Amateur Radio Contests – Why the Love/Hate Relationship? 1

Phil M0NVS enjoying Sunday morning sunshine like a lizzard

Phil M0NVS enjoying a Sunday Morning Pileup during the RSGB HF Field Day

Regardless of opinion Contesting seems to be one of the real growth areas in Amateur Radio. Contests across the HF and (at least here in the UK) VHF spectrum are more popular than ever. What is interesting for me is the polarising nature of contesting, it seems you either love it or you hate it. I, it seems quite unusually, fall somewhere in between. I indulge in a bit of contesting but am equally happy having a ragchew.

When I first got licensed in 2013, my heart used to sink when I went out portable during my (precious) spare time only to find the HF spectrum alive with rubber stamp 59 contest contacts. This was mostly because I wanted to actually ragchew with inter-G amateurs on 40m or activate a SOTA summit by working SOTA chasers. Over time I’ve learnt that it’s not all bad and now I will actively enter contests, everything from 160m top-band to 70cms and above.

This post contains the perspectives of both sides and is made up of my own experiences and also a bit of crowd sourcing from my followers on Twitter (@jstevens_uk):

2016-02-09_1646

 

The responses were predictably varied and as expected provoked input from both contest lovers and contest haters. This post will look at both sides, starting with the pro-contesters view…

 

Contesters Perspective

1. Contests Drive Band Activity

Contests drive activity across our allocated spectrum and on some VHF/UHF bands it can seem like they’re not used at all outside of contests.

With commercial interests starting to threaten amateur spectrum, especially our VHF/UHF+ allocations, it is important that we can demonstrate we are using what we’ve got if we are to keep them.

Contests are just one of those methods which shows high utilisation, albeit for short times.

Thanks to Michael GoPOT (@DrOrthogonal) for this point.

VHF Field Day 2015 with the Drowned Rats Contest Group

VHF Field Day 2015 with the Drowned Rats Contest Group

2.  Contests Are Rapid Paced Fun

Contests offer the opportunity to make many contacts quickly and if you like being on the end of a pile up then they’re a dream, at least if you’re putting a good signal out. Contests are frenetic by their nature and some operators love this and others not so much.

If you’re operating time is limited and if you’ve got a full time job and family, then contests offer a good focal point to your operating where you can expect to work a shed load of stations and even some rare DX.

Thanks to @G0WAT for this point

Some 80m Action after Dark

Burning the midnight oil on 80m during the RSGB HF Field Day Contest

3.  Contesting Forces Station & Operating Improvements

There’s no doubt about it, if you want to do well in any contest your station and operating style needs to be honed to perfection to stand a chance of winning.

For many contesters this is a gradual process and no one starts their amateur radio career with a contest winning station. Contesting can become the catalyst you need to perfect every aspect of your station to get the edge.

In terms of operating styles and efficiency I quite often tune in and just listen to the experienced contesters and I’m amazed at their QSO rates compared to others who are similarly strong signals, but simply not as efficient in their style.

Thanks to Rob (@G0URR) for this one.

Aligning the 10 ele 2m Yagi

Aligning the 10 ele 2m Yagi Ahead of a VHF Contest

4.  Opportunity to Work a Lot of Rare DX

Quite frankly I can’t think of an easier way of working a bunch of DX more easily than during the second day of a major worldwide contest. Major contesting groups will often put a rare location on the air and will be eager to work you, especially when trade is a bit quieter on the second day.

I’ve worked a lot of DX this way, in fact the only time I am a DXer is during a big contest. Outside of this I find it hard to compete with the other big gun DXers with only a modest station.

Thanks to James (@2E0GEL)

5. Opportunity for People with No Shack to Setup Portable and Be Guaranteed Contacts

Mikey (@M1MBZ) mentioned this point and it’s one I agree with. If you don’t have a shack at home then a big contest gives you a good excuse to make some time and go out portable.

This could just be for a few hours or maybe even make the weekend out of it. While you can go out at anytime, during a contest you’re guaranteed of making a large amount of contacts. This can also mean that you go to more effort to setup something more special in terms of antenna.

 

Rag Chewers Perspective

1. QRM Across the Bands

This is certainly a situation I’ve been in a few times. I’ve found some spare time at the weekend to play some radio and all I can hear is chaos across our HF allocations. Contesting tends to bring out the big gun stations, involving high gain antennas and linear amplifiers. Mic gain set to max, rigs overdriven and wide signals all add to the issue.

As a QRP station it can be hard, if not impossible, to make non-contest contacts, my low power is likely to go unheard if calling CQ and even then you’ll be battling some horrific QRM from nearby contest stations.

I remember one time when I was activating SOTA summits in the Brecon Beacons and as it was winter time it got dark early. I completed the activation on one summit with loads of UK stations in the log on 40m, packed everything away and then walked up a neighbouring SOTA summit in the dark, once again setting up on 40m. I turned on the rig only to find a Russian DX contest had started, making it nearly impossible to get 4 contacts in the log. Of course I wasn’t able to make contacts with the stations causing QRM, as I was running 10w while they were probably running a few kW!

