handheld gps for hiking

Best Handheld GPS for Hiking

Getting lost in the woods might make for a good campfire story but only if you survive the experience.

If you’re heading off the beaten track then having a handheld GPS in your kit is a must. Knowing how to get where you’re going is important but knowing how to get back is even more so. There are plenty of portable GPS manufacturers to choose from.

The ones that really matter are the likes of Garmin and Magellan with Garmin leading the pack by some distance. Choosing the right unit for you comes down to performance, options and your budget.

We’ve looked at some of the best handheld GPS devices on the market with a specific focus on products suitable for outdoor adventuring. 

Our Favorite:

If we were heading off somewhere remote then we’d want the Garmin inReach Explorer+ in our kit.

It’s a solidly built device with decent GPS performance but it’s the two-way satellite comms that clinches it.

Being able to send and receive text messages and your location, especially in an emergency situation, makes this device stand out from the rest.​

Best for Budget:

The Garmin Etrex 20x is our best budget GPS pick. The GPS receiver is excellent, the screen is easy to read (albeit a little small) and there’s plenty of memory to add additional maps.

This is a great entry level GPS if you don’t mind that it doesn’t have an electronic compass or barometric altimeter.​

Best Handheld GPS for Hiking Reviews


This device uses an external quad helix antenna coupled with very sensitive GPS and GLONASS receivers.

The receiver acquires your position really fast and works well even in deep canyons or under dense tree canopies.

The 64s takes the already good performance you got from the base 64 model and adds a 3-axis compass and barometric altimeter into the mix.

If you like tracking your vitals then the Ant+ function will allow communication with heart rate monitors, pedometers and a range of other sensors and devices.

The 64s uses two AA batteries to deliver an average 16-hour battery life but only if you turn the Bluetooth and GLONASS off.

You could also get the optional rechargeable battery pack that will charge while in the device.

At just over 6” long it’s not the most compact GPS but it allows for a large display and intuitively arranged buttons.

If you’re not a fan of touch screens and insist on the best handheld GPS performance then the 64s is hard to beat.

It’s going to take up more space in your pack than some of the more compact devices will though.

What We Like

  • Large 2.6” inch sunlight readable color display
  • 8GB memory sufficient for plenty of maps
  • Uses Bluetooth to pair with your smartphone to share location via Live Track
  • Comes with 1-year BirdsEye Satellite Imagery subscription
  • 3-axis compass with barometric altimeter

What We Don't Like

  • Not the lightest or most compact device we’ve seen
  • With all the features on it burns through batteries fast

If you’re doing solo trips out of cell coverage areas and want to be sure that you can contact help when you need it then this device is a great option.

DeLorme were a standalone company but they’ve recently been acquired by Garmin. The previous DeLorme Explorer worked well as a tracker but the tiny screen and lack of maps made it difficult to use for navigation.

Garmin took the great two-way comms features like the SOS, messaging and position sharing and packaged it into a device with a 2.3” color screen and better button interface.

With the Iridium satellite network you get true 100% global coverage for messaging. It comes preloaded with DeLorme TOPO 24k maps but you can pair it with your smartphone to get more maps with the free Earthmate app.

You can also sync the device with your phone to grab your contacts. We really liked the ability to share your position with someone else so that they can track your progress.

To use the messenger and SOS feature you need to pay for a subscription to their service. There are annual options for full time explorers or monthly options for casual trekkers.

There’s an annual fee of $25 and then a range of subscription options depending on messaging and tracking plans. You can check out the plans here.

What We Like

  • SOS search and rescue monitoring for ultimate peace of mind for you and your family
  • Able to send global text message with co-ordinates to email / mobile phone with delivery confirmation
  • Global coverage via Iridium satellites
  • Location sharing makes it easy for friends to follow your trip in real time
  • Preloaded with 24k US and Canadian maps
  • Can download maps via app on smartphone

What We Don't Like

  • Won’t sync with Apple devices running OS older than iOS 10
  • Need to sign up subscription to activate device but can cancel thereafter
  • High price tag

If you want the best GPS coverage then you need a device that tracks both GPS and GLONASS satellites. The eTrex series are the first consumer-grade GPS devices to offer this.

Position lock happens pretty quickly and the accuracy is excellent. The impressive accuracy is down to the fact that the receiver is WAAS-enabled.

The housing has a rugged feel to it and the waterproofing will allow for submersion at 3 feet for up to 30 minutes.

The HotFix feature means it gets your location really quickly after initial use. This makes it ideal to switch on, get your position quickly, and then switch off to save battery power.

We especially like the “Tracks” feature that plots your current track and makes it a cinch to find your way back to where you came from.

The world wide basemap it comes with isn’t the greatest but it’s easy enough to download free TOPO maps and add them to the eTrex using a microSD card.

This is a good mid-range GPS with plenty of features for the price.

