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Old skool SOTA rigs.

I have been thinking recently about how SOTA has changed, and about how my perceptions have changed, over the years. With the 20th anniversary of the launch of SOTA coming up, I have especially been thinking about how I discovered SOTA and the rigs I used.

Aged 21, I embarked on my first solo adventure, driving my little Ford Fiesta (mk 4 Ghia in Tourmallard green, very proud of that car!) to the Isle of Mull for a week’s camping. I’d got my class A radio licence at that point so I thought it would be fun to try some radio on my trip. I saw that the FT817 had just been launched and I bought one from the first batch in early 2001. The radio cost me £799 plus £19.99 for the case! I did get a free ATX Walkabout antenna though, although I think I’ve had all of one QSO using it, that was a QSO to Italy on 6m.

I think I managed one QSO on my camping trip, oh well, at least I tried.

Sometimes I would take my FT817 out in the car and work on 2FM from a high point. In February 2004, I was on 2m FM when I worked a SOTA station on Pen y Ghent G/NP-010. The station was Rod, then M3HLD. Rod explained about SOTA and I thought it sounded like the perfect activity for me, and I already had the FT817! Later I would meet Rod at an amateur radio club and he gave me my Tectronix 465 scope, but that’s another story!

Actually for my first activations, I used an Alinco DJ-5EY hand held dual band FM transceiver. I didn’t really even imagine running a HF transceiver on a hill!

I didn’t start my HF activations seriously until the PP3 challenge put forward by Kjell LA1KHA. I built a home brew RockMite transceiver and got going with my CW at 10 wpm.

I look back at pioneers like Richard @G3CWI who were activating with rigs like the Small Wonder Labs SW+ by Dave Benson @K1SWL, right from the early days of SOTA. I eventually built an SW-20+ kit, just before the kits were phased out around 2012 ish I think. I think it would be fun to have a SOTA event celebrating the old skool SOTA rigs.

I reckon that just as SOTA HF CW was taking off in a big way, the older VFO and VXO rigs were starting to be replaced by the DDS rigs like the KD1JV ATS and MTR kits. I missed my opportunity to activate with the SW+ as I had got my MTR-2B by then.

So what does anyone think? A retro SOTA party using rigs from the 90’s and 00’s?

Surely those Wilderness SSTs, MFJ Cubs, NC40’s, SW+'s, Elecraft K1’s, Norcal 20’s, FT290’s, 690’s, 790’s can be dug out of the cupboard and put to use?

73, Colin


By coincidence I used my DSW-40 for a video just a short while ago. Still works just great.


Yes, I saw that video but I wasn’t sure which rig it was. From what I’ve heard / read, the DSW rig was very highly regarded.

73, Colin

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Going back further than the 90s, there are some great designs from W7ZOI in Solid State Design for the Radio Amateur and EMRFD:


I’ve always fancied making a micro mountaineer to see how it holds up against modern designs.


I have had made several micro-mountaineers over the years. Solid design - years out-of-date of course!

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Hi Colin,
nice thoughts you wrote!
As for me, I also entered into SOTA by chance, when I got a QSL card in a form of summit picture by a SOTA activator.
I searched the web and found details about SOTA and got interested.

My dear friend Santi EA2BSB (SK) was many times up in summits with his VHF handheld, not managing to do a single qso, unaware he could have run a SOTA activation. Once we met and started doing joint activations we enjoyed a lot with the handheld and HF as well. And the joy goes on till now.

I have a Wilderness SST-30 and would be glad to run it on any anniversary event this year…
It drifts a bit and is difficult to know the exact QRG but I’m sure that chasers would find me now that we have the RBN spot aid…
Count me in!

73 de Ignacio


A couple of years after I got my license, sometime about 1966, I made my first ever trip to Scotland accompanying my friend Geoff G3NAQ. We toured around SS, staying B&B, and operating from likely sites, and the highlight was operating from Green Lowther before it was GM/SS-056. We got permission to drive up to the radar station and after checking with the operator to make sure that we caused no interference, we operated Geoff’s gear on 2m and Top Band. We didn’t get many contacts, but it was all Geoff’s homebrew hollow state gear, heavy and power hungry by modern standards, operating on a picnic table from a spare car battery to save the one in the car. Details of the rigs are vague in my memory now but ISTR we had about 10 watts out on both bands, a 5el yagi on a short mast on 2m and a loaded whip on 160m. Without drive up locations it would probably have taken half a dozen of us to get the gear in place!

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Ready to participate with five of the old MFJ 9020 series, each with filter and keyer. Drift-O-Rama and no display. CW only.



My pre SOTA rig was a combined JBS tx by GM3OXX and a Sudden rx by G3RJV. A bit primitive but I made contacts. At the beginning of SOTA I used a GQ20 CW transceiver.

Would be fun to have SOTA retro party.

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That would be fun – I have my original NN1G 40-40 an NorCal NC-20 ready to go!

73, Jim KK0U


With me is a mixture… and a little bit I develop myself in the other direction back.
I made my license in 1977. At that time I was only allowed to do 2m and higher bands, because I had not yet taken the Morse exam.
At home I had no antennas and so I was much in the clubstation DL0SB and was infected by the 2m SSB virus. My first TRX was an IC202 with which I was again and again on some heights. It was the time in which there were no disturbances and everything which came out of the receiver, was emitted by radio amateurs. From the summits great DX connections were achieved even with only 3 watts.

