HF Ham Radio on a Budget: QRP Labs, QRPGuys, CW Academy

When I started my amateur radio life as KK6VSI in August of 2015, I wish I could have had the information I’m about to lay out here.  Of course, most of the equipment didn’t yet exist.  So another way of looking at it is that my entry into amateur radio was perfectly timed for a modern Golden Age of Ham Radio.  Part of this Golden Age means you can get a QRP Labs QCX or BITX40, and a QRPGuys Antenna, plus a few other components, and you’re on the air!  Stick with me here, and we’ll get to the details.

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CW Academy Level 2: Listen, listen, listen!

I haven’t written a post in a while, so I figured I’d write a quick update on my progress with learning Morse code for CW operation. I’d completed CW Academy Level 1 at the end of October 2017 and I’ve been doing CW SOTA activations since. CW Academy Level 1 got me from sort of knowing the characters to actually being able to use Morse code to communicate.  I still wasn’t comfortable actually having a conversation, but simple contacts were actually possible and, dare I say it, enjoyable! I had initially gone ahead and signed up for the very next Level 2 class (running Jan-Feb 2018), but soon decided I wasn’t quite ready for it.  I requested to bumped to the next one (running Apr-May 2018).

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LNR Precision MTR-3B Power Test

I’ve had the Mountain Topper for a couple of weeks now, after having wanted it for a long time. I’ve been really happy with it, and I’ve even already done three SOTA activations with it and lots of SOTA chasing from my back yard. One thing I noticed when doing my pre-purchase research is that not many people report on the power output (probably because it doesn’t matter that much). Well, I got curious! Here’s my extremely inaccurate and non-scientific report.

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New Equipment! LNR Precision Mountain Topper MTR-3B

I’ve been wanting to get a good CW-only lightweight rig since I started really getting into SOTA. Especially trying to do HF summit activations while trail running! I saw a good deal for this used Mountain Topper QRP transceiver, and I went out of my way to get it! I actually even sold my LDG Z-817 tuner to help provide the funds, making my home station temporarily non-functional.

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Mount Burdell, W6/NC-353 and Olompali State Historic Park, KFF-3527

Activation Date: 11 November 2017
Transport: Hike Distance: 4.8 miles
Elev. gain: 1225ft Time: 2.2 hours
Rig(s): Yaesu FT-817 Band(s): 40/30/20m CW, 40/20m SSB
Antenna(s): End-fed half-wave
Cell Service: Good (T-Mobile)
Parking: San Andreas Drive
Trailhead: San Andreas Drive
Fees/Permits: None
Route: Middle Burdell, Cobblestone fire roads
Dogs: Yes – off-leash on fire roads  Toilet: No

My first CW activation!  Having completed CW Academy, I wanted to put my new skills to use. With my wife out of town for the weekend, my plans would have to include my two boys and our dog. I wanted to do a peak I hadn’t yet activated, and ideally also do a POTA/WWFF activation. Mount Burdell (called Burdell Mountain in the SOTA database) fit the bill.

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CW Academy Level 1 – Complete!

Well, I did it! I finished CW Ops’ CW Academy, Level 1.  I even got a certificate.  I’ve made a few QSO’s and although I struggle to copy full sentences, the world of morse code / CW operation is now a whole lot less scary.  This was a really enjoyable course, and I strongly recommend it to anyone starting out with morse code / CW operation.

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Update on my CW Journey: First QSO!

I’ve been doing CW Academy for about 4 weeks now—I’m officially at the half-way point. We’ve got most of the letters/numbers, and we’re starting to move into prosigns and typical QSO lingo.  Having recently gotten my end-fed antenna back up at my house, I saw a SOTA spot on 40 meters last night, Keith KR7RK on CW.  I figured I’d give it a shot!

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American Morse Equipment “DCP” Paddle

OK, so saying “DCP Paddle” is redundant.  “DCP” stands for “Dirt Cheap Paddle.” While this paddle is inexpensive compared to a lot of morse/CW paddles out there, I would definitely not call it “cheap.”  It is exquisitely designed and expertly machined by Doug W6AME of American Morse Equipment.  I don’t remember where I first heard about his paddles and keys, but I knew I had to have one as soon as I saw it.  The DCP is the least expensive paddle he makes (hence the name) but doesn’t lack quality.  I have a pretty tight budget for my ham activities and equipment, so I was holding off on getting one until I really needed it.

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Update on CW Journey

It sounded quite dandy to go ahead and jump into the CW Academy materials and start practicing that way. But I just haven’t done it. Without the accountability of weekly class meetings, it just hasn’t been enough of a priority.  But the need and desire to learn is still there!  I see all of these SOTA and POTA spots popping up on CW and badly wish I could join in.  So an idea popped into my head.

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