Traveling with your CB Radio
CB operators love to talk on the radio, it’s a simple fact. They also love taking road trips and talking on the radio as they pass through various states talking to the truckers and the locals. In fact one of the best things about CB radio is meeting new people on the radio as you travel through the different areas of the country.
But what do you do when your next trip involves a plane ride and a rental car?
Most people would just leave the CB radio at home and spend the trip without enjoying the hobby. And in some cases it makes sense (you don’t want to fly to your brother’s wedding and screw up your duties as a best man because you’re making DX contacts in the rental car.)
But for many people traveling with a CB can be a fun and rewarding experience. It does take some planning though as many little obstacles can pop up when traveling with your radio equipment.
The first thing to do is to figure out what equipment you’ll need once you arrive at your destination. If you aren’t going to have a rental car, or even a vehicle at your disposal at your destination, then you are going to be limited to using a Hand-Held CB radio unit.
Now this isn’t necessary a bad thing as a hand-held unit is the easiest type of CB radio to take with you when you travel. It’s small, can fit in a suitcase very easily, has its own antenna and power source (batteries or battery pack) and can be taken with you virtually anywhere. The downside of the handheld unit is of course that its range is often limited to less than a mile. A unit with a telescoping antenna will do better, and of course if you can locate one of the SSB model CB radios your range will often double when talking on SSB.
If you have a rental car available you’re in a much better position to do some “real” talking while traveling. Most people will bring their favorite radio with them – I always suggest bringing a SSB radio if available because why limit yourself to AM? You may be driving through areas where the locals only use SSB and if you’re going through the trouble of bringing your equipment along you might as well get the full experience.
The smaller the radio the easier it will be to pack and travel with and also it will be easier to find a place to put it in the rental car. Some good traveling radios are the Uniden Pro510XL (AM ONLY), the Cobra 19 DX IV (AM ONLY) and the Magnum 257 (AM AND SSB). You can of course bring any radio you want, I only suggest these as they are small but offer good receive and transmit for their size.
Once you decide which radio to bring with you you’ll need to figure out how to power the radio. 99% of the time this means using a cigarette type power plug to plug into the rental car’s cigarette lighter or accessory outlet. This is by far the easiest way to get power to your radio. You can pick one up at Radio Shack and wire it to your power wires fairly easily. Before hooking up your radio make sure to check how many amps your radio requires. Most accessory outlets in cars are limited to 10-20 amps, if your radio draws more amps than that this method of powering the radio may not be possible.
You have a radio, you have it hooked up to a power source, now all your need is an antenna. Since traveling requires a temporary install the best choice for an antenna is a magnet mount antenna. A magnet mount antenna can be placed on the roof or trunk of any metal vehicle and will provide you with a good ground and if tuned properly a low SWR.
Choosing which magnet mount antenna is pretty easy – you want something that is small yet provides good range. The best options available are the K30 antenna (Manufactured by K40) and the Lil’ Wil (Manufactured by Wilson Antennas). Both of these antennas are small, have a short steel whip (36”) and are very effective for their size. You may be tempted to use one of the smaller mid coil antennas that are sold at Wal-Mart or Radio Shack but I would advise against it as they are very poorly made and will not offer good results.
The last decision for equipment is whether or not to bring a SWR meter. If you can tune your magnet mount antenna before leaving on the trip and mark the antenna shaft with a small black mark before disassembly you may be able to get by without a SWR meter. But as most CBer’s are aware, SWR for a magnet mount can easily change from vehicle to vehicle and your SWR on your car may be different than your rental car even when using the same antenna and radio setup. Bringing a SWR meter means bringing an extra coax jumper so you can hook it up to the radio.
Now that you’ve decided what to bring you’ll need to decide the best way to get your equipment to your destination.
In most cases when you travel across the country it means a long plane ride and bad airline food. With the extreme security restrictions nowadays bringing a CB and antenna with you on a plane can be a hassle, but in most cases it isn’t illegal. It’s just electronic equipment and is really no different from taking a laptop or a AM/FM radio with you when you travel.
