The Citizens Band Radio Service, commonly referred to as CB, is a form of radio communication that can be used for both business and consumer purposes. It has become a popular option for civilians in particular because it is incredibly easy to use and no license is required to broadcast on it unlike GMRS radio.
Though all communication devices will be incredibly important in an SHTF situation, you also won’t be able to rely on cell phones or the internet if the power grid goes down or there is massive damage to the infrastructure servicing them.
For this reason, you’ll need to fall back on other devices that allow you to communicate with the outside world. A good CB radio is one of these devices, and among the easiest and most convenient radio bands to get started with.
This article will tell you what you need to know about how to use a CB radio to communicate effectively in an emergency… so here goes!
Table of Contents
Brief History of CB Radios
The CB radio originated in 1945 when the Federal Communications Commission (abbreviated as FCC) developed and regulated several radio services to allow citizens to communicate with one another via radio band over short distances.
The very first CB radio was built in 1948, though the ones back then had less range than the ones made today.
For many years, CB radios were the only viable two-way radio system that civilians could use. Electricians and carpenters could communicate between their job site and the primary office, and truck drivers talked with one another while on the road as well.
Today, most truck drivers still use them to share updates on slow traffic or road work. A lot of enthusiasts pursue communicating via CB radios as a hobby, often the first step in a long journey toward amateur, or ham radio, mastery.
Preppers and survivalists commonly use CB for emergency communications in the event the power grid goes down.
CB Radio Modes
There are two separate kinds of CB radios, handheld and mobile. Handheld CB radios resemble walkie-talkies, while mobile radios are typically mounted inside vehicles, just like the ones that truck drivers use.
Both kinds operate in the same way. CB radios operate on forty different shared channels either in Single Side Band (SSB) or AM mode.
SSB mode is only found on higher end and more expensive models. SSB has greater range and far less noise than AM radios.
The downside to SSB mode is it is incompatible with AM mode. You can only talk with others also using SSB mode. The AM mode can communicate with either mode but has more noise interference.
AM mode has less range and power than SSB mode. Maximum power level for AM mode is only four watts while SSB mode, in contrast, has power of up to twelve watts. Under current FFC rules, it is illegal to raise the power output of a CB unit via a power amplifier or by modifying it internally.
The radio frequencies and channels of CB are not assigned to a particular person or organization, except that channel nine that is reserved exclusively for emergencies.
Since all of the channels are shared, you have to give channel nine a priority since it may be the only way someone can effectively communicate an emergency to you and/or to others.
CB Radio Channels and Frequencies
Like we’ve mentioned, CB radios have forty channels. Each channel is differentiated from one another by their frequency. Remember that channel nine is the emergency channel, and that Channel nineteen is the channel most often used by truckers.
|Channel 1: 26.965 MHz||Channel 9: 27.065 MHz||Channel 17: 27.165 MHz||Channel 25: 27.245 MHz||Channel 33: 27.335 MHz|
|Channel 2: 26.975 MHz||Channel 10: 27.075 MHz||Channel 18: 27.175 MHz||Channel 26: 27.265 MHz||Channel 34: 27.345 MHz|
|Channel 3: 26.985 MHz||Channel 11: 27.085 MHz||Channel 19: 27.185 MHz||Channel 27: 27.275 MHz||Channel 35: 27.355 MHz|
|Channel 4: 27.005 MHz||Channel 12: 27.105 MHz||Channel 20: 27.205 MHz||Channel 28: 27.285 MHz||Channel 36: 27.365 MHz|
|Channel 5: 27.015 MHz||Channel 13: 27.115 MHz||Channel 21: 27.215 MHz||Channel 29: 27.295 MHz||Channel 37: 27.375 MHz|
|Channel 6: 27.025 MHz||Channel 14: 27.125 MHz||Channel 22: 27.225 MHz||Channel 30: 27.305 MHz||Channel 38: 27.385 MHz|
|Channel 7: 27.035 MHz||Channel 15: 27.135 MHz||Channel 23: 27.255 MHz||Channel 31: 27.315 MHz||Channel 39: 27.395 MHz|
|Channel 8: 27.055 MHz||Channel 16: 27.155 MHz||Channel 24: 27.235 MHz||Channel 32: 27.325 MHz||Channel 40: 27.405 MHz|
CB Radio Range
The range of your CB radio can be increased, even though it is designed for local and short range communications.
With some skill and understanding of radio theory, the signal can bounce off of the ionosphere of Earth: This will send, or skip, a message thousands of miles. As a result of this, sometimes you may send or receive a transmission across the entire world even if it’s not intentional.
Finally, remember that you are sharing forty channels with anyone else who happens to be using their radios at the same time. Accordingly, you should use good etiquette.
