Tag Archives: Lake James State Park (K-2739)

POTA in the Dark: Problem solving as the sun sets and the clock is ticking on my UTC day

Have you ever had an activation that didn’t quite go to plan?

Yeah. Me too.

Truth is, it’s just the nature of field radio that things sometimes break, behave erratically, and/or some key component goes missing. When you’re lugging your gear around in a pack and deploying it outdoors in a wide variety of settings it’s a much less “controlled” environment than, say, in the shack.

When a problem arises, you have to work that problem in the field to get on the air and complete the activation.

If you watch my activation videos, you’ll note that I try to include everything in them–including mistakes and mishaps.

Mishaps that lead to a failed activation happen less frequently than they did when I first got started in the world of field radio. Over the years, I’ve refined my field kit and made sure I’ve got the right spare components and tools to solve minor issues I might encounter.

That said, I felt like my activation attempt of Lake James State Park on Wednesday, October 5, 2022 was a total comedy of errors. It seemed like an extra layer of complication presented itself each step along the way as I tried to activate that park.

Lake James State Park (K-2739)

The plan was to leave my home around 17:15 local, arrive at the park around 18:00, set up my Icom IC-703 Plus, pair it with a 40 meter end-fed half-wave, hop on the air and work stations until about 19:00 (23:00 UTC) at the latest, then pack up and continue driving another hour to my final destination.

Here’s how it actually played out…

I had all of my bags packed and ready to go at 17:15, but as I was ready to leave, I discovered a plumbing leak under our kitchen sink. It required immediate attention (obviously) so I grabbed my tools, pulled everything out from under the kitchen sink, found the leak, and sorted out the issue. Thankfully, I had some spare plumbing parts at the house. This only delayed my departure about 30 minutes.

I arrived at Lake James around 18:30 and had the entire park to myself.

My real goal at the park was to take the Icom IC-703 Plus out for a little fresh air. It had been ages since I put it on the air in the field. The last time I tried to use it in the field, the internal keyer was tripping up due to a little RF coming back to the radio from my end-fed half-wave. This is a known issue with the Icom IC-703–it’s more sensitive to RF than any other radio I own.

This time, I planned to eliminate the RF with the inline common mode choke built into my Chameleon 50′ cable.

I grabbed my throw line, MM0OPX EFHW and had the antenna deployed in record time.

You can’t tell from the photos because my iPhone does a great job with low-light, but the sun was setting quickly even as I set up the IC-703. I knew I’d be finishing the activation in the dark, but I had a headlamp handy so wasn’t concerned (again, never leave home without a headlamp!).

I turned on the ‘703 and the 40 meter band was chock-full of signals. A very good sign!

Then I switched the 703’s meter to the SWR setting and sent a couple of dits on an open frequency to confirm a low SWR.

The SWR was off the charts poor, pegging the SWR meter at 9:1 (or worse?).

What–?

Continue reading POTA in the Dark: Problem solving as the sun sets and the clock is ticking on my UTC day

An evening POTA activation with the Penntek TR-45L, a pileup, and buddy Steve

 

Last month, my buddy Steve (VA3FLF/KM4FLF) was in North Carolina visiting family and we hoped to meet up in person at some point.  Thing was, both of our schedules were pretty busy with various family activities and projects.

On Wednesday, September 21, 2022, we found an opening in the evening that coincided with a trip to do a little caregiving for my parents. We agreed to meet up at Lake Jame State Park (K-2739) which was on my way and also convenient to Steve.

Steve is also a fan of Parks On The Air, so why not fit in an activation? No better way to spend time with POTA family than at a POTA park, right? Right!

I arrived at the park around 18:30 local (22:30UTC) and set up MM0OPX’s 40 meter end-fed half-wave.

I only had one radio with me at the time: my prototype Penntek TR-45L.

At that point, the TR-45L had not yet been released and was in the very final stages of Beta testing. I was waiting on one more firmware update to bring the radio up to what would eventually be version 1.

Since I was still waiting on the final update that sorted out the CW message memory recording function (and boy did it–the final version is benchmark) I didn’t use message memories during this outing.

I offered Steve a hand at the TR-45L, but he claimed he wasn’t a heavy CW operator–he was interested in helping me with logging, though. How could I refuse that?

Continue reading An evening POTA activation with the Penntek TR-45L, a pileup, and buddy Steve

Field Report: Giving the Elecraft KX1 a thorough post-operation POTA test!

After returning from Canada this summer, I had a number of projects on the table including three radios to evaluate and a number of DIY projects on our investment house. The home projects took priority, so for the month of August, I did very little in terms of POTA activating.

In September, there was one radio in particular I was very eager to take to the field (besides the Penntek TR-45L). That was my Elecraft KX1, “Ruby.”

Before leaving for Canada, Ruby went into surgery once again under the care of my good friend “Dr.” Vlado (N3CZ).

I couldn’t figure out why she kept dropping power output to nil after being on the air for 20-25 minutes. I knew Vlado would sort out the issue.

Vlado discovered the source was a cold solder joint that was failing when the radio would become warm from operating. He fixed this and checked a number of other spots on the board.

He then tested the KX1 on a dummy load for and hour and she performed flawlessly after the surgery.

He fixed Ruby in early June and then we went to Canada for two months. I never put Ruby on the air in Canada.

After our return to the States, I was eager to take Ruby out to the field again and that’s exactly what I did on Sunday, September 11, 2022.

