Best Handheld GPS (Buying Guide)
Imagine heading out to the country for a weekend trip with your best friends. First, you pack the tent, then a couple of coolers, fishing poles, and soon start gushing in anticipation of the breath-taking views you’ll come to see out in the wilderness. 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 back around.
To best prevent getting lost in the woods with nothing but your dwindling snack supply and a couple of nervous friends with a pounding heart rate alongside you, we recommend investing in a handheld GPS device. These affordable systems provide immense practicality when spending a few days out in the wilderness, and could very well save your life. There’s quite a range of products within this world and so and we’ve reviewed the best options to accommodate each type of outdoorsmen. Knowing all the technical knick-knacks and superfluous features can help you distinguish what’s necessary for your level of outdoor travel, from amateur endeavors to Davy Crockett-type experts.
What basics to look for in a handheld GPS tracker
Weight – When you’re out on the trails, especially hiking over Appalachian peaks, you don’t want to be overburdened with heavy stuff. 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 provide plentiful internal memory storage options (upwards of 4 to 8 GB) and the top-tier options can come prepared with 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, which can help you carry an extra set in your pack. Depending on your GPS unit and hiking preferences, your GPS product could require either the rechargeable battery, exchangeable or both. For longer overnight trips, long-life lithium-ion batteries are your best investment, while rechargeable is fine for a memorable day hike. Of course, always be sure your batteries are fresh before you start, and the device has been fully charged if a rechargeable.
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 know 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 though stayed private military-grade product until the early 21st century. In the past few years the technology has improved such that using the latest L5 band with a fully deployed high-sensitivity GPS receiver, the 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 determine 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, a similar space-based satellite navigation system developed alongside GPS from competing Russian agencies. Initially a bit inferior to their 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:
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: This is also a helpful function that can 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 small toys, 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.
Best Handheld GPS – Overview
1. Garmin ETrex 10 Outdoor Handheld GPS
- Rugged handheld navigator with preloaded worldwide basemap and 2.2 inch monochrome display
The Garmin ETrex 10 Outdoor Handheld GPS Navigation Unit – AW16 is a great entry-level choice and one of the most affordable options on the market. At any price, a GPS handheld is a worthwhile insurance policy against a potential lonely lost night in the Appalachia interior, and the unit has that tough exterior sure to survive any falls or drops onto stones below. This water-resistant hiking GPS is sturdy to the IPX7 standards, meaning it may stay submerged up to one meter of water for upwards of 30 minutes and be okay.
We love the no-nonsense old-school display is stretched over a 2.2-inch screen. And know that you’ll be connected for virtually a full weekend trip, whether fishing with the boys or hiking across a mountain: running on two fresh AA batteries will give you up to 20 hours of use. Additionally, you can mark your campsite as a waypoint location so you always know it’s somewhere ‘over there’ as you trek for the day.
And when you see something cool you hope to come back to, you can mark that place on the data map as well using the same feature. All things considered, it’s a bargain at the price. A great entry-level product that will get you out in the wild and reconnect with nature without breaking the bank.
- Price for quality
- Effective navigation and organization
- Waterproof casing
- No digital compass
- No rechargeable batteries
- Small screen size
This similarly-sized 2.2” handheld is a notch above the eTrex 10, particularly because of the sunlight-readable color display and longer battery life. With a 240 x 320 color display, the pixels provide a succinct image no matter the time of day so you can read even as the sun shines brightly above. A stronger battery storage capability means that two AA batteries you get up to 25 hours of battery life, so a 3-day weekend could be within reach with just two batteries.
Plus, the 8 GB of internal storage is paired with a MicroSD card slot option for plenty of potential space for downloading maps of new regions when within wi-fi networks. In summary we’ll say it provides a nice mid-tier niche for a casual camper who still gets out and about pretty often. A solid starter GPS that will get you out in the wild with competent controls at reach.
- Long battery life
- No digital compass
- Limited base map collection
- Small screen size
3. Garmin GPSMAP 64st
- Explore the Terrain - GPSMAP 64st comes with a worldwide basemap with shaded relief and is preloaded with TOPO 100K, which includes coverage of the full U.S., including Alaska, Hawaii and Puerto Rico....
The Garmin GPSMAP 64st is a step-up showing a reliable and rugged product for the mid-tier market. Growing from the previous option to revamped 2.6-inch color screen, it’s easy on the eyes and easier on the fingers. The button function interface makes zoom features a cinch. Great utility in the product and reliable coverage considering enwrapped in the helix antenna is both the GLONASS receiver and GPS technology addressed our introduction.
By having both satellite systems in place you’ll always have a connection even in the most remote waypoint. And with the dual battery pack system, there’s 16 hours of battery life on an initial charge, plus the option to travel with extras to ensure you’re covered throughout the weekend. That’s something we’d recommend to carry if you hope to be away for longer than a weekend.
One of the best perks is that the 64st comes with a one-year subscription to BirdsEye Satellite imagery and 250,000 pre-downloaded geocaching and 100,000 topological maps loaded on. You can bring this guy anywhere across the country and just get out there and explore without having to look up and download anything before. And with 8 GB of memory storage, you got loads of memory space to keep you safe and informed.
