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 first discovered their gear at the Wright Patterson AFB Air Force base Military Clothing Store with my buddy Eric (WD8RIF) in 2013. I purchased their Pack-Rat pouch and reviewed it on the SWLing Post.
Since then I’ve purchased numerous products from Spec-Ops Brand.
I’ve owned the Spec-Ops T.H.E. Pack Tactical backpack since 2013 as well. You don’t see that pack in my field reports because, frankly, it’s just too big for most of my field radio applications. It’s designed for armed forces deployments and has a lot of capacity. I primarily use it for camping and extended travels.
Spec-Ops introduced an EDC (Everyday Carry) version of the T.H.E. Pack Tactical in 2015 or after so many customers asked for it. The EDC version is identical to the larger T.H.E. pack in every respect, just smaller in every dimension.
It’s very early days, but I suspect this pack will become my choice Summits On The Air (SOTA) pack.
In terms of size/capacity, it’s ideal for summit day hikes and the thing is just covered in Molle (Modular Lightweight Load-Carrying Equipment) straps, so very adaptable if I need to attach extendable masts, hiking poles, water bottles, or basically a Molle pouch or accessory.
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.
Funny: As I started listening to the QSO Today episode, I thought Paul sounded familiar then realized that Paul was one of the presenters of the QSO Today Virtual Ham Radio Expo in August. Here’s that presentation–well worth your time:
I had a conversation recently with a ham who upgraded his license for HF privileges primarily to do park activations in the POTA and WWFF programs.
He mentioned that he had a few successful park activations under his belt but was left scratching his head on a couple of occasions when he attempted a Park-To-Park (P2P) contact but could not be heard by the other activator.
He did all of the right things: announced his call sign followed by “Park To Park” twice and was patient while the activator worked a small pile-up.
In one case, he said the other operator had an incredibly strong signal–and having always heard, “if you can hear them, you can work them“–he was really baffled that he couldn’t make contact especially being a desirable P2P. His activations were successful so he knew it wasn’t an equipment issue.
He asked for my input, so I thought I might share a few points here as this is not at all uncommon–please comment if you think of others:
Big power, small antenna
Some activators operate mobile and don’t actually deploy their gear in the field. They simply drive up to a site, turn on their mobile HF rig in the car, and start making contacts with the mobile whip antenna mounted on their vehicle. There’s nothing wrong with this approach in the POTA program (just keep in mind mobile activations are not allowed in SOTA). Mobile activators can rack up numerous park activations in one day often regardless of weather or any site restrictions.
Mobile vertical antennas like Screwdrivers, Hamsticks and whips are quite impressive and, many activators swear by them. Not only do they work well in mobile situations, but they can also be quickly set up on a tripod in the field and many models can take a full 100+ watts of power.
If an activator is pumping 50-100 watts into a small, resonant mobile antenna, their signal is getting out there. But since their antenna might not actually have a lot of gain or efficiency on 40 or 60 meters, it can’t compete–in terms of reception–with a large aperture wire antenna.
In this scenario, the activator might be logging a load of stations, but they may not be able to hear your signal if it’s weaker than the others in the pile-up.
QRM on the other end
This is a big one, actually, and affects both park and, especially, summit activations.
Sometimes the other activator’s site is plagued with QRM (radio interference) emanating from power lines, nearby buildings, transmission equipment, and other electronic sources.
That QRM will not typically affect their transmitted signal, but it will have a dramatic impact on what they can receive andhear.
For example, I recently attempted to activate a game land I’d never been to before. On Google Maps satellite view, the site looked pretty darn remote and there were no buildings in sight. When I arrived on site, I set up my station, spotted myself, and started calling CQ POTA.
When I turned up the volume on the radio, it hit me that my noise level was a solid S8-S9! Turns out, there was a nearby power line that was spewing broadband noise across the entire HF spectrum. It was pretty much inescapable–there were no unaffected HF bands.
Had I really wanted to continue with that activation (I did not) I would have only been able to work stations with signals that were above my high noise floor. Perhaps one in five contacts at best. My chasers would have all been been left scratching their heads.
