Looking for the best handheld GPS for your next hiking or backpacking trip? Then look no further.
Although a smartphone can be used for navigational purposes, they're no match for reliable handheld GPS. Electronic compasses are highly interactive and detailed, allowing you a layered overview of the surrounding terrain. You can use them to insert waypoints, plan routes, and log your basecamp and all sorts of data.
You're in luck! We've compiled a list of the 7 best handheld GPS units that can fit in your hand so you'll never have to worry about getting lost again!
In a hurry? Here’s the test winner after 10 hours of research:
6 Best Handheld GPS Devices - Overview
Check out the top 6 handheld GPS' on the market today.
To prevent getting lost in the woods with nothing but a dwindling supply of snacks and a couple of nervous friends, we recommend investing in a handheld GPS device.
These affordable electronic compasses are a safe and practical backup measure when hiking into the wilderness — having one could even save your life. As there’s quite a range of products to choose from, we've reviewed the best options, suitable for all types of nature lovers, regardless of experience level.
Be sure to keep reading as we break down the best handheld GPS devices.
- 100 percent global Iridium satellite coverage enables two way text messaging from anywhere (satellite subscription required)
This GPS allows you to stay in touch while backpacking off the grid. Should you find yourself disconnected from your friends and family, or fellow campers — have no fear: the Garmin InReach Explorer+ allows you to send text messages from anywhere.
This combined with a Bluetooth-enabled smartphone connection allows you to always check in. This GPS also comes with an interactive SOS feature that connects you to a 24/7 search and rescue monitoring center that's affiliated with Garmin.
As this device can be paired with your smartphone, you can pre-load topo maps before your trip. If that's not enough, this handheld GPS has a built-in digital compass and an Earthmate app that provides you with an aerial view of the surrounding terrain.
Using satellite coordinates to keep you informed, the smartphone connection helps you track and share your location with friends and family while on the go.
BEST BUDGET OPTION
The Garmin ETrex 10 Outdoor Handheld GPS Navigation Unit - AW16 is a great entry-level choice and one of the most affordable and effective options on the market.
This handheld GPS is as sturdy as they come. It features a tough exterior that's built to survive some serious rough and tumble — it can even survive a drop from a serious height.
This high-quality water-resistant hiking GPS lives up to the IPX7 standards, meaning it can stay submerged in up to one meter of water for upwards of 30 minutes.
Personally, I love the old-school display that is stretched over its 2.2-inch screen. Whether fishing with the boys or out hiking solo through the wilderness, this GPS runs for up to 20 hours using just two AA batteries.
Use this waterproof hiking GPS to set a base map waypoint back to your campsite so you'll always know where it is no matter how far you trek throughout the day.
Plus, if you discover an awesome location while out hiking, simply mark it on the data map so you can bring your friends back with you. All things considered, this GPS is a serious bargain and a great entry-level product suitable for hikers and campers of all experience levels.
Although similar in size to the eTrex 10, the Garmin eTrex 22x is a slight upgrade as it's designed with a sunlight-readable color display and extra-long battery life. Featuring a 240 x 320 color display, this GPS provides a fantastic image no matter intense the sun is shining.
With just two AA batteries, you'll get up to 25 hours of battery life — that's enough for a 3-day weekend.
Featuring 8 GB of internal storage space paired with a MicroSD card slot, you can download plenty of maps from all around the world making this a worldwide handheld GPS — just make sure you're within range of Wi-Fi, first.
This GPS is a great fit for any campers who tend to wander deep into the woods. Never get lost again with this reliable starter GPS.
- Large 3 inch Sunlight-readable color display for easy viewing
The Garmin GPSMAP 66i handheld GPS device features a 3-inch display screen and is operated with push buttons. Run by an internal rechargeable lithium battery pack that provides up to 200 hours of battery life (when in expedition mode), this device is perfect for anyone who spends a few days at a time in the bush.
This device comes Pre-loaded with Garmin TOPO mapping that provides direct-to-devices birdseye satellite imagery. When within range of Wi-Fi, this device provides you with a real-time weather forecast, and live Geocaching.
The topographic color display map is sunlight-readable and easy to read. Should you find yourself lost or in trouble, the Garmin GPSMAP 66i can even be used to trigger an interactive SOS 24/7 search and rescue monitoring center. Keep in mind, this kind of two-way messaging requires a satellite subscription before it can be accessed.
