In an age when you can access everything from turn-by-turn directions to weather reports on your phone, you’d think that something as seemingly antiquated as a CB radio wouldn’t have a place in modern-day travel. Yet, despite the pervasiveness of smartphones, old-style citizens band (CB) radios remain popular with truckers and road trippers for some very good reasons.
Citizens Band (CB) radio is part of what the Federal Communication Commission calls “personal radio services” which are low-power, short-range radios for personal communication that do not requires a license to use.
CB radio has existed since the 1950s, used mainly in rural areas and by long-haul truckers, Hollywood popularized CB radio in the 1970s with films like Smokey and the Bandit and television shows like the Dukes of Hazard. Country-Western songs of the era, notably CW McCall’s “Convoy” drew on CB’s popularity with truckers. Soon, a CB craze swept the country as everyone seemed bent on getting on the airwaves.
CB remained popular into the 1980s; but, as cell phones hit center stage, CB’s popularity quickly faded. Yet, the technology hung on, particularly with truckers and rural residents inadequately served by cell service.
Perhaps the first question raised by a traveler today is, why would anyone even consider a CB radio when a smartphone is in their pocket? It’s easy to view a CB as just a quaint relic from the 70s.
The truth is, for travelers, CBs can be inherently useful. They are reliable, inexpensive, have no ongoing costs - and most notably - provide a means of communicating when your cell phone won’t work.
CB radios provide a means of communication when you are out of cell range and you can’t talk, text, or stream data. A CB can communicate anywhere, even under poor conditions.
Even if you can’t make a cell call, CBs provides a way of getting assistance if you need it. Channel 9 is the designated emergency channel; it's monitored by emergency services and local volunteers known as REACT (Radio Emergency Associated Communication Teams), so help is almost always available.
Many CB radios also feature National Weather Service frequencies; so if you are faced with hazardous weather but can’t get weather-related information on your phone, you can still get a weather update on a CB equipped with that option.
RV dash mounted Citizens Band radio and talkie. [Photo/Wikimedia Commons]
There are plenty of traffic phone apps but they can be notoriously slow in reporting current conditions. If you’re in a traffic jam and don’t know why, or if you need to find an alternative route, a CB can be your best friend. Listening to truckers on your CB gets you up-to-moment reporting on delays and bypass routes right from their midst.
On long trips, particularly if you’re driving solo, CB conversation can keep you engaged and alert, helping the miles go by whether listening or chatting yourself.
Unlike your phone, which is limited to a single conversation; you can have a group conversation on a CB. At a given moment, a local farmer, nearby trucker, and fellow motorist may all be engaged in a conversation. Just scan through the channels to find people talking and join in.
CB radios are also useful tools for organized groups of people, like sports teams traveling together.
CB is also a reliable means of communication not dependent on cell towers, electricity, or local media. So, in the event of a disaster, you can get vital information and communicate with others even if other modes of communication are unavailable.
The Citizen's Band is a range of radio frequencies that lie just above the short-wave broadcast bands, divided into 40 channels that all CB radios use.
No matter what they look like, all CB radios transmit at 4 watts of power. Transmission range will typically extend from 3-10 miles, dependent upon factors including terrain, type of antenna, and atmospheric conditions. There are single sideband (SSB) radios which are allowed 12 watts and because of their increased power and technology have much further range; but, the person on the other end must be using an SSB radio as well.
Since all CB radios have the same transmission power, the primary differences are in their configuration, size, and set of features. There are four basic choices:
â Handhelds - These look like walkie-talkies with a built-in antenna. They are often stored and used for emergencies or used outside of a vehicle.
â All-in-one Units - Typically, these are supplied in small carrying cases containing the radio, antenna, microphone, and 12-volt power plug.
â Mobile Radios - These are smaller radios designed for vehicles. They require an external antenna. They can be hard-wired to your vehicle’s electricity or used with a 12-volt accessory plug.
â Base Stations - These are designed to sit on a tabletop and plug into a wall outlet (most can also be wired to a car’s 12-volt system). They require an external antenna.
With prices starting around $40 from the three top manufacturers, there isn’t much reason to shop other brands. The top brands are:
Established in the 1960s, Midland is the oldest manufacturer of CB radios in existence. They make handhelds, all-in-ones, economical mobile units, and robust mobile radios like the classic 5001z.
The Cobra company has produced popular CBs and radar detectors since the 1980s. Like Midland, they offer handheld and all-in-one radios along with mobile radios starting as low as $49.95.
Established in Japan in 1966, Uniden is known for its communication equipment including CB radios and police scanners. Uniden has a barebones compact CB with a suggested retail price of $35.99. They also have SSB rigs and one model sports a CB and police scanner in the same unit.
Choosing a radio really comes down to deciding which configuration and features are important to you. Some extra features worth considering are:
â Automatic Noise Limiter (ANL) also known as Noise Blanker (NB) - This feature helps cut static from engine noise, car accessories, and even overhead power lines.
â Microphone Gain - this boosts the audio output of the microphone making the transmission sound slightly louder...
â Radio Frequency (RF) Gain - This control reduces interference from distant stations, allowing you to better hear the close ones.
â Clarifier - used only with single sideband radios, this is an essential fine-tuning control for SSB.
Since all CBs transmit at the same power, achieving good CB range is more about the quality of the antenna than the radio itself. There are three antenna considerations:
â Antenna Length - longer antennas produce a longer range than shorter antennas.
â Antenna Type - the variety known as a center load, with an encased coil of wire in the middle will generally have longer transmit range than a fiberglass antenna with the wire wrapped around it.
â Mount - Today’s antennas don’t require drilling to mount. There are magnetic mounts, trunk lip mounts, and mirror mounts for larger vehicles. Mounting location plays a big role; the higher up and less obstructed the antenna is, the better the range.
Of the 40 available channels, there are two you should keep in mind. Mentioned earlier, channel 9 is the allocated emergency channel and should not be used for anything else. Channel 19 is customarily used by truckers. While anyone can use channel 19, those traveling with families may be offended by the language and off-color topics common on channel 19.
On the flip side, there’s plenty of amusing CB-ese to learn. Have fun getting acquainted with Smokies, good buddies, and getting your ears on.