Friday, September 1, 2017

9 Essentials for Hiking in Colorado

I live part time in Buena Vista, Colorado, at 8,000 feet in the heart of the Rocky Mountains. Over the years, I have hosted quite a few visitors who want to experience the back country, or even try a 14er ascent and I have successfully guided quite a few group ascents.  Since 2013, I have climbed over 150 summits as a participant in the SOTA program.What I have learned from this experience and from my affiliation with the Colorado Mountain Club is that Colorado is on "another planet", with its own set of rules. The common sense rules we've learned at sea level don't apply here and, in fact, can put you in danger. Skeptical? Check out Alferd Packer (click the link). You don't want to end up like the Donner party! Or, for a more recent update, checkout the September 17, 2017 headline of the Denver Post - 11 Deaths This Summer.

I can remember my first 14er ascent in the summer of 1973 of Longs Peak, shortly after moving to Colorado from Illinois. I wore shorts, a tee shirt and carried a pint of water. For the 16 mile round trip, I started at about 7 am. When I finally made it back to the car at 8pm, I was dehydrated and suffering from hypothermia. Quite a powerful and memorable introduction to high altitude mountaineering! Fortunately, I was young and prepared to learn lessons the hard way.  That's not the case now.

The purpose of this post is to provide some basic guidance and encouragement to activators who want to visit Colorado and enjoy the back country without the sort of mishaps that rookies often encounter. By applying these rules, starting modestly, and gaining some experience, there;s no reason why your hard earned SOTA skills can't be applied in this "alien" world. 

1. Extra Layers

 As you ascend, the temperature drops about 3 degrees for every 1k feet of elevation gain. If you start in Denver and drive 1 hour west to Bierstadt and hike up, you can expect the temperature to drop 40 degrees (or more). Tourists don't get it. It is amusing to visit Pikes Peak and see tourists in shorts and tee shirts shivering their butts off in 40 degree howling wind and flurries after driving up from Colorado Springs where it's a balmy, sunny 80 degrees. I hike in a poly tee shirt, a long sleeve shirt (or turtle neck, depending on the season), a puff vest, and a shell (with under arm vents). Wind can be fierce, especially above timber line, so a shell is essential to keep out wind and moisture. My pants are poly, and my hiking boots are gore tex. In the winter, I often add an extra layer. Avoid cotton, which retains moisture. Remember, there is no such thing as bad weather, only poor clothing choices.

2. Start Early

The mountains create their own weather. In the summer, the pattern generally starts with a perfectly clear sky with clouds building up gradually as the day progresses. Thunderstorms with lightning typically occur in the early afternoon, after 1pm or so. It's a good idea to be back to timberline by 1pm or so. After my youthful Long's Peak debacle, my next summit of that peak included an overnight above timber line. When I woke up at 5am for my final ascent, I saw headlamps coming over the ridge. The experienced in and out hikers had started their trip at 3am and chosen a full moon to do it. I now consider dawn to be the latest time to start a 14er ascent. Earlier if the approach is a long one. Hit the trail at the break of dawn.

3. Food and Water

Water is heavy and it is tempting to skimp on it, but that can be a big mistake. You want to stay hydrated to keep your body and mind functioning well, and you want some extra water, in case things go wrong. As a general rule I recommend a minimum of one liter for every four miles, but more is better if you can handle the weight. Irecommend the Platypus bladder system. I also carry extra water in the truck and drink a liter before I hit the trail - and it's there if I run out on the way back.  Throw some food in the pack. I carry a few extra energy bars and a sandwich. It's OK if you don't eat them. But, you may need them. It's not good to hit the wall for lack of food or water. Colorado has low humidity. This dryness which increases with elevation sucks water from the body. Avoiding dehydration at high altitudes requires regular hydration. Don't wait until you are thirsty - that's too late. Hydrate at regular intervals. The first thing to think about if you feel dizzy or have a headache is dehydration. 

