Saturday, February 25, 2017

February Update

Greetings, all.

It's been a while since I blogged here.  I suppose I'll give a quick update on things.

The march to SOTA Mountain Goat continues.  For the most part, I haven't activated very many peaks that I haven't visited before.  The Shenandoah Range is the closest range by a long shot.  And given that I've activated most of the peaks near Skyline Drive several times, it doesn't make much sense to blog about new ones.  Still, I've been quite active with SOTA in the last few weeks.  I've been doing mostly CW work--it's just more effective.  In the month of February alone, I've had CW QSOs on 40, 30, 20, 17,15, and 12 meters.  I've attempted CW QSOs on 80 and 10 meters, but no luck.  I've heard some stations on 80 (KG3W and a couple others), but evidently my QRP signal couldn't make it through the daytime noise levels, even in the "winter."  (Truthfully, there hasn't been much of a winter here.  Some rain, and a couple dustings of snow, but it's felt more like April or May here in Tidewater Virginia).

Typically I start my activations using the Yaesu VX-8DR HT.  I do this for a few reasons.  I do it to get the APRS beacon out, so that any followers can see my location on the peak.  And I also see if there are any locals about on 146.52, 223.5, and 446.0, the FM calling frequencies.  Occasionally I can scrape together four contacts on those bands alone, which is great if I need to get off the peak quickly.  More often, I just like to use those bands because, frankly, they're not used enough.

Only then will I set up my HF station, typically working CW, but occasionally SSB.

In any case, my activations have been effective.  Since 2017 started, I've logged over 100 activation points.  I currently sit at 938 total activation points.  1000 is the goal, so it's coming.

I've also given some thought about which peak I'd like to earn Mountain Goat status on.  I'm leaning toward Mount Badon-Powell (W6/CT-004) in Southern California.  The only problem is that it's buried in a lot of snow, so I'll have to wait.  That's probably OK.

I've also been asked why I continue to linger in the W6 SOTA Association while I live in Virginia.  There are several reasons, but chief among them is that I really like living and hiking in California.  Virginia is OK, but it's just not my favorite place.  I've also earned more activation points in California than anywhere else, so W6 is where I am, and it's where I intend to stay.

As far as the home QTH goes, things are fine there too.  The K3S is doing well.  I've added a Telepost LP-Pan 2 panadaptor, which is connected to the computer by a Xonar U7 external sound card.  That allows me to use various software to "see" the band.  I've been experimenting with several software packages to do that.  So far, PowerSDR IF Stage and the Win4K3Suite seem to be the best.  PowerSDR has the most attractive-looking interface, but Win4K3Suite offers much closer control of the transceiver.

In terms of paper-chasing, I've made progress, too.  For DXCC, I have 120 total entities confirmed.  96 via CW, 75 using Phone, and 42 on digital modes.  I've confirmed with 294 band-entities for DXCC Challenge.

I'm very close on the Triple Play award, too.  I only need Alaska via CW and Wyoming via phone.

So, what's next?  I think I'm going to try to experiment more on 6 meters.

It's all great fun.

I have a few posts planned for the near future.  I'll likely do a quick post on my home QTH antennas, and probably a post on my SOTA-related equipment I use.

That's it for now!  73.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

N0PCL Home QTH Shack Update: Part 2

In the previous post, I neglected to post a picture of the operating position of my shack.  I'm fixing that now.

So, here you go.


Monday, October 17, 2016

N0PCL Home QTH Shack Update

It's been a while since I've posted here, and it's not for want of news.  It's mainly because I haven't been doing a whole lot of SOTA activations of late.  I'm just not built for the heat and humidity of the "humid subtropical" climate I'm stuck in while I'm here in tidewater, Virginia.


I have been doing lots of work on the Home QTH Radio shack.

