Emergency communications was what originally got me interested in ham radio. But how do you really know that your setup will deliver? How do you do a proper test of your antenna, radio, and connecting lines?
After all, it’s one thing to connect everything in the shack, make a few contacts, and then call it a day. It is quite another matter to run everything for a full day or more and see if it all still holds up.Well, that’s where contests come in! Once you get out of your garage and start adding in elements like weather, bumpy roads, and field power sources you finally get a proper test of your station.
That is not to say that contest are all about the “serious” side of amateur radio. I got out of doing amateur emergency communications a lot time ago, but I still participate in contests. Why? Because contests are just plain fun! Even the worst day out contesting is still better than the best day sitting at home.
One of the most fun ways to do contesting is from a mobile station. This is most common in VHF/UHF contests, where the antennas are small enough that you can easily mount them on a vehicle.
At left you can see my typical “rover” station: my Toyota Tacoma with antennas for the 2 M and 70 cm band mounted on top. The antennas can be rotated around their common boom using a rotator at the base (not visible in the image).
With a station setup like this you have the best of all worlds: gain antennas to pull in weak signals, abundant field power from the vehicle for transmitting, and mobility to get to the best sites.
Setting up in the back of my truck (see below) allows me to spread out a bit once I get to an operating location. It is also much simpler than trying to route all the control cables and coax into the cab of the truck.
Of course, you can also operate contests from home . . . .
At right is an example home station setup. Everything is mounted in an aluminum and stainless steel cage that keeps every component in place and RF-grounded. The gear is also grab-and-go ready. (You may notice that this is the same equipment as in the photo above.)
When you operate from home you have the advantage of being near all your tools in case something needs fixing, and you get to use your base station antennas.
Last, but not least, for the bold few you can always set up portable. Keep in mind that “portable” can have different meanings, depending on the contest rules. Basically, a portable entry will mean either, “not at home”, or “everything carried on foot”.
“Not at home”
The ARRL VHF contests have a portable class where you operate from somewhere other than home, but you can use a vehicle to carry you gear. A common way to participate as this kind of station is to drive up to a high location and set up sizeable antennas. That gives a combination is amazing gain and amazing views.
Below are two photos showing that kind of station. My truck is not shown, but you can tell from the size of those antennas that I did not carry them up on my back.
This kinds of station is a lot of fun since you can bring as much gear as you wish, transporting yourself by vehicle. If you want, you can also use your vehicle as your operating station, much like when entering as a rover (see top of page).
“Everything carried on foot”
The CQ WW-VHF has categories for both rover stations (vehicle-mounted and mobile) as well as a “hilltopper” class intended for on-foot operation. The difference is that the hilltopper category is for operators who carry their gear on their backs. Below is an example of a hilltoper station I set up a few years ago:
As you can see, a hilltopper station is pretty minimal. The antennas are small, power is from light batteries, and bringing a mast is out of the question. However, this ends up being less of a disadvantage than you might think: the premise of this category is that you use your mobility to your advantage and go “where mobiles fear to tread.”
A carefully-chosen hilltoper site will get you away from other people, engine noise, and even the most stubborn most RFI. Good sites also give you a tremendous advantage in terms of power and gain. That is, if you are transmitting down towards everyone else you simply do not need a ton of power or gain any longer (you are above all the obstacles that operators on the ground floor have to contend with).
VHF/UHF contesting is a ton of fun. These are the frequencies most amateurs use the most: for repeaters, nets, and local simplex. But as operators we often become complacent with our VUHF skills. Sayings like, “VHF is only good for repeaters”, and “with UHF you don’t have any range,” are almost dogma in some clubs.
Getting out there and operating in a contest is a great way to find out just what you can accomplish on these bands. (I’ll give you a hint: you can do a LOT more than most amateurs think.)
If you are interested to learn more, check through the pages on this site showing the various contests I have operated in. Each page has information on how the event went, lessons learned, and useful tips to help you get started in VHF contesting.