My Journey To The “Summits On The Air”, by Banjo Ninja


The Meta Game of Portable Communications as Practice for Prepping

1968 I had an interest in electronics from an early age. Back before most consumer electronics went digital, people actually repaired things when they stopped working. One of my earliest memories was Mr. D. coming to the house to fix our TV. In those days, the TV repairman came to your house, tested and replaced vacuum tubes, which was the dominant technology of the times, and Star Trek magically returned to your screen. This whole process fascinated me. Plus, Mr. D was a retired Air Force Colonel, so he was almost as cool as Mr. Spock to a little kid. As I got older, I collected things like old radios, lamps, bits of wire, and other unidentifiable bits from several sources in our area, and I tried to emulate that TV repairman. Nine times out of ten, my projects were interesting but didn’t work. I kept at it. I could fix lamps and, sometimes, radios. The spark (pun intended) I got from those infrequent successes started an interesting chapter in my life and put me on the road to being a lifetime learner of radio and electronics. Thanks, Mr. D., you were a huge influence on me, whether you realize it or not.

1977 As I reached my teen years, I realized my cousin and uncle also did some amazing things with electronics, and I watched and listened carefully. My uncle was an electrical engineer for Baldwin Locomotive. Visiting his house was like stepping into Dr. Frankenstein’s laboratory. It was wonderful. Radios, antenna wires, components, and test equipment were everywhere. At any one time there must have been a dozen projects “in progress” on his workbench. My cousin’s basement was nearly the same. He repaired x-ray equipment for a living. I realized they were both Amateur Radio Operators, or Hams. They not only built and fixed this amazing gear, but they talked to people all over the world, and even used satellites to communicate. These two people were very important to me in that they gave me that early encouragement that I needed. I did okay in school, sports, and music, but I was far from a standout. However, I knew I wanted to be like them. Thanks, Uncle Ray and Rob!

My cousin later gave me a Lafayette Shortwave radio when he upgraded some of his gear, and I strung up a long wire antenna in the attic. I listened to the BBC, Radio Canada, and music from West Germany. That old radio literally opened up a whole world to a lonely country boy in a remote county that was so backward there were not even any stoplights there. I bought several electronics kits, and I built every one of the 150-and-1 projects in the book, several times over. I read and re-read a whole box of old Ham Radio magazines I got at a Ham Fest for maybe $3.00. I wanted to get that license and talk, as well as listen. Back in the 1970s, the first Ham license was called Novice. You needed to take a test to get the license. There was theory, some rules and regulations, and safety precautions to study. No problem. Oh, and you had to learn Morse Code, both to transmit and receive. Talking happened at a higher level of licensing.

There was a problem. I tried and tried. I could send CW (Ham radio slang for Morse Code) just fine, but I just couldn’t receive it. Forget it. I have suffered from tinnitus, or ringing in the ears, for as long as I can remember. It has made paying attention, studying, and even relaxing and sleeping, a challenge for me at times. When under stress, like taking a test, or when hearing some loud or non-natural / electronic sounds, the tinnitus gets worse for me. Copying CW, with that ringing in my ears, became nearly impossible. I am sure some people thought I was crazy. Plus, I was still just a kid and probably trying to be too grown up too quickly. This only added to the frustration and aggravated the tinnitus. My uncle and cousin were sympathetic; they tried to help me, but the tinnitus was not understood in the ’70s like it is today. My dreams of getting that license went on hold.

2007 We’ve fast forwarded nearly 30 years. A couple of degrees, a wife and kids, a home, and stability (more or less) finally came my way. I had a summer that was more or less free (since I teach), and I had finally finished my Masters Degree. The kids were old enough that they were involved in their own activities and did not need as much attention, and I was looking for something a little different to do with myself. I wanted to get some more physical activity but about the only things I liked were hiking, swimming, and martial arts. Let’s face it, exercise can be boring. I was looking for something different online, and BOOM! It happened.

Somehow YouTube took me to a video of this guy, Steve, who had two mischievous goats– Rooster and Peanut. The guy dragged radio equipment up on top of mountains to talk with people. Actually, Steve is a smart dude; he used the goats to do a lot of the work, saving his back and knees. I don’t know what was funnier– watching the goats in action with their special packs or seeing Steve’s comments about them. Figuring “what do I have to loose?” I contacted Steve with my newbie questions. He responded quickly. He was funny, helpful, and encouraging. Thanks, Steve.

