80m DXing

ft840DXing has always been my favorite aspect of ham radio. I’ve dabbled in several of the other sub-hobbies over the years but none of them seem to hold the fascination of making contact with someone on the other side of the world. Eventually, a lot of DXers will do one of two things to add to the challenge of having their signal heard in faraway places: go QRP or QSY to the low bands. Both offer similar challenges in that they require more attention to operating technique.

It took me 22 years to overcome my misconceptions about the band, partly due to a lot of “conventional wisdom” that convinced me that it would be an exercise in futility to attempt to work DX with any antenna/station that I had the room for or could afford to put together. I hope the information and anecdotes on this page can provide an example to act as a counterpoint to some of the popularly held misconceptions about DXing on 80 meters.

DXing 80 Meters With a Modest Station

I use Yaesu’s bottom-of-the-line transceiver, the FT840 with no external amplifier and no provision for a separate receive antenna (I upgraded to a K3 in 2010). My antenna is what I call a lazy dipole; one leg is horizontal at 55 or 60 feet, the other leg slopes down to the 6-foot level. It is fed with 75 feet of RG-58. I didn’t plan the antenna this way – it is simply what I have room for. In the 2 years since putting it up, I’ve worked exactly 100 countries on all continents. The one option I do have is the 500 Hz CW filter for my Yaesu. I think that on 80 meters, my set-up is probably “below average” in terms of what other folks have who are active on this band. The key then to working DX on 80 meters is to know where, when and how to work it and to not let the nay sayers tell you won’t be able to do it with a similarly equipped station.

Where to Find the DX

Eighty meters is unique among the low bands in that there is as much DX on phone as on CW. The reverse is true on 40 and 160 meters. Most of the phone DX is from 3790-3800 kHz – exceptions to this are usually due to another county’s frequency allocations on 80 meters.

The CW DX is concentrated in the lower 10 kHz of the band. Of the 100 countries I’ve worked on 80 meters, 94 of them were CW. This is due to both my preference for that mode and the fact that CW enjoys a significant dB advantage over SSB.

Oftentimes, DX stations operate split due to the size of the pile-up they can generate and/or to operate within their allocation. Before calling make sure you know where they are listening and their pattern for tuning and answering callers.

Helpful Resources

  • Read ON4UN’s “Low-Band DXing” – a wealth of information and inspiration.
  • Real-time frequency locations of DX stations can be found here.
  • See VE6LB’s results on 80 meter DXing. He’s accomplished a lot with a little and has learned a lot along the way.

Get Inspired & Set a Goal

If the perceived difficulty of working a substantial amount of DX on 80 meters puts you off the idea, consider the following lowband achievements:

  • AA2U has worked 5BDXCC with 5 watts. He’s worked DXCC with 100 milliwatts. Think about that for a minute.
  • K2UO has 200 countries confirmed on 160 meters with a dipole, no part of which is higher than 35 feet.
  • 5B4ADA’s inverted V for 160 meters has the apex at 55 feet and the ends at 5 feet. He works into JA, USA & VK.

