95
Effective: results so far have been excellent
EFHW is a proven field antenna design and resonant on several bands
No coil on the radiator to snag in trees (see con)
Backed by MFJ warranty
Purchase supports US manufacturing
Bulkier than comparable low power field antennas
No built-in winder (MFJ should consider altering the design to include one!)
Radiator is 66 feet long since there is no in-line coil to electrically shorten the length (see pro)
End insulator is effective, but feels slightly flimsy
In the end, there’s no magic here: the end fed half wave is a time-tested, proven antenna design and the MFJ-1984LP delivers. In terms of performance, I couldn’t be more pleased with it right out of the box. This isn’t a military-grade antenna, but it should last for years with proper use.
POTA activators that have access to trees in the field will appreciate the MFJ-1984LP. I should think you could also make an effective “V” shaped antenna if you have a telescoping support that’s 29-33′ tall.
I’m not so sure the average SOTA operator would find this antenna design as convenient–especially on high summits where you’re near or above the tree line. It could be difficult deploying a 66′ wire. That and this antenna is bulkier than other designs. If you’re backpacking it in, you typically want the most compact solution possible (this is where the EFT Trail-Friendly, Packtenna, and QRPguys designs really shine).
I will certainly employ the MFF-1984LP regularly–especially on days with less-than-stellar propagation. I think this might become a go-to antenna for the MTR-3B, LD-11, and IC-705 since all of them lack an internal ATU.
If you’re looking for an affordable, effective wire antenna, I can certainly recommend the MFJ-1984LP.
Do you have an MFJ end fed half wave antenna? What are your thoughts?
For the past four days here at my mountain QTH in North Carolina, I haven’t seen the sun. The cloud ceiling has been low and our house has been in the middle of it. It’s been rainy and foggy with temps floating a few degrees above freezing.
Last Tuesday (February 9, 2021), however, we had one day with glorious weather and I’m so pleased I carved out 90 minutes to perform a park activation on my way back home from a short trip.
I picked Lake James State State Park (K-2739) because it’s such a short detour and has numerous spots where I could set up my gear.
The temperature was a truly balmy 60F/15.5C–possibly even a tad higher.
Lake James State State Park (K-2739)
On my way to Lake James, I knew I’d use my Elecraft KX2 (it was the only transceiver I had on this trip) but debated what antenna to deploy. I chose the Chameleon MPAS 2.0 vertical antenna because, to my knowledge, I had never paired it with the KX2 and I enjoy shaking up my transceiver and antenna combos.
The brilliant thing about antennas like the CHA MPAS 2.0 is how quick they are to deploy: it takes me all of three minutes or so.
On the air
Since the Elecraft KX2 has a built-in battery and built-in ATU, I basically connected the radio directly to the antenna and was on the air in moments.
The CHA MPAS 2.0 is the vertical equivalent of a random wire antenna: it’s not resonant on any one frequency and requires an antenna tuner to achieve a good SWR.
As I mentioned in the video (below) I always keep my expectations low when deploying a vertical antenna in areas like western North Carolina where ground conductivity is poor.
Maybe the antenna decided to prove me wrong, because I hopped on 20 meters CW and logged a number of stations across the country including Washington state and British Columbia with a measly five watts.
It also happened that my buddy and fellow POTA activator, Steve (KC5F), was just down the road activating another site in the same county. It’s rare that Steve and I can work each other because, typically, we’re too close for skywave propagation and too far for ground wave. Not this time! We were close enough for ground wave on multiple bands–it was great fun working him park-to-park on every band I tuned.
I moved from 20 meters to 17 meters, to 30 meters, 40 meters and back up to 20 meters SSB.
The great thing about using the MPAS 2.0 is how incredibly easy it is to pick up and move from band-to-band–there’s no manually tuning a coil or changing links on a multi-band diplole. In fact, the MPAS 2.0 covers 160-6 meters, so I’ve lots of options if band conditions are wonky.
