“THE NEW DXER’S HANDBOOK” © I
K7UA, BRYCE K. ANDERSON
CHAPTER ‐ 1
Listening – The key to successful DXing:
The humble student approached the Zen Master, bowing and slowly gaining the courage to ask: “Master….. What is the secret of working DX?” The Master smiled and simply replied: “Listen. Always listen, Grasshopper.”
Listen? Why? Listen for what?
In the most literal sense an accomplished DXer is truly a hunter. Great hunters know what they are hunting, what it looks like, what it sounds like, and where it is likely to be found. They don’t just tromp through the woods hoping that their prize will just stand in front of them saying “Hey, shoot me!” They know when and where to look to improve their odds and they keep a keen eye open to find the big game before someone else does.
That is why we listen. We are scouting the band for stations that just came on the air. The weak ones from far away that no one else has noticed yet. If you are the first to find a great DX station, you will probably get him. You will have no competition. Also, some openings to the most remote places on Earth are only a few minutes long. You have to be there at just the right time. Sometimes propagation can be very selective in who can contact who. You might just be the only one hearing that rare DX station.
Oh! I don’t need to do that! I’ll just wait for him to come up on the DX Cluster system.
OK. If you are “THE T‐REX” of 20M this might work out fine. You have the power to destroy your competition and slam through any pile up. However, for the rest of us, once a rare DX station is spotted the competition skyrockets. And by not listening, you will miss out on those weak ones that no one else ever hears or bothers to spot. Using DX Clusters is a terrific tool, but it isn’t the only means to becoming a successful DXer. We will discuss DX Clusters in a later chapter.
Now back to listening ‐ the key to successful DXing. The concept of listening is very simple. Start on one end of the band and slowly tune up or down the band looking for DX. You should especially check out the DX portion of that band. The DX portion is usually the lower end of each sub‐band (phone & CW). While you are slowly tuning, stop on each station that you hear for a few seconds and figure out if they are DX, working DX, or of no interest to a DXer. Pick out call letters. They are the obvious way to determine if a station is DX or not. The subject that they are discussing can also be a clue. A rag chew discussing something mundane can be skipped over. A station ripping off QSOs as fast as they can go is something to be checked out further. Pay special attention to weak signals, phone operators speaking with accents or in a foreign language, and to signals that just sound “funny.” By funny I mean having a “fluttery” sound, an echo, or a poor CW note. Signals that travel over the poles are impacted by the aurora that is always present. It gives both phone and CW signals the fluttery sound. It is called “arctic flutter.” Once you have heard it, you will never forget it. Echoes come from signals arriving at your location from multiple paths. The difference in those path lengths creates the echo. Sometimes US stations sound this way from “backscatter,” but some DX stations from very far away may be arriving via multiple paths and also have an echo. Poor CW notes may be caused by echoes or from technical issues at the DX station. A poor power source or equipment that was not constructed to modern standards may tip you off to a DX station. Commercial power is very poor in many parts of the world and good equipment may be very hard to obtain. Of course when you tune upon a huge pileup you know that something of interest is on!
The best way to listen is by wearing headphones. Having a nice speaker to use with rag chews, waiting for your turn on the net roster, or other casual operating is fine. For DXing you need headphones. Headphones allow you to reduce the noise around you and to use the minimum of AF gain (volume). You can concentrate better without distractions. You will hear a weak signal better with headphones. Trust me on that.
Not just any headphones will do. First they have to be comfortable so that you can wear them for extended periods. Another factor to consider is the frequency response of the headset. High fidelity headsets designed for music have a very wide frequency response. Typically from 50 to 20,000 hertz. Communications only uses a range from about 300 to 3,000 hertz. You don’t want those super highs because in a communications situation they are just noise. The chest thumping bass response is also useless. You are better off with a headset designed for communications. Various manufacturers make them. Most of us use headsets made by Heil Sound http://www.heilsound.com/ . They are the standard for ham radio and difficult to beat. Noise cancelling phones can be useful if you have something like an amplifier blower making a constant sound that can be blocked out. The final choice of a headset is very personal, just like picking out a pair of shoes.
