Sunday, December 31, 2017

My SOTA Expedition Loadout

Typical SOTA Loadout:

During today’s SOTA QSOs, a lot of people asked me what I was using so I thought I would describe my setup here.  Take a look and comment on your SOTA setup.

     Yaesu FT-891D HF Radio.  This is 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) 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.)

     MFJ-1910 Telescoping Mast.  It’s the lightest weight one they have.  I took out the smallest two sections and it extends to 26 feet.

     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 Anyton 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.

     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 to the right and just 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.

Alternate Loadout:

     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.

●   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.

     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!!!
     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.

If you are interested in how much all this weighs, check out "Why is my loadout so heavy".


     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.

     Yaesu FT-817ND HF/VHF/UHF radio is acting as my base hooked to a Diamon 50X on my roof.

ItemWeight in LBNotesPotential savings
Gregory Zulu 40 backpack.2.7The Anti-Venom pack went full failure so I switched to a Gregory Zulu 40, plenty big enough.
3L Water6.7I could pull one liter out.2.23
Fleece, gloves & shell1.65The current weather demands this. At minimum, I bring a fleece for use when I summit. Windy conditions require the shell.
Emergency thermal cover, first-aid, compas, flashlight1.15Part of my 10 Essentials
Food0.5Man's gotta eat0.50
MPAS Antenna with stake but not clamp and bracket4.7Stake (.75lb), 2 ea mil-ext, cha-mil, counterpoise, matching unit.0.80
Yaesu FT-891 and acc5.3Could save 1.53 by going to FT-817
Bioenno 12ah Battery3.5Could save by 2 by going to 6ah (below)
MFJ-939Y Tuner2.1I only need this if NOT doing 20M, 40, or 17, which isn’t very often.2.10
30' coax1.0
4 small (green) guy lines0.175(.7oz ea)
2 ea. 50 ft guy lines0.9Not required for MPAS but need three for packtenna I've used one to string up Jpole (.45 ea.)
Slim-Jim rollup JPoll0.6250.63
Logbook, batteries, ...0.7
Total35.08Actual pack weight was 39. I found a pound of stuff I could chuck :)10.76
My NORMAL loadout30 - 32Most hikes I do leave stuff behind, most often the tuner can stay behind, and Jetboil only on cold or long days.
AlternativeWeightItemSavings in lb
Optional Bioenno 6AH battery1.4Would need to buy this and the max discharge rate is 12A vs. current battery that has a rating of 20A.2.10
MFJ-1910 Telescoping Mast3.3My alternate antenna0.00
Packtenna 20/40 meter0.8currently 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.
Yaesu FT-817ND2.952.35
25 ft coax0.101.00


      My Typical SOTA Loadout
      For more info on SOTA, rules, etc, go to the homepage HERE.
      Ham Terminology
      SOTA Specific Links

-- Chris Claborne, N1CLC


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

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

  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.

  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