Technical Articles

Finding Your Calling: When and Where Are You Most Likely to Make QSOs?

One of the most enjoyable parts of the hobby is making contacts with other Hams. Finding operators on the air isn’t necessarily a matter of luck or chance. There are several ways to improve your chances of snagging a rare DX station or rag chewing with Hams both near and far away.

Right Band, Right Time

Choosing the right band and time of day will help you make more contacts. “Hamifying” a quote by Woody Allen, “Ninety percent of success making QSOs is just showing up.”

A rule of thumb for amateur operation is lower HF frequencies are generally better for nighttime contacts, while the frequencies 20M and above are better for daytime communication. All amateur bands have sections set aside for specific operating modes, and some have frequencies set aside for DX, calling frequencies, and repeaters where operators often hang out. See the ARRL Band Plan and ARRL Repeater Directory for information.

Amateur radio operators have numerous bands available in the radio frequency spectrum, from 135.7 KHz to 10.5 GHz and above (2200M to 3cm). Each one has its own characteristics, quirks, and advantages. These will vary as a result of several factors, including time of year, atmospheric conditions, and solar weather. Here is what you can generally expect:

160/80M

These are essentially nighttime bands, so you can forget about them during daylight hours except for local communications. In the summer, they’re sometimes plagued with lightning static from storms. But in the winter, they’re much quieter and good bands for contacting Hams across the U.S. and worldwide, especially if you have a good antenna and an amplifier.

60/40M/30M

I’ve grouped these bands together because they have similar characteristics. They’re usable for daytime communications, but they’re usually best at night. If you’re a CW fan, you’ll find lots of company on 30M. Sixty meters has five channels, but you can operate SSB, CW, and digital modes.

40M is one of the most popular bands, and it provides some good DX opportunities–listen in and you’ll probably hear someone at any time of day.

20M/15M/17M

These are best for daylight DX, especially around sunrise and sunset. Sometimes they’re active well into the evening, depending on conditions. These are the bands to be on when working stations around the world, particularly at the peak of the sunspot cycle.

10M/12M

Ten and 12 meters are primarily daylight bands. But at peak times of the solar cycle, they can be alive with long-distance signals appearing well before sunrise and continuing into the night. Even during solar minimums, these bands still have DX possibilities. Sporadic E propagation can bring signals from a hundred to many thousands of miles away, occurring mainly as a seasonal event in late spring through summer.

6M

Six meters is known as “The Magic Band” and has characteristics of the HF and VHF bands. This is a great band if you don’t mind having frequent surprises courtesy of Mother Nature. There’s tropospheric propagation, aurora, meteor scatter, trans-equatorial propagation, sporadic-E propagation, and, of course, the sunspot cycle. One minute, there’s nothing on the band.  Suddenly, there are signals everywhere. You can expect local SSB coverage of 100 miles or more, and plenty of skip with band openings when conditions are favorable.

2M and Up

These frequencies are “line of sight,” which means they are best for local communication either by simplex or through a repeater. But weather events, such as tropospheric ducting, can extend communications several hundred miles or more. With the development of computerized hot spots, it’s now possible to communicate almost anywhere in the world with a digital handheld radio by way of the Internet, regardless of time or propagation conditions.

Tracking Activity in Real Time

Band activity charts such as DX Heat and DX Summit are good ways to evaluate propagation based on who is working whom, right now. Filtering tools allow you to target specific bands, modes, regions, and DXCC entities. For example, if you choose 20M, digital, and Europe, you can find which stations are active on the band.

WSPR, or as it is pronounced, “whisper,” stands for Weak Signal Propagation Reporter. It’s a worldwide network of low-power beacons that send and receive WSPR signals and then upload the data to a server. The trails of the signals sent and received can be seen on a map with connecting lines at WSPRnet. It shows the propagation paths that are open in real time.

Other beacon systems can also let you know when the bands are open. The NCDXF/IARU International Beacon Project has transmitters on 15M, 17M, 20M, 12M, and 10M. Each beacon transmits once on each band once every three minutes, 24 hours a day. A transmission consists of the callsign transmitted in CW followed by four one-second dashes.

The Reverse Beacon Network (RBN) is a new variation. Instead of beacons actively transmitting signals, the RBN is a network of stations listening to the bands and reporting what stations they hear, when, and how well. Also try their map version here.

Contesting and Special Events

One time you’ll find the bands really active is during contests, special events, and SOTA/POTA (Summits on the Air, Parks on the Air) activations, even when conditions aren’t so great. You don’t have to enter the contest, just listen for (or look up) the contest exchange, which is often a signal report, location, and contact number.

This is a great way to get new countries for your DXCC certificate or states for your WAS (Worked All States) award. Sure, it’s not as good as having a “real” conversation, but you can still log it as a contact.

Just Do It

What are you waiting for? Go turn on your radio and make some contacts!

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