Sunday, January 1, 2017

NPOTA Is Over - Now What?

ARRL's National Park on the Air event is complete.  Celebrating the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service, this event likely exceeded the wildest expectations of whoever came up with the idea.  Every day seemed to feature multiple activations and some operators planned multi-day trips for the sole purpose of activating as many parks as possible.

Many of the activators were names and calls well known within the QRP and portable operations community, but I suspect many were more casual participants.  Perhaps they were planning a vacation in or near a national park and decided to throw a radio, antenna and accessories into the car.  Many of them hopefully discovered the fun of outdoor operating and learned that low power doesn't necessarily equate to low performance.

Now that 2017 is here and the NPOTA event is over, many of these operators may be wondering how they can continue the fun.  The ARRL may have something else up its sleeve as a replacement event...or not.  Either way, I have a few suggestions for your consideration.
  • Perhaps the most natural successor to NPOTA is Parks On The Air (POTA).  Unlike NPOTA, POTA is not restricted to only national parks, monuments, or trails.  At latest count, there are over 3300 entities available for activation.  More information is available at their website at http://wwff-kff.com.  This is one that I plan to check out in 2017.
  • Amateur Radio Lighthouse Society (ARLHS)  The ARLHS is devoted to maritime communications, amateur radio, lighthouses, and lightships. Its members travel to lighthouses around the world where they operate amateur radio equipment at or near the light.  Now under new management, check out their website at http://arlhs.com and explore the opportunities.
  • U.S. Islands Awards Program (USI)  USI is an amateur radio award program centered around chasing and activating river, lake and ocean shore islands within the 50 United States and its Territories and Protectorates.  Their website at http://usislands.org has additional information on how to activate and chase islands in coastal areas, lakes and rivers near you.
  • County Hunters  The goal of County Hunting is to make a two way contact with a station in each of the 3077 counties in the United States.  As you can probably imagine, some of the counties are sparsely populated and in high demand.  You may live in or near one of these counties, or perhaps you backpack or take a family vacation to or near one of them.  Any way you get there, you can likely be assured of being on the receiving end of considerable radio activity.  More information is available at http://www.countyhunter.com.
  • Rapid Deployment Amateur Radio (RaDAR)  RaDAR is about movable amateur radio stations be it fixed, mobile or on foot.  What makes RaDAR totally different to other amateur radio activities is the requirement to move quickly from one point to another and to communicate from each deployment position. It is a prerequisite within the bi-annual contest to move after every 5 QSO’s before further contacts are allowed.  There is a dedicated Google+ community at https://goo.gl/Zfnq6D where you can get additional information.
  • Summits On The Air (SOTA)  One of the best known outdoor operating activities, SOTA is a worldwide award scheme for radio amateurs and shortwave listeners that encourages portable operation in mountainous areas. For additional information on how to participate, you can visit the SOTA website at http://www.sota.org.uk.
I'd be remiss if I didn't also mention the Second Saturday Sprint.  Sponsored by the QRP Field Ops Google+ community, this event runs monthly from May through October and provides an opportunity to get outdoors and operate.  Outdoors can be as close as your backyard or as far away as you desire.  More information can be found at https://goo.gl/mLrS5r.

NPOTA certainly generated a lot of interest in portable operations from many unique and exciting places, but its end doesn't need to be the end of your portable operations.  Pick one or more of the above activities and get outdoors for some radio fun!

72/73 and Happy New Year!
Jim - K0RGI

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Oshkosh - Dayton for Aviation

For only the second time since 2001, I didn't attend the Dayton Hamvention this year.  Unlike the first time I missed, when I almost immediately regretted not being there, this time I was at peace with my decision.  There are several reasons for this, but the most important one is that I plan to attend the EAA Airventure instead.

Better known to aircraft enthusiasts simply as Oshkosh, much as Hamvention is better known to radio enthusiasts simply as Dayton, the EAA Airventure is the premier event of its kind in the United States.  Pilots fly their private planes into Oshkosh from all over and, for one week in July, Wittman Regional Airport is transformed into the busiest airport in the world.

