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.

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Significant improvements in a number of areas in recent years have seen handheld VHF marine radios move from being purely portable communications devices 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 it 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 battery – or better convenience or value.

Don’t forget though that although you can buy a radio easily online, if you don’t have one already, you’ll need to obtain a licence to operate a VHF radio in the UK and USA and various other territories.

Best handheld marine radios available now

icom 25 handheld vhf radio

Icom IC-M25Euro handheld marine radio

TESTED

Best value handheld marine radio

Reasons to buy

• Great value
• Impressive battery life
• USB connector/universal charging

Reason to avoid

• Not fully waterproof
• No GPS

Rating

Specifications

Battery life: 29 hours on standby monitoring VTS CH12
Waterproofing: IPX7
Floating: Yes
Weight: 225g
DSC: No
GPS: No

The IC-M25 is a lightweight low spec VHF handheld radio suitable for taking with you paddleboarding or in your tender as well as for use to augment a fixed VHF unit on a larger boat. The float and flash system works well too so if you do drop it in the water it’ll carry on functioning and you’ll be able to retrieve it easily. Rated to IPX7 you won’t want to leave this submerged for too long but it certainly will keep on functioning with the odd dunking.

The slim design means that it is one of the lightest units on the market at a mere 225g. The radio also has a tidy USB connector for convenient charging from a variety of electronic devices in much the same way as a mobile phone.

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 29 hours on standby, charging back up to full in 3 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.

Icom M25 Waterproof Handheld VHF Marine Radio – Blue

Buy Icom – M25Euro from Amazon UK

Buy Icom – M25Euro from Gael Force Marine

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Standard Horizon HX890E VHF handheld marine radio

TESTED

Best overall handheld marine radio

Reasons to buy

• Large easy to read screen
• Fully waterproof
• High capacity battery with rapid charger
• DSC and GPS functionality

Reasons to avoid

•  higher price than a basic model

Rating

Specifications

Battery life: 27 hours on standby monitoring VTS ch12
Waterproofing: IPX8
Floating: Yes
Weight: 310g
DSC: Yes – Class D
GPS: Yes

Standard Horizon’s HX890 is a feature-rich, top spec handheld VHF, with impressive functionality. It features a large screen, which is easy to read but also points to the array of functions available. The handheld radio floats with a highly visible strobe light activated when in the water and is fully waterproof with an IPX8 rating.

The HX890 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.

We like the dedicated volume buttons and the squelch is easy to find and falls naturally under the finger next to the push to transmit (PTT) button. Overall it is well laid out and easy to operate. The menu is easy to navigate and the Emergency distress button is easy to locate on the rear and can be activated single handed.

We got 27 hours from this on standby monitoring VTS ch12 in a busy Southampton shipping port and the clarity of the speaker even when turned up to max, though not the loudest in our test group, was excellent.

It comes with an additional battery tray too which can use 5 x AAA standard disposable or rechargeable batteries, in addition to the sets main rechargeable battery, so it’s possible to include this in your grab bag inventory for emergency use.

Buy Standard Horizon HX890E VHF on Amazon UK

Buy Standard Horizon HX890E on Gael Force Marine


Cobra HH500 handheld VHF radio

Cobra HH500 handheld marine radio

TESTED

Reasons to buy

• Waterproof
• Can pair and use bluetooth phone connection through it
• rewind say-again feature

Reasons to avoid

• Others offer better battery life

Rating

Specifications

Battery life: 10 hours
Waterproofing: IPX7
Floating: Yes
Weight: 272g
DSC: No
GPS: No

Cobra HH500 handheld VHF radio screen

The Cobra HH500 has been in longterm use with our Tech Editor Fox Morgan for the past 6 years. It has been used as a backup to the main fixed set onboard their sail boat and for a variety of other boating or on water activities.

It charges via a drop in holster/cradle, which has two cable options, one for 12v and the other for 240v charging.

As the second lightest handheld VHF radio included our recent group test this lends the Cobra HH500 to being used where weight or size might be an issue, such as carrying on a tender, kayak or paddleboard and it is also easily stowed in a grab bag for emergency use.

The Cobra HH500 also comes with an additional battery tray that takes 5 x AA batteries.

The bluetooth connectivity with a mobile phone allows waterproof calls, meaning you can leave your mobile phone in a dry bag or pocket out of harms way and still send and receive phone calls.

A great feature on this handheld VHF, seen top right on the unit keypad is the rewind-say-again button, which allows you to quickly re-listen to the previous transmission as the unit records the last 20 seconds.

When sending and receiving transmissions a signal strength scale appears on the large display.

