Tag Archives: Portable operation

KX2: I guess it turned out to be sooner than later…

After reading a lot about the radio, and especially the escapades of people like AE5X, K0JQZ and KC0YQF, M0JCQ, and W2LJ among others with their KX2\KX3’s I figured that one would likely end up in my shack at some point in time…

Well, Brown Santa dropped off a box late yesterday afternoon:

My new favorite shipping box

I ordered the radio on 28 May. When I placed the order the Elecraft site indicated that the KX2 was backordered and that it would ship 10-15 days after the order. I don’t mind waiting a year or two to get a QSL card, but 10-15 days for a radio? OK, I’ll wait. : ) After a year in the market it appears that they still have a queue of people waiting to buy one. This is a great problem to have if your Elecraft.

I figured that worst case it would make it just in time for Field Day. Elecraft shipped it on 2 June. That’s five days after the order with one of those days being a holiday, Memorial Day in the US.  (For some odd reason it took UPS six days to get it to Wisconsin.) Turns out Elecraft not only produces great radios, they can compress time as well. Can your Amateur Radio manufacturer do that?

KX2: What’s in the box

In the box is the radio, the nicely printed, well written and spiral bound (how nice is that?) manual, the KXUSB cable, and the power cable. I also ordered the mic, paddles, and antenna tuner. I didn’t buy the battery pack or charger. More on that later.

After un-boxing I quickly put some Anderson Powerpoles on the power cable and plugged it into a Bioenno Power BLF 1209A battery, plugged in the mic, connected my 4BTV to it and powered it up. I tuned around on 40m for a few minutes and heard KC2DIS, Tony in Norwood, NY calling CQ. I responded to his call. He said that he could hear someone in the noise but couldn’t quite make out the call. I remembered that the KX2 has a speech processor and so I quickly dove into the menu to check its current (default) setting: “0”. I dialed it up to 20, called again and we made the contact. Conditions weren’t great and he said that he had a lot of local noise. He was 59 here and gave me a 44 report. Not bad for 10 w in poor conditions. We had a short QSO and I went QRT to install the antenna tuner and paddles.

When you open up the KX2 you will see an amazing amount of goodness contained within a very small package. The antenna tuner install reminded me that my eyes aren’t 20 years old anymore. Nor 30. Nor 40. This thing is small. Where’d I put my glasses? After a few tries I got the connector between the antenna tuner board and the RF board lined up and in place. The right panel has to be removed for the antenna tuner install and it doubles as the heat sink so the next challenge was to get the two screws back in place through side\heat sink and the power transistors. Did I mention that this thing is tiny? There isn’t a lot of room to work in that space. After a bit of fiddling I was able to get the captive washers and nuts back in place and secured properly.

KX2

With everything buttoned back up I powered the radio back on, enabled the tuner in the menu, cycled the power as instructed in the manual, and called CQ on 40m. After about a minute I got a response from KZ4D, Fred in Lynchburg, VA. He was 59+ here and gave me a 56 report.  He was running an IC-7600 at 75 watts into a vertical and I was using 10 watts into my vertical. We had a nice QSO.

I spent a bit more time tuning about on 40m. With a fair amount of noise on the band it gave me an opportunity to try out the filtering capabilities of the radio. One word: wonderful.

From the speech processor, to the filtering, to the CW\SSB message recording, RX\TX audio equalization, digital decode for RTTY\PSK (and CW), and the list goes on, this is an amazing amount of functionality in a very nice, very small package. This radio will see a lot of use on camping trips and other portable ops including some SOTA activations. I’ve been blessed with the ability to have some pretty nice radios and this one rises up into the top of the pack (pun intended.)

Put a little QRP in your pack

 

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Portable Antenna Halyard

At my home QTH I’ve always used halyards to haul a pulley up that in turn holds the antenna support rope. It takes more rope to do it this way but it works much better than using a single rope. Recently I’ve been using my  LNR EFT-10/20/40 Trail-Friendly antenna a bit. There are two downsides to placing it well up in a tree, 1) it is made of very thin wire which is great for portability but I’m not really excited about using the antenna wire to haul it down because, 2) it has a built in winder\choke which again, is great for function and portability, but unfortunately the winder\choke doubles as a limb catcher. The solution to this problem is to use the throw line as a halyard, not the antenna wire. This actually allows you to have much better control while hoisting the antenna, and the throw line acts as the downhaul instead of the antenna wire. If the antenna does get snagged you can use the throw line instead of the antenna wire to work out the snag.

