Best Marine VHF Radio: Keeping you connected on the Water

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Best Marine VHF Radio – How do you stay connected offshore?

 

So you’re planning to head offshore, huh??

Your smartphone isn’t gonna cut it once you lose sight of land and connection to cell towers….but you know that, right?

For anyone who has been in the world of boating for a while, you can remember a time when VHF and SSB radios were the only connection to the outside world for boaters.

A VHF Radio, also known as a Very High Frequency radio, is a type of two-way communication that is commonly used in maritime settings.

Used as a reliable method of ship-to-ship and ship-to-shore communication, VHF is a crucial tool for communication on the water.

They also serve as an especially important communication channel for weather, safety and distress for both recreational boaters and people in the professional maritime industry.

VHF Radios feature dedicated channels that provide boaters with valuable information on the water including emergency communication, navigational information and more.

Channel 16 is especially critical for boaters as it provides an international hailing and distress frequency for all boaters on the water.

As an essential safety tool for boaters, VHF radios play a critical role.

But with so many VHF radios to choose from in a variety of options on the market today, it can be overwhelming for boaters to choose the right radio for their unique boating situation.

That’s why we’ve put together this brief guide to help introduce you to some of the most reliable, well-reviewed, and best marine VHF radios for boaters.

We’ve researched a ton of options to provide you with a host of different brands, as well as options to suit your boating life like handheld vs fixed-mount radio systems.

Having a reliable VHF radio onboard your vessel is beyond important for boaters of all shapes and sizes.

We hope that our research and recommendations will help guide you to an option that is best fit for your nautical life.

Now, on to some of our top picks for boaters with respect to the best marine VHF Radio.

Top Handheld VHF Radio

An image of the Cobra Handheld Floating VHF radio available on Amazon.com

Cobra MR HH350 Handheld Floating VHF

Top Fixed-Mount VHF Radio

An image of the Uniden UM385 fixed mount VHF radio available on Amazon.com

Uniden UM385 25 Watt Fixed Mount Marine VHF Radio

Honorable Mention Handheld VHF

An image of the Uniden MHS75 Waterproof handheld VHF available on Amazon.com

Uniden MHS75 Waterproof Handheld VHF

Best Handheld VHF Radio

Cobra MR HH350 Handheld FLoating VHF Radio

First up on our list of popular marine VHF radios is the floating and submersible handheld VHF radio from Cobra.

Our pick for the top handheld VHF radio, this powerful little VHF radio is a great option for boaters with smaller boats that don’t intend to have any fix-mounted VHF, or those looking for a reliable emergency backup.

Available in Grey and White, this handheld system features a bright orange core for high visibility.

Featuring 6 watts of power for longer-range communications, it comes complete with full access to NOAA weather channels and is IPX7 rated for reliable water resistance.

The noise-canceling microphone ensures clear communication even in harsh marine conditions, while the water-resistance and floating capabilities provide a reliable platform for communications even in emergency situations.

Providing maximum coverage wherever you go for USA, Canada and International communications.

A great solution for the boater who is in need of a reliable handheld VHF option for onboard.

An image of the Cobra Handheld Floating VHF radio available on Amazon.com

Top Fixed Mount VHF Radio

Uniden UM385 25 Watt Fixed Mount VHF Radio

Next up on our list is our pick for the best fixed-mount VHF Radio.

The Uniden UM385 is a 25 Watt VHF marine radio system that is rated IPX4 waterproof for reliable use onboard your vessel.

Featuring DSC capabilities, international marine channels and S.A.M.E. Weather Alerts, the UM385 gives you everything you need on the water for reliable and effective communication and emergency distress.

The DSC capabilities include an easy-to-use distress button, and position send and request for quick and easy emergency access on the water that includes the ability to send and receive your position between you and other boats.

With a rugged handheld microphone, this VHF system allows for effective communication while you keep your eyes on the water in front of you.

This radio features increased visibility for users with a white backlight for day use and an orange backlight for nighttime usage.

A great solution for boaters looking for a reliable fixed-mount VHF for consistent use on the water.

An image of the Uniden UM385 fixed mount VHF radio available on Amazon.com

Uniden MHS75 Waterproof Handheld VHF Marine Radio

Looking for another option for a waterproof handheld VHF?

