Summits on the Air: mountaintop ham radio

Summits on the Air: mountaintop ham radio


Most makers probably already know of Diana Eng. She was one of the contestants, the so-called “fashion nerd”, on the second season of Project Runway. She’s also been a guest blogger on CRAFT and is the author of the new book Fashion Geek: Clothes Accessories Tech. And Diana Eng is no poser nerd. To prove it, she’s here to talk about… ham radio? That’s right, Diana is a licensed ham! She loves the hobby and is excited about introducing a new generation of amateurs to it. She’ll be contributing some posts here about ham, like this convention report, and doing some radio projects. We’re thrilled to have her. Welcome, Diana! – Gareth Branwyn


SOTA, Summits on the Air, is an award program that encourages hams to make contacts in the mountainous outdoors. SOTA is not only for hikers, the program recognizes Activators, Chasers, and Short Wave Listeners. Activators hike up registered SOTA summits and activate the location by setting up a station and making a minimum of 4 contacts. Chasers can operate from home or other SOTA locations, and make contact with activators. Short Wave Listeners who are often unlicensed hear but do not contact activators. Activators and Chasers earn points towards awards.

SOTA began in the UK in March 2002 as the brain child of John Linford, G3WGV. Early on, most activity was on VHF and UHF FM frequencies (70 cm and 2 m) using lightweight handheld radios. Since activators and chasers were usually in the same country, there was no need for long range HF. The high elevation also helped the propagation, particularly of VHF. Now as the popularity of SOTA grows and technology gets smaller, activators and chasers are using HF to make contacts around the world. SOTA now has 28 active associations in locations ranging from France and Belgium to South Africa and Macedonia.

I recently hiked up Mt. Carmel in Connecticut with Tom Tumino, N2YTF and Dave Clausen, W2VV. Tom Tumino is SOTA Association Manager for the W1 call area and SOTA Regional Manager for New Jersey as well as President of the Hall of Science Amateur Radio Club, HOSARC. At the time, Tom had submitted Mt. Carmel to SOTA headquarters for formal inclusion in the SOTA program. As of June 1, 2009 Mt. Carmel is a part of the SOTA program with the designator W1/HH-002.

I asked Tom some questions about SOTA:
[Diana Eng] How did you get started with SOTA and what made you want to bring
it to the United States?

[Tom Tumino] I got started with SOTA when my friend, Tom Golero, KC2CBA wanted to try something new and suggested that we try activating a nearby summit in the SOTA program. I now have 8 expeditions to 6 different summits under my belt and am the leading activator in the US.

[DE] How do you feel SOTA compares to other ham activities?
[TT] The ham radio population is facing many of the same challenges with weight and fitness that the American population is general is facing. SOTA is a great way for hams to develop their field and emergency preparedness skills while also increasing their physical fitness level and enjoying some spectacular views and in this sense SOTA is almost completely unique in the Amateur Radio world. The SOTA program provides interested hams with a list of summits worthy of hiking for hams of all physical fitness levels. Also, the SOTA websites are a great repository of information for hams interested in facing the challenges of setting up a portable global HF setup on a summit with only battery power. All SOTA activations must take place in an environmentally friendly manor and the activating hams must get to the summit under human power with all of their gear.

I feel that the SOTA program is the most exciting and challenging award scheme in ham radio and holds many benefits for its participants unavailable in other popular award schemes. Participation in SOTA has taken me to heights and summits I never would have known about never mind hike up.

[DE] What type of radios and rigs are used most often by SOTA activators?
[TT] A nice collection of photos of activators and their gear can be found at:

Many activators carry small, lightweight “dc to daylight” rigs such as the Yaesu FT-817. Such rigs can be used on voice and Morse code modes on HF, VHF, and UHF frequencies. Unfortunately, radios such as the FT-817 afford only 5w of output and are not optimized for low current drain meaning operators have to bring up more than 2 AH of battery power.

Some of the more physically fit operators are bringing up large, portable radios such as the Yaesu FT-897 & FT-857, or Icom -706MKIIG which allow an output of up to 100w on HF and 50w on VHF if activators can bring up batteries capable of sustaining current draws of 20 amps.

