Adventures in ham radio

I got my first taste of Idaho during the 2012 7QP (7 call area QSO party). My friend David and I swung through Kootenai, Benewah, Latah, and Nez Perce Counties on an otherwise Washington state-oriented rove. The Idaho leg of that trip was awesome.

So I have considered doing the Idaho QSO Party (IDQP) in the past. Then, quite recently, something happened that changed things: Kathy and I bought an 1988 Toyota 4WD pickup truck.

One of my purposes for this truck was to use it as a platform for contest roving. The 4WD would be handy for muddy and snowy places. The high ground clearance would be great for forest service roads and the like. And the bed would provide a nice platform for antennas.

So, with just a couple of weeks to prepare, I decided to take the truck on her maiden voyage through the motorways of Idaho.

Getting Ready: There was a lot of prep work that I categorized and prioritized as follows:

  1. Get fused, high-current power from the battery into the cab
  2. Figure out a sensible route for Coax and screwdriver control cables
  3. Screwdriver installation
  4. Hustler stalk(s) installation
  5. Mounts for remote heads (for a Kenwood TS-480 and Yaesu FT-857)
  6. Chassis bonding
  7. Electrical noise reduction

The first item was pretty easy. There was a chassis plug in the floor near the back of the cab on the passenger side. I ran two pair of separately-fused 10 gauge wire from the battery into the cab. Most of the run was wrapped in plastic spiral wrap. I built a box with four Anderson Power Pole connectors and a pair of fused cigarette lighter outlets for running some accessories with the ignition off. The fiberglass battery box with a second battery fits nicely on the shelf behind the passenger seat, within easy reach of the power box. So far, so good.

I had a larger agenda in figuring out how to route coax and control cables. For my VHF contest installations, I will have, perhaps, 10 runs of coax leaving the cab, plus an antenna rotor cable. I wanted something that was really quick to work with. In my car, installing the coax through chassis holes before each contest was a bit time consuming.

The sliding rear window provided an elegant answer:

I took a piece of Lexan, and drilled a couple of holes to fit a 4″ long piece of 1.5″ PVC pipe. To each side I slipped on a rubber plumbing splice tight against the Lexan and clamped it down. The coax and wire are then fed through the tunnel. The end caps are standard rebar caps that cost about a quarter each. They are plyable enough that the hose clamp can be tightened down over the cables and caps. (I was initially using ping pong balls, but the rebar caps were a more elegant solution.)

For the screwdriver installation, I started with the antenna/rotor mounting frame that I previously hung off the back of my car (e.g. here and here). Instead of mounting it to the back of the truck, I turned it around in the bed. It bolted into a bracket I welded up that, in turn, bolts into bed at the tailgate hinges. It is a no-new-holes installation.

For extra security, a ratcheting bar runs across the front of the bracket and resists movement, and a lead block is attached.

For the Hustler resonators, I decided to build two four foot stalks that can each hold up to three resonators. I bought an 8′ piece of 6061-T6 schedule 40 aluminum pipe, which has and outside diameter of 0.68″, a 0.09″ wall and a 0.493″ inside diameter. I made threaded end inserts out of 1/2″ round brass and made studs out of stainless steel bolts (3/8″ 24 TPI). A top plate that holds three resonators was made out of 1/8″ aluminum sheet, with two slight bends to separate the antennas. Finally, I modified some truck mirror antenna mounts to mount along the rail over the aluminum tread plate.

Mounting the remote radio heads wasn’t too difficult. In my little Hyundai, I use clips or clamps to attach the Kenwood TS-480 head to the ashtray, and the Yaesu FT-857 head to the cup holder. Alas, there was no cup holder in the truck. A quick Google search revealed that there was an aftermarket cup holder that installed just below the FM radio. I ordered and installed it. Perfect! Everything worked and the shift lever didn’t slam into the radio faces or anything.

