Shortly after acquiring a lab599 Discovery TX-500 earlier this year, I did what I always do: invest an insane amount of time in researching and configuring a dedicated field radio kit.
As I’ve mentioned numerous times, I’m a serious pack geek, so this is incredibly fun for me even though the choice is often difficult.
I like to buy packs and cases from manufacturers in the US and Canada when possible, so started searching through all of the options.
I wanted a pack that was compact, versatile, and offered proper padding (even knowing the TX-500 is a rugged little transceiver). I don’t handle my packs with kid gloves, so I expect them to cope with sometimes rough field conditions and still protect the gear inside. I also like a certain level of organization inside the pack.
I wanted the kit to be relatively compact, but large enough to hold the transceiver, all accessories and connections, logging pad and pencil, paddles, a proper arborist throw line, portable ATU, and a 3Ah LiFePo4 battery. A the end of the day, I wanted this TX-500 field kit to be fully self-contained.
In the end, I adopted a pack with which I’m already very familiar…
The Red Oxx Micro Manager
Red Oxx is my favorite pack company and if you’ve been a reader for any length of time, you’ve obviously seen a number of their bags and packs in my field reports.
Back in 2016, when they introduced the first iteration of the Micro Manager EDC bag, they actually reached out to me–as an existing customer–knowing that I had been looking for a good radio pack with proper padding (many packs don’t require side padding and internal padding). They sent me a prototype of the Micro Manager for my feedback and then incorporated some of my suggestions.
I also purchased a Micro Manager for my wife who quickly turned hers into a mobile art studio!
Much like my buddy Steve (AC5F)–whose XYL creates some amazing water color art in the field–my wife (K4MOI) is also an artist and loves to paint/draw during park and summit activations. Her art kit is always at the ready and she’s traveled with it extensively over the past five years.
The Micro Manager is a pack carried over the shoulder, much like a messenger or laptop bag. Those times when my field activations require a lengthy hike, I’ve simply pulled all of the items out of the Micro Manager (since I do modular packing, this is super easy), else I’ve even been known to stick the entire Micro Manager pack into a backpack!
Over the years, Red Oxx has made iterative upgrades to the Micro Manager including a pleated front pocket, slip-in external pocket, and they started lining the internal pocket with a more flexible and thinner dense foam padding. The new padding not only fits the TX-500 better than the first Micro Manager version did, but I believe it will have enough dimension to accommodate the TX-500 battery pack when that’s available next year.
Inside the Micro Manager I also use a Tom Bihn Large Travel Tray to hold all of the TX-500 accessories: key, microphone, ATU, battery, and cables.
I own a number of these large travel trays and highly recommend them. I especially like the ballistic nylon versions for radio kits as they open and close so smoothly.
I made a short video tour of the TX-500 Micro Manager kit before a recent activation at Table Rock:
I’ve used this pack for a number of field activations and couldn’t be more pleased. Looking back at the contents, it’s funny: the pack and almost every single item inside (save the notepad and pencil) are made in the USA while the radio is made in Russia! A bit of international harmony going on here!
If you have a field pack for the TX-500 (or any radio), I’d love to know more about it. Please consider commenting with details or even submitting a guest post with photos!
Last time I visited Table Rock Fish Hatchery–this activation–it was a struggle to get the ten contacts I needed for a valid activation. Propagation was horrible that day, making it a proper struggle.
On Thursday, May 20, 2021, I thought I’d go back to the fish hatchery for another try! I really like the site: it’s open, has lots of trees, and the staff (and neighborhood dogs) are all very friendly.
Thing is, as I drove to Table Rock, my buddy Mike informed me that propagation took a nose dive. Earlier in the day, it had been reasonably stable, but he noted that POTA activators were struggling in the afternoon and the propagation numbers were in the dumps.
My secret weapon: The Chameleon CHA LEFS
Shortly after I posted my “unboxing” video of the lab599 Discovery TX-500, Carl at Chameleon Antenna made a comment on my YouTube channel that he was going to send me their CHA LEFS (Lightweight End Fed Sloper) wire antenna since it’s resonant on 40, 20, 17, 15, 12 and 10 meters. In many ways, it’s ideally suited to pair with the TX-500 since this transceiver lacks an internal ATU. Side note: there is a cool project in the works called the DIY599 that adds a 60 watt amp and ATU to the TX-500 .
