Tag Archives: QRP

My path to learning CW and activating parks and summits

One of the most common questions I receive on my YouTube Channel is on the topic of how I learned CW and started doing CW field activations.

I’ve often told new hams or those who want to learn CW that there is no “one path” to learning CW. Mine was certainly not a straight path, and I believe very few are.

I will state up-front that there are a number of resources out there for learning CW, including apps, programs, audio recordings, and clubs.

One resource with a loyal following is the Long Island CW Club.  I’ve heard so many rave about their program, it’s certainly worth exploring.

My Path to CW

I first learned about amateur radio in high school from a Curtis Mathis TV repairman house call. As he diagnosed an issue with our living room television, I held the flashlight and probably asked dozens of questions about the components inside. He eventually looked at me and said, “Have you ever heard about amateur radio?

After showing him the shortwave listening station I’d put together in my bedroom (all centered around a Zenith Transoceanic), he suggested I stop by a local RadioShack and pick up study material for the Novice license.

In 1988, the first steeping stone into amateur radio required learning enough CW/Morse Code to pass a simple five word per minute test along with a written exam.

I eventually purchased Gordon West’s exam prep package which included the book and cassette tapes to help with my studies.

I was in high school at the time, though, and involved in a lot of extracurricular activities including my high school marching band, scouts, I volunteered at our local community theatre, was in a brass quintet, played bass in the high school jazz band, and I even played Tuba for our local college band. I had too much on my plate already. Then, I did my undergraduate studies including a year in France and put off my license even longer.

After graduating college/university in 1996, I worked briefly at a RadioShack and found the time to start studying again. Through the encouragement of my good friends and Elmers Mike (K8RAT) and Eric (WD8RIF), I studied the written material for my Novice and Technician exams, and also the cassette tapes for my 5 word per minute CW exam.

In early 1997, I took and passed all three components to snag my (then) “Technician Plus” license.

I planned to learn 13 words per minute to pass my General class license, but the FCC actually dropped the code requirement altogether.  I passed my General in 1998 or 1999, and moved to Europe and the UK for a few years with my employer.

After moving back to the States, I tried to get back into CW, but again put it off thinking the learning curve would be too great.

Then in 2007, I had a break in employment and had free time at home. I pulled out those Gordon West tapes and worked through the entire course again.

The moment I could confidently copy all of the letters, all of the numbers, and a few abbreviations, I called my buddy Mike (K8RAT) and asked him to meet me on the air.

I was nervous, but I was communicating with a friend who was happy to slow down to 5 words per minute (not an easy task, mind you, when you’re used to 20WPM+!).

Mike and I had a daily morning QSO and that built my code speed up to 13-15 WPM in short order.

I learned that after your brain assimilates each Morse Code character, it’s then all about recognizing the sound of each character and abandoning any in-head translating of dits and dashes which slows you down. This is the ideal approach to any language: you need instant recognition to build speed. It’s not hard to do and, in fact, and our brains are wired to do this automatically.

After I started building confidence with code and doing 3 way 13 WPM ragchews with Mike and Eric on 80 meters, I started another huge project: building a house.

The house build took the better part of three years and it absorbed all of my time (that and my wife and I also had toddlers at home!).

We eventually moved into our house and I set up a permanent shack. I would occasionally hop on the CW bands, but usually just to test CW performance for transceiver and receiver reviews.   In other words, I let my CW skills slip again.

Parks On The Air

It wasn’t until last year (2020) during the pandemic that I decided to build my CW skills to a point that I could complete a Parks On The Air (POTA) CW activation.

What was the motivation?

1.) POTA and SOTA activators who schedule their activations can be automatically spotted via the Reverse Beacon Network (RBN). This means if you’re at a site that has no mobile phone coverage, the system may automatically spot and re-spot you from your CW CQ calls.  Since 60% of the sites I activate have no mobile phone or Internet coverage, this was a HUGE motivating factor.

2.) Let’s face it: CW is the ultimate mode for the portable operator. CW is simply more efficient and effective with your power output than voice modes like SSB, AM, or FM. Unlike modern digital modes, which are also more efficient than voice modes (think FT8/FT4), you need no special equipment or a computer as an interface.

3.) CW is a skill and, frankly, I wanted to improve that skill. I knew CW activations would be a wonderful motivator and excuse to practice.

Morse Runner

In May 2020, I started using a free program called Morse Runner to prepare for CW activation and potential pileups. Click here to read about my experience with Morse Runner.

Hunting

I also started hunting CW activators in the POTA program from home. The exchange is pretty simple, so it was easy to do. This also gave me the opportunity to learn common exchange communications and abbreviations.

Contests and DX

I started working DX stations in CW. As I mentioned in a previous post, the exchanges are very formulaic.

I also made a point of working CW stations in the 2020 ARRL Field Day and during the 2020 13 Colonies event.

My first CW activation

I’ll admit that I was nervous, but Hazel was pretty darn relaxed.

As I started to build a little confidence on the air–and before I had could talk myself out of it–on July 25, 2020, Hazel and I took my field radio kit to the Blue Ridge Parkway and I completed my first CW activation. Click here to read the details.

In short? It was actually a bit easier and more enjoyable than I had imagined.

Although I would get some butterflies at the start of the next few CW activations, CW quickly became my mode of choice. Why? For one thing, CW is a very narrow mode which means it’s super easy to find a clear frequency. CW also copes with QSB, QRN, and QRM much better than SSB. Frankly, there are also less LIDS on the CW bands.

There’s another reason that’s hard to explain, but I’ll try: when I operate in CW, I find that it takes my mind off of everything else going on in the world. When I’m listening to and sending code, it becomes my focus and somehow it’s very relaxing. I find it a bit of a refuge.

Finally, I have an appreciation of radio history and nostalgia so it’s fun to operate such a simple, early mode that’s still so incredibly effective.

What was your CW Path?

So there you go! CW is now my mode of choice. Even though I don’t even have one year of CW activations under my belt at time of posting, I operate it 95% of the time I’m in the field. I still love phone contacts–don’t get me wrong, I’m not a CW-only guy–but I prefer CW these days.

I would love to hear about your path to learning CW. What tools and resources did you use? Did you have any mentors that helped you along the way? Are you still learning CW? Please comment!

Could you activate a park or summit in CW only using a CW decoder and memory keyer?

The Xiegu G90 in CW Decode mode (note the text at the bottom of the display)

As more and more radio operators hit the field to activate parks and summits, many want to turn to CW to benefit from Reverse Beacon Network (RBN) spotting and also to take advantages of the inherent efficiencies of CW at QRP power levels.

Thing is, CW is a skill so there is a learning curve associated with it.

The learning curve is actually more modest than you might think, which is the reason there are so many new operators employing this earliest of communication modes.

A reader recently asked if he thought he could get away with doing a park activation for POTA using the built-in CW decoder in his transceiver and an external memory keyer pre-programmed with a wide variety of exchanges and signal reports. He even thought about using a keyboard-based keyer as opposed to paddles or a straight key.

The idea would be to get on the CW bands for experience as he’s learning CW. At present, he doesn’t know CW at all, but he’s starting to learn.

His question was simple, “Could I activate a park with this sort of setup?”

My reply? “Possibly. It would likely be frustrating.”

Before getting into a field activation, let’s talk about one area where even modest CW skills can be used to snag contacts.

Working short exchange DX in CW

There are a number of  DXers who effectively rely on CW skimmers, keyboard sending, and pre-programmed exchanges in order to work DX.

How do they do this? It’s simple, really:

DX exchanges are incredibly simple and formulaic.

For example, in order to work a typical DXpedition the only CW one really needs to know is what one’s own callsign sounds like in CW at a relatively high speed.

To work a DXpedition in CW, for example, I would only need to program the following two messages in my CW memory keyer:

  1. K4SWL” (my callsign)
  2. 5NN TU DE K4SWL” or ” K4SWL 5NN TU” or even simply “5NN TU

That’s it, really. Here’s how it would play out…

I simply press the memory button with my callsign to call the DXpedition.

When the DXpedition sends back my callsign and possibly a signal report (“K4SWL 5NN“), I then press the memory button with my reply (“5NN TU“).

My only skill would be knowing what my callsign sounds like in CW at 20-30 WPM. That’s actually very easy to learn.

The reason why this procedure is so easy is because you only need to recognize your own callsign in CW; the DXpedition at the other end is doing all of the hard work by picking callsigns from the pileup and replying.

Anyone could learn how to work these short DX exchanges in CW over a weekend. It’s not always as easy and straight-forward as the example above (sometimes, for example, the DX may only send back a portion of your callsign with a question mark)  but it is possible to work short exchange DX and DXpeditions without knowing much CW at all.

CW Skimmers vs. Built-in transceiver decoding

At home, you can also use powerful CW skimmers on your computer–sometimes via SDR applications–to decode CW across the bands.  In the field, you could also use a laptop or tablet to do the same thing. The Reverse Beacon Network (RBN) uses CW skimming to spot CW activators 24/7. It’s obviously pretty effective.

This particular reader was asking about using their transceiver’s built-in CW decoder along with pre-programmed CW exchanges.

I’ve reviewed numerous transceivers with built-in CW decoders. Some work better than others.

Transceivers decoders are typically pretty basic and not terribly adaptive. Some struggle with code that varies in speed–for example, it might  expect received code at the same speed your keyer is set to. That doesn’t always happen, of course.

Also, most transceivers will only interpret code that is completely tuned in properly–many have CWT and auto tuning functionality to center the frequency on the received signal.

If your transceiver likes the code speed and if you’re properly tuned in, you could get a very good read of the code being sent to you.

However, transceiver decoders (at present) will get confused by:

  • multiple signals (i.e. a CW pileup)
  • sloppy sending (junk in, junk out!)
  • signals that drift
  • and depending on the operator’s skill, straight keys, semi-automatic keys, and side-swipers (or “cooties”) can also confuse them

In other words, transceiver decoders are simple and typically are looking for standard, electronically-keyed code that’s properly tuned-in. They’re better at handling a rag-chew with a friend rather than the dynamic environment of multiple CW ops calling a site activation.

With this said, some transceivers are better at CW decoding than others. Your mileage will vary.

But the real rub?

When activating a site, you are the DX.

When you’re activating a park or summit, the burden of interpreting incoming callsigns falls on you. Built-in transceiver CW decoders are not good at pulling apart multiple callsigns being sent all at once. In fact, all of the transceivers I’ve used in the field only have one line of decoded text that scrolls across the screen.

If you activate a park and only one chaser/hunter calls you at a time, they’re spot on your frequency, and sending clean code, you probably could effectively use your transceiver’s CW decoder and pre-programmed messages to complete an exchange. This “ideal” situation would likely be fairly rare, in truth.

Your brain is a better

Your brain is much better at adapting, so there’s just no escaping building your CW skillset if you want to activate a park, summit, island, or any site where you are the DX.

