Choosing a Marine VHF Radio

In planning our trip, we have spent a good bit of time discussing our various electronics options, and have pretty much settled on a trio of items to keep us safe and in communication while on our Inside Passage kayaking expedition. We’ll carry a simple GPS unit, mostly for a navigational aid if (when) we find ourselves doing crossings in heavy fog. We are planning on carrying a SPOT unit in case the crap really hits the fan, and to keep our adoring families updated on our safe progress. But most importantly, we will be carrying a marine VHF radio.

The marine VHF is arguably the most important piece of communications equipment a coastal kayaker can carry. The VHF is monitored by most boats as well as the Coast Guard, making it the first line of defense for emergencies. The cost is reasonable, especially compared to satellite phones. While the VHF is not 100% reliable as it relies on line-of-sight and/or repeater transmissions, most of the areas frequented by kayakers will be within VHF range of someone. Moreover, we will be able to monitor weather forecasts with the VHF, communicate with passing ships, and even make global telephone calls through marine operators in many places. For a paltry $1.50/min, I might add…

Uniden MHS550

So now we just need to decide on a marine VHF. We are looking for certain features, though chances are that the ideal radio just doesn’t exist. Here is what we would like to see in a handheld marine VHF radio:

1. Totally waterproof. Lots of radios are advertised as waterproof/submersible. We need one that actually doesn’t leak.

2. Uses AA batteries. On our trip, we will rely on rechargeable AA batteries and a small solar panel to keep our electronics kicking. Our VHF needs to accept AA batteries….and still be totally waterproof.

3. Floating. Lately, more and more VHF radios are made to float. This seems like a pretty sensible idea, especially because our worst case use scenario involves bobbing sans kayak in unpleasantly large seas.

4. Easy to use. I am a licensed ham radio operator (N3YQI) but it’s been years since I’ve actually called ‘CQ’ on the air. We need radios that don’t require a user manual to figure out. Also, the buttons need to be big enough to use with cold-deadened fingers.

5. Size. Should fit in a PDF pocket.

6. Weight. Shouldn’t be obtrusive when stashed in a PDF pocket.

Standard Horizon HX750S

There are other features to consider, such as transmitting power and cost…but these six items will more or less make the decision for us. Right now, we have a handful of radios in contention, notably these two:

Uniden MHS550. It doesn’t float, but scores high in every other area…and has a built in AM/FM receiver for some in-camp jamming. It allows more bands than most handhelds. Another neat feature is that it lists the permissible uses for each channel on the LED display.

Standard Horizon HX750S. Floats, and has a nifty SOS strobe that might help in that worst case scenario. Also has a nifty water temperature feature….helpful for bragging rights I suppose?

3 comments

1 Bethany Cox { 02.06.09 at 10:20 am }

we are using a uniden atlantis 250.

from our website… “We have a VHF radio, the Spot, 8 aerial flares (4 in each of our pfds), 4 handheld flares, air horn, and a whistle on each pfd. We are keeping the VHF and the gps with one person and the spot and a cell phone with the other in case of separation, that way there is a communication as well as exact location. These are going to be kept in the deck bags, which is not as prudent as on the pfd, but there are only so many things we can put in our vests, The other rescue gear is evenly divided between the deck bags. We also have 2 paddles floats, 2 bilge pumps, a rescue sling (actually the rescue sling was lost to the ocean during sketchy landing), and a beefy first aid kit.”

2 Bethany Cox { 02.06.09 at 10:23 am }

we kept ours in an aquapac by the way, just in case.

3 Phil { 02.06.09 at 10:58 am }

Excellent, thanks for the info! We’ll check out the Atlantis 250. I’ve read so many reviews where 50% of the “waterproof/submersible” VHF radios end up with water droplets in the battery case after a brief dip. Furthers my believe that electronics in the outdoors (especially along the salty coast) are at best a necessary evil. The aquapac is probably prudent.

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