(Almost) Gone with the Wind

I was long overdue for some outside QRP-portable operating. Although we had some heavy rain overnight, it looked like it would be gone by mid-day. So, yesterday I headed out to nearby Towpath Park to take advantage of some milder temperatures.

I had a couple of objectives for today. First, I was hoping to make some QRP to the Field (QTTF) contest QSOs. I also wanted to test a new ground mount I put together for my cheap eBay telescopic pole.

When I got to the park, the rain had stopped. Unfortunately, last night’s heavy rains left the park a bit on the swampy side. That, coupled with some gusting winds, would make for an interesting test of my new ground mount. I was a bit leary but went ahead and set up the antenna anyway.

As I was setting up, a Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission officer got out of his car and walked up the path towards me. While it’s true that I was using a fishing rod (for my antenna), I was about 50 yards away from the river! As he approached, I told him that I was a ham radio operator. He said, “I know.” As it turns out, he was also a ham and had spotted my callsign on my license plate. He was just stopping by to say hello. As we talked a bit, we also found out that we also had some former employers and co-workers in common. Small world!

WB3GCK at Towpath Park
WB3GCK at Towpath Park

As we were chatting, the gusting wind blew my antenna over to a 45-degree angle. The ground was too soggy to hold my antenna mount. It never fell over, so I gave my antenna mount a passing grade for this extreme test. Unfortunately, in my rush to straighten out the antenna, I never took a picture. Pity. It put that tower in Pisa to shame. I moved the antenna a few feet to a somewhat drier spot and that did the trick. I’ll show a closer look at my ground mount in a future post.

My vertical ground-mounted in the soggy ground. This picture was taken while Mother Nature was on a brief break from trying to blow my antenna over.
My vertical ground-mounted in the soggy ground. This picture was taken while Mother Nature was on a brief break from trying to blow my antenna over.

When I finally got on the air, I found the bands dominated by Michigan and Ontario QSO Party stations. I didn’t hear any QTTF stations at all. So, I spent some time handing out points to some of the QSO Party stations.

After a while, I had had enough of the wind and packed up my gear. As I was packing up, the sun came out and the wind subsided. Go figure!

72, Craig WB3GCK

My Quest for SKCC Tribune x 8

I haven’t been posting much lately but I have been on the air a fair amount. I’ve been focusing my operating time on reaching a milestone in the Straight Key Century Club (SKCC) award hierarchy.

I’ve been working on reaching the Tribune x 8 (Tx8) level on my way to reaching the Senator level. I needed to work 400 unique SKCC members (in increments of 50) who are Centurians, Tribunes, or Senators.

I began this weekend a mere 4 QSOs away from the Tx8 level. I had family coming for the weekend, so there wasn’t much time for radio. Despite that, I set a personal goal of finishing up the last 4 this weekend.

I got on the air on Friday night for about an hour and was on a roll. I worked 3 qualifying QSOs in a row, leaving me just 1 QSO away from my goal. A piece of cake or so I thought.

On Saturday morning I got on for a bit. I had several stations offer to help me give me that last QSO but we couldn’t complete the contacts. Between unsettled geomagnetic conditions and static from storms down South, I came away empty-handed.

Part of the reason for the noisey band conditions on Saturday morning, I guess.
Part of the reason for the noisy band conditions on Saturday morning, I guess.

I had about an hour and a half before my family arrived, so I drove out to a nearby park to try some portable operating. With the monthly SKCC Weekend Sprintathon (WES) going on, I figured it would be easy to pick up the last QSO. Plus, using a decent antenna sure wouldn’t hurt, either.

Less-than-optimum band conditions on Saturday morning. Fortunately, things improved a bit later on.
Less-than-optimum band conditions on Saturday morning. Fortunately, things improved a bit later on.

Using my trusty 19-foot vertical on the back of my truck, I got busy trying to bag some WES QSOs. Band conditions had perked up a little. Surely, I would find that last qualifying QSO.

I worked several stations on 40M and one on 20M. Unfortunately, they were familiar callsigns already in my log. I was feeling a bit disappointed as I rushed to make one last contact before I had to pack up and head home.

When I got home, I entered my contacts into the SKCCLogger software. Guess what! That last contact turned out to be a new one, giving me that elusive 400th Tribune QSO! Thanks to Len KD8FKD for being the one that got me there.

It’s been a long, slow climb for me. I started working on the Tribune levels about 3 years ago. (I took a break from SKCC for a while.) I made the vast majority of my SKCC contacts running 5 watts (with a few at 10 watts). I was either out portable or at home using my rainspout antenna. I have enjoyed the challenge, though. I find the SKCC events to be a whole lot of fun and somewhat addicting.

So, what’s next? My application for the Tx8 award is in the queue for processing. Once it’s approved, I’ll start working on the Senator Award, the highest award in the hierarchy. For that, I’ll need to work 200 unique SKCC members who are Tribunes or Senators. I’m hoping to get there sometime this year.

Wish me luck…

73/72, Craig WB3GCK

My Favorite Apps for Portable Operating

I do the majority of my HF operating while out at portable locations. Like most people these days, I always have my cell phone handy. While I have a bunch of apps installed, there are a few that I use most often to figure out where to go and where I am.

Before I begin, I should mention that I use an Android phone. Some of these apps may be available for the iPhone or there may be similar apps available for you.

I should also point out that I do most of my hiking and biking on well-established trails. Suburban Philadelphia is not exactly a wilderness area. Wilderness and backcountry folks will likely have different needs.

Having said all that, here are the non-ham-specific Android apps I use most often in the field.

Where Am I?

This appropriately-named app by Ejelta LLC does exactly what it says. Using your phone’s location services, it shows where you are in the world. It shows your city, zip code, phone area code, sunrise and sunset times, elevation, and GPS coordinates. It also identifies the county you’re in, which is useful for setting up a new location in the TQSL software for Logbook of the World (LoTW).

Where Am I? Screenshot
Where Am I? Screenshot

The sharing feature is also important to me. When I’m out alone, I use Where Am I? to text my location to my (far) better half. I can send her the location of where I parked my truck and where I stopped along the trail to play radio.

Maidenhead Grid Locator

Another piece of information I need for LoTW is the grid square I’m in. For years, I used (and still use) an app with the simple title, Locator. As I started writing this post, I found that this particular app is no longer available in Google Play. No worries; there are lots of other apps to determine your Maidenhead grid square. Here are a few:

  • Ham Locator (by OH5GQF) shows your grid square (6 characters) on a map. You can toggle between street view and satellite view.
  • If you use HamLog (from Pignology) for portable logging, check the “Tools” tab. There’s a grid locator tool there. You can navigate around a map to find the grid square anywhere on earth.
  • HamGPS (by EA4EOZ) is a grid locator on steroids. It shows your current grid square out to 10 characters, along with your coordinates and compass heading. It also shows the location and status of the GPS satellite constellation. That can be fascinating to watch.
Ham Locator Screenshot
Ham Locator Screenshot

TrailLink and AllTrails

These are two similar apps that I use for planning trips to new trails. The Rails to Trails Conservancy produces TrailLink, while AllTrails is from AllTrails, Inc. They both give you maps, directions, reviews, and more. Both apps have paid versions that will let you save maps to your phone. That’s handy if you are in an area with poor cellular coverage.

AllTrails map display. You can zoom in and navigate around the map to see a detailed view. With the paid version, you can save maps to your device for offline use.
AllTrails map display. You can zoom in and navigate around the map to see a detailed view. With the paid version, you can save maps to your phone for offline use.

Storm Radar

Last but not least… There’s no shortage of weather apps for your phone. I have one that I use for the usual weather forecasts: daily, hourly, and so forth. I also use Storm Radar (The Weather Channel) and it has saved my bacon on a few occasions.

Storm Radar. Fortunately, there was no rain in view when I captured this screenshot.
Storm Radar. Fortunately, there was no rain in view when I captured this screenshot.

