K5LAD - 50+ Years of Ham Radio Memories

Volume XII

How I Work DX and DX Contests

You’ll note that I deliberately did not title this article, “The Way to Work DX and Contests” and there’s a reason for that.  I love to spend my time working DX and seeing how far or how well I can get my signal into some far-flung country, but I am not an expert at it.  I never have been and I’m quite sure that I never will be.  The real experts on working DX are often so involved with DXing that they go out of their way to spend lots of their money on equipment, towers, and antennas……. although I guess some would say that I’ve gone out of my way to spend lots of money on equipment, towers, and antennas.  Still, those folks would boast about their places on the DX Honor Roll and the fact that they’ve worked every country that has ever had a ham operate from that location.  Now there’s where I can claim not to even be in the same group with those guys.

 As a matter of fact, I’ve only submitted QSL cards toward DXCC (proof of working at least 100 countries) one time and that was back in 1972.  Not only did I submit my 100 QSL cards but sent in a grand total of 112 cards to the ARRL and, as far as they know, I’ve never worked or confirmed another country since then.   Actually, as I write this, my countries total currently stands at 272 countries worked with 229 confirmed but that’s a far cry from the 330+ total of all the possibilities.  I don’t have the exact number of countries possible and haven’t made an effort to get that exact number for the same reason that I don’t sit around and think of how I would spend that check from Publisher’s Clearing House or a win at the lottery.  Since none of these things are much of a possibility for me, I don’t see a need to make plans.

 I enjoy getting on the DX contests sponsored by the ARRL and CQ Magazine.  They’re organized and there’s a better chance of hams in those foreign countries arranging to be on the air during those particular weekends of the contests.   If you’re hoping to increase your country totals, a couple of those contests will really make your numbers climb.  The contests usually go from early evening on a Friday to early evening on a Sunday.  Most of the contests will let you work every hour of that time, if you have that physical ability and your family allows it.  Personally, I’m too old to miss out on my sleep (notice also that I didn’t call it my “beauty sleep”) to operate a contest.  I’m also aware of family time needs so I don’t try to push my luck.  For that reason, I don’t win any or many awards for my contest participation.  I do have lots of fun, however.

 If you’d like to participate in a DX contest, find out when they are to be.  I also enjoy the CQ World Wide DX Contest that is the last weekend in October.  As I write this, I’ve just come off my participation in that one and it was great.  I didn’t have a winning score I’m quite sure.   I didn’t even have as high a score as I have had in past years on this one due to the poor propagation but I did have an enjoyable time and I did pick up a couple of new countries. 

 There’s also the ARRL DX Contest that is in early March.  Then there’s the CQ WPX Contest where you’re looking for particular prefixes around the world.  For instance, just taking prefixes around our local area you’ll run into:  W5, K5, WA5, WB5, WD5, N5, KB5, KC5, KD5, KE5, etc……. you get the idea.  There are even more among the vanity call group so you can collect a lot of different prefixes from around the globe and increase your country total in the process.  The WPX Contest is usually the last weekend in March.  There are numerous other contests you can enter to hone your skills and make sure your equipment is in top operating shape.  Another popular contest is the ARRL November Sweepstakes held in, well…….November.  This one is primarily to see if you can make a “clean sweep” by working stations in all US and Canadian areas.  It’s always a fun activity.

 It doesn’t take a lot of fancy-schmancy equipment or antennas but they do help.  During contests, the bands are loaded with signals and everybody is trying to shoehorn their way into a space.  If you have a receiver which has a tight front end and IF, plus the ability to separate signals within a passband, the easier it is to use.  If you have a nice rotatable beam antenna up on a tall tower, it becomes easier to listen to the station you’re looking for and are able to squirt your signal in the direction of the station you’re trying to contact.  If you have an amplifier for your transmitter, it is often easier to contact the station, however, all these things are not a requirement.  There are hundreds of stations with small transmitters with no amplifiers and a non-fancy receiver coupled to a G5RV or vertical antenna and they are making gobs of contacts, even racking up some pretty good totals.

 Ability to work some stations comes in layers with the high power, fancy rig, and exotic antennas often getting through first, and the lesser the station, the longer to get down to your layer, but they will usually get down there, if you have the patience to wait.  Contests also have specific categories so your score is only compared to those in the same category, i.e., QRP (up to 5 watts), Low (up to 100 watts), and High (up to the legal limit of power).  All those stations are competing for a contact with that DX station but your scores are only compared with your group. 

 Most of these organization-sponsored contests have both a Phone (SSB) and a CW version and each are held on different non-conflicting weekends.  Although CW is no longer a requirement for getting an amateur radio license, the use of CW on the bands is still high and may even be increasing a bit.  Also, if you think your station is too small or is inadequate to compete in the Phone contests, the CW contest may help to equalize the differences between the “big guns” and the “little guns.”   CW can still get through, with less power and better reliability, where SSB fails.  Don’t sell CW short; it’s still an active and useful mode.