This picture shows the “operating position.” It turns out that the shift lever in 3rd or 5th gear makes a nice hand rest for tuning the Kenwood. The Yaesu can be worked from either the shift lever or the 4WD transfer lever. The cell phone on the dash is primarily used as a 24 hr. UTC clock, but also does simple GPS (elevation, maidenhead grid, etc.). It doesn’t have cell service, although I can get internet by using my cell phone as a wireless hotspot. The bracket below it holds my cell phone. When the internet is available, I can use Mapquest or Bing Maps to verify county lines visually. More typically, I use an app called “Where am I” that continuously displays my county. Out of view on the left is a navigation GPS mounted on the dash. This is an aviation GPS that also has a road package that includes turn-by-turn directions. I use this GPS because it allows direct entry of latitude and longitude for waypoints. So, before leaving home, I program in a route with waypoints at each county line and other significant waypoint needs (hotels, off-route pull-over spots, etc.).

That was it for with the to-do list. Route planning, the actual radio and antenna installation, and a little preventative maintenance on the truck consumed the rest of my free time for two weeks before the contest. The bonding and RFI reduction efforts would have to be for another day and another contest.

The radio installation was my usual “rack mounted” stack of radios plus a few extras: amplifiers for 2 meters and 432 MHz and a 223 MHz FM rig. (None of these bands were for the contest, I just wanted the communications capabilities.) The rack sat on a platform and was held in place by the seat belt and shoulder strap.

The WinKeyer on top of the stack was connected to both radios and programmed with messages. One memory held the current county (or county pair), and was updated using the paddle en route. The paddle can be seen clipped onto the plywood platform.

Routes: Route planning in an unfamiliar state must have been difficult and inefficient before the advent of internet mapping tools and turn-by-turn GPS systems. I still spent hours trying to maximize the number of rare counties I could hit, but there are a number of really excellent internet resources for paperless planning.

Mapquest is the first tool I use to find county lines. It shows county lines clearly in a medium zoom level; zooming in produces county names. Bing Maps also shows county lines, but they are more difficult to see. What Bing Maps offers is nice areal views (“Birds Eye Views” from four compass directions plus a “satellite view”). Google Maps doesn’t show county lines, but does offer numerous other nice things. The terrain maps are invaluable, and the overhead (and now 45 degree) views are frequently better than the Bing Maps views. But Google has “Street Views,” which are incredible when available—and coverage of Idaho is outstanding. Google also has very nice tools for saving locations and creating routes. And can provide turn-by-turn directions for those maps on a data-connected cell phone. Recently, Google added the capability to download maps and routes so that one can still use the phone app when a data connection is lost.

My route idea was to start somewhere around Boise and work my way through counties to the west and north, ending up somewhere near Coeur d’Alene. Planning involved copying longitude and latitude coordinates of county lines between these excellent mapping tools, and saving the feasible ones on a Google “My Places” map. Once a good list of candidate spots (county lines and pull-over locations) was found, I created routes on a second map with the points connected by roads (using Google Maps directions). Some points were flagged as county line (or rare county) stops, many were drive-by boundaries.

My day 1 route looked like this:

I would begin just east of Boise in Elmore county, head West on I-84 and then head North on U.S. 95, with a few side branches. I would spend the night in Lewistown.

The Trip Begins: I had hoped to leave on Friday around noon, but it was not to be. There were too many loose ends: antenna tuning, preparation of food, fixing last minute problems, and dealing with emails. I left around 4 p.m. for the six hour trip to Idaho. The trip was uneventful. I didn’t do much with the radios. That was probably not the best plan…I should have been practicing and testing the radios and antennas out on different bands.

I stopped in Baker City, Oregon for the night. That put me within 2.5 hours of the starting point.

The Contest Begins: I arrived at my first point in Elmore county with a few minutes to spare. The first problem I noticed was that the finger stock on the screwdriver antennas had gotten bent out of shape in the gusty winds at highway speeds. I worked on that situation until a few minutes into the contest.

My first QSO came eight minutes into the contest on 20 meters CW. I got a run going, but it seemed sluggish at about a QSO per minute. I was pleased to work DK2OY, SP5SA, and VE9AA. After 14 QSOs and a few minutes of unanswered CQs, I switched to 15 meters CW. Here I had a brief run of 5 QSOs before thing dried up. I worked VE9AA again! How about 10 meters? Nothing much heard, but VE9AA came back with a nice signal. I worked things backward on phone: a six QSO run on 15 meters followed by a good run on 20 meters (19 QSOs in 10 minutes).

