Preparing for my first activation

Hello! When I first heard about SOTA, I was so excited that I immediately started studying to upgrade my license to be able to use HF, so I could combine my love for mountains with my love for technology. Recently I passed my General exam and have been working on assembling a working portable HF rig, and plan to undertake my first activation expeditions soon.

I have a few questions! I’ve tried real hard to do my homework and research, but I still have a bunch of questions. It’s probably too many questions, but if you have any thoughts to contribute, I’d welcome whatever you can give me. Here goes!

  1. I don’t want to make my first trip and either not make any contacts, or not do some crucial step that’s required to get credit.
    I’ve heard that if you go up and don’t make any contacts, then hyou
    didn’t put enough into the trip. I’d like to avoid this, but it’s
    not 100% clear to me exactly how to avoid those scenarios! The
    questions below are part of my attempt to make my first activation
    trip as successful as possible. If you can think of anything I
    should know or avoid, please let me know!

  2. I understand I should post up my planned operation time and frequencies up on sotawatch before I go. Is the procedure for
    getting activation credit basically as simple as: Post my planned
    expedition info on sotawatch, be there and log the contacts and give
    them the peak number, then come home and submit the information into That’s it? Or is it more complicated,
    like the chasers all have to all submit succesful reciprocal QSO’s
    or something?

  3. Should I ask people to post me up on SOTAwatch after I make my first contact, or ask people to do other things, to help ensure the
    success of the trip?

  4. I live in a place where I can’t have antennas, and so far, HF portable is the only way I operate. I was surprised to discover that it’s generally pretty difficult for me to make contacts. Most of the time, people don’t acknowledge me when I respond to their cq’s. It seems like most of what I hear on the airwaves is discussions between people running 1000watts with 80ft antennas. Then I finally contact someone, and ask them for an honest signal report, and they say I’m booming through and sound awesome. I haven’t tried operating from a mountaintop yet, which might help some. I’m using an 857d at 20w, and a Buddipole in dopole. This works best below 20m I’ve found. So far I haven’t been able to afford an antenna analyzer (because I spent it all on the Buddipole, a bad idea maybe!). At some point I’ll be getting or making a 20/40m dipole. The Buddipole does 20m and 40m with increasing degrees of compromise. So far I’ve not been able to make a contact on 20m SSB, but I have been able to do 20m PSK31. Under my current configuration, 12m, 15m, 17m, and probably 10m seem to work a lot better than 20m. Do you think I should expect better results under the more ideal circumstances of on top of a mountain than I have so far in my little experiments in the clutter of the city? It seems everyone operates on 20m and 40m for activations. Should I hold out until I get a tuner and a near full size dipole, or do you think that maybe the mountaintop situation will help my buddipole work better on 20m or 40m?

  5. I don’t have an antenna tuner yet. Would experimenting with wire dipoles still be worthwhile?

  6. I’m not a CW operator yet, and with my current rig I’ve had trouble getting through to people on 20m voice. So PSK31 really
    appealed to me. I played around with this app for my phone, and was
    astonished at how well it worked. So I might actually try
    activation with PSK31. Maybe that’s kinda not in the right spirit
    for SOTA, but maybe it’ll be easier for me to make the most of my
    signal with PSK31 vs SSB phone. Is this a good idea, or a terrible
    idea? Is PSK31 something that people use for activation and chasing?
    I see in the rules that this is ok, but will I be able to get
    activation credit? It’s not real clear to me under what
    circumstances I can get credit, as I mentioned in question 1.

  7. How much battery life do I need? Looking at people’s logs, it looks like people stay on the mountaintops for 15 minutes, log their
    stuff, and take off for the next peak. When I’m operating portable
    just trying to make contacts, it takes me much longer to get some
    QSO’s. I imagine a great deal of this has to do with my lack of
    skill in operating and antenna technique. My current battery setup
    is good for probably an hour or two. I’m working on solar
    recharging, and will probably upgrade my battery situation before
    long. Think I can make it happen with an hour or so of battery? Do
    activators sometimes end up needing several hours to try to get
    their requisite QSO’s?

  8. I’ve been operating at 20w, because I’m not sure how much current my battery can provide or how much my radio needs (857d). It looks to me like most activators use KX3’s and 817’s at 10w and below. I see
    the voltage levels drop when I’m transmitting, and 20w doesn’t make
    it go below the required 11.7v. Should I operate at 10w and make my
    battery last longer, or stick with 20w?

