Introduction to Summits On The Air (SOTA)
As an avid outdoorsman, a large part of my initial interest in Ham radio was in having a means of communication available in areas that were remote and lacked cell phone coverage. As I studied for my exam and learned more about the uses of Amateur Radio, I discovered a portion of the hobby called Summits on the Air or SOTA. Summits in the Air is an awards scheme that rewards "activators" who climb mountains to make radio contacts and "chasers" that talk to the activators from any location, to include other mountains, while mobile or even at their home shack. This gives everyone the opportunity to participate, no matter their physical ability or skills in the wilderness. Let's take a look at the SOTA website and see how to activate or chase a summit.
How to Activate a Summit
Since there are mountains throughout the world, SOTA summits are broken down first by an "association" then further refined into regions and summit numbers. Let's take a look at a local mountain for me, Mt. Bailey. The association for Colorado is W0C, the peak is in the front range region (FR) and based on the total height, Mt. Bailey is the 62nd highest peak in the region. The designator for the peak is therefore listed as W0C/FR-062. You can view the specific page for Mt. Bailey here: https://summits.sota.org.uk/summit/W0C/FR-062
That page will show you the summit identifier, altitude, number of points for an activation, the latitude and QTH locator, give you options to view the peak on Google Maps, aprs.fi and other mapping sites. It also shows the total number of activation and displays the call signs of the latest 5 activators. It also allows other users to write notes or link to other websites that can help explain where to park, what route to take to the summit and other notes.
Just how many peaks are included in the SOTA database? Colorado alone has 1,797 summits that can be activated for points.
Let's take a look now at the points and how to activate a summit. Each summit is given a point value from 1 point to 10 points. These vary based on the elevation of the peak and relative difficulty to climb the peak. Not surprisingly, all of the Colorado 14ers (peaks 14,000 feet or higher in elevation) are worth 10 points, whereas a lower elevation peak like Mt. Bailey is worth 4 points. In order to activate the summit the activator has to be within a contour line of 25 meters or about 82 feet of elevation of the summit. You can't be next to or attached to a vehicle and you have to make at least 4 contacts via a simplex connection. Any band or method you are licensed to use is fair game. It is common to see VHF, UHF and HF contacts and those may be voice, CW, Single Side Band or even data modes. The activator simply calls CQ for as long as they want to stay on the summit and working through any of the frequencies they want to work.
Most of my SOTA attempts have been using VHF and I simply check to see that a calling frequency isn't being used and call CQ. I typically use 146.52 FM and have contacted a number of hams that are listening to the calling frequency and aren't specifically familiar with SOTA. For each summit that I log the required 4 contacts during an activation I receive points. Each summit can be activated once per year and there are bonus points for activating during the winter.
In order to increase your chances of reaching your required 4 QSOs, you can go to
https://sotawatch.sota.org.uk/ and post an "alert" as depicted in the picture below. An alert lists the approximate time, your call sign, the peak you will be activating and the frequencies and modes that you plan on attempting to use. This allows chasers to know when you will be activating so they can be listening. You can also add notes that warn that your time window is approximate, or that they can watch you on APRS to see you approach the summit. I have activated APRS on my Anytone 878 so chasers can see where I am at on aprs.fi as I hike towards the summit.
Check out my summit report from activating Mt. Bailey here: http://www.rmadventure.com/2020/04/mt-bailey-my-first-sota-activation.html
How to Chase a Summit
The other side of SOTA is the chaser. There can't be an activator if there isn't a chaser on the other end. Any ham can be a chaser, they don't even have to know about SOTA to count. They just have to make a contact with an activator and preferably share a signal report in both directions. I have made contacts with several local hams while on Mt. Bailey and most of them have not officially logged the contacts on the SOTA website.
If you are interested in trying to chase, a great resource is to check out the SOTA Watch site at https://sotawatch.sota.org.uk/. In the photo below you can see the default view for "spots." These are chasers that had a conversation with an activator and are logging the call sign of the activator, the peak, time and frequency used to allow other chasers to have an idea of what frequencies to use to make their own contact. In the example below you can see a variety of contacts using VHF, HF and not only FM voice conversations, but several CW and SSB contacts as well.
By checking the spots and adding one of your own, you can see who is currently active and be more likely to tune to the right frequency at the right time to talk to an activator. As a chaser you get points for each activator that you talk to. You can only get points for a particular summit once per day, but unlike the activators, chasers can get points from the same summit multiple times per year.
What to do with the points?
So what do you get with the points? Nothing really, just bragging rights. You can use the SOTA website to see who the top activators and chasers are for a certain region. There are some digital rewards for certain milestones, such as receiving 1,000 points as an activator or chaser. There are also recognitions for activating or chasing a certain number of regions. As a fundraiser there are awards that you can order from the website to display your accomplishments in your own ham shack. But in the end, SOTA is really more about getting out into the wilderness and connecting with others through amateur radio.
If you are interested in activating or chasing, check out the links above to get more familiar with the rules and procedures for logging your contacts.
Whether you activate or chase, I look forward to making a SOTA contact with you soon!