Top Marine VHF Radios & Buying Tips for Choosing the Best Marine VHF Radios for your Boating Needs
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Heading out on the boat or yacht? Going sailing? Maybe you’re going out to sea to catch lobsters for work or for pleasure. Maybe you’re going angling with your buddies. Although there are a lot of maritime sports and activities or jobs out there that take place on water, they all have one thing in common: they all need a marine VHF radio. It’s the single most important thing to have before heading out on the boat.
What is a VHF Marine Radio?
A VHF—an acronym for “Very High Frequency”—allows you to “talk to” other boats, a bridge tender, a lock operator, a harbonmaster and a race committee while on choppy seas, lakes and rivers.
As the primary communication tool for water-bound activities, the marine VHF radio is not just a way to converse with other boaters, but also the means in which to contact those who are in the area during emergency situations.
The best marine radio out there is designed for safety while on coastal or inland waters. When your boat is malfunctioning, sinking, capsizing or basically in danger, you need something to call for help as quickly as possible. You can’t rely on cell phone coverage while on water; your signal may be spotty, or you may have no signal at all.
In case of emergency, a marine VHF radio may be your only lifeline, the only way you you’ll be able to receive assistance.
In fact, a marine walkie talkie or fixed mount enables you to access a rescue agency, such as the United States Coast Guard, by issuing a broadcast of both voice and digital information. And when an emergency call goes out on a boat, everyone within range will receive that message, allowing for even safer rescue.
On a marine two way radio, the international calling and distress marine radio frequency is Channel 16. If you use that frequency, you’ll receive help in the fastest method possible because the Coast Guard monitors Channel 16 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Commercial vessels at sea—and who may be able to help—also tune into that channel, as well as to other marine radio frequencies.
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So how does the marine VHF radio work?
The marine VHF radio relies on radio waves to receive and send transmissions. Unlike shortwave radios, it operates on what is called “line of sight.” The radio waves travel in a straight line from your antenna to a receiver as long as they see each other, the antenna is above the horizon and there are no obstructions. If the distance between 2 antennas increase, they may fall below the horizon and can no longer communicate to each other. If there’s a mountain between your antenna and another antenna, you won’t hear the transmission. That’s because obstructions—such as land masses and hills and earth curvature—block line of sight and will disrupt VHF signals. A good thing is that when you’re out on the open water, there are few obstacles to interfere with line of sight.
ESSENTIAL FEATURES FOR THE MARINE VHF RADIO
What is DSC?
A feature that a marine band radio is required to have standard is DSC, or “Digital Selective Calling.” All radios, except for handheld VHF radios, are, in fact, required by law since 1999 to have this operating mode.
So how does DSC work?
If you’re on your boat and are in need of help, all you need to do is press a distress button on your marine VHF radio and it will send an automated digital distress signal with your boat or ship position and your identity to other crafts and rescue agencies that are within VHF range.
All radios with DSC need MMSI, or Maritime Mobile Service Identity. This number is a unique ID for you that you need to acquire from Boat Us (www.BoatUS.com/mmsi)
To take full advantage of DSC, an essential feature of your marine radio is to have it connected to GPS. Note that while this isn’t required when making a distress call, GPS will enable you to broadcast your precise location, allowing for easy search and rescue retrieval. Not all marine two way radios have GPS, so you have to look out for it in the model you choose if you decide that this is an important function.
3. WEATHER ALERTS
A marine two way radio handheld or fixed mount with automatic weather alerts means that each will automatically switch to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) whenever it issues a weather warning over the air. (NOAA alerts are national.) You’ll also get alerts from Specific Area Message Encoding (SAME). SAME alerts are specific to your region, allowing you to hear weather conditions in your area only, not forecasts that are many miles away.
What kind of marine VHF radio do I need?
There is one main factor you need to decide on when selecting a marine band radio. You need to decide if you want a fixed mount or a marine handheld radio.
