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New to Contesting?
Here are some tips for you.
I'm at best a casual contester. My modest station includes a 100W HF rig and a wire antenna up about 30 feet. Squarely in "Peanut Whistle" territory, for sure, compared to many others. But I do enjoy getting on the air and working stations all over the US and the world. With just a bit of effort, you can often get your Worked All States, or DXCC Award, in a single weekend. If you're new to HF, or contesting, here are ten tips for you. What?? You still haven't passed your General Class License test? Take a look at my tips for passing here. Find an exam session, and join the fun.
#1. Read the contest rules. Understand what bands you can use, what your entry category will be, and what the "exchange" is. Simply, that's the information you will give to the other station and he/she will give to you. In the CQWW, for example, you send them a signal report and your CQ "Zone". Since I live in the Eastern US, I'm in Zone 5, so I would send "59 05". Note that by tradition, in a contest everyone has a 59 or 599 signal.
#2. Get with the program. Specifically, a logging program. There are quite a few options out there. My personal choice is the N1MM Logger It's free and has an amazing array of features. It's updated regularly, and has an extremely active online support community. It also interfaces with just about any modern HF radio you might own.
There is a bit of a learning curve involved, so you don't want to wait until the last minute to install it and familiarize yourself with it. Get it now, connect your rig, and spend a little time with it. You might want to start a "fake contest" -- select CQWW, for instance, and enter some calls. Get to understand the entry window, and what other windows you might or might not want open during the contest. After you enter a few dozen fictitious contacts, make sure that the program will produce a Cabrillo file with an accurate score and summary. Hint: If it doesn't, the problem is in your setup, not the program itself. And finally -- don't get into the habit of hearing a station, writing his call and info down on paper, and then entering it in the computer. This only wastes time and leads to more mistakes. Enter it straight into the program. And if you already have logging software installed, make sure you have the latest upgrades and support files installed and working.
#3. More Butt-in-Chair-Operating-Time = more contacts. Turn off distractions like texting, Facebook, e-mail, TV, broadcast radio, etc. Concentrate. But don't forget to take breaks. For 5 minutes every hour, get up, stretch, get some fresh air and a glass of water or a cup of coffee.
#4. Set an achievable goal. Face it. If you're not an experienced contester with a "Big Gun" station (yet!) you're not going to win. But you can certainly try to beat your score in last year's contest. Or work DXCC in a weekend. Or outscore your buddy across town.
#5. Study propagation forecasts, and get a sense of what bands are likely to be open to areas you want to work, and at what times. This will help you come up with a basic plan. But remember that band openings can occur at any time, so if you're operating in a category that allows it, keep an eye on the DX cluster because those openings can often be brief but intense.
#6. Don't waste time in pileups early in the contest, especially if you have a Little Pistol station like mine. Sure, give those rare ones a call or two, you may get lucky. But you're competing with guys running plenty of power into big antennas. Go back to them later in the contest, after they've worked all the Big Guns. Often enough they'll be begging for contacts and you'll work them easily.
#7. Work those mults! Most contests include "multipliers" in their scoring system. Basically, your score is calculated like this: You get a set number of points for each contact. Then, depending on the contest, you get one mult for each country, or each state, or each something that you work. Multiply your points by the number of mults, and that's your total score. You can see that each mult makes a much bigger difference in your score than another contact in the same country or state. Again, read the rules for the contest you're operating in.
#8. Know Those Knobs! Try to familiarize yourself with the controls on your radio. Just about every rig has an attenuator, a pre-amp, an RF Gain control, and a noise blanker. Most also include an IF shift or pass-band tuning adjustment. An old trick that QRP (very low power) operators use is to turn OFF the pre-amp, and turn ON some attenuation. That may seem counter-intuitive. But now if a station is loud to you, the chances are much better that you're also loud to them. Let their big antennas and high power do the "heavy lifting". Similarly, turning down your RF gain can knock down a nearby (in frequency) Big Gun so you can work a weaker station.
#9. Use standard phonetics. My call is N1GNV. Years ago, I enjoyed having a small vegetable garden. It was kinda fun to announce my call as No One Grows Nicer Vegetables on the local repeater or among Ham Radio friends. But in a contest, that only causes confusion and mistakes -- and is considered poor practice. November One Golf November Victor is what the other guy is expecting to hear. In noisy or otherwise difficult conditions I might say "Golf November Victor, Germany Norway Victoria" but that's about it. Standard Phonetics in contests, always.
#10. Listen before you call. Make sure you've got the other station's call and exchange. You can even pre-enter it in your logging software. Listen to his pattern. Does he say "QRZ?" after each contact? You want to make sure you're transmitting when he's listening. Work him (making sure he's got YOUR call correct!), hit enter, and he's in your log. Move on to the next one.
#11. Bonus Tip: Many Hams travel to rare locations and assemble stations just for the major contests, particularly CQWW. In the days leading up to the event, they'll be testing their equipment on the air. That can be a great opportunity to test your own setup and snag a few more countries at the same time.
Finally -- this is a hobby. It's supposed to be FUN!! Enjoy the contest, and I hope to work you on all the bands.
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