Later there was the big license and for a few years I had a great VHF station incl. a 4x17 Elt-Tonna group. All this was given up because of a move for family planning.
In 2001, when my son was 3, I became a single father and amateur radio was no more. However, the virus still lay dormant in me.
In 2018 it broke out again and on the ham radio in Friedrichshafen I made contact with SOTA. So I dragged my IC703 with Bencher key up the mountain to see if SOTA was for me. - The next week I ordered my KX2 and a Palm key.

In the meantime, however, I sometimes really enjoy going up the mountain with a minimal art TRX (or a QCX Mini).
With very little technical effort (a small handful of components without IC and a morse key) to achieve success, inspires me totally… It’s like coming home.

73 Armin


Thank you for sharing your story Armin!

You bring up an important point about the changing RF environment. I guess radios have also been forced to get better, it’s not just normal incremental improvement.

I heard about the IC202 but I don’t think that I have seen one. Back in the late 90’s I borrowed an FT290 from my club on a few occasions to take part in a QRP 2m contest (PW QRP contest). The power limit was 3w, so the FT290 fitted quite well. I remember the results being published and almost everybody was running FT290s! The FT290’s then got replaced by FT817s as time went on.

73, Colin

It looks as though there is at least a kernel of interest to have a SOTA retro event.

I’m not sure if SOTA MT have anything planned to mark the 20th anniversary of the launch of SOTA on 2nd March 2002.

As the 2nd of March this year falls on a Wednesday, maybe it would be an idea to have a SOTA retro activity week. Weather is a factor at this time year (northern hemisphere in any case), so having a longer window to plan around the weather is helpful. I was thinking about an operating period from 26th February to 6th March, that takes in both weekends and also the week days in between. No specific rules, just a mutual celebration of 20 years of SOTA.

I have an SW-20+, an SW-40+ and if the sun is feeling particularly happy, I have an MFJ Cub 17m to use.

My SW-20+ in home made PCB case.



I just don’t know… of course, digital technology offers a multitude of possibilities… but if you take a look at the hf paths… that’s not always really good.
The transmissions have not really become cleaner and the receivers not more selective or large signal resistant.

The conditions were different back then. One experimented with GAAS FETs … also my IC202 got a CF300 in the receiver input had a low noise floor and remained large signal resistant.

Later I had an IC275E and a GRT21 tube power amplifier at the 4x17 Elt group. For all 2m enthusiasts 400 watts at 13dBd antennas (4cx250 tube and the 17 Elt. Tonna were the standard) were normal at that time. But we could already QSO 10 kHz further, although we lived only a few km away as the crow flies. Otherwise there would have been trouble.

Today, such characteristics - probably because of the digital game - have become indifferent… and the noise of the city ruins everything anyway.

73 Armin

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They have rather stunning RF performance. It’s why they were the rig of choice for a long time to drive microwave transverters. You need to use one to understand why they hold their value.

At one time, when you were still in shorts Colin, it seemed that everyone had an FT290. They’re quite deaf to be honest which was why the Mutek inboard preamp was so popular. The deafness was that much of a problem because they did shout very loud either! But they did a competent job and formed the mainstay of many a shack when coupled with a PA Brick and preamp until the great migration to HF.

I’m on my second 290 Mk1. Had one, wasn’t using it, sold it then bought another later on! I had a 690 Mk1 24 years ago. I’ve used this second 290 on 2m SSB along side an FT817, both using their own antennas. My 290 is not quite as sensitive as the 817. But it may be needs a front end polish as it’s 35 years old now.

Ron VK3AFW is taking a proper old school rig out this weekend, a 50yr old hollow-state FT75 :wink:

My first SOTA rig was a Standard C108 2m FM thing. It was a tiny “shirt pocket” rig that ran at 230mW! It qualified my first three activations back in 2002!

By my fourth ever SOTA activation, I had my FT-817! It’s interesting to think that the 817 misses out on being an “80s/90s retro rig” by little over a year!

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Back in the late 70’s I operated 2m SSB portable from GM, a couple of trips, on the back of family holidays with a Liner 2 and 4 ele quad on what was propbably about a 12’ mast. Being tethered to the car battery meant I didn’t make it up any decent hills :frowning:

The IC-202 was great, but I can guarantee no one has ever said that about a Liner 2 :grinning:


In any case, the thread turns me on…

I have to talk to my sweetheart about what’s on the agenda for tomorrow. The day is supposed to be quite nice … and I could activate DM/BW-115 again with a minimal art TRX on 40m.

:upside_down_face: Armin

I did! When 2m was channelised for FM I thought this was a retro step after crystal controlled AM, so I bought a Liner-2 (and later a Liner-430.) In contrast to my old AM set-up it was deliciously easy to work DX. Perhaps it could have been better but perceptions are important! Actually after a while I got fed up with the awkwardness of tuning the band in slices and replaced it with an FT290R1 with mutek front end, and started portable operations when on holiday, my 6m ali mast took up a lot of luggage space!

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They were used for electronic counter measures by NATO troops as they had power out on so many frequencies.