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Handheld GPS buying guide

Find the best way to navigate your adventures.

Updated

A handheld GPS device can serve as a planner, navigator and recorder on your next trekking adventure. See where you are, where you’ve been and where you’re headed all on one screen. Consider the features, price and best models for your handheld GPS units for your next hike.

Name Avg. price
(USD)
Screen size (in) Weight (lbs.) Battery life Purchase
Garmin Montana 680t
Garmin Montana 680t
$500 4 0.64 16 hours (lithium-ion);

22 hours (AA batteries)

Buy now
DeLorme AG-008727-201 InReach Explorer
DeLorme AG-008727-201 InReach Explorer
$720 2 0.50 100 hours Buy now
Garmin GPSMAP 64s
Garmin GPSMAP 64s
$220 2.6 0.58 16 hours Buy now
Spot 3 Satellite GPS Messenger
Spot 3 Satellite GPS Messenger
$150 No screen 0.25 Not available Buy now
Garmin Oregon 650t
Garmin Oregon 650t
$550 3 0.46 16 hours Buy now
Garmin eTrex 20
Garmin eTrex 20
$185 2.2 0.31 25 hours Buy now
Data obtained April 2019. Prices are subject to change and should be used only as a general guide.

What is a handheld GPS device?

Global positioning systems (GPS) record and store spatial data. Similar to a GPS in your car, handheld GPS devices work by gathering information from multiple satellites that are continuously orbiting the earth. With a connection to three satellites, GPS units can construct a 2D reading of your position, while a fourth satellite connection can produce a 3D reading.

A handheld GPS device provides navigation assistance and land-survey data including geographic landmarks and topographic mapping.

Why should I consider a handheld GPS device?

Whether you’re planning a local hike in your hometown or want to trek around the world, a GPS device can prove helpful in the following ways:

  • Navigation. Knowing exactly where you are can help you plan where to go next. Having the ability to pinpoint your location while you are out and about is a huge advantage when you’re hiking or trekking.
  • Safety. A GPS unit might help you get back on track if you’ve lost your way. Some advanced models are equipped with two-way radios, messaging systems and satellite communications, if you need to send for help.
  • Tracking. GPS units allow you to track your every move, path and route. Research scientists can use this feature to monitor and track their progress out in the field, while hikers can download these recordings to keep track of their adventures.

Smartphones vs. handheld GPS units

As a rule of thumb, handheld GPS units are a better choice for long, challenging treks, whereas smartphones are better suited to day hikes. Handheld GPS units provide more advanced navigation features and tend to be far more robust than your average smartphone. However, smartphones offer convenience and allow you to choose from a range of navigation apps.

Here are the main advantages and disadvantages of handheld GPS units vs smartphones:

Pros Cons
GPS Unit
  • Waterproof and durable
  • Longer battery life
  • Strong satellite reception
  • Advanced navigation features
  • Expensive
  • Adds extra weight to your pack
  • Can be slow
Smartphone
  • Multipurpose
  • Many navigation apps available
  • Can call for help
  • Not a stand-alone purchase
  • More fragile
  • Needs data reception to download maps
  • Location tracking can quickly drain your battery

How to compare handheld GPS devices

The cost of a hiking GPS device starts at around $100, while more expensive options with advanced features can set you back more than $1,000.

When choosing a hiking GPS unit, think about where you will be hiking and which of the following features will best suit your needs:

Don’t forget your map

Even with a GPS unit, you shouldn’t leave your map and compass at home. While handheld GPS units are at the cutting edge of technology, you never know what might happen on a hike. You could easily lose, drop or break your GPS unit, so we recommend keeping a physical map and compass on hand just in case.

Bottom line

Investing in a handheld GPS can really come in handy if you’re an avid hiker or outdoorsman. These devices can be on the pricier side, so compare a few options before deciding which model is best for your adventures.

How did we choose these products?

To choose our list of the best handheld GPS devices, we conducted online research to determine some of the most popular units currently available. We compared overall features, size, weight, battery life and price.

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