On Thursday, January 6, 2022, I woke up with one goal in mind: take the Xiegu X6100 out on a proper hike-in activation!
While I’d had this radio on loan from Radioddity since December 23rd, I hadn’t had an opportunity to truly hike it into an activation site. Between the weather and my tight schedule, I haven’t had an opportunity to plot out a proper Summits On The Air (SOTA) Activation. SOTA activations that involve hiking usually take a much bigger bite out of my day and, lately, I’ve been to busy to plot one.
I do live near a vast trail network, however, and it so happens that much of the trails run through overlapping public lands: Pisgah National Forest and Pisgah State Game Land.
So I packed my Spec-Ops EDC tactical pack, grabbed Hazel’s harness, and headed out the door.
I’ve always believed that the first day of the year should be symbolic of the whole year.
At least, that’s the excuse I was using to fit in a quick activation on New Year’s Day (Jan 1, 2022).
I have had the new Xiegu X6100 on loan and planned to take it to the field, but that afternoon waves of rain were moving into the area in advance of a weather front. Since I don’t own this X6100, I didn’t want to risk getting it wet.
In fact, I had almost talked myself out of going on an activation, but my wife encouraged me to head to the Blue Ridge Parkway, so we jumped into the car and hit the road.
Our options on the parkway were very limited as they often are in the winter. In advance of winter weather, the National Park Service closes off large sections of the BRP because they have no equipment to remove snow/ice. Plus, you’d never want to drive the BRP in slippery conditions. There are too many beautiful overlooks to slide off of.
Thankfully, the Folk Art Center access is always open and incredibly convenient.
Blue Ridge Parkway (K-3378)
We arrived at the parking lot and I very quickly made my way to a picnic table while my wife and daughters took a walk.
When I head out the door to activate a summit, if it involves a long hike, I reach for one of my super compact QRP transceivers like the Mountain Topper MTR-3B, Elecraft KX1, or KX2. If you’re carrying your entire station and all of your hiking provisions in your backpack, it’s best to keep the load as light and compact as possible.
I purchased the single-band QRP Labs QCX-Mini last year specifically with Summits On The Air (SOTA) in mind. My QCX-Mini is built for 20 meters which tends to be my most productive SOTA band.
The QCX Mini has a rugged, utilitarian feel: basic controls, two line backlit LCD display, and a sturdy aluminum enclosure. It’s super compact.
One of the first things I did was build a dedicated field kit around the QCX-Mini. Everything–save my throw line–fits in my Spec-Ops Op Orders pouch:
I’ve now taken it on a few activations, but the very first outing was on Monday, December 7, 2021.
That afternoon, my daughters attended an afternoon art class that was only four miles from our QTH as the crow flies, but took 45+ minutes to drive. Gotta love the mountains!
I had no complaints whatsoever about the drive, though, because it was within five minutes of the Zebulon Vance Historic Birthplace; one of my favorite local POTA spots!
Zebulon B. Vance Birthplace (K-6856)
After dropping off the girls, I drove to Vance and was happy to see that no one was occupying their one picnic shelter. Even though the Vance site is relatively spacious and they’ve numerous trees along the periphery of the property, it’s a historic/archaeological site and as a rule of thumb I only set up at picnic areas in parks like these.
It was a breezy day and temps were hovering around 44F/7C. These are ideal conditions in my world.
I’ve been so busy these past few weeks, it only hit me yesterday afternoon (Dec 30, 2021) that if I wanted to activate another park or summit in 2021, I needed to do it that same afternoon. I knew that we had plans for today and would visit with friends.
Looking back at 2021
As I’ve mentioned before, I really don’t follow my park and summit statistics with any regularity. For me, each activation and opportunity to play radio is a reward in and of itself.
I’m not a competitive fellow but I’ll admit that I’m in awe of those activators who are! Some have truly mind-blowing activation numbers. I’d encourage you to check out the POTA and SOTA leaderboards!
For SOTA, I set a vague goal of activating 12 summits in 2021–roughly one summit per month.
Many thanks to Josh for sending me this X6100 so promptly and performing the first firmware update!
I took delivery of the X6100 last week after returning from vacation in the Outer Banks. It was bittersweet as I was soeager to check out this new radio but simply had too many projects on the table to complete before Christmas day.
That and in the morning light after our return, my daughter pointed out that one side of my horizontal delta loop antenna had fallen to the ground. Fortunately, I was able to fix the antenna in short order. It’s certainly time to push the schedule up for completely replacing this 10 year old wire antenna!
X6100: Known issues
I had gotten a few messages from X6100 early adopters like Scott (KN3A) and Rich (KQ9L) noting that the current firmware version (the December 7, 2021 release) had taken care of a few initial bugs, but there were still a few outstanding points that specifically affect CW operators. Most notably:
Noise reduction (or DNR) in CW mode severely distorts audio
CW message memories can be stored and saved but cannot yet be played back on the air (SSB message memories are fully functional, however)
Fine tuning is limited to 10 Hz steps at the moment
Someone had also noted possible CW keyer timing issues.
