CONTEST OPERATING TIPS
This file contains a variety of Contest Operating Tips, written by John H. Dorr, K1AR. These were published monthly between 1993 and 1999, and are as useful today as ever, especially for some of our newer members that may not have seen these before.
01 A careful review of the previous year’s log before a contest can help you in a number of ways. In addition to revealing a scoring target to beat, it can be helpful to make a list of the Top 10-15 actions you could have taken to improve your score that year and place it in front of you as a reminder for this year’s contest.
02 Even though there seems to be a focus on the “band edges,” don’t be afraid to use the high end of the bands as well. In one hour during a run in the 1992 CQ WW SSB Contest, I had HS, 8Q7, 4S7, TL8, and 9K call me while operating on 14318 kHz!
03 Avoid the temptation of diving directly into a pileup after first hearing the frenzy. Take the time, especially when using a smaller station, to listen to the operating style of a needed multiplier before calling. Adding a planned delay of two or three QSOs to learn the DX STATION’S techniques will usually reduce the time needed to get him into YOUR log.
04 I’m sure you recall the technique entered during a contest when you are “looking for multipliers?” As you tune up and down the bands, don’t forget to call ANY needed station — even if he’s not a new multiplier. Maybe I’m the only guy who does this (although I doubt it), but it is easy to get into multiplier mode and skip calling the easily workable stations. The extra effort could mean an additional 20-30 QSOs in your log!
05 This may sound like common sense, but it’s worth a try. When calling in a big CW pileup, don’t be afraid to move your transmit frequency a little off the center of the chaos. If you put yourselves in the shoes of the DX station, it begins to make sense. Except from the biggest stations or rare propagation advantages, brute force calling almost never pays off!
06 How’s your Spanish? If you are like me, you know most of the numbers and can “fake” your callsign. With that knowledge, you can be amazingly effective at calling CQ with the beam South during slow hours and work an remarkable number of casual QSOs (and passable mults) to the South. Try it … as of late, it’s never been better!
07 Does the physical size of your QTH limit you from erecting 500+ foot beverages? I have discovered that there are times when existing antennas can enhance receiving quality on 80 and 160 Meters. For example, try using your 40 meter antenna on 80 or 160 as a receive array. If stations are loud enough, improved signal-to-noise ratios can more than compensate for reduced signal strength levels and heighten your ability to copy low-band signals – – without a beverage!
08 Here’s an idea for that 2nd VFO in your transceiver. When you’re in “search and pounce” mode, try searching with both VFOs. While waiting to work one station on VFO “A”, you can use that idle time to find another needed QSO with the second VFO. Try tuning up from the bottom with one and down from the top of the band with the other. If you are using a multi-band antenna, you can even try this technique across two different bands!
09 Improve your contest score by being aware of when you send unnecessary information during contest exchanges. CW examples include: Sending a leading “0 or T” in front of your single-digit CQ/ITU zone, ending a CQ with a “K”, starting an exchange with “UR” 59905. SSB examples include: “QSL…QRZ,” K1AR, “UR” 5905 “OVER,” etc. If you think these illustrations are insignificant, trying sending “UR” on CW 200 or more times and imagine working stations during that same time period.
10 You will often find that rare DX does not want to be passed to another band. A last resort is to make a schedule with the station. The secret is to make multiple schedules with as many stations as reasonable for the same time/frequency. With 10-15 schedules arranged, the odds are good that two or three will actually show up, making the effort worthwhile. Nothing beats having a mini-pileup of multipliers calling you!
11 Maybe this is an idea that David Letterman (U.S. TV talk show host) stole from me. For years, before every contest, I compile a “Top-10” list of strategies/events that I executed well and those that needed improvement based on the previous year’s contest. What’s different is that I have begun saving them, compiling a multi-year set of lists. The “well-executed” list can be a source of encouragement, while the areas needing improvement gives you something to shoot for each time you operate. This technique can only improve your score!
12 Here’s one for the multi-ops! Have you tried every filter technology known to man and still have interference between stations? Try looking outside for the source of your troubles. A long-standing inter-station QRM problem was recently fixed at K1EA’s station by tightening the back stay hardware on one of Ken’s 20 Meter yagis. The S-8 interference it had previously generated on 15 Meters went completely away!
