Saturday, September 16, 2017

SOTA and Ham Terminology

I use a lot of terms that I explain the first time I use it in a post but not in following posts.  To help you figure out what the hell I’m talking about, I created this terms sheet.  I hope it helps.

SOTA stands for “Summits On The Air”.  The “activator” / hiker, goes to the top of a mountain, setes up a mobile ham radio (could be a hand-held radio, or a mobile ameture radio and makes a minimum of four contacts to get points for that mountain.  I think it was started in the UK and is an activity that ham radio operators do to get out of the house, do some hiking, and geek out.  I enjoy it because I can actually get better performance out of my gear on a lonely mountaintop.  There is no extraneous radio interference coming from all the stuff in the house and surrounding neighborhood.  To my equipment, it looks like the antenna is thousands of feet in the air.  I’ve been able to have a conversation with stations in Japan on only 5 watts and I’ve spoken to stations as far away as New Zealand.  That’s pretty awesome!!!

SOTA has been carefully designed to make participation possible for all Radio Amateurs and Shortwave Listeners - this is not just for mountaineers! There are awards for activators (those who ascend to the summits) and chasers (who either operate from home, a local hilltop or are even Activators on other summits).  For more on SOTA, go HERE.  Some of the terms seem kind of strange to Americans'.  The reason is most likely that SOTA was not designed in the US, it was invented in Great-Britain in 2002 in the UK.  (Wikipedia page)

Guys like me that can get outside, get to the top of a mountain, and call other hams.  I’m lucky, I am healthy, have nice weather, and can climb hills and goof around with radios up there.  Activators get points for summiting (number of points depends on the height of the mountain).  Activators are the yin of the yin/yang of this hobbie/activity or whatever this is.  Activators need chasers.  Although it’s not mandatory you contact a chaser, it makes it fun to talk to the same guys that are into “chasing”.

This is what an Activator does.  When you "activate" a peak, you are hauling your gear to the top to a designated mountain, setup your equipment and get a minimum of four contacts on your ham radio.

Think of APRS as texting for hams.  I can auto-beacon my position or send a message to other hams that have APRS or I can send an email or a SMS message to another phone from my HT as long as there is a APRS reflector that picks up my signal.  It’s a really cool feature but it is a pain in the butt to use (remember texting in the 80s?) 

Wikipedia def: Automatic Packet Reporting System (APRS) is an amateur radio-based system for real time digital communications of information of immediate value in the local area.[1] Data can include object Global Positioning System (GPS) coordinates, weather station telemetry, text messages, announcements, queries, and other telemetry. APRS data can be displayed on a map, which can show stations, objects, tracks of moving objects, weather stations, search and rescue data, and direction finding data.
This is the station identifier for the amateur radio operator as issued by the country of residense.  For me, N1CLC was issued to me by the FCC.  Actually my N1CLC call-sign is a vanity call sign that I requested.  My original call-sign was KM6MRQ)

As mentioned above, “chasers” are hams that operate from home, mobile or another hilltop and make contact with you.  Chasers are the yang to the yin/yang of life.  Chasers get points too. So chasers need activators.  A lot of chasers are no longer able to climb mountains, don’t have the time or maybe the weather sucks, so it's another way to get into the ham hobbie. 

Compassionate  bushwhack
Sometimes in order to reach the summit, you need to leave the established trail.  It's always good to stay on the trail as long as possible to reduce erosion and ensure wildlife is unaffected.  When leaving the trail is necessary, I do it in a way that I try not to step on anything that is growing, especially new growth in a fire ravaged area.  This is just good mountaineering sense and good treatment of public lands.  Leave not trace you were there.   

Contesting or a Contestor
In the hobby, various groups have a competition to see who's king of the mountain.  There are a lot of different types but it normally revolves around trying to see who can get the most contacts.  Sometimes you get bonus points for contacts that are not on your country (a DX), trying to make at-least one contact in each state (US competitions) or region numbers.  The competition can be using phone (voice), or CW (Morse code).   