Oshkosh is a city on the shore of Lake Winnebago in Wisconsin, about a two hour drive from my home near Janesville.  Home to the University of Wisconsin - Oshkosh, its population is less than half of Dayton's.  One significant difference is the quality of the facilities where each event is held.  Wittman Regional Airport is a nicely maintained facility and Hara Arena is, well, Hara Arena.  I know that much of the Dayton experience is trying to avoid breaking an ankle in the potholes in the flea market and surviving a visit to the restroom, but I've always thought how unfortunate it is that ham radio's premier event is held in perhaps the worst facility I've ever visited.

I first attended Oshkosh a couple of years ago with my XYL as part of a daylong bus trip.  We only spent about 6 hours there but I was hooked!  Row after row of every type of plane imaginable, from warbirds to homebuilt experimentals and everything in between.  There's a seaplane base on the lake and a radio controlled aircraft facility.  Forums and hands-on classes on everything imaginable that one might need to know to build or maintain an airplane.  Throw in a daily air show and an excellent aviation museum and, as you can imagine, I only scratched the surface of things to see and do.  I knew I needed to go back and seriously attend before retiring and moving to Tennessee.

So, I'm trading Dayton for Oshkosh this year and I'm very pleased with that decision.  And I'll even try to mix in a little ham radio while I'm there.  I'll be packing a 40m RockMite given to me by my good friend Dave N9GQ and I'll see if I can throw a wire up in a tree and make a contact or two.  I'll be back to Dayton again in the future, trying once again to avoid the perils of Hara Arena, but this year it's Oshkosh instead and I couldn't be more excited.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Beyond Field Day

The May QST arrived in my mailbox yesterday.  The theme is Amateur Radio Outdoors and among its contents is an announcement for Field Day.  Another article is about activating the John Muir Trail, and I started thinking about how Field Day could be a good starting point for expanding one's outdoor operating horizons.

For many hams, Field Day is likely to be their primary and often only exposure to outdoor operations.  It's probably my favorite event of the year but it only scratches the surface of what can be done away from the shack.  If my early experiences with Field Day are typical, here's how things generally happen:
  • Several months before the last full weekend of June, the local ham club will start planning.  A chairperson is identified, a site selected, band captains and a safety officer are named, a publicity chairman begins contacting local news outlets and public officials, communal meals are planned, and other various and sundry details are addressed.
  • The morning of Field Day - or perhaps the day before - a group of volunteers arrives at the site to erect antennas, prepare operating positions, set up a generator and string power cables, configure computers for logging, and make a few test contacts to verify that everything is working properly.
  • Beginning a few hours in advance of the start, reinforcements arrive in the form of club members and other local hams, all of whom anxiously await 1800 UTC.  Those staying overnight will generally prepare their campsites.
  • As the countdown ends, the real fun begins.  For 24 hours straight, contacts are made, tours given to local officials and the general public, meals and snacks eaten, beverages consumed, and - if fair weather holds - a good time is had by all.
  • At the end of the 24 hours everyone catches their breath and then starts the tear down and clean up, often accompanied by a cold 807 or two.  Over the next few days and weeks, scores are tabulated, documentation prepared, and the entry submitted.  Then the wait begins for the scores to be published and bragging rights established.
Phew!  Field Day is lots of fun but it's also lots of work!  And for many hams, it's all of the outdoor operating they care to do.  Oh, maybe a fox hunt or assisting with communications for a bicycle ride or other public service event, but that's about it.  Everything else happens in the shack.  If you've been a participant in one of these large group Field Day operations, you may have asked yourself if all that effort was worthwhile.  If you enjoy Field Day but don't enjoy all the work it entails, I can assure you that there is an alternative.

When you look at the scores published in QST, you'll see a relatively short section of entries in categories 1B and 2B, sometimes further identified with the designation of Battery.  Those are categories for 1 and 2 person entries, many using QRP power levels and a battery for power.  Set up and tear down time can be minimal, the site can be anything from your back yard to a mountaintop, and food is whatever you want and can carry with you.

