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 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 battery life (1800mAh capacity); Submersible (look for IPX8 - submersible waterproof rating of 4.92 feet for 30 minutes); Floating body design; Noise Cancelling; DSC; GPS receiver.
Many of today's newer marine 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 VHF handheld radio that fits your needs and budget. There are several things to look for when selecting a handheld VHF 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
ICOM M36 01
Submersible, floating, IPX7
1. Standard Horizon HX890
The Standard Horizon HX890 handheld VHF 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.
2. Uniden MHS75
BEST CHEAP VHF RADIO
The Uniden MHS75 is a great handheld marine VHF radio with all the basic functions: all USA/Canada and International channels, NOAA weather channels and triple watch.
3. Standard Horizon HX210
BEST COMPACT FLOATING RADIO
The Standard Horizon HX210 is a compact, rugged handheld marine VHF that meets all the basic requirements one would need in a VHF. This handheld VHF radio is waterproof up to 3.3ft for 30 minutes and has a rating of IPX7. The Standard Horizon HX210 is equipped with built-in FM channel maps for all USA, Canadian and international channels.
The Standard Horizon 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 Standard Horizon 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 Standard Horizon HX210 a breeze and its E2O (Easy to Operate) Menu System means you’ll learn your way around this device in no time. The Standard Horizon 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 an integrated 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 VHF 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 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 M36 01
The Icom M36 is a high powered floating VHF 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.
6. 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 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 VHF marine 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.
What Is a Handheld Marine 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 – VHF 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 Marine Radio:
One of the most important features for handheld VHF radios, GPS enables you to broadcast your location which allows for easy rescue or retrieval during times of emergency.
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.
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.
Waterproof, Floating & Durable:
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.
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 VHF radios 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 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.
Handheld Marine 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.
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 VHF 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 VHF 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.
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.