Other SOTA sites: SOTAwatch | SOTA Home | Database | Summits | Video | Photos | Shop | Mapping | FAQs | Facebook | Contact SOTA

First Activation...and so it begins

Hello SOTA folks. I wanted to reach out and see if any of you could give a new comer to SOTA some practical advice about building out a SOTA rig. So I’ve been a HAM since 2018 and I’ve been largely listening to repeaters and occasionally joining nets. When climbing peaks, sometimes I take my radio and link into a repeater systems to communicate with folks on the front range since cell service can be spotty. However, I recently found out about SOTA. I looked up a local peak that had proximity to the city and a fair amount of 2 meter activity. I hiked the peak, keyed up in simplex and was surprised to get a couple of QSO’s. I also heard other SOTA stations and chasers and realized there was way more happening on simplex than I had realized. Now, I’m hooked and already have a list of peaks lined up for this winter, and some ambitious plans for next summer. While I’m fairly new to HAM, I live in a mountainous region and have nearly 70 ascents over 13,850 ft (4221.480 m). I only say that to make the point that I’m familiar with the ascent aspect of SOTA far more than the QSO part.

So, now that I’ve laid out the history, here’s where I could use some advice. Hopefully the conversation may help other new comers as well…

Right now I have a Yaesu FT-60 HT which has a max of 5w. At home I have an attic mount j-pole that I hook to but out in the field I use a Diamond SRH77CA. As I’ve been looking at the SOTAWatch3 log of activity, I noticed that there’s a lot of 20m and 40m activations. Since I know that a lot of the places that I hope to go are pretty remote, I started looking at some of the HF mobile/portables and started planning my build. However, at the same time, I realize there’s a lot that I don’t know. Not just about the SOTA in general, but about simplex as a whole. This is where I’m in a quandary.

From my perspective, I can see the following few options.

  1. Small Incremental Changes: In my readings I came across an article where a HAM was saying that an Elmer told him "For every dollar you spend on your radio, spend 2 on your antenna). With this approach, I would keep my 5w HT, start working with various antenna’s and really gain the knowledge of how antenna’s work, which ones work best in various situations, and what the real limits are…etc.
  2. Low Cost Entry: Buy a cheap quad band mobile/portable radio with more power (50w) and build out a more robust set up, primarily for 2m activation…and possibly some 6m work.
  3. HF: Dive into the deep. Get my General license, get a proper HF radio, and start drinking from the firehose. Which sounds like a lot of fun regardless. :slight_smile:

I realize there are probably a lot of opinions on how to approach the SOTA experience. The list above is what I consider to be the most viable options, but again, I don’t know what I don’t know. I would appreciate any feedback that you could pass along. What has helped you be successful in SOTA ascents? What do you wish someone would have told you when you started?

I will say up front that I’m looking for the “sweet spot”. What I don’t want is to blast a 100w HF signal from the top of a mountain and not have a clue that 10w with a properly configured antenna would have done just fine. Nor do I want to hike 8 hours to get to a remote summit with a dinky 5w HT hoping that I’ll get lucky and eek out 4 QSO’s. I want learn how to really be a good operator in a variety of conditions, and see as many views from the summits as I can.

Thanks for any feedback that you may have.

10 Likes

Welcome to SOTA. It’s a ton of fun. I was about the same place a year ago, FT-60 was my only radio. After the first activation, someone recommended a J-Pole antenna for the FT-60 which helped a bunch. After a couple more activations I got curious about HF, got my General and got a Elecraft KX2. Little radio but huge results.

I would recommend finding some activators in your area and ask to tag along on a HF activation. Personally I love the challenge of QRP (low power), lighter the better. Second, learn how to put up alerts and spots so you’ve got chasers waiting for you when you get to the summit.

  • Download the SOTA Goat app (I think there’s an Android equivalent)
  • Ask around and see if there are SOTA/POTA nets on the local repeaters
  • Hang out here and read, ask questions and watch the spots on active weekends
  • YouTube has a ton of videos of dudes doing activations. I learned a lot there.

73, G.L.

2 Likes

Howdy,

I’m pretty new in my SOTA journey too.

For 2M, build or invest in a portable beam.
For HF, CW will get your signal out further relative to SSB.

Like you I don’t want to hike a peak and have a failed activation, so I learned CW to make it more likely to get contacts in remote places while QRP. Still learning, but SOTA chasers have been kind :slight_smile:

You can see my SOTA VFH rig thoughts/builds on my QRZ page. I too am trying to find a sweet spot between weight, power, and reception. More power = bigger battery or less operating time. Lots of compromise to find equipment that works well together and doesn’t weigh too much.

Mike
VE7ESE

My last activation got zero QSOs on 2m FM but QRP CW got me about 25 on 40m and 20m. One big advantage of CW for SOTA is that if you alert in advance then when you are picked up by the RBN you will get an automatic spot on Sotawatch.

