Dan Koellen AI6XG
How to do a SOTA Activation
Updated: Jul 28, 2020
SOTA activations are challenging and with risk, be sure you are experienced in hiking, navigation and survival skills before taking on a mountain summit. If you are not experienced then a drive up summit or doing an activation with an experienced SOTA activator is advised. I will not go into preparation for hiking and scaling summits, if you don't already know how to do this then don't try. Get some experience first.
I also suggest that you learn Morse code so you can operate CW, which is by far the most efficient mode when using low power. Peaks may be activated using SSB but the majority of QSOs are made using CW. You can start with SSB but learning Morse code should be a goal for you. Activation does not require high speed copy, chasers are very patient and understanding, and the exchange is very simple so it does not require a lot of CW experience.
I will give you my thoughts from my SOTA activation experience. There are many other sources such as pnwSOTA , SOTA , SOTA Resource Guide , KE6MT, M0JCQ , W0C SOTA, N1CLC and N7UN.
Getting Ready for the Hike
A good point to start is find a summit that you are interested in activating by looking at the summit listings on the SOTA website. Pick the association that contains the summit(s) you may be interested in. For example, for most of my summits I pick W6 association for California. Within the association there will be a number of regions that may overlap. This can be confusing since adjacent peaks can sometimes be listed in different regions. Clicking on a region will bring up a list of summits and a map showing summits. You can also go directly to region maps where you can selected association, regions and peaks. There are a lot of peaks in some areas of the country so some work - and patience - maybe required.
Once you have picked a peak take a look at the summit notes for the peak. Available there is map information, summit GPS and elevation details, and articles and notes from past activators. The information from past activators is often quite useful to give insight on approaches, best places to set up and cell phone coverage.
Next step is to prepare your equipment for hiking and setting up for operation. I detail the ham radio equipment I use for SOTA activation in another blog. A Google search will also provide SOTA equipment details. Minimizing weight and not forgetting essential items are paramount, a checklist is useful to make sure you don't forget things.
Practice setting up your antenna and station, and taking down several times in your backyard before going on your first activation or if it has been a while since your last activation. Having a routine for set up and take down will make things go much better on the summit. You don't want to waste time setting up and getting operational once you make it to the summit.
Advise Chasers of Your Plans
In order for you to activate a peak, chasers need to know that you will be activating. Normally this is done by spotting yourself when you are on the summit once you are ready to start operation. You can spot through SOTA spotter (android) or SOTA Goat (iPhone) assuming you have cell coverage. Before you start your hike though, I suggest posting an alert on sotawatch with your approximate time of operation, modes and frequencies. Chasers understand that the time of activation is only an estimate. It is good to set an alert in case you can not spot once you are on the peak.
On Your Way Up to the Summit.
I advise bringing along a HT to monitor the local repeaters and call frequencies. You may also want to have APRS tracking though I only find good coverage on summits and not in the valleys or the way up to a peak. Assume that you will not have cell coverage somewhere along the way to the summit so your smartphone map will not update. Have a good paper map as a back up or premium subscription of a trails app that allows downloading of maps to your cell phone. Downloading maps to your smartphone means cell coverage is not needed for map use. I personally use Gaia pro but many hikers also use AllTrails. If you are going to a new summit, do some work beforehand investigating the tracks to the peak. These apps will allow you to download a track to the summit that you can use to guide yourself to the summit. This can be real handy when bushwhacking to a summit. Also turn on the tracking feature so you will have ability to backtrack your steps.
On the Summit.
Once you have made it to the summit, pick out a good spot to set up your station. If it is a busy summit you may want to set up away from the crowds so as not to interfere with their access to the summit, and you don't want someone tripping over your antenna or feedline. My main criteria are a good place to set up my antenna and a comfortable operation position. Once you are setup, drink some water and eat a snack before you start operation. Now is the time to spot yourself so chasers know you are ready. I set up my HF station first and verify operation but use my HT initially to make contacts on 2 meters. HF chasers will see you spotting on 2 meters and that will give them time to get ready for HF operation. Once I have made contacts on 2 meters (usually 146.520 simplex FM) I then switch to HF. On HF I usually go to 20 meters first and listen for a clear frequency around 14.060 MHz. Once I find a clear frequency I spot myself and start sending out CQ SOTA. Depending on your rig and setup try different bands, spot yourself each time you switch bands. I find 20 meters gives me long distance contacts and 40 meters (look for a clear frequency around 7.030 MHz) provides contacts to closer-in chasers. If contact pace slows down or disappears don't hesitate to spot yourself again on the same band. Enjoy working the pileup but be sure to take in the view and have fun!
What is a Nominal SOTA Exchange?
Contacts for SOTA are brief for the most part with exchange of call signs, signal reports, thank you and 73. The activator initiates the exchange by calling CQ. A long CQ is not required if you have been able to spot yourself.
For CW I use the following exchange:
Activator: CQ SOTA AI6XG (some activators will use CQ CQ CQ SOTA de AI6XG or include summit designation)
Chaser: AA6XXX (chaser's call sign once)
Activator: AA6XXX tu ur 55n 55n bk (tu for thank you, 55n->substitute RST , bk sent as one character for break)
Chaser: bk r ur 55n 55n ca ca bk (r if all received okay, 55n->substitute RST , ca is state - useful to verify call)
Activator: bk tu 73 sk dit dit (sk sent as one character for end of contact)
Chaser: dit dit (signals other chasers it is now okay to send their call)
If you have a number of chasers calling you but can not make out a single call but got part of one call (e.g. W6) simply reply with W6? If you can not make out any call simply reply with QRZ? or send your CQ message again. Chasers are very patient and will standby for their call.
If you hear s2s that means another activator is calling you from another summit. This contact takes priority and other chasers will standby. Be sure to provide your summit designation as part of the exchange.
You may also hear gl, gm, ga for good luck, good morning, good afternoon. Don't be surprised if some chasers look you up on QRZ.com and respond with your name. If you recognize a chaser it is nice to add their name after a tu.
For FM 146.52 simplex I simply call CQ SOTA from AI6XG alpha india six xray gulf a few times and add in the peak name. The exchange is similar to the CW exchange though FM operators prefer 'full quieting' to a '59' and a operator name. Some operators may not be familiar with SOTA so a short explanation is appropriate.
Getting Off of the Summit.
I am a big fan of brightly colored pieces for my antenna, lines, knee pad, etc. so they are easy to spot and pack up. After taking down your station, check your pack and setup area twice, maybe three times, to make sure you haven't left anything behind. I use labeled plastic zip bags for all my equipment and pieces so I know if I have an empty bag I haven't packed something. When setting up put the bags all in one place together so you can find all when taking down your setup.
In most cases you will take the same way back as you came to the summit. You will be excited, tired and anxious to get back so you have to be even more careful hiking back. Going up inclines can be taxing from an energy and stamina point but going down steep descents is much more dangerous for falls and trips. Be careful coming down!