How to use the Reverse Beacon Network (RBN) for automatic POTA and SOTA spotting

If you’ve read my field reports or watched any of my activation videos, you’ve no doubt noticed that I rely very heavily on automatic spotting  via the Reverse Beacon Network (RBN) for both POTA (Parks On The Air) and SOTA (Summits On The Air).

I’ve gotten a lot of questions about how to use the RBN functionality for both SOTA and POTA, so thought I might clarify (in very basic terms) how the system works and how you can take advantage of it.

Note: CW and Digital Modes Only

Keep in mind that Reverse Beacon Network spotting only works with CW and some digital modes.

I, personally, have only used it for CW activations.

The system does not currently recognize voice transmissions (although as voice recognition becomes more accessible and effective, I wouldn’t be terribly surprised if something like this is offered in the near future!).

Here’s how the RBN works

The RBN is essentially fueled  by a global network of volunteer receiving and decoding stations that feed information into the RBN spotting system. This system is running 24/7 and recording spots constantly.

This is what the RBN spots search results look like using my call at time of posting.

If I hopped on the air right now and made at least two generic CQ calls with my callsign–barring any abnormal propagation–the RBN would no doubt collect my information and spot me automatically to their network.

Click here, for example, to see all of the times the RBN has spotted me recently. Click here to search for your own callsign on the RBN.

To my knowledge, the RBN is a completely independent resource and not directly affiliated with POTA, SOTA, WWFF, or any other contest or activity.

That said, the RBN allows those external spotting systems a means of “scraping” RBN data in real time to create their own active spots. Genius!

Important: Scheduling your activation is required

In order for the POTA or SOTA spotting systems to know when to look for your information on the RBN and where you will be operating, you must schedule or “add” your activation with POTA or create an alert with SOTA.

I will describe how to schedule both your POTA and SOTA activations below.

To be clear: if you do not schedule your activation with the POTA or SOTA systems, and you can’t otherwise self-spot, the system will not auto-spot you via the RBN. Period.

I’ve had a number of activators write to me because they thought the RBN wasn’t logging their spots, but in each case it turned out that the activator never scheduled the activation. They simply assumed that having an account on the POTA or SOTA website would be enough to get auto-spotted.

If you don’t schedule your POTA/SOTA activation, the RBN will still find you and spot you, but the POTA/SOTA spotting networks will not know that you’re doing an activation and, thus, won’t look for your callsign and scrape your spot information from the RBN.

Think of it a different way: if the POTA and SOTA networks spotted you without requiring a scheduled activation, you would get a spot each and every time you hop on the air and call CQ. That, and the system wouldn’t know what park or summit you were activating.

Funny POTA auto-spot story…

A couple years ago, I was browsing one of the POTA discussion groups and I remember a very upset activator who was complaining because every time he called CQ for causal non-POTA ragchews, POTA hunters started replying to him instantly with standard POTA exchanges.

He complained that he didn’t want to play POTA constantly, he wanted to ragchew a bit while on vacation and camping at a national park. He asked for people to stop assuming he was calling CQ for POTA.

Turns out, he had scheduled his entire week of camping at the park as one scheduled POTA activation!

The POTA system was simply doing its thing and constantly checking the RBN for his callsign any time he called CQ assuming that he was activating the park for the entire week continuously.

Had this operator scheduled multiple specific activation times during his camping trip (say, weekday evenings from 19:00 – 22:00), the system wouldn’t have constantly auto-spotted him on the POTA page.

I’ve actually used multi-day POTA scheduling to my advantage. Last year, while on a camping and hiking trip in Nantahala National Forest (see photo above), I scheduled an activation to cover the entire weekend. This was fantastic because I had no other means of spotting myself as there was no mobile phone coverage or internet there. No matter what time of day, I could simply hook up the radio, call CQ POTA a couple of times and the system spotted me.

What a luxury!

I should note here that the POTA spots page allows for multi-day “blanket” scheduled park activations, SOTA does not. You create an alert on the SOTA network and it starts looking for you approximately 45 minutes before the scheduled time and up to a couple hours after. (Don’t quote me on the exact times, and feel free to correct me) 1 hour before and 3 hours after the announced activation time [thanks, W7MDN!].

With SOTA, you don’t create your own activation time window as you do in POTA. The SOTA system assumes (rightfully so) that you’re not going to spend multiple days in a summit’s activation zone.

Update: You can, indeed, have some control over the window of time the SOTA system will look to the RBN to spot you. You’ll find details in the SOTA section below.

How to schedule a POTA activation for RBN auto-spotting

1.) Simply go to the POTA.app website, click on the menu in the upper left corner of the window, and choose the “Add Activation” menu item:

2.) Next, fill in the required information: park reference, start date, start time, end date, and end time. It isn’t required, but you can also note frequencies and any comments. Save the activation and that’s it!

3.) When you’re at the park and ready to start the activation, simply send a standard CQ POTA message like “CQ POTA de K4SWL K4SWL”. I find that the RBN typically spots me within two or three CQ calls and the POTA spots page auto-spots me within a minute of calling CQ.

