Working DX- Tips
by John Shannon, K3WWP
Since I first wrote this several years ago, spotting has become much more widespread, and a lot of folks use it exclusively to work their DX. Personally I never, with one exception, use spotting. Gust ON6KE suggested I elaborate on that statement, and I will do so near the end of this page. First though, I'll talk about working DX the way I like to do it. If you follow these methods, you can work a lot of DX and have more satisfaction in doing so than you would using spotting.
Is it possible to work DX with just 5 watts or less output and simple wire antennas? The answer is a resounding YES. Of course it's not as easy as working DX with 1 kilowatt and stacked 4 over 4 beams, but it's not as hard as many hams think. Let me tell you how to go about it.
I was one of those who never thought that QRP and DX could mix. However, I've proved myself wrong by making over 20,800 DX QSO's from 223 countries (as of 5/22/2015) since 1993. I believe that anyone, without a great deal of effort, can get the basic DXCC award using nothing more than QRP and a wire antenna. I worked 100 countries in just the first 78 days of the year 2000 as part of the ARRL Millennium Award program.
The most important thing to remember about DXing, no matter what power or antennas you are using, is to LISTEN before you do anything. Of course, before you can work the DX, you have to be able to hear it.
Once you can hear the DX station, you then listen some more to see where the DX is listening for replies. If you hear him work a station right on his frequency, then you know he's listening there. Zero beat him and get ready to call, but again don't jump in too quickly.
Listen to find out the pattern of the DX station's exchange. Sometimes after the exchange of info, the DX station will just say TU, and then start listening for replies. Other times he will send QRZ?, or QRZ? de X2XXX, or just X2XXX. Some stations send dit dit. Whatever it is, learn when the DX station is done with a QSO and ready for the next call before you jump in.
Now you are ready to try the station. When that telltale signal comes from the DX station, send your call once, nothing else. If you are fortunate, the station will answer you by sending something like (in my case) K3WWP 599. You respond with TU 599. He will acknowledge you and move on to the next QSO. Lightning quick, but you now have a new DX country in your log.
Of course that is the ideal situation, and it is not going to work that way every time, even for the most powerful station in the world, and certainly not for the QRPer with his wire antenna. Not to say it doesn't happen, though. A few times I have beaten out a fair sized pileup to work a DX station. Why? Often it is simply favorable propagation, but there are also things you can do to help.
Be sure your signal is as clean and crisp as possible and your keying is as close to perfect as possible. DX stations often mention that it is not always the strongest signal that is easiest to copy in a pileup, but often a weaker clean signal with perfect keying is easier to copy. If you have a memory keyer, use that to send your call. It is possible to get nervous when trying for some rare DX, and be sloppy sending even our own call.
Another thing that helps at times is to delay for a second sending your call so that the last letter or two extends past the main buzz of the pileup. In my case, the DX station would then hear the WP and send WP? Then I send my call again, and make the QSO. That is assuming there is no other WP in the pileup, and everyone acts properly and does not transmit again if their call doesn't contain a WP. And we know the odds of that. Generally anyone who has a W in their call transmits, everyone with a P transmits, and others will transmit even though their call has nothing close to a WP in it. The best of the DX stations in this case will send WP? KN KN and keep doing this until everyone else shuts up except the WP station. If a DX station does this often enough, he can really take control of a pileup and make it manageable.
If you keep calling him without an answer, try to figure out why. It could be that propagation is currently favoring another area. If he is working one W6 after another, and you are a W1, that could be the case or he may have his beam pointed to California at the moment. This is a good time to just note his frequency or store it in a memory in your receiver, and look for someone else. Come back later and see if the DX station is working stations in your area. If so, jump in and try again.
Some QRP stations like to sign /QRP at the end of their call in a pile-up. I don't think it's necessary, and I don't do it for the following reasons:
1. I don't feel my QRP should be pointed out as a special situation. I'm just another station in the pile, not someone special because I'm only using 5 watts or less.
2. I am sure some QRO stations cheat and sign /QRP, and I certainly don't want to be accused of that by those who don't know that I am a 100% QRPer.
