Park on the Air (POTA) was one of the original reasons I got into amateur radio. As someone who enjoys all aspects of the hobby, I feel it provides a good intersections between contesting and portable emergency communications. It involves a fair bit of planning and work to setup and maintain a station during a POTA activation. Having a POTA bag, usually built similar to a go bag, is something that many frequent park activators have.
For those who don’t know, Parks on the Air involves an amateur radio operator (activator) taking equipment to a park listed on the POTA website, setting up, and contacting as many stations as possible (hunters). There are a variety of parks that offer a variety of conditions. Some are flat with no trees or power. Others offer trees and power on site. Some have restrictions to putting anything into the ground. Others allow you to if you have a campsite. In order for an activation to be considered successful, the activator must contact ten hunters using any band and any mode. The most common band is 40 meters with SSB as the most common mode, though CW is still very popular. Many parks are active on 20 meters but the current solar cycle may reduce the amount of contacts. I’ve seen 2 m activations. I’ve seen 80 m. Those are more rare but they still happen.
The site we (NM9L and myself) had selected was Kil-So-Quah State Recreation Area (K-5683). A parking lot was selected that had no power and trees. We would be running off battery power. NM9L used a SOTABeams 40-20 m dipole attached to painters pole mast in his hitch mount. I brought two antennas to test. One was the Slinktenna by QuirkQRP. I purchased this antenna as a low cost, low weight SOTA/POTA antenna. For those who found this blog but haven’t found anything about the Slinktenna, it is essentially a coil center fed dipole with a 9:1 UnUn in the center. All of it packs nicely into a small PVC container and weighs an alright amount. It isn’t the lightest antenna but does weigh less than my MyAntenna end-fed. It does use a BNC connector, which I put an adapter on to switch to an SO-239 connector. My goal was to try to use this antenna. I didn’t know how well it would work so I brought a second antenna. It was the SOTABeam 40/20m. This was different from NM9L’s antenna as it doesn’t do 30 m. He has a second set of alligator clips while mine only has one. Either way, it is a good, quality, and light antenna that fits nicely into a bag. Here is where the fun begins.
Always test your gear. In triathlon, we have a saying. “Nothing new on race day.” I should have followed this advice. This was the first time I had used the Slinktenna. I actually removed the rubber band from the tension/sway kit that I purchased with the antenna. I attached the center to paracord, which wasn’t mine, and sent it up a tree. It came loose. Then, the ends wouldn’t stay attached to the tree that I put them in. It was a nightmare. Then, I tried to tune using the FT-991A internal tuner. It wouldn’t tune. The SWR was way too high. I tried on 40 m. Nothing. Same with 20 m. I did get it to tune on 80 m. When I moved to another frequency in 80 m, it wouldn’t tune. Back at the original, it wouldn’t tune. I couldn’t get it to work. It was to the point that I needed to do something. I decided to switch out antennas.
The only coax I had that I could easily use was 75 ft of LMR-400 that was still in the package. I purchased this to install when I move my 2 m/70 cm antenna to the roof. Right now, my VHF/UHF antenna is sitting on a box with some low cost, light coax connected to it. This is temporary until the weather improves, and I can get on the roof to install it properly. This light, low cost coax was to be my SOTA/POTA coax as it is light and can be easily transported. There is also only 50 ft of it, which is still a lot for SOTA/POTA, but I’d rather have too much. For those who think that all coax is coax, it isn’t. LMR-400 is low-loss, meaning that it has extra shielding. This extra shielding adds weight but also stiffness. This cable was difficult to use. This was part of the reason my Slinktenna kept coming out of the tree. The Slinktenna wasn’t installed the best, but it didn’t help matters any that there was heavy coax connected to it. Lucky for me, the SOTABeams antennas come with coax built it. It is very light, thin coax, but it works.
I pulled the SOTABeams antenna out of the carrying bag. This is when I noticed the next problem. The coax terminates with a BNC connector. I didn’t have the appropriate connector to connect it to my radio. This was not good. I had an antenna that I knew would work as NM9L was operating with a similar antenna but wouldn’t connect to my radio, because I didn’t remove the antenna from the bag and check the connector. Again, nothing new on race day. This was race day and I showed up with two flat tires and no shoes. This was a nightmare. Not only that, but I would have to use a tree to put the antenna up in since my mast hadn’t been delivered yet. I was obviously frustrated at this point. NM9L had another antenna. He had a QRP Guys end-fed antenna. The problem is that it was limited to 10 W. I’m not a QRP fan. I understand that some operators really like it. It just isn’t for me. I enjoy my 100 W. Anyway, I didn’t have a choice. It was the only antenna with a connector I could use.
