Initially I assumed I would NEVER learn morse code when I got into this hobby. I figured it’s a dead art and why would anyone do that. Later, I wanted to learn morse code as a part of my Summits On The Air (SOTA) activity for a few reasons stated below:
- The reason
why other SOTA operators use CW is reach to weight ratio.
This is a hiking activity after all, and weight is a huge deal if
you are going to climb mountains.
If you use CW, you can carry a little 5 watt radio and get into
Europe when conditions are OK. I
started with a 5w rig and then was running a high power radio that
required a larger battery. I really
wanted to drop some pounds and go back to a smaller radio. Many SOTA operators don’t even carry a
mic, just CW paddles and many radios they carry, like the mountain topper aren't capable of SSB.
As a reward for my efforts, I picked up a used KX2 and absolutely love it. It’s perfect for CW in my opinion. By doing this I did drop about 5 pounds in radio and battery and a few more because I can use a lighter antenna, dropping 9 lbs in all.
- Because I
really like contacting other hams that are on summits (called
summit-to-summit) and I found that a lot of them only use CW (see
above). I do a little chasing from
home CW to practice. I don’t know
why I really enjoy doing summit-to-summit chasing.
I guess its because I know there is a guy out there doing the same
thing as me, having similar experiences and difficulties (like freezing
his butt off in the snow).
- Running lower
power means you may not be able to get out as far but by using CW, you can
go a LOT farther. This is because
the signal to noise ratio is a mega better than using voice on side-band.
- I’ve been told that CW is a lot of fun. As I was learning I really questioned that but as I actually start to get it, they are right. I postulate that it is partly a result of being able to reap some reward from the grueling and frustrating learning curve. As I write this, being able to get a call sign on the first go is pretty rewarding, even if they are using big spaces :)
Signing up for CW Academy.
I used this tool a lot to learn and continue using it as much as I can because of all the features it offers.
Other things I did in support of my training
Building on the two points above, the most important thing I learned is repetition. I was never good at learning languages and this may be why. It’s more important to keep hearing the letters (or whole words if you can) a zillion times and cement it into the brain. The core objective is to get to a point of instant recognition, so that you are writing the letters or words down without even thinking about it. I’ve been spending a lot of time using LCWO just decoding.
My hypothesis is that this is more important than we think. Until the activity becomes automatic, we have to have 100% dedicated focus. This is super hard to maintain for very long. The mind is always wondering, wanting to take a little break during our normal activity, even activity that we are really good at, like me writing right now. While I write this, my mind is jumping to wondering what the weather is like for example. It does this while it waits for my fingers to finish a word (I type at about 60 wpm). So... If you can get to the automatic recognition, you can keep at it longer because you don’t have to focus 100%, 100% of the time.
Here were / are some of my frustrations
- Learning morse is hard and frustrating... but ... keep going
- I couldn’t understand what the instructor sent me but I could send the phone book.
- Copy is frustrating but I'm starting to get it.
- Getting copy
speed up to a crawling speed of 8 wpm, uggg.
Getting copy speed increase is what CW operators are still complaining about after years of practice.
- When I practiced copy on actual radio (not web site) I had a WTF moment! It felt like starting over. I found that quickly went away.
- I’ll have days when I can’t send one word without screwing up.
- Today “OK, I’ve got this”... next day... “No I don’t”. (you'll get it though)
- Why am I
doing this again?
- If you want to learn CW, become a SOTA chaser. It’s fun, the exchange is
really easy, and there is very little rag chewing. A lot of us up there are beginners and
we feel your pain. Just send a “?”
and we’ll slow down and send again with bigger spacing.
- Send “QRS” to get people to slow down. That’s the proper way to get people to slow down but "?" will normally accomplish the same thing. If you didn’t understand, just send
“?”. Do that a couple of times and
the operator on the other end gets it and slows down. They need you to get points so they will be
patient. There’s no reason you
can’t send a QRS at the beginning or “I NEED BIG SPACES”, which I put in the spot comments.
Send fast, they will respond fast. Send with big spaces, they instantly slow down (most of the time).
- If you are a SOTA activator like me, put “BIG SPACES
PLS” in your spot on the SotaWatch. The first time I did this, all of my
callers put huge spaces in their call signs. That was so cool and I really appreciate
how patient other operators have been with me.
- To improve your callsign copy speed, take a bunch of callsigns that you get all the time from your
log and put them in the text conversion tool on LCWO and practice with
those. You can also look at someone elses log that does CW and use those.
I took the call-signs from a fellow SOTA operator and my own past calls from sotadata and put them in this spreadsheet (feel free to use it). You'll see that they are duplicated in two columns, separated by a column so they have a space between them, and if needed, separated by a row between each. Paste that into the conversion tool. Doing this causes the app to give you the call sign twice, offering two chances for success. Having an extra row between the calls gives you just a bit more time between calls. Initially, I had to hear them both to get it right, but eventually started getting them on the first try, the second one was a confirmation. Also, hearing familiar calls is a lot more fun and as it turns out, giving you a better chance of success on the mountain. For me, the best way to improve my copy speed is to hear it a zillion times. This also helped with my instant recognition of W, so creating my own callsign pool that has more W callsigns helped. The other HUGE bonus of doing this is that you’ll most likely hear them again when you do it for real.
I did a video specifically on how I do this located HERE.
- As you go along, observe how you learn, what works, what causes you to quit early. For example, if you are like me, you
need some success or you get frustrated and quit. If you ramp up the speed on whatever
tool you are using too high, and you are getting frustrated, just drop the
speed back down. What I found out
is that repetition is just a bit more important than pushing
yourself. Getting frustrated means
you’ll most likely rip the headphones off and head for the tequila bottle.
