VHF radio question

Because I can find no paddling companions where I vacation in Northern Michigan, I must either paddle solo or paddle not at all. I choose the first. (Please, no lectures, but see my final comment below.) I am not a total beginner, but I am a more-or-less novice, so I try to choose slow, shallow rivers. The few rivers I’ve been able to find that fit those conditions are way out in the boonies, with no one else around. This (the isolation more than the water) makes me uncomfortable, so I’m considering getting a VHF radio. I understand that VHF’s will not transmit if impeded by hills. But will they transmit through heavily wooded forests, as long as the forests are flat or no more than gently rolling? Also, is a VHF likely to be able to transmit in areas where a cell phone cannot?

I’ve looked at PLB’s, but considering the price and their intended use, I think that would be overkill for the environments/situations I’m likely to be in. I’d like to be able to contact friends, family, or local authorities, if necessary, but doubt I would ever need an all-out search-and-rescue operation. So I’m looking for something that’s more reliable than a cell phone, but less “big-guns” than a PLB. Am I headed in the right direction in thinking that a VHF is the way to go? Thanks.

BTW, I’ve tried using the “Getting Together & Paddling” message board to find a fellow kayaker…with no luck. But if you’d consider paddling the type of areas I’ve described–anywhere within an hour of Black Lake (basically anywhere in the LP north of Wolverine or in the UP within 30 min. of the bridge)–between early June and mid-July, let me know. Thanks!

who will hear you
A big question you need ask is who will hear you. Your range may be a couple miles (five miles or so in wide open water). The ocean and larger lakes with lots of boat traffic will often have casual and official folks listening, but not so in out of the way places.

Does the area have cell phone service?

Other option
is to use Spot http://www.findmespot.com/en/

It is way cheaper option than PLB/EPIRB, and is not to be

confused with PLB/EPIRB.

It has “Rescue me” button - if user activates it, the cavalry will arrive. Might be a good option if you believe you would be able to get safe and wait for the rescue.

Yep, probably . . .
. . . SPOT is the way to go. I paddle solo and don’t worry ‘bout it. Gotta die of somethin’. I take a VHF when I am on salt water. I take a cell phone, although, often I am in areas that don’t have coverage. I have a little experience with SPOT. It works good everywhere. They put 'em on every car in last years Baja 1000. The car owner is gonna loan me his for my next long trip.

told no Spot
The first thing that two outdoor enthusiasts said to me when I inquired about PLB’s was, “Whatever you do, don’t get a Spot!” Something about them not working (a defective batch? just poor quality? I didn’t really understand). Does anyone have more info on the Spot other than what the ads say?

is a marine radio designed for basically big water communication between vessels.

Here in MI that is first and foremost the Great Lakes and Lake St. Clair - where commercial and pleasure boats, as well as the USCG, are always monitoring Channel 16, for example. Include the transport rivers like Detroit and the St. Mary’s. This goes for some of the busiest inland lakes like Houghton, Torch, Charlevoix where there are a lot of pleasure boats in season. On the smaller inland lakes like Black there are fewer boats, a smattering of law enforcement boats, and no Coast Guard.

The smaller the lake, the fewer vessels available for response. However, if just one responds, it makes a huge difference to you.

With decent small, submersible VHFs to be had for under $100, there’s no reason not to have one. Besides communicating distress situations you can also monitor NOAA and changing weather - valuable info whether you go solo or in groups.

Consider leaving a float plan - if you are not already doing so - w. a trusted somebody with your approximate route and expected return time. That way someone will know if you are way overdue & get help as appropriate.

In a area like you are describing
I don’t think the VHF will do you any good.

The range in a area like that is only a few miles, and then there probably won’t be any one else around with one turned on to pick you up.

They are a great safety device on the ocean since the coast guard monitors them, but not out where you are going.

I think your best bet is to just leave a float plan with someone you know. then call them up at a given time to let them know you are back.



pretty reliable
I’ve heard of some having failures due to water even though rated waterproof (so a dry back could help). Also at any given time you may have some problems due to getting a signal out near trees, their servers having troubles, etc… But it seems that on the whole the messages do get out soon enough to help. In other words, not perfect, but what’s better and reasonably priced.

VHF Range
As I understand it, VHF radio signals are essentially line-of-sight. That is, if you are in dense woods, especially if you’re typically on a river–by definition the lowest ground in the area–your signal will not be able to reach anyone nearby.

Even under the best conditions–out on open water in good weather–the signal of a typical handheld unit with 5 watts of output power will only reach a few miles, perhaps no further than two miles from the seat of a kayak, due to the curvature of the earth.

Better to consider a good cell phone, or some of the other options mentioned above.

Good Luck!



The points made above about VHF range are valid; however, do not overlook the possibility that there may be VHF repeater stations in your area. These will substantially boost the range of your VHF.

Most likely, there will NOT be repeaters on inland rivers. They are mostly for coastal use. There is a reason handheld VHF radios are marketed as MARINE radios rather than LAND radios!

If I were in your situation, I would most likely go with a cell phone. Outdoor purists may question that decision, but cell penetration is so dense in the United States that your chances of picking up a signal are pretty good.


Amatuer radio?
It’ll take a little research, but there are probably amateur radio repeaters that cover your area. 2m VHF handhelds are fairly inexpensive, and the test isn’t hard.



VHF isn’t going to do it
Having the WX feature is nice, but if it’s not on maritime charts chances are you won’t have coverage. Spot–as much as I hate its crudeness–is the way to go if you want coverage. All you can do is send out a handful of preset messages–I’m okay, SOS, etc. It has to be pointed up at the sky with nothing between it and the satellite to work (no hills, no thick trees, etc.). It’s an electrical device and as such is susceptible to all the usual shortcomings of electrical devices–it may break, get damaged by water, have its batteries die, etc. Unfortunately risk seems to come with the territory when you paddle alone. I hear ya (but not literally). :wink: