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Low Power Contesting - KB6OHD

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Learn about QRP contesting from KB6ODH


LOW-POWER CONTESTING

Mike Cappi KB6ODH
kb6odh (at) earthlink (dot) net
June 28, 2024

 

There are many ways to enjoy the hobby of amateur radio. Participating in a contest is one of them. Even if you have never worked a contest, you have probably heard one in progress. 

There are two topics that will elicit a strong response: antennas (which is best) and contesting.

The bands are very busy in a contest but that is the point. Even so, there is plenty of room for the nets and rag chews and POTAs. I know because I hear them as I contest and there are never contests on the WARC bands.

Some disparage the scorekeeping. But we keep scores on nearly everything we do, from the friendly afternoon golf game to sports of all kinds. Fans are elated when their team wins and depressed when they don’t. It is not rational but it is very human.

I track my contest metrics. It is fun to see how I do versus the others in the contest. I like to see how I do year over year.

Contests are the time where most everyone comes out to play. I looked at the log submission page of one contest and there were over 9,000 logs submitted. Those are 9,000 stations all looking to talk to me and you, too, if you participate.

I enjoy the DX contests the most. Those are the hardest because you can only contact a DX station. It’s when I make most of my DX contacts.

I like all contacts: POTA, SOTA, brief 5/9s, rag chews, anything. But DX is the most fun.

Contesting is a great way to test your station and hone your operating skills. But it might not be for you. If so, don’t do it. Enjoy our hobby in your own way.

WHAT YOU NEED TO WORK A CONTEST

  1. The desire and the time.
  2. Some preparation.
  3. Your station
  4. The essential skill

THE DESIRE AND TIME

Contests are usually on the weekends, mainly Saturdays for about 12 hours. There are some that run for 30 hours and start on Friday evening and end Sunday afternoon. The longer contests limit your total time by requiring you to take breaks. You must have gaps in your contest log.

I choose the contests I want to work and then coordinate the time with my wife well in advance so she can get it on her calendar. I want to spend most of my time during a contest weekend on the radio. I do my chores earlier in the week. Even so, it is important during a contest to take breaks. I do that and maybe we go for a walk or a swim and we have dinner. There is a contest somewhere every weekend, but I don’t try for those. I might go for a month or more between contests.

PREPARATION

The best source I have found for contests schedules is contestcalendar.com. You can also find contest schedules at contests.arrl.org. There is a sponsor website for every contest where you can download the rules and times. A contest may be limited to a certain band or bands. Some are for 160 through 10 meters, some are 10 meters only. There might be contests for 6 meters and above or just for 6 meters or just for VHF and UHF.

A contest can be restricted to a certain mode or modes. Some are CW only. Others are SSB voice only. Some are both CW and SSB. Some are RTTY and some are for the various digital modes. My operating mode is SSB voice.

It is important to know the exchange as explained in the rules. You will be expected to know that. Some are short and simple, others long and complex. The rules will have a sample exchange. Write down your exchange and keep it in front of you. This will keep you from getting tongue-tied, especially in your first contest.

It is important to send and receive the contact information quickly and correctly and to log it without error. This is great practice for handling emergency communication.

You need to decide how you want to log your contacts. You can use a software package (usually free) or manually.

YOUR STATION

Whatever you have is fine. You don’t need, although there is nothing wrong with, an amplifier, tower, multi-element beam, a $15,000 transceiver or special software.

KB6OHD-Picture1This is my station. It is an Elecraft KX2 with the internal tuner. My entire station is stored in the case that came with the radio and that case I store in a backpack that also carries a collapsible tripod and 25 feet of coax to support a base-loaded whip and there is wire for a dipole. Everything runs on batteries. I can set up in several places around the house, depending on what else might be going on. This gives me a nearly zero footprint HF station. You can also see my paper logs, which I transcribe later for conversion and upload. The antenna is an EFHW strung across the backyard. My average power SSB, which are the only contests I work, is 10 watts.

And yes, that day I set up on the dryer in the garage. I often do that. Sometimes I want an early start when the rest of the house is sleeping and it is only a few steps away from the coffee pot.

