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POTA, Parks On The Air, what is considered by many in the amateur space to be the gateway drug to either HF, amateur radio, or both. Probably no surprise, given that reputation, that the first actual time I’ve stepped up to a radio was, well, POTA. You don’t have to talk, you don’t have to spend too much time stressing out over everything, you just need to call and respond. Simple! And what did I get for the 6-ish hours I was out in a parking lot (with friends)? 92 contacts. One or two in Canada, and even one in Bulgaria!
Parks On The Air
The gist of POTA is simple: go to a park, and try and make contacts.1 You don’t need to engage in too much of a conversation (can if you want) other than exchanging callsigns, a signal report, and a goodbye. You don’t really even need much equipment, just a radio and a logbook. The people that go out and operate from a park are called activators. The people that make contact with the activators are called hunters. Hunters just need to make contacts, the POTA website can show you upcoming activations that people have said they’ll be doing, as well as “spots” (when someone puts in the notice that “I saw X operating from Y park on Z frequency and mode at this time”), so all you as a hunter need to do are look for recent spots you think you can reach, set up your equipment, and try! The activators are the ones that submit logs, hunters more or less just need to sit back and make contacts. It takes 10 contacts for your attempt to count as a successful activation of that park, all within the same UTC day. So if you start at 23:00 UTC, you have a bit of a rush on your hands. There is the edge case here, called Park-to-Park (P2P) which is exactly as it sounds: one park activator calling another park activator. This means you both get credit as the activator and the hunter, and it means that if someone hears “park to park” in the resulting pile-up after their CQ call, they’re likely going to ask that station to get through first to get the credit.
Now I don’t really have the spare income right now for radio gear, but what I do have, for once, are nearby friends. We were literally operating out of the back of his Smart car (like, actual Smart, capital-S, car), with an LiFe battery, a Yaesu FT-450 radio, and I had my trusty Little Black Book for writing QSO details, though I did later grab my laptop for some better logging software (HAMRS, though Fast Log Entry also has its place. I like how HAMRS automatically looks up callsign data, but it can’t import, only export). That and an End-Fed Half-Wave (EFHW) vertical Wolf River Coil antenna tuned for the 20-meter band (14 MHz). By ham standards, that’s about as bare-bones as you can get, and it still got me quite some capability. Of course, once I had my laptop, I did spend a bit of time on FT8, and that’s how I got that Bulgaria contact (anyone who knows what FT8 is probably isn’t surprised).
Pretty simple, and the other part of why POTA is just a gateway drug.
- “CQ parks on the air, CQ parks on the air, this is K1ABC with two other operators as well from park K-6789, calling CQ CQ POTA.”
- “W7XYZ, got you at about a 5-3 into the park today, 53, QSL?”23
- “QSL, QSL, yep, you’re about a 5-7 into Arizona here, thanks for the activation guys, 73.”
- “You are welcome, have fun out there and thanks for the hunt! 73 from K1ABC, but stand by for the second operator…”
It’s, even for someone with as much social anxiety as me, pretty easy to get down, and nobody is really going to get upset with you for not wanting a ragchew,4 especially if you’re the one calling for contacts, you’re the one that tends to set the pace of the conversation.
Exchange callsigns, exchange a signal report, and write it in your log, definitely with the time (always in UTC), mode (type of communication), and band, and optionally with the specific frequency or power output.
From about 1 PM to 7 PM we were there, bouncing between 1–3 operators on the radio, and trust me, you’d get a few stations calling when you announce three operators, that’s just three contacts for the price of one. I did get an audio recording (which was helpful when I forgot to write the time down for about a third of my contacts!), though I didn’t get much footage, next time I do this I’ll see about grabbing some. Sure, it’s a little troublesome at first if you have some anxiety, but if you’re like me you’ll quickly come to realize that the “amateur” in “amateur radio” is pretty serious: you’re not expected to do literally everything by-the-book, you’re not expected to maintain a complete mask of professional decorum, you, and everyone else, are just a collective group huddled around a collective set of radios and having fun.
I walked away with 87 unique QSOs in the logs (about 92 ish total), about a third of them have been confirmed by the other station submitting their log data about the same contact. 7 of which were P2P contacts, going by totals. Really there were 4, but one operator was within the boundaries of three parks at the same time, and counts triple. About 40% of all contacts were on the 40 meter (7 MHz) band, the rest were on 20 meters. 4 of them were with FT8 (turns out this rig didn’t like that duty cycle of work, on that frequency range), the rest were phone.5 In total there were contacts from 70 grid squares,6 29 of which have been confirmed at this point. Honestly, for my first real time on the radio (no, I’m not counting using a Baofeng on the local city’s club VHF / UHF repeater), I don’t think that’s too bad.
I’ll work on getting some proper footage for next time, maybe I’ll update this with that when I get there, we’ll see.
Commonly called “QSOs” in ham-space, “QSO” is an abbreviation from Morse code that means “make contact with.” ↩︎
“QSL” is the shorthand for confirmation. “QSL?” is asking “did you hear and understand me?”, “QSL” as a reply is “yes I understand.” That and the additional act of confirming your contact with someone either via postcard, or an electronic service like eQSL or LoTW, is also called a QSL. ↩︎
The RST (Readability, Strength, Tone) system is how we tell another station about their signal quality. Readability (how well you can understand them) is from 1 to 5, Strength is 1 to 9, taken directly off the signal strength meter on your radio (they’re calibrated units), and Tone only applies to Morse code, which we’re not using. 59 is the best. ↩︎
Ragchewing (sometimes hyphenated) just means having an extend conversation, you know, talking person to person, instead of just exchanging the information and going through the procedure steps. Like a phone call, you know? ↩︎
Phone, short for “radiotelephone,” short for “using a radio to get your voice from one location to another.” AKA, talking on the radio. No, this is one of those weird things where a term from who knows when has just become the standard. ↩︎
Maidenhead grid squares, just the standard hams use for locations, usually either a 4 or 6 character code representing an area about the size of a small city, like AB12cd for example. ↩︎