A Beginner’s Guide to Field Day
last updated 9 February 2023
Field Day is an annual ARRL operating event that encourages emergency preparedness by giving hams the opportunity “to learn to operate in abnormal situations in less than optimal conditions.” Generally it involves setting up stations “in the field” (where there is not an existing station) and trying to work as many other stations as possible, using emergency power. It is one of the largest ham operating events in the world based on the number of participants.
In this Beginner’s Guide, I want to provide an overview, along with some ideas of what to expect. I hope it provides some context for my main page on Field Day Antennas.
While Field Day itself isn’t exactly an emergency exercise (many clubs plan it for months beforehand), it does encourage the development of skills and the acquisition of equipment that can be helpful in an emergency. For example, many clubs and individuals have a generator that they use for Field Day. Not only does this mean that more generators are available if needed for an emergency, but that they are more likely to be functional when needed, since they get used at least once a year. Similarly, stockpiles of antennas, portable masts, and other supplies, plus the experience of setting them up, contribute to preparation for emergencies.
Field Day is always held on the last full weekend of June, and generally lasts for 24 hours. (It is possible to operate longer, but most groups don’t.) Many ham clubs operate Field Day as a club activity, with various members involved in planning, collecting equipment, setting up stations and antennas, operating, cooking, and taking everything back down again. On the other hand, there are many one or two person entries, possibly operating out of a backpack from a mountain top, or enjoying a family picnic outdoors. Locations vary from snowy tundra to farms, forests, deserts, or tropical islands. Some groups are focused on a high score, some on having a fun time outside playing with radios, and some take it as a great opportunity to experiment with different antennas.
Officially, Field Day is open to all stations in IARU Region 2 (North, Central, and South America), and stations elsewhere can be contacted for credit. In practice, most of the activity is in the USA and Canada, where the HF bands can be packed with signals. There is no bonus for working DX or other stations in specific areas, so, while DX contacts do happen, it can be difficult for more distant stations to be heard through the mass of loud local stations working each other.
the Field Day experience
The experience of Field Day, especially for Beginners, will vary greatly depending on the group you are with. Many hams will say it is a great way to learn about ham radio, and it certainly can be, but it might not be as interesting if everybody else is too busy operating to explain what is going on.
First of all, there are many styles of Field Day. Some operators are strongly focused on making as many contacts as quickly as possibly – that might not be the best time to ask them questions. Some operations are more casual, and may be a social occasion with group meals served on Saturday afternoon and/or Sunday breakfast. One local club has had over 100 participants come to the site, but only 1/4 of those actually operated: the rest watched, helped set up antennas or stations, or came for dinner. Large efforts may spend most of Friday setting up stations and antennas. Some just enjoy the experience of operating radios in the outdoors. Individuals or small groups may hike into a site, or operate from a car, RV, or picnic table, sometimes just for a few hours as time permits.
If you want to learn the most from Field Day, I’d suggest being there when the group is setting up. You can see how they set up their antennas, and get some hands-on experience, while also having more of an opportunity to ask questions, like, “why did you choose this antenna?” Each group will have an entry category with a maximum number of stations that can be on the air simultaneously: when there are more operators than stations available, there should be spare folks to talk to. Note that it isn’t uncommon for operators to work in pairs, with one talking on the radio and the other keeping the log. Taking a turn at logging is one way to get an introduction, even if you don’t have a license.
If you are operating by yourself, or with a small group, you probably will be more engaged in advance planning and setting up. It doesn’t require an elaborate antenna to make a lot of contacts, especially for stations in the Eastern half of the USA or Southeast Canada. Simple antennas like dipoles can work well, although antenna height (and/or ground slope) will help for stations at longer distances. In many cases the specific type of antenna isn’t as important as the ability to set it up and take it down easily, as long as it is reliable and reasonably efficient. Most of my Field Days have been from the West Coast, where antenna selection has been more important in order to be heard across the continent, which is why I’ve tried a number of different antennas, but I still often end up using dipoles.
Most Field Day activity will be on the HF bands. VHF/UHF are often used, but the number of potential contacts may be limited due to the limited range. (On the other hand, stations on a mountaintop overlooking a large metropolitan area can make a lot of contacts on FM simplex.) A 6m station may make some surprising contacts when the band is open.
And many Field Day operations will have a special “Get On The Air” (“GOTA”) station for beginners or generally inactive hams, and even unlicensed visitors (who can operate as a third party with a licensed control operator).
Most stations operate using emergency power. Gas generators are often used to run multiple transmitters for the larger club events. Especially for QRP (low power) operation, batteries may be more practical (and quieter), possibly with solar recharging during the day.
One thing I like about Field Day is that participants can choose their own level of operating each year. Some years I’ve gone out with a club and spent Friday setting up antennas for 5 HF stations. (And teaching others how to do it in the process, so I don’t have to work as hard next time.) Some years I had to be available to help out around the house on short notice, so I operated from my home station on battery power as time permitted, and made a personal goal of trying to work as many US States as possible in that time. (I got up to 47 states one year, using QRP and dipole antennas.) Other times I’ve hiked to a site by myself, or operated for a couple of hours with my grandson from a car in a local park. It really doesn’t matter how you do it – choose what seems fun to you, and don’t be afraid to do it differently next year.
And don’t be afraid of making mistakes, or doing things “wrong”. At the bottom of the main Field Day Antennas page you’ll see a number of the antennas that I have tried – some worked well, others were spectacularly unsuccessful. But over 50+ years I’ve learned a lot about how to put up antennas more easily and how to make them more effective from those failures (especially the most embarrassing ones). Just figure out one or two things you can do to have it work better next time.
One other activity that can be fun on Field Day is testing antennas: if you are outdoors with plenty of space, put up 2 (or more) antennas some distance apart and run the cables to a switch at the operating position. Then you can switch back and forth while listening to a signal to see if one antenna is better than the other. You may find that it varies depending on the distance and direction to the other station. Since each station transmits it’s ARRL Section as part of the exchange, you have a rough idea of where it is located, and can evaluate the antenna coverage accordingly.
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