Activating SOTA summits.
What ham hasn’t looked at a mountaintop and thought “I wonder how my radio would work up there?” Everyone knows the higher you put your antenna, the more you can hear. I enjoy hiking and being in the outdoors. For years I have carried a radio while hiking, calling CQ on simplex, or working repeaters hundreds of miles away from atop local summits. Using a radio while hiking on a summit just makes it that much more fun.
All it truly takes to activate a summit is a summit with free access, an amateur radio license, and a sense of adventure. Many successful activators use only a Handi-Talkie and make all their contacts on FM-simplex. Others backpack various radios, from lightweight QRP CW-only radios to full-blown 100-watt radios with large batteries and antennas. There are as many choices as there are summits.
SOTA is not a level playing field. While at first glance it may seem that the points scheme is unfair, it does allow activators of every physical level and license class to participate. For example, Pikes Peak in the Colorado Front Range has an elevation of over 14,000 feet and is worth 10 activator points. You can drive to the top, and carry your gear just far enough to qualify for an activation. Someone in a wheelchair may be able to activate Pikes Peak and earn 10 activator points. Long Ridge, in the Brushy Mountains of Oklahoma takes a significant hike to reach, and is only worth 2 activator points. Only the more physically capable activators would attempt this summit. However, there is a good side to this. Because there are summits available for activation that do not require significant physical effort, anyone can activate some of the summits.
Likewise, the bonus points may not be justly distributed. Bonus points are based on elevation, with higher elevations gaining the bonus. This works for colder climates with harsh winters. But for desert locations, the summer bonus may better be applied backward, with the lower elevations receiving the bonus. It is usually much hotter in Death Valley than it is atop any summit. But it is what it is, and if you choose to play you play by the rules. To me, it isn’t about the points, it is about having FUN.
Each summit has an assigned point value based on the maximum elevation of the summit. The W5-Association is very diverse in terrain and elevation. Wheeler Peak in the Sangre De Cristo region of New Mexico is the highest point at an elevation of 13,161 feet, and carries a value of 10 points. Horseshoe Mountain in the Magazine Mountains region of Arkansas is the lowest point at an elevation of 970 feet, and carries a value of 1 point. Some regions have a 3-point bonus awarded for activations above 4000 feet in the more difficult time of the year. The point versus elevation information can be found in the W5 association reference manual (ARM) – CLICK HERE. Awards are presented based on points. The point levels are 100, 250, 500 and 1000 points. If you reach 1000 points, you are eligible to receive the attractive MOUNTAIN GOAT TROPHY, with your call sign inscribed in it. But don’t stop there. Certificates are also available for 2500 and 5000 points. CLICK HERE.
BECOMING AN ACTIVATOR
If I could pick only ONE WORD to give to a new SOTA activator, that word would be PLANNING. A properly planned SOTA activation has no surprises and much enjoyment. There is nothing more disappointing than making a significant hike only to arrive at the summit and find an important part of your kit was forgotten.
Starting out in SOTA summit activating can be a little intimidating. You know of activators who hike up huge summits with large stations packed on their back making dozens of contacts in a day. They didn’t begin there, and neither should you. Like any other part of the hobby, there is a learning curve. Start out simple. Grab a backpack, toss in a canteen of water and a few granola bars, and pack your favorite H/T and a spare battery. Pick an easy summit, then hit the trail. Get on out there and have some fun. Carry a notebook with you. Not only is it useful for logging, but you should also keep notes about what you did, what worked, and what you could do better next time. Your first tentative outing might not go exactly as planned, but don't be discouraged. With a little patience, a few adjustments and perhaps some advice from 'old hands’ it will improve. As you gain confidence and experience in both hiking and operating a portable station in the field, your SOTA operations will become easier. Another way to gain experience quickly is to ‘tag along’ with an experienced SOTA activator. This is probably the quickest way to become a proficient activator yourself.
