DXpedition advice from Chris GM3WOJ / ZL1CT                        August 2012

 You are a Novice Ham or Radio Tech who is going to a rare location for a year or more.

 You have no experience of an HF DXpedition or HF Pile-up working


 Radio equipment and Antennas

1.  You may have no control over what equipment and antennas you have to use. You might be going to a Research Station which has an existing ham shack, possibly set up by a previous visiting radio tech. If this is the case, try to find out before you leave exactly what equipment is there, what condition it is in and when it was last used. Some photos of the shack and antennas would help a lot here. Also try to find out what antennas are there, if any, and again what condition they are in.

2.  You may not be able to take any radio equipment with you, but if you are, try to take a radio with you that has good receiver performance. Many currently-available HF transceivers actually perform very poorly in 'pile-up' situations. Also try to take an amplifier or use one which is available locally - 500W RF output instead of 100W at your end makes things a lot easier for you and the stations calling you.

3.  Antennas are a crucial aspect of your DXpedition (let's call it that instead of 'a year stuck on an island' !)  Again you may not be able to take antenna stuff, possibly because of weight restrictions, but the key point is that a home-made resonant antenna, which you can easily construct with just wire, some supporting structures and some coax feeder, will almost always out-perform any commercial antenna which is already installed. Obviously an existing huge rotating log-periodic antenna would be great, but often these remote ham shacks just have a ground-mounted multi-band vertical antenna. You can use any antenna that is there to start you off, but you will enjoy constructing wire antennas and you will immediately notice how well they work.

4. The key word above is 'resonant' antennas - these usually only cover one band at a time, so you might want to install 3 or 4 of them at once if possible, or change them over from time-to-time. A resonant antenna does away with the need for any antenna tuner.  Having to use an antenna tuner is a good thing to avoid, if you can.

5.  Take your own laptop/netbook/tablet with you, but make sure it can be connected to whichever radio you are going to use - so that the radio's CAT control will record the frequency of every contact that you make.here are many free logging software packages available, which make logging DXpedition QSOs quickly very easy. For example, WinTest (free DXpedition version), DXlog.net or N1MM.  (Generally speaking, day-to-day logging software like Logger32 is not ideal for a DXpedition - data entry and correction is to slow).  However you must spend some time becoming familiar with how to interface the software with your radio and how to use the software effectively. You may need to take a USB <-> RS232 converter with you - again try to check that the chipset in the converter actually works with your PC and your radio CAT control.

6.  Internet access is very important nowadays. Try to find out in advance how available this is at your destination. The world-wide amateur radio community will expect you to keep in touch, even if it is only once a week, and also to upload your logfiles regularly to an 'online log' if possible. Set-up a website or send information about your upcoming DXpedition to the DX news bulletins.


 Operating    (these notes refer to SSB operating, but most of the points apply to CW and Datamodes operating)

7.  The most important thing is that you think positively about the whole operating experience. Once you get used to them, which may take a few days or weeks, you will enjoy pile-ups and take great personal satisfaction from keeping them under control and working stations as fast as possible. You will also gain the respect of radio hams worldwide, who can be quite impatient and critical. They almost always don't fully understand what things are actually like 'at your end'. You will make many friends around the world during your stay at the rare location.

8.  If you have time, try to get some pile-up handling practice before you leave for your posting. Contact a local contester or DXer and tell them your circumstances - hopefully they will say 'come round next weekend and use my station and special callsign and I'll help you get used to pile-ups'.  However, don't let them teach you bad habits !

9.  Another key point - YOU are in control of what happens when operating and can say anything that you think will help complete the contact quickly and efficiently. Yes you can switch off if things get too tough, but staying on the air and controlling the pile-up and outwitting any DQRMers is great fun. (DQRM = deliberate QRM = deliberate interference with your signal, which sadly might be a problem at times)  Ignore deliberate interference completely if you can, and don't allow it to cause you any stress.

10.  Spend time using your radio so that you know exactly how it works. If possible, learn how to use it under situations where there is heavy interference.


 Working pile-ups

11.   Speed is the most important thing in handling a pile-up  – whatever you do, do it quickly then move quickly on to the next contact.  It’s worth remembering that about 80% of what we say into a microphone is un-necessary information. Try to build up and maintain a steady rhythm to working the stations.

