Sunday, November 3, 2019

My SOTA Expedition Loadout

My SOTA Loadout options: (UPDATED)

During SOTA QSOs, a lot of people ask me what I am using so I thought I would describe my setup here.  Take a look and comment on your SOTA setup.  

(BTW, SOTA = "Summits On The Air") 
Click on images for larger.

This page is turning into a bit of my "options" for a SOTA loadout.  After doing this hobby for a while, gaining experience from my own adventures and learning from others, I've amassed a bit more equipment that changes based on mission.  Below you'll see that I use different radios for given mission.  I've been trying to lighten my load and go QRP with the KX2 and an ultra-light antenna but there are times when I load up the heavier FT-891 and associated battery when I really want to punch some power out and see how far I can really go. 

One of the things that will really help me go QRP (lower power) is CW.  Sending morse code over CW allows me to potentially get a lot more contacts farther away because the narrow band provides better signal to noise ratio.  As I continue to learn about gear, make new antennas, learn CW, and experiment, I expect things will change.  Mission #1 is have fun, and I seem to be nailing that.  Pictured above is a complete 10 watt station, radio, antenna, and keyer.  All you need to add is a way to get the antenna up in the air (tree or pushup pole) (it has a built in mic).
(Note: Originally published Dec 31, 2017, updated Nov. 3, 2019)




  • Elecraft KX2 HF Radio.  This is an awesome little radio.  I'm calling this my "QRP" rig.  It's the most awesome radio I've ever had the pleasure to operate.  It's small, light and wow, packs a tone of features.  Because it's a software-defined radio, there are all kinds of filtering capabilities and other features.   
    This is probably the most popular radio for doing SOTA because it's light weight, has an internal battery, and the various filters and other features enable the operator to dial in CW to maximize range and clarity.  I'm still trying to memorize all of the features and how to use them.  It's not the easiest to use since every button and dial on it has up to 3 functions (short press, long press, and <function> press).  When I switched to this radio from the FT-891 and the K6ARK spider thread antenna, I probably shaved off 9 lbs!  I still use the 891 depending on mission, but this is the hiker's dream.  Once thing that I don't like is that in order to charge the internal battery, you have to remove the back cover.  I've got a kit to remedy this but I really find that strange.

  • Yaesu FT-891D HF Radio.  This is my "QRO" rig.  It's quite a bit heavier than the KX2 above and requires me to pack a heavy battery, but when my mission is to maximize my range, this baby fits the bill.  I used it as my only SOTA rig for over a year, hauling it and some heavy antennas up some very difficult terrain.  I used it just the other weekend to do an overnight during the DX CC contest and it didn't dissapoint.  Because of the power, I almost always had a pileup when spotting myself.   In 2017, this was Yaesu’s latest HF radio.  I considered getting the FT-857 portable because it can do VHF/UHF also, but the reviews on the 32-bit DSP in the 891 by guys much better qualified than I, convinced me.  It is also $500 cheaper and I have a VHF/UHF (FT-70D, and others) that I carry with me as a backup.  I was able to get this one from a guy on eBay with a couple of mods added to it. It is an incredible radio. I got this unit because my FT-817ND was a bit frustrating given the current sun cycle.  Also, there was little chance that I could punch through a pileup.  Lastly, when I hike with my family or others, they don't want to wait around for an extended period while I try to get my four contacts. The 100 watts of the FT-891D packs the punch that I needed.  I was blowing out the guys in Tucson, Alberta, and Georgia today, so it also allows me to through my line out and catch a lot of fish.  Remember, I’m on a mountain top so my antenna thinks it’s 1000 feet in the air.  I still love my FT-817ND as it got me my first SOTA contact who was in Japan, so don’t discount the little guy.  I’m waiting for the Portable Zero Field hardening guys to make a rack for this model (update, they have one that is the same as the 857 but with different screws). 