13 Do you recall the painful experience of having a beautiful QSO run disappear almost instantly? Many times it’s nothing more than the band changing. However, it can be often the result of a QRM caused by a station you can’t hear. An open frequency does not always mean it is QRM-free on the other end. Try asking the question: “How clear is my frequency on your side?”
14 Maybe you read the rules for many of the small contests in CQ each month (there are 12 different contests in this month’s calendar) but never try them out. Specialized contests (especially state QSO parties from your state) are an excellent way to hone your skills for the next big one. Try them out!
15 There are many factors to consider when trying to break a big pileup in a contest. One aspect sometimes forgotten is the way you call a station. If you sound like you really want to work someone (without getting carried away), you’re more likely to beat the majority of stations that call with a more “layed-back” approach. Give it a try!
16 Contest club newsletters are an excellent source for ideas and “what’s happening” in contest circles. Consider subscribing to a couple–especially if your are geographically isolated from a club near your area–to get the latest information on RFI protection, computers in the shack, operating tips, etc.
17 If you are a packet-assisted contester, always be sure to verify the callsign and exchange of the “spotted” station you are working. Many times a busted callsign has been spotted. Make the mistake appear on your screen — not in your log!
18 We often think about receiving antennas in terms of the 80 and 160 meter bands. Have you ever tried using a beverage (or similar antenna) on 40 meters? There have been countless times when a separate receiving antenna on 40 Meters has dramatically improved my signal-to-noise ratio, more than compensating for reduced signal strength levels. The bottom line is: improved copying ability. I’ve even heard of limited success on the higher bands. Give it a try!
19 Want to know something that can help your contest score nearly as much as a big signal? For me, it’s focus and utter concentration. Whether you’re trying to lift a heavy weight in a gym or push a few more QSOs out of your station, the key is diligence and unabated attention to the task at hand. Consider another pastime you enjoy that requires intense concentration. If you apply the same techniques to contesting that you do in your other endeavor, your scores will climb–and without a single db of added signal strength.
20 One of contesting’s most difficult strategic decisions is to know when to stop calling a station in a pileup that you cannot work. Fortunately, most modern logging programs tell you specifically how many QSOs a new multiplier is worth. In the future, if your goal is to achieve the highest score possible, try to avoid wasted time calling an unworkable multiplier: a) for that 40th Zone, b) to obtain a clean sweep in the ARRL SS, c) out of sheer stubbornness that may make a nice contest QSO but a lower final score!
21 Timing in big (or small) pileups is everything. By their very nature, the denser a pileup becomes, the harder it is to pull out callsigns–regardless of how good the operator is at the other end. A successful calling technique I use quite often is to wait a few seconds before calling with everyone else (SSB and CW). That slight delay and attentiveness to “sneaking-in” your call when others are catching their breath works time and time again! If only I had 25 cents for everytime a DX station has said to be in a pileup, “The Alpha Radio go ahead . . .” Using low-power in smaller contests to practice this technique will hone your calling skills even more for the big ones.
22 Have you ever thought much about your shack’s operating chair? I always found it odd that we could invest $10K+ in our equipment, yet use an abandoned $25 operating chair found at a yard sale. When you consider the time invested in contest operating, think about the advantages in score than can come from a comfortable seat. You can’t quantify it, but you can be sure your score will go up with comfort!
23 Try varying the phonetics you use in pileup calling. Sometimes a different word will help differentiate your call from the others. Sharp, piercing words are usually more effective. For example, GERMANY is probably better than GULF, or consider DENMARK instead of DELTA. As is so often the case in contesting, put yourself in the shoes of the operator you’re calling.
24 I’ve heard from so many people about sending speeds in CW contests that I thought it was worthy of mention in this month’s contest tip. If you’re an experienced CW contester, try taking the time to occasionally slow down. There may be a number of more casual participants who are waiting in the wings to call you. The key is they need to be able to copy your call sign. You may be doubly surprised to snag a rare multiplier once in a while too!
