One of the enjoyments of ham radio is taking part in contests. There are many contests in which ham operators may take part, even for those who are not a serious contester.

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

Every contest has Contest Rules: 1. Only certain bands may be used, — 2. The contest only takes places between certain times and on certain dates, — 3. An exchange of information is necessary during each contact. Name, QTH, date, time, RST, mode, frequency, — 4. 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 are nationwide, others may be within a state, but all contests may make an operator more efficient.

Contests take place primarily on the HF bands, with the exceptions of 60, 30, 17 and 12 meters which are off limits. 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).

Why take part in contests?

Some hams are attracted by the ability to communicate across the country, around the globe, or even with astronauts on space missions. Others may like to build and experiment with electronics. Computer hobbyists enjoy using Amateur Radio’s digital communications opportunities. Those with a competitive streak enjoy DX contests, or any kind of contest for that matter, where the object is to see how many hams in distant locations they can contact, or to just make a simple contact.

Everyone has their own reasons for participating in contests. Some of mine are: to sharpen my operating skills, to learn to get the most I can out of my equipment, to compete against my peers, to be a part of the community of contesters.

Not only that, but entering a ham radio contest gives the participant a positive and rewarding experience. By doing so, you will be testing your skills as a radio operator in competition with other radio operators. Are there winners? In some contests — yes. In others it will be the satisfaction of reaching your goal.

Whatever your reason — HAVE FUN!

What category of contest should you enter?

If you don’t have a kilowatt linear, then single operator low power (QRP) is an attractive option since you don’t have to compete with all the kilowatt-plus signals in the high power category. If you are an experienced QRP operator, then by all means choose QRP instead, but if you are not a QRP operator then you may find this category a bit frustrating at first as you will have to learn how to make your QRP signal heard while learning the ropes of contesting at the same time. If your antenna system is limited then you may want to enter single-band or, like me, enter all-band anyway because it’s more fun and just live with a less competitive score.

You may have a favorite contest

Like me, you may find that you have a favorite contest and spend all your time trying to reach your goals with that contest.

My favorite is County Hunting. There are 3,077 counties in the U.S. — including Alaska and Hawaii — and I have made a radio contact in all 3,077 … twice! I have beautiful plaques attesting to the fact that I accomplished my goal.

Many County Hunters received their first USA-CA # (Worked All Counties) by using various bands and various modes. I received USA-CA #969 on February 22, 1999, and USA-CA II #393 on September 18, 2009 by using SSB and CW. On October 6, 2009, I received my BINGO #313. What is BINGO? This means that I have made 3,077 county contacts with with hams already having a USA-CA number, that the first letter of the county is in the suffix of the call sign of the ham contacted, or the call has “X” in the suffix.

After receiving their first number, many County Hunters try making all county contacts on just 20 meters (40, 80 etc.), or all SSB, or all CW, or all YL/XYL (women operators), or OM/YL teams, or PSK31, or a BINGO award, or Big Rig (18 wheelers) … the list goes on. It’s great fun. I am now trying to work all counties using only PSK31 … that should be a REAL challenge

More information is available about County Hunting. Click here, or here.

PVR assisted the Viroqua Amateur Radio Club in October, 2011, in activating/qualifying an island … St. Ferriole Island in Prairie du Chien … to be part of the US ISLANDS PROGRAM. This is a program devoted to those hams seeking to make a contact with as many islands of the of the United States as they can. St. Ferriole Island has been given the identifer WI048R which means — located in Wisconsin (WI), it is island #048, and it is located in a river (R), in this case, the Mississippi River. PVR has 3 Wisconsin River islands they want to activate/qualify for the US Islands Program during the summer of 2012. Islands can be located along our shoreline, in rivers, and in lakes.

In October, 2012, PVR and the Viroqua ARC combined to activate Coumbe Island in the Wisconsin River near Blue River. Coumbe Island has been given the identifer WIO49R. On Sunday, September 22, 2013, the Clubs are going to qualify Long Island (West) in the Wisconsin River near Lone Rock. In 2014 plans are to qualify Long Island (East) near Spring Green.

IOTA – ISLANDS ON THE AIR is another project in which members of PVR participates. IOTA is like the US Islands Program, except it pertains to islands located throughout the world … oceans, coastal regions, rivers, and lakes.

I am also a member of the Professional Loafers Club, the Rotten Apples Club, the Rag Chewers Club, the Teenagers Club, the Early Bird Club, the Kadiddlehoppers Club, the 070 Psk31 Club, and the FISTS CW Club. (see below for more information).