Admittedly, the social aspect of Field Day is greatly reduced but there are offsetting benefits.  Without a generator roaring away, you can enjoy the sights and sounds of nature.  Extra filters to reduce interference from other stations are not needed.  There is a 5 times multiplier for running QRP and battery power.  Your entire station can fit in a backpack.  And the list goes on.  Perhaps best of all, you become aware that, if you can do this on Field Day, you can do it any other day of the year as well!  After all, you don't need help to set up your station and antenna.  If everything fits into a backpack, you can operate anyplace where you can toss a wire up into a tree, and without much planning.  Just throw the pack on your back or toss it in a car and go!

Field Day will be here before you know it.  This year, why not try something new?  If you don't own a radio suitable for hours of operating on a couple of gel cell batteries, perhaps you can borrow one from a friend.  Used equipment can be pretty reasonable and you just might know someone who is looking to divest themselves of that 40m QRP kit they built a few years back and then never used.  Sure, it may not be the best radio for Field Day but you'll find out if you like this style of operating enough to acquire something better for next year.  Who knows...it could be the beginning of a lifelong interest in operating outdoors!  72, Jim - K0RGI

Friday, December 11, 2015

One Solution to Spectrum Pollution

I finally got around to reading the December QST and was very interested in K1ZZ's editorial "Of Frogs and Canaries".  In it, he lays out the growing problem of spectrum pollution from "unintentional emitters" - devices ranging from "variable speed motors in residential appliances and industrial equipment, solar controllers and inverters, unshielded data networking cables, and switchmode power supplies including the ubiquitous “wall warts,” to name but a few".

Many of us have experienced man-made noise from various sources, including plasma televisions and CF or LED light bulbs.  Not many years ago I was blessed with a typical S1 to S2 noise floor, but no more.  Now it's more likely to be in the S3 to S5 range.  I've not found anything in my home that is a primary culprit, so I have to presume that all my various devices - in combination with my neighbor's - are the cause of my higher background noise levels.  I have ham friends who have complained about noise levels much higher than what I experience, so I imagine things will only get worse over time.

I don't have a globally effective solution to the spectrum pollution problem, but I do have a solution that any of us can individually employ.  Operate outdoors, away from the various noise sources.  It's not necessary to go hiking in the wilderness, although many do.  Even operating from a picnic table at a local park can greatly improve things.  It's surprising how being just a few hundred feet away from noise emitters will allow you to hear stations that would be below the noise floor at your home station.

It's not even necessary to purchase new equipment to give field operations a try.  Most any modern radio can be turned down to 5 watts output, giving you an opportunity to operate from a couple of gel cells for at least an hour or more - long enough to see for yourself the difference that operating outdoors can make.  You probably wouldn't want to carry your big rig very far into the woods, but driving to a park and carrying your equipment from your car trunk to a picnic table should be doable.  Many of us have done exactly that for Field Day, although power is more often provided by a generator.

If you find that you enjoy the new-found pleasure of relatively noise-free operating, equipment advances over the past few years have made it possible to purchase lightweight, multi-mode radios that operate for many hours entirely on battery power.  With a lightweight dipole or end-fed wire antenna, your entire station can fit in a small backpack with room to spare.  Once you become familiar with your particular station, setting up can be accomplished in a matter of minutes.  Tearing down and repacking is similarly easy.  Spending a few hours playing radio and enjoying the outdoors was never so much fun!

If you're unfamiliar with this style of operating, ask around at your local ham club and I'll bet you'll find at least one or two who enjoy field operations and can answer questions you might have.  If not, there are many sources of information on the web.  A good starting point is my humble Google+ community - QRP Field Ops, accessible at this URL.  Depending upon where you live and your tolerance for cool weather operating, you can operate outdoors anywhere from a few months to year round.  Spectrum pollution got you down?  Get outdoors and enjoy operating in the field!


