Naturally, as with any camping trip or extended travel, I’d put a lot of thought into choosing the portable transceiver and field kit to take along.
The great thing about camping at a state park is that I can “activate” that park via the “Parks On The Air” (POTA) or “Worldwide Flora and Fauna” (WWFF) programs pretty much anytime: early morning, late afternoon, or even in a late shift well into the night. Or, of course, all of the above. Since my activation site is also where I’m eating and sleeping, my radio usually gets heavy use.
Before leaving on that April camping trip, I knew what radio I wanted to operate the bulk of the time: my Yaesu FT-817ND. For a lot of reasons which I’ll delve into later, I think the FT-817ND (or its latest iteration, the FT-818ND) is an amazing QRP field radio.
Despite unstable propagation and a little campground QRM that moved in over the weekend––no doubt from a neighboring RV, chock full of noisy switching power supplies––I found the FT-817ND activation to be a most enjoyable experience. I posted a few field reports and activation videos from my New River activations on QRPer.com.
The thing is, each time I publish a field report using the FT-817ND, I receive a string of questions from subscribers and readers. Questions such as…
Should I buy a new FT-818 or a used FT-817?
Why do you like the FT-817ND so much?
What’s the difference between the 817 and 818?
How does the FT-817/818 compare with _____ radio?
Most queries, however, are a version of this comment from reader David:
“We have such a wide array of QRP rigs available to us these days, I’m curious what brings you back to the Yaesu for activations? It’s bigger than our more modern radios, with no ATU and more current draw. I’m just wondering if there is something that you find it does particularly well, or if it’s just ‘because I like to use it,’ which to me is an entirely valid reason, too! My 897 served me well, as does my 891; I’ve had Yaesu handhelds forever, so I’m certainly a fan. I don’t own an 817/8 but they have a devoted following so I just wanted to get your perspective on it.”
Or as another subscriber distilled the question:
“Why choose a legacy design like the 817/818 when newer QRP transceivers have better overall field specs and features?”
Of course, these types of questions are simple enough when it comes to asking, but when it comes to answering, much more complex.
Of course, as I said in my recent TSM article about choosing a field radio, one’s love of a particular radio is by definition quite subjective, and this certainly applies to my response…we all have our own personal preferences. But behind these preferences are objective facts, such as product’s unique features, specifications, and form factor; let’s take a look at these.
Well, to be honest, it was a purchase I planned to make, but not until much later this year or early next year.
Except I didn’t.
Don’t judge me.
Last Sunday, I hopped over to the QTH.com Classifieds to price out a nice 100 watt radio for a friend whose daughter is new to the hobby.
Normally, I use the search functionality at QTH.com and seek out classified ads for particular radio models. Since I wanted to offer him several examples, I decided to simply load all ads for that day and skim through the list.
The very first item that came up on the list was a Yaesu FT-817ND. I opened the ad and looked at the photo.
The owner was selling the radio along with everything that originally accompanied it–the box, antenna, manuals, the whole lot–plus side rails he’d purchased and installed. He described it as “like new” with only five hours of operating time on it. He said he was selling it because, “I just can’t do QRP.”
I honestly think I appreciate the FT-817/818 now even more than I did after it initially hit the market. I’ve been enjoying the FT-817ND in the field and have used it in a number of park and summit activations.
But that’s not why I purchased this one.
I’ve been wanting to get in on a bit of satellite action as, perhaps, a bit of a stepping stone into QRP EME (I mean, the antennas point upwards, right?) and also my ham daughters are both interested in satellites.
My future QRP full-duplex portable satellite system
Ages ago, I’d seen and read about hams who’d paired two FT-817s or FT-818s to create a full duplex portable satellite station.
My buddy Eric (WD8RIF) reminded me about this earlier in the year, too, and it stuck in my head because I really liked the idea.
