TopKayaker.Net: Kayak Safety Articles

VHF RadioVHF Marine Radios & Communication Devices
For the Kayaker
by Tom Holtey

It could be argued that a competent paddler or group does not need to carry phones or radios. I am by no means suggesting you need to drop everything and rush out to buy a VHF. It is a personal choice, based on your individual needs and resources. It would however be a disappointing hindsight to realize that disaster could have been avoided if the cell phone or radio had not been left at home.

The practicality of using a radio to communicate with paddling comrades is clearly seen. Other than the minor problems with manipulating yet another gadget on deck, a radio can eliminate a lot of guessing about other paddler's intentions and whereabouts, clear up miscommunications and eliminate shouting over wind and water. Below I've outlined some information about the variety and abilities of communication devices for kayakers.

VHF Marine Radios

VHF radios provide kayakers with an option of getting immediate recognition when in a life threatening situation. However you will find their practical applications to be quite handy and of regular use. Hand held walkie-talkie type VHF radios are convenient for kayakers to use. They have different channels used by the U.S. Coast Guard, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, marine organizations and mariners of all kinds. They are not to be used on land.

Channel 16 on your VHF is a hailing channel; it is used for initiating communications. One boater will call to another on this channel for a very brief exchange and switch to an alternative channel if there is more to say.

Channel 16 is also for distress calls, and is listened to around the clock by the local Coast Guard stations. To make a distress call: Say: Mayday, Mayday, Mayday. Give your name and tell them you are in a kayak and the color of that kayak, if in a group tell them the number of boats. Give your location and describe the nature of the emergency.

If you are in range you will receive instructions from authorities, otherwise you will be lucky if a near by boater hears your call. For safety reasons all vessels that have a VHF radio monitor 16 when not actively using other channels for communications.

A hand held VHF radio has a range of about five miles. You cannot send or receive a signal over high hills and tall islands or around cliff-like points of land; essentially it is line-of site and works very well over open water.

Channels for non-commercial use, such as kayakers, can be used freely for group communications. These channels are: 68, 69, 71, 72, 78 & channel 9 is used as an alternative hailing channel shared with commercial users. Do not use the other channels that are available on your VHF as they are for distinct commercial, governmental and navigational purposes. Most hand held lower power radios do not require that you have a FCC license. This applies only to small recreational vessels and kayaks will fall under this category. Unlicensed operators are not allowed to use a radio to talk to foreign vessels or use the radio in waters of another country.

Another handy property of the VHF radio is access to NOAA weather broadcasts. You can get a weather report round the clock in a continuous loop recording that is updated regularly. The reports are often marine oriented such as expressing wind in knots, so you should try to familiarize your self with the lingo and geographical locations particular to the reports that you will be listening to prior to venturing into the field. There are several weather frequencies or channels to choose from abbreviated as WX. You will likely only be able to pick up one or two broadcasting stations in any one place.

At Tom's
TopKayaker Shop
VHFWaterproof VHF Radio Case-Large or Small
A VHF radio will not be ready when needed if stowed below deck. Use this bag to keep it handy.This case is for radios with both right & left hand antenna. Closes with a simple twist and go clamp. Waterproof to 15 feet!

In group paddling situations it is wise to have a lead kayaker and a sweep kayaker each with their own radio. This will allow the front of the pack to talk with the back of the pack to help keep the group together and in communication. Other paddlers in the group should be encouraged to use their radios too if they have them. At the start of your trip assign a working channel from the non-commercial channels for your group to use. Make sure all who carry a VHF in your group know what the working channel is, and know that they can fall back on 16 or 9 as a hailing channel if necessary.

It is customary and required that users of VHF radios monitor channel 16 for safety reasons. A radio watch on channel 16 and or 9 in busy boating channels would be wise to keep abreast of the movements of large vessels that are hard to predict their speed and direction. Also there is a chance that communicating with boat operators would be helpful top all those involved. As kayakers, with low watt radios and limited battery life, you will likely be of little assistance in an emergency situation. Therefore I would suggest that maintaining a radio watch of 16 for that purpose would be a personal judgment call. Monitor it if you want to hold to the regulations, or use a scan function that many radios are equipped with, or don't be bothered with it. I do not believe there would be any consequences for a casual recreational user, as long as you can sleep at night. ;)

If your radio is equipped with a low power setting, as many are, use it when ever possible. This makes good sense. Not only will you conserve battery power, but also you will reduce polluting the frequency and make it easy for others to use the same frequency in your area.

It is customary and required that you use your radio call sign at the beginning and end of each transmission. Assuming that you do not have a FCC license, and call sign issued by the FCC, the point is moot. You could identify your self with a handle in that manner. In my experience this protocol is not often followed even among the bigger vessels.

