New generation: VHF/GPS combos. . .

-- Last Updated: Feb-28-10 4:48 PM EST --

I am trying to decide on the best current marine VHS (submersible) handheld radio for the money.

I have spent a number of hours searching the entire p-net archives for advice on buying a reliable marine VHF radio for kayaking open water. There are only two p-net forum strings over the past year on this topic, so I have also been searching the Web.

There have been some major innovations in this technology, including floating submersible VHF handhelds and combination VHF/GPS units by Standard Horizon, Lowrance and Uniden. These seem to be a major jump in safety value, because among other things, they feature a DSC call option that automatically fixes your coordinates for the Coast Guard in an emergency situation.

This post is to inquire if others here have actual experience with any of these newer units that they can share with respect to their actual VHF/GPS performance, submersible experience and sources for best prices.

(I have already read the great testimonials on p-net on other, earlier units; this is an inquiry about others’ experiences with these recent devices.)

Possibly narrowed down . . .
I have provisionally narrowed my options down to either the Standard Horizon HX850S (possibly the HX851) or the Lowrance LHR-80 Handheld VHF/GPS Marine Radio.

Does anybody have any experience or knowledge of these radios, or their manufacturers, to help with a decision: Standard Horizon or Lowrance?

I have a Standard Horizon and haven’t thought about upugrading it as I just replaced the battery. I woudl like to have a much smaller one but no need.


Which one
First off let me say I don’t have a VHF Radio yet but am looking for one. Last year I did go look at the Standard Horizon HX850S which is a very nice radio but it was just to big so I put that on hold.

Thanks Guys . . .
I appreciate the feedback. Paul, if you chose the Standard Horizon, it’s enough evidence for me to trust the brand. Also, you probably already have a GPS and my situation is I have neither.

A two-in-one option would save cost and space issues - though somebody on a much earlier post speculated that a combo unit might have a disadvantage, in that when you lose one, you lose both.

The larger size is a concern, if it’s that much bigger than a VHF-only unit. I saw comments online that the SH was lighter than most radios.

Shiraz, when you handled the HX850S, did it seem too large or heavy to attach to your PFD? I understand that the larger size is to facilitate flotation of the device . . . but the lighter battery also results in less “up” time.

I thought it was definitely to large to attach to a PFD. Also I don’t think GPS feature works like a REGULAR GPS(showing your position on a map) from what I understand it just sends your position when a call is made but correct me if I’m wrong. You may want to go to a West Marine and hold one in your hand to see how it feels.

correct, not a GPS plotter
You can read your lat/lon position off these radios, but if you like to paddle with a GPS chart plotter in your lap, these radios will not replace that.


– Last Updated: Mar-02-10 3:24 AM EST –

I bought a pair of the Standard Horizon HX850S radio's over a year ago. The one I use gets regular use and has always been reliable. (The other is used by my wife less frequently.) The GPS functionality is basic position reporting only, no maps. The positions reported by the 2 HX850s, 1 garmin and 1 cell phone GPS in the same place at same time were all very close. The DSC calling and position request/report functions work fine. The radio is larger than some but the battery life is excellent. It does fit in the radio pocket of the MsFit Tour PFD.

The radio has endured a lot of salt/fresh water spray and the occasional roll with no waterproofness issues.

Be careful with some S-H radios
The HX850S may be a great product and the features are certainly compelling, but I would avoid the HX471S, as it uses the same flawed design that resulted in a huge number of failures in the HX460S. I still have a dead one in my closet and I think at last total, we had something over 40 HX460S/HX470S/HX471S failures just within our club alone. OTOH, my girlfriend has one that’s been fine for years, so with that radio, it’s a crap-shoot as to whether it will hold up or not.

My current preference is the ICOM M88, which is a very durable radio in nicely sized package. It readily mounts to a PFD shoulder stap, as you can see in my “Kayak Gear” album on Webshots at:

The pics on the second page show my now-deceased HX460S and one of my M88s side-by-side on shoulder straps.

After much searching and good advice…
Last night, I ordered the Standard Horizon HX851, which has all the features of the HX850S plus a number of new features – especially improved GPS capability. The 851 adds GPS navigational waypoint entry (200 waypoints), compass display, and DSC functions that include: Distress call with position, All ships, Urgency, Safety, Individual call, Position Request, Position Report and Group call.

