The Best Handheld GPS Review

Which handheld GPS is the best? We tested nine of the latest and greatest units from Garmin, Magellan, DeLorme and RandMcNally in a head-to-head competition that assessed satellite reception, ease of use, speed, and display quality. Testing occured over two years of hiking, mountaineering, kayaking, and backcountry skiing. Our awards and rankings highlight the best models for specific applications. If you are looking for a GPS for a bike or motorcycle on a budget, see our Cheap Motorcycle GPS article. If you mainly run with your GPS, see our GPS Watch Review.

Read the full review below >

Review by: and Max Neale

Top Ranked Handheld GPS Displaying 1 - 5 of 9 << Previous | View All | Next >>
Our Ranking #1 #2 #3 #4 #5
Product Name
Garmin Oregon 600
Garmin Oregon 600
Read the Review
Garmin GPSMAP 62sc
Garmin GPSMAP 62sc
Read the Review
Video video review
Garmin Oregon 550
Garmin Oregon 550
Read the Review
Video video review
Magellan eXplorist 710
Magellan eXplorist 710
Read the Review
Video video review
Garmin Dakota 20
Garmin Dakota 20
Read the Review
Video video review
Editors' Awards  Editors' Choice Award  Top Pick Award       
Street Price Varies $348 - $400
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$399$599Varies $379 - $400
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$239
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67% recommend it (2/3)
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50% recommend it (4/8)
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50% recommend it (1/2)
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100% recommend it (2/2)
Pros Best touchscreen and interface of any GPS tested, ergonomic shape, fast map draws, programmable buttons.Great reception/accuracy, push buttons reliable in cold weather.Large high-resolution display, easy text entry, intuitive interface, customizable menu system, 3.2 MP camera, includes rechargeable batteries and carabiner clip.Large screen, records photos and videos, built-in speaker, two customizable buttons, One Touch favorites menu is better than Garmin menu, comes with 24k topo.Lightweight, easy to use, good battery life, intuitive interface, customizable menu system.
Cons Garmin GPS Map 62 series has slightly better reception, push buttons can be more reliable in cold temps.Large, heavy, low screen resolution, text entry is more difficult than with touchscreens.Display is hard to see in direct sunlight, relatively imprecise screen, no push buttons.Large, heavy, slower than Garmin units, long startup time, hard to touch screen edges and corners, bottom plastic loop is unnecessary.Small display is hard to see in bright sun, imprecise screen, no push buttons.
Best Uses Everything except very cold weather.Boating, hunting, mountaineering.Entering lots of waypoints or for car navigation.Hiking, boating, ATV, hunting.Budget touchscreen device for geocaching.
Date Reviewed Aug 03, 2013Aug 03, 2013Aug 04, 2013Aug 03, 2013Aug 04, 2013
Weighted Scores Garmin Oregon 600 Garmin GPSMAP 62sc Garmin Oregon 550 Magellan eXplorist 710 Garmin Dakota 20
Reception - 25%
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Ease Of Use - 20%
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Speed - 15%
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Display Quality - 25%
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Weight - 5%
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Versatility - 10%
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Product Specs Garmin Oregon 600 Garmin GPSMAP 62sc Garmin Oregon 550 Magellan eXplorist 710 Garmin Dakota 20
Dimensions (in.) 2.4 x 4.5 x 1.3 2.4 x 6.3 x 1.4 2.3 x 4.5 x 1.4 2.6 x 5.0 1.5 2.2 x 3.9 x 1.3
Display Size (in.) 1.5 x 2.5 1.43 x 2.15 1.53 x 2.55 1.5 x 2.5 1.43 x 2.15
Display Resolution 240 x 400 160 x 240 240 x 400 340 x 432 160 x 240
Weight w/ Alkaline Batteries (oz.) 7.4 9.3 6.8 8.5 5.25
Battery Life (hours) 16 16 16 16 20
Built-in Memory 1.5 GB 3.5 GB 850 MB 3 GB 850 MB
Accepts Data Cards microSD microSD microSD microSD microSD
Automatic Routing Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
Electronic Compass Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
Touchscreen Yes No Yes Yes Yes
Barometric Altimeter Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
Camera No 5MP 3.2 MP 3.2 MP No

OutdoorGearLab Editors' Hands-on Review


  • Review Photos
  • Editors' Choice Winners
  • All Reviewed Products
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Garmin Oregon 600
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Garmin eTrex 20
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Garmin Oregon 550
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Garmin Dakota 20
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DeLorme PN-60W
$350
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Magellan eXplorist 710
$550
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Rand McNally Foris 850
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Magellan eXplorist 310
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Selecting the Right Product
We tested nine of the best and most popular handheld units designed primarily for land based outdoor recreation. The units tested are much more than data loggers. They are small, multi-function computers designed to collect and display spatial data and assist you in getting from one place to another. We deliberately sought out models that were lightweight and versatile and excluded large models design for motor vehicles and those with built-in radios. Every model meets IPX7 standards, which require electronic devices to withstand accidental immersion in one meter of water for up to thirty minutes.