Richard

2 Likes

That radio is a keeper. It has a very high performance receiver that works well with an external antenna in strong signal conditions. You will find it will continue to work when you visit summits that are full of commercial transmitters when other sets will fail miserable. In fact it will outperform other handies on 2m that are 20 years newer and 4x the price.

I have done about 5 activations on HF when I used more than 5W. Somewhere around 20-25W when I was in The Canary Isles and was determined I would work people at the bottom of the sunspot cycle. Most of the time 5W does… but I do activate lots of CW. CW works with 5W and quite crappy antennas. I do use SSB but it can be harder with just 5W, that should improve as we come out of the sunspot minimum.

Which radio? Well whatever you can afford, there is no perfect radio yet. Which aerial? Well whatever you make. There really is no need to buy HF wire antennas when they are so easy to make and you can learn a lot in the process.

The important thing is I would suggest your learn CW. I spent 13 years licenced before a few difficult SSB only activations (long hard walks and then a struggle to get 4 QSOs) made me realise I needed more oomph on the air. I could carry bigger batteries and an amp or I could use CW. Learning wasn’t that much a chore because I saw the reason for doing the CW homework. Now, I enjoy CW more than voice because I taught myself simply for SOTA QSOs. And remember CW doesn’t weigh anything and 5W CW has about the same “punch” as about 80W SSB.

2 Likes

It’s a bit of a classic in terms of handhelds. One of the first radios I purchased, and still going strong despite multiple drops onto hard ground. If they were still in production I would have no hesitation in buying another.

Welcome to SOTA! There was already pretty good advice on growing your station in the replies of W7MDN and VE7ESE. My action list would be:

  1. Get a portable J-pole to replace the handheld antenna. If you operate above tree line get a fiberglass pole too (e.g. 4m = 12 feet) or build something out of hiking poles, if you use those.

  2. Get a 4el foldable Yagi if you are really far out

  3. Build yourself a network of VHF chasers in your area. Propagate SOTA (especially to retired hams who are available during the day!). Make use of alerts and spots.

  4. In the long run I would go for HF. A KX2 or FT818 would be a good starting point. There are less expensive Chinese transceivers around (Xiegu, Banggood,…). If you go into CW there are CW-only alternatives (really light-weight and tiny!)

HF never has let me down on activations, always made at least 4 QSOs, most of the time many more. On 2m VHF I can report a few attempts with zero QSOs, especially during the week.

73 Heinz, OE5EEP

6 Likes

Oh man most of those guys are Nutters, don’t forget to subscribe and smash that like button …. KH7FC Roving Radio on YT hihi

N0QLR, welcome. As a few have said here already. The FT-60 is a great radio, with my Diamond antenna I have gotten some nice distance QSOs around 50 miles was the longest. That was on a much smaller summit so I wouldn’t be surprised if you can get more distance higher. As for Jpole I haven’t used one of those but I do have an arrow it is a lot of fun I haven’t gotten into Satellites yet but I will at some point.
Now for HF gear, personally I never wanted to go away from running 50 or 100 Watts so I was lugging an FT891 , 12ah Bioenno, EFHW, 50’ coax, small fishing pole and a few other things. That all weighed around 35lbs and really sucked for me. I have since gotten a Lab599 TX500 , smaller battery, random wire, and Elecraft T1 tuner which is around 6lbs.
Really a lot of different ways to go about a kit it all depends on what you want to do. Some people are VHF / HT only and that works for them. I have done a couple of summits VHF only I had my heavy HF gear with me but didn’t set it up. Was that a waste of weight carry sure but at the time the weather shifted on me so it’s what I did. Anyways again welcome to the party.

2 Likes

Compliment accepted.

I live in a reasonably remote area and quickly found that vhf contacts were lacking when activating local hills. I made a yagi and that helped a lot. Google the 100g yagi.

When I eventually sourced a LiFePO4 battery I switched to HF, using what I had, which was an ft-857d. I made an 80/40m inverted V following the excellent antenna designer on sotamaps. That’s when I got the bug bad.

A KX2 followed. And several other types of aerial. And then a tuner for the KX2.

Most of my activations are on HF SSB, however I still carry the 2m handie and sometimes a half-wave rucksack antenna (google flowerpot antenna), a diamond rh-770, or my yagi. If conditions are arduous, then I’ll try 2m first for a “quickie”. I’ve yet to buy into the j-pole idea, as there are rarely trees on Scottish summits, so I’d still have to erect a mast.

Anyway, that’s my limited experience. It’s just great to get out there, work your way up the learning curve and share/read adventures on here. Oh, and it’s The Radio Rover on YouTube. Also Chris, Radio Runner has some nice videos from New Zealand. Adam, K6ARK does the same in CA.

Cheers, Fraser

4 Likes

No worries. Just Subscribed

1 Like

Likewise!

