What Radio should I use for SOTA?

The short answer….It Depends!  When I decided to create my amateur radio podcast titled “The Practical Amateur Radio Podcast”, it was to be a mechanism to deliver practical content to the radio amateur.  The Podcast and my other new media efforts centered around blogging about amateur radio and my SOTA adventures along with my YouTube Channel are the overall result of my wanting to entertain, encourage, educate and inspire others in a truly practical way.

Before I get into this discussion, perhaps I should point you in the direction of previous articles I wrote regarding “Choosing a Backpack for SOTA” and “A Good Hiking Boot”.  I suggest these two articles as a starting point only for the sake of comfort.  If your first SOTA activation is less than enjoyable because you don’t have the correct footwear or a properly fitting backpack, then it probably won’t matter much what radio you use for additional SOTA activations.  Keep in mind that SOTA is different from the perspective that reaching the summit or activation zone has very little to do with amateur radio, but more to do with basic mountaineering concepts. 

What Radio do you own today?

I ask this question simply to say, that it is possible the radio you own today will work perfectly fine for your first SOTA activation.  It may actually work perfectly for many SOTA activations.  Really the only requirement is that the radio must be able to operate on battery or solar power AND be something you can carry to the summit.

Many radios fall into the category of portable and will work just fine for a SOTA activation.  While the Yaesu FT-817 and Elecraft KX3 are popular QRP SOTA rigs, many activators are using the portable 100w offerings from Yaesu including the  FT-857/FT-897,  ICOM IC-7000 and Kenwood TS-480 just to name a few.  While these rigs are bigger and heavier than the QRP offerings, once on the mountaintop and with power throttled down to QRP levels, these rigs can provide hours of mountaintop enjoyment.

SOTA does not have to mean HF Operations

That’s right!  A SOTA activation does not have to be on HF using an HF transceiver.  If all you own is a hand-held (often referred to as an HT), that little radio along with a better antenna setup, can get you on the air from a SOTA summit. 

While I’ve never attempted a V/UHF only SOTA activation, I have made plenty of 2m Simplex contacts from mountain top locations.   Many of the summits I’ve activated for Summits on the Air are less than 40 miles from the greater Denver metro area.  This means even with a slightly better vertical antenna like the Diamond SRH-77CA, one can have reasonable success working nearby stations. 

If you aren’t opposed to packing along a little extra weight, a directional antenna like the Elk log periodic five element antenna or the Arrow II Portable Satellite antenna will provide you a little better gain while providing the ability to control the direction of your signal.  Of course, don’t forget about polarization as you orientate your antenna.  Check out this YouTube video from Ham Radio School.com for a practical explanation regarding polarization.  

Work the World on HF

There are many reasons why I enjoy the SOTA program.  I do love being outdoors and I equally love our hobby of amateur radio.   During my first SOTA activation, I set the bar fairly low.  I was hoping to work some US stations on HF and had many waiting for me on 2m Simplex.  However, what I didn’t realize was the DX contacts I would make that day. 

About half way through my SOTA activation and battling a cold wind, I heard stations responding to my CQ from Germany, Spain and a brand new DX entity for me at the time of Czech Republic.  I worked them all from my Yaesu FT-817 running 5 watts.


Interested in building your own radio?  There are many QRP kits to choose from.  Many range in size from a tuna can and will operate on a single 9v battery for hours.  I’ll be honest, I really don’t have much experience or knowledge with which kits are popular.  Please consider conducting additional research before selecting a kit.

What About Digital Modes?

Yes…digital modes are gaining in popularity and I hope to one day operate PSK-31 from a mountain top SOTA station.  There are a few different directions you can go with running digital modes during a SOTA activation. 

If you own the KX3 AND know code, you can operate both PSK-31 and RTTY via CW.  You send the dots and dashes, the KX3 converts that into PSK or RTTY signals on transmit.  Then on receive the KX3 will decode and stream the text across the KX3 screen.

Another option is to use the Pigtail or Piglet device from Pignology.  These small devices along with the HamLog app running on an iOS or Android device, can utilize the KX3’s CW decode features and allow you to operate PSK or RTTY even without the need of learning CW.  I recorded a short Youtube video of how this works last summer.

Of course, a small netbook type laptop and a Signalink USB along with software such as DM780 (part of Ham Radio Deluxe) and you also have a pretty powerful data setup.  But of course, this will add extra weight to your pack.

The Bottom Line

As with many things in life and certainly amateur radio, there are many different choices when selecting your radio.   You have even more choices when planning the antenna setup.  But I’ll leave that for another blog update. 

Until next time…

73 de KD0BIK (Jerry)

Category(s): How To
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One Response to What Radio should I use for SOTA?

  1. Thanks for article.
    Even though it didn’t help me solve my dilemma of whether to buy an FT 817 or 857 it did remind me not to underestimate the fun I have in hand: A $30 HT and $30 slim Jim which have activated 3 peaks and made contacts >100 miles away.

    A similar axiom: “which peak should I climb first?” = the one that’s simplest (closest, shortest etc)

    73 KK6TMN Mel

One Response in another blog/article

  1. […] figured it best to follow the “What Radio should I use for SOTA” posting with one about antennas.  Of course, the answer to this question really depends on […]

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