Here’s an unedited video of the entire activation:
In the end, here’s how my QSOmap looked with 32 stations logged:
I look back at activations like this and am reminded of the magic of HF radio. It’s truly phenomenal, in my mind, that with less power than it takes to light an LED bulb, I can make contacts across the continent pretty effortlessly–CW or SSB–even during the solar doldrums! Good fun!
In other news, my ankle is healing nicely and once this cycle of nasty weather clears, I’m looking forward to putting some SOTA sites on the air!
How about you? Do you have any field radio plans? Has the weather or C-19 lockdowns gotten in the way? Please comment!
I mentioned in a previous post that I recently did a thorough clean-out of my shack and home office. It took two full days, and kept me out of the field during that time, but I’m very pleased with the results.
After re-arranging my grab-and-go QRP rigs on their dedicated shelf, one rig was very conspicuous: my LnR Precision LD-11.
Thinking back, it has been ages since I used it in the field–possibly more than a couple of years, in fact. As I packed my bags Sunday morning for a multi-day trip to my hometown, I grabbed the little red LD-11 and stuffed it in my main radio bag. It was time to take it to the field!
Lake James State Park (K-2739)
I didn’t have a lot of time to play radio Sunday afternoon, so Lake Jame State Park was a no-brainer. There, I know I have a number of picnic table options, mobile phone service, and it’s a modest detour off of Interstate 40. Low-hanging fruit in my POTA world.
There was snow on the ground Sunday afternoon, but it was 36F/2C so not terribly cold, just damp.
Due to snow melting in the trees, I set up my station in a picnic shelter where things were dry.
Like the FT-817ND and G90, the LD-11 has no memory keying in CW or Phone. Memory keying is such a useful feature for park and summit activations because it frees up your fist and voice while calling CQ or sending 73s. With the LD-11, I’d be doing all of this “old school” which is absolutely fine for a short activation.
On the air
Although my EFT Trail-Friendly antenna should be resonant on 40, 20, and 10 meters, it was not Sunday because I’m almost certain I’ve finally damaged the radiator coil. I’ve deployed this antenna well over 150 times and yanked it out of countless trees when it got stuck. It’s lasted much longer than I would have ever guessed.
When I tried transmitting on 40 meters, I got a high SWR. Instead of replacing the antenna with another one, I simply hooked up the Elecraft T1 ATU and found a match. This is one good reason why you should always pack an antenna tuner. While employing an ATU might not be as efficient as using a resonant antenna, it can save your bacon in a situation like this and will certainly get the job done (especially if your only goal is a valid field activation).
After matching the antenna, I hopped on the 40M band and logged five CW stations in short order. Obviously, the antenna was working “well enough”–!
As I’ve done with a number of my recent activations, I started recording a video at this point. I started it after my first five CW contacts due to a lack of space to record a 60 minute video (this one turned out to be 40 minutes and change).
I then moved up to the 20 meter band where I worked one CW station, then switched modes to SSB where I was surprised to work Jon (TI5JON) in Costa Rica, Steve (WA4TQS) in Texas, and Paul (NL7V) in North Pole, Alaska.
This was one of those rare instances where my QRP SSB signal snagged more distant stations than my QRP CW signal.
I’m certain, however, had I spent more time on 20M CW, I would have logged a number of other distant contacts. Here’s my QSOmap from the activation–not bad for 5 watts into an inefficient antenna:
All-in-all, I was very pleased with the activation. Even though I was making do with a faulty antenna and even though my CW was a little sloppy since I wasn’t quite used to the LD-11 keyer timing, it was so much fun!
I do love the little LD-11 and would certainly recommend grabbing a used one if you find a good deal.
As I mention in the video, the LD-11 is no longer manufactured and it never will be again. The main engineer behind the LD-11, SKY-SDR, and ALT-512–Dobri Hristov (LZ2TU)–passed away in 2020. Dobri was a well-respected fellow and distinguished ham radio operator/DXer. I corresponded with him quite a few times in the past. Sadly, when Dobri passed away, he took the design of all of these rigs with him. His brief period of sickness leading to his death all happened within a year.
