Kendall Amateur Radio Society


Contesting and DX

The purpose of this section is to encourage one to get on HF.  But first things first.  To get off to a good start, buy a fundamental library.  All sources here are to be found at, and all are relatively expensive, so start your library with the ARRL Operating Manual for a complete "how to" overview of the hobby. The next choice would be the ARRL Handbook, then the ARRL Antenna Manual.  After that, specialty manuals that fit with your specific interest.  My choice is ON1UN's (SK) Low Band DXing which has a lot of useful information about operating on 80 and 160 meters.  But start with the ARRL Operating Manual. 

Read, read, and then read some more.  Then hook up your rig to power and antenna.  Pay attention to grounding.  And then select a quiet place on one of the bands that is active.  See the operating manual about how to proceed but in a "nut-shell", on Phone ask, "Is this frequency in use?  And if nothing heard to the contrary, call CQ.  You will find someone who will provide you an enjoyable contact.  In short, get on the air and rag chew.  Each time you do so, you will increase your comfort level and your experience.

How to Start?  I think one should operate in the various domestic and international contests but their are many other views.  The following are mine (K5NOF).  Want to work toward WAS (Worked All States)?  There is no better way to commence building your count than to operate in the November Sweepstakes.  Every US State, every US Section and every Canadian Province will likely be on the air.  CW: First full weekend in November.  Phone: Third full weekend in November.  Contest Period: Begins 2100Z Saturday and runs through 0259Z Monday.

You are not interested in score at this point; you are interested in States and Canadian Provinces.  Contesting is talked about in the Operating Manual, commencing with the 10th Edition.  In Edition 11, the contesting discussion commences on Page 3-35.  If you don't have the Operating Manuel, go to  for the same information as contained in the Operating Manuel.  The main page is titled, "HF Contesting Guidelines" and is organized into an introduction and 9 sections, each a PDF you can download and print:

  1. Pre-Contest
  2. Post-Contest
  3. Operating During the Contest
  4. Interacting with Other Contesters
  5. Interacting with Non-Contesters
  6. Spotting and Use of Spots
  7. Soliciting QSOs - Single Band Entrants
  8. Remote Stations
  9. Additional Contesting Resources.

The ARRL’s annual November Sweepstakes is the oldest domestic contest, beginning in 1930.  Sweepstakes paused during World War II but came back stronger than ever. It’s a competition between North American stations–individuals, teams, and clubs. For many US and Canadian hams, it is their first contest operation and remains a regular event on their yearly schedule for a life time.  See  Score is based on the number of contacts, multiplied by the number of sections.  See for the list of US and Canadian sections and their abbreviations.  Be familiar with these so you won't spend a second wondering what SB means (Santa Barbara) and miss something else. 

But how to contest?  I learned how years ago by simply listening.  You will probably want to start with Phone.  Listen to others, paying particular attention to the cadence of the exchange; not too fast, nor too slow.  Above all, use the standard phonetic alphabet. The exchange consists of a serial number, precedence (your operating category), your Call, Check (year first licensed) and your Section.  Read about all of this at the ARRL links above.  Some operators will build "wave" files with the exchange elements but most others will simply say the exchange.

CW Sweepstakes is probably the toughest.  I've got to confess it was daunting to hear CW contesters buzz along at 35 to 40 wpm and have to listen a number of times before I copied his/her exchange correctly.  And then, when I thought I had it, I would send my call, listen to his/her exchange (I already had his/her exchange written down), so then QSL and send my exchange.  This was so long ago that I was using a paper log and dupe sheet.

There is a far better way today; use a computer and software.  With this, listen to the senders exchange as he/she works others, enter it into the log input window, and then call.  The sender will come back with his/her exchange (you have already entered it, right?)  So now, touch the F key with your exchange, (CW) or .wav file (Phone), or simply say it if Phone.  When your contact acknowledges, hit Enter and you have it in your log. There are a number of contest software providers which are talked about below. 

Want to work toward DXCC?   Watch a spotting network for DX spots.  Set up the spot filters so you see only those posted by a North American station, and try to work each that appears.  Work the ARRL DX contests held in February and March.  Don't worry about a score; you are in it for the DX Countries.  There are many other contests such as CQ sponsored World Wide CW in late November  Word Wide Phone and Digital later on, Worked all Zones (WAZ) in Spring Summer and Fall, and so on.  There is an abundance of opportunities to work DX through the year.  Now, with Sun Spot Cycle 25 underway, world wide propagation will steadily improve.  It won't be long until 20 meters will be open 24-hours a day to somewhere.  Now is the time for new Amateurs to try HF.  See the ARRL contest page and then "Contest Corral" for contest listing at More about chasing DX later.

