First CW activation tips needed?

Hello everyone,

I am planning a trip to the big island of Hawaii at the end of May and am planning on at least 2 SOTA activations while I am there. I would like to do both voice and CW. This would be my first CW activation. I am newer to CW. It has been pretty much my primary mode of operation for the past 3 months since I completed CW OPS academy Level 1 in early February. I have almost 200 CW QSOs logged so far, all have been chasing SOTA, Parks, SES, DX and state qso parties. My problem lies with copying call signs. The randomness of it really throws me off, if I hear a CQ on the air I usually cannot pick up the callsign easily, which is really frustrating because with simple exchanges my copy skills are keen. I am also an avid chaser and since learning the code I have almost tripled my chaser points. What helps me there is seeing the activation on SOTAwatch and then going to the frequency, in this case I know what to listen for callsign wise. So there for it really helps.

I have been practicing using callsign copy programs on and it seems to be helping but I have to have the sign repeated a number of times. My concern is if I take this out in the field and ask a chaser for multiple repeats if they are going to get frustrated with me and bail on me, or if I am going to get email telling me I have no business on the air yet.

I really want to do this! I think it would be a blast to work a CW SOTA activation from Hawaii. What tips do you have for me? I was thinking, I would call CQ at between 13-15 WPM and send my RST at 17wpm. Is that a dumb idea? Should I keep it all the same?

I was thinking I would program my radio with my CQ, which I was thinking would be CQ SOTA CQ de K0EAP K0EAP K0EAP SOTA. Is that good? to long? Better way to call CQ?

Another question is when I finish a contact (if I get any) should I just send a QRZ? Or should I send a K0EAP SOTA K? What scripts do you guys follow?

What advice do you have for me? I have done a few SOTA and Park activations so I know how to handle a voice pileup, I have never dealt with a CW pileup and have no idea what I would do if I had one.

I have seen operators posting messages on the SOTA alerts that this is their first CW activation and to QRS. Or just to go slow with them so I would definitely do that prior to the activation.

I LOVE using CW and I love the SOTA program, which is ultimately why I learned Morse. Using the two together during my own activation is definitely a goal of mine!

Any tips would be greatly appreciated.


I asked this same question and got a fantastic bunch of responses not too long back:

I’ve now done 10 or so cw activations. It’s by far my preferred mode of operation.


Hello Eric,
Listen to whole activations by experienced operators. These are the guys and gals to emulate.
Even if the code is too fast to copy completely, you’ll get a good feel for the format and timing.
Listening for you on the bands…


Go. Have FUN. Take your time. Send Slow CW. Post QRS new CW op on your post.
Most of us realize you are starting out and need to do it slow. As you enjoy it more your speed will increase. That comes with time. And if someone won’t slow down for you, just ignore him. Don’t get frustrated. The other person will learn to slow down to your speed or not make the contact. Good Luck and hopefully I can hear you from there. I doubt it; but, I will watch for you. Remember, Patience, Perseverence and Common Sense.
JohnPaul // AB4PP


Thanks! I will check out your link! I have you in my log. I chased you 2018-04-08 15:53 40m 7.067 CW Joseph S Kallo W0M/SF-028.

WOW, great advice on that link you shared! Thanks very much.

For learning to copy cw characters at full speed buy the Morse toad app and run through the course. It will help you with recognizing letters better at 20 wpm. Then download the Morse runner program on your computer. It simulates the wpx contest. Use that program nightly for a few weeks and you will be copying callsigns quickly and easily. It can increase the difficulty easily by adding a pileup or qrn. Very helpful to me when I was learning.

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My MTR has 3 memories, but I only use two. One is “cq cq cq de aa6xa aa6xa aa6xa k” and the other is “tu 73 aa6xa k”. If there’s a large pileup that I want to work more quickly, I’ll just manually send “tu 73” then dit dit.
To get better at copying callsigns, practice, and slow down a bit when on the air. Once you do enough CW activations you’ll learn a bunch of the chasers and be able to pick their calls out even if you only hear a piece of it.

SOTA chasers are friendly, I doubt they’d send you an email like that. And making contacts on the air is the best way to improve.

Hope to hear you on a summit!
Jeff, aa6xa

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Hey Eric,
Asking for a callsign multiple times is fine. No one will get upset. Chasers are very supportive of us new CW operators. I ask for repeats. Sometimes it’s because I didn’t catch the whole callsign, someone else is keying up over my chaser, QSB. And there’s times the chaser is really weak.

After I finish a contact and I dont hear any chasers come back after the Dit Dit, I do send QRZ a couple times. If I hear nothing I start with my CQ again.

I started my CW activating at 12 wpm for everything. I think it would be easier just to use 1 speed for the whole contact.

Calling CQ…here’s what I do…

Dont worry about the pileup, you will get one. Hahaha. If I can make out a character, I go with it and send it back and hope there is only a few stations with that character. Lol. If I cant make out anything I wait and usually a station will send in the clear.