Always show up with everything you might need. We needed to string up this end-fed antenna. It would have been awesome if I would have brought a throw bag and some paracord. Guess what was sitting in my lounging room. You’re right. A throw bag and some lime green paracord. The same paracord I use for my end-fed at home to tie it down. I had to borrow some paracord to attach to the antenna and the borrowed throw bag. The antenna went over a tree. It went up fairly easily. After that, I strung the antenna through a short length of paracord and staked it to the ground. The parking lot asphalt extended further than I thought so I had to put the stake into some really soft ground. It wasn’t straight because there was a used condom by the ideal stake point, and I wanted to stay far away from that. Once it was up, I hooked the coax into it. I turned the power down and activated.
Once everything was in place, I picked a frequency to activate on, checked if it was clear, spotted myself, and called CQ. I planned to use Notepad since I had no WiFi and was on 3G, which is nearly unusable. After calling CQ, it was a flood of people. I didn’t expect that many from QRP. This unsettled me for a bit until around the 5th call. I was struggling to write down calls. I was also trying to fight with Notepad. I should have had a spreadsheet open to keep track of everything. I hit nine calls and needed ten for the activation to count. I tried again. Nothing. Then, there was a conversation happening on net. With limited cell service, it would have taken too long to re-spot myself. I took a small break and tried again. I ended up getting a few more. I hit my ten and then some, but it was not an easy process. After about 90 minutes, we packed up and headed back.
Odds and Ends
I took my GoPro and Tascam to record but didn’t take a chair. Me and my radio were sitting on the ground. While not the end of the world, it was not comfortable. My hand mic ended up getting scratched from the asphalt, along with a few other things. I should have planned for this a little better. I also didn’t factor the sun into consideration. I didn’t have sunglasses, so I had to adjust my position a lot to not blind myself. My radio is an FT-991A, which I love, except when I had to read a full color touch screen in the sun. I should have accounted for this by taking a notebook to cover it.
Always test equipment before heading out. This means everything from coax to radios to antennas. Every problem I encountered was operator error. This means I could have avoided all of them with a little bit of planning. I could have taken everything outside and tested it the day before. I didn’t even need to go outside. Just by looking at my equipment, I could have solved a lot of the problems.
Make sure you have all the appropriate connectors. My Slinktenna has a perminant BNC to SO-239 connector since I don’t have any radios or coax with BNC. I plan to do the same for the SOTABeams antenna, but this would have been good to have during my activation.
Packing appropriate items like a throw bag and paracord would have made everything so much smoother. I took a multi-tool with me to cut the zip-tie off my coax. I could have used this same multi-tool to cut a length of paracord, if I remembered to bring any. I could have also packed a chair to make activating so much easier. I had assumed there would be a bench or table to use. It would have been better to ask or to check an aerial photo.
Hope for the best and plan for the worst. I should have assumed no internet and had a spreadsheet or logging software ready to go rather than trying to fight Notepad. I spent the time to pack non-essentials, like a laptop, and didn’t even have the essentials on it. I had assumed that I would have had good cell service so I could tether my laptop to it. Planning ahead would have solved this.
While this may have seemed like a failure, this was a successful park activation. I logged ten contacts, meaning it will count for POTA, but I also learned a lot about my equipment and what I need for the future. I was talking to a colleague about my days as a professional StarCraft player. I told him that I could teach anyone how to play StarCraft, but nothing beats the 20,000 games I’ve played. That is how I feel today. The 90 minutes of struggle have given me insight into how to better operate in the future. My plan is to head to Michigan for research this summer. The primary goal is research but that doesn’t mean I can’t take my radio and have some fun. NM9L said it best. “It is better we struggle here than at Michigan.” I couldn’t agree more.
Thank you for reading. This was a fun adventure. It may not seem like it, but I had a good time. If you have any questions, leave a comment or send me an email. You can follow me on Twitter or Instagram. YouTube is still in the works. I have some videos that are being edited. I will post them when I get a chance. Thank you again.