Top 10 Reasons to Take Ham Radio Portable 56

Update 12/07/16: This blog post has been published as an article in the August 2016 Practical Wireless magazine here in the UK. Check it out, looks better in print!

Portable amateur radio operation is the reason I’m still in the hobby. There you go, I said it! Since getting licensed I’ve not lived in a house with a garden and inevitably my options for home antennas are extremely limited. Add massive noise levels across the HF bands and RFI to neighbours when I operate above the 20m band and then you have all the reasons I started taking my rig into the great outdoors.

But despite this, portable operation has a lot to offer, even if you are a shack sloth and have an awesome setup. I’ll use this post to outline just what I have found through my experiences of almost exclusive /p operating over the last few years.

Now that's what I call a shack with a view!

Now that’s what I call a shack with a view!

1. Low Noise Levels

As soon as you get away from the electrical noise soup that makes up the urban environment the majority of us live in, you start to notice some big benefits when it comes to Amateur Radio. Turning on the rig away from civilisation is a breath of fresh air, often I see the noise levels across the HF bands at S1 and have even seen S0 of noise. I recently operated in a 160m contest, which you can normally expect to be very noisy, but from the (large) field I operated in I only had S2 of atmospheric noise and no electrical noise.

I primarily use an Elecraft KX3 for portable operation, so once you add low noise levels to a great receiver you can suddenly hear so much more. In fact I can often hear and work stations while out portable which are lost in noise back at my home QTH.

This phenomenon is observable from your shack, sometimes when listening to a SOTA activation you will hear another SOTA station (known as a Summit to Summit contact) and you won’t be able to hear the other station. The other station is within the skip zone but is running QRP and beneath your noise floor. Despite this the two activators exchange good signal reports and can clearly hear each other. Simply put they are not battling with noise and are hearing much more.

17m and No Noise Floor!

17m Band and No Noise Floor!

2. Great Takeoff

Portable operation from hilltops and open spaces offer unobstructed takeoffs. On HF this means more of your power is being radiated effectively to the ionosphere as there’s no building/objects to obstruct the signal. Put a HF vertical on a mountain top and that low angle takeoff really starts to do the business!

On VHF we’re talking game changer. Minimal signal attenuation as obstructions are gone and if you’re on a high hill top your signal will reach a lot further afield than your home QTH. There’s a good reason a lot of serious VHF contesters operate /p from hill top locations!

Tonna at Sunset

6m Tonna at Sunset from a Hill Top

3. Yagi ready to rock and roll!

6m Yagi ready to rock and roll from a local hilltop!

3. Antenna Experiments

Outside spaces away from the restrictions of your home QTH mean you can experiment with larger antennas. Want to use a half wave dipole for 160m? Go do it! I did recently use one from a large field and did very well for a QRP station – a non-compromise antenna and good ground conductivity for the band helped me do better than QRO stations at home.

Testing my top band dipole in the field

Testing my top band dipole in the field

I often experiment with different antennas while portable, for HF this mostly means wire antennas and for VHF/UHF I have used 5 element Yagi’s on 6m and a 19 element Yagi for 70cms.

Recently I have started experimenting with kite antennas when out in the field. Soon enough a vertical for the 80m or even 160m starts to become a reality 🙂

Antenna at Sunset

Antenna at Sunset

SuperStick Antenna ready to go volcanic

SuperStick Antenna ready to go volcanic

Trig point as antenna mast support

Trig point as antenna mast support

My Linked Dipole Setup for Portable Use

My Linked Dipole Setup for Portable Use

4. QRP Becomes a Lot Easier

When you have the usual restrictions of home lifted suddenly QRP operation becomes a lot easier.

Admittedly QRP can also be a necessity if you need to walk some distance as you can’t carry a generator to run that amp! You start to become very conscious of just how heavy and bulky your power source is!

I use LiFePo batteries as they offer a much better weight/capacity ratio over the more traditional SLAB batteries.

