Maybe it’s just in the nature of those of us who love QRP.
We get a small thrill out of seeing what we can accomplish with less.
On the morning of February 7, 2022, I received an email from a subscriber in South Carolina who had placed an order for a new Elecraft KX2 and an AX1 antenna package. He picked this particular combination because he wanted the most simple and easy-to-set-up field radio system for impromptu CW POTA activations and a little random QRP fun.
He mentioned that, at his age, mobility is a bit of an issue and even though he knew a wire antenna would be more effective, deploying it while walking on uneven ground just wasn’t in the cards. The AX1 was a much more manageable and packable system. Plus, as he said, “I’m not going out to work DX. I just want to play and have fun.”
Only a week after placing his order, he was having buyer’s remorse which prompted his message.
He explained that he had exchanged emails with a friend in his radio club who told him he’d made a foolish mistake and that the AX1 was completely ineffective as an antenna and would only lead to disappointment. His friend said [direct quote here], “I owned [an AX1] for a month and was never able to make a single contact. It is really good at being a dummy load and nothing more! This thing shouldn’t be marketed as an antenna. It doesn’t work.”
I pointed out that I’ve used the AX1 numerous times in the field and have yet to be disappointed.
Before I used the AX1, I too, was very skeptical but after actually using it (instead of simply theorizing about it) I found it’s one of my most valuable antennas for a quick and fruitful activation. I pointed him to this playlist that includes all of my AX1 activations on YouTube. In all of these activation, I’ve limited myself to 5 watts as well even though the antenna can handle a full 10 or 15 watts from the KX2 or KX3.
I told him I’d been planning to pair the AX1 with my Mountain Topper MTR-3B and, it turned out, that very day a small window of opportunity opened in the afternoon. I told him we could both see how the AX1 might perform with three watts of power, especially since he’d planned to use 10 watts with his KX2.
When it comes to parks, I haven’t picked up many new-to-me “uniques” lately.
In truth, though, I’ve put more effort into activating unique summits which takes more time to plan, plot, and activate. SOTA has taken a bite out of my park uniques, but I’m good with that because to me it’s less about my park/summit numbers and more about the exploration and outdoor radio time.
On Tuesday (July 6, 2021) however, I added one more unique to my 2021 park count: Mountain Island Educational State Forest (K-4858).
This park is actually a modest detour during my weekly travels, but I’ve never popped by for an activation. You see, unlike other state parks I visit, Mountain Island isn’t yet open to the public on a daily basis. On their website, they state that visits must be arranged in advance, so I reached out to them the morning of July 6 and they promptly replied, welcoming me for a visit and activation that very same day!
Off the beaten path
Since this state park isn’t yet open to the public, I didn’t see the typical brown highway signs pointing me to the park entrance, but Google Maps steered me right to the front gate where there’s a sign.
The gates were unlocked and open, so I pulled into the property and met with two of the park staff who were incredibly kind and accommodating. They were both familiar with the Parks On The Air (POTA) program which made it much easier for me to ask about spots where I could set up my station.
First, though, I wanted to know more about Mountain Island Educational State Forest so I asked ranger Laura about the history of the site.
Turns out, Mountain Island is the newest Educational State Forest in North Carolina and has been in the works for more than 20 years.
The Forest is a vast conservation area that protects 12 miles of shoreline on Mountain Island Lake in the Catawba River Basin. This lake is the primary drinking water supply area for Charlotte, Mecklenburg and Gaston Counties. She told me that one in 23 North Carolinians rely on this area for their source of water.
Much of the land was originally owned by Duke Power who put it up for sale in 1998. Conservation groups purchased the land from Duke’s real estate agency in 1998 and put it into a conservation easement. The land is actually in two counties (Gaston and Lincoln) and a portion in the city limits of Gastonia.
The NC Forest Service now manages the forest and supports the public-private partnership with the counties, municipalities, and conservation groups.
Mountain Island has been actively educating school groups and the public about the river basin and local flora/fauna for many years by appointment. Currently, a new education center is being built on the property and will soon be open to the public with regular business hours. Being so close to population centers, I imagine they’ll stay busy!
Park ranger Laura was kind enough to allow me to set up under a huge tree in front of their ranger station.
