Take your ham radio outdoors with Parks on the Air
Josh Centers 02.22.22
When you think of amateur radio, you might think of a guy sitting in his basement surrounded by electronic devices. But a program called Parks on the Air — or more commonly POTA — aims to get ham radio operators out of the shack and into the great outdoors.
Let’s be clear from the start: POTA is not the kind of activity suitable for your small Baofeng radio or any other similar walkie-talkie. POTA is for high frequency (HF) communications, the type for which you typically need a general class license in the United States. To get started with POTA, you will need this license and an HF transceiver. We’ll get to equipment in a moment.
POTA is what is called a radio sport, it is exactly what it sounds like. The idea is that you set up your radio equipment inside a state or national park and make contact with other radio operators, which is called a QSO in amateur parlance. You exchange basic information and then record it in a log to prove the QSO took place. Then you email your journal to a regional coordinator.
If you make 10 QSOs in a 24 hour period inside a park, you “activate” that park and move on to another. You can get various rewards, like in a video game, and sometimes even wooden plaques.
The operator who ventures into the parks is called an “activator,” but it takes two to tango. You can participate in POTA without leaving your home by playing the role of a “hunter”, someone who actively listens to POTA operators and tries to help them get activations.
Amateur radio can be a surprisingly lonely world. You might find yourself calling all day and never getting an answer. The POTA website tries to prevent this by listing running activators and their frequencies. POTA participants report when they attempt an activation or when they hear others attempting an activation. Activators can also schedule an activation in advance so hunters know when to log in.
Here is a video showing what a POTA activation looks like:
Equipment for POTA
Let’s talk hardware. As I mentioned, you will need a general class license from the FCC. You also need an HF transceiver. If you’re a hunter, everything works, but serious activators need portable gear.
Small portable HF transceivers are called QRP radios and their power is much lower than that of desktop units. A desktop transceiver like the Icom IC-7300 can transmit at 100 watts while most QRP radios max out at 10 watts. The more wattage you have, the farther your signal can travel and the more likely you can be heard on “stacks”, where multiple carriers are talking on the same frequency. This makes the operation of the QRP particularly difficult.
A popular choice these days is the Icom IC-705, which has a built-in battery, touchscreen, Wi-Fi, and can be paired to a phone via Bluetooth. Another good option are radios from Elecraft like the KX2 and KX3. These radios are highly modular and are the only amateur radios I know of that are still made in the USA.
These radios are not cheap. Expect to spend at least $1,000 to get started. You can opt for the cheaper Xiegu G90 at around $400. I own one, and it’s a good radio, but it doesn’t include a built-in battery, so it’s something extra to carry in your bag.
Of course, a radio is useless without an antenna. There are millions of antennas and none of them are perfect. For trekking, you want something light and easy to set up. You have two options here: a wire antenna or what is called a vertical, which is a pole, usually mounted in the field on a tripod or on your vehicle. A wire antenna will be lighter and take up less space in your bag while a vertical one is easier to set up but more cumbersome.
I would probably opt for a wire antenna. A popular choice these days is the end-fed half-wave (EFHW), which is called “end-fed” because the antenna connector is at one end, unlike a traditional dipole, which has a connector in the center . EFHWs also often operate on multiple bands, unlike dipoles which are tuned to only one band.
EFHWs are general-purpose antennas. You can throw one on a tree branch or sometimes even a vehicle, hook it up to your radio and you’re good to go.
You also need a way to get the antenna high up in a tree. Many hams use slingshots or arrows, but these will quickly get you in trouble with the park rangers, and there’s a chance you’ll run into a passerby. A useful tool is a tree line and a throwing weight, which is basically a beanbag. The arborist line is nice and smooth and doesn’t tend to bend. Whatever you do, don’t try to get a weight back up a tree after the line is over a branch, it’s a good way to get it stuck. Ask me how I know.
Before venturing into a park for POTA, check with the park office to make sure they are okay with what you are doing. They may charge you for a permit or state other rules, such as no stakes in the ground.