Recently, I was trying to explain amateur radio contesting to a non-ham friend. "You know what video games are, right?" She gave me a cold look, as if to say, of course I know what video games are. "Video games," I continued, "are games you play with your eyes and fingers. Contesting is a game you play with your ears and fingers."
In a nutshell, that's pretty much it. Described that way, however, doesn't tell you a whole lot. Video games described this way doesn't tell you much, either. The reality is that every game worth playing has strategy.
To understand radio contesting, you have to understand the nature of radio. Most contests take place in what we call the "short-wave" or HF (High Frequency) bands. There are six bands in this spectrum, all identified by their (approximate) wavelength.
160, 80 and 40 meters are basically night-time bands. Ever notice that you can't hear far-away AM broadcast stations during the day, but you can at night? That's exactly how 160m is -- open during the darkness hours only. 80m and 40m are the same way, but are open a bit longer before dusk and after dawn.
10 and 15 meters open during the daylight hours, and possibly shortly after dusk -- just the opposite of 160, 80 and 40 meters. During sunspot minima, 10 meters may not open at all, and even 15 meters can be lackadaisical. 20 meters rounds out the bunch. It's mostly a daylight band, but during sunspot maxima can be open round the clock.
The basic idea of a contest is to make as many contacts (what hams call a QSO or "Q") in a defined period of time. Each contact involves the exchange of call signs ( unique identifiers assigned to each station by their governing agency ) and one or more other pieces of information. Typically, it's pretty simple - like a signal report and a state, province, country or zone identifier, maybe a name.
A game isn't fun if you don't keep score. Most contests use a two-factor scoring method. First, you get a certain number of points per contact, depending on the contest. You can't contact the same station more than once, or at least once per band. Those duplicate contacts don't count for any points.
Next, each contest defines a set of geographic areas that count as "multipliers." These could be states, provinces, ARRL sections, ARRL DXCC entities, or zones. In some contests, the multipliers count for each band.
The final score, then, is the number of contact points times the number of multipliers. As you can see, it's important to have a large number of both contacts and multipliers (or "mults") in order to make a high score.
There are two ways to make contacts in a contest. You can call CQ -- for the old morse-code pro-sign for soliciting for contacts -- and get people to call you. This is called "running." The alternative is to tune the band and look for others calling CQ. This is called Search and Pounce, or "S & P." Generally, you can make a lot more contact points running than you can doing S & P, provided you can attract people to call you. The disadvantage of running is that you may miss some rarer mults who are also running. The best contesters use a mixture of both techniques - periods of running punctuated with S & P.
Add to this mix the need to get multipliers on multiple bands, the varying propagation during the day, night, by season of year and the 11-year sunspot cycle, plus the unpredictable nature of the sun, and you have the recipe for a big challenge.
Plus, a contest can really help build your confirmation totals in pursuit of any number of awards -- like ARRL Worked All States, ARRL DX Century Club, CQ Worked All Zones, CQ WPX as well as others.
There's something satisfying to calling CQ and running a rate of 100 contacts per hour for even a few minutes, or to tune across a band at an oddball time and be the only one to catch a rare multiplier. You can run the same contest a dozen times and never experience the same situation. It never grows old.