Antennas, The Final Word - 2023-09-20
2023-09-20 My comments are pretty much focused on portable and QRP (5 or ten watts) or low power antennas. For the last five years or more, since getting involved in POTA (Parks on the air), antennas suitable for portable operating have been my high priority. But I think some of, maybe most of my observations apply across the board.
Operating portable, away from home, AC power and in unfamiliar locations requires flexibility and tradeoffs. Your home station requires that too, but presumably you have worked those things out there. But when you board a plane or get in your car, heading to a new and unfamiliar location your antenna options are pretty much unknown. So you better have several or flexible antenna systems that can cope with whatever you find. For many of my 65 years as a ham, the only antenna I knew much about was a coax fed half wave dipole. It's a great antenna if you have two trees or buildings or something spaced so you can string it up. Being a single band antenna, it limits you to that one band for which the antenna is cut. Links or multiple elements (the fan dipole) can offer more flexibility but the dipole lends itself best to your home where once set up you can simply use it. But as soon as you think portable, every time you arrive at a location you have to work the setup out all over again. For me, that pretty much kept my ham operating at home. An exception might be ARRL Field Day sometimes made the trouble worth it for the couple days of on-air fun.
Then I bought a Yaesu FT817nd radio. But though the radio was certainly portable, every time I got excited about taking it somewhere, I hit the antenna problem. The result was that my cute little 817 stayed home mostly. What began to change things for me was the advent of Parks On The Air. By definition you needed to be able to go to all kinds of parks, in all kinds of locations and get on the air relatively quickly. Today I use primarily an ICOM IC705 radio with an Elecraft T1 autotuner and two wire antennas and a vertical. All fit into a small hardware store canvas tool bag weighing around ten pounds out the door. I have many other antenna and radio options but this bag goes out the door most often whether to a nearby park or to a family gathering half way across the country. And I don't think I have every come back home disappointed because of my antenna!
One of the two wire antennas in my tool bag is a 29 ft end fed 24 gauge wire with a 17 ft counterpoise wire and a 9:1 unun. It weighs just 2.6 ounces. Yes, it requires a tuner which absorbs some of your RF but in exchange you can use it on nearly every HF band in many different situations. Mine is based on the K6ARK design. It's short 29 ft length make it relatively easy to string to a tree or bush or fiberglass collapsible fishing pole, etc. If weather permits and I'm sitting at a picnic table, I simply connect the BNC/UNUN to my tuner directly, string out the 29' radiator to some support and lay the 17' counterpoise wire as best I can on the ground. If I need to be inside my car I run a short length of RG-174 coax from the tuner out under a car door and connect the BNC/UNUN to the end close to the car door. In my experience it works well, even getting some DX from time to time. And with the tuner it will work on all HF bands, one of its greatest advantages.
My other wire antenna in the tool bag is a 40-10 EFHW (End Fed Half Wave). The wire is small, about 24 gauge keeping it very light. My favorite is the KM4ACK kit. It consists of 49:1 transformer and including its wire winder weights just over 5.7 ounces. As delivered it can be used on 40, 20, 15 and 10 meters with no tuner. I added a couple links to mine so I can use it on 30 and 17 meters as well. I usually set it up in an inverted vee configuration using a 25 ft fiberglass collapsible fishing pole at the apex. The 49:1 transformer and the far end are each typically from a few inches to a few feet off the ground depending on what I have to mount them too. It is a great antenna.
Just a note related to wire antennas. One of the handiest things to have are a couple 15ft lengths of 1/8" bungee cord to tie off the ends. It is light weight and small but more than strong enough to support light wire antennas like the ones above and providerd a lot of flexibility so your supports don't have be a precise distance apart and if the wind blows or a bird lands on your wire it flexes so your antenna won't be under strain.
My primary portable vertical (and recently my first choice) antenna is the GRA-7350TC 102 inch vertical with loading coil by Gabil Radio in Taiwan. The main thing I like about it is that it breaks down to just under 12 inches but when assembled and the whip extended is 102 inches long! The 12 inches is perfect for my tool bag. The loading coil is also very easy to adjust and after initially determining the settings (It has a scale right on it.) for each band I can position the loading coil very quickly on location. I've found the settings the same regardless of where I set up. It is a great little antenna with performance equal to any other similar sized vertical. I use four ten-foot radials with it.
One of the hottest topics regarding vertical antennas is radials, how many, how long, etc. I've found that four ten-foot radials works just fine on all bands wherever I set up the antenna. I have the WRC mini coil and 17' whip and use the same four ten-ft radials with it. I also have a 9' foldable military style whip with a DIY loading coil which works well with those same four ten-ft radials. All three antennas work well with that radial configuration. So I'm sticking with it!
I feed all of my antennas with 25' or 35' of RG316 BNC terminated coax off Amazon. It is inexpensive and light weight and works for me.
Obviously my title was written with tongue in cheek. No one will ever have the final word on antennas. At the same time, what I've described has pretty much become my last word for portable antennas for the reasons given. I hope this is helpful to you.