Contesting: A Primer

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The pronunciation of “contesting” seemed strange when I first heard it. “CONtesting.” I knew about “conTESTing” something. That was to oppose it in some way. But “CONtesting” seemed like a weird construction. The meaning of it is pretty simple, though: to participate in a contest.

Radio contesting is concerned with competitions on the air. Don’t think battle to the death or professional sports where there is one winner and everybody else is disappointed. Instead, contesting is like a fun run held on a Saturday morning where some people run for time, others just run with their friends for some companionship, and some just walk. It is OK to push a buggy with your infant as you go. Everybody is there to just have fun.

In some of the larger contests, such as CQ Magazine’s CQ World Wide DX SSB contest, thousands of people participate. In 2017, over 8600 logs were submitted, and I’m certain that some people played in the contest without sending their login. That’s a lot of people! Note that there are only about one hundred “winners” that topped their categories. Everybody else played in the contest without expecting to “win” anything. They just wanted to have fun.

How Does It Work?

What does it mean to have a contest on the air? In general, these events are held within a certain time frame measured in hours, or at most, a couple of days, and the general idea is usually to talk to as many people as you can, as quickly as you can, on as many bands as you can, being careful to record information you get from those other stations. You capture all this into a logging program on your computer. When the contest is over, there is a special way to package up your log and submit it to the contest sponsor like CQ Magazine.

What happens next is kind of amazing, and it could only happen in our age of computers. The contest sponsor usually feeds all these logs into a computer which then checks the logs for accuracy. If you think you’ve worked me (NE1RD) in the contest at a certain time and on a certain frequency, then that QSO should be recorded in your log and in my log. If we exchanged information (such as our name) then the computer will verify that I captured your name properly and vice-versa. If we disagree on the band we used, or the mode we claimed to have used, or something else, the computer program that analyzes these logs makes a determination for who is right.

It is a competition so there are points. Usually, things work like this: You get a certain number of points for each QSO you make. Sometimes the number of points depends on how far the contact is from you. For example, the CQ Magazine Worked All Prefixes (WPX) contest gives you three points for talking to a different continent on the 10m/15m/20m bands and six points for talking to a different continent on the 40m/80m/160m bands. Working someone within your continent (but different country) yields a different number of points, and so on.

This would all be very tedious if we didn’t have computers! But, computers sort this bit out easily. What makes things even more complicated is a typical contest has “multipliers.” Your multipliers are tallied based on some criteria like the number of countries you talked with. Remember the typical goal of a contest is to have you talk to as many people as you can (maximize QSOs) in as many places as you can (maximize your multipliers).

Your final score will be the total number of points you earned by doing QSOs multiplied by the number of multipliers you accumulated according to the contest rules. Again, as a participant, you don’t need to know any of this. The computer figures it all out. All you have to do is make QSOs and have fun.

Why Contest?

Some people honestly think they can win the contest. Though as the numbers showed thousands enter and only a handful win accolades. So, in reality, the number of people who enter for this reason is small.

Most enter the contest because they like making QSOs. Given that there are thousands of people on the air participating there is ample chance to talk to somebody. And making QSOs can have other benefits if you’re competitive with the hobby. If you like collecting awards like the ARRL’s Worked All States (WAS) or DX Century Club (DXCC) then a contest is a wonderful way to find all those stations you need for your award. It is not uncommon, for example, to have a small station with a hard-working operator complete DXCC in a weekend.

Another reason to get on during a contest is that this is a perfect opportunity to do some assessment of your station. Say you’ve just put up a new antenna. How is it working? With thousands of people on the air from all over the world, you can quickly determine if you can hear Japan or talk to South Africa. If you can’t hear them (but you find out your buddy who lives down the block did) then you know you have work to do.

Like road races for runners, some people contest just to see if they can do better than they did last year. Phrases like “personal best” for a higher score than ever before are commonly heard. And, with all these stations on the air, “all-time new one” (ATNO) is often heard when a station works a country for the very first time. There are little victories along the way. Pay attention and bask in their glory!

There’s also something fun about seeing your callsign in CQ Magazine, or on the results page for an ARRL contest. Who doesn’t like seeing their name in lights? And there is always bragging rights with your friends. You may not have been top dog in the All-Band-High-Power category, but if you got a higher score than your buddy then there still something to crow about.