Good news is, there are a number of applications, courses, and programs out there to help you build CW skills.

One place to start is the Long Island CW Club. I’ve heard so many success stories from their program. (Please comment with suggestions that have helped you!)

And when you’ve learned just enough CW to hop on the air, I highly recommend using the free Morse Runner application to practice handling small pileups.

Also? Chase first!

Before attempting a CW activation and getting frustrated by the experience, I would try chasing at home first using your transceiver’s decoder.

Chasing is a situation where you can make the decoder work better for you, because you’re only focusing on one target signal (an activator) at a time.

I did a lot of chasing as I was working on my CW activation skills. I also chased ARRL Field Day contacts and made a 13 Colonies “Clean Sweep” employing a bit of CW. Since the CW exchanges were so formulaic, it wasn’t all that difficult.

Side Note: DMX-40

Ironically, as I was writing this article, I learned about a product made by the company PrepComm called the DMX-40. I believe a reader may have commented with a link at some point.

The DMX-40 is basically a 40 meter self-contained QRP transceiver designed to send and decode CW.  The idea behind the DMX-40 stems more from an emergency communications point of view: you won’t need to learn CW in order to use it during emergency or one-on-one communications.

I’m tempted to test the DMX-40 to see how well it works in the real world. So far, I haven’t seen a review where it’s truly put through the paces in real-time. I might ask the manufacturer to send me a loaner if there’s interest. Let me know in the comments if you think it might be worth reviewing.  I am curious if it would work for the odd CW rag-chew and/or chasing CW park and summit activators. I assume, based on the product description and specs, its CW decoder would be much more robust than, say, the decoder in my Elecraft KX2.

Summary

Being completely transparent here, I’ve had this article in my drafts folder for the past three or four weeks. I initially wrote it thinking it would be a pretty simple answer. In truth, though, I’ve never attempted a CW activation only using my transceiver’s decoder.

There may be some savvy operators who could make this work using a CW skimmer and keyboard-based keyer with macros, but I think it would be an operation in frustration. I think it would discourage me more than anything else.

I do think there’s a place for CW decoders. In fact, I found the one in my KX3 incredibly helpful as I started chasing CW signals on the air from home. I never completely relied on the decoder, I simply used it to confirm what I though I was hearing. It built my confidence.

In the end, I believe it’s easier to simply learn some CW. It’s not really that difficult and I firmly believe it’s good for your brain!

Comments?

Please comment if you regularly employ a CW decoder, have completed a field activation with one, or if you simply used one while learning CW. I would also love to hear from folks who use CW skimmers and what applications they use. Indeed, I’d love to hear any of your considerate thoughts on the topic.

Tutorial: How to call CQ as an HF QRP station in SSB/Phone


Many thanks to Susan who writes:

I am new – just about to start – portable, QRP operating. I’m just waiting for the weather to cooperate a bit.

Via phone, I have been looking around for the “proper” way to call CQ indicating either QRP or portable – or both! but I haven’t found that. I do see CW “calling CQ” samples. Can you give me that information or direct me to a site that might give some guidance? Not a big deal but I would like to start out on the right foot and sound like I know what I’m doing.

Thanks.

Susan

Thanks for your question, Susan! I’ll share, below, how I call CQ when QRP and portable:

Calling CQ Basics

There is no truly standard way to call CQ, but most CQs follow a certain pattern. Some are short, and some are long.

In general, if you’re calling CQ and simply want to work anyone anywhere and you’re open to a rag-chew (extended conversation), you might start by giving a longer CQ. Some operators will do CQ calls that last nearly 30 seconds, but I don’t personally do that. I use a call and repeat it leaving an interval of maybe 5-8 seconds between repeats. I’ll say something like:

“CQ CQ CQ, CQ CQ CQ, this is Kilo Four Sierra Whisky Lima, Kilo Four Sierra Whisky Lima calling CQ and listening.” 

I repeat until I receive a reply.

I’ll sometimes change the length of the CQ call and add/remove words when I repeat. I might use a variation like:

“CQ CQ CQ this is Kilo Four Sierra Whisky Lima, Kilo Four Sierra Whisky Lima calling CQ and listening.” 

then

“CQ CQ CQ this is Kilo Four Sierra Whisky Lima calling CQ to anyone, anywhere and listening.” 

Side note: If you’re doing a Park or SOTA activation and you’ve been spotted on one of the networks, then keep your CQ short. Something like:

“CQ POTA CQ POTA CQ POTA this is Kilo Four Sierra Whisky Lima calling CQ for Parks On The Air”

Calling CQ QRP or Portable

Again, there’s no truly standard way of doing this, but when I call CQ QRP–which actually isn’t often–I’ll say:

“CQ CQ CQ, this is Kilo Four Sierra Whisky Lima calling CQ QRP and listening.”

or

“CQ CQ CQ, this is Kilo Four Sierra Whisky Lima calling CQ Portable and listening.”

I’ve even been known to say the number of watts I’m running in the CQ call.

But it’s truly rare that I note I’m running QRP in my CQ call. Why?  I enjoy receiving and sending a good signal report then revealing “I’m running 5 watts into a dipole antenna.” I usually get very positive reactions and I believe I get more replies to my CQ when I’m not revealing I’m QRP until we’re in the exchange. But honestly? It’s all just a matter of personal preference.

Working stations: My favorite approaches as a QRP station

K4SWL portable VY2!

I’ve been known to spend the bulk of the summer in an off-grid cabin with my family in the Canadian Maritimes. I’m always QRP during these vacations and I love making contacts.

