Amateur Radio Contesting
"The Sport of Amateur Radio"
While there are many contests, one ... "The California QSO Party" or CQP is my favorite, and is covered in detail at the link in the navigation panel. The remainder of this page describes amateur contesting in general for those who have never tried it.
Contesting is one of the major operating activities in amateur radio. Contests vary widely -- by region, objective, operating mode, and band, to name a few. In general, however, they all involve the goal of contacting as many stations that meet the contest requirements as possible. Contests are sponsored by many organizations year round (but nearly always on weekends). The number of contests scheduled tends to increase in the winter months (northern hemisphere) when HF propagation is best and atmospheric noise tends to be be lowest. While contests differ, they do have some common attributes:
Information Exchange: To form a valid contact ("QSO"), you must correctly exchange some piece(s) of information with the other station. Exchanges vary widely, including signal report, serial number of the contact, location (country, zone, state/province, county, etc.), name, etc. Incidentally, there is no requirement that you send your real name in contests that use it. In the 2001 North American QSO Party (just after the 2000 presidential election), nearly every Florida station sent the name CHAD, presumably in honor of Florida's now infamous ballot problems. In the 2003 winter NAQP, most of the NCCC members sent JIM in honor of Jim Maxwell, W6CF, the ARRL Pacific Division Director who passed away just before the contest. I've been working my way through my kids' and grandkids' first and middle names.
QSO Points: Each contest sponsor will determine how many points a single completed contact with another eligible station is worth. It is common that radiotelegraph (CW) QSOs, and sometimes digital and/or satellite QSOs, will be worth more than a radiotelephone QSO (SSB or FM). Presumably, things are harder if you can't talk, I guess. Field Day (which is billed as a test of emergency capabilities and not a contest ... but it's probably the competition that gets everyone out to test their capabilities, no?) gives 2 points for CW and 1 for phone. The California QSO Party (CQP) which is really the reason for all this drivel, offers 3 pts for CW and 2 pts for phone in sort of a compromise. Some contests allow you to work the same station on multiple bands and modes (e.g. CQP) while a few make it "one QSO per station per contest" (e.g. ARRL Sweepstakes).
Multipliers ("Mults"): Nearly all contests provide for accumulation of "mults" which you multiply by the total number of QSO Points to give your final score. For North American contests, the US states and Canadian provinces are common mults. Some contests count DXCC entities (i.e. sort of countries) as mults, some count unique callsign prefixes (all the characters up to and including the first number [unless the call starts with a number, they it's up to and including the second number]), sometimes it's ITU or CQ zones, and sometimes it's Japanese Prefectures or Russian Oblasts (this is a truly international hobby!). You almost always get credit for a multiplier the first (and only the first) time you work a station that qualifies. There are a few contests that count multipliers by band and/or mode, however.
There is one contest for QRP (less than 5 watt rigs) in which part of the score computation includes the weight of your rig, including batteries! In the "OK RTTY Contest," you multiply your QSO points times the number of multipliers times the number of OK (Czech Republic) stations you have worked. This often results in a real surprise, as happened to me this year when I did not work a single OK. 130 QSO's times 21 countries times zero OK's = zero points!
The trade-off between working more stations who give you QSO points but not a new multiplier, and searching around for a multiplier you don't have while not accumulating any QSO points, is a big competitive issue for contesters. Every mult you get turns every 1, 2, or 3 point QSO into a much larger score, depending on what your multiplier total is. Thus, searching around the bands for a new multiplier for awhile is worth some number of minutes spent accumulating non-multiplier QSOs , a tradeoff number that was not really available to us until the advent of the PC and logging software.
The result of all this is that contest operating involves a lot of competitive strategy. You need to decide on the band you should be on, the mode in multi-mode events, whether or not you should call CQ ("advertise your presence and have 'them' call you") or tune around and call 'them' (Search and Pounce). Many people also use contests to pick up new countries, states, counties, islands, and whatever else they need for an operating award.
Operating Categories: To keep things fair, there are usually a number of entry categories. Transmitter power is a big one ... obviously, transmitting with 1,000 watts is likely to yield more contacts and more multipliers than transmitting with 5 watts. Typical power categories are: QRP (5 watts and under), Low Power (5 to 100 watts), and High Power (100 watts up to the legal limit for your country). There are other categories for a single operator operating a single transmitter, multiple operators operating a single transmitter ("Multi-Single"), and multiple operators operating more than one transmitter ("Multi-Multi").
Operating in contests means "Quickly!" Each contact will take only enough time to identify the other station, transmit the information exchange, receive acknowlegement and the information from the other station, and acknowlege it ... often ten seconds or less if no repeats are required. Operating modes (other than in the Sprints):
Running: When running, you find a relatively clear frequency (good luck!), and announce your presence, generally by transmitting something like "CQ TEST DE K6DGW" ("TEST" is a common abbreviation for "Contest"). Other stations tuning across the band hear you, and if they have not contacted you before, will call you. You give your information, and the other station acknowledges it and gives you his/her information. You acknowledge it and repeat the "CQ" while the other station moves on.
Search and Pounce (S&P): When you operate S&P, you are the "other station." You tune up or down the band looking for "running" stations calling CQ that you have not worked before. You call them, receive the information, acknowledge it and send yours, and when it is acknowledged, you move on.
Sprints: In most contests, the really "big guns" (high power, multiple operators, great antennas) will tend to spend more time in "running" mode, although stations with modest power and antennas should also spend time in "running" mode ... if the "Little Guns" only do S&P, they'll never have the chance to work each other! The Sprints (there are two sets a year, and each contest lasts only 4 hours) reduce the benefit of running mode for big guns. In the Sprints, you may "solicit a contact" on any frequency, but may make only one contact there. After that contact, the station who called you "inherits" the frequency, and you must change your frequency before soliciting another contact. Tree, N6TR, one of the inventors of the Sprints says they are "The most fun you can have in 4 hours with your clothes on."
Obviously, one must maintain a written log of each contact in order to calculate a final score, and also for submittal to the contest sponsors. It wasn't many years ago that such logs were kept with pencil and paper, using a variety of manual methods to quickly determine if a given station was a duplicate contact. With the advent of personal computers, it's not surprising that programs were written to automate this process. As these programs evolved, they included the capability to account for multipliers, key your transmitter for the standard information exchanges, and even control your transmitter's frequency, band, mode, etc.
I have used "TR-Log" by N6TR for several years (actually when my CQP Team decided to switch to it), and prior to that, I used "CT" by K1EA. Both have extensive information facilities such as identifying the country a station is in, computing a beam heading and range to the station, and providing other information from a database containing previous contacts you have made with a station. They track your multipliers, spot duplicate contacts, compute your score in real time, and display your current and recent QSO rates. This latter display helps determine if you should sacrifice some time going to S&P mode to find some new multipliers. They will both control your transmitter, and will key it with a set of standard messages. For me, TR-Log seems to be somewhat better supported, which is why I've stuck with it. Both CT and TR are DOS programs, which wasn't much of a liability since most hams used an older, DOS-only computer for their station system. In time, however, we all have accumulated old computers, and some are now Windows machines. As a result, the number of Windows-based loggers is on the increase.
There are other logging programs, of course. NA is another common DOS program. I have no experience with it, but I do know several hams who use it and think it's the greatest. Log Windows is a windows based program that is popular, however it is not as contest-intensive as many of the DOS programs. Possibly the fastest rising Windows-based logger is WriteLog.
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