Ranking the Best Marine Radar Systems of 2023
Raymarine RD418HD HD Color Radome
Raymarine Quantum 2
Marine radar used to be a pipe dream for most boaters. A cool sounding gadget, but totally impractical. How could any regular boater use it? Why would they ever want to? It was for commercial freighters and ocean liners. But you can’t stop progress. These days marine radar has come home. There are plenty of small, portable, affordable units.
Radar is one of the greatest inventions ever in terms of boat safety. Navigating in rough seas and fog was far more treacherous before it came along. Now, with radar, a clear path can always be found. Unseen obstacles and oncoming vessels need not be a danger or a surprise.
If you’re a serious boater, you want to have the best marine radar you can get. But what makes for the best marine radar? Let’s take a look at some of the best marine radars on the market. Then we’ll go over what features you need, and why you need them.
Things to Consider
Not every marine radar is built the same. There are several factors that can affect which one is best for your boat.
Radar System Range
Marine radars come in different ranges. Think of it like binoculars. Depending on the lens and prism type, some can see a great distance. Others have a much more limited range. So then the question becomes what range do you need and why?
If you’re a casual boater, you may not need any great range. If you tend to stay near shore, a limited range will work perfectly for you. It can still show hidden hazards and vessels in fog.
If you’re interested in more serious boating, a greater range is needed. If you plan to do boating a good distance from shore, this will be helpful. Likewise, if you’re an explorer and want to head to unfamiliar waters. A long range boat radar will eliminate any surprises.
An average range is 24 nautical miles or 26 nautical miles. Even up to 48 nautical miles. 36 nautical miles is rather rare, but it’s a sweet spot in the middle. The best marine radars need to have range plus clarity.
As you can imagine, a more powerful marine radar is typically a better marine radar. A more powerful engine goes faster. A more powerful shower cleans better. It’s just how things work. Power is different from range, although range is definitely affected by power.
A low-powered marine radar will have trouble getting through severe weather and fog. Heavy rain will slow it down as well. These obstructions absorb radar, making it less functional. More power will help it cut through them.
Power for a marine radar is measured in kilowatts (kW). The typical range for a marine radar starts at 4 kW and goes up to about 25 kW. A 4 kW radar has a maximum range of about 48 nautical miles. At 25 kW you’ll get a maximum range up to 96 nautical miles.
There are lowered power marine radars you can get as well. Some down as low as 2 kW. These only have a maximum range of about 24 nautical miles.
The ability of your marine radar to function can be tweaked by more than just power. For instance, a taller antenna can help improve range and power as well.
Types of Marine Radars
Not every boater is aware that marine radars come in different types. They perform the same basic function but operate slightly differently.
Pulse Radar: These are the older style of radar system. They create microwave pulses with high powered magnetrons. It’s rather similar to how a microwave oven works. The pulse are released in short bursts of voltage. Though older, it’s still reliable radar technology.
Solid State Radar: Solid state is the newer style of radar system. It’s also called broadband marine radar. Solid state uses something called Frequency Modulated Continuous Wave technology. This is sometimes abbreviated to FMCW.
Solid state marine radars use less radiation than pulse radar. That’s another thing people don’t often consider. Radar does release energy that could potentially be dangerous. Keep in mind that it’s unlikely you’ll be exposed to a dangerous dose, however. It would take a long time.
Solid state radars are easier to install than pulse. They don’t need to warm up the way a pulse system does, either. They have improved range even using the same power. And they also have a better target resolution.
Most marine radars have a beam width of 5.2°. A narrower beam width is going to provide you with a more detailed image. This is especially true of an object that is far away. It’s like focusing on something with a flashlight beam. But there is a downside. Narrow beam width tends to miss things as well. The narrower your beam, the more likely it is to skip important objects. So you need to have a happy medium. Too wide and resolution suffers as well.
Marine radar systems work in conjunction with other technology. On its own, radar won’t do much, right? You need to see the data it collects on a screen. That means tying it into your GPS or chart plotter.
Some radars come with their own GPS and chart plotter hardware. But most boats will already have a GPS or chart plotter on board. It’s more efficient to tie them together. But you need to make sure your radar actually works with what you have. If not, you’ll need to have some extra technology on board.
Just as with anything else on your boat, you need to settle on a budget for a radar. Even a “cheap” radar is an investment. Some kinds of radar systems can get well over $5000. For that kind of money, you want to make sure you’re getting quality technology.
Cheap radar systems do exist. But never forget that you get what you pay for. If you find a bargain radar, always research it. Check reviews across several sites. Especially if it’s a brand you have never heard of. If you can’t get some reliable history and reviews, you may want to skip it.
The way that you boat can dictate how you use marine radar system. As we covered, weather can affect how radar systems work. But if you do boating at night, for instance, that has an effect as well. Early morning boating can benefit from high powered radar as well. If you have a fishing boat, you can get a marine radar system that is also a sonar. That way you have the benefit of a fish finder.
Casual boaters will probably just need a simple marine radar system, if they need one at all. But if you’re a real gadget head, then maybe a more intense system is needed.
Choosing the place to mount your radar is as important as the type of radar. If you mount it wrong, it will limit function. Improper mounting makes blind spots. If the radar is obstructed by other parts of your boat, it can render it useless. Your radar should come with a mounting kit. This will always be the best way to mount it. If it doesn’t, you need to do a little homework. Find out the best way to mount your specific model.
At the very least, radar needs to be mounted above the passengers on the boat. This keeps you out of range of the electromagnetism that is being used. You want to look for the highest possible point on the boat. That way the radar can operate at a full 360 degrees.
Everything on a boat needs to have a degree of waterproofing. That just makes sense. But electronics can be touchy. You wouldn’t want to dunk your GPS or radio, right? The radar is the same way. It needs to be waterproof, however. It’s going to be exposed to sun and surf.
Radar units have specific waterproof ratings. You want something rated IPX6 at least. The IPX scale rates devices based on their water resistance. It runs from IPX0 to IPX9K.
An IPX0 has no water protection at all. At IPX6 it can resist high-pressure, heavy sprays of water. This is ideal for a boat radar. It should be enough to keep it safe in rough seas. It is rare you would find anything above IPX6.
IPX7 means it can be submerged for 1 meter for up to 30 minutes. It is unlikely you would find a radar system that has this rating or above.
Not every radar system is the same size. If you have a small boat, you need a small radar. Not for technology reasons, but for practical ones. Large radar units will be harder to mount if you don’t have the space.
Check the dimensions before you buy. Make sure you have the open space to mount it safely. Likewise, a heavy radar unit could pose an installation and safety issue. Some of these units weigh around 20 lbs. If these are not securely mounted, they could be a danger if a storm tears them free. Mounted in a high space, you don’t need a 20 lb radar hitting you in high winds.