The format of your CQ isn’t important–in fact, the RBN isn’t looking for anything other than “CQ” and your callsign. The POTA page scrapes the callsign, frequency, and signal report then creates a spot for you.

Here’s the cool thing: once you’ve been spotted (even if not scheduled–say, a friend spots you) the POTA spots page will then track you via the RBN. This means if you change frequencies (or QSY), it’ll automatically spot the new frequency for you. It always has your back!

Now let’s take a look at SOTA which is very similar…

How to schedule a SOTA activation for RBN auto-spotting

1.) Go to the SOTA Watch page and click on the Alerts Tab:

2.) Next, find the “Add Alert” button and click that:

3.) Simply fill in the details of your activation and save the alert. Again, since SOTA doesn’t allow for a “blanket” activation time range, you’ll want to be as accurate as possible.

4.) When you’re on the summit and ready to start the activation, simply send your CQ a few times and you’ll get spotted! It works the same way as the POTA system and typically spots me within a minute of calling CQ.

UPDATE: Many thanks to Richard and Todd (KH2TJ) who note that there is a way to control the SOTA RBN window. Richard notes that one can modify the RBN window by using S-h and S+h in the SOTA Alert comments where h is the number of hours you wish to offset.

For example: Adding  1500 S-2 S+2 in the Alert comments will spot based on the RBN from 1300 to 1700 UTC.

More details can be found in this FAQ.

Digital modes

I have not used RBN spotting for digital modes during POTA or SOTA, but the process is exactly the same. Simply schedule the activation and you’re good to go.

Summary

RBN auto-spotting is an invaluable tool for me in the field and I rely on it heavily.

So often, I’m at parks and summits without mobile phone or internet access for self-spotting.

Speaking from experience, if you’re not spotted in POTA and SOTA, it’s as if you don’t exist. You’ll be relying someone happening upon you on the bands, working you, then spotting you to the appropriate system.

Keep in mind that the RBN spotting system isn’t perfect. Though very rare these days, the link between the various spots pages and the RBN has been known to temporarily fail.  It’s for this reason I always share my scheduled activations with a group of POTA/SOTA friends–we all watch out for each other in case things don’t go according to plan.

Thank you!

I hope you found this short tutorial helpful. Feel free to comment with any points I overlooked or any corrections!

As always, I’d like to send a special thanks to those of you who have been supporting the site and channel through Patreon and the Coffee Fund. While certainly not a requirement as my content will always be free, I really appreciate the support.

I hope you get a chance to test RBN auto-spotting soon at a park or summit near you!

72,

Thomas (K4SWL)

32 thoughts on “How to use the Reverse Beacon Network (RBN) for automatic POTA and SOTA spotting”

  1. Thomas – I think POTA and SOTA activators that that have cell phone coverage would also benefit from using HamAlert. This system will notify you when a desired station appears on the RBN. You can set up the desired station to be your own call, so that you’ll get an alert when the RBN spots you. There are apps for iOS and Android, and a web site, and multiple ways to be notified. If you have cell phone coverage there are other ways to know you’ve been spotted, but this way you don’t have to take time out to check.

  2. I guess RBN spotting is nother reason for me to learn CW. Maybe later this year. I am tackling my Extra first then CW.

    Question about the AX1 bipod. Are the metal legs removable? In your X6100 activation video the legs were too short so I am wondering if they can be removed and replaced with plastic ones.

    W4MKH
    https://qrpguy.net/

    1. Hi, Marshall,

      I’m sure you could easily replace out the legs. I believe they’re aluminum. I think you simply unscrew the bolt holding them on, then replace with ones you make.

      I could have place the X6100 flat on the table which would have made the AX1 easier to mount. For the video, I wanted it on an angle.

      Cheers,
      Thomas

      1. Thanks Thomas,

        I’m waiting to hear back from Elecraft on the lead time for the AX1 and its bipod, and tripod mount. If they can get it to me before the end of April then I will probably order one sometime this week. If not then I will have to wait until I get back from our NC trip.

  3. I’ve learned a huge amount of all things QRP, POTA, spotting, antennas etc etc from watching your channel and subscribing/following your Blog. Watched your HRCC interview more than once! You’ve just cleared up a whole bunch of things for me in this post alone! I appreciate (as do many others I’m sure) how much you share in your various forums. Being a relatively new ham (licensed 2020 and just upgraded to Cdn Basic Honours which gives HF privileges) and recently becoming an FT-818 owner, I’m gleaning so much about QRP in general and the 818 as well as the others you use. This all raises more questions so I’ll keep watching/reading. Which now leads to two questions stuck in my mind, perhaps personal: Where do you get the time to do all of this?! AND What’s the significance of the Canadian flag on the pack?

    Rod VA3MZD

  4. Thomas, you said: “You create an alert on the SOTA network and it starts looking for you approximately 45 minutes before the scheduled time and up to a couple hours after. (Don’t quote me on the exact times, and feel free to correct me).”