When conditions are good I like to experiment with QRPp (<1W) and have written articles about these on 10m SSB and 40m SSB. I even videoed my 100mW QSO’s back to G from EA8 on the 10m band:


5. It’s Good for You!

Amateur Radio outside offers fresh air and the chance of exercise. There’s nothing like being out in the great outdoors. Activating SOTA summits inevitably means a certain level of physical exertion, but also gets you outside into some pretty wild places.

Michael G0POT Walking Up to a Summit - Thirsty Work!

Michael G0POT Walking Up to a SOTA Summit – Thirsty Work!

Michael (G0POT) relaxing in the snow

Michael (G0POT) relaxing in the snow

6. Sense of Adventure

I’ve walked along the rims of volcanoes, setup on the edge of mountains, operated in the dark while surrounded by 50 deer, had birds of prey circle above my dipole, almost been blown off mountains during gale force winds and even camped at the base of mountains in preparation for an early morning hike up. These have all happened because I decided to take my radio out portable and I’m glad I did!

Such activities aren’t for everyone but on a nice summer’s day there’s no place I’d rather be than in the sunshine enjoying some radio fun.

Sunrise on a Snow Covered SOTA Summit (Corndon Hill - GW/MW-013)

Sunrise on a Snow Covered SOTA Summit (Corndon Hill – GW/MW-013)

After arriving at night, this is where I woke up! It was more beautiful than I had imagined!

This is where I woke up! It was more beautiful than I had imagined!

Spider came to see the antenna analyser in action while testing a 160m dipole at night

Spider came to see the antenna analyser in action

7. Good Advert for the Hobby

Being outside and visible inevitably means that passers by will ask questions about what you are doing. I’ve been able to explain the hobby to many people who would never otherwise have heard of it. I always take the time to explain what I am doing in an interesting & accesible way if I am approached while out /p.

People are naturally intrigued and my interactions with people have been positive. The spectrum of responses range from them thinking you’re crazy to extreme interest.

SOTA Certificate - 100 Activator Points8. Awards!

There are quite a few award schemes available for those who choose to operate outside. I personally take part in the SOTA (Summits On The Air) and Worked All Britain Trig Points awards.

These have added an extra incentive for me to go out portable and I’ve been to some very cool places I would never have otherwise visited let alone operated from i.e. Volcanoes and Mountains on the Canary Islands, Portugal and remotest Wales.

My WAB Trig Point Awards for 2015

My WAB Trig Point Awards for 2015

9. It’s Different

If you’re a little bored of the hobby then why not give portable operating a go? Search out your nearest SOTA summit and arrange a visit. Many experienced operators have found a new lease of enjoyment by taking to the great outdoors with a portable rig and a bit of wire.

Going portable entails a new set of challenges that you don’t need to consider when inside the shack, so you will learn a thing or two for sure

10. Fine Tune Your Op Skills

When I initially wrote this article I struggled to come up with a 10th point. Steve WG0AT came to the rescue by suggesting portable operation hones your operator skills to the 9th degree. He’s not wrong either, if you’re a SOTA activator you’ll learn how to deal with pile ups, work DX using QRP power and you will have to be creative when you’ve forgotten an important item of equipment. A Swiss Army knife quickly becomes your best friend!


Hopefully this post has inspired you to get out portable with your rig and start realizing some of the benefits that are on offer.

It’ll be a learning curve getting started, but once you have a working portable station you’ll gain new enjoyment from our hobby.

Please let me know in the comments if you have any questions or any additional points that this post should consider.

Lazy late afternoon operating in the sun

Lazy late afternoon operating in the sun

56 thoughts on “Top 10 Reasons to Take Ham Radio Portable

  1. Reply Dave Farrant (2E0DRJ ex M6DFA) Feb 1,2016 18:30

    Out of interest. What’s the tablet you’re using?

    • Reply James Stevens Feb 2,2016 09:37

      Hi Dave,

      It’s an old iPad 3 using RumLog as the logging app. I’ve put a waterproof case on it to protect it when out and about.