I was grateful for the shade: it was 92F (33.3C) and humid.
There were no picnic tables under the tree, but I happened to have two folding chairs in my car. I used one as a table and the other as a chair. I flipped over my GoRuck GR1 backpack to make a stable base for the Yaesu FT-817ND.
I was super pleased to put the Yaesu FT-817ND back on the air. It’s been a while since I’d used it in the field because my review radios (TX-500, X5105, etc.) have taken priority.
I love the FT-817ND and believe it’s actually an exceptional transceiver for CW and SSB ops. The CW full break-in QSK is wonderful and I actually like the mechanical sound of the T/R relay switching (if you like pin diode switching, you should look the other way, though!). With the 500Hz CW filter installed, the front end is pretty bullet-proof, too!
This was the first time I had paired the FT-817ND with my 28.5 foot speaker wire antenna. The random wire antenna needs a good ATU to match impedance, so I employed the Elecraft T1 this time (soon I’ll also try the LDG Z-100A).
I had planned to do a little SSB work, but quickly realized I’d forgotten the FT-817ND microphone. A shame because this site actually has excellent mobile phone service so I could have spotted myself to the network. Next time–!
I started on 40 meters CW and worked ten stations in 21 minutes. That’s a perfect pace for me!
Next, I moved to 20 meters where I worked six more in 9 minutes.
I was incredibly pleased with how well the speaker wire antenna performed–especially on 20 meters.
From the Piedmont of North Carolina, I worked Montana, Texas, New Hampshire, and Italy with 5 watts into $4 worth of speaker wire.
I did a quick back-of-the-envelop calculation and discovered that I yielded about 943 miles per watt!
To be clear, IK4IDF did all of the heavy lifting in our contact with his 9 element Yagi, but still it’s awfully exciting to put DX in the logs with only fair propagation.
Of course, I made a real-time, real-life video of the entire activation (save the set-up and take-down):
I packed up quickly because I had a SOTA activation planned that afternoon on Anderson Mountain. I’ll post a field report and video of that activation soon.
Rev 4 FT-817 Buddy Board
Also, I’m about to start soldering together G7UHN’s new Rev 4 FT-817 Buddy Board! Revision 2 worked wonderfully, but revision 4 now includes a CW memory keyer among other upgrades! (Woo hoo!) All of the components are now in the shack–just a matter of soldering them together and programing the Arduino Nano. Andy, if you’re reading this, expect a call from me soon, OM!
I’d like to thank all of you for reading this field report and I’d especially like to thank those of you who contribute to QRPer.com via Patreon and our Coffee Fund. While my content will always be free and QRPer is very much a labor of love, your support helps me purchase gear and supports my radio travels. With that said, if you’re saving up for your first radio or need to invest in your own kit, I’d rather you support yourself.
My goal with QRPer is to champion field radio operations and encourage others to discover the benefits of playing radio outdoors!
That’s what my grandpa used to say and he was right. It was certainly the theme on Tuesday, June 15, 2021, when I decided to activate Crowders Mountain (W4C/WP-011).
If memory serves, it was about 80F/27C that day–pretty reasonable for late spring in the Piedmont of North Carolina. But the humidity was quite high. I’m no meteorologist, but I’m guessing it was 7,400%. (That number may be a bit of an exaggeration.)
Still, I was eager to fit in a decent hike and I knew Crowders would be fun and easy in the sense that I wouldn’t need to carry a map or do bushwhacking to get to the summit. In fact, Crowders Mountain is possibly one of the busiest parks I ever visit; being so close to Shelby, Gastonia, and Charlotte, it can get crowded especially on weekends.
The amazing thing about Crowders Mountain State Park, to the amateur radio operator, is that it contains not one but two SOTA summits! And, of course, the park can be activated during the SOTA activation. Earlier this year, I activated The Pinnacle–it was amazing fun–and now I was ready to activate Crowders Mountain as well.
I arrived at the park visitor’s center around 11:30 AM local time and hit the trail.
I opted to take the longer trail to the summit which is about 6 miles round trip. There’s a shorter path to the summit via the Linwood Access, but I wanted a bit more trail time despite the humidity.
The hike was amazing and the trail very, very well-worn and marked.