The Uniden MHS75 is a powerful little VHF radio whether it’s your primary VHF on smaller boats or simply an emergency backup to your fixed-mounted VHF system. 

Featuring a floating design that is JIS8 waterproof, this trusty hand-held radio won’t give up in the harsh marine elements. 

Designed to switch between 1, 2.5 or 5 watts for effective short and long-range communication, and also to save your battery life, this handheld provides custom power options to help ensure your message gets through. 

Another solid feature is the 16/9/Triple Watch mode that monitors channels 16 & 9 while you listen on your currently selected channel. Allowing boaters to stay in the know on the primary emergency channels while continuing more private communications. 

The handheld kit comes complete with a sturdy belt clip, DC charger, lithium-ion battery, and a trusty wrist strap.   

The submersible design is a great solution for boaters who need a reliable handheld VHF radio for their boating life. 

An image of the Uniden MHS75 Waterproof handheld VHF available on Amazon.com

Standard Horizon HX210 6-watt Compact Floating Marine Handheld VHF

The next product on our list of best marine VHF radios is another solid handheld option for boaters.

The Standard Horizon HX210 is a compact and strongly designed floating handheld VHF radio that features 6-watt power for effective two-way communication.

This unit is designed with a number of powerful features for boaters that include:

  • Submersible IPX7 Waterproof Rating (Waterproof for up to 30 minutes in up to 1 meter of water)
  • Water-activated Emergency Strobe light
  • Selectable 1, 2.5 or 6  Watt output power
  • High-capacity lithium-ion battery
  • Floats face-up if dropped in the water
  • Expanded received that allows for FM radio stations

Kit includes the handheld VHF radio, antenna, AC/DC Rapid charger and all documentation.

Another great option for a handheld emergency communication system.

An image of the Standard Horizon Marine Handheld VHF Radio available on Amazon.com

Cobra MR F45-D Fixed Mount VHF Marine Radio

Need another option for a fixed-mount VHF for your boat?

The next product on our list is the Cobra MR F45-D Fixed Mount VHF which provides powerful options for boaters with a compact fixed-mount system.

Some of the great features of this powerful VHF unit include:

  • Maximum coverage of channels in the US, Canada and Internationally
  • 10 NOAA weather channels
  • Dual Watch feature to monitor multiple channels at once
  • Visual Display of the strength of an incoming call signal
  • Digital Selective Calling – send distress signals at the touch of a button, exchange your position with other boats or emergency providers.
  • Dual Output power for short and long-range communication
  • Illuminated LCD display for efficient user experience

This a great solution for boaters that need a powerful fixed-mounted solution for their boats.

An image of the Cobra MR F45-D Fixed Mount VHF Radio avaialble on Amazon.com

Uniden Atlantis 155 Handheld 3-Watt Two-way VHF Radio

Next up on our list of reliable marine VHF radios is another compact, waterproof and handheld VHF radio.

The Uniden Atlantis 155 meets the toughest waterproof standards with IPX8 / JIS8 waterproofing that provides submersible capabilities for emergency situations.

The unit also floats and clears its speaker of water after being submerged to ensure clean communication channels in even tough marine elements.

The system receives all Marine radio channels including USA, Canada and International channels, as well as new 4-digit channels and Canadian “B” channels.

Featuring NiMH Rechargeable 4xAAA batteries and a rechargeable DC charging cable, this unit provides up to 10 hours of reliable communication on a single charge.

Bright and brilliant backlit LCD provides a great user experience in both day and nighttime conditions for easy use.

Another great option for a backup or emergency handheld VHF unit for your adventures on the water.

An image of the Uniden Atlantis 155 available on Amazon.com

Standard Horizon GX1400 Eclipse Fixed Mount VHF Radio

Looking for a powerful 25-Watt Fixed Mount VHF?

The next product on our list is the Standard Horizon GX1400 Eclipse fixed-mount VHF radio system.

This model replaces older Eclipse+ and Eclipse DSC Models.

This powerful unit includes a number of great features that are designed to help boaters with effective two-way communication on the water.

