If you enjoy hiking, trekking, or mountaineering, you’ve probably found that having a handheld GPS device can be extremely useful. These gadgets are key in helping you easily find your way, record tracks, or finding a geocache. Though they may never fully replace a map and compass, these outdoor devices allow you to plan, follow and share your adventures with friends and family. Compared to Smartphones, handheld GPS devices pose several advantages, such as being more durable and having a much longer battery life. As you plan for your next adventure, we wanted to make it a little easier for you by creating a list of the best handheld GPS devices in the market. We also created a buying guide that lists the features to consider when looking for the best handheld GPS units.
The 5 Best Handheld GPS Devices
1. Garmin eTrex 30x
- UPGRADED DISPLAY Features a 2.2” 65K color sunglight readable display offering increased resolution (240 x 320 pixels). Physical dimensions: 2.1" x 4.0" x 1.3" (5.4 x 10.3 x 3.3 cm)
- LOAD MORE MAPS Large 3.7 GB of internal memory and microSD card slot lets you load a variety of maps, including TOPO 24K, HuntView, BlueChart g2, City Navigator NT and BirdsEye Satellite Imagery (subscription required)
- PRELOADED BASEMAP Includes a worldwide basemap with shaded relief
- BUILT IN SENSORS eTrex 30x adds a built in 3 axis tilt compensated electronic compass and a barometric altimeter which tracks changes in pressure to pinpoint your precise altitude, and you even can use it to plot barometric pressure over time
- WIRELESS Wirelessly share your waypoints, tracks, routes and geocaches with other compatible devices simply press “send” to transfer your information also wirelessly connects to compatible Garmin devices, including VIRB and accessory sensors
The Garmin eTrex 30x operates on both GPS and GLONASS satellites. The eTrex 30 has a built-in base map with shaded relief and 3.7 GB of additional onboard memory. The GPS also comes with a MicroSD slot for added maps. The eTrex 30 supports a built-in three-axis tilt that works as an electronic compass and barometric altimeter to track changes in pressure and pinpoint precise altitude. When it comes to helping you identify your location, the GPS receiver and HotFix satellite prediction help maintain a signal even if you’re deep in the woods.
With the eTrex 30x, you have access to Garmin’s free trip-planning software, which allows you to connect with other friends and family, and you can share your plans and itinerary with Garmin adventures. The eTrex 30 can store up to 200 routes and 2,00 waypoints. The GPS runs on two AA batteries and can last up to 25 hours. The device has an IPX7 waterproof rating and can be submerged up to one meter for around 30 minutes. You can load a wide variety of maps such as Huntsview, Bluechart, and Topo 24K.
The handheld GPS device is light and small, making it ideal for hiking, mountaineering, trekking, and other outdoor activities. It is compact and provides great water and shock resistance. The display has a resolution of 240 x 320 pixels and can show 65.000 colors. The eTrex 30 supports satellite images; however a subscription is required to use the BirdsEye Satellite Imagery. The handheld GPS can be paired with other tools such as a heart rate monitor, foot pod, and external thermometer.
2. Garmin eTrex 10
- Rugged handheld navigator with preloaded worldwide basemap and 2.2 inch monochrome display
- WAAS enabled GPS receiver with HotFix and GLONASS support for fast positioning and a reliable signal
- Waterproof to IPX7 standards for protection against splashes, rain, etc.
- Support for paperless geocaching and Garmin spine mounting accessories. Power with two AA batteries for up to 20 hours of use (best with Polaroid AA batteries)
- See high and low elevation points or store waypoints along a track (start, finish and high/low altitude) to estimate time and distance between points
If you’re looking for a handheld GPS for your geocaching trips, then the Garmin eTrex is your best bet.
It meets IPX7 standards of waterproofing as it can be immersed in one meter of water for 30 minutes. The Garmin eTrex 10 weighs 9.1 ounces and has a battery life of up to 20 hours with two AA batteries. The GPS and GLONASS satellites are combined with a WASS enabled GPS receiver and HotFIX satellite prediction to find your locations faster. The eTrex 10 has 6 MB of memory and was built to resist humidity, water, dust, and dirt.
