Larry Loen, WO7R
Sooner or later, most amateur radio licensees think about “working DX” – that is, working stations at great distances away from your station. If so, great, you’ve come to the right place. But, how to get started? Like most things in life, DXing comes without instructions. We’ve provided a few.
Do you have an amateur radio license? You need one. See here: http://www.arrl.org/shop/Getting-Started-with-Ham-Radio for one of many resources. The following assumes a General Class license or higher and a station that is able to transmit a signal on HF frequencies.
The basic essence of DX is simple. You tune your receiver to a frequency and hear an unusual call sign (maybe TX5A) calling CQ. You answer, just like it was your buddy next door. The DX station (TX5A in this example) gives back your call sign, just as you normally expect. You exchange signal reports and, in many cases, you are done. Or, maybe you chat a while. In the lingo of ham radio, you have just “worked” TX5A.
It really can be that simple. Why? Because some stations are members of countries like the US, Japan, England, even South Africa, that are commonly heard. So, working them can be exactly like working someone in, say, Indiana.
However, there are places in the world where there are very few amateur operators. Some, like Clipperton Island, have no permanent population at all. That means, for long stretches, places like Clipperton are simply not on the air. Because of this, contacting Clipperton, sooner or later, is a prize that any DXer worth his or her salt is going to want. And, it also means that if there is someone on Clipperton Island, hundreds if not thousands of stations will all want to work that station right now. That means the Clipperton amateur has a fairly limited time compared to the immense need of those many thousands. What typically happens, then, is something called a “pile-up”. “Everyone” tries to call that one station on Clipperton. At the very start, pile-ups seem forbidding, confusing places, and it is hard to follow who is talking where and when. Well, I’m here to tell you that you can ignore them for a while. Learn a little DX lore and have fun doing other things until you are ready for pile-ups.
Figure 1 A Typical, Big Pileup
DXing might seem forbidding to some simply because it seems dominated by awards. Worse, there are well-known awards that are, in fact, very difficult to achieve, even with a good station. You’ve probably already heard about the Honor Roll and how it can take “years and years”. My advice to someone starting out? Ignore all that! Sure, you'll hear a lot about the "big time" awards and "big time" DXers, but nobody is born being able to achieve that kind of thing.
Fortunately, there are rewarding and fun things you can do with the skills, experience, and station you have. This is true even if that is basically "no experience", "no DX skills" and "no station". Worry about the “big time” later. Have fun today, and start where you are. We all did, whether we are “big time” today or not.
For most of my DX "career" I had a very simple station (e.g. G5RV antenna at 35 feet, 100 watts). But, I got results I was very proud of, and had fun doing it.
The trick is to set achievable goals.
There are two basic ways to go about DXing. Many amateurs track both.
Goals for the beginning DXer that are fun and reasonable include:
After those, you can look at other awards:
I emphasize 80 meters because a good antenna on 80 meters is a challenge in a variety of ways. You may be able to work all 50 US states with a pretty minimal setup on 80, but you'll be lucky to work Europe or other DX with that setup. 80 meters is just less forgiving than other bands. If, however, you can do 80 meters, and I mean 80 meters that gets you far-flung DX, so much the better. But, if you are HOA bound or starting out, you might find it easier to leave 80 meters for later.
There are also other awards a newcomer can chase that don't require monster stations and cracking big pileups, or at least not for a long while. Most also don't require a big 80 meter signal. There are various awards like "Islands on the Air" (a really significant program for European amateurs), "Worked All Japan", "Worked All Australia" and others. Google around and see. You might enjoy them.
By the way, you may have noticed the “worked and confirmed” part. “Confirming” is covered later in this paper.
That covers a great deal of you need to know to get started. But, as you may already know, HF is dominated by the sun and how many sunspots it has had lately. The more sunspots, the easier DXing is. Why? The higher the sunspot count, the more bands like 10, 12, and 15 meters are open. In higher sunspots, working the world on modest setups on 10 meters is downright likely. In low sunspots, working anything on 10 can be a challenge. But, 40, 20, 17, 30, and even 15 meters are usefully available year in and year out. So, pay attention to current conditions, but know that even as a newcomer, you can work a lot of interesting DX at any point of the sunspot cycle.
Pile-ups happen when a sufficiently rare station comes on and everyone knows where the rare one is. This is pretty typical because if a “rare one” is on, the word gets out quickly. And so you have what you see in Figure 1 above. Here, the “rare” station sits on one frequency and everyone else spreads out in the frequencies just above where the Rare DX is transmitting.
What should the newcomer do? Avoid them for a while. You’re new, so you “need everything” and there is something else nearby that is very easy to work or has a very modest pile-up that even a beginner can figure out.
There are a million tricks to working a pile-up but the basic game is the same: Where is the DX listening? Does the DX listen at the same place each time or move around? If so, how? But, the more basic, not-so-rare stations usually work “on frequency” or listen always only one or five kilocycles up (higher in frequency). Most will tell you (e.g. “TX5A listening up 5”). These are what you want for a while.
Learning how to make contact in a big time pile-up takes a long time and even experienced operators get frustrated in many a pile-up. So, start with the “no pile-up” or “small pile-up” stations and then work your way to larger ones as you learn the game. Rarely, you can even get lucky and work the rare DX before the pile-up gets large. If the pile-up sounds like what you are used to, give it a try and see.
