Zone Zero: Top Band action in CQ 160M CW

The latest edition of the Zone Zero radio contesting podcast takes a look at the upcoming CQ 160M CW contest, and the antennas used for transmitting and receiving at a modest station that produce plenty of fun in the contests.

Listen to Zone Zero episode 25

Back in action

It’s good to be back “on the air” at Zone Zero after a long hiatus. My name is Bud, VA7ST, and while I haven’t posted a lot of new content over the past 24 months I have been super active on the air, as usual.

Zone Zero isn’t a how-to treatment because I am no expert in anything. Rather, it’s more of a radio contester’s diary – I want to share the kind of experiences and information I would have found incredibly useful and enjoyable back when I was starting out as a young contester. And I know even well-seasoned old dogs like me pick up the odd tip here and there, so this is for new and experienced radio contesters.

There’s a lot to talk about, but let’s start with the most important stuff – the upcoming contest calendar.

One of the big 160M contests is coming in late January – and in the northern hemisphere that means nights are still long with many hours of darkness to really give Top Band a good workout.

The CQ 160M Contest starts at 2200 UTC January 29 and runs through to 2200 UTC on January 31, 2021.

Contest specs: CQ 160M CW

The objective is to work as many US states, Canadian provinces and DXCC plus Worked All Europe entities as you can.

Single operators are limited to 30 hours during the 48-hour contest, and when you take your off-times they have to be at least 30 minutes in duration. Finding 18 hours of off-time isn’t much of a hardship, because 160M is generally a night-time band and contacts will be rather scarce during the daylight hours anyway.

The exchange is pretty easy – if you’re in the US you send a signal report (typically 599) and your state. Canadians send their signal report and province, and everyone else sends their signal report and CQ Zone.

Now, keep in mind that your CQ Zone is different from your ITU Zone, which is often used in ARRL-sponsored contests. If you don’t know your CQ Zone, look it up – there are good resources for this on the CQ Magazine website. Let Google be your co-pilot!

Antennas for 160M contesting

I won’t go into too much detail here, but I have a couple of posts at exploring transmit antennas and receiving antennas for 160M. Suffice to say, it’s actually easier to get a signal out on 160M than to hear weak stations.

Prolific atmospheric noise and the inefficiency of small antennas on a band that really needs a lot of wire in the air mean many of the stations you may want to work are little pistols in the grand scheme of things.

You’ll hear high-power stations as their brute force will push through the noise, but those pip-squeak stations will be buried under the hiss, pops, crackle and hash of band noise unless you can significantly improve the signal-to-noise ratio in your receiver.

It takes two to tango on low bands

If I have a tip to share, it’s one that experienced Top Banders and contest operators have known for a century: use separate transmit and receive antennas if you can.

A good low-noise receiving antenna will do more for your score than a high-powered amplifier without tackling band noise and other local noise sources in your receiver.

You can check out the posts on here:

At my station, I use an inverted-L for transmitting. It’s 70 feet tall and goes out 70 feet from there, with four 135-foot-long elevated radials about five feet off the ground.

And for receiving, I use a short Beverage – only 280 feet long, about five feet off the ground, pointed due East-West. And very recently, I have started using a super-simple “Loop on Ground” or “LoG” antenna which consists of wire laid out in a square 15 feet per side, directly on the back yard’s lawn.

I feed both the Beverage and the loop on ground using 75-ohm RG6 coax, which is both cheap and available at any big box store or your local surplus shop.

Mileage may vary, and often does

Now, I will admit that neither antenna at my QTH is perfect – sometimes my receive-only antennas don’t seem to help, but at other times they’re the difference between copying a caller and not hearing them at all.

The short Beverage works but you really have to experiment with the matching transformer values. Same thing with the Loop on Ground. If you have an antenna analyzer – or a nanoVNA, which is what I use these days – use it to determine the antenna’s impedance.

  • For the Beverage, you can measure the impedance between the Beverage wire and your grounding rod/ground point.
  • For the Loop on Ground, just attach the analyzer or VNA to the loop’s  two feed terminals.

Knowing what that impedance figure is, you can determine how many turns to wind on your matching transformer.

Check VE6WZ’s excellent – and very helpful – video tutorial on using an analyzer to sweep your Beverage wire.

What to expect during CQ 160M CW

It’s hard to know ahead of time what conditions will be like for this year’s running of the CQ 160M CW test. Right now, low-band conditions haven’t been stellar from this part of the world, but there have been bright notes – I do hear 160M FT8 stations from Japan here on the North American West coast in the pre-dawn hours, so that’s a good sign.

From the 2020 running of this contest, I noted:

“Mults down considerably from last year, and QSOs were mostly NW regional on Saturday night with a little more SE states on Sunday night. I can’t say the band was unusually noisy, but some signals were pretty weak in there and fading was pronounced at times.”

Among the predictors we often turn to are space weather and geomagnetic indicators. As this is being recorded, we are in the midst of a fairly disruptive auroral event. The northern hemispheric power index – or HPI — is at a whopping 87.5 gigawatts at this moment. That equates to an auroral index of 9.5 and makes a very pretty but dramatic Ovation model on the NOAA Space Weather Prediction Centre’s website.

Big aurora will wipe out the polar path for anything north of the US-Canada border and event makes a shot to Europe difficult for folks in California and the US Southwest. Maybe it will have subsided by the time this weekend’s CQ 160M contest gets going.

Oddly enough, 12M or 24.9Mhz has been alive with activity today, which I wouldn’t have predicted during strong auroral conditions with an A-index of 12 and rising. Never can tell from the raw numbers just how the bands will respond.

What does a typical little-pistol station work in this contest?

Last year – 2020 – was a poor showing here. Using high power and operating for 4.5 hours, I made 130 contacts with 26 states and provinces and one DX country – Alaska, which I can hit with a rock from British Columbia.  My total score was just short of 17,000 points.

My outing two years prior to that was a lot better and much more fun. Back in 2018, I operated high power for 11 hours, and ended up with 348 contacts in 50 states and provinces, and had one additional country for a total of two countries, neither of which was Alaska or Hawaii. I ended up with just over 82,000 points.

Every year is different, and you just won’t know which way it will go – good or bad – until you try it.

Trying is the point

The big basket of easiest multipliers for this contest are US states and Canadian provinces, so if you are in North America you should have a great time in this contest with even a modest antenna and 100 watts. Those in Europe, on the other hand, will be looking for DXCC and Worked All Europe entities as crossing the Atlantic or the polar path will be much more difficult on 160M than if this were a high-band contest.

The important thing for CQ 160 CW is to get on the air and give it a try. Don’t be daunted by stations with a lot more power or huge antenna systems. They need you and want to hear you. Throw out a CQ or respond to one and see what happens.

Things are really heating up on the contest calendar – from now to the end of February, there are a ton of fun events, and some of them are the biggest contests of the year.

Teaser for next time

Next time, we’ll dive into a couple of the more notable items on the calendar in early February, including the all-new European Union DX Contest. I can hardly wait!

That’s it for this episode of Zone Zero. Let’s go get ‘em – I’ll see you out there.

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