25 When does one QSY from a run frequency? This is one of the hardest operating strategies to learn in contesting. I tend to not overreact by moving too quickly. Think of it like the stock market–how many stocks have you sold at $20 per share in panic that eventually closed at $45 just 3 short months later? An extra 5-10 minutes of patience on a run frequency will often pay off in the long run.
26 With sunspots near a minimum, bands like 160 meters are even more important to maximized contest scores. With my relatively small 3/4 acre New York lot, I had pretty much dismissed any serious operation on that band. However, a 70′ oak tree and 130 feet of wire can support an Inverted L that has worked VP8SGP, T32J, and many others. Check out the Inverted L antenna . . . it’s an easy passport to 160M and higher contest scores.
27 Nothing looks better on the Saturday evening of a DX contest than a good night’s sleep. Here’s a few ideas to make sure you don’t sleep too well. Try using two alarm clocks set 5 minutes apart to ensure that you actually wake up when you want to. If you have a guest room, use that “less comfortable” bed instead of your own. Finally, learn how to set your alarm clock(s) before the contest. There’s nothing worse than trying to learn how to set an alarm clock (is it AM or PM?) on 2 hours sleep!
28 It may seem obvious, but labeling antennas and amplifier settings is a must for contest stations. In the excitement of Friday afternoon it may be more tempting to work guys than taking that final step towards efficiency. Paying attention to the details of preparation in the long run is what separates successful contest efforts from mediocre ones.
29 We say it every year. It’s late May and there’s over five months before the CQ WW SSB Contest. The next thing you know, it’s October 15th and your 3-el 40 Meter beam is still resting on saw horses. Be up to the challenge. Make this the summer that you get an early start on your outside antenna projects!
30 In keeping with this month’s theme of CQing, try varying your CQing style. Remember the most important information another station needs is your callsign, not the letters “CQ.” You may want to “call CQ” occasionally by just signing your call sign 2 or 3 times, especially on CW. Calling CQ with less information apart from your call is always better than more!
31 OK, so you’ve been hearing about all this talk of second radios and you’re gazing at your old beat up TS830 saying “but this doesn’t apply to me.” Although not nearly as efficient as a second radio, is the use of your second VFO on a single radio. Try calling CQ on one VFO and during periods of 5-10 second breaks tune with the other VFO. It may feel awkward at first, but it will allow you to call CQ more often and maybe put another 5-10 QSOs in your log per hour at peak times.
32 I don’t know about you, but identifying the former USSR republics by prefix has become a formidable challenge for me. While most of the common logging programs provide the answers to “real-time” operating questions like this, there’s nothing that can replace having it in your head. Studying current DXCC country charts and other sources to truly understand this week’s version of our planet’s prefix structure gives you one less thing to worry about when you’re operating.
33 Contest rules are always changing. Although we make our best effort to report them accurately, even we get them wrong sometimes. Although you may think you know the rules of a contest that you’ve operated for years, the fact is that rules change all the time. Make the effort to “re-read” the rules for any contest you plan to participate in and you may be surprised how a little knowledge can improve your score!
34 Log checkers will usually tell you that incorrectly copied call signs is the most common mistake in contest logs. When CQing and running other stations, always repeat the call sign of the other station you are working. Even though you may be absolutely certain that you copied the call sign correctly, a repeat of the call will allow the other station to correct any possible mistakes. It’s worth the time!
35 Even though winter’s fast approaching and the possibility of tower projects are fading, it’s never too late to consider a wire antenna project. You’d be amazed how quickly you can get a signal on 160 meters for the upcoming 160 contests with a simple inverted “L” hung from a tree and 4 or 5 radials. Take a look through some of the antenna books and check it out. All you need is a good pair of gloves and you’re well on your way!
36 What happens when you drink coffee? You have a hard time sleeping, right? Have you ever wondered why you have trouble getting a “quality” nap the afternoon before a 48 hour contest? For me it’s that morning coffee. After I stopped the Friday habit, I was able to physically prepare for the contest in a much improved way. Save the coffee for 0000Z that evening – – you’ll be amazed at the results!
