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Monday, September 15, 2014

Amateur Radio in Australia (VKFAQ): What is SOTA?

What is “Summits On The Air” (SOTA)?

The SOTA programme is an amateur radio awards programme, not a contest. It is about making radio contacts from selected mountain summits, or making contacts with operators on those summits.  It was first launched in the UK in about 2002.
SOTA operates under general rules published at in conjunction with specific rules in the Association Reference Manual (ARM) for each Association, where regions, height bands for scoring, winter bonus details and summit lists are published.
The individual ARM documents do not repeat the basic rules of the programme so it is worth reading the documents:
  • General Rules – English version (or other language if you prefer)
  • Guidelines for Activators
  • Guide for Joining in
  • SOTA Leaflet – worth printing a few for sharing at your club

What is SOTA in Australia?

In Australia there is an Association for each call area vk1-vk9. However these associations are unincorporated. They are informal associations you join virtually if you operate.
Each Association has an Association Manager, the name of whom is in each ARM. Within each region of each association there is a provision for a region manager.

What web resources are available?

The programme operates with a great deal of support from the SOTA organisation in the UK, a voluntary amateur group. They run the following websites:
  • ­ general rules of the programme
  • - ­ online database containing association and summit details, summit search, logs of operators, honour rolls, awards for activators and chasers.
  • ­ - an online logger and alert manager allowing you to see what operations are planned and what signals have been reported on the air. An online forum like the SOTA_Australia (Yahoo) mailing group is also conducted on that website. You can optionally receive forum items via email - see options in your user profile.
Maps are also linked from sotawatch and sotadata. Here you can view details of specific summits, maps showing all the summits in a region or in an association, or download files for use your mapping software or GPS. These online maps are based on Google maps and many of the same facilities are available for zooming, marking points etc. Some use OziExplorer software to view their planned summits and can export waypoint files to their GPS from OziExplorer, or export KML/KMZ files suitable for Google Earth and Google Maps.

Can I access SOTA sites via Apps on my smartphone?

  • SOTA GOAT for Iphone (from Itunes App Store). Has a summit list (updatable on line) and can separately show spots and alerts. Can be configured to notify you of each new spot on chosen modes and in your preferred time ranges, with a goat bleat.
  • Rucksack Radio Tool for Android phones (from the developer at Announces new Spots with a voice announcement stating the country and band of the spot.
  • There are other useful software tools for your internet equipped phone and for an SMS-only phone. 

What local info and services are available?

In Australia the Yahoo Mailing Group at provides these services:
  • A mailing list (SOTA_Australia) for distribution of emails to all subscribers. Self managed subscriptions.
  • File storage/web site at yahoo groups where you can find photos, GPS tracks/waypoints for specific summits, notes and helpful documents
  • Databases showing the status of each state/association along the route to getting that state going on the SOTA programme. As of Sept 2013, VK6, VK7 and VK8 were not registered and VK4 was partially registered with four regions in the most populated areas.
  • Links to various websites including the above and the websites/blogs maintained by various active SOTA operators.
Several associations have local mailing groups on yahoo groups for local/domestic discussion and social event scheduling. These were set up to limit the amount of irrelevant material (eg. about the location or other details for a social event) on the national mailing group.

What do I need to read before going on the air and making contacts?

Ideally, look at all the above. Read the websites, the documents, look at the maps. Work out what’s near you or if you are in a state that’s not registered yet, find out who is working on your state and how to contact them. There are names and callsigns listed in the "database" section of the Yahoo group for each state.

What next? How do I join in?

To participate as a chaser:

  • Listen for activators on the air at the times advertised as Alerts on SOTAWATCH.ORG or notified on the SOTA_Australia mailing list (not all are notified there).
    Make contacts with the activators and note the code for the summit they are operating from. Record the summit code in your log.
  • You earn points for each separate summit you work in each UTC day.  For this reason, you will find some activators work stations once before 0000 UTC and once after that time.  This is no advantage for the activator but it does help chasers earn points
  • Go to SOTADATA.ORG.UK and register a user id (your callsign should be ok) and password. You’ll receive a confirmation email. Record your password somewhere safe. This user id links your callsign to your log of contacts both as a chaser and as an activator.
  • Record your contacts in the chaser log to start your award points
  • Repeat until you reach the points level needed for each award level, eg. 100 chaser points, 250 etc.
  • On reaching 1000 chaser points (typically 250 contacts at about 4 points each, on average) you can apply for the Shack Sloth Award.  Details on the site.  There are higher levels of awards with no limit.