Recently there has been a move back to basics in SOTA, with some operators favoring light weight, CW only HF rigs with low current drain. Such radios are “no nonsense designs” that allow hikers to tackle the highest and most challenging summits with a minimum of extra weight. Many of these radios are built by the activators themselves from readily available kits.

I would say the most popular antennas are simple wire antennas for HF and simple home made Yagi type antennas for VHF/UHF.

[DE] What is your SOTA setup?
[TT] Lately I have been bringing a Kenwood TH-D7AG APRS hand held radio with me to the summits along with an Elecraft K3 (a small desktop radio). Together these radios give me all mode HF, and FM VHF and UHF capability along the ability to relay my position in real time to the global chaser community via APRS.

[DE] Which do you think is the most interesting SOTA award, and why?
[TT] As the Association Manager for the W1 area I have to say I am a bit biased to some of the unique awards we have in W1. The Master of the Black Dog Certificate which is particularly interesting for its connection to local legend. To be eligible for the Master of the Black Dog Certificate, an activator must have completed valid activations from all of the three summits in the Hanging Hills Region.

The Black Dog of the Hanging Hills is a supernatural hound that appears in Hanging Hills folklore. Folklore holds that the spirit has haunted the region since the early 1800s and manifests itself as a small black dog, often gregarious in nature, who leaves no footprints and makes no sound. According to legend, to see the Black Dog the first time results in joy while a second sighting results in misfortune. Seeing the Black Dog a third time is said to be a death omen.

One of the earliest accounts of the Black Dog was published in the Connecticut Quarterly, (April-June, 1898) by New York geologist W.H.C. Pynchon. According to Pynchon, in February 1891 he and geologist Herbert Marshall of the United States Geological Survey were conducting geologic research in the Hanging Hills when they saw The Dog. Pynchon had seen The Dog once before. Marshall, who had seen The Dog twice, scoffed at the legend. Shortly after the two of them saw The Dog, Marshall slipped on the ice atop one of the cliffs and plunged to his death. His body was later recovered by authorities.

For the record I have yet to see The Dog…

[DE] How does a mountain become a SOTA Summit?
[TT] To qualify as a SOTA summit, a summit must in general have a prominence of more than 500 feet . Once an individual identifies a summit with a prominence of more then 500 feet, he/she can submit the summit to the Association Manager that handles the geographic area that encompasses the prospective summit. In the north east states that would be me. If I can verify the prominence of the summit, I can submit the peak to SOTA headquarters for formal inclusion in the SOTA program.

[Makezine] How can people get started with SOTA?
[Tom]Regardless of your interest (Activator, Chaser, or Short Wave Listener (SWL)), the first step is to register so that you may upload logs of your contacts to the SOTA system. There are no fees for participation in the SOTA system.

If you can’t get out/have no desire to go hiking, you can get a list of upcoming activations and activations heard live on the air (spots) and tune your rig accordingly.

If you are interested in activating a summit, SOTA maintains an excellent repository of information submitted by its members to make hikes easier. From this website you can find a summit near your location and perhaps a little about where to park and find proper hiking maps for the summit. You may also find links to pictures and video of past activations on the summit you are interested in. The Yahoo SOTA group “Summits” also has a helpful file titled summits.kml for Google Earth. You can find summits.kml in the file section of the Yahoo SOTA groupl.

You can check out the general rules for SOTA and the specific Association Reference Manuals.

Of course prospective participants should feel free to email the Association Manager of their region with any questions they may have and we will be happy to help them.

Discuss this article with the rest of the community on our Discord server!

Fashion + Technology Diana was a contestant on Project Runway season 2, graduated from RISD, and currently lives in New York City.

View more articles by dianaeng


Ready to dive into the realm of hands-on innovation? This collection serves as your passport to an exhilarating journey of cutting-edge tinkering and technological marvels, encompassing 15 indispensable books tailored for budding creators.

Escape to an island of imagination + innovation as Maker Faire Bay Area returns for its 15th iteration!

Buy Tickets today! SAVE 15% and lock-in your preferred date(s).