    Not to turn this into a full review of the FT-891, I would like to mention what an awesome receiver this is.  Comparing it to the my IC-7300, it may actually perform better at pulling out some of the noise using a few different digital noise reduction modes.  For some situations, the auto digital noise reduction can make a station sound like they are using FM.  It's heavier but seems rugged and I don't miss the VHF capabilities of the FT-817ND.  It's a bit more brutish on power consumption but my bioeno LiFePO battery will probably let me run at least 6 hours.  (Update: Survival Tech Nord just upgraded to this radio from the 817 and is doing a lot of testing.).

  • The W6ARK spider thread ultra-lightweight multi-band antenna.  This is absolutely the coolest antenna for doing SOTA.  Adam, W6ARK, built this antenna and gifted it to me.  Adam is a SOTA expert and master antenna builder in Ramona.  He's into lightweight setup and has taught me a lot about amateur radio, SOTA, and a lot of fun to do an expedition with.  This antenna is a has a mini 9:1 unun soldered on right at the feed-point, feeding a 41 foot radiator and 17' counterpoise. KX2 can tune to ~1:1 on 60-10m. You might even get 80m in certain installations depending on the nature of the ground.  I've just started using this antenna and it's the bomb.  The wire is so thin though, I'm afraid I'm going to break it.  Fortunately for me, K6ARK sickbay will probably give me a hand.  It's not as lightweight as the one Adam carries, he drilled a few holes in the winder to get the weight out :).  Gotta love it.  Adam tested it the night he gave it to me and given the sub-optimal solar conditions, he still had decent luck on it.


  • SOTAbeams Tactical 7000hds Compact Heavy-Duty Telescopic Mast TAC7000HDS.  I bought this mast when I started carrying QRP again and wanted to leave the Chamilion at home.  As you can see below, I own a MFJ-1910 mast but it sticks so fart out of the pack it makes even trail hiking a pain in the ass, and forget bushwhacking in the So. Cal area.
    This unit collapses down to 2 feet is weights in at 3.64 lbs out of the box but I've lightened the load by taking the first two sections out.  It's heavy duty enough to handles the packtenna with ease.  The little loops you see on it is a K6ARK design that makes it super easy to secure with three guys.  It's held up well and comes highly recommended by other SOTA operators.  I have a super-lightweight mini mast from china but haven't tried it yet.







  • Packtenna, 20 - 40 linked dipole.  I got their standard package without a mast.  I normally set it up for 20 meter but it comes with clip-ons that allows you to turn it into a 40M antenna which I love.  It also has a matching unit on it allowing you to use it as an end-fed long wire.  The build quality is outstanding, customer service is second to none, and it’s lightweight.  It’s the Swiss Army knife for antennas with no compromise.  I also have the packtenna common mode choke when using the packtenna as a long wire or when using the CHA MPAS (below).  I highly recommend it!!!  I've actually started using the CHA MPAS more given that it's easier to setup on the terrain that I'm on.
  • CHA MPAS antenna.   (Note: the link to this antenna is to the newer package with pack, I have older version, no pack)  The CHA MPAS has turned out to be an excellent piece of gear.  MPAS was coined by Julian at HO8STN as he calls it his "Man Portable Antenna System".  Although this was my alternate, I'm using it a lot given the terrain and high wind we are having.  I needed a vertical antenna for times that I’m going to summit a very busy mtn top here in San Diego, or I just want to do a quick deploy.  I picked up a Chameleon MPAS system after doing a LOT of research.  There were a lot of reviews that I looked at comparing the Alpha Antenna to this but Julian at OH8STN had the biggest influence on me in my choice.  Performance wise, I've done two articles on this antenna, an SWR performance, and practical testing article. I've made two contacts in Japan and one even farther in New Zealand (I think this thing works).  I don't think the performance is as good as the Packtenna but without more testing, or A/B testing, it's really hard to tell.

