Fasten your seat belts for FT8 @ camp

Early in the morning of the day that my XYL and I left for our most recent camping trip I was making a quick pass through some of my favorite Amateur Radio blogs and came upon a post by Bas, PE4BAS and another post by John, AE5X regarding the new WSJT protocol\mode, FT8. In John’s post he graciously referenced my recent post on PSK31 with my KX2 as an example of QRP portable digital operation. I had already packed my equipment in order to operate PSK31 from camp but I thought that I may as well try FT8. I pulled out my PC and installed the beta version of WSJT-X. I didn’t have enough time to setup the KX2 to check configuration and test so I figured that I’d just wing it at camp.

The second day at camp dawned bright and beautiful, perfect weather for digital operations. After a nice breakfast I pulled out my equipment to have a go at FT8. I quickly placed one end of my LNR EF-Quad well up in a tall fir tree and setup the KX2 and laptop. When I originally setup for PSK31 with my KX2 I used an older Toshiba laptop however the battery in that laptop would not hold a sufficient charge so I switched over to another old laptop that I purchased a few years ago at a local Hamfest with the intent of setting up a dedicated WSPR station with my IC-718. This never happened and in the face of my new WSPRlite transmitter it’s not likely that it will so I decided to use it as my portable digital PC. It is a bit more compact than the other laptop and as a result the keyboard is a wee bit smaller, but it’s still reasonably serviceable.

In order to confirm that everything was setup correctly as far as the general PC\radio interface I made a quick test with Fldigi and PSK31 using the same USB soundcard I described in an earlier post. This resulted in a couple of very nice QSO’s with N1ZQ who was operating portable in the White Mountains of New Hampshire and KA3OCS in Virginia. Both stations were very considerate of me being new at PSK31.

Fldigi PSK31 @ camp

With general functionality confirmed I shut down Fldigi and started up WSJT-X. Within a minute I had the interface to the radio and audio setup, selected FT8 on the Mode menu, and with a click of the Monitor button WSJT-X was receiving and decoding FT8 on 20m.

WSJT-X FT8 @ camp

WSJT-X configuration was as follows with the KX2:

WSJT-X radio config with KX2

WSJT-X audio config

This was my first experience with WSJT-X having never operated with either JT9 or JT65 in addition to the new FT8 mode. If you’ve not seen FT8 in action before, let me tell you that it moves very very quickly. The Band Activity pane filled quite rapidly and scrolled along at a rather brisk pace. I observed the activity for a wee bit to get a feel for the flow of activity and then attempted to respond to some CQ calls. After a few attempts I was rewarded with my first FT8 QSO, N4ULE. It was over before I knew it!

First FT8 QSO, N4ULE

When it comes to FT8, as Briscoe Darling once said, “Just jump in where you can and hang on…

In fact if there was a theme song for FT8, it may well be Doug Dillard playing “Banjo in the Hollow” as in the video. FT8 moves right along, just like Doug’s pickin’.

The KX performed as expected, flawlessly. The CAT interface with WSJT-X functioned without an issue. The KX2 mode was DATA A. I’ve read a number of threads on the heat sink temperature rise with digital operation with the KX2\KX3. In the KX2 manual Elecraft states to reduce power to 5W so that is where I set the power. Depending upon the ambient temperature and operation my KX2 sits around 21-25 C. It was about 78 F\25 C at camp and I saw the heatsink temp peak at around 34 C after several rounds of transmission. It would quickly rise and as quickly descend at the end of each transmission. I don’t know what the foldback temperature is for the KX2. I will monitor the power output with my OHR WM-2 the next time I operate FT8 and digital modes in general to see if I hit the foldback in normal operation.

Given our position in Cycle 24, recently purchasing a shiny new QRP rig might not have been the best timing but digital modes seem to be on the rise. They mostly certainly provide new opportunities to make contacts and expand the frontiers of Amateur Radio. Like all of the other modes, some old, some new, they are another tool in the toolbox. My initial impression of FT8 is positive and while it will take a little practice to get used to the pace, my guess is that there will be some more operation with FT8 and my KX2 in the future.