Picture the scene, me on a cold and dark SOTA summit in the deepest reaches of the Brecon Beacons, tired after walking all day and unable to do what I had intended to do, all down to a contest I had absolutely no interest in! Here’s a quick video I shot during this madness:

Thanks to Peter (@g0tlu_peter) and Glyn (@G4CFS)

2.  Nowhere Else to Go

“Ragchewers Can Use the WARC Bands…” is often the comeback contesters will use when another amateur complains about a contest. If you want to operate casually, you can still do so without QRM on 30m, 17m, 12m and 10m.

While this is true, it’s not of much consolation if you’re after low band NVIS ragchews within your own country.

In addition quite a number of stations may not have an antenna capable on the WARC bands and either way 30m is CW/Data only, 17m is very narrow especially when all non-contesters using SSB are forced there and 12m/10m are not going to be open quite a lot of the time, especially as we’re now in the solar decline.

3. Contesters Can be Inconsiderate to Other Users

Some of the larger contests attract a lot of activity, this focuses on a handful of bands at a certain time of day. Obviously there is not enough space for everyone but it is quite common to see some contestor’s not adhering to the agreed band plans. This is when we end up with SSB ops down in the CW segments as the contest overspills.

Thanks to Peter (@g0tlu_peter)

4. Pointless/Fake Exchange

Still received 59 after the other station asked for your callsign three times? This applies to HF contests rather than VHF where exchanges are (typically) genuine reports.

Some HF contesters would never dream of giving a report which is anything but 59, this is due to process and ease of logging. Also if this is the defacto report exchanged, there’s less chance of an invalid contact occurring when logs are checked.

But is this really in the spirit of things?

Some contests now require additional exchanges and some even disregard the report entirely. I feel this is for the best as it realigns the contest with the operators with the most precision both in exchange and logging.

5. Contests Are on EVERY Weekend

If you’re a casual operator and want a ragchew it can be frustrating that the one time you have free time outside of the working week you can’t even get on and enjoy your hobby.

This is quite true, there does appear to be at least one contest on each weekend which will impact your HF operating, at least if you’re based in Europe.

The contester’s come back will be that this particular contest is only on once a year, while true the argument is still valid because there are simply so many contests across the calendar year!

I’ve had to reconsider plans and chosen bands on a number of times to accommodate contests that don’t interest me.

Thanks to Michael G0POT (@DrOrthogonal) and David (@G7AGI – account no longer active) for this

Conclusion

It seems to be in human nature to moan about things that don’t interest you. This could be said of rag chewers and contesters, they’re two groups interested in quite different things. It just turns out they have to share the same frequency allocations! As with most things in life more tolerance from both sides leads to better relations.

I’ve tried to keep this post balanced to explore both sides, I still enjoy the occasional contest in the same way that I enjoy a ragchew. What I would say is if you’ve never entered a contest, give it a try! There’s a lot to choose from and some laid back and relaxed ones. I personally quite enjoy the Worked All Britain (WAB) contests on 160m and 80m, they don’t attract a ton of people and give you the chance to dabble in a bit of contesting without someone chewing your arm off for getting something wrong.

What do you think? What have I missed? Let me know in the comments below!

VHF Contest Site at Dusk

VHF Contest Site at Dusk

One comment on “Amateur Radio Contests – Why the Love/Hate Relationship?

  1. Reply Jim K9YC Sep 1,2016 19:54

    It isn’t necessary to monitor casual QSOs and nets very long to realize that very little of significance to ham radio gets discussed during most of them. There are, of course, exceptions.

    While most weekends have at least one contest going on, very few major contests (that is, lots of activity) have both CW and SSB. Again, there are exceptions — the 24-hour ARRL Field Day, the IARU contest, and the 48 hour ARRL 10M contest come to mind. State and national QSO parties also have both CW and SSB, but these are relatively small events, and rarely take up much of a band — CW QSO parties rarely take up more than 20-30 kHz, SSB about twice that.

    The complaint that contests interfere with daytime QSOs on 80/75/40 is a ringer — except for Field Day, no contester is going to be wasting his time on a band that isn’t open for DX! It’s also pretty rare for more than two bands to be filled with contesters at any given time. For example, 20 and 15 will be busy when they’re open, with no activity on 10, 40, 80, or 160. Likewise, night time activity will generally be heavy on 80 and 40, with little or no activity on 20, 15, or 10.

    And NO contests use 30, 17, or 12M. 30 and 17M are really nice bands, and the only time they are busy is when a major DXpedition is operating there.

    Yes, most contesters run high power with big antennas, and far too many transmit dirty signals, both out of stupidity and ordinary human cussedness. Contesters are just as unhappy about this is non-contesters.

    BUT contesters have no monopoly on dirty signals — you don’t have to spend much time on SSB to hear lots of splatter from casual rag chewers either. My lab quality spectrum display OFTEN shows SSB signal splattering +/- 5 kHz from their 2.8 kHz envelope, and occasionally more than that. No, it’s not overload, and I don’t have my NB turned on. 🙂

    As an active contester, I can learn a lot about the performance of my antennas and radio propagation by paying attention to what stations I can work over a period of time. It’s also well known that contesters tend to be the best operators for emergency communications, because they have learned the discipline of following procedures, keeping all communications brief, and making certain that they have copied information correctly.

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