What We Like

  • WAAS-enabled receiver with GLONASS support and HotFix for fast positioning
  • Rugged, waterproof housing
  • 2.2” full color sunlight-readable display
  • Good battery life of around 25 hours
  • Joystick interface allows for compact design

What We Don't Like

  • Only comes with a sparsely detailed base map
  • Would have preferred a bigger screen
  • No electronic compass and barometric altimeter

This is one of the better touch screen handheld GPS units we’ve seen. The touch interface is very responsive and works well even while wearing gloves.

The menu interface is easy to use and loading maps and setting waypoints is simple too. The screen is a decent size and performs really well in bright sunlight.

It runs from 2 AA batteries with a quoted battery life of 16 hours. That’s more than a little optimistic and we’d recommend taking an extra set of batteries along because this unit chews batteries.

You can also buy the optional rechargeable battery pack that comes standard with the 650.

Ease of use and solid GPS performance makes this a good option if you want a compact touch screen unit.

What We Like

  • No buttons means you get a big 3” color touch screen
  • WAAS,and GLONASS enabled with HotFix for great accuracy and quick startup
  • Has a 3-axis compass, accelerometer and barometric altimeter
  • Screen is really easy to read even in bright sunlight
  • Very easy to use, even if you are a bit technologically challenged!
  • Price and features makes this a good value buy

What We Don't Like

  • Doesn’t come with BirdsEye subscription
  • Battery life is a little short

This is a great touchscreen GPS with one of the biggest screens we’ve seen on a handheld GPS. The touchscreen is easy to use and the navigation is very intuitive.

It also supports turn-by-turn navigation so you could use it as your vehicle GPS as well. It’s not the smallest GPS by any means and weighs in at just over 10 ounces.

It comes supplied with a rechargeable lithium-ion battery pack and will also work with 3 AA batteries as a backup.

The difference between the 600 model and the 650 is that the 600 doesn’t have a camera. The camera on the 650 isn’t the greatest but sometimes the sale price is actually less than that of the 600.

This is not a cheap GPS but it is fully loaded. For this price we would have liked it if they threw in a 1-year BirdsEye subscription.

What We Like

  • Large 4” sunlight readable screen with vibrant colors
  • 3GB memory capacity is more than sufficient for maps and logs
  • GPS receiver is very sensitive and WAAS enabled for great accuracy
  • Rugged, waterproof design
  • Simple to use touch interface
  • 3-axis electronic compass and barometric altimeter

What We Don't Like

  • Doesn’t come with BirdsEye subscription, which I would like at this price

If you need both hands while skiing, climbing or if you just don’t want to reach into your pack each time then this wrist mounted GPS is ideal. It only weighs 3 ounces and fits comfortably on your wrist.

The monochrome display is easy to read and the text is displayed in a large font. The display is easy to read in sunlight and also has a backlight for nighttime use.

The high sensitivity GPS works well even in canyons or in forests and uses Garmin’s HotFix to get a quick lock after initial use.

You can easily create and store routes which is great if you want to redo that epic bike ride you enjoyed or find that secret spot again.

It also connects wirelessly to a cadence monitor or heart rate monitor if you’re looking to track some of your vitals.

It doesn’t display a map but you can connect it to a computer and check the route you took on Google Earth.

What We Like

  • Strap makes for a comfortable fit when carrying on wrist
  • Display is easy to read even in bright sunlight
  • Uses HotFix for quick position lock
  • TracBack feature makes it easy to retrace route
  • Has electronic compass and barometric altimeter
  • Price

What We Don't Like

  • User manual isn’t great
  • Can be a bit fiddly to use

While Magellan don’t make the same quality high end handheld GPS products that Garmin do, they do produce some solid mid-range budget options like this one.

For a lot less than $200 you get a vibrant color screen that reads easily in direct sunlight in a rugged, waterproof housing.

The GPS accuracy is excellent although getting GPS lock takes a while. It uses the SiRFStarIII GPS chipset along with WAAS, MSAS and EGNOS to give you up to 3m accuracy.

The battery life is better than average at 18 hours which is plenty for a few days of careful use.

It comes preloaded with the World Edition map but also has 500Mb of internal storage if you want to upload Summit Series topo maps.

We really like the “suspend” mode which turns off everything except the GPS tracking. It saves battery life but lets you wake the device up with a single click.

What We Like

  • Low price makes this a good entry level GPS
  • Simple button and joystick interface
  • Clear 2.2” sunlight readable screen with bright colors
  • Preloaded World Edition map with shaded relief
  • Rugged waterproof housing

What We Don't Like

  • GPS lock takes too long
  • Menu navigation a little fiddly

With the new and improved 20x Garmin have improved the resolution of the screen and have also increased the internal memory to 3.7GB.

This gives you plenty of space to load maps and you can also add a microSD if you need extra storage.

The screen is a bit small but the resolution and colors make it fairly easy to read. This is a good entry level GPS but the reduced price means that you don’t get the barometric altimeter and electronic compass that the 30x comes with.

The HotFix function means you get fast lock and the combination of WAAS and GLONASS result in a high degree of position accuracy.

