What is a "contest"?
There is no exact definition, but basically a few rules of the game are always fixed. For example, the time and duration of the contest is precisely defined. A contest typically lasts a few hours or up to two days. Usually there are several classes of participants (max. transmission power, individual or team participation, etc.).
The evaluation criterion for a contest is typically the number of QSOs (contacts). The goal is to establish as many contacts as possible within a specified period of time. On VHF, each kilometer covered counts as a point in many contests. On shortwave, in addition to the number of QSOs, there are often special incentives known as multipliers. These can include connections with other continents, which yield additional points, or the number of countries worked. Each new country multiplies the number of points. Some contest rules are so complex that it is prudent to carefully consider how to best meet the respective criteria. This complexity is deliberate, as thorough planning is a significant component of success in the contest.
The top contests of the year: CQWW SSB, CQWW CW and more
There are an enormous number of contests in amateur radio. In fact, every weekend there is at least one contest, often more. Why at the weekend? So that as many amateur radio operators as possible can participate in their spare time.
If you look at a typical contest calendar, you will see that up to ten simultaneous contests can run on a weekend. These then differ in the mode of operation (SSB, CW, etc.), some contests are very regionally limited. But they all pursue one goal, to increase activity on the amateur radio bands.
Most contests are organised by national associations. So here the organisation, evaluation and award ceremony is done by a national association. This can be the ARRL (USA), the UBA (Belgium), the DARC (Germany) or even a smaller association like the AGCW e.V.. But one US magazine (CQ Magazine) has been particularly committed and has set up the contests with the largest number of participants.
If you now ask which contests are the most important or the biggest, you will get many different answers. This is because every amateur radio operator has his or her own preferences, for example, in the mode of operation. The contests with the largest number of participants on shortwave are without question those of the US magazine "CQ", the "CQ WW" and "CQ WPX" contests.
On which bands do contests take place?
By convention, shortwave contests take place only on the "classic" bands, the WARC bands are excluded. This leaves room for QSOs away from the hustle and bustle of the contest for those who do not wish to participate in the contest action. The classic bands are
Even within these bands, contesting is usually only allowed within certain segments.
Shortwave - the most popular contests
- CQ WW DX end of October (SSB)
- CQ WW DX end of November (CW)
- CQ WW DX Ende September (RTTY)
- CQ WPX End of March (SSB)
- CQ WPX End of May (CW)
- CQ WPX February (RTTY)
- ARRL 160 m and ARRL 10 m
- ARRL DX
- IARU HF Championship
Very High Frequency VHF
On VHF from the 2 m band upwards, contests take place on all bands, each in the SSB/CW segment. On 6 m, contests have also been held for some years. On VHF, there are strong regional differences in the contests. In Europe, the most important contests are
- IARU Region 1 Contest VHF, September
- IARU Region 1 Contest UHF, SHF, Mikrowelle, Oktober
- IARU Region 1 Marconi Memorial Contest VHF, November
- DARC VHF, UHF, Microwave (March, May, July)
Moreover, there is an almost unmanageable number of contests, each of which has its own charm and would be worth a separate consideration. But there are too many. Later in the text, we recommend links to calendar competition overviews.
48 hours of excitement: CQWW SSB and CQWW CW in detail
These contests are among the most popular contests of the year. The classic CQWW SSB and CQWW CW run in autumn, when band conditions are best in the northern hemisphere (few thunderstorms, slightly better chances of good propagation conditions). These contests last 48 hours, always from 0:00 UTC on Saturday to 23:59 UTC on Sunday. There are separate SSB and CW contests, then the somewhat smaller RTTY contests. The difference between CQWW and CQ WPX is the scoring, in WPX different prefixes count as multi, this means you can be coveted with almost any callsign.
The Worked All Europe Contest is also held separately in CW (August) and SSB (September). Here, for European stations, only connections outside Europe count as multipliers, which means you have to try hard to DX. For stations outside Europe, connections with any country in Europe are particularly valuable. A very unusual feature of the WAE is the exchange of so-called QTCs. Here, up to 10 QSO's made earlier in the contest are reported back to the opposite station. This takes time and effort, because the log data must be transmitted without errors. In return, the reward of many points is particularly high.
Almost every national association promotes a contest that focuses on the radio amateurs of that country. That is, connections with this country bring extra points or even serve as multipliers. This way, even a country that is represented relatively often can enjoy being the focus of attention.
For Germany, this is the Worked All Germany Contest (October). You can participate in SSB or CW or mixed, there are numerous classes, even for SWLs.