** Please contact your airline and your local airport to find out if any restrictions exist before deciding to travel with your radio equipment. Rules and regulations vary from airline to airline as well as from airport to airport. Call ahead and make sure that you have clear approval to bring your radio equipment with you.
Be aware though – most security people are not familiar with CB radios and your radio may look more like a threat than a communication receiver. They also may not understand why anyone would travel with a CB radio – so be prepared to give an explanation.
Most airlines allow you to check two bags and to carry on one. I’d advise most people to pack their radio in the checked baggage. Put it in its original box if possible with all the foam and padding and bring your original manual along as well. Use some clothing as padding around the box to protect the radio on the flight. If you don’t have the original box make sure to pack the radio in some sort of protective material as bags often have a very rough ride from one end to the other of a flight.
The reason I suggest bringing the original manual is that if your bag is searched or your radio looks suspicious it will be very easily explained if you can show the radio’s manual that was produced by the manufacturer.
Bringing along an antenna is a little more difficult. If you took my advice and are bringing along a K30 or Lil’ Wil antenna the base of the antenna can be packed very easily in your checked baggage. The 36” steel whip portion of the antenna provides a bit of an obstacle, but luckily it’s manufactured to be very flexible. There are two solutions which have worked well for me. If you are traveling with a large suitcase the antenna can be bent in a semi circle and will fit inside the suitcase (don’t bend it too far or it will be bent permanently). Or if you can locate a cardboard tube that is used for large posters you can put the antenna inside and check the tube. Fisherman often uses special tubes for traveling with their poles so one of their special tubes might work as well.
Even though your radio is your pride and joy I advise against taking your radio in your carry on luggage only because I believe it could prove quite a hassle going through security. Also if you’re on the plane and trying to get your book out of your carry on you don’t want your red and black power wires falling out and scaring the other passengers (planes have been diverted and landed for lesser instances). People on planes are jumpy these days and most of them have no idea what a CB radio looks like or why anyone would bring one on a plane, so best to just check your equipment and avoid any problems.
The nice thing about a train is that the whole process is not as complex as riding on a plane. I haven’t been on a train in the post 9/11 era but I believe they still don’t have the security checks like at the airport. This means less hassle when traveling with your radio equipment. Also since you can carry on two bags you most likely won’t have to check your baggage and can handle it with better care than an airline would.
The one thing to remember about train’s luggage areas is that often those areas are open to the public on the lower levels of the cars. This means any passenger can go below and root through your luggage and steal anything they want. I’d suggest keeping your friends close and your radio equipment closer.
Rental cars are usually very basic, but almost all of them have a cigarette lighter or accessory plug where you can hook up power for your CB radio.
I’ve never seen anything in any rental agreement that says you can’t run a CB radio in your rental car, but it may be in there someplace. In most cases if you are using a temporary install and a magnet mount antenna the rental car company will never know you had the CB radio in the vehicle.
Remember when removing the magnet mount antenna to be careful not to scratch the paint off the car.
SHIPPING YOUR EQUIPMENT
The last time I traveled I didn’t want to worry about my equipment at all and since I was visiting family I decided to ship my equipment to them ahead of my trip.
I just packed up everything very well and shipped via the US postal service. My radio and antenna were waiting for me at my family’s house when I got there and I just slapped it on the rental car and was ready to go.
It may be a bit of work getting all your equipment to the travel location, but it can pay off. On my last trip I flew into Seattle and did around eight hours of driving in the rental car traveling through many small towns and rural areas. I talked to truckers on the I-5, and also to many of the locals in the towns I passed through making new friends. They were often surprised to hear a new voice on the radio and were happy to offer directions or suggestions for good places to stop and eat. Many were excited to talk to someone from out of state who was visiting, kind of a pseudo DX contact.
On my last day I actually made a couple of barefoot DX contacts to California from Washington using only a Cobra 21GTL and a K30 magnet mount antenna. The rental car was a PT Cruiser.
So the next time you are thinking of taking a trip, don’t forget to take your favorite hobby with you!