DX’ing and Operating Award Tips

AB1OC 8 Band DXCC

AB1OC 8-Band DXCC

We’ve been pretty active in Operating Award programs since we built our station a few years back. Operating Awards provide incentives to get on the air and chase all kinds of contacts and they also help us to understand our station’s and our personal operating strengths and weakness. They also provide motivation to improve the latter.

Yesterday was a banner day for me in terms of completing Operating Award goals. I was able to make the needed contacts to complete two that I’ve been working on for quite some time:

  • Worked All Japan – Requires working and confirming all 47 Prefectures (similar to US states) in Japan
  • Top Band DXCC – Working and confirming 100 DXCC Entities (basically countries) on 160m

Both of these goals were completed using the FT8 digital mode for the remaining handful of contacts. I wanted to take a little time and share some of the techniques that have worked for me in hopes that it might help our readers have more fun and meet their operating goals on the air.

DX’ing Basics and Tips

Here are some general techniques and tips for working DX (in no particular order):

  1. Use spotting clusters such as DX Summit to find the DX
  2. Use propagation prediction tools such as those available on DX Summit to assess the best times and bands to use to try to work DX
  3. Subscribe to DX Notifications such as DailyDX to learn about planned operations in rare places
  4. Make time to operate in and BEFORE major DX contests
  5. Vary the times of day, days of the week, and bands on which you operate
  6. Vary the times of the year when you operate
  7. Learn about propagation and how to take advantage of short enhancement effects such as grey line enhancements
  8. Learn how to identify days when the bands are particularly good (and bad) for working DX. Good conditions include very low noise levels, undisturbed ionosphere conditions, and favorable sunspot conditions.
  9. Learn how to use Reverse Beacon Network Tools such as PSKreporter to assess propagation conditions and the real-time performance of your station. Pay attention to how these measurements change relative to the days, times and band that you operate on and related conditions such as solar weather, grey line location, etc.
  10. Equip your station for CW, Digital (FT8 and RTTY), and SSB phone modes and develop your operating skills using all three of these modes.
  11. Learn to use the filtering and other capabilities of your radio and your digital mode software to hear and work very weak signals
  12. Successful DX’ing requires BIC (Butt In Chair); sometimes at challenging hours during the day and at night

You can learn more about items 1 – 3 via the links above and by spending some time on the associated websites.

Item 4 is a big one when you are starting out. There are more “big” DX stations on during major DX contests such as CQ WW DX, CQ WPX, etc. than at any other time. We routinely work a DXCC here in less than 24 hours during these contests. An additional tip here is to set plenty of operating time aside the week BEFORE the contest begins. Many folks travel to interesting DX locations to operate in contests and spend lots of time on the air before the contest checking their stations and assessing propagation from their location. These are excellent times to work the DX as they are not as busy and can often take more time to help you make a contact.

Items 5 – 6 are often overlooked by operators who are just beginning to focus on DX. Many of us have busy daily schedules and we sometimes tend to set somewhat regular times aside to operate our stations. Propagation to different parts of the world varies wildly depending upon the time of day and frequency bands available to the operator. Switching both up will usually add significant numbers of new DX contacts to your log.

In my view, items 7 – 9 are key skills that begin to distinguish the serious DX’er from the pack. A good working knowledge of propagation effects, band openings, and how to measure conditions in real-time are essential skills and are not difficult to learn. I’ll reference a very good book in a bit which has some great basic information on propagation and how it relates to effective DX’ing. I’d also encourage you to set up your station for FT8/WSJT-X and learn to use PSKreporter to measure propagation and your station’s performance as well. If you pay attention to how the band conditions that are shown by PSKreporter change during different times/days and solar conditions, you can learn a great deal about how propagation actually effects your ability to make DX contacts and when the interesting (and sometimes brief) band openings occur to distant parts of the world. You can learn more about how to set up and use WSJT-X, FT8, and PSKreporter here.

Items 10 and 11 relate to both your basic operating skills and your station. Many DX’ers will focus on SSB phone when they first start out. This is a great way to gain operating experience and have fun on-the-air. I strongly encourage the addition of the FT8 Digital Mode (and RTTY) to one’s station early on for two reasons:

  • FT8 coupled with PSKreporter provides important tools for understanding and assessing propagation and your station’s performance
  • You will likely find a great deal more DX that is workable with a modest station using the FT8 mode that can be had with either SSB Phone or CW

You will also want to add basic CW skills to your toolkit as soon as you can as there will be some important rare and semi-rare DX that you can only work using DX. Developing your CW skills to the level required to work a DX contact is pretty easy and is a good stepping stone to developing contesting and conversational DX’ing skills. Learning to use the features of your radio and your digital SW is a topic unto itself. The book which follows has some great information on using your rig and other capabilities of your station to work DX. FT8 software tools such as JTDX and JTAlert also bring some important capabilities that the DX’er can take advantage of (read more via the preceding links).

Item 12 probably does not require any explanation…

One DX’ing Book To Read…

AC6V's DX101s HF + Six Meters DXing Reference Guide

AC6V’s DX101x HF + Six Meters DXing Reference Guide

Before I share my recent experiences and how the items above fit in, I’d like to share one more resource. While there is no substitute for getting on the air and operating, I would recommend AC6V’s DX101x Book as a comprehensive beginners guide to DX’ing. I read this book cover to cover several times when I was starting out and found it to contain a wealth of great information on all of the above topics and more.

Back To Yesterday’s DX…

Now I’ll share how I used these ideas yesterday to complete WAJA and Top Band DXCC. I began the day with a focus on completing my Worked All Japan (WAJA) award. Prior to this time, I had completed over 800 contacts with stations in Japan, working and confirming over 250 cities there. I had also managed to work and confirm 46 of the 47 prefectures in Japan. These left needing just 1 contact with someone in the Miyazaki Prefecture for my WAJA. This prefecture seems to be a beautiful place with 12% of its land being designated as Natural Parks. Hams in Miyazaki have area 6 callsigns.

The Search for Noda San, JA6FUV

My initial approach to securing my contact with someone in Miyazaki was to work as many JA6’s as I could find on 40m, 30m, and 20m (the most open bands from New Hampshire to Japan over the last year). After months of trying without success, I decided that I needed a better approach.

40m FT8 Opening to Japan

40m FT8 Opening to Japan

I decided to use PSKreporter to see if I could identify a station in Miyazaki that I could contact. The data in PSKreporter is time sensitive so its important to do this analysis at the times of day that you expect band openings to your target location (in my case Japan early in the day). For my conditions here in New Hampshire, the best time to work Japan is in the morning between about 9:30z and 11:15z. My analysis of the PSKreporter data identified one, and only one station, JA6FUV owned by Katsuyuki Noda. I next contacted Noda San to learn about his station and see if he might help me with a contact. He was happy to try but cautioned me that he had a 100W rig and a dipole antenna for 40m and warned that making a contact with the USA would be difficult. He also indicated that he was on most days at around 11:00z (7 am local time at my location).

Solar and Band Conditions

Solar Conditions

The next several days were marked by poor solar weather and associated band conditions. The K was 3-4 and the A rose to 20. Noda San heard me only one time during this period and I did not hear him at all. As of early this past week, we had both given up. Here’s where the BIC aspect and propagation assessment skills came in. I was up every day at 9:00z (5 am local time) and on the 40m band trying to work Japan. Some days I made only a few contacts, others were a little better but no sign of JA6FUV. What I learned from this was the very best time for propagation was to Japan on 40m is a 30 minute period from 11:30z – 12:00z and I shared this information with Noda San.

Two days ago, I found the K to be 0 and the A to be 3 with the resulting band conditions to Japan on 40m as quiet as I had seen them in a while. I alerted Noda San and the following morning I found the band wide open to Japan at 9:30z. I worked maybe 15 JA’s before JA6FUV appeared on PSKreporter. JA6FUV is the station at the very bottom center of the PSKreporter image above. I began a series of directed FT8 calls to JA6FUV. After a few minutes, Noda San answered and my Miyazaki Prefecture contact was finally completed! The signal report on my end was only -19 which is right on the edge of what I can hear. Noda San reported my signal as -15 which was solid but not particularly strong. All of this shows how the various tools and tips can come into play to make an important but difficult DX contact happen.

The Path To Top Band DXCC

My other goal for this past winter season was to complete my Top Band DXCC (100 countries on 160m). We have an Inverted-L transmit antenna and some good low-band receive equipment here at our station so I felt that this was a reasonable goal. Given we are at the bottom of the solar cycle, it’s also a good time to work DX on 160m and 80m. Things got busy and I did not get the time to operate that I would have wanted nearly the end of winter. Still, I got my first 90 and then 95 confirmed DXCCs on 160m.

Upon seeing the expected solar conditions and the very quiet band conditions while working JA6FUV, I decided to take another run at DXCC 160m. While operating sporadically on 160m since the beginning of the year, I learned that there are two primary DX openings each day on 160m from here in New Hampshire. The first occurs early the morning at about 9:00z (5 am local time) and lasts until just before the grey line turns to daylight. This is a good time to work Australia, New Zealand, and the Pacific on 160m. Contacts during this time helped to get me to 95 on Top Band.

The most productive opening occurs just as it begins to get dark here (grey line enhancement again) at about 22:00z and lasts through the night until the grey line passes over Europe at about 06:30z (2:30 am local time). There are many more DXCCs that I can work in Europe so I decided to try this second opening last evening to complete my Top Band DXCC.

160m FT8 Opening to Europe

160m FT8 Opening to Europe

Again, the combination of propagation, band opening, and solar weather experience paid off. As you can see from the PSKreporter view above, I caught a very good opening into Europe and South America on 160m last night. I was able to work over 70 stations on Top Band – including CN2FA (Morocco), LX1JX (Luxembourg), IS0CDS (Sardinia),  HR5/F2JD (Honduras), and ES4IN (Estonia) – the last 5 DXCC’s needed to for 100 on 160m.

BTW, I have had a great experience with confirmations on Top band and have managed to confirm all 95 DXCC’s that I had worked prior to last evening. Hopefully, these last 5 will all confirm as well.

A Final Through – It Really Takes BIC…

Again, there is no substitute for BIC when trying to meet DX’ing goals. It took me exactly 850 contacts to work the required 47 prefectures for my WAJA. It took 1,252 contacts on Top Band to work (and hopefully confirm) the required 100 DXCC’s there. Both awards involved many contacts using SSB, CW, and Digital modes to get there. I certainly had a lot of fun meeting these two goals and I learned a great deal about the associated bands and propagation in the process.

AB1OC Operating Awards In Our Shack

AB1OC Operating Awards In Our Shack

I hope that this will help our readers to have fun DX’ing and to become accomplished DX’ers. What this is really all about is building your operating skills, experience, and station. The paper awards are like earing an educational diploma – the award is a reminder of the path you’ve walked and the knowledge that you’ve gained along the way.

Fred, AB1OC

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