When I first started with CW I would add pls qrs to my alerts and spots. I haven’t did that in a while. I think if you are sending slow chasers will slow down. When you chased me you sounded fine!

Some more advice…have fun. You will do fine.

What I use for practicing copying CW…
Morse Toad, RUFZ, Morse Machine, Morse Camp, Morse Runner. Mostly its RUFZ and Morse Machine

Roland K7FOP


Just send at the speed you are comfortable receiving at. If callers don’t slow down or don’t like repeating their callsign, that’s their problem, not yours.


My Auto CQ for SOTA is short assuming it will need to be sent a few times to attract chasers.
The reverse beacon network will also pick up my call and spot me sometimes if you keep it simple.
The Majority of chasers will answer you or call you at your sending speed or that is the rule of thumb for most cw activities as well. After all cw ops are gentlemen. Keep the jargon out of the conversation, and simply answer with their call send UR RST 559 or what ever you think TNX QSO 73 TU E E
Next one in the pile up will be listening to you and probably call you.
When you get to the end of the pile up sometimes just send a ? mark to see if anyone is left or missed,or call CQ again. Of course in VK5 I usually only have 8 or 10 max cw chasers on a regular basis so I doubt very much it will turn into a massive dog pile If it takes a bit longer who cares what else you be doing for the day,out on a summit one with nature you should enjoy it as long as you can. Might I suggest also from Hawaii 17m and 15m works great across the Pacific to ZL VK JA I have worked SOTA activators in Hawaii before. Good luck and enjoy nothing like seat of the pants experience.
Ian vk5cz …

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Hi Eric,

Just listen to other activators/ DXpeditioners and copy what sounds like a smooth operating style.
Usually I complete a QSO with “TU”. If there are many chasers they’ll start calling immediately. Every two or three QSOs you should add something like “DE K0EAP” to make sure the chasers know whom they’re chasing. If I can’t hear any more chasers for a while I start calling CQ using one of the memories.

In order to practise copying call sings in a pile up I recommend

It’s lots of fun, once you got used to the handling of the software. Speed and number of callers can be adjusted.

Have fun!
73, Roman - DL3TU

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Here are some more details if you have the patience to read them. Remember that activators need patience…

Remember, you’re the activator, and you can go whatever speed you like. Most of the good chasers will try to match you. Most of these guys are REALLY experienced.

Don’t worry about things too much - just keep at it. Eventually CW routines will form in your brain, and it will get easier and easier. It takes a long time, but then you have it. Do lots of on-air things - work some contests - rag chew - just to hear calls and new info coming fast.

Keep your sending short and simple. Avoid extra words and comments. Send your SOTA Ref once in a while. Identify yourself clearly when you send CQ, but don’t identify too often during your run. Minimize the time you’re sending, so you have more time to listen and ask for repeats.

Post an alert if you can, so the RBN Hole will spot you on SOTAWatch.

Do your best you to put out a strong signal that the chasers can actually copy. This means:

  1. 5W or more output
  2. Antenna at least 1/2 wave long, counting the wire and counterpoise (if used)
  3. Antenna up at least 15 feet, more if at all possible
  4. Antenna correctly matched to the rig with a tuner or other means
  5. Antenna located above a ridge if practical
  6. Operate on several bands, so more chasers can hear you

With a stronger signal, you will get control of your chasers. This will make your activations better for all involved!

The toughest thing will be when you have several calls right on the same frequency, and then it’s hard to copy any of them, until you have more experience. Query the chasers to sort it out.

Someone who can’t hear you may start calling CQ on your frequency - you may have to QSY to a new frequency.

Choose frequencies commonly used by other activators - don’t go way up or down the band someplace unique or private, unless you want to avoid your chasers!

Consider avoiding 10.110 and 14.060 - these are QRP calling frequencies, which means people call CQ here - they will call CQ right on you, because they can’t hear you, or don’t know better.

Be prepared for these surprises:

  1. DX - the calls are different - if you use a good antenna, you WILL get DX calls, at least on 20M
  2. Chasers calling over your activation - they can’t actually hear or copy you, but they see a spot
  3. Partial call signs - they think you know them
  4. S2S calls - Summit to Summit contacts

S2S presents additional challenges, but it’s very cool to contact another activator doing what you’re doing on some distant summit:

  1. Get his call for sure - ask for it if you need it
  2. Get his SOTA Ref - ask for it if he forgets to send it
  3. Send your call for sure
  4. Send your SOTA Ref at least twice, especially if signals are weak
  5. Listen for S2S - there are many of these contacts
  6. The chasers should wait and be quiet, if there’s an S2S station calling
  7. Tell the other chasers to wait by sending the AS symbol ._… (means “WAIT”), if they keep calling
  8. If you can hear the S2S guy calling, you should be able to get the info and complete the contact, but it may take several minutes and some repeats. Ask him to QRS if he’s too quick.

