Getting started in contesting

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Why Try Contesting?

There are a lot of reasons to be interested in trying your hand at contesting. Here are a few:

  • Contests are a great way to further your other operating goals. There are more stations on the air in a major contest than you'll find in a year of fairly serious scanning the bands for DX or new states, counties, or whatever. Chasing new countries during a DX contest is particularly rewarding, because even relatively rare countries are often very active, working thousands of QSOs. When was the last time you heard a station in the Cape Verde Islands (D4) outside of a contest?
  • Contests provide a way to measure and stimulate progress in operating skill and station capabilities. They offer a virtually unlimited set of benchmarks you can use this way. It's not necessary to have a fancy station or compete for national recognition; it can be plenty of fun to compete with a friend down the road, or just with your own score last year. Don't worry if you can't put in as much time this year as last. Instead, compare your QSOs per hour, or QSOs on a particular band.
  • Contesters, while highly competitive, are astonishingly helpful to newcomers. In general, this includes the highest ranked contesters in the world. Unlike other sports, placing well in radiosport requires the cooperation of the other competitors because there has to be someone at the other end of the contact. It comes down to the fact that we need you more than you need us. As a result, you will find that most of us will be very willing to share our knowledge with you and will do what we can to help you achieve your contesting goals and have fun doing it.
  • There are definite skills involved in contesting, and we're not talking here about CW speed. At first you may be anxious about saying the right thing in the right order and you may well get everything all messed up. Big deal - we need you more than you need us, and you'll usually find us to be very patient as we help you through the contact. It won't be too long before that's behind you and you start working on completing the QSO's efficiently i.e. maximizing the number of contacts per hour. While it sounds corny, as it did to me when I first read it, there's nothing quite so satisfying as a crisply executed exchange of contest information.
  • If you're involved in emergency communications ("emcomm") there is no better way to sharpen your operating skills under difficult conditions than active participation in contests. Contesters, by and large, get the call and info right, they get it right the first time and they do it really quickly. Speed and accuracy are vital in emcomm just as they are in contesting. However, you won't find any emcomm club which can provide anything like the level and intensity of experience which you can get by participating in contests. No emcomm club is likely to be able to get their members out for a weekend training session where every member is expected to operate at high efficiency for 32 out of 48 hours and exchange information with hundreds of other stations. If you get involved in contests and find it a fun activity - no problem, because you're doing it for YOU as opposed to doing it for THEM. Of course, THEY benefit greatly as you are now a much more useful emcomm operator than you might have otherwise been. Can't put in 32 hours on a weekend? There are lots of contests. A few hours each in a number of them over the year will still reap big benefits in improving your skills.
  • Contesting is very egalitarian. Nobody cares about how much money you have or how you look. (While it is true that money can buy you the possibility of being very competitive, your operating and station design skills will determine the extent to which that possibility is realized.) Over the years you will find that the same stations show up in your log time after time and you develop an affection for them, even though you may not know their names. After a while, you may decide to attend one of the many contester get-togethers and actually meet some of the folks who have contributed to whatever success you may have achieved. This is always a whole bunch of fun as well as an opportunity to pick the brains of the folks who are scoring better than you are.

"Reasons Not to Try"

  • "I don't have a good enough station." Don't you believe it. There are lots of active contesters with minimal stations - 100 watts and simple wire antennas. The annual November Sweepstakes offer great opportunities for small stations. Because you are only allowed to work each station once during the contest, by mid-day on Sunday any new station that shows up on the bands is likely to be very popular. This is the time when an operator with a minimal station can experience the thrill of "running" - calling CQ and getting a whole series of replies, one after another.
  • "They go too fast." Sure, the pace can be intimidating, particularly at the start of a major contest. But the dust does settle, and there's nothing to say that you have to dive in right at the beginning. You can well afford to listen to a station that is actively running for a few QSOs, till you get the hang of the contest exchange and the other op's style, before you call for the first time.
  • "I don't know what information to give." In most contests, the exchange is fairly simple. It will be your zone, state/province/country or perhaps your name. Occasionally a serial number will be needed. Often there will be more than one of these elements required. If you are interested in giving it a try, listen to a few exchanges and see if you can determine what information is being passed. Still not sure? You can find the required exchange on WA7BNM's weekly contest calendar. As a last resort, find someone calling CQ (particularly if he doesn't have a big pileup) and ask! Most of the time, the other operator will be more than happy to guide you through the exchange in exchange for getting another QSO in the log.

What Contest to Try First?

You have undoubtedly come across contests while listening on the air, because there is one or more almost every weekend. They come in a number of different varieties. The most obvious, when they are happening, are the biggies -- such as the CQWW contests, the ARRL DX Contests, and a few others, which welcome participation by operators worldwide, and attract thousands of entries. If you're not participating in one of these, it can feel like they are taking over all bands, but remember, no contests are permitted (by informal consensus) on the 30, 17 and 12-meter bands. In addition, most of the big contests are only one mode (CW, SSB or RTTY) per weekend.

You can check to see what is coming up this weekend at WA7BNM's weekly contest calendar. One of the best contests to start with is a type of contest called a state QSO party. This is a type of contest that centers on one US State or area, such as New England. These events are usually good places to start because operation can be as fast or as slow as you want, and the bands are not usually crowded from one end to the other with interference and splatter. There is room for laid-back operation and gung-ho style contesting. Both running (calling CQ) and search and pounce (tuning and looking for contacts) can be practiced or tried out for the first time during a state QSO party. Stations outside the sponsoring state or region are welcome to participate, as are stations outside the U.S.

The North American QSO Party (NAQP for short) is also an excellent contest to start with, for the reasons described above. The 100 watt power limit allows the smaller stations a chance to test their skills while providing plenty of activity. The NAQP is run on CW, SSB, and RTTY, and each mode has two contests per year, one in the winter and one in the summer. Stations outside North America are welcome to participate.

Another good first contest is the ARRL Field Day. Field Day has lots of activity, a simple exchange and a much more relaxed atmosphere. There are also Field Day type contests outside of North America - look here. Many local clubs have Field Day operations that are always looking for additional operators. Those same clubs usually have multi-operator entries in just about every contest that need operators - being part of a multi-op entry is one of the best ways to learn contesting best practices.


See also: ZS6AA Contesting FAQ

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