- I agree with CW Ops and others that you shouldn’t
practice for a long time in the beginning. Use short practice sessions. I’ve been practicing for 9 months and I limit myself to 30 minutes.
- If you miss a letter, just let it go. Obsess for even
a moment and you are really hosed.
A lot of times, just getting a partial copy of CW allows you to
figure it out. Similar to “yo cn
stll fure it out wen some lttrs r misin”.
- Have your wife hide the tequila or wine until you
have put in your time at homework.
- Send your CQ with spaces between each letter. If you send your call with
spaces between the letters, it communicates to others you are a
beginner. You will get good at calling
CQ or you might program it into your radio. Sending an awesome and fast CQ may convince people into thinking you are an expert.
I add spaces in my stored CQ on my home rig I put a space
between each letter of my call. I
now use it to chase when the other operators needs the spacing.
- Be patient and know that it’s going to be hard to be
You can only push so hard. I
have a feeling that learning CW might be easier for musicians or people
that easily learn other languages. I hear from W6TED that musicians are use to practicing EVERY DAY.
- Use the farnsworth method, which I think is currently the most
This method urges you to set your key rate at 20 wpm but use big
spacing between letters. You speed
up by shortening the spaces between letters. It totally makes sense because what you
want to do is learn the musicality or note that a letter makes, not the
dits and dahs. Using this method,
that note doesn’t change, just the speed between notes. I cheated a bit and set mine to 18 when
I was learning. It gave me just a
tiny edge. I know you aren’t
supposed to get in the habit of counting, but dude, you need every edge
you can get. I don’t feel the bit
of counting held me back either.
- Use it, get on the radio and try. Talking on the radio was easy for me, I
had no fright, since I’ve been playing with radios since I was a kid and
did a lot of flying, talking to controllers on the radio. CW is scary for me in the
beginning. It could have been that
when flying, you have to have your shit tight to get what you want. I didn’t want to embarrass myself using CW, or
frustrate the other ham. But the radio is a bit different than the
computer since the tone and speed isn’t perfect and you have to contend
with QRM. This is where trying to
do a little chasing of SOTA operators comes in handy. Just try going to http://sotawatch.org/
and look for a contact that is running CW on a band you can transmit
on. Then, listen in to how things
work and give it a shot. The good
news is that if someone cusses you out for something, you won’t understand
them anyway (nobody does that by the way).
While you are doing that, look for me, N1CLC, I’d love to hear from
- Ask for help, ideas, tips. I haven’t met a ham yet that wasn’t
willing to either give me a tip, encourage me, or slow down for me, so ask
around, play around and have fun.
- Practice in the morning, it’s a hell of a lot harder
to learn when you are tired and forget it after
you’ve been drinking (you’ll need a drink afterward though).
- Don’t forget to practice keying. When you are
doing copy practice on something like LCWO, at the end of the sentence or
set of callsigns, practice keying that.
Doing this will help cement it in the brain and you’ve gotta be
able to send too. I also practiced with the key that I did SOTA with sometimes.
- Practice every day. I’m actually amazed that I kept to
that. It started with the CW
class. If I didn’t do my homework
every day, I knew I’d get behind and be lost, something I really didn’t
want to do. This built the habit
- Relax. I just added this one. I found that there are days that I can’t
send my own call sign nor copy very well.
What I discovered was I was too tense to process the inbound and
couldn’t send either. I get excited and or stressed when calling CQ, trying to work the pileup, or just send well to the guy calling me. Stopping,
taking a breath, and then sending changes everything. I am amazed how much this helps me. If you notice yourself being tense, try it.
- Create an “Alert” and RBN will create a SOTA “spot” for you (if you do SOTA). I didn’t realize this till later but if you have an alert posted on sotawatch, and you start sending CQ within a reasonable window of your planned arrival time (one hour before or 3 hours after), the system will see you in the RBN network and create a spot for you on sotawach. This is a super cool bonus. I’ve been on summits with no network access, satellite or ability to use an HT and couldn’t get spotted.
Search eBay for them.
● CWops Morse Code Trainer - Used by CW Academy
● Learn CW Online - More features. I started out using this and still use it.
● QRP KD1JV Dual Lever (Iambic) Combo CW Trainer - Easy build and works fine.
● Morserino-32 - This is very cool and I think it helped because you get good solid feedback just on the CW pieces. Then it has a lot of other practice modes
● This is the video that Josh did on the Morserino
● Practice with the Morse Code Ninja
● WØXI’s 100 Most Common Words, Q-sigs, Pro-signs, and Abbreviations for CW Practice
● Debunking the iambic key myths
● Improving your callsign copy speed video that I did.
● All About the Telegraph and Deciphering Morse Code Text
(Thanks to Corrine Jackson for this great reference)
Christian, good post here. I too am learning CW and feel your pain. Too bad there isn't some type of plugin like Neo has in the Matrix for learning KuFu..."I know CW". I'm up to around 7 to 8 WPM and that's about it. I'm currently a member of Long Island CW Club and they have drop in classes that are really great. No pressure. Some days I can probably run 10 WPM. Some days I struggle at 2 WPM. All your tips are good. I didn't know about the auto spot for the Reverse Beacon. Keep the videos coming. I really enjoy them. Kyle - AA0ZReplyDelete
I've got to learn that RBN trick. Actually... I need to learn CW! My experience has been much the same as what you have written out here. And I really need a solve for these peaks I get to and then can't activate over 2-meter. Thanks for putting this together - ESPECIALLY demystifying the lingo that's used out there for SOTA CW.ReplyDelete