Thanks for discussing this with me. I hope to see some of you on the airwaves soon!


Hi Rico

What type/capacity of battery are you using or planning to use?

The receive current draw of an 857 is about 800mW, so you’'ll need to take this into account when operating portable.

73 Mike

Right now I’m using a sealed lead-acid 10Ah battery, which seems to keep me going for a couple of hours. Although I expect my transmit duty cycle to be much heavier on a sota trip than I’ve seen so far in trying to make casual qso’s. I think I’d like to buy one or two 7Ah LIPO batteries, which would be lighter and probably better, but I haven’t done this yet.

Hi Rico…I have a Buddipole also…have you tried a VersaTee vertical config??? See this youtube link. Easy setup and easy tune…tried it activating islands and lighthouses and it worked well.

Setting up the Buddipole Versatee Vertical - YouTube

Hi Rico,

I’m using something very similar to this.

The 16Ah weighs a couple of Kilos. Well worth a look.

I’m using the extended 22Ah version with an 857. Great battery.

73 Mike

Thanks for suggesting this! I haven’t yet tried vertical whip configurations, no. I’ll try this configuration out and see what I can do. I’d seen this video before, but avoided it because I don’t have an antenna analyzer yet, so I figure I wouldn’t be able to figure out precisely where it’s resonant, and which coil I need to tap. So I’ve been going with the cookie-cutter installs that tell me specifically which coil to tap, and such.

I’ll give this configuration a shot, but it’s looking like I need to get an antenna analyzer as soon as I can swing it. In the mean time, perhaps I can tune by listening for peak noise…

Thanks, Mike! How many watts are you able to transmit in SSB with your 857 on that 22Ah battery before the voltage drops too much?

Hi Rico,

I usually run between 20 and 40 watts depending on conditions. On SSB the 22Ah lithium will run the 857 for many hours. I’ve never managed to flatten it yet and I’ve done some very long activations.

I’m not sure if the link I posted was an American site, but Google is your friend.

Good luck
Mike 2E0YYY

Indeed. Thank you!

Rico…I don’t have an antenna analyzer either…just used the SWR indicator on my 857 to get close…easy to do…give it a try.


I’ve been trying to figure out how to use the built-in SWR meter on the 857, and haven’t figured it out yet! I’ve scoured the manual on the topic, and it just kind of hints that the built-in SWR meter exists. I’ve searched for info on the net about how to use the built-in SWR meter on the 857, and didn’t see anything that made sense to me. I think I need to seriously sit down and work hard at figuring it out once and for all. I’ll redouble my efforts in this. I’ll give it a try again. Thanks, Mike.


Good luck with that first activation. All will not go to plan. It never does and that’s part of the fun.

Try this link for some tips:

I have one of these:-

Incredibly light, done in excess of 3 hours at 20-30W SSB numerous times and still had at least one green LED on the ‘fuel gauge’
I did use the 857 briefly (couple of minutes to complete a QSO to VK) at 80W once… Don’t think I’d like to do it much longer than that!

It did ‘die’ briefly once, it was lying in direct sun, I suspect it was some combination of using 80W, and it being hot. I unplugged it for a couple of minutes, and it’s worked fine since.




First, welcome to SOTA! I don’t know if you subscribe to the NA SOTA Yahoo reflector yet but you will find a very active and supportive community with a number of Activators from the Bay area. See Yahoo | Mail, Weather, Search, Politics, News, Finance, Sports & Videos

You have a number of questions that best might be answered by going with an experienced Activator on a local, not-difficult, activation just to ensure your success. Ask if you could get together with some of the Activators in your area. K6EL/Elliott has helped a number of folks get started and is very active in the SF area.

Good luck. We will be listening for you!


Hi, Rico. Using the SWR meter on the 857 is simple.

  1. press the FUNC button, bottom left.
  2. rotate select to get multifunction row “i” (shown middle left of screen)
  3. press button “A” repeatedly until the bottom left indication is SWR.
    The S-meter scale will now indicate SWR on transmit. The idea is to get as small an indication as possible, preferably nothing showing at all on transmit. It is best to set the mode to FM to get the carrier that would be missing on USB/LSB otherwise you transmit SSB voice and get a flickering response for SWR which is not easy to work with. With this setting of the 857 you now adjust the antenna to get minimum SWR indication, then go back to the transmit mode that you want to operate in. FWIW, the procedure is the same for the FT-897 and 817.

