Best Marine VHF Radio of 2018

Having a marine VHF radio can save lives. When a boating emergency happens, the difference between life and death is alerting rescue teams.

The US Coast Gaurd announced that there has been a 62 percent increase in recreational boating deaths off the New England coast. They recommend all boats have a VHF radio to prevent this number from rising further.

It can be overwhelming when shopping for a ship to shore radio for the first time. We've compiled a list of what to look for and the best radios on the market.

What Is a Marine VHF Radio?

A ship to shore radio gives boaters the ability to communicate when they are five to 50 miles off the coast. This area of boating is referred to as "inshore boating"

VHF radio is the fastest method for alerting the Coast Guard or other emergency response services. It is also the standard method of communication with other boaters.

How Do They Work?

These devices use radio waves to transmit communications to and from the user. The radio waves rely on direct "line of sight" for travel.

Anything that is in the way of the waves traveling through the air will block the transmission. If multiple boats are transmitting on the same wavelength or "channel", the strongest signal will prevail.

Fixed or Handheld?

There are two basic types of VHF radios. Boaters have the option of choosing a fixed mount or a handheld. Experienced boaters recommend having one of each on board.

Fixed

A fixed VHF radio mounts onto the boat. The advantage to this is that it will have more power.

The greater power means the signal travels further. The radio uses the power from the boat.

The problem with these radios is that when the boat loses power in an emergency, so does the radio. A handheld radio becomes useful in this situation.

Range

Fixed VHF radios have a power range of one to 25 watts. Using the lower wattage allows for communication with nearby boats.

The higher the range, the further the communication waves will travel. Using 25 watts can have communications travel up to 30 miles.

Antenna

Look for a radio that is compatible with an antenna. This will boost the range that the radio can broadcast to.

The antenna should be mounted on the higher point of the boat. This raises the signal above any potential obstacles.

Dual Station

A dual station turns the VHF radio into an intercom. Install a microphone in another room of the boat to communicate through the radio.

Hailer

Higher end models usually have the ability to become a loudspeaker of sorts. To use this feature, buy additional waterproof speakers.

Install the speakers on the outside of the boat. Once installed, the VHF radio can broadcast through the speakers to nearby boats.

Hand Held

A handheld radio is going to work in an emergency when the boat's power systems shut down.

It's important to regularly check the batteries in a handheld radio. The signal power isn't as strong in handheld radios.

Range

Power in handheld radios tops out at six watts. The typical range for a handheld radio is three to eight miles.

To get further distance, stand at the highest point on the boat.

Battery

The larger the handheld unit, the larger the battery. The caveat is buoyant models tend to have smaller batteries regardless of size.

Low-end models will have batteries that last about seven hours. The high-end models will last for up to 20 hours.

Buoyancy

As we already mentioned, radios designed to be buoyant have smaller batteries. The advantage to a floating radio is that it won't need replacing if dropped in the water.

Radios that float usually have features that make them visible in the water. Sometimes, they are a bright color or have a water-activated strobe light.

Display

The display screen on a handheld radio is going to be an LCD screen or dot matrix.

The LCD screens are going to look simple and blocky. The dot matrix will look like a TV or smartphone screen.

Waterproofing

Marine radio manufacturers list a waterproof rating with their VHF radios. This rating dictates the amount of water that the radio can handle without breaking.

The rating starts at IPX0 and goes up to IPX8. A rating of zero is going to have no water resistance.

A rating of 8 will be waterproof in more than three feet of water for at least 30 minutes. For boating, look for radios that have a rating of 7 or 8. These two ratings are for submersion in water.

Sometimes, waterproof ratings are referred to as "JIS" instead of "IPX". They both use the same number rating system and mean the same thing.

Is a License Required?

Recreational boat owners do not need a license. A license is required for those operating a commercial boat or internationally.

If the marine radio has DSC ability, then an MMSI number is required. A Maritime Mobile Service Identity number is a nine-digit number that helps the Coast Guard in search and rescue.

Cell Phone vs. VHF Radio

Why buy a VHF radio when a cell phone can call for emergency assistance? Except cell phones are unreliable while out on the water.

Cell phones are not waterproof to the extent that a VHF radio is. In an emergency, a cell phone will be useless when submerged in salt water.

The service coverage for cell phones can be spotty out on the water. Don't risk being in a dead zone when an emergency happens.

VHF radios are the standard form of communication on boats. When you call for help, you're broadcasting to all the boats near you.

Features to Look for

The key to buying a VHF radio is finding the one with the features needed. As a general rule, the more features a radio has, the more expensive it will be.

DSC

The Digital Selective Calling feature lets boat owners communicate with the Coast Guard and other DSC radios. Push a button and the boat's exact GPS located begins transmission.

