What Is the Best Handheld Marine VHF Radio of 2018?

A day out on the boat started out so good. Then the weather turned bad and now there's a big storm.

The power on board doesn't work and the engines are failing. The wind and current are quickly taking the boat out to sea.

This is a dangerous situation. An emergency rescue needs to happen. But how?

This is the exact situation when a VHF radio could save lives. We've evaluated and compiled a list of the best handheld VHF radios.

What Are Marine VHF Radios?

VHF radios are the main method of maritime communication. They allow boats to communicate with each other and emergency services.

They operate by using radio waves to send information back and forth. The waves travel a certain distance depending on the power supplied and obstacles.

Cell Phone or VHF Radio

Cell phones are reliant on cell towers for a signal. Travel a few miles off the coast and a cell phone will lose its ability to function.

This renders a cell phone useless in an emergency situation. Cell phones are not the quickest way to contact the Coast Gaurd.

The Coast Gaurd is set up to receive distress calls through the VHF radio system. Rescue help will mobilize faster with the correct communication channels.

Features to Consider

When looking at features, keep in mind which ones are going to be most useful for the type of boating intended. Boaters who plan to stay inshore do not need all of the features available.

DSC

Digital Selective Calling is the standard form of communication for automatic maritime distress alerts. Rescue services across the world are set up to receive and respond to these calls.

A boat's GPS location is automatically sent out with the distress call. Messages on the DSC network are similar to a text message.

These messages go out to rescue services, ports, and vessels nearby. Boaters that travel internationally must have this type of communication on board.

Be sure to register for a unique Maritime Mobile Service Identity (MMSI) Number. This is the boat's ID when communicating on the network.

GPS

This feature can work on its own or in conjunction with DSC and AIS. It will track and provide information on the boat's exact latitude and longitude.

AIS

AIS stands for Automatic Identification System. This is an automated and autonomous tracking system.

All boats that travel internationally must carry a transponder. The transponders collect data such as the vessel's size, speed, location, and destination.

The information is broadcast out at regular intervals to other nearby transponders. The information sent from other vessels gets compiled into a single report.

A chart displays the compiled data for tracking purposes. This tracking prevents collisions and regulates marine traffic in ports.

Scanning

Scanning is the ability for a VHF radio to check more than one channel at a time. Boaters are legally required to monitor channel 16 at all times.

This is the emergency distress channel. Scanning more than one channel lets boaters follow the law.

Weather

The easiest way to prevent a boating emergency is to pay attention to the weather. VHF radios provide up to date information on severe weather alerts from both NOAA and SAME.

Noise Cancelling

Nothing is worse than trying to talk to someone and all you hear is static. Noise-canceling or squelch screens out the static and ambient noise.

Standard Horizon HX870

The HX870 makes this list thanks to its many features, large display, and usability. This handheld VHF radio is perfect for boaters who travel far away from the coastline.

DSC

The Horizon radio has GPS that automatically tracks a vessel's movement and location. Tracking formation is automatically sent when a user triggers a distress call.

AIS

The device can track 9 pre-selected vessels that are in the vicinity. Navigate to the compass page on the display to track their movements.

Display

The menu is intuitive with everything accessible within a few steps. The screen is one of the largest available on handheld VHF radios.

It measures 1.7" wide by 1.7" tall and 2.3" diagonal. The dot matrix display provides higher resolution. The screen is backlit which makes reading it easy to see day or not.

Channels

Program ten favorite channels for quick selection. All USA and Canadian marine channels are available for use.

Program the scanning function to dedicate a priority channel. Then program either dual or tri watch for extra channels.

Waterproof

This handheld radio floats but is also rated for submersion in up to 5 feet of water for thirty minutes. Contact with water triggers a strobe light to flash.

Power Options

Choose between 1, 2, and 6 watts of power. This is useful for communication with nearby and far away boats.

Lower the power level to 1 watt to communicate with nearby vessels. This won't disrupt vessels that are further away. Raise the power to 6 watts for more distance.

Battery

The battery is an 1800 mAh Li-Ion Battery. It can be fully charged in three hours.

Uniden MHS75

The housing for the Uniden is a tough die-cast aluminum. This gives the handheld a rugged and tough exterior.

Display and Functions

Two large knobs on the top control the volume and squelch. Eight buttons on the front control the rest of the functions.

To keep the display compact, each of the eight buttons performs two functions. The device is easy to use with each of the function labeled on and below each button.

The battery power level has a display on the main screen. When the battery level gets low the screen will flash and an audible alarm will sound.

Power

Choose between 1, 2.5, and 5 watts for short and long-range communication. The lower power outputs of 1 and 2 watts will extend the battery life. The battery will last twelve hours with regular use.

Channels

The radio is compatible with USA, Canadian, and International marine channels. There are also 10 weather channels available from NOAA.

Compact Size

The compact size is 2.5 x 4.6 x 1.5 inches and weight of 10.4 ounces. This makes it the perfect size to carry it on a belt.

