Why do I need a handheld VHF radio?
Weather conditions are very unpredictable. Despite sunny forecasts, unforeseen changes in the atmosphere can ruin your most pleasurable fishing or boating trip. The next thing you know you’re stuck on the water braving strong winds and angry waves. While we all hope this does not happen, what if it did? What are your chances of surviving? They are a lot higher if you have a marine VHF radio.
Safety tools like portable VHF marine radios are needed by every boater going out to sea. While they are not required on recreation boats under 65.6 ft. they should be aboard every boat especially considering how inexpensively you can purchase one.
Just like you wouldn’t go rock climbing without bringing safety gears and harness, you wouldn’t want to rely only on a cell phone and explore the waters without a marine radio. In this post, we will be helping you have a stress-free day out in the sea by choosing the best handheld marine radio for your needs.
Handheld marine radios offer the convenience of portability and ease of use. They usually have adjustable power ranging up to 6 watts and work well on short distances. Since the antenna is built in, the effective radio range isn't as long as a 25 watt fixed marine radio with an externally mounted antenna. You can also find all more information on VHF radios on our VHF Marine Radios page.
A fully featured high-quality handheld VHF radio will have:
Large display (up to 2 1/2 - 3"); Long lasting lithium ion battery (1800mAh capacity); Submersible (look for IPX8 - submersible waterproof rating of 4.92 feet for 30 minutes); Floating body design; Noise Cancelling; DSC; built in GPS receiver.
Many of today's newer marine VHF radios have just as many features as the fixed mount VHF radios including DSC, GPS, noise canceling, waterproofing and many more. The newest models with the most features are more expensive however you will be able to find a handheld radio that fits your needs and budget. There are several things to look for when selecting a handheld marine radio many of which depend upon where and when you will be using the radio as well as your budget.
Here are our picks for the best handheld VHF marine radios you can buy:
Standard Horizon HX890
Yes: 66 channel WAAS GPS
Submersible IPX8, floating
Standard Horizon HX210
Submersible IPX7, floating
Yes: EWAAS, SBAS, QZSS
Submersible IPX8, floating
Submersible, floating, IPX7
1. Standard Horizon HX890
The HX890 is one of the best two-way radios and is a successor fo the highly popular Standard Horizon's HX870. Its newly redesigned and rugged case conforms to Military Standards (MIL-STD-810F), making this radio an effective and easy to handle option.
The HX890 boasts a large 1.7" x 1.7" DOT matrix display with powerful backlight. It has an easy to operate icon/menu system that allows you to access DSC calls, position tracking, and navigation all from the menu. The built-in integrated 66 channel WAAS GPS receiver allows for quick and accurate position information, using the DSC & waypoint navigation features.
Thanks to the water activated emergency strobe light, you’ll feel safer too. It activates automatically if the unit falls into the water, even if it isn’t turned on. The light can change between on & off, flash, SOS, or a continuous beam.
2. Uniden MHS75
BEST CHEAP VHF RADIO
The Uniden MHS75 is a two-way handheld marine radio. It has an adjustable power transmitter that can be changed between 1W, 2.5W and 5W. The Uniden MHS75 has a battery level meter so you can monitor your power usage.
If you activate the Triple Watch in weather mode you can monitor channels 9 and 16 every three seconds. This function is suitable for night use when you want to stay informed about any changing weather conditions while you’re anchored.
Save channels on the Uniden MHS75 with the memory function. This way you can access channels easily when you need to. Furthermore, you can set a loud alert on the radio to signal when there are stormy weather reports.
The construction of the MHS75 VHF marine radio is rugged and can withstand almost any weather conditions. The LCD screen is large and has an integrated backlight so you can see the information in low light conditions.
3. Standard Horizon HX210
BEST COMPACT FLOATING RADIO
The HX210 is a compact, rugged handheld marine VHF that meets all the basic requirements one would need in a VHF. This handheld marine radio is waterproof up to 3.3ft for 30 minutes and has a rating of IPX7. The HX210 is equipped with built-in FM channel maps for all USA, Canadian and international channels.
