Contesting (also known as radiosport) is a competitive activity pursued by amateur radio operators. In a contest, an amateur radiostation, which may be operated by an individual or a team, seeks to contact as many other amateur radio stations as possible in a given period of time and exchange information. Rules for each competition define the amateur radio bands, the mode of communication that may be used, and the kind of information that must be exchanged. The contacts made during the contest contribute to a score by which stations are ranked. Contest sponsors publish the results in magazines and on web sites.
Contesting grew out of other amateur radio activities in the 1920s and 1930s. As transoceanic communications with amateur radio became more common, competitions were formed to challenge stations to make as many contacts as possible with amateur radio stations in other countries. Contests were also formed to provide opportunities for amateur radio operators to practice their message handling skills, used for routine or emergency communications across long distances. Over time, the number and variety of radio contests has increased, and many amateur radio operators today pursue the sport as their primary amateur radio activity.
Because radio contests take place using amateur radio, competitors are generally forbidden by their national amateur radio regulations from being compensated financially for their activity. High levels of amateur radio contest activity, and contesters failing to comply with international band plans, can result in friction between contest participants and other amateur radio users of the same radio spectrum.
During a radio contest, each station attempts to establish two-way contact with other licensed amateur radio stations and exchange information specific to that contest. The information exchanged could include a signal report, a name, the U.S. state or Canadian province in which the station is located, the geographic zone in which the station is located, the Maidenhead grid locator in which the station is located, the age of the operator, or an incrementing serial number. For each contact, the radio operator must correctly receive the call sign of the other station, as well as the information in the "exchange", and record this data, along with the time of the contact and the band or frequency that was used to make the contact, in a log.
A contest score is computed based on a formula defined for that contest. A typical formula assigns some number of points for each contact, and a "multiplier" based on some aspect of the exchanged information such as 'country' or 'state'.
Most contests offer multiple entry categories, and declare winners in each category. Some contests also declare regional winners for specific geographic subdivisions, such as continents, countries, U.S. states, or Canadian provinces.
The most common entry category is the single operator category and variations thereof, in which only one individual operates a radio station for the entire duration of the contest. Subdivisions of the single operator category are often made based on the highest power output levels used during the contest, such as a QRP category for single operator stations using no more than five watts output power, or a High Power category that allows stations to transmit with as much output power as their license permits. Multi-operator categories allow for teams of individuals to operate from a single station, and may either allow for a single radio transmitter or several to be in use simultaneously on different amateur radio bands. Many contests also offer team or club competitions in which the scores of multiple radio stations are combined and ranked.
A wide variety of amateur radio contests are sponsored every year. Contest sponsors have crafted competitive events that serve to promote a variety of interests and appeal to diverse audiences. Radio contests typically take place on weekends or local weeknight evenings, and can last from a few hours to forty-eight hours in duration. The rules of each contest will specify which stations are eligible for participation, the radio frequency bands on which they may operate, the communications modes they may employ, and the specific time period during which they may make contacts for the contest.
Contests exist for enthusiasts of all modes. Some contests are restricted to just CW emissions using the Morse code for communications, some are restricted to telephony modes and spoken communications, and some employ digital emissions modes such as RTTY or PSK31. Many popular contests are offered on two separate weekends, one for CW and one for telephony, with all the same rules. The CQ World Wide WPX Contest, for example, is held as a phone-only competition one weekend in March, and a CW-only competition one weekend in May
The wide variety of contests attracts a large variety of contesters and contest stations. The rules and structure of a particular contest can determine the strategies used by competitors to maximize the number of contacts made and multipliers earned. Some stations and operators specialize in certain contests, and either rarely operate in others, or compete in them with less seriousness. As with other sports, contest rules evolve over time, and rule changes are one of the primary sources of controversy in the sport.
On many weekends you will find hams engaged in the "sport" of amateur radio. Contesting is one of the activities that has more participants than any other sport in the world. On the last weekend of October you will find thousands of amateur operators making contacts on SSB worldwide to see how many other stations they can reach. The top stations will make thousands of contacts in just 48 hours but even a modest station can quite easily make several hundred contacts. How about getting your DXCC in just one weekend? It is possible.
Contests come in many forms but you will find that most require operating in one mode, either CW, SSB or Rtty. A few, such as QSO Parties, permit both CW and SSB. Some of the most popular contests are:
Even if you don't think you have a chance to get a high score in the contest there are still many different reasons to get involved. Contesting is a great way to further your operating skills and also great way to get lots of new entries from places you have never talked to in your logbook. A big contest brings more stations on the air from rare locations than just about any other time and its often a great way to snag 'the rare one'.
But remember, even if your not trying to get a high score it is important to submit your logs to the contest. This helps support the contest by making sure those stations who you contacted will get credit for you. Even if you don't need the points, they do. Also, its only polite if your going to send them a request for a QSL Card to support them by submitting your contest logs so they get contest points.
Here are some good links for more information about Amateur Radio Contesting: