DX: Breaking the Pile

This is one of a series of “Notes” I published on Facebook. Since Facebook has discontinued the Notes feature, I am publishing that series here on my blog.

There is tremendous competition for contacts with rare DX and especially DXpeditions to places that are only on the air once in ten or twenty years. With tens of thousands of eager DXers trying to get through and limited time, the pileups can be enormous. Not everyone who wants the contact is going to make it. Is there any hope for the DXer with 100 watts and a wire or vertical? Yes! The rarest places on Earth can be worked with 100 watts and a wire, but when one has a small station and the competition is intense, lack of signal strength must be compensated by skill and knowledge. Either that or a lot of luck. Success with a small station takes time, skill, and patience but it can be done! Even QRP stations (five watts or less) routinely get into the logs of the rarest DX. Let’s talk about how this works and what you can do to improve your chances.

Virtually all DXpeditions (and sometimes other DX) operate split frequency, meaning they are transmitting on one frequency, but not listening there. They are listening for callers on another frequency or range of frequencies. This is absolutely vital, as otherwise the frenzied callers would obliterate the DX signal and no one would be able to hear it. The DX operator will periodically indicate where he is listening. “Up” on SSB typically means five kHz (or more) above his transmit frequency. On CW, “up” usually means one kHz unless specified otherwise. The rules of thumb are similar if the operator says “down” (or “dn” on CW) but, of course, you should transmit below his frequency rather than above it. Sometimes the operator will specify a range of frequencies on which he is listening, such as “up five to ten”. Other times he may specify an actual range. For example, “two hundred two ten” if the DX is transmitting on 14.190 would mean he is listening from 14.200 to 14.210. The equivalent on CW is QSX, though it is not often used. A DX station transmitting on 1.812 MHz in the 160 meter band might send “QSX 30” meaning he is listening on 1.830. This is not the same as “up 30” which would mean 1.842. It is vital to figure out where the DX operator is listening for calls and transmit in the right place.

If the DX is listening on one specific frequency, such as up one on CW or up five on SSB, the choice of where to call is fairly simple. You might try slipping off to the side just a bit, such as up 0.8 or up 1.2 on CW; up 4.5 or up 5.5 on SSB. This can make your signal stand out from the crowd a little. If at all possible, it helps to listen to not only the DX but also the stations he is responding to. Are all the ones he is working on exactly the same frequency, or is he looking around a little? This is where having a second receiver really shines! Many “DX class” transceivers have a second receiver, or subreceiver, for this purpose. Lacking that, you can toggle back and forth between VFO A (on the DX frequency) and VFO B (on his listening frequency) to establish what exactly he is doing. Be very careful, however. Doing it this way makes it easy to accidentally transmit on the DX station’s frequency, causing QRM to others struggling to hear him. If you are using two receivers, or a radio with a subreceiver, headphones should be set up so you hear the DX in one ear and the pile up in the other. This will make it much easier to keep track of what is going on.

If the DX is tuning a range of frequencies for calls, your chances of success in a large pileup are much better – especially if you have the proper techniques and equipment for the task. First let’s look at what to do if you are able to monitor both the DX and the pile up at the same time. Try to locate the stations he responds to in the range of frequencies he is tuning. This is a skill that takes some time to learn, but it is well worth the effort. Is there a pattern to his tuning? Does he work several stations on the same frequency before moving, or does he move after every QSO? Is he tuning randomly, or only in one direction? How far does he usually move between QSOs? If he is tuning in only one direction, what does he do when he reaches the edge of the pile or the end of his specified range? Does he reverse direction and start working his way through the opposite way, or does he jump to the opposite end and always tune in the same direction? Does he occasionally seem to jump to the outermost edge of the pile, or just beyond it, and pick up a weaker station? Yes, some operators do just that, and knowing this can really improve the odds of you making the contact! Establishing the pattern of the DX operator can be a tremendous help. Often you can anticipate where he will listen next and position yourself accordingly. Of course you won’t be the only one doing this, and if you are a small station you may get covered up by the big stations who have this technique perfected. In that case you want to try to find a “hole” in the pile that is near, but not exactly on the mass of callers who have properly anticipated. This is not an exact science! It is something you get a feel for with practice!

