Article Category: Shack Talk

Radio Contest? Why?

The hobby of ham radio has a lot of different activities to participate in. Radio contesting (sometimes referred to as radiosport) is one of those fun activities that almost anyone can enjoy. The basic objective on most radio contests is to make as many radio contacts as possible which is influenced by the scoring method used for the contest. That is, some contacts may be worth more points than other contacts and there are score “multipliers” for such things as the number of countries worked, number of states worked, etc.

There are several reasons to participate in a radio contest:

  • Make lots of contacts in a short period of time.  Contests generate a lot of radio activity with many stations on the air. Contacts are usually very quick, which means you can work a lot of stations in a short period of time.
  • Compete against other radio hams for high score. Radio contests are competitions, so you can compete against the other participants (or maybe your friends) to see who gets the highest score.
  • Compete against yourself, to see how big of a score you can achieve. Another option is to compete against yourself: set a goal for your score and see if you can hit it. Or try to improve on your score from last year’s contest.
  • Work towards operating awards. Radio contest participation can also help you achieve operating awards such as Worked All States (WAS), DX Century Club (DXCC) and CQ WPX (Worked Prefixes). You’ll want to choose a contest that is set up to encourage radio contacts consistent with the award. For example, DXCC is all about working new countries so you’d want to get on the air during a DX contest.

CQ WPX Example

In March, I had a fun time working the CQ WPX contest on SSB. I’ve always liked the format of the contest with the callsign prefix as the score multiplier (e.g., K1, K2, W1, W2, VE1, VE2 are all multipliers). It’s like every new contact is a multiplier. This contest attracts plenty of DX but unlike some DX contests, everyone works everyone.

Consistent with the contest, the CQ WPX Awards Program issues operating awards based on callsign prefixes. The initial mixed mode (CW, SSB, digital) award requires confirmed contacts with 400 different prefixes. I was close to having 400 prefixes confirmed so I figured that working the contest would push me over the top. Sure enough, I worked enough new ones to apply for the CQ WPX award. (See my blog for more on this story.)

Here’s a snapshot of my logging program, showing some of the stations that I worked:

N1MM Logger

Operating Tips

Here are a few tips on working radio contests, assuming that you are a first time or casual contester.

  • Know The Contest Exchange  Read the rules for the radio contest to find out the contest exchange. The contest exchange is the information that is passed to complete a valid radio contact, as prescribed by the contest rules. For example, in the CQ WPX contest, the exchange is signal report and serial number. Most contesters give everyone a 59 report, so don’t give or expect anything different. Serial number is just a sequential number that increments for each contact, starting with 001, then 002, 003, etc. Note that the number is shown in my logging software display above.
  • Know Who You Can Work Some radio contests are set up to encourage a particular type of contact which can mean that some contacts “don’t count” for contest credit. So it is important that you read the rules to understand what stations you are allowed to contact for contest credit. Otherwise, you annoy the serious contesters by calling them inappropriately. For example, in the ARRL DX Contest, US and Canadian hams only work stations from other countries, while DX stations only work US and Canada.
  • Search and Pounce If you are a casual operator in a radio contest, it’s best to tune around to find someone calling “CQ Contest” and then call them. This is commonly referred to as search and pounce. You can try calling CQ Contest yourself but you may find that less effective.
  • Tighten Up Your Operating Style Radio contests are all about making radio contacts fast and efficient, so avoid transmitting any unnecessary information. Using Search and Pounce, you’ll tune around to find a station calling “CQ Contest” (or “QRZ Contest”). When the station pauses, just say your callsign. If the other station hears you, he’ll usually just say your callsign and his contest exchange. Example: “K0NR 59 015”, assuming signal report followed by a serial number. You respond with “Roger” or “QSL” to indicate you received his information followed by your exchange “59 025” or whatever. Again, the signal report is always 59 in a contest…doing anything else will just annoy your fellow contesters.
  • Use Contest Logging Software Even if you are only operating casually, it is best to use logging software that is setup for that radio contest. A good choice is the N1MM software which handles almost all contests and is free. The logging program will help you keep track of which stations you’ve worked and warn you when you try to enter a duplicate contact. The program knows about the contest scoring and will compute your score in real time so you know how you are doing. It also makes it easy to submit your contest results after the contest is complete (not required but certainly encouraged).

This is a quick intro to radio contesting. Give it a try. If you have questions, drop me an email at

73, Bob K0NR