UPDATE 09 (Oct 2021): Larry (N0SA) informs me that he sold all of his SOTA Paddle inventory as of last night. In other words, very quickly. If he produces another run of them, I’ll post it here on QRPer.com!
A couple weeks ago, Larry (N0SA) reached out to me and asked if I’d like to evaluate a new set of precision field paddles he’s designed. Having purchased a set of 3D-printed paddles from N0SA last year, I didn’t hesitate.
Larry simply calls this model the SOTA Paddle. An appropriate name because this paddles is incredibly compact, lightweight, and perfect for hiking and backpacking. They also have a short Allen wrench cleverly stowed within the paddle body for any adjustments in the field. The Allen wrench is locked in in such a way, there’s no possibility it’ll fall out either. Clever!
They come with a high quality three foot cloth braid cord with molded 1/8” plug.
Over the past week, I’ve taken these paddles to two different park activations with the Elecraft KX2 and AX1 antenna.
My activation videos and field reports are perhaps a week down the road yet, but I couldn’t help but post my initial impressions.
So how would I describe N0SA’s new SOTA Paddles–?
The Bee’s Knees!
I love them.
These truly feel like precision paddles. They’re entirely constructed of aluminum and stainless steel parts.
Although the body/frame of the paddles are open, they feel incredibly sturdy. No doubt, they’ll survive the environment inside a backpack or field kit.
They’re very compact, yet feel perfect in the hand.
Larry also includes 6 pieces of 3M dual lock for mounting the paddles on a clipboard, radio, or any other surface.
As readers know, I love my CW Morse Paddles–they represent an amazing amount of quality at such an affordable price.
If you’re in the market for a compact precision aluminum key, however, I can recommend these without hesitation.
Here’s the deal as I understand it: Larry may only make a couple small production runs of these. He does this as a fun side hibby, not for scaled-up production and distribution. I believe he may have as many as 20 units available soon.
Again, you’ll see the SOTA Paddles in action in upcoming videos, but I wanted to mention it here on QRPer so that–if this sort of thing interests you–you might have a chance to place an order before the first and/or second production runs are spoken for.
The price is $125.00 US (each) plus $15.00 for priority mail shipping. You’ll have to inquire if located outside the US (I’m not certain if he ships internationally).
Payment can be made via PayPal to his email address which is his callsign @att.net. (You can also check out his contact details on QRZ.com.)
Email him with questions and to check availability in advance.
Larry is a long-time reader of QRPer.com, so he might add notes in the comments section.
Speaking of which, thank you so much, Larry, for sending me these paddles. They are simply amazing.
Sometimes when I’m activating a park or summit and work someone who, like me, is activating a park or summit for a Park To Park (P2P) or Summit To Summit (S2S) contact, in my head I wonder what their station and operating situation looks like on the other end.
At least one instance was uncovered recently when Dan (WB8JAY) reached out and shared a video he took while working me in a P2P contact. It’s awfully fun to hear what my signal sounded like on his end.
This video reminds me how CW distills the communications down to only those dits and dahs; unlike SSB, for example, where you might hear background noises and extra chatting during an exchange, in CW it’s just pure code.
I carved out a little time on Tuesday, August 24, 2021, to play POTA and take a hike at Tuttle Educational State Forest (K-4861).
Being August in the Piedmont of North Carolina, it was a very humid and warm day. That wasn’t really a problem, though, because Tuttle has so many well-shaded picnic tables.
Once I arrived on-site, I decided to deploy the Chameleon CHA Tactical Delta Loop (TDL) antenna for a few reasons: I thought it might make for some good daytime NVIS action, perhaps even a little fun on the 20M band, and it’s so darn quick to deploy.
With the state of propagation the way it is these days, though, I never know what to expect on the air despite the antenna or my wishes!
As I mentioned in a previous post, I do love rotating out radios I take to the field. Shuffling radios not only helps me remember a radio’s features and menu system, but it helps me understand any advantages one radio might have over another.
One radio I use at the QTH a lot is the Mission RGO One. I reviewed this radio for The Spectrum Monitor magazine, and later posted the review on The SWLing Post. It has been a few months since I posted a field report and video using this rig yet it’s one readers ask about all the time because this is a small production run radio.
Before heading out to Lake Norman State Park on August 9, 2021, I grabbed the Mission RGO One, the Chameleon CHA LEFS sloper, and my 15Ah Bioenno LiFePo4 battery. I knew this combo would serve me well as propagation that day was in the dumps!
Lake Norman State Park (K-2740)
Lake Norman is such an effortless park to activate. They’ve a huge picnic area, large trees (for both antenna support and shade!), and are typically not incredibly busy during the week. I love Lake Norman because they also have a very nice Lake Shore Trail I enjoy hiking post-activation.
That Monday morning, as I drove to the park, it was approaching lunch time and I did worry that some of my favorite picnic spots might be taken, but when I arrived, I was happy to see I pretty much had the place to myself!
Setting up the CHA LEFS sloper antenna takes a couple minutes longer than a standard end fed antenna only because the feed point is elevated and the radiator slopes down from the feed point. Since I typically do activations on my own (with no extra hands to help), I find that a little extra antenna prep equates to a quicker overall deployment.
My procedure for deploying the CHA LEFS
First thing I do is identify a good tree limb at least 45′ or so high and also identify an unobstructed path for the sloping radiator to travel.
Prior to hoisting the antenna, I stretch out the radiator and attach it to a tree or support (using the supplied paracord) in the direction I want the slope to follow.
I then use my arborist throw line to snag the desired tree limb and I connect the end of the throw line directly to the CHA LEFS’ feed point. Chameleon provides Paracord for hoisting the antenna, but the great thing about the arborist throw line is that it’s more than strong enough to handle this job. It saves the extra step of pulling paracord through the tree.
Next, I attach a 50′ length of coax (PL-259s on both ends) and stretch the coax out in the opposite direction of the CHA LEFS radiator. Doing this keeps the antenna from spinning and tangling the radiator and coax as it’s hoisted into the tree.
Finally, I simply pull the throw line and raise the antenna feedpoint to the desired height. Again, I like a height of at least 40-45′, but lower will still work. As I raise the antenna, I do put a little tension on the coax feedline just to keep it from swinging around the throw line or radiator.
Of course, if you have two people, one person can simply stretch the coax as you’re raising the antenna feedpoint which will also keep it from tangling.
In truth, the amount of extra time to deploy the CHA LEFS as opposed to, say, an end-fed half wave is maybe three minutes.
I picked the Mission RGO One because it has an amazingly quiet receiver and handles QRN like a champ. Plus, being a tabletop radio, it also sports a proper speaker, large controls, and up to 50 watts of output power if needed.
Although I’m a QRPer, on days with horrible propagation, I have been known to increase the power beyond 5 watts if operating SSB especially. This year, I set out to validate all of my park and summit activations with 5 watts or less, so at least my first ten contacts at a park will be QRP.
I thought I’d start by calling CQ on the 40 meter band in CW. Within 15 minutes, I snagged the ten contacts needed for a valid POTA activation. I was very pleased with this.
Since I had mobile phone service, I checked the POTA spots and worked AA3K (Park To Park) then moved to the phone portion of the 40 meter band.
During the exchange with AA3K, I did pump the power up to a cloud-scorching 20 watts! A proper rarity for me.
I then worked an additional five contacts in about 8 minutes in SSB. Very satisfying!
Here’s my QSO map of the entire activation. The red polylines represent SSB contact, the green are CW:
I was very pleased with the results especially after reading reports from other activators that same day who really struggled to get their ten.
Of course, I made one of my real-time, real-life, no-edit videos of the entire activation. If you’ve never seen one of my videos before and have a strong dislike of professional, well-polished YouTube channels, you’re in for a treat! 🙂
Post-activation–and despite the heat and humidity–I hiked the length of the Lake Shore Trail; roughly six miles. I highly recommend this trail if you can fit it into your schedule.
As always, thank you for reading this report and thank you to those who are supporting the site and channel through Patreon and the Coffee Fund. While certainly not a requirement–my content is always free–I really appreciate the support.
Here’s wishing everyone a little radio fun this week!
For those of us really, really new CW operators and aspiring QRPers, can you do a video (or a walk n talk) showing several POTA QSO’s in slow motion?
Love your work, thanks. 73 -mike ko4rit
Mike, your timing was impeccable. I noticed your message on my phone as I was preparing a park activation at Lake Norman State Park on August 9, 2021.
I decided to take a few moments prior to the activation and dissect a “typical” POTA CW exchange on my notepad with the camera rolling.
As I mention in the video, there is no standard or “POTA ordained” exchange, however, once you get into CW you’ll notice that most follow a common formula. POTA, SOTA, and WWFF CW exchanges are, in fact, very formulaic.
