Contest Preparation Hints
By Jim George – N3BB
for the Central Texas DX & Contest Club
1. Before the Contest
- Make a checklist like this one, customized to the needs of your individual station.
- Have everything QRV a week in advance. Do not work on “stuff” right up to the contest. Get to sleep early the previous week.
- Locate paper, pencils, ball point pens.
- Snacks ready to eat. Beverages ready.
- Locate a “TV tray” or other suitable surface for contest paperwork and food/beverages.
- Update tuning chart for amp quick-tune.
- Record outgoing CW or SSB messages (K1EA DVP, W9XT Contest Card, etc.)
- Set PC for correct date and UTC (use WWV on 10 MHz.)
- Set up computer files, CW/Voice memories.
- Prepare keyboard overlay. Clearly mark “F2,” “Alt-F3,” “Ctl-F6,” etc.
- Simulate a few QSOs on computer, with radio interfaces, then erase log file.
- Get propagation forecast. Understand optimum times for openings, especially “running” into EU and JA. Prepare a band plan to assist when tired or confused.
- Review past contest logs and magazine results plus 3830 summaries for tips and strategies.
- Check for RFI with full power, all bands/antennas, computer interfaced. Ensure no keyboard lock-ups or other RFI gremlins.
2. The Operating Position
- Contest eyeglasses handy. Recommend non-bifocals with depth of field for monitor.
- Lozenges handy for SSB. Coffee/tea brewer/heater in place.
- Make sure PC boots cleanly. No unnecessary TSRs installed.
- Verify receiver attenuator, noise blanker, split frequency all turned off.
- Air conditioner operational with vents open to proper level in radio room.
- Telephone high pass filters ready for handing out to neighbors.
- Agree on schedule and food support plan with XYL.
- Adjust VOX delay or use PTT for SSB.
- Contest rules handy. Contest software manual handy.
- Prepare sheet with suggested “QSY” frequencies for moving multiplier stations that call you.
- Prepare off-time strategy and sheet to ensure you don’t exceed maximum operating time.
- Do receiver noise survey with PC and monitor on. Perhaps turning antenna slightly helps.
- Establish a stretch, but realistic, goal for the contest.
- Review last year’s rate sheet to fine tune strategies for band changes and off times.
- Pee jug available (for hard core.)
- Confirm all ground wires connected securely in radio room.
3. Get Ready for Action!
- Verify all rotator controller readings line up with actual antenna directions.
- Use a station you “are at one” with. Know your station.
- Develop or operate a station that can operate effectively on any two bands with a competitive signal on all bands. Competitive means capability to CQ on a run frequency and get most search and pounce targets on one call.
- Know the contest. Realistically, there is a lengthy experience curve. You can improve every year as you gain experience.
- Program QSY frequencies into your receiver memory. Make it easy to check for clear QSY frequencies before you move stations (especially important on SSB).
- Download contest operations and DXpeditions listed on the NG3K web site. Print out for handy reference during the contest.
- SO2R! (A whole separate subject.) It’s more work, more fun, and more money. But it’s “de rigueur” now, and is used by the top competitors. See the K8ND web site for info.
4. During the Contest
- For best scores, “rate is key.” Call CQ whenever possible. Many of the mults will call you. Even with 100 watts or even just 5 watts, there are times you can and should be CQing.
- Ignore other peoples’ serial numbers. Some play games, and off-times are unknown.
- Use short pauses between CQs so no search and pouncers will tune across a silent frequency, and no “intruders” will start up a CQ on your frequency.
- Consider using the “CQ after transmission on Alt Radio” feature of many contest logging programs to keep your run frequency “warm” when doing SO2R.
- Need VY1, VE8, or VO2? Point antenna NE or NW while running. They often call you.
- Maintain run rhythm! See tips later. Bad: “Who was the Yankee Zulu?” Good: “Yankee Zulu 59 N3BB Texas.”
- Maintain accuracy! Don’t log it until you are sure.
- Scores converge. Every QSO is important. Catch up the second day.
- No alcohol, except maybe one ounce before Sunday morning sleep, and post-contest celebration.
- Call CQ beaming to population centers (W3 and W6 for USA; EU and JA for DX). Better footprint: spread out your transmitted signal in multiple directions to maximize rate and mults. Some keep two antennas on EU and ESE running EU and on JA and WSW running JA.
5. Operational Focus
- Make notes in real time (Alt-N or Ctl-N) to capture info and tips during the contest.
- Check long path. 20 and 40 will open to VU, 9N, 4S7, A6, A7, etc. Listen and call some LP CQs at proper times. You might be surprised with the loud LP openings.
- Use the highest open band to run. Search and pounce on the one or two lower frequency bands.
- Understand your multiplier strategy. Don’t worry about routine mults until Sunday, but if you get a good one, move them at any time. Don’t be afraid to ask people to QSY. Many casual operators really enjoy “being moved.”