Monday, October 5, 2015

My Top Ten QRP Operating Tips

In early 2015, Grant McDuling VK4JAZ asked me if I would provide my top ten QRP portable operating tips for a book he was writing. Grant is a member of the QRP Field Ops Google+ Community that I own and moderate. Needless to say, I was very flattered that he would ask me for my thoughts and I was pleased to oblige, although I had to include home tips to reach a total of ten - plus a bonus tip. He and I agreed that I would retain rights to my contribution with the thought that I would republish them in the future.

Well, the future is now. In no particular order, and updated just a bit from the list in Grant's book, here are my top ten (plus one) QRP operating tips that I’ve found help to improve my chances for success or enhance my enjoyment.  I operate QRP both at home and portable out in the field, so I’ve included general tips and then grouped tips specific to one or the other.  I hope you find something to help you too.

General



  1. Learn CW.

    This is my number one tip.  Like all hams licensed prior to the introduction of the no-code technician license, I needed to learn Morse code at a minimum of 5 words per minute to pass my Novice test.  Unlike many, I then immediately forgot what I’d learned because using a key didn’t interest me as much as using a microphone or keyboard.

    That all changed years later when I became interested in QRP.  CW’s effectiveness at low power is unmatched by any other mode except perhaps the digital ones such as PSK31.  Many contests and special events are exclusively CW, so you’ll be reducing your operating opportunities if you don’t have at least some proficiency with the code.

    If you don’t already use CW, there are a number of instructional methods available to you.  I used the K7QO code course available through the FISTS CW Club and found it to be a great way to learn.


  1. Join a QRP club.

    If you are fortunate enough to have a local club that is oriented toward QRP operating, I urge you to join.  If you are not so fortunate, there are a number of organizations with national scope that would welcome you.  Examples include the QRP Amateur Radio Club International (QRP ARCI), North American QRP CW Club (NAQCC), and Four States QRP Club (4SQRP).  They and others all sponsor contests and operating events and provide information to new and experienced hams alike via their web sites and publications.

Home



  1. Use sound card digital modes.

    Digital modes such as PSK31 are very effective at QRP power levels.  They can be challenging to use in the field because of the need to have a computer or other device for decoding the signals, but that usually doesn’t present an issue when operating from home because a personal computer has become a common feature of most shacks.

    I use Fldigi software for my digital activities in the shack.  Available for Windows and Linux machines, it supports every digital mode I commonly use and many more that I have yet to try.  Other popular applications for Windows machines include DM780, part of the Ham Radio Deluxe suite of applications, and DigiPan, one of the easiest applications to configure and use.

    Unlike other modes where brief contest-style contacts are common, I find that digital modes lend themselves to ragchew QSOs. There are a fair number of hams who use their software macros almost exclusively to provide canned QSO responses, but many others are interested in more casual keyboard contacts.


  1. Take advantage of contest logging software.

    Logging in the field is commonly done on paper, unless you use a smartphone or a small notebook or tablet computer.  For just a few casual contacts this works great and some are able to use this method for all their operating activities.  At home during major contests or events, I find that paper logging becomes very unwieldy.  There are a variety of contesting and logging software options available to ease the chore.

    I use N1MM Logger+ software.  It has many advanced features for dedicated contesters but I only use the basic functionality of entering contacts, avoiding duplicates, and generating a Cabrillo log for submission at the end of the contest.  I also export my contest log into an ADIF file for submission to Logbook of the World and eQSL.  For digital mode contests, it also interfaces directly with Fldigi.  Fldigi by itself has some contest logging capabilities but I much prefer N1MM Logger+.


  1. Turn down the power at your home shack.

    There are many occasions when you need more than 5 watts.  Emergency communications and putting a new DX entity in the log are a couple of examples.  For more casual operation, it’s easy to continue your QRP activities from your shack after you come in from the field.

    Most QRO transceivers allow you to turn the output power down to 5 watts or less, and I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised at how well you’re able to communicate at the lower power level.  There’s only a 13 db (about 2 S-unit) difference in received signal strength between 100 watts and 5 watts.  If you were S7 at the receiving end with 100 watts, you’ll be about S5 at 5 watts.  As long as that doesn’t drop you below the other station’s noise floor, they’ll still be able to copy you just fine.