The smartphone features don’t end there, as you can receive smart notifications and pair up the device to work with a heart rate monitor, speed cadence, and read your body’s temperature to ensure you’re safe and on track when backpacking some of the world’s best trips. We would say this is a good option for perhaps an older user or someone who likes to keep things simple, it also has powerful features to intrigue intrepid hikers.
- Simple user-face
- Strong smartphone capabilities
- Archaic button design
- Scattered features
4. Garmin Monterra
- Brilliant 4-Inch touchscreen display with dual orientation - Android operating system with Google Play apps
With a beautiful 4-inch display, the Monterra is a larger option that most of the previously listed devices. But you don’t need to worry as a lot of the weight weighing down because that’s all is due to the rugged case and exterior. Like the other options you’re also inheriting IPX7 waterproofing so don’t worry if it gets near the water. There’s also an eight-megapixel camera to snap photos of campsites and wildlife as well.
One of our favorite features of this product is the 3D MapMerge program, where you can open up maps from a 3D perspective when available. This is a really cool idea that works perfectly with the bigger screen of this handheld, showing routes and contours in a fuller context with brighter colors. Thanks to all these features this handheld GPS unit is a solid mid-level choice. It provides lots of beneficial options but we understand if the weight may prevent it from being a market leader.
- Large screen size
- Megapixel camera
- Waterproof and rugged
- Can be a bit chunky and heavy
- The touchscreen could frustrate users
5. Garmin Oregon 750
- Touchscreen - 3-inch sunlight-readable touchscreen display with Dual orientation (landscape or portrait view)
At 7.4 ounces, this item still feels lightweight though sturdy enough to handle any condition. The touchscreen is great for any environment and is responsive even in the wet or wintry conditions when a user would have gloves on. Even bike gloves, as the product arrives with Garmin bike mounts for weekend spin options. With these wide-ranging considerings, of course, the Oregon has dual GLONASS satellite and GPS connection plus a 3-axis ABC sensor (Barometric altimeter and compass) for complete comprehensive navigation, whether at high peaks or deep canyons.
And with multiple power options available you can use the rechargeable battery or switch to AAs in the backcountry. Additionally, the eight-megapixel camera will automatically add your photo’s location, providing useful details when counting stories around the fire. Once you get back to the grind, the wi-fi enabled connection can help you share your stories with the world. In short, this shows a great display and accessibility with powerful provisions. We love it for its incredible processing strength while carrying a beautiful design.
- 3 inch touchscreen display
- 8 MP camera
- Simple layout
- Price, as it’s markedly more expensive than the first two products listed.
- Battery life could be improved
6. Garmin inReach Explorer+
- 100 percent global Iridium satellite coverage enables two way text messaging from anywhere (satellite subscription required)
This is a great product because it allows you to stay in reach while backpacking off the grid. And if you’re ever disconnected, have no fear: the Garmin InReach Explorer+ has text messages available from anywhere. That combined with the Bluetooth enabled smartphone connection means you’re always able to interact with your friends. The product also comes with an interactive SOS to a 24/7 search and rescue monitoring center affiliated with Garmin, so a team can come find you, fast.
Because this device can be paired with your smartphone you can pre reload topo maps whenever back in civilization. If that wasn’t enough, the product has a built-in digital compass as well, and an earthmate app, to give you cool aerial vows of the terrain you’re covering. And not only will you always know where you are but the direction as well, thanks to the 3-axis compass.
Using all satellite coordinates available to keep you informed, while the smartphone connection can help you track and share your location with friends and family on the move. Essentially this is the safe, family-friendly creation from Garmin with a wide array of features that make a favorite listing for traveling in a group setting.
- Easy and affordable two-way messaging
- Great smartphone capability
- Ability to notify for help for 24/7 safety when in the unknown
- Not as aesthetically designed as previously listed products
7. Garmin Montana 680t
- PRELOADED GEOCACHES - 250,000 preloaded worldwide geocaches from Geocaching.com
The Montana is a really fun GPS, with all the added perks you could imagine cramming into such a compact handheld. It’s Bluetooth enabled with an 8-megapixel camera and a beautiful touchscreen. Because it’s inconvenient to carry a camera while climbing, the camera provides invaluable convenience in your future outings.
To continue on par the other premier items on the market, the Montana comes with both GPS and GLONASS receiver maps for a more exact geographical reading, as well as preloaded geocaches (250,000 to be exact), so you’ll always have something to hunt on the trails. The 680,000 high definition topo maps will ensure you don’t need to download any additional information before traveling, anywhere from California to Tanzania. So while a strong initial investment, the Garmin Montana 680 is a fun splurge level product with lots of fun features with the price tag to boot.
- Powerful 8 MP camera
- Tons of high-quality US maps preloaded
- Huge 4-inch display
- One of the heavier options at 10.2 ounces.
- You get what you pay for, meaning this is one of the priciest options on the market
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 64st 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 out there!
Bonus tip: Check out this informative video on how to get the most out of your new handheld GPS!