The Cobra HH500 is a really tidy looking compact but feature packed handheld VHF radio with brightly illuminated large screen.

from Amazon

from YouBoat

from Amazon

 


ICOM IC-M94DE handheld marine radio

TESTED

First ever handheld VHF with built in AIS

Reasons to buy

• DSC/GPS
• Great easy to read screen
• Built in AIS

Reasons to avoid

• Masses of functions result in a shorter battery life
• Noticeably heavier than lower specified models

Rating

Specifications

Battery life: 16 hours (on standby monitoring busy VTS channel)
Waterproofing: IPX7
Floating: Yes
Weight: 367g
DSC: Yes
GPS: Yes
AIS: yes

The Icom IC-M94DE is the flagship model from Icom and is chock-full of features – two of those key features are its DSC and AIS functions. It is the first handheld VHF radio to offer AIS functionality too so this is a rare beast indeed at the moment.

The VHF is buoyant and when it detects water, it automatically flashes the screen light on and off.

Due to the many functions the Icom M94DE comes loaded with, it’s not a radio for technophobes. This will take a while to familiarise yourself with and to learn to navigate the multiple menus with speed and intuitive ease. The Ais function was very easy to access though and switching between alternative screens was pretty quick and slick once we knew which way to navigate with the buttons.

The M94D features a waterproof rating of IPX7 (1 meter for 30 mins) and it offers a battery life on standby of 16 hours (charging in 3 hours). Also of note is the sizeable screen, making it easier to read than some smaller offerings, even with more information displayed.

This powerful high functioning unit lends itself to being a main unit on an open sports boat or to those who frequently find themselves in high traffic areas with commercial vessels. It is certainly a cost effective way of adding such a useful function as AIS to your boat or taking it onboard another nont AIS equipped boat if you are a professional skipper or someone who hops around various boats on a daily or weekly basis.

We’d like to see the unit come with 12v charging cable though rather than having to buy this as an optional extra.

Buy Icom M94DE from Amazon UK

Buy Icom M94D from Amazon USA

Buy Icom M94DE from Gael Force Marine


Icom M37E handheld VHF radio

TESTED

Reasons to buy

• Robust no nonsense casing
• Great easy to read screen
• Impressive battery life
• Versatile charging options

Reasons to avoid

• Not a DSC/GPS equipped model

Rating

Specifications

Battery life: well over 48 hours (on standby monitoring busy VTS channel)
Extra battery tray/number and type of batts. Yes/3 x AAA
Waterproofing: IPX7
Floating: Yes
Weight: 299g
DSC: No
GPS: No

This handheld VHF unit is a real workhorse.

Designed for both leisure and the commercial market, this is first felt in the housing, with a no nonsense feel and sturdy casing.

As we turned the volume up to hear it above a noisy engine it continued right up to 81dB on our monitor and retained enough clarity to hear the transmission without need to listen again.

As with all of our radios on test, there’s always a compromise and in this radio it is perhaps the physical ergonomics that takes the hit in return for an supremely impressive battery life that left us unable to return a number. The Icom M37E monitored a busy VTS channel round the clock for more than two days without any sign of the battery fading. Obviously if we were transmitting large amounts of chatter then this battery life would be much reduced as per all radios in our test.
The Icom M37E handheld VHF also comes as standard with an additional battery tray which takes 3 AAA batteries, making this a suitable contender for grab bag/emergency ditch bag duties too.

Charging is versatile and whilst it uses a drop in cradle, the cradle cable is USB, so you can plug this in to any power supply, 12v, 240v or portable power bank.

It has the now familiar Icom Float’n’Flash system which means it is buoyant, floating on its back and the screen automatically flashes when dunked so it’s easy to find should you drop it in the water.

Such a robust and well founded radio gets 5 stars from us. Whilst it might not have all the bells and whistles of some higher spec’d models, what it does do, is perform exceptionally well at the essential core functions.

Buy Icom M37E from Amazon UK

Buy Icom M37E from Gael Force Marine


Standard Horizon HX210

TESTED

Reasons to buy

• Neat form factor
• Clear display
• Easy to navigate buttons and menu

Reasons to avoid

• Not a DSC/GPS equipped model
• Not the loudest/clearest on test

Rating

Specifications

Battery life: 29 hours (on standby monitoring busy VTS channel)
Waterproofing: IPX7
Floating: Yes
Weight: 278g
DSC: No
GPS: No
FM radio: yes


Standard Horizons rival to the Icom 25E offers us a great alternative handheld radio at a good price vs weight vs battery life vs function basic level.