- Know who is running above and below you. It’s optimum to be sandwiched between two same-region stations, as you present a soft back scatter signal to one another, yet a loud “wall” to the DX target area. This makes it less likely that you’ll get a strong DX station CQing next to your run freq. Keep centered in your “sandwich,” so others can’t sneak in.
- Use automated CW and voice keyer to send as much as possible. For example, in the ARRL November Sweepstakes: “Bravo N3BB 57 Texas.”
- Motivation: Imagine pinned S-Meters on East and West coasts!
- Motivation: Stay committed to your goals. Operate as much as possible.
6. Be Efficient!
- For SO2R, use low pitch (400 Hz) in the left radio ear, and high pitch (700 Hz) in the right radio ear. This helps your brain separate the two audio streams.
- For SO2R, turn down monitor volume for transmitted signal to 10volume of “listening on second radio” audio. It’s helpful to hear your transmitted signal, if only barely.
- Success equals preparation and opportunity. Opportunity is a function of conditions.
- Save time and energy whenever possible. If you make 3000 QSOs and call CQ 5000 times in a full weekend, then shortening the average exchange by one character will save you 8000 characters, or 1600 “words,” which is 53 minutes at 30 WPM.
- Send the exchange only once. Get the station’s call right the first time. If you miss it, both you and he will resend it, extending the QSO length by 2X.
7. CW Contesting
- Start at higher speed (34-38 WPM), then slow down as the rate falls (26-28 WPM.)
- Vary the CW speed frequently. Consider two “pre-set” speeds such as 36 and 30 WPM. Toggle between them (“Alt-V” in NA.)
- If a pileup grows, increase speed until it becomes manageable.
- Tune RIT 300 Hz +/- after every CQ. People will call you off to the sides.
- Go up high in the band (> .050) to CQ more slowly, as you will get some stations that won’t call you lower in the “fast track.” Look for mults (> .100) especially the second day.
- When moving a CW station, the convention is to move up the band if the “QSY frequency” is occupied. Move up until the first clear spot.
- In contests with a lot of QSYing (such as the NCJ North American QSO Party), if you’re CQing on a “round number” like 7040 or 3550, you’ll be hit with QSYers. If you’re on a half-freq like 3551.5, the chances are less that you’ll be bothered.
8. Phone Contesting
- Attract non-contesters with friendly or plaintive CQs. Make them say the complete exchange.
- Fast AGC only – needed to protect your ears. Vary the RF gain control to avoid undesirable compression.
- Look for 10 meter novice/tech+ operators. They will be “uniques” and will improve your premium time rates when you will work more hard core contesters.
- Good SSB QSY freqs often are high in the band, eg. 14347.
- “Smile” when you talk. Sound happy and relaxed. People like to call happy people.
- Running “rate” refers to a unique situation when your number of contacts is limited only by your ability to select calls, send and receive exchanges, and manage the callers (pile-up.)
- From central Texas, “rate periods” are when the band opens to EU and JA and you can run average stations running 100 W and modest antennas (wires and small yagis.) Don’t ever miss these periods! Don’t confuse these rate times with the times when the major DX stations are pounding in running US stations, but the “average” stations are a layer or more below runnable strength. Summer and winter conditions are different, as are solar minimum and maximum portions of the cycle. General times for running EU are W5 mornings (daylight path) on 10-15 and late afternoon (DX evenings) on 20 before the MUF drops in their darkness. EU on 40 is a darkness path (our night and DX morning before the SRT). For JA, these rate times are W5 afternoons and early evenings on 10-15 (JA daylight mornings) and a dark path (JA night and W5 early morning up to our sunrise) on 40. In the summer, with lengthy daylight in the Northern hemisphere, the rate time will be the W5 overnight to EU-Asia morning on 15 and specially 20 meters. The propagation analyses done by N5TW are excellent guidelines and references.
10. To Run Rate
- Recognize the opportunity to run rate!
- Send calls and exchanges only once.
- Send your own call only once.
- Respond after callers give one call. Develop a “pace” that will establish your rhythm.
- Be in control.
- Limit extraneous stuff. Send a quick “TU”or other short QSL message.
- When more than one station calls you, consider sending “TU” only and not your call after every QSO. The stations know you are there and want you to finish the QSO so they can call you again. Send “TU” and your call after every three QSOs in a pile-up situation.
- Respond to every call with something to maintain rhythm. For example, “DL5 599 4” rather than “DL5?”
- Practice ability (it’s hard) to maintain a mental or software “stack” of waiting callers. That will ensure you can work a next station even when many are calling.
- Listen +/- 300 Hz on CW with the RIT after CQs when no one appears to call you inside your receiver pass band. Often there are people calling you outside your pass band.
11. Think Loud!
- “Someone always is calling you.” (Famous N3RS quote.)
- If you have a huge EU or JA pile-up, occasionally ask the pack to stand by. This will work for JAs, but not well at all for EU! This will enable you to hear the weaker and more distant next level of deep Asians calling beneath the stronger “curtains.”
- Maintain a sense of urgency.
- Listen for encroaching and intruding stations. The best contesters are fierce protectors of their CQ space.
** Published here with the kind approval of the original author N3BB**