Of course, Storm Radar‘s radar display lets you see exactly what’s coming your way. What I really like, though, is the real-time rain and lightning alerts. Even if I don’t have the radar display up, Storm Radar gives me a heads up on nasty weather headed towards me. There have been times when this app helped keep me and my gear from getting rained on.

Wrap-Up

So these are some of my favorite apps for portable operating. I didn’t cover any apps that are specific to ham radio but I may do that in a future post.

Do you have any must-have apps for outdoor operating? Let me know in the comments.

72, Craig WB3GCK

 

Links

[My usual disclaimer: This blog is not monetized in any way. I have no financial interest whatsoever in any of these products.]

OK. With that out of the way, here are links to the apps mentioned in this post:

 

Calm Before the Storm

We’re under a Winter Storm Warning today, with 5 to 8 inches of snow expected in some areas. I thought I would sneak out for a bit of QRP-portable before the snow starts. So I drove over to nearby Upper Schuylkill Valley Park, one of my regular Winter-time haunts.

The Upper Schuylkill River Trail at Upper Schuylkill Valley Park
The Upper Schuylkill River Trail at Upper Schuylkill Valley Park

There were a few people in the park when I got there, including a few hardy fishermen. After installing my 19-foot Vertical on my truck, I fired up the KX3 on 40M in search of some SKCC contacts. The bands seemed to be recovering from the geomagnetic wackiness from the past few days. There were some strong signals on the band but not much activity.

I only logged four contacts today but there were some nice chats. In particular, I had nice two-way QRP chats with W8BUD and AJ8S. The best “DX” of the day was with KR9Z in Florida on 20M.

After a while, a park ranger came by to tell me that they were closing the park in anticipation of the snow. So, I tore down, packed up, and headed home. No problem, I was starting to get hungry anyway.

As I write this, the snow has yet to arrive but the local weatherman assures us that it’s coming. I guess I better rest up for some snow shoveling tomorrow.

72, Craig WB3GCK

Adjustable Bungee Cable Ties

This is another one of those little hacks that takes longer to describe than to build. Some time ago, I stumbled on a clever idea online that has been useful in my ham radio activities.

I used to use ball bungee fasteners in a variety of sizes as temporary fasteners. While they are handy, they have limitations for my uses. On occasion, I found that the sizes I had available were either too small or too large for the task at hand.

A year or two back, I found a great video on the MOD YouTube Channel. The video described how to make these simple, adjustable cable ties. I made up a few and found them handy for several ham-related applications.

A completed bungee cable tie, along with one of the two-hole cord locks I used.
A completed bungee cable tie, along with one of the two-hole cord locks I used.

These little devices have a multitude of uses but my main use is for antennas in the field. I use them to fasten a BALUN or UNUN to a telescopic pole for portable verticals.

I also found they are also handy for lashing odd items to the MOLLE loops on my backpack. In a recent post, I showed how I use them to secure a 19-foot telescopic pole to my sling pack.

I use one of the bungee ties to attach the 19-foot vertical matching box to the fiberglass pole.
I use one of the bungee ties to attach my 19-foot vertical matching box to the fiberglass pole.

Of course, they make great cable ties. Their ability to adjust allows them to fit a wide variety of cables.

You only need 2 things to make these: some shock cord and some double hole cord locks. (If you watched the MOD video, you already know all this.)

I use 4mm diameter shock cord most often to make these. For some smaller, light-duty applications, I have used a thinner 2.5mm shock cord. I have found that the cord locks seem to hold better with the larger 4mm shock cord.

Construction is super simple.

  • Cut the shock cord to the desired length. Be sure to singe the cut ends with a lighter to prevent fraying.
  • Put the two ends through the holes in the cord lock.
  • Holding the two ends together, tie a simple overhand knot and snug it down.
  • To use them, place the bungee around whatever you need to fasten. Place the loop end over the cord lock to hold it. Press the button on the cord lock and pull the ends to cinch it down.

That’s all there is to it. In the time it took to write and edit this post, I could have made a ton of these things. It’s not an Earth-shattering thing but sometimes it doesn’t take much to amuse me.

