This was originally written as a response to a query on the VHF Contesting reflector on Feb 3 2016 . It has been edited to read better as a stand-alone article. --WB2FKO
Is a higher contest score best achieved by spending money on new hardware? Or can simple changes in your operating approach work better? An experienced VHF contester offers his perspective...
VHF Contesting: Better operating techniques or more hardware?
Author: James Duffey KK6MC
New hardware solutions are OK. But some simple operating techniques can help in addition to new and different hardware at less cost.
Be on when the contest starts. Activity is never higher.
CW is important, so be sure to have that capability. With a 10 to 20 dB advantage over SSB, it really pays off. If you call a station and get no answer, often they can make out your CW when you call again. If you hear some weak stations on SSB that you can't make out, call on CW. Often you can make the QSO that way. With the recent influx of HF operators to 6-meters, listening in the 50.90 to 50.100 CW portion of the band will often yield QSOs that are not available in the SSB portion of the band. Related to this, I keep PDF files of all my rigs on my cell phone so I can refer to them during the contest if I have problems with the rig. This can help if you are trying to figure out how to send CW with the mic buttons.
Pass stations from band to band, but there are some ways to make this more efficient. Pass to 432 first. That way if you lose track of each other station you will make the high point QSO first. Then go to 222 MHz if they have it, and then to 50 MHz and 144 MHz, depending on where you started. Make it a point to work everyone on frequency before you QSY if you can. Be prepared to QSY multiple stations at once. Tell people to meet you back on 2m if you lose each other. Know who has what bands. A logging program can help with this.
Use a logging program. It really helps in a lot of ways. You can track who you have worked on which bands. Try not to let a station go until you have worked them on all possible band combinations. The logging program can key the rig with both voice and CW. That will reduce fatigue. RoverLog, N1MM+, and VHFlog are all good programs with slightly different features. Interfacing the rig to the logging program will prevent mistakes in not logging the correct band. If you have two operating positions, it is possible to network two different computers at two different operating positions. This helps in passing stations from one band to another. N1MM+ can be used in conjunction with the cluster to generate band maps of needed QSOs and mults. Plus, with a logging program, there are no problems trying to read that other guy's hand writing when you prepare the log for submittal.
Use assistance. Follow the rovers on APRS and your favorite clusters. Look for 6m openings on DXMAPs. Trade information with other ops on the air. It is straight forward to set up logging programs to identify who is on what band from a cluster. Some rovers will text when they get to a new grid, so try to get on their text list or Twitter. If a rover will give you a cell phone number you can text or call the rover. Try not to abuse this as rovers get pretty busy. Helmet fires are common among rover operators.
Keep track of the rovers in your area and try to work them on all of the band combinations they have. Most rovers put out schedules of when they will be where. Print this out and post it by your station. When you work a rover, ask them when they will be in the next grid. About that time, point in that direction and call CQ. That way, the rover will hear you when they get to the new grid and you will get into his log early and not have to worry about working him before he leaves the grid. Plus, you may work other stations in that direction while waiting for the rover to show up. Offer to buy your friendly local rover a beer when you see him.
Know who will be on the air from your area and what bands they will be on. As propagation changes throughout the day, if you can't work them when you try, try again later. If there is local VHF group or e-mail reflector, join it. When you go to a hamfest or swap meet, seek out other VHF operators. Ask their advice. Tell them your plans. Return the favor when people ask you for advice. Try to go to one of the major VHF conferences and network with other VHF ops once every few years. Offer to give a talk on VHF contesting to your local club. May is a good time as it is just before the Es season. Know who you can work easily and who you will struggle to work. Radio Mobile online is good for that as is the section on VHF propagation in the ARRL Antenna Book. You may be surprised at who you can work that you think you can't and who you can't work that you think you can.
Keep your butt in the chair. In the early morning hours when things are dead try meteor scatter with WSJT.
Always use phonetics to eliminate confusion.
Turn the beam. Listen. Tune the band. Call CQ. Repeat. No amount of hardware improvement can help as much as this.
Submit your log at the end of the contest. Study the soapbox write-ups to find out what other people's strategies are. Write your own soapbox entry so other people can see what you did. Look at the log checking reports when they come out to see if you can find hints in those to improve your contesting. Typos are common. So are band entry errors. Both of those can be improved with attention to details.
Practice helps a lot in contesting. Work all the VHF/UHF contests, including the sprints. You get better the more you work at it. Don't stop learning.
If you don't use headphones get a good pair and use them at every position. They help reduce outside distractions and noise. I think headphones add 6 dB to the signal-to-noise ratio over speakers. A headphone mounted boom mic will keep your hands free to do other things like logging, checking DX clusters, and drinking coffee. Use a foot switch for PTT. You will be surprised at how much these things help, and they are inexpensive to implement.
It is no secret that one of the keys to success in VHF contesting is to be loud on 2m. Be loud on 2m. Most contacts are initiated on 2m and then moved to other bands. So being loud on 2m leverages the other bands. I think you can get the best bang for your buck by going to a longer 2m beam, say 15-ft long, and raising it high enough to clear the house by 5 ft or more. Alternatively, you can get a duplicate yagi and stack it above the one you already have. The trees won't hurt much until you get to 432 MHz if they are not too close. The easiest and cheapest way to get more height is with fence top rail, available from fencing companies, or a Rohn push up mast. If you are not in a high RF environment, and are not experiencing desense or intermod, I don't think a filter will help much. If you are getting interference between bands, simple coaxial cable stub filters at both positions are a cost effective way of solving that problem. If you are using short runs of LMR400 you probably don't really need a mast mounted preamp either, at least on 2m. 50 Watts on 2m is a bit light. Used brick amplifiers in the 150 Watt range are pretty inexpensive. That will give you 5 dB gain, which is significant. Some bricks include a preamp, which may or may not help. The 857 is a bit noisy on 2m and a preamp may help, but if you are using LMR400, on 2m at least, you won't get much improvement, if any, by moving it to the antenna. If you are in a noisy urban environment, a preamp might not help at all. Be loud on 2m. In improving your contest station, give your first priority to what improves your capabilities on 2m. That includes receiving as well as transmitting. It will pay off.
Similarly a brick amp for 432 MHz will boost your signal on that band †. They aren't as cheap or plentiful as the 144 MHz bricks, but they are not prohibitively expensive either. A 100 Watt brick will give you a 7 dB improvement over a bare 857. With LMR400, the line loss is increased, so a mast mounted preamp may help, but depending on the length of LMR400 you have, a mast mounted preamp may not be worth the trouble.
Lots of SSB/CW ops on 222 can also work FM with the same rig and antenna that they use for SSB/CW, so a good way to take advantage of that is to hook a horizontally polarized antenna to your handie-talkie. You don't need to spend a bundle on an antenna; WA5VJB's cheap yagis will get you 11 dB of gain for less than $20. You can build two, one vertical and one horizontal to get those long haul FM QSOs with regular FM ops as well. You probably don't need a preamp on those bands either, especially if you stick with FM. In the long run, a 222 MHz transverter is a good idea. Used 222 MHz bricks are harder to find, but worth the effort. 222 MHz SSB and CW stations are few, so if you get operational on 222 MHz, you will be very popular. 222 MHz is a great band.
Listen for the weak ones. -- Duffey KK6MC
†This note was originally written to help someone in New Hampshire. In New Mexico and in some other parts of the United States, power output to the antenna is limited to 50 W on 432 MHz. This limit should be obeyed, but if you are in other areas with no such restrictions, more power will help you make more contacts.