Basic Boat Electronics for Beginners

boat electronics for dummies

Learning about boat electronics may seem a bit daunting, but the tech at your helm will help make running and navigating your boat easier than ever. Thanks to modern marine electronics and navigational instruments, captaining your boat is far less complex and confusing than it once was.

MFDs multifunction displays

In fact, electronics have taken tasks like navigation, which once required years of learning to master, and made them as simple as pressing a few buttons or swiping on a touch screen. There are still some rather complex tasks and gear involved when one considers operating some large vessels, but for the average recreational boat owner the list of electronics you’ll need to learn about is relatively short.

What boat electronics do I need onboard?

  • Multifunction Displays (MFDs)
  • GPS/Chartplotter
  • Fish Finder or Depth Sounder
  • Engine Monitors
  • VHF Radios

How to Navigate a Boat


Multifunction Displays (MFDs)

Think of multifunction displays, commonly called MFDs, as the “brain” for your boat. They incorporate most or even all of your systems into one single interface, which may feature either a touch screen or keypad control.

While it may seem overwhelming to think about combining all the different systems into one, don’t fret. MFDs are shockingly easy to learn how to use because most modern versions utilize a user-interface that’s very similar to the smart phone sitting in your pocket. You’ll discover that home screens have pages with app-like, tap-to-activate icons that allow you to choose between functions, and customizable pages that allow you to bring combinations of different functions up in split-screen modes.

If you’re just buying a new boat that incorporates the latest and greatest technology, you may discover that the MFD controls not only the marine electronics, but also all of the boat’s electrical systems. This ability comes courtesy of tech called “digital switching.”

Digital switching allows you to turn any device on or off right from the MFD screen (think of it like Nest for your boat). So when a boat is built with a digital switching system things like the light switches, livewell pumps, electric windows, and anchor windlasses can all be controlled with a tap or a swipe of your finger on the MFD.


marine gps and chartplotter


You’ve almost certainly enjoyed the benefits of GPS mapping on your phone and in your car. Just as this tech has made driving around on land a lot less confusing, it’s made navigating a boat a snap. You may navigate with a stand-along GPS/chartplotter, the GPS/chartplotter function on your MFD, or even via an app on your phone or tablet (see 5 Best Marine Navigation Apps for Boaters, to find the right nav app for your needs).

In truth, there really isn’t a huge difference between navigating a boat with a GPS/chartplotter and navigating a car with GPS mapping. No, there are no roads and yes, you have to be aware of factors like water depth, navigational aids, and hazards to navigation. But the basic concept is quite similar and once you’ve checked out Marine GPS for Boats: Understanding the Basics, and Marine Navigation: How to Navigate a Boat, you should find that when it comes to figuring out simple navigational techniques the learning curve is quite short.

Marine GPS for Boats: Understanding the Basics


fish finder and depth sounder

Fish Finder or Depth Sounder

Fish finders and depth sounders are also functions that are built into most MFDs but may be found as stand-alone units as well, particularly on small all-purpose fishing boats, center consoles, and other boats designed for fishing which don’t necessarily have larger, more expensive electronics systems installed.

They may have touch-screen or tactile interfaces, and generally have a number of settings that can improve performance quite a bit depending on factors like water depth, the level of suspended solids in the water, zoom levels, and so on. Fortunately, all modern fish finders have “auto” modes that can do most of the fine-tuning for you.

Ready to dig a bit deeper into the details? 

How to Use a Fish Finder


boat engine monitors

Engine Monitors

Engine monitors provide you with digital gauges like tachometers, fuel level, and engine temperature. Once again, this functionality may come through your MFD or you may have dedicated screens to show you nothing but engine data. In this case, however, having dedicated screens is more common because you’ll want to be able to monitor your powerplants whenever they’re running.

Engine monitors can take up a lot of screen space on an MFD, leaving less room for other systems to be viewed. And they usually need to be used simultaneously with things like chartplotters and fishfinders. So most of the time, engine monitors will have their own stand-alone screens.

Just about all of us are used to seeing digital gauges in the dashboard of our cars and trucks, so you should have zero problem adapting to using them in your boat. Just remember that with a boat there are often more variables to consider, and engine monitors may include things like drive trim level or rudder angle in addition to basic engine data.


portable vhf radio for boating

VHF Radio

Of all the electronics on your boat, the VHF radio is one of the most important. It’s a critical piece of safety gear and the most reliable way to communicate with the authorities in case of emergency. Yes, we all carry cell phones these days, but cell service can get sketchy on many waterways and cell phones are prone to water damage.

Your VHF radio, on the other hand, is the best way to reliably get a call for help through to the authorities in any place or situation. VHFs are relatively simple to operate, so read through How to Use a VHF Radio and familiarize yourself with the process.

How to Use a VHF Radio


Explore Other Boat Electronics

What about all those more advanced systems found on larger boats, like autopilots, radar, or EPIRBs? We have info about them, too, which you can find below. But for the average boat owner, our short-list will cover all the bases. Learn how to use your MFD, GPS/chartplotter, fish finder or depth sounder, engine monitors, and VHF radio, and you’ll be ready to hit the water and enjoy some fun in the sun with confidence.

Read Next: Best Boating Apps for Navigation, Fishing, Weather & More

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