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What is a radio contest?

In amateur radio, contests are a way to practice exchanging information over radio efficiently. To measure how good operators are at doing this, contests are a set time period in which operators try to make as many contacts and exchange the contest’s message as many times as possible. More contacts made earn operators more points.

When are contests?

Contests happen all the time, ranging from just 30 minutes to several days. You can find a good listing of upcoming contests at the WA7BNM contest calendar. Contest Calendar also links to each contest’s rules.

Short contests, sometimes called sprints, are a good way to test your contesting setup and practice for larger contests. It’s perfectly okay to operate for just a small part of a contest to get more experience, even if you only score a few points.

What is a contest exchange?

The contest exchange is the message you must exchange for a contact to count in the contest. Typically, exchanges are one or two of the following:

  • Signal report
  • Serial number: the number of contacts you’ve made in the contest. You start at 1 and increment by 1 for every contact made.
  • Location (state, county, grid square, etc.)
  • Club member number
  • Operator name

Before you start operating a contest, it’s important to know what your own exchange message is. The exchange can be found in the contest’s rules, which are usually listed on the organizer’s website.

How do I operate in a contest?

It’s very simple! Below is an example of a contest contact, but you can also tune around and listen during a contest to hear some contacts live on the air and get a feel for the rhythm and style.

Let’s say station WY4RC is calling CQ, looking for other contest stations. You are station W1AW. The exchange here is signal report and US state.

WY4RC: CQ contest, CQ contest, Whiskey Yankee 4 Romeo Charlie CQ.

W1AW: Whiskey 1 Alpha Whiskey.

WY4RC: W1AW, 59 California.

W1AW: Thanks, 59 Oregon.

WY4RC: 73, QRZ?

And that’s it! Let’s break it down:

WY4RC: CQ contest, CQ contest, Whiskey Yankee 4 Romeo Charlie CQ.

Station A is looking for contesters only, so they added “contest” to their CQ. On CW and digital modes, they may add “TEST” instead because it’s shorter. Sometimes operators use the name of the contest instead of “contest”. It’s also a good idea to only say your callsign in NATO phonetics for clarity and brevity.

W1AW: Whiskey 1 Alpha Whiskey.

This lets the station calling CQ know you’re out there. If they hear you, they’ll respond to you. If they don’t hear you on the first try, don’t give up too easily; they may have heard someone else over you. Sometimes, stations calling CQ can have a “pileup” (a large number of stations responding to CQ). If this is happening, you can try to time your response so that your call is picked up more easily by the CQ station. A popular way to do this is to try to get the end of your call after everyone else has stopped transmitting. Then the station might come back with “Alpha Whiskey station only” or “Alpha Whiskey station again”.

WY4RC: W1AW, 59 California.

WY4RC now gives its exchange, a signal report of 59 and the state California. Many contesters will only give a signal report of 59, even if it’s more like 36 or 48. If they ask “QSL?” at the end, they want you to confirm what you heard.

W1AW: Thanks, 59 Oregon.

Now you respond, giving your own exchange. If there’s a lot of interference, you can try to confirm what you heard by saying something like “I QSL 59 California” or “I copy 59 California”.

WY4RC: 73, QRZ?

WY4RC now can confirm what they heard. If everything was heard correctly, you’re all done. Otherwise, you’ll have to repeat one or both of the exchanges to complete the contact. This is okay, and happens all the time. You can minimize this by using the NATO Phonetic Alphabet when spelling something or repeating yourself when saying the exchange.

Sometimes, stations calling CQ may call QRZ (“Who is calling me?”) after making a contact. This is similar to CQ, and you can respond to it in the same way.

How do I keep track of contacts?

There are several ways. You can use a pen and paper, a spreadsheet, or a logging program. Here are a few free logging programs for contesting:

Most of the time, you only need to keep track of the time, band, frequency, mode, callsign, and exchange.

How does scoring work?

The exact formula is usually listed in the contest’s rules, but generally, each contacts is worth a certain number of points, which are summed. That sum is multiplied by multipliers, which could be something like the number of states contacted or the number of grid squares contacted.

Only non-duplicate contacts count in most contests, so don’t spend time trying to talk do stations you’ve already contacted. Usually, a contact is duplicate only if you’ve already made contact on that band and mode, but check the contest rules to be sure. Many contest logging programs will have a feature to automatically check if a contact is a duplicate. Only contacts that are within the contest time period count.

Logs must be submitted based on the rules for the contest, usually through a web form or email. ADIF, Cabrillo, and EDI are common file formats that contest loggers can export to.

Entry categories

Contests list different categories for entry in their rules. Usually, they are based on the number of operators, number of transmitters, and/or the maximum power used. Choose one to enter into. New contesters may have better luck in low-power and single-operator categories. There may also be special categories like new contester, club, or mobile operator that you can enter for a special award.

If you don’t score many points or don’t want your log to be scored, submit it anyways! These logs are still used to confirm contacts for other contest operators. Additionally, you never know how many other contesters will enter in your category; you may be able to get a certificate or plaque.

Final notes

If you have any questions about a contest’s rules, don’t be afraid to reach out for clarification from the organizers.

If you have any questions or suggestions regarding the content of this guide, please email KB6EE (at) yarc.world.

Useful links: