Why do I need a handheld VHF marine 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 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 VHF 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:
Many of today's newer handheld VHF radios have just as many features as the fixed mount 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 marine 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.
We put together a list of top 5 highly rated handheld VHF radios on the market and pros and cons for each one.
VHF Radio Name
1. STANDARD HORIZON HX890
2. ICOM M36
3. Cobra MRHH600
4. Cobra MRHH350
5. Uniden MHS75
1. Standard Horizon HX890
The Standard Horizon HX890 Marine Radio is one of the best two-way radios. 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. Read full review.
2. ICOM M36 01
The Icom M36 is a high powered floating handheld 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. Read full review.
3. Cobra MRHH600
The Cobra MRHH600 is equipped with 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 vhf 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.
4. Cobra MRHH350
Cobra MRHH350 is a reliable, compact handheld 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 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. Read full review.
5. Uniden MHS75
The Uniden MHS75 is a great handheld VHF radio with all the basic functions: all USA/Canada and International channels, NOAA weather channels and triple watch.
It's waterproof as well as submersible and covered by Uniden's 3-year waterproof warranty. Use it either as a back up to a powerful fixed mount radio or take it with you on your next fishing trip. Read full review.
Still Not Sure Which Marine Radio Is Right? Use Our Table Of Contents To Learn More
What Is A Handheld VHF Radio?
Handheld VHF radios are key safety equipment needed by every seagoing vessel. It’s also the primary way boat operators, harbormasters, coast guards, and bridge tenders communicate with each other. Aside from allowing sea-to-harbor calls, it can also send distress signals and receive weather broadcasts whenever they’re available.
Unlike a mobile phone (also usually not waterproof) which has a limited on-water range, a handheld vhf radio is more reliable in terms of receiving and sending messages when you’re on the water. There are many kinds of marine radios (fixed mount, long range, commercial, etc.) but when it comes to portability and emergency use – handheld marine radios are the best option. Probably, the only cons of owning a handheld vhf radio are its short battery life and power output which means you need to recharge the device regularly. For this reason, handheld VHF radios are more suitable for small vessels. Bigger ships also use handheld but only as emergency back-ups.
Key Features Of A Portable VHF Radio:
Handheld VHF Radio Range
Unlike fixed mount radios that can have up to 25 watts of power handheld marine radios can only contain a maximum of 6 watts. This is mostly due to their size and lack of a tall antenna like a fixed mount radio. Many people go with the more power is better and get the maximum amount of power that they can in their portable VHF marine radio and to be honest that is not a bad idea if you typically go on long trips far from shore with little to no other boat traffic near. Your handheld radio can be your only lifeline if your boat sinks or your fixed mount radio malfunctions and you need to communicate with the shore or Coast Guard.
On the other hand, if most of your trips are short excursions you are always in site of the shore and you have a lot of boat traffic near you then a less expensive handheld radio may be a great choice.
Floating VHF 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 VHF marine radio is more than worth it in pretty much any scenario you envision where you would need the radio. In addition, we would recommend a waterproof rating of IPX7 (waterproof up to 3 feet under water) as this will ensure the radio will function should you have to abandon your ship and be stuck in the water for a period of time.
Again, here this is more personal preference and how often and far your boat trips are; if your trips are shorter and you are in a heavy traffic area then a radio with a Li-On battery that is not long lasting is not a huge problem additionally if you have a charger on board or extra batteries then a shorter battery life is not a big deal.
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 Dot Matrix display if you are buying a radio with GPS and will be using the screen to help you navigate.
Our Final Thoughts:
There are many other handheld VHF radios to choose from but we feel that the below three are great buys depending upon the radio features you are looking for and the price you are willing to pay.
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.
You can read more individual reviews below.