THE FIXED MOUNT VHF MARINE RADIO
A fixed mount is designed to be permanently installed and attached to your boat. It connects to its electrical system—generally at the helm—as well as to a large external antenna.
The advantages of a fixed mount radio are twofold.
One is durability. If you’re radio is screwed down, you won’t drop it when using it. If you use a marine walkie talkie, it may fall by accident if you have wet hands or if your boat is slippery and you slide.
Two is power. Since your boat’s battery fuels a fixed mount, you will have a reliable source of power. Fixed sets have a maximum transmit power of 25 watts, the legal limit. Your boat’s power will allow your radio to use that full, legal output watt. But fixed mounts have the option of transmitting at 1 watt of power as well. That lower power setting is often used when the higher power is not needed. It’s also simple courtesy. When using this lower wattage while undergoing short-range conversations, you’re less likely to interfere with other boaters and you’ll also save on your battery life.
THE PORTABLE MARINE RADIO
A handheld VHF marine radio, which looks similar to a marine walkie-talkie, is completely self-contained. The advantages of a handheld are that it is compact and portable, as well as existing independent of a ship or boat’s battery supply and antenna. It has its own battery built in, and that battery is often rechargeable. Because a handheld is smaller in size than a fixed mount, it has a maximum transmit power output of around 3 to 5 watts. A marine radio handheld is often the only choice for smaller boats that lack their own battery source. A drawback of the handheld is that it will most likely be restricted to about a 5 mile range rather than the 25 mile range of a fixed mount.
Range is said to be increased due to power output. However, the difference in range between a fixed mount with 25 watts and a marine handheld radio with 5 watts is due to the fixed mount’s antenna being taller. It thus can “see” farther. So range is really dictated by antenna height.
So which is better? The fixed mount marine VHF or the marine handheld radio?
If the electrical system goes down on your craft, your communication will be entirely cut off with a fixed mount. But since a handheld marine VHF radio has such a limited range, it’s best to be redundant and have both. In case of emergency, a backup will prove crucial.
Where do you start when deciding on what the best marine VHF radio is for you?
Choosing the best VHF marine radio is a daunting task. But it will depend largely on the waters on which you navigate. It will depend on whether or not you want the convenience and portability of a marine walkie talkie or if you want something more permanent on your boat. It will also depend on what features you think will aid you. If you need a radio just for safety purposes, then you may want to save your money and buy a low cost unit. If cost is a deciding factor, note that each VHF marine radio for sale carries no monthly user fees, and can be used not just for emergency calls but also for routine voice traffic.
We’ll give you the lowdown on both the marine radio handheld and the fixed mount in terms of what they feature. Then we’ll give you a few models of the VHF marine radio for sale—both fixed and handhelds—that we’ve handpicked because we think they do the job well.
THE PRELIMINARIES BEFORE SELECTING A MARINE BAND RADIO
1. The Marine Band Radio vs. Cell or Smartphone
So here’s a question we know you’d ask. It’s this:
Why bother buying a marine band radio if you have a cell phone?
As touched on before, cell phones will have little to no range on water.
Then there’s the fact that cell phones lack weather alerts and DSC. In addition, cell phones aren’t waterproof or weather proof. If you drop a waterproof VHM radio in the water, the radio will still work.
But above all, cell phones aren’t safety measures while on water. On a cell, you only have one-on-one communication. You can only call one person at a time. With a VHF radio, you can communicate to everyone who’s in your range. And for those who hear your signal, they’ll be able to note your exact location, which a cell phone can’t do.
2. Do I Need a License?
You don’t need a license to operate a marine 2 way radio. This means if you have a recreational boat (i.e. “voluntary ships”), you’re totally exempt. But if you operate a cargo ship, a commercial fishing boat, a tow boat, or any other commercial or international ship, you do need one.
