The Popularity of Specific Operating Activities Among Canadian Hams

Results from the 2021 RAC National Survey

Author’s note: a version of this appeared in the May 2024 issue of The Canadian Amateur, available to members only. I retain copyright to the material. After numerous requests from non-members of RAC, I have posted the material here for all to read.

What are the most popular activities among Canadian hams? Each one is likely to say it’s what they do. Now we have national survey results to give us a more complete picture rather than a collection of comments at the local ham radio club or convention.

The Radio Amateurs of Canada (RAC) periodically conducts surveys to obtain objective information on the current status of amateur radio in Canada. The national RAC Survey of 2021 focused on operating patterns among radio amateurs, including how active they are in various specific aspects of the hobby and some key demographics. Paul Coverdell VE3ICY constructed the survey instrument (see his TCA article in the January 2021 issue). I completed a full report of my analysis of these data, along with data from Statistics Canada and ISED, which is published on the my website as Operating Patterns Among Canadian Amateurs: Results from the RAC Survey 2021. This article is taken from that full report. Future papers will contain other elements of this survey.

Here I show how central some operating activities are and how others, and while ardently pursued by some, are much more niche concerns in the overall ham radio community. These results are important for both RAC and the rank-and-file amateur in Canada to know. It also helps define markets for product manufacturers (e.g., satellite equipment, etc.) as well as provide a benchmark for survey data collection in other countries on their amateur radio population.

A total of 39 operating activities were presented to respondents during the survey, asking the respondent for a declaration of their involvement. These specific activities widely ranged from casual operating to sophisticated telemetry data modes.

I sorted these responses into a bar chart from highest to lowest percent participation in the survey (Figure 1; click image for larger version). Here are the results by importance to hams in the survey. Note that individuals engage in more than one activity.

Dominant Operating Activities. While the median percent participation in all these activities is about 17 percent, the activities with the highest engagement are clear relative to this baseline. It should be little surprise that casual operating and voice modes are the top activities. Three activities reach a majority level of participation: casual operations, using traditional voice transmissions, and digital modes. This is not shocking but the level of use in digital transmission might be a surprise to most readers.

Over two-thirds (70%) operate in what they consider a casual style. Traditional voice modes, like SSB, AM or FM, are second (59%). What may be a surprise is where digital modes rank: in third place (52%). Fully one-half of Canadian amateurs now operate digital modes. This considerably out-ranks the venerable and original mode of CW (32%) where only a third say they now use Morse Code for communication. With local (46%) and HF rag-chewing (37%) registering at double the median participation rate, it is clear that hams in Canada, at times, just enjoy chatting with others. A more formal style, Net participation, is engaged in by some 43 percent.

Contesting and Chasing DX. Contesting as a pursuit is popular among a smaller group of less than one-third in size (29%). But new forms of “contesting” have emerged through portable operations such as POTA, SOTA and related activities outside the usual shack (37%).1 Fox-hunting is followed by almost one-in-ten (9%) Canadian hams. Low power QRP operations, regardless of location, is popular in about one-fifth (23%). Mobile operation is on par with local rag-chewing in popularity (47%). Operating Special Event Stations gets about 15 percent (14.9%) engaged. Thus, the emergence of portable operating, especially in combination with formal log-submissions via Parks or Summits on the Air, has surpassed in numbers of practitioners in the traditional contesting operations. This may be a shock to some in the contesting community who have been part of the establishment of amateur radio activities for decades. These objective survey results document evidence to the contrary.2

Pursuing distant contacts (DXing) is as popular as, for instance, checking into various Nets. Some 42 percent identify as DXers. The related activity of collecting QSL cards per se falls in at only a 20 percent level of engagement. (The electronic QSL records, such as LoTW, eQSL, etc., may have supplanted paper cards for many hams.) As could be expected with the investment in money and time commitment, being involved in DXpeditions themselves is rare (5%).

Public Service. Public service in emergency communications engages about a third (37%) and more general similar activities (30%). Related to this includes weather and storm monitoring (14%). Formal traffic handling (6.2%) maintains a small but dedicated group. Drone operations might be considered in the public service arena. While it’s a new technology for amateur radio, there is a nominal set of hams in the survey (5%) who say they use it. The venerable APRS network is used by a quarter of operators (25.2%).3 Taken together, there is a significant share of Canadian amateurs engaged in emergency and related public service activities.

Building Devices.Designing and building amateur radio equipment, especially antennas, captures a surprising share of activity. Antenna construction is the third most popular activity result at 47 percent. Homebrewing and kit-building is an activity of over a third of these respondents (36%). The restoration of classic rigs and putting them on the air attract a small group (13%) but one more highly attractive to hams than a dozen other aspects of the hobby. The homebrewing roots of the hobby appear to remain alive and well.

Elmering and Coaching. The mentoring and coaching of other hams, especially newly licensed ones, is a practice that takes time. It may not be for every amateur operator. Only 17 percent (17.3%) report engaging in this activity. Related engagement for youth involves several activities, such as JOTA, TDOTA and YOTA, and garners about 8 percent of hams in Canada into their support.

Space and Satellites.Various aspects of amateur radio in space are popular. Contacting the International Space Station (ARISS) is now an attraction for many (14%). Satellite operations in general are comparable in their share of practitioners (16%). Bouncing signals off of the moon (EME) is a specialty of some 5 percent of these hams. Using amateur radio for radio astronomy, a crossover field for astronomy proper, has a small contingent (3%) of followers.

