Am considering getting my license again after raising kids, and wondering if there is any point in HF operation besides local chats — that is, what is propagation like when there are no sunspots?
We went through quite an extended sunspot minimum before the current sunspot cycle started, and I well remember what it was like. 10m was open only when there was e-skip, which wasn't very often. 15m had openings from time to time, but when it was open typically you'd only hear stations in one direction, like from South America for instance, and they'd be weak, like S2 on the meter. It often seemed like 15m was only open during contests, probably because people would be discouraged from even trying the band at other times.
On the other hand, 20m was open during the daytime, and 40m, 80m, and 160m were open at night. When I started in 2006 I only had a base-model Elecraft K2 with no options, meaning I had just 11 W output to a vertical and Morse code was my only mode. I had plenty of fun and worked some good DX from my West Coast QTH, including Europe and Africa, but I had to work harder to get the DX than I would now for sure. A lot of the DX I worked was contest megastations, but I had several memorable contacts with ordinary hams running ordinary stations in faraway places.
If we get another sunspot minimum like we had before, then I'd say that there will still be plenty of activity on HF. If you want to work DX, you'll have to listen harder for grayline propagation (magic!) and unusually good conditions, which actually happen fairly often; pay no attention to the computer program that says Europe is currently impossible, turn on the radio instead and find out for yourself. Consider using Morse code or a computer mode like PSK31; those modes work much better than SSB when conditions are only so-so.
My advice would be to ignore the grumblers, there will still be plenty to do on HF even if the sunspots vanish for a while.
In a word: miserable.
I was not active during the last solar minimum, but the one before it was long and full of people complaining about it on USENET, which was still a thing back then. The solar flux index was in the 60s for months at a time, and all you could read in the DX bulletins was how awful things were.
However - HF bands seem to open miraculously during contests, only to appear to close again afterwards, as everyone who would normally be on HF tries their hand at gardening or similar.
10m and 12m are for all intents and purposes dead at all times, unless there is some E-layer magic going on. The lower bands are lovely, but activity is all closer by, and there are fewer 'interesting' stations about.
I have long maintained that we make our own propagation, and that if everyone thinks the bands are dead, then BAM you tune around and there is nobody on! (They are all doing something else, rather than calling CQ. The propagation is still there, but there are no stations to hear.)
'Propagation' is a bit like the economy - when things are 'going well' everyone is borrowing and buying stuff. When things are 'going badly' nobody is buying anything, and you can't borrow money even if you want to.
So in general, it's a pretty miserable time - and that's on us :)
Typically during low/no sunspots radio propagation is bad at higher frequencies but excellent at low frequencies. At the bottom of the sunspot cycle the bands are quieter and signals travel farther down at 80 and 160 metres. And if you're a mediumwave DXer this is also a great time to listen.
It all depends on what your expectations are. At the beginning of 2018 We are at or near the solar minimum. Still, you can routinely work lots of stateside stations on 80, 40, and 20 meters with a simple entry level station --say 100 watts and a dipole. Tune across those bands and you will hear lots of signals most days. Nets are active and people are communicating. There are lots of 59+ signals to be heard. But they are mostly stateside. Upgrade to a beam or Hex Beam and of course you will make more contacts with better signal strength. 15 and 10 meters are pretty dead most of the time these days.
I'm hearing Europeans several times per week on 20 m. And can often work them on SSB or CW from my mobile system consisting of 90 watts and an inexpensive 20 m HamStick magnetically mounted on the center of the roof of my mini-van. The rig is nothing special, a 20 year old Kenwood TS-570 with the stock mobile hand-mike...just an old reliable utility rig.
Personally I'm having a lot of casual fun on HF, rag-chewing and working a little dx. But its a very different world than a "hot solar cycle" at its peak. I was first licensed in 1958 at the peak of cycle 19. So I have also experienced the-best-of-times.
So you have to ask yourself, What are my expectations? Do I like the challenge? What do I need for it to be enjoyable and worth while.
Hope to see you on the bands.