A, B, C’s of Dx Fundamentals of the Art of DXing III
W5FKX, Don Boudreau
What equipment do I need to get started?
One of the first questions that many ask is: “What equipment do I need to begin working DX?” The answer is very simple: any transceiver and antenna will do for a start. Many hams with extremely modest stations (a typical 100w transmitter and a simple wire or vertical antenna) have earned the DX Century Club award for certified contact with 100 geopolitical DX entities. Conversely, there are also many operators who have the most expensive equipment available, with beam antennas on high towers, and yet they have not achieved DXCC, complaining about being unable to find any DX. Sadly, the only way that they know how to work DX is when someone calls them on the telephone to tell them where to listen! Once again, here is the Golden
Rule of DXing:
Equipment is not as important as Patience, Energy, Persistence, Skill, and Information.
The importance of this Rule cannot be emphasized enough: the primary attributes of a successful DXer are P.E.P.S.I. These are the things that far surpass the value of any particular equipment. Unfortunately, beginners may become discouraged when they hear others describe enviable stations and antennas, or hear it proclaimed that “You can’t work ’em if you can’t hear ’em”. While this statement is often heard among DXers and is undeniably true, it does NOT mean that you need the most expensive equipment and antennas in order to enjoy DXing. To anyone who thinks otherwise, I say Hogwash!! This erroneous perception undoubtedly arises from the fact that the well-known, high-achieving DXers in your club or area do usually indeed have well-equipped stations and impressive antennas; but it is false logic to conclude from this that ALL (or even most) DXers have well-endowed stations. Ask the best-known DXers in your area how they got started and you will find that, in almost 100% of the cases, they began with very modest stations. In fact, some will probably still have only modest equipment and antennas. In talking to them you’ll find that what they do have in common is P.E.P.S.I and a passion for chasing DX!
Now, let me set the record straight – no one will seriously argue that good antennas and good equipment are totally unimportant. Once you have become a skilled DXer, a well-endowed station will certainly make it easier to work DX; however, it will not help a bit if you don’t know HOW to work DX. It can’t be said enough: What one must understand is that equipment alone is no match for P.E.P.S.I.. No matter what equipment or antennas that you may have, you will not be a true DXer if you aren’t interested in expending the effort required to do it. You must be willing to spend as much time as possible tuning for new ones: in the mornings, evenings, and at any other free moments, and occasionally into the wee hours. If you do this, you WILL work DX. Eventually, when you feel that it is feasible for you to do it, you may want to become a truly dedicated DXer when you’re willing to:
stay up most of the night, night-after-night for a week, to tune for a rare one;
accept calls at any hour of the day or night about a new one that you need;
regularly follow DX publications in order to know when and where to find new ones;
keep at it even while others are working the station you want, but all that you hear is noise; and
look forward to trying again another time after missing out on a contact.
If you are not able or willing to invest some level of effort beyond sporadic, unfocused tuning, then no matter how much equipment you buy, you will rarely work very much DX – except by random chance!
Again, the message in all of this is: don’t get hung up on the “need” for equipment and antennas – develop the operating skills with whatever you have at the moment. In time, you will be better able to improve your station once you begin to understand the needs of a DXer. Meanwhile, there are many DX stations operating on the bands at all hours of every day that are workable at some time by any modest station setup. DXing is like any endeavor: nice clothes, nice tools, good looks – while they may all be of superficial help – will never guarantee success nearly as much as P.E.P.S.I.
OK, I’ve got a working transceiver and antenna – How do I begin?
Outlined below, and discussed in detail in the chapters to follow, is a five-step program of the A,B,C’s of Dx that is guaranteed to work:
1.Learn how to tune for DX.
“Tuning” is most often what successful DXing is about. It is truly a game of patience and persistence – tune and listen, tune and listen. It is not an exaggeration to say that for every hour that a successful DXer is active, 55 minutes are spent in tuning and listening. Tuning is more that just turning the radio ON and idly twisting the dial – it is the FIRST important skill to be learned and a whole chapter is devoted to the process. The best time to tune for DX? Although steps 3 and 4 will address the technical issues of when to tune, the fact is that the most practical answer is any and every moment that you have to spare. Even 15 minutes of tuning before breakfast or dinner can often be very productive, once you learn how to do it. This is especially true today with the availability of DX Spotting networks that show what and where DX stations are being heard (more on this later). After you have reached a certain level of expertise and achievement in DXing, you may decide to be a bit more selective in your tuning time, while spending more time reading some of the publications on DXing, learning about propagation, QSLing, planning station upgrades, or studying antenna design.
