My path to learning CW and activating parks and summits

One of the most common questions I receive on my YouTube Channel is on the topic of how I learned CW and started doing CW field activations.

I’ve often told new hams or those who want to learn CW that there is no “one path” to learning CW. Mine was certainly not a straight path, and I believe very few are.

I will state up-front that there are a number of resources out there for learning CW, including apps, programs, audio recordings, and clubs.

One resource with a loyal following is the Long Island CW Club.  I’ve heard so many rave about their program, it’s certainly worth exploring.

My Path to CW

I first learned about amateur radio in high school from a Curtis Mathis TV repairman house call. As he diagnosed an issue with our living room television, I held the flashlight and probably asked dozens of questions about the components inside. He eventually looked at me and said, “Have you ever heard about amateur radio?

After showing him the shortwave listening station I’d put together in my bedroom (all centered around a Zenith Transoceanic), he suggested I stop by a local RadioShack and pick up study material for the Novice license.

In 1988, the first steeping stone into amateur radio required learning enough CW/Morse Code to pass a simple five word per minute test along with a written exam.

I eventually purchased Gordon West’s exam prep package which included the book and cassette tapes to help with my studies.

I was in high school at the time, though, and involved in a lot of extracurricular activities including my high school marching band, scouts, I volunteered at our local community theatre, was in a brass quintet, played bass in the high school jazz band, and I even played Tuba for our local college band. I had too much on my plate already. Then, I did my undergraduate studies including a year in France and put off my license even longer.

After graduating college/university in 1996, I worked briefly at a RadioShack and found the time to start studying again. Through the encouragement of my good friends and Elmers Mike (K8RAT) and Eric (WD8RIF), I studied the written material for my Novice and Technician exams, and also the cassette tapes for my 5 word per minute CW exam.

In early 1997, I took and passed all three components to snag my (then) “Technician Plus” license.

I planned to learn 13 words per minute to pass my General class license, but the FCC actually dropped the code requirement altogether.  I passed my General in 1998 or 1999, and moved to Europe and the UK for a few years with my employer.

After moving back to the States, I tried to get back into CW, but again put it off thinking the learning curve would be too great.

Then in 2007, I had a break in employment and had free time at home. I pulled out those Gordon West tapes and worked through the entire course again.

The moment I could confidently copy all of the letters, all of the numbers, and a few abbreviations, I called my buddy Mike (K8RAT) and asked him to meet me on the air.

I was nervous, but I was communicating with a friend who was happy to slow down to 5 words per minute (not an easy task, mind you, when you’re used to 20WPM+!).

Mike and I had a daily morning QSO and that built my code speed up to 13-15 WPM in short order.

I learned that after your brain assimilates each Morse Code character, it’s then all about recognizing the sound of each character and abandoning any in-head translating of dits and dashes which slows you down. This is the ideal approach to any language: you need instant recognition to build speed. It’s not hard to do and, in fact, and our brains are wired to do this automatically.

After I started building confidence with code and doing 3 way 13 WPM ragchews with Mike and Eric on 80 meters, I started another huge project: building a house.

The house build took the better part of three years and it absorbed all of my time (that and my wife and I also had toddlers at home!).

We eventually moved into our house and I set up a permanent shack. I would occasionally hop on the CW bands, but usually just to test CW performance for transceiver and receiver reviews.   In other words, I let my CW skills slip again.

Parks On The Air

It wasn’t until last year (2020) during the pandemic that I decided to build my CW skills to a point that I could complete a Parks On The Air (POTA) CW activation.

What was the motivation?

1.) POTA and SOTA activators who schedule their activations can be automatically spotted via the Reverse Beacon Network (RBN). This means if you’re at a site that has no mobile phone coverage, the system may automatically spot and re-spot you from your CW CQ calls.  Since 60% of the sites I activate have no mobile phone or Internet coverage, this was a HUGE motivating factor.

2.) Let’s face it: CW is the ultimate mode for the portable operator. CW is simply more efficient and effective with your power output than voice modes like SSB, AM, or FM. Unlike modern digital modes, which are also more efficient than voice modes (think FT8/FT4), you need no special equipment or a computer as an interface.

3.) CW is a skill and, frankly, I wanted to improve that skill. I knew CW activations would be a wonderful motivator and excuse to practice.

Morse Runner

In May 2020, I started using a free program called Morse Runner to prepare for CW activation and potential pileups. Click here to read about my experience with Morse Runner.

Hunting

I also started hunting CW activators in the POTA program from home. The exchange is pretty simple, so it was easy to do. This also gave me the opportunity to learn common exchange communications and abbreviations.

Contests and DX

I started working DX stations in CW. As I mentioned in a previous post, the exchanges are very formulaic.

I also made a point of working CW stations in the 2020 ARRL Field Day and during the 2020 13 Colonies event.

My first CW activation

I’ll admit that I was nervous, but Hazel was pretty darn relaxed.

As I started to build a little confidence on the air–and before I had could talk myself out of it–on July 25, 2020, Hazel and I took my field radio kit to the Blue Ridge Parkway and I completed my first CW activation. Click here to read the details.

In short? It was actually a bit easier and more enjoyable than I had imagined.

