||I've been a ham almost 35 years, an avid mountain backpacker since moving to New Mexico more than 20 years ago, a serious HF contester for a couple of decades, and a born-again QRPer for a couple of years (I lugged my Ten Tec Powermite everywhere in the early 70s, then lost interest). But I'd never participated in a VHF event of any kind until very recently. The ARRL June VHF/UHF QSO Party gave me a chance to combine all of those interests in one great weekend.
I'd been trying to do a VHF contest for the last several years, but things hadn't worked out well. Weather problems, work schedules, and equipment issues always conspired to keep me off the air.
Now, with the sunspot cycle beginning to decline, I was worried that this might be the last year for a while to make a substantial number of "DX" QSOs on 6 meters. I phoned a couple of friends to try to arrange a multi-op effort, but both had other commitments. Almost at the last minute, I decided to turn the contest into an opportunity to go mountaintop camping with my oldest daughter, Alison, who was home from college for the summer.
Quality time with her, communing with nature, and talking on ham radio . . . what could be better? We decided to go to Sandia Crest, just outside of Albuquerque and the site of some of my previous HF QRP operations (see the ARS story about QRP Afield)
From my favorite perch about 10,600 feet above sea level and more than a mile above the surrounding terrain (photo 1), I have a spectacular view of Albuquerque, the Rio Grande valley, the desert, and mountain peaks nearly a hundred miles away.
I borrowed an FT817 , an amazing example of modern packaging techniques. It runs about 5 watts on all modes on all ham bands from 1.8 to 435 MHz, but is only 2x5x6 inches including a built-in battery pack. If this radio drew a little less current and had even a minimal-range antenna tuner, it would be the overwhelmingly favorite backpackers' rig in my opinion, but that's another story.
I spent a little time learning the basic operation of the radio (it seems complicated at first, but is easy to learn), then started thinking about antennas. Because the next reasonable population center outside of Albuquerque is several hundred miles away, I had no expectations of working anything other than a few locals on 144 and 432 MHz, so the 817's small whip antenna would be fine for those bands.
But I wanted a better antenna on 6 meters, where I hoped to get some help from the ionosphere and work all over the U.S. I had no time to order anything, even if I knew what to order, and I wasn't very keen on the idea of designing a yagi and trying to tweak the matching system at the last minute.
So I built something I knew would be forgiving of minor construction errors and would have a feedpoint impedance close enough to 50 ohms to allow a direct coax feed: a 2-element quad.
I made a quick trip to the hardware store and bought all the PVC pipe and fittings I needed for under $6. The 3-ft boom and 3.5-ft spreaders were made from half-inch pipe, the various tees and crosses were standard fittings, and the mast was simply 10 feet of 1-inch schedule 40 PVC pipe. I glued the boom and spiders together, but not the eight spreaders; instead, I figured I could just press-fit them into the various crosses and tees when it came time to assemble the antenna. It's much easier to carry a tight bundle of PVC on the trail than to maneuver a fully-assembled quad through the trees and shrubs.
The 22-gauge Teflon-coated wires for the two loops were cut to formula (1005/f for the driven element, 1030/f for the reflector) and threaded through small holes drilled near the ends of each spreader. No, I didn't get the holes in exactly the right place the first time, but they were close enough on the second try . . . a little sag in the wires won't affect the performance.
The whole thing took about an hour to fabricate, then my wife and I hoisted it on the 10-ft PVC mast on the driveway for a quick mechanical and electrical checkout. The SWR was very good, the antenna seemed to have a decent radiation pattern, and it stayed together in the wind. I disassembled it and bundled up everything with tie wraps. Total time for final assembly, hoisting, testing, and disassembly was only 15 minutes, so this was going to be a good antenna for the weekend.
We spent Saturday morning gathering and packing all the stuff we'd need for the rest of the weekend. Every time I do one of these outings, I think about how nice it would be if I'd get a little more organized for the next time: Put all the radio cables and connectors in one small container, collect a small bundle of various lengths of RG8x, have a little bag with antenna wire and string, etc. But it never seems to happen. Instead I start from scratch each time, spending a few hours running around the house looking for things.