3. It does take an appreciable amount of time to send /QRP when you are dealing with running hundreds of stations per hour, especially if it has to be repeated. If I make a contact, there's a chance I'll have to repeat my info since my sigs are weak, and repeating /QRP along with the other info may annoy not only the DX station, but others waiting in the pile. I hate slowing down DXpeditions or contesters like that.
4. To back up what I say in item 3 above, famous DXpeditioner G3SXW in his book "Up Two" urges operators calling him not to use /QRP. Then there is this quote from the 3B9C DXpedition web site to further denounce using /QRP: "We have received a few e-mails demanding that we amend logs to show /QRP. We are aware that some operators at 3B9C have been logging /QRP but it is DXpedition policy that we do not do so. /QRP does not form part of the legal callsign in any country and, as far as we are aware, no QRP awards require the callsign to be suffixed with /QRP. Therefore the /QRP suffix has no place in the 3B9C DXpedition log. You know whether you worked us on QRP or not and that should be all that is needed."
If a pileup gets too huge and the pile obliterates the DX station, then the DX operator will switch to split frequency operation. This is when the DX station transmits on one frequency, and listens on another, usually higher, frequency.
If you hear a DX station say UP (or UP1, UP2, etc.), that means he is listening to a frequency higher than his. The number is the number of kHz higher than his transmitting frequency. Leave your receive frequency on the DX station, and set your transmit frequency UP to where the DX is listening. If he just says UP with no number, generally that means UP 1, but not always. Then you have to find the pileup yourself. Once you determine where the DX station is listening, follow the same procedures listed for simplex or same frequency operation. Just be sure you are transmitting and listening on the right frequencies. Every rig seems to have a slightly different way of accomplishing this. The Elecraft KX3 adds a neat little perk by splitting the audio output to the headphones so that you can hear the DX station in one ear, and the station(s) he is working in the other ear. This allows you to set your transmit frequency to the station he just worked and that may help you to be his next QSO. The companion Elecraft PX3 panadapter goes even a bit further. You can watch the DX station and his pileup. With the split headphones you can only hear one specific frequency in the pileup. With the panadapter you can see the entire pile if it is spread out. With practice, you can often determine which one of the peaks on the panadapter the DX is currently working and quickly QSY your transmit frequency there.
Another trick when the pileup is huge is to transmit slightly higher than the main pile or the last station he just worked. The DX station will often explore the upper (usually) edge of a pileup if he can't pick out calls from the main section of the pile. This is where the clever QRPer can often steal a QSO from the QRO stations. It's really a chess game, and whole sections of DXing books have been devoted to breaking a pileup.
Often times the DX station will be operating split frequency but not saying so. This is where listening comes in. If you hear the DX working one station after another, but don't hear any of the stations he is working, it's time to tune UP and see if he is indeed working split frequency. Or you can go ahead and transmit on the DX frequency, and the self appointed DX policemen will very impolitely and illegally tell you the DX is listening UP. It's always better to know what's going on before you do any transmitting.
That's enough about the pile-up type of DXing. If you want to know more, just get on the air and practice, or read one of the many excellent books that have been written about DXing.
Let's touch on a few other DX topics. What about the QRPer calling CQ DX using his wire antenna. It's probably useless most of the time, but I have had DX stations answer my regular CQ's many times. This usually happens on 10M when conditions are really good, but it also happens on other bands. I currently have about 3 dozen countries worked via answers to my CQ's. Strangely, my most distant QSO ever came when VK6HQ answered my regular CQ on 30M one evening. I was so shocked and excited I could hardly send. Even after the QSO, I was wondering if it was really true that I worked a VK6. It was, because I received his QSL card in a couple of weeks. However something like that is the exception rather than the rule for QRP CQ's. Once in a while lightning strikes twice and a couple years later John, VK6HQ again answered my CQ on 30M. This time it led to a long distance phone call from John, and follow up Emails between us. This is one of the rewards of DXing - having one of your contacts become a friend.
