SOTA at Philmont

There are thirteen summits inside Philmont Scout Ranch that are listed in the Summits on the Air (SOTA) amateur radio program. There are another three within the Valle Vidal region to the north of the ranch. Only two of these sixteen peaks have been activated by SOTA operators, Baldy Mountain and Shaefers Peak.

SOTA is an award scheme for radio amateurs that encourages portable operation in mountainous areas. I think it is a great match for Scouting, combining the outdoors, technology, and world fellowship. Grab a radio, hike to the top of a mountain, and talk to people.

Here is a map of the Philmont South Country, which has most of the SOTA summits.

Philmont SOTA South

Starting at the north and moving south, these are the SOTA summits. If the summit does not have an official name, SOTA uses the altitude. An unnamed summit that is 8820 feet tall will be “Point 8820”.

Philmont Region Summit Name SOTA Reference Number of Activations
Valle Vidal Little Costilla Peak W5N/CM-001 0
Valle Vidal Ash Mountain South W5N/CM-005 0
Valle Vidal Point 11100 W5N/CM-007 0
North Country Baldy Mountain W5N/CM-002 2
North Country Point 8820 W5N/CM-023 0
South Country Point 8988 W5N/CM-018 0
South Country Phillips Mount W5N/CM-004 0
South Country Bear Mountain W5N/CM-011 0
South Country Schaefers Peak W5N/CM-016 3
South Country Black Mountain W5N/CM-010 0
South Country Garcia Peak W5N/CM-009 0
South Country Point 8881 W5N/CM-021 0
South Country Mesa Urraca W5N/CM-026 0
South Country Train Peak W5N/CM-013 0
South Country Burn Peak W5N/CM-014 0
South Country Lookout Peak W5N/CM-015 0

I used CalTopo.com to make maps with the Philmont boundaries and the SOTA peaks overlaid. CalTopo is a fantastic, free tool for making custom maps. For a modest subscription ($20/year), you can unlock more features. But the free version is still very useful.

The PDF maps are geospatial PDFs, so you can use them with a mapping app like Avenza Maps (free).

  • Map of all of Philmont with SOTA peaks, in PDF, JPEG, and on CalTopo.
  • Map of the Valle Vidal with SOTA peaks, in PDF and JPEG.
  • Map of Philmont North Country with SOTA peaks, in PDF and JPEG.
  • Map of Philmont South Country with SOTA peaks, in PDF and JPEG.

I don’t have a ride this year, but I want to go back to Philmont, with a radio!

International Radio Scouting Badges

Radio Scouting is an international activity, and the World Organization of the Scout Movement (WOSM) has patches and pins for it. I love the classic design, and I also love the price, with the current exchange rate.

The WOSM Radio Scouting emblem looks a lot like the World Scout Crest, but with a radio twist. It has the same purple background, but instead of the circling rope, it has dots, like Morse Code. The fleur-de-lis is at the bottom, and the center is a globe with headphones, a neckerchief, and some lightning bolt lines. It sounds complicated, but it says “Scouts on the radio around the world” without using words.

Radio Scouting patch Radio scouting pin

Right now (late 2016), the cloth badge (patch) is $1.29 (£1.04) and the metal badge (pin) is $1.81 (£1.46). You can work out the shipping cost yourself, but I think it is worth it to wear the world-wide symbol of Radio Scouting.

Send your name in Morse code!

This sounds like great fun for Boy Scouts or any youth-oriented radio activity. Here is the description from Dan Romanchik’s blog (kb6nu.com) about teaching Morse at the Ann Arbor Mini Maker Faire.

As usual, I had my collection of keys and was teaching kids (and some adults) how to send their names in Morse Code. I have a chart of the characters (see right) that I tape to the table next to the key, and when someone approaches the table, I ask if they’d like to learn to send their name in Morse Code, and if they say yes, I ask them to tell me the first letter in their name.

After they tell me, I show them the character on the chart and then show them how to send it. Once they’ve successfully done that, I tell them to look up the rest of the letters and then send them as well. If they successfully do this, I thrust out my hand and say, “Nice to meet you, Joe (or whatever name they just sent me).” The look on some faces is priceless.

I love the way this goes straight to “do” with a minimum of “tell”, then gives an immediate reward. The “tell me the first letter” method is really clever and makes it almost like a magic trick. You can also manage several people at the activity, as long as you can copy very slow Morse.

Send your name in morse code

Chart in PDF and in Microsoft Word formats.

Quoted with the kind permission of KB6NU.

Update: Don mentioned two things that make it simpler for the participants. First is to use “dit” and “dah” instead of dots and dashes, to start them on sound instead of pictures. Second is to leave off the numbers, since few people have numbers in their names. I’ve updated the chart to follow his excellent advice.