As you gain experience in listening you will get greater and greater rewards. There is no doubt that an experienced DXer will pick out many more DX stations than a less experienced operator. You too can gain that skill through practice. After a while you will be able to “sniff out” DX that many others won’t
CHAPTER ‐ 2
DX Cluster basics
Back in the day there was no Internet or DX clusters. Buddies called each other on the phone or on local
2M frequencies to get the word out to their friends about a good one being on. That is why UDXA still has a 2M frequency of 147.60 coordinated with the VHF Society. It’s a relic of an earlier time. Nowadays DX Clusters are an infinitely better solution to that issue. They have become so important that every serious DXer needs to have Internet access and know how to properly use a DX Cluster. A
few purists hate the concept, but like it or not the technology is here. Here is a brief summary of how to
use a cluster.
How it works: There are many DX clusters throughout the world. They are all connected via the Internet. Consequently data that is submitted to any one of them gets instantly routed to all of them world wide. The data is called a “spot.” The spot shows the call of a DX station, the frequency that it is operating on, the time, and identifies who submitted the spot. Various software filters at the cluster or on your own computer can pass through spots that are relevant to you and screen out ones that are not. Our local cluster is NC7J and can be accessed at www.nc7j.com or via telnet or packet connections.
There are useful functions at that site to filter spots that you wish to see or do not wish to see. There is also a very valuable function to search for data. If you want to see if ZS8M has been active and at what times and frequencies, you can just search for his call. Obviously that will help you know when and where to look for him.
Great. I now am connected and I see spots for stations that I want to contact. It is working.
Here is a more advanced concept. While all of the clusters get sent pretty much the same data there are reasons to monitor more than one. The mother of all DX clusters is in Finland and operated by Radio Arcala OH8X. It can be accessed at http://www.dxsummit.fi/ . It can be useful to see the stations that are being spotted in other parts of the world to get a feel for propagation conditions or to see if that
new DXpedition actually went on the air when they said that they would. You might even see yourself spotted from Europe.
Some cluster manners: It is considered poor form and very much frowned upon to spot yourself. The idea is to spot DX stations. While it is possible to send messages via this system, it is not Instant Messenger and should not be used as such. It isn’t Twitter either. No one wants to hear your “tweets.” Not every DX station warrants being spotted. Don’t clutter up the cluster with spots from really common places. No one cares about them. If you are fortunate enough to be the first to discover a great DX station consider whether to spot him or not. Or to spot him a little later. If you and a couple of other guys found the DX at the same time and you got through first, hold off spotting. Give the other discoverers a chance to work him. They have earned that right by finding the DX on their own too. Once you send that spot an instant dog pile is likely. The height of stupidity is to show the world how clever you are by spotting some really rare DX before you have worked it yourself. It is comical to see a spot and then hear the guy who sent it trying to make it through the chaos that he just created. Also, don’t spot a station that already has drawn a big crowd. He already has all that he can handle. Did you just work a guy calling CQ and now he is CQing again? Give him a boost with a spot. Some DX stations will ask you to spot them. Don’t duplicate spots that are already posted. Always be VERY careful what you enter. If you meant to enter PZ5XX on 20M CW and you mistype it as P5XX you will tick off the whole world! Tens of thousands of alarms will go off. Everybody needs North Korea on CW and you will instantly become extremely unpopular! If you see a spot for a good one and you can hear him, listen to be sure that the call sign of the spot was posted correctly. Mistakes are made. A call may have actually been HH3AA (Haiti), but some guy can’t count dits and posted it as 5H3AA (Tanzania). Then everyone after him assumes that they worked a 5H, when actually they did not. Always double check the facts. One final thought. Just because you see a good spot does not mean that you can hear him. Don’t just pile in and start calling him without first listening to see if you can actually hear him well enough for a QSO. If you can’t hear him, leave him to the guys who can. That goes double if the DX station is running simplex.
CHAPTER ‐ 3
The Holy Grail of DXing ‐ the ARRL’s DX Century Club:
“Real men don’t eat quiche and real DXers are always working on DXCC.” Well, maybe that isn’t true, but it ought to be!
“Real men don’t eat quiche and real DXers are always working on DXCC.” Well, maybe that isn’t true, but it ought to be!
