Small City Lot DX’ing
or…DX’ing with less than an optimal setup
Overview: Whether you are new to DX’ing or a seasoned DX hound there is always something more to learn about DX’ing. Like anything else, you learn to be a good DX’er from “hands on” experience by getting on the air and jumping into the mix. This process also includes making some flubs and learning from those mistakes. It is this real life experience combined with the knowledge that you acquire from others via the written word or talking with and listening that will help you be a more successful DX’er.
This tutorial will provide a good overview for all DX’ers, but is especially focused on the little guy that is operating from a small city lot. Small city lot operation will by it’s nature impose limits on your antennas, transmitting power and receiving capability. I guess one has a number of options with regard to these handicaps.
- You can bitch and moan about your situation (which I sometimes do).
- You can pull up stakes and move from the heart of the city to a less urban location where you can run full legal limit, have no RX interference, and have multiple 100 ft plus towers, receive beverages, and stacked arrays. In my case that move would also involved getting divorced after which I would likely not have the needed money to buy all the stuff I mentioned above.
- Or, you can overcome the urban obstacles to the best of your ability and calibrate your expectations with regard to success There is a special pride one can take when you pass your milestones in route to your goal knowing that you are not traveling on the easiest path or route. Feel good about the fact that you hit some bumps and cleared some obstacles getting to where you are on your journey.
With regard to goals, obviously one does not have to work all DXCC countries on all bands and modes to be a successful DX’er. But that being said, some of the DX tips that I have provided in this tutorial are based on achieving this objective. This will make more sense as you read on.
In a nut shell, a successful DX’er has to have a “noticeable presence” on the right frequency at the right time! Remember, the term “noticeable presence” is not just defined by what equipment you have. It is also a matter of skill, timing, and propagation. Last, but not least, it’s a matter of the number other DX’ers (and their equipment) that are also competing for a “noticeable presence” on the same frequency or split listening range. If all things were equal except for your equipment, you would have an established permanent spot in the “pileup” pecking order. But fortunately all things are not equal and you can have some influence on where you stand in the line or pecking order.
The needed ingredients to be successful DX’er are a combination of receiver performance, TX output power, antenna gain, skill, knowledge, persistence, patience and just plain luck. The proportions of the needed ingredients can vary depending on your situation. For example, a DX’er with 100 ft+ tower(s), a legal limit amplifier, and high gain antennas will in many cases experience success with a recipe that has smaller portions of skill, patience persistence, and luck. This is not to imply that the big guns don’t have the skill. That is surely not the case. In many cases, it’s like hunting with a 12 Ga. shotgun versus a .22 rifle. Hunting with a shotgun allows for a little less attention to detail. But there are cases where the big gun can work a stations that the little guy can’t even (or hardly) hear. If the DX station is on the “ragged edge”, the big gun will need to employ all the ingredients of success including great skill. The bottom line is that If you have less than the optimal setup such as one might have when operating from a small city lot with low power, you must more often compensate with greater portions of skill, knowledge, persistence, patience and luck to get in the log. In many cases you will need to work a little harder. Even that will not always get you in the DX stations logbook.
Equipment: The equipment side of the equation is pretty simple. You do what can based upon your space, budget, and RFI limitations.
Antennas: With regard to what antennas you need to be successful the answer is pretty straight forward here are some general guidelines:
– In very broad terms, put up what you can fit on your lot depending on it’s size.
– Try to get a some gain antennas up in the air such as a beam or a quad. If you are limited with wind loading force or turning radius the Hex beam is a good option. A quad also has a small turning radius, but greater loading. A gain antenna should be a priority if you have the room!
– Don’t skimp on coax! You may be limited in the amount, size and height of the antennas, but not on the quality of the coax you use. You should use low loss coax. This is a matter of getting as much signal as possible to the antenna and reducing the possibility of unwanted radiation from the feed line that can cause interference to nearby neighbors. A review of the coax loss chart will help you decide on the cost vs loss value.
– Put up as many antennas as you effectively can!. The amount of antennas can be limited by the size of the lot, antenna supports, or how much your wife complains. If you do have multiple antennas on a band, make sure that they complement each other. For example, one favors “east/west” and the other “north/south” . Or one is a dipole or beam and the other a vertical. Any secondary antenna should offer some something different in terms of received signal. Also some say that “you can’t have too many antennas” OK, I agree with one limitation. Be careful about trying ti cram too many antennas in one space to the point where they interact negatively with each other. Also you must make it very convenient to switch from one antenna to another.