Here are a few approaches I use that I feel get the most contacts:

1.) Call CQ on a QRP calling frequency

When I’m operating QRP, I try to operate on or near generally accepted QRP calling frequencies–here’s a handy reference sheet. QRPers hang out there, so there’s a decent chance I might make a QRP to QRP contact on one of those frequencies. Again, I typically use a standard CQ call instead of identifying I’m QRP, but it’s also perfectly fine to say you’re QRP.

Also, when I’m at home and have a radio turned on in the background, I’ll often keep it set on a QRP calling frequency so I can answer a QRP call.

Click here for a list of QRP calling frequencies.

2.) Call or “hunt” other stations

Sometimes, the best approach is to reply to other stations’ CQ calls.

This is so effective because the station is listening carefully for someone to reply to their CQ. If your signal is a little on the weak side, they’ll likely still reply.

As a QRPer, I’ll often start my search by tuning to one of the QRP calling frequencies mentioned above, but if no one is there, I look for any stations calling CQ with no replies.

3.) Move to a band with less activity

I’m sure some will disagree with me here, but I enjoy moving to bands like 17 meters when I’m QRP.

I’ve had very good success in the past if propagation is reasonably stable (an important factor in making this work).

I love 17 meters because the band is typically quiet and the density of stations isn’t that of, say, the phone portion of the 20 meter band. When I’m calling CQ on 17 meters, I’m often one of only a handful of operators I hear on that band, so I stand out a bit more. In fact, I’ve worked some of my best QRP DX on 17 meters. The trade-off is you might call CQ a while since there are less people on the band. This is where a voice memory keyer comes in handy!

Have fun!


Once you’ve made a few contacts on the bands, you’ll sort out your favorite CQ calls and what you include in them. Of course, learn from others you hear on the bands. Listening is always key.

My only advice would be not to do 30-45 second long CQ calls without leaving a break for a station to call back. Many would-be contacts will move on if they feel like they have to wait too long to answer your call. It is important, though, to send a few CQs and repeat your call at least twice anytime you’re giving a general CQ call on the HF bands.

Readers: What’s your favorite way of calling CQ QRP or Portable? What strategies work best for you? Please comment!

SOTA and POTA Field Report from Mount Jefferson State Natural Area

On Monday, March 22, 2021, I performed three QRP field activations in one day. I started off the day with a visit to Three Top Mountain Game Land, and then headed to Mount Jefferson State Natural Area for a POTA and SOTA activation before heading to New River State Park.

When plotting my multi-site activation day, I picked Mount Jefferson because it’s a SOTA entity (W4C/EM-021). I only realized later that it’s also a POTA entity (K-3846). I mistakenly assumed Mount Jefferson was a county park rather than an NC state park.  To do both a POTA and SOTA activation simultaneously is ideal!

Mount Jefferson (W4C/EM-021)

This was my first visit to Mount Jefferson and, frankly, I wasn’t sure what to expect in terms of hiking.

The park itself is amazing! North Carolina parks never let me down.

The entrance is near the base of the mountain and very close to the town of West Jefferson. The park road climbs up the side of Mount Jefferson –there are a number of spots to park, hike, and picnic.

I had not checked the trail map in advance, but I had read that the summit trail was accessible from the parking and picnic area at the end (top) of the park road.

I hopped out of my car, grabbed my SOTA pack, and very quickly found the trail head.

The trail is impeccably maintained and wide enough for vehicle use (no doubt these trails double as access for tower maintenance on the summit).

The hike to the summit from the parking are was incredibly short–about .3 miles. Normally, I’d want a much longer hike, but since I was trying to fit three site activations in a span of four hours, I didn’t complain.

On top of the summit, one is greeted by a typical cluster of transmission towers.

While I appreciate checking out antennas and towers, these are never a welcome site because they can generate serious QRM, making a SOTA activation difficult.

I also found a park weather station on the summit. Nice!

I searched around and found a spot to set up well within the activation zone but giving me a bit of distance from the towers.

Gear:

My Yaesu FT-817ND was desperate to get a little SOTA action, so I decided to pair it with the Chameleon CHA MPAS Lite using the Elecraft T1 ATU to find matches.

After putting the FT-817 on the air, I was very pleased to hear that the nearby transmission towers and power lines weren’t causing any noticeable interference.  This was a very good sign because, frankly, propagation was very unstable that day and I had real concerns about being able to work stations on 40 meters.

I hopped on the air and quickly realized I’d forgotten to hook my external battery up to the Yaesu FT-817ND. This meant I was running something closer to 2.5 watts as opposed to a full 5 watts. I decided to attempt the activation without the external battery and add it if needed.

I started operating on 20 meters and was very pleased to quickly rack up a number of contacts. I could tell that most of these contacts were via SOTA because I recognized the calls and primarily SOTA chasers.

Within 11 minutes, I worked 10 stations on 20 meters in CW. I was very pleased with how quickly those QSOs rolled in and how easily I logged the four needed for a valid SOTA and 10 needed for POTA activation–all on 20 meters.

Next, I moved to 40 meters where I worked two stations and 30 meters where I worked one. For sure, 20 meters was a much stronger band than 40 and 30 turned out to be.

After working 13 stations, I packed up.

Obviously, 2.5 watts was plenty for this activation!

I would have loved to stay longer, but frankly, I needed to stick to my schedule because I had one more park to fit in that day! (More on that in a future post and video!).

