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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Laguna Mountain, W6/CC-029

Activation Date: 21 April 2018
Transport: Hike Distance: 8 miles
Elev. gain: 2300 feet Hiking Time: 4 hours
Rig(s): MTR-3B, VX-2R Band(s): 20m, 40m (cw)
Antenna(s): End-Fed Half-Wave with QRPGuys Tuner
Cell Service: Very marginal (T-Mobile)
Parking: Laguna Mountain Campground
Trailhead: Laguna Mountain Rd
Fees/Permits: None
Route: Laguna Mountain Road, followed by use trails
Dogs: Yes Toilet: Yes
Antenna Support: Some trees RF Noise: Very Low

This summit hadn’t yet been on the air, and I’ve been wanting to activate it for quite a while. I made this summit quite a bit harder than it needed to be. It’s an 8-mile round-trip if you’re just going to the summit and back. However, I was here to do some backpacking with my older son, Miles, so I had a 50-pound pack on. Also, I decided to take a shortcut that ended up making things harder. And we had a rattlesnake encounter! Still, we had a good time overall and got it done.

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Briones Hills, W6/NC-371

Activation Date: 11 March 2018
Transport: Hike Distance: 4.8 miles
Elev. gain: 1600 feet Hiking Time: 2.5 hours
Rig(s): Yaesu FT-817ND, Radioddity GD-77 Band(s): 2m (fm), 30m (cw), 40/20m (ssb)
Antenna(s): QRPGuys Tri-Band Vertical
Cell Service: Acceptable (T-Mobile)
Parking: Reliez Valley Trail Head
Trailhead: Blue Oak Trail
Fees/Permits: None at this lot
Route: Blue Oak Trail, Blue Oak Shortcut, Spengler, Table Top
Dogs: Yes Toilet: No
Antenna Support: Some trees, short fence RF Noise: Low (HF & VHF)

It took me a while to write this one up! It’s been over a month since we did it. But here we go. I wanted a fun hike with my sons and the dogs, and Briones Hills seemed like just the ticket. Not too long, not too short, and with a nice bench at the top! The elevation was a little bit difficult for the boys, but everyone had a great time.

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Ben Lomond Mountain, W6/NC-178

Activation Date: 29 November 2017
Transport: Drive-Up Distance: N/A
Elev. gain: N/A Time: 5 minutes
Rig(s): LNR Precision MTR-3B Band(s): 30m CW
Antenna(s): End-fed half-wave
Cell Service: None
Parking: Side of Empire Grade
Trailhead: N/A
Fees/Permits: None
Route: N/A
Dogs: N/A  Toilet: No

I was over in Santa Cruz for work, so decided to make a “quick” detour on the way back over the hill so I could activate this summit. I’ve had my eye on it for a while, so I posted an alert on SOTAWatch and squeezed in some time to do it. The detour isn’t actually very “quick,” but it’s within reason.

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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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