The activity is called Summits on the Air, or SOTA. The video was cool, interesting, and entertaining all at the same time. It was outdoors, like hiking or camping, but there was also the cool radio tech. I was hooked on the idea from the start! SOTA is not exactly like radio contesting but close. There is an awards scheme. Hams earn points for “Activating” a registered peak. There are easy, medium, and difficult peaks, and Associations are located regionally throughout much of the world! If an activator works hard, they could someday earn the title “Mountain Goat”, like that guy Steve. Now, people in Colorado, where Steve lives, would laugh if they saw what passed for mountains here in the East, but still, it looked fun. I knew I wanted to do this SOTA activity.

A few quick Google searches and I found out that the licensing requirements had changed. Morse code was no longer required! With some more Googling, I found that the FCC published the test questions, and there were online test simulators. Much of my Masters focused on Assessment, Testing, and Test Prep. I was golden! Within three months I had the new Technician license and had upgraded to General, which permitted more HF (think long distance, or world-wide) privileges. I had even wired together a couple of QRP (low power) transmitters. Later, I bought some better, high-performance equipment, and I actually started having some successful CW QSOs (contacts)! Maybe you’ve seen Radio Amateurs participating in Field Day– the once-a-year portable radio activity. The way I saw it, SOTA made every day a Field Day!

2010 This was the year of the first activation. After assembling all of the gear for my first SOTA adventure, I had a thought– this was kind of like training for an emergency. What if there was a bad flood? What if there was a chemical spill in the nearby rail yard? Thinking that I could establish reliable communications away from home, not reliant on the power grid, and without a monster antenna on a 75′ tower in my backyard began to shape how I thought about SOTA. In a way, I war-gamed, or maybe more correctly, Meta Gamed my SOTA adventures to increase the success rate.

By Meta Gaming a hobby, I mean, step outside of actually doing the hobby, and analyze what is going on within it. Fix what is not working. Retain what is working. Pay attention to unusual solutions to problems. Discover what can be done better, or more efficiently. Then step back into the game. You might be surprised that you are more successful. You might have gotten better at the hobby. Professional athletes, musicians, and artists often find this technique works very effectively for them.

I’ve not been in the military, but I have enjoyed being a war gamer since Junior High School. I like the competition, the “what-ifs”, and designing armies and strategies. I competed for a time at the State and Regional levels, and some of those old Majors and Colonels at the Army War College took our club under their wings. Look out, competition! Our club wiped the table with other groups.

Some of those officer’s lessons, like concentrating force, having contingencies, and having a plan that was so good that the die roll was irrelevant, really stuck with me. Some players would push the envelope with army design when they could, in order to up their chances of winning. It wasn’t cheating. They remained within the rules, but they would think unconventionally, organize, and plan such that their army had certain non-obvious strengths and synergy, so that they were difficult to beat. Thank you, Col. Mac.

I began to see how this approach would help me be more successful at SOTA, and this is where the “SOTA as Prepping” idea came into my head. As far as radio and SOTA, this included sticking to common frequencies and bands for the activity, establishing what a good activation time was with respect to time zones, developing the Activator-Chaser relationships with people, making sure the equipment was bombproof, having antenna options, battery backup, and so forth. Using the SOTAWatch website effectively was key to this. When I was trying to figure it all out, and wondered if “self-spotting” on SOTAWatch was “fair”, Steve told me, “Hey, you can have the most awesome party in the world, but if you don’t invite anyone, you might be enjoying that awesome party all alone”. So now I always use SOTAWatch.

SOTA activators are not allowed to use repeaters, only simplex (direct) operation. I took a backpack to handle radio, batteries, first aid kit, shelter, and ground pad. I had several maps, a compass, and a borrowed GPS to help me arrive at the official summit. It was a cold October that year, so I took a tent and sleeping bag too. Earlier that Fall, I had a bad experience with a coyote some 15 feet from my back porch, so I figured going armed might not be a bad idea either. Thankfully, I started that practice and kept with it throughout all of my SOTA activations. SOTA is prepping.

Some SOTA peaks involve a challenging hike and offer spectacular views once the activator arrives at the summit. Other times, you will hike and hike, and the summit is covered in Hemlock trees, and you can’t see a thing. For my first SOTA adventure, the hike was not difficult, and there was a nice vista at the summit. I got the antenna set up; it was a low, wire dipole I threw up into the trees with some para cord and a rock. It tuned up fine, and I began working other stations almost immediately. The SOTA summit I chose was a Unique, which had never been activated before, and some helpful Chaser “spotted” me onto the SOTA Watch Alert page on the Internet. I had a “pileup” within a few minutes.