In no particular order, here's what I've done:
  • Paint.  I painted the room.  My shack is in a spare second-floor bedroom which the previous homeowners had painted a bright pink with a Disney "Frozen" motif.  It's now a calming "Lighthouse Shadows" color.
  • Bought a new shack computer.  I purchased a Dell Inspiron tower, with Radeon R6 Graphics.  It's a fine AMD Quad-Core computer with an adequate, low end graphics card.  All in price:  less than $500.
  • Bought an LP-Pan 2 from Telepost.  It's an aftermarket IQ Panadaptor for use with my Elecraft K3S.  The KS3 already has an IF Out port, so it's an easy connection to the LP-Pan.  I run the LP-Pan with the ASUS Xonar U7 external sound card, which basically acts as a analog-to-digital converter for the shack computer to decode the I and Q channels and produce a beautiful, and very functional display of band activity across up to 192 kilohertz of spectrum.  It's very nice.
  • I bought another monitor.  Previously, I had been using a 28" Viewsonic monitor.  I purchased a second one, so now I'm able to run a combination of radio-related programs through one display, and I have a spare display for general purpose use.  Typically I run Ham Radio Deluxe, PowerSDR/IF Stage, and the Ham Radio Deluxe Logger, DM780, and WSJT-X on one monitor.  On the other display I usually have a web browsers open with tabs for SOTAWatch2, SOTAData, LOTW,,,, WA7BNM Contest Calendar, the VHF Propagation Map, and email.
    Now that I have two monitors side-by-side, my right monitor assists with running rig-control software, logging, and basically handling QSOs.  Here's the configuration I use when I run SSB and CW on the Elecraft K3S.  Ham Radio Deluxe handles the actual interfacing between the radio and the computer, with the HRD Logging and PowerSDR/IF Stage running on top of that.
    Here's my right monitor when it's running "Joe Taylor" digital modes, mainly JT65 or JT9 using WSJT-X.
    Here's my right monitor when I use DM780 for the other digital modes I run.  My favorite digital modes are probably Olivia, PSK-31, and occasionally RTTY.

    I use the left-hand monitor for displaying other websites and running other programs.  Here, I'm displaying web browsers that have tabs for SOTA, a DX Cluster, APRS, VHF Propagation Maps, Contest Calendar, and LOTW.
  • As mentioned earlier above, I'm using Ham Radio Deluxe (along with the Logger and DM780), WSJT-X, PowerSDR IF Stage (panadaptor software).  I'm also using Dimension4 to keep my computer clock synched very closely to a time server (important for the JT65 and JT9 digital modes).
  • Some months ago I purchased a West Mountain Radio (which hails from my hometown of Waukesha, Wisconsin) RigBlaster Advantage digital mode interface for use with the Elecraft K3S.  Yes--I'm aware that the Elecraft K3S has a built-in interface, but I really wanted to take advantage of the direct FSK keying feature that the RigBlaster Advantage has.  I did, but I found that for the limited RTTY operating I do, I found that the AFSK variant of RTTY was perfectly adequate to my needs.  For simplicity's sake, I removed the RigBlaster Advantage from the K3S setup, and it's currently with my QRP and Portable shack (the FT-817ND).  No--I haven't configured it for operation with the 817 yet, but I will.  I intend to use it when traveling, mainly.
  • The remainder of my shack is the same.  I'm still using a W1AB Killer Antenna hidden on my property.  Yes, it's a major compromise antenna, but it works good enough, and is very frequency-agile, able to function from 160-6 meters just fine.  I also have a dipole in the attic cut for 20 meters.
  • I'm still using the K3S/100, pretty much all the options except the 2 Meter board and the subreceiver.  I'll get those another time.
  • My key is still a Kent iambic paddle.  I love it.
  • I use the Heil ProSet headset with the K3S.
  • An Astron RS-35A powers the whole thing through a West Mountain Radio RigRunner 4008 DC Power Strip.
  • I'm still using a Yaesu FT-2900 2 meter radio with a home-made J-Pole antenna in the attic.  This is for local 2 meter FM communication.
  • My SOTA/Portable shack is still the same, too.  I'll do another post on exactly what I bring for SOTA and portable operation another time.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

SOTA Activation of Lamb's Knoll (W3/WE-007)

Last April 10th I activated my first SOTA Peak in Maryland.  This is a belated activation report from that day.