Back in 1935 the ARRL launched what is the premier award in all of amateur radio. The idea was to work at least 100 “countries” and to obtain written proof of those contacts. The term “country” does not always mean a literal country. Hawaii and Alaska are part of the USA, but because of their distance from the rest of the nation they count as separate countries. The award was reborn after WWII. It was again modernized in 2000. The term “country” has been updated to the more accurate term of “entity.”
There are some rather complicated rules about what constitutes an entity, but it is no longer something that is open to interpretation as it once was. See http://www.arrl.org/dxcc for information on the award. A current countries/entities list is available at http://www.arrl.org/country‐lists‐prefixes . I’m going to use country and entity interchangeably in this chapter. I just can’t break the habit.
DXCC is a really nice award!
So should you care about this? Maybe you don’t, but most DXers are interested in working as many countries as they can and attaining and upgrading their DXCC award. It is a life long competition with other hams, and with yourself. The DXCC award is a badge of DXing competency that is to be prized! There are actually a number of different awards in DXCC. There are “mixed” (any mode counts), phone, CW, RTTY, QRP, satellite, single band (160M, 80m, etc.) awards, and the highly prized 5 band DXCC award for confirming 100 countries on each of the traditional bands of 80, 40, 20, 15 & 10M.
The basic DXCC award requires 100 confirmed countries, but that isn’t the end. There are endorsement stickers to place on your award certificate for confirming more countries. The stickers are issued at intervals defined in the DXCC rules. See the link above.
There is another award called the “Challenge.” The Challenge is an extension of regular DXCC. This one requires 1,000 band‐countries for the basic award. A band‐country credit is given for a confirmed country on any given band from 160 – 6M. Example: If you work England on 80M, 20M, and 10M you get three band‐countries. The DXCC endorsements and “Challenge” can be a life long quest.
There are currently 340 entities on the DXCC list. A DXer within ten entities of that possible number is listed on the “Honor Roll.” A DXer who has them all is “#1 Honor Roll.” Both are great honors to attain and a select few of our club members hold those high honors.
A bit of advice to new DXers. DXing is addicting. Once you get hooked you will work very hard to get a new country, especially if it is a rare one. Some of the rare entities may not have anyone operate from them for long periods of time… like 20 years! To get on the Honor Roll, you can’t afford to miss expeditions to those places when they happen. At my advanced age I really can’t miss any. I’ll probably be dead of old age before some of them come on again. / Don’t forget to get the confirmations as you go. I didn’t do that and when I got interested in the “Challenge” my statistics were dismal. I had worked hundreds of band countries and never bothered getting the confirmations. I’m still playing catch up.
The confirmation process has been modernized. For DXCC purposes the contacts may now be either in written form or confirmed via the ARRL’s Logbook of the World (LoTW) system. We are fortunate to have two certified card checkers in our club that can verify your QSLs. Either Don, N5LZ or Darryl, K7UT can check out your cards. Incidentally, CQ Magazine www.cq‐amateur‐radio.com has a very similar award that can be verified by Curt, K7CU. We will talk about LoTW and general QSLing in a later chapter.
IMHO every DXer should be interested in DXCC. ☺
CHAPTER ‐ 4
The DXer’s Tool Kit
This chapter is full of stuff that I have learned first hand as a DXer. I hope that it is useful to you.
This chapter is full of stuff that I have learned first hand as a DXer. I hope that it is useful to you.
MacGyver can fix anything with a tooth pick and a roll of duct tape. Most of us need something more than that. In this chapter we will discuss some of the basic tools that should be in a DXer’s tool kit.
What do you need? A DXer’s greatest assets are operator skill and persistence. Skill comes with experience. There is no away around it. An experienced DXer will work more DX with a modest station than an inexperienced op will be able to do with a top notch setup. Always learn as you go. You will get there with time. On the other hand, persistence can start right now. I have had several times when the pileups for rare expeditions were so large and I was at such a geographical disadvantage that I became discouraged. The same has happened when I have spent day after day listening for that new one without ever being able to hear them well enough for a QSO. If you don’t try your chances of success are zero. Even a low probability is better than that. If you keep trying you might just make it! If you don’t you automatically fail. Dogged persistence has paid off for me. You can’t work them if you are not there!
A station: Obviously to make any contacts you need a station. Your antenna system is the most effective place to invest your time and money because it impacts both your receiving and transmitting capability. Having large beams on high towers is the way to go, but many of us can’t do that for financial or logistical reasons. Do not be discouraged if you are only able to put up a simple antenna. No, you won’t smash every pileup that you are in, but you can still work a lot of DX. Low angle radiation is the key to working great distances. A 100 ft tower will give you that for your big beam, but a much lower height can also be effective. To start getting significant low angle radiation a horizontal antenna needs
to be at least one‐half wavelength high. That is only 10 meters high on the 20M band or about 33 ft. No it isn’t as good as the taller tower, but it isn’t terrible either. I have worked all of my 328 countries with a tower never over 42 ft. Some of our “#1 Honor Roll” club members have done it without huge towers. You can be very successful with a small tower or wire antennas, but it does take more work.
The receiver: Second only to the antenna system is the receiver. All modern rigs are transceivers containing both a transmitter and a receiver. Any of them can be used for DXing. The transmitter section doesn’t vary much in quality between units. A 100 watt output power is standard. Some are a little more powerful than that, but not by enough to make much difference. The receiver sections in the various transceivers, however, are not all equal. After your antenna system, invest in the transceiver with the best receiver that you can afford. “You can’t work them if you can’t hear them!” Sensitivity is important. Some radios will pick up weaker signals on the higher bands like 15M better than others. On the low bands like 80M the band noise makes that issue largely moot. A more important factor is the degree of selectivity that is determined by the rig’s filters. These filters allow you to block QRN and QRM from other stations. In general, crystal filters are better than DSP (digital signal processing) filters. Many DSP filters leak some undesired signals through them. The older technology crystal/mechanical filters actually are a lot less prone to this. However, a combination of both crystal filters and DSP is a great way to go. Another very important factor in a receiver is dynamic range (DR) . DR is a technical quality that defines how well a receiver can reject strong adjacent signals without distorting the one that you are trying to listen to. These problems are most apparent on a crowded band like during a contest. In a contest, a rig with poor DR will sound like a mish mash of signals that can become indistinguishable. A discussion of these technical qualities is beyond the scope of this chapter, but it is a matter to be seriously evaluated.
See this link for more information about dynamic range:
Some of the latest transceivers have been designed to excel at DR while maintaining high sensitivity. See the Sherwood Engineering site for lots of good information on specific receiver evaluations here: http://www.sherweng.com/table.html . Some radios get a lot worse with this problem when the
noise blanker (NB) is turned on. My old Kenwood TS940SAT is so bad in this regard that one time the NB
got accidentally turned on and I thought the rig had crapped out. The band was crowded and every signal became so distorted that I couldn’t copy any of them.
Here is a little trick that I use to improve my receiver’s sensitivity:
Sometimes less is more. When listening for a very weak signal turn your RF gain DOWN. Sometimes this improves sensitivity by suppressing the AGC (automatic gain control) in your receiver. AGC is designed
to reduce the receiver’s gain to keep strong signals from blasting your ears out. It still reduces the
receiver’s gain with moderate strength signals. Turning down the RF gain is counterintuitive, but it works! Let the rig run at its maximum sensitivity by disabling the AGC. Always learn as you go.
And finally The Transmitter: Many new operators make the mistake of getting an amplifier instead of getting a good antenna. A better antenna helps your transmitter AND your receiver. High power certainly helps one punch through QRM, but it is of no help for your receiving capability. Being an “alligator” (big mouth, little ears) isn’t desirable. High power is great if you can afford an amplifier. If you have done your best with your antenna and receiver it is the next logic step. However, like having a modest antenna, a 100 watt rig will let you work a lot of DX. In fact, having a 100 watt rig AND a modest antenna will still allow you to work a lot of DX! You can improve your chances of getting through a pile up on phone by tailoring you audio’s “presence.” Having high quality audio with the correct amount of compression will add to your success. The human voice is not equal in its level over all frequencies in the voice’s range. Compression will increase its average peak power. Your microphone’s frequency
response should be tailored for communication. See the chapter on “listening.” That which is good in a headset’s frequency response is also good in a microphone’s frequency response. Here is a good article on the theory of compression. It isn’t written about amateur radio, but the idea is still the same:
Backup One more thing before we leave the equipment section. Keep in mind the fact that your rig or antenna might fail at a particularly bad time. A while ago I was anxiously awaiting a DXpedition that I needed for an all time new one. My rig died at the worst possible time. / Within a couple of days I was able to scramble and come up with a substitute. Everything worked out, but I relearned the need for back up to any critical system. OK, maybe you don’t think that not being able to use your radio is critical. Remember that DX addiction thing? If an all time new one is about to come on then I DO feel it is critical! I used to compete in combat shooting matches. At one time I attended a great shooting school called “Thunder Ranch.” The owner/instructor is Clint Smith, a real character. According to Clint: “Two is one and one is none.” What he means by that is that everything made by man can and will fail.