As this GPS is chock-full of so many amazing features, it comes with a heft price tag. Built specially for tough, long treks, it automatically records your location in 10 minutes intervals in the default setting and can last up to a whopping 200 hours in the expedition mode — without inReach technology.
This worldwide base map is also compatible with the Garmin Explore website which allows users to manage waypoints, routes, and activities, and allows you to track and review trip data from in the field.
The Garmin GPSMAP 66i handheld satellite communicator helps users to maneuver terrain with newfound confidence making it one of the best GPS's currently on the market.
- Premium GPS handheld with Birdseye Satellite Imagery subscription and TOPO maps
The Garmin GPSMAP 66st handheld hiking GPS features a large 3-inch sunlight-readable color display. This large screen size and display make it easy to read beneath the glaring sunlight. This GPS is supported by the Global Navigation Satellites Systems (GNSS) to enable users to travel even the most complicated routes without worry.
The Garmin GPSMAP 66st weighs a mere 8.2 ounces and runs on a single rechargeable Lithium-ion battery. This provides up to 16 hours of battery life when in the default GPS mode and a staggering one week when in the expedition mode — when using an extra lithium-ion battery (purchased separately).
This GPS provides expanded wireless connectivity that supports Active Weather for up-to-date forecasts and animated weather radar and Geocaching Live for mobile syncing and updates.
This technology provides users with access to Birdseye satellite imagery complete with direct-to-device downloads, all at no extra subscription charge. You'll also have access to preloaded TOPO US and Canada Maps, and the Garmin Explore™ website and app that can be used to manage routes, waypoints, and review statistics from the field. This is no doubt the perfect GPS for use in unfamiliar terrain.
In addition, it also doubles as an LED flashlight that can last for up to 16 hours straight in GPS mode, and for one week in expedition mode with fewer charges.
The GPSMAP 66 series employs ABC (altimeter, barometer, and compass) sensor capabilities to track your journey and accurately monitor all of the elements you encounter. It also provides a true representation of your surroundings so you can easily locate obscure trailheads, paths, and potential campsite clearings. As this GPS is built to military standards, it will definitely serve you well.
- SEE YOUR SURROUNDINGS - Includes a 1-year Birdseye Satellite Imagery subscription1
The Montana GPS is also Bluetooth enabled and features an 8-megapixel camera and beautiful touchscreen. No need to carry along a heavy camera when you have this GPS.
The Montana comes with both a GPS and GLONASS receiver map for a more exact geographical reading. It also comes with preloaded geocaches (250,000 to be exact), so you’ll always have something to hunt on the trails.
Thanks to the 680,000+ high-definition topo maps, you won't have to download any additional information before heading out on your adventure. This worldwide handheld GPS is suitable for anywhere, from California to Tanzania.
What features to look for in a handheld GPS
Imagine heading out to the country for a weekend trip with your best friends. First, you pack a tent, then a couple of coolers, fishing poles, and soon start gushing in anticipation of the breath-taking views you'll come across out in the wilderness.
Finally, you arrive at the camp just in time to watch the sun sink over the westward ridge. A few hours of jokes and songs around the campfire's orange hue, and later you snuggle into your sleeping bag.
The next morning bright and early you all set out for the hike, planning to just use your smartphone's GPS system when, uh oh — you can't get service! Fearful of getting lost, the hike's foray has been forestalled and you reluctantly turn around.
Consider the following features when purchasing a handheld GPS:
Weight: When you’re out on the trails, especially hiking over Appalachian peaks, you don’t want to be overburdened with heavy gear. It’s just a burden to carry and keep track of when you just want to get moving. Naturally, this philosophy extends to your GPS. Sometimes a lighter device can be at the expense of the screen layout or button functionality, so it really depends on what you want, but a lightweight device is usually preferred.
Data storage: If you’re a world traveler who needs access to maps across continents and climates, you’ll want to splurge for an item with microSD capabilities or a larger pre-programmed storage capacity. Some models provide plentiful internal memory storage options (upwards of 4 to 8 GB) and the top-tier options can even come equipped with over 100,000 maps.
Battery Life: Considering it’s hard to find an outlet by your sleeping bag to charge your devices, battery life is incredibly important. Devices can offer either rechargeable batteries, which can be more convenient and eco-friendly, or interchangeable batteries, of which you can carry an extra set in your backpack. Depending on your GPS unit and hiking preferences, your GPS product could require either a rechargeable battery, exchangeable batteries, or both.
