advice for newcomers, from Neill Taylor G4HLX.
Have you ever thought of entering a VHF contest? If it seems a bit daunting, it needn't be. Getting started can be really straightforward and a lot of fun. There is the excitement of the competitive spirit, the friendly trial of your equipment and operating skills against others. But there's a lot more: you can expect some contacts over much greater distances than you usually achieve, thanks to many stations operating from good VHF sites far away. You should make a large number of QSOs, including some in regions, squares or counties that are normally hard to find. If you have chosen to go portable, there's the pleasure of a day in the great outdoors. And finally there's the satisfaction of seeing your callsign in the results listings. Oh yes, and of course there's just the sheer delight of playing with radios all day long!
The Practical Wireless 144 MHz QRP Contest is an ideal event for your first go at VHF contesting. The rules are simple, the log-keeping and scoring straightforward, and the 3 watt transmitter power limit makes it easy to compete effectively even with simple equipment. Year after year we receive reports from first-time entrants who are amazed by the DX they have achieved with their simple station. And after your first experience of a VHF contest, you might like to move on to operate in some of the many VHF/UHF contests organised by the RSGB.
The first thing to stress about entering a VHF contest is that preparation is essential. Planning is the key to success, and it starts with taking stock of what you will need, in terms of radio equipment and other requirements. And right at the start you must decide if you are going to go-it-alone as a single operator, or get together with some friends to form a group. There's a lot to be said for this, in terms of pooling of resources such as equipment and antennas, and sharing of the work on the day - not only operating the station, but getting everything set up and running.
A very important decision to be made as early as possible is a choice of site at which to set up the station and operate. You might prefer to use your existing base station at your home, but the real fun of a QRP contest is really only to be had by going to a good portable site. If you've never tried it before, you'll be amazed at how much more you can hear and work from a hilltop site.
What makes a good VHF site? It's not only sheer height above sea level, but the quality of the "take-off" or how the land falls off around the site. Ideally you want a good take-off in all directions; certainly in the directions that you expect most contacts to be made. If you are trying to choose between several alternative sites, it's well worth visiting them, armed with a VHF receiver, and comparing the relative signal strengths of distant beacons and repeaters.
There are two more very important aspects of selecting a site. The first is that you must obtain any necessary permission from whoever owns the land. Do not leave this until the last moment. It's usually easy enough, if you make a courteous request explaining clearly what you wish to do.
Secondly, do what you can to make sure that there is not another group also planning to use the same site, or one very close by. Asking around at the local club, and checking with local known VHF enthusiasts, should help here. And it is wise to have an alternative site in mind, just in case you do arrive at your chosen location on the day of the contest to find another group already set up there - you wouldn't be the first to encounter this problem!
Now let's turn to the equipment you'll be needing. Almost all VHF contest activity is on ssb, so basically you need a suitable ssb transceiver. If you are operating in an area where local fm activity is high, you might be able to pick up some extra contacts on this mode, but you should definitely expect to spend most of the day, and achieve all your long-distance contacts, on ssb. The cw mode is also very well suited to QRP operation, so if you are proficient at morse take your key along, although in the past the amount of cw activity during the PW QRP contest has been disappointingly low.
In the PW QRP contest the limit on the output power of your transmitter is 3 watts. So if you use a transceiver capable of more than this, you must find some way of reducing the power to this level. On many modern transceivers there is a control to adjust the output power, and all you need to do is find a reliable means of measuring 3W. More advice on this is published in PW with the contest rules.
When using low power, it's even more important than usual to make best use of every fraction of a watt available to you. This means having low-loss antenna feeder, and an antenna with the biggest gain that you can muster. However, don't choose an array that's so enormous that it will be impossible to get up on the mast, bearing in mind that the weather will probably conspire to make this as difficult as it can at the critical moment! And a high wind not only makes antenna erection troublesome, it can also make it impossible to keep the beam pointing in the direction that you want, so you should think about a means of anchoring the mast in place, especially if you are making use of the traditional "armstrong" method of rotation.
It's probably even more important to consider the efficiency of the receive side of your station. To work your furthest distances, and all those remote squares, you need to pull in the weakest signals. One way you might be tempted to try to increase your receiver's sensitivity is to use a pre-amp. But be very cautious about this. A high-gain preamplifier is certain to worsen the strong-signal performance of your receiver. And in a contest - even a QRP one - there are likely to be quite a few strong signals around, which could leave you suffering from the effects of overload and intermodulation.
The one place that a receive pre-amp really can help is at the mast head, ahead of the antenna feeder. By almost eliminating the feeder loss from the system noise figure, this can noticeably improve the readability of weak signals above the noise. But if you do use a pre-amp anywhere in your system, make sure that you have a quick and easy means of switching it right out of circuit if you encounter strong-signal problems. These may manifest themselves in a number of ways, for example received signals (not necessarily the strong ones) may become distorted, intermodulated with others, or the receiver noise floor may seem to rise and fall erratically.
A better solution, featured on some modern transceivers, is the ability to switch off the receiver's own RF stage when using an external mast-head pre-amp.
A QRP station shouldn't need a lot of power to run it, so when portable you may be able to power your station by a battery of some sort - a lead-acid accumulator of the car type may be suitable. An alternative to a battery is a small petrol-electric generator, although these tend to be noisy, smelly and messy. Or maybe you could try the true ecological approach and use an array of solar cells.
So, apart from the transceiver, antenna, mast, feeder and source of power, what else do you need? Well, a microphone, of course, maybe a morse key, and headphones for the operator. Everyone else will want to hear, too, so you might like to arrange for both a loudspeaker and one or more pairs of headphones to be connected to the receiver output. Some people like to use a speech processor, to raise the mean power level on ssb while still maintaining 3W pep. With a well-adjusted transmitter and a good microphone that delivers "punchy" audio you really shouldn't need a speech processor, but if you do use one, avoid setting too much compression that renders the audio unintelligible. On the other hand, with no processor, don't try to achieve compression by just turning up the mic gain too far, as this leads to over-driving and a nasty broad signal.
