How to choose a remote control boat
The top performers in our review are Pro Boat Recoil, the Gold Award winner; Pro Boat React, the Silver Award winner; and Aquacraft Miss Seattle, the Bronze Award winner. Here's more on choosing a remote control boat to meet your needs, along with detail on how we arrived at our ranking of these 10 boats.
Some people like to sit on the shore of a pond or a lake with a fishing pole in their hands as they enjoy the calm, quiet, relaxing ambiance of nature. You're not one of those people. You want to create wakes. You want speed. You want to cut and wave and generally create havoc across the water's surface. Remote control boating is the hobby for you.
The great thing about remote control boats is that it's an inclusive hobby. You don't need years of experience with boats or a master's degree in robotics and engineering. Anyone can join in. With most entry-level remote control (RC) boats, all you have to do is remove the boat from the box and put it on the water. With time, you can make upgrades to your boat, creating customized, faster boats.
Another great feature of the RC boat world is the parent-child dynamic the hobby facilitates. Racing radio-controlled boats is fun at any age. It doesn't matter if you're 14 or 40. Visit any online forum for remote control boating enthusiasts and you'll find many of the hobbyists talk about their remote control boats in relation to their child. They aren't just buying RC boats for their teenage son or daughter, they're also participating with a second boat.
RC boating is a relatively cheap hobby to pick up, which means that you can add a second boat to your fleet. It's also a hobby that's so much more enjoyable when there are other boats on the water to race against.
Entry-level RC boats
Every remote control boat in our review is ideal for someone who is curious about the RC boating hobby. These are electric RC boats that cost between $99 and $180.
Many of these boats have a top speed of 25 mph, but most entry-level boats top out at around 20 mph. These speeds are ideal for a beginner, because it allows you to become familiar with the controls and handling of the boat. These boats are also ideal for the curious hobbyist because the performance is miles ahead of the cheap $30 boats you'll find on various websites.
As your interest grows, you can make alterations to the RC boat, like sharpening the propeller. You can also upgrade the motor, battery and other components to drastically improve the overall performance.
Remote control boat terms: speaking the language
Boating has a complete lexicon that can be intimidating and foreign to a novice. Below are some of the most common terms that are important to know:
Brush Motor: This is the cheapest electric motor used by RC boats. Brush motors have been around since the 1800s. They have a tendency to overheat, so you'll need to make sure that the boat has a water-cooling system.
Brushless Motor: Brushless motors lack the friction of brush motors, which means they're better at converting electricity into power. This generally results in a faster, higher-performing boat.
Transmitter: This is the radio-controlled unit you hold. It uses a 2.4-GHz radio frequency to communicate with the boat.
Bow: This is the front of the boat.
Stern: The back of the boat.
Port: The left side of the boat.
Starboard: The right side of the boat.
Hull: The body of the boat.
Deck: The top of the boat.
Keel: The center of the bottom of the boat.
Strake: Lift rails located on the bottom of the boat.
Rudder: The vertical plate mounted on the stern (back of the boat) that steers the boat.
Strut: The propeller support bracket mounted on the back of the boat.
Draft: This is the vertical distance between the water level and the bottom of the hull.
RC boats: choosing a hull type
The hull refers to the boat's body, and its shape can greatly affect performance, especially with specific conditions. Understanding how each hull type performs lets you know what type of radio-controlled boat is best for your conditions.
Monohull: This body type resembles most full-size boats. It's constructed of one single body that forms a V shape, with the keel of the boat marking the point down the middle. These type of boats are the most agile and can move easily in any direction. They perform best in rougher conditions and aren't as likely to flip over like other hull types.
Hydroplane: Hydroplane hulls utilize two sponsons, which are like two small hulls in front that run along both sides of the boat's larger hull. The design often resembles a dual-pronged fork. This is a common design for full-size racing boats because the front sponson design lifts the bulk of the boat off the water, creating less surface friction. However, hydroplanes are generally only good for riding on calm water. They also only turn right well because they're designed for oval racing. You can turn most hydroplanes left, but you have to slow down, otherwise you'll flip the boat.
Catamaran: A catamaran has two parallel hulls of equal size that run along both sides of the boat. The dual hulls provide excellent stability in rougher waters and with wind, and it has a significantly smaller draft, which means it rides on less water than a monohull. However, they are still prone to blowing over.
Remote control boats: water etiquette and safety
Nobody likes a sore sport or a clueless hobbyist. While it may be fun cutting your RC boat back and forth across the water to create small wakes, RC boats aren't toys. They have parts that can overheat, cut, and hurt others. Whether you're racing boats with friends or enjoying a leisurely spin on the local pond, there are some common water etiquette and safety tips provided by the various manufacturers:
Don't swim after a stalled boat
If your boat flips over or the battery dies while it's beyond reach, you might find yourself tempted to swim out after it. While it's entirely possible for someone to swim out to a floating boat, retrieve it and swim back, you'd have to be a significantly strong swimmer to do this safely.