      73 James M0JCQ

  2. Reply Phil Catterall Feb 2,2016 21:40

    HI James

    You ought to take this excellent blog entry off-line and submit it to Radcom for publication. Excellent piece of work!

    Phil G4OBK

    • Reply James Stevens Feb 3,2016 10:47

      Thanks for the kind words Phil! I’m not sure they would take it from a new M0 😉

      I’m yet to do a SOTA activation this year, but will be visiting the favourite 5 on the 20th of this month with Michael (G0POT). This time we’ll take your advice and use 2m 🙂

      73, James M0JCQ

  3. Reply Bob -K5DCZ Feb 3,2016 12:51

    Excellent article …. Enlightening … Thanks!

  4. Reply M0LMK Feb 4,2016 10:07

    Great article James. I’ve posted a link it over on the ARPOC forums. Take a look at our /P awards if you like collecting them…

  5. Reply KC7DVF Feb 4,2016 13:04

    Good Morning….

    For me, there is always kind of a “rush” from getting out and operating portable. I usually operate either in a city park, or on top of Sentinel Peak, Near Tucson, AZ. One of the things that always happens is that people stop by and say “what are you doing?” This is a GREAT opportunity to talk about Amateur Radio and its capabilities. If you get the chance to have this conversation with someone at your portable op…. TAKE IT. You never know who you might inspire!

    Adam, KC7DVF
    Tucson, AZ

  6. Reply Steve/wGOAT Feb 4,2016 13:38

    Brilliant read! May I suggest one more reason …Portable OPs fine tunes your OP skills to the ninth degree! …not only with on the air pile ups from chasers and pulling out the weak signals but in throwing together a field station regardless of environment and weather conditions! Often having to ‘make do’ with less than ideal antennas or awkward seating. Not to mention when you forget the vital ‘show stopper’ connector or power cable …only to then come up with a work around that sometimes involves creative thinking such as lashing your trekking poles together to create a counterpoise etc. Or cutting the coax to get to the bare wires to jam then into your radio! (Gasp) Over time It makes you the a Field OP expert who may be the ‘go to guy’ when our infrastructure collapses and cell phones become WiFi only devices! I was a member of a local ARES/RACES group none of whom seemed skilled at what to do if Ma Nature threw them a curveball. Real Field OP “experience” is priceless and the ultimate teacher …if the student is ready! Not to mention it’s FUN! …or at least my goats think so!

    • Reply James Stevens Feb 5,2016 09:35

      Thanks Steve, thanks for the kind words and suggestion. These are really good points, I’ve added this as the 10th reason, but to be honest it’s more important than that!

      It is a lot of fun as you suggest, I don’t have any goats but I’ll take Peanut and Rooster’s words for it – I love the video by the way 🙂

      73, James M0JCQ

  7. Reply John Feb 4,2016 13:38

    Very interesting read. I operate /p in the summer but winters here in Ontario, Canada are too cold to be outdoors.

    • Reply James Stevens Feb 4,2016 15:10

      Thanks John. I don’t blame you for not operating portable during winter times in Ontario. I think twice in the winter when the temperature is around freezing point let alone minus 40!

  8. Reply John Jensen Feb 4,2016 13:43

    Hi James.

    Very inspiring reading! I will definitely try to go portable in the near future. I am a pure cw guy – and qrp-portable sounds tempting to me.

    Vy 73 de OZ3PAX / John

    P.s. Sorry for my poor English 😉

    • Reply James Stevens Feb 4,2016 15:09

      Hi John,

      CW and portable operating go really well together, you’ll have a lot of fun 🙂

      73 James M0JCQ

  9. Reply Mark Wall Feb 4,2016 17:56

    Excellent article. I operate portable a lot and can certainly relate to the reasons outlined for operating portable. In addition to going out portable on mountains, forests, beaches etc. I also combine radio with family camping trips. I have met a lot of people through their enquiring about what I’m doing and for this reason, I always bring flyers / information leaflets about our local radio club and give these to anyone interested. It has resulted in new members to our club and new amateurs on the air!