GPS

This feature will tell users their exact latitude and longitude. It's useful if the radio doesn't have DSC abilities.

AIS

The Automatic Identification System tracks nearby boats. This information includes location, size, speed, and destination.

Scanning

The scanning features let boaters monitor more than one channel at a time. Track the legally required channel 16 for emergencies and another channel.

Weather

Avoid an emergency by receiving inclement weather alerts. These alerts are from NOAA or SAME.

Noise Cancelling

To aid in better communication, noise canceling will screen out the ambient noise. This includes engine noise, waves crashing, and high wind.

Handheld Marine VHF Radio Picks

The top handheld radios are by Standard, Uniden, and Cobra. These brands have a reputation for building quality devices with the latest features.

Standard Horizon HX870

This radio comes with GPS capable of automatically tracking the boat's location. Automatic transmitting begins in an emergency for rescue services.

An additional unique safety feature is the water-activated strobe light. Drop the radio into the water and the strobe light starts blinking.

The screen is large in comparison to other marine radios at 2.3 inches. Using the radio is intuitive and easily navigatable without reading the manual.

This is important as anyone on the boat can operate the radio in an emergency. The device is completely waterproof and submersible. Communication is clear as noise and static are automatically eliminated.

This radio is lightweight for buoyancy but large in physical size. This is not the radio to put in a pocket or actively carry around.

The charging cradle for this device is not waterproof. If the cradle gets wet, it will stop working.

Uniden MHS75

The MHS75 lets users monitor three channels at once. One channel is active for listening, and two others are monitored in the background.

If the battery runs low, a cigarette lighter charger will give it a boost. An audible signal will sound when NOAA issues a severe weather warning.

The construction is durable and made to handle drops and water submersion. This radio will float, but can also be submerged up to five feet of water.

Users can expect a 12-mile range with this five-watt radio. A single charge of the battery will last two to three days.

Cobra MRHH350FLT

This radio is bright orange so it can be easily seen if it is dropped into the water. It will float making it retrievable.

It's water resistant when submerged in up to three feet of water. NOAA weather channels provide up to date information on weather events.

Users have the ability to choose from one, three, and six watts of power for communication. The operation is intuitive and doesn't require users to read the manual.

The overall design of this handheld is ergonomic and ultra compact. This makes this a great option for boaters looking to carry a radio on them.

Three channels can be monitored at once. The noise-canceling microphone blocks ambient and background noise during communication.

Mounted VHF Marine Radio Picks

The same top handheld brands also build the top mounted radios. These units are designed to be mounted in the helm.

Cobra Electronics MR F45-D

The Cobra doesn't have all of the fancy features as other mounted radios. It's the solid affordable choice for those looking for a basic quality radio.

This device comes with a mounting bracket. Attach it to the frame of the boat.

Communication up to 20 nautical miles is possible with 25 watts of power. There is built-in noise cancellation for clear transmissions.

A built-in memory will store all calls made through DSC. The MMSI of the boats communicated with is also recorded.

An external speaker jack provides a boost in volume if needed. There is also an adjustable backlight to make viewing the screen easier.

Standard Horizon GX1700W

The Horizon is the deluxe unit of mounted radios, and the price reflects the numerous features that come with it. Both GPS and DSC come with the radio.

The entire unit is completely waterproof in the event of submersion for up to 30 minutes. The compact design makes the unit slim.

Because of its size, installation is easy. Once installed, it can be used with a RAM3+ microphone.

This lets users walk around their boat while communicating over the radio. No more being stuck in the helm at the radio.

Standard offers a three-year warranty. This covers any water-related damages on the off chance that they happen.

Uniden UM380

The large orange display on this mounted radio makes reading data easy. The screen displays the channel, radio menu, and DSC and GPS data.

Full DSC capabilities come with this radio. Both position sending and request are possible.

With 25 watts of power, communication is possible for a long distance. There is also a single button trigger for distress call signaling.

SAME weather updates are included. There are memory channel scanning and triple channel monitoring.

Which Marine Radio Is the Right Choice?

The best marine VHF radio is the one that keeps everyone safe. Whether handheld or mounted, it needs to be dependable and in working order in the event of an emergency.

The first decision is to determine how far off the coast the radio will be used. The further off the coast, the more appropriate a mounted radio will be.

If choosing a mounted radio, consider getting a handheld radio as a backup. Decide if long battery life or buoyancy is more important.

In case the features are not important, the mounted Cobra radio is a solid choice. For a radio with all of the features, the mounted Standard is the way to go.

The handheld ideal for carrying is the Cobra. While the Standard has all of the features, but may not be the best handheld for carrying around.

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