Learning CW for SOTA

In an attempt to reduce my pack weight and, to a lesser extent, the amount of ribbing I get from friends for being “half a ham,” I have started to learn Morse code this holiday season. As it turns out, learning CW for SOTA very much resembles learning CW for almost everything else. I’ve been spending some time with the G4FON Koch trainer, but the initial acquisition of the alphabet has been very challenging. Asking older hams about how they learned the answers almost always drifted towards learning the code groups as sounds as opposed to sequences of dots and dashes. Counting was strongly discouraged.

After stumbling around for a bit I came across some old (1942) training records and it finally feels like I’m making progress. It will be a while until I’m fast enough to send and receive on a summit, but in the meantime I thought I’d share them here.

If anyone has any other advice or learning resources I’d be glad to have them.

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Hello Sir not sure of your name.
Get the letters stuck in your head then practice a couple times a day not for hours on end but a couple sessions a day .I did not enjoy learning code but glad I kept going with it and throw your pencil away at about 15 wpm and copy in the head that way you don’t need to write and listen to the code cos men can’t do two things at once as you know. Train your brain to move on quickly if you miss a letter in my experience wondering what the letter was usually wastes 3 more while you are thinking about it. That’s at 15 wpm by the way. I love listening to pc cw it is sent so nicely but with electronic keyers these days the cw is a whole lot more standard than the individual “fist” or “foot” or what ever else some people use. Bug cw sounds nice if it is sent well. On a summit you don’t need to send a lot of information so you can rubber stamp the qso .
learning cw is a bit like life stick at it and you will get there. Good luck
Ian vk5cz …


Much advice on how to learn the code will come forth for sure, the only comment I will give is don’t sit there sweating away for hour after hour.
Do a 10 minute session then go outside for a while and come back and do another 10 min session.
When I was learning morse all those years ago remember converting all the signs I saw to morse as part of the learning process.
It is much the same as learning how to play a musical instrument. Only continued practice will get proficiency.
Once the code is learnt a whole new world opens up, most of my sota is with cw as it is so much faster and concise.

Zen and the art of telegraphy is a interesting read.

Download here: Zen and the Art of Radiotelegraphy, IK0YGJ

Good luck with your endeavors, Nick


You will find some here: www.on6zq.be/w/index.php/CWpractice .

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Fabian’s site at lcwo.net has lots of learning and practice aids.

Colin G8TMV who is slowly heading towards CW Sloth

The best advice I can give is thus:

Do not learn CW to do SOTA!

Do SOTA to learn CW!

SOTA activator contacts are normally very routine and predictable exchanges. Mainly just callsign and report. Furthermore, if you are the activator, you set the format of the operating, and of course the speed.

So don’t waste loads of boring time trying to practice to get good enough to do a CW activation. Actually do that practice on activations. All you need to do is be able to read the incoming callsign, send that callsign back and “599”.

Two effective ways to develop reading callsigns are:

  1. RuFZ (free download from the web)
  2. Listen to the bands, find CQ calls and read the callsigns.

You could do you first CW activation at 5wpm if you wanted. Your CW will improve much faster if you’re doing it on activations than if you’re practising in the shack with a program.


My recommendations:

  • Cute CW to learn the alphabet.
  • “Boost mode” in SuperMorse to build up speed.
    On current Windows versions SuperMorse is still running fine within DOSBox.

73, Markus HB9BRJ

I recall how it was for me learning the code all those years ago (my how time flies!). I think what finally put me over the top was just walking around and trying to “send” the letters I saw around me in daily life. Street signs, book titles, labels on bottles, etc. I would go through the words, sending the letters I had down solid and mentally note which ones were giving me trouble, then making a special effort to add one or two of those troublesome ones per day.

Once I had the alphabet at least marginally in my head, I started listening to things like W1AW practice sessions, and on the air exchanges. I also spent some time with the straight key, sending practice material. I think it’s important to both send and receive as you are learning, as each activity activates different parts of your brain. You got sound advice when you were told not to try to “count the dits and dahs”. Think of it is music instead. Little riffs, each with their own characteristic bounce and feel. This sets you up nicely for reading whole words later, as they too have their own sense. It’s a lot like reading off a page at that point - the words just sort of arrive intact without needing translation.