The HX210 has a high-resolution dot matrix LCD display to ensure great visual quality and a speaker mic jack to ensure audio quality. In the case of an emergency, a water-activated emergency strobe light is triggered.
While the features found in the HX210 are standard they sure are well designed. The quality of this marine VHF radio’s built cannot be called into question.
Programmable function keys make using the HX210 a breeze and its E2O (Easy to Operate) Menu System means you’ll learn your way around this device in no time. The HX210’s waterproofing is guaranteed by a three-year warranty.
4. Uniden MHS335BT
The new Uniden MHS335BT is the perfect combination of features meeting functionality. It contains all the functions you’d expect to find in a handheld radio in this price range. That includes a built in GPS receiver, NOAA notifications, waypoint navigation, built-in compass screen, and impressive Bluetooth capabilities.
On top of its NOAA compatibility, the Uniden MHS335BT also allows for weather alerts and SAME location alerts. This handheld marine radio has an integrated flashlight, is completely submersible and meets the toughest IPX8 standards.
When you’re in an emergency situation, you’re going to want to get your hands on the Uniden MHS335BT. Why? Because its Bluetooth capabilities allow text messages to be sent to radios with the same functionality. It can also auto plot to distress signals to coast guard and has a water-activated MOB that automatically activates a distress feature when it’s in water.
Sealing the deal is that this marine radio is exceptionally easy to use and navigate. The Uniden MHS335BT’s waterproofing is covered by a three-year warranty for repairs and replacements.
5. ICOM IC-M36
The Icom IC-M36 is a high powered floating handheld marine radio known for its unique audio system comprised of Clear Voice & Voice Boost technologies. The system automatically adjusts incoming & outgoing audio levels to compensate for any ambient noise, ensuring your radio communications are sent and received as clearly as possible.
The unit’s pinch-waisted slender design is lightweight & easy to carry and conforms to IPX7 waterproofing standards. The transceiver is designed to float if dropped into water, rated at 1 meter (3.3ft) for up to 30 minutes.
The IC-M36 is very simple and isn’t equipped with GPS or DSC (Digital Selective Calling) programming. If these are required for your boating needs, additional equipment will need to be purchased.
6. Cobra MRHH600
The Cobra MRHH600 is equipped with a built in GPS & DSC (Digital Selective Calling). This enables it to display your GPS coordinates and automatically transmit them via DSC to the Coast Guard.
The MRHH600W navigation system features a digital compass, waypoint navigation, plus course & speed readings. It’s also equipped with 3 channel maps established for USA, Canadian, & international channels. You get access to all NOAA weather channels for water and weather alerts.
The MRHH600W handheld marine radio also has a unique BURP feature that expels water from the speaker grill should the unit be dropped in the water or be subjected to extreme rain & weather. And with the built-in Bluetooth wireless technology, you can make and receive phone calls while keeping your cell phone safe & dry.
7. Cobra MRHH350
Cobra MRHH350 is a reliable, compact handheld marine VHF radio that gives you a lot of features for the money. Just like the HX870, the floating body design will keep this radio afloat if it gets dropped overboard.
The selectable power output will let you use the full 6 Watts of transmitting power or conserve battery life by using the low power 1 Watt option. In the battery saving mode, you will have up to 16 hours of battery life. Noise-canceling will keep the communication clear and block out unnecessary background noises.
Cobra has integrated a bright orange backlight into their MRHH350 VHF marine radio so you can see the information on the display screen clearly in low light conditions. You have access to all NOAA channels and the radio has clear alarm signals for weather emergencies.
The MRHH350 VHF radio has a memory channel function that allows you to save the channel you’ve tuned. This is so you don’t have to retune the station when you want to listen or communicate through it. You have instant access to channel 16 for emergencies.
There’s a BURP function that vibrates water out of the speakers should you accidentally drop the radio in the water. Furthermore, it has a keypad locking function so you don’t accidentally change settings. There’s also a signal strength meter which shows the transmitting and receiving signals.
Overall the Cobra MRHH350 is a robust VHF marine radio that’s compact, lightweight and easy to use. It’s a feature-rich marine radio that has all the functions you need to optimize your communication device.