Some of these features include:

  • Radio controls directly on the handheld microphone
  • Digital Selective Calling features including immediate distress notification
  • Submersible IPX8 waterproof rating
  • All USA, Canada and International channels
  • NOAA Weather channels featuring weather alerts
  • High-resolution dot matrix display
  • Easy-to-operate menu system

The system also includes a 3-year warranty providing boaters with solid peace of mind fo the operation of their marine VHF radio.

An image of the Standard Horizon GX1400 VHF radio available on Amazon.com

Standard Horizon HX890 Handheld VHF

The next option on our list provides another solution for a handheld VHF radio.

The Standard Horizon HX890 Handheld VHF is a 6-Watt, Class H, DSC two-way radio that features  IPX8 waterproof rating, loud audio and noise-canceling functions.

With an 11 hour battery life, and 6-watt transmitting power, this compact unit provides powerful two-way communication on the water as either a primary or backup emergency VHF radio.

Designed with a built-in man overboard feature that includes a water-activated “white” emergency strobe light, this kit comes complete with a rechargeable lithium-ion battery, wall charger, 12v charger, and belt clip with lanyard.

Some of the other great features of this model include:

  • Rugged case construction that conforms to Military Standard (MIL-STD-810F)
  • Submersible IPX8 construction
  • Digital Selective Calling
  • 11-hour operating time
  • Day & night delectable display mode
  • Man overboard and Emergency Strobe light
  • 6-watt output power

A powerful option for boaters looking for something rugged with built-in DSC capabilities in a handheld model.

An image of the Standard Horizon HX890 Handheld VHF available on Amazon.com

Standard Horizon GX1800GW 25-Wat VHF with Built-in GPS

Looking for a fixed mount system that includes built-in GPS capabilities

The Standard Horizon GX1800GW might be right up your alley. 

Integrated with a 66-channel WAAS GPS receiver, this unit is ready out of the box without having to install additional wiring to a separate GPS output. 

It also serves as a remotely mounted full-functioning second station (RAM mic) and includes DSC distress calling, individual calling, group calling and position sharing. 

Designed with an extra-large, bright high-resolution dot matrix display, this unit is easy to use and easy to see in both day and night conditions. 

Our choice for a fixed system that includes GPS capability out of the box. 

An image of the Standard Horizon GX1800GW VHF radio available on Amazon.com

ICOM M94D VHF Marine Radio

Next up on our list is the world’s first handheld to feature the power of AIS, or Automatic Identification System. 

The ICOM M94D provides a host of powerful features that make this unit an ideal backup or primary emergency VHF radio system. 

Some of these features include:

  • Automatic flashing LED upon entry to water
  • Noise-canceling technology
  • Dual and tri-watch monitoring functions
  •  DSC distress calling class H
  • IPX7 Waterproofing
  • 6-watt power output
  • GPS integrated

A powerful and feature-heavy solution in a rugged handheld VHF.

An image of the ICOM M94D VHF Marine Radio available on Amazon.com

Lowrance VHF Marine Radio with DSC & AIS-RX

The final VHF radio on our list is a fixed-mount professional version VHF radio from Lowrance, a trusted maritime brand. 

This system features both DSC & AIS functionality to help with advanced emergency and safety features on the water

Designed with a large and clear white dot matrix LCD screen, and a robust handheld receiver with distress, channel and volume options built-in, this VHF radio is a powerful unit for serious boaters.  

A great option for anyone looking for the reliability of the Lowrance brand with advanced features in a fixed-mount system. 

An image of the Lowrance VHF marine Radio avialable on Amazon.com

Do I need a Handheld or Fixed-Mount VHF?

After looking through our guide to reliable marine VHF radios, one thing is obvious….they come in both handheld and fixed-mounted versions.

So which type do you need?

If your boat has any size at all it is almost imperative that you have at least one fixed-mounted VHF onboard.

A fixed-mount VHF will provide significantly more output power than a handheld model and will be attached to a fixed antenna that provides much longer-range communications than that available in handheld models.

Handhelds, on the other hand, are a great option for smaller boats that may not have room for a full panel of electronics and a fixed antenna.

They are also a great backup, or emergency option, for boaters who want a system that is easy to use, and easy to take with you if something happens on the water.

Fixed mount systems will usually provide more advanced systems and features that handhelds either don’t offer or offer at a significant price.