I applaud you for taking on the challenge of learning the code and wanting to put yourself on the air using CW. It’s a lot of fun and will keep your brain nicely plastic for years to come. The learning isn’t linear, it seems to stumble along until it clicks, so just keep at it.

73! Bruce - WB8OGK

When this is not an option, VE3NEA’s Morse Runner and Pileup Runner, with the actual SOTA chasers callsigns, are free and as close as you can get to real activity.

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[quote=“VA7JBE, post:1, topic:12306”]Counting was strongly discouraged.[/quote]Too late… There’s a whole class of “Don’t Do This” advice that should really never be mentioned; once you’ve heard it you find it haunts you…

I found the Koch method simply did not work at all for me, so I learned the characters all at once “ABC” fashion (at something like 16wpm) instead. Morse practice broadcasts (particularly mixed-mode ones) have been helpful. SOTA activating has been helpful. The word and callsign exercises on LCWO.net have been helpful.

73, Rick 5Z4/M0LEP

Is there any collective wisdom about a first key - straight or iambic?

You don’t need either till you can receive! My straight key sending is awful, good enough to pass a test at 12wpm and that’s all. I use a Palm Paddle and a keyer.

I think I may understand one of the issue people have… they simply do not know the alphabet. I’ve spoken to a few people who are stuck trying to get to speed (doesn’t matter what that speed is). The reason is because they do not know the alphabet. You can tell by asking them to sing out their call sign in Morse and if they can’t do that with absolutely no delay, no “ums and ahhhhs”, but instantly come out with the Morse, then they don’t know the alphabet. If you don’t know what you own call sounds like then you’re stuffed. The problem is that they are doing look ups in their memory, i.e. they think G and then go away and recover dah-dah-dit. It has to be instant. If you are going to say “hello” using your voice to someone you don’t think “er let me see, H is a huh sound then E is going to be a short eh because we have two L’s together then a nice round oh”. No you say “hello”. You need to get to that stage of knowing not thinking or you get stuck.

Practice, short sessions regularly.

For the record, I can do SOTA exchanges at around 20wpm but cannot rag-chew at anything approaching that speed.

The matter of Morse learning is probably beset by more contradictory advice than anything else in amateur radio. In the end, you have to find out what works for you. Folk differ, and what worked for me might not work for you any more than what worked for you will work for me. Take what follows with a pinch of salt…

[quote=“MM0FMF, post:12, topic:12306”]they do not know the alphabet[/quote]…and the numbers, and the punctuation, and the prosigns. One of GB2CW’s regulars has a habit of using text with unusual punctuation that’s probably almost never heard on the amateur bands outside of his broadcasts, and they throw me every time. I wish I’d included a little more of the procedural stuff in the character set I learned, as I find adding new characters to an existing set all but impossible.

[quote=“MM0FMF, post:12, topic:12306”]You need to get to that stage of knowing not thinking[/quote]…but you will have to go through the thinking stage to get to the knowing one.

[quote=“MM0FMF, post:12, topic:12306”]You don’t need either till you can receive![/quote]I found that learning to send fed back and reinforced my learning to read. I probably should have started trying to send sooner, and I should probably practice sending more…

The top three things that made a positive difference to my Morse learning were:

  1. Abandoning the much-pushed Koch method. (Pity I wasted two years on it first…)
  2. Turning the sidetone pitch down from 600 Hz to nearer 400 Hz.
  3. Abandoning the straight key.

73, Rick 5Z4/M0LEP

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Hi John,

As you can see everyone who has ever learned morse, or failed to learn it, has advice on how to do it, and usually also has advice on what not to do.

