Best Handheld VHF Radios

Best Handheld VHF Radios | Life of Sailing

Last Updated by

Daniel Wade

August 30, 2022

Having a very high frequency radio can help save your life while sailing. There are arguments for which is the best handheld VHF radios on the market.

If you have one, then you are one step further in the right direction for your safety. If you need one, then which one is the best?

The best VHF radio brands to look into today are Standard Horizon, ICOM, Cobra, and Lowrance. Other competing brands worth your attention on budget are GME, Uniden, and Baofeng. All are quality VHF radio brands, but some will have their best options available.

Marine radios are life saving equipment that you can use to communicate with other vessels and the coast guard. Depending on your location, you might have to adjust the channels to communicate with someone to get proper help.

According to marine experts, cutting back on safety is something you do not want to chance while sailing. Having a VHF radio is only required for vessels over 65.5 feet long, but you should strongly consider one no matter what you operate.


Table of contents

10 Best VHF Radios

There are a lot of key differences that separates a good VHF radio from the bad. While most are going to serve their purpose of being able to reach out for help, there are better ones that can be easier to use and durable to last a lifetime.

Standard Horizon HX890

If you want one of the best VHF radios, look no further than what Standard Horizon puts out. This one in particular has all the standard features customers wanted from the HX870, but with slight upgrades and a newer model.

The large screen along with plenty of features makes it a one of a kind piece of equipment. It floats if you happen to drop it in the water and it is completely waterproof.

You will also see that it has a built in GPS receiver and upgraded communications systems for out on the water. Even better, they have tested these through the military and are up to those standards.


  • Large screen and easy to read
  • Waterproof
  • Excellent battery and fast three hour charger


  • Sometimes hard to find
  • Around $200

Standard Horizon HX40E

Another quality option from Standard Design is the HX40E. While this one has similar features to the HX890, you will notice some key differences.

It is roughly the size of a deck of cards and is much lighter, making it easier to hold. The menu is easy to read and you can set certain channels as favorites.

Even though it is waterproof, it does not float. You would need to purchase the SHC-29 floating case and of course make it larger.


  • Waterproof
  • Lightweight, easy to handle
  • Battery saving function
  • 20 hour battery life
  • Can find it under $100


  • Not submersible
  • Does not float
  • No GPS
  • Screen might be too small for some


If you want to find an alternative VHF radio that has a ton of features, then you should check out this one. The best features are the built in GPS and digital selective calling (DSC).

These two features alone set it apart from other VHF radios because it allows it transfer information digitally to the coast guard if needed. The added benefit of the GPS will help them locate you too.

There is also an option for a man overboard distress signal that can be triggered, which is excellent if you sail by yourself. The only real drawback is that it costs a bit more than other VHF radios.


  • Waterproof
  • Floats
  • Quick charge, around two hours
  • MOB signal can be programmed
  • Easy to read screen


  • Around $325
  • Only nine hours of battery life


If you want the quality of an ICOM but do not want to pay a ton of money, you can opt for a different model. The M25 is a value handheld option that still packs a ton of features.

It still floats and surprisingly has a slightly longer battery life than the other model at 11 hours. It is lighter and easier to handle.

The screen size is a bit larger than previous models, but still not as big as the M94D. The only drawbacks are that is does not have the DSC and GPS capabilities, but still offers a reliable option without spending too much.


  • Waterproof
  • Floats
  • Quick charge, around two and a half hours
  • About 11 hours of battery life
  • USB connector to charge
  • Around $110


  • Lacks safety features like DSC and GPS
  • Smaller screen compared to other radios

Cobra HH600

Finding a VHF radio that allows you to make calls on your phone is an excellent feature. The Cobra HH600 does exactly that, plus a ton more.

This floating VHF radio has built in GPS and you can pair it with your phone with Bluetooth. You can make calls with that connection, even if you have it kept up in a locker.

Just like the ICOM M94D, this one has a DSC and enhanced marking for MOB features. You can even transmit the last 20 seconds of VHF calls to play back information.


  • Waterproof
  • Floats
  • Excellent safety features like DSC, GPS, and MOB
  • Can link smartphone to make calls


  • Battery life of 10 hours
  • Around $200

Cobra MRHH 125

The Cobra MRHH 125 is an excellent option for a backup in case you lose you main VHF radio or want to have one without spending too much money. This radio runs on rechargeable or regular batteries so you do not have to worry about losing a charging cord or remembering to put it back on a charger.

While it is splash proof, it is not suitable for wetter conditions. Depending on how often you sail might be the difference between buying this one or a heavy duty one. You would need to purchase the waterproof bag in order to keep it completely dry.

