Help for a first time CW activator

I’m a new cw op. I started learning code about 2 months ago, and I’m now having daily (if I have the time) QSOs probably in the 10wpm range. I can copy really clean code maybe close to 15wpm or so. I’ve read a number of posts here that suggest activating via cw even if you’re a slow op.

Over the last few days, I’ve been listening to some activations via websdr. This has had the effect of utterly terrifying me of every trying an activation with code. I enjoy managing an ssb pileup, but a cw pileup, while sounding very snazzy, is utterly incomprehensible to me.

Is this a sign I need to spend more time with single cw QSOs before thinking about calling “cq SOTA?” I use “qrs pse” and know that most people oblige, but how do you say “one at a time okay.” With ssb pileups, I listen for 2 characters of the same cs and then do “station XX go ahead” but I honestly have not been able to ID two characters as belonging to one station.

Any help or suggestions would be appreciated.


Even just one letter and a question mark will often do. Another approach is to keep waiting after the jumble; often one of the stations will then send his / her call again in the clear. Send very slowly, and ignore people who respond at high speed.

Main thing is to get out there and do it; nothing else improves competence faster.



Jumping right in is the best way to learn.

I’m also a beginner and only did a few CW activations. The chasers are very accommodating (mentioning “new to CW pse QRS” in the sotawatch alert helps) and will keep repeating until you do manage to get a few characters. The rest you know already :slight_smile:

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Watching this closely. As a new CW operator, I could have written this almost word for word.

It’s easy.

Nobody replying to you will be able to hear all the stations calling you. So when you get zilch just pick a number between 0 and 9 and send:

?9? |kn|

The callers wont know if you heard a 9 or are bluffing.

Maybe a 9 station was calling and there’ll be one reply. But it will cut the size of the callers down. The good guys will observe you only want to work stations with a 9 in the call. Once you have worked him/her, call CQ again. And if you don’t hear anything obvious pick a random number and try again.

It’s important if you are asking for ?9? only ( the kn means only if you have a 9) and you do hear say a 4 in a callsign, you must not answer that station. Call for ?9? again and if there is no 9 but the 4 station calls again, ignore him. You can try ?9? a third time or send NIL and call CQ again. Right from the start you must take charge and if you ask for a specific partial call you must NEVER work anything else without calling CQ again. Otherwise people will hear you ask for a ?9? and work ?4? and then they’ll ignore your directions because you ignore them anyway.

You are in charge whether it’s your 1st CW activation or not.

And remember this. The chasers want the points. The smart chasers will adapt and help you to have a QSO with them. The idiots and those who have some kind of hang up, will not try to help you. Ignore them and work the people who QRS and help you.


That’s genius. KN is sent as a prosign, right?

My suggestion N0MAP (Nice call!) is, if you have a station at home try SOTA chasing first on CW, but wait until towards the end of the activation period before calling, when the frequency is starting to quieten down.

If you can make Morse QSOs this way at whatever speed, then you should be OK activating. If the pile ups you hear are incomprehensible you will really struggle with your activation and it may put you off permanently, so why set yourself up to fail?

You ought to continue your daily practice at least until you are at least semi competent to receive an accurate callsign at around 12 WPM. You need to recognise all characters. Daily receive practice is what you need. This has been proven time and time again… You will need to be able to produce an accurate SOTA activation log of at least 4 QSOs with the correct callsigns logged. If what you heard so far was incomprehensible that is unlikely to happen.

Good luck - you deserve to do well as you have the right idea with the daily practice, practice, practice. Not everyone seems to understand that is essential when learning what is to all intents and purposes a new language.

73 Phil


Yes, all one character, dah-di-dah-dah-dit.

As Phil says, chasing from home will help you gain on air confidence.

Maybe this will help: I personally still have trouble having a regular QSO at 10wpm. But I have little issue with SOTA activations in the 10-15wpm range.

I’ve found that at least one or two, if not more, characters of a callsign will jump out of the pile. I send those 1-2 characters followed by a “?” and then I’m able to copy their call sign—especially if they send it twice.

Some of the chasers throw in a little bit extra, and the S2S contacts are a bit tricky, but so far I’ve been able to get through them.

All of this is to say: you’ll do just fine! Try to set yourself up to be relaxed on the summit, and just calmly work through the pileup.

I agree, chasing is good practice, too, if you can pull that off. Learning CW allowed me to actually make contacts with activators, whereas I was unable with SSB.

