Amateur Radio contesting has a deceptively simple goal: to contact as many stations as possible during the contest period. Of course, you know that it really isn’t that straightforward. Basketball is about more than putting a ball through a hoop, and ham contesting is about more than making contacts.
Every contest has specific rules (just like every athletic sport). For example…
- Only certain bands may be used.
- The contest only takes places between certain times, and on certain dates. Some contests also require “off times” when you are forced to leave the air.
- An exchange of information is necessary during each contact. You may be required to send and receive a serial number, location, name or even a person’s age.
- Only certain operating configurations can be used. You may have to choose a “class” of operation such as a single operator using low power.
There is a contest of one type or another almost every weekend. The most popular contests are sponsored by the ARRL, but there are many others. Some competitions, such as the ARRL Sweepstakes, draw large numbers of hams onto the airwaves. Other contests are smaller with only limited participation.
Contests take place primarily on the HF bands, with the exceptions of 60, 30, 17 and 12 meters. Contest sponsors have agreed to keep these bands off limits from competition. There are also contests on the VHF, UHF and microwave bands. A list of ARRL contests is available here.
The best way to keep track of contest activity is by becoming an ARRL member. As a member you’ll receive QST magazine each month. In every issue you’ll find “Contest Corral,” a comprehensive list of upcoming contests, both ARRL and otherwise. The ARRL even offers an e-mail newsletter called the Contest Update. Last, but certainly not least, the ARRL publishes a bimonthly magazine devoted exclusively to the joys of contesting: the National Contest Journal (NCJ).
The Federal Communications Commission does not require hams to keep station logs with records of every contact, but contest sponsors do. Your log is your contest entry; without it, your score won’t even be considered.
You can keep a contest log on paper and submit the paper log at the end of the competition. Most contesters, however, do their logging by computer. Frankly, computer logging is much easier than paper logging. The computer keeps track of the time, score and much more.
Your computer will also help you avoid the dreaded dupe—the duplicate contact. Depending on the rules of the contest, you may only be allowed to contact a particular station once on a given band. For instance…
WB8IMY contacts K1RO on 40 meters at 0100 UTC. Score = 1 point
WB8IMY contacts K1RO on 20 meters at 0300 UTC. Score = 1 point
WB8IMY contacts K1RO on 40 meters at 0530 UTC. Score = zero! This contact is a dupe of the previous 40-meter contact at 0100.
Contest software will alert you to possible dupes before you waste time making the contact. If you hear someone calling “CQ Contest” and you type their call sign into the log, the software will instantly check and make sure that a contact with the station is “legal” under the rules. If working that station constitutes a dupe, you’ll know right away.
Contest software also makes it easy to submit your log after the contest is over. The contest sponsors supply e-mail addresses for you to send your log, along with a brief description of your station and entry classification (known as a summary sheet). Although preparing these documents for e-mailing may sound like a hassle, it isn’t. The contest software will create these files for you with a few clicks of your mouse.
Most contest logging software is written for Microsoft Windows. Some of the popular titles include…
There is also an excellent program for Macintosh computers known as MacLoggerDX.
Running vs. Searching Pouncing
You’ll often hear contesters speak of running. This means finding a clear frequency and calling “CQ contest” for long periods of time, logging everyone who answers. Running is an effective contest strategy if your station has a big signal that many can hear. You’ll be like a contest beacon, drawing the multitudes to you.
On the other hand, if you have a smaller signal profile you might want to consider searching and pouncing, or S&P. Just like the term implies, this involves tuning through the frequencies, looking for the running stations and contacting any you can find. Even though your signal may be weak, the runners will make special efforts to pick you out of the noise because they need the points your contacts will give them.
A typical SSB contest contact between a runner (K1ZZ) and an S&P operator (N5RL) looks something like this…
CQ contest, CQ contest from K1ZZ, Kilowatt-One-Zulu-Zulu. Contest!
N5RL (N5RL answers)
N5RL copy 599 Connecticut. QSL? (K1ZZ acknowledges and gives the required exchange. In this case, it is his signal report and state)
K1ZZ QSL. Copy 599 Texas. (N5RL acknowledges and gives his signal report and state.)
QSL Texas. Thanks for the contact. K1ZZ QRZ! (K1ZZ thanks him for the contact and says “QRZ” to ask if any other stations wish to call.)
CW and digital contacts take place in much the same way. CW contesters tend to send and receive at high speeds, but they will usually slow down for slower operators. Digital operators use software that allows most of the contest exchange to be sent automatically by pressing single keyboard keys.
Tips from the Winners
The hams who do consistently well in contests have a number of things common: They all follow certain habits that work to enhance their performance and their score. Borrowing from their playbooks, here are the top tips…
1. Read the rules well before the contest and make sure you understand them. See the sidebar, “Rules Are Meant to be Followed” for a typical example.
2. Check all your equipment (including software) a few days before the contest begins. Make sure everything is operating perfectly.
3. Understand the basics of propagation and plan your contest strategy accordingly. Try to obtain a propagation forecast for the contest weekend.
4. Make plans for rest and nourishment. Have food and drink on hand. Take breaks every couple of hours to stretch your legs and clear your mind.
It Isn’t All About “Winning”
Even though contest competition can be intense, it isn’t always about winning. You may never win the top slot in a contest, but you’ll definitely enjoy the competition and the camaraderie. “Multi” operations are particularly rewarding because you’re contesting with a team rather than by yourself.
When the contest sponsors post the results, you’ll be able to look at your score with pride because you know how much effort it took to get there. Maybe your score was better than what you earned last year, or perhaps you’ll indulge in the guilty pleasure of seeing that you beat another ham that you know personally. (Contesting is friendly competition, after all!) Either way, you’ll have fun and polish your operating skills at the same time. That’s not a bad way to spend a weekend!