“Good company in a journey makes the way seem shorter”
When you’re out in the middle of nowhere and get stuck, broken, or hurt, yelling for help isn’t very effective. The 2-5 mile range of a CB radio is what you really need to holler for help. CB’s also make trail rides much more convenient and fun (reference the fortune cookie quoted above). In the six years that I’ve owned my YJ, I’ve had four different CB’s. Here’s why.
The summer after I got my YJ, my girlfriend (now wife) surprised me with a Radio Shack handheld CB. The convenience of being able to leave the Jeep and walk around while talking came in handy once or twice, and it was nice to be able to easily move the CB from one vehicle to another as needed. However, using a handheld in a vehicle is far from ideal. First, there was no convenient place to set the CB in my YJ while off-roading. Second, most handhelds have push-button channel changers on the side, and I was always inadvertently changing channels whenever I would pick up the radio to talk. The standard 12″ antenna on most handhelds doesn’t transmit very far, especially if it’s inside a vehicle. Many handhelds will allow you to wire them to a larger antenna that’s connected to the outside of the vehicle, but then you’ve got a tether on your handheld that makes it harder to pick up while driving. In short, handhelds suck. If you’re buying a CB to put in your wheeling rig, get a permanently-mounted one. If you want to move it among multiple vehicles, get a magnetic mount antenna and a lighter-jack power cord.
My handheld got stolen in Feb 1998 along with a bunch of other stuff when my Jeep was broken into, so I found myself in the market for another CB. I bought a Tuffy center console at the same time, and wanted to get a CB to permanently mount inside the stereo compartment. Unfortunately, CB makers haven’t standardized on external dimensions like stereo makers have, so the single DIN hole in the Tuffy really restricted what CB I could use. I wanted to have a front-firing speaker so that I could hear it without an external speaker. This limited my choices to a Cobra 18WX, a Uniden Pro538W, and a Midland 77-120ESP (all now discontinued). I bought the Cobra based on the dimensions that a friend had given me. Unfortunately, he mis-measured, and the Cobra was 1/4″ too wide to fit in the Tuffy’s stereo compartment. Grrr. (The newer 18WXSTII (still available as of 2012) appears to be smaller than the original, and should fit OK. It also costs a lot more.)
I decided to get the Uniden, which I was told was also plenty small, but deeper. I found one at a local pawn shop for $40. It was quite deep, but still fit, fortunately. It didn’t sound as good as the Cobra when receiving signals. I guess I should have tested it better before I bought it, because when I got out on a trail, I found the CB wouldn’t transmit anything but garbage. No amount of tuning (using an SWR meter) or swapping antennas helped. Let this be a lesson — when buying a used CB always test it fully before laying down your green! I returned it to the pawn shop for store credit, which I’ll probably never use, and ordered a brand new Pro538W from Copper Electronics. It worked fine for about 2.5 years, and then it started exhibiting the same problem as the pawn shop unit — it would receive fine, but couldn’t transmit anything but garbage more than about 30 feet. I took it to the only local repair shop. They verified that the amplifier was shot, but said it would cost more to repair than replace. Ug.
About that time, a Jeep club member announced that he had three old, used CB’s of unknown quality that he was giving away. One of them, a Uniden PC122 (recently discontinued) had most of the features I was looking for, minus a front-firing speaker. I took it, and bought an external CB speaker to mount under my dash.
The PC122 also died after only a couple years. This was becoming a frustrating trend. I replaced it with a Midland 77-235ESP2 — the tiny little guy pictured above — in 2002. Fortunately, this radio has worked like a charm ever since.
The antenna I currently use is a Wilson Silver Load Flex-4. It’s a 4-foot long, 1/4″ wide, 5/8 wave, top-loaded fiberglass antenna that uses 22 awg silver-plated wire. I’ve been pretty happy with Wilson antennas. This replaced my previous antenna, a Wilson FGT-4, after a sturdy, low-hanging branch broke it off at the threaded stud on a wheeling trip. Did you know that a CB antenna’s threaded mounting stud is just chromed brass? It’s really easy to drill a broken brass stud out of an antenna mount, in case you wondered. Anyway, the big difference between the FGT-4 and the Flex-4 is the rod diameter, and therefore the flexibility. The FGT-4 is 3/8″ wide and uses 18 awg wire. While the FGT-4 had some flex to it, it was nothing compared to the Flex-4. I can bend the Flex-4 180 degrees so that the tip touches the base, and it’ll snap back upright again like nothing happened. I figure it’ll hold up better off road than a thicker antenna without requiring me to run an SWR-killing spring at the antenna base. I tuned the Flex-4 to a 1.4:1 SWR at channel 10 and 1.6:1 at channel 40 (we generally use the lower half of the channels), which is identical to how I had the FGT-4 tuned. The Flex-4 can easily transmit 4 miles with an unmodified Midland radio. Both antennas cost in the $25-30 range at a local truck stop.
On my YJ, I utilized the spare tire bump stop as an antenna mount. I welded a flat plate across the top of the existing stop, then drilled a hole in that plate through which I screwed a mounting stud. I made sure to get a good metal-to-metal ground between the mounting stud and the bump stop. This location is just behind the Jeep, not out beside it where it begs to get scraped off by trees off-road. It’s location on the corner of the body plane radiates much better forward than in reverse, but I can live with that.
I threaded the coax cable from the bottom of that mount down into the Jeep through the tailgate. The weatherstripping is soft enough that it doesn’t damage the cable. I fed the cable under the carpet along the corner of the rear tub and down to the bottom of my Tuffy center console where the CB lives.
The antenna is tall enough that it knocks against my garage door, so I only install it when I’m 4-wheeling. When it’s not installed, I protect the mounting stud from rusting away by plugging it with a short, stainless steel bolt and a rubber O-ring.
If you’re looking for more info on Citizen Band radios & antennas, you should check out the CB Radio Club web site. There, you’ll find discussion forums, equipment reviews, and other info. I also recommend the book Two-Way Radios & Scanners for Dummies.
[Last updated 26 April 2012]
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