Thoughts on Portable Operating
2020-09-13 A little while ago someone asked on Facebook for what practical reasons one might buy a xiegu g90 and 100 watt amp rather than a Yaesu FT-891. Interesting question, one to which there is no definitive answer other than, "I want to!" But that got me thinking about rigs and operating and particularly in the portable context. What are some of the practical or actual issues in making the decisions we make?
I, like most hams, have been thinking about and playing around the edges of portable operating for years. As a high school kid I somehow came up with a dynamo for my 1949 Chevy to provide the plate voltage and "mounted" my Halifcrafters S20R receiver in the car. For an antenna I slipped an old fiberglass fishing rod into some copper braid, and attached it to the bumper mount with a spring! It worked, I guess though very quickly I learned it wasn't, in fact, practical! :-) But ever since I've been doing some version of that, usually concluding, "It isn't practical"
More recently, with smaller radios, lower power requirements, and more disposable cash, I've had more success. Had a Yaesu FT-857d in my car for many years with a Little Tarheel screwdriver antenna. Purchased, scratch or kit-built and "used" a number of QRP rigs and currently have probably have eight rigs, three 100 watt, somewhere in my house! I've owned two generators and countless batteries. and have built and used at least a dozen wire or other antennas -probably that many in the house now. And in the last couple years I've actually done some portable operating in my back yard and elsewhere. I even have three real POTA activation's "in the bank" as of the past few weeks.
At the moment my choice of components for portable operation are:
If driving to the site and operating close to the car.
If driving to the site and operating close to the car.
- Radio: Xiegu G90 - reasonable power output and requirement, small and easy to set up and can check SWR easily. Works well for either CW or SSB.
- Power Source: typically a miady 6Ah LIFEPO4 battery. Small, light weight and more than enough power for several hours operation with CW or SSB.
- Antenna: Wolf River Coils TIA 1000 with mini coil and 213 whip and 50ft of RG-8x feedline. Easy to carry in the car. Sets up almost anywhere and with preset collars is easy to change bands. Works very well. Only tricky part is placement of the three 33ft radials so they are not a threat to others.
- Radio: Xiegu x5105 - QRP with internal battery. Connect an antenna and key you're good to go. For SSB has an internal mic.
- Power Source: Internal battery or 4.5Ah bioenno battery.
- Antenna: QRPGuys EFHW as an inverted vee or QRPGuys 29' end fed. Use either a light weight 15 or 18 ft pushup pole or suspend from tree. 25ft RG-174 coax.
I've done two successful POTA activations with this setup as well as using it in the back yard. Can use from within the car if needed or preferably on a picnic table or similar.
2020-07-16 For the past six months or so I've been messing with all sorts of "portable capable" stuff. Most of my efforts have gone into antennas since I have two very capable portable radios: a xiegu x5105 self contained QRP rig and a xiegu G90 nearly self contained 20 watt one. I've used both in the back yard and a few other portable situations. And they serve well. But portable antennas are far more complicated with seemingly no end to the possibilities. The past two weeks I've worked on yet another one, a short (6 ft) loaded vertical.
I was interested because I saw information about QRPGuys new DS-1 40-10 meter short vertical kit. Looking over the construction manual, I decided to do my own DIY version while I wait for the DS-1 I ordered. Mine is now "finished" and I've had 21 contacts with it at either 20 watts or five watts.
Today I took it and my x5105 to the back yard and set up on our patio table with the antenna stuck in the ground nearby. It wasn't too long before, tuning around, I heard and answered a CQ by WT0S in North Dakota on 14.28mhz, a little over 500 miles northwest. We had a nice ten minute CW QSO. Thanks, Don.
Imagine my surprise when I came inside and entered the QSO into my log to discover I had a QSO with him back in January of 2019. That wasn't the surprise as he had reminded of that today. The surprise was that for that QSO I was not only also using the x5105, but the antenna was my DIY magnetic loop! Both would generally be considered "compromise" antennas! And both QSOs at 5 watts?
I'll readily admit that making contacts with QRP is not the easiest and quickest way to get one. But it is exciting and rewarding. It probably took me about 5 or 6 minutes to set up today. Even if I had used and EFHW or EF 29' wire, which I often do, it would have taken twice that long. And as much as I like my Wolf River Coils vertical, and I really do, it would have taken even longer. On top of that, I carried the entire rig, antenna, notepad, coax, key and microphone in a small case measuring 8"x12"x2-1/2" and weighing only 5 lbs. By the way that case included a 40m EFHW, throw rope, two 10' or 12' lengths of bungee cord and two tent pegs as well! I find portable, but especially QRP portable really fun.