Although I would get some butterflies at the start of the next few CW activations, CW quickly became my mode of choice. Why? For one thing, CW is a very narrow mode which means it’s super easy to find a clear frequency. CW also copes with QSB, QRN, and QRM much better than SSB. Frankly, there are also less LIDS on the CW bands.

There’s another reason that’s hard to explain, but I’ll try: when I operate in CW, I find that it takes my mind off of everything else going on in the world. When I’m listening to and sending code, it becomes my focus and somehow it’s very relaxing. I find it a bit of a refuge.

Finally, I have an appreciation of radio history and nostalgia so it’s fun to operate such a simple, early mode that’s still so incredibly effective.

What was your CW Path?

So there you go! CW is now my mode of choice. Even though I don’t even have one year of CW activations under my belt at time of posting, I operate it 95% of the time I’m in the field. I still love phone contacts–don’t get me wrong, I’m not a CW-only guy–but I prefer CW these days.

I would love to hear about your path to learning CW. What tools and resources did you use? Did you have any mentors that helped you along the way? Are you still learning CW? Please comment!

Rendezvous Mountain Field Report: Activating three individual sites on one summit!

Last Wednesday (April 7, 2021), I managed to block out most of the day to play a little radio in the field. When I have opportunities like this, I usually take one of two approaches: either make a multi-park and/or summit run, or go further afield and activate a site or two on my bucket list.

I chose the latter.

Two of the very few sites from my 2020 Park Bucket List that I hadn’t managed to activate were Rendezvous Mountain Educational State Forest and Rendevous Mountain State Game Land. When I created my bucket list, both of these parks were very rare: one was an all-time new one, the other had only been activated once. In 2021, they were still rare but both had activations logged.

When two park entities are this close together, I will do my at-home research in advance and search for a spot where the boundaries of the two parks might overlap opening an opportunity for a one activation two-fer.  Although there are exceptions (like Elk Knob)  when a park and a game land share a common name, there’s a decent chance their boundaries overlap, possibly even in an accessible area.

Fortunately, I discovered last spring that Rendezvous Mountain did indeed have an accessible spot where both the game land and state educational forest meet. I pinpointed it on Google Maps and embedded the URL in my park bucket list spreadsheet:

I can’t overstate how important one of these lists is to an activator who loves exploring different  sites. When the weather outside is horrible and activating isn’t a good option, spend your time indoors doing research for a day when you can hit the field!

Tuesday evening, I decided to finally hit this Rendezvous Mountain two-fer. Since the weather was forecast to be beautiful, so I also wanted to fit in a proper hike, so I started searching for a nearby summit as well.

Click to enlarge

Turns out, there was a SOTA summit called “2543” (named after its height above sea level in feet) that was accessible from a Rendezvous Mountain Educational State Forest parking area. An easy four mile round-trip hike. Score!

Next, I found the 2543 summit on a topo map and compared it with the location I’d already plotted for my two-fer. Turns out, they were very close to each other–likely within 100 meters. I was able to confirm with confidence that the summit and game land could be activated at the same time. The state forest map was a little too vague to confirm its exact boundary.

I originally found this site using the NCWRC maps and topo/trail maps.

Here’s the interesting part: the game land parking area I planned to use was within 50-100 meters of the SOTA summit. If I wanted to, I could easily turn this summit into a drive-up activation. But again, I wanted to hike, so I plotted a trip to the parking area of Rendezvous Mountain Educational State Forest.

My plan was to hike to the summit, activate it and the game land as at the same time, then hike back to the Rendezvous Mountain Educational Forest’s parking area, grab a picnic table and activate the state forest separately.

I arrived on site around 11:30 and spent a few minutes confirming that I was hitting the correct trail (as there are multiple trails in this forest).

The trail head is at the last parking area, simply keep following the paved road which quickly turns into a gravel/logging road.

Turns out, it couldn’t be easier to find the summit trail (should you decide to make this same activation): simply drive to the last parking area in Rendezvous Mountain Educational State Forest, and continue walking up the road past the metal gate. This road will take you past the visitor’s center, turn into a gravel road, then pass the fire tower road on your right.

Simply continue following the main road for two miles. There are a few branches on this road and I did take one thinking I was sticking to the main road, but quickly discovered it was a dead end and had to back-track. In general, follow the most traveled road and you’ll be fine.

The summit is fairly nondescript since it’s lower in altitude and covered in trees. Look for a short spur road, two miles in, near the game land gate (where you could park if you wanted to do a drive-up activation).

As I hiked to the site, I realized that the logging/access road is actually the boundary between the game land and the state forest. A promising sign!

When I arrived at the short spur road that ended on the summit of 2543, I was very pleased to discover that the game land/forest boundary followed the spur road and was all well within the SOTA activation zone! Brilliant!

Rendezvous Mountain State Game Land (K-6941), Educational State Forest (K-4859), and
SOTA Summit 2543 (W4C/EM-082)

The game land, state forest, and summit all met on an old road bed that was flanked by tall trees.

This meant that I could activate all three sites in one go and–since there’d be no need to activate the state forest separately–still have enough time to perhaps activate Kerr Scott Game Land later in the afternoon on my way home.

You can see the state forest sign on the left, the game land sign on the right–both within the SOTA activation zone.

Point of clarification about park boundaries and “two-fers”

POTA is fairly clear about where park boundaries are in terms of counting a park in an activation, “The activator and all the equipment you use must be within the perimeters of the park, and on public property. […] If the park is part of a trail system or river, you need to be within 100 feet of the trail or river.”

