by John Shannon, K3WWP
Operating QRP in a contest should not be done too much differently from high power operation.
I think the size of a contest determines whether the minimal QRPer (5 watts output to simple wire antennas) should call CQ or use search and pounce (S&P). It is probably useless to call CQ in contests like the Sweepstakes or big DX contests. There are too many other stronger CQ's to be answered. At the other extreme, you can be very successful calling CQ in the QRP contests. In one QRP ARCI Fall QSO Party, I had great success calling CQ. I could hold a frequency for an hour or two. In the intermediate contests like state QSO parties, generally I stick with S&P, but some well timed CQ's have netted me extra QSO's I wouldn't have gotten otherwise. When to call CQ is something that has to be learned from experience since it is a little different for each station. In contests where you can call CQ, I suggest the following procedure.
A contest CQ should be something simple like CQ QRP K3WWP. The CQ indicates you are listening for any station to call. The QRP (or TEST, SS, etc.) indicates you are in the contest. Then of course your call, and that's it. If no one answers, after 3-5 seconds, do it again, and keep repeating this sequence until someone answers or you finally give up and go S&Ping. Nothing turns me off more than waiting through something like CQ QRP TEST CQ QRP TEST CQ QRP TEST DE K3WWP K3WWP K3WWP QRP TEST K. Isn't CQ QRP K3WWP much better? You don't need the repeats, the DE, or the K at the end.
To answer a contest CQ, simply send your call once, nothing more. Either the CQer will get it, and proceed, or he will get part of it and ask for a repeat, or not hear it at all. Sending something like K3WWP K3WWP DE K3xxx K3xxx K again wastes time and doesn't help matters any.
The CQing station now simply sends the call of the station who answered him, followed by the exchange as in: K3xxx 599 PA 1880. You don't need to send TNX CALL UR RST 599 599 IN PA PA MY NR IS 1880 1880 HW? K. Don't draw out your exchange, just send the required info, period. If the other station gets it, fine. If not, it is then up to him to ask for a repeat.
When asking for something you missed, keep it simple. If you missed his section, send SEC?, nothing more. If you are asked for your section, send just that, nothing else. Just send PA. Don't send MY SEC IS PA PA HW? K. Again that just wastes time.
A sample exchange between K3WWP (in red) and K3XXX (in blue) goes something like:
Nice crisp quick QSO's which allow for much more time to make contacts.
Of course, band conditions will modify these procedures, but always keep it as brief as possible. For example, if you sense someone is not copying you well, then send your info twice like 599 599 PA PA 1880 1880. A good clue to how well he is copying you is how easily he gets your call. If he has a hard time copying your call, the odds are good he will have a hard time copying your exchange, etc. Play it by ear.
Get to know the good/great contesters, and realize that they will copy your info, no matter what. For example, I know many contesters from working them so many times. Even if their signals are weak, and mine will be weaker, I know they will copy my info right away, and I send it as fast as possible so we both can move on and get more QSO's.
At times you'll notice you can easily work stations from a certain area. Perhaps in the SS or a NAQP, you easily work 2 or 3 W5's on a certain band. This is the time to scan the band and only call the W5's. Take advantage of the current good propagation between you and the W5 area. It might not last long, and you can rack up several W5 QSO's while it does last. This is true of DX contests also. You will get a good propagation path between your station and a certain country or area. For example, here in PA I will often get periods when I can work every OH (Finland) station I can hear, at other times I can do the same with the eastern EU countries (OK, S5, 9A, etc.)
When conditions are not very stable, and sigs are varying up and down in strength, it's a good idea to try to time your calls to coincide with one of the upswings. If it's a station you really want to work badly, you should note his frequency or store it in your RX memory, and come back regularly waiting for him to come up in strength. Don't simply sit on his frequency and wait. You'll lose QSO's that way. Tune around the band and work any other stations you can while you're waiting for that one certain station.
If a station you really want to work has a big pileup, it's a good idea to try the method I described in the previous paragraph hoping you'll hit him in a lull in his pileup. Or you might try one of the pileup breaking tricks that work now and then. Call slightly higher in frequency, as many stations tune on the high side (usually) of a pileup if they can't copy the main jumble of the pileup. If no one else does this at the time, you stand a good chance of getting the QSO. Or send your call a little later than the other stations in the pileup and perhaps the station will catch the end of your call, and send WP? (in my case). If only the stations with a WP in their call then respond, hopefully you will get your QSO if there isn't another stronger WP in the pileup.
Perhaps a few words about number abbreviations should be included here for those who are new to contesting. You may run across a station sending his exchange as 5NNTT3, ENNTAN, and the like and wonder what he is sending when the exchange is supposed to be RST and contact number. Well, in order to save precious time in contests to be able to make more QSO's, abbreviations are often used for numbers. Since this is also done to some extent in regular operating, you may already know that T or a slightly long dash is used to represent 0 (zero) and N represents a 9. Almost exclusively in contesting though are other abbreviations such as E for a 5 and A for a 1. So the exchange in my above examples translate to 599003 and 599019. Other, seldom used and less standard abbreviations are 2-U, 3-V, 7-B, 8-D. I really can't ever recall hearing these last 4 abbreviations being used.
