n DXpedition advice from Chris GM3WOJ / ZL1CT August 2012
You are a DXer who is going to a rare location for an HF DXpedition.
You have no experience of an HF DXpedition or being on the 'receiving end' of an HF pile-up
1. Ideally, your first DXpedition would be with others who have experience of DXpeditioning, but in the following notes I am assuming that you are going on a single-operator DXpedition.
2. Unfortunately, being a DXer, even for many years, is not necessarily the best preparation for going on a DXpedition. It is a completely different experience being called by a pile-up from calling a DX station in a pile-up. You must be prepared to rethink your existing operating habits.
3. Plan well in advance - find out as much as you can about your destination - all the obvious things like Accommodation, Visas, Licensing, Innoculations, Food costs, etc, etc. Find out about the likely weather conditions at the time of year you are going, local sources of QRN, availability of internet access, reliability of AC supplies, etc. Often the best way to find out is to ask someone who has been on a DXpedition to where you are going. Ask their advice.
Radio equipment and Antennas
4. Take a radio that has good receiver performance. Many currently-available HF transceivers actually perform very poorly in 'pile-up' situations. Also try to take an amplifier - 500W RF output instead of 100W at your end makes things a lot easier for you and the stations calling you.
5. Antennas are a crucial aspect of your DXpedition - 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. Resonant antennas usually only cover one band at a time, so you might want to install 5 or 6 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. If you take a Spiderbeam or Hexbeam type antenna, remember that they only really perform (esp. on 14MHz) at a reasonable height e.g. 15m to 20m above ground, which may be difficult to achieve. A vertical antenna within a few metres of the sea will out-perform most horizontally-polarised antennas and may be much easier for you to set up, if you have access to a beach. Take some clip-on ferrite chokes - they may be needed to suppress RF in the shack.
6. Take your own laptop/netbook/tablet with you, but make sure you test it thoroughly with whichever radio you are taking - so that the radio's CAT control will record the frequency of every QSO that you make. There 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. If you need to use a USB <-> RS232 converter, check that the chipset in the converter actually works properly with your PC and your radio CAT control. Take spare fuses, etc.
7. Internet access is very important nowadays. Try to find out in advance if this is available, or not, at your DXpedition 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 DXpedition logfiles regularly to an 'online log' if possible. Set-up a website and/or send information about your upcoming DXpedition to the DX news bulletins. If your DXpedition experiences delays or technical or other problems, let everyone know and they will be sympathetic.
Operating (these notes refer to SSB operating, but most of the points apply to CW and Datamodes operating)
8. How you operate will determine how successful or otherwise your DXpedition is, often more so than propagation or equipment and antennas. Operating is something you have complete control over.
9. The most important thing is that you think positively about the whole operating experience. Once you get used to them, you will really 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 (or don't care) what things are actually like 'at your end'.
10. 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 !
11. 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.
12. 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.
13. Speed is the most important thing in handling a pile-up - whatever you do, do it quickly and accurately then move quickly on to the next QSO. 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.
14. 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.
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.
16. 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.
17. 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..
18. 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.
19. 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.
20. 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.
21. 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.
Ask stations to give their
when calling - unfortunately this only works for a few minutes (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.
23. 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.
24. The pile-up operators do not want to know your name, etc - just make sure that they know you have copied and logged their callsign correctly - your website or new bulletins should give them all the other information.
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) .. (or DL2 - thanks)
Pile-up : xxxxxxxxxxx etc....
Example of inexperienced pile-up working
You : CQ CQ VK0XX - Victor Kilo Zero Xray Xray - listening from 21 300 to 21 310
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