Activating by John, G4YSS
Note: You are also advised to read:
As is so true of amateur radio itself, there are many variations of SOTA activating, which allow it to be as easy or as difficult as you wish it to be. It has been said many times and is now generally accepted, that SOTA is not a level 'playing field.' Thank goodness it isn't! If it were so, there wouldn't be the breadth and variation of targets available for participants of all ages and abilities from the barely mobile to the mountaineer / expeditionary. Yes, from the outset SOTA has been carefully designed so as to offer something for everyone and becoming a successful activator is most definitely not limited to the super-fit. Where's the evidence? There are quite a few disabled activators and at least one successful blind summiteer! One operator's father attended an activation of G/NP-028, when aged 90, even sending a greetings message! At the top of the abilities pyramid, there are seasoned mountaineers but there are also Mountain Goat Award holders who scarcely set foot on a hill before SOTA came along in 2002. The important prerequisites are enthusiasm, the possession of an amateur radio licence and a love of the open-air.
Each summit is assigned a number of points between 1 and 10. In some countries a seasonal bonus of 3 points per summit helps the score along. Certificates for 100, 250, 500 and 1000 activator points are available but if you reach 1000 points, you can obtain an attractive 'Mountain Goat' trophy with your callsign inscribed on it. In case you're tempted to hang up your boots after attaining the 1000 level, further certificates are available at 2500, 5000 and above!
Starting out in SOTA activating can be a little like buying a new suit. The tailor makes measurements and a start is made on production. At stages there will be fittings where adjustments can be made. By the end of the process the suit should fit perfectly (until you put on weight, that is!) If you have little experience of either or both of the basic components of SOTA activating (i.e. hill-walking & portable operating) you will to some degree, be on a learning curve. Your first tentative outing might not go exactly to plan but don't be discouraged. With a little patience, a few adjustments and perhaps some advice from 'old hands,' there is likely to be an activating style that fits you personally, suits your pocket and sharpens your skills; bringing enjoyment beyond your imaginings.
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.
Let's get the serious stuff out of the way first...
The topics following, which are pertinent to safe SOTA activating, are detailed in Winter Safety Notes (for the SOTA newcomer.) Please read it.
If you're not used to the high places, conditions may surprise you; especially in winter. Suffice to say that valley and summit weather is 'like chalk & cheese.' You can expect a temperature drop of 2 deg. C for every 300m (1000 ft) of ascent, perhaps double or treble the wind speed / wind-chill and a high degree of changeability - in the UK and many other mountain areas the weather can change from bright and breezy to a full blizzard in a few minutes. If you didn't properly prepare for your first ever SOTA sortie, adding low-cloud and/or precipitation to this cocktail will certainly make you take notice the next time you venture out! Get the latest forecast; if possible a local mountain one.
In summer you should take precautions to avoid de-hydration, sunburn and (on still days) even insect attack. One increasing hazard is the common tick, which lurks in undergrowth (e.g. Bracken). These can carry Lyme disease. 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 and static could shock you or damage your equipment.
Ensure you have the proper outdoor clothing and footwear including, waterproofs, a hat / hood, gloves, food / drinks, navigational & emergency items including map, whistle, survival bag & first-aid kit. A good rucksack, which need not be huge and rucksack liner will help to safeguard your delicate radio kit. Pack a small torch, spare batteries, emergency rations and a survival bag. Carry a whistle. Your route should be pre-planned and advised in writing to a trusted person, to cover the unlikely occurrence of an emergency. There are still plenty of summits which don't have mobile phone coverage.
If you are completely new to the discipline of hill-walking, take an experienced companion and/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.
Take steps to make yourself more comfortable for the activation. A sit-mat and extra clothing are good for starters but if you're planning to stay for longer, portable shelters of one type or another are quite popular. 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 endeavour to 'blend' as much as you can, 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. A leaflet is available to help you 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 the vehicle, further research into mountain safety is strongly recommended.
Now, on a lighter note...
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 VHF or UHF Handheld, fitted with a helical antenna. Here SOTA can deliver a real bonus to make modest equipment perform better. On a hilltop, you are likely to enjoy an enhanced 'take-off' and contacts can come easily, especially if you're high up and close to population centres. If you're a newcomer, 2m-FM can be a good way to 'test the water.' 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 & antenna such as a half-wave or a modest SOTA-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.