The potentials for this technology in ocean kayaking are remarkable. A paddler is able to instantly send a (DSC) distress call – including displaying the paddler’s coordinates – to the Coast Guard and all vessels in the vicinity with DSC capability by pushing a button. The DSC features also allow for instant location of paddling buddies who get out of sight from each other, including coordinates and bearing to close on your buddy (ies).

There are other features with implications for paddlers, but without the depth of experience to discuss this in any detail at this time, I’ll leave discussing the potentialities to those who do.

This is great, because I don’t have GPS and may not need more than this, since I was trained in old-school navigation anyway – I mean like using actual plotters, charts, etc. The challenge is translating aviation navigational knowledge and experience into nautical.

Here’s the clincher: I was planning on the HX850S, because the newer 851 model lists for over $400. Then, with more searching, I came across the HX851 on sale at for about half of list price!

Thanks to all who generously offered their feedback and advice, including those who made contributions now archived on p-net.

Eager to here how you like it …
When you try out the Standard Horizon HX851 on the water, I would be interested in hearing more. Ok, so hopefully you don’t need it but how is it taking it along with you.

Having just received it . . .
I can only report on my out-of-the-box impressions.

First, after reading some reviews online, I was concerned that it might feel too big. Reportedly, it is somewhat larger than average to allow for flotation. I was pleased to discover that it seems smaller than I expected.

Remember though, this is my first marine radio. (Also, I come from an era in which portable field radios of any kind would about fill your lap!)

The manual is very thorough and clear, but detailed. The quality appears excellent and I am wondering if any of the marine channels are used on our larger NC lakes. Certainly, I can check out the GPS - once I get through the manual. It occurred to me today that I could use the GPS for hiking, as well.

I guess the first thing to do is charge it up and drop it in the water, to confirm flotation and water-tightness.

DSC selective calling?
Can you say how practical the selective calling/position reporting feature might be to paddlers? Granted the other paddlers in your group would have to be similarly equipped, but assuming that, how simple would it be to send your position to a partner? (how many menus or keystrokes required) And how would it show up on your display if your partner sent you his position? (just a lat/lon coordinate, or a bearing and distance too?)

As you said above, this is potentially useful stuff (once it’s more universally adopted), but my review of the catalog descriptions for these DSC handhelds leaves me wondering whether they would be practical in the pitching cockpit of a kayak.

I have yet to study the details of using
DSC. I just got the radio. Rather than asking me to address these questions at my present level of exposure, you can investigate the capabilities for yourself by clicking on . Then scroll down and click on the link to a PDF copy of the owner’s manual.

I am convinced by my reviews that DSC features will be helpful in paddling groups, keeping track of each other, finding each other when separated, etc. The number of inputs to get results are nominal, though there is a learning curve - as there is with any new technology.

You asked about the kind of read out you would get in trying to locate a distant paddling partner. There is a GPS compass rose and the location of your target paddler appears in the rose, which provides a heading/bearing to that person, and I understand distance. There is no chart plotter readout, obviously, but if you know how to read a chart and place the coordinates on the chart from your GPS reading, you will be good to go.

I am just beginning to learn GPS, though I have extensive training and experience in “old school” aviation navigation - hence my hesitation to address your questions in any detail without having had experience with this radio.

Rather, I would rather read the speculations on the possibilities written by thoroughly experienced sea kayakers.

As far as dealing with operating the radio, using the GPS to find a distant partner while in the cockpit of a pitching kayak at sea, I don’t see how this would be anything but easier than not having the quick-locating features of DSC. If you know how to follow a compass bearing to a waypoint in a pitching kayak (or pitching anything), what difference would it make to be doing the same thing using a GPS compass rose?

marine channels on NC lakes

I was told once that at Lake Jordan near Raleigh that the Crosswinds Marina folks monitor channel 16. I haven’t verified that and don’t yet have a radio myself. But if true it suggests that the large lakes with marinas (Falls, Norman, others) might have radio monitoring.

G in NC

Thanks Ginger
Maybe I’ll be able to check out my radio VHF function before taking it off the coast.