The fundamental reason (beyond count) of engaging in one contest or another, is to build operator proficiency.  All need to remember the principal reason the FCC and WARC have generously set aside large frequency segments for Amateur use and rigorously defend these segments from commercial interests, is to encourage amateur radio station construction, and grow a pool of trained radio operators capable of conducting emergency communications.

Now, about software.  You will need software for contesting (and to keep an electronic log talked about in the Software section).  N1MM is freeware, and this is my setup for November CW Sweepstakes using N1MM.  Being Windows based, screen arrangements are infinite and dependent on the desire of the user.  This is the dual screen display used for November 2020 CW Sweepstakes. Left Screen, from left to right, the Spotting Telnet network.  Below that the list of multipliers appropriate to the contest. At the upper right on the left screen, the log showing all contacts and the exchange for each.  On the Right Screen, the band map showing spots.  At upper center, super check showing the variations of the call sign in the entry window.  Mid center, the CW reader using CWGet.  (Yes, while I copy this stuff in my head, I still like a reader to be sure I am hearing correctly.)  Lower Center, the input window and the heart of the program..  At upper right, a tuning display that comes with CWGet and its text box.  Finally at lower right, a running tabulation of score.  See for more.

N1MM Layout for November Sweepstakes-CW

Below is a dual screen setup used for November Phone Sweepstakes using N1MM.  Again, being Windows based, the screen arrangements are infinite.  This shows what was used at K5NOF for 2020, and could very well change for 2021.  From left to right, left screen contains nice to have information.  Grey line showing spot locations, bottom left, a "how goes it" summary.  Then the contest log and below that the Sweepstake multiplier list showing what worked and what spotted.  Right screen showing the band map, then the Telnet window, which can be filtered to show only spots pertinent to the contest.  Then at upper right, the Check window and on the bottom, the entry window and running score summary.

N1MM Layout for November Sweepstakes-SSB

While the layouts shown are from November Sweepstakes, a contest of US States, Possessions and Canadian Provinces, N1MM contains setups of almost every conceivable DX and Domestic contest.

First thing to do is to look at the user manual.  This puppy is 850 pages and covers all conceivable contests and setup for SSB, CW and Digital contests.  It is arranged in sections, first to get you started and then at page 106 into the documentation, step by step directions about setup and how the various menu items work.  At page 339, how to set up the windows.  All of this is backed up by a very active reflector where beginners vent their frustrations.  You will be surprised how much you learn by reading the Q and A's.  Once you get N1MM configured and use it in a contest or two, it becomes easy and works

Another excellent choice is  Writelog contesting software is easy to set up and easy to use.  Download the user manual to see if this is for you.  You will need an off board keyer for CW such as K1EL's WinKeyer  or from microHam     I used Writelog for years and liked it until these developers would not provide a kernel to allow LPT port keying.  DX4Win does, and so does N1MM; that is why I use this software.  And with this, what next?

Chasing DX.  Once on HF, most Hams will eventually commence to chase DX (foreign countries and entities).  There is a universe of opinion about how to operate DX and “snag” the new one; a lot of this is mine. There are plenty of countries and entities to work as we emerge from the sunspot minima finishing Cycle 24 and move into Cycle 25.  Europe, Africa, South America, Pacific and Asia should provide plenty of “count” toward DXCC and WAZ.  Mid-East, India, and Indian Ocean are a bit tougher from locations in South-Central Texas because the signal path will pass over or near the North Pole.  Best conditions occur when K is low.  High K indicates a large aurora around the north (and south) pole(s). You will need a good logging package to help.  This is talked about in the Software section.

Now a word about CW.  You will probably be able to Work All States and qualify for basic DXCC using phone and various digital modes but all of this is much easier on CW.  Without CW, higher level awards will be hard and take twice a long.  Further, CW at any power level, has more punch due to smaller bandwidth, compared to Phone.  And then you are dealing with a small, English based almost universal written vocabulary.  No wondering what the DX said due to his/her accent.  CW is alive and well.

