Handheld VHF Radios: What to look for

I take my sea kayak out on the pacific and do runs down from Malibu to Santa Monica and back. I just had a rough experience, and realized it’s best to have a handheld VHF radio on board. IU’ve donw a little research thus far, but thought I’d ask opinions here.

What options should I be considering other than waterproof capabilities and wattage? I did notice some have a belt clip, so that’s something to consider to clip it to my PFD.

Which ones are the best to get? Sometimes they list having all the options, but I don’t know if it’s of high quality… of course the price usually says something about that huh?

Thanks in advance.

you’re off to a good start
Seems to me.

Waterproof, wattage, battery type (do you want rechargeable or AA?), and size (do you want to carry it on you, or ready at hand?).

I like AA batteries. Would prefer something I could carry on my PFD, but ultimately went with the AA-battery-loadable size (larger).

Consider an Aquapac too. Waterproof isn’t always waterproof, and you don’t want to find out too late.

First, play with the radios
If you have a marine store near, go play with radios first. See how you like the fit in you hand, which display you prefer, how easy are the various buttons to use, how loud and clear is the audio, can you intuitively figure out how to do simple things with it. Then, either there or go online and browse the manual to see how easy or not it is to program and use things like WX alert monitoring, double or triple channel monitoring, etc. Think about the options and features you really need. For example, do you really need AM/FM broadcast reception or commercial channels? Ask about the cost of a replacement battery, take the battery off and see how well sealed the compartment is and how easy it is for the battery to be taken off. So long as you buy from one of the major manufacturers you are likely to get a decent radio and there are threads here that will point you to the good models.

Pickup range and clarity
Overall, the more expensive ones tend to have better sound quality. This is important - if you really need to hear the marine forecast when you are sitting out in conditions including wind, you want pretty loud and clear reception. You will care about the difference between 13 and 30 knot wind speeds, for example. On a fuzzy radio and/or with background noise these two could sound very similar.

Ed’s idea is good - see if you can walk any radios you are thinking about into the worst reception spot you can find in the store, then move around with them from there to see how well you can hear it.

Here’s What I Would Look For
Unfortunately, some of these things may not be learned by going to a store:

  • Hold it in your hand and picture that you have gloves on, or take paddling gloves with you and see if the important controls are easy to operate.

  • Turn on the weather channel, then dunk it in some water and see how audible the radio is. The volume generally drops.

  • Does the on/off switch trip easily when you bump it against your hand. If it does, the radio may turn on without you knowing it, and deplete the battery until it’s dead when you need it most (this comes from experience)?

  • If the radio has a Lithium Ion battery, does it have a power management feature that prevents the battery from being destroyed by going completely dead (Lithium Ion has this problem)?

  • Is the radio advertised as submersible, or merely water resistant?


Mike - Contact me
I paddle much of the same waters that you do.Typically I’m in the water anywhere from Malibu to Santa Barbara.

I’m also president of CKF - California Kayak Friends. We have a very skilled group of local paddlers that you might want to hook up with. Also check out the club - web site is www.ckf.org.

Hope to see you on the water.

submersible, not waterproof

– Last Updated: Dec-31-07 6:19 PM EST –

those are two different standards. I think waterproof means it can be sprayed with a hose for a few minutes and submersible means it can be underwater for 30minutes. You want submersible.

IPX8 standard

To me no matter which VHF you buy
get a waterproof bag to put it in. For $20 why take a chance that something will not work. Extra is better for me.

one reason why not
before I got a submersible radio I had the ‘waterproof’ models and put them in a platic radio bag. The problem is that if it’s warm and the bag is on deck it gets hot inside and any moisture in the bag will get forced into the radio. That happened to a friends gps with the screen becoming fogged. Then I noticed the bags weren’t always waterproof and the plastic inhibited use of the controls.

I went for a couple years with the plastic bags but I couldn’t put the radio in my pfd pocket. With a submersible radio if you rinse it off and dry it out it’ll last.

AA batteries and “waterproof”…

– Last Updated: Jan-02-08 7:59 AM EST –

...are mutually exclusive. None of the radios on the market are waterproof with their optional AA packs installed. (Edit: make that "submersible") That means you must carry it in a bag, which has numerous disadvantages, some of which are:

- It's bulkier
- It has to be carried in a pocket or strapped to the deck, which makes it harder to access.
- The volume level is reduced, making it harder to hear.
- The controls are harder to operate.

