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Operate Outside POTA

Parks on the Air 101

POTA, or Parks on the Air, has to be one of the best ways to liven up your ham radio experience. It combines the thrill of making contacts with the refreshment of being outside. I can’t recommend it enough for hams, both new and experienced. Chances are, there’s a park close to you.

Choose your gear

Think of your Parks on the Air outing as Field Day practice. What do you need to bring to be successful? Which radio is best for you? What do you want to bring to enjoy your outing? The checklists at the bottom of the page will help you think of items you will want to bring along.

Choose a park

Especially when activating your first park, it is best to view the excursion as an experiment. Accordingly, choose a park that is close to your house. This maximizes time in the park. On the off chance that you forget an essential piece of gear, you can go back and get it quickly. Use the POTA maps page to find the park that appeals to you the most.

Once you have found a good candidate for a park to activate, check their website for any regulations you need to be aware of such as park hours, day use fees, or special events. POTA entities that are national forests, game refuges, or wilderness areas have other considerations such as hunting seasons or controlled burns. While on their website, look for maps that may point you to picnic areas or walking trails as these are easily accessible areas for operating.

Choose a day

It is best to choose a day on the weekend so that you will have more time to operate and so that there will be more chasers on the air. That being said, I’ve operated during the week a few times and this has never cost me an activation. Do what you can when you can.

For your first outing, bank two hours for an activation at the bare minimum. More time is better. Chances are, you’re figuring out where and how to best set up your gear and spot yourself on the POTA website for the first time. By giving yourself ample time, you will stand a better chance of getting in your ten contacts.

Watch out for afternoon activation times! We North and South Americans stand a chance of it becoming the next day 00:00z in the midst of things. Then again, you can leverage this and get two activation days Zulu time within one day local time, daylight permitting. Be sure to get your ten contacts each day UTC.

Be sure to check the weather as well. High winds can mean needing more antenna supports. Chances of rain can mean having the park to yourself, but needing a dry place to operate. Pitching a tent in the day use area of a park can draw a park ranger to your location for the wrong reasons. Of course, pristine weather usually means more people which can limit your options for operating positions.

Choose a location in the park

When choosing a location, it can help to look for a place that is somewhat out of the way, mainly so that you aren’t in the way of others who are using the park. However, there’s no reason to feel like you must go hole-up in the remotest part of the park either. Picnic tables and small pavilions are nice options. Often, I have chosen locations that are located a dozen yards or so from trails or other trafficked locations. I’m far enough away so that I’m not a tripping hazard, yet close enough to people so that I don’t look like I’m doing anything weird, like talking to aliens. Leave your tinfoil hat at home.

Listen, then spot yourself

When you spot yourself, the chasers go looking for you in search of new parks and more points. Generally, getting ten contacts on CW takes around thirty minutes. On phone, it is much quicker. Be prepared for heavy pileups on SSB. I once logged seventy SSB contacts in an hour and fifteen minutes.

Of course, it is possible to work a park on CW by calling CQ alone but it may take a while. I did this once and it took the better part of the day.

Know the exchange

For me, this was the most nerve-wracking part of my first activation. Don’t worry; it is easy. In fact, I think that it is one of the best ways to cut your teeth as a new operator. The exchanges are short, predictable, and use both letters and numbers. Here’s the exchange. Our other operator is on the right.

QRL?

(After waiting and listening to see if the frequency is clear, Call CQ. The POTA website will pick you up if it knows to look for you.)

CQ POTA CQ POTA DE WB0ISG WB0ISG K
DE W2LCW
W2LCW GA RST 579 579 KS KS BK
BK GA UR 559 559 NY NY BK
BK TU 73 E E
TU 73 E E

Then it starts again. After the other operator sends dit-dit, be prepared for the next station or three. If you find a pileup next time, you’re lucky! More stations to work! Try to make out what is in this pileup below.

K2VEU3SNTK

Here, just make the best out of that cacophony above. Try sending back:

K2?

or

VE3?

Get a few characters from one operator’s call and then add a question mark. Whether you choose the strongest one, weakest one, first one, last one, lowest or highest, slowest or fastest one is up to you. Usually, only one operator comes back.

Remember: the operators want to work you so they will almost always slow down to your speed and repeat whatever you need repeated. Settle in and enjoy it!

Control your activation

Some operators are impatient or send when they can’t hear. They call while you’re still in QSO with the other station, especially while the other station is sending TU 73. My recommendation is to ignore them until they behave. It is your pileup; it is your show. You are in charge. Don’t be bullied into working the chaos creators. If you work the chaos creators, the good ops will give up and go elsewhere. Take a look at the DX Code of Conduct. I think it is a great guideline for all radio activity.

Log your contacts

When working a park, have some way to copy who you are working, whether it be on a tablet, in a phone, or on a paper log.

Personally, I prefer paper and pencil in the field. It is easier to write than type on a phone. Plus, it’s foolproof. Paper doesn’t run out of batteries. The major downside is that when you get home, you then must convert your paper log into an electronic one so that your contacts can be processed.

I like to format my paper log to mirror the exchange I’m going to encounter. A sample POTA log is below.

HHMMfreqCallTxRxNotes
201614.040W1ABC559559ME
201714.040K2DEF539559NY
202014.040N3GHI599599PA
202710.123VE3JKL579559ON, P2P VE-9999
202810.125AA4MN559559AL, P2P K-9999
20367.042W5OPQ539549TX
20377.042K0RST579599CO
20387.042W6UWV559559CA
20397.042N7XYZ599599UT
20407.042K8ABC559559OH, P2P K-9997
1 Jan 2050, Kansas Fictitious State Lake K-9998

I tend to write the park info and the date in the margins of the log page so that I’m not taking up space with this info. Conveniently, there are roughly 12 spots per page on the paper I use so I can use one page for a complete activation. Once you get home, remember that those who chased you want their points so try to upload your this as promptly as possible. In honesty, this is one area where I can improve.

A sample POTA outing checklist

  • The Station
    • antenna, especially for 20m and 40m
    • antenna support mast and/or rope if necessary
    • coax
    • radio
    • headphones
    • battery
    • battery cable
    • key
    • key cable
    • log
    • pen or pencil
  • Operator Necessities
    • backpack
    • food and water (depends on length of outing)
    • warmth and/or shade (depends on weather and time of year)
      • rain jacket or coat
      • gloves
      • hat
      • sunglasses
      • sunscreen
      • bug repellent
    • first aid kit (the more remote the location, the more necessary it becomes)
  • Extras to consider (nice to have but not necessary)
    • a chair (backs of trees are nice, but a nice place to sit could extend your outing)
    • a writing surface, like a clipboard
    • recording device (nice to have as a beginner)
    • solar panel (for most POTA outings, this truly would be extra. Still nice Field Day practice, though)
  • Esoteric (sounds corny, but I’m serious)
    • a sense of adventure (You’re doing something new)
    • preparedness for failure (It’s your first time)
    • relaxation (It’s just a hobby; no need to stress out)

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