I hit the road about 50 minutes into the contest, with 45 QSOs logged. Ada county was seconds away. But it is also a short county, and I wasn’t quite into the swing of operating while driving, particularly in the mildly congested traffic, so I pulled into an interstate rest area. (Hence, the need to practice on the way to the party.) The hour I spend in Ada wasn’t as productive as Elmore with only 26 QSOs.

Things got confusing when I hit the Ada—Canyon county line. The car GPS told me I had arrived in Canyon county, but the phone’s “Where Am I” app left me in Ada. It turns out the phone had locked-up and required a reboot. I was heading to the nearby Canyon—Gem county line, so I focused on driving, getting the phone app set up again, changing the county in the Winkeyer, and getting new log sheets prepared.

I arrived at my planned spot on the Canyon–Payette line only to spot another HF mobile. I made a brief stop to say hello to NF7T who was set up (portable, I think) on the Gem—Payette—Canyon county line, and then went hunting for a new spot. I headed north on a county line road until it became a dirt road and I could park right on the Payette–Gem county line. It is here that things really picked up.

A pile-up on 20 CW quickly happened. Great signals poured in from all over the country, and even Europe. After 50 minutes, I had made 60 QSOs (each worth two contacts) with 29 multipliers, and someone (I suspect it was N6MU) prompted me to switch to SSB. Good idea. He was my first 20 phone QSO and he kindly mentioned that I had been using the wrong county abbreviation for Payette county. I had been sending PAE instead of PAY. Doh! (PAE is the airport identifier for Paine field that I used to fly out of.) Fortunately, PAE can only be reasonably interpreted as Payette. I fessed up to the error in my log submission.

The 20 meter phone run was a 15 minute stretch worth 20 QSOs (times two) with 14 multipliers. Next was 15 meters CW with a less-impressive seven (times two) QSOs in 25 minutes, but at least I got Japan and Arkansas as new multipliers.

I skipped 15 phone (probably a mistake) and headed back toward the interstate and found a gravel lot in Canyon county by the on-ramp. For the next 35 minutes, I worked 25 QSO, mostly on 20 meters. But 40 meters did yield a couple of QSOs…one with NF7T that was worth 3 contacts and Idaho as a multiplier.

On the road again, I was back in Payette county and managed six 40 meter QSOs before hitting Washington county. This county is big; it took 2 hours and 15 minutes from one end to the other. I only made 38 QSOs in this time, about 2/3 were phone. I was starting to feel a little lonely.

Adams county wasn’t much better. In the hour I spent in this county, I got 15 QSOs, all but three were phone. I made a few 80 meter QSOs on this leg. I had planned a brief diversion to Valley county, but the combination of being behind schedule and the low QSO rate suggested bypassing Valley and getting a little more sleep. Instead, I stayed on U.S. 95 and headed for Idaho county.

Idaho county is a big one; it takes about and hour and 40 minutes to traverse. My “haul” for Idaho county was one (1. uno. eins. এক) QSO. And it happened to be with Sam, WC7Q, who lives in Woodinville, WA, about 8 miles from my home and who I know from the Radio Club of Redmond (thanks Sam!). The Kenwood sure got a workout on CW with a long run of unanswered CQs.

It gets worse. I got infinitely more lonely in Lewis county: zero QSOs in 25 minutes driving through Lewis county. Frankly, I wasn’t trying all that hard at this point. It was late, I was tired, and I wasn’t hearing squat. I drove to Lewistown, found a room and got to sleep by about 1 a.m.

Day 2: Sunday’s plan was largely a drive North on U.S. 95, from Lewistown to Coeur d’Alene with some options at the end in case I arrived early (yeah…right!).

Sunday morning, I climbed out of the valley and arrived on the Nez Perce—Latah county line just before 7:00 am (PST). After a few 20 meter CW CQs, I got a response from SM5CZQ. It is always a pleasant surprise to work Europe while mobile in the West; this really put a smile on my face. (Before the run was done I would work another SM, a handful of DLs, an SP and RZ1.) Next up was NT2A, who was clearly following my progress. After 40 minutes I had 26 CW QSOs (times 2) and 9 phone QSOs (x2) and 24 multipliers for each county. Not too bad!

I worked about 20 more stations in the 45 minutes traversing Latah county. I stopped briefly on the Latah—Benewah county line and worked five stations on 20 phone. I recognized most of the calls and, indeed, they were all dups for Latah. So I started driving again through Benewah for the 50 minute trip to Kootenai. I switched to CW and worked 21 folks on 20 meters and 16 more on 15 meters.