    One of the things I like most about the MPAS is the quick setup.  I can be up and running in 15 minutes by myself after dropping my pack.  The reason for the easy setup is all of the elements unfold just like tent poles.  I'm using their MPAS kit plus a CHA MIL extension (6.5 feet) to get the matching unit off the ground, think of it as the "mast".  I then mount the CHA Hybrid-micro matching unit (5 inches) on the mast and attach a second CHA MIL extension and the CHA MIL whip section (thinner tent pole)  (10.8 feet) to that.  I use the small guy strings that came with the Packtenna and guy the whole thing to the matching unit. All of this is screwed into a spike in the ground if needed.  When setup, the total length is about 24 feet.  The last thing I do is  attach the 60 foot counterpoise wire to the base and run it out, which takes about 1 minute if you wind it up in a figure 8.

    I've been in high winds with the top section bent over pretty good with no damage.  Trying to setup the packtenna with a mast in high winds is just a huge pain!  The entire setup collapses down to 2.5 feet and easily attaches to my pack with rubber bungees.  I've been able to get my setup time to 15 minutes because I've marked the guy lines so all I need to do is attach them to the base, pull them out and anchor them and they are ready to be attached to the mid section.
  • LDG Z-100 plus auto antenna tuner for the FT 891.

  • I'm currently using a Anytone AT-878UV.  This is an awesome little radio.  I'm big into DMR and with it's ability to do DMR, I have additional options when using a DMR repeater.  If available, I can coordinate a summit-to-summit on HF if the other operator has DMR and access to a repeater.  The battery will run this thing for over two days, including transmit use.  (DMR only uses RF out half the time you press the PTT due to the way DMR is designed).  For more on this awesome little radio, see my review of the 868, which is almost the same radio but without APRS. 

  • Slim Jim dual band jpole antenna for my FT .  I thought I would get one of these, and if it doesn’t weigh too much, toss it in the bag for emergencies.  There are a lot of people that recommend his antennas.  I think the build quality is excellent and it looks like it’s done in a way to hold up under heavy use.  The first time I used it, worked fine.  It was mounted to my mast, up about 6 feet.  I was on the top of a pretty big mountain so the person I was testing with couldn’t tell the difference between the jpole and the diamond whip on my HT.  My main reason for having it is when I’m having difficulting getting out, it may help me out of a bind some day.  I used this in Feb 2018 on a summit to summit at about 50 miles.  The operator reported about 2X signal increase.  It was not hung that well (had a large curl) so it works pretty well.
  • Bioenno 12V, 12Ah LiFePO4 battery.  This fits perfectly in the bottom of the bag and will probably run the 891 all day at full power and 20% duty cycle.  It’s more than I need and I could lighten the load but it wouldn’t save me that much.  I bring a power distribution panel with me so I can plug other stuff in if needed.  The battery weighs 3.5 lbs.  I could probably shed 2 lbs by going smaller.  This is overkill but I had it so I use it.  
    I also have a little Bioenno 6.5 Ah battery for the KX2 that I take for multi-activation outings
     
  • Easy Digi by KF5INZ PSK adapter.  This little guy allows me to do PSK31 from my iPhone or iPad.  So cool.  I mainly got it when I was having issues getting out on the 817 so I thought I would do PSK.  I got it working but have yet to use it on a SOTA expedition.  It’s super lite (if you keep saying “super lite” on everything, you end up with a 32 lb pack :) ).  It definitely works on the 817 and and I can think of no reason it shouldn’t work on the 891.

  • Gregory Zulu 40 backpack. Although I liked my tactical field pack, it wouldn't sit on my hips, was uncomfortable, and the belt ripped off. I needed a pack that will ride on my hips as my full loadout is 35 lbs. The Gregory Zulu fits me, is a lot more comfortable, and shaves off 2.4. The DDT Ops Anti-Venom field pack had more compartments for organizing but most of the packs like this that you find in sporting goods stores aren't really designed for the load that I have. I put about 120 miles on the DDT before the belt ripped away from the pack.
  • I’ve setup several 50’ paracord lines with ratcheting ends that I found at REI to tie off the mast and antenna ends when setting the antenna up as an inverted V.  Don’t forget stakes.


  • 50’ of RG58 allows for the 26’ mast and I can move away to shade and operate like a boss.
  • Carbon Fiber Hiking Poles.
  • I got a set of carbon fiber hiking poles from REI.  I’ve never used them in all the years that I’ve hiked.  I’ve gotta tell you, these are awesome.  When you have a load on your back and are having to climb a steep area, they are FANTASTIC.  I just got them and used them on a particularly difficult section of trail that I’ve done before.  WOW, I used 30% less energy and moved at twice the speed.  Steep descents with a 30lb pack on is made a lot easier.  The carbon poles are quiet.  I avoided getting them because of the noise from my wife’s poles but these are quiet.
  • Delorme Inreach (now called Garmin Inreach) satellite tracker and communicator. I got this to use on remote hikes so that if I bite the dust, Jeanette knows where to find the dog. It uses satellite (Iridium) and drops my location on a website about every 10 minutes. As a bonus, I can send text messages, email and spot myself on sotawatch. A lot of hikers are now going to the Inreach Mini.




  •  A new addition to my pack are CW paddles. CW (stands for continuous wave using morse       code). 



Yup, this is radio being super geeky now.  Most people thought morse code went the way of the steam engine but it's actually still very popular.  Part of the resurgence is from guys like me that do summits on the air.  It allows us to carry smaller radios with lower power and go farther.
I just finished learning morse code and I really suck at it.  I can send because it’s somewhat muscle memory using my paddles but my decode sucks so incredibly bad but with practice, I'm improving.  This is very common for people that are learning, decoding is 10X harder than sending.  I can decode well enough to hear my call sign, get my signal report and the “73”.  The funny thing is that operators can send the characters at 18 to 20 words per minute but I need big spacing, otherwise I get behind and it’s game over.  The reason I learned CW is that I wanted to “chase” other SOTA operators while they are on a summit somewhere around the world.  Many of the operators that I’d like to contact on a mountain top are using CW, forcing me to learn it.  The other reason is that 5 watt on CW goes a lot farther than using voice, so I’ll eventually drop a lot of weight by going to a smaller radio and battery and do CW from a summit.  

Pictured above are the two keys that I have for SOTA (click on them to see a larger view).  The first one is a custom wine cork paddle custom made for me by Adam Kimmerly, K6ARK which I used to make my first ever CW contact.  It's super light weight and fits my personality.  The second is one from American Morse.  It's a machined aluminum keyey that straps to my thigh.  This allows me to hold my phone for logging while sending.  I'm also thinking about mounting it on a knee-board so I can take notes during the exchange.
  • Misc:  I keep emergency food, First Aid, space bag (incase I need to remain overnight), flashlight, batteries, and a camelbak 3 liter water system that goes in the pack.



  • Yaesu FT-817ND HF/VHF/UHF radio.  This, matched with the Z-817 antenna tuner, is the SOTA cult machine.  I love this little radio.  It got me into SOTA when I landed my first SOTA contact in Japan!  The fact that it does VHF and UHF  hooked to my Dimond 50X antenna now has it serving duty in my shack as base for that band.  I’m guessing most SOTA operators are using these and the guys with more $$$ are using the Elecraft EX3.  If I had to do it all over again, I’d go Yaesu!  I put a Portable Zero Field hardening rack on it.This is an awesome backup QRP radio and I use it as for radio-email station right now.

  • Yaesu FT-2DR HT.  This is my VHF/UHF backup.  There have been a couple of times that the only way to get a QSO for my SOTA activation was via VHF.  I have a Diamond wip attached and it works easily 40 miles with line of site.  In addition, I carry an extra battery.  SOTA operators go into areas without cell service so this guy is a good backup to have.  In the US, I’m finding that there is always a repeater nearby so I feel better about carrying it.  For safety, If something happens to my cell, I can call for a relay an SMS to my wife, but with the 2DR it get’s better.