It is also recommended to keep communication brief and avoid chit-chat. While this makes sense to some degree, to save batteries and reduce pollution, do not feel inhibited to use your radios to communicate with your comrades of things that are of importance to you. This could be to find out how tired and hungry the group is, let the leader know you are sea sick, trade tips with fishermen, and of course report on topics of interest and safety. While it is wise to keep a group of paddlers close enough to shout to each other for safety reasons, Sit-On paddlers will tend not to bunch up as close as Sit-In paddlers. Sit-In paddlers need to be close because they often require assisted rescues. However such rescues are almost unheard of among Sit-On paddlers.

vhf radiosSelect a radio that is considered waterproof and protect it in a waterproof radio bag. If you carry a VHF keep it handy where you can reach it. Ideally on your person (I tuck mine into my vest) but a deck bag, center hatch or backrest pocket is good too. Use the lanyard, the radio will sink like a stone, add a clip and or lanyard as necessary. Most radios that are billed as waterproof are actually only guaranteed to be waterproof, meaning the company will replace a radio that has been soaked enough to kill it. Kayaking is a wetter endeavor than these radios are meant for. Engineering a radio to truly waterproof is quite a challenge, so make sure to protect it in a waterproof bag made for radio use regardless to the claims. You will be very wet indeed when you may find yourself in dire need of the radio.

finger holdThere are many makers of bags for radios, select one carefully. Make sure it will fit your radio, they come in many sizes. Check to see if it is for a right hand antenna or left hand sided antenna, believe me this makes a difference. Most VHF radios will have a knob or two that needs to be manipulated with your fingers, therefore most radio bags have a finger pocket, so you can put your finger in the bag and with the thumb out side twist the knob. With out this feature it will be almost impossible to the adjust volume, turn on the radio and use other features. This pocket will sometimes get inside out and look like a little nose or ear, just push it back in. Bags for radios will seal at one end with a variety of closers. I am sure most are up to snuff, but quality counts. A compact bag (and radio) will help you keep it handy, ready to use. These bags are not immune to leaks! Inspect carefully before and after each use. I carry a small peel and stick patch, like the kind used for bike tires right inside the bag. They are clear, so I can still see the radio and its features. They must be applied while the bag is dry. The patch is temporary, meaning it will last for your trip, but next season it will likely be coming off. A permanent patch can be achieved with a vinyl repair kit, for air mats & beach balls, depending of the materials, use a clear patch.

I have mentioned battery life above, and I feel that it needs more addressing. Many VHF radios have rechargeable batteries. Some can use standard disposable batteries. If your radio uses a rechargeable you must take good care of it. Follow all the instructions on discharging, recharging and maintenance to keep your battery at optimal performance. Eventually it will finally die for good, about two years, maybe more, regardless of care and usage. On extended touring trips it may be necessary to take more than one battery for each radio. Most batteries can last a couple of days, depending on use, before the battery needs a recharge. A spare can be helpful, as there are few, if any at all, places to charge up on a wild coastline. This of course necessitates conservation of power. You may even be relying on the VHF for weather forecasting. If you are lucky you may have a radio that can use disposable batteries and you can take along as many as you feel you will need. It would still be wise to use the radio conservatively in a wildness setting far from stores. For long-term storage of a radio, remove the batteries. Whatever power source you have, make sure the radio is fully charged before any trip. Put in new disposable batteries, or make sure you have a fresh charge on you rechargeable. Rechargeable batteries will loose a charge over time.

There are many channels that your radio can work with. Above I have identified the recreational use aka non-commercial channels, but you might want to know what the other channels are for and why you don't need to use them. Channel 6 is for ships to communicate weather, navigational and other safety related warnings and use for rescue operations. Channel 22 is for the use of the United States Coast Guard. Channel 13 is for ships to communicate about maneuvering, to avoid collisions and to talk to draw bridge operators. Channels 5, 11, 12, 13, 14, 20, 65, 66, 73, 77, & 77 are for messages concerning handling, movements and safety of vessels near ports, harbors and other limited space waterways. Commercial vessels (Working boats; fishing, ferry, barge, cruise ships, etc..) use channels: 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 18, 19, 67, 79, 80 & 88. State and Local government authorities use channel 17. Mariners sometimes need to place a phone call while at sea. They use the Marine Operator channels; 24, 25, 26, 27, 28, 84, 85, 86, 87, 88. Environmental conditions are broadcasted (only) on channel 15, such as sea conditions, hazards to navigation and notices to mariners.

At Tom's
TopKayaker Shop
FRSLarge Waterproof FRS/GMRS Radio Case
Most walkie-talkies are not water friendly and need to be protected. You will have no problem hearing or talking through the tuff see-through material. Comes with Neck Cord, Carabineer and a Neoprene armband. Waterproof to 15 feet!

Bear in mind also that the radio frequencies are kind of a public place. You should exercise courtesy and always speak in a manner that is socially acceptable. I do believe that use of bad language is fineable crime, so keep it clean.

If you are a real radio head you may want to spend some time to lean Morse Code (dashes and dots) or the Phonetic Alphabet (alpha - zulu) as these can be used in situations where signals are weak and distorted.

(Tom walks us through reviews of the range of VHF radios. Page opens in a seperate window.)

Two-way FRS & GMRS Radios:

Most of these hand held, pocket size radios have a range of about 2 miles or less. GMRS radios have a bit more power. FRS is short for Family Radio Service; GMRS is short for General Mobile Service Radio. FRS radios have relatively low power (about watt) that allows us to use them without the need for a FCC license. GMRS have more power (up to 5 watts) and you will need to obtain a 5-year license from the FCC that will extend to all in your household. (Could we argue kayak club??)

