A SOTA road trip from Berlin to Tuscany via the Alps and back
by Leo (DL2COM)
Flashback March 2021: I am sitting on a couch in the countryside 2h north of Berlin, Germany. It’s a rainy day and my 1-year-old kid just fell asleep on my chest. I am watching Youtube and enjoying the feeling of just having maintained the chainsaw after a productive run preparing firewood.
Then suddenly something special got washed into my feed: Adam K6ARK activating a summit in CW somewhere on the U.S. West Coast. I thought: I have no idea what this wizardry is but this is exactly what I want to do. Right here, right now. Well I have a child to take care of, the next mountain with a prominence of >150m (~500 feet, min. requirement to be a valid SOTA summit) is 3h away, I don’t know what ham radio is, I have no license and what the heck is CW.
Jump to July 2022: I am sitting in my car commencing a vacation road trip to the south of Tuscany, Italy. Due to the chaotic luggage situation at EU airports and unreal prices for rental cars my family and I had decided that we would be better off if I drove down while my wife and kids took the plane without having to check in any bags (btw: best decision ever).
Our schedule allowed for me to leave a few days early so I could make room to do a little bit of hiking and throw in a few casual SOTA activations because why not. On top I saw that there were a few never activated summits in close proximity to where we planned to stay. I could feel my heart pumping already followed by a strong reassuring feeling radiating from the well-thought-through contents of my backpack in the trunk. Am I ready? Who cares. I am on my own now. I had completed a quick 1-pointer activation in May and a few POTAs but what was planned now was a different level.
Going into detail about every summit would go beyond the scope of this article so here are just a few highlights: The first leg down to the Garmisch-Partenkirchen area went by in a wink (7h drive). I passed most of the time rehearsing CW by singing license plates out loud. The fun peaked with plates along the lines of M-OT-9990 or E-SI-5545. It’s all about melody and timing, remember. I met up with my buddy Chris whom I hadn’t seen in a long time and who agreed to join me on the first hike up Zirbelkopf (8-points summit) to witness the cult activity I had tried and failed to explain to him beforehand.
Leo shared some photos of a complete radio kit he built around the QCX-mini along with a ZM-4 ATU kit he also recently built. Leo has kindly agreed to share these on QRPer.com.
Attached is a photo of my ultra light kit.
It consists of a QCX-Mini 20m version (self-built), K6ARK EFHW, Palm Radio Pico Paddle, Eremit 2Ah LiFePo battery, headphones and a few cables.
I usually also carry a small arborist kit and if there is still room also the 6m mast from Sotabeams, depending on what I think will work best.
I chose a hard case and went for the Peli 1060 Micro. It has room for everything I need and it could easily hold a bit of RG316 coax in addition (even more if I chose to shorten the 30m arborist line).
Do you know what it’s like when you have a new radio and you can’t wait to take it to the field?
Yeah, me too!
Even before I received my QCX-Mini in October 2021, I already knew where I’d take this pocket-sized, single-band QRP CW transceiver for its first field activation: Mount Mitchell (W4C/CM-001).
Mitchell is the highest summit east of the Mississippi river and only about 6 miles from my QTH as the crow flies. I had yet to activate Mitchell this year for SOTA although I have activated it for POTA/WWFF several times. As I’ve probably mentioned in the past, Mount Mitchell park is my “happy place.” Our family loves this site and we visit it frequently to hike in the spruce-fir forest.
First of all, thank you to everyone who tried to hunt me this morning while I activated Mount Mitchell Summit and Park!
When I posted an announcement about the activation this morning, I didn’t expect much of a response due to the short notice. I don’t typically announce my activations, but the Mitchell SOTA activation was a special one for me because it’s my favorite NC park and also fairly local (well, as the crow flies from the QTH).
This was a “welcome back to winter conditions” SOTA activation and I knew it would be in advance.
The drive to the summit, starting around 1,000M ASL (3,000′) was in heavy, heavy fog. The ceiling was low and I thought perhaps the summit would peak through, but I was wrong. It was also foggy on the summit and about 33F (0.5C) per my car.