4. Personal Locator Beacon  and APRS

Thinking about some worst case scenarios, I began carrying a PLB. I hike alone about 90% of the time. Much of that time I am bushwhacking in remote areas with no cell coverage and low likelihood of encountering another person. If I am injured and cannot walk out, I need a way to let people know where I am. This 4.3 ounce PLB takes care of that. I also carry a VHF/UHF hand held radio. Colorado has great APRS and repeater coverage, so I can spot myself using APRS, or use it to message my status back home. I can even let SOTA chasers follow me up the mountain just by turning of the location beaconing as I ascend. I often grab a few WHF contacts on 146.52 at the end of an activation. With these two lightweight devices, I can call for help if I need it, or communicate with family and friends when I am out of cell coverage. Be prepared to communicate in the event of an emergency and no cell coverage. If you are in the backcountry and don't have a ham license and carry a handheld radio, you are missing out on a fantastic free public safety system. The same system that Amateur Radio Emergency Services use. 

5. Map and Compass

When I started out, that literally meant a map and compass. Today, for me, it means my iPhone, Gaia app, and Google Maps app. Todays cell phones have built in GPS receivers and, with a little planning, they work fine in areas with no cell coverage. I simply download a coverage map to my phone from Gaia and Google Maps in advance of my trip. Learn to read topo lines and follow them and learn your hiking speeds (up and down) so you can estimate travel times accurately.  Prior to a hike I derive a parking spot from Google Earth and lay down a waypoint in Gaia. I use the Gaia coordinates as a driving destination in GMaps. Most of the pre-trip planning I do is consumed by determining where to park and begin the trek. In Colorado, it's also important to descend the same way you came up. After an activation, in a rush to get down, it's easy to pick the wrong descent line and find yourself stuck in a ravine. Many Colorado search and rescue operations can be traced back to a hiker taking a "short cut" whether intentional or unintentional on the descent. Don't just "fall off" the mountain, follow the proper descent line. The easiest way to do this is to record the ascent and follow the same line of the descent. One other tip. I also wear a compass watch and take a bearing on the summit at the start of a hike. If all else fails, I can follow that bearing down. I also mark the car with a waypoint before ascending (I learned that lesson the hard way.) Don't lose your way.

6. Flashlight and backup phone/gps battery
I know you don't "plan" to hike in the dark. But if you find yourself in the backcountry after dark without a flashlight, it's not fun - it's dangerous. I carry a "lipstick" backup battery for my iPhone, that also serves as a flashlight.  If you are going to rely upon a smartphone for navigation, as I do, you must carry a backup battery. Don't get caught without power and light.

7. Strike Ignitor
Not only does the temperature drop with elevation, it also drops 30-40 degrees when the sun goes down.  In the event of an unplanned over night stay in the wilderness, this will allow you to stay warm and survive until morning.    Be prepared to start a fire.

8. Sun Protection

At higher altitudes, a thinner atmosphere filters less UV radiation. With every 1000 metres increase in altitude, UV levels increase by 10% to 12%. That's the primary reason why Colorado has the highest incidence of skin cancer in the country. Precancerous actinic keratosis is extremely common here. Many Coloradans visit a dermatologist each year for a check up and come home with arm, leg, face or scalp bandages from AK removal. You really have two choices, slather your skin with sun block or cover your skin with long pants, long sleeves shirt, and a wide brim hat to protect your ears and nose (a ball cap won't cut it). I prefer the latter, with some sun block on my nose and ears. Protect your skin.

9. Medication

The most common medical problems I have encountered on high altitude hikes are foot blisters, altitude sickness, and aches. Foot blisters are generally the result of poor footwear choices, bad fit, or inadequate break-in time. All of these can and should be identified and corrected prior to hitting the trail just by wearing the footwear for a week or so at home and taking some long walks. Carry some moleskin. Don't underestimate the misery you can inflict on yourself by failing to heed this advice!

The air is much thinner up here and it takes some getting used to.  Fewer than ten percent of people visiting Denver get altitude sickness. That jumps to 35% when once you get up around 10,000 feet and increases with elevation. The most common symptoms are dizziness, nausea, headache, loss of appetite, and insomnia. I've observed it first hand on several occasions, and it's alarming. Altitude sickness can often, but not always, be avoided by spending more time acclimating in Denver before heading up to higher altitudes. There is a lot of randomness associated with this reaction. Just because you get sick once, doesn't mean you will the next time, and just because you've never been sick doesn't mean you won't be in the future. So, it's best to be prepared. Ibuprofen has been shown to be an effective treatment, and it also has the benefit of treating the aches and pains that often accompany strenuous hikes. Taking ibuprofen before hand is probably a good idea. For more severe symptoms or as a prophylactic,  doctors often prescribe Diamox (or another similar drug). If you won't be spending a few days acclimating, it's good to have some Diamox handy, just in case. Just call your Doctor and let her know your plans and concerns and fill the prescription before your departure. Diamox is not an over the counter drug.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