As is true with the VHF radios the air space is in a sense a public place and you should exercise common courtesy and use socially acceptable language. The many channels and sub channels allow for a large number of users to share the same air ways with out having to put up with crowded channels.

FRSOne advantage of the FRS & GMRS radios is that you can use them on land as well as water. This will allow you to use the same gear for surf or turf. We like to add a hiking component to many of our paddling trips and this type of radio is also great for communicating between two or more cars on the way to the put in and for shuttle logistics.

Waterproof or water resistant models are available, but always use them in a waterproof bag made for a radio to ensure they will hold up. Pay special attention to the bag shape and size. You may have to know weather your radio has a right or left side antenna, or weather or not there is a knob that must be turned, needing a finger pocket in the radio bag.

TopKayaker Shop - AquaPacFRS and GMRS run on disposable or rechargeable batteries. For extended use in the field on multi day touring trips disposable batteries may actually be more convenient, if you plan carefully and bring enough spares along.

These handy two-way radios and are excellent for Sweep and Lead Paddlersto use and for contacting the other paddlers in your fleet. They are NOT compatible with VHF radios and no emergency personnel will be monitoring broadcasts. As a mater of fact other radio users in range may be quite oblivious to a call of distress issued on a FRS/GMRS radio due to the many channels and sub channels that are available. That would not prevent me from trying though, if all I had was a FRS radio.

Cell Phones:

Most of us paddle to get away from these things, but a Cell Phone can be a convenient way to call for help. Many of us have wireless phones already, and if we have them we might as well use them. Don't let a cell phone be a substitute for preparedness and common sense.

Carry your phone in a waterproof container. See our Topkayaker Shop for a large variety in "Dry Storage". There are very good dry-bag or box type storage units specifically designed for cell phones. The dry bag case allows you to use the phone in a very wet environment. The water tight box provides excellent protection for a phone; however, you must use the phone in dry circumstances. Store it where you can get to it while on the water. A deck bag, center hatch, backrest pocket, or in the first aid kit would be handy places to keep it. Keep it turned off to conserve battery power.

Dial 911 in an emergency - but in some remote areas this could take you to a call center far from the local authorities. Try to obtain emergency calling information specific to your paddling area before you launch. When making an emergency call give a description of where you are, who you are, what color your kayak is, the situation at hand, and info about your group. Cell phones, as you know, only work if within range of a phone tower, consequently most remote areas will not have cell phone coverage. While paddling in more populated areas coverage will naturally be better. Unused, older phones without service plans can be used to make 911 calls, but bear in mind that these old phones have old weak batteries that may not hold a charge. Most rechargeable batteries only last for about two years regardless of how much or how little it is used. If you have an old phone you can almost count on the battery being less than perfect. That said, I might suggest that you take along your best phone. I have a small device that will allow you to use/charge your phone using regular batteries. I do not know how widely these are available and for the many different models but it may be a good option for an old phone, or an extended wilderness trip.

At our TopKayaker ShopCell phones could be used for lead and sweep paddlers in group situations, provided the signal from near by towers is strong enough. In this case you would want to use a water proof phone bag, keep the phone on and very handy, and of course you would need a phone with a current service plan.

At Tom's
TopKayaker Shop
waterproof caseWaterproof Phone Case, small
This case will fit most modern phones; no more than 6 inches high and 6 inches all the way around. Made out of a tough see-through, talk-through plastic that closes with a simple twist and go clamp. Waterproof to 15 feet!

Bear in mind that many folks could take offence of casual use of wireless technology in a wilderness setting. It is common courtesy to turn your phone off in a theater or lecture hall, or to excuse your self to take a call while seated for dinner in a restaurant. The reason people go into the wilds of nature is to get away from the distractions of modern life and to nourish their soul in a pristine world. So if you do take a phone as a safety measure, keep it at that. You may have need or desire to communicate with the urban world while in the bush, but ask your self: Am I ready to leave the city? Am I denying myself a chance to unwind? It's your call (I made a pun!) but my advice leans to no to minimal use a phone and discretion as necessary.

(At Tom's TopKayaker Shop find a range of water-tight radio and phone cases.)


While the possibility of using a radio or cell phone as a device for rescue calls looms in the back of our minds, and may be the primary reason to carry such electronics, we can not let them be a substitute for common sense, preparation, basic safety and good paddling skills. In other words; don't over extend your self just because you have a cell phone or radio along. Consider such devices as an additional safety measure and afford them the same respect you would your first aid kit, signal flares and whistle. Bear in mind also that use of a phone or radio is no guarantee that your call will be heard or responded to in an effective manner, so take only risks that are sensible with the understanding that you (and your group) are basically on your own.


At Tom's TopKayaker Shop - water-proof bags by AquaPac:

VHF Radios Reviews & Purchase recommendations.

FCC - Federal Communications Commission Info:

National Oceanic & Atmospheric Association:


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