    I’ve always been interested in photography and recently acquired a DSLR camera. These two hobbies combine very well and gives me additional reasons to go portable. I usually bring my son and nephew on portable ops and this is a great way of passing on amateur radio to the next generation.

    73 de Mark, EI7IS

    • Reply James Stevens Feb 5,2016 09:42

      Thanks Mark. You’re right, it is a great advert for the hobby and I have also got chatting to loads of people this way. If you ever hear me go silent while working a pile up it’s normally because I’m talking to a member of the public who has approached me 🙂

      73, James M0JCQ

  10. Reply Bob Sharp VA3QV Feb 4,2016 22:40

    James…. FANTASTIC PIECE…..

    Perhaps one day my FT817 can talk to your KX3 from the field to the field…

    73bob VA3QV

    • Reply James Stevens Feb 5,2016 09:43

      Thanks Bob. I’m sure it’d be possible, I quite often manage to make the hop across the pond and have had summit 2 summit contacts with stateside operators using QRP both ways.

      73, James M0JCQ

  11. Reply de Graham Parsons 2E0XDZ Feb 5,2016 09:05

    Great article I enjoyed the read.I am a scout leader as well as an amateur radio enthusiast and take my 817 to all our camps. The youngsters enjoy setting up the station in unusual places and get to hear some great contacts.

  12. Reply Keith G0RQQ Feb 5,2016 11:58

    Great article – enjoyed the read. I too have operated QRPp SSB but with an FT817 at 500mW. With an indoor wire loop in the attic I’ve worked 20 countries and also achieved a 7-band 1000 Miles per Watt, All SSB, All 500mW award from the QRP ARCI.

    Who says you can’t work anything with QRPp???? 🙂

    • Reply James Stevens Feb 5,2016 16:33

      Great stuff Keith, really impressive! When the bands are open sometimes all you need are a few watts or should that be milliwatts 😉

      73, James M0JCQ

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  14. Reply Ed Durrant Feb 5,2016 19:59

    Great article James and always great to work you especially when we manage it Summit to Summit. If I can add a NUMBER 11 to your list – a portable operator is well equipped in times of emergency, we know we can grab a pack (or two) and be able to put in place a communications link for disaster recovery (or just to provide safety support for a sports event in an area of no phone coverage).

    By the way, the spider in your picture appears to have 4 eyes! Very strange – which planet were you portable on when you took that shot?

    73 Ed DD5LP

    • Reply James Stevens Feb 7,2016 16:26

      Hi Ed,

      Thanks for the kind words and it’s been a while in between S2S contacts! The second half of last year was spent focusing on VHF activations, but I’ll be back on HF this year 🙂

      That’s a great suggestion and I do agree. My non-amateur friends often say that I’ll be the first person they’ll come and see when disaster strikes and regular communication methods fail!

      The spider was quite strange, it was shot at a nearby National Trust estate that’s more known for its deer. At the time I was more worried about the rutting stags near me in the same field 🙂

      73, James M0JCQ

  15. Reply Richard N4PBQ Feb 6,2016 22:35

    I received a fiberglass kit pole this last Christmas and I’ve used in one portable op so far but in your picture it looks as though you employed two kite poles. Were you using it as a phased array?

    Richard, N4PBQ

    • Reply James Stevens Feb 7,2016 16:11

      Hi Richard,

      I think in the picture you’re referring to you see the first pole supporting the centre of the Windom and then one of the end supports. Usually I’ll just use the one and set-up in an inverted-V configuration.

