NEMARCS Contest Tips!

This page is a pooling of our collective wisdom, to help our experienced NEMARCS contesters do even better, as well as help new guys, who are just getting started in contesting with us, come down the learning curve much more quickly!

First, a general preface for new guys. New guys, we LOVE for you to join us! We really want you to be a part of our contest group, we will all have more fun when you join us and we will do even better collectively when you do! We will help you every step of the way, encourage you and we are eager to answer any questions you might have.

For us to help you best, a day or two before the contest starts, please set up the software, familiarize yourself with the contest rules, enter some test contacts and ask ALL the questions that you like! Once the contest starts, please understand that we are in contest mode. As much as we still want to help, when we are working guys at a fast clip, it is simply impossible to answer your questions at the level of detail you will likely want. Please try to ask all the questions that you can think of before the contest starts. If a remaining question comes to mind during the contest that can't wait, please phrase it in a way that a yes / no response will suffice, understanding we will happily provide a more complete answer after the test is over.

Everyone, this page is evolving and input is always welcome! Please let us know of any additional tips that come to mind!


Preparation!

The Antenna, The Antenna, The Antenna!

The better your antenna(s), the more QSOs you will make, the more easily you will get in and out of pile ups, the faster your run rates will be and the more fun you will have. That's why many of us have beams for the high bands, dipoles cut for 40 and 80 and we are always striving to improve them.

New guys, if you are just starting out in the hobby, take a look at the EFHW 80-10. It is a single, affordable, neighborhood friendly wire antenna that does not require a tuner and works well on all bands. The EFHW is superior to other single band wire antennas, such as the G5RV and Carolina Windom. Several NEMARCS members have used the EFHW 80-10 with good success.

For a real world comparison, during CQ WW SSB 2016, with sunspots around, the leading station using a nice beam (W3JX) made 1,117 QSOs for 1,346,208 points, while the station running an EFHW 80-10 (KB3KNX) made 525 QSOs for 375,300 points, with similar power and effort. The reason the score of the beam station is several times higher, even though the QSO points were approximately double, is because W3JX was able to work many more rare multipliers, too.

Alternatively, if you want to roll your own, you can easily put up a dipole for 20 meters as a single band antenna, or a fan dipole for multiple bands, either of which will work well at a reasonable height.

After you discover you love this stuff, you will likely want even better antennas. Even a small, light weight hex beam (only 25 pounds, neighborhood friendly, can be mounted on your chimney or light poll and turned with an inexpensive TV rotor) will be a big improvement, but the EFHW 80-10 is adequate to get you started.


Pre-Contest Checklist

Use this contest checklist, a day or two before the contest starts, to properly configure the software. I still use it myself, every time.


Scoring Rules in a Nutshell

You don't need to be able to recite every nuance of the rules, but can you explain the basic scoring off the top of your head? What is the objective, what are the QSO points and multipliers? If you can't, please read the rule's scoring section before the contest starts.


Set Goals!

Take a look at how you and others did last time. Whether you want to beat your score from last year, exceed your personal best or grab the all time top spot on the NEMARCS leader board, having a goal is a great motivator!


Check Equipment and Antennas

Check each band that you plan to work to make sure your SWR is okay. You don't want to wait until the contest starts to discover you have an antenna problem. Also, be sure you have fresh batteries in your mouse and keyboard, if not wired.


Meals

Prepare easy to grab, easy to consume meals in advance.


Hands Free Operating & Mics

Hands free operating, so that you can keep both hands on the keyboard to enter the exchange, is a huge help when searching & pouncing and almost a necessity when running a frequency. To this end, a foot switch is the answer to operating and being able to key the rig without taking your fingers off the keyboard! DX Engineering and Heil Sound both sell foot switches and mics.

Along with a foot switch, you'll need a microphone. Many of us use a headset that includes a microphone. With a foot switch and the headset, you are good to go! In addition, some of us use a mic on the end of an adjustable boom. Whatever your preference, make sure you can keep your hands free for keyboard entry!


Ergonomics

Ergonomics and a nice, comfortable environment are super important! You've got to really love to be in your shack.

No matter how much fun we are having, at some point during these contests, there is an element of grinding it out. The nicer and friendlier your surroundings, the more comfortable your station is designed, the better your chair, the less you have to keep turning your head, etc., the longer it will take for that grind to kick in and the more tolerable it will be.