I believe in exchanging all of the important details–callsign, signal report and sometimes a state, province, or park number–along with a little common courtesy. You don’t want to make the exchange too long, but these aren’t contest situations either, so it’s okay to go off script a bit sometimes, too. Just remember that there are (hopefully!) others in-line waiting to work your station when you finish your exchange in progress.
Note that this video is impromptu, unscripted and unedited. I’m sure I missed a few details and it’s perfectly fine, dear readers, to leave other best practices below in the comments section.
I’ve been receiving a lot of comments lately from readers and viewers asking to see more Hazel in my reports and videos.
Hazel, if you’re not familiar, is my brown, white, and freckled canine shadow.
Hazel requires absolutely no prep time to go on a hike and summit/park activation. She’ll go from a deep, dreamy sleep where she’s chasing squirrels and her paws are twitching, to wide awake, tail wagging and nose pointed at the door in 2 seconds flat.
All it takes is the sound of me putting on my hiking boots (which must be louder that I imagined).
On Monday (May, 24, 2021) the weather was beautiful and I decided to finally add Bearwallow Mountain to my list of SOTA activations. Hazel was ready for a short hike!
Bearwallow Mountain (W4C/CM-068)
Bearwallow is one of the most popular summits to activate in the Asheville/Hendersonville area of western North Carolina. Any semi-seasoned local SOTA activator probably has Bearwallow in the logs. Why?
For one thing, Bearwallow is a ham-friendly site. A number of local repeaters are on this mountain and some of our local clubs have access to the summit. Once–I can’t remember the year–I even spent time with a club (I believe it was the Roadshow ARC) on Bearwallow for the ARRL Field Day. It was a blast!
Bearwallow is also a very accessible summit.
The trailhead to the summit (Google Map) is tucked away in the Upper Hickory Nut Gorge area–and there’s ample paved parking unless you happen to pick a very busy day (basically, any weekend with good weather will be busy!). Hazel and I were hiking on a Monday morning, thus there was very little activity and loads of parking spaces.
Some years ago, Conserving Carolina acquired the summit and much of the land on Bearwallow Mountain. Their conservation easement protects this area from future development and opens it for the public to enjoy.
Conserving Carolina maintains the trail system to the summit and all of the hiker information and blazing.They do a brilliant job!
There are two options for hiking to the summit: a proper foot trail, or you can take the Fire Tower Road which is the best choice for hikers who need a more gentle incline and flat gravel hiking surface.
Hazel and I found a nice spot to set up the station well within the activation zone. On summits like Bearwallow where there are clusters of communications towers, I prefer not to set up next to them. This is where that 25 meter SOTA activation zone (AZ) comes in handy.
I had actually planned to use my Elecraft KX3 on this activation, but after setting it up, I realized quickly that my power cord had developed a fault.
Fortunately, I packed a spare radio.
Knowing in advance that this would be a short hike–before leaving the QTH–I also packed the KX2 kit in my backpack as a backup. I don’t always have the luxury of packing a second radio, but wow! Am I glad I did that Monday!
Setting up the Chameleon CHA MPAS Lite vertical, of course, was super easy.
On the Air
I started the activation on 20 meters and spotted myself to the SOTA network via the SOTA Goat app. Of course, before leaving home, I had also set up an alert on SOTAwatch so that the spots page would auto-spot me via the Reverse Beacon Network (RBN) if I didn’t have mobile phone coverage.
In short? The contacts started rolling in. I was very surprised to have this sort of response on a Monday morning.
In 22 minutes, I worked a total of 19 stations including one summit to summit (S2S)–thanks for that, Eric (VA2EO)!
I was very pleased with the number of contacts logged in such short order because I only had a max of 25-30 minutes to be on the air before I needed to pack up and head back to the QTH.
Here’s the full log:
Activations like this one remind me of what one can do with QRP power and a modest antenna.
Sure, at one point–after I had worked at least my first four to achieve a valid QRP SOTA activation–I increased the power from 5 watts to a cloud-scorching 10 watts! 🙂
I must apologize for the audio in this one–it’s a little weak due to how the camera was set up.
Hazel at it again
So I brought along a retractable leash/lead for Hazel for this particular outing.
This leash allows her to roam more freely during our actual hike. On the summit, I locked the leash and attached it to my pack so it would keep her within 4 feet or so of where I was sitting which was cow patty-free.
At one point, near the end of the activation, when I was trying to manage a few calls, off-camera Hazel discovered that the leash unlocked, allowing her more flexibility to roam.
