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.
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.
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!
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.
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 🙂
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.