Other things to remember are a station clock, power meter, a supply of pencils, pens, erasers, maps and all the stationery you need (see later) plus a scrap paper pad. Oh yes, and a compass, if you want to know which way your antenna is pointing!
Even with a simple station, there's enough bits and pieces to make it easy to forget something vital! The answer is to write a checklist, identifying everything you need including spares and backups (e.g. a second battery), and not forgetting other important supplies such as the food and drink. This should help you avoid the sort of problem that too many contest operators have had in the past - as in the following typical story of an experienced contester in an event a few years ago. He struggled up to the top of a Welsh mountain with all his equipment, a hard two-mile climb. Only then did he realise that the feeder was terminated in N-type plugs, but the transceiver had a SO-239 socket! It was OK, he thought, I have an adaptor - then the awful truth dawned - it's in the car at the foot of the mountain.
Of course this sort of slip-up wouldn't happen with proper preparation. It really is a good idea to have a "dummy run", getting all the equipment together a week or two before the contest and setting it all up, in the back garden or somewhere else easy. Apart from checking out compatibility between all the bits and pieces, especially if several people are sharing resources, this is an ideal time to write that checklist.
So the day arrives, you get to the site in good time, erect your tent, caravan, or whatever you have chosen to protect you from the weather (even if it's bright sun), and get everything set up and operational in time for the 10 o'clock start time. Then what? Well I assume you are generally familiar with the format of contest QSOs. If not, don't worry, but it is a good idea to have at least listened to a bit of contest operation beforehand. Not everything you hear will necessarily be good operating practice, of course, and maybe you can decide for yourself the techniques that sound effective!
When you get started, you'll soon find that what works best is to be unhurried and deliberate in the information you send, using standard phonetics, and sending things in the order that the receiving operator is expecting to write them down: report, serial number, locator. Being attentive to every detail of the information you receive is equally important, and don't be afraid to ask for a repeat of anything you're unsure of. If anything is incorrect in either log, both stations may loose points in the adjudication. Be particularly careful about callsigns - a very common error, for example, is omitting a "/P" suffix from a call in the log. The Practical Wireless contest is generally a very friendly affair, so although you'll want to be quick and efficient, do take the time to be courteous.
Keeping a completely accurate log is, of course, essential. Some operators prefer to use a computer for this purpose, and there are certainly some very suitable software products available. It's even possible at a portable station using a laptop, as long as the battery lasts out! But the biggest risk with this approach is the RF likely to be radiated from the computer, causing you unwanted QRN. So if you plan to use computer logging, make sure that when you have your "dummy run" you give it a thorough test. Even then, you can't be sure - preparing for a recent contest I convinced myself that my laptop was not radiating anything detectable on the receiver. But once everything was set up on site, switching on the computer produced a just perceptible increase in the noise floor on the receiver. This is unacceptable, so the computer was instantly abandoned in favour of the traditional pen and paper log sheets, which had been brought along as a back-up.
Many people believe that hand-written logs are still the best way. Most operators prefer to write the entries themselves, although if you have a group of people, you could have a second person as log-keeper. If so, then both operator and logger really need to concentrate - both should use headphones. Another important job, if using a manually written log, is keeping the "checklog". This is a record, kept up-to-date throughout the contest, of all stations worked in alphabetical order, usually of the part of the callsign after the prefix (so, for example, G3XFD goes under "X"). A large sheet of paper ruled into 26 columns is suitable for this (though you won't get many under "Q"). The person keeping this checklog constantly checks to see if the station calling has been worked before, avoiding wasted time and duplicates. Of course, a computer log does this automatically.
As well as this list of stations worked, you'll want to keep a record of locator squares worked. Because in the PW QRP Contest, your score is multiplied by the number of large locator squares (e.g. IO91) you work, every new one worked is very valuable to you. A small map showing the squares, which you can shade in with a highlighter as you work them, not only shows how many you have so far, but also gives a clear indication of the directions in which you need to try to pick up some more. Useful information when deciding which way to point the antenna next.
In your first contest, you're likely to want to spend as much time tuning the band and answering other stations' CQ calls as you do sitting on one frequency calling CQ yourself. When you do call CQ yourself, picking a "good" frequency is surprisingly important. It may sound nice and clear where you are, but on the other side of country, where you're hoping to reach, other stations may be audible - you don't hear them because of the beam heading that you and the competing station have set. When one or both of you moves the antenna you suddenly realise that you've been sharing the frequency. There's nothing to be gained by being obstinate in this situation - one of you is going to have to move! On the other hand, you sometimes get a feeling that you have a good spot on the band to yourself, particularly if you get a string of calls from far afield, and it's well worth hanging on to it as long as you can.
After the day is all over, there remains one further essential job to be done: preparing the log for submission as a contest entry. You'll have two weeks in which to get this complete and in the post. This is where a computer might come in handy, although hand-written logs are perfectly acceptable, if clearly written. It is particularly important to find and mark any duplicate contacts, and to highlight the first contact in each square being claimed as a multiplier. All required covering information must also be given - read the rules one more time before sending off your entry. A cover sheet form, as well as a log sheet, can be downloaded to help with this, although any A4 sheets may be used.
If you're thinking of having a go for the first time in this event, now is the time to start your planning and preparation. Then you'll be ready to join the hundreds of operators over the years who have found that entering the contest can be a lot of fun, rewarding, and fill the log book with lots of good contacts. I look forward to welcoming your log as an entry, and even maybe working you on that sunny Sunday in June!