In order to claim a two-fer, there needs to be park overlap. Technically,  you can’t straddle a map line between two (non-river/trail) park sites and activate them as a two-fer because you and your equipment can’t be in both places at the same time if there’s no property overlap. In POTA, there is no buffer area around a park unless it’s a trail or river.

SOTA is specific and gives you a 25 vertical meter activation zone which forms a contour line around the true summit (not a secondary, nearly as high area). Little room for interpretation here.

For Rendezvous Mountain, I decided it was a POTA two-fer because I activated on a road that is also a marked and blazed trail used for recreation/access for both the game land and forest–and both of these areas are a part of the over-arching Rendezvous Mountain State Forest.

Had this been a boundary defined by an imaginary (surveyed) line without a common trail or road, there would have been no point of overlap, thus no two-fer.

This was actually the first time I had been in this particular situation. All of the other multiples I’d activated in the past had vast areas of geographic overlap.

Again, no one but the POTA activator actually knows the truth, and it would be incredibly rare that anyone would ever question you after your logs have been submitted. There is no POTA Police and it’s not even a contest–it’s a group activity. It’s all about following the rules to the best of your ability, exercising due diligence,  and being honest with yourself.

Now where was I?

Gear:

At the site, I used my new compact arborist throw line bag.

It worked even better than I had expected.

I was concerned that the line wouldn’t deploy as smoothly as the line does from my larger arborist storage cube, but it deployed perfectly!

On the air

I deployed my Vibroplex EFT-MTR end-fed antenna across the road bed and connected it to my Elecraft KX2 with attached KXPD2 paddles.

This made for a very compact and simple setup: in situations like this, I love the compact size of the KX2 since it can easily fit on my clipboard where I also log on paper.

I also brought along my Google Pixel 3 and made a video of the entire activation (see below).

Propagation was very unstable, but I hoped that this site would be rare enough to attract SOTA, POTA, and WWFF chasers thus helping me log my needed 4 for SOTA and 10 for POTA/WWFF.

I first hopped on 20 meters CW where I quickly worked seven stations in eight minutes–from Utah and Arizona, to France, Spain and Germany. An excellent start!

I then hopped on 30 meters (using the KX2’s ATU instead of removing the SMA cap on the EFT-MTR), and worked one station in Missouri.

Next, on 40 meters CW, I logged another six stations in six minutes.

I then connected the microphone and worked a Summit-To-Summit contact on 20 meters SSB. I was very pleased to put K4AAE/P in the logs because I had difficultly working other stations on 20M SSB.

Finally, I moved to 40 meters SSB and worked a total of four stations in five minutes.

All-in-all, a total of 19 contacts logged in a total of 45 minutes on the air.  Not bad for QRP on a poor propagation day!

QSO Map

Video

I made one of my real-time, real life videos of the entire activation. Check it out below or via my YouTube channel:

Photos

As I hiked back to the car, I took my time and enjoyed the weather, the hike, and the solitude. Here are a  few extra photos from the camera roll:

Thank you for reading this field report!

If you ever pass by North Wilkesboro, North Carolina, I highly recommend this site. It’s very rare that you find a site that is a SOTA, POTA, and WWFF entity and that can be activated by a pleasant 4 mile RT hike, or as a drive-up.

I’ll plan to hit Rendezvous Mountain again next year!


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Could you activate a park or summit in CW only using a CW decoder and memory keyer?

The Xiegu G90 in CW Decode mode (note the text at the bottom of the display)

As more and more radio operators hit the field to activate parks and summits, many want to turn to CW to benefit from Reverse Beacon Network (RBN) spotting and also to take advantages of the inherent efficiencies of CW at QRP power levels.

Thing is, CW is a skill so there is a learning curve associated with it.

The learning curve is actually more modest than you might think, which is the reason there are so many new operators employing this earliest of communication modes.

A reader recently asked if he thought he could get away with doing a park activation for POTA using the built-in CW decoder in his transceiver and an external memory keyer pre-programmed with a wide variety of exchanges and signal reports. He even thought about using a keyboard-based keyer as opposed to paddles or a straight key.

The idea would be to get on the CW bands for experience as he’s learning CW. At present, he doesn’t know CW at all, but he’s starting to learn.

His question was simple, “Could I activate a park with this sort of setup?”

My reply? “Possibly. It would likely be frustrating.”

Before getting into a field activation, let’s talk about one area where even modest CW skills can be used to snag contacts.

Working short exchange DX in CW

There are a number of  DXers who effectively rely on CW skimmers, keyboard sending, and pre-programmed exchanges in order to work DX.

How do they do this? It’s simple, really:

DX exchanges are incredibly simple and formulaic.

For example, in order to work a typical DXpedition the only CW one really needs to know is what one’s own callsign sounds like in CW at a relatively high speed.

To work a DXpedition in CW, for example, I would only need to program the following two messages in my CW memory keyer:

  1. K4SWL” (my callsign)
  2. 5NN TU DE K4SWL” or ” K4SWL 5NN TU” or even simply “5NN TU

That’s it, really. Here’s how it would play out…

I simply press the memory button with my callsign to call the DXpedition.

