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.

17 thoughts on “Could you activate a park or summit in CW only using a CW decoder and memory keyer?”

  1. I would advise against it, it is so much fun to learn the code and operate it yourself.
    Keep on learning and practise, practise for 15 minutes a day and after some weeks you will see your own progress.

    Readers are indeed helpfull in some cases like Tom writes, to be sure that station is sending S55HH and not S55SS eg at high speed. But will the reader still decode the faint stations? ? Your brain will.

  2. Tom you need to check out RufzXP software. It will not teach you the code, but it will send actual call signs with increasing speed as you get them right. Give it 10 minutes a day for a week or two and you will be amazed!

  3. Nice article Thomas. The G90 also has a CW decoder built in, I’ve watched it and it does not decode weak signals nor if there is QSB or other noise. I do not use skimmers to decode, I do pre-program CW strings in my IC 705, including CQ and the 73 and another for the park reference in case asked. I recently switched from a straight key to a paddle and I’m told my fist is better now, and I would think someone decoding my CW with a skimmer would decode it better. One activation I did forget my CW keyer, so I used the computer keyboard just in case I needed to say something other than the macro and it worked out well using ACLog. I would think for someone depending on a skimmer and computer generated keying would find it very challenging however.

  4. Thank you, Scott! Yeah–I’m afraid my hand would cramp up doing a purely straight key activation! 🙂 I don’t mind doing it for a straight key night or similar, but sadly I need way more practice before I could do that for any length of time. Like you, I think paddles suit me well. Thanks for the note about using AClog and a keyboard! I’ve also had very little luck with the G90 decoder.

  5. Great post, Thomas.

    I used a Sidekar several times on a few SOTAs about three years ago when my CW was particularly weak. Had multiple memories set any exchange contingency. While I logged a number of good contacts using this method, I only used it for a few months. I got to the point, like you, where I copied about 80% of the exchanges and just glanced at the KW3 display to confirm call signs.

    Listen, I’d like to be 100% free from any crutch. This would allow me to use my KX1 and Rockmite with confidence. Like you said, CW is a skill. Mine is improving all the time. Noticeable differences between my CW at the beginning and end of the SOTA season…. Would love to take a CWOps course, but I can’t dedicate the required 1 hr/day…..

  6. Thanks for posting this. If I thought I could get away with doing this I would activate many parks but as you mentioned the person on the other end has to be sending very well and the radio tuned perfectly to get a good decode. I’ll sometimes take my little MFJ pocket decoder and a small key and I’ll call a POTA station back by hand with my key. I can hear my call even if they are a sloppy sender but I’ll typically only reply back with 5NN PA and the occasional dit dit or TU if they send it to me. If they reply back with anything else I’m not good enough at copying yet if the MFJ decoder can’t pick it up. From doing contests I have all of the contest exchanges down at 21 WPM but anything else out of me, even at a slower speed probably looks like a ransom note on the other end with huge spaces between letters and words. I’ll get there one of these days.

  7. I have been looking at several decoders and would love to see a review the DMX-40 or 40A. I have run C Skimmer on the home pc with some good luck. Bu its hard to take CS Skimmer out to the field. Pse lets see a review if the folks will share their unit.
    Lynn KB3FN

  8. Thanks for renewing my interest in CW with your QRP and POTA YT series. I learned and passed my 13 WPM for my General back in the day when it was required but have since lapsed in my CW skills. I’m going back portable and brushing up this Spring but would like to use a software decoder to help. I know, it’s better to use my brain but I’m now in my 70’s and things tend to slow down so a little help is in order. Do you have a suggestion for a Win PC decoder that works? I’m using 705 or 817 QRP rigs and wire/vertical Chameleon antennas.

  9. Hi Mitch,

    There is a skimmer called CWGet, you can use it without registering it, however I’ve used it for so many years that I did eventually do it. The program decodes very well and I highly recommend trying it out.

  10. No, no, no. Practice with software before jumping on air and get to 10wpm+ . Decoders are rubbish, no matter how good you think they might be. Especially at slower speeds, mainly straight keys get used which makes decoding even harder, whereas your brain will cope.
    For a full range of morse practice programs try my page at:
    http://hintlink.com/development.htm#morse
    At a few minutes per day, you should be able to reach 12 wpm in about 6 weeks.

  11. HotPaw Morse Decoder works extremely well on my iPhone and iPad and is available through the App Store @ $9.95. I have been learning CW and besides using this App as a crutch I use it for practice . In a quiet environment it is 100% accurate decoding my SK CW. My sending is only around 12wpm but I attain a high accuracy. I have scripts and also use an article from a mag or newspaper to read and send.

    This all helps me overcome ZERO hearing in one ear and only 60% in the other with some tone issues thrown in.

    QRP at home and in the field/bea ch/park or mountain top is all I do now.

  12. Hi Thomas,

    I enjoy your posts very much and want to thank you for the product reviews, I bought a rack mount for my FT817 after seeing the review of the Zero Point products and really love it.
    So on to the subject, I use a NU PSK modum bought from Midnight Designs solutions for use on psk 31, but found it did an amazing job of decoding cw with over 95 percent accuracy! The secret is spacing, so most modern transceivers use shaping in either full automatic or semi. As long as the spacing is correct the NU PSK will decode with no S meter reading!
    I use a keyboard exclusively and can send at what ever speed the other station is using. What I like so much is that it allows a QSO with those 25+ wpm stations. It is also a great training tool to check your copy and if you get behind when the speed is making you struggle. I can say that this is a very worthwhile device to own

    Vy 73

    Rick VE1RNM

  13. That’s brilliant, Rick! Thank you for sharing this. I’ve often heard that using a good CW decoder makes for excellent training.

    Thank you,
    Thomas

  14. Hi Thomas,
    Thanks for your great reply! But I must apologize for my original post, the rack mount that I bought for my ft 817, as a result of your featuring it in a post, is from Portable Zero, so apologies to you, readers of this post and of course to Portable Zero, who make an incredible product.
    Please keep those great posts coming!

    Vy 73,

    Rick VE1RNM

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