Here’s my QSOmap for the Mount Jefferson activation:

And here’s my full log:

Video

Even though I was a bit pressed for time, I still made one of my real-time, real-life videos of the entire activation. I hope you enjoy:

Next up will be an activation of New River State Park. I hope to post this early next week.

Thank you so much for reading this report!


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POTA Field Report: A CW ATNO at Three Top Mountain Game Land

Last Monday (March 22, 2021), I had another opportunity to play radio for the bulk of the day. These are rare opportunities–although I did have another open day only a few weeks ago–so I ty to take full advantage of them! The weather was perfect, so I decided to make a detour to Ashe County, North Carolina en route to visit my parents.

I haven’t been to Ashe County in the better part of a decade although I love this pretty secluded part of western North Carolina.

Ashe County is very much a destination–not a place you’d easily happen upon in your travels. It’s very much worth the detour, though, as it’s close to Boone/Blowing Rock, the Blue Ridge Parkway, and a number of other spots outdoor enthusiasts would love. The towns of Jefferson and West Jefferson are everything you’d expect from small town NC: charming and friendly. Plus, they have some excellent sources of cheese!

I plotted a three park, one summit run for that Monday. I’d have about one hour at each site, which would hopefully be enough to set up, play radio, and pack up. All three sites were new to me–meaning, I had never personally activated them.

My first destination?

Three Top Mountain Game Land (K-3869)

I left my QTH around 9:00 local and arrived on site around 11:30. I had researched the most accessible parking area (there were many for this game land) and one that would be closest to my other destinations.

The game land maps are pretty accurate, but this parking area was a little tricky to find as it’s small, elevated off the road, and you have to enter a private driveway to find it. the “Hunters Parking” sign is, let’s say, “discreet.”

Honestly? Finding these sites is all part of the fun.

Gear:

Going into this activation, I knew there would be challenges. For one thing, propagation was similar to the day before: poor and unstable.

Secondly, the Reverse Beacon Network (RBN) auto-spotting functionality on the POTA spots page was not working. That was a bad thing because this game land site had no hint of mobile phone service.

I did anticipate both of these issues though, and took precautions:

  • I contacted my buddies Mike (K8RAT) and Eric (WD8RIF) and gave them my full schedule with anticipated start times for frequencies at each location before leaving the QTH.
  • I also had my new Garmin InReach satellite messaging device that I could use to text Mike and Eric should they not be able to hear me that day.

As I’ve mentioned in previous post: successful activations (especially if you’re under time pressure) always include being spotted to the POTA network. It’s as if you don’t exist if you’re not spotted.

“CW ATNO”

 

Another thing working in my favor at this particular site  is that it had only been activated a couple times before and both of those times it was via phone only. My activation would be the first time CW had been used at this site for POTA. This means nothing in terms of the Parks On The Air program–meaning, there are no special awards for this sort of thing–but it does give you a bit of an edge because CW hunters will find the site rare and very desirable. They’ll go the extra mile to get logged.

It’s funny: in 2020, I activated numerous proper ATNOs (All Time New Ones)  for POTA. There were so many here in western North Carolina that just by going to new sites each time, I ended up activating them for the very first time in phone and/or CW.

POTA grew by orders of magnitude last year, though, and now there are so many activators who would love to be the first to activate a site, new entities are often activated within a day of being added. The only true ATNOs left in NC are game lands that have accessibility issues.

On The Air

I deployed my EFT-MTR antenna that I repaired that weekend. I did a very basic repair, attaching the top end of the radiator back to the in-line coil/trap. Somehow in doing this I changed the antenna enough that my SWR on 40 and 20 meters was in excess of 2.5:1.

No problem: I employed my T1 ATU to bring the SWR back down to 1:1.

I hopped on 40 meters and immediately started working stations. No doubt, the rarity of this park was providing my spot with a little extra attention.

In 23 minutes, I worked a total of 20 stations: that’s about as good as it gets, especially with poor propagation.

Once the initial group of hunters died down, I went QRT.

Normally, I would spend more time on-site and move up the band, but I was on a tight schedule and realized I hadn’t allowed any time to grab a to-go lunch!

Video

I did make another real-time, real-life video of the entire activation from start to finish. If you care to watch it, click this link to view on YouTube, or watch via the embedded player below:

Thanks for reading this report. Three Top was a fun activation and I was very happy I didn’t have to struggle to validate it.  The next park that day was Mount Jefferson which also happened to be a SOTA site. I’ll be posting the report and video later this week!

73,

Thomas, K4SWL


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Testing the new Chameleon Tactical Delta Loop (CHA TDL) antenna

Chameleon Antenna has sent me a number of their antenna systems to evaluate in the field over the past few months at no cost to me. I appreciate not only the opportunity to test these antennas, but to provide the company with my frank feedback.

As I’ve mentioned previously, Chameleon antennas are military grade and build here in the US (check out Josh’s tour of their factory).  You pay a premium price–compared to imported options–but their gear is built for performance, easy deployment, and longevity.

What has impressed me most about Chameleon gear is how flexible and modular it is. Their antenna systems are adaptable to almost any situation and always built around the idea of emergency communications.

Recently, Chameleon sent me their new CHA TDL or Tactical Delta Loop antenna. This vertical loop antenna has been designed to be portable, and tunable from 3.5 to 54.0 MHz (80-6M), but, as Chameleon points out,  “is most effective on the bands from 10.1 to 54.0 MHz (30-6M). ”

TDL deployment

If I’m being perfectly honest, I wasn’t sure what to expect this antenna to look like–in terms of size–once deployed, so I set it up in the front yard prior to taking it to the field.