3. What’s Channel 16?
When your marine two way radio is turned on, the default channel will be Channel 16. Channel 16 is the international distress and calling frequency and the Coast Guard always monitors these calls. In addition, the Coast Guard uses Channel 16 to broadcast bad weather or impending storms, as well as other warnings or essential marine information.
FEATURES OF A FIXED MOUNT MARINE VHF RADIO
1. The Antenna
Get the longest antenna on the market that your vessel will support.
The range of a fixed mount is about 25 miles, but this depends on antenna height. An antenna affects the operating range of your radio. Adding an external one to your vessel will increase your range and emergency availability.
The higher you mount, the greater distance you’ll have: the antenna on your boat needs to be mounted as high as possible for line-of-site and with the correct coax cable.
2. The Power Source
Fixed radios are powered by a boat’s battery bank. Operating time is unlimited because they draw about half an amp when receiving and, while transmitting at 25 watts, about 5 amps. The limitation here is that if your battery system dies out on you or if your boat experiences an electrical failure, your VHF radio will no longer work. It’s just good practice to back up the fixed mount by also having a handheld.
A hailer allows you to broadcast to other boats in the area or anyone on deck. If you need this option, you need to purchase an external waterproof speaker to broadcast your message to other boats and ships and line handlers. With a hailer, there’s a feature on some fixed mount radios called “Listen Back.” This feature allows you to convert speakers into microphones so that you can communicate with, say, a foredeck hand. You’ll find a hailer in most higher-priced VHF fixed mount marine radios, and less so in inexpensive models.
AIS—or Automatic Identification System—allows you to locate and identify other vessels. Also, the receiver displays critical collision avoidance data from boats or ships in range that have AIS.
5. Rotary Knobs
Finally, rotary knobs are of note on fixed mount radios. This allows someone to scroll through channels quickly and easily. The interface is also for speedy menu navigation and setting control.
THE MARINE RADIO HANDHELD RADIO
While a handheld marine VHF radio has a range that’s lower than the range of a fixed mount, you should, as noted above, invest in one for redundancy. The handheld works well as a back up because it’s powered by its own internal batteries and has a self-contained antenna.
Also, the handheld marine VHF radio is highly portable. You can take it anywhere while on your vessel to talk.
Handhelds work best in inland water—which include rivers, lakes, floodplains, reservoirs, wetlands and inland saline systems.
FEATURES OF A HANDHELD MARINE VHF RADIO
1. Battery Life
Battery life depends on a handheld’s physical size. The bigger your marine radio handheld, the larger the battery it can hold. Then the battery life will last longer. Keep in mind that because non-buoyant handhelds are often heavier, their battery life is also longer. Meanwhile, handhelds that float have a shorter battery life.
In a portable marine band radio, you can expect 8 hours on a single charge depending on the unit and under normal conditions. In the best marine radio, though, battery life can be upwards of 20 hours. You should look for a model that’s powered by lithium-ion batteries. Lithium batteries have a long shelf life and won’t get damaged if you charge a handheld for a long time, or when it’s not completely drained.
If your handheld also uses disposable alkaline batteries, this will allow you to extend your battery life. Alkaline batteries are not only inexpensive, but also long-lasting, just like lithium-ion batteries. In emergencies, having spare alkaline batteries can be a lifesaver.
When searching for the best handheld VHF marine radio that suits you, you then need to figure out if long battery life is an important feature for you.
A handheld either comes with a dot matrix display or a seven-segment LCD display. Of the two, the dot matrix display will look better. A seven-segment is hard to read and numbers look block-like and chunky. With a dot matrix, images are clearer and more lifelike, and numbers are more readable. Significantly, the display will look like the display on a smarphone or on a television.
Nearly all radios have scanning options now. There are two scanning features to note. Dual Watch means that you can watch your priority channel at the same time as you watch a second channel while you wait for a signal. For example, you can switch to Channel 16 to check for traffic and then flip to another channel. Tri Watch allows you to watch not two but three channels at the same time: your priority channel, VHF channel 9, and any other channel.
