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Guide to Low-Power Contesting (Part 2): Techniques and Tips on Making QSOs

In Part 1 of our series on low-powering contesting, we looked at the basic equipment you’ll need. Today, let’s touch on a few tips on competing, contest resources, and opportunities to get on the air and join the excitement!

On the Hunt—Searching and Pouncing

You may be able to call CQ and get other stations to answer you (this is called “holding a frequency,” or, more commonly, “running stations). It’s more likely that you’ll do a lot of searching and pouncing (or S&P)—tuning around and calling the CQing stations. (Tip: Try calling CQ late in the contest when the other stations are looking for “fresh meat” to work.)

You can work quite a few stations by S&P, including DX, at rates from 30 to 60 an hour by quickly tuning from one station to another or by jumping to the frequency of spots from the worldwide spotting network. (A spot tells you what station is calling on what frequency at what time.)  For more information about the spotting network, also known as the “DX Cluster,” try this YouTube video by NG7M or this article “DX Cluster Basics” by W8QQQ. (Warning—Using spot information may require you to enter in an “assisted,” “unlimited,” or even as a multi-operator category.)

As you tune through the band, switching between VFO A and VFO B helps you jump between pileups if you don’t get through right away. At the first pileup, set VFO A = VFO B (read that manual!) then tune to the next pileup. You now have one pileup frequency saved in each VFO. Use the VFO A/B switching control to jump back and forth between them. When you get through on one, start tuning again but keep switching back to the remaining pileup. After you get through or give up, use the A=B then A/B process again.

Work on your timing. This is a lot different from FT8 or FT4 which have fixed transmitting and receiving cycles. Getting the timing right can make a lot of difference between making a QSO and having to wait in a pileup. Sometimes you’ll get right through—first call, bingo!—and other times, it seems impossible. Take a minute and listen. Who is getting through and how? Are they sending or speaking fast or slow? Sometimes it works to wait a second and call so your call stands out from the din—this is a common technique for RTTY, as well. On the phone, be sure you are using standard phonetics. (Tip: Give your call once. Don’t send the CQing station’s call, and don’t add anything to your call like /QRP.)

Configure your transceiver so that you tune quickly. This is done through the tuning rate or tuning step size settings. The author likes having one full turn of the tuning knob move about 3 kHz on phone and about 1/3-1/2 turn move 500 Hz on CW. That allows you to move from one station to another without a lot of hand motion but still have plenty of fine-tuning. Practice tuning through the band.  (Tip: Start at the high end of activity where signals aren’t as closely packed and the noise level is lower, then tune downward toward the busier part of the band.)

Calling CQ

What happens if you tune across an available channel?  First, be sure it’s really available. You may not be able to hear a station in your skip zone or a non-contest contact may be in progress. On phone, ask “Is the frequency in use?” followed by your call. Do this once or twice and listen for a response. On CW or RTTY, send “QRL?” and your call or just your call. If no one responds, try a CQ. You may stay on frequency for a few minutes or an hour—you never know—so take advantage of these unexpected opportunities.

Calling CQ in a contest is different than what you may be used to. Keep it short! A 1-by-2 call of “CQ Contest from NØAX NØAX” is all you need. Listen for a couple of seconds and repeat. No need for a long call or extra words. Just make a short transmission, listen for a response for two or three seconds, then call again. Learn how to use your radio’s voice record/playback function if available.

If your transceiver does not have voice record and playback capability, an external voice/CW keyer like the MFJ-434B can do the job and offer additional features.

When you get a response, keep it short, too. Just give the calling station’s call sign and the contest exchange in one calm breath or one stream of characters:

NØAX: CQ Contest from NØAX NØAX
W1AW: W1AW
NØAX: W1AW 2 Alpha Missouri
W1AW: Roger 3 Echo Connecticut
NØAX: Thanks, NØAX

On CW or digital:

NØAX: CQ TEST NØAX NØAX
W1AW: W1AW
NØAX: W1AW 2A MO
W1AW: R 3E CT
NØAX: TU NØAX

Don’t slow things down by adding extra “thanks” or “you are” or “please copy” when you are CQing or responding to a CQ. Courteous contesting is about efficient operation, not adding a bunch of unnecessary speech or characters. Don’t repeat anything unless you are asked. Practice giving the minimum necessary information one time as clearly and efficiently as possible—it will eventually become second nature. Why not develop good habits from the start?

Improving for Next Time

Take notes as you operate and write down questions. A couple of hours of contesting will turn up plenty of things to work on or get answers for. After you’ve completed a session or two, ask yourself what worked well and what was hard. Note any equipment that didn’t work, could work better, or didn’t do what you thought it should do. Notes about ways to improve—either the equipment or the operator— are particularly good.

After the contest, add to those notes when you can think a little more clearly. What were the highs and lows of your operating time? What was most enjoyable—how can you do that more and better? What do you think you should work on—CW speed, pulling calls out of the “mud,” tuning in a signal more quickly? There are lots of opportunities to practice.

Finally, be sure to send in your log! Your logging software will automatically generate a log in Cabrillo format, the standard for contests. The contest sponsor will either provide an email address for logs or a web page where you can upload your log file. If you logged on paper and the contest sponsors require electronic logs, you can use WA7BNM’s Cabrillo Web Forms to generate and submit a log from your hand-entered information. 

By sending in your log, you support the contest sponsors, help them do a better job of cross-checking the contacts, and you might receive a log checking report (LCR) that shows your good and “busted” contacts.  The LCR is a gold mine of information to help you improve your operating skills.

Contest Resources for You

We’re only scratching the surface of how to participate in contests! There are lots of other resources available to help you, starting with a local or regional contest club. Use the ARRL’s “Club Search” service and enter “contest” in the Tag window.  Select the area you want to search and you’ll find plenty of clubs to try. If the club has “Contest” in their name, even better! The best resource you have for learning is other contesters!

Aside from clubs, there are resources like the ARRL’s Contest Update newsletter, the ARRL Operating Manual, the National Contest Journal (NCJ) magazine, and lots of YouTube videos.

Upcoming Contest Opportunities

Which should you try? For the new contester, it’s hard to beat the North American QSO Parties sponsored by NCJ magazine. These 12-hour contests run on Saturday twice a year and there are CW, Phone, and Digital versions. Better yet, they only allow low power and the exchange is simple: your name and state. 

State QSO parties are mostly low-key and offer a great way to work on your Worked All States award. The WA7BNM Contest Calendar has a special State QSO Party directory to help you find them. Domestic contests (those focused on the U.S. and Canada) are a great opportunity for low-power stations to have fun, hone their skills, and get ready for the big DX contests of the fall and winter months.

The important thing, though, is to just jump in there and try. You’ll learn a ton, have fun, and put a lot of QSOs in your log. It just gets easier from there!

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