If you lack the ability to simultaneously monitor two frequencies, then knowing where to call in a widely spread pileup becomes an order of magnitude more challenging. You may be able to establish a pattern by jumping back and forth between VFOs, but this will definitely take a lot of practice to learn. In some cases a panadaptor may provide clues as to where he is taking callers, but don’t count too much on it. Many less courteous operators, and those who are not hearing the DX well will call out of turn and confuse the issue. It is always a good idea to monitor DX spots using one of the many software applications out there for this purpose. Some of those who work the DX will immediately send out a spot, and some of those will indicate where they were transmitting at the time of their QSO. This information is often very disjointed and incomplete, but nevertheless it can provide useful clues. You may find that you have been calling up five, but the DX just worked someone up twenty. In that case, you’re probably better off to move, at least for a while. Don’t depend on a web site for DX spots. The web based services are just too slow. You want a dedicated application which is constantly downloading new DX spots in real time. If none of this is possible, the best you can do is pick a frequency within the proper range and keep calling there, hoping the DX operator eventually catches you. This works, but it often takes considerably more time than the more advanced techniques.

Timing is important! If the DX operator is very skilled and is picking a call out of the pile in just a couple of seconds, there is very little point in sending your call sign multiple times every time he asks for calls. This will only slow things down and may lead to him doubling with you. Call once, then listen! If he is taking more time to pick out a call sign, there may be some advantage to giving yours two or three times (rarely more). Again, this is something you get a feel for with time and experience. If he sometimes gets a call immediately and sometimes it takes a while, the best bet is probably to send your call once, pause to see if he is answering anyone, and if not, give your call again. This is very useful but sometimes tricky, as you can get out of sync and miss the DX responding to people, or even end up repeatedly calling while he is transmitting. Sometimes you just have to stop calling and listen for a bit to get back on track. On CW, if you can operate full break-in (QSK) this is less of a problem since you can hear the DX transmit even when you are still calling!

Try to adjust your sending speed for conditions and the apparent preference of the DX operator. On CW, try to match the speed of the DX operator or just a bit slower if possible, unless conditions are such that fluttery signals are causing dits to go missing. Then it may be best to slow it down a little. On SSB, try to determine whether the DX operator can get a call sign correctly when it is spoken very quickly. If so, try that. It saves time and maximizes the DX QSO rate. If not, slow down and give it at a speed that seems to be working for him. Again, this is where being able to monitor both sides helps.

It is important to understand the nature of the game. The DX is trying to work as many stations as possible in a given amount of time. Brevity is important. One aspect of this is that contacts are only going to consist of call sign and a signal report, usually 59 on SSB, 599 on CW or digital modes. Another is in the way the operator responds when he gets a partial calls sign. Some may say “Who was the station with uniform golf in the call?” but this is inefficient. Many of the most experienced operators will just say “uniform golf” on SSB or send “UG” on CW. This is an invitation for you to send your complete call sign again so he can get the rest of it. Of course, you should only send your call sign again if it actually contains those letters (or something very similar). As an example of the latter, if a DX station on CW responds “BAG” I will usually go ahead and send my call “N1BUG” again since the difference between A and U on CW is just one dit – often mistaken in a pileup. On some particularly challenging bands, most notably 160 meters, it is often customary to modify these rules and send your call sign more than once at a time. Experience and observation will be your best guide. If the DX has asked for a fill on your callsign several times and is obviously struggling to get it, giving your call a few times can be an advantage. This is a judgement call.

Often a QSO ends with the DX operator simply saying “Thank you” or, on CW, sending “TU”. This means he is ready for the next caller, so send your call sign immediately. Other operators will identify with their call and/or specify where they are listening after every contact. For example “Thank you, Delta X-ray One Romeo Alpha Romeo, up five to ten” or “TU DX1RAR up”. It is important to listen and establish the operator’s style. If you were to start transmitting very quickly after you you hear “TU”, but he is actually sending “TU DX1RAR up” you will be doubling with him. I routinely hear stations doing just that. Listen. Figure out the pattern and how the QSO flow is working. It will pay off!

