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Contest Basics


The goal of Amateur Radio contesting is to contact as many stations as possible during the contest period.

Every contest has Contest Rules:

  • Only certain bands may be used
  • The contest only takes places between certain times and on certain dates. Some contests also require “off times” when you are required to take a break from operating.  
  • An exchange of information is necessary during each contact. You may be required to send and receive a serial number, location, name or even a person’s age.
  • Only certain operating configurations can be used. You may have to choose a “category” of operation such as a single operator using low power.

Some competitions, such as the ARRL Sweepstakes, draw large numbers of hams onto the airwaves. Other contests are smaller with only limited participation.

Contests take place on both the HF and VHF/UHF/microwave bands.  On HF, contests take place on 160, 80, 40, 20, 15, and 10-meters. Contest sponsors have agreed to keep the 60, 30, 17 and 12-meter bands off limits from competitive events. There are also contests on the VHF, UHF and microwave bands.

The best way to keep track of contest activity is through QST magazine each month. In every issue you’ll find “Contest Corral,” a comprehensive list of upcoming contests. The ARRL also offers an e-mail newsletter called the Contest Update and a bimonthly digital magazine, National Contest Journal (NCJ) that are both free to ARRL members.

Would you like to know more about contesting?  Read world-class contester Doug Grant, K1DG's ARRL book "Contesting for Beginners" written with the new contester in mind.  You'll learn the basics along with tips and insights to help you get more out of every contact.

Contest Logging

The Federal Communications Commission does not require hams to keep station logs with records of every contact, but contest sponsors do. Your log is your contest entry; without it, your score won’t be considered.  (Even if you weren't serious about competing, please do send in your log since that helps the sponsors check all of the contest QSOs and they like to know you were active in their event!)

You can keep a contest log on paper and submit the paper log at the end of the competition. Most contesters, however, do their logging by computer. The computer keeps track of the time, score and much more.

Your computer will also help you avoid duplicate contacts. Depending on the rules of the contest, you may only be allowed to contact a particular station once on a given band:

WB8IMY contacts K1RO on 40 meters at 0100 UTC. Score = 1 point

WB8IMY contacts K1RO on 20 meters at 0300 UTC. Score = 1 point

WB8IMY contacts K1RO on 40 meters at 0530 UTC. Score = zero!  This contact is a duplicate of the previous 40-meter contact at 0100.

Contest software will alert you to possible duplicate contats before you waste time making the contact. If you hear someone calling “CQ Contest” and you type their call sign into the call entry window, the software will instantly check for any other previous or "dupe" contacts. If that station is a duplicate, you’ll know right away.

Contest software also makes it easy to submit your log after the contest is over. The contest sponsors supply a website for uploading your log or e-mail addresses to which you send your log. If you log on paper, you'll also need to send in a summary sheet that includes your information, some information about your station, and your entry category.

Some of the popular contest logging software packages include:

Running vs. Searching and Pouncing

"Running" means finding a clear frequency and calling “CQ contest” for long periods of time, logging everyone who answers. Running is an effective contest strategy, especially if your station has a big signal that many can hear. Smaller stations should try running whenever conditions are good and a frequency without too much QRM can be found - try it!

On the other hand, you might want to consider searching and pouncing, or S&P. Just like the term implies, this involves tuning through the band, looking for running stations and contacting any you can find. If you practice your S&P technique, you can work stations quickly. Even if your signal is weak, CQing stations will make special efforts to pick you out of the noise because they need the points your contacts will give them.

A typical SSB contest contact between a running station (W1AW) and an operator responding (search and pouncing or S&P) to the CQ (W9JJ) sounds like this:

"CQ contest, CQ contest from W1AW, Whiskey One Alfa Whiskey. Contest."

"Whiskey Nine Japan Japan" (W9JJ answers, using phonetics)

"W9JJ 59 Connecticut" (W1AW responds with the caller's call sign and gives the required exchange one time. In this contest, the exchange is the signal report and state.)

"W1AW 59 Wisconsin." (W9JJ responds with the signal report and state. If W9JJ needs anything repeated, see the following example.  There is no need for W9JJ to say "QSL" if the exchange was copied OK.  W9JJ only needs to say W1AW if it might be unclear who's being responded to - otherwise just "59 Wisconsin" is enough.)

"Thanks. W1AW QRZ" (Having copied W9JJ's exchange, W1AW thanks W9JJ to complete the QSO, gives the call sign, and says QRZ to indicate that other S&P stations should call.  If there is more than one calling station, the QRZ is not needed.)

If W9JJ needs W1AW to repeat part of the exchange, the response to W1AW's information should be:  

"W1AW what is your state?" (W9JJ asks W1AW to repeat the information that wasn't copied the first time.)  

"Connecticut, Charlie Tango" (W1AW may give the state abbreviation both as a word and phonetically since W9JJ had trouble copying it the first time.)  

"W1AW 59 Wisconsin"

CW and digital contacts follow the same general flow of information. CW contesters tend to send and receive at high speeds, but they will usually slow down for slower operators - send your call sign at a speed you feel comfortable with.

If you use logging software that supports contest operation, it can be configured to send most of the contest exchange automatically by pressing single keyboard keys.

Tips from the Winners

The hams who do consistently well in contests have a number of things common: They all follow certain habits that work to enhance their performance and their score. Here are the top tips:

1. Read the Contest Rules and make sure you understand them.

2. Check all your equipment (including software) a few days before the contest begins. Make sure everything is operating perfectly.

3. Understand the basics of propagation and plan your contest strategy accordingly. Try to obtain a propagation forecast for the contest weekend.

4. Make plans for rest and nourishment. Have food and drink on hand. Take breaks every couple of hours to stretch your legs and clear your mind.

It Isn’t All About “Winning”

Even though contest competition can be intense, it isn’t always about winning. You may never win the top slot in a contest, but you’ll definitely enjoy the competition and the camaraderie.


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