QRP is for Beginners

What is QRP?

QRP is a Q-code originally meaning “reduce power”, but now has come to mean operating a radio that outputs 5 watts or less for CW or 10 watts for SSB.

By most standards, I haven’t been a ham for long. In the four years that I had a license, I hadn’t been too terribly active either. Sure, I’d check into the 2m repeater nets, but not much beyond that. Being a young professional working long hours then going home to a rented QTH can put serious constraints on RF output. 

Things have changed. I purchased a house on a half acre lot back in March, upon which there is room for a full dipole on 40m. It isn’t too much of an embellishment to say that the radio room was the first room of the house to be fully unpacked. Once I had that antenna installed in the backyard — along with the obligatory 2m vertical — I began learning code in earnest and started racking up SKCC contacts shortly thereafter. 

The same things that appealed to me about QRP operation four years ago still do now: the thrill of building one’s own equipment, the satisfaction of having scratched out a QSO from so little power on both ends, or even of just having been received with so little output. Not to mention the money saved. I am but a lowly student of the humanities; my technical knowledge is limited, but growing. However, I can paint by numbers to get a working radio and I can follow a recipe to get a working antenna with the best of ‘em. 

There have been many who told me throughout my short ham career that QRP is not suitable for beginners. Perhaps I’m being foolhardy here, but I don’t think this is the case. In fact, I’m becoming increasingly convinced that this advice scares away many potential operators.

Too much emphasis is placed on getting on SSB with a 100W rig. Under the advice of mentors, I went that route and got on the air when and where I could, going out for POTA activations on phone. I didn’t find it all that interesting. Too heavy. Too rote. Too nerve wracking. The QRP siren song kept luring me in, just as it had since I first got my ticket. I’m glad that I finally caved in, built a kit, and saw just what five watts can do. 

I consider myself a beginner at CW and HF operation. At the time I started learning Morse code in March of 2020, I had less than 100 contacts on SSB. By September of the same year, I’d had more CW QSOs than those on SSB. Since that time, I have operated at QRP power levels exclusively and with great success.

There’s nothing special about my radio, my antenna, or my style of learning the code. All I did was study the alphabet, then get on the air. My equipment is basic. My antenna has always been a resonant dipole on 40m, hoisted to a modest 20ft. My radios of choice are the QRP Labs QCX+ and the MTR3b, both of which put out 5W. I make contacts on them with regularity.

It does bear stating that it hasn’t always been easy and I have several things working in my favor. While my antenna is basic, it is full sized and resonant, i.e. efficient. While my power output is small, I do operate using sked pages and spotting programs. What little power I put out is not wasted and people are looking for me. Even with these things working in my favor, there have been times where I have called CQ for an hour or so without anyone coming back. So for me, what comes easily doesn’t remain fun for long. I prefer a little hard work to make the achievements I make that much sweeter.

Perhaps you are of a similar mindset. I wholeheartedly recommend that you try CW and QRP. Even if you are time poor, experience poor, and cash poor, you can still have a great time on HF, even with a Tech license.

QRP Success

Using low power is a challenge but it is not nearly as hard as some would lead you to believe. With these four simple pointers, you too can have QRP success.

Use efficient antennas

With QRP, smaller is not always better. In fact, those who have the most success use efficient antennas. Usually this means a full size antenna. At my QTH and while operating portable, my go-to wire is the dipole. It is simple and cheap to get in the air. However, my dipole for 80 meters is technically a compromise antenna since it uses traps. At the end of the day, any antenna is better than no antenna, so get as much copper in the air as you can and get on the air.

Use efficient modes

When all you got is 5 watts, make the most of it by using CW or digital modes. Imagine that you have to communicate across the distance of a mile. You have two options: a flashlight and a megaphone. Both could work, but the flashlight used to send Morse will be more efficient than the megaphone will be.

When on the radio, don’t discount voice completely however. It will be harder to make QRP SSB contacts than CW ones at the same power level, but it is far from impossible. You never know when the propagation gods may smile upon you.

Know your propagation

Certain times of the day work better for certain bands. Even certain times of the year affect propagation. Using lower power forces you to make the most of what bands are open. Someone who’s using 100W or more stands a better chance when a band is marginally open but QRPers have no such luxury.

Even in the trough between solar cycles 24 and 25, I have had great success using low power. Experiment and discover which bands open to you throughout the course of 24 hours. The VOACAP propagation website can help predict where your signal will go and when, but nothing beats getting on the air and experiencing it for yourself.

Spot yourself

People want to work you. There’s no shame in telling others where you have set up camp on the bands. Many other QRPers do the same and we tend to look for one another. There’s few things as gratifying as making a QRP to QRP contact over thousands of miles.

Check out the SKCC sked page and the QRP-ARCI frequency list as starting points on where to go to be found.