 It is also helpful to have some additional tools but they’re not a requirement.  If you can use a computerize logging program, you can keep track of your contacts more easily.  I use Logger32 [free program] (www.logger32.net) for my regular logging operation but during contests I use one of the logging programs available from N3FJP (www.n3fjp.com).    Scott’s programs are specifically written for a particular contest and he has a whole stable full of these programs.   You can choose the logging program you want which goes with the contest in which you plan to participate, and the cost is quite low, typically in the order of $5 to $10 per program.  N3FJP will let you buy his whole collection of logging programs for $39, which is an absolute bargain.  Each program has a password to install and the pass code is generated from your ham call.  When you buy the package, or a single program, from Scott, he sends you this pass code via e-mail and you download the program from his website.   This can easily be done within an hour of the start of a contest if you’ve just decided to participate in one.

 The nice thing about the N3FJP programs is, it checks for “dupes” or duplicate contacts.  Most contact rules only allow one contact with a particular station or perhaps one contact per band with a station.  The program keeps track for you so you don’t need to remember if you’ve already worked a particular call.  The program also keeps track of points earned and the number of multipliers earned and keeps a running total of your score.  It also tells you the speed at which you are making contacts, i.e., ## contacts per hour.

 Once the contest is complete, it allows you to easily generate a file in Cabrillo format to send to the group sponsoring the contest.  The sponsors ask that you only submit your log in this format but with the N3FJP programs, it’s a snap.   They also allow you to save your contest results in a different format called ADIF.  Most general logging programs can import and export files in ADIF format so once the contest is complete, you save the ADIF file and import it right into your logging program.   In my case, I import it into my Logger32 program and it takes only a few minutes.

 Another nice thing to have to work DX and contests is a set of good headphones.  If you have a headset which includes an attached microphone, that’s even better.  I say good headphones because a poorer pair, after being worn for several hours at a time, will hurt your ears like crazy.  If you are using a headset, you’ll also need a way to key the PTT on your transceiver or transmitter.   This can be a hand-operated or a foot-operated switch.  I do not recommend using VOX during a contest.

 For the person who hesitates to try a DX contest because they don’t have a tall beam antenna, let me share with you a true story from last week’s contest.  I’m telling tales on myself and now you’ll know how goofy I can be but I have an excuse and the numbers on my driver’s license prove it.  I recently had some problems with my big 3-element SteppIR beam, which were caused by Oklahoma’s wild weather.  A group of great ham friends had helped me haul it down, repair it, and get it back on the tower, ready for the contest.  During the contest I began to think that it was not operating properly and no longer had good directivity or front to back.  I continued to make some pretty good DX contacts but it just didn’t seem right.   I had even complained to my wife (who had brought a meal out to the hamshack for me) that I thought I was having some major problems with my beam.

 This had been going on for well over an hour when suddenly I realized that the antenna switch on my antenna tuner was not all the way to the left for the beam but instead was on the position for my 130 foot ladder-line fed dipole.  This is the antenna which is described on my website, which is about 37 feet high on one end and 5 feet high on the other.  The reason I admit my stupidity here is to say, you do NOT need a fancy antenna to work DX and it doesn’t even need to be too high in the air.  True, I was using an amplifier on the transmitter but that amplifier did nothing to help the received signals yet I continued to work probably more than 40-50 DX stations.  

Part of DXing and contest operations is psychological……. ……….if you think you can, you probably can.  You’ll never know ‘till you try it.

 Now to shift gears a bit, I do have some pet peeves of some contest operators.  My primary peeve is the operator out there who thinks he can make more contacts by speaking at double or triple his normal speed.   Maybe it’s my Oklahoma upbringing or perhaps I’ve just torn too many pages off my calendar but I cannot understand these clowns……… ooooops……. didn’t mean for my opinion to slip in there………… these fine “self-perceived,” efficient operators.  They don’t seem to notice that they must make many more CQ calls before they get an answer because we, out there in radio land, can’t pick out their call.   This is true for some foreign and also some US stations.  When I contact one of these stations, I’m inclined to give him his return report at ……….a ……..very ……….slow ……..rate ……..so ……….it ……….takes ……….him ……….longer ………..to ……….get …….to ………his ………….next ………….contact.   Ornery?    Probably, but it makes me feel better.  

 Another peeve is the foreign operator who uses some screwy phonetic and I can’t decipher his actual call.   I’ve sometimes wasted some time I shouldn’t have, just trying to get his call and I was never able to get it and finally moved on to find another.  I realize that was my fault but it does irk me sometimes.

 If you’re already a DX or a contest operator, some of these things will be “old hat” to you and you might already know and use them.  By the same token, you may have many more DXCC countries than me and don’t use any of these tricks at all, to your great success.  Again, I go back to the original title of the article, “How I Work DX and DX Contests” 

 If you haven’t tried DXing or contesting before, perhaps this article will give you a small push to give them a try.  It doesn’t require a lot of fancy equipment and it’s really fun.

73 ---- Jim - K5LAD

Created December 6, 2008             Updated 05/04/2011

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