QRP Contesting, Part I - Keynote # 12, 1996
There are two different kind of QRPer's in contests. The first runs 5 watts output from his transmitter, but has a superb location with a huge antenna farm to boost his effective radiated power to a much higher level (a 13db gain array will boost the 5 watts to about 100 watts!!). The second has an average location with simple antennas that limit his effective radiated power to around 5 watts. I belong to the second group so the information I am presenting here pertains to this type of QRP operation. The guy with the big antenna farm can do things that the minimal QRPer can't do in contests.
I enjoy contesting with QRP very much because it is a great challenge. Obviously a QRP purist like me does not have much of a chance of winning a big contest overall, but it is possible to earn many certificates in contesting with QRP, thanks mainly to the many fine contesters who make the effort to copy our QRP signals.
The ideal place to pick up a nice certificate is a smaller contest such as a state QSO party. Many of these have a QRP entry category, giving the minimal QRPer a good shot at having the top QRP score in his section or even overall in the contest since he is only competing against others in the QRP category. Very few, if any of the big contesters enter these contests as a QRPer. In the big contests (SS, CQWWDX, ARRL DX, etc.), many big contesters with their ideal locations and huge antenna farms do lower their power output to 5 watts to enter the QRP category, providing somewhat unfair competition for the minimal QRPer.
There are also many QRP contests designed especially for the QRPer. Many QRPers only enter these QRP contests, and don't bother with any other contests.
I enter virtually every contest that has some CW operation in it. I especially enjoy the big contests. In those, I compete against myself to try to better my previous high score for that particular contest. If I do better my score, I am happy that I now have a new mark to shoot for next year. If not, I analyze my operation and see where I went wrong, and make some strategy changes for next year. Or if my poorer results were the result of poor conditions that particular weekend, I say those are the breaks of contesting and go on to the next test.
Let's get down to operating procedures in contests now. Last month I said there was little difference between QRP and QRO operation in everyday ham activity. Not so in contests. There are many differences, as well as some similarities.
While the QRO operator can simply plop down on a frequency and call CQ for hours at a time with an endless stream of answers, the QRPer must rely mostly on the search and pounce (S&P) technique. For those unfamiliar with contesting, that means find a station calling CQ, pounce on his frequency, and call him.
The QRPer can only successfully use the CQ technique in a QRP contest or when he is the object of the contest, i.e. if he is a Pennsylvanian in the Pennsylvania QSO Party. Calling CQ in a big contest like the SS or a DX contest is simply a waste of time. In a medium size contest like a state QSO party, a well planned CQ here and there can net a few additional QSO's. For example, if you hear an Illinois station in the Illinois QSO Party using S&P and never calling CQ himself, figure out his pattern. Is he moving up the band in his S&P effort? If so, get a couple of Khz higher than him and call CQ. He may find and answer you, especially if propagation is good to Illinois at that particular time, and signals are strong. Or if you have worked all Illinois stations that are calling CQ on a particular band, try a CQ yourself. Someone may be tuning around and find you. Sometimes those who have been calling CQ the whole contest will use the last hour or two of a contest to go looking for other CQ's. If you call CQ near the end of a contest, they just may find and call you. But overall rely on S&P for the majority of your QSO's.
How do you know who to call when S&Ping? Try calling everyone you hear, but use common sense if you don't get an answer the first time. Does he have a big pileup calling him? If so, move on to someone else. If he is a rare multiplier, note his frequency, and come back to him from time to time because a rare multiplier worked is worth many QSO's with a common multiplier. If someone is calling CQ without any answers, and still doesn't hear you, again move on. He may have some line noise or something else that is keeping him from hearing your signal at that moment. Or he may be running high power and forcing his signal through, while your QRP signal is getting absorbed on the way to him. Try coming back later when conditions may have changed a bit. For a common station I usually try calling him 3 separate times before moving on. I usually try longer for a rare multiplier.
Many times, you will notice a station fading up and down. Try to learn the pattern of the fades and call on an upswing.
I mentioned earlier there are some times when you can call CQ in contests. Next month I'll discuss procedures for CQing and cover any other loose ends. If you have any specific questions about QRP contesting, let me know via Email or regular mail at John Shannon, 478 E. High St., Kittanning, PA 16201-1304. Also be sure to visit my Internet site at http://home.windstream.net/johnshan/.