Ham Radio Contests Can Be Fun

2019 WPX SSB Radio Contest AwardHam radio contests can be fun, or as some ask, can ham radio contests be fun? Many differing opinions are formed around ham radio contests, sometimes termed “Radio Sport”. In this article I take a look at what it is, what’s involved and more…

Described in the very simplest of terms, a radio contest is exactly what it sounds like. Yep, you got it, ham radio operators having a contest, or if you prefer, a competition between each other.
I’m going to briefly explain what a contest is and how it works in general, it must be remembered that different radio contests have their own rules and some of the information presented here may not be applicable.

Where do I start?

OK, so you know what a contest is, but how on earth can people have a competition by radio? Do you get a huge room full of people and radios to see who’s signal can get the furthest, or who can talk the fastest? Nope, not quite.

The contest will have set start and finish times, as with normal logging, these are in UTC, and will have band/frequency limits and possibly different classes related to RF power levels. As a minimum, a contest will require the radio operator to make contact with other operators and exchange some data, the most common data being a signal report and an incrementing serial number, although the data exchanged may vary from contest to contest.

A good online resource for contest information is this online calendar which is kept pretty much up to date with all the contest information you need, although it should be noted that like every other online calendar, absolutely every event can’t be listed and some will be omitted.

Every year CQ magazine sponsors major radio contests which attract a lot of competitors, myself included.

This small piece of data is known as the exchange, for fairly obvious reasons. The majority of contests the signal report is given as 5/9 – radio purists often argue this is pointless as it’s not a true reflection of the signal received.

While this statement is true, radio contesters aren’t worried about accurate signal reports but instead the number and accuracy of contacts. As already pointed out, some contests require different exchanges and in some cases require an accurate signal report, the rules and dates for each contest can normally be found online.

Exchange Example

A typical exchange may be similar to this:

Op1: CQ Contest, CQ Contest AA1ZZ CQ
Op1: BB2YY you’re 599 075
Op2: AA1ZZ Roger, 599 126, 73
Op1: BB2YY Thank you, 73, CQ Contest… (or instead of calling CQ, may end with QRZ?)

In the above case, AA1ZZ would then give a serial number of 076 to the next contact, likewise BB2YY would give 127 as the next serial number.
The individual operator may add pleasantries such as “good luck” etc, you may also hear operators saying “again, again” – this is to ensure they get the exchange correct.

OK, so you now know that the object is to contact as many stations as possible and get accurate exchange data, what else do you need?
An absolute essential for any contest is a computer logging program as contacts can be in rapid succession or spread across several hours and you often need to know if you have already had a contact any given station. The reason for not wanting a duplicate log entry, termed dupes, is that a few contests deduct points for dupes.

Personally, I tend to log dupes and if I respond to someone calling CQ they won’t be in my log and should they reply that I’m already in their log, I normally tell them they’re not in mine, it’s then up to them if they want the contact or not as an erroneous log entry may also result in deducted points.

How To Enter A Radio Contest

I now know what a contest is and what I need, so how do I enter? Is there a fee? Do I have to be a member of a club? Will I… – whoa there, slow down, one question at a time…
Let’s start off with how to enter a radio contest.
Normally you can just jump right in there and start calling CQ or scanning through the bands and answering CQ calls, just remember to find out what exchange is required and the rules from the organiser.

Well, that pretty much answered the first three questions, be aware that there some radio contests which do require a club membership to be eligible to enter your score for any physical prize that may be on offer although you may not need to be a member to participate, again check the rules.

If you want to have a go but without actually entering the contest you can do so. Opinions are divided here about the correct etiquette for making contacts with contesters while not participating.
My opinion is this, feel free to join in and either give every contact a serial number of 001 if you don’t intend to submit your log, or if you prefer, a normal incremented serial number which then gives you the option to be able submit your log when you have finished.

Having logged your contacts you can now decide whether you want to submit your log as an entry to the contest, you may have more contacts than you first imagined you were going to get! or you may submit it as a “checklog” – how to do either of these should be on the organisers website.
Submitting your log as a checklog, does exactly as it’s name implies, it is used to check against anyone’s log that contains your callsign that their entry is valid.

You may think that giving a 001 serial number to every station and not submitting your log is pointless, but those stations can use your serial number to add to their points scored. The more operators logs you appear in simply allows the scoring software to verify that your callsign wasn’t an error in someone else’s log, submitting a checklog is a more reliable method used for checking logging accuracy though.

During a radio contest, you may notice that some people, like myself, are using callsigns which may be in a different format to normal. Can you just pick a callsign to use during a contest? No, is the short and simplest answer.

Special Radio Contest Callsigns

In the UK to obtain a contest callsign you have to be able to meet certain criteria and this callsign may only be used in contests lasting 48 hours or less. The format of callsign for UK in the consists of either “G” or “M” followed by a single digit and a single letter chosen by the applicant making a total of 520 special contest callsigns available. As is normal within the UK, an additional regional locator letter should be added where applicable, UK callsign info here.

Once an application to hold a contest callsign is approved, it is valid for up to 5 years. Every radio contest callsign in the UK expires on the same date of 31st December 2024 unless renewed at any point during 2024. Renewing a contest call is subject to the same conditions as the initial application. My radio contest callsign is G7H.

This extract taken from the RSGB website is the current criteria you need to meet in order to qualify to apply for a contest callsign.

Qualifying criteria
4. The qualifying criteria are divided into two parts, – one for contest participation and the other for your achievement in the contest. Both parts of the criteria must be met in order for a SCC to be granted.

Participation criteria
4.1. Individual licensees (or the licence-holder in the case of club licensees) must supply evidence of having entered at least five contests from the list in Table 1 within the last five years. Ofcom will also consider results from other contests, not listed in Table 1. In those cases, Ofcom will assess the suitability of the contest for the purposes of issuing an SCC. If you are requesting a variation to an individual licence (as opposed to a Full (Club) licence), you must have entered all of the contests as a single operator. If you are applying on behalf of a club, the contests may have been entered as a single operator or as a multi-operator team.

Achievement criteria
4.2. The applicant must have accrued five achievement points from the contests entered. One point is accrued if the licensee (or licence-holder) makes at least one fifth (20%) of the number of contacts of the leader. Two points are accrued if the licensee (or licence-holder) makes at least one half (50%) of the number of contacts of the leader. Note: If a UK call sign is used to enter a contest, ‘leader’ means the leading station in the UK in terms of the number of contacts made in the section entered (if applicable). If a non-UK call sign is used to enter a contest, ‘leader’ means the overall leading station in the contest in terms of the number of contacts made in the section entered (if applicable).

The full page from which the extract was taken can be found here.