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Amateur Radio Contesting from your Backyard

In late 18th century Italy, engineer Guglielmo Marconi invented radio. A few decades later, radio became a mainstay for news and communication in Europe and America. But in addition to offering a medium for broadcasting, radio opened the way for a new and fascinating hobby: amateur radio. Amateur radio, also called ham radio, allows people of all ages around the world, or even in outer space, to connect with one another without Internet access, computers, or phones.

If you're looking for a little competition to challenge your amateur radio skills, look no further than radio contesting, a type of radio sport where you aim to contact as many stations as you can in a certain amount of time.

Starting in Radio Contesting: Equipment and Rules

Equipped with a license and call sign, you need just a few basic tools to participate in radio contests, starting with a proper radio shack. For a traditional station, you should find a quiet place in your house, garage, or yard to set up your gear. Some hams have had success repurposing a garden (shed) or other small structure.

Beyond the obvious transmitter/receiver radio and antenna, you'll need a small direct current power supply for non-battery-operated radios and an SWR meter to tune your antenna. For contests that use Morse code, you'll need an iambic paddle and, if you're new to this form of communication, a guide to Morse code.

Rules vary in a ham radio contest. Generally, you can work within only certain radio frequency bands. Each contest will also require that your send and receive certain information, such as your location or name. Some are based on the mode of communication, such as continuous wave or digital; others are based on geography, as in state-specific QSO (contact) parties; still others are based on power level or frequency.

Though technical rules vary, one constant is the requirement for civility. Be sure to show respect to your fellow radio operators when you're on the air.

Common Techniques in Radio Contesting

Radio amateurs employ several techniques to make the most of their time in a radio contest and optimize their contact load. Three well-known ones are search and pounce, running, and solar propagation.

In search and pounce, you do just what the name suggests: search for available operators on the set contest band and pounce to contact them. This technique works well for small signal profiles. For larger profiles, you might employ running, whereby you call "CQ contest" or "CQ test" on a clear frequency and log whoever responds.

More technical radio amateurs might use knowledge of solar propagation to increase productivity along "open" bands. Propagation describes the behavior or traveling radio waves. Different environmental and geographic factors can influence propagation. Watching the solar numbers clues you into which bands will yield the best connection. A number of solar values have particular relevance for radio amateurs, such as the solar flux index, the sunspot number (SN), the A and K indices, and sig noise level.

Several organizations maintain up-to-date reports on the solar numbers, including the Space Weather Prediction Center. In additional, independent radio operators like WM7D maintain similar records. Don't worry if you don't understand all of these calculations at first; the Internet has several resources to help you interpret solar numbers for amateur radio.

Logging and Winning in a Radio Contest

For casual radio use, some hams maintain a log of contacts and others don't. If you're competing in a radio contest, keeping a log is usually required for participation. A radio log records the contacts you've made in a certain span of time. Your call sign, the call sign of the operator you contacted, the date, and the frequency band are some of the details you might note in a logbook.

You have a couple of options when you have to keep a logbook: You can either write it on paper in the traditional way, either in a plain composition book or a designed-for-radio notebook, or you can go digital with one of the many ham radio logbook programs now available.

To officially enter and potentially win a ham radio contest, often, you must submit your radio log to the administrating organization. In these instances, a digital log may be better than a written log, as it reduces the risk of error and increases speed and convenience.

Need-to-Know Lingo

Amateur radio involves a lot of lingo. Below are some of the most common phrases and terms you should be familiar with:

Technical Terms

  • CW: continuous wave, a radio communication using Morse code
  • HF: high frequency, between 3 and 30 megahertz
  • DX communications: distance communications, distance contacts
  • Hertz: unit used to measure frequency
  • Mobile: a station installed in a vehicle
  • Radio shack: a room or shed used to house radio equipment
  • Ragchew: informal chatter using radio
  • RF: radio frequency
  • Rig: a radio

Conversational Radio Terms

  • CQ: "Calling any station"
  • QRA: "What's your call sign?"
  • QRL: "Is this frequency in use?" or "Are you busy?"
  • QRZ: "Who is calling me?"
  • QSL: confirms receipt of a message
  • QSO: a conversation between two radio operators
  • QTH: home or home radio station
  • 73: "Best regards"
  • 88: "Love and kisses," typically used between a familiar male and female

Radio Contesting Terms

  • Bonus: extra points earned for making certain contacts
  • DQ: disqualification
  • Mult: multiplier, a variable used in calculating your score
  • Off-time: times in a contest when you must cease operation
  • Run: to run a station calling "CQ" as you expect responses
  • S&P: the search and pounce technique
  • SPC: state, province, country; location-based multipliers
  • Sunday driver: radio operators who join late in the contest
  • UBN: unique, busted, not in log; used to judge a QSO contact invalid

The American Radio Relay League provides a comprehensive glossary of technical and some conversational ham radio lingo on their website. You might also find it useful to memorize conversational radio lingo, called international Q-code.

Amateur radio is a hobby that has attracted hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people worldwide. Through radio, you can connect with contacts around the globe without ever needing to leave your yard. Reach out to your local radio club or contest group or attend a field day to try your hand at radio contesting.

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