Your station - Arguably the first part of strategy is developing the best station you can afford and erecting the best antennas you can, given the limitations of your budget and QTH. Many hams are newcomers to DXing, are on a limited budget or, to be frank, just have a lower commitment to the hobby. They are just not going to be as well-equipped or even be able to spend the amount of time others will. But they can still get into the log. Recognize your limitations but look for opportunities to improve your station.
It may sound funny but the most important thing is your ability to hear the DX. Having enough power and the transmitting right antenna for him to hear you is in second place. You can’t work ‘em if you can’t hear ‘em, so work on receiving antennas first.
When you can afford better equipment or want to get clever about antennas, your chances will improve. But at whatever level you are, you can have success. I have a 100 watt station in W6 land where there are about 5 entities within 2,000 miles or so: W, VE, XE, KH6, and KL7. Whoopee doo. Everything else is harder. I live in a community with CC&Rs and I have stealth verticals that get erected where I think no one can see them, like at sundown. I have a 20 meter Moxon antenna, a wire beam. It’s a great antenna design but mine is inside, up in the attic. That’s pretty pitiful by some standards, but I work my share of DX and, and so can you.
I know guys who have “worked the world” and now for an additional challenge, now do it again, but with handicaps. One guy uses only 100 watts and wire antennas. Another guy I know already has over 100 entities working just QRP, and he lives in New Mexico!
A DXpedition may work 10,000 unique stations, perhaps 50,000, and a large number of those guys don’t have stations that are as good as yours. They got in the log and so you can.
You should certainly learn to use the SPLIT feature in your transceiver. Read your transceiver’s manual and practice a bit. It is absolutely essential as most stations that attract a pileup will be operating SPLIT. You should be able to use it without even thinking about it.
Propagation – We are at the mercy of the sun. Propagation is based upon what the sun is doing to our ionosphere. We have zero ability to control it. What we can do is understand what it is doing at any a point in time and try to figure out if it is creating opportunities for us, or whether it is creating barriers to success. It’s doing something but how do you know what the effect is on you?
Absent some kind of significant solar event, propagation always favors someone. Don’t fight it if it favors someone else. Wait until it works for you. There are some wonderful propagation programs that are easy to find on the Internet and some of the better ones are free. Find one and learn how to use it. Check out the resources at http://www.ccdxc.org/dx_helps.htm
By study, you can find the best times when you can best hear the DX and he can hear you. There will be periods, perhaps short openings that favor you. Not only does it help, but beginning to understanding propagation will add greatly to your enjoyment of our hobby. There will always be mysteries but there will be fewer of them and you can learn about when the advantages will favor you.
The VOACAP tool is on the Internet and available to predict likely openings between any two points on Earth on times and bands. Check out http://www.voacap.com/prediction.html You can enter the DX QTH and your QTH and get a prediction graph. Try it out. It may show that an opening for YOU is only on one band and for a short period of time. That is when you should be there and be ready.
Propagation can be excellent along the greyline that occurs between areas of light and dark at sunrise and sunset. A good program is DX Atlas at http://www.dxatlas.com It is particularly useful in looking at how the greyline moves with time.
Some DXpedition websites also have propagation maps. See one example at http://www.dxfriends.com/SouthernSudan2011/propagation.php This will be of assistance to those who are just learning propagation and, truthfully, it’s easier if someone else has done the “data setup” work for you.
Another way to see what propagation is doing at the moment is to look at the DX cluster spots in the Internet. There a number of free Internet sites such as DX Summit at http://www.dxsummit.fi/ and DX Watch at www.dxwatch.com I am fond of DX Monitor at http://www.ve3sun.com It’s costs $40 but it has a LOT of special features that will make your life easier. You can try it free for 30 days to see if it’s worth it to you.
Another good way to check propagation is to remember the first article of the DX Code:
“I will listen, and listen, and then listen again before calling”
The first assumption is that you can hear the DX station well enough to be sure he is your target. Believe it or not, there has been evidence of stations calling a DX station they cannot hear. We have all heard a DX call a station that we can also hear, and he keeps blithely calling, not realizing he could be in the log if he just said, “5NN TU.” Go figure!
The DX is probably working split so all you have to do is tune up a few kHz from his frequency and tune around and see who you can hear calling him. Write down some of the prefixes you hear and you can get a good idea about who hears the DX other than you. Then listen to the DX and see who he calls. If you are a W4 and you hear him calling W4s, you are in luck. If you are a W6 and all you can hear are W4s and W5s, you probably aren’t going to break through the wall. If all he is calling stations in a different part of the world and you may have to wait.
Sometimes you will find that a station in the middle of the Pacific that you can hear perfectly well is working nothing but European or Japanese stations. It may well be that even though you can hear him, you are off the edge of his beam. He will not likely hear you until he turns his beam your direction. Until then, you might as well be “Whistling Dixie.”
If you are on the East Coast and all of Europe is on the air and they have stronger signals than you, you will have a tough time climbing that wall. Similarly, on the West Coast sometimes it can seem as if every JA with a license is on the air. They will drown you if they are your competition. So don’t bother. It’s frustrating and that’s not the way to have fun with our hobby. Time to wait. Your time will come.
The DXpedition should be studying the same propagation information too. There are three areas in the world to look at, Europe, the Far East, and North America. That’s where 80% of the hams are. It is likely that two of these will be easy for them. If they are preparing properly, they will be looking for times and bands when there will be opening to the one area that is not easy. That may be you. If you are looking at the data they are, you will know when they will be looking for you. Many DXpedition websites have published a band-plan on frequencies they intend to use. See an example at http://www.t32c.com/Frequencies
I go to C6 annually and between 2200 and 2300 there is an opening to JA on 17 meters. So when I start hearing them, I start saying, “JA only” because I know it won’t last long. I can work the Europeans QRP about any time, so they are courteous and are quiet for a while. A well-run DXpedition will realize similar brief openings and they will try to capitalize on them, perhaps to your benefit. But when that happens and you are not a JA, go get a cup of coffee or a beer and wait for your turn.
Just in regular operating, a European DX station may be calling, “CQ W6 W7” because he knows that there ought to be an opening, however short, and he wants to capitalize on it. We W6s know that on 40 meters in the winter that there is an excellent Long Path opening to Europe over the Pacific, up the Indian Ocean, and into Europe. It starts our bout sunrise and lasts for only a half-hour, but it sure can be fun.
I worked Zimbabwe recently on 20 meters where the station there, quite intelligently, had turned his beam “the other way” and we had a great Long Path QSO. I worked him with 10 watts! In this case he was the smart one and I benefited. In other situations, you can be smart about propagation and you can benefit from this knowledge and make a contact when your pals are still complaining.