So if you find one of these fine transceivers, keep in mind that some internal components (LCD screens, ICs, etc.) might be hard to replace if they fail. These radios are built well, however, so I wouldn’t expect something like that to happen for a very long time.
It was a lot of fun using the LD-11 during this activation and I certainly plan to put it in rotation from now on. Wherever Dobri is now, I like to think he’ll feel those LD-11 signals running through the ether!
Any other LD-11, SKY-SDR, or ALT-512 owners out there? Please comment!
One question that often faces newcomers to the hobby is: “Should I buy a QRP or a 100W transceiver as my first rig?”
That is a very deep topic, actually, and one to explore in a future post. A 100 watt transceiver will certainly give you more options as they can often pump out 100W or be turned down to 1 watt. If you’re a phone operator only, that’s got some serious appeal. Then again, if you’re operating POTA or SOTA where you are the DX, power–while still important–is much less so than, say, if you were at home trying to work DX.
Again, a deep topic for another post because there is no right or wrong answer.
One of our readers (Phillip) reached out to me a couple weeks ago and asked if the Yaesu FT-818 would make for a good first HF rig. He liked the portability factor, the build quality, the HF/VHF/UHF multi-mode coverage, and the overall flexibility of the rig as a field radio. His goal was to do POTA activations.
We had quite a few emails back and forth about the pros and cons and I decided it might make more sense to simply take my Yaesu FT-817ND (which is nearly identical to the FT-818) to the field and activate a park in both SSB and CW. Since I knew he wouldn’t necessarily have an external antenna tuner from day one, I paired the FT-817 with my resonant 40/20/10 meter end-fed antenna.
Lake James State Park (K-2739)
On January 17, 2021, I pulled into my favorite part of Lake James State park and quickly set up my station. I only had about one hour to complete my activation, so knew this would be a very brief excursion. Since I actually had a minimal amount of gear, it was a quick setup.
Since I deployed a resonant antenna, there was no tuning or matching involved which not only makes the most of your 5 watts (in that it’s more efficient), but also saves a bit of time in set up and tuning up.
I’m testing this prototype at the moment, but didn’t need to employ it at Lake James since it’s really useful when the rig is on your lap or on on the ground. It essentially gives you top-mounted controls and a larger display to read front panel information from above–incredibly useful for SOTA and proper in-the-field activations. Andy’s v3 board will include a memory keyer–I can’t wait for that one!
Since I had Internet access at this park, I used my Microsoft Surface Go logging tablet to spot myself to the POTA network. I started calling CQ on 40 meters phone (SSB) and within six minutes logged eight stations. Not bad for 5 watts and a wire!
Next, I moved to CW on 40 meters and started calling CQ POTA. The POTA spots page auto-spotted me via the Reverse Beacon Network in short order. In eight minutes, I worked six more stations.
I then moved to twenty meters which was essentially dead, so I called it quits a bit early. I needed to pack up and head to my next destination.
Here’s a QSOMap of this short activation (red polylines are SSB and green CW):
Truth is, each time I use the FT-817, I love it more. Sure it’s only 5 watts, has no ATU, has a small display, a clicky T/R relay, and questionable ergonomics, but it is a keeper for sure. Even after 20 years of being in production, it still holds its own and is an incredibly popular radio for good reason.
As I told Phillip, the 817/818 is the Toyota Corolla of the QRP radio world.
Back in the days of the National Parks On The Air (NPOTA) program in 2016, I made it a habit of doing multiple park activations in a morning, afternoon, or evening. I’ve done less of this in Parks On The Air (POTA) this year only because my time is more limited. Still, I love doing multiples because it gives me an opportunity to set up, play radio, achieve a valid activation, pack up, move on and repeat. Makes me feel like the only member of a pit stop crew. I love it!
Some call this RaDAR (Rapid Deployment Amateur Radio).