At the same time, I had read mostly positive comments about SSB operation from QRPer readers and subscribers.
Frankly, knowing Xiegu’s history of pushing the production and distribution timeline ahead of a radio being fully-functional and properly tested, I expected a few bugs and issues that would need to be sorted out in firmware updates.
To be very clear: I’m not a fan of the “early adopters are the Beta testers” philosophy. I wish Xiegu would thoroughly Beta test their products so that they were more polished and fully-functional right out the door much like we expect from the likes of Elecraft, Icom, Yaesu, and Kenwood. There are almost always minor post-production bugs to sort out even with these legacy manufacturers, but issues should be of the variety that somehow slips past a team of Beta testers who actually use the radio.
Last week, my family hopped in the car and took an eight hour drive to the Outer Banks of North Carolina.
We’ve had such a busy 2021 that we decided to take a full week prior to Christmas and fit in some proper vacation and family time.
We love going to the coast off-season to avoid big crowds. Turns out, we chose well, too: it’s as is we have the whole of the Outer Banks to ourselves. Other than a couple days with some “invigorating” weather (which we actually enjoy) it’s been absolutely spectacular.
While radio plays an important role in any travels, my family time always takes priority. The good thing about activating parks is that radio and family time often go very well together!
On Friday, December 17, 2021, my daughter Geneva (K4TLI) and I decided to spend the day together while my wife and other daughter worked on an art project at our rental cottage. We had a few loose plans, but mainly wanted to fit in a nice beach walk, possibly discover some new scenic spots, and enjoy a take-out lunch together.
She very much liked the idea of fitting in a bit of POTA, so we hit the field with two sites in mind.
My Subaru is still in the body shop getting repaired after a bear decided to open the doors and make himself at home, so we have a Toyota Camry rental car on this trip. It’s been a great vehicle for sure, but its trunk space is limited and we packed quite a lot of food knowing local restaurants would be closed this time of year.
We all limited our luggage and I limited the amount of radios and gear I took. I could write an entire article about my holiday radio and antenna selection process (seriously, I put too much thought into it) but in a nutshell I limited myself to two radios and two antennas.
When my wife and I made the difficult decision to move back to the US in 2003, we had a wide variety of options of where to live. There was no doubt in our minds, though, that we would end up settling down somewhere in the Asheville, NC area.
We’re both from western North Carolina and had both–at different times–lived or worked in Asheville. It’s a beautiful area with a good arts scene and loads of outdoor activities.
These days, as I’m involved with both Parks On The Air and Summits On The Air, it’s an especially appealing place to live. We’ve a number of accessible POTA/WWFF entities and loads of summits to activate.
Blue Ridge Parkway (K-3378)
Any time I drive into Asheville, I pass by the Blue Ridge Parkway.
There are a number of easy parkway access points on the north, east, south and west sides of Asheville. I typically pass by the eastern access point of the BRP on Tunnel Road. Both the Blue Ridge Parkway Headquarters and the Folk Art Center are within spitting distance and both have picnic tables making setup and deployment quite easy for POTA/WWFF ops!
On Monday, November 29th, 2021, I found that I had a good 30-45 minutes to kill before heading home after running errands in town. My car was empty, as I was hoping our collision shop would ask me to finally bring the Subaru in for repair. They were waiting for one critical component to arrive.
Side note: Bears in cars
As I mentioned in a previous post, in late October, a bear opened all four doors of our car and proceeded to check inside for food. He wasn’t exactly “surgical” in his investigation and was likely frustrated when he realized there was no food to be found inside (never store food in your car in bear country).
On Sunday, November 28, 2021, my family needed a little time outdoors after a Saturday full of home projects.
I packed my field radio kit in the GoRuck Bullet Ruck, then we jumped in the car and drove to the Clear Creek Access of South Mountains State Park (the same site in my previous POTA field report).
South Mountains State Park (K-2753)
It was a gorgeous day and we had the park to ourselves. First thing we did was hike the short Lakeview Trail loop.
This trail is only 1.3 miles long, but offers up some beautiful views.
Hazel also came along and enjoyed the sights, smells, and even got her feet wet in a stream!
Fortunately, no one was using the one solitary picnic table at the Clear Creek access, so we claimed it!
First thing I did was launch a line and deploy my 28.5′ speaker wire antenna.
I knew it would pair perfectly with the Elecraft KX2!
The new N6ARA TinyPaddle
This activation also gave me an excuse to check out a paddle my buddy Ara (N6ARA) recently designed.