The next logical progression is towards the use of VHF SSB gear, a bigger beam, more power and possibly an RX pre-amp. This is likely to uncover 'another world' that effectively remains hidden from the 2m-FM 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 4m, 70cm, 23cm etc 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.
SOTA activity is now world-wide and can be found on all HF bands. Activity is controlled by the sunspot cycle, at minimum the main activity is on 40, 30 and 20 metres, at maximum use is made of the higher bands. In the UK the reliable 60m (5 MHz) band has been put to excellent use for SOTA. To operate this band in the UK, a full licence is required. Finally, the knowledge that there exists a small group of 160m band SOTA enthusiasts may come as a surprise to many.
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 literally work the world. However, any temptation to reduce the quantity of essential 'safety equipment' to make space for more radio gear should be fiercely resisted; most activators use QRP with surprising success, summit to summit (S2S) contacts have been logged over distances of the order of 17,000 km.
Though on the majority of SOTA tops there is little problem, one important consideration is the space required to accommodate in a sympathetic manner, large wire antennas on busy 'compact' summits such as for example, Snowdon (GW/NW-001). Here we should invoke the '25m activation zone rule' which exists to help us address this issue and the question of how best to find shelter from the elements.
Since activators have obvious weight & 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 common battery types currently used for SOTA QRP work are Nickel-Metal Hydride and Lithium. 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 (sealed lead-acid battery - often 7.5 Ah) for use with 100-Watt rigs. It's worth keeping an eye out at radio rallies, to see what's available.
Obviously, VHF/ (UHF) handheld transceivers are eminently portable and unless its 4m, 6m or the bands above 70cm 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 our 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 FT290 through a linear is another viable option. You'll need an SMA-BNC adaptor 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 is the FT817; an HF/VHF/UHF QRP rig which was surely created to revolutionise SOTA operations! The FT857 is similar in many ways but is larger and heavier, it runs 100 Watts, and some SOTA regulars put their IC706's to good use. The KX3 is becoming popular, and many activators use one of several simple kit-built CW transceivers.
For VHF, many people use a lightweight beam. SOTAbeams of Macclesfield make a range of these with masts to go with them. For HF, the trend tends to be towards home-brew using thin wire (perhaps 20, 22 or even 24 AWG) and lightweight coax (e.g. RG 178 or RG316). 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 400gm 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. Some activators like to use vertical wire antennas on the higher bands for their DX potential.
Many of the masts carried for HF tend to be based on lightweight, sectional GRP fishing-poles, which are usually guyed by one means or another. However, in very high winds the strength of their thin, upper sections can be called into question so these might best be temporarily discarded in such conditions. Shorter adaptations of these are good at supporting VHF beams and a few operators use two walking poles fixed together to form a low centre-support for wire antennas. On many lower summits it is possible to put handy trees to good use. Whatever system is used, there are the inevitable compromises between weight, bulk and windage versus performance, durability and height above ground.
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. A pile-up must be controlled with a firm hand or a frustrating uproar may result.
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; the introduction of alerting and spotting systems, particularly automated CW spotting devices, all but guaranteeing it.
The relationship between activator and chaser is in general one of mutual respect and the drill is to validate each QSO by giving the SOTA reference, accurately logging callsigns and properly exchanging reports. If required, a specialised 'Waterlog' is available for use in the rain. Chasers can be of great assistance to you; QSP'ing 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, early in the proceedings but alternatively, there's the option to self-spot using a mobile phone. 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.
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.
Well, that's 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 favourite band, taking part in this fascinating and exciting programme, from a summit of your choice.
Finally: Two words of warning. It's addictive!
Good luck and take care on the hills.
G4YSS on Ben Nevis (GM/WS-001)
VHF NFD on Gt.Whernside (G/NP-008)
160m on Snowdon (GW/NW-001)
The Mountain Goat Award
SOTABeam 2m 3 element antenna
FT817ND in action
VX150 & VX17
4m on the FTC 740A
A selection of 'SLAB's
2.2 and 4.4Ah Li-Po Batteries
Open dipole link
The G4YSS 160m coil