I find that contesting is exceptionally challenging to me as it is to other contesters. Contests, whether entered competitively or simply as an afternoon break on a weekend, are demanding. Our equipment, radios and antennas, must work the way they were designed. Our computers need to have all of their interfaces working. Our bodies need to be in shape for the time we will spend contesting. Our operating skills need to be at the ready. And our head needs to be in the contest. The great thing for me about contesting is the ability to let the rest of the trials and tribulations I may be experiencing in my life fall away for the duration of the contest. The contest, because of the focus on the operating, becomes the flow experience where time melts away. Try it! You’ll like it!

Hurry and upgrade — you’ll be glad you did!

QSL Cards

Now that you have entered some contests, or made that special contact, you may want to exchange QSL Cards. Filling out a QSL card correctly is of utmost importance. Here are some tips that have been found useful:

  • In order to confirm QSL cards you receive — and to verify those you send — KEEP AN ACCURATE LOGBOOK — either paper or on your computer. I use both because I want a backup in the event of a computer crash.
  • VERY IMPORTANT! Make sure you have the correct DATE and TIME based on UTC. Remember at 0000 UTC the date is actually the next calendar date — not the current date for most places.
  • Write ONLY the callsign that you made contact with on your QSL card. Write it clearly on your card in the contact info area.
  • Write EVERYTHING clearly. If you make a mistake, throw the card away and start over. If you send a card for an award and there are “write overs” or erasures, the awards manager may not accept a card that has been marked and corrected. They do not know who did it.
  • If you use a COMPUTER LABEL for your QSL information, sign your card with you signature across the edge of the label so it is on the card and label. This is especially true if you are trying for an award of some kind.
  • If you have entered a CONTEST — do not include contest exchange info, as it may not be required.
  • ALWAYS enclose an SASE (Self Addressed Stamped Envelope) with ENOUGH POSTAGE to cover the return of the needed QSL card. It is expensive to exchange QSL cards, and the person receiving yours may not pay the expense of sending his/her card to you. The SASE should be large enough to hold the CARD, CARDS, or CERTIFICATES requested. Sending your SASE enveloped in a larger envelope will prevent having to fold it causing a bulky package. A 6×9 manila envelope is good for sending a 5×7 manila as a return envelope.
  • Requesting a DX QSL. You may do so direct — obtain addresses from — or use the QSL Manager or Bureau. If doing that, NEVER put the stations call, name, or address on the envelope. ONLY put the correct address of the QSL Manager or the Bureau address on the envelope. Do a search on using QSL Managers or the Bureau. Sometimes there are different criteria. When placing the address of the manager or bureau on your envelope, include his COUNTRY on the last line. This will help foreign postal workers better sort outgoing mail.
  • ALWAYS BE PATIENT waiting on your requested QSL. There are many reasons why a return QSL is delayed. Also, remember that YOU ARE NOT the only station requesting a QSL card.