The easiest time to work DX is in contests, because the best operators in the world often go to exotic locations for contests to make themselves more desirable or just to activate some rare country. Plus you have the super contest stations in various countries operating with their huge antennas and state of the art receiving equipment. They are the ones who can dig out the weakest of signals, and are glad to do so for those few extra points they will get in the contest. Those points may just help them beat out another top notch contester. You may have a tough time beating the pileups at the beginning of a contest, but often these super contest stations almost go begging for QSO's near the end of a contest period. Then is the time you may easily work them.
Also for the week or so just before the big DX contests, many of the stations setting up for the contest will check out their equipment by working as many folks as possible. At these times they may also operate on the WARC bands (30, 17, 12) which are not available for operation in the contest itself. They often stay at their locations for a few days after contests also.
Always let the DX station dictate the type of QSO. If you answer a DX station outside a pileup, and he still sends just a report, you do the same. If he sends RST, QTH, and Name (OP), then you may be fortunate enough to find yourself with a DX rag chew. Send your QTH (maybe just the state), and name, and maybe mention you are running QRP. It doesn't happen too often, but I have had some very nice rag chews with DX stations. I recall a few I especially enjoyed. I chatted for a half hour with a German who was on vacation in the Canary Islands. A PJ2 wanted to know all about my QTH. I had a nice chat with an Italian talking about my Italian heritage (my mother was Italian). A German asked me all about my QRP rig. A station in Haiti was new to operating CW and asked me several questions about it. There were others as well. These are the DX QSO's I find really rewarding, although I appreciate the RST only ones also. You CAN rag chew with DX using QRP when conditions are good.
Now, my personal views on spotting. First of all, I think spotting is a bane for the minimal QRP operator. As soon as a rare DX station is spotted, hundreds (thousands?) descend on him like vultures after a kill. Naturally the more dominant vultures are going to be the ones to get the meat first while the less dominant ones will have to wait their turn. Wait too long and the meat is gone.
The analogy is not quite the same, but as soon as all the dominant hams with their KWs and beams descend on the rare DX, the minimal QRP ham has to wait his turn (barring a lucky incident which does happen from time to time), and it is possible the rare DX will QRT for the session or even conclude the operation before the QRP station gets a chance to work him.
As far as just monitoring the spots, it is possible to get to the DX before the pile gets too big. However, I find that takes all the fun and challenge out of working DX. It's kind of like this analogy here.
I love to fish. I think it is a challenge to try to figure out when the fish are biting, what bait they are interested in, just where they are hanging out, and so forth. That is like figuring out when the DX is available, on what band and frequency, if they are operating simplex or split, and so on. For fishing, I try different baits, time, location, etc. For DX, I try listening to different bands at different times of day, etc. Fishing and DXing are very challenging and very satisfying when the challenge is mastered doing things that way.
What fun would it be going to a friend's small pond where he keeps half-starved fish and catching something there. Some may enjoy that, but not me. Let me work to find and catch those fish. What fun is it seeing on a computer just where a rare DX station is lurking, and working him easily. Again some may enjoy that, but not me. Let me find and work that rare DX by tuning and listening to the bands.
When I ignore spots and just tune the bands, there still is a chance I will find a rare DX station just starting a session, and I will get him easily before he is spotted and the pack descends on him. That happens more often than you might think. Or even finding a station before the pile becomes too large lends an opportunity to the skilled QRP operator to use his skills to break the pileup. That also happens quite often. So one doesn't really even need to use spotting.
That pretty much sums up my feelings about spots. If you choose to DX that way, fine. It's just not my way of doing things.
The one exception to using spotting. Suppose I run across a station working station after station without giving an ID. I often don't wait for an ID and work him anyway figuring I don't want to take a chance of missing him. I can find out who I worked by listening some more. However once in a while he will QRT after I work him without giving an ID. Then I'll check the spots to see whom I worked. Or if a station is very sloppy in sending his call, perhaps sending an H one time and an S the next, for example. Then a check of the spots for a consensus of his call is in order. Otherwise, I never use spotting.
I hope you'll be as successful as I have been working DX. I KNOW you can be if you just apply yourself. 73 and gud DX.