DXpeditions to rare locations will work phone and digital toward the end of their stay, but spend most of their time on CW.  Why?  Because these people have spent a lot of money to put a rare entity on the air for the World-wide Amateur community, and  they want their call sign in as many World-wide logs as possible.  A good CW operator can hand out multiple contacts in the time it takes for one phone or digital contact.   So, it is inevitable a no-code operator will hear a rare DX station on CW and will want this station in his/her log.  Many will try a CW reader and keyboard, and then become totally frustrated.  Why?  Because of timing.  By the time a reader decodes the signal and one reacts with a key board, the DX has gone on to work another.  So, for all of these reasons, Hams are leaning CW.

Propagation.  A good way to begin chasing DX is to understand propagation.  The National Bureau of Standards radio stations, WWV and WWVH, in Colorado and Hawaii still announce the K and A Indexes at :18 and :46 past each hour respectively as part of the "time tic."  Frequencies are 2.5, 5, 10, 15, and 20 mHz.  (Despite some talk of discontinuance, WWV and WWVH are fully funded and on the air.)  One can also listen to CHU in Canada for a "time-tic" on 3.33, 7.85 and 14.67mHz.  Hearing the announcements on WWVH in Hawaii will give you a good idea about propagation into the Pacific region.  But what do the K and A indexes mean?  They quantify past geomagnetic activity.  You can read more about this in the ARRL Handbook, but as a general rule, the lower the value, the better the propagation.  The ARRL Operating Manual contains a detailed description about what to expect on each of the HF bands.  The display below is live, current data from  Click on the link to see other neat stuff.  One can immediately see which bands are currently good and which are not so good.

Solar-Terrestrial Data - Provided by N0NBH
Solar Indexes

So, here is a first indication of where to listen.  Next, look at for a band by band depiction of what is going on.  The graphic shown below is from DX Maps, for 20 meters in 2019 in Cycle 24 when higher bands were still alive.  Click across the frequency tags at the top of the map to quickly see where the activity is located.

ARRL publishes a weekly bulletin showing those DX operations expected for the coming week.  Every member should receive this bulletin.  If not, log-in to ARRL and check your account.  At the bottom, be sure your email address is entered and then check the box saying OPT IN.  With this you will establish an alias to use for email if you do not wish to use your personal address.  it will be <>.  Check this bulletin.  There is plenty of DX on the air and this will quickly improve and we move further into Cycle 25.

A running summary of Announced DX Operations is published daily.  See for this excellent product showing what you can expect well into next year and beyond.

Operating Tips: 

Expect any rare DX to use split operationQSX (receive frequency) for CW is generally UP 1.5 to 5kHz above the sending frequency.  QSX for SSB is generally UP 5 to 10 kHz above sending frequency.  Why 10 kHz? So others can use their radio's Delta RX and TX functions which provide a +/- 10 kHz span.  But some, particularly on phone might listen further up the band.  In this case one will use "split".  The really good operators will help by announcing exactly where they are listening.

While this is the general rule, don't assume the DX will always listen "up".   Heard Island (VK0) listened down to avoid interfering with the operation at Comoros Island (D6) on at the same time. Again, the DX will generally announce where they are listening and will normally publish a band plan on their web page.  You need to know your radio and how to use the "quick split" function to quickly get on their listening frequency if outside the span of Delta RX/TX.  Best practice -- Visit the Expedition web page to read how they expect to operate.

Here is my (K5NOF) way to work DX using a radio with dual-receive capability (Icom 7600 or 7610 or Yaesu's new FTDX101D).  Let's say (one way or another) you come across DX handing out signal reports to one station after another but you don't hear responses on his frequency.  This is because he/she is working split.  Don't call on his/her sending frequency, and don't get in a hurry; be systematic. The first thing to do is open your receive filter as wide as possible.  Next, select "dual watch" or the sub-receiver.  What you have done is move the DX's transmit frequency into the Sub-receiver, leaving your main receiver's VFO free to tune through the "pile-up" to find where he is listening.

Now, listen to the DX.  The really good operators will announce periodically, "his call, up 2 - 5" if CW.  Or "his call, up 5 to 10" if SSB; maybe only "up" and nothing more. On the other hand, some will announce their listening frequencies.  Listen around where the DX says because he will move as needed to better hear who is calling.  Normally, you will next hear the DX say for example, "Call 599 (CW)  or 59 (Phone)"  nothing more.  Now you quickly tune your main receiver VFO through the pileup and find the station addressed.  The station addressed will likely not send his call if he/she thinks the DX has it correct.  You will probably only hear a response something like "R 599 TU or roger 59 thank you," if that much.  Now you have to rely on intuition and the context of the moment to know if the station you hear is really the right one.  This will come with experience.

