HAM Radio 101

Ham Radio Contesting Etiquette for Contesters and Non-Contesters Alike

Why, yes, there is etiquette in contesting! Even though it may sound like chaos in places, there is a method in the madness. Every sport has its etiquette—certain things you do and certain things you don’t. And since we all share the same frequencies, there is an etiquette between those who compete and those who do not.

Etiquette for Contesters

First and foremost, know the rules and follow them. That includes complying with the terms of your license for frequencies and output power. Strive to compete ethically; after all, there are very few financial or material rewards in radiosport. In fact, U.S. licensees aren’t permitted to operate with any kind of “pecuniary interest.” 

We compete for bragging rights, and a lot of that depends on your reputation among your peers. I could write pages about the details of operating ethically, but Contest University (CTU) has beat me to it. The very first presentation of every CTU is on ethics and contesting. These videos are recorded so you can enjoy and learn from them, too. Here is Randy Thompson, K5ZD, giving the Contesting with Integrity presentation at the 2019 CTU. (There are lots of great videos available at www.contestuniversity.com/videos.)

There are many questions about what is and isn’t okay with respect to contest rules. Can I make schedules during the contest? (Yes). As a Single-Op, is it okay to ask another station if there are any good multipliers on the band? (No). I’m sure you can imagine many more. To address questions like these, the ARRL’s Contest Advisory Committee wrote the HF Contesting Guidelines to help you follow the spirit of the rules. Representatives of several contest sponsors participated in writing the guidelines so you can apply their advice to many situations.

If you’re participating in a contest, make reasonable accommodations for non-contesters. Listen carefully for ongoing activity on a channel before calling CQ, and remember that you might not get an instant response to “QRL?” as a competitor might. Be willing to try tuning up or down a little bit to give other stations more room. Avoid major net frequencies like the Maritime Mobile Service Net on 14.300 MHz. Before the contest, check the ARRL News or other ham news feeds for any emergency communications declarations or frequencies where regional emergency nets meet.

One special item that bears mentioning, because it applies to contest and non-contesting alike, is transmitted signal quality. High-performance receivers have made tremendous advances in past years. The next frontier is on the transmitter side. Why should we have receivers capable of hearing a pin drop on the other side of the planet if we fill our bands with spurious garbage? Phase noise, key clicks, and the ever-present intermodulation distortion (IMD) products aggravate everyone from the biggest of the Big Guns to the littlest of pistols. Strive to get rid of these from your signal. A clean signal is a benefit to everyone!

Etiquette for the Casual Contester

Maybe you turned on the radio expecting regular conditions but—Zut alors!—there are a lot of signals calling “CQ contest!” You can turn the radio off and do something else, but you can also jump in and make a few contacts yourself. Be careful—you can find yourself captivated by the enjoyment of filling up your log! Pretty soon you’re seeing if you can work “just one more” county or country or make 100 contacts or who knows what.

There are some manners for you, too. Here are a few tips to make it easy to have fun:

  • Listen: It won’t take long for you to figure out what information is in “the exchange.” Is it a state or province, a serial number, a county or district? In contests that feature a certain region, stations from the region and those outside it may give out different information. Listen to both sides of a few contacts first.
  • Learn: What contest is it? There are a number of great contest calendars in magazines and online. The most complete is WA7BNM’s Contest Calendar. What you want is the 8-Day Calendar. It tells you at a glance what contests are active right now and provides a link to the exact rules (click on the name of the contest).
  • Leap: Get your pencil or keyboard ready! When a station in the contest calls CQ, get ready to send your call sign, but just once. Be ready to receive the information and give yours; this is, after all, a bit of a race. If you’re not sure, just say, “I’m not in the contest but what information do you need?” They’ll walk you through it.
  • Log: Keep track of your contacts and think about submitting your log to the contest sponsors. (The information is available from the Contest Calendar.) Even with a handful of QSOs, you still might qualify for a certificate, and the sponsors appreciate your interest.

Good job on making a few QSOs—the contesters appreciate them! You’ll soon become comfortable with the whole process and might even enter a contest “for real.” It’s a great way to build your own skills and learn more about your station and propagation.

Etiquette for the Non-Contester

Large contests can fill up most or all of an HF band, particularly during voice-mode events. That’s often vexing to non-contest operators. As in resolving most disagreements, each side needs to engage in some give-and-take to keep the peace. If you’re not contesting, recognize that large competitive events are legitimate activities and that you need to be flexible in your operating expectations. Check the contest calendars to avoid particularly busy weekends or when making plans. After all, if the local park is hosting a festival, you wouldn’t go there expecting a quiet picnic or hike, would you?

Be prepared! I hate having my plans scrambled by something unexpected, but there are plenty of ways to avoid unpleasant surprises. Look over the online calendars that list not only contests but DXpeditions and special events. Monitor geomagnetic and solar behavior for their effect on propagation. Know how to use your receiver to minimize overloading and noise—turn off preamps and noise blankers, for example. Back off the RF Gain just as you expect the “other guy” to back off the Mic Gain. You might be surprised at how much cleaner the band sounds under all circumstances, as W8BBQ and K8RR show in this DX Engineering video.

Regardless of our best efforts, there will be QRM at times. But don’t let it get to you. I may be frustrated that a celebration or concert brings out the crowds, but I know next weekend they’ll be gone and calm will return. In turn, I can also recognize that my own activities may crowd the neighbors a bit as well. But as skilled radio operators, we should be willing to adjust, use our radio know-how, and make the most of things, even in the midst of bombastic signals from near and far.

If you have a regularly scheduled activity such as a net or a schedule, have a “Plan B” with an alternate frequency, time, or even mode. Every net should have a backup frequency in case the band is closed or crowded. Never make a schedule without having a second or third frequency and a schedule for using them. Now and then, give Plan B a try to see if it actually works! It’s good to make sure you can get the job done under a variety of circumstances.

The real benefit of Plan B, however, may just be considering the possibilities of what can go wrong with Plan A. A very useful exercise for project planning is to consider reasons why the project might fail. Certainly, it’s important to have confidence that Plan A will work and work well, but a plan that doesn’t harden itself against the slings and arrows of everyday life depends on everything being “just right.” How often does that happen?

Sharing Our Flexibility

I really hate those surprises that make hash out of my careful plans, contests or otherwise. But Mother Nature and Mr. Murphy work hand-in-hand to keep me on my toes. My defense? Preparation, planning, and perseverance. Contesting exercises all of those through practice, practice, practice. Even though our bands are extra-crowded at times, amateur radio is unique among the communications services in its unparalleled flexibility. Let’s put that to work!

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