Summer is the season for family road trips here in the US, and my family took to the open road in a big way this year. We pulled off a cross-country relocation, from Connecticut to Idaho. Five days on the road means a lot of pit stops, and we got to see a lot of truck stops and consequently, a lot of long-haul truckers. I got to thinking about their unique lifestyle and tried to imagine myself doing that job. I wondered what I’d do hour after long hour, alone in the cab of my truck. I figured that I’d probably just end up listening to a lot of audio books, but then I realized that there’s a perfect hobby for the road — ham radio. So I decided to see how ham radio is used by truckers, and mull over how a truck driver version of me might practice The World’s Best Hobby.
CB or Not CB
Truckers have long been associated with Citizens Band (CB) radio. A section of the 11-meter amateur radio band was set aside by the FCC in 1958 as a poor man’s business radio band, and by the 1970s CB rigs were in every truck. CB radios are still a tool that every trucker seems to have, but even with ridiculously powerful linear RF amps, CB has serious problems in the range department. With the FCC missing in action on the enforcement front, the 27 MHz band is a wild and wooly place where it’s difficult to reach out more than a few miles on a mobile.
In addition to the range issues, the conversations on CB are not exactly engaging stuff. Sure, as a trucker I’d want to know about traffic five miles ahead, or which weigh stations are open, but beyond that I couldn’t see myself getting into the typical profanity-laced tirades one seems to hear on CB. But it’s not even that, really. It’s more of the lack of technical challenge that makes CB unappealing to me. Buy CB rig, install rig, start talking on channel 19. Where’s the sport in that?
Local and Long Haul with Repeaters
Enter amateur radio. Ham radio in the long-haul trucker’s cab is a much better technical challenge. On the whole, it wouldn’t be a lot different than operating mobile like hams do every day. But most hams don’t find themselves 600 miles down the road at the end of a working day, and therein lies the challenge.
Most of the time, hams that operate on the go do so either on the 2-meter VHF band from 144 to 148 MHz, or on the 70-cm UHF band from 420 to 450 MHz. FM is generally the mode of choice in these bands, although there are plenty of other modes available to hams, including the increasingly popular digital modes like D-Star or System Fusion. But VHF and UHF signals have even worse propagation characteristics than CB — in general, the higher the frequency, the harder it is to achieve truly long-range communications via ionospheric skip. Even with the higher legal power limit enjoyed by hams on these bands, it’s really hard to reach out and touch someone directly past 10 miles or so.
To get around line-of-sight limitations, mobile hams usually rely on fixed repeaters. Repeaters allow hams to stay in contact over much larger areas, but there’s still a line-of-sight requirement between each mobile unit and the repeater. Repeaters linked with such protocols as IRLP extend coverage by simulcasting signals from one repeater to all the repeaters linked to it. But repeaters are expensive beasts to install and run, and so they’re spread pretty thin and generally concentrated in population centers. In the populated areas east of the Mississippi and along the west coast, VHF and UHF repeaters could work well for the trucking ham, but along the highways that ply the vast spaces of the American plains and mountains, not so much.
Another way for the trucking ham to leverage his or her ticket would be APRS. Automatic Packet Reporting System is a digital protocol that, among its many capabilities, allows hams to transmit their current location to a central network and display it on a map for any and all to see. I can see how this would be a great comfort to my family: “Look, Dad is between Rosebud and Forsyth I-94 in Montana.” And, with the proper gear, the trucking ham would be able to see the locations of other mobile hams for the chance for a quick drive-by QSO. Again, this would require access to repeaters, but it would still be a nice capability to have in the cab.
Long Range Trucking, Long Range Talking
As useful as VHF and UHF would be in the cab, the ultimate mobile ham experience has to be working on the high-frequency bands between 3 and 30 MHz. Access to the HF bands is the primary reason most Technician Class hams upgrade to General or Extra Class. HF privileges let you use frequencies that are readily refracted by the ionosphere so you can reach out hundreds or thousands of miles. Many hams work the HF bands with mobile rigs in their personal vehicles, so it’s no stretch to imagine a rolling HF-capable ham shack in the cab of a truck.
Antennas for HF are a bit of a problem for the rolling ham, though. Most fixed ham station antennas are large, ungainly affairs, necessarily so because of the long wavelengths in the HF bands, and they wouldn’t work well on a truck. But luckily, by making a few compromises from the gold standard quarter-wave dipole, mobile hams can still get HF antennas that perform well. Hamstick is the generic name for such antennas, and they’re readily available for every band from 6 to 75 meters.
Hams on 18 wheels have a significant advantage over their four-wheeler colleagues. Most over-the-road trucks come from the factory with plenty of places to mount antennas and radios. Plus, a big truck can sport a big antenna; a 75-meter hamstick that’ll look awkward on a Kia will blend right in on a Freightliner or Peterbilt.
And OTR trucks tend to have beefier electrical systems than passenger cars and light trucks. HF rigs pull a lot of juice – a 100-watt output ham radio will want almost all of 20 amps at 12 volts. You can easily source that kind of power in a truck, while in a passenger vehicle it takes some finagling.
So I guess my dream mobile shack would be a dual-band FM rig for local repeater work and APRS, along with a good HF rig to work DX. I’d mount a 20-meter hamstick on one mirror and a 40-meter on the other, and probably tuck a laptop in the sleeper compartment for logging and access to the WinLink system for email over HF – no need to rely on spotty truckstop WiFi coverage to stay in contact.
Oh, and I suppose I’d have to have a CB in the cab too. But that would just be for work. The ham rigs would be for fun.