Types of VHF Marine Radios
There are two types of VHF marine radios to pick from: fixed and mounted.
Handheld VHF Marine Radio
Handheld radios are compact and typically lightweight devices. Since they’re handheld devices they need to be comfortable to hold so most of these radios are made with an ergonomic design and covered with non-slip grip rubber or plastic.
Handheld VHFs are suitable for smaller vessels or as a back up to fixed marine communication devices. A handheld marine radio should be waterproof, feature-rich and able to withstand any weather conditions.
Most handheld marine radios are backlit so you can see the details on the display screen at night. Additionally, it should be easy to tune channels on the radio and emergency stations should be pre-tuned.
The only downside to handheld marine radios is that you have to charge them regularly from a power source. Therefore it’s important to select a radio that has high-quality batteries and multiple charging capabilities.
Fixed mount VHF Marine Radio
A fixed mount VHF marine radio is a permanent fixture on a boat. These radios are used on bigger vessels so it has more power. A fixed mount VHF marine radio offers a wider range of features than a handheld device but they will only operate when the boat is turned on. Therefore, you won’t be able to send out emergency calls if you’re experiencing problems with your boat.
Additionally, they’re difficult to install but since they have larger receptive antennas they have a further VHF range. This means that a fixed mount radio has better reception when communicating further away from shore.
Key Features of a Portable VHF Marine Radio:
The maximum power output of a VHF marine radio is 25Ws but this is for larger vessels with fixed mounted devices. For handheld marine radios, the output is typically between 1W and 5W.
It should be noted that higher power outputs of 5W and above will drain the device’s battery quicker. So it’s advised that you select a VHF marine radio that has a lower wattage or has adjustable outputs.
VHF Marine Radio Channels
Over-the-air TV signals are distributed between two frequencies: Very High Frequency (VHF) and Ultra High Frequency (UHF). Most over-the-air TV antennas capture both frequencies but others are only designed to capture UHF channels.
In the USA and Canada the VHF frequency is for communication when boating. VHF radio is the most important system to use on the water. The VHF radio is used for the following means of communication:
- Ship to ship
- Ship to aircraft
- Ship to shore
There are many marine channel frequencies but very few of them are monitored consistently for private, coast guard or commercial use. Channels 9 and 16 are the most crucial stations to have on a VHF radio. Station 9 is used to call non-commercial boats and to transmit important information.
On the other hand, channel 16 is the international distress frequency and it’s used globally for emergency calls & reporting. Moreover, channel 16 is utilized by coast guard to issue weather reports and important information.
You must always be tuned into channel 16 when you’re on the water in case there are reports on weather changes or any information regarding the area you’re in.
Every boater must know what a marine distress call is and how to make one. A distress call is an internationally known way of getting help over a VHF marine radio. A distress message is used to indicate that you, a group of people or other vessels on the water are threatened by danger and there’s a need for immediate help.
One of the most important features for handheld marine radios, GPS enables you to broadcast your location which allows for easy rescue or retrieval during times of emergency.
Li ion Battery
New generation VHF radios run on lithium-ion batteries. These batteries are most preferred because they have a longer shelf life and are able to hold a charge for more than 10 hours of use.
Some handheld VHF marine radios offer various ways of charging the device. You may get a charging dock with your marine radio that you can plug into your boat. There’s also the option of using a USB cable to connect the device to a laptop or PC to charge it. It may come with a wall charger too.
Ensure you select a marine radio that has many charging options so you don’t have to contend with a dying battery when you’re on the water.
There are seven weather channels that you can tune into when using your marine radio. The NWR network broadcasts local and nearshore coastal marine forecasts. These stations give you real-time information on any weather changes.
It’s important to monitor these stations at all times when you’re on the water so that you’re fully aware of any weather changes. This is so you can make your way back to shore if there are storms approaching.
Automatic Weather Alert
Alerts like that of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and Specific Area Message Encoding (SAME) help you prepare for different weather conditions. Make sure you’re purchasing a unit that has automatic alerts that will switch to forecast channels whenever an alarm is issued.