Why Lamb's Knoll?  Well, it wasn't too far from my home QTH (less than a few hours' drive), and it's outside of Shenandoah National Park.  I don't mind Shenandoah National Park, but, frankly, my wife and I greatly miss the peaks in California.  California had wide-open spaces, and numerous mountain ranges to choose from, and generally a different attitude in the inhabitants than is here in the D.C. area.  On the eastern seaboard, things are a bit different.  The peaks are much lower, and almost all of them are connected by the Appalachian Trail, which, when you hike in spring and summer, feels like a long, buggy, spider-webby green tube that you hike through.  There aren't the same vistas, nor is there the elevation gain.  The A.T. is well-traveled by humans, so you don't even get the solitude.  It's a bit of a downer, but it's what we have until we're able to move back out west.  I've already activated a good number of Shenandoah Peaks, but now I want to get out a bit further from home.  That basically means I head northwest to the Appalachians in Maryland or Pennsylvania, or head southwest to other Appalachian peaks in Virginia or North Carolina.

(Just so you know, I've gotten more than 50% of the way to Mountain Goat status by activating peaks in California, so I maintain my SOTA membership as part of the W6 association, not he W4V--the Virginia SOTA association.)

We set out early that Sunday morning to activate this summit, which is really a bump of South Mountain, a long ridgeline which forms the northernmost terminus of the Blue Ridge Mountains.  Our plan was to pick up the Appalachian Train at Gathland State Park, and hike north a few miles to the peak.  Overall, it was an easy hike, although the trail is fairly rocky in places so be careful not to roll and ankle!  Only the first bit of the hike up the A.T. from Gathland State Park was particularly steep. 

We saw a few people out, but I think that many of the hikers stayed inside owing to the cool temperatures as measured by the Jeep, parked at Gathland State Park:
Chilly.  36 Degrees F.  But it was sunny and there wasn't a cloud in the sky.

The A.T. was rocky on this hike.
Near the use trail from the A.T. to the Lamb's Knoll summit, there is a single rock outropping with a halfway decent view.  My lovely bride and I snapped a selfie.  (Yes.  I said it.  Selfie.)
The summit is not particularly scenic...there are many trees that obscure any possibility of a view, and the summit also has a few buildings on it that are surrounded by fences.

Nearby the summit where I activated there was a very closely guarded government facility.  The facility had literally dozens of security cameras covering virtually every possible angle, an oddly-large parking lot--far more expansive than necessary to provide parking for any of the visible buildings, and an absolutely massive log periodic array, likely used for HF.  Of note, in my short time at the site I saw the antenna rotate, so clearly there is some sort of government-operated radio activity occurring there (collecting SIGINT or MASINT, perhaps?)
Here's a Google Earth view of the summit.  My activation location is on the southern edge of the southern-most cluster of buildings.  The other access-restricted government facility is north of my location.  Notice the massive parking lot.
Here's a Google Earth image of the MASSIVE log periodic array.  I saw it change azimuth, so somebody was doing something with it.  The boom of the antenna was actually an aluminum truss--it was a very large antenna.

Back to the SOTA activation:  I recall that conditions weren't particularly good.  I was content to get the required four contacts and then move on.  AT&T cell coverage was plentiful, so I self-spotted.  Here's my log:
Note the gap in time between talking to W0MNA (Gary) and W9MRH.  Conditions weren't very good.  I also attempted CW but didn't make any CW contacts.  Got 'er dun, though!

My QTH on Lamb's Knoll.  By the way, I really like my Thermarest Z-Seat.  I know it's just foam, but it's very comfortable.
We hiked back the same way we came.  Here are view's of my APRS-laid breadcrumbs from

The packets from the first portion of my hike apparently weren't picked up my an iGate.
Here's the view of the contour lines.
I'll speak a bit now about what's in the area around South Mountain.  During the Civil War the area was critical to the Battle of AntietamGathland State Park was the location of a particularly bloody duel between Confederate Artillery batteries and infantry companies, which held the pass, and infantry regiments from New Jersey.  The New Jersey troops took the pass at great cost, earning a tactical victory, but the Confederates succeeded in their strategic aim of delaying the Union advance.  The State Park itself is the former estate of an American journalist, and it is also the site of the War Correspondent's Memorial.  If you're in the area, the park is worth visiting.
Here's the War Correspondent's Memorial.