2. Learn how to make the contact and how to confirm it.
Once you’ve located a DX station that you want/need, it is then time to put your “contact skills” to work, deciding when to call and whether to call directly on the DX station’s frequency or try a bit up the band away from the crowd. In some cases, the DX station won’t even listen on his own frequency, therefore stations calling there (and there will always be some!) will not be able to make a contact. If many stations are calling, it probably sounds like an unintelligible jumble to the DX station, so waiting to make your call just as the cacophony dies down may well get you in the log before the guys with all of the expensive high-powered equipment. Knowing when and where to call will often determine whether or not a contact is made, regardless of the station equipment! After a contact is made, the next task is to seek to confirm it, usually with a QSL card, but another (digital electronic) method has now emerged – the Logbook Of The World (LOTW) hosted by ARRL.
3.Learn about your equipment and how best to use it.
When the station that you really want to work is just a whisper in the noise, you must know enough about your equipment to be able to optimize weak signal reception. It is not unusual to hear someone say that since they have “low-end” equipment, they just can’t hear DX. Remember that it wasn’t so long ago that the first trans-Atlantic radio contacts were made by hams using equipment that was less capable of tuning in and hearing stations than a contemporary $20 portable radio. Unfortunately, many hams don’t take the time to learn enough about the technical aspects of their transceivers in order to use them properly under varying band conditions; rather, too often the “solution” is to buy a “better” radio or antenna, only to find that things aren’t really much improved. Learning just a little bit about your radios and antennas will make a BIG difference in your operating skills and will keep you from costly “upgrades” that may well be disappointing. Knowing how to make the best of what you have, while planning for the future, is the hallmark of a successful DXer.
4.Learn how to find information on DX happenings.
This is one part of the answer to the “when to tune” question: knowing if there is to be activity expected, and at what time/mode/frequency that the DX station is most likely to operate, is far superior to random tuning. For example, in the Spring of 1991, I was actively pursuing DXCC Honor Roll on CW and I needed a contact with Mt. Athos (SV2 or SY2). While the resident ham, SV2ASP, Monk Apollo, was periodically on SSB, activity on CW was rare. A notice in one of the DX bulletins mentioned the possibility that a well-known DXer, Baldur/DJ6SI, may visit there. Knowing that Baldur is an excellent CW operator, I began to plan a “watch” for him as /SV2. Of course, I still had to go to work, not to mention family duties (!), so a 24/7 tuning schedule was not feasible. A bit of thought led to the anticipation that perhaps local sunrise at Mt. Athos would be a likely time for one to begin operating. Since local time there is 2 hours ahead of UTC, this meant that I should start tuning no later than 0400 UTC. As for the band to tune, I knew that we were then at the peak of the current solar cycle so that 20 meters, open for almost 24 hours, seemed the best choice – and so the watch began. The yawning stopped and the adrenalin began to flow one evening at 0510 UTC when I tuned across a high-speed CW operator on 14.025 MHz giving out rapid-fire signal reports … sure enough, it was SY2/DJ6SI !! It took me only a minute to determine that he was listening up the band and I began to follow the stations that he worked, calling on the station’s frequency immediately after the contact was completed – a method known as “Tailending”. Despite the fierce pileup, a small tri-bander at 40 ft, and no amplifier, he was in the log within 20 minutes! I really didn’t mind having to get up 4 hours later for work . There are many sources of this kind of information today that are readily available free or by subscription, by mail or on the Internet. In addition to news information sources, another powerful DXing aide is the DX Cluster spotting network. Having access to these kinds of information is next in importance to developing the tuning and contact skills.
5.Learn about radio wave propagation.
This is the other part of the answer to the question of when to tune: you should know something about the radio waves that we use and the solar and the geophysical conditions that affect how they travel (propagate) about the globe. There are two essential variables that affect RF propagation: the activity on the surface of the Sun, the position of the Earth with respect to the Sun (time-of-day, day-of-the-month, and season-of-year), and the variability of the Earth’s magnetic field.
So there you have it in a nutshell – all of the “secrets” of successful DXing!