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Portable Operating

Although I operate QRP exclusively at home and portable, some folks think QRP is good only for QRP operation when they can't carry their big amps and antennas with them. That's well and good if they feel that way. I'm not writing this page to promote 100% QRP operation, but merely to share my experiences with operating portable.

If you call portable operation going out in the woods, to a park, or other such outdoor places, then I never operated portable until Tom WY3H invited me to go with him to his outdoor property and operate the QRP ARCI Hootowl Sprint in 2005. Before that I only operated away from my East High St. home from the apartment I had in Pittsburgh while I worked at WPIT and when I stayed with my late cousin over Thanksgiving weekend in 2003.

While operating in Pittsburgh, I got a second call of WA3IXO and used either that or K3WWP/3. Actually apartment is not really accurate. It was really just a rooming house where I simply had one room on the third floor. My rigs were a little transmitter that used a 2N3053 transistor if I remember correctly and some other transmitter that I don't recall now that had an input power of 7 or 8 watts. My receiver was an old Hallicrafters SW-500 with selectivity wide enough for an elephant to walk through. The antenna was simply an end-fed wire strung around my room which was maybe 10' x 10' at most. I think that setup even more so than what I am using now demonstrated that you can make QSOs with an extremely minimal setup. In 1967 and 1968, I made around 160 QSOs on 40 meters in some very limited operating time during my work week. On my days off, I came back here to Kittanning. Glancing through my log from those days, most QSOs were in the eastern USA. It looks like IA, FL, AR, and OK were my most distant states worked. All in all it was somewhat of a challenge to make QSOs, but the bottom line was I did make them.

Next up was my operation at my cousin's. I operated the 2003 CQWW DX Contest from there. That story is at contest_ss_03cqwwdx.html so if you want to read about it, take a detour there, then come back here.

My first few true portable operations have their own stories also as listed here:

2005 Hoot Owl Sprint - contest_ss_05hootowl.html.

2006 Hoot Owl Sprint - contest_ss_06hootowl.html.

I've also operated from several other venues since then, one of which is the submarine USS Requin moored near the point in Pittsburgh. I've done several operations from there with my friends Tom WY3H, Mike KC2EGL, Don K3RLL, Tom WB3FAE, Ken N3CU, Jon AB3RU, and WY3H's sons Ethan W3IRS and Ariel KC3AHO. All the venues we operate from are very interesting and enjoyable, but the Requin is especially so thanks to the sub caretaker Art WA3BKD. All of us have a great sense of humor and enjoy things a lot, no matter what, and Art fits that bill very well. During those operations we use the sub call of NY3EC or the NAQCC club call N3AQC. Stories of those operations including pictures can be found in my diary archives as follows around the given date or the following day or 2:

2009 August 13 - with Tom WY3H
2012 November 21 - with Mike KC2EGL
2013 September 12 - with Mike KC2EGL
2013 December 1 - with Tom WY3H and his sons Ethan W3IRS and Ariel KC3AHO
2014 August 14 - with Mike KC2EGL, Don K3RLL, Tom WB3FAE
2015 November 25 - with Mike KC2EGL
2016 April 17 - with Mike KC2EGL, Tom WB3FAE, Ken N3CU
2016 June 12 - with Mike KC2EGL, Jon AB3RU
2016 November 23 - with Mike KC2EGL

Another venue I must mention in a little more detail is the Skyview Radio Society. Club members are great there, and unlike many clubs, the members don't put down CW and QRP. We also get a chance to experience something different by using their huge antenna farm with our KX3s and other rigs. I must especially mention Bob WC3O and Jody K3JZD who are fellow NAQCC members. We always look forward to running into them either at Skyview or various hamfests around the area. The description of Art WA3BKD from the Requin applies equally to them.

Including the above, I've operated away from my home shack at least 55 times. One was not very far when Mike and I did Field Day from my front porch and yard.