Why? Besides all of the advantages of using a full duplex station, two FT-817s is still a very portable set-up. Hypothetically, I could use it for both satellites and HF during a park activation. Plus, two portable HF radios, right? Right! What’s not to love–?
Seriously: I see the system as quite a value when compared to other full duplex systems including pricier HTs.
I had not done research about FT-817ND pricing before pulling the trigger–indeed, I still haven’t–but I felt $350 shipped was fair. I know I’ll get $350 of fun out of it!
After taking delivery and unboxing it, I expected it to show normal signs of wear, but the seller described it accurately: it was like new. In fact, it still had the protective film on the screen (yes, I pulled it off) and I could tell the microphone had never even been taken from the box. It was flawless and included every single original accessory mostly in the original bags.
I like the side rails, too: They prop up the radio at a perfect viewing angle. I have no idea who made these, but they’re nice.
Speaking of side rails…
I’ve been very pleased with the Portable Zero side rails and bail that came with my first Yaesu FT-817ND.
Using a dual FT-817ND system in the field, though, I’ll require either a bag to hold them, or a dual side rail system.
Turns out, Portable Zero makes side rails that hold and space two FT-817/818s perfectly. I gulped a bit when I saw the price, though.
Still: they obviously make a great product and, for me, it’s an elegant solution. Before I bite the bullet, though, I might investigate homebrewing something or see if there are other options.
In fact, if you’ve seen other solutions–or have owned the Dual Escort yourself–please comment!
The bag would allow me to house both transceivers, a battery, cables, digital recorder and basically everything I’d need to operate full duplex portable in the field.
Another advantage of using the bag would be that I wouldn’t need to remove the side rails I already have on each FT-817ND (assuming the camera bag could accommodate them). In addition, the bag might make for less dangling cables as I operate.
The fact that numerous satellite gurus like Sean (KX9X) use this same bag is a pretty strong recommendation.
Arrow heading my way
On the advice of Eric, and numerous other portable satellite ops, I ordered an Arrow 146/437-10BP Satellite Antenna.
I assume I’ll use the the BNC connectors on the front of the radio rather than the SO-239 connectors on the back.
The FT-817ND I purchased last year came with a 2kHz Inrad SSB filter. I replaced it with a 500 Hz Collins filter I purchased from Steve (WG0AT)–thanks, Steve!
I opened the new FT-817ND yesterday morning and installed the SSB filter. It sounds great.
If I chased you in POTA or SOTA yesterday, and you logged me, it was with the new FT-817ND running 2.5 watts off of the included NiMH battery pack.
I gave the FT-817ND a thorough work-out and it seems everything functions as it should.
Any other dual FT-817/818 owners out there?
If you have any advice about mounting or packing dual FT-817/818s, I’m all ears. Also, if you use the FT-817/818 with an Arrow antenna, I’m curious what you use in terms of cable assemblies.
I’m a complete newbie to the world of amateur satellites, so any tips or hints are most welcome.
This weekend, I’m going to the first hamfest I’ve attended in 19 months. Let’s hope I can resist other impulse purchases! For what it’s worth, I’ve zero buyer’s remorse about this purchase!
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!
On my way back to the QTH, April 21, 2021, I popped by Tuttle Educational State Forest for what I hoped would be a relatively quick activation.
The previous day I performed a SOTA activation of The Pinnacle and was still feeling the high from that brilliant solar flare propagation experience. Although I knew the solar flare effects were long gone over 24 hours later, I wanted to take in a quick hike and play a little radio: Tuttle was the perfect place for both.
Plus, Tuttle Educational State Forest is such a peaceful quiet place (that is, when no one is burning up rounds at the nearby shooting range). The park is never crowded and it has wide open spaces for playing radio.
My plan was to do a quick activation, then hit their longest trail loop through the forest.
In the spirit of full transparency, LDG sent this unit to me at no cost when they became a sponsor of the SWLing Post and QRPer.com recently (you may have noticed their ads in the right sidebar). While I was really curious how well the Z-100 Plus pairs with the Icom IC-705–using the supplied command cable–I didn’t have a (charged) IC-705 with me. Instead, I pulled out the trusty Yaesu FT-817ND and hit the air!