Many activators set their sights on the coveted Mountain Goat Award but that's not for everyone. If you live far from the hills, suffer a disability or have little leisure time, it's best to set your own achievable targets at first, such as activating all the lower hills in your own area or selecting the ones where there is good road access etc. Equally, the more experienced might want to limit their efforts to the highest mountains. The really important thing is that you join in, enjoying the challenge and 'buzz' that you'll get from eager chasers desperate to work 'your' summit for the points or 'falling over themselves' to log a 'new one' or 'unique' regardless of how big it is.
THINGS TO CONSIDER
Like any hobby – there are a number of things that can make the difference between fun and disaster. Putting a little thought to these things beforehand can make all the difference.
If you're not used to hiking in the high places, conditions may surprise you. Suffice to say that valley and summit weather may be quite different. You can expect a temperature drop of 3 to 4 deg. F for every 1000 ft of ascent, perhaps double or treble the wind speed / wind-chill, and a high degree of changeability. If you didn't properly prepare for your first ever SOTA sortie, adding low-cloud and/or precipitation to this will certainly make you take notice the next time you venture out! Get the latest forecast for the area you wish to activate. In summer you should take precautions to avoid de-hydration, sunburn and even insects. In winter, wind-chill is a common enemy, but snow, ice, bad visibility and short days should all be taken into account too. Lightning is something to avoid entirely, a static discharge could shock you or damage your equipment.
Having the proper hiking equipment, clothing and footwear is essential. Dress for the conditions on the summit, not in your backyard. Consider taking a hat, gloves, food, drinks, navigational & emergency items including cell phone, map, whistle, survival bag and first-aid kit. A good backpack, which need not be huge, and a waterproof liner will help to safeguard your delicate radio kit. Also consider a small flashlight, spare batteries, emergency rations and a survival bag. Your route should be pre-planned and advised in writing to a trusted friend, to cover the unlikely occurrence of an emergency. There are still plenty of summits which don't have cell phone coverage, especially in the more remote regions of W5. Another common summit problem is a cell phone seeing too many cell sites. If your phone has trouble staying connected, try getting a few yards off the summit and limiting the view of the area to a smaller section of the horizon. For a list of hiking gear you might consider CLICK HERE.
If you are completely new to the discipline of hiking, ask an experienced companion along or start with something small and work up. For more ambitious activity, ensure that you have the knowledge, training, fitness and equipment appropriate to the conditions that you are likely to meet, with sufficient reserve for dealing with unexpected delays and emergencies.
SOTA chasers appreciate an early warning that you are going to activate a summit. Especially if it is one they have not worked before. Of course, you benefit from having dedicated chasers waiting to call you also. Thankfully, the SOTA web site has an alerting page where you can just fill in the blanks and post an alert for your upcoming. Most alerts are from a few hours to a few weeks in the future, but there are a few posted months in advance. The format for the alert page is a bit difficult, and you need to get it "just right" before it will accept it. Just check the examples, and have a go at it. You will know when you get it wrong. And you will know when you get it right. Just study the format and give it a try. Don't worry, if you mess it up, just delete it and start over. To post an ALERT (CLICK HERE).
At the summit
Take steps to make yourself more comfortable for the activation. A cushion or mat and extra clothing are good for starters but if you're planning to stay for a longer period, portable shelters of one type or another may be useful. Some summits have walls or stone shelters, but giving other people as much space and priority as possible is important. Time taken explaining what you are doing is time well spent, but you should try to 'blend in' as much as possible, both in sight and sound. Set up safely, in the least obtrusive manner and use headphones. Do your best to be a good ambassador for the hobby. Carry a leaflet to help you explain what you are doing, but don't give it away if there's a chance that it might later be discarded and become litter.
Remember, you are responsible for your own well-being, so whether you're 'thinking big' or merely venturing a short distance from your vehicle, further research into mountain hiking safety is strongly recommended.
