Technical Articles

Long-Duration HF Contesting Tips: Looking Beyond Your Equipment…Tips on Coming Out on Top

Contests come in a lot of shapes and sizes, from domestic sprints lasting a few hours to weekend-long, 48-hour worldwide DX contests. The difference can be as great as between a 100-meter dash and a full marathon. To excel takes a plan and preparation. While I’m going to focus on HF in this article, the same approach (plan, prepare, perform) works for VHF+ contesting, too.

Let’s say you are pretty happy with your equipment and know how to operate it effectively. Your antenna system is solid and reliable. You’ve operated in a variety of contests and have figured out how to both CQ and S&P (Search & Pounce). You’re ready for “the majors”—those 48-hour events with two full cycles of daytime and nighttime propagation. These are among the biggest challenges in radiosport!

Doing well in long-duration contests is a full-body effort from head to toe. All parts of your body are involved in keeping your “butt in the chair,” or BIC. And not only does the B have to be in the C, you have to plan your operating time to be as effective as possible. In this article, I’ll break down the preparation process into planning, preparing, and performing so you can make the most of your operating time and score better in every contest!

Planning

Like real estate’s “location, location, location,” success in long contests is driven by “propagation, propagation, propagation.” Let’s assume we’re considering the 48-hour international contests. There are two types: targeted region (Worked All Europe (WAE), ARRL DX) and everybody-works-everybody (CQ World Wide, IARU HF Championship). 

For the first type, your primary job is to figure out when the bands are open to the target area. For example, in ARRL DX from outside the U.S. at the sunspot minimum, there is not much benefit to being on 15 meters when North America is asleep or busy on the low bands. In the same contest from VE7, 20 meters might technically be open to Europe at 1400 UTC, but you’ll be several S-units weaker than the stations in eastern provinces and U.S. states, so why not use your western location to your advantage by working Japan and the Pacific Rim on the low bands?

In the second type of contest, you face competition from areas around the world with better propagation to the areas you want to work. While you might be able to hear a DX station, if your signal level isn’t competitive with the favored regions at that time, your success rate will be pretty low. For example, in the U.S. it’s not uncommon for strong-sounding Pacific or SE Asia stations to have large pileups of stations in Japan or Europe that are inaudible to U.S. stations but S-9+ over there. Calling those stations can be a frustrating exercise. Meanwhile, you could be focusing on stations from areas with favorable propagation that are easy to work or even “runnable” by calling CQ.

How do you find out what bands and directions are the best? Luckily, there are some very good propagation prediction tools available. One of my favorites is the VOACAP online service by Jari, OH6BG. Jari has even put together a contest propagation planning tool that lets you do a band-by-band, hour-by-hour analysis for your station based on current solar conditions. The graphic here shows the hourly short-path propagation on 80 meters between my approximate location and the 40 CQ zones around the world. Don’t forget to take a look at the long-path (LP) openings, too!

This type of analysis is most helpful in identifying those times when you might have a limited opening and need to “be there” to work a valuable multiplier. For example, I should be able to work Brazil (PY) most of the night on 80 meters, right? Wrong! I should be looking before and right after midnight. Zone 15 (Central Europe) openings will be short, too, and not particularly strong. You can find out more about VOACAP in the extensive blog entries and in the VOACAP Propagation Planner’s User Manual. There are also tools to help you plan your efforts to work a DXpedition or determine the best times to take a needed rest or sleep break.

Remember that these predictions are based on a statistical model. On any one day, propagation can be better or worse—the Sun can cough up a flare, sporadic-E can liven up bands that don’t support F-layer skip, and so on. Listen to the bands in the days before a contest to see what’s happening at important times. Don’t neglect to look back 27 days (one solar rotation) to see what conditions might be like when the Sun is facing the Earth in the same way once again. Use the Reverse Beacon Net on different times and bands to see where your signal is being heard and how strongly. Tune around at sunrise and sunset to see who’s on and audible. Get NG3K’s list of contest operations and see if you can hear them “tuning up” in the days before the contest. Knowing who is on the bands and when is a great way to run up your score—simply by showing up.

You can use these predictions throughout your planning process to determine how to make the best use of your station and the most precious resource of all—your time.