37 I’m amazed at the number of top notch CW contesters who can’t copy conversational code. Sure, you can fire a call sign and exchange to them at 50 WPM, but don’t dare ask what antenna they’re using. In my book, code speed is more than ceremonial; it’s one of the many factors that separate champions from everyone else. Never give up on improving your ability to copy QRQ CW. Finally, there’s something that we learned from the 1980s that’s worth remembering: faster IS better!
38 It may seem obvious, but labeling items in your shack such as antennas, amplifier settings, relays, etc. is a must! If you haven’t taken the time, revisit this area of shack housekeeping. Many station owners also label their coax feeds, and/or rotator and control lines as well. It just may prevent a catastrophic failure when you get serious in this fall’s contest season.
39 Practice curing yourself of the bad habit of writing down callsigns/exchange information on scrap paper while operating. This adds unnecessary overhead to your operating style and has become especially pointless with the advent of computer logging. The best way to reduce your “paper-dependence” is to simply eliminate any access to note paper altogether. Remember: if you want to walk, you got to get rid of your crutch! (tnx K1ZX)
40 Take a standard mouse pad and punch or drill holes in the pad to correspond with the three feet of your keyer’s paddle. The paddle feet are now touching the table top, so the height of the plastic your fingers touch is correct. However, you now have a giant surface area of rubber designed not to slide, holding the paddle in place (tnx K1VR).
41 Keep a few prepackaged CRT wipes handy during a contest. Looking at a dirty computer screen for 48 hours can be very distracting as well as creating unnecessary eyestrain. You’ll find them at K-Mart and most good office supply stores (tnx AA3JU).
42 The months of August and September are filled with great warm-up contests for the fall season. Check out the contest calendar and get involved. One way to add “dB” to your signal is to get your callsign in the minds of others. How do you do that? Get radio active–today!
43 OK, not everyone has the circumstances that allow for 3 towers with stacked yagis on all bands at your station. There are more reasonable things that any contest station owner can do that don’t require megabucks. And, with the contest season rapidly approaching, now is the time to implement! Consider your station from an antenna switching, external noise filtering, band changing perspective. Pay attention to some of the construction/configuration ideas being promoted in sources such as CQ Contest, the NCJ, or the Contest Reflector. There are literally dozens of low-cost improvements that you can make to your station that will improve your scores. Be aggressive; check ’em out!
44 Are you continuously frustrated by your paddle moving about your operating desk? Now, I don’t mean the kind of “virtual” movement that occurs after 48 hours of non-stop contesting, but the type that happens while you’re trying to send “Mississippi.” One friend recently suggested that you take a quality mouse pad and drill holes that align with the feet on your paddle. Not only will it provide a more comfortable operating position, it will hold that paddle exactly where it belongs!
45 It seems that country prefixes are constantly changing. I still don’t have all of the former Soviet republics completely figured out. Take a few minutes and review the latest country lists. It may direct your calling patterns in the next contest. Nothing is worse than calling a station for 10 minutes to eventually realize that it’s not a new country. The opposite scenario (a.k.a. “lost opportunity”) is even worse!
46 If you’re like me, there are probably dozens of little problems in your shack. Here’s a few examples: burned out lamps on your 930, Tailtwister control box, and amp, an intermittent coax switch position, torn headphone pads, a sticky “A” on your keyboard. Like most procrastinators, after you fix these things (usually in minutes), you say: “Why didn’t I do that 2 years ago?” Well, fixing the small problems in your contest shack won’t make you a better operator, but it will make your comfort level rise; and so will your scores. Get out that soldering gun. Are you up to the challenge?
47 Depressed that all you hear is noise on 9M2AX’s 80 meter frequency because you don’t have the 500 square miles needed for proper beverages? Don’t give up hope. I’ve found many times that using an antenna tuned for another band can often improve your receiver’s signal-to-noise ratio so that you can actually copy guys not otherwise possible. Try using your 40 meter antenna as a listening tool on 80. Different combinations may work for other bands, too!