Waterproof

The MHS75 does not float. It does have an IPX8 rating. It will withstand submersion in up to 1.5 meters for 30 minutes.

Warranty

Uniden offers a three-year warranty for the radio. A one year warranty is available for the battery.

Icom IC-M73

The Icom is another affordable yet feature loaded marine radio. It has a large amount of power making it a good choice for boaters who plan to travel further off the coast.

Display

The body of the device is ergonomically shaped like an hourglass. A wide viewing angle high-intensity LCD screen is bright and easy to read.

Channels

Choose from 1, 3, and 6-watt power outputs. Dual and tri watch monitors multiple channels simultaneously.

Use the favorite channel function to program the most often used channels. Use the channel tag function to quickly scan through the available channels.

Performance

Access US, Canadian, and international channels with this radio. Its frequency range is from 156.025 to 157.425MHz.

Active bidirectional noise canceling reduces 90% of background noise. This filtering applies to both outgoing and incoming communications.

A bass boost function emphasizes low pitched sounds. This creates a richer sound. The audio output is double other radios with a bridge-tied load amplifier.

The last call made is automatically saved for one minute with the "Last call" feature. Manual activation of this feature is also possible. Calls are never missed or lost with this function.

Battery

A 2000mAh Li-ion battery powers this handheld for up to 16 hours. There is an auto power save function.

Expect the battery to last about four days with typical use. A cigarette, AC adapter, and rapid charger come with the radio.

A battery pack is also included. When the display screen indicates low battery, use the battery pack to extend the active use time.

Accessories

Extra antennas, batteries, charging cables, and microphones are all available from Icom. A user can also buy a belt clip and headset to make taking this headset with you easy.

Waterproof

It is waterproof up to 4.9 feet for up to 30 minutes. This is a waterproof protection rating of IPX8.

The AquaQuake function automatically drains water that gets in the speaker. A vibrating sound clears water out of the speaker grill.

Cobra MRHH350FLT

The Cobra's unique orange color helps it stand out among its peers and in the water. Its compact and lightweight design make it perfect for boaters who are on a budget but still want all the features.

Display

The display is a large, orange, backlit, LCD screen. The large numbers indicating the channel are easily seen in day or night.

A weather icon will show the current conditions. If there is a weather alert another icon will signal this.

The screen is not cluttered and everything has a label. Users do not need to study the manual to learn how to navigate the information.

Power

Choose between 1,3, and 6 watts of power. This provides for customized short and long-range communications.

For nearby boats choose 1 watt of power. To communicate with vessels further away choose 6 watts of power.

Performance

The noise-canceling microphone actively removes background and ambient noise. If the radio is accidentally dropped or water gets in it, a BURP function will activate.

This causes the speaker to vibrate. Any water that is in the speaker grill gets expelled to maintain sound quality.

Battery

There is a 1040 mAH Lithium-Ion battery providing 8 hours of continuous operation at max power. If the power output reduces to 1 watt the battery can last 16 hours.

The battery level on the LED screen indicates the remaining charge. When the battery gets low an audible sound will ding and the screen will flash.

To charge the battery, a desktop charger and 12V DC plug come included. An AC 110-024 adapter is available to purchase which allows the use of AA batteries.

Accessories

A belt clip and spare antenna are included. Cobra offers other accessories and replacement parts for sale.

Weather

NOAA weather channels are available for weather alerts. This works in conjunction with the icon displayed on the LCD screen.

Channels

All USA, Canadian, and International channels are available on the handheld. It operates in the frequencies of 156.050 to 163.275 MHz.

A multi-channel monitoring feature can track up to three channels. There is also instant access available to channel 16 for emergencies.

Waterproof

Measuring 4.75" x 2.66" x 2.09" inches and weighing 9.59 oz, this handheld radio floats when dropped into water. The waterproof rating certifies it in up to one meter (3.3 feet) of water for thirty minutes.

Portable

The handheld's small size makes it perfect for carrying. Cobra provides a spring-loaded belt clip and lapel mic.

Warranty

A three-year warranty comes with each handheld radio. Cobra stands behind their radio being waterproof. Warranty coverage includes any water damage done to the radio.

Choose Your Handheld VHF Radio

When shopping for a VHF radio, decide which features are important and which ones are less so. Determine a budget and look for a handheld radio that combines the features and budget.

The Standard Horizon HX870 has the biggest and most modern looking screen. This handheld is a wise choice for those who intend to travel internationally.

The Uniden MHS75 is the affordable handheld radio. It doesn't have as many features. It makes a great investment for a boater who stays local.

The Icom IC-M73 radio is one of the most powerful on this list. It's loaded with all of the features. It is a good option for boaters who plan to travel.

The Cobra MRHH350FLT is a compact radio with the generous amount of features. This is a great choice for boaters who want to carry their radio with them.

Check out our blog for more marine VHF radio reviews.

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