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CB Radio • Things You Need to Know

CB Radio • Things You Need to Know

by Mike Vollmert

Having a functioning CB radio is mandatory on virtually all DE trips. There are two parts to that statement - having a radio, and having it function! In our travels, we have a few requirements for a CB that are somewhat specific. First, we need to have a unit mounted in a way that it will withstand the bumping and bouncing of offroad travel. Second, we need the unit mounted in such a way that we can reach the microphone and controls - while bumping and bouncing along our backroads and trails. This write-up is about selecting and installing a CB that will, over time, function as reliably as possible and, as much as possible, avoid failure on the trail. Selecting the right CB radio entails a few basic steps - you'll need to choose a radio, an antenna, and figure out the best way to install it.

First and foremost, look at your vehicle - what space do you have to bolt in a radio in a location that is accessible (can you grab the microphone easily? Will it be out of the way with respect to controls on the dash, passengers, etc?) and secure. A unit that bounces around stuffed in between the seat and the center console will, at the most inopportune moment, fail! The issue of space will dictate the size of the radio you can get.

In my FJ Cruiser, I chose a Cobra radio that has almost all of the circuitry in the microphone (there’s a matchbook-sized box that mounts under the dash). I just didn’t have room around the dash where I could fit a larger unit and not have it in the way of something else. It’s a little more expensive, but it saves space. In many vehicles, a unit can easily be mounted under the dash - easy, convenient, secure. I’ve seen them mounted on the headliner, on the top of the dash, on the center console ..... Lots of personal choice involved in this, but it’s a major thing to think about - not good to buy a unit, then go to your vehicle and find you’ve got no convenient place to put it because it’s too big, or the knobs and controls are in the wrong place, or where you thought you’d mount it isn’t going to work because you can’t get power to it or there’s no good way to route the antenna cable. Plan ahead and avoid a headache!

Selecting a radio is basically selecting one with the features you want. At the end of the day, you basically need a radio for communication, without any bells or whistles. They will all pretty much transmit the same distance. By law, a CB can only transmit 4 watts of power, which places it’s range in a fairly small box - pretty much below 10 miles unless you break the law or use a high powered, Single Side Band (SSB) unit. My recommendation - don’t! You don’t need one that scans, or saves multiple channels, or has weather alerts. Unless you really want that functionality, save your money and get one that just lets you talk on a selected channel and is stout enough to withstand the rigors of driving off road.. (My radio has the weather channel feature, and I’ve never, in 10 years, used it).

Here’s a link about various radios (do your own research as well - Google is your friend, but caveat emptor when it comes to reviews!): (Note: I’m not endorsing these guys, and I don’t necessarily suggest purchasing from them, but their website is a good learning resource. And they basically “get” what we do with our radios)

The second consideration is the antenna. First, will you permanently mount it or use a removable unit (magnetic mount, gutter clip, etc.)? It’s way better to have a permanent mount, but for lots of reasons that’s not always possible. On my FJ, I was able to permanently mount an antenna on the rear door hinge using something called a Bandi Mount - which works really well. So far as I know, this mount is specifically made for FJ Cruisers and doesn’t exist for other vehicles. Bob Jaussaud and I rigged a similar set up on Mignon Slenz’s ForeRunner and I did the same on Glen Shaw’s Tacoma by fabricating a similar sort of mount. I try to avoid drilling holes in vehicles and was able to do my entire installation without doing so, but that isn’t always possible. On Mignon’s and Glen’s vehicles, we had to drill holes. I had to compromise on my “drill no holes in the vehicle” policy when I installed my ham radio and I drilled a hole in my roof - but there are some good solutions for that as well! Regardless, get a good antenna, and make sure you can get a reliable, stable, consistent connection to the vehicle - there’s a principle in radio antennas related to something called a ground plane about which Ham Radio guys wax on poetically forever. If you listen to those guys, you’ll absolutely maximize the performance of your radio, but you’ll have copper straps connecting every metal part on your vehicle - axles, body, frame... For an overlanding rig, and especially for CB radio where you’re basically interested in communicating with the other vehicles in your group over relatively short distances (up to 5 miles or so), you’re safe making compromises on the whole issue, but there absolutely needs to be a good, stable mount to the metal of your vehicle.