A Low Cost Emergency Personal Locator Beacon (PLB)

For the past two years, I have been hiking with a personal locator beacon in my pack. My ACR 2880 PLB is a 130 gram weight transmitting device that is registered with the Search and Rescue Satellite Aided Tracking System operated by NOAA. For details about this system and how it works, click here:

This device differs from the Spot and DeLorme devices in several respects. First, there is no subscription cost. You just purchase the device, register it online with NOAA, and renew every two years online (I put a tickler on my calendar). The battery lasts 5 years. After that, the device has to be returned for refurbishing and recertification. The is a transmit only device designed for one time use. To activate, simply deploy the antenna and press the on button. When activated it sends out two beacons; a five watt distress beacon on 406MHz and a 500mw homing beacon on 121.5 MHz (for the S&R team). The distress beacon is picked up by LEO's as well as geostationary satellites and forwarded to local authorities with personal identification and location information. 

I am primarily a solo hiker, about 90%. I am often bushwhacking in rough terrain. If I am seriously injured or come across an emergency situation, I know that as long as I have a clear view of the sky.  I can quickly summon help, even if I am in a low spot with no cell or repeater coverage.

Fortunately, I have never had to activate the device except for occasional testing to ensure it is still functioning. However, it has provided a lot of peace of mind for me and my XYL, especially when I am activating in unfamiliar and remote areas. 

This system provides world wide coverage and is supported by a number of countries other than US. Check for suitability in your particular country. 

More information on the ACR 2880 can be found here:ACR 2880

Friday, May 26, 2017

EFHW Tri-Band Trapped 17, 20, 30 meter Antenna

I couldn't do any SOTA activations recently due to work commitments, so I spent some spare time building half a dozen unun's on different cores and comparing them to the Par and Packtenna efhw unun's both on the bench and in my backyard. I came up with a design that works well on my bands of interest, 30, 20, and 17 and doesn't require a capacitor. It uses a FT-82-61 core with a 16:2 winding for a 64:1 impedance transformation. My tests confirmed that a 9:1 unun is adequate to bring down the impedance into a range suitable for use with the Elecraft KX2 internal tuner. One advantage of using a 9:1 with the KX2 is the flexibility of using the antenna as a random wire on other bands where a 64:1 impedance transformation would produce a very low impedance/high current situation for the radio which could result in overheating or inability to find a match. However, I wanted something that I could also attach to a radio without a tuner, such as the LNR MTR3, which requires a low SWR.  I use 10 feet of rg174 as a feed/counterpoise, so I didn't want high swr for that reason, as well. My 17 and 20 meter traps are made from the SOTAbeam pico trap parts. Below are the plots of my final design. Plots are with the actual trapped tri-band EFHW. M1, near the top left corner of the chart gives the reading of the frequency under test and the resulting SWR. Green plot is SWR.The SWR's on a recent Dick's Peak activation matched these plots closely. The SARK 110 was indispensable during this project.

        Below: 30m, 20m, 17m field derived plots

Below - Also tested, Clockwise from left: T60-2 (red), FT-114-43 split winding, , NXO-100, FT-114-43 traditional winding.

Final Unun  - FT-82-61 (16:2)
end fed half wave transformer unun

Saturday, May 6, 2017

SPE Expert Amplifier LCD Display Dimmer

I love my SPE 1.3K-FA amplifier, but the LCD panel is too bright and can't be adjusted. I looked around on E-bay and found some 3M film which I cut to size and placed over the display. It looks much better. The cost was $2.49 for a 4x6 sheet. I traced the display window onto a piece of paper, placed the film on top and cut to size.

