The Summits On The Air (SOTA) program has really taken off in North America. SOTA originated in the UK in 2002, so it took a little while for it to make it across the Atlantic to this continent. The basic idea of SOTA is to operate from a designated list of summits or to work other radio operators when they activate the summits. The list of designated summits are assigned scoring points based on elevation and there are scoring systems for both activators (radio operators on a summit) and chasers (radio operators working someone on a summit). See this blog posting for links to tons of information.
Most of the operating is on the HF bands but there are quite a few VHF contacts on SOTA. Obviously, HF has the advantage of being able to work longer distances without too much trouble. Typically, the HF station is your classic portable QRP rig, portable antenna and battery power. (A portable power source is required and the use of fossil fuels is prohibited.) Being a VHF enthusiast, I prefer the challenge of making contacts above 50 MHz, so my SOTA contacts are usually on 2 meters or 70 cm.
My basic VHF SOTA station is a handheld FM transceiver with a ½-wave telescoping antenna. The standard rubber duck on a handheld transceiver (HT) is generally a poor radiator so using a ½-wave antenna is a huge improvement. This simple station is an easy addition to my normal hiking routine…just stuff the HT and antenna in my backpack along with the usual hiking essentials and head for the summit.
To count as a SOTA activation, you need to make a minimum of 4 contacts from the summit. If I am hiking a summit within range of a major city, I can usually just make some random contacts by calling CQ on the National Simplex Calling Frequency, 146.52 MHz. However, operating in more remote areas requires a little more planning. I’d hate to hike all that way and come up short on the required contacts, so I use a few tactics to rustle up some VHF contacts. Of course, I will post my planned activation on the SOTAwatch site in advance, to let people know that I’ll be on the air. While this goes out worldwide, it may not reach the right radio amateurs within VHF range. The next thing I do is send an email to some of VHF-equipped hams I know will be within range. Many people respond to such a request to work a summit, even if they are not active in SOTA. When on the summit, my first call is on 146.52 MHz or some other popular simplex frequency. If I don’t raise anyone there, I will make a call on a few of the 2m repeaters in the area to see if someone will come over to “five two” to make a contact. SOTA does not recognize repeater contacts but it is OK to solicit simplex contacts using a repeater. These techniques and a little patience have always gotten me at least four contacts, and usually quite a few more.
The omnidirectional antenna of the basic VHF SOTA station will make some contacts, adding some antenna gain can really help your signal. There are a number of compact directional antennas that are easy to take hiking. Elk Antennas makes a log-periodic antenna that covers 2 meters and 70 cm. Another popular antenna is the 2 meter / 70 cm Yagi antenna made by Arrow Antenna. These antennas are lightweight and assemble/dissemble easily, which is important to hiking radio operators.
So far, most of the SOTA VHF activity in North America is on on 2m FM, the utility mode. Everyone seems to have a 2m HT, so tossing it in a backpack and heading out is a natural thing to do. Using my FT-817, I have made some VHF contacts on CW and SSB. See this posting about a recent SSB activation. These modes are much efficient than FM and the station on the other end is likely to be a big weak-signal station. Nothing like a big gun station with huge antennas to help pull your QRP signal out of the noise! I expect the use of CW and SSB to increase on VHF as SOTA becomes more popular. While FM activity uses vertical polarization (antenna elements are vertical), most SSB/CW activity uses horizontal polarization (antenna elements are horizontal).
Summits On The Air is a great way to take ham radio outdoors. So get off the couch, find a summit and have some fun with ham radio.
See my other SOTA postings here.
73, Bob K0NR