You never know when the next storm is coming so make sure to invest in a weatherproof VHF marine radio that floats, is waterproof and durable. On top of making sure you don’t lose comms in a storm, this is also a helpful feature if your radio should accidentally end up going overboard. Pick a VHF marine radio that has a decent waterproofing rating. We wouldn’t recommend going any lower than a rating of IPX7.
Floating Handheld Marine Radios
This is one radio feature that I feel strongly about; having spent a lot of time on boats both in freshwater and saltwater I have come to find that sooner or later almost everything on a boat will fall into the water. Your radio is a vital piece of equipment as we talked about above and for the few extra dollars you will spend on a floating handheld marine radio is more than worth it in pretty much any scenario you envision where you would need the radio.
Dual or Tri-Watch
This allows you to monitor two or three channels at the same time. With this feature, you won’t miss out on discussions, news, or other announcements from other channels. Be mindful of the laws in the area you’re boating in because some countries forbid these features for obvious privacy-related reasons.
Look for a device that has noise-canceling technology to ensure background noises like wind or engine won’t ruin your transmissions. Noise-canceling properties also improve an incoming signal which in turn improves the audio quality of the incoming audio content. Many modern handheld VHFs include this feature, although it may gobble up a portion of your budget.
It’s incredibly important to opt for a handheld VHF radio that is easy to use and even easier to navigate. In an emergency situation, the last position you want to find yourself in is fiddling with buttons and wasting valuable time. Select a device that has a large, easy-to-read display and easy navigation properties.
This last key feature has more to do with the brand who manufactures the radio and less to do with the radio itself. When you buy a VHF handheld radio, you want to make sure it comes with everything that’s needed to use it. At the very least, pick a radio that comes with a battery, charging device, antenna and a belt clip or wrist strap.
You will definitely want to make sure that your radio has a backlit display so you can see it at night although almost all VHF radios made today contain them. The next choice is LCD (like a watch) which is easy to read but cannot show detailed images or Dot Matrix which is not as clear but does allow for more complex images to be shown on screen. We would recommend a high end Dot Matrix screen if you are buying a radio with GPS and will be using the screen to help you navigate.
The best VHF marine radios on the market at the moment are Cobra, Uniden, ICOM and Standard Horizon. All their devices are durable, lightweight, compact and come with comprehensive features. The brand’s devices are waterproof and have all the weather & emergency channels you need for effective communication when you’re on your boat.
What is the range of a VHF handheld marine radio?
A standard handheld VHF marine radio is meant for short-range communication so it offers a 5 to 10-mile range away from shore.
Do I need a license for a handheld VHF radio?
This is one of the most frequently asked questions about handheld VHF radios that our team receives.
The answer to this question is entirely dependent on WHERE you plan on using the radio. On US waters, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) states that no license is needed to use handheld marine radios, CB radios, depth finders as well as any type of EPIRB, radar or LORAN receiver.
In countries such as the United Kingdom and South Africa, you’ll need the relevant licenses to operate handheld marine radios. If you’re taking your boat out on international waters, it’s incredibly important to first familiarize yourself with the licensing requirements before bringing a VHF radio aboard. This is not only to respect the country’s laws but to also avoid being on the receiving end of a hefty fine and possible boat license suspension.
What is MMSI number?
MMSI (Maritime Mobile Service Identity) is a nine-digit number that’s sent over radio in digital form to identify ship stations and group calls. Furthermore, it’s used by the coast guard for search and rescue missions.
How to transmit a distress call:
- Select channel 16 on your marine radio
- Distress signal is Mayday and you must say this clearly three times
- Say the words “this is” once and clearly
- Verbalize the name of the vessel three times
- Call boat registration or call sign spoken once
- Repeat Mayday and the name of your vessel once
- Give your location by longitude and latitude or by bearing & the distance to a recognized landmark
- State information on the movement of your vessel such as speed, destination and course, the reason for your distress call and the assistance you require
- State the number of people onboard
- When you’re done, verbalize the word “over”
Owning a VHF marine radio can save your life, so make sure you have one on board for your next sea trip. I hope the information above has helped you choose the perfect handheld VHF radio for your current needs.