      73, James

  16. Reply Bob — KK5R Feb 7,2016 19:04

    Very enjoyable and inspiring article. Now I will make plans to go to a leveled-off mountaintop in Eastern Kentucky (Strip mining aftereffect). There’s already a model plane flying club airstip nearby but only two houses within 1/2 mile. Will take a car battery for power and maybe an 800 Watt portable generator and charger in case I stay too long. Have a portalbe 10-ft by 10-ft canopy but this may encourage me to get a tent, also. The idea of having a portable station ready to go at a moment’s notice in case of emergencies is not far from the goal of many amateurs and going out portable this way is a way to hone and perfect such a system. Going portable is not for everybody, of course, but there are more out there that would do it if they had the opportunity.

    Thanks again for the fine article.

    Bob — KK5R

    • Reply James Stevens Feb 8,2016 09:41

      Thanks Bob, glad you found it inspiring.

      The mountaintop sounds like FB, I hope the walk from the car isn’t too far, that’s a lot of kit! Over the years I have stripped my kit right back in terms of what I take and also weight. Walking 3 hours up a mountain has this effect 🙂

      73, James M0JCQ

  17. Reply Allan GW4VPX Feb 7,2016 19:50

    Excellent read James. The suggestion by Phil OBK re RadCom is well worth pursuing. Hope to get a few s2s with you again this year and you never know our paths may cross on a GW summit…rough on the tops at the moment. 73 Allan GW4VPX

    • Reply James Stevens Feb 8,2016 09:38

      Thanks Allan, I’m following the idea up so let’s see 🙂

      We could well manage a few S2S this year, I have a few trips to Wales already planned and will be tackling the favourite five on the Welsh Borders (with Michael G0POT) on the 20th of February. Just arranging the 2m FM kit we want to take, due to the short walks I’m probably going to hike a colinear up and put it on a 4m mast, I reckon this will work very well!

      73, James M0JCQ

  18. Reply Jim Mouck Feb 7,2016 19:56

    Great post; thank you.
    I recently purchased a second hand Wilderness Sierra rig and I am just loving the rig (it hears very well). Have 6 band modules and good to go. brushing up on CW skills (not too bad) and plan to mix /P with camping.
    73, Jim VE3NWN.

    • Reply James Stevens Feb 8,2016 09:43

      Thanks again Jim. The Wilderness Sierra Rig looks very fine for portable operations. These low power and small CW rigs encourage me to learn CW, especially when I consider we’re on the solar decline now and SSB QRP will get harder.

      73, James M0JCQ

  19. Reply Pedro Carvalho Feb 7,2016 20:24

    Hi James

    Congratulations for this great article.

    73 de Pedro, CT1DBS/CU3HF

  20. Reply Ignacio Cascante Feb 7,2016 21:56

    Hi James,

    A very good read and completely agree with you. It’s years now since I enjoy much more operating portable than at home.
    Keep on doing so well.

    This could be easily converted into a very good advert for novices or even for general people.
    Congratulations and look forward to exchange with you /P to /P
    VY 73 de Ignacio EA2BD

    • Reply James Stevens Feb 8,2016 09:28

      Thanks for your kind words Ignacio. You live in a beautiful part of the world for portable operating. I recently activated Oiz and Ogoño while staying in Mundaka, beautiful area, and I won’t even mention how breathtaking the EA1 SOTA summits in the Picos de Europa mountain range were 🙂

      73, James M0JCQ

  21. Reply Ian Feb 12,2016 21:57

    Portable operation appeals to me a lot. But living in London there’s not many open or high spaces to get to. And when you do find one …everybody else seems to have found it too for a picnic. And I don’t much like the idea of operating with loads of folks around. Me and the girlfriend do head out further afield for walks from time to time but she hates the radio so I never take it. Shack sloth it is for me I guess.

  22. Reply Ian Feb 16,2016 11:54


    Thanks for the comprehensive response !

    I am not actually in central London, I’m about 12 miles out South West so I’m familiar with, and have been to, one or two of the places you list. But you have given me a few new ideas to consider.

    I think the main challenge is finding something that the girlfriend can occupy herself with while I play radio on those walks we sometimes take further afield (Beacons, Somerset area, etc). As I say, she hates it !

