Ham Radio Contesting
What is ham radio contesting? What is the lure of contesting?
Ham radio contesting can take many forms. Some are called QSO Parties, some are OX contests, some
are Prefix contests, and then there is Field Day.
What is the purpose of a contest? Mainly it is seeing how many contacts you can make in a specific time
period with the equipment you have. The contest can be as simple as you operating from your own
station with whatever equipment you have, however modest that may be, right up to multi-operator
contesting from large stations with huge antenna farms.
Can you have fun with a basic station? Sure you can! It is imperative that you know the rules of the
contest and each one has rules to follow, and you have to operate within those rules if you plan to
submit your score. The rules for each contest can be found by an Internet search after you familiarize
yourself with when a contest may be held. Of prime importance is what the exchange of information is
that is required to constitute a valid contact.
One web site that provides contest information is the WA7BNM Contest Calendar web site. Once you
have located the date/times for a particular contest you can then Google that contest for the rules.
QSO parties only require you to give your call sign and Province.
If you are not planning on entering the contest but would like to operate during the contest you need to
know what information you will receive and what information you must give for the contact to be a valid
contest contact. The information will be a signal report and it could be the power the station you
contact is running, and your information could be your call sign, your signal report to the station calling
and a consecutively running number or maybe your CQ Zone (look that up on the Internet) or your ITU
zone, also available on the internet.)
So let's say you hear UB6YTA calling "CQ contest, CQ contest, CQ contest from UB6YTA".
When the station stops transmitting you should give ONLY your call, only once, preferably phonetically.
"Victor Echo Three Kilo Golf Kilo."
Hopefully you will hear "Victor Echo Three Kilo Golf Kilo, 5/9 kilowatt"
Your reply, IIQSL 5/9 kilowatt, you are 5/9 Oscar November" That's it!
Or it could be "Victor Echo Three Kilo Golf Kilo 5/9 765."
Your reply might be IIQSL 5/9 765, you are 5/9 135" Again, that's it!
That would indicate that the UB6 station has worked you as his 765th contact and you have worked him
as your 135th contact.
It is important that you know what to expect from a OX station as well as what is expected to be heard
from you, and this is always laid out in the contest rules under "Exchange" for a particular contest. The
serious contesters can get quite impatient if you call and they have to explain to you what YOUR
information back to them should be. You are slowing down their contact rate.
Then there is the issue of "dupes". These are mistakes you can make by working the same station twice
on the same band. This is considered very bad form and many contest logging programs have indications
of dupes to alert you. It is allowed, however, to work the same station once on any of the bands that are
used in contesting which are 10, 15,20,40 and 80. By agreement among hams the WARC bands (12, 17
24, and 30) are not used for contesting.
Many hams do not like contesting as, to them, it clutters up the bands for 48 hours from 0000 UTC on
Friday evening until 2359:59 UTC on Sunday. That means they have to forego their rag chews and some
nets and this causes them to get quite upset. Sometimes they even will deliberately QRM a station in a
contest. Really? Hams actually deliberately QRM-ing? You betcha!
Ignore them! Do not engage them! Move on! Doing anything else just prolongs the disruption.
Why would you want to operate in a contest? I cannot think of a better way to improve your operating
skills, particularly if you harbor any leanings toward becoming a member of an ARES group. Contesting
teaches you to listen, get the information, record it and quickly respond, passing only the exact
information the contester needs to complete the valid contact. No more, no less. Contesting is a great
way to become a very proficient, skilled ham radio operator.
So you don't have a logging program. Well, I've been contesting since 1978, before the advent of all the
technological wonders of the 90's and onwards. What I used to do while paper logging (yes, the old
pencil and paper thing!) was to start out working 40 and 80 at the beginning ofthe contest Friday
evening, and work 10, 15 and 20 during the first daylight part of the contest on Saturday. As Saturday
evening rolled around I'd go back to 40 and 80 using a different pad of paper while keeping the first pad
handy so I could scan quickly for stations I had already worked. Then I'd do the same for 10,15 and 20,
on Sunday and for each band I was working I'd have a separate sheet so I could always look back quickly
to my first run on say, 15, and readily see what I'd worked. And yes, I'd make the odd mistake. That's
when I would apologize and move on.
There are other activities where good contesting skills can be of benefit. There are many "Special Event"
stations that can be heard from time to time. These stations can generate a lot of activity with many
hams calling the special event station at one time. It can be fun to work special event stations and
collect the QSL cards and sometimes very attractive certificates are issued which can make nice
additions to your 'shack'. Having good contesting skills can net you a contact while others may be
struggling, many of those exhibiting either poor operating skills or poor timing of inserting their call or
sometimes both. The necessity to listen, listen, listen, and then listen some more to get the rhythm the
station you want is using cannot be overemphasized. As I listen to others on the bands trying to make
contacts and missing out by bad timing of inserting their calli conclude that such operators have never
learned the art of listening properly to determine how best to call. Listening well is probably the most
effective skill you can learn as a ham radio operator. Or you can run big (sometimes illegal!) power with
huge antennas and get the contact by sheer brute force. That may be satisfying to some but I feel a
bigger sense of accomplishment when I make my contacts using 100 watts, a modest antenna and the
skills I have honed by contesting and listening.
Field Day produces one of the busiest weekends on the bands even though it only runs for twenty four
hours. Good skills honed through contesting will enable you to make many Field Day contacts if that is
QSO Parties, apart from giving you a chance to practice your skills, is also an excellent opportunity to get
those states that are heard less frequently on the air like the Dakotas and some ofthe New England
states if you are trying for the Worked All States Award.
Many hams worldwide collect prefixes for awards. Prefix contests or special events can be fun and using
a special prefix yourself can allow you to experience in a somewhat smaller way what it is like to be an
operator in a country where there are few hams who can get inundated when they come on the air.
When using a special prefix in Canada, be prepared for those who do not take the time to find out what
country the prefix represents. Generally what happens here is you will get a call and when you pick the
station up the question will be "Where are you located?" When you respond 'This is a special prefix
for "(whatever the event might be) you will hear "Oh, I thought you were a rare country" and
the tone of disgust comes across quite plainly. Now there is a poor operator! Any good operator knows
that there is a list of the prefix letters that are assigned to each country and a quick glance at that list
will tell you which country that prefix belongs to. If you did your homework before jumping into calling
someone with a strange prefix, you would know if you really want to call or not. By calling and then
saying "Oh" you are displaying your poor operating skills for the whole world to hear!
Can I say with any certainty that contesting has made me a better operator? In my own mind, I think it
has. It taught me to listen to be able to pull a call sign and information out of quite heavy QRM since on
contest weekends the bands are very crowded and you may be working a station only two khz away
from another station. As you know you cannot always hear both sides of a QSO and sometimes the
station you want to work may not be hearing the station 2 khz away.
The skill to listen and hear in heavy QRM that I have learned while contesting has stood me in good
stead in my admittedly competitive urge to work all 339 entities that constitute the ARRL Countries List
for DXCC today. I now sit at 333 entities worked and I need another 12 to work all 339. Why the
apparent discrepancy? I have several entities worked that are no longer on the ARRL list, countries such
as The Canal Zone and East Germany. I am totally convinced that without doing some contesting I would
not have that number of entities worked. And I've picked up a few "all time new ones" (ATNO's) while
contesting. It is a great way to add to your country total.
There is a relatively new method that you may hear during a contest. You will hear a station calling CQ
Contest quite rapidly and if you make contact with the station the signal you will hear will differ
markedly from the one you heard calling. Many operators now have what are called "parrots" which are
taped messages that they broadcast by pressing a button on a recording device. Some new transceivers
even have this system built in. It can be a bit disconcerting but just be aware that it happens. Also you
will find from time to time that operators using that technique will call with very little time spent
listening before hitting that button again. If you call a station four or five times and all you keep hearing
is that recording, it is better not to waste your time on that station because he/she is likely not hearing
you at all. Your best chance of working a station of course is when propagation favors you and a station
is calling CQ several times. That means no one is responding to the call so you stand a good chance of
making the contact.
Something else you will encounter is the signal report in contests and with special event stations is
almost always 5/9 even if you have to repeat your call sign two or three times and even if you have to
listen for five minutes to be able to figure out the call sign of the station calling CQ. Get used to it. It is
not really right but it has become accepted.