3. Garmin inReach Explorer+
- 100 percent global Iridium satellite coverage enables two way text messaging from anywhere (satellite subscription required)
- Trigger an interactive SOS to the 24/7 search and rescue monitoring center
- Track and share your location with family and friends. Water rating : IPX7. Battery : Rechargeable internal lithium ion
- Pair with mobile devices using the free earthmate app for access to downloadable maps, U.S. NOAA charts, color aerial imagery and more
- In reach explorer+ device adds preloaded Delorme topo maps with onscreen GPS routing plus built in digital compass, barometric altimeter and accelerometer
The Garmin inReach Explorer can easily be considered the best hiking handheld GPS. It features the Iridium satellite network, which allows two-way text messaging; thus, you can also send an SOS signal to the GEOS 24/7/365 search and rescue center in an emergency. The GPS can be paired with compatible mobile devices and allows you to share your location. You can get up to 100 hours from the rechargeable lithium-ion battery in its default mode and up to 30 days of battery life when it's in power save mode. The Garmin inReach Explorer is IPX-7 waterproof rated and has a barometric altimeter and 3-axis compass. The GPS weighs 7.5 ounces, and its screen size is 1.4” x 1.9” with a pixel resolution of 200 x 265.
4. Garmin GPSMAP 66i
- Large 3 inch Sunlight-readable color display for easy viewing
- Trigger an interactive SOS to the geos 24/7 search and rescue monitoring center, two-way messaging via the 100% Global Iridium satellite network (satellite subscription required)
- Preloaded Garmin TOPO mapping with direct-to-device Birdseye satellite imagery downloads (no annual subscription), includes multiple global navigation satellite systems (GNSS) support and navigation sensors
- Cellular connectivity lets you access active weather forecasts and geocaching live
- Compatible with the Garmin explore website and app to help you manage waypoints, routes, activities and collections, use tracks and review trip data from the field
The Garmin GPSMAP 66i features an external antenna, ABC sensors, and multi – GNSSS support in the form of GPS and GLONASS. The GPS is compatible with both TopoActive mapping and Birdseye satellite imagery. It features a high-resolution 3-inch screen and has an internal rechargeable lithium battery that provides up to 35 hours with the 10-minute tracking mode and 1-minute tracking mode with the display off. You can get 200 hours of battery life before needing to recharge in Expedition mode with 30-minute tracking. The Garmin GPSMAP 66i comes with 16GB of memory and Wi-Fi connectivity.
The GPS is ideal for backpacking since Inreach and Iridium allow you to communicate and exchange text messages without relying on cellphone coverage. In an emergency, you can also track your location and send an S.O.S message to ad 24/7 response center.
The GPSMAP was built for adventure; hence, it has thermal, shock, and water performance standards. It can be submerged up to one meter for no more than 30 minutes. The handheld GPS comes preloaded with Garmin TOPO mapping with direct-to-device BirdsEye Imagery downloads. The handheld GPS also includes multiple Global Navigation Satellite Systems support and navigation sensors.
5. Garmin Oregon 700
- Touchscreen - 3-inch sunlight-readable touchscreen display with Dual orientation (landscape or portrait view)
- Abc sensors - 3-axis tilt-compensated electronic Compass with accelerometer and Barometric altimeter sensors. Display size - 1.5 W x 2.5 H (3.8 x 6.3 cm). 3 inch diag (7.6 cm). Battery life - up to 16 hours
- Ruggedized for the outdoors - ergonomic, rugged design that Stands strong against dust, dirt and humidity -and it is water-rated to Ipx7
- Activity profiles - simplified multi activity menu interface - including climb, hike, hunt, bike, geocache, fish and more
- Connect IQ - connect IQ compatible to customize the Device with data fields, widgets, and apps; find what you like or build your own.Display resolution, WxH:240 x 400 pixels
The Garmin Oregon 700 can be considered to be properly sized for its job. It has a large and bright screen that’s easy to see but is still small and light enough that you can carry around. The Garmin Oregon 700 features an accurate touchscreen functionality that includes simple menus and dedicated profiles for various sports such as cycling, hiking, paddling, and so much more. The Oregon 700 features an integrated antenna. It features a 3-axis tilt electronic Compass with accelerometer and Barometric altimeter sensors. The battery life is up to 16 hours. The Garmin GPS is Bluetooth enabled and can automatically upload to the Garmin online community. Features high-sensitivity dual GPS and GLONASS satellite reception and an IPX-7 waterproof rating
Features To Consider When Buying Handheld GPS Devices
a) Touchscreen vs. Buttons
It all comes down to ease of use. Buttons have often been considered to be bulky and cumbersome. However, using a touchscreen with gloves can also be a little annoying. Buttons, on the other hand, can be slow to navigate on an on-screen keyboard. When it comes to the debate between touchscreen vs. buttons, it depends on your preferred style. More and more companies are shifting to touchscreen technology; hence, it might just be a matter of learning how to adjust to the screen's sensitivity setting. The benefit of a touchscreen is that it is sleek and offers a low profile design, allowing more space.
