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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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+.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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