I had only recently received the CHA LEFS and had not yet taken it to the field. Table Rock was the perfect opportunity.
When I know in advance that propagation is poor, I try to make my portable set up as efficient as possible, so that’s when I 1.) make sure I pull out a resonant wire antenna and 2.) use a wire antenna with longer radiators. The CHA LEFS fits both of these bills.
The CHA LEFS has a 63 foot radiator made of 20 gauge PTFE antenna KEVLAR wire. The winder has a large efficient transformer to match impedance, and there is an inline coil to make the most of the 63′ radiator. They also include 50′ of Micro 90 paracord.
Like all Chameleon antennas I’ve used, it’s built to military specs.
Table Rock Fish Hatchery (K-8012)
Table Rock is ideally-suited for a long-ish sloping wire antenna, too. The site has tall trees and open spaces that make stretching out the sloping radiator quite easy. Just watch those power lines!
The CHA LEFS takes longer to deploy that end-fed antennas with a feedpoint near the ground. I find it quicker to deploy, however, than dipoles.
I deployed the LEFS by first stretching out its radiator wire in the direction I planned to deploy it.
Next, I connected the coax feedline to the SO-239 on the LEFS winder and stretched it in the opposite direction of the radiator. Why do this? It helps keep the radiator and coax from twisting together as I raise the winder/feedpoint into the tree.
This is not a difficult antenna to deploy as one person. Of course, if you have a helper, it’ll go even faster (I’ve yet to convince Hazel to help me with antenna deployment).
I had launched the arborist line quite high into a tree at the picnic table where I planned to operate. I was able to elevate the LEFS feedpoint/winder about 47′ into the tree.
I used the supplied paracord to attach the radiator to a nearby branch. The end of the sloper was perhaps 6 feet off the ground (if memory serves).
Knowing how poor conditions were from real-life K8RAT observations, I didn’t expect to actually validate my activation by logging the required 10 contacts. As I stated in my activation video, I was fully prepared to walk away with three or four contacts–I didn’t have a few hours to burn on an activation. I was simply happy to play with a new antenna, the TX-500, hang with the local canine welcome committee and enjoy the fine weather.
First, I hopped on 40 meters and discovered the LEFS provided a perfect 1:1 match on 7063 kHz. Very promising!
Next, I started calling CQ and the Reverse Beacon Network functionality of the POTA spots page must have quickly auto-spotted me.
Within 13 minutes, I logged six contacts! I was impressed. Mike (K8RAT) was in that first six contacts and he later told me it was one of the strongest signals he’d ever heard from me at a POTA activation. He asked what I was using as an antenna that day and said, “it was working!”
Next, I moved to the 30 meter band and worked K8RAT again (a rarity on 30 meters!) along with four other stations.
I ran out of time, so called it quits with 11 stations logged.
I did not expect to not only walk away with a valid activation, but to have completed it in such short order.
Here’s the QSO Map of my contacts all made with 5 watts of power:
As Carl suggested, I’m going to keep the CHA LEFS tucked away along with my PackTenna EFHW in the Discovery TX-500 pack.
When conditions are poor, I’ll spend the modest amount of extra time deploying this fine antenna.
The only CHA LEFS criticism I noted–and it’s a minor one–is that the in-line trap/coil isn’t very low-profile and takes a little attention to make it fall in the right spot when reeling the antenna up post-activation. Seriously. A minor criticism and I’m guessing Chameleon has a reason for it being on the large size–likely for power handling reasons.
Field Day is coming up, and I think I’m going to make the CHA LEFS one of Team Baklava‘s main antennas (Team Baklava = my buddy N3CZ and me!).
Lately, when I hit a park or summit to do an activation, I allow a little extra time.
We’re truly in the doldrums of the solar cycle at present, but we’re heading into Solar Cycle 25 with the promise of more sun spots and better propagation. (At least, the ARRL is banking on it!)
If you’ve been doing field activations these past few years, you know how to cope when there are few or no sun spots. You might get less DX contacts, but you can still validate an activation easily enough.