Burkittsville is nearby, which has the dubious distinction of having the fictional Blair Witch fictionally inhabit the area around the actual town in an fictional documentary which was an actual movie.  The town is small but historic.  If you approach Gathland State Park from the east, you will travel through the town.

The area around South Mountain today is home to some cottage industries, including the production of apples, hard ciders, and meads.  (We sampled both the cider and the mead after hiking.  It was delicious!)  There is a also an excellent potter who lives just down the west side from the pass where Gathland State Park is.  After returning to the Jeep, my wife and I visited the potter and she bought a lovely coffee mug there.

It was a good day.  A nice brisk hike, some radio fun, pottery shopping, some mead and was all great.


Monday, May 23, 2016

NPOTA Activation: Prince William Forest Park - DZ08

Greetings, all.

About a month ago the XYL and I headed up the I-95 corridor a few miles to Prince William Forest Park to do get away from the suburban life at my home QTH, to camp out a night in the woods, and to knock out a National Parks On The Air (NPOTA) activation.

Prince William Forest Park is a National Park Service-ran facility of 19,000 acres and the largest park in the DC metro area.  It abuts Marine Corps Base Quantico, and lies right on the geologic border of the Piedmont and Tidewater regions of Virginia.  There is a marker in the park denoting one of the geographic boundaries--that marker location is not particularly scenic, but it is interesting.
XYL hiking through Prince William Forest Park.

My wife and I are immensely thankful for this piece of land because it's basically the only relatively unmolested natural land near us, and we spend a good amount of time hiking around there.  She goes to the park several times per week, and I go there every week or two.

The park has a unique history.  It was originally homestead land for several farms.  There are several family cemeteries on the park grounds, and there is also a military cemetery on the grounds containing graves from soldiers who served in the Civil War through more modern times.  The Civilian Conservation Corps managed the lands during the Great Depression.  In World War II, the park's lands were used by the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), which was the forerunner of the modern CIA.  The OSS used the park for training spies and radio operators from 1942-1945.

Today the park has numerous trails and a few options for camping.  It is full of trees, ferns, streams, and swamps, and is really representative of the mid-Atlantic states' eastern seaboard.  It's not beautiful like Yosemite or Death Valley or other similar parks.  But we're still very glad to have it so nearby.

We went to the park on the afternoon of 16 April, a Saturday.  We took a campsite, and then decided to do a hike for a few hours.  After returning, we lit the camp fire and I started to operate a bit.  I used by basic SOTA setup:  The FT-817ND, the LDG Z-817 autotuner, my Palm Mini Paddles, a homemade version of the EARCHI wire antenna, and the mic.  I also brought my Yaesu VX-8DR HT.  I brought a 7 Amp-Hour gel cell battery pack to power everything.  I also brought my MFJ QRP SWR meter for no reason whatsoever.  My QTH was the picnic table, and the wire was slung into a tree.
N0PCL at the PWF QTH.  The detritus of camping surrounds me.  The HT is quiet, but the 817ND is doing fine work.

The VX-8 was basically useless.  I attempted to get some APRS packets out to the world so that I could be seen on, but no luck was to be had.  It was just a remote area, and, frankly, APRS coverage is spotty in my area as it is.  (I'm thinking about addressing that myself as a project, but that's for another day).
N0PCL copying CW.

N0PCL doing fun things with radios.
The 817 did fine.  I did manage to self-spot using my iPhone to the spotting network, so that assisted with getting contacts.  The first night I managed to get four contacts.  But I was hungry, so I decided to pack up and make dinner with my lovely XYL. After dinner we enjoyed the campfire and retired to the tent for a good night's sleep.

The next morning (but still the same "UTC day") I finished up the activation.  I needed six more contacts.  So I fired up the 817 again and got the necessary contacts.

