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WHY WORKING DX IS EASIER THAN EVER
By Don Keith N4KC
Copyright 2018 by Don Keith
Before I even get started, allow me to make clear the purpose of this article. It is NOT to minimize at all the efforts of those who successfully work large numbers of DX stations. Those who are most proficient at this aspect of the hobby of amateur radio have certain traits that I will discuss later in this piece. Allow me to also add that this article is not for everyone. I am aware that working DX—either for awards in what some decry as “5/9, 73 QSOs” or for the experience of meeting people from all corners of the world—is not everyone’s cup of tea. Fine. Hit the “Back” button up at the top and go read something else.
Many of us enjoy working DX, though, whether we are serious or casual about it. It’s a major part of our hobby, and ties in nicely with other pursuits, such as antenna experimentation, digital mode operation, honing operating skills, QRP, radiosport competition, and even stamp collecting.
There are many amateurs, though, who are reluctant to dive in and get their feet wet. Maybe they are convinced they need light-dimming power and a ton of aluminum in the air to ever hope to enjoy such a thing. Or they see no reason to upgrade to a higher license class, assuming they would never be able to contact someone on the other side of the globe with any little peanut-whistle station they could afford to assemble.
My goal here is to entice newcomers as well as those who have been around for a while to come on in, the water’s fine! And in an attempt to do so, I am going to give five reasons why having a satisfying DX experience in our hobby is easier than ever. I do this from the perspective of my own recent experience.
I became active once again in amateur radio in 2005 after a 15-year hiatus from HF. You know the story: work, kids, work, kids’ sports, and work. But I got the itch, acquired a 100-watt rig, and strung up a G5RV in the backyard in August of 2005. Though those were the waning days of the previous sunspot cycle, and though I still had work, work and work issues which left me with little time to operate, and even though I did not consciously try to lasso a ton of DX or consciously make that the focus of my operating, I had soon picked up 75 or 80 countries.
That is when I gave myself a challenge: work 200 countries, using only 100 watts and simple antennas (along with the G5RV, I soon added a horizontal loop, a ladder-line-fed dipole, and a Hustler 4-BTV vertical to my little aerial farm). In a couple of years, and with sunspots becoming as rare as knees on a chicken, I had done it. I promise I did not work hard at it. I spent a good portion of my on-air time doing things other than chase elusive stations in faraway lands. And that is my point.
If I can do it, anybody can do it. With a modest station. With simple antennas. Even if El Sol does not lend us a hand in the pursuit of our hobby.
Here are the reasons why I think it is easier than ever for you to have a satisfying DX-chasing experience, regardless of how seriously you want to indulge:
1) Today’s radios and other gear are better equipped for it. I love the boat-anchors as much as anyone, but when even an entry-level transceiver has some DSP and filtering, easily operates split frequencies, comes equipped with an effective noise-limiting system, does not drift even a tiny little bit, allows for some voice-processing, and includes a built-in CW keyer, then anyone can be equipped to work DX. Also, when you decide to up your power, relatively inexpensive desktop amplifiers that give you 9 or 10db gain and operate just fine on regular household 110-volt power are available—including many used ones. This includes newer solid-state amps, too. And there are all sorts of inexpensive digital-mode and operating gizmos that tie to your computer, giving you myriad choices for improving your capability with minimal investment.
2) There are more hams in more countries than ever before for you to work. I remember when it was rare to hear a Russian station. No more. There was a long period when no one could get on the air from China. Not now. Sometimes it seems there are millions of stations in Italy, Brazil, Germany and other countries. And many of those DX stations are much better equipped than in the past. They are more capable of pulling out weak signals and they produce lots of RF for you to snag. Also, with the portability of gear and marginally less government restriction on such shenanigans, there are more and more DX-peditions operating, including many travelers who operate “holiday style” while on vacation or in exotic areas for work.
3) There are more amateur radio bands on which to operate than ever. Before I drifted away from the hobby for all that work/kids/kids’ sports stuff, we did not have 60, 30, 17 or 12 meters. Few thought of 160 or 80/75 as DX bands. But with all that new HF spectrum, and with advances in antennas and other equipment on the lower frequencies (see ON4UN’s wonderful book on low-band DXing if you want to see what I am talking about), we almost always have bands open to various parts of the world, regardless of when you can slip away to the shack for a few minutes of operating.
4) Digital modes now offer wonderful opportunities to communicate with DX with very modest power and antennas. Those little squeaks and squawks get decoded sometimes even when you can’t hear the other guy with your ears.