    For hams in antenna restricted communities, running QRP to an attic or other stealth antenna is sometimes the only way to continue to operate.  A side benefit is that the low power levels are unlikely to cause interference to telephones, garage door openers, and other home electronic devices.


  1. Put a tuner at the feedpoint of your antenna

    My home antenna is an approximately 90 foot long inverted-l fed with about a 75 foot run of buried RG-213 coax.  It isn’t resonant on any amateur frequency so, if I used a tuner in the shack, I would likely incur significant feedline loss due to the mismatch.  That’s a real problem when you’re starting out with only 5 watts.  To rectify that, I mounted a remote autotuner at the feedpoint.  I use an SGC SG-237 autocoupler but there are a number of other manufacturers and models you can use.  The SG-237 gives me an acceptable match at most frequencies between 160 and 6 meters.  The antenna itself isn’t all that efficient at certain frequencies, but at least I’m not warming the earthworms with coax loss.

Field



  1. Build some of your own equipment

    There’s something special about making contacts using a radio or accessory that you built yourself.  I frequently operate using one or more of a ZM-2 Z-match tuner, a Serial CW Sender, a PAC-12 multiband vertical antenna, and a Z100 Tuning Aid.  I built these and other pieces of equipment from kits and, while several of them are no longer available, new kits are frequently released.  I always seem to have something on the bench or ready for the bench and look forward to putting what I build to use while out operating.

    If you can’t find an appealing kit, opportunities to homebrew keep increasing.  Many publications feature articles with schematics and basic construction information.  Using Manhattan or ugly construction techniques simplify building and even making your own printed circuit boards is getting easier.  Using an Arduino or other popular microcontroller makes it possible to add complex features with a minimum of effort.  Much of the needed software has been written by others and placed in the public domain.  Many times, all that is needed is minor modifications to the software to get things operating just the way you wish.


  1. Operate during contests and events

    Contests and events are ideal for QRP field operations and I try to participate in as many as my schedule allows.  They generally increase activity on the bands and provide an opportunity to make a number of contacts in a short period of time.  And if, like me, your code speed is at the lower end of the spectrum, the exchange is predictable making it easier to accurately copy the needed information by listening to a few contacts being made.  You’ll also find most operators are very willing to slow down to your speed when you finally throw out your call.

    QRP ARCI sponsors a number of contests of varying lengths throughout the year that are targeted to QRP operators and typically feature bonus points for operating from the field.  Other annual events such as Flight of the Bumblebees, NJQRP Skeeter Hunt, NoGa Peanut Power Sprint and many others combine contest style operating with multipliers for operating in the field.  They are generally shorter events, usually 4 hours, and are a lot of fun.

    If your preference is for a longer operating period, QRP To The Field and QRP Afield are both 6-12 hour events and the 24 hour ARRL Field Day has a class B category for one or two person operations using battery power that provides a 10x multiplier.  I’ve found with Field Day that there’s not much need to start operating at the beginning of the contest.  For the first 8-10 hours, the big guns are blasting away and it’s difficult for a QRP signal to compete.  After they’ve all worked each other, their ears suddenly become much better at picking out a 5 watt signal.  By starting my operating late at night and continuing through the end of the event, I can be much more productive. An update to this is that I found a better antenna allows me to compete earlier in the day on Field Day. This past June, I used a full-size 80-40m fan dipole and had excellent results with it. It's still much easier to make contacts after the big guns are done blasting away, but I found I was able to have reasonably good success in the Saturday daylight hours.


  1. Use efficient antennas

    It seems as though no topic will start a “vigorous discussion” among hams faster than antennas.  Whatever you decide to use and whether you purchase a commercial product or build your own, it’s important to use the most efficient antenna possible that meets your operating requirements.