When I was planning my station a few years ago, I realized that the usual approach of setting up in the home office or a spare bedroom would not work. Our floorplan is open and sound carries. This would be no problem if I worked CW or digital but my chosen mode is voice. I also wanted to be able to go in the field. And I didn’t want my hobby to be intrusive to the family lifestyle. That’s why I did it this way and it has worked great for me.

What can you do with 10 watts? To just take the ARRL January DX contest as an example, I worked Japan multiple times, Hawaii (considered DX for this contest), Serbia, Aruba, St. Lucia, Barbados, Finland, Alaska (considered DX), Belarus, Portugal, Russia, Croatia, France, Sweden, Azores, Curacao, Finland, Bonaire, Virgin Islands and Cuba and some of these more than once. All valid contacts and all with 10 watts SSB. So how elaborate does your station need to be?

Your station needs to be properly set up. Sheer power is not very important. Clear, clean audio is. The KX-2 makes very nice audio and so do many other radios when they are set up properly. I have made contacts where I was told I was not registering on the S-meter but my audio was clean and clear, which was why I was worked.

Your antenna is most important. Low power into a well-performing antenna is far better than high power into an under-preforming one. Volumes are written on antennas, but we can make some general observations here.

KB6OHD-Picture2Every antenna installation is a compromise in some way: cost, physical limitations of the location, etc. SWR is one but not the only measure of performance. Simple antennas can be very effective. If you have more than one antenna, try switching in the contest to see what happens.

Here is my antenna. It is a 135-foot end-fed half-wave. You can see that the matching transformer is secured to keep it out of the weather. It is secured on the far end with a piece of pvc secured to a fence post. This simple and cheap antenna has taken my 10 watts around the world.

You will learn a lot about the performance of your antenna when you analyze the results of the contest.

THE ESSENTIAL SKILL

Listening. Listen to how the running stations are operating and how they are taking calls and exchanging information and then conform. That goes a long way to completing a contact. Listen to get the call sign right. Listen to copy the exchange correctly. Listen for weaker stations. Just because they are weak to you doesn't mean they can’t copy you. If they are clear enough to copy, try making a call. I recommend you use quality headphones.

WORKING A CONTEST

Most contests are 10-80 meters. The WARC bands are never used. I usually start on 10 meters and work as many stations as I can and then switch to 15 meters and then bounce between 10 and 15 until they begin to close. Then I will move to 20 meters.

Some contests allow you to contact the same station on more than one band; others allow you to contact a station only once regardless of the band. That’s why it’s important to know the rules.

There are Running stations and S&P (search & pounce) stations. Running stations are the ones calling “CQ Contest”. S&P stations answer the CQ. You can do both. I usually start as S&P and try running later.

One exception is the California QSO Party, which is always the first full weekend in October. As a California station, I am expected to mostly run, although there are some running stations looking for California only.

The sprint contests are an exception. Those usually last only four hours but they are a challenge. In a regular contest, a station can setup and run on the same frequency for hours, maybe the entire contest.

In a sprint, first you call CQ. When you get a reply from a S&P, you exchange information and then say “Your Frequency”. Now the S&P becomes the runner and calls CQ, exchanges information and says “Your Frequency. That moves all stations up and down the band and everyone gets a chance to run. It is a lot of fun but puts a premium on logging to keep everything straight.

WORKING AROUND A PILEUP

You will have to learn to deal with pileups. They are caused by running stations, especially DX runners in rare locations. You might think that you need a kilowatt to get through but that is not the case. I have heard some runners refuse a kilowatter trying to barrel through the pileup. You need a better way. You want to work around the pileup and not through it.

When I hear a CQ, I will answer. Even with my low power I have occasionally busted a pileup, so it is worth a try. But when I release the mic switch and hear the roar of other stations, then I know I need to do this another way.

I listen and note the call, frequency and exchange in my scratch log. I put the frequency in VFO B or one of the KX quick memories. There are four per band. Then I go looking for other stations away from the pileup. My chances are good because a lot of stations are in the pile and there may be other pileups going at the same time. Because so many stations are in the pile,  those other runners are not being worked. This is especially true on 20 meters, the go-to contest band. There is no need to waste time being part of the pile.

