Choosing a Handheld VHF Marine Radio

Choosing an HT (handheld Transceiver) VHF marine radio seems simple enough, until you go to the store or ask others for their opinions. There is no perfect radio, but these points to consider may help you make a more confident decision:


 Size (Yes, size matters, but bigger isn’t necessarily better.)

Most kayakers are thinking about a device they can carry in their pocket or slip into their day hatch or deck bag , and the fact of the matter is, if it’s not convenient to carry, it will be left behind, and then what good is owning one anyway?

Size also matters if you have large or small hands or wear gloves. If you have small hands, a larger radio will fatigue them after a while of holding it; you just can’t seem to get a good grip without clenching it. Large hands may have some troubles with smaller radios; those little buttons are hard to manipulate with big paws. Large hands can also fatigue while holding little radios. Another thing to consider is that the PTT (push to talk) button may be too stiff and fatigue your thumb.


Power (and world radio wave domination)

Let’s face it: these radios don’t have the nickname “peanut whistle” for nothing; (you’re competing with watercraft that often has ten times the power you do), plus, you’re sitting low in the water. 5 watts isn’t much, and in most cases your radio is nothing more than a short distance intercom.

You can maximize your efforts, however. Does your radio have 5 watts or is it rated lower than that (that may be why you can hear the other kayaker, but he can’t hear you). Or, can you get another vessel with more power to relay your message?


Batteries (If the power is not there, it will be left behind)

Most handheld radios have rechargeable NiCad batteries, and it’s green (mother earth and your wallet will appreciate this). To conserve battery power as much as possible,  turn the radio off when it’s not needed.

But on a trip away from civilization, you can’t plug your charger in to a nearby creek to get your current. An alternative power source must be available when the manufacturer supplied rechargeable batteries become depleted. You could have an extra charged battery pack on hand, or an accessory battery holder that can hold alkaline batteries. Seek a radio that has this accessory for holding the same batteries that you already carry for your other electronic devices. I try to have all my gadgets run on AA batteries, it simplifies packing, These batteries are also easy to find at the gas station or quick stop, after you realized on the way to the landing, that the last thing you were supposed to do before going to bed last night… was charge the batteries (been dere, done dat).

Check your manual to see if the full 5 watts will still be there with an alkaline battery pack, and assume that it won’t last as long as the manufacturer supplied rechargeable batteries.


Controls(If you love your TV remote, this topic is for you)

Knobs, dials and buttons are the way you manipulate you radio – they’re not voice controlled, automation like today’s modern cell phones. Radios that aren’t intuitive or easy to manipulate can spell disaster, when the s**t goes down. You don’t want to be scratching your noggin when you need to communicate.

Many kayakers wear gloves to protect their hands from wear, and many Minnesotans wear gloves 11 months of the year anyway (12 if they paddle on lake Superior in July), so check and practice (if you can) under these conditions. You could possibly even manipulate the PTT while wearing mittens. Pogies? Send me a picture if you can perform this feat.

A few other important features to look for in controls are the ability to prevent unwanted control changes using a feature called “Locked”. Be aware also that the power button is difficult to inadvertently turn off or on. It can be a disappointment to reach for your radio and discover it had been on long enough to deplete the battery; or you can’t understand why that ore freighter hasn’t notified you that you are in his way, and you discover the radio is off.


Display (Ahh… now I see)

Older style radios had no displays, merely turn a dial to the indicated channel. Nowadays, with the advent of technology, we seem to need more information. But in a little gadget like this, how much info do you really need?

If you need to know, you’ll need a display that is crisp; a single drop of water can make things look different.

Of course conditions change (that’s why we’re out there, right?).

Can you read it in the daylight? Sunlight and even your polarized sunglasses can goof this up, and if that’s not tough enough, a bright, cloudy day may make it even more difficult. Try to evaluate the radio under these difficult conditions.

Oops! You stayed out too late and now you’re in a pickle, luckily you picked a radio with a good back light (and unless you skipped the section on batteries, you’ve become savvier on battery conservation and turn that feature off ASAP). Many kayakers listen to the weather report after they’ve gone to bed and need the backlight feature.


As for the amount of info on the display: lots of it is nice, but the trade off is clarity and lack of large numbers.


Audio (Sergeant Carter to Gomer Pyle: “I can’t hear you”)

What good is it if you bought an inexpensive radio with a crappy speaker and an even crappier audio section? Quality radios have quality audio. A loud, clear speaker can be heard above the raging hurricane or diesel freighter bearing down on you, and the weather alert should be able to alert you from a drunken stupor.

How do you sound to others is also to be considered. Know where the microphone is located, and where to put your mouth.


Flexibility ( I can walk and chew gum)

It is important to realize that unless you have a special license, it is illegal to transmit using the marine frequencies while on shore. There are new HTs (handheld transceivers) that can also be used on public frequencies as walkie talkies. Neat huh? Don’t forget to conserve your batteries.

How about this for flexibility? An HT that can also be used on vast and powerful repeater systems, using amateur privilege frequencies. A simple test will get you a license as a ham radio operator. Some repeaters have an Autopatch, a means of connecting to a telephone line. I have been out of cell phone range, yet had access to a repeater, and talked to someone 100 miles away using linked repeaters.


Durability (That’s right tough guy)

We like to play hard, and need toys that will stand the punishment. Or maybe we are careless and have an unlimited budget to buy radios all the time. A rugged radio may be a better investment in money and the security that it will work when need, not die, the first time you look at it cross eyed.

Water proof is a desirable characteristic that I’m skeptical of. Sure it’s good as long as that very tiny spec of sand didn’t get on the seal when the battery was changed. But accidents do happen; not that I’m accident prone, but I have been grateful several times when my  radio has gone “swimming” with me. Check the construction carefully – is the radio completely sealed? It “may” be a good idea to check the capability before the warrant period expires, but check that one carefully before you dunk it in you coffee. If your radio does get “wet”, turn it off and allow it to dry in a safer environment.



Wow! Does it have to be this complex? – it’s not really; start looking and considering and talk to others who know radios (Ham radio operators are the best for this).


Choosing a Handheld VHF Marine Radio

Points to consider:

  • Size (if it’s not convenient to carry, it will be left behind)
    • Easy to hand hold too big/small?
    • Does it need to fit in a pocket?
  • Power
    • As a handheld, does it have a full 5 watts?
  • Batteries (If the power is not there, it will be left behind)
    • Rechargeable NiCad
    • Extra battery holder for Alkaline batteries
    • Will the Alkaline batteries still provide the full 5 watts?
    • Are the Alkaline batteries the same for the rest of your devices?
  • Controls
    • Are they easy to understand without a manual?
    • Are they easy to manipulate?
    • Will it be necessary to manipulate the controls w/gloves?
    • Can the controls be locked to prevent inadvertent changes (especially important to the power switch)?
  • Display
    • Is the display crisp?
    • Easy to read in daylight?
    • Will your polarized lenses affect the way you \view the display?
    • Does the display have adequate illumination?
    • Is the display large enough to see without reading glasses?
    • Is enough/too much  information displayed?
  • Audio
    • Are voices clear?
    • Is the weather alert loud enough to disturb a deep slumber?
    • Are the control changes audible?
    • How do your transmissions sound to others>
  • Flexibility
    • Can it be used on other frequencies?
  • Durability
    • Will it withstand the punishment?
    • Is it water proof?
    • What is the manufacture’s return/repair policies?

Train for the worst; Hope for the best.
Jeffrey Forseth