I can truly say that all 55 times have been enjoyable even though not all went as smoothly as possible due to an assortment of equipment problems or bad weather. All the equipment problems turned out to be learning experiences and a specific problem just about always never showed up again.

Mike and I had one really perplexing problem one time when we couldn't get one of our antennas to load at all. After a lot of head scratching and testing we found the problem was with a Pomona connector. I promptly grabbed it and threw it away into the woods where it may still be lying. Even the most basic piece of equipment can go bad. In retrospect we should have kept the connector to see just how it failed.

About the only really bad weather experience happened when Mike and I were operating N3A for our annual NAQCC Anniversary outing on Columbus Day. It just got so cold we couldn't even use our keys very well. We had to quit early that day.

One other thing comes to mind that's weather related. We had a deluge during Field Day a couple years ago when we operated from some property of Tom WB3FAE in Chicora, PA. However we kept dry in Mike's tent and really only missed one beat. We QRT for safety's sake when there were some much too close lightning strikes for about a half hour. One of our antenna masts got tilted at a slight angle from the strong winds, but stayed erect. After the event was over, we learned that there was a tornado touchdown only about 20 miles from our site.

Let's talk about equipment for a portable operation. Anytime you operate out in the field, it is an excellent chance to use some very simple equipment. Unless you are almost a commercial operation with trucks to haul equipment, cranes to set up towers, and so forth, which some groups actually do for Field Day, a little rig like a KX3 and a simple wire antenna thrown up into a tree is really all you need along with some battery power to run the rig. Oh, and a paper and pencil to log the QSOs you will be making.

Over the years, I've used various rigs including a QRP+ borrowed from my friend Eric KB3BFQ, a K1 belonging to Don K3RLL that we shared on one outing, my K2, my KX1, and the best of all, my KX3.

I've also used a variety of antennas, some of which I don't even remember now. The ones I do recall are a 110' end fed wire, some shorter end fed wires, a vertical, and my favorite which is a jumper dipole set up in an inverted vee configuration. We call it the K3RLL antenna, since he introduced Mike and I to it, after which we built our own.

I have been either throwing my antenna up into a tree using a golf ball launcher and my right arm, or borrowing a mast from Tom WB3FAE. This year I'm going to buy my own mast though, as I don't like to borrow things and my good right arm is going to weaken as I get older.

I've used different batteries along the way. They included an automobile battery that Tom WY3H and I used for a Hoot Owl Sprint, a few different gel cells ranging from something like 2Ah up to 7Ah, a very large marine battery for one Field Day that I shared with Tom WB3FAE, a big battery power pack of Mike's that he bought originally to run his telescope, and perhaps a couple other's I forget.

Currently I use a power pack that originally was designed to be an emergency auto starter battery which also included an air compressor to inflate flat tires. I bought it for a buck or so from a store here in town that some folks call a junk store, but I have gotten a lot of very useful things there at almost steal prices. I had to do some work on it to get it to perform. The 18Ah gel cell that was in it wouldn't hold a charge, so I replaced it with a 17Ah one from a local Battery Warehouse. I removed the air compressor and rewired it a bit so it would work without the compressor. I also cleaned it up as best I could as it showed it had been used a lot. Now it will easily run the KX3 and PX3 for several hours between charges. That makes it ideal for our four hour portable operations. It's a bit heavy but that doesn't really matter since we don't hike a long distance to our sites. We just drive as close as we can get, then walk the last 100-200 yards at most.

I think what makes operating portable so enjoyable is not the actual operating, but the fellowship with one's ham friends. I think without them, I'd find it rather boring.

Just some suggestions should you decide to try operating portable for the first time. First and foremost, plan the operation carefully and completely. Make sure you have a list of all the equipment you will need down to the smallest item. It's discouraging if you get to the site with something missing that you really need, especially if it is a long trip to the operating site. Keep that list and update it as necessary as you do more and more portable operating. It's a good idea to have the list in a form where you can check off the items as you gather them together and/or put them into your portable kit.

