Sure you can fire up the rig and work the contest for a couple of hours and that’s great but if you’re getting serious you need a more serious plan.
First on my list is the Contest Calendar which I email to the XYL every January. On this calendar are the dates of contests which I will be operating, the contests I’d like to be operating and the contests I don’t need to be operating.
I get my contest information from WA7BNM’s excellent Contest Calendar site.
There are at least four separate categories when it comes to contesting. At the top of the pile are the super 48-hour contests which include CQ WW DX CW and SSB and the ARRL’s International DX SSB and CW tests. CQ magazine also sponsors the CQ WW WPX test which is all about working different prefixes.
Next on the list are specialized contests like the ARRL’s and CQ magazine’s 160-meter tests and the ARRL’s 10-meter test in December.
Easy contests to work and have fun learning how to contest come every month during state or province QSO parties. Some like the California and Florida QSO parties are pretty serious contests while others less so. Ontario has a QSO party and it’s often lots of fun.
RAC runs a winter contest and a Canada Day contest.
There are VHF/UHF contests, digital contests (of all sorts) QRP only contests, straight key and bug only CW contests and then there’s the sprints which are very short (some as little as four hours) of intense contesting and not recommended for the faint of heart let alone guys new to contesting. There’s something for everyone.
My XYL knows my schedule (and often takes the opportunity to visit friends or family) and knows I am committed for those dates. At our house, I don’t even take telephone calls during contest weekends and I certainly don’t answer knocks on the door (especially from neighbours complaining of TVI. Just kidding but I don’t answer the door regardless.)
On those contest weekends where I am not so serious plans can be more flexible especially if there’s no propagation.
So let’s say you’ve picked your contest and booked the weekend off. What’s next?
I pre-plan my meals and if necessary I do my own microwave gourmet cooking and I set the coffee pot up in the shack to save time. I’ve also got a washroom right behind the shack as my shack is on the main floor at the back of our mutual home office which I get exclusive rights to during the contests.
(Marion bought me a set of Bose noise cancelling headphones so now she can work right behind me and I can’t hear her. This works for CW or digital contests but phone contests drive her out of the room and sometimes the building.)
Next up, I decide which category I am going to compete in. Each contest has its own rules and categories. Aside from single operator or multi-operator there are sub categories. You can pick a power level (QRP, 100 watt, 1KW) or work a single band (160/40/40 at night or 20/15/10 daytime) which can allow you to get some sleep when the band closes.
Going into a specialized category can increase your chances at winning something (winners get everything from a notice in the results listing to downloadable paper certificates to actual plaques with their call sign engraved on a plate) as you can avoid going up against the big guns in your region.
Regardless of which category or how much time you decide is right for you, the way to have the most fun in contesting is to have a goal.
If you’re thinking of something like the CQ WW DX tests then a great goal for newcomer would be to work 25 new countries. Depending on conditions, anyone with anything that radiates 100 watts (I wouldn’t recommended QRP contesting until you’ve had some success at 100-watt levels) and feeds into a reasonably decent antenna (multi- or single-band vertical or dipole) is going to do alright.
Working 50 countries might be your stretch goal and if you’ve got a beam and 100 watts it should be easy to work 100 counties in one 48-hour contest on HF.
One way to strategically decide which category to enter is to check the results from previous years. If nobody in your state, province or country entered in your chosen category then you’re likely to pick up a piece of wallpaper (a certificate) just by showing up!