3M Color Stable 35% VLT Automotive Car Truck Window Tint Film Roll Multi Sz CS35

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Antenna Alchemy - End Fed Half Wave and The Way of the Goat

Sota Mountain Goat is an award for accumulating 1000 activator points from mountain summits (see below). At least in Colorado, many of the winter activations are harrowing experiences in cold weather, deep snow, and high wind. Since it's not always practical to "hang around" at the summit the speed to set up and tear down can be critically important. No one wants to invest extreme energy and time climbing a mountain for an activation a descending with nothing to show for it. So, quick deployment and effectiveness are the watchwords for the kit.

When I first started SOTA activations, I looked around at what other, wiser, Goats were using in their kit and tried to copy them. I favored the lighter weight alternatives - no heavy radios, batteries or antennas for me. Aside from the transceiver, and mountaineering gear, the antenna stands out as the most important element of the system. I noticed that most of the Mountain Goats were using the End Fed Half Wave, or EFHW for short. While I had never previously used one, I thought I knew just about everything I needed to know about them. After all, isn't it just another flavor of vertical...? I was wrong. What I discovered shocked and intrigued me, as I think it will you, too.

At first, I was a bit confused about the difference between a random length end-fed, and the EFHW. The terms seem to be used interchangeably. Some of the articles I read had charts that showed lengths to avoid when cutting so called "random length" wires. Turns out that if you randomly cut your random length wire to one of the "forbidden" lengths, it won't match, even with a tuner, and the SWR losses will be high. So, I initially avoided them. Only later did I learn that those forbidden lengths happen to be the half wavelengths or HW part of the EFHW, and these these lengths are where some magic happens.

The Sota Goats don't want to dilly dally at the summit. They often need to set up, work their quota and get down. So, they don't have time for the one thing that we are all told we absolutely need in order to make a vertical work efficiently - radials. They need to extend a pole, string a wire, attach it to the radio and get on the air.  The only way to do that, and put out a decent signal too, is with the EFHW - an antenna with a forbidden length.

The problem with the EFHW, the reason that it is "forbidden", is that it has an outrageously high radiation resistance at resonance - on the order of 2500 ohms. This is not a number that is friendly to any radio and it is outside of the range of typical matching devices. However, it is the high radiation resistance that is the secret of its success. Tame it and it will serve you well.

Why is the high impedance that we've been told to avoid actually an advantage? To answer that, let's examine the characteristics of a cousin of the EFHW that we are all familiar with, the quarter wave vertical. The radiation resistance of the quarter wave vertical is about 36 ohms. In a typical installation (4 or so radials) the ground resistance can be substantial - let's say 42 ohms for the sake of illustration. So the antenna presents a decent match to 50 ohm coax of 36 plus 42 ohms = 78 ohms, a good match to 50 ohm coax. The efficiency of this antenna is calculated by dividing the radiation resistance by the radiation resistance plus the ground loss... Rr/(Rr + Rg) =  59%. About 40% of the power is lost in the ground system. The situation gets much worse, however, if only one or two radials are used. The ground loss will rise to perhaps 80 ohms or greater and the efficiency will drop to 25% or so. In other words, the 5 watt QRP radio lugged to the top of the mountain will radiate around 1 watt with one radial attached to a quarter wave vertical.

The situation doesn't improve with the so-called end fed random wire. Yes, the typical impedance of this antenna can be around 500 ohms at certain frequencies. However, while impedance (Z) is comprised of both resistance and reactance (R and X), only the radiation resistance is a factor in antenna efficiency (ignoring SWR losses for the moment), and unfortunately the high impedance of the end fed random wire is mostly comprised of reactance. The radiation resistance isn't typically any higher than that of a quarter wave vertical. Large numbers of radials are required to make this antenna efficient, just as it is with the quarter wave vertical.

Now let's look at the EFHW. At resonance, the radiation resistance is approximately 2500 ohms (or higher). So, even if no radials are employed with just a short 3 foot counterpoise and a stupidly high ground resistance of 100 ohms the efficiency will be 2500/2600, or 96%. Wow!

But there has to be a catch, right? Otherwise, everyone would be using these cheap and simple antennas instead of quarter wave verticals. Well, yes, but most of the limitations just aren't very relevant for QRP in the field.