Is it worth buying a GPS?? Will a smartphone app suffice??
We answer these question and others in our GPS Buying Advice Article.

Criteria for Evaluation
We evaluated each model based on its reception, ease of use, speed, and screen quality. We also assessed the performance of the included mapping software.

Satellite Reception
The Global Positioning System is a worldwide radio-navigation system that consists of twenty-four satellites and their ground stations, which are owned and operated by the U.S. Department of Defense. The handheld units reviewed here use satellites to triangulate your position to within roughly five meters. (Some scientific units have sub-centimeter accuracy.) All the units reviewed here have similar end point accuracies, but some achieve a 3D lock on your position faster, and maintain that lock, better than others. The highest rated unit in this category was the Garmin GPSMAP 62 series, which has a large antenna that protrudes from the top of the unit.

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Max navigates with the Oregon 600 while wearing the Haglofs Gram Comp Pull hardshell and Hyperlite Mountain Gear Porter pack.
Credit: OutdoorGearLab
Ease of Use
Here we assessed how easy is was to perform certain key functions such as marking and editing waypoints, creating and editing tracks, navigating to a waypoint, and following a route. The primary components that influenced ease of use were screen type and button configuration. You can opt for either a touchscreen (faster for entering text) or normal screen with push buttons (generally easier to see and more dependable in cold weather). The Garmin Oregon 600 is the only GPS testes that has a precise and easy to read touchscreen. All others are hard to see, imprecise, and hard to use. No screen comes even close to matching the quality of top smartphone screens, which is disappointing.

Most units with buttons have circular menus that rotate through a fixed set of programs (such as Map, Compass, Trip Computer). The Garmin 62 series improves upon most old style circular menus by allowing you to customize a set of programs for quick access to the features and options you use most frequently. This feature makes those devices much easier and faster to operate than others with fixed menus.

Quality of buttons is another crucial part of this variable. We were disappointed by how poorly some buttons functioned. The Magellan eXplorist 310, for example, has a multi-directional toggle that's imprecise and difficult to press. Of the eight units tested this was the hardest to use. Similarly, the Magellan eXplorist 710 splits its keyboard between two screens so you have to laboriously page back and forth in order to enter text, a terribly inefficient design. In contrast, we found the Garmin Oregon 600, with its large touchscreen, big keyboard, and programmable home page, to be the easiest to use and highly recommend that to anyone who needs to enter lots of text.

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Chris Simrell navigates off trail in the Olympic Mountains, WA.
Credit: Max Neale
Speed
This variable assessed the speed of each unit. We timed how long it took to startup, get a lock on our position, draw maps, and change from one function to another. The fastest units were the Garmin GPSmap 62sc and Oregon 600.

The short video below compares the Garmin Oregon 600 and the Rand McNally Foris 850. Check out the differences between their screens and how much faster the Oregon 600 draws maps.


Display Quality
Here we assessed how easy it was to see the screen. We found that plastic touchscreens found on all units except the Oregon 600 are much harder to see than normal screens. The touchscreens on the units we reviewed leave a lot to be desired. The partial exception is the Garmin Oregon 600, which has a screen that comes closer to matching the performance of smartphone displays. The models with the best visibility were the Garmin 62sc and Oregon 600.

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The Garmin 550's screen (right) is slightly larger but harder to see in direct sunlight than the Garmin 62sc's screen (left).
Credit: Max Neale
Mapping Software
Each manufacturer includes software designed to organize, analyze (though functions are very basic) and project the waypoints and tracks you collect with your unit. Garmin Basecamp is our favorite software because it's simple, intuitive, cross platform, and provides everything a basic GPS user needs. For example, you can easily display waypoints or tracks in Google Earth, a feature no other manufacturer supports. Basecamp is also the only software that's Mac compatible! Magellan Vantage Point is very similar to Basecamp in that it offers a comparable suite of tools. We, however, prefer Basecamp because it's slightly easier to use and is Mac compatible. DeLorme models ship with Topo North America, a powerful and impressive suite of detailed topo maps for the Unites States. Although these maps are excellent we found the software to be harder to use than Basecamp and Vantage Point. Performing basic functions, such as viewing an elevation profile of a route, requires more mouse clicks in Topo North America than in either of the other two programs. If you want to do some analysis skip the included software and download an open source GIS. RandMcNally's Trailhead software is not mac compatible and is no where near as feature rich as the other software packages.

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An export from DeLorme Topo USA that shows the route and elevation profile (blue line is speed) for the drive from Bishop to South Lake Tahoe, CA. Topo USA is the most powerful, but least intuitive software that comes with the units tested.
Credit: Max Neale
Maps
1:100,000 is a useful scale for general navigation, but 1:24,000 is much better for navigating in steep terrain. If you choose to buy maps from a manufacturer definitely go with 24k scale. (Garmin denotes models with preloaded 100k maps by adding a "t" to the model number.) All manufacturers offer aerial imagery downloads for around $30 per year, but this is often unnecessary because you can plan your routes in Google Earth and then send files to your mapping software and device. Satellite imagery is rarely necessary in the backcountry; we don't suggest paying money for it.

You can also download maps and satellite imagery for free and transfer them to your unit. A good source for free maps is the GPS File Depot. The U.S. National Agricultural Imagery Program (NAIP) shoots high quality, free aerial imagery for the entire continental U.S. every year or two. The United States Geological Survey's Seamless Data Warehouse has a wealth of free spatial data. And of course, most U.S. states have a website that houses spatial data. If you want the best maps spend some time tinkering with the free data. If you want something low effort be prepared to shell out around $100 for maps from a manufacturer.

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Garmin's Basecamp is the best free software that comes with a GPS. It is useful for trip planning because you can draw potential routes and calculate elevation gain and loss.

Accessories
Rechargeable batteries-These can save you a lot of money over time. All three of our award winners use the same Rechargeable NiMH Battery Pack.

USB cable-This USB Cable allows you to charge your device and connect it to your computer to transfer routes.

Carrying Cases-Like with any electronic device, it is important to protect it with a case. The GPSMAP 62sc Slip Case and the eTrex Carrying Case are two options.

Mounts-There are many different kinds of mounts available. One that is compatible with all of our award winners in the Garmin Friction Mount.

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Editor's Choice Award: Garmin Oregon 600
The Garmin Oregon 600 is the only GPS available that has a modern, high quality touchscreen display. We've waited years for GPS makers to catch up to smartphone screens and this is the first device that comes remotely close to the matching the iPhone display. In addition to the great screen the Oregon 600 is extremely easy to use, highly accurate, and loads maps quickly. The Oregon 600 sets the new standard for handheld GPS devices. We highly recommend this to anyone that does a lot of travel in low visibility conditions or has the cash the push the performance envelope.




Top Pick Award for Push Buttons
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The Garmin GPSMAP 62sc is our top pick for mountaineering, ski touring, and below freezing adventures where the reliability of push buttons in cold weather supersedes all other factors. The 62sc also has a big external antenna that provides slightly better reception than the Oregon 600, which is useful if you are navigating under super thick forest canopies (think tropical jungles), in deep slot canyons (like in Utah and Arizona), or are stuck in a whiteout on the side of a mountain. Our testers reach for the 62sc only in rare "extreme" applications. The majority of the time we use the Oregon 600 because it's faster and easier to use, is more compact, and weighs 20% less.





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Best Buy Award: Garmin eTrex 20
The Garmin eTrex 20 is small and lightweight hiking GPS that provides ample performance for roughly half the price of the two models above. On most backcountry trips, where a GPS is used as an emergency device if you are lost or if the weather turns foul, the eTrex 20 is the best choice; it locates your position and can get you back on track quickly and easily. This is also our favorite GPS for trips where saving weight is of top importance, such as on backpacking trips. However, if you plan do a lot of travel in low visibility conditions (rain, snow, fog) we think that it's worth spending the extra $200 on the Oregon 600 because the screen is easier to see.

Also check out our Dream Hiking Gear List.

Chris McNamara and Max Neale
Buying Advice
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How to Choose the Best Handheld GPS - Click for details
 How to Choose the Best Handheld GPS

by Chris McNamara and Max Neale
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