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Last updated: March 16, 2023
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VHF marine radios can be useful for calling to other fishers to find out where the fish are biting, but they’re important for so much more than that. Whether you need to call in to a marine or port controller to navigate coastal waters, communicate with a vessel passing close to your own, or to call for help in case of an emergency, a marine VHF radio is designed for that. These radios are standard on many commercial vessels, but they should also be a part of any recreational ship as an emergency tool.
To help you find the best VHF marine radio for your boat, we looked at several features of these devices. First, we looked at the type – whether handheld or designed to be mounted permanently onto your ship’s console. We also considered the power, which impacts on how far your signal can travel and how much of it the radio uses. Display size was an essential consideration for the ease of use. Finally, we looked at features for emergency use, including whether each VHF radio comes with a GPS beacon, automatic identification system (AIS), or digital selective calling (DSC) system. We came up with a list of top 9 picks, and the Uniden UM385BK deserved our Editor’s Choice nomination.
"With this fixed mount VHF marine radio, you will be able to send your signal quite far due to 25W transmission power. You may also join International and emergency channels to make your boating safe."
"An affordable handheld marine VHF radio with a wide range of features such as triple watch to operate your channel and track for weather alerts, water resistance and great quality of the transmission signal."
"This marine VHF radio has a helpful function to rewind the part of last transmission, which may be quite handy if you can’t hear anything because of the engine or harsh weather. The price for this fixed mount radio is incredible too."
"If you are looking for a fully waterproof handheld VHF marine radio with GPS, then you must consider this option. It will always have access to 66 channels, including the weather channel, which is essential for an emergency."
"Compact design isn’t something that we think of when speaking about fixed mount VHF marine radios. But this radio needs only a little space and fits on almost any boat providing the connection to all channels."
"This tri-watch fixed mount VHF marine radio is the best in terms of safety due to AIS receiver to track large vessels. Also, the speaker of the radio is loud and clear even when your engine is working."
More features: Hi/Lo power switch, International 4 digit channels, weather alert, area message encoding, memory channel scan, CMB Canadian marine broadcast “B” channels
This simple and inexpensive fixed mount marine VHF radio from Uniden is extremely popular among boaters. It offers everything you need to stay safe on the water without adding expensive extra features. To start, the radio offers a transmission power of up to 25 watts, and a Hi/Lo switch allows you to transmit within close ranges. The radio also includes basic safety features like DSC and automatic weather channel monitoring with alerts. Nevertheless, note that there is no GPS functionality unless you connect it to another GPS unit on your boat.
Boaters found that this radio is simple to operate and the three-inch screen is easy to read. They also appreciated that the volume knob can be turned high enough to be heard over most boat engines.
However, you must be a bit more careful while operating this radio. This is a budget unit, and the construction reflects that. It’s the only radio we reviewed rated less than IPX6, but still shows excellent performance on the water. All in all, many users were perfectly happy with this radio and didn’t experience any issues.
More features: All USA/International and Canadian marine channels, JIS8 waterproof level, weather alert channel, up to 12 hour battery life, lightweight, compact, TripleWatch mode to check 16, 9 channels for activity and listen to currently selected channel at the same time
This extremely affordable handheld marine VHF radio from Uniden is a good option for mariners who otherwise wouldn’t bring a radio along with them on the water. However, beware that it does not have GPS or DSC, so your options in the event of an emergency are much more limited than with a portable radio like the unit from Standard Horizon or compared to any fixed mount VHF radio.
This marine VHF radio is simple to operate and includes all US and Canadian marine channels. Helpfully, it includes a TripleWatch mode so you can monitor Channels 16 and 9 (US emergencies and weather, respectively) and another channel of your choice at the same time. The radio will also alert you when weather bulletins are issued.
The main advantage to this portable VHF is that it’s extremely lightweight and compact. The 12-hour battery life is good enough for a long day on the water, and the radio’s transmission power can be adjusted between 1, 2.5 and 5 watts to conserve battery.
Note that while this radio is rated to JIS-8 waterproofing, users found that it is better not to submerge it too deeply. Nevertheless, it still can work after several tests. In addition, users routinely reported breaking the belt clip on the radio.
More features: Dual/Tri- Watch function, IPX7 waterproof rating, weather channel with weather alert, tag scan and favorite channel functions
This reliable and powerful VHF marine radio from ICOM is well-loved among experienced boaters and it comes with a wide variety of features to justify its somewhat high price tag. Helpfully, the display on this radio is an extra large 3.4 inches across, which makes the fine print like your GPS coordinates easier to see. On top of that, the radio controls are straightforward and users found the interface overall quite easy to use. The only common complaint was that ICOM combined squelch and volume knobs into a single control knob, which can make changing the volume somewhat onerous.
The radio comes with DSC and features a standard NMEA cable for connecting to an external GPS unit. Just note that you’ll also need a puck antenna for any GPS for this unit to correctly receive coordinates. The radio features triple watch so monitoring channels is never a problem, and you can set favorite channels to return to them easily.
Overall, mariners were quite impressed with the performance and build of this marine radio. Unlike many other units, there were no problems with durability and the shell is completely waterproof to IPX7. You can even upgrade this radio down the road to add AIS capability.
More features: JIS7/IPX7 rated submersible, Tri-Watch, memory channels, memory scan, lightweight, compact, weather channel with weather alert.
This handheld VHF marine radio is significantly less expensive than the model from Standard Horizon and can make for a great backup to a fixed mount radio. The VHF is capable of transmitting at one, three, or six watts, which gives you a good blend of power and battery saving in a handheld unit. Unlike the Standard Horizon radio, this unit is lightweight and compact enough that you’d actually want to keep it on your body at all times on the water.
The VHF radio is rated to IPX7 and users found that it is indeed able to stand up to being submerged. The speaker is relatively loud, although an external speaker is a good idea if you plan to use this as your primary radio. Users also noted that the clip is prone to breaking, so be careful when handling it.
The radio is equipped with triple watch so you can operate on a non-emergency channel. Helpfully, it also includes weather alerts and can hold favorite channels for easy navigation. While the display is small at just 1.5 inches, the setup of keys on the radio makes it relatively simple to use.
More features: IPX7 waterproof rating, 10 Channel Memory, TriWatch, weather channel with weather alert, noise cancelling microphone, channel scan, alarms
It’s hard to argue with this no-nonsense fixed mount VHF marine radio from Cobra, which offers a huge array of useful features at an incredible value. The radio includes TriWatch and a 10-channel memory, making it easy to monitor emergency stations and local radio traffic relevant to your area. On top of that, the radio will alert you in the event of weather bulletins.
The three-inch screen can be somewhat crowded, but users were overall happy with the layout of this radio. The volume knob is prominent and simple arrow buttons make selecting a specific channel (as opposed to scanning) simple. Users also liked the ability to switch from 25-watt transmissions to one-watt transmissions for talking with local boats. In addition, the radio has a “rewind” button that instantly plays back the last few seconds of transmission – a helpful feature when messages get lost in the wind or engine roar.
The only downside to this VHF radio is Cobra’s support. While only a handful of boaters reported experiencing issues with this marine VHF radio, those that did noted that Cobra’s support was severely lacking.
More features: noise cancelling, USB port, compass, 3-year waterproof warranty, water activated emergency strobe light, Man Over Board function, 66 channels, weather channel, IPX8 waterproof rating, 1800 mAh Li-Ion battery.
This marine handheld VHF radio offers an impressive amount of features to keep you safe. The radio is specifically designed to deal with a situation in which you end up overboard or need to abandon your ship. It’s waterproof to IPX8 – the highest of any VHF radio in our review – has a built-in emergency strobe light that’s activated by water, and is designed to float. On top of that, this marine VHF radio is equipped with GPS and DSC to ensure that sending a distress signal only takes the push of a button and that rescuers can pinpoint your location.
The radio is designed to clip to your life vest, making it easy to ensure you keep it with you at all times. The transmission power is fully selectable up to six watts, which allows you to conserve battery life when you don’t need full range. Users also liked the large display, which makes it simple to read the well-thought-out menus on this portable VHF radio.
Some mariners note that the handheld VHF display uses a white rather than a standard red backlight, so you may need to get used to it.
More features: JIS-7 waterproof rating, large built-in speaker, ergonomic fist-microphone, weather channel, 55 international channels, 53 USA channels, 61 Canada channels
This marine VHF radio from Simrad is equipped with AIS to supplement your view of what other ships are in the water around you. That’s a major aid if you routinely boat in busy shipping channels or harbors. The AIS receiver is relatively straightforward to program and integrates well with most chart plotters through the unit’s NMEA port (which can also be used to connect to a GPS unit).
This radio outputs 22 watts of power, which is not that low at all compared to the other fixed mount VHF marine radios we reviewed. In any case, you’ll still be able to broadcast over 30 miles from your boat.
Unfortunately, this radio isn’t equipped with triple watch, so its use for monitoring multiple radio channels is somewhat limited. But the cost of this marine VHF radio is significantly lower than the rest radios on our list with AIS feature.
Still, if you need an AIS-equipped radio on a budget, this is a good option.
More features: 10 favorite channels with scan function, weather channel, polls up to 4 ships GPS positions, 3-year waterproof warranty, noise canceling microphone, compass, Dual Watch, priority scan, capable of connecting to a Second Station RAM3
This compact fixed mount VHF radio is designed for boat without a lot of console space. Standard Horizon designed the radio casing to be ultra-thin and taller than it is deep, so you can install this radio just about anywhere inside your ship without having a designated cabinet.
As far as its radio features go, this unit is quite capable. It includes DSC and can track the positions of up to four surrounding ships on the screen so you know who is in your immediate vicinity at all times even without a marine radar system. While the unit doesn’t come with a GPS, it can be connected to another GPS unit on your ship and most mariners opt to do this because of the added safety it provides.
The main downside to this marine VHF radio is that it only offers dual watch rather than triple watch. Thankfully, the radio does include weather alerts to prevent you from getting into the storm.
Users like that Standard Horizon built this radio with a noise cancelling microphone. And the unit is compatible with an external speaker system.
More features: dual channel AIS receiver, Dual Watch / Tri- Watch and all scan functions, weather channel, fully waterproof, high quality fist mic with built-in speaker, MOB feature, Track Your Buddy option
This AIS-equipped fixed mount VHF marine radio from Lowrance is designed for larger ships and boaters who spend a lot of time on the water. While the unit is expensive, experienced mariners are extremely impressed by the radio’s ease of use and the design of the AIS interface. Helpfully, the AIS receiver works with most chart plotters and marine GPS units so you can easily display where other AIS-equipped ships are. You can also use the AIS receiver to track specific ships, which is nice if you’re keeping an eye on the location of a friend’s boat.
The Lowrance VHF radio is fully outfitted with both dual and tri watch functions so you can monitor all the channels you need. It’s designed to be fully waterproof, and users loved that the fist mic has a built-in speaker so you can listen to important messages over the roar of the engine. Users also note that the primary speaker is plenty loud for most uses.
The VHF radio needs to be connected to an external GPS unit in order to offer coordinates. However, if you’re opting for this high-end radio making this connection is unlikely to be a problem.
What stands out?
AIS receiver is compatible with most chart plotters
Excellent interface and controls
Triple watch function
Built-in speaker on microphone
What cons did we manage to find?
Not an AIS transmitter
Things to Consider
Choosing the right VHF marine radio for your boat can be a difficult decision given how many different models are available today. Even distinguishing among our nine favorite models can make for a tough choice. Thus, our buying guide will cover everything you need to know about marine VHF radios and explain the features you should take into account when looking for a new radio.
