Building a VHF Contest Rover, Intro

Posted on March 1, 2018 by Chris Lumens in radio, rover.

For the past couple years, Sean (WA1TE) and I have been operating as a rover in the January and September VHF contests under the callsign K1SIG/R. While the radios and antennas we’ve used have been a combination of all our stuff, we’ve been using his car for the actual roving itself. Sean’s going to be busy later this year, so I have started thinking about building my own rover. This is the first in an occassional series of posts to explain roving and how I’m going to build mine.

What’s a rover?

In the VHF contests, everything is based around grids - one degree by two degree chunks of the world. When you make a contact with another station, you give them your grid square number and they give you theirs. The more of these grids you make contacts with, the more multipliers you get to your score. You can make contacts with multiple people in the same grid, but you can only contact the same person once per frequency band.

Example: I’m at my house in FN42 participating in a contest. I can talk to AB1KW who is also in FN42 on the 6 meter (50 MHz) band, and then the 2 meter (144 MHz) band, and any other bands we both have. But then I’m done being able to contact him. I can make contacts with WA1TE in FN42 on as many bands as we have in common, and anyone in any other grids, but not AB1KW again.

As a way to make the VHF contests more interesting, they started introducing more categories of operation. One of those is the portable category, which is basically a station that picks a spot other than their house and operates from there. Mountain tops are an obvious choice for a mobile location - being higher up means more people are within line of sight, which is important on these higher frequencies. A portable station is stuck in one location, however.

Rovers are different in that they can drive around to many different locations, making contacts from each. Most importantly, a rover can operate from many different grid squares and every time they go to a new one, they can contact all the same stations again. This can really pile up the points for both the roving station and the fixed station (basically, someone sitting at home) who might get a lot of new multipliers that way.

Example: I’m a rover in FN42. I can talk to AB1KW who is also in FN42 on all the bands we have in common. I can make contacts with anyone else either in FN42 or other bands as well. I then pack up the car and drive an hour away to FN43. This resets everything - I can now talk to AB1KW on each band again. I can do the same with everyone else. What I can’t do is stay in FN42 and talk to him again. I could only do that if he were also a rover, and he moved to a different location.

Simply put, a rover is a vehicle with one or more people and several radios, driving around to many different grid squares and making as many contacts as they can.

Why go roving?

My home VHF contest setup looks something like this:

The mast in the foreground is a big 6 meter antenna. The mast in the background is a 2 meter antenna on top, a 1.25 meter antenna in the middle, and a 70cm antenna on the bottom. The big beam is up about ten feet off the deck, and the 2 meter beam is up about twenty feet. They’re also aimed right into some trees to the south. Also I live kind of in a hole. Unfortunately, the VHF and UHF bands really benefit from the antennas being up high, with clear line of sight, and not pointing right into trees.

So for me, the biggest reason to go roving is that my home is a terrible location but I still want to do a VHF contest. By being a rover, I get to pick far better locations. Instead of being in a hole, I can be on top of a mountain with all sorts of visibility. Picking these locations is one of the biggest advantages to roving, but it’s also one of the main challenges.

Roving makes you a sought-after contact. Instead of just being another random person sitting at home, you’re a moving target. A big station can contact you a bunch of times in the morning, and then again in the afternoon when you’ve changed locations, and again in the evening when you’ve changed locations again. Unless you are lucky enough to be the big station, there’s just a lot more activity in a contest as a rover. It’s fun being on that end of the pileup.

Finally, for me roving is a group operation. It’s a lot more fun getting together to play with the radios than doing it by myself. It’s exciting to pass a contact up across all the bands between operators. It’s fun to have a common goal that we’re all working towards.

Styles of operation

There are two styles of rover operation, and they have dumb names: Stop and shoot, and run and gun. I’ve done a little of both, and there’s pros and cons to each.

Stop and shoot

In this style, you operate from fewer grids but spend more time in each. You try to pick a really good location in each grid (mountains you can drive up and park at are ideal), set up all your gear, and spend an hour or two there. You typically use large beam antennas on masts that take longer to set up and aren’t suitable for driving around with, but can result in farther away contacts. This usually means more contacts from each location and more multipliers.



Run and gun

In this style, you try to maximize the number of grids you operate from, spending little time in each. Some stops may only be long enough to make a single contact to get the activated grid multiplier, while others might be more like 30 or 45 minutes. You pick more marginal locations and use loop antennas that are installed for the whole contest. You typically make few long distance contacts, but can work the same stations many times.

Run and gun is ideally suited to two people - one person drives, and one person operates the radio. Change roles from time to time. This also means you can make contacts while in motion, which can be a big score boost. If you’re willing to give that up, it’s easy to do this style by yourself.



Rover categories

Contests are all about rules. In the January, June, and September ARRL contests they’ve created three different kinds of rovers. The August contest has slightly different categories. When you send in your log, you have to say which category of rover you competed as. Each category has its own restrictions, as well as its own rankings. Here’s the basics:

Limited rover

A limited rover is no more than two operators, operating on the bottom four bands only, and observing some limits on the output power. This basically means no amplifiers. A limited rover must include all its gear - antennas, power supplies, whatever. You can also have more people as long as all they do is drive or sit in the car and watch the road go by. They’re not allowed to do any operating, logging, setup, tear down, etc.

Classic rover

A classic rover is like a limited rover, but can operate on all the bands they want. They don’t have the power restriction, either. They are still restricted to no more than two people. This category tends to have the most competition, so I try to avoid it.

Unlimited rover

An unlimited rover can basically do whatever it wants, as long as it’s legal. There’s no band or power restrictions besides what amateurs are allowed to do. You can have as many operators as you want. You don’t even need to transport all your radios and power equipment, which means you could drive from campsite to campsite and hook up to power if you wanted.


Over the next several posts in this series, I’ll talk about building out a fairly simple rover including power, radios, and antennas. I’ll also talk a bit about picking locations, route planning, and operating. Before tackling all of that, it’s important to think about what kind of rover you want to be. Here’s some questions to ask yourself:

I will be building a stop and shoot rover because I already have the antennas for it and want to spend more time operating than driving. I’m concentrating on the bottom four bands, but leaving open the option to expand into the microwaves later. I want to be able to have two operators even if it’ll just be me most of the time. Finally, I intend to operate the entire contest and make a top five score. I’ll show you how I plan to do that in the coming weeks.