I posted earlier about my new MountainTopper Radio. They're only being made and sold in small batches so I was never able to get my hands on one until January 2016. When I visited the site and saw they were for sale, I jumped at the opportunity to secure one of the little radios and it arrived a couple of weeks later. I had a business trip to go on so I wasn't able to fully get to know the radio until I got home. After I got home, the following Monday I got on the radio with the manual open on my computer. I got a feel for all the features packed into the limited number of buttons. After a while I really got the hang of it.
The next night (Tuesday) was a NAQCC Weeknight Sprint (a mini 2-hr radio contest) and it was also a night when class was cancelled. The 40m band was in pretty decent condition that night and I easily nabbed 5 different states. At the conclusion of the contest I made a couple more contacts and decided I loved the little radio. I've been using it nightly for the past week, making at least one QRP CW contact each day ...and that's where I've learned something.
It's something I heard guys say over and over again and, like you reading this, I've seen others write about: CW Works.
It's not just some old geezer claiming his tastes/choice mode is superior. What I mean to say is when the bands are great or incredibly noisy, CW still gets through. To modify the slogan "When all else fails... CW". Sure, digital modes get through when conditions are equally rough. (I first learned that late at night during Field Day one year using PSK31. Voice was impossible. It was too noisy and at night 20m usually will not propagate. I couldn't hear anything but there on my computer screen was a host of PSK signals "down in the mud" that the computer was able to identify.)
The "trouble" with digital modes is they require more gear (a computer). For camping/backpacking/portable operations, that's more gear to bring with you and (usually) another power source. CW requires less setup, less favorable band conditions and fundamentally has not changed much since the early days of radio. What surprised me over my week of CW contacts is how the band conditions would change from day to day, but I was still able to make contacts.
As someone deeply interested in education and how the human brain works, Morse Code is extremely fascinating. For the newcomer/outsider it's an unintelligible string of dits and dahs. To the trained ear it's a steady stream of letters, numbers, words and phrases sent with the simplest radio equipment out there. Learning Morse Code can be tricky and, like a diet or exercise, takes dedication and a committed personal desire to want it. When you do finally get the hang of it at whatever speed (most would contend 5wpm is minimum threshold), there is something strangely relaxing from fully utilizing your mental capacity. (I know programmers and mathematicians can attest.) When you're "in the zone" and working CW you're focused on the conversation, it requires mental concentration but is also relaxed. (I'm no runner but I hear endurance runners have a similar feeling.)
Ok, so why does CW work?
A CW signal is just a modulated signal. It's the presence/absence and timing of a carrier. That's it. You don't have to worry about distortion really. You'll either hear that carrier or you won't. The other party is turning it on and off - so long as you can hear something, the intelligence is there. When conditions are bad, when your signal is really, really weak, it might be harder for the other station to hear you but they're still hearing you. With voice you have to be able to hear them well enough to detect the various parts of speech. Anyone that has ever heard a sideband QRP station knows how difficult that is. The poor guy on the other end might be screaming into his microphone but if propagation isn't carrying the signal enough you just won't hear them. With CW, if you can hear something, that's enough to copy them. (Now, whether or not they'll hear you is a matter of your signal strength.)
Taking this concept one step further is why so many QRP guys are CW guys. QRP voice can be endlessly frustrating. When QRP SSB works, it's cool, but more often than not conditions will not permit QRP SSB. When it does work, it's usually really weak. With CW, like I said, it's either there or it's not. With CW, a QRP signal is only one S-unit down from a 599 signal report. That's 1/20th the power used for a still perfectly legible signal! QRP is plenty good enough to work all of North America from my home in Texas. If I were to move up to a full 100W, that's enough to work the world! With SSB, you need some serious antenna gain and a good sized amplifier to reliably work the globe.
So, chalk another one up to the CW believers column. You don't have to believe me. You don't have to love CW. (I'm not a CW purist or a digital mode hater either!) I'm just fascinated that no matter the conditions, CW works.