Lake James State Park (K-2739)

Lake James State Park–along with South Mountains State Park–are the easiest parks for me to hit during my nearly weekly travels on Interstate 40. I feel so fortunate that both are superb POTA sites with loads of spots to operate.

I arrived in the late afternoon and to my surprise there was hardly anyone at the park (I think it was a little too close to evening mealtime for families).

I set up my station at a table close to the parking area just to keep things simple. I was looking forward to enjoying at least 30 minutes on the air and seeing just how well Ruby might hold up.

I decided to use the Tufteln End-Fed Random Wire antenna knowing it would be a quick to deploy and frequency agile.

I tried to use the KX1 ATU to tune the random wire, but I wasn’t pleased with the SWR. Frankly, it was doable (1.9:1 on 20 meters), but I wanted something much closer to 1:1 since I was already only pushing 2.5-3 watts output.

Keep in mind, the KX1’s internal ATU is not in the same league as the ones in the Elecraft KX2, KX3, or T1–the KX1 ATU has a much smaller matching range.

Also, I suspect Ruby’s ATU wasn’t built for optimal performance by the original builder. I do plan to re-work her ATU as best I can at some point in the future.

I pulled out the Elecraft T1, put the KX1 ATU in bypass mode, and hooked it up to the antenna. The T1 had no problem at all finding 1:1 matches across 40, 30, and 20 meters, of course.

Continue reading Field Report: Giving the Elecraft KX1 a thorough post-operation POTA test!

POTA RaDAR Run: Planning, Plotting, Packing, and Activating Park #1!

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.

Making plans

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.

I looked at the POTA map and sorted out a route between park entities that were all in western North Carolina. I was familiar with all of the locations save one which had the potential to be both a POTA and SOTA activation. Continue reading POTA RaDAR Run: Planning, Plotting, Packing, and Activating Park #1!

POTA Field Report: Dodging the rain at Lake James State Park

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…

Rain.

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.

No matter how bad the rain, I knew I could play radio under the shelter with my KX2/AX1 pair. Continue reading POTA Field Report: Dodging the rain at Lake James State Park

POTA Field Report: A beautiful day for obnoxious QRM!

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.

I attached the speaker wire antenna’s BNC binding post adapter directly to the mAT-705 Plus ATU.

Gear:

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.

QRM

Check out the noise level on the waterfall display!

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.

Memorable contacts

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.

Video

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.

Thank you

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!

Cheers & 73,

Thomas (K4SWL)


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Field Report: Let’s build a super simple antenna on-site and activate this park!

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.

The wire

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.

It’s that simple!

My new speaker wire antenna in all its glory.

Gear:

On The Air

I’ll admit: I was a bit nervous putting this antenna on the air. Although I felt the X5105 ATU *should* match this antenna, I had no idea if it actually would.

Fortunately? It did.

At this point, if you don’t want any spoilers, I suggest you watch my real-time, real-life, no-edit, no-ad, video of the entire activation (including buying and building the antenna!).

Click here to watch the video.

Otherwise, scroll for my activation summary…

I was very pleased that the X5105 found a match on the 40 meter band.

I started calling CQ in CW and validated my activation by logging 10 stations in 13 minutes.

Honestly: it doesn’t get much better than this.

I logged three more stations on 40 meters CW, then moved up to the 30 meter band where the X5105 easily found a match.

I worked one station on 30 meters before heading back down to the 40 meter band to do a little SSB. I logged three SSB stations in five minutes.

Mission accomplished!

In the end, I logged a total of 17 stations including a P2P with K4NYM.

Not bad at all for speaker wire!

After the activation, I tested the X5105 ATU by trying to find matches on other bands–I was able to find great matches from 60 meters to 6 meters. Most impressive!

X5105 battery

You might recall that I attempted to deplete my X5105 internal battery at my last (rather long) activation of Lake Norman State Park.  I wasn’t able to deplete the battery at that activation, but I finally did at this one.

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!

Short Hike

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.

This is the Christmas Fern which derives its name from a few characteristics: its resilience to early season snows maintaining a dark green color beyond Christmas, and because folks believe its leaves are shaped like Santa’s boots or even Santa on his sleigh.

Improvements

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!

Thank you for reading this field report!

Cheers,

Thomas (K4SWL)


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Discovery TX-500: Attempting a speedy POTA activation with a new rig and new antenna

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.

The lab599 Discovery TX-500

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.

So what did I do?

As I turned into the park entrance, I decided to make a recording of the entire activation from set up until the last logged contact.

Why would I do this to myself?

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.

Gear:

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.

Video

QSOmap

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!


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POTA Field Report: Reviewing the MFJ-1984LP EFHF with the Icom IC-705 at Lake James State Park

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).

Recently, while browsing the MFJ catalog, I stumbled upon the MFJ-1984LP End Fed Half Wave wire antenna designed for for field use and retailing for only $49.95 US.

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.

First impressions

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.

Gear:

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!

Video

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!):

Click here to view on YouTube.

MFJ-1984LP summary

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:

Pros:

  • 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

Cons:

  • 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?

Click here to check out the MFJ-1984LP at MFJ’s website, and click here to download the PDF manual.

Pairing the Elecraft KX2 with the Chameleon MPAS 2.0 at Lake James State Park

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.

Gear:

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.

Video

Here’s an unedited video of the entire activation:

Click here to view on YouTube.

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!