The hike was overall what I would call moderate and very gentle. In fact, at about 2/3 into the trail, I was curious when I’d truly start gaining a bit of elevation. Turns out: all near the very end!
The final portion of the hike was pretty steep–mostly steps up to the summit. The humidity was thick enough, I took my time going up the steps.
In the end, you will put in a bit of effort to bag this one point SOTA summit if it’s hot and humid.
Crowders Mountain (W4C/WP-011)
Having been on the summit of The Pinnacle earlier this year, there was no mistaking the summit of Crowders Mountain, since it, too, has ominous warning signs!
I’m sure the sign is in response to people acting foolishly. Crowders Mountain is not a treacherous place, but like many summits, there’re ample opportunities to fall to your death, I reckon.
I’ve heard that even the summits of Crowders Mountain can get quite busy–this is why I chose a Tuesday to do the activation. Even then, I’m guessing there were anywhere from 8-12 other hikers on the summit with me at various times during the activation that day.
I was banking on the fact that Crowders Mountain had trees, so I only packed my short PackTenna random wire–no self-supporting vertical of any sort.
After a quick site search, I found an ideal spot to play radio just beneath the radio/TV towers on the summit.
Deploying the PackTenna was incredibly easy with my arborist throw line. I meant to make a video showing the antenna deployment, but was distracted by some curious hikers who asked a load of questions as I launched the line. Somehow, I managed to snag the perfect tree branch despite an audience and a mild case of performance anxiety!
Next, I set up the Discovery TX-500 transceiver and paired it with my Elecraft T1 ATU since random wire antennas require matching and the TX-500 has no internal ATU.
I’ll admit here that each time I use the Elecraft T1 it reinforces why I like this ATU so much: it’s incredibly compact, runs for ages on a 9V cell, pairs with all of my transceivers, and it has a very wide matching range (although, in this case, the 9:1 UNUN doesn’t need a wide range ATU). The T1 gets the job done each and every time.
As with many of my activations, I made a real-time, real-life video and didn’t edit out a thing. If I had any self-respect, I would have edited out all of my keying errors that day, because I made numerous ones. (For the record, I blame the humidity!) 🙂
Joking aside, I’m not ashamed of my keying mistakes. We all make them. No one is a perfect CW operator and, trust me, the op at the other end can sympathize. If I let my sloppy fist sessions prevent me from operating, I’d never get on the air.
On The Air
I hopped on the 20 meter band in CW and wow! I made 30 contacts in 39 minutes.
Since I had cell phone service, I also decided to spot myself to the SOTA network and do a little SSB on the 17 meter band. I made four contacts in four minutes.
Of course, this was not only a summit activation, but also a park activation (K-2726), so logs were submitted to both programs.
Here’s a QSO Map of my contacts (click to enlarge):
In truth, I would have liked to hang around on the summit a bit longer and work more stations, but I needed to start my hike back to the car. I had a number of errands in the afternoon and also needed to be back in time for a live stream interview with Red Summit RF (click here to watch the archive of that show).
As I was packing up my radio gear, two young women stopped by and one asked, “Was that Morse Code we wear hearing earlier?” I confirmed this and she looked at her friend and said, “Yes, I knew it was!” I asked them if it was the first time they’d heard Morse Code “in the wild,” and they both nodded their heads. They then asked a load of questions that I was happy to answer.
One of our readers, Max (W4GZ), had asked that I contact him next time I activated Crowders Mountain State Park as it’s not too far from his QTH. I sent him a message earlier in the day and when I got back to the car, I found Max set up with his IC-705 and vertical antenna next to my parking spot.
Max had just started his own park activation.
It was great meeting you, Max!
Of course, I snapped a few photos on the summit and the trail, so here they are in no particular order:
Thank you reading this field report! I hope you have an opportunity to play a little radio in the great outdoors this week!
On the morning of May 10, 2021, I had a hankering to head to the Blue Ridge Parkway for a quick park activation.
I had a particular spot in mind–one that’s only two miles or so from my QTH as the crow flies. The only wrinkle in my plan was that we were expecting rain all morning and at our house we were in thick fog and light, steady rain.
Normally when I have these conditions, I look for a sheltered site, but I thought it might be a great time to take out the TX-500 since it’s weather-resistant. Why not, right?