What We Like

  • Low entry level price but still has good features
  • Full color sunlight readable display
  • Plenty of internal memory and also supports microSD
  • HotFix, WAAS and GLONASS support results in great accuracy

What We Don't Like

  • At 2.2” the screen is a little small

Handheld GPS Buying Guide

Different models will have different features and they’re not all necessarily going to be essential for your needs. Here are a few things to look out for when buying your handheld GPS.

best handheld GPS for hiking

​Buttons or Touch Screen

Touch screens aren’t the novelty they once were but some people still prefer them over buttons.

Having a touch screen does mean you get rid of the buttons and this offers you more real estate for a bigger screen without increasing the overall dimensions. Some touch screens can get a little difficult to use with gloves or with wet fingers.

Having buttons means you get a tactile response so you know you’ve pushed the button even if you’re wearing gloves.​

Barometric Altimeter​

Once your GPS gets lock on at least 5 satellites it can give you your elevation but it’s not always going to be accurate.

Having a barometric altimeter built in will give you a better idea of your elevation. Because it’s barometric its accuracy will vary with the weather though.​

Electronic 3-Axis Compass​

With a standard GPS compass you need to hold the device horizontally in order for it to work. Some of the more expensive models will come with a 3-axis electronic compass.

These will work in any orientation and can be handy if you need to hold the GPS up to get a better signal.​

HotFix​

When your GPS turns on it takes a good few minutes to locate the position of the satellites. It needs to find 3 satellites to get your position and needs a further 2 to get elevation and speed info.

The HotFix feature built into some Garmin devices kicks in after around 30 minutes of use. It gathers info about the satellites it has got a fix on and can predict where those satellites will be up to three days later.

This means that if you switch your device off and then switch it on a few hours or a day later it gets a fix on your location a lot faster.​

BirdsEye Satellite Imagery​

There’s only so much you can tell by looking at your regular TOPO maps. You get a sense of direction and shaded maps give you a fair idea of topography but that’s about it.

BirdsEye Satellite Imagery give you high-resolution color satellite images of the area you’re in and provides far more detail than you’d get from a regular GPS map. This is great for planning a specific spot to set up camp or to do finer route planning.

It does kind of spoil the surprise of seeing what a place looks like for the first time when you actually get there. If you really want to plan each step then it’s worth it. If you have a more adventurous spirit then stick with the regular maps.

The BirdsEye Satellite Imagery requires a paid subscription but some Garmin products come with a free year’s subscription with your purchase.​

Memory​

Most GPS navigator type devices will come with at least some basic maps. If you want to add some of your own maps then make sure that your device has enough internal memory or that it supports SD cards so that you do this.​

GPS Receiver Type​

Satellite position for GPS

All GPS devices will have at least the standard GPS receiver but some will have additional receiver functions. Here’s a quick guide to some of the jargon you’ll see in the sales copy:​

  • GPS - Global Positioning System comprising network of US owned satellites.
  • GLONASS is a satellite positioning system developed by the Russian Federation so that they wouldn’t be dependent on the US GPS satellites. A GPS that also uses GLONASS will get a position lock about 20% faster than a regular GPS.
  • WAAS stands for Wide Area Augmentation System and basically is a system that corrects for any errors in the data your device receives from the GPS satellites. A WAAS enabled GPS device can give you your position accurate to within 3m, 95% of the time. This is on average about five times better than your average GPS accuracy. It only currently works in North America.
  • Iridium - Company that provides global voice and data communication via satellite. Some handheld GPS devices incorporate Iridium access for messaging and SOS functions.
  • Galileo - Europe’s version of GPS. Provides full global positioning using independent European owned satellite network.
  • EGNOS - This is another GPS augmentation system similar to WAAS but developed by Europe. It works with both GPS and Galileo satellites to correct for position errors to improve position accuracy.

For some really geeky information on how GPS receivers work, see here.

Preloaded or Postloaded Maps?

You’ll see that some devices have the option to be sold with maps already preloaded. Garmin uses a “t” at end of model name to indicate that the device has the maps already loaded.

You pay extra for this but it saves you having to go and buy the Garmin maps later and load them yourself.

There are plenty of good free maps (such as these) that you can load onto your device so if you don’t mind using those maps instead of the Garmin maps then save yourself some money by buying your GPS without the maps preloaded.​ 

Battery Life​

Most handheld GPS units will use AA batteries with some opting for AAA. Manufacturers will claim battery life figures of between 16 and 25 hours but these are really optimistic.

Used carefully you may get somewhere near those figures but it’s always a good idea to pack extra batteries. 

Some models will also support rechargeable battery packs. These are a good idea but you’ll need a means to recharge them. A small solar panel or power bank is a useful bit of kit to have if you’re going to be out for a few days.​

Conclusion

If you want the best handheld GPS then be prepared to pay a little more than you would for those cheap GPS units.

Before choosing one make sure you understand where, how and for how long you’ll be needing it to be operational. There’s no need to spend a lot of money for features you don’t intend using.

Make sure the housing is rugged and waterproof and that the screen is easy to read. Make sure that you can load decent topo maps onto it and that the interface is intuitive to use.

Investing in a good handheld GPS will save you hours of frustration and make your time outdoors far more rewarding.

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