Contesting is the competetive part of the hobby - even if it is no real sport: With most competitors working from their home stations nearly all (including sticking to the rules) is up to the honour of the participants.
The "wise old guys" recommend to measure one´s outcome only on the own personal standards and expectations - there is a too big number of variables in the play (geografic location, different operation times, different hardware from high stacks of monobanders to worm-warming lowwires, surrounding terrain, electric properties of soil and and and...) to allow a real comparison of results. They say so but nevertheless it is a competition and even the "wise old guys" are eager to earn another award or plaque.
I compare it to running: most runners never look for worldrecords in the zillion races each weekend. But nevertheless they participate in those races - which is different to "only" run through their forests for themselves. Like them there is a big group of hams who like to participate in the fascinating atmosphere among a lot of other competitors, prepare for that events and look for ways to improve on their level - thus dealing with antennas, station setup, operating skills, propagation knowledge and so on. This group between the hams friendly "handing-out-a-few-qsos-after-supper" and the big ones with kilowatts and yagi-stacks is sometimes regarded as being not "real contesters". On this pages I will try to gather infos, links and reports relevant to those competing even if being below worldrecord level.
For more thinking and discussion and experiences about contesting look to the contesting.com-reflector and search its archive for nearly any topic to be imagined.
One of the best calenders with nearly the whole zoo is cultivated by Jan, SM3CER. There I counted 340 contests on HF and 6m for the year 2006 from ARRL straight key night on 1st of January to the Stew Perry Topband Distance Challenge. And there are many more with national and regional contests. Another very helpful source to check is the calendar of the Bavarian Contest Club.
Listen to a contest from a very competetive station: K5ZD provides audios for the complete WWDX contest in CW and SSB (with the logs available, too). You can listen to him working as single-operator two radios (SO2R) which means CQing on one radio and searching for other stations, mainly multipliers, on the second radio.
But how does it work for the average or less than average equipped ham? Tim, EI8IC, has collected a lot of contesting tips from a lot of operators around the world. Look under the "HF-Contesting"-section what fits for you and your operating style (do you really have the nerve to call CQ on the frequency of a biiig gun while he leaves it to work a multiplier elsewhere with the second radio?).