Please don’t forget to log your S2S contact as a normal Activator Contact, and ALSO as an S2S Chaser Contact. This is just like a normal Chaser Contact, except you add your SOTA Ref for your summit at the bottom when the program asks you if it is S2S. You get special S2S points if you log these contacts correctly. These add to your chaser log and points automatically.

As an activator, you’ll have unusual things happen, and there are inevitable conflicts between the various stations involved. This is OK, be understanding - they all want to log you, and chasing is very hard with QRM, QSB, and high noise levels.

I think the trickiest surprise situation is when another activator starts HIS activation right on top of YOU - this can happen on 20M, when he’s in the skip zone and can’t hear you, and you can’t hear him. At some point you realize that some of these chasers are working another station, not you, and then what do you do with that? One answer is to QSY a little bit and keep going. Another answer is to self-spot and QSY. You could even go to a new band! It’s your choice!

Remember that a certain amount of chaos is normal and inevitable in SOTA - it’s part of the game.
Just have fun and don’t take any of it too seriously!




Everyone! Thanks very much for all of the thoughtful tips and words. I have worked many of you during your activations. It is great to hear from so many people. I really appreciate it.

I agree the chaos is inevitable. That’s half the fun.

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This thread and the previous threads on this topic contain pretty good advice with some common themes.

Good enough to become a Q&A topic in the FAQ.

I plan to incorporate some of it in my vkfaq site at

The continuing new interest shown by sota ops especially complete newbies is heartening to those of us who try to qualify each summit on cw as well as other modes.

A steady influx of additional operators on both “sides” of SOTA (activators and chasers, not CW and Phone) is very healthy.

Andrew VK1DA/VK2UH


Roland, I got back into CW for SOTA and thoroughly enjoy it. It is now my preferred mode but I would not classify myself as a great CW OP. Reply is a bit long, sorry.

One difficulty that I had when operating away from home was the callsign that I had to use. It was a PIA to send and would often confuse chasers (& me) until a spot went up. Something like VE7/VK3CAT/P… if you get the drift. At least France just required the F/…
I did pre-program both a generic sota cq plus just the callsign only.
Also stored the some of the summit codes in memory, all to assist brain fade.

Don’t really get CW Sota pile ups in VK unless there is some DX (which is interesting trying to pull out EU, US plus VK / ZL sometimes at the same time) but experienced it in Europe and a lesser extent in the USA. Often I would only get a partial call so would send say W7R? or similar.
I also made up a DX cheat sheet of names and callsigns I had either worked on previous trips, had worked from home or I could see were prolific chasers from Sota Watch.
Using AS (wait) helped at times just to slow things down; as did an automated CQ whilst fixing up the log book. My log book uses two pages, RHS for the logging & LHS for notes & scribble.

What does not help is blind calls, those who have seen the spot, can’t hear you but call anyway!
Make sure that you have an alert posted. Listing potential frequencies can be handy if phone access on the summits could be an issue.
Put out a notice on this forum & NA Sota group about your planned activations and operating procedures.
My advice, take your time to get set up & be comfortable. Self spot when ready and if possible. If using SMS for spotting, make sure that you are using the correct number and, if using a different phone SIM, that it is registered. I did wonder why my sms spots did not work!

Cheers & enjoy your visit.

Great information!

While I am still learning. I love CW! I am so glad that I am putting in the effort to learn it. For the past 2 months it has become my primary mode. Like I said in my original post, most of my problems come from copying and especially copying callsigns. Random letters and numbers for some reason are really throwing me off. It takes me 3 or so times, sometimes more sometimes less to get the call correct. But I know I will get there with time. CW and the SOTA program just go hand in hand, it has been a lot of fun being a CW SOTA chaser! Hoping to add activator soon.

This is 100% a problem endemic to being a new CW op, and I struggle with it too. Being on a hill tends to exacerbate it. I find myself doing odd things like missing the last letter of a call completely, reversing letters etc.

There is a fantastic cure for this as George notes: slow down. I tend to operate around 14-15wpm at home and for awhile I was trying to activate at that speed (and sometimes faster). While the scripted nature of the QSOs makes it possible, I found that it just increased my errors and stress. I’ve begun calling at 12wpm for activations and it feels so much more relaxed. And I make fewer errors. It’s amazing what a difference a small reduction in speed can make.

I suggest doing a lot of listening on the dx bands. Hearing various callsigns and logging them, especially in a contest of some kind is very useful.

The Straight key Century Club (SKCC) has frequent operating events in which members are encouraged to make brief contacts. Half of the operators (approx) use hand keys so their speed is not too high to copy. Listen to those events or join in, just for the practice. There are SKCC members all over the world. I even joined too, but I rarely use a hand key.

73 Andrew VK1DA/VK2UH