One of the most essential pieces of gear to have on your boat is a VHF radio.
With a VHF radio, you can call the Coast Guard, you can call bridges and lock tenders, you can call other vessels where you can actually use modern VHF radios sort of like a coastal beeper to send out an emergency message that can be heard by other boaters.
But there are a whole lot of VHF radios on the marketplace. So how do you find the one that’s right for your boat and your type of boating? I’d like to explain some differences between radios to allow you to make the very best choice.
Top 5 Best Handheld Marine VHF Radios in 2019
1BaoFeng BF-F8HP (UV-5R 3rd Gen) — Most Powerful Handheld Radio
If you need something good and popular, then BaoFeng is a great starting point. Their handled radio is more powerful than many other handhelds, offering as much as 8 Watts transmit power, and the battery capacity is equally larger, reaching 2000mAh.
- High power output
- Programmable radio
- Needs reprogramming. Many of the pre-programmed frequencies are restricted to military use only. You can listen in, but transmitting on those frequencies will get you in trouble.
2Wouxun KG-UV9D — Most Versatile
This Wouxun radio is a lot more than just a maritime handset. You can use it for anything you want, and you are ham, it can be invaluable for you.
You can use it on your boat, and if you feel like listening to CB bands, you can do that as well.
- Large frequency range
- Tx may be locked at 144-148MHz. Unlocking is possible but requires the use of specialized software.
3Standard Horizon HX870 — Dedicated Maritime Floatable Handheld Radio
If you want a good floatable VHF radio, this is what you need. While this radio costs a little bit high, you are unlikely to use it, and it comes with a variety of feature introduced specifically for navigation.
- Built-in GPS
- Navigation to a DSC distress signal
- GPS-engaged DSC distress call
- A dedicated maritime handheld VHF radio
- Lower battery capacity
4Cobra MRHH350FLT — Best Bang for the Buck
If you want to get a cheap and yet capable two-way radio, consider the Cobra waterproof radio. It is floatable, affordable, and powerful enough to get through to the Coast Guard in any conditions.
You will also have access to weather channels.
If you drop it into the water, you will easily get water out of the radio thanks to the BURP feature.
- Easy to use
- Tri-watch. You can monitor 3 separate channels at once
- Very low battery capacity
5Uniden Atlantis 150 — The Cheapest Two-Way Handheld Radio
If you’re ready to trade the price off for the power and battery capacity, then this radio is a good deal. That said, I recommend against using it in any situation that may turn into life or death. The radio is too weak for that, it doesn’t hat any extra features, and it has a low capacity battery
In short, I actually don’t recommend that because of its transmit power issues and relatively short battery life, but it’s a decent radio otherwise.
- Cheap. The cheapest handheld two-way radio
- Low power
- Low battery capacity
The first decision to make is whether you want a handheld or a fixed mount VHF radio.
Handhelds have many advantages. For one, they have a self-contained battery pack and a built-in antenna, so they operate independently of the vessel systems. There may be times onboard your boat where the battery’s dead or possibly the regular antenna gets broken, and a handheld will work under those conditions.
Now, the disadvantages of a handheld are that the battery will last for somewhere between eight and twelve—maybe as much as fifteen—hours, so you have a limited battery life, as you do with any rechargeable device. At the same time, because the antenna is short and relatively low on the boat, you can’t transmit as far. In normal conditions, you can expect two or three miles of transmission range to another vessel. But that’s normal conditions. If you’re actually communicating with a Coast Guard, which has antennas that are tall on high mountains, you might be able to get 10 or 15 miles with a handheld radio.
How Does it Handles Being Dropped?
If you have a built-in radio, you don’t need this. But this is extremely important if you have a handheld radio since if you hold in your hands, the likelihood of you dropping it is non-zero.
When you drop a handheld radio, there only three outcomes:
- You drop it and then catch it. Good for you! Your reflexes are amazing
- You drop it on the ground—well, the deck most likely
- You drop it overboard
In light of all that, the following features are important for handheld radios.
For a handheld device, strength is a lot more important than for any sort of stationary VHF radio. It has to bear being dropped from three or four feet without any drastic consequences. Do note, if you drop a radio and there’s no cracks or visible damage, it doesn’t mean that the radio is fine. It may be possible that its wirings or chips are damaged after the fall, so it’s always better to choose a reliable radio.
Water Resistance and Floatability
A feature that’s relatively new with handheld radios is the ability to float. It’s not that important, but it’s an extra safety mechanism that can prevent you from losing your radio permanently.
For many years, manufacturers have made very waterproof handhelds. It is not the same thing as floatability, but at the same time, when you dropped them in the water up to about three or four feet of depth, you could pull them out, shake them, and they would work just fine. Sounds good enough, and it is. That is why you need you VHF radio that’s at least waterproof, if not floatable.
At the bare minimum, the radio must be splashproof, or, better yet, submersible.
But you shouldn’t give up floatability just like that. After all, floatable handheld radios are a reality these days. Now, some radios are actually so light and buoyant enough that if you drop them in the water, they float without any issues.
Isn’t that great? Well, it may be, but floatable radios are not without their own falls. The manufacturers have to take shortcuts and make sacrifices because they have to concentrate their efforts on reducing the weight. That is why most floatable VHF radios have low battery capacity. You have to keep that in mind.
Easy to notice
If you drop the radio and it floats, it’s great. But if it floats and you can’t notice it even if you strain your eyes, you have a problem. The radio must be easy to spot if it’s floatable, and if it’s easier to spot in the dark, all the better.
I recommend that your handheld VHF radio either has an easily visible color or high-visibility reflective straps at the minimum. If you can afford it, I advise that it has some luminescent material on it so that you can see it when it’s in the water.