The Radio: Not going to say a lot on radios, they are all pretty good. In general get a radio that has good filtering & selectivity. Also look for one the has relativity good narrow spaced dynamic range (@2Khz). Anything higher than 80 db will do fine. (See Sherwood Engineering Receiver ratings). This will help allow the receiver to hold up in the presence of many strong signals. This is a good thing when tuning the pile up looking for the station responding to the DX, or on the DX transmit frequency with the presence of Frequency Cops and Lids. Last but not least, Dual Watch, or dual receivers is a big plus in the pile ups. Remember the goal is to have “noticeable presence” on the DX stations listening frequency. Be in the right place at the right time. Taking this concept one step further is to have a radio with a panadapter so that you you can “see” the pile up. (More later)
Amplifiers: First let me say that you do not need high power to be a successful Dx’er. There are a few hams that are on the DXCC Honor Roll with QRP power. They have great antennas and a good supply of skill, patience and persistence. I congratulate any QRP DX’er that has worked a significant amount of countries. I lack the super antennas and the needed patience to do it via the 5W QRP route. But, I do track the number of countries I have worked with just 100 Watts or less with my logging program. I have worked 332 Mixed and have made the DXCC Honor Roll running 100 watts or less. Over the years I have made a point to work all Dxpeditions that I can with 100 watts. I might work them on day one with higher power but follow up with low power contact before the Dxpedition ends. Obviously, physics dictate that a amp will make a difference on any band. But the most benefit is to gained from an amp when operating on 40, 80 and 160 meters. An amplifier will greatly add to your totals on these bands. The one major consideration when operating an amp from a small city lot is RFI. You can minimize it and maybe even eliminate it at your house, but we live in a ill protected world when it comes to the many electronic devices that are susceptible to, or cause interference. For this reason I use my amp very sparingly, but it is there when I need it and my low band DX totals have greatly benefited from it’s use. I normally never run over 500 – 600 watts.
Think Like a Big Gun DX’er: Regardless of size of your antennas and the amount of power you are running, you need to think BIG. Don’t be afraid to jump in the pile ups and compete with the big boys. You need to be as aggressive as the big guns. Don’t wait your turn based on your perceived position in the pile up pecking order. One should be courteous and respectful of others, but remember, they call it a “pile up” for a reason. The road to the DXCC Honor Roll is paved with overly courteous and polite hams. One needs to think big, but at the same time, don’t expect the improbable. See the section of this tutorial on “DXpectations”.
Tuning the Bands: I mentioned earlier the importance of having a “noticeable presence” on the frequency. I also mentioned that there are other factors that determine your “presence” than the usual things like your power, antennas, and propagation. The chances of you being noticed by a DX station when you call him is greatly determined by the amount of others that are also calling him. If you wait for the DX spots to show up on the frequency, believe me, you will have lots of company. This is why I recommend tuning the bands looking for the DX. With the advent of DX clusters, this is becoming a neglected skill. You can tune an open band and look for the “catch of the day”. another good practice is to use the past DX spots to determine the DX stations operating times and be tuning when he shows up. This is also true with the popular Dxpeditions posted operating frequencies. The bottom line is that you need to beat the crowd! The early bird gets the worm! You snooze, you lose..etc etc
Call CQ: Get on the air and call CQ DX. Even with a minimal station you can get some pretty good mini pileups going during peak times. These CQing sessions will result in many QSL cards via the buro and LOTW. This is an excellent way to develop skill and add new band & mode countries to your totals. Do not expect a call from the really rare DX station, but it can happen. It has happened to me a number of times. You will be surprised what happens sometimes. Also, you would be surprised how many answers you can get from calling CQ on a seemingly dead band. This can happen very often on 10 or 12 meters. Everybody is listening and no one is calling. Call CQ! You can be the one that “lights up” the dead band.
DX Contesting: A DX contest is another excellent opportunity to work DX stations and confirm countries on multiple bands. Many of the big contest stations are using LOTW and or the QSL Buro . If you desire a card, it is more cost effective to confirm multiple contacts in one mailing. If they are easy to work on multiple bands, work them! It should also be noted that many of the contest stations have stateside QSL mangers. Nothing better that confirming a country on 5 bands for the cost of a couple of 47 cent stamps. You can check for their QSL info by asking them, or looking it up “on line” using some of the tools that are available on this website. Just as an added bit of information. It is always much easier to work the DX towards the end of the contest. There are no pileups and they are begging for you to call.
Learn to use other modes: (Especially CW): CW is the great equalizer when it comes to working DX from a modest station. It gives you an advantage on any band. This is especially true on the lower bands such as 30, 40 80 and 160 meters. It is a far more effective way of communicating and allows a greater usage of your developed skills. There is really no such thing as a simplex pile up on CW. Even the smallest little adjustment in frequency may put your signal in the listening sweet spot for the DX station. Try to determine his preferred “offset” and be there! Use CW and make those low bands come alive! There was a time in my pre-CW days many years ago when I thought 40 and 80 meters was a waste of time for DX’ing. The use of CW has allowed me to confirm close to 300 countries on 40 and 235 countries on 80 meters with only low dipoles as antennas. The use of CW and an upgrade to Extra Class opens up a whole new world to the DX’er. The same is true of other narrow band modes such as PSK.
