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!

16 thoughts on “My path to learning CW and activating parks and summits”

  1. Tom – nice to read your article about your path to CW operating and skills with POTA/SOTA. When I was licensed in 1983 I also had to learn 5 WPM. At the time there was no HF phone privileges for a Novice. When they opened up the 10 meter band from 28.300-28.500, well that gave me the kick I needed to learn 13 WPM and get my General and Advanced. It didn’t take too long to get those tickets and I got my speed up to 20 wpm by eventually learning to copy in my head and not jot everything down. I learned to jot the important things for the 20 WPM test – callsign, name, QTH, weather, rig and weather. Boom – 20 WPM certificate and a year to pass the Extra written. Took 3 tries and two 20 WPM certificates and finally passed in 1992.

    I got my SKCC number (595T) as soon as that group started and did straight key over the years and kept up with the code, and also fell in love with contesting as a chaser with computer generated CW.

    Fast forward to 2020 when I discovered POTA. I was always intimidated by trying to be the person running the pile in CW so my first activation ever for POTA last March was mostly phone. My buddy K3MRK was with me that morning and he did some CW chasing on that activation. (You may not know this next part Tom) but I found your YouTube channel and saw how you calmly were using your CW Morse keyer and activating and you mentioned how you just started doing CW activations in 2020. I finally gave in and started activating parks with CW and sending slower so I could make sure I was able to copy the people calling me correctly. As I got more comfortable with that, I now send between 18-20 WPM. Then Mark asked me why I don’t use a paddle. My answer was because I’ve used a straight key for 37 years. I finally gave it a try just in the past 3 months while activating and now I am better with the paddle than straight key. As you point out there’s many reasons to activate parks and summits with CW, mainly the RBN network and less lids and bandwidth needed.

    Thanks for the excellent post this morning. You’re articles and videos are extremely interesting and helpful. I’m sure others have gone out of their comfort zone and learned CW from watching your CW activations. 73 de KN3A.

  2. Hi Thomas …. thank you for this post…very timely for me!

    I’ll respond with a little more detail as to my learning Morse Code journey….but for now I wanted to say that I have found the Long Island CW Club classes excellent ….see my QRZ page for why.

    All was going “swimmingly” until I had to incorporate “H” with “S”, then with “5” ….

    I’d appreciate hearing from you and others….how on earth did you learn to differentiate these character’s sounds!!
    ———————————-
    I wonder if I’d ever get these call signs right:
    KF5HSI Rosalie
    UR5HSI Ivan
    EA5HSI Toni
    WB5HSI John
    KG5HSI Catherine
    KC5HSI DANIEL
    K5HSI HEATHER
    VK5HSI Adrian
    N5HSI Joel
    W5HSI Jeremy
    KI5HSI Christopher
    F5HSI Philippe
    ———————————-
    Thanks,
    Jim/AC3B

  3. As always, excellent post. You have been inspirational on our journey.

    Brenda (KI5PGQ) and I (KI5PGP) use Learn CW Online (LCWO) because we are off-grid too often as retired, full-time RVers who volunteers in the national parks. We use LCWO’s MP3 practice files with the character speed and effective speed set at 18 WPM. We set the character groups to five letters and recordings length to five minutes. There are a total of forty lessons. We download twenty examples for each lesson.

    The downloads consist of text files and MP3 files. We’ve organized the downloads on our MacBook Pro with a file folder for each of the forty lessons. This allows us to create a playlist of the twenty recordings for each of the forty lessons along with a simple iPhone Note file for each of the forty lesson text files.

    All of this can be operated from our iPhone. We each have our own CW Morse LLC pocket paddle and oscillator (https://cwmorse.us/product/iambic-double-paddle-and-yack-oscillator-combo/) that we connect to a headset. We use a splitter that connects both our iPhone and the oscillator to our headphones.

    I will usually head copy the five minute lesson while looking at the text file. After that I will listen to the same lesson again as I attempt to write down as much of it as possible. Then I will read the text file and practice with the paddle and oscillator. Finally, I will practice with the oscillator while listening to the audio file and reading the text file. That all takes about twenty five minutes. We do that twice a day each day of the week will out on the trail to simulate SOTA/POTA.

  4. Excelllent post, tnx. I’m still on my journey to learn CW. Although I’m into HAMradio since 1998. I use LCWO, and a few apps on my phone. I do participate in CW contests. Decoding most of the CW with software and transmitting with the keyer from N1MM. Slowly I do at least recognize my own call at any speed, and most used abbreviations like CQ, TEST, TU and 73. However making a CW QSO with just a key and my ears will take some time. 73, Bas

  5. Thomas:
    As always, very well written.

    My Father KN0GFF (SK) started teaching me CW when I was pretty young. He had an Instructagraph machine (I think that is what it was called) that used perforated tapes that ran on a deck similar to an audio tape deck that had holes punched in the tape that equated to the dits and dahs. When the holes it the tape passed the spring controlled contacts the machine would reproduce the character. You could vary the speed of the motor to increase or decrease the code speed.

    Prior to testing for my Novice test in 1992 I listened to cassette tapes as well as on air exchanges. But I have to give credit to my Father for so much of my interest in radio and the sciences.

    Regards,

    Steve, KZ4TN

  6. My dad and I started studying for our novice license back in 1976 when I was 13. We had the help of the local Cenois ARC and also used the “Tune in the World with Ham Radio” study guide with accompanying cassette tape to learn the 5wpm code. I lost interest in Ham Radio pretty quick and let my license expire. 40 years later I decide to get back into the hobby. After all those years I still remembered the code and I was up and running in no time chasing SKCC numbers.

  7. Thomas,
    I first learned CW in the Scouts as a part of my Communication Merit Badge. Then, I learned it again in 1977 while in a Novice license class where Jim Dunn K9CNP(SK) became an Elmer and life long friend. Back then it was a “necessary evil” of getting a license and I think I made a single contact on my own.

    A few years ago I got interested in all of the interesting small QRP kits offered by various clubs. I build them, tune them up and then sell them. Eventually it occurred to me that perhaps I should re-learn CW and actually use them.

    I started my re-learning with the K7QO Code Course. Then, a while later I enrolled in the CWOps courses which I feel are very good if you put in the time. Those two things got me on the air. Recently, I’ve been taking some of the Long Island CW Club courses. I find I learn and improve better if I force myself into a schedule with structured activities.

    I get on the air a couple of times a week now. I’ve also done an all CW POTA activation and do quite a bit of chasing SOTA and POTA activators on weekends.

  8. It sounds like CW has been a constant companion in your life, Tim. Thanks for sharing!

  9. That’s brilliant, Steve! It’s amazing how much CW sticks in your head once you learn it! Always good to work you on the air as well! Cheers, Thomas

  10. Thank you, Steve. I *almost* bought a vintage Instructograph machine at the Shelby Hamfest one year. Those had a wonderful warm CW tone. Thanks for sharing this. Cheers, Thomas K4SWL

  11. You will certainly get there, Bas. You’ve got a good approach and great tools. 73, Thomas

  12. John and Brenda, thank you so much for sharing this.

    I love how you’re learning CW as a team! You’ve the right approach, too. It’s all about the copy because sending simply happens if you’ve got the copying part down pat.

    You’re going to really love doing CW activations!

    Cheers,
    Thomas

  13. And, wow, Scott! Once you started doing CW activations you really took off! I love seeing your field reports and the amazing number of contacts and DX you work. Always great, of course, to work you when you’re in the field, OM!

    Cheers,
    Thomas

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