As with any chargeable device, the batteries and their capacity are one of the critical features of a handheld VHF radio. You don’t have to worry about it if you have a built-in radio, but with handhelds, the battery capacity and reliability is of utmost importance.
The rule of thumb is that lighter radios also have less battery capacity. On the other hand, those radios that are heavier and definitely not floatable offer more capacity and can power the device for up to 15 hours non-stop. But how much do you actually need?
I would say that a high capacity VHF radio must feature a 1,200 mAh battery or more. At the bare minimum, the battery capacity should be no less than 500 mAh.
You should also keep in mind that battery life is measured on the premise that the radio is on standby most of the time. If your radio usage is different from 5% transmit at high power and 5% receive, you will exhaust the battery sooner than you expected.
Before we proceed, here’s a little table that sums that the pros and cons of different battery types. It is worth more than a thousand words.
Easily to replace
Little self-discharge (about 10% a month)
Little memory effect
Short shelf life
Hypersensitive to charging currents
Little memory effect
Easy to replace
Takes a long time to recharge
Alkaline batteries are not a no-go. Since some handheld radios run on AAA or AA types, alkaline batteries seem to be the obvious choice for those devices. The truth is, they aren’t, but they are usable, especially if your primary battery runs out of juice. Just in case something like that happens, I advise that you pack a few pairs of appropriate batteries. Still, you shouldn’t rely on them, or else you will have to burn through them like no one’s business.
Lithium-ion batteries usually come as stock batteries for most handheld radios, provided they come with any. They are pretty good, although their shelf life leaves a lot to be desired for.
Ni-MH is the worst, in my opinion, but that doesn’t mean they are not usable. They have two main disadvantages: it takes a long time to get them charged and they self-discharge faster than any other batteries. But they are cheap and easy to replace.
Li-polymer batteries are probably the best, but they are expensive and tricky. While they can boast high capacity and can be recharged whenever you want regardless of the current discharge state, you need to use dedicated charges to charge them if you don’t want them to blow up in your face.
Handheld VHF radios are limited to six watts transmit power. Most of them have five watts, but occasionally, some models do have six watts. Whether they do or do not, that doesn’t actually make a lot of difference in the total range of the radio.
An adequate VHF radio must offer the ability to switch it to 1-watt transmit power. You have to use the minimum power unless you need a stronger signal.
The 1-watt power mode extends the battery life, and it actually reduces your range. The latter is actually a good thing. The reason for that is you’re using very few frequencies with a lot of different boaters, so you want to limit your range so that you don’t step on other people’s communications. That’s good radio etiquette.
The VHF range lies between 30 and 300 Mhz. But that definition is too technical, and I expect my readers would love a more practical tip. After all, you won’t find may radios that work in that specific range. No, what you need is the marine VHF band, a.k.a. VHF maritime mobile band. It is a range between 156 and 174 MHz. If your device can’t support it, it’s not a marine radio and should not be used as such.
Sometimes, two-way radios support more frequencies and channels. That makes them more versatile, but you have to understand that you don’t need other frequencies for maritime communication, strictly speaking.
We’re talking about handheld radios, so how large your palm is can be paramount to choosing the device. It has to lie in your hand comfortably, ideally not being too small or too large.
The best way to check that is actually to hold the device you intend to buy. But online stores often offer better prices, and you can’t do that if you buy a radio at an online store.
That is why I recommend that you know how large a radio can be so you can still hold it in your hand comfortably. Do visit a local store. You may not be able to find good prices, but you will get to touch the radio. Then, you can write down the dimensions of those radios that feel the best, and then, armed with that knowledge, proceed to buy a radio an online store of your choice.
Additionally, make sure the radio will fit in your pocket.
Digital Selective Calling
With fixed-mount radios, you don’t even have to bother. They will have this feature because that’s an industry standard and an obligatory safety mechanism. But a handheld radio may lack it.
So, what is it, and why do you need it?
The DSC feature allows your radio to burst out a predefined digital message that includes your Maritime Mobile Service Identity number and, possibly, your geolocation based on the data from the built-in GPS receiver. It is typically used to send a distress signal. Thanks to its digital nature, the signal can be caught from farther away (up to 25%) and easily interpreted on the other side.
Fixed-mount models are a lot more flexible in that they can send many different DCS messages that can be either designated distress calls—those that disclose the nature of the emergency—or non-distress messages, such as public correspondence. But I don’t think that you will find many handheld VHF radios that can offer the same, after all, each predefined message needs its own button.
A handheld radio doesn’t have to have this feature, but I still recommend only buying those radios that do have it.
With so many GPS-capable devices around, why would you need one more?
You don’t need a GPS receiver built-in into your handheld radio for navigation, although you can definitely use the added functionality. But then, navigation is not the reason for buying such a radio.
The reason why you would need it is that GPS works great with DSC. It allows you to include invaluable data—your geolocation—in the DSC message. In the event of an emergency, all you have to do it push the distress button, and the radio will do the rest.
You can also use it as a cut-down chart plotter, which can be handy for any angler.
Not necessarily a must, but definitely handy for a maritime radio. If you want to get weather updates in a timely fashion, you should definitely invest in a radio that is capable of receiving them.
Continuous Tone-Coded Squelch System allows to filter out other users on a two-way radio channel. It utilized what is referred to as a “sub-channel,” but it does not use a different frequency. Instead, a low-frequency subtone is added to the transmitted audio signal. That subtle it used to differentiate different subchannels and filter them out.
The CTCSS does not offer any encryption and protection, since a third party’s receiver may not be configured to filter your single out. It can only be used for convenience on shared frequencies.
Another convenient feature is noise cancellation. It doesn’t filter out other boaters. Instead, all it does is remove anything the microprocessor tags as noise. It’s especially handy during a storm, as it allows your voice to be understood clearly.