Knowing propagation characteristics can be a big advantage. It is much easier to work the rare DX when propagation favors your part of the world than when it favors some other densely populated area. Once again, experience is the most valuable thing you can have. There are situations where certain parts of the world are difficult for the DX to work due to propagation and large centers of ham activity being closer. This is why DXpedition operators often concentrate on specific areas at certain times. Be patient and wait until he is ready for you, then call. This may be frustrating when you are hearing the DX very well, but you will learn to appreciate it when you are the one in the disadvantaged spot and the rare DX listens specifically for your area! You will quickly learn what the DX wants. On phone, “Europe” or “North America” is obvious. “JA” is obvious if you recognize that as the primary call sign prefix for Japan. On CW these will be abbreviated of course: “EU”, “NA”, “JA”, etc.

Knowing the plan can help, too. Most DXpeditions publish preferred frequencies in advance of their trip. Even if they don’t, careful observation (and use of spotting software) will reveal what frequencies they favor on each band and mode. Let’s say you know propagation is good right now on 17 meters and they like 18.130 for SSB on that band, usually listening up five. The only trouble is, they aren’t on 17 meter SSB right now. That doesn’t stop you from listening there! I have worked more than one new one because I was “parked” on a frequency waiting – and became the first caller when the DXpedition appeared there. Obviously there is both luck and technique involved here, but it can work!

How well do you know your favorite band? Sometimes there are special circumstances, and knowledge of them can serve you well. On 160 meters, North America can transmit anywhere between 1.800 and 2.000. In many parts of the world the allocation starts at 1.810. In Japan they only have 1.810 to 1.825. Why is this important? Many DXpeditions will publish different listening frequencies on 160 meters for each region of the world. If a DXpedition in the Pacific is transmitting on 1.826 and listening both down and up (a common practice on this band), as a North American station you will likely do better calling up (eg. 1.827.5) than down (eg. 1.824.5) since you will not be competing with the Japanese callers who probably have the propagation and signal strength advantage.

Once again let me emphasize the importance of listening and patience. I once worked a new and very rare one because I had been listening for a while. The DXpedition was operating on 20 meter SSB, transmitting around 14.190 and listening 200 to 215 or so. As I was listening (and calling), I heard the DXpedition operator say “From time to time I will listen for small stations on two fifty five”. At the time I had a very poor antenna on 20 meters, and thought I had little chance of working this one, located on the far side of the world and, of necessity, using very small antennas themselves. A long time went by as he went on working stations in the 200 to 215 range. Those stations who had been calling on 255 eventually gave up, including me. I didn’t go away, however. I returned to calling in the big pile down below. Suddenly the operator said “Small stations, special frequency”. I frantically dialed my transmit VFO back to 255 and gave my call sign one time. He answered me! Bingo! I worked a new one because I had been listening and knew what this rather cryptic “Small stations, special frequency” announcement was all about. I only heard one other station call on 255, and he worked the DX also. Chances are most of the others who had been around long enough to hear his earlier explanation about the special freqeuncy had given up and gone away. Others didn’t know the special frequency. This probably explains why the operator did it this way — to reward those whose skill and patience gave them the edge. The point is, you just never know. It pays to listen carefully and above all, be patient and persistent.

Sure, having a big station helps. I work DX much more quickly now that I have 1500 watts and something of an antenna farm. But I did it quite successfully for many years with lower power and simple wire antennas. If I had to pick one single station improvement which made the biggest difference, it would neither be the amplifier nor the antennas. I would say it was getting a transceiver that has a subreceiver. That changed the nature of the game for me. Regardless of the station configuration, operator knowledge and skill are critical factors. Improving one’s skills often pays bigger dividends than buying an amplifier or putting up a huge antenna. None of us are born with DXing skills! The best way to learn is to jump in and start practice the techniques. See you in the pileups!

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