Employ Available Knowledge & Technology : I define available knowledge as any piece of information from the packet cluster, a CW skimmer, a DX bulletin or a propagation report that aids you in being in the right place at the right time to work a DX station. Timing is everything. If you are there when the DX shows up you stand a good chance of working them before the rest of the world arrives on frequency. Dxpeditions normally have published frequencies. Keep a tab on these. Even non-dxpedition operations from rare locations have a tendency to show up at predicable times and frequencies. This information is available from the bulletins or analysis of previous spots from the DX Summit or other cluster spot databases. Also,always be cognizant of the DX stations time of day and likely schedule. Think of his sunset and sunrise. Also, think of him or her being no different than you. What times of the day are you on the air? He or she could likely do the same, albeit a different timezone.
In addition to using the most up to date intelligence, the use of all reasonably available technology is also a big plus. This involves the use of station interfacing with band switching devices and rotor controls The faster you can move to a DX stations frequency and call him the better chance you have at working him before the crowd arrives. I’m talking about clicking on a spot that is displayed in logging program and instantly moving to that frequency, on the proper mode, with the right split and with the rotor turned (or turning) to correct direction. Besides being efficient, it’s a lot of fun getting all the stuff to work. I still need to do the rotor thing. It’s on the list!
Another piece of technology that I employ and feel is very helpful is a panadapter. This is part of the Flex 5000 Power SDR software. Panadaptors can be added to any radio by feeding the IF into a separate inexpensive SDR receiver designed for that IF range and employing one of the many SDR software programs. See the Telepost Inc Website for an example of a IF panadaptor. This piece of equipment gives you a whole new dimension when it comes to working in pile ups or just tuning the bands. It allows to “see” what is going on. I also allows you to “virtually” be in many places at once. If tuning the band and you cross a given frequency and no one is there, that is a piece of data for that place and that moment in time. But with a good panadapter you can “see” a station pop up on the frequency you just tuned over and no one was there. For fear of telling too many people of this incredible advantage and increase the competition, I will say no more! Once you try it and get use to using this tool, you will seem to be handicapped when using a radio without one.
Listen, Listen, Listen: Well there is no doubt that the best way to beat everyone to the pile up is to be the first one there by tuning the band and finding the station calling CQ. As mentioned earlier, methodical searches up down the bands are an excellent way to find the DX. When you tune, you not only want to be listening for DX calls but also listening for other activity that may indicate the presence of a DX station. This would obviously include others giving their calls or maybe the rants of some frequency cop sending “Up Up”. Tuner uppers is also another indicator of action. Over time you will be able to develop a knack for ID’ing DX even before they give there calls. Now, very important! Even after you find a station it is still time to listen, listen and listen! You need to listen for his instructions. If split, he will tell. He will also tell what frequency. Also listen to where he is working people in terms of the frequency. Some DX, when they say “up 3”, they mean it! Others may say “up 3” and it may be up 1 to 10? If you listen there are many other little tidbits you may garner from what he says and does.
Dissecting the Pileup: The fact that many of the DX stations manage the pileups differently on their end would dictate that the stations that are trying to work the DX will also have to adapt to the DX stations style of operation. Again, the idea is to be where the DX station is listening. Below are some tips on dissecting the pileups and getting your call in his log.
Simplex Pileups: On SSB or RTTY this is normally the case of where the strongest signal or the guy with the best call timing wins and gets called by the DX station. Every station is different. In the case of timing your call, it is best to listen to a few QSO’s and see how long it is taking the guy to sort out a call to come back to. That will give you an idea if the level of chaos on his end of the pileup. Once you determine this, hold off on your urge to scream your call until that period of time elapses. You will stand a much better chance of working him. It also good to note if he is taking “tail enders”, if so you might want to toss your call in as soon as you realize that this has worked for someone else. Be quick! The practice of taking “tail enders” is normally the first step toward the pileup developing into total chaos. On CW it is the same story as above with one major exception. Even if the pile up is simplex there is still a sweet spot within that ranges where the DX station prefers his CW. Listen to the other responses and find that spot. Also, DX stations often just use their RIT to to listen to the right and left of the center of the offset frequency. Be sure to pick up on these little subtleties, they are very important!