Choosing the right VHF for your boat requires a careful examination of your unique boating life and how you will use your VHF capabilities.

How Does a VHF Radio Work?

VHF radios are one of the most important nautical tools on any boat.

They provide effective ship-to-ship and ship-to-shore communication, assist navigation and enable critical safety purposes for boaters of all types on the water.

VHF radios work by converting sound waves into electrical signals that are amplified and transmitted via VHF frequencies. In a basic sense, this includes:

  1. Signal Creation and input into the receiver by sending party
  2. Amplification and Transmission
  3. Antenna Transmission 
  4. Reception by a receiver
  5. Demodulation of the electrical signals back into sound waves
  6. The output of the audio transmission by the receiver

By sending and receiving these transmissions, boaters can keep lines of communication open on the water over very long distances.

Critical VHF Radio Channels for Boaters

One of the most important features of VHF Radio is the standard channels that are provided to boaters to assist with different issues on the water.

There are a number of standardized VHF channels that provide essential communication, navigation and safety information for the boating population.

Some of the most important standard VHF channels include:

  • Channel 16: The most important channel on the VHF network. It is specifically designated as the international hailing and distress channel. Channel 16 is usually used for initial contact with other vessels, marinas, and authorities. One of the standard monitoring channels to keep abreast of what is happening around you on the water.
  • Channel 9: Used as a backup to Channel 16, this channel is usually used for hailing other vessels and an emergency backup channel. In some locations, Channel 9 is also used to communicate with bridge and canal operators for passage among coastal waterways.
  • Channel 22A: The US Coast Guard’s primary working channel for vessel traffic in many areas.
  • Channel 70: Used for digital selective calling (DSC) and the process of automated distress calls.
  • Weather Channels: Specific channels that provide real-time boating and weather updates from NOAA (National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration).

While this is a basic outline of some of the more important standard channels on VHF, it is important to consider local guidelines and regulations in your boating areas to get a better feel for the most important channels in your unique boating life. 

Important VHF Radio Features

The power of VHF Radio comes down to two main factors:

Communication and Safety.

And many of the most important features of a VHF radio stem from those capabilities.

When you’re shopping for a VHF radio, here are a few advanced, and more basic, features you need to keep in mind to choose the right radio for your boat:

DSC, or Digital Selective Calling

DSC is a very important feature of any VHF radio system.

It relates directly to the safety capacities on the water that a radio system provides.

Specifically, DSC allows for a quick and effective system for distress signaling in times of emergencies on the water.

While no boater ever thinks that they will experience an emergency on the ocean, when it does happen it can happen quickly and without warning.

This is where a DSC system can save the lives of boaters.

Instead of searching for a channel to broadcast your emergency message, a DSC system enables direct transmission of your emergency message with the press of one simple button.

This way, no matter what type of chaos is happening around a captain, they can easily and quickly broadcast a mayday or SOS message without needing to think about the steps involved.

AIS, or Automatic Identification Systems

AIS, like DSC, is another important safety feature that some VHF radios have integrated to provide precise position data for boats.

An AIS system automatically tracks and exchanges information between vessels and shore stations that provides real-time tracking data about the course, speed, position and identification of other nearby ships.

Some of the key benefits of an AIS system include:

  • Collision Avoidance
  • Vessel Identification via MMSI number
  • Real-time tracking
  • High-traffic situational awareness
  • Radar and ECDIS (Electronic Chart Display Information Systems) integration
  • Vessel identification and classification

VHF systems that provide advanced features like AIS provide better information on the water to help keep shipping channels and other popular boating areas safer for boaters.

AIS is especially valuable in areas with heavy boat traffic, but it does not replace having eyes on the water in front of you at all times to avoid any unforeseen or hidden nautical impediments.

While a VHF system with built-in AIS can cost more than other VHF systems, having the added technology can be critical for certain segments of the boating population.

MMSI, or Maritime Mobile Service Identity

The next important VHF radio feature that boaters should be aware of is the MMSI.

MMSI is a unique 9-digit number that is assigned to vessels on the water to help accurately identify them on the water.

This unique 9-digit number works in a similar fashion as a phone number, linking a specific vessel, or in some cases a specific individual, for purposes of navigation and identification.