Monday (December 21, 2020) I had a block of time in the early afternoon to fit in up to two activations, en route to the QTH if all went well. While it wasn’t three, four, or five activations in an afternoon, I knew it would be a challenge to fit both in my tight schedule. If an activation took much longer than 30-40 minutes, I wouldn’t be able to complete both.
Since my goal was a quick activation, I reached for the Chameleon MPAS Lite vertical antenna which is so easy to deploy. I paired it with the Icom IC-705 and new mAT-705Plus ATU.
My first stop was Johns River Game Land. During hunting season, I spend less time in game lands because parking areas are full and even though I wear a blaze orange vest, I’d rather not be shot if I venture into the forest to set up. 🙂
Johns River has a very accessible large parking area off of a highway near Morganton, NC and I’ve never seen more than two vehicles there at a time.
I arrived on site just before noon on Monday and set up at the edge of the parking area. Unfortunately, this parking area is less than bucolic. Those who use this game land access point leave trash everywhere. You can tell groups gather with pickup trucks, make fire pits, drink beer, break bottles and throw their trash in the woods. Being a firm believer in Leave No Trace, this really, really gripes me.
I found a spot with the least amount of trash and set up in the gravel portion of the parking area so I didn’t drive over sharp objects or step on broken glass.
This is where the Chameleon MPAS Lite came in handy: I plunged its spike in the ground, unrolled the counterpoise, extended the antenna, and I was on the air in perhaps three minutes. No need to walk into the weeds and trees to hang an antenna.
I made a real-time, no-edit video of the entire activation with my iPhone. Since the iPhone was in use, I didn’t take a single photo at Johns River. That’s okay, though, because–as I mentioned–there wasn’t a lot there in terms of scenery. 🙂
All in all, I worked 11 stations in short order. The video above approaches 30 minutes, but much of that time is dialog before the activation started. Toward the end, I also have the Mat-Tuner mAT-705Plus tune from 160-6 meters with the CHA MPAS Lite. If you’d like to skip directly to that bit, here’s the link.
I quickly packed my gear and set my sites on the next activation.
Lake James State Park (K-2739)
I arrived at Lake James State Park around 19:00 UTC and was on the air ten minutes later with the same equipment I used at Johns River.
I love Lake James because there are so many picnic sites and all have tall trees (for wire antennas) and gorgeous views. It doesn’t get any better for a POTA activator. Also, it’s a very short walk to the picnic spots. Since I recently sprained my ankle and can’t hike at present, this is a major plus. Like Johns River, I also have mobile internet access at Lake James which was a huge plus since the POTA spotting page wasn’t pulling spots from the Reverse Beacon Network like it normally does.
The Chameleon MPAS Lite 17′ vertical (above) served me well once again.
I worked 11 stations in short order.
Even though a vertical antenna isn’t optimal in the foothills of western North Carolina (due to poor ground conductivity), it had no problem sending my 10 watts across the US into California and up to Alaska. I still get a major thrill out of MPW (mileage per watt) like this!
I also made a short video at Lake James where I primarily talk about the trade off between convenience and performance with regards to field antennas. I also work a few stations on 30 meters:
Here’s a QSOMap of all of my contact from both Johns River and Lake James on Monday December 21, 2020:
Today is Christmas Eve and I’ve no plans to do an activation (torrential rain, if I’m being honest, is dissuading me).
Instead, I’ll spend quality time with my family here at home. Same for Christmas Day. This evening, we’ll watch some our favorite Christmas shows/episodes: The Good Life (a.k.a. Good Neighbors), The Grinch Who Stole Christmas, and of course a Charlie Brown Christmas to cap off the evening.
I know 2020 has put a damper on gatherings with family and friends–our family has certainly felt it this year. With that said, I think the amazing thing about ham radio is the community we build over the air–it’s certainly been an important community for me, this year especially.
Thank you, radio family!
Here’s wishing you, your family, and your friends the very best of the season!