The Z-100 Plus is RF-sensing, so a command cable is never needed and the ATU will pair with any transceiver.
To use the Z-100 Plus with the FT-817ND, I only needed to hit the Tune button on the front of the ATU then send a string of dits or dashes for it to initiate a match search.
It was no surprise that the Z-100 Plus easily found matches with the Emcomm III Portable.
I started calling CQ on 80 meters and quickly worked my buddy WD8RIF in Ohio.
After a few minutes, I moved up to the 40 meter band where I worked four stations in about four minutes, then the band was quiet for a few minutes.
I then moved up to the 30 meter band and worked four more stations in about seven minutes then silence again.
At this point, I only needed one more contact to validate my POTA activation to have ten stations logged, so I moved up to the 20 meter band and in about four minutes worked two more.
If I didn’t have a limited amount of time and a strong desire to fit in a hike that afternoon, I might have called CQ a while longer on 20 meters and possibly even 17 meters, but I called QRT after a total of 36 minutes on the air.
Herein lies the advantage of having a portable ATU: it gives you frequency agility. On days when propagation is rough, and contact roll in slowly, a good ATU will allow you to find matches on multiple bands so your transceiver will be happy pushing RF through a non-resonant antenna length. I love resonant antennas, but it’s hard to beat the flexibility an ATU gives you.
[My next video, by the way, will feature the Z-100 Plus connected to the IC-705. ]
Here’s how my contacts looked that day on a QSOmap:
I was so busy making the activation video, I didn’t think about taking photos of my rig.
During the hike, however, I did snap these two:
It’s fun returning to the same parks and seeing how the flora changes with the seasons. There’s always something new to see.
I think the next time I activate Tuttle, it might be from the trail–I located a couple of spots that would be ideal for a park bench activation! That might make it feel a bit more like a SOTA activation (although, there are no summits in this forest).
Thanks again for reading through this activation report. Please comment with any questions or feedback. Very curious what LDG Z-100 Plus owners think of this ATU.
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.
Wow, Mark! I do love the size of this case and the fact that it fits the FT-891 so perfectly.
Recently, I’ve been thinking about building out a case to hold one of my smaller QRP transceivers (the KX1, KX2, or MTR3B) in the field to be used when it’s raining. Perhaps this has been on my mind because I’ve been enjoying nearly 5 straight days of rain and fog! A case like this would be an affordable solution and I wouldn’t feel terribly bad about drilling through the case to mount antenna, key, mic, and headphone ports.
Thank you again for the tip!
Note that the Amazon affiliate links above support the QRPer at no cost to you. If you’d rather not use these links, simply search Amazon for “Max MAX004S.” Thank you!
One question that often faces newcomers to the hobby is: “Should I buy a QRP or a 100W transceiver as my first rig?”
That is a very deep topic, actually, and one to explore in a future post. A 100 watt transceiver will certainly give you more options as they can often pump out 100W or be turned down to 1 watt. If you’re a phone operator only, that’s got some serious appeal. Then again, if you’re operating POTA or SOTA where you are the DX, power–while still important–is much less so than, say, if you were at home trying to work DX.
Again, a deep topic for another post because there is no right or wrong answer.
One of our readers (Phillip) reached out to me a couple weeks ago and asked if the Yaesu FT-818 would make for a good first HF rig. He liked the portability factor, the build quality, the HF/VHF/UHF multi-mode coverage, and the overall flexibility of the rig as a field radio. His goal was to do POTA activations.
We had quite a few emails back and forth about the pros and cons and I decided it might make more sense to simply take my Yaesu FT-817ND (which is nearly identical to the FT-818) to the field and activate a park in both SSB and CW. Since I knew he wouldn’t necessarily have an external antenna tuner from day one, I paired the FT-817 with my resonant 40/20/10 meter end-fed antenna.