2020-02-24 I spend a lot of time thinking about operating portable, remote, or at least away from home. I've got two dependable and more-or-less ideal rigs for that: My Xiegu X5105 that I've had for about two years and my Xiegu G90 that I've had for six months. Both have the latest firmware and between the two I've logged just one shy of 900 QSOs. 780 of those were with light weight, portable antennas including a mag loop, end fed half wave inverted vee and either a 29' or 35' sloper, wire 17' vertical or a Wolf River Coils (WRC) TIA vertical. All those except the mag loop and the WRC are DIY antennas, weighing around a half pound or less and made from 24 or 26 gauge wire. And most of the time those DIY antennas were supported with fiberglass collapsible fishing poles. I also have two moderate capacity Lithium Iron Phosphate batteries for off-grid power. All that to say that I have everything I need to operate away from my home base. And i've proved it by operating three ARRL Field Days and one Winter Field Day as well as at least once from a local park in the past few years.
I've worked 132 POTA (Parks On The Air) and three SOTA (Summits On The Air) stations with those two rigs and antennas too. So why haven't I gotten out more?! Why do I just keep thinking about it but not doing it! In part it is because half the year is winter up here in Wisconsin. It's partly because I tend to stay preoccupied building and trying new portable-capable antennas and stuff.
But I think it is mostly because I don't have a "buddy" to push me! I'm a loner in many ways but when it comes to heading off to a park or hill in the wild, I'm scared! I've actually done quite a bit of backpacking and camping the past few years. But always with one or both of my sons, grand kids or my wife. So I have considerable both radio and camping/hiking gear and more than a trivial amount of experience. I just need a buddy! And that may be developing.
This past weekend my wife and I were invited by our son and his wife to join them at a nice place in Central Wisconsin just to hang out. Great weekend. John has been the prime mover behind all of my backpacking and canoeing experiences. The topic of my ham radio came up between us and we talked about POTA and SOTA and I shared my dream of getting out there and trying both in the field. I came very close to taking one of my portable setups on a couple of our hiking and one of our canoe trips but decided against it at the last minute realizing there really wasn't time and that it would take away from the real reason for the trip, to be together. And on the backpacking trips the extra ounces just werent' worth it. Then, last night he surprised me by texting me that he had found Timms Hill, the highest "peak" or summit in Wisconsin and said, "We could backpack or car tent. ... A weekend idea anyway." Timms Hill is a SOTA summit! John followed up with, "Or we could base camp and get to a summit in BWCA. Any summits in BWCA." We've done two canoe trips there together. He even suggested I invite one of my local ham radio buddies. I did talk with Gary, KD9KHI and he is "curious" about it! He and I did do one ARRL Field Day together. I began to realize he wasn't just making conversation when we talked about all that this weekend, his creative juices were flowing. So... will it happen? It's clearly a possibility! Stay tuned.
2018-11-14 I haven't been operating portable recently (and likely won't for a while as it is in the teens now) but I have been operating almost exclusively QRP with my X5105 using one of my portable antennas, the past week or so with my recently completed 17/20/30/40 meter trap inverted vee. So that is almost portable! I've learned a couple things I think. One, QRP takes patience and persistence but with that you can get a QSO almost any time the bands are open and people are on. Distances for most QSOs are under a thousand miles but there are those occasions when you hit gold and grab one in Europe or some other location a couple thousand miles or more distant.
Another thing is that CW, for me at least, seems most likely to get through. But it is not out of the question to have a SSB QSO every once in a while. In fact some of my DX ones have been SSB. I haven't played much (none with the x5105) with digital modes but I'm sure they would work well.
Forty meters seems to be the bread and butter band. That is where I'm most likely to get a QSO. Thirty and twenty come through now and then. But Forty is most productive. I've not had a recent QRP QSO on 17 meters. Some of that is likely propagation but I think more stations tend to be on forty at any given time. It seems the most tolerant band of varied propagation conditions.
SKCC stations are my most common contact. Seems like there is almost always at least one CQ SKCC caller on forty meters and they tend to be hungry for contacts and so will put up with less than ideal conditions.
An added benefit is that QSOs can be very short so the crazy swings in current propagation have less time to kill the QSO! Tuesday evenings and weekends when they have their sprints is the most productive time to get on. I generally don't find calling CQ very productive but rather respond to other's calls.
Finally, with QRP it's not about the number of QSOs but the reward of each one! Further, you need to be happy with short QSOs which minimize the likelihood of losing the other guy mid QSO. Occasionally you can have a real rag-chew but don't be disappointed that they are infrequent. And when you manage to squeeze through a crack among the "big guys" piling on top of a DX or other sought-after station, kick back and have a good laugh. Another fun QSO is with another QRP station like I did just now with KB3ERI 600 miles east in PA. This time I was using my station G5RV antenna and the X51056's built in tuner. He was running a K1 at 4 watts to an end fed antenna. We had about a ten minute QSO. It serves as a reminder that not every "less than overwhelming signal" is because bands are poor. It just might be another 4 or 5 watt station. So give them a call. Savor each handshake and you'll be just fine!