When the DXpedition sends back my callsign and possibly a signal report (“K4SWL 5NN“), I then press the memory button with my reply (“5NN TU“).

My only skill would be knowing what my callsign sounds like in CW at 20-30 WPM. That’s actually very easy to learn.

The reason why this procedure is so easy is because you only need to recognize your own callsign in CW; the DXpedition at the other end is doing all of the hard work by picking callsigns from the pileup and replying.

Anyone could learn how to work these short DX exchanges in CW over a weekend. It’s not always as easy and straight-forward as the example above (sometimes, for example, the DX may only send back a portion of your callsign with a question mark)  but it is possible to work short exchange DX and DXpeditions without knowing much CW at all.

CW Skimmers vs. Built-in transceiver decoding

At home, you can also use powerful CW skimmers on your computer–sometimes via SDR applications–to decode CW across the bands.  In the field, you could also use a laptop or tablet to do the same thing. The Reverse Beacon Network (RBN) uses CW skimming to spot CW activators 24/7. It’s obviously pretty effective.

This particular reader was asking about using their transceiver’s built-in CW decoder along with pre-programmed CW exchanges.

I’ve reviewed numerous transceivers with built-in CW decoders. Some work better than others.

Transceivers decoders are typically pretty basic and not terribly adaptive. Some struggle with code that varies in speed–for example, it might  expect received code at the same speed your keyer is set to. That doesn’t always happen, of course.

Also, most transceivers will only interpret code that is completely tuned in properly–many have CWT and auto tuning functionality to center the frequency on the received signal.

If your transceiver likes the code speed and if you’re properly tuned in, you could get a very good read of the code being sent to you.

However, transceiver decoders (at present) will get confused by:

  • multiple signals (i.e. a CW pileup)
  • sloppy sending (junk in, junk out!)
  • signals that drift
  • and depending on the operator’s skill, straight keys, semi-automatic keys, and side-swipers (or “cooties”) can also confuse them

In other words, transceiver decoders are simple and typically are looking for standard, electronically-keyed code that’s properly tuned-in. They’re better at handling a rag-chew with a friend rather than the dynamic environment of multiple CW ops calling a site activation.

With this said, some transceivers are better at CW decoding than others. Your mileage will vary.

But the real rub?

When activating a site, you are the DX.

When you’re activating a park or summit, the burden of interpreting incoming callsigns falls on you. Built-in transceiver CW decoders are not good at pulling apart multiple callsigns being sent all at once. In fact, all of the transceivers I’ve used in the field only have one line of decoded text that scrolls across the screen.

If you activate a park and only one chaser/hunter calls you at a time, they’re spot on your frequency, and sending clean code, you probably could effectively use your transceiver’s CW decoder and pre-programmed messages to complete an exchange. This “ideal” situation would likely be fairly rare, in truth.

Your brain is a better

Your brain is much better at adapting, so there’s just no escaping building your CW skillset if you want to activate a park, summit, island, or any site where you are the DX.

Good news is, there are a number of applications, courses, and programs out there to help you build CW skills.

One place to start is the Long Island CW Club. I’ve heard so many success stories from their program. (Please comment with suggestions that have helped you!)

And when you’ve learned just enough CW to hop on the air, I highly recommend using the free Morse Runner application to practice handling small pileups.

Also? Chase first!

Before attempting a CW activation and getting frustrated by the experience, I would try chasing at home first using your transceiver’s decoder.

Chasing is a situation where you can make the decoder work better for you, because you’re only focusing on one target signal (an activator) at a time.

I did a lot of chasing as I was working on my CW activation skills. I also chased ARRL Field Day contacts and made a 13 Colonies “Clean Sweep” employing a bit of CW. Since the CW exchanges were so formulaic, it wasn’t all that difficult.

Side Note: DMX-40

Ironically, as I was writing this article, I learned about a product made by the company PrepComm called the DMX-40. I believe a reader may have commented with a link at some point.

The DMX-40 is basically a 40 meter self-contained QRP transceiver designed to send and decode CW.  The idea behind the DMX-40 stems more from an emergency communications point of view: you won’t need to learn CW in order to use it during emergency or one-on-one communications.

I’m tempted to test the DMX-40 to see how well it works in the real world. So far, I haven’t seen a review where it’s truly put through the paces in real-time. I might ask the manufacturer to send me a loaner if there’s interest. Let me know in the comments if you think it might be worth reviewing.  I am curious if it would work for the odd CW rag-chew and/or chasing CW park and summit activators. I assume, based on the product description and specs, its CW decoder would be much more robust than, say, the decoder in my Elecraft KX2.

Summary

Being completely transparent here, I’ve had this article in my drafts folder for the past three or four weeks. I initially wrote it thinking it would be a pretty simple answer. In truth, though, I’ve never attempted a CW activation only using my transceiver’s decoder.

There may be some savvy operators who could make this work using a CW skimmer and keyboard-based keyer with macros, but I think it would be an operation in frustration. I think it would discourage me more than anything else.

I do think there’s a place for CW decoders. In fact, I found the one in my KX3 incredibly helpful as I started chasing CW signals on the air from home. I never completely relied on the decoder, I simply used it to confirm what I though I was hearing. It built my confidence.

In the end, I believe it’s easier to simply learn some CW. It’s not really that difficult and I firmly believe it’s good for your brain!

Comments?