To participate as an activator:

  • Select a summit you want to operate from
  • Work out how you will access that summit eg. how far can you drive up the summit
  • Prepare your equipment, antenna, power source, backpack
  • On the day of your activation, take a buddy to walk with and join in the fun. Some activators walk with their family (spouse and/or kids) and others jointly activate summits with friends from their radio club. Others take their dog or their goat (see WG0AT’s videos on Youtube)
  • Let others know what you are planning
  • Post an Alert to SOTAWATCH several days before your activation
  • Post some comments about it on the Yahoo mailing group
  • Take a note of your intended summit code. Write it into your portable log at home
  • Advise your family where you are going and how to contact you if you are running late. Your family’s cooperation and assistance is vital and could save your life in the event of an accident or injury.

On the summit:

  • Ensure your “final approach to the summit” is by non-motorised means, unless you normally use a motorised wheelchair, which is permitted. Operators who have impaired mobility are encouraged to participate in SOTA.
  • Your station including radio, antenna and power source must be independent of any vehicle. The test for this is to remove the vehicle - it should not affect your ability to operate the radio and make contacts, and should also not affect any shelter you use to operate from.
  • You don't need to go solo - joint activations with one or more others are quite legitimate and encouraged.
  • Either SPOT yourself or ask one of your contacts to SPOT you on SOTAWATCH
  • Set up your equipment, work the contacts and enjoy being the dxpedition everyone wants to work
  • Log your contacts
  • Once you have worked 4 stations you have “qualified” the summit and you have earned your activation points.  You can get those points for each summit once per calendar year.
  • For some summits you can also earn winter bonus points for activating them in the winter months. Some regions have no winter bonus points and some have different winter periods. The bonus applies only to activators. The chasers are at home in a warm shack!

Back at home:

  • Upload your contacts to SOTADATA
  • Plan your next activation and probably how you will lighten your back pack but take more food and water
  • Have fun and stay safe.

What if my state is listed as still being surveyed?

Anyone can help with the surveying. Contact the nominated person for your state and ask what you can do to help. It is all done on computers at home, no site visits are required.
In the meantime, you can operate as a chaser of SOTA ops anywhere in the world and you can activate any summits in the world. Start with those in other states.

Can anyone make contacts or do you have to be registered?

There is no need to register. You can activate summits and you can make contacts as a chaser, entirely without registering anywhere. It is amateur radio and open to all. However if you want your contacts to earn points towards the awards you need to upload the contacts at SOTADATA and to do that you need to register a user id, your callsign name and email address. A confirmation email is issued to you to confirm that the email address you quoted is a valid one.

Are there fixed frequencies for SOTA operation?

No. A starting frequency of 7.090 has been common in south east Australia on 40m but that has simply been a convention. You operate within the terms of your licence, using the bands and modes you are licenced for and are keen to use. There is some PSK31 operation elsewhere but in Australia most operation has been SSB and CW on HF, FM and SSB on VHF.  
With additional states coming “on line” in 2013, more interest is being shown in higher frequencies that will allow longer distance QRP contacts.  30m, 20m and 15m have been used.  In summer 10m is likely to be very active when conditions are right. 6m is also likely to be used during Es season.

Are there fixed times or dates for SOTA operation?

No. The most popular days in southeast Australia are weekends with slightly more activity on Sundays. There is some weekday activity notified on sotawatch.

How far up the mountain do I have to climb before I can consider myself on the summit?

You may operate anywhere within 25m (vertically) of the peak. This area of the peak is defined as the activation zone.

What is the minimum distance I have to walk?