Screen capture of my electronic logbook.
Overall it was a good activation.  I'm continually surprised at how well portable & QRP ham radio can do.  But sometimes it's really a challenge, too.  It took a good bit of time to get the necessary 10 NPOTA Chasers to make this activation count.  Meanwhile the XYL headed out to do a solo hike.  I then gladly packed up the site and our adventure came to a close.

Thanks, Chasers!

Saturday, April 30, 2016

N0PCL using LOTW

I have been away from the blog of late but I have a few posts in the hopper, so expect some more interesting things to read soon.

I've been operating more or less daily, generally operating from 40-15 meters CW and SSB.  I've actually had some pretty good DX contacts of late:  Cyprus, Bahrain, American Samoa, Trinidad & Tobago, Sable Island, New Zealand.  Unsurprisingly, most of these contacts have been on CW, which does better than phone most of the time.

I also did a National Parks On The Air (NPOTA) activation in Prince William Forest Park, a forested piece of land north the Quantico Marine Base in northern Virginia.  I have an upcoming post on that.

I've also activated a couple of SOTA peaks, too.

My latest amateur radio project has been making my station Logbook Of The World-capable, by basically moving the QSO records from my various logbooks (paper logs, and an Excel spreadsheet I've been using for my home QTH log) to a logging program on my computer, and then uploading to LOTW.  I was going to delay this action until I could upgrade my computer so that it better complements my radio (a stunningly wonderful Elecraft K3S).  My plan was to get a computer that was capable of operating on all digital modes, doing rig control, and also being the engine of a panadaptor for the K3S.

I decided against waiting for the new computer, though.  So I did a quick Google Search of a LOTW-capable freeware logging program.  The top result was WinLog32.  It's pretty good--and you can't beat the price--basically free.  It is somewhat finicky in certain areas and isn't perfect, but once you figure out how the software acts, it does just fine.

So I uploaded my home QTH QSOs to WinLog32, and then subsequently uploaded to LOTW.  LOTW is pretty slick, too.  You get nearly instantaneous conformations of contacts, provided the station you contacted is using LOTW as well.  My LOTW results from home for Worked All States (WAS) and DX Century Club (DXCC) are below.

Worked All States results via LOTW thus far.
DX Century Club results.
I really like LOTW.  I like that it's free, because postage can be expensive these days.  I do have a nice stack of QSL cards from other stations, and I do like to collect them, but there is so much less hassle with LOTW confirmations than with other methods.

I also started a small thread on Facebook asking why more people don't use LOTW.  One response was that the many no-code licensees on the air these days don't like to use LOTW, basically because they're a bunch of good-for-nothings from 27 MHz.  I'm not sure that I agree--I don't see how not having a CW requirement for licensing has anything to do with using LOTW or other computerized methods in amateur radio.  Quite the opposite, actually--most the anti-LOTW Luddites are really old-timers that, like always, are reticent to get with the times.  And why is everything in amateur radio seemingly related to dropping CW requirements for licensing?  I just don't see the connection.

Right now I'm uploading my paper SOTA logbooks to LOTW, which is somewhat tedious.  I typically use the ARRL Minilogs for SOTA, and that's not about to change.  They're sturdy, durable, and neat.  But I still think it's the right thing to do to upload these QSOs--you never know if somebody wants needs a QSO for their WAS, DXCC, or VHF/UHF Century Club (VUCC) award.  But uploading these paper logs is tedious...It's not the number of QSOs, since most of my SOTA activations have perhaps 10-15 QSOs per activation.  Rather, the problem is establishing new operating QTHs on each summit registered in LOTW.  It's a bit tedious, but I think it's the right thing to do.  I'm slowly work through this.

73 for now.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

SOTA Activations with FM Equipment

For the SOTA Activator, working on FM presents its own challenges, equipment options, and techniques.

Challenges affecting the FM operator are many.  You are generally limited to radio line-of-sight communications.  You are often limited to low power levels (5 watts or less, usually).  There are some good antennas out there for portable FM operations, but most are not supplied with the handheld radio.  There can also be battery limitations (affecting range, power, and life).

There are basically two ways to deal with these challenges:
  • Equipment
  • Operator skill
First we'll handle the equipment.

