Contesting in Ham Radio is a great way to test your station setup, and see how well your signal is getting out. It can give great experience in both managing pile-ups and getting through to a station in pile-up situations, depending on whether you’re calling CQ or hunting for stations. This article lays out some general operating tips for successful contesting.
I’ll start by admitting that I’m not an expert in contesting by any means, but these are some tips I’ve picked up through my own experiences in contesting. If you have any tips that aren’t mentioned in this article, feel free to comment and let me know so I can include them.
Know the Rules
First and foremost, always make sure you review the rules for the contest you are participating in. Knowing the different submission categories, power requirements, contest exchange, etc. will help you to be successful during the contest. You don’t want to spend time on a contest, only to be disqualified for using too much power.
Finding a Contest
While there is plenty of information regarding major contests such as Field Day, Winter Field Day, and various QSO Parties, there are many other contests out there. A great resource is the WA7BNM Contest Calendar, which compiles a list of all Ham Radio contests in several different formats. This site provides detailed information of the rules of each contest, as well as links to where to upload submissions, and where to find the full rule documents.
Use headphones! Headphones can help you pull out weaker signals by canceling out the excess background noise around you. You may not realize how loud the cooling fans are on your radio, power supply, or computer until you’re trying to focus on a signal you can barely hear already through the noise on the band.
Calling CQ during a contest can be an exciting experience, and depending on the strength of your antenna system can give you experience in handling a pile-up. When you find a clear frequency to call CQ on, always pause to listen to the frequency, and make sure it is clear. If you don’t hear anything, ask if the frequency is in use. Even if you can’t hear a station calling, they may still be there, and someone waiting to contact may hear you and let you know that the frequency is in use. If the frequency is clear, then go for it! A sample CQ call (using the Phone Fray contest as an example) would be:
CQ Phone Fray, CQ Phone Fray, this is WX4WCS, WX4WCS calling CQ Phone Fray and standing by.
Many people may also opt to use “CQ Contest,” but I like to give the name of the specific contest so that anyone going through the bands that isn’t aware of the contest has the opportunity to look it up and possibly participate.
If picking up more than one station, I always respond to the strongest one first. That way I can hear weaker stations the next go-around. If I could make out another call-sign in the pileup, I’ll acknowledge them and ask them to standby. That way, there’s a chance they won’t give up and change frequencies before getting to them.
Okay, picked up a couple of stations there. <Station2> please standby, <Station1> please copy <exchange>.
In a contest, it helps to continue calling CQ often, as operators are scrolling quickly through the band, and dead air means they’ll pass right over your frequency. It also means someone else may start calling CQ on the same frequency.
Don’t be discouraged if you have to call CQ for several minutes before getting your first contact. The more you call, the easier it will be for someone scrolling the band to find you.
If after a while, you find you’re still not getting any contacts, then go ahead and try to hunt for other stations that are calling CQ.
“Hunting” is another way to make contacts during a contest, and can be a great way to test your station setup to see how easily you can get through a pileup. When hunting, you scan through the entire band, searching for stations calling CQ. Start at one end of the band, and work your way to the other end, stopping to make contacts as you hear stations. When you reach the end of the band, scan back the other way. After several passes, if you don’t hear any new stations, switch to a different band.
When you hear someone calling CQ contest, respond with your callsign. When they acknowledge you, you can continue with the contest exchange.
If you hear traffic on a frequency, pause and see if it’s related to the contest. If it is, wait until the station calls QRZ or CQ again, and then try to make the contact. While your waiting, go ahead and jot down the calling station’s exchange if you hear it. This will make it easier when you give your exchange, especially if the station is hard to hear. You won’t have to ask them to repeat their exchange several times.
When responding to a station, don’t be discouraged and spin the dial if you don’t get through on your first attempt. You might be buried under stronger stations in a pileup, but once they are worked, you may get through. Give it several tries.
Keeping Track of Contacts and Score
The use of a contest logging software is incredibly helpful when contesting. These programs can keep track if you’ve already worked a station on a particular band, help after the contest by tallying up your multipliers and overall score, and export your log to a Cabrillo file that is used to submit your contest log. I typically use the N1MM Contest Logger to keep track during contests. This program includes modules for many of the different contests, which means it will know how to calculate your score for the particular contest and how to format the Cabrillo file for submission.