IARU Reg. 1 VHF/UHF
On VHF, the regular 24-hour contests on 2 m and higher are the highlights. Every two months, from March onwards, the DARC and numerous other national associations organise the contest, usually on 2 m and higher. In September, the VHF contest takes place on 2 m only. This allows stations to concentrate on the VHF band, where the most activity is expected. And indeed, on this weekend the band is then as full as on shortwave.
The IARU UHF/SHF Contest follows in October. Here, all bands from 70 cm upwards will be activated. You can participate on several or only on one band, and you can choose between SSB and/or CW. Due to the propagation conditions, arranged QSOs are the norm, the use of chat systems is allowed. Each kilometre covered counts as one point.
Over the years, certain competitor classes have proven useful in facilitating fair competition among stations with similar equipment. Firstly, a distinction is made based on the number of active operators. These classes include:
i.e. only one operator who transmits alone for the entire contest, usually with only one radio.
That is, several operators on several radios, but only one transmission signal may be in the air at any one time..
Multiple operators, two transmit signals allowed on different bands at the same time.
Single Op, Two Radios (SO2R).
One person, but two radios at the same time. However, only one transmit signal may be "on the air" at any one time.
allows one station per band, each may be active at the same time, but only one station per band at a time. This is the "royal class" of shortwave contests, participation requires an enormous amount of effort.
Different categories are then overlapped on the above-mentioned participant classes, for example low and high power. But that's not all, there are subcategories, for example "Assisted", as an indication of whether the respective station takes the help of a "DX cluster". Then there are so-called "overlays" such as special youth or age ratings, whether someone is a beginner or not, and so on. Here you need a precise knowledge of the rules to choose the most suitable class for you and your team.
Single-Op and Single-Op/Two Radio (SO2R)
Most of the enthusiastic contesters did not start as a team, but as a single-op. This is also quite easy, because the classes allow competition among comparable stations. I can choose my operating modes, adapt the operating times to the conditions or domestic situation and don't have to coordinate with anyone.
The challenges are moderate, an averagely equipped station with 100 watts and decent antennas can get into the top places with some effort.
Modern software and accessory equipment also allows two radios to be operated by one operator at the same time. This is how "Single Op, Two Radios SO2R" came into being as a relatively new category. Only one transmission signal may be in the air at any one time.
Participating in a team is one of the most enticing opportunities in amateur radio for contest enthusiasts. This is where the social aspect of amateur radio shines, akin to any team sport. Each individual contributes significantly, but a high score can only be attained collectively. This necessitates effective coordination, mutual respect, and the ability to harmonize among all participants.
The top class is without question the "Multi/Multi" category, i.e. participation with one station per band, often with a special station as a multiplier station. Here, months and sometimes years of preparation are not uncommon. The teams often include groups of 30 or more people. Something like this is only worthwhile for the big contests, which then also last 48 hours.
Very high demands are placed on the equipment for such participation. Within a spatially limited area (this is defined by the contest rules), each station must be equipped with one or more very powerful antennas. Each station probably operates a power amplifier, which means that one receiver must be able to cope with extremely strong signals from a great distance. Good decoupling between stations can be achieved by clever splitting and very powerful bandpass filters. The transmitters must be trimmed for the cleanest possible signal (low noise).
In most cases, individual band stations operate as what are known as "running stations." This means they transmit a CQ call on a frequency and aim to maintain the highest possible QSO rate. Additionally, there is a "multiplier station" that scans the bands and strategically contacts previously unworked multipliers. This multiplier station is free to utilize any band, thus requiring separate antennas for each band or a complex switching system. Furthermore, a locking mechanism is in place to ensure compliance with the rule that states "only one signal per band at a time."
Taking part in the contest - what is needed?
That depends on the contest, of course. There are contests that only permit minimal transmit power. In such cases, you can join using small QRP devices and invest your efforts in powerful antennas. When participating as a "single-op," an average amateur radio station is often adequate. A transmission power of 100 watts and functional antennas offer a solid foundation for achieving a placement in the upper half of the national rankings.
Software, logbook, CW Decoder
What you truly need is proficient logging software. Fortunately, there are dedicated contest loggers available. These programs are specifically designed and optimized for contest operations. They are user-friendly, error-tolerant, offer swift lookup capabilities, and adhere well to standardized log formats.
If the contest rules allow it, other software such as a CW decoder can be used. Although these programs rarely approach the capabilities of an experienced telegraph operator, they can occasionally provide good support.
