Getting started in contesting

 

‘Getting started in Contesting’ - by Chris Tran GM3WOJ / GM2V     August 2014

Contests – you either love ‘em or hate ‘em, but they are difficult to ignore. In 2015 there is a contest on one or more HF bands almost every weekend – some specialised, some seemingly pointless, some interesting, some requiring extra skills.

This short article might help you start becoming involved with contesting, so that you can at least say ‘I’ve tried HF contesting and I don’t like it’ instead of ‘I’ve never tried HF contesting but I don’t like it’

The key factor, for me, in HF contesting is that it crams a lot of radio into a relatively short time – with a reasonable station you can make several thousand QSOs in one weekend, amongst which will almost certainly be some juicy new DXCC entities that you might not have worked before. The side effect of this ‘compressed radio’ activity is that you have more time for normal life – very important if you have a family, a job and other interests.

Hang on a minute – if you work thousands of stations that means the hassle of thousands of QSL cards, doesn’t it ? No – most of the active contest stations nowadays don’t want paper QSL cards, but do upload their contest logs to Logbook of the World, so removing the need for a paper QSL to be sent unless specifically required. Also, it is easy to have a QSL Manager who receives all the paper QSLs instead of you receiving them. Generally speaking, all you need to do is pay for two thousand QSL cards every couple of years and then forget about QSLs, unless you are interested in them for any awards. The QSL Manager covers most of their other costs by the $$ enclosed with the incoming cards.

Is it really difficult to register with the ARRL’s Logbook of the World? Some people make a big fuss about this, but how difficult is it to take a photocopy of one page of your UK licence, stuff it in an envelope and post it – not difficult. Since LoTW started (about 9 years ago I think) I have uploaded 460000 QSOs resulting in 190000 electronic QSL matches – making lots of people happy with DXCC credits, stopping people asking me ‘why you no QSL Chrees’ and saving lots of trees! (I definitely don’t make 50000 QSOs every year, but I do upload QSOs for about 15 different callsigns)

There are quite a few other reasons why contesting is growing in popularity whilst ragchewing is on the decline. You could argue that modern society is changing and that people have less to say to each other, but there are still nets and stations willing to chat if you want to. Whether the weekend HF contests annoy you or not, you have to admit that they are keeping our HF bands well occupied, whereas they can be quiet on an average weekday.

Apart from anything else, contesting is great fun – you don’t need to be particularly competitive when you start entering contests, but hopefully the bug bites and you start thinking about how to improve your operating techniques, how to improve your antenna(s) in the available space, etc. etc.

Luckily, contesting does not need to be a never-ending spiral of expenditure – in reality almost any station, no matter how small or with restricted antennas, can be used for HF contesting and achieve results. What the operator does is often more important than the hardware. Contest logging software is free to download and use, so there are no costs there.

Equipment for contesting 

You don’t need anything special to start off in contesting, but if the contesting bug bites, you will want to slowly improve your station and antennas over the years. The key thing is really how well your receiver performs when confronted with a wall of strong closely-spaced signals. Almost all receivers work OK for DXing, but only a few perform well under contest conditions. There is no such thing as a ‘perfect radio’ although some manufacturers might claim that their radio is.

You can do well in many contests by entering the Low Power (= 100W) sections, but again if your interest in contesting develops, you will probably want to add a linear amplifier to your station. Having an amplifier has the added advantage that it will make working DX outside of contest weekends easier.

You will also need to invest in some peripherals – for example a headset with boom microphone. It is tiring and unsatisfactory to use a hand mic or a desk mic in an SSB contest – the headset with boom mic gives you both hands free for typing, turning the VFO, drinking coffee, etc. There are lots of cheap headsets with mics available, but watch that RF does not get into the electret condenser mic that they mostly use. The headset may or may not come with a switch for PTT switching, but you may want to use a footswitch or some other method. I don’t recommend VOX for contest stations, especially a multi-operator situation where there may be lots of unwanted noise in the shack.

For contest logging, I suggest a laptop or netbook initially, ideally with a full-size keyboard, mouse and external monitor connected. Netbooks are great for contesting and DXpeditions, but are difficult to get new nowadays – everyone wants tablets instead, so there are many excellent netbooks available on the surplus market.

For CW contesting, you will be able to generate the CW with the logging software, but you will need an interface to key the transceiver. These vary in price and features considerably – don’t buy an expensive one like a Microham until you are sure you need all the features. Most of the CW interfaces are simple circuits, connected to a USB port or USB to RS232C converter. Connecting a separate keyer + paddle in parallel with the PC keying is a good idea.

Antennas for contesting 

One of the best pieces of advice I’ve heard in recent years is – if you have a small garden with restricted space, don’t try to operate on all bands at once. Put up one resonant single-band antenna at a time and you’ll be amazed at how effective it is, compared to common multi-band trap verticals which are poor antennas. Yes they might cover 5 or 6 bands, but they will be very inefficient on all 5 or 6 bands. By ‘one resonant antenna’ I mean a simple 33’ high 40m vertical or a 20m inverted-vee or a 15m ground-plane with radials etc. You’ll work 100 countries in a couple of months easily and can then change to another single-band antenna if you want to.

