My Experiences as a New HF Ham Radio Operator


These tips are to prevent you from looking like an idiot and getting hotheaded.

I tried to avoid posting this: listen, listen, and listen more before transmitting. After working Navassa Island DXpedition and special event stations, there are alot of people who can’t follow this rule, don’t know how to use their radio, or more likely… just morons. Follow the DX Code of Conduct and you’ll be golden.

Stations working large pile-ups will often work stations in some sequence.  “By the numbers” is the most common.  This is when they are looking for stations with a specific number in your call sign.  That is when they’re “looking for 4’s”: KP4XXX, W4XXX, N4XXX, VA4XXX all call in… W6XXX, AA3XX, N0XXX, K8JTK, VE3XXX are NOT to call in.

Gentleman’s Agreement

There are numerous places on the band where operating practices are defined by gentleman’s agreement.  Unfortunately, these are almost never printed anywhere or outlined on a band plan.

Be Courteous

If someone asks you to move or you’re interfering with them, DO NOT get upset.  It’s not good operating practice and everyone ends up hating you.

On the other hand, a net does not “own” a frequency.  They should have a “+ or -” from their normal frequency in case of QRM/QRN (man made or nature made interference).


Operating voice is a very common operating mode and single-sideband is the most popular on HF.  References to frequencies and modes will almost always be noted 7.268 SSB.  Your radio doesn’t have “SSB,” it has LSB and USB (Lower Sideband and Upper Sideband).  Which do you use?

The general rule:

  • Below 10 MHz, use LSB (160, 80/75, 40 meters).
  • Above 10 MHz, use USB (30 (if there was voice), 20, 17, 15, 12, 10, 6, 2 meters… you get the idea).

60 meters is defined as USB even though it’s 5 MHz.

Exceptions are digital modes which (almost always) use  Upper sideband regardless of frequency.

Operating split

The concept of split is similar to repeater operation. You listen on frequency 1 and transmit on frequency 2. The other station is doing the opposite, listening on frequency 2 and transmitting on frequency 1.

The station you are trying to contact will say “listening up 20 – 30” means they are listening 20 – 30 KHz up from frequency 1. A spot on a DX Cluster will display frequency 1. Sometimes the split frequency(ies) are listed in the comments which is very helpful.

You are warned: if you are to be operating split but operate simplex, you WILL be ridiculed for not paying attention.  In addition, you maybe transmitting out-of-band (Extra portion when you’re a General).

Reasons a station may operate split:

  • Some countries may have more spectrum than a US operator can use.
  • They are operating in the Extra portion of the band but give Generals a chance to contact them by listening in their spectrum.
  • They want to keep their operating frequency clear if there are many pileups (many, many stations trying to contact one station).
  • Some other reason….


Operating voice is common practice to use phonetic alphabet.  You should be familiar with it as they are commonly used above 50 MHz too.  Emcomm advisors will say it’s bad practice to use non-standard ITU phonetics.  While good practice for Emcomm events, it’s not the real world.  HF operators have a phonetic alphabet all their own.

If the band conditions are poor or the station cannot hear me, I will say my call sign two different ways:

K8JTK: Kilo, eight, juliett, tango, kilo… kilowatt, eight, japan, tokyo, kilowatt.

There aren’t many cases where the above didn’t help the receiving station log my call sign correctly.

Know phonetics for your call sign and other commonly used phrases using two different words for each letter.

Standard alphabet

A – Alfa
B – Bravo
C – Charlie
D – Delta
E – Echo
F – Foxtrot
G – Golf
H – Hotel
I – India
J – Juliett
K – Kilo
L – Lima
M – Mike
N – November
O – Oscar
P – Papa
Q – Quebec
R – Romeo
S – Sierra
T – Tango
U – Uniform
V – Victor
W – Whiskey
X – X-ray
Y – Yankee
Z – Zulu

DX/HF phonetic alphabet

No standard here.  This list compiled by AC6V.

A – AMERICA, Amsterdam
B – BOSTON, Baltimore, Brazil
C – CANADA, Columbia, Chile
E – ENGLAND, Egypt
F – FRANCE, Finland
G – GERMANY, Guatemala, Geneva, Greece
H – HONOLULU, Hawaii
K – KILOWATT, Kentucky, King
L – LONDON, Lima, Luxembourg
M – MEXICO, Montreal
N – NORWAY, Nicaragua
O – ONTARIO, Ocean,
P – PORTUGAL, Pacific
Q – QUEBEC, Queen
R – RADIO, Romania, Russia
S – SANTIAGO, Spain, Sweden
T – TOKYO, Texas
V – VICTORIA, Venezuela

Signal reports

You will exchange signal reports with other stations. It is common to hear “5-9” which means ‘perfectly readable and strong signal.’ This is known as the RST code standing for “readability, strength, and tone.” Readability and strength are the first two numbers used in voice signal reports. The third, tone, is used in digital and Morse Code (CW) modes. “599” meaning ‘perfectly readable, strong signal, perfect tone (clarity)’.

Have an idea of what each number represents for accurate signal reports. Some stations will say “59” even if the station does not have a strong signal. This is not good practice.

Some digital modes have their own signal reporting standards. JT65 as an example is -01 through -26 meaning -XX dB below the noise floor. JT9 uses a wider range: +15 through -26 (or so) to describe above (plus numbers) or below (negative numbers) the noise floor.


Seriously. Just do it. You’ll thank me later.

You will want something to log all of your contacts. There are many applications and QSO logging services. Paper and pen are always an option too. You’ll want to do this to keep track for awards and to see where in the world you’ve talked to. To upload to logging services, you’ll need an electronic AIDF file. Logs will be needed for awards like WAS or DXCC.

I chose to use Ham Radio Deluxe and their Logbook feature. It’s nice because the data can be read from the radio and automatically fill in frequency, mode. I purchased a QRZ subscription to have it automatically populate data (name, city, state, grid square, heading, distance). The XML Logbook data is the minimum subscription needed. HRD Logbook can upload to logging services. I use Logbook of the World (LOTW) mainly because I’m an ARRL member but the service is free to all.

If you have no interest in awards, QSLing (next page), or contesting then you can forgo logging.  Why not gain an award for working to get those contacts or return a QSL card the other station took the time to share with you?

Logging a split contact

Record the frequency you operated the station on in your log. In this example, frequency 2. For reasons noted above, it could look like you operated out-of-band if you record frequency 1 in the log.

DX cluster/spotting

The DX Cluster is a place where amateurs can post information (called spots) about DX worked or heard.  My favorite website is DXSummit, DXHeat, and the DX Cluster built into HRD Logbook.

Never trust the Cluster.  There are alot of type-o’s, bogus information, personal attacks, and crap on the cluster.  Always verify the stations’ call sign and any other identifiers.