Low Band DXing from a Small City Lot

  Encouragement for Little Pistols  

This two-part article was originally written for and published in SKIP the monthly newsletter of the Fresno Amateur Radio Club (FARC).

Low Band DXing
Part 2 of 2

Last month I talked about the lure of low-band DXing and of the enormous amount of fun and satisfaction available to those who jump into the fray. My contention is that this exciting niche of HF operating is available even to those who are real estate challenged. To be sure, low-band DXing from a small lot is "doing it the hard way" but as many have discovered, the more difficult the challenge, the greater the sense of accomplishment when the goal is achieved. To earn DXCC on 160 and 80, the Little Pistol will have to grit his teeth, bear down, and commit to the long haul! Believe me, you will become intimately familiar with "The Three Ps" — patience, persistence, perseverance.

When you accept the fact, that for you, the playing field is not even, that no one else is really concerned about your plight, and that you are in it for your own sense of accomplishment, you have already cleared the first, major stumbling block. You will quickly learn to hone your skills, play smarter, and maximize the few resources you have available.

Here then is my list of suggestions — most thoroughly field-tested in the school of hard knocks — which should help you avoid the "dumb farm boy" mistakes that held me captive for way too long.

  1. Know the playground  Sure, the low bands can be tricky, but until you grasp at least a basic understanding of how the low bands behave (gray line propagation, QSB, etc.) you will miss important openings, waste a lot of time at the radio, and generally lose a lot of hair. How to increase your understanding?

    • Purchase the "Bible" - Low Band DXing by ON4UN  This is required reading. Mandatory! Read it, learn it, digest it, sleep it, well… you get the picture.

    • Subscribe to the Topband Reflector  It's free. Read every single note to the list. You will begin to pick up the vocabulary and grasp the basics. Unlike many, participants on this list are a well-behaved, knowledgeable group. You will receive a solid education. See: TB Reflector

    • Practice, practice, practice  Turn on the radio every morning at sunrise, and every evening at sunset. Tune up and down the 160, 80 and 40 meter bands. Recognize each band's uniqueness, strengths and weaknesses. No antenna? What, you didn't throw the wire across the roof last month? Tsk, tsk!

  2. Choose your weapons  Since you are beginning the race with a serious handicap, the choice of equipment is critically important. Further, if you are not independently wealthy this process is even more focused, and it may well mean that you build your station in small increments. This is actually a good thing. It's far better to make a bad choice with something inexpensive — like a compact antenna that just didn't get the job done — rather than discover that your $5000 radio was deaf on 160M!

    Study the following guidelines. If you don't understand why each is vitally important, you should probably reread ON4UN's "Bible." NOTE: These are not necessarily listed in order of importance. Your specific circumstances… lot size, budget, etc… will dictate the priority.

    • Purchase the best receiver your budget will allow  Pay particular attention to the specifications which will most affect the way YOU operate. Check out the Sherwood receiver ranking page. This list is pretty much the world standard for comparing receiver performance. Sherwood Rankings.

    • Decide that you MUST have an RX antenna  Yes, with just a TX antenna you will work DX on the low bands.

      Unless your location is very quiet however, you will have an extremely difficult time working DXCC on 160. An antenna designed for receive only offers a much better signal-noise figure, and simply put, allows you to hear weak signals that are buried in the noise with your TX antenna.

      With your small lot you won't have space for 900' Beverages, but you can probably find room for a small loop, a snake, or BOG (Beverage on Ground), or perhaps an antenna like the flag, EWE or pennant. If none of these will work, don't despair. I have had considerable success with a U-shaped 80M dipole tacked onto a perimeter wooden fence, four feet off the ground.

      For an exhaustive compendium of RX antennas and other useful low band resources, see:
      RX Antennas

      Rotating Flag

      The world of low band DXing dramatically changed for me when I built a rotary flag.

      Being able to aim the deep null off the rear of the flag toward the noise or interference sometimes means the difference between QSO and, "Sorry old boy; maybe next time!"

    • Choose your TX antenna  As you learned last month, there are a number of choices available for the small lot operator. If you have a 30' - 50' tower you could try shunt feeding it. Try inductively loaded slopers, or a folded umbrella. Even a sloping delta loop can be an amazing performer. The important factor is to try SOMETHING!

      For many "Small Pistols" in small lots, the only choice is a physically short vertical. Now before you claim you don't have room for radials, etc., remember, radials with ground mounted verticals don't have to be cut to a specific length. The general rule, "more and longer is better" certainly has merit on the low bands, however, before you give up on verticals, try putting wire wherever you can. Bend the radial wires; run them around the house, and around the perimeter of your property. Install ground rods at the corners of your house and at the corners of your lot. Make your radial system a "web" of separate wires all bonded to the interior and exterior perimeter wires and ground stakes. Bond everything to the galvanized water pipe that feeds an exterior hose bib. I even bonded my web to the neighbor's chain-link fence! The possibilities are nearly endless. For a very well-written treatise on the power of verticals, as well as plans for a nifty homebrew 80/40M vertical, see: Low Band Verticals.

  3. Learn CW  Yes folks, as much as you don't want to hear it, you will be hard-pressed to work DXCC on phone, particularly 160M. The weak signal capability of SSB pales by a significant percentage when compared to CW. Add atmospheric noise, EMI and QSB to the mix… well it's simply no contest!

  4. Improve your game  I have barely begun to scratch the surface on this topic. Fortunately, in today's world of information and technology, the Internet represents a mind-boggling array of resources. Never tire of learning. When a "What if…?" new idea pops into your head, give it a whirl. You'll never know if you don't try. Tackling the challenges of low band DXing will become a lifestyle. It will keep your brain cells buzzing, and your ham peers will look up to you with a new respect! Finally…

  5. Have Fun!!  Oh, and try to get some sleep.


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