I packed the lab599 Discovery TX-500, my Chameleon MPAS 2.0 vertical, and my Elecraft T1 antenna tuner to pair the two. I also brought along some rain gear.
Although the activation site is close to home as the crow flies, it actually takes about 30 minutes to drive there. By the time I reached the site, the skies were mostly clear and the sun was shining! This time of year, it reminds me of living in the UK: if you don’t like the weather, just wait five minutes.
This was very much a road side activation. The spot I chose isn’t an overlook–although it did provide amazing views–it was simple a pull-off.
This is where antennas like the MPAS 2.0 are so useful: they are self-supporting and very quick to deploy. Since I was set up right off the road, I also appreciate using verticals rather than wire antennas since the antenna and throw line aren’t in the way of others who might choose to park in the same pull-off. I can easily deploy the counterpoise and feedline so that it’s out of the way.
As with most park activations, I started on 40 meters CW and only operated 5 watts.
I quickly racked up five contacts on 40 meters, then the band fell silent.
I moved up to 30, then 20, down to 80, back to 60 and 40 again.
About 30 minutes had passed since I was last on 40 meters, so new hunters were checking the bands. I snagged a total of seven more contacts in about eleven minutes.
Obviously, 40 meters was the only band open that morning!
A quick note about 80 meters
I get a lot of questions from readers and YouTube subscribers about my use of the 80 meter band during the daytime.
I go into more detail about this in the video, but contrary to what many think, 80 meters can be a very useful daytime band for POTA activators.
While it’s true that you’re not going to work DX on 80 meters during the daylight hours (else, highly unlikely), you can still work local and regional stations.
Keep in mind that POTA, WWFF, and SOTA activations aren’t about working DX. DX is fun and perhaps a personal goal, but it has nothing to do with success in achieving a valid activation.
Basically, any contacts–DX or local–will get you what is needed for a valid activation.
If, like me, you live in a part of the country where there are a concentration of park and summit hunters/chasers within a daytime 80 meter footprint, then hop on that band and give it a go!
I’m not sure how useful this might be for activations in sparsely populated areas like Montana or the Dakotas, for example, but along the east and west coast, 80 meters is your friend.
At this particular activation, I didn’t didn’t employ an efficient antenna for 80 meters. While I’ve made numerous 80 meter contacts on the CHA MPAS 2.0 in the past, it’s just not physically large enough to be efficient on that band. The CHA Emcomm III Portable or another long wire antenna would have provided better results. But I knew that 40 meters and possibly 30 meters would be my best bet that day, so the MPAS 2.0 was a great choice.
Again: don’t forget about 80 meters. It’s helped me snag many an activation!
Here’s my real-time, leal-life, no-edit video of the entire activation:
You might hear an audio pop when I’m keying on the TX-500. This is happening because I have the audio gain cranked up all the way for the video. While the speaker/mic can get quite loud, when I’ve got it located so far from the camera mic, I run it at 100% volume to be heard. I recently changed my CW T/R recovery time from 100ms to 400s which eliminated most of the audio popping.
Thank you for reading this field report! I hope you’re getting an opportunity to take your radios outdoors this week!
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 searched around and found a spot to set up well within the activation zone but giving me a bit of distance from the towers.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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!
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!
This Saturday (Jan 30, 2021), I had a small window of opportunity to perform a Parks On The Air (POTA) activation. My park options were limited because I needed to stay near my home and a store where I was scheduled to do a curbside pickup.
The only viable option–since time was a factor–was my reliable quick hit park.
The Blue Ridge Parkway (K-3378)
I plotted a quick trip to the Blue Ridge Parkway Folk Art Center which is centrally-located and, this time of year, there are few visitors.
But what radio take? It had been a couple of weeks since I used the IC-705 in the field, so I decided to take it and rely only on its supplied BP-272 battery pack.
My buddy Mike (K8RAT) had warned me only a few minutes before my departure that propagation was pretty much in the dumps. I’d also read numerous posts from QRPers trying to participate in the Winter Field Day event and finding conditions quite challenging.
Saturday was the sort of day that I should’ve deployed a resonant wire antenna and made the most of my meager five watts thus collect my required 10 contacts in short order.
And that’s exactly what I didn’tdo.