Sign in to our Discord Virtual Clubhouse!

There is nothing like the encouraging camaraderie of our group to keep things fun and keep you going. We truly have a SUPER time with good natured banter and general encouragement. If you aren't signing in with us, you may be missing the best part of the whole weekend!


Pay it Forward

As major contest weekends approach, spend some extra time with family in advance, take you significant others to dinner, etc. Just let them know that you are going to be around, but consumed during the contest weekend.


Get Your Extra Class License!

We did an analysis following CQ WW SSB 2019 and discovered that over 30% of our contest QSOs were in the Extra portion of the band. Even more dramatically, we repeated the analysis following ARRL DX 2020 SSB and found over 40% were in the Extra portion. The more exotic mults often are in the Extra portion and most of the contest activity on 80 is there as well. Finally, it is wonderful not to have to worry about frequency (aside from allocation edges) and work whoever you can hear! Getting your Extra class license is time very well spent and one of the very best investments you can make in the hobby, that won't cost you a cent!


Review Your Past Logs

Save your contest logs and start a new one for each contest. Look at your graphs, see which bands were hot, when and develop a plan for the next test. Of course, every contest is different to some degree with propagation, but the general trends are usually quite similar.


Add An Amp

Improve your antenna first, but power sure helps too! Even just going from 100 watts to 500 watts makes a big difference. A good antenna system + amp + good operator is a winning combination. More power increases your QSO rates, helps you get those rare multipliers, which really adds to your score and your fun!

New guys, you certainly don't need an amp to go full bore. With sunspots around, I made over 700 QSOs and worked more than 100 countries using dipole antennas in a single weekend, running 100 watts, during CQ WW. That said, I'm sorry I waited as long as I did before I purchased my first 500 watt amp.


Exercise Regularly, Eat Well, Get and Stay Fit!

Having to stay fit to spend the weekend in your comfortable chair, in your delightful ham shack may seem counterintuitive, but these contests consume more energy than you realize. In addition, when you are fit and feeling good, that comfortable chair remains comfortable a whole lot longer. Most of all, the better you take care of yourself, the greater the odds that you will be around for many more solar cycles, Lord willing, to keep contesting, putting exciting Qs in the log and enjoying this amazing hobby with us!


Operating!

Run a Frequency Whenever You Can!

For maximizing Qs, this is the most important tip of all! It does require some context. It is typically easy to run a frequency in stateside contests and I will do so 90% of the time (unless I am chasing needed multipliers). In strictly DX contests, with my middle of the road station, running a frequency is rarely possible, except for the RTTY DX tests.

A. Remember to take a restroom break and get a glass of water before starting to call CQ contest.

B. Automate your CQ message as a stored setting in your rig or wave file. Instead of burning yourself out calling CQ, manually, hit the CQ button and use that opportunity to take a drink.

C. Be patient when you first start calling and when lulls occur. It is amazing how the Qs come in waves, one right after another and then nothing for several minutes, before the next wave comes. Keep going.

D. If you are not having success running, even though the frequency might sound clear on your end, it may not be clear in many other places, so try a different one.

E. Anticipate the hot band and get there early. There was only one other station on 80 when I started calling last weekend in NAQP. I had my pick of any frequency I wanted. It started a bit slow, but as more folks came down, the rate shot through the roof and my frequency remained clear, even though the band filled up.

F. If you run on 80, be sure to do so below 3.800. Otherwise, there is a much greater likelihood of knuckleheads interfering with you.

G. Sound like you are having fun (which is easy, because we are having fun). Calling with excitement in your voice makes a difference.

H. Many of us had jitters the when we first started running a frequency, but the jitters are quickly replaced by the great fun! Just keep focused, concise and rolling. If you aren't sure how to run a frequency, spend some time listening along as one of our more experienced ops here (or any op you come across that you would like to emulate) is running.


Make Your Exchange as Concise As Possible!

Whether you are running a frequency or searching and pouncing, evaluate every syllable. You and the stations you work will really appreciate it! do not say "PLEASE COPY". It may not sound like much, but if you don't believe me, stop right now and say it 400 times. The time and effort adds up! Only say the exchange elements.