A pileup is exciting to work. “Chasers” (other SOTA operators) frantically call in order to make the contact to get their own points for the Summit. Pulling one call sign out of a pack of 10 operators with background noise on the radio increases the challenge. Chasers operate either from home, or from other SOTA-approved peaks, and attempt to get chaser points. So within SOTA, one person can be both a Chaser and an Activator, often at the same time. It was a challenge logging all of the chasers in that pileup onto my notecards. SOTA requires that activators and chasers record their contacts into a database, which verifies contacts and tracks various awards. I would transfer my paper log to the computer when I got home. Even though my stay at the summit that first day was under two hours, I was glad for the tent and sleeping bag. The temperature had dropped, and it was now snowing. I packed up most of my gear, made an extra large coffee for the descent (that little hiking stove was a yard sale bargain at $5.00), and headed back to the car with a satisfied grin on my face. Using portable power and a “compromise” antenna, which consisted of about 66 feet of lamp wire and an RF connector (nothing fancy and under $3.00 to make), I had reached out across the U.S., Canada, England, and Germany. Being up higher than my home and having the downward slope helps contribute to better DX (long distance / foreign country) contacts.

2014 Here’s a banjo ninja’s humble, radio-inspired advice to preppers:

While I’m not close to being a Mountain Goat yet, and I’m not a skilled CW op, and I don’t climb “14-ers” for SOTA, like Steve, and I’ve only been prepping for about three years, I have learned several things from completing Summits on the Air Activations, and much of this information could apply to prepping or to an emergency situation. Thirty years of playing guitar and keyboards in rock bands has affected my hearing. Now I turn down the music– a sure sign I’m getting old. I focus on listening before I call out my activation information. That listening means both to the radio as well as to my immediate surroundings. I’ve had bears pass so close I could smell them. Apparently, they just ate. It would be easy to get lost in the moment if I heard some rare DX station calling me back. So I pay attention. This extends to being prepared with bug spray, sunscreen, warm gloves, first aid kit, shelter, and a host of other trinkets to load down my backpack and make my knees and back ache. There are two words most preppers know– Situational Awareness.

The tinnitus is still there. The loud music of my younger years was partially an attempt to drown out the annoying jingling and ringing in my ears. Relaxation techniques, supplements, and modifying diet can all help lessen the effects. CW, my old Morse Code nemesis, has gotten easier. While I’m no expert, I understand the efficiency of CW is much greater than SSB /phone / voice modes, so there are times that I use it. When using portable power, lighter radios, and compromise antennas, poor weather conditions, and less-than-optimal radio propagation, sometimes CW is the mode that will make the contact. So, as a Prepper, it is important to recognize my own limitations or inabilities and adapt and overcome. Also, I am always trying to learn new skills, and I don’t let early failures dictate what I can or cannot accomplish.

I made a point of getting the training to use the equipment that I carry. I upgraded to the Amateur Extra license, which gave me more knowledge and privileges. I really began to understand antennas better after studying for that license. Building antennas is an interesting sub-hobby within Ham Radio. It is inexpensive and rewarding to come up with more “options”. Knowing what you want to do with the Activation can influence your antenna choices. That dipole becomes something called an NVIS (Near Vertical Incidence Skywave) antenna, when it’s strung low to the ground. Sometimes that is beneficial, like if you want friends within 300 miles or so to hear you on 40 meters, rather than have the signal “go long”. This summer, I’ve started experimenting with a Rope Yagi. Basically, it is a directional “beam” antenna, but it is very compact; it’s essentially some rope and wire between two light PVC spreaders. Again, depending on what I want to do, it might be better in some respects. Any radio-equipped Prepper (and IMHO we ALL should have comms) should have several portable antenna options available. Also, know how dipoles, beams, verticals, and NVIS work. They all have their place in your bag of radio tricks.

I learned to always take the emergency essentials, including a good first aid kit, water and shelter. Dress properly, from head to feet. I usually don’t like to eat when I’m hiking, but I do take food. Eating something will warm you up if you are cold, and give you energy if you are spent. Salty food is good if you get leg cramps. For the non-radio stuff, the course in Wilderness First Aid is worth its weight in gold. I’ve given first aid to complete strangers on the trail, and they are sometimes amazed at what I have in that backpack. “Crazy Glue? Cake Icing?” Yep! I do carry that kind of stuff in my first aid kit. I consider a hand held radio an outdoor essential, even if I’m not doing SOTA. Even if I’m activating using an HF radio, I take a hand-held for “what-if”. My UV-5R has FM radio for news, et cetera, and I have all of the NOAA / NWS frequencies programmed in for weather reports, and I check it from time to time. ( This saved me during a freaky hail and lightning storm last year. I listened in to NOAA when I got to the summit, and I knew I had to get a shelter up fast on what looked like a normal, sunny Fall day. Legging it down the mountain back to my car would have left me exposed for over an hour, and there just wasn’t time to get back to the car before that storm would have hit, so I backed down the peak a few hundred yards, got a tarp up under a bit of a ledge, and bunkered in until it passed. I’m thankful for much of my Scout training, such as Weather Hazards. I don’t want to relive that hail and lightning storm, if I can help it.