As such, RC boat manufacturers warn against swimming after boats that are dead in the water. Instead, you should wait for the boat to drift to shore, which will eventually happen, though not necessarily the shore closest to you. If the water is shallow enough, it's okay to walk out to retrieve it. You can also use a personal watercraft, like an inflatable boat.
Never operate one while standing in the water
Manufacturers don't provide a reason for this warning, though there may be some reasons behind it. Sometimes you need to be quick on your feet. Standing in the water can destabilize you. It's also never a good idea to hold electronics while standing in water, even though there isn't enough power in the batteries to electrocute you.
Never operate one near swimmers
These boats have propellers just like full-size boats. They might be the size of a quarter, but they are often made of metal or very hard plastic, which means they can still cut through skin easily. Most of the boats go very fast and are made of hard, durable plastic with hard, blunt edges. These boats are literally like small missiles on the water. Any swimmers in the vicinity would appreciate not having one slam into their head or body.
Always mind the propeller
Again, this is a real propeller. It will hurt you if it's running and one of your appendages gets in its way. Always be mindful of the propeller and keep your hands away from it while the motor is on.
Don't harass wildlife
Don't be a jerk. Chasing ducks and other wildlife is not cool. Not only can this result in a fine from your local law enforcement, but it's not likely to make you any friends at your local pond.
Remote control sailboats and scale model boats
If speed is not your thing, then you may find more joy in a remote control sailboat or scale model boats. These are specialized RC boats designed more for the leisurely hobbyist who wants to smoothly carve through the water.
Sailboats: An RC sailboat is exactly what you'd expect – a boat with a sail. With these, you use the wind to propel the boat, just like full-size sailboats. The radio control only applies to sailing and the angle of the sails. These are excellent for hobbyists fascinated by the science of wind power.
Since radio-controlled sailboats require some knowledge of how sailboats work, these model boats are generally recommended for advanced users. A novice is likely to find the sails difficult to manage and quite frustrating.
Scale boats: These boats are scale models of popular commercial or military boats. These boats look like a miniature of the full-size version. You can get scale model tugboats, barges, aircraft carriers, cruisers, yachts and more. These RC boats aren't designed to go fast. They're ideal for collectors with a passion for boat design.
Upgrading your hobby: gas-powered RC boats
As the RC boating hobby hooks you in and you become more advanced and dedicated, you may want to upgrade. Every RC boat in our review is upgradeable. This means you can swap out the motor and the batteries with better versions. However, these are limited to electric parts.
You can also upgrade the size. Most entry-level RC boats are around 17 inches, but you can upgrade to 24 inches, 36 inches and larger. These larger boats have large motors and are designed for larger bodies of water. If you use a local small pond, then a larger RC boat is not ideal. But if you want to take it out on a lake, you might find that a larger boat is more enjoyable, as they're less likely to flip over and can handle rougher waters.
If you really want to upgrade your radio-controlled boat, you can get a gas-powered RC boat. Instead of running on an electric battery, these boats have gas tanks and a gas motor. These RC boats can reach speeds that exceed 50 mph. The run time is also significantly longer, as you don't have to worry about draining the battery in 10 minutes. You also don't have to wait for the battery to recharge. You simply add more fuel to the boat.
Remote control boats: what we tested, what we found
The requirements of a good RC boat are relatively straightforward. Primarily, the boat needs to be fun to pilot. To be fun, the boat needs to have excellent handling, good speed and a good battery life. The perfect RC boat, however, largely depends on the pilot. And faster doesn't always mean better. You shouldn't have to spend several minutes assembling the boat, and it should be easy enough for most kids to set up and use.
You can't test RC boats on land, obviously. So we tested every boat in our review at a local reservoir and a private pool. The reservoir has rougher conditions that you'd find on a large pond or small lake while the pool was used for flat-water purposes.
These RC boats aren't rated for salt-water conditions, so it's important that you only take your boat out on freshwater lake, pond or pool. While the boats can certainly run on the ocean, the salt water isn't good for the parts and will significantly shorten the life of your boat.
It's also not wise to pilot your RC boat on running bodies of water, such as rivers and creeks. The currents are often too strong for the boats, causing them to flip over easily. And if the boat flips over, the current can easily sweep it away, making it difficult, if not impossible, to recover.
When driving the boats, we considered run time, speed, handling, water retention and the overall fun factor. The most fun RC boats are fast and capable of handling all the turns and twists you give it.
They have batteries that don't die in less time than it takes to boil an egg, and they don't have tendency to take on water. Boats with the highest grades represent the ones that were the most fun to drive with the least amount of issues.