Preparing

Your station needs preparation and you need preparation. Let’s start with the easy part—the equipment. The time to be sure your antenna farm and all of your major equipment items are working properly is before the contest. Look for intermittent behaviors that might indicate a loose cable (tighten them all!), a clamp working loose, or maybe RF getting into something it shouldn’t. Take care of those problems as soon as you find them—again, well before the contest.

When the contest is approaching, be sure you have upgraded your logging software to the latest version and downloaded all of the latest CTY file and master call sign files. (The CTY file contains a list of countries and prefixes, including calls that don’t fit the standard prefix patterns.) Don’t wait until the day of the contest to do this! Configure your software for the contest and get all of the on-screen controls and windows placed just the way you like them. If you use prerecorded messages, be sure they are the right ones and practice using them. Be sure the logging software, keyers, and any other gadgets are working properly at the full power level you expect to use. 

Choose a category that will be fun for you to enter, however you define “fun.” Single-band entries are great ways to learn about a band, for example. If your goal is to work a lot of multipliers, the Unlimited or Assisted categories will provide lots of opportunities to do that, although the steady flood of “spots” can distract from staying on one frequency and calling CQ. Read the contest rules, too, especially the ones about required off-periods!

Prepare the equipment that supports you. Start by reading the section of my blog entry “Small Equipment Upgrades” that discusses ergonomics. If there are changes that need to be made, start well before the contest and get yourself comfortable and ready to go. If you use battery-powered accessories (or hearing aids, like me) be sure the batteries are fresh and have spares handy. Inspect the mike and key, set audio levels, check for noise or distortion, clean your glasses, brush your teeth, sit up straight! (“Yes, Mom…”)

Don’t forget your own self. Prepare yourself for long periods of sitting. It should not be a surprise that for a 48-hour contest, you’ll be at your operating desk for more than you do in a week of work. Many of us past 40 years old have heard about the need to keep your blood flowing—why not try a pair of compression socks? They keep your circulation going and the oxygen-carrying blood where it counts—in your brain and upper body. Diet is important, too. Stay hydrated, my friends! Stock your station with easy-to-digest, high-energy snacks like trail mix you can nibble on while operating. Big meals tend to put me to sleep— maybe that’s the same for you? Another secret is to stand up while operating. Only a few minutes every hour can make a difference.

What about caffeine? I know some operators who never touch the stuff and others who are never seen without caffeinated soda or coffee. If you’re like most people, somewhere in between those extremes, my advice is to start the contest decaffeinated and go as long as you can without it. Try to save the “coffee boost” for later in the contest when you really need it. Regardless, use caffeine in moderation to avoid nervous jitters that can hurt operating accuracy and lead to body crashes after it wears off.

In the long term, exercise and personal fitness are generally helpful for these radio marathons.  Contesting burns a surprising amount of energy, although you generally aren’t exerting yourself physically. The top operators train for their contesting weekends as athletes—shouldn’t you?

Performing

Technique—During the contest, this is when you need to rely on the “muscle memory” you’ve developed through regular operating. Once the initial adrenaline surge wears off, you should strive for a focused “groove” of steady operating. To get an idea of what I’m talking about, listen to a top operator run a pileup some time—there’s little wasted motion, no extra syllables or characters, each contact is the same as the last. How do you do that?

On phone, it can be as simple as remembering to breathe. Before each transmission, take a breath.  Even the long Sweepstakes exchange can be done in one breath if you inhale deeply and then give all the information smoothly without pauses or extra words like, “Uh…”  Work hard at getting rid of extra verbiage like “Please copy…” and “You are…” which are both completely useless and waste everyone’s time. CQs should be short, clear, and with just enough time for someone to respond before starting the next one. If you are answering a CQ, give your call just once and be ready to respond. To acknowledge an exchange, all you have to say is the quick, “Thanks…” and your call sign to keep things going.

On CW or the digital modes, you have the benefit of the computer being able to send messages repeatedly and the same way every single time.  Most digital interfaces also support CW keying as does the RigExpert TI-5000. As with phone, edit out unnecessary characters like K at the end of CQs or DE before your call sign. Remember that you are going to send the same information hundreds if not thousands of times, so keep it to a minimum.