I looked up to discover that she found a semi-moist cow patty I somehow missed and was preparing to “enjoy” it. While sending CW and trying to keep from knocking down the camera, I used my left foot to put the brakes on her leash. She knew I was struggling, though, and tugged more.
I managed to stop her before even one paw plopped in the patty. Somehow. It was a very close call, though.
If you’ve watched my activation videos before, you’ve no doubt gathered that I’m not a multitasker. This little event really tested my ability to hold it all together on and off camera! 🙂
After packing up the station, Hazel and I took the Fire Tower Road back to the car. It was a very pleasant stroll and cow patty free.
Thank you for coming along with me on this SOTA activation and making it to the end of the report. You deserve an award! Please treat yourself to a local summit or park soon!
On the morning of May 10, 2021, I had a hankering to head to the Blue Ridge Parkway for a quick park activation.
I had a particular spot in mind–one that’s only two miles or so from my QTH as the crow flies. The only wrinkle in my plan was that we were expecting rain all morning and at our house we were in thick fog and light, steady rain.
Normally when I have these conditions, I look for a sheltered site, but I thought it might be a great time to take out the TX-500 since it’s weather-resistant. Why not, right?
I packed the lab599 Discovery TX-500, my Chameleon MPAS 2.0 vertical, and my Elecraft T1 antenna tuner to pair the two. I also brought along some rain gear.
Although the activation site is close to home as the crow flies, it actually takes about 30 minutes to drive there. By the time I reached the site, the skies were mostly clear and the sun was shining! This time of year, it reminds me of living in the UK: if you don’t like the weather, just wait five minutes.
This was very much a road side activation. The spot I chose isn’t an overlook–although it did provide amazing views–it was simple a pull-off.
This is where antennas like the MPAS 2.0 are so useful: they are self-supporting and very quick to deploy. Since I was set up right off the road, I also appreciate using verticals rather than wire antennas since the antenna and throw line aren’t in the way of others who might choose to park in the same pull-off. I can easily deploy the counterpoise and feedline so that it’s out of the way.
As with most park activations, I started on 40 meters CW and only operated 5 watts.
I quickly racked up five contacts on 40 meters, then the band fell silent.
I moved up to 30, then 20, down to 80, back to 60 and 40 again.
About 30 minutes had passed since I was last on 40 meters, so new hunters were checking the bands. I snagged a total of seven more contacts in about eleven minutes.
Obviously, 40 meters was the only band open that morning!
A quick note about 80 meters
I get a lot of questions from readers and YouTube subscribers about my use of the 80 meter band during the daytime.
I go into more detail about this in the video, but contrary to what many think, 80 meters can be a very useful daytime band for POTA activators.
While it’s true that you’re not going to work DX on 80 meters during the daylight hours (else, highly unlikely), you can still work local and regional stations.
Keep in mind that POTA, WWFF, and SOTA activations aren’t about working DX. DX is fun and perhaps a personal goal, but it has nothing to do with success in achieving a valid activation.
Basically, any contacts–DX or local–will get you what is needed for a valid activation.
If, like me, you live in a part of the country where there are a concentration of park and summit hunters/chasers within a daytime 80 meter footprint, then hop on that band and give it a go!
I’m not sure how useful this might be for activations in sparsely populated areas like Montana or the Dakotas, for example, but along the east and west coast, 80 meters is your friend.
At this particular activation, I didn’t didn’t employ an efficient antenna for 80 meters. While I’ve made numerous 80 meter contacts on the CHA MPAS 2.0 in the past, it’s just not physically large enough to be efficient on that band. The CHA Emcomm III Portable or another long wire antenna would have provided better results. But I knew that 40 meters and possibly 30 meters would be my best bet that day, so the MPAS 2.0 was a great choice.
Again: don’t forget about 80 meters. It’s helped me snag many an activation!
Here’s my real-time, leal-life, no-edit video of the entire activation:
You might hear an audio pop when I’m keying on the TX-500. This is happening because I have the audio gain cranked up all the way for the video. While the speaker/mic can get quite loud, when I’ve got it located so far from the camera mic, I run it at 100% volume to be heard. I recently changed my CW T/R recovery time from 100ms to 400s which eliminated most of the audio popping.
Thank you for reading this field report! I hope you’re getting an opportunity to take your radios outdoors this week!
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.
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
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!
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:
“K4SWL” (my callsign)
“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!)
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.
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.
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!
