What to look for when choosing a handheld VHF for your boat?

Outfitting our small sailing vessel, I found myself in the market for a new handheld VHF radio. The reasons were pretty straightforward: safety, redundancy, ease of use, and of course, comfort. The appeal of a handheld device is hard to ignore. It’s just so much more convenient to manage communications while standing at the tiller, steering, and not having to rush down below every time someone starts talking, or the speaker kicks in. Plus, it’s super handy to have it with you for those times you’re just messing about in the dinghy or, heaven forbid, in an emergency that requires abandoning ship. So, if you’re in the same boat (pun intended!) and looking for a new device, I’ve put together this little overview. It covers what I think are the important bits to consider, and I’ll also share what mattered to us during our selection process.


This aspect is probably one of the most important criteria for most. When looking for a handheld VHF radio, we were aiming for the most budget-friendly option that still met our requirements, as saving money is a key concern for us. However, if price isn’t an issue for you, there are plenty of options out there that can integrate directly with your boat’s system or an existing fixed VHF. Of course, the more complex and technically advanced the device, the higher the cost. In our case, our budget was in the $100 – $150 range, and we didn’t want to spend more than that. I believe in the $200 – $250 range, you can find some really good devices. But, as always, you can go higher for more advanced devices with additional features and capabilities.


When it comes to handheld VHF radios, the battery life is a big deal, especially considering how long you might be out at sea. Ideally, your VHF should last at least a full day. It’s worth thinking about what type of batteries you prefer. Devices that use standard AAA or AA batteries offer the convenience of easy replacement. It’s a no-brainer to just swap in fresh batteries when needed, as opposed to devices with lithium batteries that require recharging. Personally, I lean towards using AA rechargeable batteries. We already use them in other devices, and picking up a new set is relatively cheap compared to replacing a lithium battery. Plus, for some models, you can get a battery tray to fill with AA or AAA rechargeables, which I find to be a pretty handy option.

Another important thing to look for if you are looking at a device with built in lithium batteries is the required voltage for charging. If you are only able to charge it at 120V or 230V via an alternator it would be a pass for me. Especially on small vessels its important to look for the availability of 12V charging or 5V charging through an USB-B port.


Waterproofing is a critical factor to consider when choosing a handheld VHF radio, depending on how likely it is to get wet. We specifically looked for devices rated at least IPX7, which means they can be submerged in water for 30 minutes at a depth of 1 meter. This level of waterproofing is essential because, let’s face it, accidents happen – like dropping your VHF into the water while on the dinghy or moving around the boat.

Additionally, a higher waterproof rating is generally better for those rainy days or when you’re getting splashed on deck. A device with an IPX7 rating is just tougher and more reliable in these conditions compared to, say, an IPX4-rated device, which is only splash-proof. Sure, you can go for something even more robust, like IPX8, but remember, the higher the waterproof rating, the higher the price usually climbs.


Since we’re on the topic of waterproofing, buoyancy is another crucial feature to consider in a handheld VHF radio. It’s one thing to have a device that can survive a dunk in the water, but it’s another to be able to retrieve it easily. If it sinks to the bottom, say 10 meters deep, that’s not exactly helpful. Most modern handheld VHF radios are designed to float, which I think is a must-have feature. I’d definitely recommend looking for a device that floats.

What’s even better is that some models go a step further by automatically activating strobe lighting when they hit the water. This feature is incredibly useful for locating the radio in the dark. Losing your VHF overboard is bad enough; struggling to find it in low visibility just adds to the hassle. So, a floating device, especially one with strobe lighting, is a smart choice.


If your sailing plans include navigating European waterways, ensuring that your handheld VHF radio is ATIS-capable is important. ATIS, or Automatic Transmitter Identification System, is a feature required for radios used on inland waterways in Europe. It sends a unique identifier for your vessel every time you transmit, which is a regulatory requirement in these areas.

However, if your sailing is exclusively sea-bound, ATIS isn’t necessary. In our case, we didn’t prioritize ATIS compatibility since our plans don’t involve spending much time on inland waterways, where a radio isn’t typically mandatory for smaller vessels. Besides, for situations like communicating at bridges or locks, there are often dedicated telephone numbers or calling devices with speakers available.


Considering whether you want your handheld VHF to include a Digital Selective Calling (DSC) function is a significant decision. For those aiming to achieve full redundancy with their fixed radio, having DSC in a handheld unit can be a sensible choice. However, it’s important to note that adding DSC functionality tends to make the device bulkier and more expensive.

The safety advantages of DSC are notable. It allows you to send an automatic DSC distress call from wherever you have your handheld VHF, providing an additional layer of security. Despite this benefit, we ultimately decided against a DSC-capable handheld VHF. Our decision was mainly driven by the added cost. While the safety feature is appealing, balancing it against the increased expense led us to opt for a more basic model.

Range and Power

When it comes to VHF radios, power output and antenna height are key factors influencing the range of the signal. Fixed VHF radios typically have a power output of 25 watts, but it’s the height of the antenna that primarily determines how far the signal travels. However, for a handheld device, having a high power output isn’t always advantageous, particularly because of its impact on battery life.

Since a handheld VHF radio is generally used at a lower elevation, the height limitation is a more significant factor than power in determining range. In most scenarios, the typical 5 watts of power output for a handheld VHF is adequate. While having more power might be beneficial in certain situations, it’s likely to just lead to faster battery drainage. Considering the usual use cases and limitations of a handheld VHF, the standard power output is a reasonable balance between range and battery efficiency.

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