73, Rex


Thanks for this and to the others who suggested chasing. I haven’t yet heard a SOTA cw activation from my actual QTH between band conditions and being a working stiff. That said, I have done some chasing QSOs for WWFF and I found them somewhat easier than a normal one. The semi-predictable nature of the exchange helps tons.

And yeah, Phil, practice practice practice. I am currently trying to ween myself off the use of a keyboard. I (maybe not so wisely) learned from scratch using a keyboard to copy. Not surprisingly, I can barely copy 7wpm when using paper. So I have been listening and transcribing the arrl files with a pen and paper for 20 min a day.


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To echo what KE6MT said, I’ve found that during SOTA activations and contests and other similar activities, I can easily add 5-10 wpm over my qso speed since I know what to expect.

And in the end, as long as I can get the callsign and signal report, I consider it a good SOTA qso.


Hi Joe,

Happy New Year to you.
As several others have said, I also recommend you to take the plunge and start activating. You will surely end up copying some callsigns and completing some QSOs.

In my opinion, Andy’s (MM0FMF) advise about asking for a number in case you can’t copy anything in the pile-up is a good one, but I fear it may be a better advise for activators in Europe than in the US, because asking, for instance, for a number 4 in Europe, may produce answers from almost any area and any distance in Europe, i.e. G4, DL4, EA4, IK4, ON4, HA4, SM4, UA4, and it’s also quite unlikely that there are too many callsigns with the same number in a SOTA pile-up. May be 2,or 3 max, but never 8 or 10, I believe.
However, if you are activating a summit in W0, depending on the band you are working on and the propagation conditions, you may ask for that same number 4, and have either nobody or have loads of people hearing you and calling you from FL, AL, NC, SC, KY, VA, GA… the #4 US callsign area States (sorry if I forgot mentionning some of them).
Although it’s true that this has changed lately and it’s becoming more and more common to find a W6 or a W1 transmitting from the #4 call area, these are still a minority, I believe.
Imagine you are activating on 40m at noon in the area of San Francisco, California and you ask for a number 6… you’ll probably get about the same pile-up, I guess…

Bear in mind, Joe, that no matter how huge a pile is and how long do you think you’ll need to pick up at least a couple of letters in a calling callsign, there will most of the times be either a very strong signal calling you, much stronger than the others and therefore perfectly copyable by you in spite of the others calling underneath, or a tail ender who’s callsign you’ll be able to pick up because he/she’s calling you alone after all the others have already stopped calling.

You take the plunge, Joe, you’ll surely sweat your clothing that first time, but you’ll make it, you’ll enjoy it, you’ll learn a lot from it, you’ll be eager to repeat the experience and when you’ll do it, you will surely do it even better. And so on and on…

As Andy said, you must always be in charge. The pile-up need a consistent operator, otherwise chaos is guaranteed. If you ask for WB4?, don’t give up and keep asking 3 or 4 times if necessary until you have copied and worked the WB4, ignoring any other possible indisciplined hams calling you when you have already asked for that WB4?. If the WB4 doesn’t show up after those 3 or 4 calls, you can proceed by calling CQ again or QRZ?
Do never pick up breakers in a pile-up.

A good practice for you will be listening to other activators while they are dealing with their pile-ups. Think that you are the activator and those chasers are calling you. Try to copy and write down the callsings of the chasers calling that operator, the signal reports and summit reference info in the case of a S2S.

Getting familiar with the callsings of the regular chasers is also very helpful. Try to make a list of the 20 TOP chasers of the activations other hams have previously carried out recently in the area you are planning to activate, as most of those TOP 20 chasers will very likely chase you too.

Well, I won’t get longer. Welcome to CW SOTA and I’ll be looking forward to chasing you soon from the other side of the Pond.