Please comment if you regularly employ a CW decoder, have completed a field activation with one, or if you simply used one while learning CW. I would also love to hear from folks who use CW skimmers and what applications they use. Indeed, I’d love to hear any of your considerate thoughts on the topic.

Which should you buy? The Icom IC-705 or the Elecraft KX2?

Without a doubt, the most popular type of question I receive from readers here on QPRer.com and over at the SWLing Post has to do with making equipment purchase decisions.

In the past two months, I’ve had numerous questions from QRPer readers asking my opinion about choosing between the new Icom IC-705, or the Elecraft KX2. In fact, as I started putting this post together this morning, I received yet another email from a reader asking my opinion about these two iconic QRP transceivers!

I love both of these radios for different reasons, so the answer is not an easy one.

Let’s discuss this in some detail…

I decided to make a video talking about the pros and cons of each transceiver and note the reasons why one might pick one over the other. My hope is that this will help inform a purchase decision:

Click here to view on YouTube.

Do you own both of these radios? Or did you recently decide to purchase one instead of the other? Please comment with your thoughts and opinions!

Tutorial: How to call CQ as an HF QRP station in SSB/Phone


Many thanks to Susan who writes:

I am new – just about to start – portable, QRP operating. I’m just waiting for the weather to cooperate a bit.

Via phone, I have been looking around for the “proper” way to call CQ indicating either QRP or portable – or both! but I haven’t found that. I do see CW “calling CQ” samples. Can you give me that information or direct me to a site that might give some guidance? Not a big deal but I would like to start out on the right foot and sound like I know what I’m doing.

Thanks.

Susan

Thanks for your question, Susan! I’ll share, below, how I call CQ when QRP and portable:

Calling CQ Basics

There is no truly standard way to call CQ, but most CQs follow a certain pattern. Some are short, and some are long.

In general, if you’re calling CQ and simply want to work anyone anywhere and you’re open to a rag-chew (extended conversation), you might start by giving a longer CQ. Some operators will do CQ calls that last nearly 30 seconds, but I don’t personally do that. I use a call and repeat it leaving an interval of maybe 5-8 seconds between repeats. I’ll say something like:

“CQ CQ CQ, CQ CQ CQ, this is Kilo Four Sierra Whisky Lima, Kilo Four Sierra Whisky Lima calling CQ and listening.” 

I repeat until I receive a reply.

I’ll sometimes change the length of the CQ call and add/remove words when I repeat. I might use a variation like:

“CQ CQ CQ this is Kilo Four Sierra Whisky Lima, Kilo Four Sierra Whisky Lima calling CQ and listening.” 

then

“CQ CQ CQ this is Kilo Four Sierra Whisky Lima calling CQ to anyone, anywhere and listening.” 

Side note: If you’re doing a Park or SOTA activation and you’ve been spotted on one of the networks, then keep your CQ short. Something like:

“CQ POTA CQ POTA CQ POTA this is Kilo Four Sierra Whisky Lima calling CQ for Parks On The Air”

Calling CQ QRP or Portable

Again, there’s no truly standard way of doing this, but when I call CQ QRP–which actually isn’t often–I’ll say:

“CQ CQ CQ, this is Kilo Four Sierra Whisky Lima calling CQ QRP and listening.”

or

“CQ CQ CQ, this is Kilo Four Sierra Whisky Lima calling CQ Portable and listening.”

I’ve even been known to say the number of watts I’m running in the CQ call.

But it’s truly rare that I note I’m running QRP in my CQ call. Why?  I enjoy receiving and sending a good signal report then revealing “I’m running 5 watts into a dipole antenna.” I usually get very positive reactions and I believe I get more replies to my CQ when I’m not revealing I’m QRP until we’re in the exchange. But honestly? It’s all just a matter of personal preference.

Working stations: My favorite approaches as a QRP station

K4SWL portable VY2!

I’ve been known to spend the bulk of the summer in an off-grid cabin with my family in the Canadian Maritimes. I’m always QRP during these vacations and I love making contacts.

Here are a few approaches I use that I feel get the most contacts:

1.) Call CQ on a QRP calling frequency

When I’m operating QRP, I try to operate on or near generally accepted QRP calling frequencies–here’s a handy reference sheet. QRPers hang out there, so there’s a decent chance I might make a QRP to QRP contact on one of those frequencies. Again, I typically use a standard CQ call instead of identifying I’m QRP, but it’s also perfectly fine to say you’re QRP.

Also, when I’m at home and have a radio turned on in the background, I’ll often keep it set on a QRP calling frequency so I can answer a QRP call.

Click here for a list of QRP calling frequencies.

2.) Call or “hunt” other stations

Sometimes, the best approach is to reply to other stations’ CQ calls.

This is so effective because the station is listening carefully for someone to reply to their CQ. If your signal is a little on the weak side, they’ll likely still reply.

As a QRPer, I’ll often start my search by tuning to one of the QRP calling frequencies mentioned above, but if no one is there, I look for any stations calling CQ with no replies.

3.) Move to a band with less activity

I’m sure some will disagree with me here, but I enjoy moving to bands like 17 meters when I’m QRP.

I’ve had very good success in the past if propagation is reasonably stable (an important factor in making this work).