He calls it the TinyPaddle:
An appropriate name, because this key is wee! Ara notes:
As someone who likes bring experimental gear to summits, I have had paddles break on me multiple times. […] I don’t like carrying the extra weight/volume of a second set of paddles, so I designed my own “TinyPaddle” for backup as a middle ground option. It weighs roughly 3.7g and is 1.2cm x 1.2cm x 5.0cm in size.
He’s right, the TinyPaddle could tuck away even in the most compact of field kits. You’d never know it was there.
Here’s the TinyPaddle connected to the side of my Elecraft KX2:
Ara sent this key to me for frank feedback (prior to doing a small production run of them) knowing I’d not only check it out in the shack, but (of course!) take it to the field.
I decided to do my activation at South Mountains State Park using only the TinyPaddle.
Before taking it to the field, I had some concerns that the TinyPaddle might turn in the 3.5mm key port on the side of the KX2 as I used it. Once plugging it in, though, I could tell that it would not be a problem at all. The paddle is so lightweight and so sensitive, it’s simply not an issue. In fact, it would be rather difficult to use it in such a way that it would shift in the 3.5mm port.
On The Air
Knowing in advance that it was a contest weekend (the CQWW), I decided I would stick with the WARC bands during this activation.
I tuned the speaker wire antenna to 10.112 MHz on the 30 meter band.
The 30 meter band was more crowded than usual as many other POTA/SOTA/WWFF and casual operators sought refuge from the signal density on 40 and 20 meters.
Since I had the family with me and since we’d spent most of our time at the park eating a late picnic lunch and doing a casual hike, I allotted only 20 minutes of air time for this activation. I was hoping I could validate the activation with 10 contacts in that amount of time.
I started calling CQ with the N6ARA paddles. First thing I noticed was how sensitive and precise they were. Although the TinyPaddle is a mechanical paddle (with spaced contacts), they feel more like a capacitive touch paddle they’re so sensitive.
I started calling CQ POTA and soon logged KE4Q.
A few minutes later, I worked AI8Z, followed by W5WIL, WO0S, WA2JMG, AA0Z, WA2FBN, N0VRP, KA3OMQ, W9SAU, and K1MZM.
With a total of 12 stations logged in 21 minutes, I went QRT.
Here’s what 5 watts into a 28.5′ speaker wire did on 30 meters that fine day (click map to enlarge):
Here’s a video of my full activation. Hazel was being very camera shy; for some reason, she doesn’t like the OSMO Action camera. My wife and I think it must resemble something she’s seen at the vet’s office? We may never know!
Ara is obviously a talented engineer. I’m always impressed with devices like this that are so simple, yet so effective.
The TinyPaddle is going to live in my KX2 field pack as a backup to the KXPD2 paddles which have actually failed me in the field before.
That time the KXPD2 failed me…
I mention in the video that I once needed to use my Elecraft KXPD2 paddles to communicate with my buddy Mike (K8RAT) to share my SSB frequency for a very rare park activation I activated in the spring of 2020. After plugging the KXPD2 paddles into the KX2, I found that I could only send “dits.” I couldn’t even set it up to send as a straight key from one side of the paddle.
This forced me to drive 25 minutes to a spot where I had cell phone reception to contact Mike with info for a spot, then drive back to the site. That effectively shortened my activation of this ATNO park by 50 minutes!
I sent Elecraft the photo above and they quickly identified the problem: turns out, one of the center posts had loosened and fallen out. They immediately sent me a replacement post free of charge (typical Elecraft customer service).
I use the KXPD2 paddles quite a lot because they mount directly to the front of the KX2 making it possible to use my kneeboard during SOTA activations. Since that mishap in the field, I tighten the KXPD2 posts at least once a month and also carry a precision screwdriver with me in my field kit.
A proper backup!
But having the TinyPaddle now is even extra insurance that a paddle failure won’t stop me from completing my activation!
When I made the video, I wasn’t certain if Ara was planning to do a production run of these or not. I’m very pleased to see that he has!
I hope you enjoyed this field report and activation.
I’d like to send a special thanks to those of you who are supporting the site and channel through Patreon and the Coffee Fund. While certainly not a requirement as my content will always be free–I really appreciate the support.
My daughter Geneva (K4TLI) took a few extra photos at the park that day. Enjoy!
It was pouring rain, but I had a respectable three hour window to fit in a park activation while visiting my parents in the foothills of the NC mountains.
I had such an enjoyable experience pairing my Elecraft KX2 and AX1 antenna under a shelter at Tuttle Educational State Forest during a previous rainy day activation, I decided to revisit the same site.
Tuttle Educational State Forest (K-4861)
I knew I would likely be the only visitor at Tuttle that day; it was pretty cold and very wet.
Knowing rangers might not expect visitors on a day like this (keeping in mind this type of park caters to educational groups and are otherwise relatively quiet) I made a courtesy call to the park headquarters. I asked the ranger for permission to use their main shelter for an activation.