HF Ham Radio on a Budget: QRP Labs, QRPGuys, CW Academy

When I started my amateur radio life as KK6VSI in August of 2015, I wish I could have had the information I’m about to lay out here.  Of course, most of the equipment didn’t yet exist.  So another way of looking at it is that my entry into amateur radio was perfectly timed for a modern Golden Age of Ham Radio.  Part of this Golden Age means you can get a QRP Labs QCX or BITX40, and a QRPGuys Antenna, plus a few other components, and you’re on the air!  Stick with me here, and we’ll get to the details.

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CW Academy Level 2: Listen, listen, listen!

I haven’t written a post in a while, so I figured I’d write a quick update on my progress with learning Morse code for CW operation. I’d completed CW Academy Level 1 at the end of October 2017 and I’ve been doing CW SOTA activations since. CW Academy Level 1 got me from sort of knowing the characters to actually being able to use Morse code to communicate.  I still wasn’t comfortable actually having a conversation, but simple contacts were actually possible and, dare I say it, enjoyable! I had initially gone ahead and signed up for the very next Level 2 class (running Jan-Feb 2018), but soon decided I wasn’t quite ready for it.  I requested to bumped to the next one (running Apr-May 2018).

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Mount Isabel, W6/NC-035

Activation Date: 31 December 2017
Transport: Hike Distance: 7.8 miles
Elev. gain: 2350 feet Time: 3-3.5 hours
Rig(s): LNR Precision MTR-3B, Radioddity GD-77 Band(s): 20, 40m CW, 2m FM
Antenna(s): End-fed half-wave (HF), 12-inch whip (VHF/UHF)
Cell Service: Marginal/None (T-Mobile)
Parking: Side of the road, near CalFire Smith Creek Fire Station
Trailhead: Joseph D. Grant County Park entrance, to left, behind Fire Station
Fees/Permits: None
Route: Along creek, then old ranch roads
Dogs: Yes (on leash)  Toilet: No

I wanted to get in one final SOTA activation for the year, and planned on doing it the week between Christmas and New Year’s eve, but had come down with a nasty cold. Even though I still had a cold, I decided I’d do it on the very last day of the year.  Having seen that Jeff, AA6XA discovered this hike could be done on public land, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to get this one done.  It’s an exceedingly beautiful hike into an isolated part of the Diablo range.

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Copernicus Peak, W6/NC-029

Activation Date: 9 December 2017
Transport: Drive-Up, Short Walk Distance: .4 miles
Elev. gain: 180 feet Time: 15 minutes
Rig(s): LNR Precision MTR-3B, Yaesu VX-2R Band(s): 30, 20, 40m CW, 2m FM
Antenna(s): End-fed half-wave, 12-inch whip
Cell Service: Marginal (T-Mobile)
Parking: Side of the road, CA-130
Trailhead: N/A
Fees/Permits: Permission needed
Route: Up road, trail past lookout
Dogs: No  Toilet: Yes, near observatory

I’d been wanting to do this activation before the end of the year, but kept putting it off because it’s easy, but also kind of a long drive for something that looks so close. It’s easily visible from my house on most days, being the only summit around with several big telescopes.  But it’s an hour or more to drive there.  This one had several firsts for me! First European DX—Spain. First aeronautical mobile contact. First time getting more than 50 QSOs in a single activation. My timing turned out to be quite good!

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Ben Lomond Mountain, W6/NC-178

Activation Date: 29 November 2017
Transport: Drive-Up Distance: N/A
Elev. gain: N/A Time: 5 minutes
Rig(s): LNR Precision MTR-3B Band(s): 30m CW
Antenna(s): End-fed half-wave
Cell Service: None
Parking: Side of Empire Grade
Trailhead: N/A
Fees/Permits: None
Route: N/A
Dogs: N/A  Toilet: No

I was over in Santa Cruz for work, so decided to make a “quick” detour on the way back over the hill so I could activate this summit. I’ve had my eye on it for a while, so I posted an alert on SOTAWatch and squeezed in some time to do it. The detour isn’t actually very “quick,” but it’s within reason.

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Santa Rita Peak, W6/CC-022

Activation Date: 18 November 2017 (local time)
Transport: Drive-Up, short hike Distance: 1 mile
Elev. gain: 250ft Time: 20 minutes
Rig(s): LNR Precision MTR-3B, Yaesu VX-2R Band(s): 20m CW, 2m/70cm FM
Antenna(s): End-fed half-wave, 12-inch whip
Cell Service: None (T-Mobile)
ParkingSide of road R11
Trailhead: Side of road R11
Fees/Permits: Multiple permits—see post on Peak 4850
Route: Dirt road to summit col, small trail to activation zone
Dogs: Yes  Toilet: No

This (almost) drive-up summit was one of the most difficult “easy” summits I’ve activated. After having completed the intense bushwhacking on Peak 4850, I was looking forward to an easy summit. This one would turn out to be deceptively hard, thanks to a crazy guy on a dirt bike.

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Update on my CW Journey: First QSO!

I’ve been doing CW Academy for about 4 weeks now—I’m officially at the half-way point. We’ve got most of the letters/numbers, and we’re starting to move into prosigns and typical QSO lingo.  Having recently gotten my end-fed antenna back up at my house, I saw a SOTA spot on 40 meters last night, Keith KR7RK on CW.  I figured I’d give it a shot!

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