UPDATE: Bas, PE4BAS asked a good question in the comments, that being time synchronization for the PC. I forgot to add this into the original post. WSJT-X requires a means for synchronizing the computer clock to UTC within ±1 second. Thankfully my XYL’s cellphone has service when we are at camp so I used that to access the US Naval Observatory time service at Using this reference I updated the PC clock manually. Lacking a data service I would have used WWV. This Genesis Radio site has a very nice list of time signals around the world. If the PC was connected to the Internet I’d use NISTIME 32 (scroll to the bottom of the page for the download), which is what I use on my home QTH PC.



An Elk in the wilderness

Edward Abbey’s friend Doug Peacock once said “It ain’t wilderness unless there’s a critter out there that can kill you and eat you.” By that measure we don’t really have any wilderness in Wisconsin. There are black bears a wee bit north of my QTH, there is a growing wolf population a bit beyond that, and on occasion a cougar is sited. While we may not have wilderness we do have some beautiful outdoors here in Wisconsin and my XYL and I endeavor to spend as much time in it as we are able. To that end we just returned from another camping trip, our third this year with two more planned before winter closes in.

The purchase of the camper a few years ago has really fueled my interest in portable operations. This is our third season with it and I have a reasonably good portable station worked out for HF but VHF\UHF has largely consisted of my old Kenwood TH-G71 HT which is primarily used as a NOAA weather radio receiver as 5w and a rubber duck isn’t enough to get me into any local repeaters from camp. Thus the need for an Elk. While we do have some elk in Wisconsin, their affect on VHF\UHF communications is unknown, perhaps because we only have about 60 of them. Once we have more, who knows. In the meantime there is an Elk that has a great affect on VHF\UHF communications, that being the Elk Antennas 2M/440L5 log periodic antenna.

I purchased and deployed a 2M/440L5 something on the order of 10 years ago. It’s been faithfully serving through the hot and humid (and occasionally stormy) summers and the cold and blustery winters with no ill effect to it. The black anodizing on the elements has faded a bit but it is still working great. I’m not much of a VHF\UHF operator but I’ve used it in the past for some 2m SSB work with an old Kenwood TR-9000 and later a TR-9130 as well as occasional 2m FM repeater access all with good results. It is a very well made, well performing antenna that gets great reviews.

Recently a friend and fellow Amateur Radio operator, Josh KD9DZP, got a great deal on a pair of Kenwood TM-D700 transceivers. Given that my only 70cm rig was my  HT and aside from an old Kenwood TR-7950 with some minor issues and the old TR-9000 and TR-9130 my newest 2m rig was an ICOM IC-V8000. So given the fact that I didn’t have a proper dual-band mobile rig Josh made me a great deal on one of his pair. This started my gears whirring regarding a better portable VHF\UHF station for camping. I had various portable power sources sorted out and now that I had a better rig the last piece was an antenna.

I considered a number of options and the end result was the purchase of a Comet GP-3 for my home QTH and the removal of the Elk log periodic from its mount to allow it to be used as my portable VHF\UHF antenna. With the Elk freed up for portable operation it will also allow me to try out satellite operations at some point, something that I’ve never done.

This camping trip was the first outing for the old Elk and my new TM-D700. Prior to leaving home I programmed the radio with all of the 2m and 70cm repeaters that I was liable to access from camp. Upon arrival at camp there is a bit to do to setup the camper and camp itself. The division of labor is such that once we have the camper sited and the jacks deployed, I take care of the outside camp setup and my XYL prepares the inside of the camper. Once I completed the camp setup my first order of business was to deploy the Elk for some testing. Like all of the sites at our favorite campground, this one had plenty of tall trees with some clear overhangs that would be perfect in which to hang the Elk. I fashioned a yoke from paracord for it that would keep it vertically oriented as well as allow me to rotate it using the Armstrong method. With my arborists throw bag I had the Elk up in a good position in slightly more than one jiffy.

Elk in red @approx 25 feet

The antenna is more clear of the trees than depicted. It could easily be rotated from the ground without the need to lower it.