It was a gorgeous site though as the summit was covered in rime ice.
There were maybe two other visitor cars in the park–after all, most go to Mitchell for the views and there were none this morning.
I found a nice spot in the woods well within the activation zone, but not at the observation deck on the summit.
I’m not sure if I called CQ more than twice with the QCX Mini before I was slammed with a steady pile up with many stations from Europe.
The QCX performed well and obviously the PackTenna 20M EFHW did as well, but the little amplified speaker connected to the QCX-Mini struggled with the variation in signals and tones. It sort of fell apart on me and after logging, perhaps, 30 stations, I switched out with the KX2.
If you chased me and I wasn’t able to copy you, my apologies. It was tough to hear signals via that little speaker–everything simply blended together.
I’ll be writing a full report in due time once I have the video uploaded in a couple weeks, but suffice it to say, 5 watts and a wire worked this morning. Here’s the QSO Map:
The QSO map doesn’t include a number of stations on the west coast either.
A struggle for K4SWL
My hands were a wee bit stiff as they dealt with the cold/damp conditions, so my fist was (as I had predicted) rather sloppy. 🙂
I was also struggling to type in callsigns correctly into the HAMRS app on my phone and that certainly messed with my rhythm handling QSOs.
This was my first cold activation since March. I’ll get back into winter mode soon and toughen up again!
The little speaker, combined with so many contacts zero-beating me, turned into a 5-7 second long steady tone in the pile-up. I seriously contemplated running split to spread everyone apart, but I’ve never seen that done with POTA or SOTA so didn’t attempt it.
Seasoned SOTA CW activators would’ve certainly found the pile-up much more manageable.
When I went QRT, I happened to turn on my HT and had the SOTA simplex frequency locked in. Two second after turning on the HT I heard KN4LRO on Round Mountain (W4T/SU-029) and worked him S2S. My first VHF S2S!
The SOTA/POTA/WWFF activation was AMAZING fun, though. One of my favorite SOTA activations to date. Again, I made a video of the activation and will write up a proper field report within the next couple of weeks.
As I left the park, I found it odd that I was the only visitor there. As I approached the front gates (again, in heavy fog) I saw why: they had closed the park and were only allowing people to leave, not enter.
I felt pretty darn lucky to snag Mount Mitchell this morning.
I’ve said this before, but Mount Mitchell is truly my special, happy place.
In the meantime, I’d love your suggestions and links to proper, capable amplified portable speakers. I need something much better to pair with the QCX Mini, MTR3B, and KX1.
It’ll be hovering around 32F-36F (0-2C) on the summit and likely a bit windy. Although I usually do well in cold temps, this will be the coldest activation I’ve done in months, so expect some sloppy CW. 🙂
I’ll try to make a video of this activation, but I’m not entirely sure how well it’ll work out. Much will hinge on if I can find my small amplified speaker for the QCX-Mini (which lacks an internal speaker). I’m going to find a spot within the SOTA activation zone to set up, but not on or near the summit observation area as it gets so busy there.
We’ll see how this goes. I am really looking forward to using the QCX-Mini in the field. I’ve used it a bit at the QTH and am incredibly impressed with its performance.
I’ll only be on 20 meters this time (obviously) but hopefully I can at least make enough contacts to validate both the summit and park.
I have been a fan of QRP operating since I got licensed in 1983. The sticker in the picture is a joke a good friend who is not into CW or QRP, so I include it in my field pictures.
My interest in ham radio had reached a point I was getting away from the hobby. In 2020, I learned about Parks on the Air (POTA) and Summits on the Air (SOTA). I got hooked on activating parks and summits, and now I mostly do QRP CW, much like Thomas Witherspoon, K4SWL does.
Over the past year, I’ve been refining my antennas and radios in the field. I have different radios and antennas for different reasons, and to just mix it up a bit. Occasionally, I will take my IC-7100 or IC-7300 out into the field with my Bioenno 20aH battery, if I’m not planning to hike or go far from the parking lot, or if the bands are just not cooperating.