The HX210 is charged via a cradle and uses the conventional two different cables for 12v or 240v power supply. It locks quite securely into the cradle too so it won’t jump or fall out by accident.
(a little too securely sometimes we found when trying to remove it)

We like having direct dedicated volume buttons for the volume and squelch and the menu on the HS210 is really easy to navigate.

Finding the FM radio receiver is quick and easy so if you want to tune in for the weather forecast or the next episode of the archers, you’ll be very happy with this VHF.

The bright orange facia and PTT side buttons are a bonus for daytime visibility should it be dropped into the water as this is waterproof to IPX7 and floats faceup with a small strobe light activated on immersion.

The Standard Horizon HX210 is an ideal companion for in the tender or for taking with you on your paddleboard or kayak or coastal rowing adventure. It’s also useful for use as a backup and to use onboard your main boat when away from the main set, such as when mooring up or on anchor.

 

Buy Standard Horizon HX210 from Amazon UK

Buy Standard Horizon HX210 from Amazon US

Buy Standard Horizon HX210 from Gael Force Marine


Cobra HH600 DSC handheld marine radio

Best handheld marine radio for phone connectivity 

Reasons to buy

• Fully waterproof
• Can pair and use smartphone through it
• Great safety features

Reasons to avoid

• Others offer better battery life and charge options

Specifications

Battery life: 10 hours
Waterproofing: IPX8
Floating: Yes
Weight: 329g
DSC: Yes
GPS: Yes

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.

Buy it now on Amazon UK

Buy it now on Amazon US


Standard Horizon HX40E Ultra Compact handheld marine radio

Best small form handheld marine radio

Reasons to buy

• Lightweight, small and easy to read menu
• Built-in FM Radio
• Battery save function

Reasons to avoid

• Not fully waterproof
• No GPS

Specifications

Battery life: 20 hours
Waterproofing: IPX7
Floating: No
Weight: 230g
DSC: No
GPS: No

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.

Buy Standard Horizon HX40E on Amazon UK

Buy Standard Horizon HX40E on Amazon US

Buy Standard Horizon HX40E on Gael Force Marine


Cobra MRHH 125 handheld marine radio

Best backup handheld marine radio

Reasons to buy

• Runs on rechargeable batteries allowing for spares
• Great budget or backup option

Reasons to avoid

• No waterproofing
• No GPS
• Main function is as a spare

Specifications

Battery life: 9 hours
Waterproofing: No
Floating: No
Weight: 228g
DSC: No
GPS: No

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.

Buy it now on Amazon UK


Lowrance Link-2 DSC handheld marine radio

Best handheld marine radio for intercom systems

Reasons to buy

• Feature-rich
• Buddy function
• Can store up to 300 waypoints

Reasons to avoid

• Not fully waterproof
• Poor battery life

Specifications

Battery life: 7 hours
Waterproofing: IPX7
Floating: Yes
Weigh: 285g
DSC: Yes
GPS: Yes

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.

Buy it now on Amazon UK


GME GX 850 handheld marine radio

Best handheld marine radio for the marina

Reasons to buy

• Feature-rich
• Great safety features

Reasons to avoid

Not fully waterproof
Unknown battery life

Specifications

Battery life: Not available
Waterproofing: IP67
Floating: Yes
Weight: Not available
DSC: Yes
GPS: Yes

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.

Buy it now on Mr Boats Marine Accessories (Aus)


Glossary of VHF radio and associated tech terminology

AIS – Automatic Identification System

A system that transmits a vessels particulars by VHF signal to other receivers within VHF range. This includes the MMSI, vessel name, speed, course over ground and sometimes other info too. Units also give a CPA or closest point of approach which aids in navigation where there’s high traffic and collision avoidance.

Callsign

Unique letter/number vessel identification number issued in the UK by OfCom

CG66

Coastguard Yacht and Boat Safety Scheme form

DSC

Digital Selective Calling, using VHF ch70 for automated distress alerts. Requires a unit to be GPS enabled.

Dual watch

A function allowing you to monitor CH16 and one other channel at the same time.

Tri Watch

A function allowing you to monitor two self selected channels plus Ch16

GMDSS

Global Maritime Distress and Safety System

GPS

Global Positioning System

Mayday

Globally recognised universal Distress signal

MMSI

9-digit Maritime Mobile Service Identity provided in the UK by OfCom

PTT

Press to transmit

SAR

Search and Rescue

Securite

Safety signal. Origin French – sécurité – safety.

Simplex

Radio working that uses the same frequency for transmitting and receiving.

Squelch

A radio control that suppresses background interference.

Traffic

Radio messages

TX

Transmitting

RX

Receiving

UKCG

UK Coastguard

VHF

Very High Frequency

VTS

Vessel Traffic Services