CQ is a code used by wireless operators, particularly those communicating in Morse code, (— · — ·  — — · —), but also by voice operators, to make a general call (called a CQ call). Transmitting the letters CQ on a particular radio frequency is an invitation for any operators listening on that frequency to respond. It is still widely used in amateur radio.

CW is an amateur radio term that means "continuous wave".  Operators send a continuous wave on a radio frequency and then modulate it with dits, and dahs, morse code.  Instead of a ham saying that she is using "morse code" she just says CW.  Yup, this is radio being super geeky now.  Most people thought morse code went the way of the steam engine but it's actually still very popular.  Part of the resurgence is from guys like me that do summits on the air.  It allows us to carry smaller radios with lower power and go farther.  All a receiver needs to do is tell the difference between a dit and a dah, much easier than voice.  It' also crams all its power into a signal that's just 5 khz wide.  


DMR stands for "Digital Mobile Radio". It is a digital standard that, when using a DMR repeater or "hot spot", allows a ham to connect to any other ham world-wide.  Digital can deliver a little better range and clearer reception.  All DMR repeaters are linked together over the internet and have something called a "talk-group", which is kind of like a digital channel.  Operators can access any compatible repeater or use a personal hotspot connected to the internet, and connect to a talk-group contacting hams anywhere in the world that are listening to that talk-group.  I'll write more about this in the future.  Here is a wikipedia reference that may be more helpful.  Currently (Sep. 2018) a lot of the bugs are worked out and the Brandmeister just went through a major upgrade to improve scalability.


DX is term used by ham operators, to mean a contact made outside of one's own country. 

DXpeditions is when a team of guys put together an expedition to remote locatons around the world and setup a communicaton shack.  A lot of times these locations are very difficult to get to countries or locations, like an island.  It's funded by clubs and donations from other hams.  It's a pretty big adventure and the idea is that hams that are working to check every country, continent or island off their list can do so by connecting to one of these expeditions.  Here's a list of them that I found on the web.   
FM stands for "Frequency Modulation" as apposed to "AM" or "Amplitude Modulation" and is typically used in hand held radios.  
Frequency band name and reference to it in meters
Radio operators refer to frequency bands either by a name or the approximate length in meters of the frequency band they are using.  For example, 2 meter (2 M) band is the 146 MHz frequency band, also known as VHF (for very high frequency).  The 70 cm band is also known as the UHF band for "ultra high frequency".  The frequencies between 1.8 MHz and 50 MHz is known as HF for "high frequency".  So what's with the "meter" reference.  Well, it's the distance that a full wave at that frequency will travel.  Radio waves travel at almost the speed of light so if we use 300,000 meters per second and divide it by 146,520 Hz, the frequency I talked to my friends on the mountain, we get 2.05 meters.  So the frequency 146.520 MHz is the 2 meter band.  When I'm talking on 7.300 MHz, I'm using the 40 meter band.  

Slang for amateur radio operator. 

This stands for “Handie-Talkie”, more formally known as a handheld transceiver, or HT the term was used by Motorola.  An HT is the same thing as a hand-held radio.  Some people refer to them as walkie-talkie.

IAF stands for "Initial Approach Fix".  Instrument pilots use these points on a map as the way to enter an instrument approach procedure.  In context for my hiking, I use it to designate where to start the hike or for me, where I started.  I generally provide the IAF as a longitude and latitude.  If you paste this directly into Google Maps, it should give you a full map.  (don't forget to put the minus sign ("-") in-front of the longitude as it tells the map software that you want the WEST, not EAST location.  This really isn't a Ham term but a flying term and given that I'm a pilot, it all makes sense to me.

Think traffic jamb.  A pileup is a ham term meaning that there are a whole bunch of hams waiting to talk to a particular operator.  Once a ham call CQ on a frequency, they kinda own it and other hams line up to talk to that ham to see how well their signal is getting through. 

Setting a SOTA Alert
Before a ham goes out to “activate” a mountain, they can post an alert to let other hams know about when it will happen, where, and the frequency.  I rarely summit and setup on-time and I never am able to predict what frequency will be available.  Wouldn’t it be cool to let other hams know when another ham is up and running on a mountain so they can get points too?  That’s what “spotting” is.