History of Morse Code in the Boy Scouts

Morse code has been in and out of the Boy Scout requirements for nearly a hundred years. During that time, Morse has changed from a career skill to a rewarding hobby, from a vocation to an avocation. Also, radio has grown to include voice communications, data communications, and broadcast.

Morse interpreter strip

I’ve gathered all the requirements I could find: rank, merit badge, or skill award. For context, I’ve included a few historical milestones from amateur radio and from digital and voice communication.

1910: Boy Scouts of America founded.

1912: First amateur radio licenses in the US.

1916: First regular radio broadcasts in the US.

1918: Wireless merit badge introduced, requires Morse at ten words per minute.

1930: Radio merit badge (replacement for Wireless) lowers the requirement to five words per minute.

1937: First Class requirement 4: “Send and receive by Semaphore Code, including conventional signs, thirty letters per minute; or by the General Service Code (International Morse), sixteen letters per minute, including conventional signs; or by Indian Sign Language Code, thirty signs per minute; or by the Manual Alphabet for the Deaf, thirteen letters per minute.” [In Morse, this is about three words per minute.]

1947: First amateur radio contacts over SSB at Stanford University.

1965: First Class requirement 4: “Send and receive a message of at least 20 words, using either international Morse or semaphore codes and necessary procedure signals.” [No speed requirement]

1965: An amateur radio license is accepted as proof of Morse competence for Radio merit badge.

1967: Viterbi decoder invented, beginning of modern digital communication.

1972: First Class drops Morse requirement.

1979: Morse returns as an option for the Communications Skill Award: “Signal by two of the following methods: silent Scout signals, manual alphabet, sign language for the deaf, Indian sign language, sports signals, Morse code, semaphore code, Scouts trail signs.” [This long list of options requires fourteen pages of documentation in the Handbook. Oddly, the handbook includes the Braille alphabet, though it is not one of the signaling systems listed in the requirement.]

1981: Space Shuttle STS-1 mission uses digital voice communication.

1984: Broadcast and SWL options added to Radio Merit Badge requirements, Morse dropped.

1990: First Class drops Morse requirement (again).

1991: FCC introduces no-code Technician license.

1999: Morse replaced by satellite for global maritime distress calls (no more SOS).

2007: FCC drops Morse requirement for all amateur licenses.

2010: Morse returns for one year in the centennial Signaling merit badge with three requirements around Morse.

2012: BSA adds Morse interpreter strip.

2015: Morse returns yet again as part of the Signs, Signals, and Codes merit badge: “Send or receive a message of six to ten words using Morse code.” [No speed requirement]

There are probably many choices for the beginning of modern digital communication. I chose the invention of the Viterbi decoder, because that supported low-latency error correction in hardware for digital codes. And it is really cool technology.

All the BSA requirements after 1965 are from my bookshelf. The 1937 First Class requirement is from the 1937 Scoutmaster’s Handbook. The remainder are from on-line resources.

Radio Scouting: The Operator Patch

My wife doesn’t understand the patch thing, but Scouts know that it isn’t real Scouting until there is a patch. The BSA patch for licensed radio amateurs has been available since 2013 and has an official spot on the uniform. If you have an amateur radio license, you should wear this patch.

BSA radio patch

This is not a temporary patch. It goes on the right sleeve below the Quality Unit patch. If you don’t wear a Quality Unit patch, it goes below the Patrol emblem. If you don’t have a Patrol emblem, well, figure it out. I hear that the new Guide to Uniforming and Insignia is nearly ready.

It is a skinny patch and a bit tricky to sew on, but that shouldn’t be a problem, because it stays there.

ScoutStuff sells the patch on-line. It is only $1.59, but the cheapest shipping for me was $7.50. I recommend getting it from your local Scout shop.

This has been a very popular patch. It sold out almost immediately when it was first offered.

Sage Venture made a custom run of the patch with a Venturing Green background and a Sea Scout white background. I’m sure you could custom order from Sage Ventures if you’d like that. You can see the designs here.

Radio Scouting: Hike Safely

The Hiker Responsibility Code says “Be prepared..to stay together” on the trail. BSA rules require adequate supervision. But how do we stay together and be safe on a troop hike with thirty or forty Scouts? We can hike in independent groups, each with two adults and a crew first aid kit. Or, we can stay in touch with radio communications.

Crew 27 in our area has a scheme for coordination on a hike. Each independent group has a radio. The last group, “sweep”, has adults and a radio. All groups check in every 15 minutes. If a group cannot communicate with sweep, they halt and wait for the groups behind them to get closer. A hike group can relay messages to and from a forward group.

T 14 at Henry Coe 2006 crop 1

What kind of radio? FRS/GMRS (Family Radio Service, General Mobile Radio Service) radios are affordable and don’t require a license. They work over a fairly short range, maybe a half-mile in the mountains or a forest for FRS channels (0.5 Watt transmit power) or farther for GMRS channels (1 or 2 Watts).