12.   Keep control of the pile-up at all times.  This is easier if your signal is loud, so pay attention to equipment and antennas. On the bands we often hear an inexperienced operator in a rare country being overwhelmed by the pile-up and closing down or changing bands - with experience (or advice) this would not happen. Timing of transmissions is a key factor in pile-up control - keep transmitting regularly and never allow stations to call more than twice before you next transmit.

13.   Always reply to ONE specific station every time and give them a report immediately - no dithering about and asking for repeats. Usually you need to have copied at least 2 letters of the callsign before replying, and there may be more than 1 station with these same 2 letters in the callsign. Very often you might only copy the last letter of one callsign - you can still say "the station ending in Bravo 59" - this usually works but can waste time.

14.   Announce your callsign regularly -  incorrect DX Cluster spots are fairly common so it benefits everyone if you give your callsign regularly.  How often 'regularly' is depends on a number of factors which you will find with experience - after every contact may not be necessary - after every second or third contact is really the minimum.

15   Don't waste time – don’t repeat the report that the other station sends you back to them - this is a common fault with newer operators - they are mentally giving themselves time to catch up with what's happening - if you are not 100% sure about any part of their callsign, just ask for a repeat. Some time-wasting phrases to be avoided :  ‘Standing-by for a call’, ‘Thanks for the QSO’ etc..

16.  Always work Split frequency - you TX on say 21.295MHz and listen from 21.300MHz to 21310MHz. Check that you understand how the SPLIT button on your radio works and that you have things the right way round i.e. every time you go to transmit you stay on 21.295, but when on receive you can tune freely from 21300 to 21310 or whatever. Remember to tell the pile-up - '300 to 310' is all you need to say.

17.   The single word ‘Thanks’ is an elegant way to end a QSO – this one word conveys to the other operator that (a) you have received all their information correctly and (b) you appreciate the QSO. The single word also implies to others listening that you are now waiting for other stations to call.  You can say 'Thanks xxxxxx' where xxxxxx is your callsign.

18.  Make sure that you give everyone a chance to work you - for example, stop a USA pile-up every few minutes and make a selective call - any Europe please, any Pacific please, etc ?  This is a very effective technique, and surprisingly often results in a station who has been calling you from a long way away being worked.  

19.  Make a note of good 'band openings' that you experience to different parts of the world - there are many radio propagation experts who can give you advice about the best time to be active on any particular band.  Some logging software packages also have propagation prediction features built-in.

20.  Ask stations to give their full callsigns when calling - unfortunately this only works for a few minutes (or less or not at all!) after you make the request, then it's back to old (bad) habits - however if you reply to full callsigns, the calling stations might get the idea !  As long as you are working stations quickly then it doesn't really matter how they are calling you, but full callsigns are ideal. One common problem is that if you respond to a callsign having heard only one or two letters, the station assumes that you have their full callsign and does not give it - this is a common time-waster - you have to quickly say 'Your call?' or similar.

21.  Operating on the low bands (160m, 80m) can be very difficult and requires receive antenna(s) as well as transmit antennas. Again there are many experts who can help you with advice.

22.  Separate out time spent working pile-ups from time spent chatting on-air with friends. The pile-up operators do not want to know your name, etc - just that you have received and logged their callsign correctly.


 Example of efficient pile-up working  (under ideal conditions)

You :            VK0XX 300 to 310

Pile-up :       xxxKPxxxxxxx

You :            Kilo Papa 59

DL2KP :       Delta Lima Two Kilo Papa 59

You :            Delta Lima Two Kilo Papa - thanks           (or just Delta Lima Two - thanks)

Pile-up :      xxxxxxxxxxx etc....



Example of inexperienced pile-up working

You :            CQ CQ VK0XX - Victor Kilo Zero Xray Xray - listening from 21300 to 21310

Pile-up :       xxxKPxxxxxxx

You :            Is there a Kilo Papa calling ?   Please call now (or 'Make your call')

DL2KP :       Delta Lima Two Kilo Papa

You :            er .. is that Delta Lima Two Kilo something - say again    

DL2KP :       Delta Lima Two Kilo Papa

You :            Delta Lima Two Kilo Papa,  Delta Lima Two Kilo Papa - thanks for calling you are 59, 59 - over

DL2KP:        59 Thanks

You :            Delta Lima Two Kilo Papa - thank-you for the 59.  73 and good luck.  This is VK0XX - Victor Kilo Zero Xray Xray - listening from 21 300 to 21 310

Pile-up :       grrrrrrrrrrrr