RSGB 4th 144MHz Backpackers contest 2016

This 4th session of the RSGB Backpackers series 2016 is the make or break session for us. Due to being away for the 5th and final session we go into this with 2 wins and a 2nd place. Rob G7LAS is hot on our heels with a win and two seconds. If we didn’t win this then Rob most likely would, and would also win the 5th session making 3 wins to two, an unassailable lead.

So the pressure was on!

All we could do was continue with our busy work rate and rack up the QSOs as best we could whilst hopefully finding some good multipliers. The tropo forecast was for good conditions to the South and extended just up towards where our location in the Welsh Mountains is. Fingers crossed.

It was a glorious day when we arrived to set up, in fact when I got in the tent it was too hot, I had to take my top off and catch some breeze. Here is a 360°+ pano of our view (click here to view better):
Pano view from IO81KW
This 4 hour contest starts 1 hour before both the RSGB Low Power and WAB QRP contests, which are 25W and 10W contests respectively. This meant we had a free band to get started on and didn’t expect to suffer too much QRM an hour in. This turned out to be the case and apart from local strong stations working a weaker running station 4KHz from us we had very little in the way of QRM.

To keep us going we had the backpackers essential supplies:
Backpackers essential contest supplies
Activity was good and so were conditions. The tropo forecast seemed to be on the ball and we worked several French stations, Germany, Netherlands and even Spain. Again no Belgium. One glaring omission for us was any Scottish stations, but we did get Guernsey, Jersey, Northern Ireland and Isle of Man.

By the time the contest was over it was so windy we were concerned about the antenna and mast even though it was engineered knowing the winds on the exposed point could be strong. The very second the time turned to red in Minos the radio was off and we were out taking down the antenna. That itself is interesting as one thing with telescopic masts is once you start to lower them your guys are no longer doing any good and the lightweight mast is at risk of bending. However we have developed a process for coping with this and soon had the antenna down. Here are some clips of the wind Paul took towards the end of and after the contest:

We did really well on both QSO count and multipliers and best DX a little under 1000km. Our score is I think the first score over the 2 million mark in the backpackers this century, certainly the 4th session.

QSO map:
GW1YBB/P QSO map 4th BP 2016
Claimed Scores:
claimed scores 4th BP 2016
Final scores 4th Backpackers 2016
BP 2016 4th Winners certFull results list (PDF)

So, job done!! With 3000 normalised points from 3 sessions we have an unbeatable score! Woohoo! Rob G7LAS (as GW7LAS/P) kept us well on our toes but we managed to do the job. I can’t help notice that Rob and us having a good tussle at the top were the only entrants lugging our gear up to 800metres ASL for a great VHF take off. Good to see an even bigger tussle going on in the 10W section.
2016 Backpackers Championship results

RSGB 144MHz UKAC 5th July 2016

For this next instalment of the UKAC we have gone all posh. We are basically using the equipment we use in the Backpackers series with the slight exception we can use the full 5W power available from the FT-817. We are allowed to use 10W in the AL section and I think next session we are going to dig out the old Yaesu FT-225RD I have and used to use in the ‘old days’ to make use of that as we are finding 5W a struggle in these busier events. I have a month to make some mods to the 225RD to allow it to be used with my CQ caller mic which will save me also digging out the old (and large!) volatile RAM based CQ caller I still have that we used to use.

But the Armstrong rotator and lock system I have for the lightweight mast is designed to be used at ground level in a tent not sat in a car. Additionally with electric windows all round turning the beam is a bit of a pain with the ignition of car kept off. So I have bought a new Yaesu G-650C rotator to use. Whilst I do have 2 petrol generators I have only started one in recent times and that doesn’t run properly and needs a service. So I have bought a 150W 12V to 240V inverter and am running that off a small LiFePo4 battery. In use the rotator uses about 5A on the battery and about just under 1A when idle so I am turning the inverter off between rotations (when I remember anyway!).

Here is the set up, one battery for the FT-817 and one for the rotator:
battery powered rotator setup
Outside the rotator is sitting on the ground rotating the whole mast which saves having a stub mast and hoisting up a relatively heavy lump of rotator atop the mast. The currently in use lightweight mast is too thin for the rotator to be used on it higher up anyway. The 3 sets of guys on the mast are very low friction by design and the whole thing weighs less than 10kg so nothing for the rotator to deal with. Titterstone Clee Hill can be seen at the end of the road:
mast base mounted rotator
It’s all about evolving the station and future improvements will see a drive on base and the use of a single ali scaffold pole for the mast rather than the lightweight telescopic one. This is mostly to speed up assembly and take down.

Once all set up we seemed to have great North South signals but really deep QSB. Once under way we found the band very busy and also had other stations calling CQ contest on the frequency we’d been on for over an hour. Quite irritating and didn’t help our QSO rate as we couldn’t be sure if stations calling in were calling us or someone else.

Paul G1YFC took a short video of me working Phil M0NVS/P:

QSO wise we did well on squares North but I don’t know what we have done to upset PA and ON as we haven’t worked one for a few contests in a row now. Not a single European station worked this time!

Our QSO map:
G1YBB portable QSO map 5-7-16
Claimed scores (top 10):
Final scores (top 10):
Full result list (PDF)

RSGB 3rd 144MHz Backpackers contest 2016

This 3rd session of the Backpackers series is timed to coincide with the last 3 hours of VHF NFD which meant finding a quiet frequency was going to be  interesting.

On the up side it was a glorious day when we arrived at the summit site to set up:
the take off to the East
Building the 9 element portable DK7ZB yagi:
setting up in the sun
Antenna up and ready. Some strange coloured background behind it!
what's that blue background
Shack up and ready for us:
shack for the day
Shack views don’t come much better than this:
view from the tent
To keep us sustained we have proper contester food:
serious contester food
Once on air we scanned the band looking for a slot between the strong VHF NFD stations. We found one a fair way from the strongest ones but one near from the North lifted our noise floor each transmission and made receive pretty tough. However we persevered and activity seemed pretty good though DX apart from Scotland was scarce for us.
We like to run mostly and keep the work rate up to keep the QSOs coming in and search and pounce when it goes quiet. The last hour was very slow after the NFD closed down but on the up side we had a receive back! We managed 120 QSOs which we were pretty pleased with and a best DX of nearly 800km to the Orkneys which was great. And he was booming down too. No ON or PA at all though.

QSO map:
3rd Backpackers 2016 GW1YBB_P QSO map
Claimed scores:
claimed scores 3rd BP 2016
Final scores 3rd Backpackers 2016
Winners of 3rd backpackers 2016Full results list (PDF)

RSGB 2nd 144MHz Backpackers contest 2016

The 2nd event in this series of contests coincides with the Practical Wireless QRP contest so we decided we would do both. This contest starts earlier than most of the other Backpackers event so it was an early start for us, or I should say even earlier.

The weather this time was fairly poor. Lots of rain and quite windy. So we arrived on the top pretty soaked through with terrible visibility and a pretty dense low cloud.
arrived at the top
The summit site is pretty exposed so if there is any wind at all anywhere, it’s usually very windy on the summit. We were ready for this though. The lightweight mast I have built was made in 3 sections and purposely designed for such an occasion. For lower less exposed use in contests where we are OK to use its full length all three sections are extended and we have a set of guys for each section. (the lower guys are really only there to hold it up while we extend it etc). But for the backpackers series section 3B we are only allowed 4m high, which just so happens (it was designed that way really) to be the height with the mid section extended. This means we have the option of double guying the highest section of the mast. We have separate pegs for every single guy as this negates the need for knots and saves us set up time by just putting the peg in the loop, and putting the peg in when the guy is taut. This also means on a 4 metre mast we have 8x 550lb breaking strain guys on 8 decent sized pegs, so despite the scary wind noises when inside the tent the antenna is pretty safe.
Double guys shown here (one on left is the lowest set up guy going to a tiny tent peg):
set up double guyed
Once in the tent we were pretty cold thanks to the liquid cooling we were enjoying. We’d allowed plenty of time to deal with any unforeseen circumstances or issues setting up in the bad weather so we had time for a few warming cups of coffee.

Once under way we forgot about being cold and set about the job in hand:
G1YBB operating GW1YBB portable
We got pretty decent activity in first hour or so, and to be honest not bad in the first 4 hours, which is all of the Backpackers contest. However DX was rare we managed a French station at Calais and one Belgian station. It was nice to point to Guernsey hoping to pick some mults up and within 5 minutes we got one, thanks for that! The last 3 hours to make up the PW QRP entry were best described as dire. Without the CQ caller I made I am pretty sure we would have quit and gone home. On the plus side we never heard anyone with a higher QSO count, but PW is a square multiplier contest and I feel we are going to suffer with a low square tally.