I love 17 meters because the band is typically quiet and the density of stations isn’t that of, say, the phone portion of the 20 meter band. When I’m calling CQ on 17 meters, I’m often one of only a handful of operators I hear on that band, so I stand out a bit more. In fact, I’ve worked some of my best QRP DX on 17 meters. The trade-off is you might call CQ a while since there are less people on the band. This is where a voice memory keyer comes in handy!

Have fun!


Once you’ve made a few contacts on the bands, you’ll sort out your favorite CQ calls and what you include in them. Of course, learn from others you hear on the bands. Listening is always key.

My only advice would be not to do 30-45 second long CQ calls without leaving a break for a station to call back. Many would-be contacts will move on if they feel like they have to wait too long to answer your call. It is important, though, to send a few CQs and repeat your call at least twice anytime you’re giving a general CQ call on the HF bands.

Readers: What’s your favorite way of calling CQ QRP or Portable? What strategies work best for you? Please comment!

Operations Group Fort Irwin: Winning QRPX 2021 with Chameleon antennas

I just received an email announcement from Chameleon Antenna, and I thought I’d share it here.

I’ve often referred to Chameleon antennas as “military-grade” because I’ve seen numerous military portable antenna systems over the years and Chameleon antennas are engineered to that standard. The quality is simply uncompromising.

Chameleon antennas are at the top of the amateur radio price bracket for portable antennas, but affordable compared to other military field antenna systems.

Their recent email announcement showcased a real-world example of how their antennas are used in military communications exercises. From Chameleon:

For QRPX 2021, the NTC Operations Group, Fort Irwin, CA station had the opportunity to deploy several Chameleon Antenna systems to use in the competition. This article is a summary of how each system performed during the contest, and how each could serve a military operator best.

Every year in mid-March, Army NETCOM hosts an annual HF Low Power Competition where stations across the globe try their best to establish HF communications with each other over a variety of modes, including USB Voice, ALE, 3rd Generation ALE, and Tactical Chat messaging application.

Participants include:

    • Active Duty, Reserve, and National Guard elements of the US Army
    • The three Army MARS HF Hubs in Ft. Detrick, MD; Ft. Huachuca, AZ; and Ft. Shafter, HI
    • Any other military branches including Air Force, Marines, Navy, Space Force, and Coast Guard
    • Canadian military teams
    • Army MARS Auxiliarists

As a Signal Coach out here at The National Training Center (NTC), Fort Irwin, CA, I found out about this competition, and competed the last two years. In the 2020 QRPX, I operated my station alone using only an L3Harris AN/PRC-150 with its accompanying antenna, the L3Harris RF-1944 dipole kit. I operated as I was able to, not expecting much, only to find out that my station placed third with 48 points and was only a few contacts shy of the winning score of 53 set by a fully stacked team from Joint Base Lewis-McChord. I was absolutely hooked from there.

Click here to download the full PDF report.

I’d recommend you download and read the detailed report.

If you can’t tell, I’m proud to have Chameleon Antenna as a sponsor of QRPer. They’re a brilliant company that designs and builds all of their gear here in the USA. Their gear is built for the long haul. They’ve never heard of the marketing concept “planned obsolescence.” I’m guessing Chameleon’s idea is to impress you enough with their product quality that you buy more and more of their systems.

By the way, if you think I’m supportive of amateur radio manufacturers that build quality products, don’t even get me started about my obsession with US-made backpacks and camping gear. Seriously. Just slowly back away while you can… 🙂

Activating the New River State Park with the Icom IC-705 and EFT-MTR end-fed antenna

On Monday, March 22, 2021, I performed three QRP field activations in one day. I started off the day with a visit to Three Top Mountain Game Land, and then headed to Mount Jefferson State Natural Area for a POTA and SOTA activation before heading to my final destination: New River State Park.

I had never visited the New River State Park before but I knew since it was an NC State Park, it would be a beautiful site…and it certainly was.

It being a mid afternoon on a Monday in mid-March, I had the entire park to myself.  Well…at least I had the entire park from my access point (this particular park has a number of entry points).

Sadly, I didn’t have a lot of time to explore the park nor any of its trails, because I was on a fairly tight schedule.

New River State Park (K-2748)

I decided to deploy my EFT-MTR 40/30/20 end fed antenna and pair it with the Icom IC-705. Since New River had a spacious picnic area with numerous tall trees, setup really couldn’t have been easier.

Gear:

In the video below, I actually demo how I used my arborist throw line to deploy the EFT-MTR antenna.

On The Air

While the weather and the POTA site were ideal, propagation was not.  I knew that going into the site and that’s exactly why I deployed a near resonant wire antenna instead of a vertical.  I say “near-resonant” but the EFT-MTR is actually a resonant antenna on 40, 30 and 20 meters–I repaired mine recently, however, and it affected the resonance. I need to take an antenna analyzer to it and sort that out. In the meantime, though, I simply used the mAT-705 Plus ATU to take the edge off of the SWR.

I ended up only using the 40 meter band to make my 11 contacts in the span of about 33 minutes. Considering the propagation and the fact it was a Monday mid-afternoon, I was pleased with the results.

If I had the time, I would have moved up to the 30 and 20 meter bands, but again, I had a schedule to maintain so I went QRT after working my buddy K8RAT.

Video

Here’s a real-time, real-life video of the entire activation:

I’m definitely coming back to the New River State Park later this year. In fact, I think this would be an ideal spot for a family canoeing and camping trip.