So if you want something a little more budget friendly or as a backup, this could be the one for you. As a main VHF radio, some sailors might be able to overlook certain features that are lacking.


  • Runs on batteries
  • Around $120
  • Useful as a backup option


  • Not waterproof
  • No GPS or safety features
  • Primarily used as a spare

Lowrance Link-2

If you are building an emergency kit in case things go wrong while sailing, then you should not overlook the Lowrance Link-2. This budget friendly VHF radio has all the important features you need without compromising on quality.

This radio can store up to 300 waypoints and has a buddy function that you can use to communicate with other Link-2 users. While the radio is not the most appealing to the eye as compared to others, it gets the job done with the screen.

The only main drawback is that the batter life is around seven hours. As long as you are not playing on it constantly, you could overlook this minor issue.


  • Around $90
  • Has DSC, and MOB features
  • Lightweight
  • Floats and is waterproof
  • Large screen


  • Seven hour battery life
  • Not the sexiest looking one

GME GX 850

While some VHF radios are a little outdated from GME, they improved their lineup with a high quality option with their GX 850. The beauty of this one is that it has a two year warranty and has tons of features that you need to remain safe.

It is waterproof with a IP67 standard and has a 48 channel GPS receiver. This one is geared towards both marina use or on board, so something you should plan to use often.

It also floats if you drop it in the water, which will activate the flash feature so you can see it. There is also a MOB feature that you can press and hold to pinpoint your location, which helps out the coast guard to getting to you quicker.


  • Has DSC, MOB, and GPS features
  • Floats, flashes, and is waterproof
  • Large screen
  • 48 channel receiver
  • Two year warranty


  • Battery life has mixed results
  • Harder to find on the market
  • A little over $230

Uniden MHS127

The Uniden MHS 127 is a slighty more expensive option that is easy to hold and covers a lot of bases when it comes to being safe. It also comes with a few accessories like a belt clip if you wanted to carry it a little easier.

It is waterproof and will float if happen to drop it in the water. There is a power boost option to maxis battery life to keep it going strong

The battery typically runs around 11 hours and charges quickly within reason compared to other brands. It also has features to help you check for important weather statements.


  • Has some safety features, like weather alerts
  • Floats, flashes, and is waterproof
  • Large screen
  • Three year warranty
  • Battery life of 11 hours
  • Around $160


  • Harder to find on the market
  • Not as many safety features compared to other brands

Baofeng BF-F8HP

The Baofeng is a quality brand that you can get your money out of. If you can get your hands on this radio for under a $100, then you might have one of the better deals out there.

If you do not want this to be your main option, it definitely deserves a look as a backup in emergency situations. The battery lasts up to 20 hours and the screen is easy to read.

It also comes with a few accessories such as a an ear piece and a belt clip. Furthermore, there is a one year warranty and support number you can contact for troubleshooting.


  • Large screen, easy to read
  • One year warranty
  • Battery life of about 20 hours
  • Around $100


  • Takes around eight hours to fully charge
  • Basic safety features compared to other brands
  • Not waterproof

The Importance of a VHF Radio

VHF radios are life saving equipment when you need it the most. They are the means of communication between other boats, to utilize shore facilities, and other emergency services.

The ranges vary on the brand, with most averaging around 20 to 30 nautical miles. Even though some might view that as not far enough, it is better to have something than nothing at all.

Key Features to Look for in a VHF Radio

Picking out a VHF can be a simple task, but there are plenty of features that you need to consider. When it comes to price, that is only one piece of the puzzle.

Intended Use

Before you head off to the store or purchase a VHF online, you should narrow down your ideal situation of sailing. For example, you might want the best battery life you can get if you plan on sailing full time.

For sailors that heading out to the open ocean, you might want a fixed VHF radio in addition to a backup. For sailors that are doing a day trip or weekend, you could have two different options with one of them scanning channels.

If you plan on sailing along the coast, you could look into radios that are intended for shorter distances. These include communication with a marina or a shorter nautical mile radius.

Potential Range

In most cases, the more power a VHF radio uses then the better it will reach in distance. Most are equipped to handle around six watts and can reach up 20 miles.

The only disadvantage here is that the more power a radio uses, the quicker it runs out of battery. It would be a good idea to pick a radio that you can use to adjust power settings and even click to give it a boost when needed.

Battery Life

If you believe you will be using your radio often, for updates on weather or communication between other vessels, you should consider how much battery life a radio has. Some radios have larger batteries, but they typically cost more and are not as portable.

