Lesson Learned from ~1 month of SOTA

Sorry in advance for the long post, but I love SOTA so far and want to share all the good and the bad of my activations to this point.

My first SOTA Activation was on April 17th of this year, on W3/PW-004. It was a good first activation site as I was familiar with the area and had been there before, it was a short drive from work and I had an experienced SOTA summiter to tag along. My brand new to me MFJ-9200 with all 6 band modules was tested and packed, and I built a resonant dipole for 30m myself to use as an inverted V. I have only been an active Ham since fall of last year (despite being licensed in '09) and my CW time is even shorter, but with no ability to operate portable SSB and no FM activity in the area I was prepared to do my best. Upon arrival at the summit Murphy cancelled my plans to use my own equipment as the dipole center insulator did not maintain isolation under strain. Luckily my friend allowed me to use his brand new KX3 (it’s first summit) and Par End-fed to get my contacts. Despite difficulties it was a great day and a wonderful time.

My second activation was done on a beautiful day after work, on W3/PW-016. With a couple of non-ham friends we climbed a wonderful trail to the summit ridge and activated from a pleasant vista (something my first summit lacked). My antenna system this time was a somewhat bulky Dentron Monitor Jr with random wire and counterpoise. This worked fantastic and I finally had a solo activation under my belt. My friends were very curious about HF and it’s capabilities (we are all meteorologists so any science is worth learning).

Next I attempted my first activation of an un-activated summit, W3/PW-037. It was also my first failure (and in quite a bad way). The summit is a knob with very steep sides. I was under an assumption that there was a trail to the summit on the steeper rear of the mountain due to a Geocache website. I quickly found that the trail up the mountain climbed about 50 feet of the vertical to the Geocache. I left a note in the log despite not being a Geocacher thanking them for what scouting they had provided me of the area including the access point to the gamelands. The slog to the summit was brutal, at times hands and knees on loose talus, with trees too widely spaced to use as frequent handholds. I reached the summit and realized I had not grabbed my SWR meter out of the shack while setting up. I did my best to match the wire based on noise but did not achieve any contacts other than one on 2m FM, all I was able to rangle up on the local repeater. Discouraged I packed up and attempted to head down the way I came and missed the mark. I got mildly lost, around which time my phone conveniently died… Knowing I was on the gamelands I walked downhill until I found the well marked boundary line and followed it knowing I would eventually find civilization or a road. Upon dumping out about a mile and change down the road from where I entered the woods I quickly flagged a car to make sure I was headed in the right direction. The women told me I was and offered a ride, which at this point I was willing to accept. Many, many lessons learned.

That activation was a turning point for me as I knew I needed to update my load to be smaller and lighter for future activations. I also needed to get a more reliable phone as my current one dropped from 75% to dead in less than an hour.

My original PW-016 loadout:
MFJ-9200 with all six band modules in tackle box
7ah SLAB
Slingshot, fishing line leader followed by paracord, fishing weight
Dentron Jr Tuner, Micontra SWR/Power meter, and 2 wires, and at least 2 lengths of RG-8x coax with pl-259 connectors
Viking Nye Straight Key
Over ear headphones

My updated loadout:
Same radio, battery, headphones
Slingshot and just fishing line (ditched other ropes), fishing weight
QRP Guys EFHW tuner with 20 and 40m wire sets, RG58 coax with BNC’s
Whiterook Iambic Paddle with Legstrap

Just the tuner, coax, and key change alone was a few pounds lighter and probably a couple cubic feet of extra pack space! A new phone was also acquired.

The next two activations went much better and the new load simplified the activation process greatly. On Thursday I activated W3/PW-013 and the next day activated W3/SV-001, my first 10 pointer. I posted a short youtube video of my location near the summit of SV-001: SOTA Summits on the Air, Blue Knob - YouTube

Some recommendations:

The whiterook paddles are disturbingly light, have reasonable spacing, and the leg strap is a great piece of kit. I highly, highly recommend it. Best of all its one of the cheapest paddles out there. Mini CW Paddles, Morse Code Keys & Keyers : Electronics USA

The QRP Guys Tuner works fantastic and was a breeze to put together. I’m not an experience kit builder but their instructions are top notch. My only wish was for a slightly wider tuning range as depending on the set up and antenna completely extinguishing the LED is not possible and for someone who is a bit of a perfectionist this is a little annoying. http://qrpguys.com/