As I’ve said so many times before, this is what I love about POTA and WWFF: they provide an excuse to check out public lands that wouldn’t normally be on my radar.  New River is a perfect example since it’s a little too far from the QTH to be a day trip, yet a little too local to be a destination we’d typically plan in our cross-country travels.

Thank you for reading this report.

73,

Thomas (K4SWL)


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SOTA and POTA Field Report from Mount Jefferson State Natural Area

On Monday, March 22, 2021, I performed three QRP field activations in one day. I started off the day with a visit to Three Top Mountain Game Land, and then headed to Mount Jefferson State Natural Area for a POTA and SOTA activation before heading to New River State Park.

When plotting my multi-site activation day, I picked Mount Jefferson because it’s a SOTA entity (W4C/EM-021). I only realized later that it’s also a POTA entity (K-3846). I mistakenly assumed Mount Jefferson was a county park rather than an NC state park.  To do both a POTA and SOTA activation simultaneously is ideal!

Mount Jefferson (W4C/EM-021)

This was my first visit to Mount Jefferson and, frankly, I wasn’t sure what to expect in terms of hiking.

The park itself is amazing! North Carolina parks never let me down.

The entrance is near the base of the mountain and very close to the town of West Jefferson. The park road climbs up the side of Mount Jefferson –there are a number of spots to park, hike, and picnic.

I had not checked the trail map in advance, but I had read that the summit trail was accessible from the parking and picnic area at the end (top) of the park road.

I hopped out of my car, grabbed my SOTA pack, and very quickly found the trail head.

The trail is impeccably maintained and wide enough for vehicle use (no doubt these trails double as access for tower maintenance on the summit).

The hike to the summit from the parking are was incredibly short–about .3 miles. Normally, I’d want a much longer hike, but since I was trying to fit three site activations in a span of four hours, I didn’t complain.

On top of the summit, one is greeted by a typical cluster of transmission towers.

While I appreciate checking out antennas and towers, these are never a welcome site because they can generate serious QRM, making a SOTA activation difficult.

I also found a park weather station on the summit. Nice!

I searched around and found a spot to set up well within the activation zone but giving me a bit of distance from the towers.

Gear:

My Yaesu FT-817ND was desperate to get a little SOTA action, so I decided to pair it with the Chameleon CHA MPAS Lite using the Elecraft T1 ATU to find matches.

After putting the FT-817 on the air, I was very pleased to hear that the nearby transmission towers and power lines weren’t causing any noticeable interference.  This was a very good sign because, frankly, propagation was very unstable that day and I had real concerns about being able to work stations on 40 meters.

I hopped on the air and quickly realized I’d forgotten to hook my external battery up to the Yaesu FT-817ND. This meant I was running something closer to 2.5 watts as opposed to a full 5 watts. I decided to attempt the activation without the external battery and add it if needed.

I started operating on 20 meters and was very pleased to quickly rack up a number of contacts. I could tell that most of these contacts were via SOTA because I recognized the calls and primarily SOTA chasers.

Within 11 minutes, I worked 10 stations on 20 meters in CW. I was very pleased with how quickly those QSOs rolled in and how easily I logged the four needed for a valid SOTA and 10 needed for POTA activation–all on 20 meters.

Next, I moved to 40 meters where I worked two stations and 30 meters where I worked one. For sure, 20 meters was a much stronger band than 40 and 30 turned out to be.

After working 13 stations, I packed up.

Obviously, 2.5 watts was plenty for this activation!

I would have loved to stay longer, but frankly, I needed to stick to my schedule because I had one more park to fit in that day! (More on that in a future post and video!).

Here’s my QSOmap for the Mount Jefferson activation:

And here’s my full log:

Video

Even though I was a bit pressed for time, I still made one of my real-time, real-life videos of the entire activation. I hope you enjoy:

Next up will be an activation of New River State Park. I hope to post this early next week.

Thank you so much for reading this report!


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POTA Field Report: A CW ATNO at Three Top Mountain Game Land

Last Monday (March 22, 2021), I had another opportunity to play radio for the bulk of the day. These are rare opportunities–although I did have another open day only a few weeks ago–so I ty to take full advantage of them! The weather was perfect, so I decided to make a detour to Ashe County, North Carolina en route to visit my parents.

I haven’t been to Ashe County in the better part of a decade although I love this pretty secluded part of western North Carolina.

Ashe County is very much a destination–not a place you’d easily happen upon in your travels. It’s very much worth the detour, though, as it’s close to Boone/Blowing Rock, the Blue Ridge Parkway, and a number of other spots outdoor enthusiasts would love. The towns of Jefferson and West Jefferson are everything you’d expect from small town NC: charming and friendly. Plus, they have some excellent sources of cheese!

I plotted a three park, one summit run for that Monday. I’d have about one hour at each site, which would hopefully be enough to set up, play radio, and pack up. All three sites were new to me–meaning, I had never personally activated them.

My first destination?

Three Top Mountain Game Land (K-3869)

I left my QTH around 9:00 local and arrived on site around 11:30. I had researched the most accessible parking area (there were many for this game land) and one that would be closest to my other destinations.

The game land maps are pretty accurate, but this parking area was a little tricky to find as it’s small, elevated off the road, and you have to enter a private driveway to find it. the “Hunters Parking” sign is, let’s say, “discreet.”