MMSI is used in coordination with DSC to help provide all of the features that come with DSC technology.

Often times boaters will need to register a MMSI number for use with select VHF radio systems in order to use all of the integrated features.

This unique number helps to provide identification and position reporting, is used in group VHF calls, and provides the US Coast Guard with advanced rescue information for boats in distress.

When purchasing a VHF system, be sure to verify if you will need to register an MMSI number in order to use all of the features of your unique system.

Handheld Receivers

A standard part of any VHF radio system is the handheld receiver.

While handheld units have the receiver obviously built directly into the portable system, fixed-mount units come with an external and attached receiver.

However, these receivers are not all the same.

Some systems provide volume controls, channel controls and other customizable features built directly into the receiver for ease of use for Captains on the water.

When purchasing a fixed mount system, be sure to look out for extra features and benefits of the receiver to make your VHF system perform better for your boating needs.

VHF Antennas

Next up on our list of important considerations for any VHF system is the VHF antenna.

While handheld units include a built-in antenna as part of the portable system, fixed-mount systems do not include an antenna.

Unless your boat already has a VHF antenna installed, you will need to purchase and install a fixed antenna onboard your vessel to have the best communication for your boat.

Choosing a VHF antenna comes with a variety of considerations. In a basic sense, some of these include:

  • The frequency range of the antenna
  • The type of antenna you need for your boat.
  • The required overall length of your antenna for your boat size
  • The antenna gain, or ability to focus signal strength in a specific direction
  • Fixed-mount vs folding or removable antennas
  • Antenna material: commonly fiberglass vs stainless steel
  • The mounting location on your boat and the associated installation required
An image of a crew member spekaing on a marine VHF radio in the engine room of a yacht.

Best Marine VHF Radio Buying Guide

As we’ve outlined in the products and information above, having a good VHF radio can make all the difference in helping your communication and safety on the water.

However, with all of the models on the market today, it can be challenging to pick the right VHF for your unique needs, especially given all of the advanced technology options available to boaters today.

That’s why we’ve put together the following buying guide for Marine VHF radios to help outline some of the important considerations you should take into account when choosing your next VHF radio unit.

Some of these important considerations include:

 

Expected Usage:

How will you be using your VHF radio?

Are you a weekend warrior who stays close to shore or in coastal waterways?

Do you head offshore for regular extended fishing trips?

Are you a professional mariner who is looking for a robust system to help keep you and your crew informed and safe on the water?

Understanding how you intend to use VHF capabilities will help you better choose the best-fit system for your boating life.

 

Channel & Frequency Range:

Before purchasing your next VHF radio system, be sure that it has access to all the standard channels and fits the frequency range of normal VHF usage.

Usually selecting a marine VHF system will cover all of the standard frequencies, but it’s important that you confirm that your system has access to everything you need on the water.

 

Power Output:

When choosing your VHF Radio, the next important consideration is what type of power output the system has.

This is especially important when considering handheld systems.

Power output, measured by wattage provides a better signal range for your VHF communication.

Marine fixed-mount systems usually start around 25 watts, while handhelds can range anywhere from 1-8 watts.

Since the wattage of your unit equates specifically to the power of the signal range, it is critical to choose a system that has enough power to fit your boating lifestyle and the unique needs you have on the water.

 

Digital Selective Calling (DSC) Compatibility:

As we’ve outlined previously, DSC is an advanced feature in Marine VHF radios that provides automatic distress signaling and digital communication with other vessels.

While it is becoming more and more featured in VHF radio systems, DSC is still an advanced feature that is not included in every system.

When purchasing your next marine VHF system be sure to look out for DSC capability as one of the added features of your unit.

 

Waterproofing:

The next important consideration when purchasing any marine VHF radio system is the level of waterproofing available.

Since your VHF will be used on the water, waterproofing is obviously an important consideration when purchasing a new radio.

This is especially true with handheld units that are more prone to water exposure.

When purchasing your next system, be sure to look into the level of waterproofing available so that you can have some peace of mind when using your radio on and around the water.

 

Ease of use in interface and display:

You obviously want to be able to easily read your VHF radio screen.