48 Have you checked the direction of your antennas and compared them to what your rotator is telling you lately? During the last CQ WW contest, I spent most of the first day using a 3-el 40 meter beam that was 40 degrees off its proper alignment. A short walk out back can add dBs to your signal by deploying a little attention to detail. Forgetting the obvious will almost always lower your score!
49 Here’s an often overlooked “transaction” in building contest scores; share your contest operating plans with your significant other! While it may be risky to cross that chasm, the likelihood of arranging that “trip to Mom” may increase substantially, leaving you unencumbered to focus on your score, not making amends. After 20+ years of contesting (and nearly as many wedding anniversaries), I’ve learned that I’m still the only one in my family who knows what’s really happening during the last full weekend of October.
50 Are you struggling with a question about contesting and just don’t know where to turn? Most of the contest world’s leading contesters (at least the ones that I know) are more than willing to share their knowledge. Don’t be shy. Apply some elbow grease to your word processor and send a few letters to some of the guys you admire. I guarantee that not only will you be surprised with the rate of responses, but you may even discover a few answers to your questions BEFORE next year’s contest season starts!
51 Preventative maintenance is not in the vocabulary of most hams, but it is a critical success factor to contesters. Our sport doesn’t allow the clock to stand waiting during a contest while we solder a gamma match connection that really needed attention during the summer. Don’t waste an opportunity to solve problems before they happen. With summer temperatures at their peak, take the initiative to put that climbing belt on and ensure your scores are maximized this fall!
52 Having recently moved (finally!), I’ve been thinking about the luxury I’ll have to finally set-up that new ham station the right way. While most of you may not be moving, we’re always working on new antenna/equipment projects. You don’t have do be involved in major station renovations to take on that next project with perfection in mind. Attention to detail (and a little luck) is what separates winners from losers in contesting. Bear that fact in mind the next time you want to skip soldering the coax connection on a dipole or improperly weatherproof your next gamma match.
53 This month I offer more of a safety tip than operating advice for contesters, but take a minute to read on. Contest season creates situations that make contesters do crazy things. I’ve spent more time on icy towers or climbing in treacherous winds than I’d care to recall. Do yourself a favor and remember that a key to doing well at contesting is to stay safe and alive. Be enthusiast, but also be smart this contest season. We’d like to work you next year, too!
54 Do you suffer from a perpetual lack of organization? If so, you’re like most of us. A tip learned from one of my contesting mentors, Jim Lawson, W2PV, is to document your station. Do you know what size wrenches you need when you go up the tower next time? What are the resistance readings of your rotator between pins? How is that 4 over 4 relay box constructed? The list goes on, yet a little attention to administrivia will go a long way to make you a better contester (tnx W1WEF and YCCC Scuttlebutt).
55 Try to be more aggressive when a station calls you and you miss part of their call sign. Rather than saying “Alpha Radio, your call again?” take the high road and say “Alpha Radio you’re 59001…your call?” More often than not, you’ll eliminate an unnecessary round of transmissions, making your operating more efficient and productive.
56 Having considered the topic of packet this month, I thought it would be appropriate to suggest something radical–at least for the 1990s! Try operating for a week or so without the packet screen glaring at your face. With the advent of multipliers being “hand fed” to us these days, many of us have lost that treasured skill of “finding them on our own.” The art of sniffing out multipliers is a major differentiator in contest score making. Try looking for them the old-fashioned way—it’s great practice for your next single operator effort.
57 When tuning for multipliers, don’t forget to look way up the band. In last year’s CQ WW CW Contest, I worked several key multipliers on frequencies such as 14081, 7062, 3566, etc. The only limit to working CW stations in a contest is when the “beeps” stop. Add to your score with your VFO!
Have you checked out the Internet lately for contest information? There’s a wealth of information and key contacts that’s available for free! As an example, take a look at http://www.contesting.com. Spawned by the efforts of Bill Fisher, W4AN, (and others), this site stands out as one of the best sources of information that will help your contest efforts. And, as you might expect, there’s many, many, more Internet sources including clubs, publications, user groups, etc. Use your favorite Web site search engine to “gain the knowledge.”