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.
Monday afternoon (December 14, 2020), after completing a long to-do list of errands, I found myself with a chunk of free time in the late afternoon. Of course, I like to fill free time with radio time, so I packed the car and headed to one of my favorite spots: Lake Norman State Park (K-2740).
I love Lake Norman because it’s only a 35 minute drive from my parents’ house (where I was that Monday) and it’s nearly ideal for POTA because they’ve a number of picnic tables widely spaced, and lots of tall trees–a perfect spot for wire antennas. It’s also a quiet location and has good “POTA Mojo”–meaning, I’ve never had difficulty racking up contacts there.
I was the only person at the picnic area of Lake Norman that afternoon. No surprise as it was after 3:00 PM local and temps were on a fast downward trend after a front moved through earlier in the day.
I used my arborist throw line and deployed the Emcomm III Portable antenna with ease.
On the Air
I hopped on the air around 21:30 UTC and started calling CQ POTA. The Reverse Beacon Network (RBN) spotted me and the POTA website auto-spotted me under a minute. Within ten minutes, I logged 8 contacts on 40M.
I then moved to 20 meters and worked an additional 5 contacts within 15 minutes.
Since I had worked a total of 13 stations, I had three more than needed for a valid POTA activation.
Since I was using the amazing Emcomm III Portable random wire antenna, I decided to move to 160M just to see if anyone work work me on the “top band.”
To be clear, 160 is one of the least active bands in POTA for obvious reasons: few ops care to deploy an antenna that can tune up on 160M, and few POTA hunters have an antenna at home to work the Top Band. Although it’s not as efficient as a resonant 160M antenna, the Elecraft T1 and mAT-705 easily tune it and get a great match.
I called CQ for a few minutes on 1810 kHz in CW and N4EX replied. Woo hoo! My first 160M POTA contact as an activator.
I then moved up to the phone QRP calling frequency of 1910 kHz and called CQ for about 10 minutes. No dice. Since I spotted myself, about two stations attempted to make contact, but unfortunately, my five watts just couldn’t be heard.
I checked the time at this point and it was 22:30 UTC. The sun was setting over Lake Norman, so I started packing up.
It was then received a text from my buddy Mike (K8RAT). The message read, “80M?”
I thought it might be fun to work Mike on 80M, so I re-connected the antenna and tuned up on 3538 kHz.
I think I called CQ once, and Mike replied with a strong signal. We had a nice exchange and when we sent our 73s, I heard a few stations calling me. Of course…the RBN picked up my CQ for Mike and the POTA site spotted me.
To be clear: it’s next to impossible for me to cut an activation short when I have hunters actively calling me, so I started replying.
Turns out, 80 meters was on fire. In 15 minutes, I logged 17 more stations–from Florida to Ontario–with 5 watts.
Next thing I know, it’s dark. Like, pitch dark…
Side note: someday, remind me to write a post about how one of my earliest National Parks On The Air (NPOTA) activations carried on until it was pitch dark outside and how that one activation forever changed how I pack my gear. In short: if you’re in the field and you aren’t intimately familiar with your gear and how its packed–even if you have a headlamp–there’s a good likelihood you’ll leave something behind.
It then hit me that Lake Norman State Park closes at sunset in the winter. Doh!
Friendly park rangers
I finished my last exchange (with W3KC) and sent QRT despite a few others still calling me.
As I quickly powered down the IC-705, I noticed a truck pass by slowly on the road behind me. He drove to the end of the road then turned around and stopped behind me. I knew it was a park ranger doing final rounds.
He walked down to my table with flashlight in hand and I greeted him with an apology as I quickly packed up my gear. He was incredibly kind and encouraged me to take my time. He also saved me a trip to the car to grab my headlamp by illuminating the area with his Maglite flashlight/torch.
The park ranger asked a number of questions about ham radio, POTA, and the equipment I was using as I packed up. He told me he’s always found it fascinating and had met other radio amateurs at the park doing activations. I gave him my contact info and I hope he considers checking out the world of radio.
Because I’m meticulous about how I pack (again, lessons learned from the past) I had no issues in low light and left nothing behind.
I drove out of the park at exactly 6:00PM which is the park’s closing time. I was happy, at least, that I hadn’t delayed their closing!
All-in-all, it was a very fun activation–so much fun, I lost track of time. I logged 30 stations all over North America on four bands with 5 watts.
Have you ever found yourself operating and packing up in the dark? Any stories to share or advice? Please comment!