Set up couldn’t have been more simple: attach the 17′ telescoping whips to the stainless steel spike (with one whip attached to the Hybrid Micro), extend the whip sections, then attach the loop wire to connect the tips of both whips.

It might have taken me four minutes to set up the TDL on the first go.

This antenna needs a little space  for sure: this isn’t one you could easily deploy in a dense forest, but it has a very flat profile vertically. I can’t think of a single park I’ve activated that couldn’t accommodate the CHA TDL.

I like to try to give gear a fair chance when I do evaluations and thought I’d wait until propagation was at least stable before taking the TDL to the field and making a real-time, real-life video (as I used it for the first time). But, frankly, I’m way to impatient to wait for the sun to play fair! Trial by fire…

Lake Norman State Park (K-2740)

On Monday (March 15, 2021) I packed up the CHA TDL and headed to Lake Norman; one of my favorite parks to play radio.

Gear:

Propagation left much to be desired that afternoon, but the weather was perfect.

I decided to pair the CHA TDL with my Icom IC-705. Since the CHA TDL requires an ATU, I connected the mAT-705 Plus.

NVIS on the low bands

I had no idea what to expect from the CHA TDL in terms of performance, but Chameleon notes that it provides Near-Vertical Incidence Skywave (NVIS) propagation on 40 and 80 meters. NVIS antennas are very popular for the military and for emergency communications since the propagation footprint is much closer to home than it might normally be.

NVIS is also a brilliant option for park and summit activators, especially if they’re activating in an area with a high density of park/summit chasers. For example, if you live and activate sites in the state of Maryland, employing a NVIS antenna might make your site more accessible to the DC metro area, Pennsylvania, Virginia, New York, Delaware, and New Jersey–regions that might otherwise be in the skip zone of your 40 meter signal.

On the air

Operating five watts CW, I started calling CQ POTA on 20 meters and snagged four stations in about seven minutes.

I was very pleased to work a station in California and one in Montana with five watts. (Though I need to check, this might have been my first MT station logged from a park.)

Next, I moved to 40 meters and was very curious if the TDL would provide me with proper NVIS propagation.

It did! One litmus test for me is when I work stations in Tennessee on 40 meters. Typically, I only log TN stations when on 80 meters or when I’ve configured one of my wire antennas for NVIS coverage.

Here are my logs from this 28 minute activation:

Here’s a QSOmap of the activation–the delineation between my four 20 meter contacts and eight 40 meter contacts is pretty evident:

Video

Here’s my real-time, real-life video of the entire activation which also shows how the CHA TDL easily fit in among trees:

In a future video, I’ll show how I deploy the CHA TDL.

Unfortunately, I left my tripod at home, so apologies for the viewing angle as I operated the IC-705.

Summary

This first test of the CHA TDL really couldn’t have gone better.

I was able to easily deploy it on sloping ground, among trees, in a state park, and snag both locals and QRP DX within a brief window of time on the air.  All this, while our local star tried its best to interfere.

In terms of construction, the TDL is what I would expect from Chameleon: military grade.

For park activators and Emcomm purposes, the CHA TDL makes for a convenient, portable NVIS antenna on 40 and 80 meters.

While I have lighter, smaller footprint antenna options for SOTA, I must admit I’m very curious how it might perform on 20 and 17 meters from the summit of a mountain. The idea of being able to rotate the antenna and change the propagation footprint is very appealing. I’ll save this experiment for a summit that doesn’t require hours of hiking, though, and one where I know I can jab the stainless steel spike in the ground (i.e. not on top of a rocky mountain).

Any negatives? When I first deployed the TDL at home, we were having 30+ MPH wind gusts. When the gusts shifted, it did move the antenna. This could be remedied pretty easily by using a bit of fishing line filament to tie off one side of the loop. With that said, I’m not sure I’d configure the TDL as a loop if I expected strong winds. Also, as I mentioned earlier, this might not be the best antenna to pack if you plan to include a multi-hour hike in your activation.

And herein lies the brilliant thing about Chameleon Antennas: If I packed in the CHA TDL and found that winds were strong on site, I would simply configure it as a vertical instead of a loop!

The CHA MPAS Lite vertical

The CHA TDL can easily be configured as a CHA MPAS Lite portable vertical: all it’s missing is a counterpoise wire which you can buy separately from Chameleon or, better yet,  just use some spare wire you have on hand!

Or, you could configure it as a random wire antenna by directly connecting a length of wire to the Hybrid Micro transformer.

That’s the thing about Chameleon HF Antennas: they can be configured so many different ways.

If you’re interested in the CHA TDL, I’d strongly encourage you to read though the user manual: it’s chock full of info and ideas. Click here to download as a PDF.

Next time I take the CHA TDL out, I think it’ll be to a summit where I’d like to see how it might perform on the higher bands with the ground sloping away from the antenna site.

Click here to check out the CHA TDL at Chameleon Antenna ($355 US shipped). 

SOTA Field Report from Rocky Face (W4C/WP-006)

One of the things I love about POTA and now SOTA is that it gives me a reason to venture out and explore parks and other public lands that might have otherwise never shown up on my RADAR.

Rocky Face is a prime example.

On the morning of Wednesday, March 10, 2021, I would have never guessed that by noon I would be standing on the summit of Rocky Face. That morning, I had planned to activate the summit of Baker’s Mountain–a park and summit I know very well as I’ve hike the trails there almost monthly and the mountain is a stone’s throw from my parents’ home.

That morning, when I arrived at Baker’s Mountain Park and the gates were shut, I remembered that they are closed on Wednesdays.