4. Water or Weatherproof
Handheld radios are water resistant, waterproof, or weatherproof.
The weatherproof marine handheld radio won’t take a beating if it is splashed lightly by water. But you should definitely consider one that’s waterproof since you’ll be using it on water. If it rains, if you drop a handheld on board, or it gets submerged in water by accident, a waterproof is the best option.
Your waterproof marine radio should also float if it falls in water. The buoyancy allows for easy retrieval—a handheld is obviously of no use if it rests on the seafloor. Some models even come equipped with a flashing light when they fall in water, making for even easier retrieval.
Weather and waterproof radios are distinguished by different standards. A basic, lower-priced marine walkie-talkie will be JIS4 compliant, which means its only splash resistant. Look for IPX7 or JIS-7 compliant, which means radios submerged in water three feet deep will be entirely waterproof for up to 30 minutes and won’t be damaged.
Other waterproof standards are IPX6 and JIS8.
THE BEST HANDHELD MARINE RADIO AT AN AFFORDABLE PRICE
The Uniden MHS75, at $119.99, packs a whole bunch of features in a compact frame (the radio weighs 10.4 ounces).
This marine 2 way radio is equipped with a lithium rechargeable battery. Uniden claims the handheld can last 12 hours without a single charge. The MHS75 comes equipped with a DC quick charger, which means that charging the battery is only 4 hours, which is remarkably quick.
However, there are drawbacks at this price point. The Uniden marine 2 way radio does not include an AC charger or alkaline battery pack. This means you won’t have the chance to back-up your battery if the LiON gets depleted. And while the MHS75 can be submerged in water for 30 minutes to a 5” depth, it doesn’t float.
The marine radio handheld comes with Dual, Triple, and Quad Watch. These different watch modes allow you to monitor one regular marine channel and up to 2 Coast Guard channels in distress situations. The MHS75 has all N.O.A.A. Weather Channels with Weather Alert. It has a very compact size, measuring 2.5 inches wide by 4.6 inches tall and by 1.5 inches deep.
A large LCD screen—and backlit display and keypad—means messages are easy to read.
• Memory Channel Scan
• SMA Flexible Rubber Antenna
• Belt clip
THE BEST HANDHELD VHF MARINE RADIO AT A MID-RANGE PRICE
The Uniden Atlantis 270 marine radio handheld has a 10-hour battery life. The 270 is waterproof and, unlike the MH75, is designed to float. It features NOAA Weather Channels, and Dual and Triple Watch Operation. It also has a backlit LCD display. If you’re fishing or cruising at night, the brightness will help you. The charge time for this waterproof marine radio is 7 hours.
• JIS7/IPX7 Submersible Waterproof level
• 1/2.5/6W (VHF) + Power Boost PTT Key
• Included: AC & DC Adapter and Charging Cradle
• Alkaline battery capable
THE BEST HANDHELD MARINE RADIO AT A HIGHER END PRICE
The MHS126 Handheld Floating Two-Way VHF Marine Radio has Dual and Triple Watch operation, marine channels that cover all USA, International & Canadian marine channels, memory channel scan, and a LCD screen.
This marine walkie talkie is JIX8/IPX8 standard, and is float capable. And bright emergency strobe lights mean that you’re visible to rescuers at night.
You’ll never lose power with this waterproof marine radio. It uses not only a lithium battery, but also 4 AAA batteries, allowing for a backup power source if the lithium gets depleted. The rechargeable battery lasts for 11 hours. At this higher price point, you expect to have more features. The MHS216 delivers, especially when you consider that it accepts two different kinds of batteries.
The dimensions of the handheld are: 6.1 x 7.1 x 3 inches.