Shortwave Listening. Many amateur operators began as shortwave listeners. Over a quarter (27%) in this survey report being engaged in SWL activities. This is on par, by comparison, with formal contesting or QRP operations. Perhaps the reader is somewhat surprised by this result. SWLing is nonetheless as or more popular than contesting, public service or QRP operating.

Niche Activities. A number of miscellaneous activities may not fit into these broader sets of activities. These include: remote operations (10.2%), VHF/UHF weak signal operations (17%), off-road communications (8.2%), high altitude ballooning (2.6%) and telemetry (2.4%). Each of these may fit into other larger activities but stand on their own in this survey. These results serve as a baseline for future surveys repeating these activity questions so that their growth may be objectively determined.

A related question is just how many different activities do Canadian ham operators engage in? In other words, how specialized is the hobby? The total number of activities that RAC Survey 2021 participants reported reflects just how active each ham operator is regardless of the activity’s specific focus. It can theoretically range from 0-38 in total.

Total Number of Activities. A sum of all activities by age group is shown in the accompanying chart as a histogram (left) and by age group (right) in a bar chart (Figure 2; click image for larger version). Since we have no data with which to compare the total portfolio of an amateur operator’s activities, it’s important to examine how Canadian hams vary in pursuing them.4

Survey respondents say they participate in as few as one and as many as 29 different activities. The median number is nine. The left panel shows that there is a skew to the right side of the distribution where the most highly active hams are located. This shows that may hams do just a few things while a smaller group do very many activities. One might ask is this extreme activity related to the age of the amateur operator?

The right panel shows that the medians (dark bar in the box) do not vary much across each age group. There is some change from the teens to the thirty-year-old group but the pattern smooths out from there.

These hams are not followed as they “age,” so we cannot truly speak about more specialization occurring from the teen years into middle age. It could be the historical period in which each ham got licensed and socialized into the hobby, perhaps by an Elmer coach, that shapes the specific activities. The results here, however, show little change in the overall average portfolio of activities by hams of all age groups. The top group (at 10) is only three higher than the bottom group (at 7). This is a good sign for continuing engagement regardless of age as measured in 2021.


These nationwide survey results show that amateur radio activities in Canada are more than simply alive and well. Some hams are very highly engaged in a wide variety of activities. While it is often remarked that ham radio is a hobby-of-hobbies, the well-entrenched activities of casual QSOs with fellow hams is clearly a common core pastime. These are predominately using voice or digital modes although CW operation is practiced by one-third. Building things, especially antennas, is a very popular activity so the homebrew culture remains active today. Emergency communications and contesting tend to round-out the traditional operating areas.

It also seems clear that Canadian hams may be a diverse lot in terms of how they spend their time in the hobby. Some engage in many more activities than others. I will examine the amount of time spent in the hobby in a future article.

The overall activity levels are not lower among older age groups than younger ones. Age does not appear to impact the average of the simple number of reported activities. But it may be that Canadian hams of different ages do vary in the specific sets of activities which may shape the contours of the hobby in the decades to come. That will be the focus of my next article using these national survey data collected by RAC which will provide a clearer picture of how age-graded some activities are today.


1. It is debatable by many as to whether these constitute “contesting.” The participants and supporting organizations do keep score of contacts and submitted logs. They issue milestone awards. I consider them akin to contest activities because of these shared characteristics regardless of their recognized status as such.

2.In the Appendix of the full report, it is shown that about two-thirds of QRPers operate portably (64%) but a similar percentage of portable operators say they do not operate QRP (62%). We cannot be sure within this survey instrument whether these are simultaneous activities or not so keep that in mind.

3. We note that, somehow, the oft-heard critique that an amateur activity “isn’t real ham radio” if the Internet is involved skips over APRS. This activity is not possible without the Internet’s role in the system.

4. I will examine the time spent on specific modes by frequency band in a following article. This will complement this section on activity participation.

Frank Howell, K4FMH, is a regular contributor to and writes from Mississippi, USA. Contact him at [email protected].

2 Responses to “The Popularity of Specific Operating Activities Among Canadian Hams”

  • Jeff VE7EFF:

    Interesting information to know and think about.
    For me, I do not consider SOTA or POTA as contesting.
    I would do it regardless of any awards, points, or certificates.
    It’s about practicing portable and remote operations – good practice for emergency ops – all year around (mostly).

    For most POTA/SOTA ops, it develops skills operating and listening QRP low power operations. I’m primarily a CW operator.
    I got into POTA because the QRN levels are so bad at my home QTH that it is impossible to have QSO’s. Another reason I’m mostly CW ops.

    POTA gets me out into remote mountainous locations where I just love being alone in nature. And, the QRN levels are almost zero!

    Jeff – VE7EFF

  • Frank K4FMH:

    Hi Jeff,

    Thanks for the comments, As I noted in Fn 1, this is debatable as to the distinction between organized contesting and pota/sota. The *do* share some characteristics as I noted there.

    The larger issue, if I may, is that amateur radio contesting has never articulated a “theory” of what is contesting. It has only focused on rules, and methods of scoring. This is, in scientific terms of measurement, teleological (the measured scored is the concept). This is akin to the oft-heard statement that intelligence is what IQ tests measure.

    I wrote about this issue n the ARRL NCJ a few years ago describing the Portable Operations Challenge. Lots of crickets in response…until the contesting community faces this, the underlying premise of “contesting” as well as the DXCC is an arbitrary exercise in generating numbers.



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