Throw line halyard

In the picture the blue box is the end of the antenna tied to the throw line with a bowline and the red box is the winder\choke. Using this method I can easily maneuver the antenna wire through tree limbs and overcome snags using the much stronger throw line as opposed to the antenna wire.

** Correct halyard terms courtesy of my very good friend, The Boat Doctor, of Sailing Magazine. The correct sailing terms are hoist and strike. “Strike the antenna” could have all sorts of bad connotations but it could be a fun phrase to use at Field Day. : )

 

Portable operation: Siege or Alpine?

In mountaineering there are generally two styles or approaches: siege or expedition and alpine. Siege or expedition style involves establishing a route with camps and fixed ropes while alpine style typically involves carrying all of your necessities with you as you climb. In most cases the siege style involves much more equipment, time, and effort, while in alpine style the food, shelter, and other equipment that you need to both climb and survive is that which is in the pack on your back.

Since I started my portable operation I’ve been using the siege style as illustrated here:

Could you fit more in this wagon?

I haul my TS-480SAT, multiple antennas, various lengths of coax, a group 24 lead acid battery, chair, table, etc. Gear that while nice to have, weighs an awful lot, is rather bulky, and frankly is a chore to lug along a trail. Calling all of this stuff “portable” is likely pushing the limits of the use of the phrase “portable station.” At the end of the day, it’s not really all that portable.

Late last year I decided to re-evaluate my “portable” station. I’m not getting any younger and I can’t afford to care for and feed a pack mule and even if I could my XYL would frown upon hauling it in the camper, so I decided to look for ways in which to lighten my load. The obvious place to start was the battery. Do I really need to lug around a group 24 battery? Yes it’s probably good for around 40 Ah, maybe a wee bit more, but short of an all day operation with an above average amount of transmitting at 100W am I ever really going to need this much power on hand? Not likely.

Given the fact that you actually can make contacts, even SSB contacts, using less than 100 Watts (that may be a shocking statement to some), and given that decreasing transmit power means decreasing DC power requirements, and given that the engineers at Kenwood even included the means by which to do so on the TS-480SAT, coupled with the fact that there has been all manner of improvements in battery technology in recent years, indicated to me that I should  decrease my transmit power and start to look for a newer, lighter power source.

Decrease the power?

So after reading Andrew’s post (VK1AD) about his experience with a new LiFePO4 battery I decided to obtain one as well and try it out with my TS-480SAT. So at the end of the camping season last year I acquired this:

4200mAH LiFePO4 battery

Yes, it is only 4200 mAh but it barely weighs a pound. I did some testing with my TS-480SAT with the power dialed well back and was pleased with the results. I could fit the radio, the battery, a portable wire antenna, and a length of coax into a small daypack. No wagon or pack animals required. This was a great start. But there was probably room for more improvement.

You probably all know where this is going. What is the next heaviest thing in the siege wagon? Yes, you guessed it; the radio. Since ICOM exited the QRP multiband all-mode radio world when they dropped the IC-703 some years ago the remaining contenders are the Yaesu FT-817ND, the Elecraft offerings, the KX3 and KX2, and some nice radios from LNR. The TS-480SAT is a super nice radio and is a very portable rig however it weighs 8 pounds. If weight reduction is the goal, there are offerings that tip the scale at considerably less than 8 pounds.

After a lot of research I elected to purchase the Yaesu FT-817ND at the end of the camping season last year. I looked long and hard at the KX2 which is close in price to the 817 but I really like the shack-in-a-box capability of the 817 (especially VHF\UHF) for camping. It’s entirely possible that a KX2\KX3 finds its way into my shack at some point but I’m presently happy with the 817. I have an FT-857D in my car so I’m used to the menus, I wish the display was a bit larger but it’s a small radio, and I would have loved to be a fly on the wall at the meeting where it was decided that it would be a good idea to cap VHF receive at 154 MHz, thus precluding the reception of NOAA weather radio in the US at 162 MHz, an obvious feature to have in a portable radio like the 817.

