Radio Sport / Contesting 101


Contesting (also known as radio sport) is a competitive activity pursued by amateur radio operators. In a contest, an amateur radio station, which may be operated by an individual or a team, seeks to contact as many other amateur radio stations as possible in a given period of time and exchange information. Rules for each competition define the amateur radio bands, the mode of communication that may be used, and the kind of information that must be exchanged. The contacts made during the contest contribute to a score by which stations are ranked. Contest sponsors publish the results in magazines and on their web sites.


Contesting grew out of other amateur radio activities in the 1920s and 1930s. As intercontinental communications with amateur radio became more common, competitions were formed to challenge stations to make as many contacts as possible with amateur radio stations in other countries. Contests were also formed to provide opportunities for amateur radio operators to practice their message handling skills, used for routine or emergency communications across long distances. Over time, the number and variety of radio contests has increased, and many amateur radio operators today pursue the sport as their primary amateur radio activity.


There is no international authority or governance organization for this sport. Each competition is sponsored separately and has its own set of rules. Contest rules do not necessarily require entrants to comply with voluntary international band plans. Participants must, however, adhere to the amateur radio regulations of the country in which they are located. Because radio contests take place using amateur radio, competitors are generally forbidden by their national amateur radio regulations from being compensated financially for their activity. High levels of amateur radio contest activity, and contesters failing to comply with international band plans, can result in friction between contest participants and other amateur radio users of the same radio spectrum.


Contesting basics

Radio contests are principally sponsored by amateur radio societies, radio clubs, or radio enthusiast magazines. These organizations publish the rules for the event, collect the operational logs from all stations that operate in the event, cross-check the logs to generate a score for each station, and then publish the results in a magazine, a society journal, or on their web site. Because the competitions are between stations licensed in the ‘Amateur Radio’ there are no ‘professional’ radio contests or professional contesters, and any awards granted by the contest sponsors are typically limited to paper certificates, plaques, or trophies.

A multi-operator contest effort involves a team of operators at one or more stations.

During a radio contest, each station attempts to establish two-way contact with other licensed amateur radio stations and exchange information specific to that contest. The information exchanged could include an R-S-T system signal report, a name, the national region, like a province or US state, in which the station is located, the geographic zone in which the station is located, the Maidenhead grid locator in which the station is located, the age of the operator, or an incrementing serial number. For each contact, the radio operator must correctly receive the call sign of the other station, as well as the information in the "exchange", and record this data, along with the time of the contact and the band or frequency that was used to make the contact, in a log.


A contest score is computed based on a formula defined for that contest. A typical formula assigns some number of points for each contact, and a "multiplier" based on some aspect of the exchanged information. Often, rules for contests held on the VHF amateur radio bands assign a new multiplier for each new Maidenhead grid locator in the log, rewarding the competitors that make contacts with other stations in the most locations. Many HF contests reward stations with a new multiplier for contacts with stations in each country - often based on the "entities" listed on the DXCC country list maintained by the ARRL. Depending on the rules for a particular contest, each multiplier may count once on each radio band or only once during the contest. The points earned for each contact can be a fixed amount per contact, or can vary based on the contest rules. Some contests award points scaled to the distance separating the two stations like contests held in Europe on the VHF and microwave bands which award 1 point per kilometre of distance between the stations making each contact.


After all your contest points are received by the contest sponsor, logs are checked for accuracy. Points can be deducted or credited and multipliers lost if there are errors in the log data for a given contact. Depending on the scoring formula used, the resulting scores of any particular contest can be either a small number of points or go up to millions of points. Most contests offer multiple entry categories, and declare winners in each category. Some contests also declare regional winners for specific geographic areas, such as continents, countries, States, or Provinces.


The most common entry category is the single operator category and it’s variations, in which only one person operates a station for the entire duration of the contest. Subdivisions of the single operator category are often made based on the power output levels used during the contest, such as a QRP category for an operator using no more than five watts of output power, or a High Power category that allows stations to transmit with as much output power as their license permits. Multi-operator categories allow for teams of individuals to operate from a single station, and may either allow for a single radio transmitter or several to be in used simultaneously on different amateur radio bands. Many contests also offer team or club competitions in which the scores of multiple radio stations are combined and ranked.


Types of contests

A wide variety of amateur radio contests are sponsored every year. Contest sponsors have crafted competitive events that serve to promote a variety of interests and appeal to diverse audiences. Radio contests typically take place on weekends or local weeknight evenings, and can last from a few hours to forty-eight hours in duration. The rules of each contest will specify which stations are eligible, the frequency bands on which to operate, the modes allowed, which other amateur radio stations they may contact, and the specific time period during which they may make contacts for the contest.


Some contests restrict participation to stations in a particular geographic area, such as a continent or country. Contests like the European HF Championship aim to foster competition between stations in Europe. There are contests in which any amateur radio station worldwide may participate and make contact with any other stations for contest credit. The CQ World Wide DX Contest permits stations to contact other stations anywhere on the planet, and attracts tens of thousands of participating stations each year. In large contests the number of people taking part is a significant percentage of amateurs active on the HF bands, although they are a smaller percentage of the total amateurs in the world.