Figure 2 Basic, Easy Pileup
However, some pile-ups are much larger than they seem. You don’t always hear all the stations because radio wave propagation is so variable. Knowing when a pile-up is hopeless takes experience. And, as you gain experience, fewer pile-ups are hopeless. But, as a beginner, if you find you aren’t enjoying the pile-up, if you can’t really figure out what’s happening, or if you discover you’ve sat there for 30 minutes or more, it’s a good sign that you might want to tune up the band and find something more to your liking.
“What to buy” is as individual as the DXer. But, you might not want to spend money on a big station when you’re getting started.
You can spend just about any amount of money on an HF rig. But, the newcomer is usually best served by starting out more modestly. Any basic HF rig that is even 15 years old can be a decent starter rig. Ask CADXA members for advice. You’ll get a lot of it if you ask, but they can help you evaluate what’s out there. The main thing is to be very sure the radio can work “split” – that is, listen on one frequency and transmit on another. Rarer DX stations tend to work this way. Almost any HF radio 15 years old or newer will work split.
Here again, it probably pays to start out modestly. Simple wire antennas (antennas consisting of wire and little more) can get you going. Popular choices include a so-called “fan dipole” for 20 and 40 meters (with an antenna tuner, you can also get 15 meters), a G5RV (multi-band antenna with an antenna tuner), a Windom (which is often actually an offset fed dipole), and many, many more.
The most basic wire antennas are good to start with because: 1) they can be assembled very cheaply yourself, 2) you don’t need fancy test equipment (a basic SWR meter can be used to “trim” them to resonance), 3) mistakes, if any, are cheap to remedy, 4) most require just a single support, 5) many can be put on the air in a single afternoon by a beginner, and 6) most don’t require extensive radial systems (a set of wires on the ground or elevated that connect at the base of the antenna). Radials aren’t necessarily that big a deal, but avoiding them at the start will save time and energy.
Antennas I got by with in the early days included: A 40 meter dipole with an apex at 25 feet, a G5RV, a commercial vertical with an inadequate radial system. This last was a poor antenna, but it worked “good enough” at the time. And, I had enough fun working what I could. When I ran out of fun stuff to do, there was ample time to learn about better antenna systems.
What I have today is far different, but I have also been DXing a long time and I can both spend more money and successfully deploy more complex antenna systems.
It is certainly true that if you spend big money, you’ll eventually get big results. I now have the 70 foot tower with a rotatable, multi-band Yagi on top of it. I have a powerful amplifier when I need it to boost my signal. All of these are “force multipliers”. That is, I can work more DX in the same amount of time than someone with the same level of skill can work at a more modest station.
But, hold onto that thought. I said “same level of skill.” Life does favor the big station, but it favors those with skill, too. If I had no skills and the same station, I’d work a lot less DX. I didn’t buy the big station until I was ready. Most of us do the same. It’s easy to spend a lot of money and not get what you think you should. Get the skills first and then the money really helps.
A great DXer I met, the late WB2V, came to my town and put up an extremely modest station in his apartment. With an indoor antenna and 100 watts he was working DX I could not touch. How? He knew a lot of “tricks” to get rare DX, especially in pile-ups. So, I asked him how he did it and he spent a very fruitful hour showing me how to work a pile-up. I never looked back. Skill matters, too.
So, read books like “The Complete DXer”.
If you have a modest station, figure out how to make the most of it. Each 2 dB improvement in your signal (yes, you can get this even with a modest setup, at least a couple of times) will net you more stations with the same skill.
Get on digital modes like RTTY, PSK, and JT-65 (many DXers don’t use digital modes, so the pile-ups are often less intimidating or non-existent).
Get your Extra Class license (many DX stations avoid the U.S. General Class bands and it helps not to compete with the many U.S. amateurs that can’t be bothered to get the Extra Class license).
Learn CW (Morse Code). A lot of DX stations still love CW and, more importantly, this is a place where skill can win. A lot of SSB pile-ups are really just power games – if you don’t have the power, you have little chance of winning whatever your skill level. CW is almost always about skill in the end. The modest station usually has a chance in there somewhere.
You may have noticed we talked about “worked and confirmed” when talking about the basic awards. To work someone is to have a two way contact with them. Strictly speaking, you don’t have to confirm anything. But, most DXers want various awards. To get awards, especially the better ones, nobody is just going to take your word for it. You need to confirm the stations you worked. Not every contact, mind you, but at least enough of them so that you can claim the award. For instance, you probably will work Japan on 20 meters very early in your DX career. Japan has a huge number of amateurs and you’ll soon find out how easy it is to work them, especially on 20 meters. But, to claim Japan for the basic Mixed DXCC, you need to confirm only one of them.
Confirmations have long been done with specialized postcards called QSL cards. "QSL" itself comes from CW and means “confirmed”. So, a QSL card is a “confirmation card”. Usually, if you send a QSL card to them, they will then send one back to you. It is their confirmation card that you can submit for an award. There’s much more, including computerized QSLing, but you can learn about that later.
Contact the CADXA (see elsewhere on this website) or just come to one of our meetings. We can get you going into a world of fun where you can, yourself, reach out and touch someone half a world away.
Central Arizona DX Association