CQ or S&P—Before the contest, check your old contest logs or borrow some from a friend and identify periods when you had the most success in logging a lot of stations. Note the band and time for CQing if conditions support it. If you can get a steady rate, CQ for as long as you can before the contact rate (displayed by your logging software in contacts per minute) drops below the rate you can sustain by searching and pouncing. While tuning the band, if you hear an open frequency, try calling CQ to see what happens. Even QRP stations can get answers to CQs during good openings, so take advantage of those lucky opportunities.

Remember to think about how your signal sounds to the other stations. This is particularly true for low-power stations trying to CQ. Are you calling on a relatively clear frequency where other stations will hear you and not tune by the interference from big guns on either side? If your signal is not super-strong, maybe somewhere high in the band is better than slugging it out with the big multioperator stations.  When you find something that works, make a note to try it again later or in the next contest.

Before you start the contest, remind yourself that all new multipliers count exactly the same in the final score. In Sweepstakes, Western Massachusetts counts just the same as Yukon-Northwest Territories if you haven’t worked it yet. In a DX contest, a new ZS counts exactly the same as ZD9. Spending too long chasing a rare country is called “the DXing trap.” We all like putting contacts with rare countries in the log, but in a contest, rarity means nothing! Most contest logging software will tell you how much each multiplier is worth in terms of non-multiplier contacts as a reminder of how much time to spend in the pileup. This process is an art rather than a science.

Accuracy—Why give away contacts and multipliers with sloppy copy? Most of the major contest sponsors remove contacts if the call sign or exchange are miscopied. Many assess an additional QSO-point penalty for mis-copied signals as well. It’s not enough to just go fast, you have to get all the information right. This gets harder and harder as the contest goes on and as you get more tired, so make accurate operating a habit you can do all the time.

Avoid using databases of information from other contests because that is a sure way to lose QSOs.  Stations and operators often move around, so don’t trust the information from “last time.” Listen to what is sent and copy that. It’s particularly important to get that first QSO with a station right because when you work them on another band, your logging software will “helpfully” fill in your log window with that same information. If you mis-copy on the first QSO, you might lose every subsequent QSO by re-using that bad information from before.

Sleep—Everyone is unique, but it’s safe to say that you won’t do your best when sleep-deprived. If you are a morning person but plan on operating through the night, try to shift your sleep cycle later in the days before the contest. Pre-contest naps help you get through that first-night “valley.” 

Very few operators can go 48 hours without sleep and stay active for the entire contest. Just look at the hours-operated stats in results. Most operators take off several hours, even those in the Top Ten. A combination of catnaps and short periods away from the radio can really help keep you more alert and on the air for more hours. Learn about the 90-minute sleep cycle and find out what works for you so you don’t wake up groggy (or turn off the alarm and go back to sleep!).

If you find yourself nodding off or getting confused, that is a sure sign that you need to at least stand up and walk around. Take a potty break! These “down” periods are when you make mistakes—in copying, in typing, in operating your radio, selecting antennas, etc. Listen to your body, stay warm but not too warm, cool but not cold.

Plan your sleep times to coincide with periods during which it’s hard to score a lot of points. You can look at your old logs, for example. Were there nighttime hours where you only worked a few stations?  Is there a midday slump around local noon? Was Sunday afternoon really slow before the rate picked up again toward the end of the contest? Look for opportunities to refresh yourself at a minimum cost to your score.

Enjoying the Ride!  Finally, don’t forget that contesting should be fun.  Sure, the later hours can be slow and big pileups frustrating, but take pride in what you are able to accomplish. Each small triumph is motivating and seeing your score tick up, up, up is rewarding. Challenge yourself to make that next score milestone—and celebrate when you do. 

The Geochron map tracks sunlight throughout the day, important for bagging that rare multiplier along the grey line. Grey line maps are available online or as part of logging software, too.

While you’re on the air, don’t forget that you’re listening to the world turn! Bands open and close, stations appear out of the noise and disappear again, signals fade and flutter. It’s something that only the amateurs experience and part of what makes contesting and Amateur Radio truly special.

Related Posts