People contest because making QSOs is fun, and there’s no better time to make QSOs than when there are thousands of people hopeful of doing the same thing.

Rules Rules Rules

The first thing to do is learn the contest rules. Every contest has a set of rules published and it is important to understand what is expected of you. Knowing the rules makes it fun for you and for others. (Not knowing the rules leads to embarrassing gaffs.)
What will the rules tell you? Here is a list of typical things outlined by the rules:

  • When is the contest? There will be a list of dates and times.
  • What are the categories for the contest? These contests are typically not just one big category where everybody competes. It wouldn’t be fair to pit an operator running 5 Watts QRP against a station running 1500 Watts! So, contest sponsors create categories. Some typical categories are:
  • Power: High Power (HP) for greater than 100 Watts, Low Power (LP) for 100 Watts or less, and QRP for a maximum of 5 Watts.
  • Bands: All Bands (that are legal for the contest), or a single band. You can typically compete by operating in a single band (like 20m) and then you’ll be pitted against anybody else who limited themselves to that one band.
  • Mode: Single Side Band (SSB), CW, data modes like RTTY, or All Modes.
  • Time limit: Some contests allow you to operate within a limited time (such as 12 hours instead of 24 or 48 hours). If you choose this category you’ll only be competing against others using that same limit.
  • Assisted: This is a little complicated, so I’m going to defer to a later post I’ll do about being assisted. The answer to “Assisted” is either “yes” or “no.” Don’t use anything to help find contacts or decode QSO information and the answer is “no.”
  • Where are you located? The contest sponsor will compare your score to others in the same geographical region.
  • The exchange. This one is key. What information are you required to give out and capture during your QSO? Here are some examples of exchange information from contests:
  • Your name. This is your first name or nickname, like “Scott” or “Jack”)
  • Your state, which is often used in domestic contests.
  • Your CQ Zone. The world is divided by CQ Magazine into 40 different zones. We are in zone 5 here in the Northeast.
  • A serial number. You have a running counter and you give out the number as your exchange. So, your first contact gets 1, your second contact gets 2, and so on.
  • Something more complicated. The ARRL Sweepstakes contest is particularly tedious demanding: a serial number, a “precedence” indicating your power level (like “Q” for QRP or “A” for low power), your callsign, the last two digits of the year you were first licensed, and your ARRL section from their official list. Ugh. You have to really want to make contacts to be in this contest!

There are other rules about how to submit your log that I’ll cover later.

Readying Your Station

Looking ahead, we need to be able to produce an accurate record to present to the contest sponsor of our activities. That means we need to have the following in each QSO record:

  • Date and time of the contact.
  • The frequency and/or band used.
  • The mode (SSB, CW, etc.) used.
  • The other station’s callsign!
  • The signal report for the contact (always 59 or 599 please!)
  • The exchange information.

Just a note about signal reports. In a contest, people want to go as fast as they can. So by convention signal reports are always 59 or 599. In fact, in CW that 599 is shortened to 5NN. We want to spend the smallest amount of time sending and receiving information we can.

While it is possible to enter some of these contests using only a piece of paper for your log, it is impractical for any serious effort. You need a computer that is running a logging program that supports this contest. Further, your computer should be talking to your radio capturing the frequency, band, and mode information automatically. The computer knows the time, and it learns these other things from the radio. The signal report is preprogrammed in. So, the only thing interesting that you need to capture is the callsign and exchange information. Learn your logging program, how to set it up so that it operates in a manner described above, and know how to capture exchange information for each QSO. If you goof any of this up then your log will be worthless.

Once you have a computer, logging program, and radio set up properly, you should ensure that the rest of your station is as squared-away. Get a comfortable chair and put it and your work surface at the right height. Get a proper set of headphones, a foot pedal to key your transmitter, and a CW keyer system that works with your computer to send. Preprogram the memories of your voice and CW keyers to things important to the contest (like your callsign and exchange information).

This last bit is for CW operators. Modern contest logging programs can run everything from the keyboard. Preprogrammed CW keyer memories have your callsign, the signal report and exchange information, and can even receive from the computer the callsign of the station you are working and send that. A well-constructed station enables you to go through the whole contest without touching your paddles.