I have coached many morse students since getting my own licence in 1965. The main thing I observe is that students are keen to get right into sending too early, so they learn to send morse that does not have correct spacing, either inside each letter, between letters, or between words. It can be difficult to unlearn bad habits. The most common mistake is to fail to learn the rhythms of each letter, then to speed up before the sound is correct. The most common sending error is short dashes - ie. Failing to send long enough dashes. Only an experienced ear can help you correct that. The 3:1 ratio has a distinct sound.

For learning the code, my brother Roger (VK1RD at the time) developed a training method that he distributed on cassettes, the technology of the 70s. Many operators have told me how successful they were at learning from those tapes. The basic approach was what he called “the sound-only method” which meant learning the code by learning the sound of each letter, rather than reading dots and dashes printed on paper. His teaching method was to divide the alphabet into groups of 6 or 7 letters (A-G, H-M, N-S, T-Z), and provide a tuition phase and a randomised recognition phase.

These days there are so many methods and so many software options available.

You will hear conflicting advice on what is the best method. Many people have been successful with different methods, from which you can only conclude that the “best” method for each person may be different from the “best” method for others. Everyone’s brain is different, everyone’s learning challenges are different.

However, what is clear from every successful student was that they got nowhere near using morse on the air until they knew all the letters of the alphabet and could instantly recognise each of them when the letter was heard as a keyed tone. That’s how morse comes to your ear off air, so that’s what should be practiced.

After learning the entire code and getting some sending tuition, you need to start with easy QSOs with a buddy on a band (no QRM), maybe VHF. This will help you gain confidence for HF SOTA use. It is easy to become flustered at first. You are training your brain to do something new, like learning a new language. Use a cheat sheet printed with the essentials of a contact - his callsign DE your callsign, RST 599, Op John 73 BK R TU. With those letters in front of you, you won’t forget what letters to send and you won’t get flustered so often. If you fall off the bike, get back on.

With an appropriate method you won’t need luck, just some time and the urge to be successful at a new skill. But good luck…



What a nice list of useful suggestions! Being able to make SOTA CW contacts is also on my list of new year’s resolutions (in fact it’s the only one) and I want to be on the air by the end of 2016. Let’s see whether I can make it… :grimacing:


Hi Sylvia,
I don’t consider myself any kind of phenomenom and following more or less the method described by Andrew VK1DA VK2UH in his previous post, after one single month of 1 hour per day training together with other 4 or 5 hams on 2m FM, I had learned the whole alphabet, the numbers and I had a cheat sheet with the standard QSO, so I immediately sent my first CQ on QRP on 10m and got an answer from a German station.
This first QSO was a bit stressful and I filled a page with letters having not much sense, but I got the callsign, the name and the signal report, so it was a good contact. Later, I received his QSL card.
Right after having finished this first QSO and recovered my breath and normal heart bit :smile: , I sent another CQ and had the second QSO, then the third and so on.
Each QSO was better than the previous one.
If you really want to do it and you start on that right now (this month), you should be able to make basic standard QSOs by Easter 2016.
I really encourage you and everybody to do it.
It’s so challenging and so rewarding…

Come on and join CW.

Best 73 de Guru

A few tips from me, and I am going to name names with a few examples to show what works for one doesn’t work for another as has been said.

There is some good and bad advice in this thread. We’ve heard most of these suggestions before and I have my own. Several SOTA Chasers have probably tried these methods, some have probably fallen by the wayside and given up as this is not something that you will be able to master within a month or two. My suggestions for learners - are similar to what I did in mid 1981 when I learnt the code. I took me around 12 months to become competent enough to make CW contacts at 15 wpm with a straight key. I graduated to a twin paddle key after 18 months when I reached around 18 wpm. At this speed and above I found it hard work and stressful (and still do) sending with a straight key.

Start off by learning the letters E I S H T M O (The easiest characters) use the dah di dah method to learn the sound of each character. Don’t be embarassed to speak it out loud when you are reading car number plates, signs, magazines etc in morse on a daily basis. Keep it going around in your head during your waking hours when you have a quiet moment.

The learn the rest of the characters in blocks of 6 - 8 characters. Once you have those in your memory, learn the numbers, they are easier than the characters.

