What is SOTA?
SOTA, or Summits On The Air, is basically an activity where ham radio operators take their radio equipment to a hill or mountain summit, set up a portable station and attempt to communicate with other ham radio operators. In most cases the ham radio operator has to hike to the summit, operation from a vehicle is not allowed.
SOTA is an international cooperative effort to coordinate communications (i.e. contacts) between ham radio/amateur radio operators (hams) that have scaled a mountain summit with radio equipment and other hams that want to contact them. There is an awards schedule that provides recognition to those hams that have scaled peaks (activators) and those that contacted them on the peaks (chasers). SOTA, as an organization, provides permanent logs, certificates and an ability for chasers to know when an activator is operating from a mountain peak. To 'activate' a summit, at least four unique contacts must be made from the summit within 25 meters (vertically) of its peak.
SOTA operates in nearly 100 countries with each country having their own association(s). Each association is responsible for identifying summits that meet SOTA requirement of at least 150 meter prominence over other peaks. Each qualified peak is identified with an unique tag and is listed in the summit database. For example, the association for California, where I do the majority of my operation, is W6 with sixteen regions covering 4284 summits!
Obviously when climbing to a summit you want to minimize the weight that you are carrying, so much of the adventure is figuring out the best equipment and setup for your station on the summit. Activators don't carry large radios that would ordinarily be used at a fixed station. There are specially designed modern radios that are small and lightweight - both commercially built and hand built - that provide very good operating characteristics and work well for SOTA operation. Likewise, antennas and transmit power are limited by size and weight. But operating on a high, isolated summit provides a great location to make contact with other hams throughout the US and internationally, making up for antenna and power constraints. And the scenery is fantastic.
Why do I SOTA?
I really enjoy being active in the outdoors and have recently settled on hiking the trails in the Sierra Nevada that I use to run on; so this is a great way to combine two of my interests. By participating in SOTA I have hiked to areas that are off the regular trails, such as the Pacific Crest Trail, to find SOTA summits that I can operate from. Activating Sand Ridge Peak, W6/NS-155, in September 2019 was my first opportunity to bushwhack to a summit that had not been activated for two years. It was quite an adventure to find the summit and my way back, more challenging than summits that have established trails to them. But what a feeling to be up on top of a summit that very few people have every been to!
In addition to the fantastic scenery and the challenge of finding and scaling the summits, I enjoy working on ways to enhance my radio signal and expend less effort getting to the summit.
While I use a commercially made transceiver for SOTA operation, I have built my own antennas that have to be lightweight, easy to erect in a remote location and an effective radiator of my preciously small RF power. I enjoy the process of building and refining the antenna, guying and mast so it works well for SOTA. Please, no surprises on the summit!
Another wonderful aspect of SOTA is meeting other SOTA enthusiasts whether it is on the air, in person or through social media. We all enjoy and share a hobby that is very unique! And I meet other hikers that are very curious why I am carrying a collapsible fishing pole (my mast) to an arid summit. If it wasn't for their questions we probably would not have said much to each other other than the customary 'Hello' or nod of the head. I even had some that stayed and help me setup my station and witness a few contacts. I also answer questions about ham radio and able to enlighten non-hams about the continued relevance of ham radio.