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Planning a Contest
Home > HF Contesting > Tips and Techniques > Contest Planning
This page contains a number of tips and techniques to help you plan a contest.
The following techniques have been recommended by experienced contesters writing to the CQ Contest Reflector. All credit goes to the writers of these articles.

From Fred, K3ZO

For many of us it's good enough to get on and just have fun in the contest. This means that you get on when you want and operate as long as you want and quit when it stops being fun. For those who are seriously hoping to improve their scores, however, there is no substitute for careful planning.

After some of the post-contest stories I have written, I have received private e-mails from folks in propagationally-challenged areas saying, in essence: "What you've written is all fine and good, but out here where I live there is just no way I can run up a decent score." I have replied with my stock first reply: "All right. Tell me what your operating plan was for the contest and I'll try to help you work out a better one." About half the respondents come back with: "WHAT operating plan?"

Ladies and gentlemen, the cardinal underlying principle for serious contest operating is: YOU KNOW EXACTLY WHY YOU'RE DOING EVERYTHING YOU DO.

I'm a little tired of reading on this reflector how the log checking has become too stringent; how the rules need to be changed "so that the contest is fair"; how one's location is so hopeless that there is no hope of having any fun in the contest, etc. etc.

How many of the writers of messages which fall into the above categories have ever drawn up a complete plan for the contest in question before the contest starts? Yes, conditions can change suddenly and you may have to improvise, but you should have a plan for that too.

There are pieces on the contesting.com Web site by people such as Randy, K5ZD which lay aspects of contesting out in much more detail than I will here, but in general, before the contest starts you should ask yourself the following questions and have the answers in your head if not formally on paper: (Obviously these are questions a North American operator would ask. Some of the questions might be different for stations in other parts of the world.)

  • What band will I start on? Why?
  • What band shall I try next? Why?
  • How low should I allow my ten-minute rate to get before I decide to change bands?
  • About what time should I plan to hit each band and why?
  • How much time and when should I plan to take time off the first night so I am fresh for the European run Saturday morning?
  • What signs will tell me that propagation is deteriorating and what should I do about it?
  • How do I vary my pile-up technique depending on what the operator I'm calling is doing?
  • How many times should I call in a pile-up before going on to the next pile-up?
  • What signs tell me that it's time to stop S&Ping and that instead it might be possible to get a run going?
  • At what times on each band should I look for multipliers in Africa? South America? Oceania?
  • When do I take time off on the second night?
  • If a particular antenna, rotor, or piece of gear fails, how do I work around it?

There is no set answer for any of the above questions, because the answer will be different depending on one's category, antenna system, age and location. But if you're serious about score, all of these questions should be asked and answered ahead of time to the best of your ability.

I'm sure others can suggest questions I haven't put in here. I would offer only one suggestion. It pays to look carefully at the bands for about a week before the contest to help you plan your operating pattern. It's much better to observe for yourself than to try to make IONCAP or VOACAP or George Jacobs' column do the job for you. If you can't be on certain hours because you're at work or school, check out the packetcluster when you get home each day to see what people in your area were working at what times on what bands.

Good luck then! And no complaining later if you didn't do any planning!

From Dave, K8CC

Fairly early in my contest career, I was somewhat surprised to learn that there were patterns to propagation and activity in DX contests. Up to that point, I had simply sat at the radio and worked whatever I was presented with. This is the difference between the casual contester, who simply sits down and operates, and the serious contester who has a plan to take maximum advantage likely conditions and activity.

The first question to answer for a given contest is whether you plan to operate full or part time. Even a part time effort can be "serious" if it is executed with a plan to maximize the score rather than simply spending a few hours in the operating chair. I'm not saying the latter can't be fun or should not be undertaken, but you'll like learn a lot more (and make more points) by preparing and operating to a plan.

In most contests other than a Sprint or NAQP, fatigue can or will become a factor. The point at which it does varies between individuals, and there are techniques to improve your physical conditioning or to better accomodate fatigue. The longer the contest, the more important it becomes to manage fatigue. You still may reach a point where you have to reach down inside and just "push through", but this is a lot easier if you have a plan.

If you're planning multi-op effort, there are more options for dealing with fatigue. The trick is to schedule a crew that has ENOUGH people so that nobody gets burned out, but you don't want TOO MANY operators so that people are standing around with nothing to do. With a multi-op, the activity plan is simple - there is no excuse for not working everything. In the major DX contests (CQWW, ARRL) there are no off times so whenever the single-op is away from the radio its hurting the score - the key is to MINIMIZE THE DAMAGE.

For the single op, the key to planning your effort is to categorize the different forms of activity and band openings, and then attack the bands on the basis of priority. Do what is important, and DON'T SWEAT THE SMALL STUFF. If you're playing DXer on some band when there is rate to be had on another, you're likely to be losing the contest. The key to single-op planning is to be ready to capitalize on the good times, and simply cope with the bad times.

The corollary to to "don't sweat the small stuff" is DON'T MISS ANYTHING EASY. This means spending enough time on a band to work all of the "easy" multipliers, but don't spend so much time that another (more important) activity is overlooked. Part of this is knowing who the "big" or "relatively local" stations are, and not missing them on any possible bands.

As an example, here is Michigan the single op typically must think like an East Coaster - that is, RUN EUROPE WHENEVER POSSIBLE. Our openings don't last as long, and the signals aren't as strong, but this still has proven to be the best strategy for us. Openings to Japan have to be anticipated, but the quality of the opening will determine whether this is more productive than pursuing Europe on a lower band. At all other times, the W8 single-op is playing DXer so activity patterns will be dictated by band conditions and the size of his or her station. In general, the slowest times are the middle of the afternoon and the middle of the night, so these are the best times (or to look at it another way, the least bad) times to take a break or get some sleep.

One tip for abbreviated sleeping is to always plan to sleep in multiples of 90 minutes. Some years ago this was written up in the YCCC newsletter that your body sleeps in 90 minute cycles, where it goes down into deep sleep then comes back up to shallow sleep. Its a lot easier to wake up from shallow sleep. The first time I tried this was at Dayton after a late night hospitality suite tour. It works!

Again, all of this requires a plan. Experienced DX contesters have this engrained into their brains - its called EXPERIENCE. Whether you're going to do a 48 hour full gonzo effort, or 12 hours sandwiched in between family responsibilities, having a plan will likely result in more points per hour in the chair, and that's what we're all after.

73, Dave K8CC

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