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Handheld GPS buying guide
Find the best way to navigate your adventures.
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.
|Screen size (in)||Weight (lbs.)||Battery life||Purchase|
|Garmin Montana 680t||$500||4||0.64||16 hours (lithium-ion); |
22 hours (AA batteries)
|DeLorme AG-008727-201 InReach Explorer||$720||2||0.50||100 hours||Buy now|
|Garmin GPSMAP 64s||$220||2.6||0.58||16 hours||Buy now|
|Spot 3 Satellite GPS Messenger||$150||No screen||0.25||Not available||Buy now|
|Garmin Oregon 650t||$550||3||0.46||16 hours||Buy now|
|Garmin eTrex 20||$185||2.2||0.31||25 hours||Buy now|
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:
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:
- Weight. You’ll be carrying this piece of equipment for the duration of your hike. While a difference of a couple ounces might not seem like a lot at first, any extra weight can add up when you’re climbing a mountain. Lighter devices tend to cost more for the convenience.
- Buttons vs. touchscreen. Touchscreens are fast and modern but can be hard to use with gloves and may freeze in frigid temperatures. While buttons may be slower to use, they are more reliable in harsh conditions.
- Display. You will be using your GPS device to read a map, so the bigger the better. However, a larger display usually means a heavier device and more weight to carry. Choose a screen that you can easily read, but that doesn’t weigh a ton.
- Battery life. Look for a device with a long battery life, ideally more than 20 hours to safeguard against your GPS suddenly dying halfway through a hike. It’s a good idea to bring backup batteries just in case.
- Mapping software. Mapping software allows you to track, store and analyze the data from your journey. While most units can plan and record a route, software varies between manufacturers, so it’s best to find out which one you find simplest to use.
- Alarms. Alarms let you know when you have strayed from a plotted path. If your hiking a new trail or you’re about to embark on a particularly tricky journey, alerts can help keep you on track.
- Design. You want your GPS unit to be waterproof and shockproof, as it’s bound to come in contact with the elements during a hike.
- Connectivity. Different GPS units can be equipped with wireless sharing and Bluetooth connectivity. These connections allow GPS units to share routes and waypoints with smartphones and other compatible units.
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.
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.
Frequently asked questions
How accurate are handheld GPS units?
It depends on the model and your location, but the average GPS device typically has a horizontal accuracy of 10 to 40 feet.
Do GPS devices work without an internet connection?
Yes, the device itself does not require an internet connection to work. But you’ll need the internet to download different maps before you go off the grid.
Does GPS work anywhere in the world?
Yes, GPS data can be received from anywhere in the world. However, you’ll need to have the specific mapping software for your location to view your location on a map. Make sure the device you choose offers international mapping data if you plan to travel outside the country.
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