Then every few minutes I swap VFOs to check the pileup. It will eventually lessen. My chance comes when I hear the runner call CQ twice in a row. I pounce on the second call. Many times, I make it.

This happened in the DX contest. Near the end I heard T42T on 10 meters. I had no idea what that was, but they were calling “CQ Contest” and working a pile. Then they made an announcement that they were running a kilowatt in the jungle some distance from Havana, Cuba. I knew I had to make that contact. What were my chances with 10 watts (actually 9.4) on 10 meters? None, if I tried to bust through.

I used the technique above. I had everything entered in the scratch log and switched VFOs every few minutes. I eventually heard CQ twice, pounced and made it on the first try with a clean exchange.

You might get lucky and hear a DX call CQ for his first time. That’s when to pounce. If you make it, he is in your log and you can move on. But just for fun, listen for a moment and see how long it takes for the pileup to begin and it is not long.

LOGGING

Efficient logging is an operating skill and necessary in a contest. You need to keep track of your contacts because in some contests you need to give an index number as part of the exchange. Your first contact is index number 1, the next contact is number 2 and so on. You need accurate logging to keep that straight.

There is logging software available for the download. Contest parameters can change year to year and the authors usually update the software accordingly. You just select the contest you are working and the software configures itself. Depending on the software and your radio, it might be possible to interface the two such that the software reads and logs the radio parameters as you enter contacts. Many stations, especially the big contest stations, use such software because they make a huge number of contacts.

I do not use the software because mine is a minimalist approach. I create log forms for each contest in a spreadsheet and log manually as I go. I create a scratch log and a contact log for each band. As I hear stations, I note them in the scratch log and then enter them in the contact log as I work them. The scratch log later serves as a check log and helps keep things straight.

SUBMITTING A LOG

There will be instructions in the contest rules on how to upload your log. You should do that. Your log, even if you didn’t make many contacts will help validate the logs of others. Nearly all contest sponsors offer a downloadable certificate once all the logs have been processed. They are very nice and who knows, you may find yourself placing high in the scoring.

Most contests will only accept logs in the Cabrillo format but some will still accept paper. That will be in the rules. Logging software will generate the Cabrillo file and maybe even handle the upload. However, there is another way to do it.

I’m doing paper logging during the contest. No computer. After the contest, I enter the data in a spreadsheet that I have built. Yes, this is an extra step but I enjoy it, even if I have to enter a hundred contacts. It causes me to review each contact to be sure everything is correct. You will lose points if your log has errors.

It is possible that you will make duplicate contacts. Sometimes the running station will say you have already worked. That’s coming from their logging software. Other times, your contact will be accepted and you might not realize you made a dupe until later when you prepare your log for submission. That has happened to me. Dupes are no problem. They do not count for points but there is no penalty, either. Do not delete dupes from your log. They are helpful in log validation.

There is a Cabrillo conversion utility at b4h.net/cabforms/. It is very easy. You just paste a text file. It will show you how your information must be formatted and then it will check that the formatting is correct. Then there will be instructions on how to upload it to the contest sponsor. You can then go to the contest website and look for the Logs Received tab and see if your log is there. The conversion utility will also present you with the full Cabrillo log as a text file that you should save. Sometimes I have had to paste that file directly into the Log Upload screen in the contest website. Once your call appears in Logs Received, you are done. Just check back in a few weeks for the results. You might be surprised on how well you did.

AFTER THE CONTEST

I use my spreadsheet log to analyze my results. I mark up a map with the contacts. It tells me when my signal is going and is a great indication of antenna performance.

In the recent DX contest, I noticed that I had a harder time with Scandinavia than usual, but I made contacts in Italy, the Balkans and Morocco, which were a first. So that day for some reason, my signal to the east was reaching into the Mediterranean and away from northern Europe. I note all this in my contest journal.

Who knows what will happen the next time. The bands will be different and new stations will be on. That’s the fun of it and what makes every contest a new experience.

Category: Article
Posted by: NR6H, Jul 3, 2024