The whole joy of the RC boat hobby is being able to cut and swerve and spin. You want to feel like you're piloting a full-size speedboat. As such, you want a boat that moves the way you want it to move with little risk of flipping over.
We tested handling by playing with the boats at the local reservoir and evaluating how well they handled sharp right turns, sharp left turns, circles, figure eights and more. We looked for boats that didn't flip over easily and could accelerate at various speeds with ease.
The best remote control boats responded exactly how we wanted them to and were difficult, if not impossible, to flip over. However, some boats struggled. For example, hydroplanes don't turn left very well, and this hurt the handling.
This is a relatively easy test. We simply raced the boats at a person holding a radar gun. We used a sport radar gun similar to ones used to measure the speed of a fastball in baseball. This was tested primarily at the reservoir, as the boats required a long straight run that a private pool doesn't provide. The fastest boat we tested recorded a speed of 25 mph.
Speed isn't everything with a remote control boat. A boat that goes too fast is difficult to control and easy to flip for a novice user. That said, if you can combine high speeds with great handling, you'll have the most fun with your radio-controlled boat.
Run time and charge time
Electric remote control boats have really short battery lives. This is undoubtedly the most frustrating aspect of this hobby. We tested this by running the boats until the battery ran out. The average run time was just 10 minutes. As such, we recommend purchasing multiple batteries so you don't have to wait for the battery to charge before launching the boat again.
We tested the charge time similarly. After the batteries were drained, we timed how long the battery took to fully charge. The fastest charge time was an hour, but some batteries can take up to five or six hours. Again, having multiple batteries is ideal so you can rotate them, which allows you to keep the boat on the water with little down time.
Top Ten Reviews seeks, whenever possible, to evaluate all products and services in hands-on tests that simulate as closely as possible the experiences of a typical consumer. The manufacturers had no input or influence over our test methodology, nor was the methodology provided to any of them in more detail than is available through reading our reviews. Results of our evaluations were not provided to the companies in advance of publication.
What else is important in selecting a remote control boat?
RC boats come with myriad superfluous features, like color options, decals and water-cooling features, which are usually only needed with brushed motors. That said, there are some features and accessories you should consider:
With most RC boats, if your boat flips over, you have to wait for the boat to drift to shore or wade in after it (it's not recommended you swim after it). However, the best radio-controlled boats have a self-righting feature. If the boat flips, you simply push a button on the transmitter and the boat rights itself so you can pilot it again.
Accessories and supplies
You need to pay attention to whether or not the manufacturer has included all the parts needed to operate your new remote control boat. This consists of the transmitter, batteries for both your boat and the transmitter, a charger for the boat battery, propellers and a stand. Several RC boats are ready to run right out of the box. However, a few do not include a transmitter or batteries.
You also want to purchase hatch tape, or water-resistant adhesive tape, that seals the hatch. The hatch is a boat's equivalent to the hood of a car. The tape is designed to keep water out of your boat for one run at a time. If too much water seeps in, the boat runs much slower and is at higher risk of capsizing. Typically, hatch tape is about an inch wide and a roll costs less than ten dollars. Very few manufacturers include hatch tape with their boats.
Help and support
A lot can go wrong while boating: You can crash, get the boat's inner components wet or damage its parts. Unfortunately, most manufacturer warranties don't cover accidental damage or crashes. A warranty is still good to have though, and help isn't out of reach.
Many manufacturers sell replacement parts, which can potentially fix the problem. Warranties eliminate the worry of problems like a propeller or rudder malfunctioning. We looked for RC boats backed by a warranty. Most boats only have a warranty of 90 days, but some last up to two years. You should also be able to easily reach the manufacturer by telephone or email in the event of any questions or problems. In addition to a decent warranty period and strong support, you should be able to download a user manual in the event your original is misplaced.
Remote control boats: our verdict and recommendations
The best remote control boat in our tests was the Pro Boat Recoil, which is why it won our Gold Award. It featured the best performance, handling and durability. It was also among the fastest boats we tested. The Pro Boat React was very similar to the Recoil, which is why it earned our Silver Award. The handling and the performance was very similar. It was also the fastest boat we tested, reaching speeds of 28 mph. Finally, the Aquacraft Miss Seattle earned our Bronze Award, rounding out the top three best remote control boats. While it didn't perform as well as the top two, the hydroplane hull is fun to watch skim across the water.
If you're looking for something a little different from the typical remote control boat, you should consider the Radio Ranger. While it's nearly three times the size of most of the boats we reviewed, it comes with dual engines and an on-board fishing pole capable of reeling in fish up to five pounds, making ideal for the hobbyist that also enjoys fishing. It can also reach speeds of up to 18 mph.
Whether you're looking for a fun toy for the lake or you're curious about what the remote control boat hobby is like, the best remote control boats in our review satisfy the need for speed, handling and durability. To learn more, read our articles about remote control boats and other RC toys.