When you really NEED a radio, you need it NOW and you need to be able to operate it with ONE hand.

In addition…
…see the list of bag disadvantages in my post above. As Lee said, a good submersible radio will be completely reliable with minimal care.

I used to be paranoid about electronics
and salt water, but the Pentax Optio and Icom radio changed that. Also the volume of the radio has to be cranked up a bit higher in the plastic sleeve. The real pisser was trying to operate the bagged radio with neoprene gloves,not possible.

Get either an Icom or Standard Horizon radio. I got an Icom and it’s built like a tank. Dropped in a parking lot and it kept right on working. Rechargeable NiCads. FishHawk

There shouldn’t be any moisture
in a dry bag or it is not a dry bag.

there shouldn’t be

– Last Updated: Jan-01-08 12:58 PM EST –

I'm talking about the clear sleeves for vhf radios with clasp on one end.

I've used a couple of those clear VHF radio sleeves with slide clips and they weren't as dry as a tightly rolled up dry bag. A few years ago WestMarine had an aquarium display with a radio in one of those sleeves,,,and it was 1/2 full of water. I said to one of the sales staff "you might want to change that, not a good sales demo"

But lets say for a second you've got a 100% dry closure for a radio. If it is EVER opened near the water and returned to the closure it's trapped with moist air. Put that radio on the deck and in the sun and it'll drive that moisture into the electronics.

I'm just trying to reinforce the idea that if you have electronics in a kayak it should be submersible. Putting a radio into a sleeve that makes the radio hard to operate works against the purpose of the radio. If it is any kind of dry enclosure that requires opening to be used it's not an emergency communications device for on the water.

I'd much rather have a submersible radio I can safely secure under the fore-deck out of the elements or on my vest as needed than a vhf with limited function in a plastic enclosure.

If the radio has to be in an dry enclosure in a KAYAK it's not an emergency device.

maybe these are better than the ones I was using. The ones I had were like the camping tubes where you'd fold the end of the sleeve over and slide a rod/concentric slotted tube over the fold.



There are many standards, developed both in the United States and Europe. The U.S. standard, defines a "waterproof machine" as one that can withstand a stream of water from a 1 inch nozzle at a rate of 65 gallons per minute for 5 minutes duration, from all directions without leaking. The standard doesn't cover immersion.

"waterproof" isn't good enough for kayak use.

That is the kind I use for my Icom. You can turn the knobs from outside the bag.

must be better than the ones I used
the ones I used were too stiff. Still, I had an Icom72 under the foredeck for a week forgotten, tumbled in the surf then left out of doors. Works fine two years later.

IPX7 and IPX8
From what I recall:

IPX7-remains functional after being submerged at 1 meter for 30 minutes

IPX8-remains functional after being submerged at 1.5 meters for 30 minutes

Icom M72 is IPX8–probably a few others by now, but I haven’t thoroughly researched what’s out there since purchasing the M72. Good luck and find a good one. Your life or someone else’s may depend on it.

After saltwater submersion,
consider putting your radio in warm water in the sink and let it soak for up to an hour or more. Pretty much what the M72 owner’s manual talks about on page three:


I fought with the commercial bags…
…and couldn’t fit them in PFD pockets. Finally made my own drybag that works pretty well and fits in a PFD radio pocket.


Still reccomend getting a submersible radio instead. This can be a little tricky as the radio in the picture above is IPX7 rated, but the battery pack is not rated submersible. In other words, the battery pack might fail if exposed to water. What good is that? Watch out you don’t get one of those–that’s why I put that radio in a bag. I will say that the pictured radio spent quite a bit of time underwater without the bag and survived and functioned just fine.

The M72 has the IPX8 rating but if you seperate the battery from the radio in wet conditions, you could damage both units, from what I recall. Oh, maybe it’s just the transceiver that could get damaged… On page 5 of the .pdf download there’s some info on this issue which could potentially be a very serious issue:


Anyway, a couple of potentially important details to consider and keep in mind.