I made tracks through Kootenai county because the Bonner—Kootenai line had an excellent place to sit. In the 50 minutes the trip took I managed to work 3 phone and 7 CW QSOs on 15 meters. When I got to the county line, there was a dirt road parallel to the highway that made a nice stopping place. There was forty minutes remaining in the contest.

Things went a little slow at the end. I worked a group of, by now, familiar calls on 20 CW. N6MU prompted me to switch to 20 phone, and I already had the Yaesu set for that, but John was the only person to show up for that party. He and I also did 15 CW and phone before I started CQing on 15 CW with the occasional 15 phone CQ thrown in. I ended up with 15 QSOs (x2) and a total of 20 multipliers at the last stop.

Going Home: After the contest ended, I did a quick inspection of the truck and antennas, topped off the oil, and started the 5 hour trip back to Redmond, WA. An hour into the return trip I was overcome by a strong desire to sleep. The antidote was to turn the radios back on and work the folks in the Wisconsin QSO party. It kept me alert the rest of the way home.

Score: Perhaps the worse task of a mobile contest is transcribing the logs from a mix of audio recording and hand-written paper into the computer. It took about a week of part time effort to finish. Nearly all of it came from the paper log, but some illegible or nonsensical entries required going back to the primary log—the audio recording. (For contests I turn on the audio readout capabilities on the Kenwood (with the VGS-1 option) so that the recorder picks up band changes without me having to say anything.)

Here is the final tally of QSOs by band

Band
CW
Phone
80
4
0
40
3
21
20
243
137
15
77
12
10
1
0
Total
328
170

Here are the top stations worked by number of QSOs and counties:

Call
QSOs
Counties
N6MU
25
11
NT2A
17
10
WA2VYA
14
8
K5WAF
10
6
WD0ECO
8
4
DL3GA
7
6
W0EAR
6
5
W5ASP
6
5
W9MSE
6
4
NF7T
6
2

An interesting aspect of the IDQP scoring is that Mobile stations accumulate multipliers for each county activated, in addition to mode-specific multipliers. This is certainly a huge incentive for mobile stations to move to new counties and find the right balance between the value of more CW QSOs versus the additional multipliers from working phone. The final tally of multipliers, QSOs and points are given in this table (this table reflects a correction over the score reported to 3830):

County
CW Mults
PH Mults
Total Mults
CW QSOs
PHONE QSOs
Points
ADA
15
4
19
23
4
50
ADM
2
11
13
4
11
19
BEN
20
4
24
37
5
79
BNR
10
1
11
13
2
28
CAN
9
12
21
9
16
34
ELM
12
15
27
20
25
65
GEM
32
14
46
66
20
152
IDA
1
0
1
1
0
2
KOO
15
4
19
19
5
43
LAT
19
15
34
32
21
85
NEZ
16
8
24
26
9
61
PAY
32
16
48
66
26
158
WAS
9
17
26
12
26
50
TOTAL
192
121
313
328
170
826

The IDQP scoring rule states:

Multiply QSO Points by total multipliers. Mobile operations must submit separate logs for each county activated; a mobile entrant’s score will be the cumulative total of multipliers and QSO’s. This will be determined by the log checkers.

“The cumulative total of multipliers and QSO’s” is ambiguous: it could mean the final score is (1) the cumulative points multiplied by the cumulative multipliers, or (2) the sum over all counties of each county’s points times the county’s multipliers. I hope it’s the former, which would produce an uncorrected score of 258,538. If the latter, my score is 26,919.

I think I had a tendency to err on the side of spending too much time on CW; but it is difficult to tell. Ultimately, better use of two radios might have been highly productive. For example I might been more aggressive in alternated between CQing on CW and phone during slow periods. And I should have asked more stations to QSY to some frequency using another mode already set up in the second radio.