Thanks to MOD YouTube Channel for sharing this great idea.

72, Craig WB3GCK

[Disclaimer: I have no financial interest whatsoever in Amazon or any of these products.]

Links:

A Slippery Sloper

I spent the weekend with my grandkids out near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. My XYL and I watched the kids while my daughter and son-in-law took a little anniversary get-away. Of course, there was some time for ham radio, too.

By the time I got around to setting up an antenna on Friday, it was dark and the temperature was well below freezing. Oh yeah, there was about 4 inches of snow in the backyard to boot. So, I was in need of a real quick and dirty antenna.

I decided to toss a 29.5-foot wire out of a 2nd-floor window. I then went out to the backyard to secure the other end of the wire. I used some shock cord to tie it off to the top of a 6-foot wooden fence. My total time outside in the cold and dark was about a minute.

Back inside, I fed the wire through a homebrew 9:1 UNUN with 18 feet of RG-8X coax. This particular wire and UNUN served me well as a vertical during many National Parks on the Air (NPOTA) activations. I commandeered one end of the dining room table for my KX3 and powered up for a test. The KX3 was able to get a match on 80M through 10M.  Then, I went back to hanging out with the kids.

My impromptu sloper's feedpoint. The wire from the 9:1 UNUN is just pinched in the window.
My impromptu sloper’s feedpoint. The wire from the 9:1 UNUN is just pinched in the window.

By now I’m sure you’re wondering where the “slippery” part of the this post’s title comes in. Well, the next morning I looked out the window and saw that some ice had accumulated on the wire. The wire was dragged through the snow during installation and it froze overnight. The KX3 didn’t mind at all; the internal tuner loaded up the frozen wire without problems.

I got on the air for a bit on Saturday afternoon.  On the air, my impromptu antenna far exceeded my low expectations. I started off working N2CX on 40M. Joe was activating a park on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. I followed that up with a nice two-way QRP chat with WK2J in North Carolina.

My dining room table set up.
My dining room table set up.

I worked a couple of QRPers in the FYBO contest sponsored by the Arizona ScQRPions. I also worked some Minnesota and Vermont QSO Party contesters. An assortment of SKCC, POTA, and SOTA stations also made it into my log over the weekend. The best “DX” of the weekend was VE7ST in the British Columbia QSO Party on 20M.

I didn’t expect much from this quickie antenna configuration but I was happy with the way it got out. Plus, set up/tear-down was easy and only took a few minutes. This sloper will likely be my go-to antenna for future visits to see the Harrisburg grandkids.

72, Craig WB3GCK

Another JS8Call Newbie

Yep, that’s me. At an ARES-RACES meeting the other night, a few fellow members were discussing JS8Call. I decided to download the software and give it a whirl.

After installing the software and looking it over, I watched a few YouTube videos to learn how to use it. Once I thought I had the basics down, I fired up my KX3 to take JS8Call for a spin.

I didn’t see any activity on the waterfall, but after a while, I was able to decode a transmission on 20M. That was a good sign. I called CQ few times with no response. Checking PSKReporter, however, I saw spots from as far away as southern California. Not bad for 5 watts and a rainspout antenna.

My initial CQs with JS8Call made it out to southern California on 20M. Not bad for 5 watts and a rainspout antenna!
My initial CQs with JS8Call made it out to southern California on 20M. Not bad for 5 watts and a rainspout antenna!

I dropped down to 40M and saw immediately saw a few decodes pop up. I called CQ a few times and received a call from N4YTM in North Carolina. Gordon, as it turns out, was only slightly more experienced with JS8Call; I was his third contact. Despite our collective inexperience, we had a nice, albeit slow, chat with this new mode.

I found that carrying on a basic QSO with JS8Call was pretty intuitive. I still have a lot to learn about some of the more advanced messaging features, though. JS8 is an interesting mode and less robotic than FT8. It’s slow for a keyboard-to-keyboard chat mode but I was decoding signals I could hardly see on the waterfall.

Although CW will always be my primary mode, I’m sure there will be more JS8Call activity in my future.

72, Craig WB3GCK