  • There is no fixed minimum distance. It is recognised that summits vary in their access, difficulty, slope, terrain, foliage etc. You may wish to operate from the top of the summit but it may be inaccessible to a walker. The amount of horizontal distance required depends on the gradient/slope and where you wish to operate within the activation zone. eg. a 1/10 slope means it would be 250m from the border of the activation zone to the very top of the summit.
  • Most activators like to reach the top of the mountain and operate as close as possible to it. Conquering the mountain is an achievement. Operating from the top is too.
  • You need to enter the activation zone before your operation using non-motorised means, carrying your equipment, antenna, food, water, tent or other protection etc.
  • You may not operate close enough to your vehicle that it becomes any part of your station, ie. supporting antennas, supporting weather protection, providing a wind break or providing power for your equipment. You must be independent of your vehicle, so that if your walking partner drove it away 100m it would not affect your operation.
  • It is permitted to drive your vehicle into the activation zone (eg. to park it safely) but if you do that, you must leave the activation zone with your equipment and re-enter on foot. That becomes what SOTA rules refer to as your "final entry" to the activation zone, ie the last entry you made before operating on the air.
  • After your radio operation is completed you have satisfied all the rules and you can just walk to your car and put your equipment into it whether it is parked near the summit or not.
  • Some have asked whether it would be permissible to park their vehicle 1m outside the activation zone and then operate 1m within the activation zone, reducing the walk to 2m. Technically yes. But in that case you will be likely to infringe the rule about not using your vehicle as part of your station. You would also have to walk more than 2 metres simply to erect almost any antenna.
  • In your interpretation of the rules, you are responsible for observing the rules to your satisfaction. If you bend the rules, you are not cheating anyone but yourself. You must consider whether other activators observing your activation would consider it valid. Assume others are watching and are prepared to protest your activation especially if you are a high scorer. Play fair.

Why is my local hill not listed? Can it be added in the next update?

There are two possible reasons.
  1. It may not have 150m prominence as required by SOTA guidelines. Yes, SOTA does have rules, it is not simply "go portable on a hill", it is more specific than that. Many people will be disappointed that their local dog walking hill won't qualify. Sorry but for the award to mean something, not every hill gets included. Without a basic prominence requirement there could be a million hills in Australia alone. That would subtract a lot from the uniqueness and value of the summits.
  2. It may not be listed because it was missed in the initial survey work that identified complying summits. If we identify it later, or someone lets the association manager know the details, including lat/long/altitude (m) and evidence that it has the prominence to qualify as a SOTA summit, it will submitted to the SOTA management team for approval and if approved it will be added in the next annual update.

What is the basis of the points allocated to summits?

Each ARM defines the height ranges for each point value. Height above seal level is the basis of the points table and is the only factor once the summit has proven to have at least 150m prominence.

Why are some summits with road access rated as many points as those without?

That's the luck of the game. In all associations/countries/call areas there is a mix of easy access, high points, difficult access, low points. Take the good with the bad.

How often can I activate a summit?

As often as you like. But you will only get activation points for that summit once each calendar (UTC) year. So on 1st January get up there early, activate before 0000 UTC and again afterwards. Points earned for both years.

I hear stations having second contacts. Are points scored for both contacts?

The activator only gets the points once per calendar year. But chasers can get the points once per day for each summit.

What about dual or multiple operators at a summit? How does that work?

Each operator can run their own log. Once each of them have made contacts with 4 different stations, they have qualified the summit and will get their summit points.
For chasers, there is no value in making contact with each of the operators, once you have made one valid contact with that summit on the current (UTC) day. But after 0000 UTC chasers can work the summit again for award points. To do that, the activator has to be willing to stay long enough to work everyone again. They have no obligation to do so though.

Some activators seem to want very short contacts. I prefer a ragchew type of contact? Can I ragchew with an activator?

They are limited by the capacity of their battery power, how much food and water they carry, the weather conditions and how far they have to walk down to their car or transport. They have the right to request a short qso, even as short as signal reports and summit code. But most activators are happy to chat if they have enough power, the weather is good and there is no queue of chasers wanting contacts. Ask them if they saw any snakes on the walk and whether they have a hat and sunscreen. ;)

Only some of my local summits have public access and a road up to the top. Other activators have many. Is there a handicap system to compensate me?


How can I find out who owns a summit so I can get permission to access it?

Ask around. The local council could provide info. Residents in the area either know, or know who to ask. Be diplomatic and respect privacy. SOTA and ham radio generally does not authorise you to enter private property in pursuit of points for an award. SOTA rules state that if you activate a summit without permission from the owner, the points will not count. In Australia some roads and ranges are closed during periods of total fire bans and in winter conditions when snow and ice makes roads dangerous. If a summit is in a "entry prohibited" area you will not get points for activating it.

I'm having a lot of fun with SOTA. Are there handouts or other materials I can use for a presentation to my club?

Your state association manager or your regional manager may have materials or may be willing to present to your club about SOTA. Ask on the SOTA_Australia mailing list. Find the contact details from the ARM.
There is a SOTA leaflet available on the SOTA.ORG.UK website. It prints as an A4 double sided sheet and is intended to be folded into a 3 leaf brochure. You can download the PDF, print a few copies and distribute them to enquirers.

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