West Virginia Portable Operation

Each summer, my family tries to book a cabin in the middle of nowhere so we can go hiking, paddling, and fishing. In recent years, our favorite spot in central Pennsylvania was sold and we started trying other places. With our move, we decided to try out something new entirely. We headed for a cabin just outside of New River National Park, our nation’s newest National Park.

After a day on the New River shooting some class three rapids with the family, I grabbed a little time on the back porch to setup my IC-705 and see what I could hear from the mountains.

It was mostly 20m and 40m on FT8/FT4. The setup was my standard portable gear. The IC-705, the mAT-705, the MP1 Superantenna, and my MS Surface Go 2. I tossed in my Lightsaver Max to get my 10 Watts out.

MS Surface Go 2, IC-705, mAT-705, and Powerfilm Solar Lightsaver Max on a coffee table in the great outdoors.

I went with the Superantenna instead of my end-fed dipole because I didn’t much feel like sitting out in the grass. There was a touch of drizzle and tossing the antenna up into the tree was less attractive than sitting on a comfy chair with my coffee.

Deployed MP1 Superantenna.

With the setup I was running, I got about 10 or so contacts before I quit. I was only on the air for about 2 hours and I did try my luck with SSB, but things were pretty quiet. There was a net out there on 20m and I couldn’t seem to get to any of those folks to join in, so I stuck to digital after calling CQ for a bit.

Same gear as above but packed up.

It is a very lightweight solution that, when I checked https://pskreporter.info showed me being heard in Finland as well as California. Not too bad on 10 watts and all factors considered. It also very light and packable. I’m more and more convinced that I will take my gear with me when I head out to the trail come August.

Hampton Hills Portable Operation

Backpack, mAT-705, Lightsaver Max, IC-705, MS Surface Go 2, and my dad’s water.

On Memorial Day, my dad (AC8NT) and I headed out to Hampton Hills Metropark to see if we could get some contacts on a gorgeous summer day. The spot we found at The Top O’ The World was perfect. There were two benches situated beside a very large tree that was perfect for the end-fed wire antenna we brought along.

The branches of the tree couldn’t have been better. I got my arborist’s line up onto my intended branch on the first toss! With that out of the way, the antenna itself was deployed in about 2 minutes. I can’t imagine using a tennis ball or fishing line for this task. Of all of the little things I’ve picked up from the internet, this is definitely a Top 5 item.

There are two things that were really important about this trip out. The first was that the setup was as fast as I’d hoped. This was my dad’s antenna, but it was tuned nearly perfectly for 20m and as such, my tuner, which was still locked into its last deployment, got us to a very nice SWR right away. The IC-705 was up and running and ready for me to connect with the Surface via WiFi in about 2 minutes. In fact, getting the software up with the radio was probably a 3-5 minute task. This is exactly what one would hope for in a portable setup! I also can’t stress enough: No Wires between the computer and the radio. The WiFi solution from ICOM in this radio is phenomenal. No USB cable noise and no extra wires flopping around.

The other important lesson was something I should have thought of reflexively. Our plan was to operate FT8 or FT4. We had WSJT-X up and running quickly. That went really well. The waterfall was full! But nothing was being decoded. After about 5 minutes of puzzling, something did seem off: the transmit progress bar on the WSJT-X UI was out of sync with what we were hearing on the radio. It was just enough that…well… Huh.

The truth as I know it is that being out of sync within a second is tolerable for FT8. But once you get past 2 seconds, life gets rough. And this was rough. We could hear that we were about 5-6 seconds out of sync with the traffic we were seeing. Why was that? Well, I shut down the computer the last time I charged it and I powered it up in the field. It hadn’t been on a network at all in that time and a drift of a few seconds isn’t unlikely.

I have a write up of how to set a computer’s time using the GPS on the IC-705. But between us, ya know what’s faster? Setting your phone up as a hotspot and pointing the computer at it for long enough to get the right time from the cellular network. In a grid-down situation where cellular communications are in a state of failure, this won’t solve the problem, but for a trip to the park where we just wanted to grab some contacts, it was an expedient solution that should come highly recommended.

Another thing to point out here is that we would have stared at the screen of the computer for a lot longer and come no closer to a solution if we hadn’t had the speaker on and up on the radio. Actually hearing the signals brought us to our solution much faster than if we had the speaker off.

With the time set correctly, we were getting completed contacts as far away as UT and TX. We captured 6 contacts from 5 states. We did spend some time trying to get contacts across the pond, but pskreporter.info told me that no one on the other side of the Atlantic was hearing us. That doesn’t mean we didn’t try! Imagine if we’d gotten Belarus with 10w from a hill in Akron. Talk about bragging rights! Oh well. Next time, maybe.