2018-10-17 One of the problems with having a bunch of portable antennas is that you need to keep the cobwebs off them. You don't want them to become lonely and jealous. So after spending several days with my 17 ft vertical and 35 ft spiral wound vertical in the back yard, I decided to put up the 40/20 trap inverted vee. Both verticals gave me some good contacts and clearly are usable but I think they are truly compromise antennas and under normal conditions neither would be my antenna of choice. Having said that, the simplicity of the 17 foot wire one in particular makes it a great option if one is in a hurry and or in a very limited space. But verticals are noisy and I just tend to think resonant dipoles are overall better when possible.
I used two 25 ft BNC terminated RG174 coax lengths joined with a female BNC coupler to connect the antenna to my Xiegu x5105 radio. Tuning around both 40 and 20 meters things were pretty quiet. I decided to tune to 14.060, the 20 meter QRP calling frequency, and have a try. Before I could hit the key, WU5M called CQ! He was reasonably strong, and guessing he was also QRP, I went back to him. He was about a 549 in here in Wisconsin and gave me a 579 in Texas. He was running a KX3 at 5w and a hexbeam antenna on a push up pole. I was using my x5105 at 5w to my trap inverted vee I had just put up on my Shakespeare TSP20 Six-Piece Wonderpole. We had an old fashioned Rag Chew that lasted 20 minutes, solid copy all the way! QRP and home brew antennas are fun!
2018-10-08 Some of us just like to play with different antennas. Over the last hour I had 3 QRP QSOs on 3 different antennas and 2 bands. All about 600 miles, all with Q5 reports. Curiously the lowest report was on 40m with my G5RV, 539! 2nd QSO was on my Link dipole on 30m. Third was on my 35' EF on 40m. I strung up and took down both the link dipole and 35' one during that hour. All fun and with the x5105. All CW. And with zero sunspots! Got my QRP and antenna "fix" for the day!☺
2018-09-08 After lunch today I connected my x5105 to my station G5RV and in just a few minutes I had recorded a 20 meter SSB QSO with W6H a Route 66 station in New Mexico. Then, tuning around I heard DJ5MW calling CQ SSB on 20. He had quite a pileup but I decided to be patient and persistent and got him! He gave me a 599 which I think was his routine but nevertheless he clearly got my info and I his. That was 4,445 miles at 5 watts! My day was made!
2018-08-17 I've been having lots of fun playing with my 35 ft antenna and FT817nd based portable station. I've managed a QSO or two nearly every day. Today was notable as my QSOs were SSB as I checked into the YL system on 14.332mhz twice. Once with the control operator in Alabama and the other with one in Ohio. The Alabama contact was touch and go but the Ohio one a couple hours later was solid.
I used my Shakespeare TSP20 Six-Piece Wonderpole mast and was able to connect the antenna to the very tip of the pole twenty feet up. I get a rush from a SSB contact at five watts with a compromise antenna. I've grown to expect a contact using CW but SSB is a bit more illusive. Soon I'll be giving PSK a try as I've put all the pieces together for that. You can see more about that on my Ultra Portable PSK page.
2018-07-25 Today made up for the failure yesterday somewhat, though only in my back yard. I don't have a switch to replace the one that I broke as the pins are much closer together than anything in my junk box. I'm working on that. In the meantime I hard wired it with jumpers so the tuner works and since my FT-817nd indicates SWR I can work with it. So to the back yard I went with my 35 ft. antenna, Wonderpole and rig. It tuned up nicely on both 40 and 20 (didn't try any other bands as I had limited time). Forty was devoid of signals but twenty had a fair amount of activity. I tried the YL system at 14.332 but couldn't get the attention of the operator. Then I tuned down to the lower end and ad a nice 5 watt 559 QSO with AH6AX in Maryland on 14.052mhz. So once again the antenna, tuner and rig work.
2018-07-24 This afternoon I finally decided to head out to a local hiking place, set up my rig and try a QSO using my 35 ft end fed stealth antenna. So I walked in about a half mile or so to their picnic shelter, set up the antenna, got out the rig, battery and Tuna Tunah II tuner, connected it all together and, no signals or noise or anything. Then I saw it, the switch which switches from tune to operate position had broken so it was in neither position, thanks to the careless way I had put it in the bag with other things! Bummer! I had my 40/20 meter stealth inverted vee that does not need a tuner with me, but by then I was losing interest and just packed up, finished the two mile walk and came home. The lesson... pack carefully and look things over before you set up. Had I done that I would have just put up the inverted vee and been on the air. The good news is that setting it up, discovering it was damaged and packing it all away again only took 20 minutes! And I really did get out of the back yard!