There was no post contest looking around and chatting. Radio straight off and try and pack up before the looming black cloud making it’s way towards us arrived. Here we are ready to roll (taking turns holding the mast for the camera):
ready to go home
Paul ready to go
QSO map:
QSO map 2nd Backpackers 2016
Claimed scores:
Claimed scores 2nd Backpackers 2016
Final scores 2nd Backpackers 2016

Winners of 2nd backpackers 2016
Full result list (PDF)

RSGB 144MHz UKAC 7th June 2016

This session I had company in the shape of Paul G1YFC to help set up and operate. Another pair of ears is always welcome with the weak stations or when we are suffering from QRM from other stations. On reaching the bottom of the ascent of the hill we were greeted by flashing flooding from the lashing storm that was hammering the car. The lower roads where more level had 4 to 6 inches of flowing water over them and even the higher steeper sections were a brown rushing river about 1 or 2 inches deep. This is a picture of the very last section of hill with hardly any catchment area above it:
flash floods on road
Once on site we sat in the car to wait out the heavy rain. It eased a little so we started to put the mast up but the rain picked up and it felt like someone was pouring a hosepipe down the back of my non waterproof trousers so we abandoned ship to the car. It eased again so back out we went and this time it stopped and the sun came out. By the time we had the antenna up we were bone dry from soaked through.
antenna mast set up
We had a few QSOs before the start and fisnished the last rag chew with the first QSO in the contest but found it a slow start. Conditions seemed quite odd and we could hear a lightning strike crash every now and then for most of the contest but we didn’t see any. Paul had time to take an arty low sun shot of me in action:
G1YBB in action
We also had an interested visitor:
interested spectator
Anyway, we got 105 QSOs but didn’t work one single European station not even Frank PE1EWR who always calls us. Although our QSOs were respectable and points per QSO also not bad, we just didn’t have the multipliers.

Our QSO map:
144 UKAC 2016-06-07 map
Claimed scores:
Claimed scores 144MHz UKAC June 2016
And the results:
Final scores 144MHz UKAC June 2016
Full result list (PDF)

RSGB 1st 144MHz Backpackers contest 2016

This was the series of contests I have been building the lightweight and portable antenna system for. I knew exactly where I wanted to operate from and the new (to me) super lightweight Yaesu FT-817 radio and the modern Lithium batteries have made it a possibility for me. Most of my previous contesting in the 80s and 90s was done in the Black Mountains below Pen-Y-Gadair. It is a great site for the non multiplier contests but because we were below the summit we always lost out on multiplier events. I always wanted to operate from the summit but with our equipment then it was a no go for us with no 4WD and even a landrover would struggle to get there.

But I can walk there! Well I can with Paul G1YFC to help carry the gear.

Here I am loaded up:
Loaded up and on the way
And Paul with his load too:
Paul loaded up to go
Nearly at the summit:
Nearly there
The weather today was practically perfect for contesting on top of the exposed summit, unlike the day before when the winds would probably have made it impossible to get my lightweight mast up safely. We managed to get the antenna set up before a light shower and soon had my mountaineering tent up too. We set up away from the summit cairn to be out of the way of walkers but also to be above the steeply falling East facing side of the mountain to make the best use of the ground gain:
antenna and tent set up
Paul took an arty one of my direction label and the end of the coax:
direction label and coax
Once the radio was connected up we scanned the SSB section of the band to see who was about and to find a free frequency. There were some strong fairly local (as crow flies) stations below 144.300MHz so we went higher to be clear of them. I noticed I could hear one station CQing 50KHz away so decided a 100KHz away would be a good plan. Once it hit 11:00 we were off. About 90 minutes later Rob GW7LAS/P popped up and after our exchange informed us we’d kicked off an hour too early. Doh! Disaster. We worked some good multipliers and quantity of QSOs in that first hour, for no avail. There was nothing for it but to soldier on and make the best of a bad job.

Later on we had a sharp rainstorm and with it came S9+ of rain static. So strong the station that we could hear 50KHz off his frequency was only just readable above the noise. Luckily it died back down after a while. The last couple of hours were pretty hard work beaming north for some Scottish points proved fruitless as did beaming to Eire. We did beam down towards Guernsey hoping for some GU and maybe a French station that seems to be on often in the UKAC events and were pleased to pick up Guernsey and Alderney almost straight away.

We finished with 121 QSOs of which 79 were in the qualifying period. We lost 9 multipliers from 6 QSOs in that first hour alone! However we managed to salvage a reasonable claimed score of 783,300 points which put us just in 2nd place in our section. One more average QSO would have taken us to 1st!

