I have heard about radio "contests" but I haven't seen a real explanation of what they are and what they entail. What do I need to know about contests before getting a technician license for the first time? Is there any particular etiquette regarding them I should know?
There are all kinds of contests. Operators attempt to get the most contacts, the best contacts, or some combination. The scoring metrics are set by the contest organizer, who is usually some amateur radio club or organization.
There isn't a lot you need to know about them to get your license. When there's a contest, bands in which that contest applies can be very busy with a lot of people. You should be prepared to either avoid this activity, or participate in it. If you don't participate in the contest you can still make contacts with people who are, but be aware that contest operators won't be interested in chatting (they are going for quantity, not conversation). They will want to exchange a minimum of information which is set by the contest rules to make the contact valid. Rules vary, but usually exchanged are:
- call sign
- Maidenhead locator
- signal report (which is always 599 to make things easier)
Contest rules usually require this information to be reported somehow for verification by the contest organizer. Again, methods vary from contest to contest, but some form of electronic submission is common. There are plenty of contest logging programs available to help with the task. Some contests require that both parties of the contest submitted matching log entries for a valid contact to make submitting false contacts harder.
Your local HAM club will almost certainly have HAMs who are contesters. Most will be happy to help you. Many contests have website that will explain their rules and procedures.
While not officially a contest, even though they keep score and post the "winners", ARRL field day is a good way to get started. You can find out more at the ARRL website as well as many other places on the web.
The goal for most contests is to make as many contacts was possible within a certain time period. A contact will be defined differently for different contest. Most include your call sign and a signal report. Other might require your state if in the USA or maidenhead grid square. Some assign you a specific identifier you have to use in addition to your call sign.
For scoring it is usually the number of contacts, but often there are modifiers. Operating low power, QRP or less than 5 watts, may add to or even double your score.
Most contests will have various limitations. A CW contest will only accept contacts made using morse code.
The ARRL does publish a contacting journal. It can be a good source of information.