This also applies to contesting – a simple vertical made from cheap wire and a telescopic fibreglass pole will almost always out-perform a commercial trap vertical costing hundreds of pounds. Some golden rules for contesting antennas :

1. Avoid any kind of tuning unit – they just waste TX power and should not be needed at all if your antenna is properly designed and installed.

2. Use the best coax feeder cable you can affort – avoid RG58 and try to use RG213 as a minimum, even for short lengths. On paper you might think that RG58 is OK on say 80m, but in practice it should not be used unless you have nothing else. More modern cables like Mini-8, RG8X, Aircell5 and Aircell7 are much better. Better coax may reduce received noise pick-up from within your home as well.

3. Avoid traps or linear loading if possible – there is no substitute for a full-size resonant antenna, if you have the space available.

4. Ask for advice if you are not sure what to do, before spending hundreds of pounds on an antenna ... but make sure you ask someone who knows what they are talking about, not some self-styled ‘antenna expert’ !

Remember – your antenna is the key to success in almost every aspect of our hobby, but most definitely in contesting.

Operating techniques 

Look around your radio shack and ask yourself this question ‘Which item in this shack makes the most difference to my contest score?’

The answer, of course, is you the operator. How you operate in the contest will have the most significant effect on your final score. Yes, the 4kW output amp and monobander at 150’ are not easily outdone, but there are quite a few contesters with very good hardware who don’t actually do very well. They think they are good operators and don’t need to change their techniques, which is the first hurdle to overcome. Just because you can speak does not mean you are a good SSB operator, hi.

Operating techniques on SSB and CW have changed over the past 5 to 10 years – to an outsider the contest operators nowadays might appear rude, but in reality they are reducing what they say on SSB or send on CW to the bare minimum to complete a successful QSO. Here is a sample of a 2014-style SSB contest QSO :

GM2V “CQ Golf Mike Two Victor’ (once only – repeat if no-one calls)

K1LZ “Kilo One Lima Zulu”

GM2V “K1LZ 5914” (why use time-wasting phonetics – they know their call)

K1LZ “59 Mass”

GM2V “QRZ” or “Thanks” (this is all that is needed to invite the next caller)

and that’s a good QSO ... no “good luck in the contest” or any other time-wasting waffle. Don’t send your callsign too often, or too infrequently. Similarly on CW, operating speeds in many contests have increased compared to 10 years ago, for a variety of reasons. Don’t let this put you off entering an event, but just make sure you don’t call a fast station at the same speed as they are sending or they will assume you can read 40wpm+. If you call them at all of course they will assume you can read their fast speed, but if you call at your fastest comfortable reading speed, they should hopefully know not to overspeed their reply. Listening in advance and knowing what they are going to send to you helps reduce stress and is good practice for you.

Some other ‘golden rules’ for doing well and hence enjoying a contest :

1. Operate for the whole contest period. If your XYL comes into the shack and says ‘Your favourite lovely roast beef dinner is on the table darling’ you say ‘a sandwich here instead please’ and see what happens (noise cancelling headphones may be helpful in this situation). Being serious, often plodding away for the whole contest period will produce a surprisingly good final score.

2. Listen on the bands in the days before the contest, hence getting an up-to-date view of possible band openings and what to expect propagation-wise. Yes the Sun can change things in minutes, but overall you need some idea of what is happening.

3. Learn something from every contest – just because you’ve always done something one way, does not mean that it is the best way and you should consider changing or improving things every time. Clive GM3POI wisely says – if you do the same thing every contest, you will get the same results.

Contest logging software

Never even consider logging any contest on paper in 2014. You can buy an old laptop or base PC with XP Pro (excellent stable OS) for £35 and there are several free contest logging packages available. What you must do however is become familiar with the logging software in a low-key contest or before a contest in a low-stress situation, otherwise you will make mistakes and could lose QSOs. It is also very rare nowadays for anyone (contester or DXpeditioner) to lose QSOs because of an IT failure. Make sure you log everything accurately - persevere until you are sure you have the information correct.

Computerised contest logging started in 1985 with the release of DOS-based ‘CT’ by Ken K1EA – this revolutionised contesting. Some brief notes about current contest logging software :

Writelog – hopeless – dull

Win-Test– great software but costs 50 Euros and has not been well supported for the last year or three. My favourite though cos you can correct errors very quickly.

SD by EI5DI – very popular free software, which supports a wide range of contests. Easy to install and use - ideal for single operator use on SSB or CW.  Correcting errors and editing QSOs is simple (as with Win-Test).

N1MM – very popular free package. It is currently (2014) being completely rewritten so worth checking when the new version appears. At the moment, correcting an error is a bit ponderous and it is maybe trying to do too many things overall. I use N1MM only for any RSGB CC datamodes contests that I enter – it works well with MMVARI, FLdigi etc. N1MM is very well supported by the N1MM team.

DXLog.net – this is new (since 2011) free logging software written by Kresimir 9A5K – a clone of WinTest in many ways and might be widely used in future. Worth downloading it now in case they writer suddenly decides to start charging for it. I have not used it in a contest but it looks great and is continuously improving.   Some websites for you to visit :

http://www.ei5di.com

http://n1mm.hamdocs.com/tiki-index.php

http://www.win-test.com/

http://www.dxlog.net/

One thing to start practising now - typing fast and accurately!                                                                                        

Lastly – no matter which contest you enter and no matter how well you do, enjoy contesting – it is one of the most popular aspects of our hobby.