Estimated reading time: 8 minutes
CB radios are used in a variety of industries and services to enable short-distance communication. In a pinch, they can be used to get information out to the general community or to keep in contact with your family. Nowadays, you’ll often find CB radios being used in the backcountry for hunting or camping expeditions.
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- How Do CB Radios Work?
- A Short Buyer's Guide to CB Radios
- The Best CB Radios for Prepping
- Final Thoughts
- Frequently Asked Questions
How Do CB Radios Work?
CB Radio stands for Citizens Band Radio and is used for high-quality short-distance communication. It is commonly used for localized communication for truckers, survivalists, emergency services, and hobbyists who enjoy collecting them. They use an 11-meter band that goes between 26.965 MHz and 27.405 MHz. Generally, they have 40 channels and that’s it.
As cell phone coverage has improved dramatically in recent years, more and more are moving in that direction. However, CB radios have some advantages over these other services.
Why Are CB Radios Good in an Emergency?
If cell phone networks and power grids fail during a major disaster, you’ll find yourself suddenly disconnected from the world. CB radios remedy that by continuing to work in these scenarios, as long as the device doesn’t get damaged.
Our communication infrastructure is more fragile than you think. During a long-term disaster, cell phone towers will be jammed, and eventually their backup generators will run out of fuel. But with a CB radio, all you need is the power from your vehicle battery or, for the portable units, some AA batteries.
The Difference Between CB Radio and HAM Radio Services
Beginners can get CB and HAM radios confused pretty easily as they essentially do the same thing. You’re able to provide communications for emergencies and disasters. However, the differences lie in how well each of them performs that function.
Power – CB radios have a fraction of the powerful capabilities that a HAM radio has. A CB radio is pretty much topped out at 4 watts for AM and up to 12 watts for a single sideband. This means the communication capabilities will only work for a few miles. HAM radios cap out at 1500 watts, making them able to transmit signals all across the world.
Licensing – Unlike CB radios, HAM radios need a license to be operated. The FCC put this into place because of the capabilities of the HAM radio system. CB radios used to require licensing, but that was scrapped (unless you need it for something large like a radio station).
Frequency – CB radios use channels whereas HAM radios use frequency. This means that while CB radios are perfect for local communication, HAM radios have more options when it comes to radio bands available to them.
A Short Buyer’s Guide to CB Radios
If you’re new to the world of CB radios, then the options and technical terms might be a little overwhelming at first. Luckily, the concept is easy to pick up, and this buyer’s guide will get you going in the right direction.
There are two types of signals that a CB radio can transmit: AM (Amplitude Modulation) and SSB (Single Sideband). Whereas an AM signal consists of the full spectrum of channels, SSB only uses the upper or lower half (sideband) of channels, making it far more efficient.
For something as important as off-grid communication, it’s best to avoid the knockoffs that you can find floating around the internet. There are 3-4 major manufacturers that have a tried-and-true track record. These include Uniden, President, Cobra, and Galaxy.
The RF gain allows you to filter out any excessive noise by only picking up the signals closest to you. It performs the same function as a squelch. By adjusting both the squelch and the RF gain knob, you can effectively increase your range by eliminating the background signal noise.
Standing Wave Ratio Meter (SWR)
Look for a CB radio that has an SWR meter built in. This device determines how much power reaches the destination before being reflected. If your power is impeded, then they are called standing waves in that they are not radiating normally.
An SWR reading needs to be low to have optimal performance. The low reading means that your antenna is transmitting enough radio frequency power instead of it being sent back. If the SWR is too high and there is too much power being reflected, then it comes back as heat and can damage the transistor in your device.
Pay attention to the specifications of the CB radio you’re looking at. You’d be surprised at how many times you find a device with the exact same specifications, yet the price is higher or lower. Take the time to shop around.
The Best CB Radios for Prepping
Uniden Bearcat 980SSB CB
|Pros & Cons
|• Single sideband radio
• Wireless mic
• Changing background color
|+ Cost effective
+ Great scanning abilities
– Not very portable
The Bearcat 980SSB CB radio does a lot of things really well. If you’re looking for a solid radio that will work for a long time, this is it. The Bearcat has an SWR meter built right in and is wireless mic compatible. It is equipped with 40 different channels with the ability to switch to an emergency channel.
Cobra 20LX BT
|Pros & Cons
|• Bluetooth enabled
• Reads out text and emails
• Internal SWR Tuner
|+ 10 NOAA weather channels
+ Caller ID
– Limited features
Cobra is known for high-quality CB radios, and the Cobra 20LX with Bluetooth is great for those just starting out or looking for a solid, simple unit.
If you’re intending on using this in areas where natural disasters are prone to happen, you’ll be excited to know that the included weather channels will keep you updated on everything. And if you’re a fan of bluetooth, this unit will be a good choice since it can pair with pretty much any bluetooth headset.
|Pros & Cons
|• Easy use scanning
• Public addressing option with jack in the rear
• Color-changing LCD screen
|+ Incredibly low price
+ Great for beginners
– Limited features
The President Adams CB radio is one of the most economical options on the market. It does not include SSB or AWR features, but it does have 40 channels and a PA option for a loudspeaker. If you’re looking for a unit that can keep everyone in your neighborhood in touch, this is a great unit to have.
|Pros & Cons
|• 10 weather channels
• Portable handset
• 4-mile transmission distance
|+ Highly portable unit
+ High/low power switch
– Antenna is underpowered
For those who adventure into the backcountry, the Cobra HH50 will be right up your alley. It has the form factor of a regular walkie with the transmission capability that rivals a HAM radio just because you can move around with it.
The Cobra HH50WXST features all the weather channels you need to get updates on the local environment and the transmission distance of 4 miles ensures that you’ll be heard loud and clear wherever you go.
CB radios are a great addition to your toolkit regardless if you’re prepping or just someone who needs a radio while they’re out and about. They have a great range for their price and as more people start to use them, the network will grow.
In an emergency when the cell networks and power grids are out, a CB radio can be a lifeline to the outside world. These tools are a great way to organize large groups of people, and they’re not expensive to get into.
Frequently Asked Questions
If you’re ready to take the dive and get your CB radio, check out these questions that newcomers typically ask as they learn their way around one of these units.
What is the average range of a CB radio?
Depending on the quality, the average range for a CB radio is between 5-20 miles. There are certain ways to increase this range through additional technology.
Can you amplify the signal?
Technically a gray area as you are limited to how much power you can transfer through the airwaves. The best legal solution is to have a strong antenna or to focus your antenna.
How many channels are available on a CB radio?
All CB radios have access to 40 channels. Some models have NOAA weather channels included for those using a CB radio in natural disaster areas.
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