Choosing a radio with an easy-to-use interface and display system is critical when choosing your radio.

This is especially true with respect to day vs nighttime usage and the different features to help make that easier.

Look for units with a clear, backlit display that provides easy reading and viewing from a distance no matter what time of day.

 

Noise Canceling Functionality:

One thing we can all agree on is that it can definitely be noisy on a boat.

From the sound of the engines to the wind and spray in your face, being on a boat can involve some noise!

When choosing your next VHF radio be sure to consider features related to noise-canceling technology in your new system.

Does the receiver provide noise-cancellation so that you can transmit your message clearly?

Does the speaker provide noise cancellation and loud volume that allows you to hear radio transmissions over the sound of your idling engines?

Choosing a system with better noise cancellation can help you have a  much better user experience when on the water.

 

Battery Life:

If you’re looking at a handheld unit, the next consideration is especially important.

Knowing how long you can expect your handheld system to last with respect to battery power is critical when making the choice for a new VHF radio.

Look out for systems that can stay powered up and provide reliable power on the water long past the duration of your scheduled adventures on the water.

 

Safety & Emergency Features:

Other than communication, the primary purpose of VHF radios revolves around safety.

Make sure that when choosing your next radio system you consider emergency and safety features that are built-in.

Emergency buttons or dedicated distress channels can help provide quick and easy access to emergency assistance on the water.

 

Channel Monitoring & Scanning:

Another great feature to look out for when choosing your next marine VHF radio is the functionality of channel scanning and monitoring on your new system.

Radios that include scanning capabilities like dual and tri-watch scanning allows boaters to monitor multiple channels at once for important communications on the water.

 

Cost and Warranty:

Next up on our buying guide for the best marine VHF radio is the consideration of cost and warranty.

While obvious, it is critical to choose a system that fits your budget while providing the necessary features and functions to keep you safe on the water.

Similarly, since this is a critical piece of technology on your boat look out for products that include a no-questions-asked warranty so that you can have the peace of mind needed while on the water.

 

Local Regulations & Compliance:

The final factor on our buying guide for the best marine VHF radio deals with local regulations and compliance.

While in most locations it is not necessary to have a license for VHF radio usage, it is critical to understand local regulations regarding VHF usage and how your new system complies with these rules.

One commonly overlooked factor for boaters looking into new VHF radios deals with the issue of MMSI registration for systems that use DSC and AIS functionality.

If you are choosing a system that has more advanced features and functionality, make sure you understand issues related to MMSI registration and other issues related to local compliance.

 

As you can see, choosing the right VHF radio for your boat can require some thought and research.

In this article, we have tried to shine a light on a list of trusted and well-reviewed marine VHF radios to help you narrow your options.

However, it’s important that you choose your product based on the unique needs of your life on the water!

And be sure to follow all manufacturer guidelines for installation and safety precautions closely to achieve the best results for your treasured marine vessels.

An image of a fixed mount VHF radio system in a boat.

Final Thoughts on Marine VHF Radio

When it comes to effective communication, safety and peace of mind on the water, a reliable VHF radio is an absolutely critical piece of equipment aboard any vessel on the water. 

In this article, we’ve explored a number of great options, both handheld and fixed-mount, to help you narrow down your search for the best marine VHF radio. 

We hope that the research and choices we have presented you with here help you make a better informed and more effective choice for your marine VHF system. 

Remember that ultimately the choice of VHF radio comes down to what best fits the unique needs of your boating life. 

Whichever option you choose, be sure to follow local guidelines and keep your VHF radio usage responsible, professional and courteous to make sure you are in line with local and established maritime behavior on the water.  

No matter if you are exploring waters close to shore, heading offshore in search of that next big catch or just getting out on the ocean with your family and friends, a VHF radio is an indispensable piece of technology for any marine vessel. 

We wish you calm seas on your adventures!

Let us know down below in the comments if our guide helped your search!

 

Did you like this article? Did it help your search to find the perfect type of boat? Leave us a comment below and join the conversation!

Or have a look at some of our other marine guides including Gifts for Boat Owners, or informative posts like our Boat Grill Review, Anchor Chain Solutions, choosing the Best Fishing Hats, Selecting the Best Marine Stereo, or our guide to Haulover Inlet!

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