• AC charger, DC charger, charging cradle, alkaline battery tray
• Swivel belt clip
• Mic jack for optional mic
THE BEST MARINE VHF RADIO FIXED MOUNT AT A BUDGET PRICE
UNIDEN UM380BK Fixed Mount VHF/2-Way Marine Radio (Black)
The UM380BK Fixed Mount VHF Marine 2-Way Radio is sleek and compact. It weighs just 3.3 pounds, and its dimensions are 11 x 9 x 4 inches. Like most fully-featured fixed mounts, this is a waterproof marine radio, and features full DSC capability and SAME emergency weather alert. Other plentiful features include Triple/Dual watch, memory channel scan, access to all NOAA weather channels with weather alert, an orange backlit LCD keypad and display that shows channel names and radio menu, as well as a large dot matrix display.
• Antenna, antenna cable, and antenna mounts are all sold separately
• JIS4/CFR46 Waterproof Level
• Text messaging
THE BEST FIXED MOUNT MARINE RADIO AT A MID RANGE PRICE
UNIDEN UM415 Oceanus D Marine Radio (White)
The fixed mount Uniden UM415 is designed to withstand the harshest weather and water conditions. Compact in size (6.57″ width × 2.95″ height x 5.08” depth), the UM415 also saves space and allows for easy mounting (dimensions: 11 x 3.9 x 8.2 inches). This VHF marine radio for sale is JIS8 submersible (5’ 30 minutes) and features DSC, all USA, International, and Canadian marine channels, a durable microphone with channel up and down, and NOAA weather and emergency alerts with SAME. Rounding out the features of this impressive fixed mount is a backlit dot matrix LCD display and keypad.
THE BEST FIXED MOUNT MARINE RADIO AT A HIGHER END PRICE
With higher end VHF marine radios, you’ll find they have more features but come with a more expensive price tag. This is exactly the case with the Lowrance. It’s decked out with a lot of features, but it comes with a hefty price.
This unit has a built-in dual-channel AIS receiver that shows critical collision avoidance data from AIS-equipped boats in range, a dot-matrix display and a backlit LCD display. Other features include DSC, PA/Hailer horn output with “Listen Back” (few radios, as discussed above, have “Listen Back”), GPS, microphone, and a built-in speaker with 4 watt output, as well as a rotary knob, a feature that you don’t see that much in fixed mount radios but is very useful. The Lowrance has all USA, International, and Canadian marine channels and NOAA weather channels with weather alert. At 6 pounds, though, the Lowrance is heavier than the Uniden UM380BK, which weighs just 3.3 pounds.
• Flush mountable Class D DSC fixed mount VHF transceiver
• Dual Watch and Tri Watch and all scan functions
• Waterproof rating: IPX7 with submerge depth of 3.3 feet for 30 minutes
• Mount: Bracket / Flush (kit included)
• Dimensions: 14 x 10 x 5 inches
For the best marine radio, we favor those that are waterproof, not weatherproof. Chances are the marine radios for sale will be susceptible to water—not just salt sprays or rain but also wet hands and slick surfaces. They should also take a beating. If you, say, own a handheld marine VHF radio and drop it on a fiberglass deck, you should have confidence that it won’t die on you or malfunction. If it becomes submerged in water, it should also float for easy retrieval.
Some features may be more important to you than others. You may not need a built-in strobe, for example. But knowing that the best handheld VHF marine radio out there, the Uniden MHS126, has strobe lights may mean you want to buy this device.
DSC, the argument goes, can’t be used in the most efficient manner if it doesn’t have GPS. If this is important to you, then you may be willing to shell out a lot for the Lowrance marine two way radio, which, unlike the other two fixed mount radios reviewed, features GPS.
What features a marine band radio has or doesn’t have ultimately rests on you and will dictate how much you end up spending. The best handheld VHF marine radio, or the best fixed mount, doesn’t have to cost an arm and a leg. And you shouldn’t have to pay for a feature that you don’t end up using. But if a feature on the marine two way radio has a significant impact on your safety, then price may not even be a factor and you may set your sights on the best VHF marine radio out there, a radio that will protect you in the best possible manner without regard to price.