The log program should offer integration with chat systems such as ON4KST if allowed in the contest, as well as the use of the DX cluster.
In addition, incorporating minimal automation with a CAT and audio interface is highly recommended. This enables functionalities such as PTT keying, CW keying, and audio in/out. This setup provides the option to have certain recurring broadcast content pre-recorded and effortlessly played back at the push of a button. After all, nobody wants to spend hours repeatedly calling "CQ Contest" in a SSB contest scenario. Similarly, it's crucial to record the received signal throughout the entire contest duration, allowing for later review in case of any ambiguities. This principle holds true for both telegraphy and RTTY, so be sure to prepare macros effectively to streamline your operations.
The radio has to meet quite high standards. Of course, as a lone warrior, far away from other stations, you can also participate with a very average transceiver. In situations where the nearest station is only a few kilometres or a few dozen meters away, simple devices prove inadequate quickly. Therefore, having quality equipment equipped with effective filters is imperative.
The primary challenge in Europe lies in the density of stations, particularly on the 40 and 20-meter bands, where you encounter numerous exceptionally robust signals. Hence, the transceiver must provide ample large-signal strength to cope with this. While most station transceivers operate without issue, compact mobile transceivers with limited space for filters tend to have a harder time. In the case of multi/multi stations operating in confined spaces, the transceiver's low sideband noise is crucial. Otherwise, a station with high noise levels can easily disrupt the activities of colleagues on the adjacent band.
And on VHF? Since the market did not offer very powerful transceivers for FM for many years, the top stations mostly use shortwave equipment and a transverter. So you have a wide choice of excellent HF transceivers, the sensitivity and selectivity comes from the transverter and upstream filters. Since the 'big' stations on VHF are mostly located on mountains, they have a huge problem with interference. Here, special crystal filters are used, which limit the frequency agility, but make the receiver much more robust against adjacent channel interference.
As with many aspects of amateur radio, antennas are of course crucial. I can participate with any antenna, but I can only get a good position with powerful antennas. This means at least one directional antenna for the upper bands 10, 15 and 20 m, and one or more dipoles for 40, 80 and 160 m. Alternatively, I can choose to use one or more antennas.
Alternatively, I can choose to participate only on one band, not all of them. This reduces and concentrates the effort and increases the chances of a good placement in this class.
Successful stations often use several antennas for one band, for example a vertical antenna without directivity and an additional directional antenna. On VHF, several fixed directional antennas (or groups of them) have become established at the largest stations, because turning the antenna takes far too long. The direction is selected in a flash with a switch.
Very large stations often use several beams per band, sometimes spread over several masts. So-called four-square antennas are often used on 40 and 80 m, i.e. phase-compensated arrays of four vertical antennas. Here, antenna selection switches are used for quick selection and combination of antennas.
For large stations with several antennas, very powerful bandpass filters are indispensable, especially in multi/multi mode. Since you want to use them behind the power amplifier, they must be designed for correspondingly high power. In addition, there are various antenna selector switches that are suitable for combining different antennas, for example, to have more gain or to be able to operate different directions at the same time.
A comfortable headset is essential for an SSB contest, for telegraphy you need a good headset. If the operators of the other bands are in the same room, a large headset with an "over-ear" cone is recommended to reduce the sound level. Headsets with Active Noise Cancelling (ANC) have also proven effective.
The PTT is always operated with a foot switch in SSB competitions. This keeps the hands free for the radio and computer. The foot switch should be sufficiently robust to be stepped on for 48 hours :)
Of course, there is much more to a complex contest station: good cables, numerous masts, guy wires, power supplies, etc. One very important aspect should not be forgotten - the measuring technique. One should always make an effort to check one's own transmit signal so that the cleanest possible signal is produced without spurious emissions. With suitable measuring equipment, faults are quickly isolated, even if it is only a corroded coaxial connector.
The human factor
Whether I'm competing alone as a single operator or as one of 18 operators in the multi/multi-all-band contest, good preparation is crucial for the chance of a good result. What equipment do we need? Who tests the antennas before the contest? Who will transmit on which band and when? Who will take care of the food? Where can we rest? What propagation conditions are to be expected? Who has announced DXpeditions to interesting multipliers?
A clear distribution of roles is very helpful here. There is a team leader whose word is as valid as that of a captain on a ship. Discussions take place later. Specialists for different areas of responsibility are just that - responsible! As a member of the XP1AB (Greenland) Contest expedition once said: "This is not a democracy." :) This only works if all participants bring strong team spirit. A contest does not need extravagant prima donnas with fancy demands.