Back in November 2020 I had my left knee replaced so I had lots of down time and made an important purchase for field activities – an IC-705. It is fantastic and does everything I want it to do without a lot of wires. I’ve also owned and sold within the past 18 months a Yaesu FT-891 (which I sold when I got the IC-705) and had both the Xiegu G90 and X5105. I would expect one day to get another FT-891 as it has amazing filtering and pulls in weak CW signals better than any radio I’ve owned. The G90 and X5105 are okay, however I was not impressed with the G90 from the start for out in the field. There were just too many wires in order to set up and use with my portable laptop computer if I was taking that along.
The X5105, which I had high expectations for, disappointed me in the fact that storing and using CW memory keying is not user friendly. The nice thing about that radio is, no microphone, no problem, I had some success using the 5105 and got great audio reports.
I’ve been looking ahead to my projected retirement and hopes of through hiking the Appalachian Trail in 2026. Although the IC-705 is an excellent field radio, all mode, VHF/UHF/D-Star/HF/6 meters, I already know for a 7 month hike from Georgia to Maine, it will just be too bulky in my backpack. I have heard really good things about the QCX-mini, however I’m an appliance operator and not good with kit building and soldering.
I saw there are options to purchase an assembled QCX-mini, so I decided to check out a 40 meter radio. It took about 2-1/2 weeks before it arrived at my QTH on Saturday afternoon. I hooked it up to one of my HF antennas in my yard used for my IC-7300 that was resonant on 40 meters. I had to use my Heil headset in order to hear the audio, plugged into the 3.5 mm jack. I used my CWMorse paddle and tuned around the band. I called CQ several times before finally I heard WA0USA in Palm Beach, FL calling CQ. I called him and got a 579 report and he was a solid 599. We chatted for about 10 minutes, and he was running a kW while I was using 5 watts. It felt good to know that I was being heard.
Sunday morning I had time to go activate a local park (K-1418) before some afternoon commitments. I had also recently purchased a link dipole for 20/30/40 meters off eBay from N9SAB. I had tested this antenna out a couple of times last week, so I wanted to pair it with the QCX-mini. I went with little expectations about the little mini, so I also packed my IC 705 just in case I needed it to complete my 10 contacts to have a successful activation. To my surprise, I spotted myself on the POTA page, and in 45 minutes I had a total of 26 QSOs in my HAMRS log! It was amazing and I think I found the perfect combination for true lightweight, portable operations.
I was so impressed with this activation that last night I ordered the 20 meter QCX-mini! These can be ordered from qrp-labs.com and they have a lot of other kits available as well. The kit itself is $55, and I opted to have it assembled ($45) and purchased the enclosure ($20).
This little radio is very user-friendly. I was able to easily access the menus, customize it to my liking, including the paddle, preset frequencies, several stored CW memories, and was on the air calling CQ Saturday evening without seeking out the instructions.
I had mentioned previously about my disappointment with the Xiegu X5105 and not being able to easily store and recall memories. Not a problem at all with this little radio. I enabled the decoder feature just to test it out, and it decodes better than the G90 or X5105, including very weak signals. The size is a fraction of the size of the X5105 and total weight for everything, including the Bioenno 12v 3aH battery is less than 2 pounds and it all stores very nice.
These quick videos were taken this evening before storms hit; that’s why you will hear lawnmowers in the background. I wanted to first show a demo of the receive decoder and how well it decodes even weaker signals:
My biggest complaint about the X5105 was how the memory was next to impossible to use. I do a quick demo how to access a stored message and send it over the air. I also have it set to repeat every 6 seconds:
I did make a couple of changes to the radio setup. I did not like having to use the headset, so I went on Amazon and purchased a mini portable 3 watt mobile phone speaker line-in speaker with 3.5mm audio interface (affiliate link). That cost under $15 and works extremely well. It has a built in charger that plugs into a micro-USB to charge the battery when not in use. I also have a cell phone holder that fits perfectly on my Neewer stand I purchased several months ago for my IC 705, and it sits nice and firm on the table. I may not take that to the field if I’m doing a lot of hiking.