Some Things I’ve Learned

  • Know where you are transmitting. A lot of DXers give the advice to “listen, listen, listen”. This is good advice but you must also know precisely where you are transmitting. Are you in the passband of the DX station’s 500 Hz receiver? It will do you no good to spend the effort listening to who gets worked by the DX and thereby learning his pattern if you are not transmitting within 300-400 Hz of where you think you are transmitting. Remember that a rare station can have hundreds calling him simultaneously. To discern a call sign from the horde he must have as narrow a passband as his rig will allow and you have to target your signal to hit within that narrow range. Getting “close” may not get you in the log.
  • A very good indication of the upcoming evening’s band condition on 80 meters is to look at the spots during the late-morning and afternoon, before the band is even open at your location. If Europeans are working Asia and the Pacific, chances are good that the same good conditions will exist in a few hours as your local sunset approaches.
  • Not all of the DX on 80 meters arrives at a low angle. My low-to-the-ground antenna has a high angle of radiation – this is why they are not considered the preferred antenna for DX. But…some DX on 80 (and 160) arrives at a high angle, particularly (but not only) those DX signals propagated via gray-line. There have been times when very distant DX stations are heard with signal levels one would expect on 20 meters. VQ9QM was 10dB over S9 from almost 10,000 miles away at 7:15pm one evening – I had to double-check to make sure I was on 80 meters! Incidentally, I knew exactly where VQ9QM was sitting as I worked him; I spent a few weeks licensed as VQ9BL during a port visit to Diego Garcia in my Navy days…antennas/towers are furnished but it’s BYOR – Bring Your Own Rig.
  • You can be competitive on 80 with a dipole. Not true on 10-20m where most folks have tribanders, but the fact is that most DXers on 80 do not have 4-squares or efficient verticals with miles of radials. The Big Guns on 80 do have awesome antennas but most 80-meter DXers have an antenna that is “compromise” in some way: a vertical over poor earth ground, a vertical with too few radials, a low dipole, a crooked or lazy dipole bent to fit the owner’s lot, a 40 meter antenna inductively loaded to work 80, etc.
  • There are a lot of Big Guns in a lot of countries that can hear your signal even though you have a compromise antenna and 1/10th of a kilowatt. Realize that their well-equipped station works to your advantage as well as theirs. And a lot of the mega-DXpedtions now go full-bore on 80 and 160, installing excellent antennas for both receive and transmit. That said, most of the DX stations I work on 80 meters are similar in antenna/power to mine.
  • The best time to work rare DX on any band is the week prior to the big DX contests. They have arrived, set up shop and are now getting psyched for the contest. They do this by calling CQ and responding to the resulting pile-up, and, as big as that pile-up can be, it won’t compare to how big it will be during the contest. Get the rare ones in the log before the contest starts!

Some Exciting Moments on 80 Meters

VQ9QM – This is really the contact that set the hook for me, for several reasons: I used to be a VQ9, he was on the other side of the planet from me, he was/is rare and the pile-up calling him was huge. HUGE! I knew I’d never work him with all those big boys calling him, but what the heck – I decided to try anyway. He was listening 5-10 up so I started looking for who he worked and how he tuned. After a few rounds I had his pattern and gave him a call. Nothing. He worked someone else and calls “QRZ?” so I (and the rest of the world) call again. Nothing. Again. He works a W1 & then turns it over to the masses. I call again and he replies “AE5X 5NN BK”. Wow – more fun than running barefoot through an acre of titties. I was hooked.

9L1AB – This one was a big surprise. I still don’t know how he heard me. It was 7pm local and the pile-up had begun in earnest. I could only barely copy Andy, who was conducting his own one-man DXpedition from a Freetown hotel with wire antennas. Due to slow fading, he was at times below the noise level and completely inaudible. I knew he would be coming in stronger later and would have a better chance then of hearing me as well. But he might also go off the air or QSY to 160. I called and somehow got him logged.

C56R – I Forest Gumped this station into the log – just in the right place at the right time. I was in the shack downloading some MP3 files with the rig idling on 3505 kHz with no activity. All of a sudden, an S7 CQ starts and I pay little attention until I hear the callsign. I answered him back, got my report and a quick “73” and the pile-up ensued. Pure luck. “And that’s all I have to say about that.”

3XY7C – Perseverance got this one in the log. This DXpedition’s opening night on 80 meters was so intense that I just shut the rig down and decided the evening would be better spent watching the Crocodile Hunter on TV. On the second night, the pile-up was still overwhelming but I hung in there an hour anyway. Still no joy. On the 3rd night, the XYL and I had plans to do some pre-Thanksgiving cleaning in preparation for the family coming over in a couple weeks for the holiday. I told her that if we could postpone the cleaning that I would buy her dinner at her favorite resturant if I could get this country. She agreed. If you’re ever passing through West Milford around dinner time, I recommend a stop at Cafe Amore. The chicken arrabiata is magnificent.