Otherwise you need stamina. In the big 48-hour contests, participation as a single-operator is usually limited to 36 hours. You are free to choose the most favourable times with the best propagation conditions in the areas that bring you the most points. Good preparation and knowledge of the expected propagation conditions are therefore very useful.
Last but not least, you need experience.Only when you can navigate the logging software almost instinctively can you achieve seamless operation with multiple connections per minute. Every action must be second nature, and you must be intimately familiar with your radio and its settings to effectively communicate in the densely populated contest segment. If you find yourself checking the manual during the contest, you might gain knowledge, but your chances of securing a good result are slim. Perhaps, initially, the key is to focus on mastering QSO operations as efficiently as possible?
Experience also helps you decide how best to invest your time. Is the time-consuming hunt for a multiplier worth it, or can't I score more points in the same time with easier-to-operate stations? Which band works most reliably at which time in which direction is something I learn not only in the contest. But here I can convert this experience directly into points, because I can reach "multis" (multipliers) more reliably. Experience also tells me when it makes the most sense to take a break.
Absolutely, after a contest, it's highly beneficial to regroup and conduct a thorough debriefing. What aspects went smoothly? What areas require improvement for the next year? After all, we do plan on participating again next year, don't we? This post-contest analysis is crucial for refining strategies and enhancing performance in future competitions.
The finer points of scoring - tips and tricks
WiMo has many active radio amateurs, some of whom have already successfully competed in numerous contests in very large teams. Here are some tips and tricks from practice.
Exploit the rules
You have to look at the rules very carefully and think about how you can use them to your advantage. QSO's between different continents bring twice as many points as within one continent? Then I'll go to another continent! In Morocco, you are on the African continent and densely populated Europe is at your doorstep. This promises many fast QSOs with double points. That's exactly what CN8WW thought in 2000. The team has held the record in CQWW Multi/Multi ever since.
Each country sets a specific maximum transmitting power limit for radio amateurs, and it's important to adhere to these regulations. It's crucial to operate within these limits in a clean and correct manner. Therefore, it's advisable to use a slightly larger power amplifier and run it at 50% capacity rather than employing an undersized one that would need to be pushed to 110% for the entire 48 hours. The latter approach tends to lead to rapid breakdowns.
When it comes to antennas, there's no such thing as too much effort. Most contest regulations don't impose limits on the number or type of antennas. Each band requires one or more antennas, often of different types. High-traffic directions that yield a significant number of points justify the use of a dedicated antenna. This can also extend to antenna arrays, wherein multiple directional antennas are interconnected to form a system. Specialized reception antennas assist in capturing weak signals amidst interference. For instance, beverage antennas, spanning several hundred meters, are set up in preferred directions. Alternatively, one might position a receive antenna at the edge of the maximum allowed area to minimize interference. Many contest rules specify that the station must be established within a maximum radius of 500 meters. With sufficient space, this can be utilized to advantageously separate stations by a significant distance.
A short callsign (3 or 4, maximum 5 characters) with an easy to understand letter combination is always helpful. Here you can even distinguish between phone and telegraphy. Some characters are better suited for phone, others for telegraphy. Complicated, long special callsigns are nice for the ego or the sponsor, but not very helpful for a contest success.
Location is of vital importance. A good take-off in all important directions is extremely helpful. It's no coincidence that the Cape Verde contest station (D44), which boasts excellent antenna equipment, frequently secures top positions. These antennas are positioned high above the sea on a cliff.
A good location is also one with a somewhat rarer prefix. Many small states or territories with their own prefix, with comparatively little activity, are easy to reach in Europe: Liechtenstein, the Channel Islands, Monaco, San Marino, Andorra, etc. Of course, you have to get to know the local conditions in advance and coordinate with other groups. And since having your own prefix counts as a multiplier in many shortwave competitions, you are in great demand. This means that all other stations around the world try very hard to make contact with us, because they gain extra points. It's often said that an exclusive prefix holds a value equivalent to an increase of 6 to 12 dB in signal strength.
High QSO rates of several 100 QSOs/hour can only be achieved with excellent operating technique, good hearing and high resilience. This requires good health and a lot of experience. Clear and distinct pronunciation is important in phony contests. Only the NATO phonetic alphabet should be used. Always give the full call, not just the suffix. Language skills are always very helpful. What's wrong with inviting your Japanese friend? Then you can collect the points from the numerous JA stations on 15m in his own language. A good, clear modulation is important, level the microphone well beforehand. Recorded CQ calls should be prepared for each OP so that the voice does not suddenly change between CQ call and answer. This only confuses the remote station.