FT-187ND and TS-480SAT

Its maiden camping voyage was on our recent first camping trip of the season. One morning I went for a walk with a Maxpedition Lunada containing my entire portable radio shack as pictured below:

KA9EAK Portable

The portable station consists of the 817, an LDG Z817 tuner and cable, the 4200mAh battery, a length of coax, a BNC to PLC-259 adapter cable, the UHF\VHF rubber duck antenna, and an LNR EFT-10/20/40 Trail-Friendly antenna. All of this comfortably fits into the small pack and weighs around five pounds. (I can actually shed the LDG tuner as I don’t need it with the LNR antenna. I purchased the tuner for use with other antennas and I just keep it in the bag with the rest of the 817 gear.)

The first setup was out near the beach at Point Beach State Forest on Lake Michigan. I brought along my arborists throw bag and line and quickly had the antenna up in a nearby tree. Minutes later I was on the air.

817 setup (light red line highlights antenna)

I heard a fair amount of DX on 20m but given conditions and 5W they couldn’t hear me. I tuned around a bit and was able to check into the SATERN net on 14.265 with Bob, WA5EEZ in Oklahoma with a good signal report. After the net I made a few more calls and came upon K0PFV mobile in Washington County, Oklahoma. I gave him a call and was able to make the contact with good signal reports, 59 sent and 53 received.

Fluttering on the bands?

Thus far I am very pleased with my new truly portable station. Yes, it doesn’t have the capabilities of the TS-480SAT station but it’s much lighter and easier to deploy. Plus I save money on back surgery and\or pack mule feed and vet bills. Both radios will make the trip camping, I just won’t be using the siege wagon much anymore. The TS-480SAT can stay in camp while the FT-817ND goes off on some alpine-style radio adventures.

Happy 817 operator self-portrait

Rig Expert @ Rawley Point Lighthouse

While on the first camping trip of the year I once again activated the Rawley Point Lighthouse (USA-689.) This time I chose to operate from the parking lot just to the north of the lighthouse. I used my Kenwood TS-480SAT and instead of my Alpha Antenna Alpha DX Sr I chose to use my LNR EF-Quad.

The parking lot just to the north of the lighthouse is located behind a very large dune at the top of which is a rather tall tree perfectly suited as support for one end of an end fed wire antenna. Using my arborists throw bag and line I quickly placed the line over a limb about halfway up the tree. I hoisted one end of the EF-Quad into the tree and ran the feed end back to my truck.

EF-Quad @ Rawley Point (light red line highlights antenna)

EF-Quad

I used my RigExpert AA-55 Zoom to quickly check the antenna and obtained the following readings:

Frequency SWR
7180 1.35
14250 1.27
21325 1.29
29000 3.1

AA-55 Zoom @ Rawley Point Lighthouse

AA-55 Zoom – Outstanding in its field

The RigExpert AA-55 Zoom continues to be outstanding in its field (pun intended.)

Due to the fact that it was a very windy, and somewhat cold day, I chose to setup the radio in the back of my truck. Once the antenna was up and checked I was able to start making some contacts on 20m. Even though band conditions weren’t great I was able to make a number of contacts in the time that I had for operation. The EF-Quad is a very nice antenna for portable operation and is a great option for windy days where I would have had to guy a vertical antenna like my Alpha Antenna Alpha DX Sr.

Some day this summer I’ll tune the EF-Quad to get 10m closer to what is spec’d. Now that I have the AA-55 Zoom it will be much easier to tune this multi-band wire antenna than with the old MFJ-259B.

 

Arborists Throw Bag

One of the challenges of wire antennas is getting them where we want them. Unless you are operating in the middle of the Mojave Desert natural antenna supports, otherwise known as trees are the traditional support mechanism. The age old challenge has been how to get the wire into the tree where you want it. Over the years all manner of devices have been used to accomplish this task. Lead fishing weights, tennis balls, and various other balls either thrown manually or launched pneumatically. Other means include sling shots, wrist rockets, and the trusty bow and arrow. All of these have their pros and cons. At my home QTH I’ve typically used a bow and arrow. I attach fishing line to the arrow and have one of my sons fire it into the tree where I’d like the line positioned. This method is very accurate and has typically worked well however the arrow usually travels a bit further than needed (I have plenty of room for overshoot) and even heavier fishing line is still kind of fine, making it difficult to see as you attempt to work the line through the tree.

With an increase in portable operations as of late I’ve been interested in a better way to get my wire antennas into trees. Carrying a bow and arrow and one of my sons along with me isn’t an option. I’d considered some of the sling shot\wrist rocket devices as well as some of the pneumatic ones but they are more than I want to haul along. As I was doing some research on the subject I came across throw bags. Arborists use them to place ropes into trees. Rock climbers use them as well. I watched a handful of videos and found the techniques that arborists use for throwing into and working the line through the tree very applicable to the problem of placing wire antennas. Here are few examples. There are a bunch of interesting videos on YouTube on the subject.