    My experience is that, if where you operate has adequate trees for supports, it’s hard to beat a resonant dipole.  A bonus is that one is very easy to construct.  For single band use, a short length of small diameter coax works well as a feedline.  A non-resonant antenna such as a 44 or 88 foot doublet can be fed with twin lead or window line and a tuner for a multiband solution.

    You can also eliminate the feedline altogether and use an end fed antenna and tuner that connects directly to the antenna jack on your transceiver.  An end-fed half wave (EFHW) or a zepp-style antenna such as a W3EDP works well, as does a vertical wire fed through a 9:1 unun.  The length of wire used with the latter varies, with operators reporting success with various non-resonant lengths between 30 and 60 feet.  A side benefit is that only a single support is needed for all of these.

    If no supports are available, a ground mounted vertical antenna with radials can work very well.  I’ve had success with both a commercial Buddipole configured as a vertical and a PAC-12 multiband vertical.  The PAC-12 was no longer available commercially but plans are available online.  I now see where Pacific Antenna plans to reintroduce the antenna following their purchase of QRP Kits from Doug Hendricks. Plans for a homebrew version of the Buddipole are also available and builders are supported via a web site.


  1. Combine ham radio with other activities

    Hams often mix their radio activities with other hobbies.  Examples include embedding Automatic Packet Reporting System (APRS) and Amateur Television (ATV) capabilities into rocketry and balloon launches.  These are mostly informal activities but there are organizations established for the express purpose of enjoying amateur radio as part of another activity.  Summits On The Air (SOTA), Islands On The Air (IOTA),  Rapid Deployment of Amateur Radio (RaDAR), and US Islands (USI) are popular with many hams.  Other hams simply bring along a small station for occasional use while they are camping or vacationing at a popular destination.

    A significant benefit of operating in the field is the lowered noise floor compared to what many hams deal with at their home stations.  Between power line leakage, a neighbor’s plasma television, and other assorted internal and external electrical noise, a ham may be faced with anywhere from an S5 to an S9 noise floor and sometime more.  By getting away from these urban noise generators, it becomes a pleasure to operate without having to strain to pull a station out of the noise.  Another benefit, particular for those hams who live in an antenna-restricted community, is the ability to erect a better antenna in the field than they might have at home.


  1. BONUS TIP Put together one or more go-kits for field operations

    There are few things more aggravating than arriving at your destination, setting up your station, and finding that you left a critical item at home.  To help avoid this situation, I’ve prepared several different go-kits for my field operations.  Each is designed for a particular purpose and I’ll describe them in some detail.


  • For a short hike where playing radio isn’t the primary purpose, I use a Condor every day carry bag.  Essentially a scaled down messenger bag, I pack it with essentials and other things I might need along the way.  A pouch large enough to hold a Nalgene water bottle attaches to the outside with MOLLE straps and a Baofeng dual-band HT clips on to the straps.  Inside is a first aid kit for dealing with blisters or small cuts, a small flashlight, a Leatherman multi-tool, a butane lighter, and other assorted odds and ends.

    There’s just enough room left to hold a small transceiver with earphones and paddle, a lightweight resonant dipole and/or EFHW and tuner, a 12 volt AA battery pack, and a small notebook and pen or pencil for logging.  Any time I have an opportunity to get outdoors for a few hours, I can fill the water bottle, toss in a granola bar or two, and I’m set for making a few contacts somewhere along the way.


  • For single day outings where radio will be the primary activity, I use a LowePro Photo Traveler 150.  It’s a great size for carrying my KX1 or KX3 along with a paddle and earphones, 7 Ah LiFePO4 battery, a linked dipole and W3EDP antennas, a throw bag and slick line for getting an antenna up into the trees, a microphone if I’m carrying the KX3, and a mini-logbook with pen or pencil.

    If I’m operating a sprint or other event, I’ll also usually carry a Palm PDA with Dave Ek’s GoLog software and its associated Serial CW Sender.  Although the software was designed primarily for Field Day, I find it to be flexible enough to be used for most contests and events.  Since I’m typically operating picnic table portable with this setup in an area where I can drive to the operating position, I also bring along the Condor bag.