5) And my final reason DX is easier to work than ever before: the DX cluster and other aids. Back in the dark ages, when we worked dinosaur mobile, it was no great stroke to tune 20, 15 and 10—our “DX bands”—to see what was coming in. Heck, 10 was dead most of the time anyway—or so we assumed, since nobody transmitted—so a quick run up and down 20 or 15 would tell us if there was anybody worth pursuing. Now, with spots popping up in the window at the bottom of my logging software—another real boon for us weekend DX fanatics—all I have to do is scroll up and down the list. It tells me instantly if anyone has spotted a country that would be a new one for me, or one I still haven’t confirmed. So off I go to see if I can hear him well enough to try to work him…if he is on one of the 12 bands for which I have capability and FCC authority to transmit. There are also free propagation software downloads, propagation reports all over the Internet, online forums for discussion of DX status, DX-peditions, and QSL info, and so much more that we did not have at our disposal back in the day.
Now, let me quickly say that your success in working DX goes up greatly if you add some other things to your arsenal or have at your disposal. These include:
· Power. 100 watts can get the job done. 600 watts is better. Legal limit works best. But heck, people do it all the time with 5 watts or less. I got my 200 with 100 watts before I went over to the “dark side” with my 500-watt tube-type amp.
· Antennas. Simple dipoles and verticals work fine. (See my article on “get on the air quickly” antennas HERE) Hexbeams, moxons, or other wire beams are better. Multi-band trapped Yagis are better still. Multi-element, long-boomed monoband monsters are best. But remember, I got 200 with a dipole, a loop and a vertical I picked up used for $50.
· CW. If you ever plan on getting serious about making DXCC honor roll, or if you just like to carry on interesting QSOs with guys in other countries, you need to be proficient at Mr. Morse’s code. Bands open sooner and close later for CW. DX-peditions who ignore you completely on SSB will happily log you on CW. I got about 65% of my first 200 countries on CW. (Read my article on the ten reasons why you should learn Morse code HERE.)
· Competition-grade rig. Again, there are marvelous entry-level HF radios available at well under a grand. Guys trade up, too, so you often find them for sale used. And you can work the world with them. But you can do even better with rigs that offer separate receivers, spectrum scopes, state-of-the-art filtering, and more. There is a wide spectrum of radios available, and you can grow with them, depending on your interests and available disposable income. (I got my 200 on a Kenwood TS-2000…a station-in-a-box radio, with no special DX-chasing features.)
· Time. That’s the hard-to-come-by commodity for most of us. Fortunately, I spend a lot of time at my computer in my second job (writing books), so if I hear a DX station that is marginal, or if I see someone spotted that I need but I don’t hear him, I just set the radio on his frequency, aim the homebrew hexbeam his way (see my article about that baby HERE), and go back to work. Sometimes he comes up. Sometimes I never hear him.
· Patience. If you get fed up after calling a couple of times in a chaotic pile-up, then you probably don’t have the patience for it. Go do something else. Patience is a virtue. Some have it, some don’t. Best you take up some other facet of ham radio or go find another hobby altogether rather than throw carriers on the DX station’s frequency or utter words on the air more suitable for the locker room.
· Operating smarts. Those come from watching, listening, and reading. They come easily for some but can be acquired by most. There are books and articles on the subject. Emulate what the good ops do. Do not mimic what the dolts do, and you’ll hear plenty of them. Being rude or boorish sometimes works, but I suspect many of those who call out of turn, walk on other stations the DX is working, or crank their voice processors up to 11 strangely fail to make it into the DX station’s log. I even hear the good DX ops chastise them sometimes right there in front of the whole pileup. I avoid throwing out a cheer!
So there you go. Working DX is easier than ever. Having the thrill of communicating around the world is at your fingertips. The fingertips that twirl the knob on the front of that basic HF radio that is hooked to a decent hunk of wire strung around the backyard.
Frankly, the first 100 countries are easy. You can almost get that many in our hemisphere. I’ve done it with casual operation in only a few hours during a DX contest. That is enough to get you the DXCC certificate. The next 100 are much more difficult. And I have a true admiration for those guys on the DXCC Honor Roll.
But you know, I bet I get just as much satisfaction adding Azberjain or Togo, as I recently did, as they do in getting a new endorsement. And I know I truly enjoy the interesting ragchews I have had recently with fellow hams in Ireland, Australia, and Austria. That is even more true considering my modest 500-watt station and homebrew antennas.
So, if you have hesitated diving into the pileups or answering the CQ from some exotic callsign, or if you have procrastinated upgrading from Technician because you are afraid your little signal will not reach out there to all that exciting DX, get off the dime!
There’s a 9K2 in Kuwait on 17 PSK right now, Sweden’s working CW in the General portion of 20 with a good signal, and I was just listening to several guys from Australia with 5/8 signals on 20 SSB.
I bet they would all love to have a QSO with YOU!
Don Keith N4KC has been a ham radio operator for more than fifty years. After a long career in broadcasting and advertising, he now writes full time and has published more than thirty books, fiction and non-fiction, on a wide range of subjects including amateur radio. See www.donkeith.com or www.n4kc.com for more info.