    APRS allows me to send a SMS directly from the radio.  With the integrated GPS on the 2DR, I can beacon my position (my wife didn’t like that I was hiking alone).  That way, if I keel over during the hike, my wife can find the dog.  AAPRS also gives me is the ability to self-spot on SOTA Watch, which can come in handy if I’m having trouble getting contacts and it gives the chases better resolution on my summit.  Lastly, although the GPS is rudamentry (no maps), I can set the location of the car so that if my phone dies due to battery or getting dropped down a cravas, I can find my way back to the car.

    The Fusion digital is pretty awesome and seems like it puts a little more range on it if you are communicating with another C4FM radio.  In addition the voice quality in digital is stellar and Yaesu is known for having good analog quality.  It’s not as popular as D-STAR digital, but it’s less complicated.  I’ve played with D-STAR and I gotta tell ya, analog is still king for backcountry SOTA opps and the way I operate.  The one thing that I don’t like about this radio is that it is so complicated.  I guess when you pack APRS and GPS into a radio it’s asking a bit much of a device that is much like a 90’s flip -phone (all hand-helds remind me of 90’s flip-phones).  I’d love for a company to come up with a radio like the FT2DR with a iPhone UI on it.

    Just a couple more notes... I'm a geek and it took me several days to figure out why the unit wouldn't auto beacon.  I almost always hit the mode button.  This guarantees that it will be in the wrong mode when you go to use it.  Yes, lock button all the darn time but I'm bound to forget... ugg.  I'd almost take it back and get an old school version but I've invested too much time to learn this darn thing :)

  • Yaesu FT-70D HT.  This is my backup VHF/UHF backup.  It's reliable and easy to use.  There have been a couple of times that the only way to get a QSO for my SOTA activation was this little baby.  I have a Diamond wip attached and it works easily 30 miles with line of site.  In addition, I hump an extra battery.  SOTA operators go into areas without cell service so this guy is a good backup to have.  In the US, I’m finding that there is always a repeater nearby so I feel better about carrying it.  If something happens to my cell, I can relay an SMS to my wife.  The Fusion digital is pretty awesome and seems like it puts a little more range on it if you are using all Fusion radios and the voice quality is stellar.  It’s not as popular as D-STAR digital, but it’s less complicated.  I’ve played with D-STAR and I gotta tell ya, analog is still king for backcountry SOTA opps.
    This is now a backup and it normally stays home
  • Jetboil MicroMo cooking system.  I’ll use this for the colder expeditions, like the one I did to Escudilla Mountain in AZ.  At 10,800 feet, it’s nice to have a cup of hot tea, warm up and enjoy the view!!!  I normally leave this behind unless it's really cold or I want a hot lunch
  •      MFJ-939Y (auto antenna tuner for 891).  I don’t need this for the Packtenna but I do need it for end-fed mode or the CHA unit (below).  I tried the LDG for this radio and it just didn’t seem to work right. What I love about it is that it will kick-off a tune when the 891 tune button is pushed.  When the LDG guys have one that does that and works like the Z-817, I’ll consider it. This thing is too heavy to haul up the mountain but if it's a drive up, I prefer this as it's a much better tuner than the LDG and it supports a full interface into the radio.

Home Station

  • Icom IC-7300.  They have kicked their competitors ass with the usability of the touch screen, DSP, bla bla bla.  You can get better reviews from others than a beginner like me.  As you can see, I enjoy SOTA more than sitting at home but I do use it and it’s a hell of a radio.  Given all the functionality, like full spectrum scope, built-in antenna tuner, etc, it’s a hell of a rig.  It’s small and I got it on-sale to boot.
  • MFJ Off Center fed dipole or CHA MPAS.  I imagine HOA rules would hang me if I erected a huge ass beam and I’m sitting on a small lot.  This guy gets me up and going.  I raise it on a MFG heavy mast with locking rings and it works fine.
  • Trying a lot of other antennas.


Item
Notes
Weight in LB
The Anti-Venom pack went full failure so I switched to a Gregory Zulu 40, plenty big enough.
2.7
3L Water
I could pull one liter out.
6.7
Fleece, gloves & shell
The current weather demands this. At minimum, I bring a fleece for use when I summit. Windy conditions require the shell.
1.65
Emergency thermal cover, first-aid, compas, flashlight
Part of my 10 Essentials
1.15
Food
Man's gotta eat
0.5
Heil Pro Micro Headphones
Awesome setup allows me to use VOX
0.3
KX2 Radio

1.1
Anytone 878 Radio
My handi-talki everyday carry
.6
LNR Endfedz

0.5
K6ARK Antenna
The K6ARK ultra lightweight antenna 2oz
0.1
4 small (green) guy lines
(.7oz ea)
0.187
2 ea. 50 ft guy lines
Not required for MPAS but need three for packtenna I've used one to string up Jpole (.45 ea.)
.9
Yaesu FT-2DR
HT with APRS
.68
Slim-Jim rollup JPoll
.625
Logbook, batteries, ...
.7
Headphones
Heil Pro Micros
.55
Pushup Pole
SOTABeams pushup pole
3.63

Mic
I don’t always bring since I have the headphones.
.35
JetBoil
I don’t always take this, just when it’s super cold or I want lunch
1.8
Mic & various cables

0.3
Keyer
(5.5 oz)
0.3
Other
I’m missing a bunch of other stuff like spare batteries, cables, and other stuff.  So let’s toss in 2lbs of other misc to get the pack to what I really haul.
2.0
Total

27.6
Alternative
Item

Would need to buy this and the max discharge rate is 12A vs. current battery that has a rating of 20A.
1.3
My alternate antenna
3.3
Packtenna 20/40 meter
currently not using (balun 2.6 oz, UNUN 4.4 oz, wire and winder 10.1)
There's no savings here since I need to bring the mast.
0.8
Yaesu FT-817ND
Yaesu 5 Watt radio coving HF and VHF and battle hardened for SOTA.
2.95
25 ft coax

Stake (.75lb), 2 ea mil-ext, cha-mil, counterpoise, matching unit.
4.7
Could save 1.53 by going to FT-817
4.9
Could save by 2 by going to 6ah (below)
3.5
I only need this if NOT doing 20M, 40, or 17, which isn’t very often.
2.1
30' coax

1
Verticle multi-band antenna
4.5
LDG Z-100 Plus tuner
Needed for reliable multi-band antenna tuning.  I take this one because it’s lighter
1.4



REFERENCE




73,
-- Chris Claborne, N1CLC

4 comments:

  1. I may have missed it but what battery do you use for the 891?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I'm using the 6Ah Bioeno. It's big but I need the discharge capability for the 891. Thanks for all the contacts.

      Delete
  2. ● Bioenno 12V, 12Ah LiFePO4 battery. This fits perfectly in the bottom of the bag and will probably run the 891 all day at full power and 20% duty cycle. It’s more than I need and I could lighten the load but it wouldn’t save me that much. I bring a power distribution panel with me so I can plug other stuff in if needed. The battery weighs 3.5 lbs. I could probably shed 2 lbs by going smaller. This is overkill but I had it so I use it.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Heard you today, u doing SOTA on Arizona/New Mexico border. Put you in my QRZ logbook.
    QSO @ 5pm WA state time on 14.260 MHZ, me using ft-891 @ 60watts ,CHA emmcom Base end fed at 35'
    inverted V east/west. I will be be doing SOTA soon also. W7MOE
    cool

    ReplyDelete