If you’ve been here long, you’ve no doubt noticed that I have a sizable collection of QRP radios I take to the field.
Although I have some favorites, I try to rotate all of my radios in the field and even pair them with different antenna combinations as much as possible. If I only owned one field radio, I’d shake things up by pairing my one radio with different antennas deployed different ways during my POTA/SOTA activations.
I get a real thrill out of testing different combinations, actually, and I feel like it keeps me on my toes because I don’t get too comfortable with any one setup in the field.
No doubt, using a wide variety of radios gives me a more informed perspective when beta testing or evaluating new radio models.
That said, there is one radio in my collection that has been overlooked too many times: my Icom IC-703 Plus.
Many of you have noticed this, in fact. I’ve gotten several emails and comments asking, “So Thomas…when are you taking the 703 out again–?” 🙂
When I purchased the ‘703 from my buddy Don a couple years ago, I imagined taking it to the field very regularly. I always thought it was a cool little radio and with its built-in ATU, it’s quite compact for a tabletop-style rig.
Thing is, each time I’ve taken it to the field, I’ve had issues with the electronic keying that I did not have when using it in the shack. It’s quite sensitive to RF, so end-fed antennas seem to create unwanted dits and dashes in the keyer.
The simple fix, I hoped, was simply using an in-line common mode choke to keep the RF away from the radio. Thing is, the IC-703 has an SO-239 antenna port and two of my common mode chokes are BNC. I meant to purchase a BNC-to-PL-259 adapter at the Shelby Hamfest, but picked up the wrong item (I should have been wearing my glasses).
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?).
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?
Turns out, if you go to Canada for nearly two months, when you return home you’re going to have about two months worth of catch up.
It’s all explained in one of Einstein’s theories. If memory serves, Einstein stated:
“One cannot simply ignore stuff for two months and expect no repercussions. Time lost must be accounted for due to the principles of the conservation of energy. Plus…what in creation were you thinking?”
When we returned from Canada in early August I had some pretty big plans about the parks and (especially) summits I would hit here in North Carolina. But after returning, I quickly realized I had so much work to do around the house and a number of DIY jobs I’d postponed at our investment property. They all immediately took priority.
Indeed, in the one month span after returning from Canada, I only performed three park and no summit activations. There was a three week period of time without activations of any sort. I simply didn’t have the time to fit anymore in my schedule. This all gave me a serious case of activation withdrawal.
If you’ve been following my field reports, you’ve no doubt noticed that I never do multi-hour activations at one site unless I happen to be camping at a POTA park.
I’m asked about this fairly regularly (why I don’t do longer activations to achieve Kilo awards, etc.) but the truth is I make POTA/SOTA fit in my busy family schedule. This often equates to short (30-60 minute) activation windows.
Then quite often, I’m on the road or doing errands in town and realize I have a short opening for an activation, so I squeeze it into the day. This is why I always have a fully self-contained field radio kit in my car. At a moment’s notice, I can set up a station, and play radio.
In a way, I find this style of quick activation fun, too. “Can I seriously validate a park during this short window of time–?”
These activations remind me of that scene in A Christmas Story where the father gets a small thrill out of timing himself as he changes a flat tire on the side of the road. I totally get that.
Except with me it’s deploying antennas instead of managing lug nuts.
Friday, September 2, 2022 was a big day for me. On the way back from visiting my folks that morning, I spent a couple of hours at the Shelby Hamfest.
The Shelby Hamfest typically has the largest outdoor tailgate market in all of North Carolina and likely one of the larger ones in the southeast US. I had no items on my wish list, I just wanted to see what was there.
This was the first hamfest I’d attended in a little over a year. It was a lot of fun and I got to meet a number of friends and readers/subscribers.
Driving home after the Shelby Hamfest that early afternoon, I realized I was passing dangerously close to the Clear Creek access of South Mountains State Park.
I had a couple of errands to run back home before the post office closed at 17:00 that day, but in my head I believe I had just enough time for a quick activation. The total amount of detour driving would only be about 15 minutes; I’d just need to keep the activation (including most set up and pack up) under 45 minutes or so.
At the last minute, I took a right turn and headed to the park!
Fortunately, the one lonely picnic table at the Clear Creek access was unoccupied.
I grabbed my IC-705 kit and a new antenna!
The MM0OPX QRP End-Fed Half-Wave (EFHW)
A few weeks prior, Colin (MM0OPX) reached out to me and asked if I would consider testing a new high-quality, highly-efficient QRP EFHW he’d designed.
Of course, there’s nothing new about an EFHW–it’s one of the most popular field antenna designs on the planet–but Colin’s goal was to make one with the lowest insertion loss possible in a compact, lightweight (50g), and durable format.
I say he succeeded.
In fact, this activation was actually the second one where I used Colin’s QRP EFHW. The previous day, I paired it with a then very Beta version of the Penntek TR-45L at Tuttle Educational State Forest (K-4861).
In short, the antenna made for a wildly successful QRP activation. Here’s the QSO Map (you’ll need to click and enlarge to see the number of contacts):
The Penntek TR-45L was still quite new at the time and even though I got John’s (WA3RNC) blessing, I didn’t post the activation video and mini overview on YouTube. Keep in mind the TR-45L was still in Beta so not all features had been finalized.
As I mentioned in a previous post, I’ve now invested in a Pro account with Vimeo that allows me to post completely ad-free videos that my Patreon supporters can enjoy and even download. I recently discovered that YouTube unfortunately inserts ads even though I have monetization turned off. I pay for Vimeo’s bandwidth and server space, so I also can control the ad experience completely (basically eliminating any possibility of ads!).
My Patreon supporters are the ones making it possible for me to pay the annual $420 fee to Vimeo and I am incredibly grateful, so I pass along the benefit to them.