I’ve gotten in better shape, and I’m much more confident about my outdoor abilities. I trekked to Canoe Base for a BSA Boundary Waters High Adventure. I didn’t take my radio on that one– it certainly would have gotten wet and probably ruined. I learned a lot about pushing myself physically and not giving up. Later this year I will be going on another trek; this time I’m going to Philmont Scout Ranch in New Mexico. I will take a small radio, just to see what will be possible from those altitudes. SOTA is great exercise-– both physical and mental.

I sometimes do SOTA alone, and other times with friends. Whether going solo or in a group, I leave my hiking plans with the wife and kids. I spot myself to the SOTAWatch website, and I notify State Park officials, if the hike is on State Lands. The camaraderie of going with someone makes the hike part go faster, and it’s fun to explore new summits and share in these experiences, like when there is a propagation opening to Japan. It is also comforting to know you have someone reliable at your side when you meet strange people on the trail who might want to take your expensive radio and hiking gear. So again, be alert, and be prepared to deal with human and animal pests. People in the SOTA community look out for each other. I’ve often heard on the air, “Hey, you’re early, or “I was worried because you were 45 minutes past the time you put on SOTAWatch.”

I can read a map, and I can use a compass. I’m getting better with a GPS when I can borrow one, but I still don’t own one yet. I always take a flashlight and spare batteries. Getting lost is a bummer. Getting lost and finding your way in the dark is exponentially more of a bummer. Factor in some cold rain and a twisted ankle; you get my point. Thankfully, I’ve never been lost in the dark in the woods with lousy weather to endure. I rely on my common sense, and I don’t take chances, even if it takes longer, so when my mind says turn right, and I see that the sun at 5 PM says, “yes, that’s west”, I listen to it, because sometimes the maps and/or compass can be wrong. For example, the “easy” SOTA hike that was a two mile switchback on the map, that ended up actually being a steep, grueling four mile corkscrew up the mountain. Oh, my knees!

From the radio end of things, I’m prepared with spare SLAB batteries for the main rig. These are seven amp-hour, 12 volt rechargeable batteries, which can last an hour or more if I limit the RF output of my radio to 50 watts or so. They aren’t as light as I would like, but they are not expensive. A solar charger is also a nice idea. I built an inexpensive and effective multi-band antenna, based on the Buddistick Design. This one bit of gear allows me to work any band from 60 meters down to two meters. Basically, it is an adjustable whip, a set of coils which select the band, a long wire for a counterpoise (kind of like a ground), and a 12′ telescoping painter’s pole for a mast. The painter’s pole makes a handy walking staff. This antenna’s flexibility can make the difference between contacts and no contacts. The synergy of this Buddistick, a SLAB battery, and a relatively lightweight but full-power, full-featured multi-band HF radio like the Yaesu 857D is what makes SOTA Activations successful for me. Additionally, I carry a spare wire dipole antenna, because it is light and reliable (and “two is one, one is none…”) A few repair items are also a good idea, such as a multi-tool, some wire, and electrical tape. Spare fuses for the radio are essential. The wires popped off my battery once and shorted out. The fuse blew, protecting the radio, but I had no spare, so radio time was OVER! Having that UV-5R for FM news, Weather Bands, and two meter contacts is handy.

In a SOTA Activation, just as in an emergency situation if everyday comms go down, getting “up, up, and away” will probably have some benefits. Using the height of a mountain is almost like having a several thousand foot tall tower. Using the downward slope of a mountain will also assist in “take off” for your signal. A salt marsh will sometimes boost your signal, as will salt water such as the ocean. The problem is that there aren’t a lot of oceans at the tops of mountains in this state.

If there is any local electrical noise or interference near populated areas, being in a more remote and/or elevated locale might mean less noise. Depending on the situation, you might also do well to be away from your normal AO for radio activities, thus avoiding someone direction finding (DF/RDF) your homestead. Ah, yes, many Hams can DF radio signals. A simple form is a fun activity called “Fox Hunting”. Using these skills, we found the sick idiot who was using a radio to switch off the landing lights at our local airport. He’s now taking his mail at the Federal Prison down the road.

I hope I have sparked an interest among preppers in Ham Radio and hiking through my experiences doing SOTA activations. The skills that an Activator uses for SOTA have many parallels to things that will help preppers in emergency situations. I encourage you to war-game or meta game your hobbies, and see how they might have some application toward being a more successful Prepper. 73 (Best wishes)

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