Best handheld marine radios: 8 feature-rich VHF options for your boat
Handheld VHF marine radio design is improving with new functions added every year. We take a look at some of the best handheld marine radios on the market.
Significant improvements in a number of areas in recent years have seen handheld VHF marine radios move from being purely a portable communications device to something altogether more useful. As technology has shrunk, battery life improved and screens become clearer, handheld VHFs can now offer many of the safety features that used to be available only on fixed marine radios. Features now often include: frequency scanning; weather reports; GPS integration; and an ability to automatically send distress signals.
Waterproofing has increased too with many of the best handheld marine radios now able to float for sustained periods of time without any damage to the internal electrics. Many of these floating handheld VHFs also offer some form of automatically activated strobe to help you find it in the dark if it has been dropped in the water.
Of course, as is the case with any handheld, mobile, battery-powered device there are trade-offs to consider. The more feature rich the handheld marine radio, the bigger it will be, the more screen real estate is will need to display options and thus the more prone it is to increased battery drain. Smaller units might well offer fewer features but may counter this through increased battery life – even with a smaller batter – or better convenience or value.
Best handheld marine radios available now
Standard Horizon HX870 handheld marine radio
Standard Horizon’s HX870 is a feature-rich handheld VHF, with impressive functionality. It features a large screen, which is not only easy to read but also points to the array of functions available. The handheld radio floats and is fully waterproof with an IPX8 rating.
The HX870 has a built-in GPS receiver, something you will not find in other models offering less functionality, and is DSC-capable – so you can send a digital message to other DSC-capable receivers, including your GPS coordinates. If you send a distress message, it will automatically activate alarms on all DSC-capable receivers.
The VHF features a high capacity 1,800 mAh battery and comes with a rapid charger (3hr to full from empty). On the front of the radio, there’s a programmable strobe light that switches on automatically if the radio is submerged.
Battery life: 12 hours
DSC: Yes – Class D
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Standard Horizon HX40E Ultra Compact handheld marine radio
This new VHF from Standard Horizon is small – 5.2cm x 9.5cm x 3.3cm (2.05in x 3.74in x 1.3in) – and weighing only 230g without the antenna it’s about the size of a standard pack of cards.
It has an easy-to-navigate menu and can save 10 channels as presets, as well as having CH16 available at the press of a button.
While it’s waterproof, the radio doesn’t float unless you opt for the SHC-29 floating case, which enlarges it.
The radio has a battery-save function to give the most from its 7.4v lithium polymer battery, while the less battery-cautious owner can take advantage of the built-in FM radio.
Battery life: 20 hours
ICOM IC-M93D handheld marine radio
The Icom IC-M93D is chock-full of features – two key ones are its built-in GPS and DSC. The VHF is buoyant and has a fitted strobe that will flash to show where it is when in the water.
The M93D features a waterproof rating of IPX7 (1 meter for 30 mins) and it offers a battery life on standby of 9 hours (charging in 2 hours). Also of note is the sizeable screen, making it easier to read than some smaller offerings, even with more information displayed.
A handheld VHF for years has been a communication device: primarily a way to summon help, call up a marina or even grab a water taxi. DSC has increased functionality making a VHF more of a safety device that helped alert and locate rescue services to the user’s position. The M93D takes this a step further offering location via DSC and can be set to automatically trigger a MOB alert. Certainly this is a clear bonus for anyone sailing single or shorthanded.
Battery life: 9 hours
Icom IC-M25 handheld marine radio
The IC-M25 is more of an entry level device than its bigger sister, the IC-M93D (above) and this is reflected in the price. However, the handheld VHF does still have a reasonably strong feature list. It does float and also features a strobe light on the unit which will flash when it is in the water. It also has a waterproof IPX7 rating.
The slim design means that it is one of the lightest units on the market at a mere 220g. The radio also has a tidy USB connector for convenient charging from a variety of electronic devices.
Even though it is a small unit, it does still feature plenty of screen real estate, and it boasts an LCD screen that is 30% larger than its predecessor, the IC-M23. Battery life is impressive too, offering 11 hours on standby, charging in 2.5 hours. It is not a DSC radio and does not have built-in GPS, so is not particularly a safety-feature heavy radio, but for those looking for a reliable, budget, but dependable handheld VHF, this will do the job.
Battery life: 11 hours
Cobra HH600 DSC handheld marine radio
The Cobra MR-HH600 is a floating handheld VHF radio with built-in GPS, allowing you to view exact coordinates, and also transmit your location. A great built-in function is the ability to pair your smartphone via Bluetooth and make phone calls, all while keeping your device safe and dry in a locker.
The VHF, as with others on the market, features a flashlight with emergency strobe function.
The HH660 is able to float and features a waterproofing standard of IPX8. The radio unit is a DSC-equipped VHF allowing you to transmit identity and location details and has the ability to automatically record the last 20 seconds of VHF calls so you can always play back what you missed.
It is GPS-equipped and can show your coordinates, and is also equipped with a MOB button to allow marking and tracking of a casualty’s position in the water.
Battery life: 10 hours
Cobra MRHH 125 handheld marine radio
The Cobra HH125 is a compact handheld VHF radio which runs on rechargeable AAA batteries (or standard alkaline type). It is splashproof (JIS4 standard) which is somewhere between rain and a jet of water, so will not be particularly suitable for operation in strong winds or offshore – though it can be purchased with an Aquamate AM3 or AM13 waterproof bag for complete protection.
The display and keypad are backlit for ease of use at night. There is an instant-access Channel 16 button and an autoscan feature for all channels. UK M1 and M2 are programmed. The active channel is clearly displayed.
It weighs 228g and measures 102mm x 62mm x 31mm without the antenna. Battery life with fully charged NiMH cells is around 9 hours at 3W.
It is clearly a budget option and its lack of total waterproofing and other features do probably render it unsuitable for use as a main handheld radio, but as a secondary or spare, with a waterproof bag it is a good deal.
Battery life: 9 hours
Lowrance Link-2 DSC handheld marine radio
Link-2 is a feature-rich, free-floating handheld VHF radio that is Class D DSC compliant and features MOB functionality and storage for up to 300 waypoints.
It has a useful intercom system via the Lowrance ‘Get Buddy’ function, which allows other Link-2 radios to receive or send position, bearing and distance at a button push. It stores up to 300 waypoints and 20 ‘buddy’ DSC IDs. It sports a very large screen, and the most used controls are tactile and come easily to hand.
The Link-2 weighs in at 285g, is IPX7 waterproof and can float. It also offers a standby battery time of 7 hours.
Battery life: 7 hours
GME GX 850 handheld marine radio
GME’s GX 850 is a DSC handheld VHF with an in-built 48-channel GPS receiver. The radio is waterproof to the IP67 standard. It features a large backlit LCD display, making it easy to read all displayed information, even on a bright sunny day.
Ideal for use at the marina or on board, if either model is accidentally dropped overboard, it will float to the surface with the bright LCD flashing to make location and retrieval easy.
As with many of the other feature-rich radios on the market, a low power setting allows you to cut battery consumption when using the radio at close range.
The GX850’s credentials as a safety device are enhanced by the inclusion of the MOB feature. In the event of an MOB incident, simply press and hold the MOB key to gain an accurate location of the point at which the incident occurred, making search and retrieval faster.
Battery life: Not available
Weight: Not available
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