    I’m about two years behind you on knowledge and experience I think mainly because of my location and limited time available. It would be good to pick up some knowledge from you, so if you ever just need an extra pair of hands to carry kit etc on one of your trips let me know.


    • Reply James Stevens Mar 7,2016 16:23

      No problem Ian, hopefully the information is useful.

      I understand that challenge well too! If I’m with my YL on an activation I’ll keep it as short as possible, normally grabbing the 4 contacts while she has something to eat and then carrying on the walk. If it’s warm and sunny she’ll be happy for a bit longer, but I’ve found 2m FM activations to be quicker than HF. A simple 2m Handie and a reasonable antenna will go quite far from a summit with a good take off and is really quick to setup. In fact yesterday I finished an activation in the Cotswolds in 15 minutes, including setup, with 6 contacts and even 2 summit to summit contacts with guys in the Brecon Beacons (over 100km).

      I’ll drop you an email about a joint activation in the future.

      73 James M0JCQ

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  24. Reply Pedro, CT1DBS Feb 17,2016 03:21

    Hi James

    Outstanding blog entry!

    Because it’s so good to read it, I will have a link to this article in my blog. Hope it’s ok to you

    Congratulations es 73

    Pedro, CT1DBS

    • Reply James Stevens Feb 17,2016 10:33

      Thanks for the kind words Pedro, no problem at all. Glad you enjoyed it!

      73, James M0JCQ

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  27. Reply 2E0TSA Apr 19,2016 05:49

    Location location location, and I love the outdoors, great read mate,hope to see you on the hills soon.

  28. Reply BG2KAJ May 28,2016 14:30

    Hi James,

    It is a great article! I’m new in portable operations and found myself resonated with your article. You may find it interesting that HAMs from China seems to get less interest in portable operations and they just can’t find a motivation to pick up rigs and go portable. I would like to introduce your article to China HAMs, Would you mind if I translate your article and repost it in Chinese? Of cource I would sign your name and callsign.

    Thanks and 73

    Ma, BG2KAJ

  29. Reply Mike Clouse Jul 9,2016 11:02

    Great article !…shared to the QRP group.

    • Reply James Stevens Jul 12,2016 10:49

      Thanks Mike! It’s just been published as an article in Practical Wireless (amateur magazine here in the UK).

      73, James M0JCQ

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  32. Reply A radio operator Mar 18,2017 07:51

    There is nowhere in the greater London area you could use a setup you demonstrate,without being accosted by police,no matter what open space you chose.

    • Reply James Stevens Apr 28,2017 10:02

      Very true! Out in the countryside it doesn’t matter so much, police are less sensitive.

  33. Reply Edgardo Maffia LU1AR Mar 31,2017 15:20

    Another reason, is to be prepared to any sort of emergency. Wwere all is disborded. LU1AR

  34. Reply David AE4LH Jul 28,2017 20:04

    I enjoyed watching your QSO on the 100mW contact. A few years ago I had to decide which segment of the ham radio hobby I’d pursue. I decided on QRP. Around the same time I began toying around with building kit radios. It was fun…but I wasn’t a good kit builder. Next, I kept using my TS-440 while using a watt meter to ensure I was below 5 watts. From there I gravitated to QRP CW. Now I dream about operating. One day…

  35. Reply Peter Apr 10,2018 22:00

    This is so inspiring, thank you for sharing! I’ll need to have my GF read this so she won’t think I wasted mega $$ when I purchased my KX2. 🙂

    • Reply James Stevens Apr 11,2018 08:26

      Thanks for the kind words Peter. You totally have not wasted your money, I thought the same when I purchased my KX3, it’s a big outlay. Biggest advice is to just get out there and start using it, you’ll love both the rig and the great outdoors in no time.

      Fortunately for me my YL likes mountains and the great outdoors, so a radio mission fits quite well into this. If yours isn’t, try and sell her a beach holiday somewhere tropical, she can relax on the beach and you can be the DX 😉

      73 James M0JCQ

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