Elk @ camp

Deploying the TM-D700 (yes, using a Samlex power supply instead of a battery) I began to make some calls on various local repeaters. I was able to access the WeComm repeater in Plymouth (146.850 MHz – approx. 38 miles from camp), the 2m repeater in Manitowoc (approx 11 miles from camp), and the FM38 system (70 cm) via its repeater in Green Bay, 442.800 MHz (approx. 30 miles from camp.) Bob, K9BOB responded to my call on the FM38 machine in Green Bay and we had a nice QSO. I was also able to speak with Josh, KD9DZP via the Fm38 system from his home QTH over 70 miles away from camp. He was accessing the Milwaukee repeater at 443.800 Mhz.

TM-D700 @ camp

The power settings for the TM-D700 are 5W (Low), 10W (Medium), and 50W (High.) I was able to access the FM38 system at all power settings with the Elk pointed at Green Bay. I needed at least 10W to access the Plymouth machine and low was all that was needed to access the Manitowoc machine with the antenna pointed in their respective directions.

In addition to the 2m and 70cm usage, I checked all of the NOAA weather radio transmitter frequencies and of the seven, I was able to clearly receive five, of which KIG65 in Green Bay, WXN69 in Sister Bay, WWG87 in Fond Du Lac, and WWG91 in Sheboygan were the strongest. That’s plenty of weather coverage for camp.

I think that the Elk Antenna log periodic makes a very nice portable VHF\UHF antenna for camping. It’s easily transported and deployed, and it packs a lot of performance in a relatively small footprint. I look forward to more trips to the woods with my Elk and at some point I may even point it at some satellites.


PSK31 with the Elecraft KX2

One of the items on my seeming endless list of things to do in Amateur Radio has been to sort out a portable digital station. Other than a little WSPRing now and again I’ve only operated with any other digital mode (PSK31) once, just to try it out. That was three years ago with a Signalink USB and my IC-718. I’ve not touched it since however with my growing interest in portable operations I’ve wanted to add digital capability, especially when operating QRP. The portable digital station made its way to the top of the list with the recent acquisition of my KX2.

Even before the radio arrived I began to research digital operations with it. Obviously one way to do it is with the built-in functionality to both decode and send via the key, digital modes like PSK31 and RTTY. While this is a very nice feature and is clearly the lowest profile as it doesn’t require any additional hardware or software I wanted to have the ability to use a keyboard and perhaps a little large display than the scrolling one-line in the KX2.

The first approach that I thought I’d try was that of an Android tablet. We have a 7″ Samsung Galaxy 4 tablet that lies about largely unused in light of other devices. It’s certainly appealing due to its size, that being just a wee bit larger than the radio itself. I did a bit of research on this option and quickly found the DroidPSK app which is developed by Wolphi Solutions who also has have developed a simple tablet\smartphone to radio interface. A few more minutes research found that DroidPSK also can be used with a Signalink USB. The only downsides to this approach are that I’d need to carry a powered USB hub and I’d rather have a reasonable hardware keyboard as opposed to the soft keyboard of an Android app. The plus side was that I already own both the Signalink USB and a few powered USB hubs so other than the small fee for the app and some cables I was largely set. A nicer keyboard was kind of a sticking point though. The only time that I operated PSK31 I quickly found that I really wasn’t all that enamored with macro exchanges. I wanted to have an actual QSO, not just regurgitate canned messages. QSOs actually do occur in PSK31 but in order to facilitate this a half-decent keyboard was going to be a necessity. I realize that small USB and Bluetooth keyboards are available but that’s yet another piece of hardware to cart along and they are small, so I continued my research.

This past week, as I was sitting in my office eating my lunch and perusing I came upon a post by K5ACL entitled, “JT Modes & the Elecraft KX3, a how-to guide!” The post contained a video in which he described the use of a USB soundcard to interface to his KX3 in order to operate digital modes. Within minutes of watching the video I checked Amazon for the device, found it and ordered it, and as is typical, Amazon Primed it into my hands in two days. In between watching the video and ordering the USB soundcard, another dormant piece of hardware came to mind. We have an old Windows XP laptop that was purchased for the kids sometime ago, well before the days of smartphones and Android tablets. It’s small enough to be very portable and has a reasonable keyboard. With the addition of the USB soundcard it will make a nice platform for a portable digital station.