Contesting is an art, and the more contests you enter, the better you will become. Like anything, practice makes perfect. So enter as many contests as possible, even the big ones like the SS and DX contests. Although there is no chance whatsoever that you will win the big prize overall with your QRP signal, you can still have fun by learning something from each contest. Also set a goal before each contest, then do your best to make that goal.
Also remember that by entering each contest, you will become better known among the contesters, and it is easier to pick your call out of a pileup if it is familiar to the contester.
These are only the major points about contesting. The finer points could occupy an entire book.
I enjoy contesting with QRP very much because it is a great challenge. When you contest with minimal QRP you must realize your limitations. Even if we can't win a big contest overall, it is still possible for us to earn many certificates thanks in large part to the many fine contest operators who make the effort to copy our QRP signals. I know it's not always easy to dig a weak signal out of the noise. I would like to thank all who have helped me in contests over the past few years. See my contesting Honor Roll for a list of those great operators who have copied my minimal QRP signal 40 or more times in various contests over the years.
Many contests now have a QRP entry class, and of course that improves our chances of winning something a great deal, especially with the smaller contests. In the big contests, the minimal QRPer still has to contend with the big time contesters with their ideal locations and huge antenna farms who merely lower their power output to 5 watts and enter as a QRPer. However, many of these big time contesters do not bother with the smaller contests.
One thing (among many) that I like about the North American QRP CW Club (NAQCC) is that we list a station's antenna system in our contest results. This permits a more accurate comparison of scores with other stations. If you put in a maximum effort with your dipole in the attic, but still find your score is only 1/3 as good as another station, you can easily see why in our NAQCC results. It's because that other station has a full wave loop at 80 feet above ground. Even if you are equal in skill with that operator, his loop is going to beat your dipole every time, so don't feel bad about it. If no one with a similar "dipole in the attic" antenna has a higher score than you do, you can be proud of that.
Of course there are also the QRP contests designed especially for the QRP contester. In fact, many QRPers only enter these QRP contests, and don't bother with any other contests.
Personally (time permitting) I enter 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, "Well, that's contesting" and go on to the next test.
To show what the minimal QRPer can do in contests, I have a page of my results and recent certificates. Many of the certificates are from contests that didn't have a separate entry class for QRP. Give it a try, and you too will come up with some nice looking contest awards to hang on the shack wall.
Over the past several years while operating 100% CW/QRP, I have engaged in a one man lobbying effort to get all CW contests to recognize the QRP operator.
If the contest does something for the QRPer by having a QRP entry class or bonus points for QRP operation, I am sure to let the contest officials know how much it is appreciated by the QRPer.
If nothing is offered to the QRPer, then I urge the contest officials to recognize the QRP operator by having a separate entry class for QRP with awards for the top QRP scores. If they can't do that, then at least give bonus points for QRP operation. If they won't do any of the above, I request that my call be listed in their results as K3WWP/QRP so that others can know that my score was achieved with QRP.
This approach has worked with several contests including MARAC, the Wisconsin QSO Party, and some other state QSO parties, all of whom now list me as K3WWP/QRP in the results. Also several contest managers said they would consider a QRP division in future contests. The Texas QSO Party added a QRP category largely because of my lobbying. Starting in 1999 the California QSO Party has a QRP category after I negotiated back and forth for a few years with CQP officials. Another major breakthrough came from the National Contest Journal. In communications with Bruce Draper, AA5B, then editor of the NCJ, he was favorable to doing something for the QRPer in the NCJ contests, especially the North American QSO Parties. He published my letter in the July/August 1996 issue of the NCJ with a very positive reply. He said that for the time being they would indicate with an asterisk in the NAQP results those who operated with QRP, and then if enough interest is shown they would graduate to a top 5 QRP listing in the published contest results. I no longer get the NCJ because of my very tight budget so I don't know what the current status is.
In 1997, I was asked by KW9KW, the new editor of the NCJ to write an article about QRP contesting to be published in the Journal. The information on this page is largely taken from that article.
I urge all those QRPers who are into contesting to enter the NAQP's in January and August each year, report their results, and most importantly mention that they did it with QRP. Let's show the NCJ that we QRPers do have the skills to compete in their contests, and that there is enough interest to justify a separate QRP listing. The format of the NAQP's is great, and I have a lot of fun in them twice each year.
I also would like all QRP contesters to enter those contests that appeal to them, then report their results with the request that something be done for the QRP operator.
One other thing that I did was to form a team with K8UCL. Both of us use QRP and simple wire antennas and we called ourselves the CW QRP SWAT - CW QRP Simple Wire Antenna Team. We entered a few contests as a team to try to publicize contesting with minimal QRP a bit more. Unfortunately Corb's health failed and our efforts as a team did not last long. If you have friends who contest with QRP, a team might be something to consider.
Finally, remember contesting is supposed to be fun. In my opinion, when it gets to be an obsession and is no longer enjoyable, it's time to re-evaluate your priorities.