Never talk with another station for more than five minutes at a time and always wait at least another minute before you begin another conversation. Keep your exchanges concise and avoid small talk. These manners ensure smooth and open communication between operators.
Step by Step How To Set Up and Use It
CB radios are incredibly straightforward to use and you should be able to get yours going in just a matter of minutes once you understand the process:
Step 1. Confirm that the power is on and that the antenna is connected.
When you purchase your CB radio, the accompanying antenna should be the factor that matters most. While almost all handheld radios sell with one, a majority of mobile CB radios do not and the antenna must be purchased separately.
CB antennas are also often what determines if the radio is an entry, mid-level, or higher end level radio. Conduct thorough research on as many models as possible before putting your money down.
Step 2. Tune in to a channel.
Keep in mind that channel nine is reserved for emergencies only, and in the case of mobile CB radios, channel nineteen is typically the channel that truckers prefer.
Channels can typically be tuned in to by a knob on the device, while some CB radios will have a separate switch or button that you can use to quickly turn to channel nine for emergencies.
Step 3. Before you pick up the microphone, you’ll want to confirm that the mic gain control is on the maximum for the utmost clarity in the conversation.
Step 4. Enter the conversation by pressing the transmitter button and saying “Break”.
Wait for a break in the conversation before entering it yourself. The transmitter button is essentially the same kind of transmitter button that you would use on an ordinary walkie-talkie.
Saying “break!” alerts other people on the channel to your presence and you can enter the conversation without interrupting anybody.
Step 5. Once the person or people on the other end of the line have acknowledged you, you can begin to speak.
From this point on you will speak into the CB radio much like you would on an ordinary walkie-talkie. Keep each of your spoken sentences as short as possible and use the ten codes when necessary to ensure smoother communication.
Step 6. To determine how well the signal is getting through, look at the signal meter.
Higher end CB radios will not only tell you the strength or weakness of the signal, but they will also inform you of how far you and the person on the other end of the radio are from one another.
Step 7. In the absence of a signal, turn up the squelch knob to cut off excess noise.
The background noise on CB radios can become incredibly annoying when there are no transmissions being made.
Step 8. Locate the ANL (automatic noise limiter) switch or button on your radio if you’re in more urban areas with more activity.
This way less disruptions will be made in the outgoing and incoming signals.
Step 9. Continue your conversation before switching to another channel, and then repeat the above process!
Note: when switching to a new channel, turn the squelch knob back down so that more stations will be available.
It sounds like a lot more manual interaction compared to dialing someone on a cell phone, and it is, but it really is an incredibly simple and straightforward process to use a CB radio with a little practice.
CB Radio Slang
You should understand basic CB codes or jargon that is commonly used. These codes, called the ‘ten codes’ because the number ten is placed before every next number, make communication clearer and shorter.
Here are some examples of “ten codes”:
- 10-1: Poor reception
- 10-2: Good reception
- 10-4: Affirmative
- 10-9: Repeat the message
- 10-11: Talking too fast
- 10-13: Advise weather/road conditions
- 10-19: Return to base
- 10-23: Stand by
There are also certain phrases in CB slang that mean different things:
- Checkpoint Charlie: a police checkpoint looking for drivers who’d been drinking
- Evel Knievel: police officer on a motorcycle
- Miss Piggy: Policewoman
- Gum Ball Machine: Police Cruiser/Vehicle
- Flying Donut: police helicopter
- Panda Bear: state trooper
- Bear trap: concealed police checkpoint
- Double Nickels: 55 MPH Speed Limit
- Hundred Mile Coffee: Strong coffee
- Credit Card Machine: two lane bridge, often denoting a narrow one
- Fighter Pilot: a driver who often changes lanes
You can read the full list on Wikipedia.
Currently Communicating Sets Have the Right of Way
When two parties are communicating on a channel, their communications have right-of-way for lack of a better word. This is known as “temporary ownership”.
Other users in the area, even though they might need or want to use the channel, must respect the conversation that is underway and either wait for a break to transmit or request a break.
This isn’t just good manners, or a good idea to keep the peace: even the FCC, which regulates all of this radio traffic, has affected laws that state you must give people the opportunity to use a channel for upwards of several minutes at a time.
This can of course be challenging if you don’t have contingency plans for switching channels or some other way to get plenty of air time with the person you are talking to when you need it most.
In any case, make it a point not to “step on” or transmit over anyone else who is currently transmitting on the channel, including the person you are talking to.
All that will end up doing is garbling both transmissions and wasting everyone’s time. If it is something truly critical, request a break when the opportunity presents itself.