But some days, propagation is unstable or wiped out altogether based on the particles, winds, and CMEs our local star might decide to hurl our way.
Last week (April 12, 2021), I stopped by a new-to-me site: Table Rock State Fish Hatchery.
It was very much an impromptu activation as I decided to visit the site on my way back home after spending time with my parents. Max (WG4Z) mentioned that he had recently visited the site and it had easy access–I checked the map and saw that it was, perhaps, a 30 minute detour.
Table Rock State Fish Hatchery (K-8012)
I arrived on site and found a number of concrete picnic tables and a load of trees ideal for suspending a wire antenna.
Before I deploy an antenna–a wire or vertical–I always check for power lines or cables in the vicinity. This site did have them so I deployed my antenna in such a way that there would be no possible way they could touch.
My buddy Mike (K8RAT) told me in advance that this would be a challenging activation because band conditions were so rough, so I decided to deploy my Chameleon CHA MPAS 2.0 antenna as a random wire instead of a vertical.
I didn’t have my instruction sheet for the MPAS 2.0 so forgot to use the strain relieve at the base of the antenna (not a big deal) and I added a counterpoise wire. I knew it would radiate well.
I paired the Icom IC-705 with my mAT-705 Plus ATU knowing this would give me frequency options across the bands. Setup was actually very simple.
I hopped on the air assuming 40 meters might be somewhat fruitful.
Turns out, it was not.
Contacts were slow coming and I could tell conditions were very unstable. In the span of 30 minutes, I had only worked five stations. That’s a very slow rate compared with a typical activation.
I eventually made my way to the 60 meter band and was very happy to rack up an additional three contacts in fairly short order. (I often forget about 60 meters, but it’s a brilliant band and proper blend of 80 and 40 meter characteristics.
When I felt like I’d worked all available stations on 60 meters, I went back up to 40 meters and finally added three more contacts in 20 minutes.
If I’m being honest, this activation felt like a proper struggle. I was fully prepared to call it quits without having logged 10 stations to validate my activation simply due to my schedule. This activation took me to the threshold of my available time.
In fact, I recorded one of my real-time, real-life videos of the activation, but decided I wouldn’t even bother posting it because…well…it would be too long and had so few stations calling in.
In the end, though, and against my better judgement, I uploaded the video to YouTube because, frankly, activations like this are a reality in 2021.
In fact, once I returned home, I looked at the POTA and SOTA discussion groups and there were numerous reports of failed and troublesome activations that afternoon with ops running much more than QRP power.
I even read a report of one unlucky operator who was attempting his first ever POTA activation during that same span of time. He was not able to gather his 10 needed contacts and felt somewhat deflated. I shared my story with him because I think he feared either his gear or his technique were to blame. He was running SSB which would have put him at even more of a disadvantage that day.
Still…I had fun!
A bad day in the field is better than a good day in the office, right? Right!
While I might have been frustrated with the poor propagation, it didn’t stop me from enjoying this outing. The weather was beautiful, and I even had a canine welcoming committee pop by for a visit (you can see that in the video). I also worked a number of friends that day on the air including (I later found out) one very new CW operator.
Although you can’t see it in the photos or video, the Fish Hatchery is close to Table Rock which is a beautiful mountain here in western North Carolina. The drive to the site is quite scenic.
I don’t do POTA, SOTA, or WWFF for the numbers–I do it because I love playing radio outdoors.
Time is your friend
My activations are normally very short because I squeeze them into my weekly schedule. Keep in mind that, regardless of propagation, you can almost always get your 10 contacts with enough time. It also helps if you’re activating a site that is either rare, or if it counts for multiple programs (I’ll often find SOTA summits that are on state or national park land). Chasers from multiple programs are a good thing!
I’d encourage you to check band conditions before leaving home and simply plan to spend more time on the air if conditions are poor. Bring a book with you and put your CW or voice memory keyer to work while you dive into your favorite novel. 🙂
Keep in mind that sometimes our local star will surprise us with amazing band openings. The activation after Table Rock was a case in point. Stay tuned!
Have you struggled to complete an activation recently? Or have you struggled as a hinter/chaser? Please comment!