Lately, Joyce/K0JJW and I have been doing combined Summits On The Air (SOTA) and Parks On The Air (POTA) activations. Most of the SOTA summits we activate are inside parks as defined by POTA. Our primary focus is using VHF/UHF from SOTA summits with POTA is being a nice addition. Although the two programs have a lot of similarities, there are some significant differences that need to be understood.
SOTA / POTA Differences
Let’s compare the two programs to understand the differences, so you can have a successful activation with both. We will focus on differences when doing an activation so this is not an exhaustive list.
- Summits Vs Parks. Well, this is the fundamental difference. Summits tend to be small in area, defined by a specific lat/lon coordinate and the surrounding activation zone (AZ). The activation zone is roughly defined as the area surrounding the actual summit, staying within 25 vertical meters. Parks can be almost any size and may cover many square miles. Both SOTA and POTA maintain lists of official summits or parks, so it should be clear whether one of these is valid for an activation.
- Accessibility. While there are drive-up and easy walk-up summits, most SOTA summits require a hike. Many of them are physically challenging. Parks often have easier, park-like access. Or you can always do a 50-mile backpack trip for a POTA activation.
- Equipment restrictions. SOTA allows you to reach the activation zone in a vehicle but you must move away from the vehicle an unspecified distant and operate totally independent of the vehicle. On drive-up mountains, our practical application of this rule is to load up our normal SOTA gear into backpacks, hike away from the vehicle, and set up for the activation. SOTA requires the use of portable power sources but not fossil-fuel generators. This pretty much means battery power, perhaps augmented with solar panels. POTA does not have such restrictions, so if you meet the SOTA requirements you’ll be valid for both.
- Scoring. SOTA emphasizes the accumulation of activator and chaser points, while layering in other challenges such as Summit-to-Summit (S2S) scores. Each summit has a point value assigned to it, based on elevation. In POTA, all parks are created equal and the main focus tends to be on the number of activations and the number of parks hunted (chased). POTA also has awards for the number QSOs. For example, the Kilo Award is achieved by making 1000 QSOs from a single park (usually over multiple activations). Both programs have quite a bit of variety and flexibility built into their awards and operating objectives, which is one of the reasons people enjoy the programs.
- Successful Activation. SOTA requires only one radio contact for a successful activation. But to receive point credit for the summit, which is what most people are after, you need to make at least 4 contacts. So most SOTA activators define success as getting at least four contacts. The 4 SOTA contacts must be with 4 different stations, with no credit for working the same station on multiple bands. In contrast, POTA requires 10 QSOs for a successful activation. POTA does count QSOs with the same station on different bands. For example, an activator could obtain the required 10 POTA QSOs by working just two stations on 5 different bands.
- Same Location QSOs. A SOTA activator does not get credit for working another station on the same summit. That is, the other station must be outside of the summit activation zone to be counted. POTA allows an activator to work another activator in the same park for QSO credit. In fact, the activators can receive park-to-park credit for such a radio contact.
VHF SOTA and POTA
Racking up lots of contacts on VHF/UHF from a summit can be a challenge, dependent mostly on the range of your gear and the ham population in the area. Most of the time, we can get four contacts without too much trouble but at times even that can be a challenge. Getting ten contacts for POTA raises the bar higher.
We noted that most of the hams we work on 2m FM are also workable on 70 cm FM. So an easy thing to do is to ask 2m chasers (hunters) to switch over to 70 cm and work us there, doubling the number of POTA-valid QSOs. Interestingly, the SOTA QSO count recorded in the database includes these QSOs. (But you must have contacted at least four unique stations to get the summit points.)
Because Joyce and I usually activate together, we can also work each other for POTA credit. I have discovered that many POTA activator teams make it a standard practice to pull out a couple of handheld radios and work each other on 2m FM when they first set up. OK, maybe that’s not the most exciting QSO of the day, but it is allowed. With a dual-band HT, you can make two QSOs this way. And it is a good idea to put out a call on 2m FM to work any locals that might be hunting parks. On a summit, these QSOs would not be valid for SOTA, unless one of the operators leaves the activation zone. Yes, we’ve done that, too, taking turns hiking down out of the AZ to make a quick contact.
This covers some of the things we’ve learned about doing combined SOTA and POTA activations. Again, this is with an emphasis on VHF/UHF operating. You should study the SOTA and POTA rules carefully because this article does not cover everything. However, some of the issues I’ve outlined here are not obvious from the SOTA and POTA rules, so I hope you find this article helpful.
73 Bob K0NR