Re your question 2, that is it, basically. Entering contacts into the database is simple, just take each step as the program guides you. Don’t worry if you don’t always succeed in qualifying the activation with four contacts: if the ionosphere won’t play ball there is nothing that you can do about it but change bands and try again!


Brian G8ADD

Don, Thanks for the link to that LiPo battery! That looks really interesting!

Guy, thanks for the tip regarding nasota. I’ve just signed up, and this looks like it’ll be a tremendous resource. The idea of connecting with a local activator is a good one. I’ll join that group and work on that. Thanks!

Brian, what you have written there may be the best writeup on 857 SWR meter anywhere on the net. Thank you!


The Tracer cells are processor controlled and as Don mentioned, cranking up the power, will cause them to shut down. The LiFePO4 golf cart batteries are also processor controlled but are capable of delivering much more current. However, there is a penalty to pay with the LiFePO4 in the form of weight. Having said this, a 22Ah LiFePO4 will probably weigh less than your 10Ah sealed lead acid.

73 Mike

Hi again Rico…just another quick note…I see someone already steered you in the right direction for your SWR meter on your 857. I didn’t buy the Buddipole counterpoise kit…just found a bolt with the right thread and a couple nuts…soldered a ring connector on the end of some automotive type primary wire (16 gauge maybe???) I had in my garage and made a wire winder out of a piece of stiff cardboard. Slip the wire ring connector on the bolt between the two nuts…thread the bolt into the versaTee…snug up the first nut…then snug the second nut for a good connection against the ring/counterpoise wire…unwind wire as needed to tune. The price was right!


Nobody wants to leave empty handed, but to say “you didn’t put enough into it” if you didn’t make any contacts is nonsense. Sometimes that’s just how it is. However, from a mountaintop you have a better chance at making more contacts due to your elevation.

You don’t have to post your planned activation time. Just hike up there, make four contacts, then log them on the SOTA webpage when you get back. Done and done.

Nope. People are usually listening on-air, not looking at the web. All you need is an exchange of callsigns and maybe a signal report. Everything else is gravy.

I use a 20m wire dipole and an FT-817ND with 5W for HF SSB. It takes me about an hour to find and work four contacts. If I’m not doing so well I’ll switch to 2m FM. Or vice-versa.

Experimenting is always worthwhile. If you make a wire dipole try to find a friend with a tuner to help you set the length accurately. When you’re done, leave it alone and it’ll be fine every time after that.

Using PSK31 means more equipment, and more to go wrong (and fewer potential contacts). Use it if you like, but be prepared to fall back to voice.

Sometimes it takes me a while. Sometimes it doesn’t. You can never have too much battery power- but you have to carry it…

I use 5W. QRP FTW!

It’s good that you have identified some issues, and you should plan to avoid them, but it’s not worth worrying too much. SOTA is about having fun. Making the occasional mistake is no big deal.

I recommend that you should pack everything you need into a backpack and then go into your back yard and set up as if you were on the mountaintop. Now write down the stuff you forgot. Make a checklist for packing so that next time you’ll have everything.

Most importantly- have fun!!


[quote=“G8ADD, post:15, topic:9251, full:true”]
3) press button “A” repeatedly until the bottom left indication is SWR.
The S-meter scale will now indicate SWR on transmit. The idea is to get as small an indication as possible, preferably nothing showing at all on transmit. It is best to set the mode to FM to get the carrier that would be missing on USB/LSB otherwise you transmit SSB voice and get a flickering response for SWR which is not easy to work with. With this setting of the 857 you now adjust the antenna to get minimum SWR indication, then go back to the transmit mode that you want to operate in. FWIW, the procedure is the same for the FT-897 and 817.[/quote]

Excellent writeup, Brian. The only thing I would add is that I prefer to use AM mode instead of FM (initially in the case of a manual antenna tuner or tuning an antenna by hand, or exclusively in the case of an automatic tuner). On FM, these radios generate a carrier at the full power setting currently selected. On AM, the transmitted carrier level is approximately 1/4 of the power setting. This is safer for the final transistors than dumping maximum power into an unknown match. It is also better for batteries; many would be shocked by how high the DC input current can spike during a tuning cycle.

If tuning a manual tuner or antenna, once a close match is found, the mode can be changed to FM (or CW; either generates the same full power carrier), and the adjustments optimized. The SWR meter apparently indicates something more like reflected power than true SWR, so the added power makes it more sensitive.

An automatic antenna tuner should be driven by as little power as possible to initiate a tune cycle, for the sake of both the tuner and the transmitter.

—73 Karl KA3RCS