Have Radio. Will Travel.

A pile-up is the ham radio equivalent of a Black Friday stampede at WalMart where my signal is jostled, elbowed and talked-over.

Many ham radio operators participate in something called a DXpedition.

DX stands for distant signals or just distance. In a DXpedition a bunch of seasoned hams (get cloves and brown sugar out of your head) travel to some remote location, set up antennas and transmitters and then activate that location/entity. Interested hams who stayed behind listen for the signal, make a two-way contact (exchange signal reports and call signs) and both stations enter that contact into a log.

Some of these “Have Radio. Will Travel” projects are as simple as a couple setting up their gear at a beach house in an exotic locale and are relatively inexpensive. Others are really pricey, like the current expedition to South Orkney Islands, about 375 miles from the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula. The Orkney-Antarctic trek has a budget of about $323,000. Whatever the cost, the goal is the same – to activate a rare location. Ham radio operators so desire to have these exotic places in their log books that many chip in to help cover the expenses. Manufacturers of ham radio gear throw in money and materials. The rest is often covered by the expeditioners themselves so they can have a once-in-a-lifetime adventure and know the joy of tightening antenna lines and cranking generators in sub-zero gales.

Making contact with these distant travelers is a challenge. I have heard the South Orkney Island signal already and it was weak. It must bounce off the ionosphere before it lands on my antenna. To make that bounce there have to be charged particles hundreds of miles above in just the right place. Even if the technical stars align there is the added difficulty of being heard over thousands of hams around the world trying to make contact at the same time. This results in a pile up, the ham radio equivalent of a Black Friday stampede at WalMart, where my signal is jostled, elbowed and talked-over. Breaking a pile-up is an art of timing and a science of signal strength, but it is mostly luck and perseverance. A pile-up on a major DXpedition is not a place for the timid and sensitive. Rudeness and ignorance are sometimes displayed.

The most useful reason for these exercises is that it hones the operating skills needed to receive and make sense of weak signals, the same sort of signals one might receive from a mariner in trouble or other emergency situations.

So, here I sit, looking at the computer screen you see in the picture below. I hear the faint white noise whispering to me that there is no signal. The frequency on the left, 14.185, is the one on which the ham in the Antarctic will be transmitting. The frequency on the right, 14.195, is the one on which I will transmit back. In ham lingo this mode of operation is called working split – listen on one frequency, transmit on another. Thankfully, I do not have to constantly monitor the frequency because as soon as an operator works the DXpedition that operator will usually post it on the internet. It is called spotting and it serves as the starting flag for eager hams to run to their radios.

Tech notes: Radio-iCom 7610, Mic/Headset-Audio Technica BPHS2, Amplifier-Acom A2100 1.5kw, Antenna-Optibeam OB10-5M @ 14 meters, Remote desktop software-iCom RS-BA1

I once heard an experienced DXpeditioner describe what it is like when you are on the receiving end of the pile-up. “Here you are in this exotic location, you make your first transmission and all of this concentrated RF (radio energy) from around the world is instantly beaming right at you. Thousands of signals all at once in an unintelligible wash of noise.”

Sounds kind of crazy doesn’t it? It is, but it’s also FUN!

UPDATE: Success! South Orkney Islands is in my log as of February 25, 2020 at 6:13pm EST. (Or 23:13 Zulu. Hams love Zulu time.)

Allen Brown, Callsign: AB4KY


“Listen with ears of tolerance.
See through eyes of compassion.
Speak with the language of love.”

— Rumi

Thought Of The Day provided by Thomas Brown, Madwillow Creekhouse.