Here are some operating tips that I have found useful when doing Summits On The Air (SOTA) on VHF. I’ve been using VHF and higher frequencies for SOTA exclusively and have activated over 100 summits in Colorado (and other states such as California, Wyoming, New Mexico, North Carolina and Tennessee.)
The challenge with VHF and higher is that the radio range is limited compared with HF. (It really does help to bounce those signals off the ionosphere.) VHF propagation will vary depending on a lot of factors but for SOTA activations our range is typically 50 to 100 miles. In the backcountry of Colorado, a 50 mile radius may not include very many active radio amateurs, so you may come up short in terms of radio contacts.
First, take a look my blog posting about the basics: How To Do a VHF SOTA Activation
Next, here are some additional tips to having a successful activation:
Get the word out to people that may be within range. I try to keep track of who I’ve worked in the past or know to be in a particular area and let them know when I’ll be activating. In some cases, I’ll go ahead and make a specific sked with a station. That is, we’ll meet on a particular frequency at a particular time, perhaps on CW or SSB for maximum weak signal performance.
Create an Alert and then Spot yourself on the sotawatch.org web page (using smartphone app).
Make Your Call
By the rules, SOTA contacts are always simplex, so on 2 meters the place to try is usually 146.52 MHz, the National Simplex Calling Frequency. (Some areas have established other 2m simplex frequencies to use for SOTA, so inquire locally.) This is the place to try calling.
Who are you going to find there? Hard to say. SOTA chasers will often listen to “five two”…that’s where they find SOTA activators. Also, there are radio hams that just like to hang out on 52…they like 2m fm operating but they don’t like repeaters so they listen here. You will also find that many mobile stations monitor 146.52 as they drive through rural areas. Basically, they are listening for anyone around but aren’t flipping from repeater to repeater as they change location. I’ll often hear 4WD enthusiasts, hikers, boaters, campers, etc. using Five Two.
Make It Sound Good
Realize that not everyone knows about SOTA so they may not know what the heck you are doing. Make a call such as this: “CQ CQ this is Kilo Zero November Romeo operating from Pikes Peak – Summits On The Air – anyone around?” Or “CQ 2 meters this is K0NR on Pikes Peak – Summits On The Air.”
Do a little bit of “selling” when you make your call. Sound like you are having fun.
Be patient. Sometimes it just takes time to accumulate your 4 QSOs to qualify for activator points. The few times I have been skunked on QSOs were when I did not have enough time, usually because storms were moving in. Keep calling every few minutes, taking a break once in a while to enjoy the view.
Try Other Frequencies
You may want to try other simplex frequencies, so know the band plan for the area you are activating in. Another trick is to get on a local 2m repeater and ask for someone to move over to simplex to work you. I have not had to do this very often but it does work. Have some of the local repeaters programmed into your radio.
Improve Your Station
Hopefully by now you know that using an HT with a rubber duck antenna is a bad idea. Get at least a half-wave vertical or roll-up j-pole antenna. Better yet, get a small yagi antenna to add 5 or 6 dB to your signal. It can make a big difference on who you can work. I’ve even started carrying a small 2m/70cm transceiver to get my 2m transmit power up to 30W.
Another angle is to use SSB and CW, which are much better for weak signal performance (compared to FM). This sets you up to work the serious VHF stations which tend to use these modes and have large high-gain antennas (horizontally polarized).
73, Bob K0NR