Here are a few of the characteristics and limitations of the EFHW. There aren't any deal breakers on this list for SOTA work. The reason that this antenna isn't more popular in fixed stations has to do more with impedance matching issues than anything else - the popularity of coaxial cable for transmission lines and the lack of good high efficiency unun's made it impractical. Broadband unun's with high transformation ratios are still the stuff of experimenters - but the experiments have been promising. So, have at it. .
  • The EFHW can be built for multiple bands by installing traps or jumpers. I use an EFHW built for 40m with a jumper to shorten it for 30 meters. It works well on 40, 20, 10 with the jumper inserted, and on 30, 17/15 with the jumper open. SWR is 1:1 on the half wave frequencies, and matchable with the KX2 internal tuner on the multiples. 
  • SWR can be affected by touching the equipment
  • Ground losses increase off the resonant frequency - cut it precisely for your SOTA freq.
  • The high radiation resistance also applies to multiples of the half wave, ie. one cut for 40m will have also have high radiation resistance on 20 and 10, albeit with a higher reactive component in the impedance.
  • the impedance of the EFHW is too high for most matching devices (tuners)
  • the antenna requires a 50 to 1 unun impedance transformer to match 50 ohm sources. It may be necessary to add a capacitor across the source for a match on the higher bands.
  • A counterpoise with an ideal length of .05 wavelengths is recommended. I use a 10 ft length of rg-174 to the unun. 
  • High impedance transformations can be tricky and inefficient. Don't assume your unun is lossless. Care should be taken in the selection of the roroid to avoid losses >2 dB.
  • I built six unun's on different toroid cores with high transformation ratios and all had limited bandwidth. The best one had about 15MHz bandwidth measured with my SARK 110. Packtenna and MyAntenna devices outperform my homemade unun's. 
  • Be aware of power limitations and do not overdrive unun's to saturation. Ferrite unun's can be permanently damaged by excessive power. 
  • Commercial 50:1 unun's in various power ratings are only available from a few suppliers. I recommend the Pactenna 50:1 for SOTA and the MyAntenna for base station use. 
In summary, the EFHW is the ideal antenna for QRP (and some QRO) situations where a fast deployment is required and radials are not practical. It has been analyzed theoretically and field tested extensively. It is so effective that it has won over many Mountain Goats who started out thinking otherwise. When you absolutely, positively have to make at least four QSO's after hiking 5 miles to the top of a mountain, the EFHW is a good way to go. 

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Summits on the Air - Mountain Goat Award

When Heinrich Hertz proved the existence of electromagnetic waves, they were thought to behave like light (travel in a straight line), thus precluding the possibility of using them for long distance communication (more than 12 miles or so). Marconi thought otherwise. Over one hundred years ago, Marconi defied all expert opinion as well as common sense by proving that electromagnetic waves at certain frequencies will follow the curvature of the earth. He shared the 1909 Nobel prize in physics for this discovery. His technique was to use more and more power (up to 15 kilowatts), longer and longer wavelengths (up to 365 meters), and bigger and bigger antennas (huge wire arrays 100's of feet high) to extend the range of his signals,. On December 12, 1901 he successfully spanned the Atlantic "sparking" the electronics age we live in today.

SOTA activators on summits around the world. continue to stretch the bounds of Marconi's discovery of ionospheric propagation by using flea power, short waves, and small antennas to contact chasers thousands of miles away.

After 150 summit activations, about 3,000 two way contacts and 1000 activator points, I finally became a SOTA Mountain Goat. I just received this beautiful trophy from England which I will proudly display. This challenge entailed round trip signals to New Zealand, Spain, Japan and England from Colorado with 5 watts (the power of a flashlight) and 50 feet of wire! Here I am in contact with England from the 14,276 foot summit of Mt Antero (right photo).

Mt Antero in the distance
walton stinson walt

Saturday, March 11, 2017

"Weightless" Elecraft KX3 or KX2 microphone for SOTA

I operate mostly CW on my SOTA outings, but I always take this light weight mic along since it's built into my earbuds. This is just a standard smartphone ear bud/mic with an adapter that was intended to allow connection to a computer. Turns out that the earphone and mic jacks on the Elecraft KX2 and KX3 are compatible. To transmit, use VOX, or PTT with the XMT button. Note the essential windscreen. This was made with earbud foam hot glued to the mic housing. Keep the glue away from the side with the mic hole. This is a very lightweight microphone solution for the KX2 and KX3. Audio reports are good.