For many, the entry into the ham radio hobby is the purchase of a 2 Meter FM radio.  Given how the market is segmented between 160-6 Meter all-band all-mode radios, and the 2-Meter FM & Dual-Band FM radios, this is understandable.  I'm not speaking to the wisdom of this, but it's a fact of life.

This basically means that there's a lot of 2-Meter FM gear out there, and lots of hams with Technician tickets.

Many newer hams will start out buying one of the very inexpensive Chinese radios (Baofeng, Wouxun, etc.), often for less than $40.00.  All I can argue is that you get what you pay for.  Some hams like these radios because they're so inexpensive.  They're practically disposable--if you break one, lose it, or it fails, it's not a big financial hit to your pocketbook.

However, these inexpensive radios also have documented spectral purity problems in the transmitter (meaning that they don't transmit clean signals), and often the receivers in them are prone to poor selectivity, which means they have an increased tendency to receive signals you don't want to hear.  (This can be particularly annoying on SOTA peaks which have other radio transmission facilities on them.)
Antennas can be common on many peaks and can make an unwelcome contribution of radio frequency interference.  These antennas are atop Mount Wilson in the range north of Los Angeles.
My recommendation?  You are looking for a good "starter" 2-meter handheld radio, I recommend buying one of the radios from one of the "big 3" Japanese radio manufacturers:  Icom, Kenwood, or Yaesu.  Alinco is also a reasonable brand.  Why?  Because these manufacturers have been building handheld radios expressly for the amateur market for literally decades, and you can't replicate that experience.  These radios are well supported with excellent documentation.  They have solid transmitter and receiver characteristics, and, additionally, they are reasonably inexpensive.  The Kenwood TH-K20A is a full-featured 2 Meter handheld radio available for about $140.  The Yaesu FT-277R is a radio in the same class as the TH-K20A, and it's available for about $130.  These are incredibly reasonable prices given the quality of these radios, and the fact that they will likely give you years of reliable service.  There are equivalent radios from Icom (for a little more money) and Alinco (for a little less).

There are other handheld radios which offer APRS capabilities (which can be useful for SOTA spotting as well as allowing chasers to watch your ascent), as well as various digital voice modes.  These radios can be a bit more expensive and are probably better for more experienced hams.

Next, you'll likely find that the supplied "rubber duck" antenna is inadequate for lots of situations.  The reason is the fundamental reality that all antennas are a compromise between performance, size, and cost--and you can really only maximize one or two of those variables at a time.  Do you desire a small, high performance antenna?   You'll probably have to pay a bit for it (either with time or money).  But in any case, if you're activating a SOTA peak with only FM gear, I strongly consider purchasing or building a better antenna than the "free" antenna that's supplied with the radio.

You have a few options that basically break down to homebrewed and purchased antennas, and omnidirectional and directional antennas.
  • Homebrewed omnidirectional antenna:  Build a 2-meter "slim jim" antenna.  You can hang this in a tree or from another non-conductive surface and get omnidirectional performance roughly equivalent to that of a vertical dipole or a j-pole, which is several orders of magnitude superior to the supplied antenna.
  • Purchased omnidirectional antenna:  Buy a "slim jim" antenna.  There are numerous manufacturers of these antennas.  Alternatively, you can buy a telescoping 2 Meter 1/2 wave whip antenna.  (I use one, from Smiley Antenna Company.)  You can purchase a 1/4 wave or a 5/8 wave antenna, but 1/2 wave antennas usually outperform these.
  • Homebrewed directional antenna:  Build a tape-measure antenna
  • Purchased directional antenna:  There are really two portable options in this area:  An Arrow Antenna or an Elk Antenna.
Get an appropriate length of cable, and possibly an SMA-to-BNC adapter (if needed), and you're in good shape.  Consider purchasing an additional battery pack and you're well-equipped for 2-Meter FM work from a summit.

Now, we'll tackle operating skill.