For longer overnight trips, long-life lithium-ion batteries will be your best bet, while rechargeable batteries are fine for a memorable day hike. Of course, always be sure your batteries are fresh before you start, and that your device has been fully charged if it's a rechargeable device.
A final tip to conserve battery when out on the trails is to dim your GPS handheld device’s backlight during the day, as well as setting a shorter screen timeout option. No one wants to lose their direction while hungry and heading home.
The history of GPS and the development of handheld devices
For those who take the acronym for granted, GPS stands for Global Positioning System, a satellite-based radio navigation system owned by the US government and operated by the United States Air Force. The first prototype spacecraft launched in 1978 and the full global coverage from 24 satellites became operational in 1993; although it stayed a private military-grade product until the early 21st century.
In the past few years, this technology has improved such that using the latest L5 band with a fully deployed high-sensitivity GPS receiver, items can be pinpointed to within 30 centimeters, or approximately a one-foot radius. That’ll be a helpful companion on the trails when inches can be the difference between fatigue and safety.
When comparing products, know that the higher-end products in this field provide both GPS and GLONASS tracking capability. GLONASS stands for the Global Navigation Satellite System (not to be confused with WAAS — the Wide Area Augmentation System), a similar space-based satellite navigation system developed alongside GPS from competing Russian agencies. Initially slightly inferior to its western neighbors, it now holds parallel coverage. Thus offering them in tandem creates the premier connection available.
Advanced GPS tracking metrics
Beyond the standard GPS map features, there are loads of add-ons for the committed travelers and outdoorsmen experts among us:
Topographical maps: For those unsure, these provide a more in-depth understanding of the area’s physical layout. These are characterized by large-scale detail, showing the contours and ridges of an area. Consider investing in this technology if you plan on delving into a deep expedition, where the trails could be less marked than a standard public day hike.
Barometer/Altimeter: Not to be confused with an accelerometer, barometers and altimeters are used to display a more accurate reading than a standard GPS satellite concerning your elevation and direction. If you’re into tracking your advanced stats such as calories burned, heart rate, and distance traveled, you may also be the kind of hiker who needs these options in their GPS device. A barometric altimeter also provides updated weather information, which can be helpful when considering packing a raincoat or answering the age-old debate of shorts or pants on the trails.
Electronic Compass: While all GPS receivers can tell you where your direction is while on the go, an electronic 3-axis compass will help you know what direction you are facing even at a standstill. If you’ll be scrounging across new territory and checking your direction more often, this would be an invaluable option to stay well-oriented on the trails.
Geocaching: Geocaching is a fun outdoor recreational activity where individuals use a global navigation system to find secret containers called caches, or due to their varied geographical waypoints, geocaches. It’s a neat social game that’s fairly new but has exploded across the world and offers a new incentive to get out there and explore. These geocaches can be hidden all over the world, creating a sort of hide-and-go-seek — a treasure hunt for wayward travelers.
If you’re still asking yourself how the game works, let me explain it a bit further. The standard geocache is a small waterproof container with a logbook and either a pen or pencil. Upon finding the geocache, a hiker usually signs the log to prove they discovered it and then places the box exactly back where they found it. Occasionally when stumbling across larger geocaches, they may hold something with simple sentimental value, such as trinkets or a hotfix, to create a fun system of ‘pay it forward’ camaraderie.
You’ll be able to download geocaches in any region you choose to visit, but also know that many options will provide then pre-loaded, creating a fun opportunity as soon as you open the box.
We love the Garmin inReach Explorer+. When traveling, the first rule is always safety first. The capacity to stay in contact could not be overstated when considering safety in the backcountry and for that reason, we recommend this product. Of course, it comes with a notably higher price tag than the entry-level products, though we think it’s a worthwhile trade-off.
The 66st is also a great option because it’s all walk, no talk. Stacked with reliable and necessary features, it’s got heavy-duty buttons, good storage, and strong signal capabilities. What else could you ask for from your GPS handheld? All in all, we hope you enjoy your backpacking with whatever product you deem best for your circumstance. Have fun and stay safe!
Bonus tip: Check out this informative video on how to get the most out of your new handheld GPS!