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 2002.
SOTA operates under General Rules published at http://sota.org.uk 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 following 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 Australian call areas are "in SOTA"?
From October 2014, all Australian call areas apart from VK0 (Antarctic) have approved summit lists registered with SOTA UK.
What web resources are available?
The award programme operates with a great deal of support from the SOTA organisation in the UK, a voluntary amateur group. They run the following websites:
- Sota.org.uk general rules of the programme
- Sotadata.org.uk - online database containing association and summit details, summit search, logs of operators, honour rolls, awards for activators and chasers.
- Sotawatch.org - 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.
- SOTA Maps - a separate project by Rob DM1CM
Maps are also linked from sotawatch and sotadata. The maps are known as the SOTA mapping project and maintained separately from the other SOTA websites. 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 Australians 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 or your GPS desktop software (eg. Garmin's Basecamp).
Other mapping options include SOTL.AS a project built by Manuel HB9DQM. it includes not only maps but current activation details and some historical data about each activator and each summit.
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 and post both alerts and spots. Can be configured to notify you of each new spot on chosen modes, bands, callsigns or prefixes and in your preferred time ranges, with a goat bleat. Works on both iphone and ipad. It also provides a "summits near me" function. Has a function to track your distance from a nominated summit, as you approach it.
- VK Port-a-log written by Peter VK3ZPF is a multi purpose application. It allows an operator to log their contacts, requiring only a callsign, optionally signal reports. It also views and posts spots on both SOTAWATCH and on PARKSnPEAKS.org, the site maintained by Allen VK3ARH. This app runs only on the Android operating system but has been adopted by many Australian and other activators. Available by download from the files section of the groups.io group for the application (vk3zpf_logger).
- ParksnPeaks for IOS is an app for Iphones and Ipads. It provides a view of current spots and alerts on ParksnPeaks.org, which echoes VK spots and alerts from Sotawatch. Includes logging options and caters for SOTA, WWFF Parks, POTA, IOTA. On the locations screen you can find a summit or park by name or code. Also you can ask where am I? it gives you the sota summit or park code that you are located in. Written and supported by Sue VK5AYL. Available at the Apple appstore and free.
- 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 OZSOTA Mail Group at groups.io provides these services:
- A mailing list (OZSOTA) for distribution of emails to all subscribers. Self managed subscriptions.
- File storage/web site at groups.io where you can find photos, GPS tracks/waypoints for specific summits, notes and helpful documents
- Links to various websites including the above and the websites/blogs maintained by various active SOTA operators.
Several associations have local mailing groups on groups.io for local/domestic discussion and social event scheduling. These were set up to limit the amount of local material (eg. about 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 using the list of summits and the maps.
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.UK or notified on the OZSOTA mailing list (not all are notified there) or even on the SOTA and Parks activations group on Facebook, though not all are notified there either. Also, not all activators and chasers use Facebook.
Make contacts with the activators and note the code for the summit they are operating from. Record the summit code in your log. Even if you don't get the location reference at the time of the contact, you can fill that in later. It is not a required part of each contact.
- 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 and most activators don't mind giving chasers the extra contact.
- Go to SOTADATA.ORG.UK and log in. Note that a single sign-on system operates for all of the sota websites except the reflector, which is on a separate server that has not been linked to the SSO system yet.
- Record your contacts in the chaser log to start your award points. There are several ways of doing this, see below.
- Repeat until you reach the points level needed for each award level, eg. 100 chaser points, 250 etc. You can apply for the award certificates as you reach the various point levels for each award.
- 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 sota.org.uk site. There are higher levels of awards with no limit. Note that the SOTA awards are somewhat whimsical in their naming. Nobody is being called a sloth and nobody is being called a goat either.
- Noisy receiving conditions at home? Go portable in your local park or elsewhere. You can chase SOTA contacts from anywhere.
To participate as an activator, first plan your activation:
- 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, where you may need to park your car, electric bike or helicopter.
- Prepare your equipment, antenna, power source, backpack, food and drink
- Let others know what you are planning
- Look at SOTAWATCH to check whether another activator may be planning to be at the same summit.
- Look at the summit information on SOTAWATCH. The info on these sites often includes comments by previous activators, GPS track logs, photos and links to blogs. For summits on private land, you may find owner contact details. Operation without permission earns no points and may place you in danger. Private property owners often own guns to deal with ferals.
- Post an Alert to SOTAWATCH for your planned activation, preferably several days beforehand
- Optionally, post some comments about it on the Ozsota mailing group especially if it is likely to be a new unique summit for chasers.
- Make a checklist of the equipment, safety and navigation, clothing and food/water you will need
- You don't need to go solo - joint activations with one or more others are quite legitimate and encouraged. It increases safety, helps to spread the knowledge and you may learn something from your walking buddies.
- If you are not an experienced bushwalker, talk with others, find information on the web and take the advice available.
On activation day
- Prepare your pack and check against your checklist
- Carry a printed map as well as your GPS for remote summits. A backup compass or other directional device is recommended.
- In hot weather you need to carry enough water to stay safe
- 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)
- Take a note of your intended summit code. Write it into your portable log at home so you aren't stuck on a summit asking chasers what the summit code is! (I have done it!)
- If you become aware that you are running late, let someone know, or update your ALERT on Sotawatch, while you still have access to it. Currently you can edit an existing ALERT using a web browser, or using some phone apps (Eg. sotagoat on IOS). But if you simply post an updated ALERT, that will inform chasers including other Activators hoping to work you for an S2S contact.