SOTA is not SOTA if you do not have radio equipment at the summit. Life is full of choices but SOTA activating equipment can roughly be divided up into a few main categories:
Perhaps the simplest, lightest, least obtrusive and (if successful) quickest approach is to take along a single-band or multi-band Handheld, fitted with a simple antenna. This is where SOTA can deliver a real bonus to make modest equipment perform better. On any hilltop, you are likely to enjoy an enhanced signal and contacts can come easily, especially if you're high up and close to a major city. If you're a newcomer, 2m-FM can be a good way to ‘test the water’. In fact, the 2m band is the second most popular SOTA band worldwide. However, on smaller hills which are blocked by larger ones and even on many of the more remote Mountains despite a lofty stance, things may not be so straightforward. A 'rucksack vertical', free-standing mast and antenna such as a half-wave or a modest portable beam will help greatly but there'll still be certain summits from which you'll struggle to obtain the 4 QSO's required for qualification.
VHF/UHF SSB and Beam
The next logical progression is towards the use of VHF or UHF SSB gear, a beam antenna, more power and possibly an RX pre-amp. This is likely to uncover another world that effectively remains hidden from the FM handi-talki operator. Useful distances can now be covered especially during 'Es' or 'tropo' events, but the weight penalty begins to kick in. There are the neighbouring bands of 50, 222 and 1200MHz, but none likely to succeed so well as 144 MHz. 6m can surprise us at times and a handful find success way up at 10 GHz. Although uncommon and expensive, 2m handi-talkies with SSB are available. Currently, the Yaesu FT-817 is the only light-weight multi-band multi-mode radio available.
Simple portable HF stations can bring a whole new dimension to SOTA summits. Worldwide, the majority of QSOs happen on these 4 HF bands, 40m, 60m, 30m and 20m bands in that order. In the USA over the past few years, the higher bands have been put to excellent use for SOTA. As the propagation increases, the higher bands are becoming increasingly popular. Currently, 20m is probably the workhorse band in the USA, but 40m, 17m, 15, 12m, 10m, and even 6m are being used with great success. Because of the vast distances in the USA, 80m and 160m haven’t been as popular.
Of course, the more elaborate you make your station, the more difficult it becomes to carry it to the summit and to get it set up once you arrive at the summit. If the drawbacks of carrying and setting-up HF equipment can be accepted, especially if you plan to run significant power, you arrive at a point where it is possible to reliably reach most of the SOTA chasers worldwide. However, any temptation to reduce the quantity of essential 'safety equipment' to make space for more radio gear should be fiercely resisted. One effective alternative to this is to use QRP. Again, at about 3 pounds including the internal battery, the Yaesu FT-817 is a light-weight all-mode all-band radio particularly suited for SOTA operation.
Though on the majority of SOTA summits there is little problem, one important consideration is the space required to accommodate large wire antennas on small busy summit. Here we should invoke the 150 ft activation area rule which exists to help address this issue and the question of how best to find shelter from the elements.
Since activators have obvious weight and power limitations, their use of CW with its greater reliability in marginal conditions and/or QRP situations, has grown in SOTA as a result. Quite a few summit operators have trained themselves from scratch or brushed up on their Morse. Be they activator or chaser, all have benefited from fuller logbooks and the satisfaction of a new skill turned to good advantage. The most popular modes in order are: CW, FM, SSB, DATA, and AM.
The most common summit power source is the battery. Battery types currently used for SOTA QRP work are Nickel-Cadmium, Nickel-Metal Hydride, Lithium and Sealed Lead Acid Battery (SLAB). Until battery technology truly catches up, offering us lightweight, heavy-current power at affordable prices, many activators are stuck with the popular but heavy SLAB for use with 100-Watt rigs. It's worth keeping an eye out at ham fests to see what's available.
Obviously, VHF/UHF handheld transceivers are eminently portable and unless its 50 MHz, 222 MHz or the bands above 440 MHz you're after, there are plenty to choose from. The more rugged 2m-only or multi-banders, which can run 5 Watts and at least claim to be waterproof, are perhaps the most suitable for first-line use in the activator branch of the hobby, but there are plenty of lighter ones for use in backing-up a primary rig. Running SSB from an old, trusty ICOM IC-202 or Yaesu FT290 is another viable option. Remember to consider any connector or adapters you may need to connect an external antenna to the more modern rigs.
Thankfully in recent years, HF transceivers have ‘shrunk’ in size and weight, whilst greatly increasing in usefulness by incorporating the 6m, 2m & 70cm bands. Worthy of mention again is the Yaesu FT817; an all-mode HF/VHF/UHF QRP rig which was surely created to revolutionize SOTA operations! The FT857 is similar in many ways but runs 100 Watts and some SOTA regulars put their IC706's to good use. Weight and battery life are of primary concern when choosing a radio for summit activations.
For V/UHF, many people use a lightweight beam. Arrow Antennas makes a range of small portable beams. For HF, the trend tends to be towards home-brew using thin wire and lightweight. Link antennas, based on a resonant dipole for the lowest band desired, with pull-apart connectors for the bands above it, have become quite popular. A link dipole, carefully designed and covering the 80m, 40m & 30m bands for example, can weigh less than 1 pound including a spool. Roughly an equal number of HF activators carry a miniature (often automatic) ATU to allow matching and multi-band operation using either balanced-line fed doublets or long-wires.
Many of the masts carried for HF tend to be based on lightweight sectional poles, which are usually guyed by one means or another. A fine example of this is the JACKITE pole. However, in very high winds the strength of their thin, upper sections can be called into question, so these light upper sections might best be temporarily discarded in such conditions. Shorter adaptations of these are good at supporting V/UHF beams and a few operators use two trekking poles fixed together to form a low centre-support for wire antennas. Whatever system is used, there are the inevitable compromises between weight, bulk and wind loading versus performance, durability and height above ground. For a list of radio equipment and gear you might consider, CLICK HERE.
WHAT TO EXPECT ON THE SUMMIT
With the exception of certain hilltops which play host to commercial transmitting equipment, the refreshing low-noise HF radio environment of a typical SOTA summit added to a receiver powered by batteries, has to be experienced to be believed! Here, the HF activator enjoys a huge receive advantage over fixed stations and if conditions are poor it will be the chaser who struggles to complete the QSO. At weekends in particular, you can often expect a pile-up, but remember that it's the activator who must set the pace because only he/she has the full overview of summit-conditions, safety issues and time constraints.
CHASERS, ALERTING LOGGING and SPOTTING
Life would be hard without (declared) chasers but that's just what the early activators faced. Nowadays, band conditions permitting, you can usually be confident of being chased, with the introduction of alerting and spotting systems all but guaranteeing it. The relationship between activator and chaser is one of mutual respect and the drill is to validate each QSO by giving the SOTA reference, accurately logging call signs and properly exchanging reports. If required, a specialized “Waterproof Logbook” is available for use in the rain.
Chasers can be of great assistance to you; relaying your weak signals on request (apart from the report of course.) It can make for a more efficient activation, when your callsign, summit ref and QRG are spotted for you on SOTAwatch and qrpspots. If summit-to-summit (S2S) working is your speciality, chasers often help by passing details of current activity to you over the air. Finally, the people you work can become an important emergency communications option, if any problem should develop.
Alerting your planned summit arrival-times can help you too, but certain activators may feel pressure to 'deliver the goods' on time. If there is a down-side to alerting and spotting systems, it might be that chasers are less inclined to search the bands for the random, unannounced appearance of an activator. Individuals should decide for themselves but the facility (available in SOTAwatch) is used to very good effect by the vast majority of activators.
Most US activators spot themselves on the web. Popular sites are http://www.sotawatch.org/spots.php or www.qrpspots.com. If you have a cell phone with internet access, it is easy. For cell phones that have no web access but do have texting, you can text your spot to qrpspots. To learn how to text spots – CLICK HERE.
Frequencies & the Reflector
If you are a newcomer and want to know what frequencies are in current use for SOTA, look at future alerts and spots from recent SOTA expeditions. Don't be bashful about asking for advice on the SOTA reflector either; a constructive and informative answer is normally forthcoming. For a list of popular operating frequencies, CLICK HERE.
Well, that's about it. It's impossible to cover every aspect of summit activating but hopefully we have at least given you some food for thought. Perhaps quite soon you'll be heard on your favorite band, taking part in this fascinating and exciting program, from a summit of your choice.
Finally: Two words of warning.