How Amateur Radio Operator Contests Work

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The amateur radio operating scene is a thriving and highly exciting community that is likely taking place literally under your nose right now! As you read this, countless messages are being transmitted and received all around you – rippling through the electromagnetic fields that are found all over the planet and transmitting all kinds of information.

And HAM radio operators (as they are known) have a whole lingo, countless technologies, and even particular rules and types of communication that they abide by. It really is a whole other world!

One important part of this culture is what is known as ‘contesting’.

What is Contesting?

Of course a ham radio contest can involve anything. Just like any other radio station, presenters (called operators) are welcome to run any kind of competition they like.

However, there is a particular kind of contest – also referred to as ‘radiosport’ – which involves testing the actual operators’ ability to use two-way radio and to understand how the technology works.

Generally, the idea behind these contests is for the operators to attempt to contact as many other amateur radio stations as possible in a short amount of time and with a small amount of information. The rules will dictate the amateur radio bands being used, the modes of communication allowed, and the type of information that must be sent.

Each contact will be tallied up to create an overall score, and the winners will be those with the highest points.

History and Challenge

If you have no experience with how shortwave radio works, or if your experience is limited to listening to a police scanner, then you might wonder about why this is a challenge at all.

The answer of course is that operating radio can actually be quite technical – which is why back in the day, it would be necessary for experienced radio operators to man the government radio systems.

You can trace the history of radiosport back to the Trans-Atlantic Tests of the early 1920s, when American hams challenged UK hams to attempt to make contact over the Atlantic using handheld two-way radio or other tools.

Shortwave radio waves like this will only travel in straight lines, and that means that they normally won’t follow the curvature of the Earth – instead disappearing over the horizon. There are ways around this however – such as firing the shortwaves from a height, or bouncing them from the moon.

Then there is the challenge of quickly identifying different stations by finding the frequencies they’re listening to, and helping to establish a connection. Certain technologies make this easier today, but there is still skill in being able to transmit a signal far and wide, or pick them up.

Today the nature and rules of contests vary greatly, challenging the technical skills of the radio operators in numerous ways. For instance, in microwave frequency bands – where only a handful of amateurs will have the necessary skills to construct and operate the necessary equipment – it may be possible to win by contacting only a few very local stations.

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