There are regional contests that invite all stations around the world to participate, but restrict which stations each competitor may contact. For example, Japanese stations in the Japan International DX Contest may only contact other stations located outside Japan and vice versa. There are also contests that limit participation to just the stations located in a particular continent or country, even though those stations may work any other station for points.


All contests use one or more amateur radio bands on which competing stations may make two-way contacts. HF contests use one or more of the 160 meter - 10 Meter bands. VHF contests use all the amateur radio bands above 50 MHz. Some contests permit activity on all HF and VHF bands, and may offer points for contacts and multipliers on each band. Other contests may permit activity on all bands but restrict stations to making only one contact with each other station, regardless of band, or may limit multipliers to once per contest instead of once per band. Most VHF contests in North America are similar to the ARRL June VHF QSO Party, and allow contacts on all the amateur radio bands 50 MHz or higher. Most VHF contests in the United Kingdom, however, are restricted to one amateur radio band at a time. An example of a HF contest with worldwide participation that restricts all contest activity to just one band is the ARRL 10 Meter Contest.


Contests exist for enthusiasts of all modes. Some contests are restricted to just CW using Morse code, some are restricted to phone modes with spoken communications, and some employ digital modes such as RTTY or PSK31. Many popular contests are offered on two separate weekends, one for CW and one for Phone, with all the same rules. The CQ World Wide WPX Contest, for example, is held as a phone-only competition one weekend in March, and a CW-only competition one weekend in May. Some contests, especially those restricted to a single radio frequency band, allow the competing stations to use several different modes. Because of the other variations in contest rules and structure, some contest stations and operators choose to specialize in certain modes and may not participate seriously in contests on other modes. Large, worldwide contests on the HF bands can be scheduled for up to forty-eight hours in duration. Typically, these large worldwide contests run from 0000 UTC on Saturday morning until 2359 UTC Sunday evening. Regional and smaller contests often are scheduled for a shorter duration, with twenty-four, twelve, and four hours being common.


Many contests employ a concept of "off time" in which a station may operate only a portion of the available time. For example, the ARRL November Sweepstakes is thirty hours long, but each station may be on the air for no more than twenty-four hours. The off-time requirement forces competitive stations to decide when to be on the air making contacts and when to be off the air likely sleeping, and adds strategy to the competition. Although it was more common in the 1930s, only a small number of contests today take place over multiple weekends. These competitions are called "cumulative" contests, and are generally limited to the microwave bands. Short "sprint" contests lasting only a few hours have been popular among contesters that prefer a fast-paced environment, or who cannot devote an entire weekend to a radio contest. A unique feature of the North American Sprint contest is that the operator is required to change frequency after every other contact, introducing another skills challenge. Whatever the length of the contest, the top operators are frequently those that can maintain focus on the contest throughout the entire event.


Some contests, such as the Maine 2 Meter FM Simplex Challenge sponsored by the Wireless Society of Southern Maine, offer newly licensed hams the ability to take part in contesting for the first time, by restricting contacts to a single VHF band, and providing entry categories for anything from a handheld radio to a fully equipped contest station.


There really is a contest for almost everyone in the hobby if their interested. The wide variety of contests attract a large variety of contesters. The rules and structure of a particular contest can determine the strategies used by competitors to maximize the number of contacts made and multipliers earned. Some stations and operators specialize in certain contests, and either rarely operate in others, or compete in them with less seriousness. As with other sports, contest rules evolve over time, and rule changes can be a primary source of controversy with the serious radio sport participants.


Logs and log checking

Most stations log their contest contacts using contest logging software, although some continue to use paper and pencil. There are many different software logging programs written specifically for radio contesting. Computer logging programs can handle many additional duties besides simply recording the log data; they can keep a running score based upon the formula of the contest, track which available multipliers have been "worked" and which have not, and provide the operator with visual clues about how many contacts are being made on which bands. Some contest software even provide a means to control the station equipment via computer, retrieve data from the radio and send pre-recorded Morse code, voice or digital messages. After the conclusion of a contest, each station must submit its operational log to the contest sponsor. Many sponsors accept logs by e-mail, by upload on web sites, or even by postal mail.


Once a contest sponsor receives all the logs from the competitors, the logs undergo a process known as "cross-checking." In cross-checking, the contest sponsor will match up the contacts recorded in the logs and look for errors or omissions. Most contests enforce stiff points penalties for inaccuracies in the log, which means that the need for speed in operation must be balanced against the requirement for accuracy. It is not uncommon for a station to lead in points at the end of the contest, but slip behind a more accurate competitor after the cross-checking process has assessed penalties. Some contest sponsors provide custom log checking reports to participating stations that offer details about the errors in their log and how they were penalized.


Results and awards

Most contests are sponsored by organizations that either publish a membership journal, or sell a radio enthusiast magazine as their business. The results of radio contest events are printed in these publications, and often include an article describing the event and highlighting the victors. Contest results articles might also include photographs of radio stations and operators in the contest, and a detailed listing of the scores of every participating station. In addition to publication in magazines and journals, many contest sponsors also publish results on web sites, often in a format similar to that found in print. Some contest sponsors offer the raw score results data in a format that enables searching or other data analysis. The American Radio Relay League, for example, offers this raw line score data to any of its members, and offers the summary report of the winners and the line score data in a non-searchable format to anyone through their web site.