The USB soundcard that I purchased is a Sabrent. It gets very good reviews on Amazon and so for $6.49 it was worth a try. I plugged it into the XP machine and it had no issues. I quickly tested the input and output to make sure that it was working correctly prior to connecting it to the radio. When I purchased the KX2 in anticipation of digital operation I spent a few extra dollars to get their I\O cables, (E980229) Transmit Audio Cable and the (E980230) Receive Audio Cable. They are nicely done, with a right angle connector on one end and shrink-wrap colored labels that match their intended connections. The USB soundcard jacks are colored green for speaker\headphone (audio output from the PC) and red for the mic (audio input from the radio.) These match nicely with the labels on the Elecraft cables. The red plugs into the “phone” jack on the radio (audio output from the radio to the mic on the PC) and the green plugs into the “mic” jack on the radio (audio input to the radio from the speaker\headphone output.) The KX2 USB interface cable is used for radio control so you’ll need two USB ports.

KX2 PSK31 cables

Aside from the cable interface I set the KX2 to the “Data A” mode and dialed the power back to 5W as recommended by Elecraft.

Turning to the software, it seems as if the most popular PSK31 software is Fldigi, by W1HKJ, so I downloaded and installed that on the old laptop. If you are new to Fldigi, K4REF has a bunch of very nice videos on his YouTube channel that are very helpful.

The configuration of the software for my station is as follows. First, use the KX2 utility application to determine which com port is used by the KX2 cable to connect to the radio. In my case it was com7. Once that is complete shut the KX2 utility application down so that it frees the port for use by Fldigi.

KX2 com port

There are a lot of options in Fldigi. The most important ones to get right are the radio controls and the soundcard interface. When you first start Fldigi it will run a wizard which will step you through the settings. For my PC and the USB soundcard the configuration was a follows:

USB soundcard config

It’s possible that this may be different for your computer depending upon the sound devices in your PC. In XP you can check the audio devices by going to the Control Panel, double-clicking “Sound and Audio Devices” clicking the “Audio” tab, and then clicking the drop-downs for Default Device in both Sound playback and Sound recording. When I plugged in the USB soundcard they both defaulted to “USB Audio Device.”

There are several options for control of the radio. I chose to use Hamlib. My configuration was as follows:

Radio interface config

There wasn’t a selection in the rig list for KX2 so I chose the KX3 as they are likely the same for the purposes of rig interface for PSK31 operation. Set “Device” to the com port that the KX2 is on, in my case it was COM7.

Next I set the mode to USB and BPSK31:

Mode config

And finally I entered the Operator settings (Configure\UI\Operator):

Fldigi operator config

As soon as the soundcard settings were complete signals started to appear on the waterfall and be decoded. In order to check my transmission I picked a clear spot on the waterfall and transmitted a test message to check the soundcard levels and adjust the mic gain on the radio to the 4-5 bars of ALC as recommended by Elecraft.

After a quick check of the macros, I looked for someone calling CQ. One of the first signals that I found on 20m was that of VY2PLH. This is a special callsign for lighthouse activations on Prince Edward Island. In this case the operator, Bernie, VE9BGC was operating at Point Prim Lighthouse. According to their site, Point Prim Lighthouse was built in 1845 and is the first and oldest lighthouse on Prince Edward Island. We had a nice exchange with good signal reports. A very nice first QSO with the KX2 digital station.

Thus far I pretty happy with this configuration. The only new piece of equipment I needed was the $6.49 USB soundcard. The laptop is small enough to fit into the small backpack with the KX2 so this should work well. Now I will have some digital capabilities for our next camping trip.


WSPRlite on 80m

After a fair amount of work yesterday I was able to get my Cobra UltraLite Senior back up with some assistance. As I said in my previous post, the tree that was holding the north end of the antenna had to come down so I needed to develop a new support plan. The other trees in the area weren’t completely suitable so my XYL suggested using the post for the basketball hoop as a support for a pole to support the antenna. I was going to fabricate a pole but a little further thought resulted in the purchase of a Channel Master 25ft antenna mast. The next problem was to develop a method of clamping the antenna mast to the basketball post. After a few minutes consulting with my older son, W9KKX he suggested using back-to-back muffler clamps. I acquired a set of three 4″ clamps and three 2″ clamps and W9KKX welded them up for me.

Clamp construction

After a little bit of paint I had three, custom pipe-to-pipe clamps:

Pipe-to-pipe clamps

Attaching the clamps to the basketball post and in turn the antenna support mast was very simple and clean.

Pole and mast

It was very easy to then push-up the mast by simply placing a ladder next to the basketball pole and running the mast sections up.

New antenna support

With the trees so close to the basketball post it actually blends in quite nicely. I placed some guy ropes from near the top of the mast to the trees behind it for support.

After replacing the halyard and support ropes in the tree at the south end of the antenna I was able to pull the antenna into position with the assistance of my younger son and one of his friends. The antenna is 140 feet long and runs over the course of about 200 feet including the support ropes in order to get the center feed ladder line positioned well. The south end is at about 35 feet and the north at 25 feet. The center feedpoint is supported with a line to another tree just to the west of the antenna. The antenna is oriented NNE to SSW.

Once the outside work was completed I went inside to check the antenna with my AA-55 Zoom and then configure the WSPRlite tranmitter for 80m. Since the Cobra UltraLite Senior is not resonant on 80m I used my Dentron Jr. Monitor to provide a match for the WSPRlite transmitter. With these preparations complete I started WSPRing on 80m with 200mW.

KA9EAK @ 200mW on 80m

Band conditions

Over the course of the night I was watching results and comparing with some other local stations. For example the station of AA9GE is just under 200 miles south and a bit west of mine and he was getting these results with 1w of power:

AA9GE @1W on 80m

The overall activity looked like this:

80m WSPR activity

A lot of the spots from Europe were US receive stations. There weren’t a lot of US stations being received by European stations with the exceptions that I found running 5w as opposed to 200mW.

WSPRing is very interesting. There obviously are a number of variables involved from propagation conditions to antennas and power. It’s not everything, but it’s something. Now that I have my Cobra UltraLite Senior back up I can do some A\B testing with my Hustler 4BTV. I’ll post results when I have them.

Now to finish up my Thirteen Colonies. I’ve got four more to go plus the GB13COL station.

Happy Independence Day!


WSPRlite on 40m

I completed the build of the low pass filter kit last night and a quick test on 40m indicates that it is working properly as indicated by a number of spots in North America and ZL1RS in New Zealand. The antenna I’m using for this test is my Hustler 4BTV with thirty 30 foot radials and the WSPRlite is set to 200mW.

WSPRlite on 40m

Current band conditions

The build isn’t difficult at all though you will get some practice winding toroids. The capacitors are very small, but thankfully not SMDs : ) , so as a nice touch for eyes that aren’t 20 anymore they package them so that old eyes can sort them out. Most of mine were on tape reels with some indication of the value by the number and\or color of lines on the reel material. One set was in a clearly labeled bag. There is a table in the build instructions to decipher the simple code for the lines. It’s a nice extra effort on the part of the SOTAbeam folks. With the capacitors, jumpers, and connectors in place the board is complete.

Low pass filter board

The three sets of filters line up across the board so configuration is as easy as moving the jumpers on the input and output headers to correspond to the filter set for the band on which you wish to operate.

As for an enclosure, given the nature of the board and the necessity to access the jumpers I think that I’ll just mount it on some standoffs and call it good. For now it’s comfortably WSPRing away sitting on my desk. The weather forecasters are predicting that the next two days are going to be mostly sunny and in the low to mid 70’s (23c) so the primary project for today is to get my CobraUltra Lite antenna back in the air. Then I can resume operations on 80m and 160m including some WSPRing.


Wind toroids or joust with lightning?