 

 

So where do you find such things? Amazon of course. A few clicks later the Weaver Leather Throw Weight and Line Kit was on its way. As a side note I’m not sure why it’s called “Leather” throw weight. There’s nary a trace of leather to be found. The bag is well made of heavy woven nylon and is filled with something reasonably dense (lead shot?) to give it a weight of 12 ounces. The throw bags I found vary in weight from 10 to 16 ounces. I chose the 12 ounce version figuring that 10 ounces was too light and 16 ounces was too heavy. When is the last time that you threw 12 ounces (three quarters of a pound)? 12 ounces is heavier than you may think. While it is quite hefty when it gets going physics does its job. I can neither confirm nor deny that I may or may not have bounced my throw bag off the side of one of my son’s trucks. The throw was a little over zealous. Didn’t even leave a mark. Not the result I would have obtained had I been using a lead fishing weight. Good thing that I didn’t get the 16 ounce version.

Throw bag and line

Throw bag and line

Along with the throw bag came the throw line. I’ve typically used heavier fishing line to start and used that to pull up some paracord or similar rope. As I’ve said before, fishing line, even the high viz stuff is very hard to see when it is way up in a tree making it very challenging to work it through the tree. The problem with paracord and similar ropes is that the sheathing is not very slick. It has just enough friction to create problems as you work a rope in a tree, hanging up right where you don’t want it. The rope that came with my throw bag is 150 feet of very light and very bright  1/8 inch polyethylene. It is light enough to travel along while attached to the throw bag and is very slick which allows it to slide down the tree easily and allows you to work it through a tree with no hang ups.

I’ve been experimenting with the various techniques for throwing the bag and working the line. They have been working very well. I’m very pleased with the results that I’ve been able to obtain. Two observations thus far, the line does indeed coil into a spaghetti mess if not handled as the videos suggest and don’t be to aggressive pulling the bag back once it’s up in a tree. Pull it slowly otherwise it will loop itself around a branch and you’ll be hard pressed to get it down as unlike fishing line you aren’t going to break the throw line.

If you are looking for an option for placing lines in trees for use with wire antennas I’d recommend considering the arborists throw bag, line, and associated techniques. They do this for a living and their equipment and methods work well.

UPDATE: 5/27/17

To solve the problem of 150 feet of throw line turning into 150 feet of tangled spaghetti I purchased a throw line storage bag from Amazon. It fits all of the line, a pair of thin leather gloves (which make handling\throwing much easier on the hands), and the throw weight. I’ve found that sort of laying the line in hand over hand allows the line to smoothly flow out without a rat’s nest. It’s a nice, compact manner in which to transport the throw line.

Throw line storage bag

 

NPOTA activations

It’s September which means there are only four months left for the NPOTA event. As I write this there have been over 612,000 QSOs with over 11,000 activations of the 489 units. If you look at the stats you’ll see that there are only 40 units that haven’t been activated. This means that over 90% of the 489 units have been activated at least once, with many of those activated a number of times. I wonder if anyone at the ARRL and the NPS thought that this event would generate this level of interest.

Some significant portion of those 11,000 activations involved Amateur Radio in the view of the public at the units. What a great promotion for the hobby. My activations have drawn interest from people at the units that I’ve activated with the first question usually something like “what are you doing?” followed by the typical responses of either “people still do that?” or “my <fill in the blank family member> used to be an Amateur Radio operator.” All the interest I’ve seen has been very positive. I’ve enjoyed doing activations as it’s fun to be on the other end of the pile-up. It’s not like being some ultra rare DX such as Outer Swobovia but I’m not likely to travel there anytime soon so a pile-up in Wisconsin will serve. I’ve also enjoyed the chase as well. As of this moment I’ve done nine activations and have 107 units confirmed.

Wisconsin doesn’t have any National Parks but we do have five units on the list:

  • Apostle Islands National Lakeshore – LK01
  • Ice Age National Scenic Trail – TR05
  • Ice Age National Scientific Reserve – AA11
  • Saint Croix National Scenic Riverway – WR09
  • North Country National Scenic Trail – TR04

Of which two, Ice Age National Scenic Trail – TR05 and Ice Age National Scientific Reserve – AA11 have multiple locations throughout the state, many of which are very near my home or where my XYL and I camp.

