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Contest Basics


The goal of Amateur Radio contesting is to contact as many stations as possible during the contest period.

Every contest has Contest Rules:

  • 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.

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.

The best way to keep track of contest activity is through QST magazine each month. In every issue you’ll find “Contest Corral,” a comprehensive list of upcoming contests. The ARRL also offers an e-mail newsletter called the Contest Update and a bimonthly magazine, National Contest Journal (NCJ).

Contest Logging

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 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. The computer keeps track of the time, score and much more.

Your computer will also help you avoid duplicate contacts. Depending on the rules of the contest, you may only be allowed to contact a particular station once on a given band:

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 duplicate of the previous 40-meter contact at 0100.

Contest software will alert you to possible duplicates 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 duplicate, 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).

Some of the popular contest logging include:

Running vs. Searching and Pouncing

Running 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.

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):

"CQ contest, CQ contest from K1ZZ, Kilowatt-One-Zulu-Zulu. Contest!"

"N5RL" (N5RL answers)

"N5RL copy 59 Connecticut. QSL?" (K1ZZ acknowledges and gives the required exchange. In this case, it is his signal report and state)

"K1ZZ QSL. Copy 59 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 similarly. 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. Here are the top tips:

1. Read the Contest Rules and make sure you understand them.

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.


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