A kit can be as elaborate or as simple as suits you. Mike has a very nice case similar to a suitcase with a foam insert that can be cut to hold any sized piece of gear. In contrast, I use a simple sturdy cardboard box with smaller boxes to hold the KX3, PX3, etc. securely inside the main box.

If you announce your operation on something like our NAQCC spotter page, make sure you arrive well before the announced time as inevitably there will be some time-consuming glitches. It just seems to happen that way no matter how carefully the operation is planned beforehand.

Elaborating on the list of items, here is the actual list that I use here with notes following the list. Yours will be similar, plus or minus some items of yours.


PADDLE: or straight key, bug, sideswiper, keyboard, whatever you prefer. Also if the rig doesn't have a built in keyer, bring an external one for the paddle. Don't forget any cables needed to hook the keying device to the rig.

ANTENNA ADAPTER: Should you need something to connect say a PL-259 to BNC or the like. Very important if your coax is terminated in a different connector than what the rig requires.

COAX COUPLER: If you need to connect two or more lengths of coax together to reach from antenna to rig.

LAUNCHER: If you need to throw a wire up into a tree. A golf ball tied to a string through a screw eye in the ball makes an excellent launcher if you have a good throwing arm. If you use a mast instead, remember the mast.

TENT PEGS: To fasten the end of an inverted vee antenna to the ground or guy wires for a mast, etc. Perhaps some stakes if you want to get the ends higher up in the air.

PERSUADER: Also known as a hammer or mallet for driving the tent pegs, etc. into hard ground.

BATTERY AND LEADS: Be certain the battery has been fully charged the day before the operation. Of course don't forget the means to connect battery to rig.

COMPUTER: Either this or pen and paper to log the QSOs. I prefer the computer for faster style contest operating.

LOG SHEETS: To log on paper

CLIPBOARD AND PENS: Clipboard to have a smooth writing surface. Don't forget the pens. Small items but can lead you to use some language you don't normally use if you forget them.

CLUB HAT/SHIRT: To promote your club if it's a club related operation and you want appropriate pictures.

WATCH/GLASSES: To log QSO times and to see the log should you be a glasses wearer.

CAMERA AND EXTRA BATTERIES: The batteries will inevitably die just when you want that certain picture. So be sure they are fully charged, both the ones in the camera and the extras.

WATER: You inevitably will get thirsty, especially if it's hot dry weather.

COAX CLAMP: Some kind of clamp to hold the coax to the operating table in case someone runs into the coax or wind blows down an antenna. You will use even worse language if that happens and the rig is pulled off the table as a result.

DUMMY LOAD, VOM, CLIP LEADS: Good to have along in case you need to solve some kind of problem.

GROUND WIRE AND ROD: Sometimes these will give a better match between rig and antenna or prevent interference between stations. WY3H and I once used a common ground rod that gave us all kind of interference between our rigs until we went to a separate ground for each.

POWER POLE COUPLER: Just a convenient way to connect battery to rig and any accessories.

PX3 AND KX3 POWER CABLES: A really indispensable item. I dropped my PX3 cable at home and didn't know it until I got to the QRP/CW demo I was giving. Although I could use the KX3, I wasn't able to show off the wonderful PX3.

JUMPER COAX: Just in case you need to connect something to something. We use them mostly at Skyview to connect our rigs to their antenna switches and/or filters.

STAND FOR KX3 AND PX3: Nice to be able to set the PX3 above the KX3 as I do at home.

This is a list that covers most of the locations we operate from. There are tables in our Community Park, but if you go to a place where there are no fixed tables, bring along a sturdy but lightweight folding table and a chair. You might also think about a tent or canopy if it is rainy or too sunny and hot.

This all may seem very basic, perhaps even silly to go to such extremes, but believe me, all the items are necessary to have a successful smoothly run operation. Just forgetting one can make for an unenjoyable outing.