Mt Everest

Practice makes perfect… but operating from a summit makes me stupid. I thought I’d made every possible error on an activation by now, but I nearly ruined yesterday’s activation with a new one. Let’s take a look at why mistakes are so common on an activation, and how to avoid them or recover when they occur.

Whence Foul-ups?

Activations are complex undertakings. There are hundreds of micro-activities in an activation. Human beings cope with complex activities by developing systems. (Habits are a special kind of system.) You can’t possibly think of every detail for an activation, so you rely on habits, checklists, and rules of thumb.

…but there’s a high degree of randomness and fatigue when you operate outdoors, from a pack, at the end of an uphill hike. Depending on schedule/weather/daylight, you may be in a hurry. It’s as if you were cleaning house, on deadline, while your dog chases the cat, after you stayed up all night. You’re tired and distracted, so you need systems to help you cope. Every activation is different, so you need to be flexible.

Smart Me and Stupid Me

When I’m packing/planning, I like to think of the “hill-me” who is on the summit as if he were a separate person. I think of him as well-intentioned, but forgetful and not too bright. It helps to externalize it in this way, so I can consider, “What clever thing can I do now to make him successful then?”

Of course, getting up at oh dark thirty, driving three hours, hiking up the side of a hill, getting dehydrated, and sensory overload from operating in the cold/heat/wind/bugs/passers-by pretty well ensures that hill-me will be forgetful and not too bright!

Checklists and Habits

The first step in error prevention is the humble checklist. Every time you find yourself skipping/forgetting an item, add it to your checklist. The checklist is your brain supplement.

  • I use a printed checklist for planning a trip, another checklist for packing, and yet another for operating.
  • I pack some of my gear in three one-gallon baggies. Each baggie has a list of its contents written on it.

Some checklists are tangible - such as my printed lists; other checklists are more like habits. After an activation, as I’m packing up, I always count, “1, 2, 3,” as I stuff my three baggies into the pack, to ensure I don’t leave one behind.

Another habit is tracing connections. Once I think I’m set up, I trace the signal path from my mic/paddle through the radio and out to the far end of my antenna. Then I trace the imaginary signal from the far tip of the antenna all the way back to my earbuds. This ensures that I don’t do something stupid like trying to operate without an antenna.


Label everything, unambiguously.

My latest foul-up came from operating a radio with a switch marked “Band 1 2 3.” This radio operates on 20, 30, and 40 meters. Except it really operates on 40, 30, and 20. Band 1 is 40, not 20. It announces the band when you power it on, but if you’re distracted at that moment, or you aren’t wearing earbuds yet, it is awfully easy to operate on the wrong band. It is operator error, but I’m going to get out my label maker this afternoon, and print a label which says, “40, 30, 20.”

My wire-winder for my 20 meter EFHW antenna is marked “20m EFHW”; the winder for the 30 foot wire I use with an EARCHI 6-40 UNUN is marked “EARCHI 6-40”. Those wires are awfully easy to mix up otherwise. (I’ve also started using different colored wire for different antennas, to make them easier to recognize.)


The underlying principle behind checklists, habits, and labels is similar to Six Sigma. Put systems in place that make it impossible to repeat a mistake or, where that’s not possible, to detect mistakes early.

Activating always requires about 20 IQ points more than what’s available. When you do something bone-headed, ask yourself, “How can I prevent this next time?” It may be as simple as, “Add ‘power cable’ to my packing list.” (Been there. Done that.) It may be a rule such as, “Never put anything down unless you put it on your ground cloth.” (Lost lots of stuff before I started doing that.)

Quck tip: Brightly colored earbuds are harder to lose on the forest floor than black ones and Amazon often sells pink colored products at a discount.


Be prepared to improvise when necessary. (There’s an activator who used the twist tie from his sandwich bag, when he needed a jumper!) Don’t give up on an activation until you’ve sat and considered your options for a good 30 minutes. Then, figure out how to make sure it isn’t a problem on your next summit. Remember, it isn’t an adventure if you succeed every time.