You can have a successful summit activation using only FM.  You chances will be greatly improved if you do the following:
  • Let other hams know that you're going to activate a particular peak.  Tell them when, and where.  You can let other hams in your local area know you're going to do an activation, and hopefully they will monitor the frequencies you'll be working on.  Additionally, you can post an Alert to SOTAWatch so that other hams in the area of the activation will be able to listen for you.
  • Self-spot.  Hopefully the activation location will allow you to self-spot to SOTAWatch so that other hams will be able to know of your activation in real time.  There are several techniques for this.  You can use the APRS2SOTA or the SMS2SOTA gateways, use an app on your smart phone, or alternatively, you can ask a local ham that's SOTA-savvy to spot on your behalf.
  • If you're going to activate using only FM, it's best to activate a peak in an area with lots of FM activity.  Peaks near major metropolitan areas (like Los Angeles, for example) lend themselves to this.  Additionally, activating during a VHF contest can be helpful.  (Just make sure you note your maidenhead locator that the peak is in!)  Operating during an ARRL Field Day can also a be a great opportunity for this.
  • Pick a good band.  If I'm doing an FM-only activation, odds are that I will be most successful making QSOs on 2 Meters.  That band is just used more often than 6 meters, 1.25 meters, 70 centimeters, 33 centimeters, or 23 centimeters.  I have made FM QSOs on 6, 1.25 meters, and 70 centimeters, but 2 meter FM QSOs outnumber these by many orders of magnitude. 
  • Pick a good frequency.  I almost always use national calling frequencies.  For 2 meters, it's 146.52.  (Other FM calling frequencies are:  52.525, 223.5, 446.0, and 1294.5 MHz.  The 33 centimeter band doesn't have a national calling frequency, but there are local frequencies that are sometimes used on this rarely-used band).  If 146.52 is busy, I sometimes use 146.55 or 146.58, but they have fewer stations monitoring them.  Remember, if communicating for a SOTA activation, you can only count QSOs that are simplex.  (Ok, technically you can also use satellites, but these are almost never used.)  I also frequently monitor 146.52 at home while I'm having fun on HF, in case somebody would like to have a VHF FM QSO.
  • Pick a good time to activate.  Generally, activating on a weekend or some federal holidays is better than activating during the work week.  If you must activate during a work week, activating during commuting times often is good because numerous mobile stations are equipped with FM gear.  Lunch time is also good.  Activating at night usually doesn't work well.
  • If you're having trouble with getting the required 4 QSOs to earn points for a SOTA activation, you can attempt to make contact with a station on a local well-used repeater, and then QSY to a simplex frequency to make the required contacts.  This, of course, requires that you know how to use your radio (including frequency entry, and possibly use of CTCSS or "PL" tones, or rarely, Digital Coded Squelch (DCS).  You should also know the repeaters in the locale of your activation so you have some options.  The ARRL repeater director is a great resource for this.  There are also numerous smartphone apps that can assist with finding repeaters.
  • Your specific location on a peak can make a huge difference in how well your signal is communicated.  If you're having trouble getting the necessary QSOs on one side of a summit activation zone, try moving to a different location.  A small shift of a few dozen feet can sometimes greatly affect the radio line-of-sight and therefore enhance (or degrade) communications.
  • Most FM operators have their squelch adjusted so that you only hear stations that manage to break through the static.  This is fine, but sometimes you can hear weaker stations if you decide to cope with the static by reducing the squelch.  Some radios have a button which cancels the effect of the squelch temporarily.  Consider these options.
  • Keep your contacts short, and be persistent.  Normal FM operating procedures apply, but don't hesitate to let people know that you're activating a SOTA peak.  When announcing your presence on a frequency, you could say something like this:  "This is N0PCL, November Zero Papa Charlie Lima for a Summits On the Air Activation atop Mount Wilson.  Is there anybody listening?"  Calling "CQ" is generally frowned upon using FM.  Bob, K0NR, has written an excellent FM operating guide for the new ham.
  • Don't forget to write down the date, time callsign, frequency, and signal report for each contact, and then log those contacts on SOTAData.
That's basically it.  If you have a portable FM rig, you can have a successful SOTA activation, but you need to make sure that you are properly equipped and make use of appropriate techniques.