HAM Radio 101

Four Myths about Ham Radio QRP Operating

QRP has certainly been a divisive topic over the decades. Some swear by it, others swear AT it! There is no question that QRP operating poses challenges that most larger stations will probably never have to face, but that doesn’t deter thousands of hams from enjoying this fascinating aspect of the hobby. Knowledge is power, and you can use the knowledge in several areas of ham radio to your advantage and increase your success rate.

Let’s dispel these four big myths about QRP operating:

Nobody will hear me.

If ever there was an incorrect blanket statement, this one is it. There are so many factors involved with whether a station will hear you besides how much power you transmit with. These include propagation conditions, the quality and efficiency of your antenna, the quality and efficiency of the station you’re trying to work, the sensitivity of your receiver, and many others.

Study propagation. Learn not only where we are in the 11-year solar cycle, but also what the monthly, weekly, and daily trends of propagation are. Understand what the A index, K index and Maximum Usable Frequency (MUF) mean in the context of current propagation conditions and operate accordingly. Keep track of solar storms. Learn how to determine the peak time for an opening to the part of the world you want to reach.

There are enough variables on antennas to fill an entire library with research, so I’m not going to try and offer the be-all, end-all guide for antennas in this post. What I will say is, don’t use standing wave ratio (SWR) as the sole measurement of whether an antenna is effective or not. With a good antenna tuner, you can get almost anything to a low SWR; efficiency is another matter. One of my favorite things I’ve heard come out of hams’ mouths when talking about antennas is, “I can work everything I hear!” Sounds good on the surface, but if you have a very inefficient antenna, you’re not going to hear much. Working “everything you hear” may be a sign that you have a very poor antenna.

Resonant antennas are simply going to work much better than anything that has been marketed or adapted for convenience. If you’re a wire guy, it’s awfully tough to beat a half-wave dipole on the band you want to operate on. And who wrote the rule that you have to use tiny antennas when operating QRP? If you have the ability, put up an antenna with directivity and gain, like a Moxon or Yagi. The gain will help your watts go further, and the directionality will help you null undesired signals off the side. Point your power and receiver capabilities where you want them to go!

I can’t call CQ… what’s the point?

Of course you can! Not only can you call CQ, there are specific QRP frequencies where calling CQ is strongly encouraged! Organizations such as the QRP-Amateur Radio Club International (QRP-ARCI) have thousands of members who love to work new QRPers and are very encouraging for new ops. There are many QRP operating events. Monthly contests specifically for QRPers are commonplace, most larger competitions have QRP categories, and programs such as Summits on the Air (SOTA) and Parks on the Air (POTA) cater to QRPers. I’ve had many pileups from a POTA or SOTA unit with 3 or 4 watts and a dipole in a tree. Of course, there’s nothing to keep you from firing up your rig anywhere at any time and calling CQ, as well!

I have to learn CW to be successful.

There’s no argument that CW is extremely efficient for QRP work. However, that doesn’t mean that you will fail unless you use CW. Phone ops will benefit from better equipment and higher-efficiency antennas as outlined above. An operating location with some elevation above average terrain and minimal noise will also go a long way. And the digital modes, such as FT8, offer ways to enjoy QRP operating without using a microphone or a key. FT8 may not be a QRP mode (see OnAllBands article“FT8: Low Power or Low Signal?”,but plenty of QRPers use it to great success.

It’s just too frustrating

With very low transmit power, there’s no denying that QRP requires some attitude adjustment. Openings will start later and close earlier for low-power stations. If you’re trying to crack that big pileup, you’re probably not going to make a contact on the first call. In short, you’re going to need to set your expectations accordingly. When I got serious about QRP operating, it required a shift in my approach to radio; doing more with less was a new philosophy for my life, and it translated into my radio activity as well. QRPers do a lot of listening as opposed to transmitting (shouldn’t we ALL listen more?), and still manage to enjoy ham radio just fine. One of my best ham radio memories involves trying to log a VK8 in western Australia from Connecticut with my 5-watt radio. I tried for more than an hour and didn’t make the contact…but the hunt was exhilarating.

QRP is loads of fun and provides a good technical challenge to any ham radio operator. It is probably not the path I would send a ham radio newcomer down. Getting good experience with radio in general is a smart play, and most hams will build confidence by running a 100-watt station at first. But whether you’re looking for a challenge, need to keep a low profile with your home ham station, or want to get outdoors for POTA or SOTA activity and don’t want to carry a lot of gear, QRP operating is VERY satisfying. Working QRP has a lot to offer every ham, provided they have the right attitude and don’t need instant gratification. With practice, your skills will improve and your technical knowledge will increase as you pursue more efficient antennas and operating practices. Don’t be afraid of QRP!

KX9X at Skeeter Hunt 2020

KX9X at Skeeter Hunt 2020: QRP doesn’t have to be portable, but lightweight gear makes portable QRP much easier! With a 3-watt, 4-band CW transceiver and a SOTABeams multi-band resonant dipole, you can have a lot of fun in a small package.

QRP Questions? Email me at kx9x@yahoo.com if I can help.

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