As a new CW activator I can say you are getting some good advice. I will add…On your next activation, just do CW. You will do it sooner or later. Sooner you do it, the sooner you will feel more comfortable. The first summit I did CW I was really nervous. Each summit after that, I got more comfortable. I still get a little nervous when I think about the pileups. LOL! The chasers are awesome and will help you out and offer some encouragement. I’m still a beginner and finding my way

Roland K7FOP

Hi Joe,
you might find 20m & 30m a bit more manageable, the pile-ups on 40m are much bigger. That said, chasers won’t be too happy of you miss out 40m, as it is often the only band that is working for them. One way round this I have found is to do a joint activation. The weaker OP takes 20m and 30m, and usually gets their activation from these bands. Then I activate on 40m and get my points there. If the weaker OP didn’t get enough contacts on the higher bands, then I hand back to them when the bulk of the pile-up is gone. It’s a good idea to make clear on SOTA-watch that it will be a joint activation, so that chasers realise another OP will be QRV a short while after one goes QRT. Practicing with ‘Morse-runner’ is also a good way to prepare for the pile-up. I would also say, always give your callsign at the end of the QSO as a way to solicit new calls, e.g. RR CFM/QSL TU 73 de N0MAP/P (QRZ?). If you don’t solicit new calls properly, then chasers will start to tail-end your QSOs. As Andy said above, it is your responsibility to create order in the pile-up.

…not sure I’m qualified to give any advice, but here are some thoughts…

  1. on my first CW activation I was was skunked on SSB and the only option was to try CW (using RBNhole to get a spot out). I had been chasing CW activators for a few months, but was reluctant to do a CW activation. It worked out OK. The chasers here in NA are a fine bunch of solid operators and slowed down for me with lots of repeats…

  2. Morse runner is your friend… but nothing beats activating.

  3. I still have trouble after the first CQ on a band, where 5+ responses come back together… but I’ve found usually someone will tail and you get a clear chance to catch a call.

  4. Usually after 10mins or so, there can be another surge of callers and another mini-pileup… but you’ll be in the swing of it by then also.

  5. If you lose control… take a breath and send your long CQ string… or go quiet for 30secs… that can also help to let the chasers know you’re having what I call “operator overload”

  6. I don’t use the “fake it till you make it approach”… I always “QRZ” or CQ until I hear a partial call as I think this also signals to the chasers what’s happening.

Good luck… there are a few of us new(er) CW activators around at present working with the same challenges…

Richard // N2GBR

FYI … in NA we don’t have to change our call sign when we move QTH from one call area to another anymore… I’m a “2” call and I live in “3” call land now…

Richard // N2GBR

So much fantastic advice here. Thank you all.

It’s hovering around 0F here, so it’ll be a few weeks before I put it all into action. We’ll probably try to activate sooner than that, but I think I might want my first hilltop cw activation hand tremors to be caused by nerves alone, not amplified by arctic temps!


Just remember you hold the chaser’s prized points if they can’t slow down enough to help you correctly get their call sign then they lose the contact thus the points. Just keep repeating back what you’re hearing or think you’ve heard even if it’s only one letter …trust the chaser WILL continue filling in the missing letters until you get their call nailed …relax you’re in control! QRX if needed …take a break the pile will still be there so will the mountain. I’ve QRTd many times for WX, insects, tourist, goats, bear (QRB)! It’s OK it’s only hobby and supposed to fun!

I used to get up tight trying to log, operate all while swatting biting ants …so started recording my activations on a pocket mp3 recorder which acted as a backup to check my logs against. Now enjoy the transcription sessions (almost) as much when I was on the summit …whatever works for you!

The more skin you have in the game the quicker you learn the CW language, rules, protocol, abbreviations, exchange rhythm, propagation strategies, which modes? which band? what antenna? what other gear/food/water needed to stay alive etc …SOTA imitates life! or for some it is life. (Wha? wait!)

:thinking: 73, Steve wGOAT(s)


If you’re up to 10wpm, you’re ready for a CW SOTA activation.

I did my first CW SOTA activation @ 10wpm - and it was so much easier than practising! So thereafter, activating became my practice method of choice! If you’re lucky enough to have a fairly nearby easy SOTA summit to home, you’re in business!


Yep… good advice here. I’ve studied morse for years and still struggle (I think there’s something wrong with my brain). But activating was much easier than I thought. I was never able to make a SSB contact but immediately made CW contacts. The only thing that would have helped me on my first activation was knowing some of the calls that I was likely going to hear. My 2nd activation, a day later, was much easier because I already knew some of the calls from the previous day so I was kind of expecting them. Other thing that helps me is asking for extra spacing. I don’t mind the characters being relatively quick but I feel like I need space between the characters to think about what I’ve heard. And yeah, what worked best for me was hearing the last couple letters… repeating those with ? and I was then able to work them. Sometimes, I had to ask for the call multiple times because of static crashes (approaching storm) but eventually I muddled through. All good. Enjoy!