Once the antenna is connected to the radio, you’ll want to get someone to tune it. I took my FJ to a guy here locally who sold ham radio and CB radio stuff, and he did it for me for about $20. If you don’t tune the antenna to your setup, you won’t get anywhere near optimal operation, which basically limits your range, sometimes dramatically. On trips, you’ve likely heard radios that don’t come in well, be it transmitting, receiving, or both. Almost guaranteed the issue with those setups is not tuning the antenna and mounting it reliably to the vehicle. Tuning the antenna requires a device called an SWR meter and the knowledge for using it - you can do it (with a little research and either purchasing or borrowing the meter, or, like I did, take the easy route and find someone who does this stuff a lot).

Wherever you mount the antenna, you need a route for the antenna cable that will get the cable from the antenna (on the outside of the vehicle) to the radio (on the inside of the vehicle) without crimping or kinking the wire. Many people run the cable through a door jam, which is basically hoping that opening and closing the door will press the cable into the weatherstripping, but not crimp the cable. I’ve seen it work, and I’ve seen it not work (in fact, we dealt with that very issue with one person on one of Nelson Millers recent trip). If you do choose to route your antenna wire through the door seam, ALWAYS close that door very gently!

Firestik is my recommended antenna, but that’s a basically permanently mounted solution, and it’s a fiberglass antenna - rugged, but not the most distance-oriented type of antenna. The antenna height is a compromise - the taller the better for performance (the ideal CB antenna is 

about 8-¬Ω feet tall), but the shorter the better to avoid whacking branches and such while driving. I have the shorter (36”) Firestik mounted on my rear door hinge - it doesn’t stick all that far above my rig, which definitely compromises how far I can transmit, but it’s never been an issue. Generally, I can transmit about 3 to 5 miles. Also, on my rig, the antenna can be removed with a spring-loaded quick release, leaving only a small nub that the antenna mounts to. (This allows me to put the FJ in my garage. The danger with this setup is if you try to transmit without the antenna mounted, you could conceivably blow the unit, so once again, caveat emptor!).

Here’s a link to Right Channel Radio’s recommendations for antennas:

The third consideration is finances - but in reality, if you get a good radio (not the best, not the worst) and a good antenna, you’re going to be in a rough ballpark cost-wise for any of them. I would only caution against getting an off-brand, “el-cheapo” setup, and you’re only transmitting a couple miles, so you don’t need the “keep in touch with the other coast” single sideband ginormous models! By virtue of what we do, driving where we do, we tend to be on the upper end of the spectrum in terms of vibration and stress on the components, but our need for transmitting long distances is not really a factor. Aim for rugged and reliable, keeping in mind that a solid installation is the first priority.

Finally, power. There are two ways to set up your radio - always on, or only on with the car on. Again, personal preference (mine is only on when the car is on, because with my ADHD I would invariably forget to turn off the radio in the evening, only to have the thing run down my battery overnight! The negative aspect of this solution is whenever we stop, if I turn off the engine I lose radio reception). Either way, finding a good, reliable power source is paramount. For the always-on solution, run the power wire straight to your battery with an inline fuse. For the ignition-on solution, make sure you’re connecting to a circuit with ample amperage to drive your radio, and again, use a fuse on that power line!

For sure, there are low-grade, simpler solutions to adding a CB radio to your vehicle. But keep in mind, taking shortcuts and compromising will invariably result in your radio failing at the most inopportune moments. Losing the ability to communicate, aside from the safety factor, could rob you from the rich conversations that invariably happen while driving through the beautiful, historically rich landscapes we all love to explore. My motto - overbuilt is underrated! The time spent researching the right setup for your vehicle and mounting it securely will result in a dependable, long-lasting communication tool for your desert travels.    ~ Mike