Monday, November 18, 2013

QRP DXing is Painful, and Interesting

The end of antenna season has arrived. All I am now doing outside is sealing joints, securing ropes and all the other little things to help my antennas and supports survive the winter months in good order. My winter activities will turn to the indoors, including making my bare-bones shack more comfortable and modelling antenna designs for 2014 and beyond.

QRP DXing is often painful so I may not stay with a small station forever. I am thinking of ways to get to 100 watts, either by refurbishing my ancient FT-102 or buying a new rig. For 2014 I am contemplating new antennas, ones with at least some gain over a dipole. For the winter I will continue with my small QRP station and single-element antennas.

Since, as they say, necessity is the mother of invention, I have had to find new ways get the most out of QRP and small antennas. No secret weapons, just a conscious recognition of needed that extra edge to compete for the increasingly difficult DX. It is increasingly difficult since as you add new countries to the log the next ones become harder to accumulate. It's the nature of the game that the easy DX comes first, leaving the difficult and rare ones for later.

Despite the difficulty I am quite pleased with my results so far. Since returning to the hobby at the start of 2013 with 10 watts from my KX3 and an eaves trough for an antenna I exceeded 100 countries worked. With dipoles, inverted vees and now a 40 meters delta loop my total has gradually inched upward, now exceeding 170.

It's all QRP and all CW. I have only hit the 100 countries mark on one band -- 20 meters -- but I am closing in on that mark on other bands. Some DXpeditions I failed to work (such as K9W on Wake Island) while others I've worked on multiple bands (such as T33A and XR0ZR). My next goal is 200 countries. If I'm very lucky I might get there by year end. That will be far from easy. Thus the pain I mentioned.

There are many common techniques for navigating pile-ups to snag a rare DX station. I know them and use them. Mostly these consist of  finding the station the DX is working, and then the next and the next after that, establish a pattern and predict ahead to where he'll be listening next. I often get it right. But with 10 watts and wire antennas it often does me no good at all.

While most DXers in a pile-up are either unpracticed in advanced pile-up techniques or are not agile enough to persistently and effectively apply them, there are many who are very good at it. When I successfully pick the correct frequency there are many others already there, especially for the rare ones. When that happens I lose.

Even in cases where I am the only one who got it right, many DX operators ignore my weak signal and simply slide by to a stronger station. That I can't fight. All I can do is wait for improved propagation and try again. In the QRP DXing game patience is a virtue.

This has motivated me to try new DXing techniques. There is a joy in trying and succeeding with new DXing strategies. I can honestly say that this experiment in QRP DXing has been very interesting. I've learned new techniques that add to my success, things that I might not have otherwise learned. That's a good thing. Let me list a few. You may already be doing some or all of them.
  • The rarer the DXpedition the longer I wait to jump in. A DXpedition that lasts a week or more tends to clear out all the pile-ups and leave opportunities for the little guys. Although it's very tempting to jump in early the effort is almost certainly wasted. Wait a while, pick a band & mode with few callers and go for it.
  • Work them on 30 meters. The majority of DXers on 30 meters respect the power restrictions. That means the pile-up is 10 db weaker than on other bands. This is equivalent to the little guy with 10 watts moving up to 100 watts on other bands. The other advantage is that many DXers do not put up yagis for this band. A wire antenna is therefore more competitive.
  • When the DXpedition says "QRX", you really should wait. The longer they are absent the more stations drift away. They probably click through to other pile-up spots with the intention of checking back later. Many times the DXpedition actually does leave for good when this happens. Other times it is only a short break and they're back in 5 minutes. When they first return there will be less competition. This is how I worked XR0ZR on 17 meters.
  • If the DX station is hopping around in frequency it can sometimes pay to ignore the pattern. It can sometimes be better to instead find a frequency within the listening range (that you determined by listening) that is free of other callers. These voids do occur, but be aware that what you hear as a void might not be at the DX end. It can be a bit boring but it can work since you can avoid the worst of the competition from bigger stations. I worked T33A on one band this way. Check your transmit frequency from time to time to ensure it is still quiet.
  • Plan for times of enhanced propagation. As the terminator sweeps across your location there is often a period of enhanced propagation. Since most callers at that time are either in full daylight or night you have a momentary advantage. Best times tend to be just after sunset and just after sunrise. This works because as the MUF (maximum usable frequency) passes your frequency (whether moving in the upward or downward direction) path loss can be substantially reduced. You'll know it when you hear it.
  • When contesters turn left, you turn right. Not all DX stations operate in contests so they tend to avoid contest modes and bands when they occur. If the contest is on SSB, operate CW or RTTY. Even better, the competition for the DX will be less, which benefits the small station. The reason is that there is a large overlap between contesters and DXers, and they are also the ones with the biggest stations. Plan ahead for those special weekends.
When all is said and done, is it worth the effort and frustration? That depends. One of the things that struck me many years ago was that I got bored with the relative ease of logging many rare ones with my yagis and kilowatt. The challenge was more one of information, not getting through the pile-up. Unlike today, back then there was no convenient way to know where the DX stations were. A lot of listening was involved. And by "a lot" I mean a lot.

With today's worldwide DX clusters and computer-enabled rigs there is, perhaps, less need to listen. Rather than spending one's time listening one is likely to spend that same amount of time sitting in pile-ups. This is the inevitable result of everyone having access to the same tools and information. Years ago it took time for pile-ups to form, as DXers ran across the DX station and the keener ones then started phoning their friends or getting on FM to announce on the local DXers' repeater or packet cluster.

Having a big signal today may be more important than ever. If every DXpedition has a 24x7 pile-up a big signal can ensure you spend less time in each. However that is not my station in 2013. Whatever skills I may have they are often useless since I cannot compete against other stations, even those with the typical 100 watts rig, no matter what their antennas may be.

No comments:

Post a Comment

All comments are moderated, and should appear within one day of submission.