This kind of disorganization can be costly -- I forgot batteries one time. At a minimum, I should develop a standard checklist that gets consulted each time. Alison and I finally got on the road around 1900Z, an hour after the contest started, and were at the trailhead around 2000Z. I carried the PVC quad/mast bundle and two backpacks with camping gear, water, and radio equipment (the radio equipment, including a 7 A-hr gel cell, was in a day pack that rode piggyback on the bigger frame pack).
Alison handled the two dogs, and had a pack with all of the food. (photo 2) In less than 2 hours, we had reached the campsite and set up both tents and the complete station. Alison's tent was about 50 yards into the woods, well away from the constant wind and my potentially constant radio banter. I, on the other hand, needed to be much closer to the edge of the cliff. In fact, my tent was about 20 feet from a 4000-foot drop!
The mast for the 6-meter quad was within arm's reach of the tent (photo 3), mostly to keep the feedline as short as possible. . . I was using RG8x to minimize the weight I had to carry, and the losses are pretty high at 50 MHz. The moment of truth had arrived. (photo 4) I had studied the FT817's manual and run through the menus a few times, but, foolishly, I'd never made even a single contact on this radio before.
I turned it on and heard a strong CQ on 50.130 right away. I gave one call at 1 watt, and logged my first contest QSO at 2120Z. In the next 10 minutes, I made 6 more local contacts on 6, then moved to 144.2 and 432.1 MHz to work the same bunch of guys. Evidently, that's the way much of VHF contesting is conducted. When 6 meters is open, you stay there. Otherwise, you move the meager troops from band to band to band.
The rest of Saturday was pretty slow. Another local would occasionally (but rarely) show up on the bands, but I logged no out-of-state QSOs that day. K5AM, running 700 Watts and big antenna arrays on another mountain more than a hundred miles away, was a constant beacon. Mark and I chatted a few times, and I even worked him on all three bands while I was running 0.5 W! Sunday brought very different conditions. At 1252Z I heard K6AAA in grid square CM89 (in northern California) pop out of the noise on 50.13, gave him a call, and logged my first "DX".
Strangely enough, there were no other west-coast signals on the band. Maybe everyone else was still in bed. The band opened up to the east just a few minutes later, and I quickly worked two dozen stations in a wide swath from Virginia through Illinois. Then that path closed down completely, and the Californians were back for 20 minutes! Then they were gone, and only K5AM was left on the band.
I'm told that's the way the magic band is. You can work great distances with low power and simple antennas, but you have to be at the right place at the right time. The window of opportunity can open and close quickly as the patches of ionization move around. I should mention that nearly all of the VHF/UHF contest operation I've witnessed has been on SSB.
I made two or three CW QSOs using the FT817's internal iambic keyer, keyed with two buttons on the hand-held microphone (the Yaesu engineers' slick and effective way to work CW without carrying a paddle!), but nearly everyone was making phone QSOs.
Final numbers: 57 total QSOs, nearly 40 different grid squares. Not a tremendous number of contacts, but really not too bad for the QRP-Portable category. Yes, the ARRL actually has an official category in this contest that's tailor-made for QRPers. Even though I didn't make as many contacts as I'd hoped, the weekend was a good introduction to QRP contesting on the VHF bands for me. I had a great time, and I'm already scheming for next year. (Photo 5)
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Bruce Draper, AA5B, is an expert outdoorsman and QRPer who is a widely published writer and former editor of the National Contest Journal. He lives in Albuquerque, NM.
Photo 1. Sandia Mountain, as seen from Albuquerque.
Photo 2. Alison, with pooches Bessi and Curli. The smaller day pack carries all of the radio gear and rides piggyback on the larger frame pack. The bundle of PVC that turns into a 6-meter quad is lying on the ground in front of the packs.
Photo 3. My tent, nearly on the edge of a 4000-ft cliff, with the 6-meter quad just behind.
Photo 4. The dogs watch as I make my first QRP VHF QSOs.
Photo 5. Even after we had packed up the tents, I still tried to sneak in a couple of last-minute QSOs.