As has been the pattern this spring and now summer it’s an on and off rainy day. We’re 6″ ahead of our normal annual rainfall thus far and there isn’t any sign of slowing. That’s a lot of extra water. Today has also included mild thunderstorms periodically rolling through. With a four day weekend for Independence Day my plan for today was to work on getting my Cobra UltraLite Senior back in the air. About six weeks ago we had to take down a large tree that was arguably dead a couple of years ago but was serving the purpose of holding up one end of the antenna. However the rot had progressed to the point that one more storm was going to bring a stout limb down on the camper or a vehicle so the antenna came down along with the tree. The other trees that are close to it are tall and very full but they don’t have the substantial limbs up high enough for this antenna so I elected to move the end point to a new position and use a Channel Master 25ft antenna mast instead of a tree. This also has the advantage of moving the feedpoint a little closer so that it will fall away a bit more vertically from the antenna to the house as opposed to the more horizontal approach from the past installation.

Lightning Rod

Given the passing thunderstorms albeit mild ones, messing about with a 25 foot steel pole seemed like throwing your hat into the ring for a potential Darwin Award. So I elected to wind nine toroids instead of playing chicken with bolts of lightning. My guess is that the lightning always wins.

Out of the box, the WSPRlite transmitter supports the 20m and 30m bands. The low pass filter kit provides support for the 40m, 80m and 160m bands. As you can imagine the primary components of the low pass filter kit are a number of capacitors (14) and toroids (9).

Low pass filter kit components

So in between tending some chicken on the smoker I commenced to winding the toroids. The build instructions for the kit are very well done. One of the references for winding toroids is that of Genesis Radio which presents a very clear set of instructions for winding toroids if you are new to it. In addition, the build instructions include a simple continuity test sequence so that you can check to be sure that each toroid is soldered to the board correctly. This is a nice added touch as you can never be more than one toroid wrong as you progress.

One down, eight to go

I soldered each toroid to the board as I completed them in order to keep track as there are two different cores and six different turn counts for the nine toroids. It took about an hour to wind all nine and install them.

Toroids complete

Over the course of the evening I’ll complete the board and if the weather improves such that I can reconnect antennas I’ll do some WSPRing on 40m. Once I get my Cobra UltraLite Senior back up I’ll be able to WSPR on 80m and 160m. Stay tuned for more WSPRing, right now it’s time for dinner.


First trip with the KX2

We just returned from another fine camping trip, this time with the KX2, its first trip to the great outdoors. First observation, they ought to out put warning labels on these things. They are very nice radios and you will want to operate them very often. Second, they sip power. I brought along my a Bioenno Power BLF 1209A battery (9 Ah), and used it without recharging, operating for a bit each day for the entire four day trip. No more hauling a trolling motor battery with the obligatory follow-on chiropractor trips for me.

KX2 at Camp

Yes, 10 W isn’t 100 W and given the current conditions 10 w SSB won’t always get the job done but many times it does. I made some good contacts over the period of the trip including some time at Rawley Point Lighthouse, with some especially nice QSO’s with WA0HHX and WR2D with good signal reports. I heard plenty of European DX stations, usually late in the afternoon on 20m but wasn’t able to make any contacts. (I take my TS-480SAT along and run it off the camper house battery or my Samlex 1223-BBM when I need 100 W.) At some point conditions will be such that I’ll get some DX from camp with the KX2.

For this trip the only antenna I used was my  LNR EFT-10/20/40 Trail-Friendly end fed. It’s very easy to toss my throw line up into a tree and pull up the antenna. I can be up and running in maybe 5-10 minutes.

My XYL and I saw a lot of White Pelicans on this trip. We’ve seen a few on occasion in years past but on this trip there were quite a large number of them flying about, swimming, and fishing in Lake Michigan. They are fun to watch and were quite entertaining while waiting for responses to my CQ calls at the lighthouse.

White Pelican

Butterfly’s were out in abundance on the beach as well including a bunch of Pearl Crescents and quite a few Red spotted Purples.

Pearl Crescent and Red spotted Purple

Next up for the KX2 portable station is a linked dipole for camp, the internal battery pack, and sorting out portable digital modes. We have several more camping trips scheduled for the year and there will be some other outdoor operation as well. The KX2 packs a lot of features into a small package and is a joy to operate. I’m as happy as a canary with a new beak!

Happy Camper with a KX2