Be especially efficient when your pile is a couple stations deep. The guys will hang around longer and continue to try to work you if they hear you keeping things rolling. If I am running, after the station gives his exchange, I will typically just say "Thanks, N3FJP" and I'm on to the next Q. In a laid back contest like NAQP, I will use the person's name, just to be friendly "Thanks Bob, N3FJP", but that is the exception.


Use DX Spotting and the Band Map

Running is best, but when you can't, clicking and pouncing on DX spots is pretty darn good! Set N3FJP software to block contest duplicates, so you know every new spot on the band map is a needed station. With time and repetition you can improve search and pounce rates...working the band map in a smart way. In N3FJP software, press Ctrl + Shift + E so that as soon as you press enter, the software immediately takes you to the next DX spot. Lots more details are here.


Don't Get Hung Up on Multipliers

When there are a ton of guys trying to work some rare DX mult and you are not getting through, MOVE ON! Even if you never get that particular multiplier, the way scoring is structured for most contests, making more Qs will largely offset that. Even more likely is that later in the contest you will hear the same mult, he might not be nearly as busy, propagation will be more favorable for us and you will work him easily.


Enable the History File

Using the history file allows exchange elements from previous contests to auto fill when you tab from the Call field. I'm guessing at least 3/4 of the guys I worked in NAQP had their info prefilled, so I was not slowed down typing in the names and states during the run.


Time in Chair

There is no substitute for time in the chair. The more you operate, the more Qs you will make!


Breaks

It is amazing how you can reach points where you just have to get up, but after a short, 15 - 30 minute break, you can be ready to roll again. When you need a break, take it! Additionally, there are sensible times to take breaks. For example, in DX contests, with Europe as the lion's share of QSOs, the best time to take a little more extended break is typically around 1:00 PM to 3:00 PM, when EU has died out on the high bands, but hasn't started to come up on 40 yet.

Nearing the end of the contest, it is normal to feel burnt out, bleary eyed and exhausted. You don't have to go to the finish line. Stop when you want to. No pressure. No matter how many Qs you make, we are grateful that you joined the fray and helped the club with our score!


Be On When Europe is On

During DX contests, typically 60% - 70% of our QSOs are with Europe, so be sure to be operating when we have propagation to EU. That is typically just after sunrise until very roughly 1:00 PM on the higher bands (20 and up) and as evening approaches on the low bands.

Often during the first hours of a DX contest, which typically start Friday evenings, the European stations are working each other and it is difficult to break through from here. Don't worry if things are slow and a bit frustrating to start on Friday evening. Get a good night's sleep. Odds are we will be rocking and rolling come Saturday morning!

Europe is about 45 degrees (northeast) from here, so be sure your antenna radiates well in that direction! It matters!


Follow the Leaders on Our Leaderboard

Keep our leaderboard up and within eyesight. Even as a new guy, it demonstrates what's possible and once you get going, is always motivating! We couldn't be more friendly in our competitive nature and we truly, genuinely root for each other to do our best, as we simultaneously try to catch up!

There are some big guns in the club, but don't let that deter you - they have to sleep and eat (or take naps) sometime - then you can creep up on them.

In addition to being great fun, our leaderboard is also a resource to see what bands everyone is operating and their current rates. If several guys are on the same band with good rates, you can bet that is the best band to be working.


Know Your Station and Use Its Strengths

There is nothing like a contest to quickly reveal the strengths and weaknesses of your station. If your antenna is not working well on one band, move to a band where your station performs well.


Don't Be Afraid - Jump In!

We all make mistakes. It's okay! Most guys you work will happily help you along. 1 point is better than no points. Jump in and help the team! We learn best by doing!


Afterwards

Submit Your Log

Even if you only made a few Qs, please submit your log to the contest sponsor. Every point helps our club! Logs are due within 5 days for many contests, so please do it quickly.


Make Notes

It is surprising how your ideas for improvement that came to mind during the contest can be quickly lost, if not jotted down.


Contesting - An Acquired Taste

Like the "joys" of running a marathon, the first time you try a contest, it's likely you won't fully get the thrill, especially if your antenna is holding you back. The more experience you get, the more you will come to appreciate the ebb and flow of the various bands throughout a contest weekend, hearing familiar DX stations, comparing your successes and come to appreciate just how much fun this really is! If the first one doesn't totally grab you, keep at it. You'll see!