Your VHF radio is your lifeline to the outside world, and as long as you know how to properly use one (if you don't, watch the video How to Use a VHF Radio) it can be both a convenience and a lifesaver. And while we believe all boats traveling more than a mile or two from land should have a fixed-mount VHF with an elevated external antenna for maximizing range, and a permanent power source to maximize reliability, handheld VHF radios can come in quite handy. They're good back-ups to a fixed-mount, and on small, open boats, they may be your only option.
Before we name our top five handheld VHF radios, let's lay some basic ground rules. They should be waterproof, ideally, to IPX7 standards. That means they will survive immersion at one meter, for 30 minutes. While we don't suggest you try dunking your radio for this long, it's nice to know the unit can handle being in a pocket during a fall overboard, much less catching some salt spray at the helm. The radio should also be thoroughly rugged, to survive drops on a fiberglass deck or jostling in a gear bag. It should have a simple user interface with large buttons, and a legible screen. Long battery life is a must, and although it does take a toll on the batteries, more transmission power is more better. Bonus safety points go to units with integrated DSC.
There are plenty of other bells and whistles available: Bluetooth capability, weather alerts, multiple channel-watching, and even built-in strobes. All that stuff isn't absolutely necessary and you shouldn't pay for it unless you decide you really need it. Taking all these factors into consideration, here are five handheld VHF radios at the top of our list.
(1) Cobra MR-HH125
Cobra’s MR-HH125 is their most basic offering, though it does have an output for an external speaker/mic, a signal strength meter, a large illuminated display, a 12-volt charging cable, a channel 16 emergency button, and a belt clip. Maximum power output is a mere three watts, and it's waterproof rating is just IPX4. That's what they call "splashproof," which in our experience, means keep it dry or watch it die. Considering its basic nature, low power output, and minimal waterproofing, how could this unit possibly make our list? Simple: it's dirt-cheap. In fact, you can find the MR-HH125 for under $50. In some cases that will make the difference between someone venturing off the dock with this radio or no radio, so the MR-HH125 fills an important niche in the handheld VHF marketplace.
(2) Icom IC-M73
The Icom IC-M73 is a heavy-duty candidate, which puts out a potent six watts and upholds the IPX8 standards. You've gotta love the ‘AquaQuake’ feature, which vibrates water out of the speaker. You can get the basic version for under $200, or the "Plus" version, which adds a one minute last call recording feature, for a hair over $200. We also like the noise-cancelling technology, which vastly reduces background noise. This model doesn't have the built-in GPS with DSC, but however you measure it this one has a lot of bang for the buck.
(3) Icom IC-GM1600
This is the rock of handheld VHFs, intended for use on survival craft and life-rafts. Yeah, it costs a pretty penny—plan on spending around $600 for the IC-GM1600—and it doesn't have many bells and whistles, but this radio is about as rugged as it gets. It meets all GMDSS (global marine distress and safety system) requirements for temperature, thermal shock, vibration, impact resistance, and waterproof construction. The lithium battery pack carries a shocking 3300 mAh, which can power the radio for eight hours in -20 degree temperatures. What about features and functions? There really aren't any. This radio is for basic communications, period. But with so few buttons and functions, it is, in fact, idiot-proof.
(4) Standard Horizon HX870
This potent little puppy comes with a 1800 mAh li-ion battery to keep it's six watt broadcast strong. DSC is built-in, the waterproof rating is IPX8, the screen is a 2.3" diagonal, there's a water-activated SOS strobe, and—get this—it even floats. In all of the really important ways, the HX870 is at the top of the class. With a $250 MSRP, it doesn't seem over-priced, either. In fact, the only down-side may be its complexity. The HX870 has a lot of features (it can be used as a GPS for basic navigation, can save 200 waypoints and 20 routes, and has group monitoring functions), and while you won't need a degree to operate it, you will need some time to figure out all those functions.
(5) Uniden Atlantis 270
The Uniden Atlantis makes our list because at around $120, it has gobs of value. No, it doesn't have a lot of fancy functions and features. True, the battery is a bit less potent then some competitors at 1100 mAh (though this is still enough for a 10-hour lifespan). But it puts out six watts, is rated to IPX7 standards, and it floats. To get these important features in another handheld unit you'll have to pay significantly more.
(Bonus) Lowrance Link-2
This radio deserves a special mention, because of a special feature—called "Get Buddy," it allows you to send your location (via GPS coordinates) to anyone else who has a Link-2, at the press of a button. While the utility is limited to those who have friends with the same unit, it could come in handy for people who fish in groups or cruise in packs. The radio has plenty of other high-end features, too, including integrated DSC, five watts of broadcasting power, and an IPX7 waterproof rating. Cost is around $200.
There you have it—our five favorites for handheld VHFs, plus a bonus radio. When you shop for a new handheld remember that most of the manufacturers have a wide range of models, much wider than we've shown here, and a higher or lower end unit than those we've fingered may best serve your needs. First determine exactly what you want, then closely study each appropriate offering that's within your price range. But whatever that range may be, we'll bet that one of these top handheld VHF radios makes your short-list.