That Elmer was probably talking about a main station antenna. In that situation, a $3000 antenna and a $1500 rig is probably a good idea. However, in SOTA, we tend to make our own antennas as cheaply as possible. One well know activator in Austria just uses 2 7.5m pieces of wire. One piece goes over the trekking poles, the other lies on the ground. That said, if you are using just SSB, then a full-size dipole is advisable. Luckily, full size dipoles are also cheap as chips.
73 de OE6FEG
Matt

5 Likes

In addition to the radio and antenna aspects, don’t forget to work the crowd. Use SOTAwatch (or a linked app, like SOTA spotter) to place alerts ahead of time and to spot yourself when you’re on the summit. Give people a heads up here or on one of the Facebook groups, or all of the above. The more people know that you’ll be up a certain summit at a certain time, the bigger chance of getting the required 4 QSOs.

3 Likes

Then get a real kick out of asking “is this frequency in use?” and getting the reply, “it is now!” or something like “good morning Gerald”. Still gets me going after 15 years of SOTA. :grinning:

73, Gerald

4 Likes

I can imagine! :smiley: I know some call signs, but it was so cool to hear Stephan call out the call sign and directly say hi to them by name for so many of his chasers. It sounded like most of them knew each other well.

On my latest 2m activation, I got my slim jim antenna up it’s pole and everything connected and turned on the handset, only to hear my call sign being mentioned! Turned out some of the regular suspects were having a discussion about which summit I was going to be on (I’d had to change at short notice) and I was left trying to find the best way of breaking in with an ”I’m here, I’m here!” that wouldn’t sound like I was jumping up and down in excitement. :laughing: I think I went with ”This is MW7SRA.”

7 Likes

Surely MW7SRA/P no?

Good luck on your SOTA goals!

I started my SOTA journey activating Front Range peaks last summer with a FT60R and a N9TAX Roll-Up Jpole, with that combo alone you will have no trouble keeping busy and successful.

The front range VHF scene is one of the best I’ve found in the USA. It is only surpassed by the NYC metro area and maybe So. Cal.

I’ve bought a bunch of gear FT818-IC705….since I started my all VHF MG quest and it’s fun to try new rigs out but the FT60R and better antenna are all you really need to keep yourself busy.

If you add a hand-held Yagi (I have a Arrow 3 element break-down) you will have more peaks than most mortals can dream to activate for the coming year.

Of course if you venture into the HF spectrum the possibilities are even greater for success in which case I would recommend a FT818 or IC705 with a 10/20/40 endfed.

The reflector is a great resource for a newbie. Last year when activating more remote spots outside of Colorado I kept asking questions about amplifiers and more powerful radios but kept hearing “get a Yagi” and that advice helped A LOT. 5W is plenty on the FR. from Mt Evans East.

73

Erik
KE8OKM

Robert, it sounds like you are making the same journey that I made when I got started. In your area you will find your VHF activations to be OK, but you will want to get your HF license and get started in earnest as soon as possible. Let me suggest you listen to a presentation I did at the QSO Today Expo explaining my reasoning.

Normally, yes, but I think I was too surprised at that point. Used /P for the rest of the activation though.

It was a great one, because I got three s2s between the others, before returning the frequency to Viki, I think it was, and then three QSOs with three hams from the same tiny village not far from home. I think they were having a socially distanced garden get-together or something. :slight_smile:

2 Likes

First off, I want to thank everyone for your warm welcome, feedback and encouragement. There are so many great take aways in this thread! I’m glad I asked, because there were quite a few points that weren’t even on my radar. You guys have really helped me to get a good orientation as to what’s been working, and how to proceed with what I feel like is a solid approach.

In my initial post, I was viewing these as three different options. However, after reading the feedback and researching a bit more, I’ve come up with the following plan.

  1. I’m planning to pick up a slim jim (or similar) and a Yagi so that I can start working the Front Range more effectively. (Thanks @KE8OKM for your specific recommendations)
  2. General: Certify as with the General’s license so that I can start playing in the HF space. I’ve had the General’s Study Guide for a while, and I’ve been flipping through it but haven’t made it a serious endeavor. I’m hoping to certify in January or February
  3. CW: As I’ve weighed my options (pun sort of intended) I’ve decided that the overall advantage of a CW only transceiver is the best option for my use case. Of course, there’s a fairly high learning curve to working CW, which comes with its own set of challenges and rewards. However, the fact that CW only will allow me to go light is of great appeal. That coupled with the high likelihood of a greater QSO reception makes even more appealing. As a result, I’ve signed up for the CWOps class for January/February (pending acceptance).

So, with the FT60 for VHF/UHF and the CW only transceiver, I think I should be able to go fairly light, and have a good smattering of options. As I’ve started to look at learning CW, I’ve become pretty excited at the prospect. I’m hoping to be ready by next summer to be proficient enough to start working CW from the summits. Maybe that’s ambitious, but hopefully a reasonable timeline with the proper amount of dedication.

Thanks again for all your thoughts and feedback. I look forward to exchanging callsigns in the near future.

5 Likes