If you have two guns one might fail, but you will still have one. If you only have one and it fails you are
up the creek, and in the context of the school, probably dead. / Same thing with radios! Think twice before giving away or trading in for near nothing your old rig when you upgrade. After you get your new tower, keep that old G5RV strung up in the tree. Backup is a good thing.
Be Flexible: Make your station as flexible as possible. Be able to operate on as many frequencies and modes as you can.
Flexible modes: SSB might well now be the DXer’s primary mode. It wasn’t always so, but today there is as much or more DX activity on phone as any other mode. Everybody has phone capability. Happy hunting on phone!
Some old timers claimed that it would be the end of the world when morse code was dropped as a licensing requirement. The world changed and somehow survived. With that concession, CW is still the most effective form of communications. While some futuristic digital modes like those used for moon bounce can actually copy signals below the noise level, CW beats anything else. Why? Simple. It is of a narrower bandwidth than any other mode. Without getting theoretical on you, just accept the fact that CW has about a 10 db effectiveness advantage over phone. 10 db is the equivalent of increasing your power ten times. 100 watts of CW is as effective as 1,000 watts of SSB. This really helps if you have a low powered station. At this time many hams do not know the code. That is ok, but they are missing out on a valuable resource. If you are one of them, consider learning CW (at least well enough to do basic exchanges) , or (speaking blasphemy) use your computer for CW. After all, it is just another digital mode. ( Incidentally, for decades some of the world’s top CW operators have used keyboards instead of keys.) While it is great to be able to run CW fast, sometimes running slow is the way to go. A couple of years ago a guy in TT‐ Chad (an all time new one for me) was working CW on 20M at about 6 words per minute. Apparently he was building a new skill. The pileup was calling him at high speeds. That was just plain dumb. You should always send at the same speed as the station that you are calling! He couldn’t possibly copy those speed demons. I tried to slow down my keyer. It wouldn’t go anywhere near that slow. I got up and dug through my closet and found a hand key. I plugged it into the rig in place of my keyer and called him at 6 wpm. I got him! My competitors didn’t learn and kept calling him at 35 wpm without success. I wonder why? After that I keep a straight key hooked up to my rig in parallel to my keyer and just tucked out of the way. Like I said earlier, learn as you go.
I spent lots of time in the military running RTTY. I got sick of it and to this day I really don’t like the mode. It is, however, a resource to pick up DX stations. By obtaining that capability I have worked some all time new ones that I would have missed otherwise. Digital modes other than RTTY have really caught on. Some of them like PSK and Olivia are very effective, even with very low power. These modes should not be overlooked.
Flexible frequencies: All of the HF bands are good for DXing. I have picked up all time new ones on 75/80M and all of the higher bands. Having the capability to take advantage of propagation on every band is a big advantage. When 10M is really open, the world is at your feet. Even with a very small station. Try to have antennas that will function on all of the HF bands. Most DX operation occurs in the bottom end of the bands. If you have a license less than an Extra Class you are at a definite disadvantage. The remaining Advanced Class operators are in pretty good shape, especially on phone. Generals, however, have an uphill fight. Lots of DX stations operate higher in the bands, but many do not. Let’s face it. Most DX stations really don’t care about working as many W’s as they can. They have already worked thousands of them. Some DXpeditions are nice guys and try to work everybody, giving special attention to American General Class operators. This is especially true if there are American operators on the expedition team. Many others just don’t care about the quirks of the American licensing system. It is really worth the effort to upgrade if you are serious about DXing.
K7UA, BRYCE K. ANDERSON