Oops.

I was determined to hike to a summit, though, so I grabbed my iPhone and launched the SOTA Goat app, then searched for nearby summits.  That’s when I noticed Rocky Face which was *only* a 40 minute drive from Baker’s Mountain. I had heard of this 1 point summit and park, but had never been there, so why not take a little road trip and explore?

Rock Face (W4C/WP-006)

View of Rocky Face from the road.

It was a very pleasant drive which was made all the better by gorgeous sunny weather.

When I arrived on site, I was surprised to see just how well developed this park was. There were two different parking areas, a visitor’s center, picnic area, rock climbing face, playground, and numerous trails. There’s even a large area for outdoor events.

I took the “Vertical Mile Challenge” to the summit (which I would recommend) and was more of a workout that one might imagine for a 1 point 576 meter summit.

The trail was very well maintained. The ascent up the granite slope offered some welcome views of the surrounding area.

I was a little surprised to find some Nodding Trilliums blooming on the side of, and even on the path. A sure sign spring is on the way!

March 10th was also one of the warmest days of the year so far.

On the summit, there were actually a couple of picnic tables–a total surprise which made this SOTA operation feel somewhat luxurious!

On The Air

I set up the Elecraft KX2 and Chameleon MPAS 2.0 which were still packed from a SOTA activation two days earlier at Elk Knob (I’ll post a report of that activation in the near future).

I had not charged the Lithium Ion pack in the KX2 after the Elk Knob activation, but I assumed I’d still have enough “juice” to get me through the Rocky Face activation at 5 watts.

I started by calling CQ SOTA on 20 meters. A friend told me that propagation was very unstable, so I feared the worst. Fortunately, 20 meters was kicking (40 meters much less so).

Right off the bat, I worked stations in France, Germany, Slovenia, Quebec, Spain, and all of the west coast states of the US. It was so much fun and exactly why I love QRP and playing radio in the field.

As I switched from 20 meters to 40 meters, some hikers passed by. Turns out it was my cousin and her husband–what a surprise! Of course, they had no idea what I was up to, so I ended up explaining not only SOTA, but amateur radio and why I was using CW (yeah, I cut that bit from the activation video below).

They moved on and I hit 40 meters which was hit harder by the poor propagation. Many stations I regularly work were a good 2-3 S units lower in signal strength.

I am certainly looking forward to some stable propagation eventually! Still…very, very pleased with the 24 stations I worked and the QRP DX as well.

Here’s a QSOmap of my contacts–all from 5 watts and a vertical:

Video

Here’s a video of the entire activation:

Click here to view on YouTube.

Rocky Face turned out to be a fun little hike, productive activation, and a great opportunity to explore a new summit and park. I’ll certainly return!


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SOTA Field Report: Activating Lane Pinnacle with the Elecraft KX2 and CHA MPAS Lite

I’ll let you in on a little secret. Don’t tell anyone, but I held off making my first Summits On The Air (SOTA) activation  until the stars aligned and I could activate one particular summit completely on foot from my QTH.

Last Thursday (February 25, 2021), my daughter and I hiked to Lane Pinnacle (W4C/CM-018) and performed my first Summits On The Air (SOTA) activation.

Why did I wait so long?

We live in the mountains of western North Carolina where (obviously) there are numerous SOTA summits to activate.

But I wanted Lane Pinnacle to be the first.

Why? Well, it’s the one summit I can hike to directly from my house with my daughter Geneva (K4TLI) and enjoy a proper father/daughter day hike.

I had planned to do this hike last year, but I injured my ankle and let’s just say that the hike to Pinnacle isn’t a beginner’s run.  I knew my ankle would need to properly heal before the journey.

This is also more of a late fall to very early spring hike due to the amount of thick foliage we knew we would have to mitigate. It’s so much easier to keep your bearings when there are no leaves on the trees nor on the green briar!

Last Thursday, I felt confident that my ankle was up to the task. We had a break in the weather as well with moderate temps and lots of sunshine (this, after several days of rain). We knew things could be muddy and slippery, but we also knew that with my busy schedule this might be our last chance to hit the summit before the mountains green up.

So we packed a lunch, plenty of water, radio gear, and (of course) emergency/first-aid kits while trying to keep our backpacks as light as possible.

Hitting the trail!

The first part of the hike requires trailblazing to a ridge line. The distance is short, but the ascent is steep (about 800 feet).  We hike this portion regularly, so knew how to pick our path and avoid the steeper, slippery bits.

K4TLI lead the way!

On the ridge line, we intersected an established single track trail and enjoyed the hike across a couple of smaller summits until we intersected the Blue Ridge Parkway.

If I’m being honest, I had some serious concerns that the trailhead to Lane Pinnacle would be closed. This portion of Blue Ridge Parkway is currently closed to motor vehicles (for the winter season) and I had noticed a number of “trail closed” signs on other portions of the parkway.

Guessing this may be a type of shelf fungus?

If the trail was closed, I planned to simply activate the parkway and Pisgah National Forest for the POTA program. I never hike on trails that have been closed by the park service because I like to obey the rules and I certainly don’t want to paint SOTA activators in a bad light.

When we crossed the parkway, we were incredibly pleased to see that the trailhead was open.

The ascent from the parkway to Lane Pinnacle is about 1,000 feet (305 meters) of elevation gain over a pretty short distance. The trail we were taking–turns out–was primitive. It basically lead us straight up the slope (no switch backs following lines of elevation, for example) and simply fizzled out about one third of the way up.  We could tell it isn’t traveled often at all (although we did find a massive fresh bear track in the mud on the trail!).