The Hamlog android app worked fantastic and is first class. I come home, email myself the CSV and the ADIF and I’m uploaded to LOTW/QRZ and the SOTA database in less than 5 minutes. The app is easy to set up and is rich in features. HamLog | Pignology

The SOTA Spotter app is also FB and worked well for me also. https://www.androidpit.com/app/ro.netroute.sotaspotter

The MFJ-9200 is a very nice rig for the money. It’s hard to believe that MFJ could manage to do something this good for this cheap. The receiver is hot, it has most of the features you could ever want, and is well thought out. It’s not a home run, but a solid triple, especially at the price. I bought my like-new rig used and paid even less. http://www.mfjenterprises.com/Product.php?productid=MFJ-9296

Some frustrations:

I still haven’t gotten APRS log to work reliably. I’ve tried using the cellular data to send info and also connected to phone headphones directly to my Baofeng 8W HT and neither is very reliable. Part of the problem is the low density of I-Gates in the area, but the app is not working to my liking either.

As a new CW op I am still operating QRS. I prefer to send at character speeds around 15-18 WPM, but with a bit of spacing between characters, and I especially need the spacing on receive. Quite a few ops are sending at my character speed, but not my actual WPM. I have begun spotting with PSE QRS and NEW CW OP and this seems to get most people to slow down for me, and I’m going to continue to do so until my character speed and WPM match.

Some things I want to change going forward:

The MFJ is a great radio, but I want to get something with SSB capability. While CW is a lot of fun and I’m getting better, SSB is quicker right now, and is more entertaining when I have friends come along. When they can hear the other ops come back and listen to the process it is likely much more interesting than watching me sit in silence pounding out CW. For now I hand them the slingshot for entertainment, which never fails. I was seriously considering building up a chinese kit called the KN-Q7A, but the new KX2 has changed that might quick. I’m seriously considering it despite the price tag. I’d like a KX3 but the KX2 is more affordable, has most of the features I want, and is a better form factor.

The 7ah slab also needs to go. It’s by far the heaviest part of my kit and while not nearly a serious burden, I can do better. I also want to switch to powerpoles but the tools and parts to get started are a mild deterent in cost when what I have works.

Well, if you made it this far thanks for reading my little book. I plan on activating a few more summits, including heading back to PW-037 and getting it activated. I have a nice short list of summits to go and cant wait to get a few more summits in the log. Feel free to give any and all feedback based on what you have read here, ask questions, and offer advice. And if you are planning on activating any summits in W3 let me know, and I’ll gladly tag along!

Evan - N3TWM


Hey Evan. Nice write up. Just wanted to say hello and you seem to be getting the hang of things just fine.
I remember my first time out activating. It was with Rich, N4EX. He was going near my location in Western Pa. and said , why don’t we do an activation together. Rich uses a KX3 with the built in tuner. He was an old hand at getting things set up quickly. My CW skills are ok, but I was still pensive until the qso’s started rolling in. I was able to use my home built MTR 3 bander on my next activation and it did just fine.
Keep working on your CW and you’ll get better as time goes on. Most all of the guys will slow down to your speed. You will find that just about anything that Elecraft puts out works as advertised. The new KX2 looks just perfect. The last thing I need right now is another radio, but I might just have to go for one at Christmas time.
I have been trying to work you in Pa. , but 40 mtrs has been long as of late and the west coast Pa. activations have been going over my head. I’ll keep trying to work you though, so best of luck to you Evan. de Scotty KG3W

Hey Evan, Welcome to the wonderful world of SOTA in W3 land… I’m fairly active in SV area with W3CDW (Chris)… if you’re coming down this way for the day… drop us a line… we’ll show you the sights…

73, Richard // N2GBR

It looks like SOTA newbies have both good and not-so-good experiences in common. My own similar reflections: https://aa3ii.wordpress.com/2016/04/12/sota-first-successes-and-failures/ . David - AA3II

David//AA3II… just read your blog… fun times there. I always bring two 2.5Ahr 4 cell LiFEPO4 batteries with me… once I used a whole battery calling CQ when there was no cell service on the summit. Part of the life of a QRP’r is dogge’d determination I believe… BR Richard//N2GBR

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First activations :slight_smile: fun times and memories. We always learn from our mistakes. Congrats!

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