REI has a good guide to outdoor FRS radios.

If a patrol wants to hike with more separation, each group (including sweep) can have someone with an amateur radio license. An amateur radio HT (Handheld Transceiver, often called a “Walkie Talkie”), has more power (5 to 8 Watts) and a range of one or two miles, especially with an improved antenna. Some HT’s only cost a little more than FRS radios. The least expensive models change frequently, but good models tend to cost between $30 and $70. You pay more for ease of use, ruggedness, and a better antenna.

The test for the Technician amateur radio license is not that hard. It is a 35 question test and you need to get 26 correct answers (74%). All the questions are public, so you can practice as much as you want, free. The hamexam.org site is a good place to practice. It isn’t a trivial test—even though I have the highest level of FCC amateur license, I just missed two questions on a practice test.

Try a Technician test and see how close you are. There are study programs and amateurs who are willing to help (“Elmers”). I’m willing to help.

Radio scouting

Radio Scouting: Emergency Preparedness Merit Badge (and Beyond)

E. Prep. merit badge requires the Scout to take part in an emergency mobilization and make a plan for emergency service. Why not let your local amateur radio ARES/RACES group help out?

Amateur radio operators work with their local communities to prepare for emergencies. They do this with drills, frequent radio practice, and public service (which is also mobilization practice). Many groups have a radio communications net every week. Scouts can also work with CERT (Community Emergency Response Team) and other emergency volunteers.

Let’s look at the three parts of requirement 8 for the Emergency Preparedness merit badge.

8a. Prepare a written plan for mobilizing your troop when needed to do emergency service. If there is already a plan, explain it. Tell your part in making it work.

What kind of emergencies can happen in your town and how can Scouts help? The Palo Alto emergency volunteers just had training to supervise sandbag stations in preparation for potential flooding from the El Niño rains. Some of our residents are older and probably should not be shoveling sand and loading sandbags into cars. This is a perfect opportunity for Scouts to volunteer. They should already know how to work effectively in groups and dress for rain.

Make a plan to provide volunteers to fill sandbags and load them into cars. Find out how many sandbag stations there are, pick a crew size, then make a schedule for shifts. Plan how to contact your troop. After you go over it with your merit badge counselor, you might take it to the city office of emergency services, because it could be a big help.

As part of your plan, you should follow the BSA Service Project Planning Guidelines and the BSA Tool Use Guidelines.

8b. Take part in at least one troop mobilization. Before the exercise, describe your part to your counselor. Afterward, conduct an “after-action” lesson, discussing what you learned during the exercise that required changes or adjustments to the plan.

You can’t really do this requirement unless your troop (not a merit badge midway class) does emergency service. So talk to your SPL about what kind of emergency service your troop can do. Put at least one emergency service event on the troop calendar each year, participate, and this requirement will be easy.

To research ideas, you and your SPL can talk to the Emergency Coordinator (EC) for your local ARES/RACES organization. They’ll have a good grasp of local emergency planning and can give you more contacts.

8c. Prepare a personal emergency service pack for a mobilization call. Prepare a family emergency kit (suitcase or waterproof box) for use by your family in case an emergency evacuation is needed. Explain the needs and uses of the contents.

ARES/RACES volunteers call their personal emergency service packs a “Go Kit”. In our area, we have a “2-Hour Carry Kit” and a “12-Hour Go Kit”. You can use these Go Kit lists as a starting point: PDF Go Kit list, MS Word Go Kit list. The weather in your area will probably require different gear. In our area, we don’t have snow or sub-zero weather.

How do you find your local ARES/RACES group? Ask your local office of emergency services, usually part of the police or fire department. Or ask the fire chief, they should know. You can also search for “ARES RACES” plus the name of your county. There is often a county group that coordinates city groups, for example, this list of city ARES/RACES contacts is on the Santa Clara County ARES/RACES page. Other examples: Williamson County (TX) ARES, Marion County (IN) ARES, and so on. This list of links to ARES/RACES groups might also help, though some links are old and dead.

If you are an ARES/RACES member, consider becoming a merit badge counselor. This merit badge is required for the Eagle rank, so it is very popular. Last year, 46,069 Scouts earned this merit badge!

Emergency Preparedness merit badge patch  world Radio Scouting patchARES color logoRACES color logo

Note on abbreviations: Amateur radio emergency volunteer groups can be called “ARES” (Amateur Radio Emergency Service, an ARRL-sponsored group), “RACES” (Radio Amateur Civil Emergency Service, a government-sponsored group), or “ACS” (Auxiliary Communications Service, the organizational department name used when deployed). In most cases, there is one group that changes hats for different events, and we call it “ARES/RACES”. For more detailed descriptions and even more acronyms, read the Santa Clara County ARES/RACES FAQ.