  • For Field Day or other extended periods of operating, I generally use my Kelty Redwing 50 backpack.  It’s large enough to easily carry my SG-2020, a Heil headset, a paddle, a small notebook computer and sound card interface for operating digital modes, a folding solar panel and charge controller, a PAC-12 multiband vertical and 44 foot doublet antennas, and a ZM-2 Z-match tuner.  If needed, fiberglass poles for antenna supports strap to the outside.   I separately carry a small insulated cooler with two 7Ah AGM batteries.  If I’m driving to the operating position, I’ll toss both of my other go-kits in the car.


  • Whatever you decide to use for your go-kit, the key is to pack everything you need to operate and leave it there.  RF adapters, cables, feedline - anything and everything necessary to avoid that shock when you discover the item you need is missing.

    An exception I make to this rule is the radio itself.  Except for a single-band transceiver carried in my Condor bag, my other radios usually reside in my home shack.  They’re pretty hard to forget when packing for an outing though, and I can’t financially justify owning multiples of each just to have one always packed and ready to go.

    For a significant trip, it’s a good idea to set up everything prior to your departure and make a couple of contacts to be sure everything is working.  Afterwards, repack everything and you’ll be assured you have all you need.


  • A final recommendation is to travel light.  Many people, myself included, tend to start out carrying way more than what they need - especially if you have a relatively large backpack that you use for shorter outings.  The designations used by backpack manufacturers help to feed this habit.  For example, my Kelty Redwing 50 is commonly referred to as a daypack, but packed properly it will hold enough for a several day outing.  When I started using it, I tended to load it up with everything I thought I could possibly use or need for any imaginable situation. The weight wasn’t too bad at first but quickly became very heavy to carry.  I soon learned that having some extra room in the pack didn’t mean I had to find something to fill up the space.

72, Jim - K0RGI

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Improving Participation in QRP Field Events - A Modest Proposal

I posted a few days ago asking how others treat contacts from stations who are participating in a different event.  I received a couple of excellent responses from Greg N4KGL and Myron WV0H that detail what are likely the only two viable options:
  1. In S&P mode, work and log the other station as long as you can elicit the correct exchange back from them
  2. In calling mode, work and log any station that provides the correct exchange, no matter what event they are operating
I'd mentioned in my post that I was frustrated with hearing so many stations working other events but not finding stations working QRP Afield, even when calling CQ.  I wasn't sure if that was due to a lack of participation or spotty propagation.  It could be a combination of the two or even something else such as poor weather conditions in large areas of the country.  We don't have any control over propagation or weather but it is worth a conversation about how to improve participation.  I don't have any great insight into causes and possible solutions, but maybe something I write will resonate with others.

It's not at all necessary to have an official event in order to enjoy operating your radio in the field.  Many hams who hike, bike, canoe, ride motorcycles or pursue other outdoor activities simply carry along a small portable radio with them.  They may stop somewhere along the way or wait until setting up camp for the evening.  Sometimes operating is their primary objective and other times it's ancillary to their travels.  Either way, they typically just toss a wire into a tree and start looking for a contact.

Other hams will organize their field operations around an operating event.  I fall into this category, with much of my outdoor operating concentrated on weekends when events are scheduled.  What I find attractive about these events is the sense of camaraderie I get from participating with others in a common activity.  What I don't find attractive are the occasions when it is very difficult to find someone else on the air who is participating in the same event.  Quite often, I'll hear dozens of stations operating various contests or state QSO parties.  Either of the two options mentioned earlier would allow me to log valid contacts from among these other operators, but they are stopgap measures that don't address the root cause of a lack of participation.

So how do we improve participation?  Barring cash prizes or huge trophies ;-), I don't believe that there's any one thing that will magically get hundreds of hams to head out into the field and fire up their radios.  Instead I propose a number of incremental improvements that, taken together, might increase our numbers.
  • Find a way to easily log contacts from operators participating in other events.  I'll draw an analogy to fishing to help explain the issue.  Let's say I find a nice lake and decide to spend a few hours fishing from shore.  By chance, I happen to select a spot where there is an abundance of crappie.