Lake James State Park (K-2739)
On January 17, 2021, I pulled into my favorite part of Lake James State park and quickly set up my station. I only had about one hour to complete my activation, so knew this would be a very brief excursion. Since I actually had a minimal amount of gear, it was a quick setup.
Since I deployed a resonant antenna, there was no tuning or matching involved which not only makes the most of your 5 watts (in that it’s more efficient), but also saves a bit of time in set up and tuning up.
I’m testing this prototype at the moment, but didn’t need to employ it at Lake James since it’s really useful when the rig is on your lap or on on the ground. It essentially gives you top-mounted controls and a larger display to read front panel information from above–incredibly useful for SOTA and proper in-the-field activations. Andy’s v3 board will include a memory keyer–I can’t wait for that one!
Since I had Internet access at this park, I used my Microsoft Surface Go logging tablet to spot myself to the POTA network. I started calling CQ on 40 meters phone (SSB) and within six minutes logged eight stations. Not bad for 5 watts and a wire!
Next, I moved to CW on 40 meters and started calling CQ POTA. The POTA spots page auto-spotted me via the Reverse Beacon Network in short order. In eight minutes, I worked six more stations.
I then moved to twenty meters which was essentially dead, so I called it quits a bit early. I needed to pack up and head to my next destination.
Here’s a QSOMap of this short activation (red polylines are SSB and green CW):
Truth is, each time I use the FT-817, I love it more. Sure it’s only 5 watts, has no ATU, has a small display, a clicky T/R relay, and questionable ergonomics, but it is a keeper for sure. Even after 20 years of being in production, it still holds its own and is an incredibly popular radio for good reason.
As I told Phillip, the 817/818 is the Toyota Corolla of the QRP radio world.
Andy’s article caused me (yes, I blame him) to wax nostalgic about the popular FT-817 transceiver. You see, I owned one of the first production models of the FT-817 in 2001 when I lived in the UK.
At the time, there was nothing like it on the market: a very portable and efficient HF, VHF, UHF, multi-mode general coverage QRP transceiver…all for $670 US.
In 2001? Yeah, Yaesu knocked it out of the ballpark!
In fact, they knocked it out of the ballpark so hard, the radio is still in production two decades later and in demand under the model FT-818.
I sold my FT-817 in 2008 to raise funds for the purchase of an Elecraft KX1, if memory serves. My reasoning? The one thing I disliked about my FT-817 was its tiny front-facing display. When combined with the embedded menus and lack of controls, it could get frustrating at home and in the field.
When I told Andy about my ‘817ND purchase, he asked if I’d like to help him test the FT-817 Buddy board versions. How could I refuse?
Andy sent me a prototype of his Version 2 Buddy board which arrived in late November. I had to source out a few bits (an Arduino board, Nokia display, and multi-conductor CAT cable). Andy kindly pre-populated all of the SMD components so I only needed to solder the Arduino board and configure/solder the cable. I did take a lot of care preparing and soldering the cable, making sure there was no unintentional short between the voltage and ground conductors.
Overall, I found the construction and programming pretty straight-forward. It helped that Andy did a remote session with me during the programming process (thanks, OM!). Andy is doing an amazing job with the documentation.
I do love how the board makes it easier to read the frequency and have direct access to important functions without digging through embedded menus. While there’s nothing stopping you from changing the program to suit you, Andy’s done a brilliant job with this since he’s an experienced FT-817 user.
The Nokia display is very well backlit, high contrast, and easy very to read.
“Resistance is futile”
I mentioned on Twitter that, with the backlight on, the FT-817 Buddy makes my ‘817ND look like it was recently assimilated by The Borg.
Don’t tell any Star Trek captains, but I’m good with that.
Andy has a rev3 board in the works and it sports something that will be a game-changer for me in the field: K1EL’s keyer chip!