- 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 equipment is carried to the operating position (General Rule 22.214.171.124). 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.
- Either SPOT yourself via your smartphone using an application, or use text messaging to an SMS spotting service, or ask one of your contacts to SPOT you on SOTAWATCH. Putting a spot up there makes a remarkable difference to the number of contacts you will make. This can be done using a web browser on a smart phone, or by using a self-spotting function in VK Port-a-log and also in ParksnPeaks for IOS, which sends spots only to ParksnPeaks.org. Self spots can also be sent via SMS. Details on parksnpeaks.org.
- Set up your equipment, work the contacts and enjoy being the dxpedition everyone wants to work
- Log your contacts - date, time, Mhz, mode, call worked, signal report sent and received, optionally the name and location of the station worked. For s2s contacts log the summit code.
- Once you have worked 4 different stations (on any mix of bands and modes) 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 consider how you will lighten your back pack but take more food and water
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.
An advantage of registering with SOTAWATCH (separately from SOTADATA) is that when someone moves their mouse pointer over your callsign on a SOTAWATCH item, a small text box will be displayed showing your name.
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, with FM and SSB on VHF. On 20m, the frequencies above 14300 are popular for QRP operations, to get away from kilowatt alley between 14200 and 14300. However use your knowledge of the bands to choose your operating frequency.
With all VK states registered there will be opportunities for longer distance contacts on 20m, 15m and 10m. 30m, 17m and 12m have also been used successfully. In summer 10m is likely to be very active when conditions are right. 6m is also likely to be used during Es season.
With JA registered on SOTA from July 2015, interest in SOTA increased in Japan and led to more activity on 15m and 10m. Some operators like to use VHF and higher frequencies and in the UK many contacts have been made on 10 GHz by some operators, notably by Richard G3CWI who founded SOTABEAMS, an excellent source of antennas, materials and ideas.
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 an increasing level of weekday activity and most is notified on SOTAWATCH.ORG. Overnight operations are most likely in summer. Some activations are timed for DX opportunities especially to Europe. Long path propagation in the late afternoon in Australia often gives contacts into Europe on 20m and higher bands when conditions are good.
How far up the mountain do I have to climb before I can consider myself on the summit?
You may operate as an activator anywhere within 25m (vertically) of the peak. This area of the peak is defined as the activation zone. It is up to you to manage your operating location and to be personally satisfied that you are observing the rules.
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. Just keep the 25m activation zone in mind.
Do I have to operate from the top of the mountain?
- 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 carry your equipment on foot, bicycle, horse or other non-motorised means for the final approach to your operating position. Equipment includes radio(s), antenna, food, water, tent or other protection etc. You could stretch this rule as far as taking only one step away from your vehicle, but consider whether that would be in the spirit of a portable operating award.
Can I drive into the activation zone at the top of the hill?
Yes. But to count towards SOTA awards, you may not operate close enough to your vehicle that it becomes any part of your station, ie. it must not be used to support antennas, provide weather protection or even a wind break and must not provide 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.
The SOTA rules do not require you to enter the activation zone on foot. The General Rules require that your equipment, power, antenna and shelter are all portable and is independent of your vehicle.
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.
Isn't there a rule requiring me to walk out of the Activation Zone and back in, if I drove into the AZ?
Not in the SOTA General rules, which take precedence over any other rules.
Why is my local hill not listed? Can it be added in the next update?
There are two possible reasons.
- It may not have 150m prominence as required by SOTA guidelines.
- 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 in the next annual update and if approved it will be added to the list.
What is the basis of the points allocated to summits?
Each ARM defines the height ranges for each point value. Height above mean sea 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 UTC 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 extra points value in making contact with each of the operators, once they have made one valid contact with that summit on the current (UTC) day. But if you know there are multiple activators all wanting to log their required four contacts, be prepared to log a contact with all of them, if conditions indicate that there won't be enough other callers. 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 chat? Can I chat with an activator?
Activators 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. ;)
What is the meaning of "Summit to Summit" or S2S?
This refers to contacts made between activators (on different summits). SOTA offers awards for making contacts between summits. This award is one reason why some activators stay on site for longer than the time needed for 4 contacts. If SOTAWATCH has indicated there are other activations imminent the activator looking for S2S points will join the chaser queue. Convention has it that S2S contacts get priority over others, because activators on summits can have limited time or power and may be forced to leave a summit by inclement weather. S2S points can be earned once per UTC day, so S2S contacts will be sought before and after 0000 UTC.
What is meant by UTC Rollover?
When the time passes 0000 UTC, the date moves from one date to the next. this typically occurs at 10AM in the Eastern states of Australia, 09:30 in South Australia/Northern Territory and at 8am in the Perth time zone. Some SOTA operators in Australia refer to this as UTC Rollover.
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. Google Earth can reveal access roads and nearby homes where there are likely to be owners or access approvers. 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 an "entry prohibited" area you may not claim points for activating it.
Some parks are administered remotely and obtaining permission well beforehand is recommended. A phone call and a follow-up email may be advisable. The administrators and rangers are not radio hams and are not familiar with our jargon. When describing your purpose be careful when describing equipment and antennas to persons not aware of what we mean by a "20m dipole" which to them could mean a tower 20m high, rather than a horizontal length of wire 10m long. Use terms they will understand, such as "telescopic fishing pole with some wires attached" rather than "squid pole with multiband HF dipole". Their concern is visual impact, inconvenience to other park visitors and safety. By describing your operation in terms they understand you help them and help yourself.
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.
Last updated 25 Feb 2022
Next: WWFF awards