Summits on the Air. Often those questions are about the rules, but more often I get asked “What gear do I need to start activating?” Usually it will be when I am half way to work on a repeater and the answer can be a long and complicated one. So hopefully I can explain a little better here.
The answer is complex because everyone is different; you need to find your own level. If you are an experienced climber or hill walker the answer will be different from the answer for a complete beginner. The answer also depends on the summit you are intent on activating and the bands you want to work.
Take the beginner on a small summit, a ten minute walk from the road that overlooks a major urban conurbation with a large number of radio amateurs active on VHF. The minimum equipment that could be used might be a handheld 2m radio with a rubber duck antenna, a waterproof and windproof coat, stout shoes, a log book (preferably waterproof) and a pencil.
A stage further on and the transceiver might be replaced by a Yaesu FT-817 or FT-290 and a small portable beam so as to operate SSB. The preferred antenna amongst SOTA operators is the so called SOTABeam, either the one made by G3CWI or a homemade version. There are plenty of designs on the Net to try, but the object is to keep the design lightweight. The SOTABeam uses a boom made of PVC conduit and stainless steel elements. The elements are stored inside the boom for transport.
To utilise a SOTABeam a mast is required and for this purpose most SOTA activator opt for cheap telescopic fishing pole (often called Roach Poles in the UK or Squid Poles in the US). I say cheap because the good poles are carbon fibre and we want the cheaper fibreglass versions, for reasons that should be obvious. Then we need some way to hold up the mast on the hills. If there is a handy fence post then cable ties, elastic bungees or even gaffer tape could be utilised, but the usual method is guy ropes and tent pegs. I personally use three short guys attached via a ring (made from the inside reel off insulation tape) that fits just above the first section of the fishing pole. The size of pole will depend on what you are prepared to carry a 7m pole is probably a good compromise, 6m will just about do if you want to keep the weight down and 10m ones are okay for easy summits but a bit heavy.
So you have moved on from the handheld and you have a little too much gear to lug up the hills, so you need a quality rucksack. Make sure you buy a big one and one that is waterproof.You now have a rig, mast, SOTABeam, guys, tent pegs, coax, a mallet for the pegs, your log and pencil in a shiny new rucksack. It is time to consider what you need to do to take you station on the bigger hills.
If you are planning a longer hike you first of all need to think of navigation. These days most people think of a GPS. If you take a GPS then make sure you know how to use it and take spare batteries. Even if you use a GPS and have well planned your route you should still have a map and a compass. Most experienced hill walkers will even take a spare compass. Again know how to navigate by map and compass. One danger of trying to follow a GPS track in a white out is you can easily walk over a shear drop. Your map should be the very best scale you can buy.
Water: Even in the mildest weather there is the danger of become dehydrated while hill walking. This may first show itself by getting cramp, which can be extremely debilitating and turn a pleasant stroll in to a painful limp or worse. The amount of water to carry will depend on the temperature and the individual, but one litre should probably be considered the minimum.
Spare clothing: The weather in the hills can change dramatically from minute to minute so just because it is sunny and warm when you start out does not mean you will not experience all four seasons as you climb you intended peak. As a minimum I would suggest a spare fleece, water poof jacket and trousers, gloves and a woollen hat, one of those silver blankets that runners like to parade in after a race (they are tiny when packed away) and maybe a bivi bag.
Extras: I would suggest a whistle should be attached to the outside of your rucksack. This is to attract the attention of would be rescuers should you experience a problem. A luminous waistcoat or jacket to aid your being found or to ensure all your party can keep in sight during a white out. A torch possibly a wind up type and a head torch with spare batteries are a good idea.
If you are beyond the beginner stage and thinking of tackling more serious hills the next thing to look at is footwear. Buy the best boots you can afford and you will get years of wear out of them. Choose Gortex lined or similar that will keep your feet dry even when the boots get soaked. Socks are important too, in avoiding blisters. I wear a thin pair of cotton socks beneath thick woollen walking socks. This way the cotton socks rub against the woollen ones rather than your feet which might cause blisters.
Not all hills have nice paths up them and crossing moorland it is easy to step into knee deep pools so waterproof gaiters can be a great saver. They can also protect your lower legs from thorns, nettles and nasty biting things.
So we pretty much have all the gear now but what we wear is important. Denim jeans are a no go because when wet they stay wet. It is worth looking at trousers designed for the job, they may be more expensive but worth it. The type I choose are very thin combat style cargo trousers. Although they are very thin they are surprisingly windproof, cool in summer and warm in winter, but the best thing is they can be soaking wet and after only ten minutes walking they are as dry as a bone again.
Woollen sweaters may seem warm but they offer no protection against the wind, become heavy and take a long time to dry when wet. Fleeces can be bought that are wind and shower proof yet let the body breath and keep you warm.
Tee shirts and underwear can be of the wicking type which draws moisture from sweating away from the skin.
Finally we are kitted out for our mountain adventures or are we? A first aid kit and sugary sweets should be added to our bag along with our lunch which may include a flask with a hot drink or soup. I also pack a small MP3 player which I use to record my sessions if the weather makes conventional logging a problem and of course a camera to take some pictures of the views and the station.
Now with all that kit some thought as to where your adventures are taking you. Is that peak that you want to climb going to be easily to qualify on VHF or do you just want to do some HF?
If the answer is HF the next question is, which band? The activator is King and you should activate on the bands you want to do. If you just want to do SOTA with a VHF hand held rig then don’t let anyone tell you otherwise, but don’t moan when in the wilds of Scotland you fail to get a single contact.
It is important to know how much room you will have for antennas. It is no point in trying to get an 80m dipole up on a rocky summit with a small activation area. In that case VHF might be a good option, but on a remote summit you might consider 20m and a vertical antenna. You need to judge for yourself what bands suit you and your chosen location.
Antennas for HF: In order to not carry an ATU I carry a linked dipole for HF. I have made several one covers 80/60/40/20/10 metres and another 60/40/20/10 and is tuned on each band for the frequencies we use on SOTA. My wife’s liked dipole covers 20/17/15/12 metres and is tuned for the data modes sections of those bands.
These antennas work by inserting or removing plugged links to leave a resonant dipole on the chosen band.
For twenty metres operation you could use a wire vertical on your fishing pole with a 9:1 balun See: Rybakov 806 Multiband Antenna
I would recommend against antennas such as the Miracle Whip and Walkabout type antennas as I have found them incredibly inefficient. I am also not a fan of the Buddipole as I think it is too heavy for lugging up hills and is less efficient than a simple dipole in an inverted vee configuration.
What modes to use? Most activations are done on CW, FM or SSB but do not be afraid to try something different. My XYL is experimenting with PSK via a portable NUE PSK unit at the moment.
Personally on a summit I like to do as many bands as I can, before I either get too cold or my batteries run out. I use a Yaesu FT-857 so I can run 25/30 watts on HF and I carry two 7 AH seal lead acid batteries for power. I usually have the ability to operate 80/60/40/20/10/6/4/2 metres and 70 and 23cms from hilltops although I rarely get the chance or conditions to cover all the bands.
Hopefully that lot will help you decide if SOTA is for you or not. If I missed anything please add a comment so as to help others. Above all do it your way and have fun but stay safe, be aware of other folk out to enjoy the countryside, take care of the environment and when someone asks what you are doing be a good ambassador for amateur radio and SOTA