You see, a really bad idea popped into my head that morning: I had a hankering to pair the IC-705 with my Elecraft AX1 super compact vertical antenna.
This made absolutely no sense.
I tried to get the idea out of my head, but the idea won. I suppose, at the end of the day, I’m not about taking the easy path (and I’m obviously a glutton for punishment).
I was also very curious if the mAT-705 Plus external ATU could tune the AX1 on 40 meters. More on that later…
I arrived on site a few minutes before noon. Setup was fast–that’s the big positive about using the AX1.
Normally, I deploy the AX1 antenna with my KX2 or KX3 and simply attach it to the BNC connector on the side of the transceiver. The AX1 Bipod gives the antenna acceptable stability during operation.
The IC-705 also has a side-mounted BNC connector, but it’s much higher than that of the KX3 or KX2. I’m not entirely sure I could manipulate the Bipod legs to support the antenna without modification.
That and the AX1 needs an ATU to match 40 meters (where I planned to spend most of the activation). Since the IC-705 doesn’t have an internal ATU, mounting it to the side of the transceiver really wasn’t an option.
I employed my AX1 tripod mount for the first time. On the way out the door, I grabbed an old (heavy) tripod my father-in-law gave me some time ago and knew it would easily accommodate the super lightweight AX1.
On The Air
I first tried using the Mat-Tuner mAT-705 Plus ATU to tune the AX1 on 40 meters.
I tried both the phone and CW portions of the 40 meter band, but the mAT-705 Plus simply couldn’t find a match. SWR was north of 7:1 – 9:1.
Instead of grabbing the Chameleon MPAS Lite or 2.0 from the car, I decided instead to see if the Elecraft T1 ATU could tune 40 meters.
In short, I logged my ten contacts to have a valid activation, but it was slow-going. All but two of my contacts were on 40 meters CW. The last two logged were on 20 meters CW.
It was a challenge, but I really enjoyed it! And, frankly, considering the propagation, 5 watts of power only using the IC-705 battery pack, and the inherent inefficiencies using a loaded compact vertical antenna and ATU? I was impressed.
Here’s a QSOmap of my 10 contacts:
I bet my effective radiated power was closer to 2-3 watts.
Typically, the AX1 antenna acts almost like an NVIS antenna on 40 meters, but Saturday it favored Mid-Atlantic and the states of IN, OH, and PA. Normally, I would expect more of a showing from the states surrounding North Carolina.
My last two contacts on 20 meters were with KE5XV in Texas and KB0VXN in Minnesota. Not a bad hop!
It took longer to collect my ten contacts than I had hoped and I ran nearly 25 minutes late to my curbside appointment. I’m a punctual guy, but there was no way I was leaving without my ten! 🙂
Here’s a video of the entire activation. Hint: it’s the perfect remedy for insomnia:
Next time I try to pair the IC-705 with the AX1 antenna, I think I’ll try adding a couple more ground radials and see if the mAT-705 Plus can more easily find a match.
One thing I know for sure: the T1 is a brilliant little ATU. While the mAT-705 Plus was never designed to do this sort of match, it’s comforting to know the T1 can.
I’m very curious if anyone else has paired the Elecraft AX1 with the Icom IC-705 or other QRP transceivers. If so, what was your experience? Please comment!
I’ve received no less than three inquiries this weekend from readers who are seeking advice about purchasing a portable external ATU to pair with their Icom IC-705 transceiver.
Fortunately, there are few options on the market and I believe there is no “right” one because choices are really based on operator preferences.
I’ll do my best to sum up my thoughts below based on the three ATUs I regularly employ and what we know so far about the AH-705 ATU from Icom.
Keep in mind this list will not include some excellent options from LDG, MFJ, and other companies simply because I haven’t used them in the field. Please feel free to add your comments if you have experience with other good options.
Mat-Tuner mAT-705 Plus
The Mat-Tuner mAT-705 Plus is the first external ATU on the market that directly pairs with the Icom IC-705 via a control cable.
The latest iteration–the mAT-705 Plus–is the ATU I can recommend.
Be careful if purchasing an mAT-705 used as you’ll want to make sure you’re getting the Plus version. The Plus version has a USB-C charging port on the front panel (seen in the photo above)–the original mAT-705 does not (it uses replaceable 9V cells).