Contesting Tips by Scott, K9JY

  1. Schedule your contests. One nice thing about contests is that they are regularly schedules regardless of great propagation, DXpeditions or the mood of the sun.
  2. Create a contest goal. Goals are good and help motivate you while participating.
  3. Contest on your terms. Contest for and be motivated by your reasons. Not everyone is out to win the contest; it could be you want to learn a new mode.
  4. Have an operating plan. Having a plan provides you guidance for the contest and a baseline to compare against reality in the midst of battle.
  5. Test equipment before the contest. You do want your stuff to work, right?
  6. Update Multiplier Files. Downloading the latest ensures you won’t miss a juicy multiplier during the contest.
  7. Read the contest rules. You’d be surprised how often this bites you even experienced contesters.
  8. Work a contest one month before the real contest. The sun rotates once a month (27 days); so work a contest the month before to experience the propagation you will have before the one you really want to concentrate on later.
  9. Test ergonomics. Sitting in a chair contesting a long while will test how well your station is laid out for operating.
  10. Have a guest op checklist. What should you bring as a guest op?
  11. Compete with a partner. Work a contest with someone in your club (together or at your individual stations). Discuss what worked and what didn’t about the contest.
  12. Review Newsletters for Contest DXpeditions. Lots of people travel for contests. Make sure you take a look at the list from your favorite ham radio newsletter.
  13. Have propagation plan. Propagation programs can suggest what will be open where. Having a propagation plan can give you a guide while contesting.
  14. Filter your packet connection. If the contest allows packet, filter the connection to match up with your station.
  15. Accurate logging. A contest is about working stations and logging them accurately. If you don’t you get penalized.
  16. Send in your log. Even if you didn’t work many stations, you can help the contest by sending in your log to help enable log checking.
  17. Logbook of The World. Want to reduce your QSL’ing chores for contests? Submit your log to Logbook of The World for instant confirmations for you and the people you contact.
  18. Review UBN’s. Uniques, Busted, and Not in the Log. It’s how your log is viewed for accuracy.
  19. Have a QSL System. Even if you use Log of the World, contesters get a lot of QSL card requests. Have a system for processing them.
  20. Use a grey line map. Grey line propagation is the cat’s meow. Having a visual representation of where the grey line is right now can help you point your antenna s the right way.
  21. Learn a single band. Want to learn propagation on a band fast? Do a contest on a single band. You’ll learn.
  22. Challenge your operating skill with QRP. Get frustrated fast. Operate a contest QRP from your station. Then learn how to get through the mess for points. It will make you a better operator.
  23. Do an After Action Review. Did we achieve our goal, what went right, what could be improved. Record the results for the next contest.
  24. Join a contesting club. Amp up your contesting knowledge and motivation.
  25. Learn from contesting pros. They are out there. They can teach you a lot.
  26. Leverage your strengths. Great CW operator? Great antennas? Whatever your strength, leverage it for the contest. Go on a contesting DXpedition. Even if it is to a different state. It is a very different experience and will teach you a lot. Practice CW before contests. Notice how much better you are at CW at the end of the contest compared to the start? You need to practice before the contest. Participate on a contesting team. Many contests offer team (versus club) entries. Join a team to up your motivation for the contest. Find joy in contesting. It’s there. You know it. Go find it.

Test Your Equipment!

Before entering any kind of contest, it is extremely important that you test your equipment. Here’s a checklist for what to test before a contest:

  • Each antenna on each band. Somehow, the SWR always goes up before a contest.
  • Each rotor. For some reason, they won’t turn the day of a contest.
  • Each radio can receive. Make sure the radio can hear signals on the band.
  • Each radio can transmit. With an SWR that makes sense.
  • Each computer. Make sure the software comes up and can see the radios and rotors.
  • Each macro. Make sure your CW/SSB/RTTY/PSK messages work as advertised with your function keys, including transmitting.
  • Each sound card. Make sure the levels of the sound card are set correctly and work with the radios.

Are there Advantages to entering contests? …Yes!

  • Contesting keeps the station in prime operating order. Station problems are uncovered in lengthy contest operation. When DISASTER strikes, contest stations may be better equipped to handle traffic.
  • Increased abilities and improvement of our stations will make us more qualified and having better performance abilities in EMERGENCY situations in the future.
  • We can PROVE that we are a resource of SKILLED OPERATORS that are available in the event of an emergency.
  • Contesters are EXCELLENT TRAFFIC HANDLERS. We can be the best personnel for emergency and civil communications needs.
  • Contesting helps to locate stations which are active in OTHER counties and thereby identify stations which could be called upon to help with disaster and welfare communications.
  • Contesting hones the OVERALL COMMUNICATIONS SKILLS and OPERATING TECHNIQUES of the Amateur operator, thus allowing for better ARES/RACES participation when required.
  • We apply our technology to ENSURE excellent communications during times of emergency. The current development of WinLink is an example.
  • In today’s video-game society, contesting can INSPIRE young people and even introduce them to education and career pathways they may not otherwise mayve considered.
  • Being able to pick out callsigns in the midst of a PILEUP is an art. Being able to RECORD FORMAL TRAFFIC accurately and pass it on is also a similar art. Both take discipline and a trained ear.
  • Contesting provides radio operators with capabilities to work UNDER DIFFICULT CONDITONS in an emergency.
  • The HIGH STRESS and RAPID FIRE nature of contesting can often resemble the kind of stress that radio amateurs would undergo during an emergency.
  • The TECHNICAL EFFORTS put into efficient CONTEST OPERATION and BOTH PAPER AND COMPUTER LOGGING keeps the radio operator at peak efficiency and effectiveness. When emergencies arise WE ARE READY1.
  • ACCURACY in contesting plus overall STATION PERFORMANCE is important just as it is paramount in EMERGENCIES AND DISASTERS.
  • ALL ham radio operators who think they are going to be effective in an emergency, should try contesting and find out JUST HOW BAD they are without the practice.
  • In conclusion, contesting may also be a good way to introduce ham radio to young people, because they may be intrigued by the fact that COMPUTERS are required for success.