In addition to the battery being heavy, these will sink instantly if you drop them. You want to find a good battery life on your radio that also has the ability to float.


Most handheld VHF radios are waterproof and can withstand being submerged for around 30 minutes. These will vary on brand, but you want one that can withstand wet conditions and can potentially float.

Radios that can float are going to have a higher degree of waterproofing. In the event that you do fall overboard, you want a radio that can handle the wet conditions to get your message out.

IPX7 and IPX8 are the most common eating systems to grade waterproof radios. These generally means they can handle being submerged about three to five feet of water.

Global Positioning System

A VHF radio equipped with a GPS system is not a primary focus when buying one. This is because there are other tools you could use that might already have  GPS equipped.

If you know that you do not have any GPS tools on your sailboat, then you might consider a radio that has one. This way you can help pinpoint your position to the coast guard or someone else in the event of an emergency.

GPS is not only for your safety, but you can use it to mark certain locations. This could be a unique fishing spot, a cool diving area, or even your favorite marina. You do not have to limit yourself with just a standalone safety feature here.

Digital Selective Calling

A DSC is a great feature that all wired VHF radios have been equipped with since the 1990’s. It is not required for radios to have them, but a lot of them do.

These are great because in a click of a button, you can send a distress signal to the coast guard. This can save time and lives with just a simple click.

With the addition of GPS, these can accurately pinpoint your location to the coast guard. If you want to save time and potentially lives, this is a great feature to have.

Channel Monitoring

Being able to monitor multiple channels is a good idea for sailors to get used to doing. If the radio has the battery capacity to handle multiple channels being scanned, you can help save lives or help people in need.

If you can check out multiple channels at once, you will be able to pick up important travel information, weather, and distress signals. If other sailors do the same, you can potentially have help much quicker than the coast guard can provide. While this is not necessary on your VHF, there is a good Argus to be made for ones that can have this capability.

Noise Reduction

If your VHF radio is equipped with a noise canceling technology, it could be a useful feature. Most are effective enough without this feature, but they can help when you are speaking to other sailors or the coast guard.

Say it Again Feature

There are multiple names for this feature, with many calling it a say it again feature. This simply means your radio will record a transmission and keep the at least 20 seconds of it.

You will be able to play back the message in case you cannot hear the person that sent it or if they are unable to repeat the message. This could be a crucial situation if there are distress signals and you need to replay the message.

Weather Updates

Many radios are able to communicate with the NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) to receive updates. If you are traveling long distances or forgot to check the weather that day, it could be life saving information if a rough storm is coming through.

These alerts are nationwide, but with a SAME (Specific Area Message Encoding), you can receive weather alerts based on your location. If you have a radio that is able to handle both, this is a great asset.

Common VHF Channels

If you have never used a VHF radio before, there is a bit of a learning curve as to what channels are meant to be used for. These channels have specific purposes, but you should always check to make sure they have not changed.

  • 9: non-commercial boating channel
  • 13: internship navigating and safety reports
  • 16: distress, safety, and calling
  • 17: state and local government
  • 22: Coast Guard liaison
  • 68: non-commercial channel
  • 69: non-commercial channel
  • 70: DSC, no voice communication allowed
  • 71: non-commercial channel
  • 72: non-commercial channel

As you can see, each channel will cater to a specific need. It is important that you know the most important ones to your situation, so that you do not communicate over other marine vessels on a designated channel.

Radio Alphabet

There are also important communications known as a radio alphabet that you should either remember or keep a cheat sheet handy when communicating over the radio. You likely have heard these in older war movies, such as Alfa, Bravo, Charlie, and Foxtrot. There are radio words for every letter of the alphabet, which can take some practice to remember them.

The reason a radio alphabet is important is so you can clearly hear another individual in the event there is static or a slightly different accent from that person. This way you can understand one another when trying to communicate important information.

Procedure for Calling Distress

During an extreme situation where the lives of individuals on board or the vessel is at risk, you should call for help. With your VHF radio, you would communicate on channel 16 and then proceed to provide important information.

You would then call out “Mayday, Mayday, Mayday” and then say your vessel name. From there, you would describe your situation, your current position, and describe what you need.

After you have called for help, wait approximately 30 seconds until you hear from someone. If no response, repeat your message again. You should hear from the coast guard or potentially a nearby vessel.

Best Handheld VHF Radios
Daniel Wade

Daniel Wade

I've personally had thousands of questions about sailing and sailboats over the years. As I learn and experience sailing, and the community, I share the answers that work and make sense to me, here on Life of Sailing.

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