What to consider before buying the VHF marine radio?
Marine radios may be compact, but they’re complex devices. There are tons of parameters to think about, and choosing the right radio could save your life if you ever have to use it in an emergency situation. In order to make sure you’re getting the best marine VHF radio for your boat, let’s take a closer look at the features you want to have in these devices.
Types of the VHF marine radios
The first thing you have to choose when deciding on a VHF marine radio is whether you want a portable unit or one that’s permanently mounted to your boat. Both styles have advantages and disadvantages.
The major advantage to portable VHF marine radios is that you can take them wherever you want. That means you can easily bring it with you if you go out on a friend’s boat for the day or you can take it off your boat to protect it from weather or potential thieves. Yet, portable marine VHF radios run on batteries, so you must always have spare batteries with you and the radio. Even though they are small, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they are not powerful enough. Portable VHF radios like the Standard Horizon HX870, Uniden MHS75, and Cobra MR HH350 FLT provide six watts of transmission power for a perfect signal.
Mounted VHF radios are designed to run off your boat’s power supply, which allows them to be much more powerful and means you don’t have to worry about batteries. However, they’re not easy to move – you can unscrew the mount, but that takes a decent amount of work. Most mariners prefer mounted VHF radios because of their wide transmission range.
The output power of your marine VHF radio is the primary determinant of how far your signal will reach. Handheld VHF radios are limited to just six watts and don’t have a huge range. Meanwhile, all of the mounted marine VHF radios we reviewed are capable of producing up to 25-watt signals.
Note that most radios, portable and mounted, allow you to select from multiple power outputs. That’s extremely helpful for saving battery on portable radios, or for talking with a nearby ship on a mounted radio without having everyone in the region to hear your conversation.
The display on a VHF marine radio is important because it lets you see what settings your radio are on, including what channel you’re speaking over. In almost all cases, the display on a mounted VHF radio will be larger than that on a portable radio. When looking at displays, make sure to choose one that has a backlight so you can read the display in the dark. One more thing to note is that all of the VHF marine radios we reviewed come with a backlight.
Since marine VHF radios are designed for use in emergency situations, it’s important that they are simple to use and relatively durable. Mounted models like the Standard Horizon The EXPLORER GPS GX1700 and Lowrance Link-8 DSC VHF make it easy to see what all of the buttons do, so even someone who isn’t acquainted with the radio’s functioning could figure out how to use it. On portable radios, look for water-activated emergency lights like those found in Standard Horizon HX870 to help rescuers find you if you go overboard.
When it comes to marine VHF radio menus, simpler is generally better. Unfortunately, most VHF radios don’t offer truly simple menus because there are so many options for channels, power settings, and more. This is one of the reasons that having a larger display can be helpful, as it allows you to see more of the menu options at once without scrolling.
No matter how your VHF radio is designed, make sure that the menus are easy to scroll through and that you know what each of the menus does so you’re prepared in case of an emergency.
Channels and frequency ranges
The functions around channels are extremely important to understand.
On top of that, look for radios that feature multiple weather channels with alerts – all of the radios we reviewed have this functionality. Getting an updated weather report while you’re at sea can be the difference between returning to port safely and ending up in a dangerous situation.
Navigation and tracking features
Modern marine VHF radios come with several critical navigation and tracking features.
The first of these is GPS. The GPS inside your VHF radio isn’t designed for navigation, although it can give you your position in latitude and longitude coordinates. Instead, your radio tracks your position so that it can transmit your position information to the Coast Guard or other emergency responders in the event of a distress signal.
To activate that distress signal, having digital selective calling (DSC) functionality is essential. This allows you to send an automated emergency call – along with your GPS position – with just the push of a button. All modern mounted VHF marine radios tend to have DSC built-in, although you won’t find this on some portable VHF radios.
Finally, Automatic Identification System (AIS) works with GPS to help your ship be spotted and identified by other vessels. This is particularly useful if you boat around shipping lanes, where small vessels could easily be run over by large cargo ships if they are not identified with GPS coordinates. AIS is included on the Simrad RS35 VHF/AIS and Lowrance Link-8 DSC VHF mounted marine VHF radios.
It’s incredibly important that marine VHF radios be able to withstand any amount of water, whether it comes from being submerged or being slammed by powerful waves. That’s why every VHF radio we reviewed is rated to at least IPX7 or JIS-7, which means that they can survive being place fully underwater as well as being pressurized. The Standard Horizon HX870 is rated to IPX8 since it is designed to serve as an emergency radio in man overboard situations.
Advantages of the VHF marine radios over the mobile phones
Given that most modern boaters already carry mobile phones, why is it so important to have a marine VHF radio on top of that? While mobile phones are great for many things, they have some limitations on the open ocean that VHF radios are specifically designed to deal with.
Mobile network area limitations
The first limitation of mobile phones is that they don’t work everywhere. In fact, at sea, they don’t work in most places. Once you’re more than a few miles from shore, your chances of getting a good cellular signal are very low. Without a cellular signal, you can’t contact other boats or emergency responders – so having a mobile phone won’t do you much good in an emergency situation or even for casual conversation with another ship.
While you could check the weather on your smartphone if you have a cellular signal that supports data transfer, we’ve already determined that cellular signal is unlikely to work at sea. So, how do you find out about a rapidly changing weather situation with your mobile phone?
This is another case where having a VHF radio that is designed to alert you when new weather bulletins are issues can save your life.
Finally, mobile phones can’t help you in almost any emergency situation. Unless your emergency occurs extremely close to shore, you won’t have cellular signal to transmit a call. Even if you can get a call through to rescuers, your rescue will be delayed because your cellphone won’t automatically transmit GPS information so responders can find your ship. Worst of all, mobile phones don’t do well around water – which means that if there is a man overboard, your cell phones will be useless. Also, they are less likely to be water resistant.
Marine VHF radios are typically around $100 to $200 depending on the features they include. Portable radios aren’t necessarily cheaper than basic mounted radios like the Uniden MHS75, and high-end portable radios like the Standard Horizon HX870 can actually be more expensive. Marine VHF radios that include AIS, like those from Simrad RS35 VHF/AIS and Lowrance Link-8 DSC VHF, tend to be significantly more expensive – upwards of $400.
If your boat is less than 20 meters (65.6 feet) in length, you are not required to carry a VHF marine radio with you. However, this is an extraordinarily important piece of safety equipment, and it is highly recommended that every boater, no matter what size your ship, carry a VHF radio.
Yes. Keeping your VHF radio on is not strictly required if you are not required to have a radio on your ship. However, you should always keep your radio on so you can monitor for weather alerts. In addition, whenever your radio is on, you are required by law to monitor Channel 16, the emergency broadcast channel in the US.
LED lights and other onboard electronics have been known to cause interference with VHF marine radios that can inhibit your ability to hear signals. You can determine if you are experiencing interference by turning off all other electronics, turning the radio just below the squelch noise level, and then turning on your electronics one by one. If you do have electronics causing interference, you’ll need to remove or replace them.
On the third place, we have Standard Horizon The EXPLORER GPS GX1700. Compact design isn’t something that we think of when speaking about fixed mount VHF marine radios. But this radio needs only a little space and fits on almost any boat providing the connection to all channels.
Second place goes to the Uniden MHS75. When you are up to saving up some cash for something else, this marine VHF marine radio comes to our minds. Waterproof and floating, it can help you in many different situations to send a signal.
We feel that the Uniden UM385BK deserves the first place and is the overall best VHF marine radio. With this fixed mount VHF marine radio, you will be able to send your signal quite far due to 25W transmission power. You may also join International and emergency channels to make your boating safe.