Perfectly pairs with the IC-705 for full CAT control
Wide tuning range
Tuning is fast and relatively quiet
Numerous memories making repeat matching rapid
Internal rechargeable battery
Cannot be paired with other radios without modification (not recommended by the manufacturer)
At $220 US, it’s not the cheapest option
Because the IC-705 relies on CAT control for operation, if you leave the control cable at home or on a park bench, you will not be able to operate the ATU. (Pro)Fortunately, the CAT cable is a simple 3 conductor 1/8″ stereo patch cable.
Summary: If you’re looking for an ATU to take full advantage of IC-705 CAT control, the mAT-705 Plus is a great option. The only significant disadvantage of this ATU is the fact that it only pairs with the IC-705 (or possibly other Icom transceivers with similar CAT control). In other words, you can’t pair it with other QRP transceivers you might own.
The Elecraft T1 has been on the market for at least 16 years and is one of the most popular portable antenna tuners on the market.
Elecraft offers the T1 in kit form ($159.95) and factory assembled/tested ($189.95).
The Elecraft T1 has a CAT control port that has been used with the FT-817 in the past. Elecraft recently announced that they will also produce an IC-705 CAT cable that will allow full pairing with the IC-705 transceiver (much like the mAT-705 Plus above).
To be clear, though, the T1 doesn’t need a control cable to function: simply press the TUNEe button for one second, then key your transceiver.
Very wide tuning range
Soon it will have an IC-705 CAT connection cable option
Uses common 9V battery that is easy to replace in the field. (Con) Not internally-rechargeable like the mAT-705 Plus.
One of the most compact automatic ATUs on the market
Pairs with any 0.5-W to 20-W transceiver covering the 160-6 meter bands
FT-817 Remote-Control Option
Front panel buttons need protection while in your pack to prevent accidental pressing that will deplete the battery. I 3D-printed this simple cover that works brilliantly.
Summary: The Elecraft T1 is my personal favorite. Since the T1 pairs with any QRP transceiver, I love the flexibility. The T1 has also been on the market for ages and is a solid, safe choice–we know longevity is benchmark. I’ve never been in a situation where the T1 couldn’t find a reasonable match.
I will certainly test the new IC-705 control cable option when it is released in the near future–stay tuned.
The AH-705 is Icom’s custom ATU designed to perfectly pair with the Icom IC-705 via control cable. If you want an all-Icom setup, this is it.
Pricing in US dollars is TBD at time of posting, but the announced retail price is $350 .
Perfectly pairs with the IC-705
Wide tuning range
2-way power sources using alkaline batteries (2 x AA cells) or external 13.8 V DC
IP54 dust-protection and water resistance construction
Could (potentially–?) be permanently mounted outdoors at the antenna feed point as a dedicated remote tuner
In terms of overall size, the AH-705 appears to be the largest of the portable ATUs mentioned here
It doesn’t appear AA batteries can be recharged internally
The AH-705 may (we don’t know yet) only work with the IC-705 and possibly similar Icom models
The maximum power handling of the AH-705 is 10 watts–if you use other transceivers (if that is even possible) you would have to be extremely careful with power settings.
The AH-705 is pricey if the actual retail price ends up being near the projected $350 mark. Hopefully, it’ll be much less than this.
Like the mAT-705 Plus, the AH-705 will require a control cable for operation. (Pro) Of course this means it pairs perfectly with the IC-705 and can follow frequency changes without RF sensing.
Summary: Keep in mind, I have not tested the AH-705 yet, so this is only based on announced specifications.
The strongest selling point for the AH-705? Since the AH-705 is designed to be dust and weather resistant, it could be mounted at the antenna feed point. At home, perhaps it could act like an externally-mounted, remotely-controlled antenna tuner. I’m not sure what the maximum length of the control cable could be, but Icom Japan even lists a 16 foot control cable as an accessory. Of course, you would still need to follow Icom’s guidance about protecting the antenna, transmitter and control cable connection points.
The biggest negative to me is the size. Just check out how large it is compared to the IC-705 in this video. It’s still very portable, but the other ATU options above are much smaller.
Still: if the AH-705 is great at matching antennas and the price ends up falling below the $300 point, I’m sure it’ll be a very popular ATU.
