What is Ham Radio Contesting?

The best explanation about Ham Radio Contesting was written by by Rick Tavan N6XI. Here is what is his explanation of what radio contesting is:

Amateur radio is licensed use of radio communication for personal satisfaction and public service. It has its own unique form of competition.  Radio contesting, or “radiosport” as it is known by some, offers an opportunity to demonstrate skills in station building, operating tactics, physical endurance and strategy. Although strongly contested by thousands of enthusiasts and casual participants, typical prizes are just plaques, certificates, published score listings and the occasional bottle of wine.  We do it more for personal satisfaction, the excitement of the chase and the admiration of our peers than for any more tangible reward. 

In a radio contest, a sponsoring organization designates a time period ranging from a few hours to a full weekend during which amateurs in various geographic areas will attempt to contact each other.  Each contact is worth one or more points which are multiplied by the number of different places contacted.  The highest scores in each of several entry categories win.

Each contest defines these “multiplier” places differently.  For example, in the ARRL Sweepstakes a place is one of 80 “sections” of the US and Canada, each section being all or part of a state, province or territory.  In most worldwide contests, each country is considered a unique multiplier.  There are fascinating strategies for deciding when to seek new multipliers and when to make more contacts as quickly as possible.

Each contact is very brief, with the communicating stations exchanging only a few prescribed tidbits of information.  Some contests allow multiple contacts between the same pair of stations, provided each contact is on a different frequency “band.”  This makes sense because the different bands often have dramatically different signal propagation characteristics. (Consider, for example, the familiar AM and FM broadcast bands in commercial radio. The FM band is purely local but at night you can hear signals on the AM band from a thousand miles away.)  It is not uncommon for a contestant to make several thousand contacts in the course of a weekend contest.  There is nothing like the thrill of having station after station respond to your calls, pushing your “rate” up to several hundred contacts per hour.  Nothing, that is, except the equal thrill of hearing a rare multiplier come back to you through a “pileup” of a hundred or more stations.


The sponsor also defines different categories of competition.  The sine qua non is Single Operator, All Band, often separated into High Power and Low Power divisions, and these categories usually attract the largest numbers of entrants. Some operate from their own home stations while others operate as guests at other stations.  However, there are usually other categories including various multi-operator team arrangements in which two or more amateurs share operating responsibilities.  In the larger contests (those with the most participants) there also may be Single-Band categories.  Some contest rules stipulate voice contacts only while others are for Morse code or various digital communication modes.  Some involve multiple modes at the same time.  All competitors contact each other during the contest period, regardless of their categories, but the results segregate efforts in different categories and award prizes accordingly.  It is somewhat like age, gender and distance categories in citizen races.  

Most worldwide contest communication is in English. However, the required vocabulary is very small, under 100 words, so most amateurs in the world are quite capable of competing without a significant language barrier. This is even more the case when using Morse code.

Skills To Win in Ham Radio Contest

Skill in radiosport comprises several factors.  Most notable is operating ability – knowing where to tune the radio, when to solicit callers, when to seek out others who are soliciting calls.  This requires a knowledge of radio propagation, “good ears” for separating multiple conflicting signals that are often weak or compromised by atmospheric noise and fading, experience with the dynamics of each contest and excellent hand-eye-ear coordination to move quickly around the frequency spectrum, record contacts in a log, send Morse code or type or speak clearly and rapidly and so on.  Some contests last as long as 48 hours and become endurance sports.  The skills are demanding and hard to maintain over such a long period with little or no rest.  The most serious contesters, like athletes, train diligently between events.  Although physical strength is not a factor, most of the other attributes of athletics come very strongly into play. 

As in car, boat or airplane racing, skills are not the only factors determining a winning effort.  Equipment and location are also  very important.  In a radio contest, it is common for several competitors to call the same station at once.  Although timing is important in determining who gets through first, the most important thing is to have the loudest signal.  This requires a good radio, the maximum power allowed under the rules and, above all else, effective antennas.  Different types of antennas work best in specific locations and some locations, say at the bottom of a deep canyon, are just hopeless for radio work.  A winning station is well equipped, well maintained and endowed with a variety of good antennas in a location that helps them to work well.

Equipments Needed

Modern contest stations include extensive computer automation. Computers maintain the “log” of contacts which is submitted at the end to the sponsoring organization for adjudication. That includes checking accuracy and eliminating contacts recorded in error. Computers also check call signs to help prevent duplicates during the contest, help to control the radios, send contest exchanges without the need for speaking or manual sending and interface with world-wide “spotting” networks that report the frequencies currently in use by various participants. Modern contesting has been described as “the ultimate, highly-distributed, multi-player computer game.” Recent developments now make it possible to follow some participants’ scores in real-time during a contest, potentially turning radio contesting into a spectator sport, albeit of interest mainly to hams.

Most participants in contests, like citizen racers, have no expectation of winning.  They operate from modest stations in unexceptional locations for only a fraction of the contest period.  Yet the thousands of them who get on the air for only a few hours of fun and practice make the sport exciting for the hundreds who operate around the clock seeking a personal best or a victory in their categories and locations. 

The Ugly Truth to Radio Contesting

Finally, I need to confess the deep, dark, secret shame of radio contesting as a “sport.”  There is no “level playing field.”  Because of the physics of radio signal propagation and the demographics of the world, competitors in some locations can have a huge advantage over those elsewhere.  A degree of skill and effort that makes 1000 contacts from California might well result in 4000 contacts from an identically equipped station on a Caribbean island.  Simple rule changes can not “fix” this.  For this reason, most contest sponsors recognize winners in different geographic areas such as the entire world, each continent, each country, state or artificial section or zone.  This helps competitors to compare their results with peers who are on a roughly equal geographic footing, without denying that someone indeed “won the world.”  It is far from perfect but it helps a lot.  It keeps the competition interesting and the inequities have not discouraged thousands of amateurs from participating enthusiastically.  In fact, some enjoy traveling to exotic locations which offer an advantage as much as others enjoy building capable stations and antennas at home.  A “contest expedition” is the highlight of many contesters’ year.  See the sidebar for some of my own international radiosport adventures.