Here is our QSO map, valid QSOs in green, invalid in red. We lost some good distance ones and multipliers too:
QSO map scoring and non-scoring
Our claimed score was encouraging though. Hopefully Rob GW7LAS/P made more logging mistakes than we did, one decent lost QSO more than us would mean we would swap places:
claimed scores 3B section
Results showed we couldn’t overtake Rob after all. So close yet we could have done so much better. BIG lesson learnt there!
results 3B section
Full result list (PDF)

RSGB 144MHz UKAC 3rd May 2016

For this next session of the the UKAC series I decided to use an old site that was the site of my first ever 144MHz VHF contest when I entered the PW QRP contest with Kevin G1VDF. I chose to operate here as I was hoping to get back earlier as getting into bed at 1am on a work night was a bit late. The drive is slightly longer but it is a drive on site so packing away hopefully would be quicker.

Where I decided to set up was a little cramped and awkward to raise the mast on my own so it took longer than it could have. However I did manage to get all set up and on air a little before the kick off although with no real spare time for any photos this time.

I could hear some seriously strong stations giving me some interference so I tracked them down to check they weren’t in the field behind me or something similarly close. They weren’t but they did report I was giving them issues with splatter and sounded like I had far too much compression on my audio. This was the first time out for my new build of the BX-184 CQ caller which I suspected might be set too high in the mic. As I didn’t have the right tools with me to do anything about that I tried to cut down the overdriving by turning down the SSB mic gain down a fair way. This was said to help but not solve the issue completely, though I was receiving the complaining stations so strongly the signal reading never came off the ‘stop’ between their words even. I changed my operating frequency for a further 10KHz away from them to try and help.

Once under way activity was quite good as last time but generally although signals all seemed to be really big I didn’t really get as many more distant stations. I’d hoped to make use of the ON4KST chat like most do for finding multipliers but I was not getting any cell coverage to get online which was a shame. I did manage to find two new GI squares searching and pouncing though again missed some other ones. It’s tough to know how long to spend away from the running frequency searching and pouncing!
My QSO map for this contest:
144 UKAC 2016-05-03 map
My QSO count was 2nd highest and my claimed score put me in first place in the low power section. However it was close at the top and adjudication could easily scupper that:
144 UKAC 2016-04-05 claimed scores
The results came in quite quickly this time and I was pleased to see I was still top out of the 85 entries in AL section! I lost 5 QSOs for errors but luckily others lost some too and I stayed top:
144 UKAC 2016-04-05 final scores
Oh, and I was in bed by 11.45pm, result!

Full result list (PDF)

RSGB 144MHz UKAC 5th April 2016

After hoping to enter the previous two sessions of the RSGB 144MHz UK Activity Contest series but for various reasons failing to get on the air this time I finally succeeded. It’s 18 years since my last VHF contest. This time I could try out my newly finished and as yet untested on air 9 element DK7ZB yagi and lightweight portable mast.

I checked the past year’s results to see if my old (from back in early 1980s) site was being used in the UKAC series. As it didn’t seem to be I chose to try there for this contest.

The original plan was Paul G1YFC would also come up for the contest (we won our last contest in 1998) but he couldn’t make it so I slogged up the hill with all the gear on my own to the trig point on Graig Syfyrddin which is at a height of 423m which a clear take off though has the 400m higher black Mountains West of it:
Portable 144MHz station carried up
Literally every radio item I would be using for this contest was new to me since the last contests I did. It was a pretty calm evening so setting up was fairly straightforward and I soon had the mast and tent up:
144MHz portable contest station
Once I had the Yaesu FT-817 connected up and the tablet fired up I worked a few stations before the contest getting good reports from my QRP station which was good to hear. I did learn it’s much wiser to operate from a hill you can pronounce the name of though. One quick check outside before the contest starts revealed a nice sunset:
portable contesting sunset
Once the contest started activity was pretty good. For the first hour or so I was exceeding 1 QSO per minute and getting great reports. Things did slow down a bit and QSOs came in little bursts of activity. I made use of the 2nd VFO for some search and pounce but was mostly running. Logging was done on my Surface Pro 3 using Minos by G0GJV. What I should have done I think was also try the ON4KST chat that everyone uses. It actually never occurred to me on the night. This was a great shame as I missed a couple of leading big gun stations somehow that would have given me some valuable new multiplier squares. Anyway I got 120 QSO in total which seemed respectable.
Here is my QSO map:
144 UKAC 2016-04-05 map
Packing up as quickly as I could by headtorch I headed down the hill almost running at some points. Even rushing it was midnight when I reached the car and 1am by the time I got to bed.

My claimed score (before adjudication) put me in 3rd place in my section. 4 multipliers (2 UK new squares) would have put me top! Missing those big station multipliers was very costly indeed!
144MHz AL section claimed scores
Overall I am very pleased with the first go out this century. It was meant really as a practice run for the forthcoming 144MHz Backpacking series of contests and also the PW QRP Contest which I have always been a big fan of. The equipment all seemed to work well apart from one small temporary issue with the keyboard on the Surface Pro 3 failing to respond which was very inconvenient. I did get it going but without know how or why it stopped working.

Full result list (PDF)

Ultralight and ultra strong antenna mast guying ring

When I made my lightweight aluminium portable contest mast I designed up a very lightweight guy ring to use that was both strong and light. I designed it for my friend to injection mould in a fibreglass reinforced plastic that is really strong. The material is so strong I could not damage a 1.5mm thick long credit card size sample by hand even across the edge of a table. All I did was hurt my hands.

So with one eye on weight and one on strength this is the design I came up with. The design criteria was that these rings would hold up a mast carrying a decent sized 144MHz long yagi with at least a 5m boom on an exposed mountain summit in winds at least as strong as the tent will take but also be nice and light and small. They are very similar to many others you will see (there’s only so many ways a guy ring can be designed), but this is only 61.5mm outer diameter and 14.2 grams in weight:
injection moulded guy ring
I went for the simple 4 holes rather than extra holes for 3 point guying that some rings offer as it’s easy enough to just use 3 of the holes. Rope holes are 5.8mm which is plenty big enough for 550lb paracord or other ropes you would use with a lighter weight mast system. The centre hole is 20.5mm sized to fit the top section of my mast. For the lower thicker section it’s easy to open the centre hole with a step drill, in my case 26mm. 30mm is about as big as I would open it too though to retain full strength.

When the rings arrived in the post the first job was to test it for strength. I figured I would make a good test load. Just needed something to hang off and give it some welly. I am a good 170lbs, probably more with boots and big coat on. The rucksack is full of 2 litre bottles of water, probably a good 30lbs more easy. So about 200lbs bouncing weight on the guy ring. This is on a very short length of paracord. A longer length will absorb more shock like a climbing rope does:

Once I was happy with them fitted to the mast and the guy ropes tied on:
bushes and guy rings fitted
And in action:
mast and 144MHz yagi
These rings will also be very useful for SOTA activations where the very ultralight commercially available rings may be a little brittle without adding a noticeable weight penalty. Used for a fishing pole mast the mast will break long before these rings will!

I mentioned that these could be ideal for other radio hams doing SOTA activations and other portable operations wanting a very strong but lightweight guy ring he has made these available (pretty much any quantity) on his website:
(25% discount code G1YBB25 will work until end of April 2016)

Guying down a lightweight portable antenna mast

Having just finished making a lightweight aluminium portable antenna mast for backpacking VHF contesting I wasn’t really happy with the initial way we were tying down the guy ropes.

Typically I have tied off guys that don’t have tensioners with several half hitches. These are quick and easy but they are hard to tie tensioned properly and I have lost two 19 element MET yagis, a Yaesu rotator and an aluminium scaffold pole when one guy worked loose on a windy day. I didn’t want to use tensioners on this setup as they can work loose and we are going to be operating from a tent and won’t see any loose guys until too late most likely. Also I’m using for this mast lightweight paracord which is meant to be good to 550lbs breaking strain, but I am wrapping that around fairly sharp edged aluminium angle guy stakes which might create a weak point on the paracord. The mast is not massive and I have 2 sets of main load bearing guys but I want this to stay up on exposed windy Welsh mountain tops.

So I thought a round bar would be a better shape to tie the guys to and a clove hitch would be a good start knot as it can be tightened up. For the round bar I thought I would use some of my old climbing karabiners. And to attach those to the guy pegs I would use some small sized climbing rope about 6 or 7mm and use a clove hitch to quickly attach those to the pegs.

Here are the karabiners and rope loops. The rope loops were made from about 1m of rope each and a double fisherman knot used to make the loop:
guying karabiners
Once the karabiner was fitted to the guy peg it was very quick and easy to make a clove hitch and slip it on, tension, then lock off with a couple of half hitches:
guy tied off
guy tied off
This adds an extra 381grams to carry but I think it will be worth it in the long run. I could probably cut that down with newer smaller and more lightweight climbing karabiners (I’m not going to risk the cheapie ebay style mini ones) and probably a smaller rope would be OK to use:
karabiner extra weight
This is one way of many options, I’d love to hear your methods and tip and tricks!
(email explained on welcome page)