    Unfortunately, I'm looking for bass and there are none to be found.  The only way I can catch the crappie is to make them imitate a bass, a significant challenge.  I can also ignore the crappie, continue casting for bass, and hope that one of the crappies grabs my lure and acts like a bass.  No matter how pleasant my surroundings, if my goal is to catch bass I will leave disappointed and will probably think twice before fishing at that lake again.

    One solution is to go ahead and catch the crappie (and any other fish in the vicinity) while still continuing to fish for bass.  I don't need to make the crappie imitate a bass - I only need to understand that a crappie requires a different approach (exchange) for a successful catch.  The crappie doesn't care or need to know that I'm fishing for bass.  I may leave at the end of the afternoon with just one or two bass, but catching a few dozen other fish kept me entertained and anxious to come back another day.  I might even tell a few friends how much fun I had and encourage them to go fishing with me another day.

    In a competition, a problem with this solution is with the scoring.  If the objective is to catch bass, someone catching a dozen bass should place higher than someone else catching two dozen fish but only two of them are bass.  I'd propose that the scoring system reflect that bass are worth much more than any other fish but there is still value to catching fish other than bass.

    Another scoring problem is validating that I really caught the other fish and didn't make them up.  In larger contests, logs are cross checked and operators who show contacts that don't appear in others' logs are disqualified.  That wouldn't work in this situation because no logs would be submitted showing my catch.  Here we'd have to rely on personal integrity, something we already do by generally only requiring summary sheets rather than detailed logs to be submitted.
  • Open up events to multiple operating modes.  Most events are CW-only.  This only serves to exclude those hams who, for whatever reason, don't do CW.  With the popularity of the Yaesu FT-817 and Elecraft KX3, along with new radios being introduced by LNR and probably others, many hams own a radio that can be easily carried into the field and operate SSB.  Software available for phones and tablets open up digital modes for field use.  It makes sense to be more inclusive of different interests within a common event framework.
  • Encourage more use of themes to add interest.  A number of events already do this quite successfully.  A good example is QRP To The Field.  Paul NA5N typically adds a theme - 2015's was "Geronimo" honoring Native American heritage throughout the country - that provides for an extra multiplier to those operators who follow the theme.  Some of the contests maintain a common theme from year to year.  For example, Flight of the Bumblebees and Skeeter Hunt.  Any and all of these make participating more interesting.
Certainly these would all require a lobbying effort aimed at event organizers.  There's lots of tradition behind most events and hams are well known as being resistant to change.  But I believe that a soapbox comment or note to the organizers saying something like "I know a couple of hams who would have liked to participate.  They aren't CW operators but would love to work digital modes" might be a nudge in the right direction.

I can't believe that I'm the only one who thinks that something needs to be done before some of our events die off from a lack of interest.  Or maybe I'm tilting at windmills and people are happy with the status quo.  What do you think?  Do you have other ideas to help improve participation?

72, Jim - K0RGI

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Operating Events & Rules

The recent QRP Afield operating event raised a question in my mind that I never see addressed in the rules.  Can you make contacts with stations working a different event and submit them to the event in which you are participating?  Here's an example:

I operated for several hours on Saturday afternoon and never heard another station calling CQ for QRP Afield.  I called CQ myself on both 40 and 20 meters with no replies.  After the event, I read that a number of others had the same experience.  What I and others did hear were dozens and dozens of stations working the Salmon Run or various state QSO parties.  I finally grew bored and made some New Jersey QSO Party contacts but did not submit them to QRP Afield.  Could I have done so and stayed within the rules?

I'm interested in knowing how others address this, as it's not the first event I've participated in where the pickings were mighty slim but other contest's participants were plentiful.  For larger contests, the lack of log cross checking would likely be an issue but most of the smaller events only require a summary sheet.
I'm interested in hearing what you think.  Do organizers encourage or discourage this cross-contest activity?

72, Jim - K0RGI