At this point you should know the DX's pattern.  Does the DX routinely send his/her call frequently or infrequently.  It sometimes takes a few minutes of this before you find and hear the response from the station he last worked, but keep after the DX and watch for a change in his/her pattern.  How often does the DX announce his call?  Is the DX moving up or down in frequency, or staying put for a while?  The toughest to work are those that randomly move from one listening frequency to another.  But once you find where the DX is listening, and when the DX finishes a contact, immediately send your call, once, twice, no more than three times.   

Above all, listen to what the DX says.  Many will work areas of the world in directions favoring propagation at the given time.  For example: "CQ de Call, UP, EU." In this case the DX is telling you he/she is listening "UP" and not on his/her sending frequency and for the time being, they will work European (EU) stations only.  Don't try to force your way in.  This misbehavior could cause you to be entered on the DX's "don't work list."  Be patient because eventually propagation will favor your area.  A good tool to use showing expected propagation from you to anyplace in the world is DX Toolbox <>. In the US, you will know this when you hear "CQ de Call, UP, NA."  Other examples commonly used: SA = South America, AF = Africa, OC (sometimes PAC) = Oceana or Pacific, AS = Asia.  Listen to what the DX says

Many consider the DX Century Club (DXCC) operating award to be the premier award in Amateur Radio.  The first DXCC certificates were awarded by the ARRL in 1937.  It is earned by making contacts with at least 100 geographic locations around the world.  Most of these are distinct countries but some are "entities."  For example, Gibraltar (ZB) is a geographically separated British possession and counts for DXCC as an entity.  Another example: Hawaii (KH6) is an U.S. State but counts for DXCC as an entity due to geographic separation.   Currently, there are 340 entities on the ARRL DXCC list, which grows and contracts as geographic entities change around the World.  Work only 100 of these, obtain confirmation by card or LoTW and you will earn your basic DXCC certificate.  See for more information.


Worked all Zones

But DXCC is not the oldest amateur radio operation award.  Worked all Zones (WAZ) award began in 1934.  The award is earned by working and receiving confirmation from amateurs located in 40 geographic zones of the world as defined by CQ Amateur Radio.  The basic award is for making contact using any combination of amateur radio bands and modes. RTTY, SSB and/or CW.  Three major Fall contests are held each year:  RTTY in September, one for SSB in October and the last for CW in November giving ample opportunity for Amateurs to work as many zones as possible during these weekends.  See rules for WAZ here and the map below to gauge the degree of difficulty in obtaining this other premier operating award in Amateur Radio.

Get on the air and work the various domestic and DX contests.  If you working with low power, wait until the second day.  At this point your QSO will be worth 100 or more points to the domestic or DX contester due to the “multiplier effect.”  Start out with “search and pounce” and then toward the end of the period, go up the band a bit and try to run.  Find out for yourself what works for you and what doesn’t.

Build your proficiency.  Get on the air, if only to rag chew. Work the domestic contests such as the November Sweep Stakes and build toward the Worked All States WAS award..  No code?  Learn and use RTTY, PSK31 and now new modes such as FT4 and FT8.  But in the end, you will need to learn CW, or you will become totally frustrated listening to rare DX or rare States such as ND ME, VT and RI hand out CW contacts to others until you learn how to join in.  Above all, don't take out your frustration on others.  Always observe and practice the --

DX Code of Conduct

  • I will listen, and listen, and then listen again before calling.

  • I will only call if I can copy the DX station properly.

  • I will not trust the DX cluster and will be sure of the DX station's call sign before calling.

  • I will not interfere with the DX station nor anyone calling and will never tune up on the DX frequency or in the QSX slot.

  • I will wait for the DX station to end a contact before I call.

  • I will always send my full call sign. I will call and then listen for a reasonable interval.

  • I will not call continuously.

  • I will not transmit when the DX operator calls another call sign, not mine.

  • I will not transmit when the DX operator queries a call sign not like mine.

  • I will not transmit when the DX station requests geographic areas other than mine.

  • When the DX operator calls me, I will not repeat my call sign unless I think he has copied it incorrectly. I will be thankful if and when I do make a contact. I will respect my fellow hams and conduct myself so as to earn their respect.