Here are some other details about the QCX-mini from their website:
The Optional enclosure is black anodized extruded aluminium, very sturdy and elegant. The enclosure size is 95 x 63 x 25mm without protrusions. The top and side panels are drilled and cut to match the QCX-mini with laser-etched lettering. The enclosure includes four self-adhesive feet.
Special portable-friendly features:
Small size: 95 x 63 x 25mm enclosure (plus protusions)
Low current consumption (for example 58mA receive current, with 12V supply and display backlight off)
Low weight, 202 grams
Sturdy extruded aluminium enclousre
All-metal BNC short connector, bolted to enclosure
List of features:
Easy to build, two-board design, board with main circuit and connectors, display panel board with LCD; all-controls board-mounted on a press-out sub-board. No wiring, all controls and connectors are board-mounted
Professional quality double-sided, through-hole plated, silk-screen printed PCBs
Choice of single band, 80, 60, 40, 30, 20 or 17m
Approximately 3-5W CW output (depending on supply voltage)
High performance receiver with at least 50dB of unwanted sideband cancellation
200Hz CW filter with no ringing
Si5351A Synthesized VFO with rotary encoder tuning
16 x 2 yellow/green LCD screen
Iambic keyer or straight key option included in the firmware
Simple Digital Signal Processing assisted CW decoder, displayed real-time on-screen
On-screen real time clock (not battery backed up)
Full or semi QSK operation using fast solid-state transmit/receive switching
Frequency presets, VFO A/B Split operation, RIT, configurable CW Offset
Configurable sidetone frequency and volume
Connectors: 2.1mm power barrel connector, 3.5mm keyer jack, 3.5mm stereo earphone jack, 3.5mm stereo jack for PTT, 3.5mm stereo jack for CAT control, BNC RF output
Built-in test signal generator and alignment tools to complete simple set-up adjustments
Built-in test equipment: voltmeter, RF power meter, frequency counter, signal generator
Beacon mode, supporting automatic CW, FSKCW or WSPR operation
GPS interface for reference frequency calibration and time-keeping (for WSPR beacon)
CAT control interface
Optional 50W PA kit
Optional aluminium extruded cut/drilled/laser-etched black anodized enclosure
Just a quick note on the link dipole. It is well made and I had a 1:1 SWR on the CW part of the band, which is perfect. I did put the IC 705 to work when I attempted to work a couple of SSB stations on POTA, and at 7.235 the SWR was only about 1.3:1, so minimal loss. Check out the N9SAB antennas on his eBay site. His shipping is very quick. I took a picture of the balun with the included choke in the package I purchased, and the second picture is the link between the 20 and 40 meters. It works great.
I mentioned my goal about hiking the Appalachian Trail in 2026. I’m sure there will be other multi band mini size radios available by then and I’m hopeful QCX will have one in 5 years for me to use. My goal is to activate summits along the way while taking breaks from the hiking, or at night before calling it an evening. Since I’ll be on the A.T. I’ll also have lots of opportunity to activate POTA as well. Most thru hikers are not hams and they are always concerned about no cell phone coverage. I won’t have that issue and I’m confident I’ll be able to be in touch with other hams throughout the journey.
Thank you once again Tom for allowing me to post on QRPer. I think I finally have a QRP radio that you have not tested or purchased yet. I hope your readers find this short article useful.
Scott – KN3A
Scott Lithgow (KN3A) is a regular contributor on QRPer.com. Click here to check out his previous posts.
Hans at QRP Labs has just posted a video of the new QCX-Mini 5 watt transceiver kit. It looks like another thoughtful design:
Even though I’ve yet to build my QCX+ (!!!), I just ordered the QCX-Mini. This little kit will be a challenge for me–even though all of the SMD components are pre-populated, it’s still a tight board and requires some fancy toroid work!
Still, I’m buying it to support QRP Labs’ work and because I love the challenge of building kits. This one is awfully cute and I’m pretty sure I’ll use it to claim a summit!
My entire QCX-Mini kit with enclosure set me back $86.99 US with shipping and tax included. How could I resist? (Don’t answer that, please.)