QRM isn’t always S8, but even an S5 or S6 noise level might wipe out 40-50% of the signals the activator can hear.
While hitting the field is usually the best way to escape QRM, there are spots that are as noisy an an urban neighborhood.
This is a big one; especially with the unsettled conditions we’ve had over the past couple of years. QSB, or signal fading, can be a proper obstacle in completing a contact.
If you’ve been watching my activation videos, you’ve no doubt seen chasers that call me with a 599 signal and when I respond to them, I hear nothing but silence. In those situations, I’ll repeat my reply with their callsign and signal report a few times in a row. I do this because QSB is a bit like having a three year old playing with your volume control while you’re on the air.
Seriously, imagine that three year old turning up the volume, then turning it back down, then turning it up again, and so on. It essentially has the same effect. Sometimes QSB is shallow and slow, other times it’s deep and fast–or it can be any variation in between (including deep and slow which is the worst).
In those situations as an activator, I reply a few times in a row with hopes to catch the QSB on the upswing so I can have a window of contact with the other station. When I do make contact, I try to keep the contact as short as possible so there’s hope for a complete exchange.
As a hunter, you have less control because your only hope is that QSB will be at the peak of signal strength when you call the activator.
If you’ve been doing park and summit activations for very long, you’ve no doubt experienced some “environmental distractions” during an activation.
I’ve been at parks before when the grounds crew were blowing leaves, mowing, and using other lawn equipment. It can be proper audio QRM especially if you don’t have an option to wear headphones to isolate those noises.
Sometimes the wind can cause a lot of extra noise. I’ve also been in shelters where the rain hitting the tin roof (while somewhat soothing) adds a lot of extra noise.
I’ve also been on summits and in parks where other hikers and passersby start asking questions while I’m in the middle of handling CW contacts.
They don’t understand that you’re actually in the middle of an exchange and need your attention focused. 🙂 For so many of them, it’s the first time they’ve ever seen/heard someone operating Morse Code and they’ve loads of questions. I hate to pass up an opportunity to promote amateur radio, so I’ll often pause the activation to talk with them.
If you know your radio equipment is functioning as it should but you can’t seem to grab the attention of an activator, keep in mind that it’s likely them, not you.
They’re not ignoring you, they simply can’t hear you.
The best practice for eventually making contact is to be patient and persistent. If you’re an activator trying to work another activator for a P2P or S2S (Summit To Summit) contact, keep sending P2P or S2S with your call. Often, other hunters will hear you and point out to the activator during their own exchange that there’s a weak P2P or S2S operator calling. More often than not, that’s your ticket to busting through!
Did I miss something? Please comment and share your thoughts and tips!
This past weekend (October 15-17, 2021) I was off-grid and offline…but not off the air.
It was bliss.
I joined the W4 SOTA Campout–a group of Summits On The Air (SOTA) activators and chasers primarily from the Southeast US–in Nantahala National Forest at Standing Indian Campground. Due to my schedule, I was only there two nights, but it made for a great weekend reset.
On the morning of Thursday, September 23, 2021, I had one thing on my mind: SOTA!
It had been well over a month since my last SOTA activation and I was eager to hike to a summit and play radio.
It had been raining for a few days but overnight, a front moved into the area that swept out all of the clouds. We were finally feeling proper fall weather.
It was gorgeous outside and I made up my mind I’d fit in a summit activation.
I was visiting my parents in Hickory, NC, so I knew I’d have to drive a bit to activate a unique (to me) summit. On top of that, I knew I’d be alone and trails would be very muddy after days of rain. I decided to stick with an easy hike, so picked Flat Top Mountain (W4C/EM-026) off of the Blue Ridge Parkway.
I announced my activation via the SOTA website and drove about one hour to the trailhead of Flat Top Mountain.
As I’ve mentioned a number of times on QRPer and on the SWLing Post, I’m a pack geek. I enjoy organizing and packing my gear for field radio activities and travel.
Last week, I made a very quick overnight trip to visit my parents. My time during this trip was very limited and I did not plan to fit in an activation, but Monday morning, I was able to knock out an errand very early and that freed up a couple of hours in the early afternoon. Fortunately, prior to leaving my QTH, I decided to pack a few travel items in my GoRuck GR1 pack along with a field radio kit built around my Elecraft KX2.
I never leave home without a field radio kit because I never know when an opportunity to play radio might happen.
On the way home Tuesday, I popped Lake Jame State Park and fit in a quick, last minute activation. Moments before arriving at the lake, I received a request from one of my YouTube subscribers asking if I would make the occasional video showing what’s in my radio packs and field kits.
I’ve been meaning to make these videos but, frankly, often forget when I arrive at a park or summit because I’m just a little too focused on starting my activation.
Since I had some overnight items in my pack, it wasn’t a typical SOTA or POTA field kit, but I decided to make the video anyway. After all, I love watching videos about how others pack and organize their radio and travel kits. But then again, I’m a pack geek. I did mention this right–?
Although I’m not always the neatest person (my wife is probably chuckling at this gross understatement), I’m a meticulous and very organized pack geek. What you see in the video is exactly how I pack when no one is looking. 🙂
I’ll add here that if you’re interested in field radio kits and packs, I’d encourage you to check out my Anatomy of a Field Radio Kit series; Part 1 has already been published and Part 2 will be posted later this week. In Part 2, I take a much deeper dive into safety gear I take on SOTA activations.
In the video, I mention that I would attempt to link to all of the items in my pack. I spent time sorting out links this morning; many links go straight to the pack manufacturer because the packs I use typically have no distributors other than the manufacturer, I have also purchased a lot of the smaller items on Amazon, but many can be found in big box stores like Walmart, Target, Canadian Tire, etc.
If I missed something, let me know in the comments.
Like all my videos, this one us unscripted, made in one take (unedited), and also has no ads:
Out of order…
So this video was made prior to an activation at Lake James last week. I’ve mentioned before that my Internet speeds at the QTH are worse than dismal, but since this pack video was relatively short, I was able to upload it ahead of the activation video (it took 1.5 days to upload this 2GB file).
The activation video will be published in another week or so depending on my access to some proper broadband service.
Any other pack geeks out there?
I would love to share photos, descriptions, and/or a video of how and what you pack for field activations. If you’re interested in submitting a guest post, please do so!
Also, I’d love to hear about your favorite packs and how well they’ve held up with time.
Feel free to comment and thank you once again for hanging out here at QRPer.com!
Two weeks ago, my buddy Monty and I went on a camping trip near Mount Pisgah off of the Blue Ridge Parkway. It was amazing.
Monty is one of my best friends and like a brother to me. We were roommates during my undergraduate years at Western Carolina University. In those days, we were both into mountain biking, hiking, trail running, backpacking, and camping. WCU was the perfect launching point for all of those activities.
These days, we both still do hiking and a little mountain biking, but at–what we might generously call–a more “relaxed” pace.
Although Monty’s family also live in western North Carolina and we keep in touch pretty regularly, we hadn’t seen each other in person for years, so we knew a camping trip would sort all of that out and give us a chance to reconnect while disconnecting from our busy schedules.
We chose Mount Pisgah campground off of the Blue Ridge parkway for a few reasons: it’s roughly halfway between our homes, it’s at a high altitude which equates to cooler nights during the hottest part of the summer, and–you guessed it–it’s on no less than two POTA sites and close to a number of SOTA summits as well!
Another fun fact about the Mount Pisgah campground? It’s also black bear habitat. I believe I mentioned that when I activated Mount Pisgah earlier this summer, I spotted a number of bears in this area. But hey! Check out the park’s bear traps:
And to be honest? My QTH is also just as much in black bear territory, so this isn’t exactly unfamiliar.
Richland Balsam (W4C/WM-003)
The weather was ideal on the morning of Monday, August 2, 2021.