Telegraphy macros should be as concise as possible and as long as necessary. Too much speed is not very helpful in a contest. What's the point if the other side can't identify the call correctly right away? It is better to be a little slower and not provoke time-consuming queries.
A good operator also knows when to stop. He sticks to the previously defined operating plan, even if it's just having a bit of fun. And he also realises that his own fatigue makes it necessary to relieve him prematurely.
The log is the sanctuary of the contest, at least until it is handed in. Of course, all contest QSO's are recorded with the computer and a suitable logging software. This was not always the case, the father of the author of these lines was a contest evaluator for the "Christmas Contest" of the DARC and still remembers well the mountains of large envelopes that arrived shortly after Christmas.
Most contests require the log to be submitted in a certain format. The big shortwave contests use the so-called "Cabrillo" format. Other contests, often found on VHF, require the "EDI REG1TEST" format. The log must be uploaded to the organiser's website within a certain period of time. At the IARU, at least for the VHF/UHF contests, this is only 24 hours, at other organisers you have one to four weeks to check the log and then upload it.
Careful checking of the log is an important task which, according to experience, can bring up to 5 % points and can thus be decisive for the results. Good logbooks immediately point out discrepancies, such as cases where the prefix (the country) and the QTH locator do not match. This is also where the audio recording of the contest station(s) comes into play. In cases of doubt, you can listen to the recording again at your leisure and correct any mistakes.
Today, the evaluation is also done by special software that also generates statistics and can check every QSO against every QSO. In this way, manipulated logs can also be identified, because unfortunately this also happens again and again.
The time after the contest: reflection and outlook
What remains after the contest? The same as after a good football match or race. Celebrating with friends, the satisfaction of having improved on last year's result. The big competitions offer elaborately designed diplomas and awards that decorate the wall in the radio shack over the years. And there remain the fond memories of difficulties overcome together, of the performance achieved and the recognition at meetings with like-minded people. Contests often lead to international friendships that last for years. And that is the best thing about amateur radio.
Contest loggers are very different from normal log programs for amateur radio operators. The difference lies in the amount of data recorded. While a normal QSO logs name and location, a contest logs only the report and the requested exchange (locator, CQ zone, DOK, etc.). The software must offer extremely fast and error-tolerant input. Connections to a chat system, DX cluster, etc. are a must. Of course, the software must know and support the respective contest.
The following list is incomplete and gives a selection of the most popular programs. The naming or order does not imply a rating.
N1MM is one of the most used contest loggers. It is available free of charge and requires Windows as the operating system. Plug-ins allow extensions, e.g. for digi-modes.
Also very popular is the Windows software by the French author Olivier, F5ZMN, which is available for a fee. The program can be used for VHF and shortwave contests and supports many contests.
The Windows program "UCXLog" developed for a fee by DL7UCX. The software is not only usable for contests and offers an enormous amount of functions. Other programmes, such as FLdigi, can also be integrated.
The Czech programme Tucnak is intended for VHF and HF contests, with the focus on VHF/UHF. The software runs under Linux and is available free of charge. The software leaves nothing to be desired regarding internet connection and control of external devices. The documentation is available in several languages.
SD from EI5DI is a popular contest logger for Windows that impresses with its simple interface. Almost all shortwave contests are supported. The software is free of charge.
DXlog is a free program for Windows that is very similar to the interface of Win-Test. A lot of contests are supported.
Ham Office is a paid software for Windows that supports not only contests but also normal QSO logging for everyday use. A special contest mode makes it easier to use for contests.
The DARC operates a quite detailed contest calendar, which does not only contain its own contests. However, the focus is already on Europe.
The "Funkamateur" offers a very clear list of contests per month.
One of the most comprehensive calendars for radio contests is maintained by Bruce Horn, WA7ABM
The ARRL (USA) also maintains such a calendar, which focuses more on its own contests and the USA.
Autumn highlights for radio amateurs: CQWW SSB, CQWW CW and more!
We hope we have given you inspiration with our insight into the exciting world of contests such as CQWW SSB, CQWW CW and other contests. The autumn season offers ideal conditions for radio amateurs, and these contests are undoubtedly the highlights of the year. Whether you are an experienced competitor or a newcomer to this world, we encourage you to test your skills and enter one of these contests. Are you intrigued? Which challenge excites you the most? Let us know and maybe we can motivate you to take part in one of these exciting contests. We would also be happy to receive a testimonial about your contest experiences and successes.Link to test and customer reports