Another option often overlooked are portable manual antenna tuners. I’m a big fan of the Emtech ZM-2 which is offered both in kit ($62.50) and factory assembled/tested form ($87.50).
It is a manual tuner, so requires manual input to find a match. While it’s not as easy as push-button tuning, it isn’t complicated either.
Here’s my routine:
I set the top right switch to “GROUND” if using coax feed line and “LINK” if using a balanced line.
Set the added capacitance switch “ADD” to “0”
Set the TUNE/OPERATE switch to OPERATE
I set both capacitors to middle positions (6 on the scale)
Tune to AM or SSB and listen to the noise floor as I tune the variable capacitors to maximize the noise level. I typically start with the left capacitor, maximize it, then maximize the right capacitor
If the antenna is particularly challenging, I might add 250 or 500PF via the ADD switch
Set the TUNE/OPERATE switch to TUNE
In CW mode, I key down and make fine tuning adjustments with the variable capacitors to make the red tuning LED turn off (high SWR makes the red LED illuminate)
Set the TUNE/OPERATE switch to OPERATE and hop on the air! (Often, I’ll double-check the SWR on my transceiver).
This sounds complicated, but once you’ve done it even two or three times, it becomes routine. I’ve yet to find a wire antenna the ZM-2 can’t match–it’s a very capable tuner.
The most affordable option listed here
Very wide matching range
Portable and very lightweight
Requires no batteries for operation
Although not complicated, there is a small learning curve involved
Each time you change bands, you will need to manually re-tune the ZM-2
Not as fast and hassle-free as an automatic ATU
Summary: I carry the ZM-2 with me even if I plan to use an automatic portable antenna tuner. If my auto ATU loses power for some reason, the ZM-2 will always rescue me. Plus, it’s just as capable of making tough matches as the ATUs above.
I also love using the ZM-2 to match antennas for shortwave broadcast listening outside the ham bands.
Even if you buy an automatic ATU, I would still encourage you to buy a ZM-2 as a backup. It’s affordable, reliable, and very handy.
Many thanks to Curt (WU3U) who recently contacted me and mentioned he had built an IC-705 control interface for his Elecraft T1 ATU. This is a homebrew project based on others’ work and uses the FT-817 control port on the side of the T1 tuner.
I asked Curt if he could share a little more about his tuner to post here on QRPer:
Hi Thomas, I can’t take credit for the interface, as a guy in Japan designed it. When I built mine the entire instructions and notes for code for the PIC controller were in Japanese. I used Google translate to translate all of the information and I was able to successfully program the PIC chip and build the circuit. He has since released the details and code in English.
There are two designs: one with an on/off switch, and a newer version without an on/off switch that has auto power save. Both circuits are the same but the software for the PIC chip is different. If you build the one without the on/off switch there is a very specific sequence of connecting and disconnecting the device and it’s my opinion that the one with the on/off switch is the version that makes more sense to build. It shouldn’t matter which order you connect everything up and you simply throw the on/off switch to turn the device on and off.
Building the interface takes an understanding of a fairly simple electronic schematic and acquiring the parts. You also have to have a PIC programmer and the software to write his .hex file into the PIC controller chip.
The parts for the interface are all very common parts. The resistors are standard values. My build cost me about $30 in parts but I had to buy many of them in bulk from Amazon like the enclosures, switches and 3.5mm jacks and circuit boards to name a few. Individually the parts were $30 but my bulk order cost me much more. I also had to buy a PIC programmer for $25 and figure out what software I needed to download to program the PIC chip with the author’s code. It takes an experienced builder about two hours to build the device but it’s not out of the realm of a semi-novice as long as they can get the PIC chip programmed.
Here is his newer version with the same circuit design eliminating the on/off switch by using a different PIC program allowing the interface to have auto power shutdown (low power standby) but there is a specific order for connecting and disconnecting the interface. With this version there is still drain on the battery but the designer thinks that drain is less than the normal self discharge of the battery. I feel that any discharge combined with the self discharge of the battery will be more discharge than using the design with the on/off switch. https://amateur-radio.cocolog-nifty.com/blog/2020/11/post-591d17.html
I think this is a brilliant project and certainly one worth considering for those of us who already own an Elecraft T1 ATU and would like full control from the IC-705.