Monty actually mentioned in advance that he’d like to accompany me on a SOTA activation or two. He’s an engineer at WCU and I’ve been nudging him for years to get his ham ticket, so how in the world could I pass up a little SOTA/POTA proselytizing?
While Monty cooked up some breakfast burritos, we hatched a plan to activate Richland Balsam first.
Richland Balsam is a very accessible 6,410′ (1954M) summit and is actually the highest peak on the entire Blue Ridge Parkway.
Richland Balsam is a great “beginners” SOTA summit because the loop trail is only 1.5 miles long, well-marked, doesn’t require an experienced hiker, and passes through a spruce-fir forest which not only provides shade, but also ample trees for wire antennas. The trailhead is easy to find as well; it’s at the north end of the Haywood/Jackson overlook parking area.
Only one word of caution: being such an accessible loop trail right there on the Blue Ridge Parkway, it can get very busy during the summer and fall–in fact, you might struggle to find a spot to park. Monty and I arrived early enough that there were only a handful of cars parked at the overlook.
Richland Balsam reminds me of some of the trails in/around Mount Mitchell: lots of ferns, mosses, and and the smell of spruce-fir. Bliss!
On The Air
I’d forgotten that there are actually a couple of benches on the summit of Richland Balsam which is a proper luxury for any SOTA activator!
Monty had no issue at all setting up the Chameleon MPAS Lite vertical on his own as I prepared my clipboard, Elecraft KX2, and log book.
I actually had decent mobile phone service on the summit, so spotting myself was quite easy via the SOTA Goat app. Of course, I assumed I might not have access to spot myself, so I did schedule the activation before leaving the campsite on both the SOTA and POTA platforms knowing both would auto-spot me from the Reverse Beacon Network (RBN).
I started calling CQ on 20 meters CW and my first contact was fellow POTA activator Steve (KC5F) who was, no doubt, working me via ground wave from his home. Always good to have Steve in the logs.
In thirteen minutes, I worked nine stations on 20 meters–lots of familiar calls. I actually validated the SOTA activation (logging four contacts) in no less than five minutes!
I then moved to 17 meters where I worked K6MW in Washington state.
Finally, I moved down to the 40 meter band in hopes of picking up Mike (K8RAT)–success!–and also worked good ole’ Bill (WB1LLY) in Georgia.
Here’s my full log sheet:
Near the end of the activation (you might note this in the video), Monty and I hear a loud animal noise in the forest–very likely a black bear making itself known. We took that as a cue to pack up and move on.
Here’s my real-time, real-life, no-edit video of the entire activation from start to finish. If you’ve been seeking a cure for insomnia, you’ve found it:
After leaving Richland Balsam, we decided to also take in W4C/CM-005 (Black Balsam Knob) which is another 10 point summit on the Blue Ridge Parkway. I tried making a video of this activation, but for some reason the camera shut down after nine minutes. I’m uncertain yet if I’ll publish that video with a post. We’ll see! It, too, was a fun activation.
After Black Balsam, Monty and I prepared a late lunch back at the campsite and decided that there was still enough of the day left to take in the Mount Pisgah summit trail. Frankly, it was simply too tempting! There was a trail not even 25 feet from our tents which lead us to the Mount Pisgah trailhead. Since I had already activated Mount Pisgah only recently, I didn’t take radio gear this time.
Funny, but we both underestimated the hike from our campsite to the Mount Pisgah trailhead. In my head, I assumed it was perhaps half a mile or so. Turns out, it was more like 1.5 miles one way!
Combined with the actual Mount Pisgah trail, it made for a decent amount of hiking. I believe we left the campsite around 16:00 local and were back by 19:00 or so.
That Monday turned out to be a day full of hiking, radio, and hanging with Monty. It was amazing fun.
As always, thank you for reading this report and thank you to those who are supporting the site and channel through Patreon and the Coffee Fund. While certainly not a requirement–my content is always free–I really appreciate the support.
Here’s wishing everyone good health and maybe even a little outdoor radio fun this week!