Some other thoughts: the Lightsaver Max from Powerfilm Solar that I added to my toolkit performed flawlessly in its first trip to the field. I used it to get up to 10w out using its 12v output to the IC-705. We were only at the park for about 2 hours, so we didn’t come close to depleting the charge of that battery or the battery on the IC-705. We also still had many hours left on the Surface. I imagine that when hitting the 6 hour mark, I’d have a better idea of actual performance, but that wasn’t the plan for this trip. After I got home, I setup the Lightsaver on my patio table in direct sunlight and it was topped off in about an hour (though I didn’t time it). Definitely pleased with this piece of gear so far. It will likely see some time in my pack this summer as we do more backpacking.

I’m also feeling a lot less harsh about the mAT-705 tuner. I have the v1 tuner so there’s no rechargeable battery or USB-C port on it, but there is an off switch and it does allow for operation when the power is off. That’s a no-brainer of a trade-off for me. I still dread changing the battery, but the tuner itself is performing nicely. And its rugged case makes me feel good about tossing it into my backpack which isn’t always treated with care. There’s a lot less buyer’s remorse with this piece of equipment, but I’m glad they discontinued the version I have so I don’t have to think about recommending it.

The verdict? We had a great time in the field. Each piece of gear we used was up to the task and getting things up and running took a negligible amount of time and effort. I’m sure that there are things that I’ll tweak over time, but it’s hard to imagine a better overall setup. With power, antenna, computer, and radio all covered in a package that probably weighs in at under 10 lbs. I have to say that I’m quite looking forward to more trips to the field this summer. I’m also weighing taking some of this gear on a backpacking trip through western PA (I’d likely forego the computer and stick to SSB). There’s much more to come.

mAT-705 – Accessory Detour

The mAT-705 next to the IC-705 (on a tripod)

Antenna tuners are a thing to have, right? If you’re going to use a less than adequate antenna or just a random piece of wire, a tuner is going to come in handy. At home, I have an attic dipole that’s strung from one side of the attic to the other. I usually use my LDG tuner for that with my IC-7100. I have the LDG Z-11 Pro II and it’s awesome. It’s got a battery clip inside that eats a pile of AAs, it runs off of rig power, and it’s not too cumbersome, but I was really looking for a more portable option. The mAT-705, made specifically for use with the IC-705, looked like a pretty good idea. These are my initial impressions of that piece of gear.

Pros. The box is small and rugged. It fits in an admin pouch on my backpack or can be dropped into any number of waterproof boxes that I have for use when I’m outdoors. It’s got BNC connectors and a single 1/8″ TRS cable to connect it to the IC-705. It tunes up FAST and works really, really well in my testing so far. That’s using both my attic dipole and the MP1 Super Antenna. It’s definitely the right size and it hits all the right notes when it comes to being a solid tuner.

Cons. Well, the bummer is in changing the battery. I honestly hope that I never have to do this in the field. It takes a 9v battery that is in a most unfortunate position. Take a look:

The guts of the mAT-705 tuner.

To replace the battery, that entire assembly has to come out. In the manual, it mentions removing the rear 4 screws and pulling it out. That’s great if it works. But the battery fits in very tightly. That means taking off the front panel to push a bit to get it out. It doesn’t feel good to do this. It’s not a simple sliding motion. On the one hand, it’s great that it doesn’t slide around in the case, but it does make changing the battery feel treacherous. I’ll also add that for someone who regularly breaks things because he forgets that not everything responds well to torque, I have to really think it through.

Another downer with this is that the panel one is supposed to tug on is attached only by the BNC solder joints. Again, not instilling confidence.

Solder joints connecting the panel to the PCB.

If it turns out that the battery lasts for a long time, this won’t be something that I sweat very often. But if I find myself doing this more than once a year, I might figure out a way to power it externally because snapping that PCB would be a bummer.

There are Pros and Cons. What are the things that just sap the joy out of opening a piece of gear? I don’t know what to call them, but I’ll list the two that hit me.

One of them is a dead battery. Yeah, the battery was dead out of the box. This is how I discovered the pain of opening the case so soon upon receiving it. The other killjoy was finding that the enclosed allen wrench didn’t work. It was slightly too small to turn the screws. That was frustrating. Almost frustrating enough to return it, if I’m completely honest.

What’s the net? It’s a solid tuner. I have confidence that it will be great for my particular purposes. Knowing what I know now, would I suggest it to another new IC-705 owner? Maybe.

My particular requirements are tied to my lifestyle. I’m a dad and husband living through a rather singular pandemic who doesn’t have a ton of time for his hobbies. When I do get a chance to get out and play with my radio, I have to be ready to go. It feels like emergency readiness, but it’s more relaxation readiness. If I have to pull any component out of my desktop chain to get out the door, that comes out of the minutes that I’m not on the air or heading to the field. So I feel like the mAT-705 is going to be very helpful on that front. It’s small, light, and can live in my backpack waiting patiently for me to get out the door.

I will continue to update my thoughts on this piece of gear as I get out more in the coming months. I want to give it a fair shake.