Split Frequency Pileups: Split operation is the “Great Equalizer” when it comes to small city lot and low power Dx’ing. The primary concern is no longer having the strongest signal, but it is a case of transmitting on the right frequency. The “right” frequency is the one that the DX station is listening on. Now if many other stations are also transmitting on the “right” frequency, then high power and great antennas win out again. Split operation does not totally level the playing field, but it does greatly help. OK, how does one determine the “right” frequency? Again, the secret is listening, listening, listening. One needs to listen to the DX station and pileup to first determine the pileup boundaries (ie..up 2 to 5kc, and more specially find the stations that are working the DX station. This can be done in a number of ways depending on the type of radio that you have. If your radio has no second receiver or dual watch, then you will have to bounce back and forth between the A and B VFOs in search of the station called by the DX. CAUTION: Be careful that you don’t transmit on the DX stations frequency (been there, done that). If your radio has a second receiver or dual watch then you should listen to the DX station in one ear and the pile up in the other ear, again looking for called station. If you are lucky enough to have a radio that has a panadapter, this visual input will provide you with a distinct advantage in busting the pile up. I can’t overstate the advantage that panadapter provides. That being said I will say no more. I want to keep the competition to a minimum. (hi) The next important piece of information that is needed to bust the pile up is to determine the DX stations pileup operating tendencies. Does he stay on one frequency and work station until too many others find him and then move , or does he move a small amount upwards or downwards with each qso? You need to establish is pattern and be where he is going to be when you call. Some DX operators take a random approach to determining their calling frequency. They work a station then spin the dial within the pile up boarders until he copies another station and call him. In this case I find it to be effective to look for the more open spots within the pile up boarders to call. There again, a panadapter offer a distinct advantage. The DX operators experience level and the size of the pileup have a lot to do with method he will use. You need to figure it out. Again, listening is the key in determining what is going on.
Calibrate your DXpectations : I said earlier that you need to “think big” when working DX. You have to act like you are running a KW and stacked 5 element mono-banders at 100 feet. You need to start with the expectation that you can work the DX. But that being said, there are just some pile ups that you are not going to bust. Simply stated, “you need to know when to hold’em and know when to fold’em! Sometimes, in spite of the fact that DX is loud, things are just not going to go your way. Patience, persistence and luck will not do the trick at that point and time. The following are a few examples.
- Hold’em when you hear others (local) with equivalent stations working the DX station
- Fold’em when local big guns are having an issue in working them
- Hold’em if the DX operator is very proficient and seems to have good ears
- Fold’em, in spite of the fact they are loud but they are only hearing EU or JA’s. As a little pistol you will likely not break down that wall!
- Hold’em if the DX is going by call areas and yours is next! hi
- Fold’em if the DX op seems to have no or minimal control of the pile up
- When you do fold’em, check back a little later. It is surprising how much difference a little passage of time makes. I can’t count the times that I have folded in disgust only to return 30 minutes later and work him first call!
Think Long Term in QSLing: Some people just dread QSLing. Fortunately for me, for the most part I enjoy managing this process. With the exception of securing the QSL’s for my first 100 countries, I have always tried to be as efficient and cost effective as possible in getting the confirmations. It’s almost like a hobby within hobby. I enjoy looking at the ones I receive, but at the same time I enjoy getting a confirmation via LOTW and not having to pay postage. As I mentioned earlier in this tutorial, my goal is to confirm all countries on all bands. Know being realistic, I’m pretty sure that this will not happen , but I will try just the same. With this goal, I recognized early on that it could be expensive to get all the needed QSL’s. So many years ago I took the long tern outlook of getting the needed QSL’s in the most efficient and least expensive fashion. I recommend doing the following:
- Again, Think Long Term! “Work’em an they will come”
- Don’t be in a hurry to get the QSL’s. Wait to work the same station on other bands.
- Work as much DX as you can during a contest. Work the same station on multiple bands
- Focus on stations that you know have stateside QSL managers.
- Use the ARRL QSL Bureau
- Use the saturation method! Work same “band country” as many times as possible. (but not the same station) the more contacts you have out there the more likely you are to receive a card via the buro. (or LOTW)
- Sign up and use LOTW. LOTW has matured to point now where many DX stations and Dxpeditions are using it. You may have to wait a while, but over time most DXpedition logs are be loaded on LOTW.
- Focus on working LOTW users.
- Use a LOTW database that identifies station that use LOTW as they are spotted on the DX cluster. Work them and you will eventually get the confirmation.
- Don’t be over zealous or too anxious to get the QSL’s. I don’t know how many times I have sent a card direct only to have it pop up on LOTW the next day! I answer any QSL’s that I receive promptly, But I only sit down about once a year and review what needs to be sent out if I so choose. I bring my ARRL records up to date about once every year (or two).
Enjoy DXing !!!