A voice keyer (often built-in to our modern transceivers) can record your voice and play it back over the air with a press of a button. It is especially handy to have your callsign preprogrammed. You will say your callsign thousands of times over a contest weekend. You can lose your voice quite easily with that kind of workout. Using the voice keyer saves your voice and significantly reduces fatigue.

You should have read the rules and selected the operating category you wish to compete in. If you are using “low power” then make sure your output is less than or equal to that limit, for example.

Making a Contest QSO

Like so many things in life, there is a protocol to be observed and behavior to be learned. Here is a typical interaction:

  • A station far away calls “CQ” or perhaps “CQ contest” and gives their callsign.
  • You (and dozens of others) transmit your callsign. Say it once clearly and quickly. Use standard phonetics. For example, I would say “November Echo One Romeo Delta.” Don’t use weird stuff like “Nobody Else One Radical Daemon.” Stations are trying to work as quickly as possible so don’t make them have to do any additional work decoding what they hear. Stick to standard phonetics.
  • The far away station chooses one of these callers. It will respond with the callsign and exchange information. There won’t be an “over” or “back to you” spoken. They will just say the minimum and then listen.
  • Respond. Do not give your callsign again. Do not say their callsign. Just give the exchange information. So, in the CQ WW SSB contest I would say “595.” That’s it. That’s what they are expecting. Anything more makes them think, which is bad.
  • The other station will ask for a repeat if they need one. Again, just give the exchange information and nothing more unless the other station specifically asks for it.
  • The end of the encounter happens when the other station says “QRZ” or does a new CQ.

That’s it. If you keep everything to a minimum then everybody is happy. I will sometimes give my exchange and then say “thanks”, but even that is too much in some circumstances. In this social context, less is more.

While you’ve been trying to make this contact you should also be updating the data entry fields of your log. Once the contact has finished and is successful then commit the log entry and clear the fields, readying yourself for the next QSO.


“BIC” is a somewhat crude term that means “butt in chair.” You can’t make QSOs unless you are sitting at your radio operating. If you are eating, then you are not BIC. If you go to the bathroom you are not BIC. Certainly, if you sleep (the horrors!) during a part of the contest then you don’t have your butt in the chair. Serious contesters will operate nearly all of a 48-hour contest. They will begin Friday night and sleep only 90 minutes on Sunday morning before the bands open to Europe. It sounds extreme and ridiculous, but that’s just part of what it takes to win.

If you are new to contesting I recommend that you take some breaks, review what you are doing, determine if you need improvements. Mostly, though, if it stops being fun you should probably stop. The point is to learn contesting, make QSOs, and have fun. Don’t make butt in chair time drudgery.

I will say this, though, when I see my score published and I see how close I came to doing much better (score-wise), I often wish I had operated more. This is a great incentive for your next contest. Build up to it and you will enjoy it more.

When the Contest is Over

One option is to do nothing. You aren’t required to turn over your log to the contest sponsor. If you were only in the contest to make QSOs (perhaps you were chasing an award) then you’ve accomplished your goal. You don’t owe anybody anything. Lots of people participate in the contest but don’t submit their log.

But, if you want to “officially” be in the contest then you need to submit a score. Most contest sponsors want your log in a particular shape called Cabrillo. (Cabrillo is pronounced “cab-re-oh” as best I can tell.) This is not the standard interchange format used by loggers called ADIF. It is different.
Contest logging programs like N1MM+ for Windows will convert your log to the proper format. Most general purpose logging programs will not do this. It is important to figure this out before the contest!

If you are a Macintosh user then you can use a logging program called Skookum Logger (available in the Apple App Store). Other solutions are available for Windows, Linux, and the Macintosh. Shop around.

Contest sponsors are beginning to demand that logs be submitted quickly, sometimes within a week of the conclusion of the contest. Read the contest rules so you don’t miss the deadline.

Even More

Oddly enough, there’s, even more to know about contesting. For example, it is sometimes possible to start the contest in one category, but submit your log with a different one. Perhaps I’ll cover this (and much more) in a future installment.

I’m going to try to put out a little something once a month saying which contests are coming up and how best to prepare for them. In the meantime: see you in the contest!
September 26, 2018
Updated 15 April 2021 to suggest using Skookum Logger instead of the discontinued CabConverter and MacLoggerDX.
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