CB Radio.

On a major overland campervan trip like China 2002 a CB radio is an essential piece of equipment. However the choice of equipment (particularly for a joint British - French group) is complicated.

CB radio a little background information.

(The term CB (citizen's band) radio here refers to vehicle mounted two way radio using frequencies around 27Mhz of limited power that can be used without complicated licencing for communication between campervans.) In an ideal world it would be possible to buy any "CB radio" and use it legally round the world. Alas we do not live in an ideal world!

The idea of CB radio came from the USA where a particular range of frequencies (divided into a number of fixed channels) was set aside for anyone to use with almost no restrictions. The frequencies chosen in the USA were not free in Europe so when American CB sets were imported into Europe they were illegal and often interfered with other radio users (notably taxis and emergency services).

Working on the "if you can't beat them join them" theory the UK and the rest of Europe (separately) allocated a different set of 40 channels and imposed restrictions on the amount of power that could be used (limiting power output to 4 watts). Eventually the UK decided to allow the European frequencies as well as the UK only ones. As a result in the UK you can buy both 40 (UK only) and 80 (UK and European) channel CB radios. (MPT 1382 (December 1997) defines channels EU1 to EU40 and UK1 to UK40). (Although you currently need a licence to use a CB radio in the UK this is likely to change soon. In addition the 40 UK only channels will probably be withdrawn in the next few years.)

To further complicate maters American CB radios used AM (amplitude modulation) whereas the UK only allows FM (frequency modulation). Much of Europe permits the use of both AM and FM, and some countries also permit SSB (single side band). (Generally AM gives better range but lower speech quality than FM.)

A "CB radio" that was limited to 4 watts, restricted to FM, and confined to the 40 European channels would be legal in the UK and France and would work with the type of CB radios often fitted to French campervans. Unfortunately such radios do not seem to be available in the UK and the absence of AM might well make them less than ideal.

In addition to CB radios (with a large market) there are also sets made for licensed amateurs (with a small market). To save production costs many CB radios and amateur radios are actually the same set with different facilities enabled or disabled. For example the "same" set (President Jackson) is sold as:

French CB Version

  • One band i.e. 40 channels.
  • AM and FM.
  • 4 watts.

Export Version

  • Six bands i.e. 240 channels.
  • AM, FM, USB, LSB.
  • Up to 20 watts.

Unless you have an amateur radio licence it is illegal to own or operate the "export version" in the UK (and most of the rest of Europe). However for a trip like China 2002 this is exactly what you want. Many "export" sets are supplied with the manual for the CB version (indeed some owners are not even aware which type of set they have!) If you operate an "export" set on the European CB frequencies (in the case above band "D") and using only FM you are unlikely to attract attention.

Having said all the above about what is legal and what is not in Europe it is only fair to point out that as far as I know the "Stans", China, Nepal, India and Pakistan do not even recognise the concept of a "citizen's band" let alone use the same technical specifications as Europe.

However during China 2002 all the vans operated European "CB radios" very publicly and at no time were we challenged.

How well do they work?

For a trip like China 2002 CB radio was absolutely essential, don't even think of going without one. Indeed they were so valuable that I would suggest that at least one spare unit is carried between the group. Any van without a working CB set soon becomes an outsider.

The most common question people ask about CB radio is "what is the range"? This is a difficult question and the answer depends on the terrain, the weather and the level of interference. Probably the longest range we ever achieved was about 20km with near line of sight and no interference. However the range fell to a few 100 metres in the centre of many Chinese towns and cities. If you are trying to drive in convoy through Shanghai in the rush hour even 100 metres range is the difference between staying together and getting lost.

Keeping your CB radio working.

Of the five Anglophone campervans on the China 2002 trip two suffered a partial failure of their CB radios, probably due initially to problems with their antennae. In order to work properly a CB radio needs to be matched to its antenna. If it is badly mismatched then operating the CB radio on transmit will damage the radio.

Matching the antenna to the radio can only be done with both the radio and the antenna installed in the vehicle and requires the use of a SWR meter. If the antenna is damaged or replaced then it will require re-matching.

Because you want as long an antenna as possible and you want it as high as possible they tend to get damaged by overhanging trees etc. In many of the countries crossed on China 2002 you will come across tram and trolly-bus routes with live overhead wires as low as 3.6 metres. It is probably a bad idea to clip these with your CB antenna!

It is well worth carrying a spare antenna, or at least a spare whip.

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