Technical Articles

Five Tips for Successful QRP Operating

QRP, or low-power operating, is one of Ham radio’s fundamental challenges. Can you really make contacts running only five watts or less? Yes, Virginia, you can enjoy a quality ham radio life running QRP. But as with every aspect of ham radio, there are several things you can do to improve your success.

People take up QRP operating for several reasons. They may wish to keep a low profile with their ham radio hobby, or perhaps they simply enjoy the challenge of operating low-power. They may like to operate portable from atop a mountain summit or an island and don’t want to carry a lot of gear, or find that a minimalist approach to ham radio appeals to them. Whatever the reason, there is a lot of enjoyment and expertise to be gained by operating with five watts or less.

My interest in QRP took hold in the mid-1990s after several divisional wins in the ARRL Sweepstakes contest. What began as an experiment in participating in ham radio contests (while keeping my neighbors in my cramped neighborhood happy during televised football and basketball games) revealed a different ham radio paradigm to me: less is more. I wasn’t fully on board with this notion until 2008 when I moved to Connecticut and couldn’t put up an antenna outside my apartment building. Operating portable was the de facto way I got on the air, and I didn’t want to carry a ton of equipment around, so I went to QRP to keep my backpack light.

But there are a thousand different ways to approach QRP operating, and each one has its strengths. Whether you operate QRP from home or as a portable station, there are some definite tried-and-true principles to adopt that will make your QRP operating more enjoyable and rewarding.

Get a Good Antenna

There’s a common notion among QRPers that you not only need to be running minimal power, but a minimal antenna as well. While this has clear benefits for portable operators who carry a backpack full of gear to a remote operating site, there’s no hard-and-fast rule that says your antenna must be minimal. Put up a beam antenna, if possible. The gain you’ll pick up with a Yagi will make those precious few watts go quite a bit further. If you have no room for a Yagi, learn about constructing wire antennas that offer gain. There’s much more to wire antennas than dipoles: wire Yagis, loops, and many other designs can help you get more bang for your buck, power-wise. Resonant dipoles can be quite effective, too. Get them up as high as possible for maximum effect. You owe it to yourself to maximize your antenna’s capabilities and efficiency if you’re only running five watts. Do your homework and you will be rewarded.

Timing is Everything

QRPers play the long game, and most QRP ops have three major skills: patience, exceptional ears, and an acceptance that they won’t get the QSO 100% of the time. With five watts, you’re not likely to crack that big pileup on the first call. Most of your time as a QRPer will be spent listening, not transmitting. If you’re trying to break a pileup, take some time to determine if propagation is favoring your area or not. Learn the rhythm of the station you’re trying to work. For example, how well does that station do at pileup management? Do they have a particular way of indicating the previous contact is concluded and they’re ready for another caller?

Another trick of timing is learning when to make your call. A pileup situation is like a bell curve. W+++hen the rare station asks for calls, many stations will begin to call immediately. This creates a wall of calls for the rare station to decipher. By delaying your call just a little bit, the end of your callsign may be heard as the rest of the callers have finished their solicitation. This reduces the noise you’re competing against significantly. While the rare station may not hear your entire callsign, they may hear the last letter or two, resulting in “Who’s the station with X-ray? Try again.”

Don’t Sign/QRP in a Pileup

This very issue has been the subject of debate for a long time. I have signed/QRP in my early years, only to realize that it didn’t gain me much advantage in a DX pileup or contest setting. Personally, I see little advantage to doing it now. Few hams care how much power you’re running, and in a competitive situation (contest, DX pileup, etc.) it can actually create confusion, with the extra letters or (if CW) the / mark in your call. It can lead operators to think you may be operating portable when you’re not. If you’re enjoying making casual contacts, tell them you’re running QRP as part of your ragchew, not as part of your callsign. Bottom line: The key to QRP success is efficiency at every level, and adding extra stuff to your callsign when you may be quite weak to the station on the other end is the exact opposite of efficiency.

Get Involved in QRP Events

Like most forms of ham radio, QRP operating can be enjoyed at any time of day or night. However, you will increase your chances of contacts by focusing your time on events. There are several short contests geared toward QRP operators every month. One of the largest QRP clubs in the world, QRP-ARCI, sponsors quite a few larger QRP contests each year. In addition, most state QSO parties and major contests have a QRP category.

In addition to competitions, there are dozens of activity awards that cater to QRP. Most Summits on the Air (SOTA) activations are QRP stations due to the need to carry all of your gear to the top of a mountain summit. Several other awards programs lend themselves to QRP operating, such as Parks on the Air (POTA), World Wide Flora and Fauna (WWFF), US Islands, and many others.

Lastly, QRP-ARCI sponsors many awards for QRPers, such as Worked All States, DXCC, counties, and others.

Focusing your operating time during these events will help make you more efficient and productive.

Be a Sunday Driver in Major Contests

As a parallel to getting involved with contests, if you’re going to casually participate in a major contest (CQ Worldwide DX, ARRL DX, CQ WPX Contest, ARRL Sweepstakes, etc.), wait until Sunday to get on the air. Most of the big stations will be slugging it out with the other big stations and serious competitors on Friday night and Saturday. By Sunday, most of the big guns will have worked each other, which leaves more opportunities for smaller stations like yourself to be heard. Big stations will be eager to work “fresh meat” in these events and will be willing to work a little harder to get you in their log.

Know When to Say When

There will be times when it seems the powers-that-be are conspiring against you. Propagation isn’t favoring your area, the pileup is too thick, or you just aren’t able to be heard for whatever reason. Be prepared to spin the dial in search of other stations or walk away from the radio for a while and try again later. As I mentioned earlier, patience is a critical skill for QRP work, and patience sometimes gets tested. Learn to handle your QRP disappointments with grace and you will be a much happier person.

I’ve managed to work over 200 DXCC entities with QRP power, most of them with simple wire antennas. I’ve also managed a Clean Sweep in the ARRL Sweepstakes contest as a QRP entrant (with better antennas). I’ve also banged my head against a pileup for too long and had multiple frustrations while trying a QRP activation of an island or summit in my time. But at the end of the day, the ability to use minuscule amounts of power to communicate around the world on a wire is captivating to me. One of my best QSOs of all time is with OH2BT in Finland during a QRP-ARCI Spring Contest. I was running three watts to a hamstick on the roof of my car, and he was running 50 milliwatts to a three-element Yagi. I still have that card displayed in my shack and am quite proud of that QSO.

QRP is not for the faint of heart! But it is exceptionally fun and rewarding, and great achievements are certainly possible with low-power operating. Try these techniques yourself and watch your operating efficiency—and your fun factor—go up!

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