Dealing with Getting Walked Over
Even in cases where veteran CB users are on the airwaves, sometimes people get “walked over,” or stepped on. That’s just the way it is.
This could be inadvertent or it could be because of a need to urgently relay a message on the part of the intruding party. In any case, what should you do when you get walked over?
You have a couple of options for keeping the conversation going while minimizing further intrusion. If you think that getting stepped on in this case was accidental or unlikely to reoccur, you can just tell your partner 10-9 (repeat message) or that they were stepped on and to please start again.
Alternately, if you think that a break is needed for the set that is cutting in, you can simply state “go ahead break” and then wait for a response. In case of an emergency, you should find out the reason why it occurred and make way for what could be a critical transmission.
It might be aggravating to deal within the middle of a conversation, but this is all just part of using a CB.
Always Practice Good Etiquette
After reading through all of this, using a CB might sound very complicated. Aside from operating the hardware itself, you have to learn almost a new way of speaking the language you already know. And that’s true!
That being said, most of what you’ll have to learn is easy enough and you’ll have it down pat after a few repetitions.
You can even practice proper radio etiquette on your own when away from your set or just as a role play exercise with a pal in person. 10 codes, CB jargon and other terms that are commonly used might seem totally idiosyncratic at first, but they do have a way of speeding up conversations and keeping transmissions short and concise. Which you should be doing!
Using crisp, clear language and minimizing lengthy transmissions provides more natural opportunities for others to break in on the channel and also minimizes the chances that you’ll be misunderstood. This is a good thing no matter who you are talking to and no matter how busy the airwaves are.
On the other hand, the most important factor concerning any communications between two people, including CB, is to be understood in the first place!
If the person you are talking to is not fluent with 10 codes or slang, and is generally fumbling while trying to communicate back, use plain language, and try to coach them through the operation when you transmit.
Just like traffic on the road that you might be driving on, things go a lot smoother and nicer when everyone understands what is required and adheres to the rules.
Below are some common questions that beginners to CB radios pose when using them for the first time, so hopefully any inquiries or concerns that you have will be answered here:
How Far Can They Reach?
CB radios were built for short range/local use, so mobile radios can typically pick up another signal from about fifteen miles away. Conditions such as number of people on the channel, buildings in the area, or terrain can interfere with the signal and increase or decrease range.
Also remember that ‘skipping’ channels means you can send or receive messages thousands of miles away, although when this does happen it is usually accidental.
Is Channel Nine an Emergency Channel in All Countries?
No. Channel nine is only an emergency channel in the United States because it has been designated such by the FCC. As a result, if you ever receive a message from another country (should the channels ever be ‘skipped’), you may hear radio traffic that is not emergency related on this channel.
However, in the United States channel nine is constantly monitored by rescue agencies and law enforcement units to pick up on any accidents or medical emergencies.
What is Squelch?
The squelch is the knob that will quiet down the background noise over the radio when there is not a signal. To make the noise go away completely, simply continue to turn the squelch knob.
Unless a signal is present, the squelch will ensure that the receiver is fully quiet. Squelch knobs are typically present on other two-way radios as well.
How Does ‘Shooting Skip’ Work?
Shooting skip occurs when the Earth’s atmosphere bounces signals to a far location. Under the right conditions, your message could be sent thousands of miles away or you could receive a message from a long distance away as well. This means it could be possible for a person in Florida to talk to a person in Oregon, for example.
Are Linear Amplifiers Allowed?
Under current FCC rules, you cannot use any additional modifications or power to boost the range or frequency of your CB radio, so linear amplifiers are not allowed.
This is because doing so interferes with the electrical devices and appliances around you, so your neighbor’s TV signal could become interrupted for example.
Disclosure: This post has links to 3rd party websites, so I may get a commission if you buy through those links. Survival Sullivan is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program. As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases. See my full disclosure for more.
If this article has tempted you enough to consider getting one, here’s a few you should consider:
All in all, CB radios are widely available and a good option for emergency communications. While new models can cost between $50.00-$200.00, you can easily find older ones in good condition that are sitting around in thrift stores or garage sales and will be dirt cheap.
Sometimes, there will even be CB radios resting in older vehicles at junk yards. You can also find accessories at an abundance of places like electronic stores or online sites.
Are CB radios the only kind of communication device that you should keep on hand when preparing for a power grid down scenario? Absolutely not, since there are many other different kinds of radios and communication devices that will serve you well too.
But a CB radio should absolutely be a part of your communications preparation, and now that you know how to use one, all you have to do now is go out, buy one, and test it out for yourself.
Nick Oetken is a prepper, outdoor enthusiast but, most of all, he is our in-house firearms expert. Look out for his articles on guns to find out which ones you need for your survival.