Here is a list of other improvements that I’ve come up with:

  • Bond major surfaces together on the vehicle. This might reduce noise and improve 40 and 80 meter capabilities.
  • Reduce electrical interference (ignition noise, etc.). This wasn’t huge problem. Shutting off the engine made a small difference on some bands.
  • Reduce electrical interference from GPS and cell phone power supplies. It wasn’t until after the contest that I realized one of the cell phone power supplies was creating hash that strongly affected FM radio reception. I haven’t tested it for HF interference, but I suspect the worst. A single (non-switching) 5 volt power supply to feed all of the USB powered devices would be useful.
  • Add to each radio good band pass filters with automatic switching. This is an expensive proposition (even for a homebuilt system), but would allow for much more effective “SO2R” operations (minus the S part, of course).
  • Replace the finger stock on the screwdriver antennas with something beefier (new stock is already on order).
  • Add a capacitance hat to one of the screwdrivers. That would provide more radiating efficiency for the same stinger length, but limit the antenna’s range to between 80 through 20 meters. The other screwdriver would be for 40 through 10 meters.
  • Add the street-legal “extended ground plane” to the pickup truck. I used this during the 2011 and 2012 Salmon Run at some locations, and it seems to have made a huge difference. The setup could be even simpler in the pickup truck (drop the tailgate; pull out telescoping tubes with the light bar already attached; lock in place). Sitting higher up would make it more feasible to drive with the extension extended (at least for non-multi-lane highways).
  • Develop a better paper logging platform. Currently, I have a clipboard Velcroed to my leg. Essentially this is the same “kneeboard” system that most pilots use. But it is a little bit clumsy. Some system similar to an airline-style side-arm folding table would be terrific. As an aside, I’ve thought long and hard about better ways of doing logging via computer. I would love to use CQ/X or N1MM while in motion, but some radically different ergonomics are required. A tablet with handwriting recognition might be a possibility for the future. But for now, I’ll stick with audio recording, supplemented by paper logging.
  • Know the route better. I did similar Salmon route runs in 2011 and 2012. The second time through was cognitively much easier, and allowed me to focus more on communicating and less time on navigation. A little more study of the IDQP route would have made for more operating time
  • Use a single-ear headset and boom microphone. With all the mobile and rover contests I do, there is simply no excuse for not doing this already.
  • Make lots of QSOs enroute to the contest.
  • Build a switch box to switch the Winkeyer between rigs. Currently I use Winkeyer’s switch command (hold down the command button, wait for the Morse code “R”, and then send a Morse code “O”. A toggle switch would be far easier.
  • Reduce wind noise in the truck. A piece of rubber molding on the driver-side window was out of place, and caused lots of wind noise. I’ve fixed that, but there is more I can do to keep the dB down in the cockpit and reduce white noise fatigue.

QSL: I’ve uploaded the contest QSOs to LOTW. If you want confirmation via LOTW for a contest QSO, please use WW7D/M for my call. I will eventually figure out how to properly upload county-specific QSOs to eQSL, but I’m not there yet. Paper QSLs are good via mail or bureau.

Summary: I had a great time in my first IDQP. Thanks to everyone for the QSOs! I’m hoping to come back for more.

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Comments on: "WW7D/M in the 2013 Idaho QSO Party" (6)

  1. Errol Patton said:

    KSQP Thank you very much for including Youth catagory. I hope you have lots of entries for that. I am a coach for the Young Amateur Contest Ham Team (YACHT) and we highlighted your qso party this year. 40 and 20 meters only this year, hope next year does better. Thanks to the mobiles. W0BH/M was everywhere on both bands for phone and CW, lots of work. All the mobiles did a FB job as I made most of my county’s with them. Using a Kenwood TS-2000 with a tri-bander at 120 ft and a vertical R-7 for 40 CW. Had lots of fun and I hope you do it next year.

  2. […] of a car. I recently bought a little 1988 Toyota pickup and it was an excellent platform for my solo Idaho QSO Party run. But Dave, justifiably, wanted a little more luxury than a 1988 Toyota pickup truck can offer. You […]

  3. […] a 1988 Toyota 4WD pickup truck. It got its first workout as a HF mobile platform during the Idaho QSO party, and I tested it out, one band at a time, during the VHF+ Spring […]

  4. […] was, in part, intended to serve as a new rover platform. My first chance to try it out was for the Idaho QP last March. The results were […]

  5. […] year, I participated in the IDQP as a mobile station for the first time. It was one hell of an adventure activating 13 Idaho counties, the majority of which I had never […]

  6. […] first trip in 2013 took me through Western Idaho from Elmore county north to Bonner county through 13 counties in […]

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