    Thomas, it’s -1 hour to + 3 hours for RBN alerts posted to SOTAWatch. But be careful:

    I’ll frequently try to activate multiple summits in a day when the weather is nice (and schedule allows). If it takes longer than you planned to reach a summit, setup, SOTA, pack-up and hike to the next summit, RBN/SOTAWatch may spot you on the wrong summit at the wrong time if you’re behind/ahead of schedule. This can lead to frustrating logging errors for chasers/hunters who have to go back and make corrections later. Some practical mission planning can help avoid RBN spotting mistakes. Also, spotting via APRS can help with this if you’re out of cell coverage.

    1. Thank you for the clarification, Matt. I’ll correct this in the post.

      And yes, indeed, RBN POTA/SOTA scheduling is truly an art form. In my early days of using the RBN functionality with POTA, I tried to pack too many activations in the schedule too close together. Even though I had no overlap in the announced schedule, the POTA spots page would get confused and spot me at the wrong park (typically my previous park) likely because my old spot hadn’t completely timed out. My friends who watch the spots for me (we help each other) would correct the spot.

      I’ve never done two summits in one day, but I see where that +3 hours post alert time could really trip things up.

      I’ve yet to try APRS spotting. I’m not entirely sure it would be easy to hit a digipeater in parts of western NC. I have an FT-2D, so this is in the realm of possibility.

      Thanks for the feedback!

      Cheers,
      Thomas

      1. Yes Thomas it arrived recently. I have used it in the shack with great success. Hope to take it our in the woods very soon. I have all I need to get out there, just gots to find the time!!

        I really like it so far!

        1. Woo hoo! I promise: that little radio will be a constant companion. 🙂

          I look forward to working you KX2 to KX2 someday soon!

          Cheers,
          Thomas

  5. Excellent explanation. I have never tried using the RBN and did not know about scheduling the activation to get the RBN to spot you in POTA/SOTA. Thanks!

  6. RBN for POTA doesn’t seem as robust as SOTA. There have been a handful of times where it did not spot me and the listener needed to be restarted. Hopefully some better recovery routines are down the road.

  7. WRT the SOTA RBN window, it can be modified by using S-h and S+h in the comments, where h is the number of hours you wish to offset.

    for example

    1500 S-2 S+2

    Will spot based on RBN from 1300 to 1700.

    1. This is brilliant, Richard. I had no idea and I bet many others didn’t either. I’ve updated the post with this info.

  8. Thomas,

    Great article. I’ve been doing SOTA for a few years now, but appreciate the info on how to spot for POTA. A friend of mine, Eric, KU6J (SK), wrote the RBNGate software that changed how activators could get spotted using the reverse beacon network. Some changes were made after he became SK, but pretty much still works the same…Long story and maybe someday we’ll meet up for an eyeball QSO and some 807’s!

    http://www.grizzlyguy.tv/rbngate.htm

    Take care.

    73, Todd KH2TJ

  9. Another use for RBN is to find open frequencies before transmitting. Gi to https://rbn.telegraphy.de/ to see all activity by frequency, with lots of options for narrowing it down. (Set “Clubs” to “All Clubs” and enter your “Own Call”, too. It remembers your settings. Your own spots will show up highlighted in green, with all reports shown in one line.)

    1. Sorry, the “Clubs” setting should be “No Filter”. Otherwise it’ll only show calls for members of one or more club in the list. You want anyone, member of a club or not, to see any activity on a frequency.

  10. This was a great post, and should be very helpful to new POTA/SOTA activators. RBN can save your activation if you find no cell service at the location. I typically choose high terrain for my POTA activations (high terrain is a given for SOTA, hi hi) specifically to maximize likelihood of cell service, but in my locale service is not guaranteed. RBN is a very comforting backup.

    I also appreciate the way RBN respots after band or frequency changes. It helps with operator workload to let this be automated.

    I have also done multi-site activation scheduling. Careful planning is a must!

  11. Good afternoon Thomas,

    WOW! we have learned a huge amount of information, because I was asking to myself how to let the chasers knows I’m in a park activation.
    And each have a their own number beginning by “QC”

    This complete tutorial will be very helpful for me, (VE2TH) and my ( XYL VE2RH) as we shall activate parks this summer and may be a couple of SOTA, but only easily accessible. Hi!

    In the Province of Quebec, the “SEPAQ” Société des Établissements de Plein Air” operates 41 National Parks and Wildlife reserves and there is 190 regional Parks.

    Each of these “231 Parks are eligible for the QcPOTA EVENT.

    Will send you the up to date list with the (web site) and all info.

    It is a great way to be ready, because when portable it is very difficult to use a lap top, because there is no internet connections, in most of the places.

    Well you make my day , A big thank you again

    See you on the bands

    72/73 Mike VE2TH, Georgette VE2RH

    The OM/XYL TEAM and QRP’er.-

  12. Great post, Thomas.

    Another great use of the RBN is to use it to see where your CQs are being heard (by the RBN stations). With this info, you can get good ideas as to how your antennas are working.

    73,
    Nat, N4EL

    1. Very good point! I do this when testing antennas and look back at my RBN history. Very telling!

  13. Thank you so much Tom, that 1500 S-2 S+2 tip worked great today with RBN and my SOTA activation.

    73s and looking forward for new realtime videos.
    Alex, DL5AZZ/p

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