Spotting and Self Spotting
When “Chasers” find a activator, they can go to the SOTA Watch page and enter the location, frequency and who is on the mountain for other chasers.  Activators can “spot themselves” by going to the website and doing the same thing just before they get down to business.  I’ve found doing this and letting other chasers know I’m on the air helps me get the required contacts quickly.  Normally it results in a “pileup”.  Rather than taking hours to get my required four contacts, now it just takes a few minutes.  Activators can post an “Alert” on the SOTA Watch page in advance of their summit but it’s really hard sometimes to predict when you will summit and be setup and almost impossibly to know if the frequency that will be available.  By spotting yourself, you let chasers know for sure you are up and running and the exact frequency you are using.  I don’t have to spot, but I figure that as long as I’m doing this, I might as well enable the guys that are into “chasing”, so it helps us both. 

I normally “spot myself” using an app on my phone but if I don’t have a signal, I’ve been able to use this thing call APRS on my HT.

Hams use this at the end of a conversation before they move on.  It means something to the effect of best wishes, have a nice day, etc.

"Q" codes that you might see me use once in a while.

Initially I thought "Q" codes were just designed to create a lexicon to make the hobbie a little more geeky and harder to understand for the laymen but what these codes actually arose from is to make it easier to communicate using Morse code (CW).  For example, if you want to ask if you should change frequencies or you are changing frequencies you just tap out "QSY" in morse to make it easier.  Below are some of the more common ones that you might see in my posts.  Go HERE for the full enchilada.  I'll just put the statement below but it can mean the opposite if you are asking a question.

I am being interfered with. This is commonly used when another station is interfering with you.  This happens when another ham sets up on a frequency so close that they interfere with your conversation.

Increase power, or "Should I increase power?".  Also, this one is used a lot to denote stations that are using 100 watts or more of power radios called or "operating "QRO".  These are radios that are capable of 100 watts or more.  100 watt stations are the "norm" for home stations and some SOTA operators like me without an amp to go higher.  I use a 100 watt radio at home and sometimes, when I want to really get some DX, on a mountain top.  These radios are heavier, require a heavier battery and the antenna needs to be able to handle 100 watts as well, all of which add to the total equipment loadout weight. 

Decrease power.  Also, this one is used a lot to denote guys that are using low power radios called "QRP rigs" or operating QRP.  These are radios that are 5 to 10 watts or less.  I'd say most hams consider it 5 watts but given that one of my "QRP" radios is an Elecraft KX2 that is 10 watts, I'll go with that.  If you look at the definition on WikiPedia, it's a bit fluid.  

You'll hear me say "que are zed" sometimes.  This means, who is calling me.  Hams normally say this when the can't quite hear the station calling or when they finish up one conversation and know that other people are calling.  It let's other hams know that you are taking more calls in that case.

"The strength of your signals varies" but I've heard others use it when the signal is coming in and out due to atmospheric or other disturbance or static.

"I acknowledge receipt".  You'll hear this a lot as well as "Roger Roger".  BTW, if my name was Roger, it would be very confusing out there is radio land.

"I can communicate with ... direct (or through...)."  Although that may be the official meaning, it's now used to indicate that you had a conversation with someone.  i.e., "I had a QSO (pronounced "que  so") with K6ARK.

QSO Card
A QSO card is a postcard that hams send to other hams after they make contact.  Although email has supplanted this tradition, some hams still send out cards once in a while.  It's actually kinda cool.  The cards usually have a design that is unique and just another way to say "hello there".  I guess it's not too much of a surprise since if you are a ham, you are a communicator first.  

I'm changing frequencies.

My position is..."  My home QTH is in San Diego.

SOTA Complete
This is when you have both "activated" and "chased" a summit.  Getting 100 of these is a big milestone and is really hard to do.

This is when the operator uses the "Single Side-band" mode on the radio.  This is the most common way to send voice communication that we are all familiar with.

-- Chris Claborne, N1CLC

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