Obligatory SOTA report “foot in snow” photo. 🙂

I bushwhacked our way to the top–at times, the slope was about 45 degrees and slippery, but we easily found our way to the summit where our goat path intersected the Mountains To Sea trail.

We found an amazing overlook and took in views of the Bee Tree Reservoir as we ate our lunches.

Geneva grabbed her dual-band HT and made the first summit contact with our friend, Vlado (N3CZ) on 2 meters FM.

On the Air

I knew there would be short trees on the summit of Lane Pinnacle, but I also knew that I wanted to get on the air as soon as possible to allow extra time for our hike home.

I did pack a super compact wire antenna, but opted instead for the Chameleon CHA MPAS Lite vertical. I paired it with my Elecraft KX2.

Gear:

The great thing about the CHA MPAS Lite is how quick it is to deploy–it might have taken me all of three minutes.

Since it was noon, I decided to start on the 20 meter band. I found a clear frequency, started calling “CQ SOTA” with the KX2 memory keyer, and spotted myself to the SOTA network via the excellent SOTA Goat app on my phone.

I had also scheduled my activation on the POTA website in advance because Lane Pinnacle is in Pisgah National Forest (K-4510). My buddies Mike (K8RAT) and Eric (WD8RIF) were also helping to spot me in the unlikely event I wouldn’t have cell phone service on the summit.

Within 20 seconds of submitting the spot to the SOTA network I had a CW pileup.

In all of my hundreds of field activations, I can’t think of a single time that I generated a CW pileup on 20 meters in such short order with five watts and a vertical.

The first station I logged was N1AIA in Maine. The second station was F4WBN in France.  The race was on!

It took every bit of CW skill I had to pull apart the stations on 20 meters. It was so much fun!

I eventually worked Spain and all of the west coast states (WA, OR, and CA) and numerous stations throughout the Rockies and Midwest.

I then moved to 40 meters where I worked stations in the Mid-Atlantic, Ohio Valley, and in the Southeast.

In the end, I had to keep my total time on the air short because I wanted to take my time finding a path from the summit back down to the Blue Ridge Parkway.

In 30 minutes I worked 30 stations. I’m not a seasoned CW operator, so this was quite the accomplishment.

Here’s a QSOmap of my contacts:

I was chuffed! What a fabulous activation to kick off my SOTA adventures.

Video

This time, I did not make a video of the actual activation. For one thing, I didn’t want to carry a folding tripod for the camera and I didn’t want to ask my daughter to film it either. I wanted to keep things as simple as possible to make the most of the airtime I had.

I did, however, make a short video before and after. You can check it out on my YouTube channel:

Hiking home

I really wish we could have stayed on the summit for an hour longer making contacts, but I knew it would be wise to allow extra time to descend Lane Pinnacle especially since I knew a front was moving through later that day.

I decided it would be easier to do my own bushwhacking back down the mountain rather than try to retrace our previous steps. We took our time and I followed elevation lines to make it slightly less steep. Since I took a more south westerly descent, when we reached the parkway, we had to hike north to reach the original trailhead.

The rest of the hike was totally uneventful and incredibly fun. The weather held and we took in the views, the wildlife, and invaluable father/daughter time.

That was the first strenuous hike I had done in months due to my ankle, so let’s just say I was feeling “spent” after our 6.5 hour adventure taking in 2,000 feet (610 meters) of elevation to the summit.

I knew it was bad when I even dreaded walking upstairs to take a shower.  I think I remember telling my wife, “I’m never building a house with stairs again!”

More SOTA!

Now  that I’ve got Lane Pinnacle in the books, I’m ready to start hitting the summits! I’ve got a lot of pent up SOTA energy!

My goal is to activate a total of ten this year. That may sound like a modest number, but since at this point I’m less interested in “drive-up” summits, it’s more difficult to fit SOTA summits into my schedule than, say, typical POTA/WWFF parks.

In fact, I’ve already plotted my next SOTA activation and hope to do it within the next couple of weeks. It’s also a meaningful (to me) summit.

How about you?

Are you a SOTA activator or are you planning your first SOTA activation soon? Please comment!

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.

Tom’s “Salt Water Amplifier” approach to portable & pedestrian QRP DX

Many thanks to Tom (G0SBW) who writes:

Hi Thomas

I thought I would drop you a line to say how much I am enjoying your posts – so much so I have subscribed.

I came across your posts while researching POTA (it is now available to hams in the UK and I have signed up for it). […]Most of my QRP sessions are pedestrian mobile but as I get older (I’m 82) I think they will become more /P.

What is quite different for me is that almost all of my operating is done from salt water marsh areas – so no trees at all for antenna supports. Of course, there are ways of getting around this problem by using masts with verticals, and mag loops. Using the readily available salt water amplifier, I’ve had quite a bit of DX success with SSB QRP. I’m now busy getting my CW up to scratch to get along better with POTA.

Here is a link to a YouTube video I made last year which shows a couple of my type of activity. It was made for a presentation so it is a bit long at 30 minutes:

73. ( or maybe that should be 72?). and Keep safe

Tom G0SBW

Thank you, Tom! Brilliant presentation! Thank you so much for sharing (although you’re making me homesick for the UK). I love the idea of the sea water amplifier effect and have employed that in the past to my advantage.  I wish the coast were a little closer to my QTH, but sadly it’s a good 4.5 hour drive at minimum.

Thank you and please let us know if you post new videos.

Click here to view Tom’s video on YouTube.