59 Given the subject of this month’s column is rules. I thought I’d share a story and contest tip for you to consider. In 1998 ARRL DX Contest I forgot about the new multi-op rule change that eliminated the 10 minute rule in lieu of six band changes per hour. If I had not had an impromptu conversation with someone right before the contest. I would have operated incorrectly the entire weekend. Even old dogs should face a look at a contest’s rules – just to be sure!
60 Don’t ever get so intimidated by the size of a pileup that you simply tune by the station without calling. We all have a story or two about the time we broke trough a pileup without a clue how our station pulled it off. Here’s the answer: operating skill! There’s one guarantee when chasing rare contest multipliers: If you don’t at least try to call them, you absolutely won’t work them!
61 Have you taken a hard look at your station’s layout lately? Comfort is a controllable factor in contest operating. If you have to see your chiropractor after every time you change the bands, you probably need to pay attention to this month’s contest tip. Think “out of the box” when it comes to your station’s physical design. Ask your fellow contesters what they’re doing. You’ll be surprised how a few small changes can impact your operating enjoyment – and score!
62 Most of contesters finally get serious about their antenna work around this time of year as the contest season approaches. Often tower work is the major part of the task list. If you haven’t climbed your tower lately, take a few minutes to inspect your guy wires. There’s nothing more frightening than climbing a tower to discover a large tree limb is hanging on one of the guys, or worse, discovering a major problem at one of the guy anchors – while you’re on the tower. An extra ten minutes work may mean thousands more QSOs in the future. Be careful this fall!
63 As we enter into this years’ fall contest season, do you know who’s planning on a contest expedition? A little research through the current magazine/newsletters and the Internet can help you build a list of probable multipliers that should be prominently displayed in front of your operating position for the upcoming fall contests. Always remember that extraordinary pre-contest preparation can dramatically improve your final standing and has little to do with signal strength or location. To put it in ham terms – it’s free!
64 As I’ve been doing some recent maintenance work lately. I learned an old lesson yet again: label the cables. So much of success in contesting can be controlled by preparation that has nothing to do with the actual process of operating. Nothing is more frustrating than experiencing a malfunction during a contest and spending more time deciphering your cabling scheme than actually fixing the problem and getting back on the air. Remember, your contest score will only increase when you’re transmitting and not debugging. Take the time to anticipate malfunctions by clearly labeling everything in your shack. You’ll thank yourself later!
65 It’s 23:45Z on Friday night. You’ve just turned on your radio and you’re now right to go, right? Well, Probably not. It is always a better approach to check the bands at sunrise and sunset daily toward the end of the week to get a feel for the prevailing conditions before the contest. Here are some good questions to ask: Has the flux been failing or rising? When did 10 meters open to Europe yesterday and the day before? Has 15 meters been good to JA around 24:00Z (the start of the contest)? The moral of the story is check bands mid-to late-week. You’ll be glad you did, and your score will reflect the difference in the end! (Tnx YCCC)
66 When things break in your station, the next logical step is not to put your climbing belt on. Two events in my contest operating this past fall prove this point: 1) An intermittent in the 80 meter system turned out to be a bad barrel connector in the shack and 2) a seemingly faulty rotator turned out to be a connector that fell off the back of the control box. In both cases, I was ready to go outside and start climbing towers. In both cases, I didn’t even need to put my shoes on. When in the heat of battle, think about the ” easy stuff” first when you have stations problems. Contest operating takes enough out of you without climbing towers unnecessarily.
67 Speaking of technology, have you given any thought to given your equipment tune-up? Like a car, your station equipment needs preventative maintenance, too. Consider having a qualified technician (assuming that’s not you!) run your transceive (s) through its paces. Maybe you’ll learn that that weak Asian station on 10 meters (you know, the one everyone else could hear) was really a problem with your receiver. No matter how proficient at operating you may be, you’re only as good as your equipment.
68 Do you really study contest rules (especially the ones you participate in), or are you the type who breezes through the numbers and puts the magazine in the pile across the room? I’ve found over the years that contest reports can truly be revealing about your own results – both good and bad! Try reading the next contest summary with the idea of seeking out areas of improvement. With the summer coming, there’s no better time to begin thinking about antenna projects and getting those strategic juices flowing.