You now need to spend at least 30 minutes per day in one go or in two or three goes learning to recognise the sounds of each character using a morse tutor programme, slow morse transmissions, listening to amateur stations etc. Expect to do this for around 3 to 6 months to develop your speed sufficiently to maintain rubber stamp contacts for SOTA at around 12 -15 wpm. A rubber stamp means recogition of your own callsign the other stations callsign, a signal report and learning correct procedure, when to transmit, when to receive.

Once competent at receiving (12 wpm or higher - will take at least 3 months of the above practice as said) practice sending morse with a straight key.

Don’t expect to be capable of handling a SOTA activation for at least 3 months - more likely 6 months practice. Don’t try to learn CW on the hill, although Tom M1EYP seems to have managed that and can handle rubber stamp contacts at quite a fast speed, he is exceptional… Learn it at home first, make some contacts at around 12 wpm from home, learn and understand procedure by listening to SOTA CW taking place for hours and hours and then try it in the outdoors when the weather is fine. You may just get there and believe me it is worth it in the end for the staisfaction and efficiency of using the mode…

The few “steady eddie’s” who learnt the code for SOTA (not the Tom’s who as I say is exceptional) motor along very nicely at 15 - 18 wpm and can easily make 20 contacts in less than half an hour, but there aren’t so many of them yet! (Come in Andy MM0FMF - you are one that can!).

I wish you who try in 2016 the best - find a method that suits you and don’t give in as it is a hard slog and doesn’t come easy. Let’s see by the middle of the year who has managed to do this. Oh yes, and don’t pick up your microphone as often as you may do - anyone can do that. Spend more time listening to the sweet music that is morse code instead!

73 Phil


Well said Phil
Have a read of my blog I just put a nice cw poem on there I’d be interested if anyone can get the drift of it.

best of luck to those taking up Phil’s worthy challenge and to be sure just leave the mic at home and only take a paddle or key.
Ian vk5cz …

Well said Phil. Like you I learned CW way back in 1981 and subsequently taught it for a number of years using pretty much the method you describe for character recognition. There has been one major development since our learning days, and that is the use of computers for learning CW, yes it’s a great help to learning, however I feel once the characters have been learnt there’s nothing to beat listening to “real” CW.

There are 2 things, IMO, that are critical to becoming competent at CW: (1) practice, practice, practice listening (2) do NOT try sending before you can receive properly, it’s like trying to ride a powerful motorcycle before you can ride a bicycle. Yes you may stay upright for a short time but you’ll soon fall off, especially when the speed increases!
Sending is relatively easy when you have a good grasp of receiving because at that point you will know the distinctive sound and rhythm of the characters.

Recently, at a local radio rally, I was talking to a couple of people who were asking about CW who said despite their best efforts they couldn’t seem to learn it and I used an analogy thus:
There was a club member who decided he needed to loose weight so he enrolled in slimming world, to date he had lost 8 stone and everyone was saying it was marvellous how that organisation had achieved this. In reality they didn’t take a single pound of him, they may have been an incentive and pointed him in the right direction but it was his dedication to sticking to a diet/programme that caused the weight loss.
To me learning CW is the same, you can get plenty of advice and use numerous methods BUT it’s down to dedication and seriously applying yourself to the task if you want to become a proficient operator.

Like Phil I agree it’s not easy and you will probably “hit the wall” numerous times but stick at it and you’ll get there and I wish you well on your conquest.

I accept there are always exceptions to the norm but by and large if you follow the advise from myself and Phil, (and others), you won’t go far wrong


Victor GI4ONL

before going on the air for the first time make sure you have good control of the sphincter muscle, otherwise you may need clean underwear :smiley:


Spot on there, Victor!

Get stuck in with whatever you have to hand, and stick at it :wink:

I learned the characters from a book working from A to Z. Then I sent them in random groups of 5 onto a tape loop, and listened to it playing back. Meanwhile, I listened off air. No computers etc in 1972.

The final impetus was booking the morse test :smile:

I wouldn’t recommend my method, but as others have said, there is no easy way, and I would argue that there is no totally wrong way either…

Best wishes to all,