b) Screen Size and Display
When considering a GPS, one of the features to look out for is the screen size. Your choice of activity is highly likely to determine the type of screen and GPS you’ll be looking for. If you’re going boating, hunting, or for motorized activities, then a larger screen would be of great benefit as you would need to see the information clearly at a glance. Hikers, backpackers, and long-distance adventurers can work with a small and light device. For geocaching, a small or midsize screen would be ideal.
The brightness and readability of the screen are also something worth considering. Readability in direct sunlight since, for the most part, you’ll be maximizing your daylight hours. This has been an area that Garmin has been focusing on with anti-glare screens with good backlighting and contrast that make the maps and text easy to read and decipher. One of their best models in this regard is Garmin Montana.
c) Mapping and Memory
All GPS handheld devices come with some type of base map, essentially a blank screen that includes some major local features. There are quite some devices that will include preloaded maps or the option to upload more later on. Most GPS models include TopoActive Mapping, which is a fairly extensive program with contour lines to indicate elevation gained/lost, points of interest, and some on- and off-road navigation based on your country of origin (for example, a GPS bought in the U.S. will have a North American TopoActive map).
d) Battery Type and Life
Battery life is an important feature. Most handheld GPS devices use AA batteries. They are cheap, have decent life spans, and can easily be replaced. The downside, however, is that you need to plan ahead if you’re going on a long adventure as you’ll need to carry a number of them. This can be inconvenient as it might mean extra baggage and weight, and there’s also the hassle of disposing of the batteries. There’s the option of rechargeable batteries. They reduce weight and bulk and over time can reduce costs. All you need to do is have a portable solar panel or power bank.
e) Global Navigation Satellite Systems
While researching, you’ve probably come across the term GNSS. It refers to the “constellation” of satellite systems, including GPS (U.S.), GLONASS (Russia), Galileo (EU), QZSS (Japan), and BeiDou (China). A GPS device should be able to connect to multiple satellite systems hence ensuring accuracy and availability in your GPS navigation. Through this, it will be able to get a quick and precise location fix, regardless of your position in the world.
f) SOS Features
Most GPS devices are now including SOS features. This is the ability to transmit messages or SOS alerts via satellite in the event of an emergency. Paired with a subscription, you’re able you connect in areas without cell service, including sending and receiving messages, posting on social media, sharing your location, and communicating between GPS devices.
g) Altimeter, Barometer, and Compass (ABC Sensors)
You’ll notice that these three are always mentioned. An electronic compass allows you to read directions regardless of how you’re holding the device. On the other hand, standard compasses require you to hold the device horizontally so that it can orient properly. The barometer helps you in determining elevation because the higher you go, the lower the pressure. Hence it's helpful for mountainous and backcountry use as it can provide you with a helpful approximation of your current elevation.
An altimeter provides data based on altitude based on satellite signals. Most GPS devices come equipped with altitude reading from satellites; however, they are not usually that accurate. Though with more satellites and greater coverage, there has been a continued improvement.
The IPX rating of your GPS lets you know how water-resistant it is. The range starts at IPX-0 being no waterproof at all and IPX-8 – the highest rating. If you’re going to spend quite some time outdoors, be it hiking or your choice of outdoor activity, it's best to get a GPS that an IPX rating of 4 and above. That will at least protect it from splashing water or the weather conditions.