There are local, regional, national and international contests. CW, SSB, RTTY, digital signals abound and can be heard coming from around the world.
Contests can be as short as four hours to 48 hours or even longer. Power levels vary from QRP to QRO and everything in between. Most contest stations run either 100 watts or 1KW but QRP can be very effective depending on conditions.
Here’s a link to one of the best online contest calendars.
First of all contesting is fun. Regardless of how simple or sophisticated your station you can work a contest.
During a contest you get to hear and perhaps work remote exotic parts of the world. Often groups of hams will travel to remote locations just to setup a contest station specifically for an individual contest.
For example, several hams have travelled from Toronto to the edge of James Bay (It’s a 1500 kilometre drive north of Montreal.) so as to operate from the rare Zone 2 area. (CQ magazine divides the world into 40 zones for its international contests.)
One of the unusual aspects of contesting is the sense of being part of an event that’s happening around the world. As you operate during a 48-hour contest (taking time off to sleep – although a few don’t) there’s an experience of being directly influenced by the solar activity as it affects the ability of you signal to propagate (or not) around the world. Different parts of the world open to your location just like clockwork (if conditions allow).
Even QRP and certainly 100-watt stations running modest antennas are capable of working 100 DX stations in one weekend. Also, if you pick your category carefully, there’s a good chance at winning an award and maybe even some wallpaper.
But contesting is much, much more than just getting on the air.
Building a contest-quality station can take years of effort and learning. This is especially true of single-operator stations that are capable of running all modes on all bands
QRO stations bring their own challenges. Running a KW of power will instantly make obvious any issues with coax cables, improperly soldered connectors, non-resonant antennas, the need for big external antenna tuners, heavy-duty grounding, RF suppression in the shack and a host of other troubles.
Even 100-watt stations can present challenges for the contester. At this medium power level you need to erect the best resonant antennas possible. On suburban lots this can limit your ability to erect resonant antennas to 40 meters or 20 meters and up.
(Resonant antennas are antennas which don’t require turning to work. When contesting non-resonant antennas such as shortened dipoles or trap verticals on 160 or 80 meters especially require tuning every few kilohertz. This is impractical and annoying for other stations during contests. That’s not to say it can’t be done but it’s not fun.)
QRP stations require even more work and often QRP contesters take to the field (or the van or tent) to find contest-friendly locations such as salt marshes (as found along the eastern sea coast of the US and the Caribbean) or mountain tops (as found in B.C.) or away from cities (and all the noise they generate).
Antennas for QRP contesting should be full-size resonant dipoles, verticals or best a beam erected at least a quarter wavelength off the ground or higher (You can go too high!) for maximum efficiency.
You can even work contests running mobile and some contests have specific categories for mobile stations in stationary and mobile situations.
One of the easiest ways to get started in contesting is partner with an experienced contester by running a multi-transmitter, single operator station in a contest that has this category.
While one operator operates the run station (calling CQ), the other operator runs the multiplier station (on a different band calling only stations that are in parts of the world not yet worked by the run station).
This linking logging computers can get really really complicated at some of the big multi-multi efforts (multiple transmitters and multiple operators).
BTW you need headphones to run a contest. I’m using noise cancelling headphones from Bose that isolate all the other noise in the room (the TV, FM radio, the XYL).
Some contest stations cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to setup. Here’s OH8X and its famous three-element 160-meter rotatable beam. On the other hand I’ve worked the ARRL Field Day contest with a Ten Tec R4020 and end-feed wire antenna.