Ice Age Trail - Point Beach Segment

Ice Age Trail – Point Beach Segment

NPOTA TR05 portable station

NPOTA TR05 portable station

At one activation I had some assistance from a dragonfly:

Dragonfly counterpoise

and an odd little bee that spent about 20 minutes flying around and walking about my portable station:

QRB???

QRB???

For all of the activations I’ve used my Kenwood TS-480SAT @100 Watts powered by a trolling motor battery and either my Alpha Antenna DX Sr, EARCHI end fed, or LNR EF-Quad end fed, all with good results.

NPOTA portable station

NPOTA portable station

On occasion I’ve used my folding wagon to transport the station equipment:

Portable station transport

And other times I’ve worked largely out of the back of my truck:

Ice Age Trail - Northern Kettle Moraine

Ice Age Trail – Northern Kettle Moraine

NPOTA station @ TR05 and AA11

NPOTA station @ TR05 and AA11

The current run rate is about 76,000 QSOs per month so with four months to go the final tally will probably be just over 900,000 QSOs. Maybe there will be a push through the fall and we’ll break one million QSOs for the year. Who knows.

I’ve visited a number of the units over the years and it’s been fun to work them in this event, recalling the times that I’ve visited the unit in the past. With the popularity of this event, and the interest that it has generated I wonder what the ARRL is going to come up with next. I know that I’ve enjoyed it immensely.

 

 

Portable station box

I’m really enjoying portable operation with the combination of camping more and the NPOTA event . My portable radio is a Kenwood TS-480SAT. I know that it’s not the lightest portable radio but I really like it a lot and I’m usually never that far from my truck.

My entire portable station, less the battery, fits into an MTM Sportsmen’s Plus Utility Dry Boxes (SPUD box.) Mine is the SPUD 7.

Portable station in a box

Portable station in a box

The box contains the following items:

Top storage

Top storage

A small assortment of pens, pencils, and a Sharpie along with a slip-joint pliers and at least one double female barrel connector.

Top tray

Top tray

The top tray contains some paracord for guying, some old screwdrivers that double as stakes, some tape for the joints on the Spiderbeam pole, a jumper with powerpoles, an MFJ-108B as I use a paper log when I’m portable, and a homebrew panel meter with powerpole connectors that plugs into the RIGrunner to allow me to monitor the battery voltage. The panel meter is from eBay. They come in various configurations and cost around $5.00 shipped. I mounted it in a little project box and added a pigtail with powerpoles.

Panel meter

Panel meter

Inside the lower portion of the box is the main equipment:

Inside the box

Portable equipment

Comprising the TS-480SAT, a Dentron JR Monitor antenna tuner, a pair of Kenwood HS-5 headphones, a West Mountain Radio RIGrunner 4005, and an MFJ-259B.

And finally the EARCHI wire antenna, some coax jumpers, a battery cable with powerpoles, the Kenwood power cord with powerpoles, and an assortment of various coax cable lengths.

Coax and wire antenna

Coax and wire antenna

All of this fits in the SPUD box just fine although it does weigh 28 pounds. It’s definitely not playing in the same league as a KX2\KX3 station but as I said I’m typically not very far from my truck and when I am I have a heavy duty folding wagon to haul the SPUD box, a battery, a small folding table, a bag chair, my Alpha antenna, and the Spiderbeam pole if I’m going to use it. On occasion I’ve walked a few miles pulling this load and it works well as long as the trail is relatively smooth.

Folding wagon with portable station

Folding wagon with portable station

I originally purchased the SPUD box with the intent of building an EMCOMM box along the lines of this:

Emcomm box

Emcomm box

There’s an entire thread of various go boxes here. Most of these boxes are really well done but the more I thought about it the easier it was just to set the station in the box. I don’t mind pulling the stuff out of the box and wiring it up. It doesn’t take all that long. The emcomm boxes certainly have the advantage of simply attaching an antenna and power plus most have both an HF and VHF\UHF radio. To some extent these are probably serving a different need than my simple portable station.

Power for my portable station is provided by a trolling motor battery. Not the lightest power source but it provides plenty of capacity to run a portable radio at 100W for a fair amount of operating time. Eventually I’ll add a portable solar panel and charge controller to my portable station. For now what I have is working well. Over the past year the vast majority of my contacts have been from my portable station. As Andrew, VK1AD says, “Get out of the Radio Shack and Live Life.