Honestly? Finding these sites is all part of the fun.

Gear:

Going into this activation, I knew there would be challenges. For one thing, propagation was similar to the day before: poor and unstable.

Secondly, the Reverse Beacon Network (RBN) auto-spotting functionality on the POTA spots page was not working. That was a bad thing because this game land site had no hint of mobile phone service.

I did anticipate both of these issues though, and took precautions:

  • I contacted my buddies Mike (K8RAT) and Eric (WD8RIF) and gave them my full schedule with anticipated start times for frequencies at each location before leaving the QTH.
  • I also had my new Garmin InReach satellite messaging device that I could use to text Mike and Eric should they not be able to hear me that day.

As I’ve mentioned in previous post: successful activations (especially if you’re under time pressure) always include being spotted to the POTA network. It’s as if you don’t exist if you’re not spotted.

“CW ATNO”

 

Another thing working in my favor at this particular site  is that it had only been activated a couple times before and both of those times it was via phone only. My activation would be the first time CW had been used at this site for POTA. This means nothing in terms of the Parks On The Air program–meaning, there are no special awards for this sort of thing–but it does give you a bit of an edge because CW hunters will find the site rare and very desirable. They’ll go the extra mile to get logged.

It’s funny: in 2020, I activated numerous proper ATNOs (All Time New Ones)  for POTA. There were so many here in western North Carolina that just by going to new sites each time, I ended up activating them for the very first time in phone and/or CW.

POTA grew by orders of magnitude last year, though, and now there are so many activators who would love to be the first to activate a site, new entities are often activated within a day of being added. The only true ATNOs left in NC are game lands that have accessibility issues.

On The Air

I deployed my EFT-MTR antenna that I repaired that weekend. I did a very basic repair, attaching the top end of the radiator back to the in-line coil/trap. Somehow in doing this I changed the antenna enough that my SWR on 40 and 20 meters was in excess of 2.5:1.

No problem: I employed my T1 ATU to bring the SWR back down to 1:1.

I hopped on 40 meters and immediately started working stations. No doubt, the rarity of this park was providing my spot with a little extra attention.

In 23 minutes, I worked a total of 20 stations: that’s about as good as it gets, especially with poor propagation.

Once the initial group of hunters died down, I went QRT.

Normally, I would spend more time on-site and move up the band, but I was on a tight schedule and realized I hadn’t allowed any time to grab a to-go lunch!

Video

I did make another real-time, real-life video of the entire activation from start to finish. If you care to watch it, click this link to view on YouTube, or watch via the embedded player below:

Thanks for reading this report. Three Top was a fun activation and I was very happy I didn’t have to struggle to validate it.  The next park that day was Mount Jefferson which also happened to be a SOTA site. I’ll be posting the report and video later this week!

73,

Thomas, K4SWL


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Mike rediscovers radio and POTA “gently reopened the door to an amazing hobby”

Many thanks to Mike (W6MVT) for sharing the following guest post:


Back to Ham Radio for a Year – A Brief Reminiscence

by Mike (W6MVT)

This story will sound like many I have heard over the past year, but I will write it nonetheless as a note of gratitude.

Last March COVID had just restricted our activities and I was wondering how to spend my time. I had received my licenses back in the 80’s. There was a code requirement, there was no internet, no QRZ, no spotting.

Though I enjoyed ham radio very much, family and work took precedence, and the equipment went into storage. I eventually sold it off (who is dumb enough to sell matching Drakes?).

Fast forward to the around 2010, when I knew I would be retiring and might want to get on the air again. I picked up some used equipment and stashed it away without really using it.

Then 2020 arrived and the world changed dramatically. One day, prompted by who-knows-what, I had the bright idea to dust off the gear and hook it up, mostly to see if it even still worked. A makeshift wire in the back yard and a quick listen and there it was – a CQ.

I was actually nervous to answer – it had been that long. It was KE8BKP, who it turns out, was activating a park. I hadn’t a clue what that meant, but I shakily answered. We exchanged reports and he went on the to the next one. I had two immediate reactions. First, I was reassured by that brief, painless interaction. The stuff worked and I could still “do this.” Second, things had changed a great deal since the “old days.” But I researched POTA and SOTA and DX Clusters and all the other magic that now exists.The point is that POTA gently reopened the door to an amazing hobby, one that still fascinates me. I went on to become an active hunter and now a prolific activator.

Since it has been a year now, I felt it important to acknowledge this moment, and to note one more thing. When an activator answers a call, we don’t know the other person’s circumstances. Maybe they are a new – or returning “old” ham. Maybe it took courage to key the mic or pound the key. I have appreciated the manner in which POTA hams enthusiastically help one another improve, learn and in turn help others. Thanks to Jeff, KE8BKP, and all the others since, and to come. And thanks to the many volunteers that keep the program running each day.

73, and be well,

Mike W6MVT


Mike, I couldn’t agree with you more. I think all POTA, WWFF, and SOTA activators are essentially ambassadors for ham radio. We never know what’s happening on the other end and I strongly believe in patience and understanding when answering calls and performing an exchange. It can have a huge positive impact for the person on the other end.

So glad you found Parks On The Air and that you’re enjoying playing radio once again!

Thank you for sharing your story.