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
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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 $344 - $400
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$399$389
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Varies $400 - $402
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$190
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67% recommend it (2/3)
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67% recommend it (2/3)
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 Mar 28, 2015Mar 28, 2015Jul 30, 2013Jul 31, 2013Jul 30, 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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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

  • Review Photos
  • Editors' Choice Winners

OutdoorGearLab Editors' Hands-on Review



Update Note: April 2015
We have contacted all of the companies and confirmed any changes, as noted in the reviews. A complete review was performed in August 2013.


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.

The History of a Handheld GPS


The handheld GPS units we use today to find our way around the woods, mountains and deserts for our playtime adventures have its roots in the military. In 1957, the Russian government launched the first satellite Sputnik. With Sputnik up in orbit, US physicists from John's Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory decided to monitor Sputnik's radio transmissions. They discovered that due to the Doppler effect, you could track the location of the satellite from the ground, mostly by measuring the distance and location of receivers on earth relative to the satellites overhead. To help locate their submarines, the US Navy built the first satellite navigation system in 1959. It initially consisted of 6 satellites and sometimes took hours to receive signals from the satellites imagine how frustrated we get these days if we have to wait a few seconds.

In the 1970's and early 1980's, the US Air Force continued to launch more satellites into their system, which was originally called NAVSTAR. Many of these satellites carried atomic clocks onboard to accurately measure transmission times. In 1983, a commercial Korean Air flight was shot down by Russia after it wandered over the Soviet airspace border near the Kamchatka Peninsula. This prompted President Reagan to announce that access to the GPS system would be available to all civilian commercial aircraft to increase safety. However, it took until 1989 to get the system complete and fully operational. At that time, the first hand-held device was marketed in the US the Magellan NAV 1000.

From 1990 through 2000, the US Department of Defense deliberately diminished the accuracy of the GPS system for private users, fearing that US enemies might be able to use it to gain advantage. When the signal scrambling ended, the system went from having 100 meter accuracy to 20 meter accuracy overnight, which made it useful for all sorts of private industries and purposes.

As of 2012, there are 31 satellites orbiting the earth approximately 12,600 miles high. They are programmed to each orbit the earth twice a day and so that at least 24 of them are available 95% of the day and so that at any one moment at any spot on earth is "visible" to at least 4 satellites.


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.

Click to enlarge


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

Click to enlarge

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.

Ask an Expert: Dr. Paul Doherty


Dr. Paul Doherty is the technical lead for the Disaster Response Program at ESRI, a geographic information systems (GIS) mapping software company. This program supports organizations or governments that are dealing with any manner of natural disasters, from famine to flooding, with software and technical support. They also lead outreach initiatives to help agencies prepare for disasters before they occur. Dr. Doherty started out his career as a wildlife biologist, which involved using handheld GPS units in the fields as well as making a lot of maps. He soon realized that this was his passion, and when he began working for the Yosemite Search and Rescue team as their GIS specialist, he was able to combine that with his love for the outdoors and adventure. He continues to consult with the National Park Service as well as teach at the National Search and Rescue Academy, and is also hard at work on MapSAR, a volunteer initiative that makes GIS available to Wildland Search and Rescue teams. Dr. Doherty shared some of his extensive experience with GPS units with us, along with some cautionary Search and Rescue tales.

What features do you look for in a unit?
Even though I'm used to touchscreens on my smartphone, I'm still looking for actual buttons on a handheld GPS unit. A manufacturer might say a touchscreen is waterproof, but from past experience I'm just not all that confident with them. I feel more confident with the old Garmin 60 series because I know that directional pad, I've used it in the rain, and I know it will hold up. If I want to go with a touchscreen, there are apps for my phone that I can download, but for being rugged and knowing that it will work in any conditions, buttons are what I'm still looking for.

In our review we found that most of the touchscreen displays are of lower quality and don't come near the functionality of an iPhone display (with the exception of our Editors' Choice Garmin Oregon 600. Why do you think that is?
The iPhone style glass is very responsive and durable, but that doesn't mean you can waterproof it and put it on a handheld unit. We're all spoiled now by how great iPhones and some Androids are, and so we expect the same in any touch environment. Psychologically, there is no space between your finger and what you are touching, whereas with a lot of touchscreens in the handheld market, you feel like there's this sort of gap and lag. 10 years ago, if you had a touchscreen like that people would be blown away, but I think the key driver in the market now is the iPhone and if it doesn't work like one people don't want to use it.

What scale maps do you prefer to use?
Personally, I think the more zoomed in you can get the better. The standard for the longest time has been 1:24,000, because that's just what the USGS topo maps were made at. Working for a GIS company, I know the pitfalls of that. One thing is that topo maps are generally outdated, but also there are a lot of features that can be missed at that scale. So ideally, if I had the storage space and I knew where the data was coming from, I would love a 1:10,000 scale, which is more like what you'd expect out of a Google Map or some of the other online mapping programs that you see out there.

The main reason I prefer to use 1:10,000 is that stream details in a drainage can be lost at 1:24,000, but more importantly, working with Search and Rescue teams we want to know where every building is and every mine. We want to be able to see anything that could harm somebody, or anywhere they could be located on the map.

Do you ever plan your routes in Google Earth and send the files to your device?
I have done that. Another software that Garmin uses which I like a lot is called Garmin BaseCamp. It's a free download and works with any of their units. As long as the software creates a .gpx file it can be loaded anywhere as it's a really interoperable file. Right now, for planning trips I use ArcGIS Online because it allows me to share my maps in different interfaces. I can make an elevation profile map of the route I am planning, which allows me to see how much vertical I'm ascending each day. This is key, because if I see that the whole first day is going to be uphill, then I can convince my buddies that this is not the day we want to do 16 miles.

Do you think it's worth paying extra money for the satellite imagery?
Personally, for navigation purposes I prefer maps. Imagery is nice if you understand what things should look like in that area. I think most people like the idea of looking at the earth from a bird's eye view, but we don't necessarily understand the different terrain features just from looking at an aerial photo. What I would rather use is a cartographic map that is made using the latest aerial photography and satellite imagery.

Do you prefer a model with an electronic compass?
I've personally always relied on a real world compass for navigating because I like to have the mirror so I can shoot my azimuth. If I really need to thread the needle on a hike, say if I go too far east or west I'm going to end up in a canyon, then I would rather rely on a real compass. But from what I have seen, the Garmin 60 series and now the Garmin GPSMAP 62sc have a really intuitive to use compass.

Garmin models won our Editors' Choice, Top Pick and Best Buy awards, and they really seem to be the leading brand for this technology. Do you agree and why do you think that is?
From my perspective they are definitely a leader in this technology. I think they have brand recognition and also good usability, particularly for a novice to be able to pick it up and use it easily. I've only used a few Magellans so it's hard for me to compare, but from a Search and Rescue perspective, a unit needs to be easy to use, easy to get the tracks off and interoperable, and I imagine the public is looking for something similar. Perhaps a hunter may just keep everything on his handheld unit and use it as a standalone device, but for SAR operations it is absolutely necessary to get the data off of the unit, and Garmin has just been the way to go for that for a long time.

Who do you recommend use a handheld GPS?
I think that having a GPS unit is an excellent tool, but it's something you should train with a lot before you go into the backcountry and rely on it in any way. For instance, when I first started out I used my GPS to do anything, even if I could have used my smartphone to navigate. Using it in my day to day life helped me understand what I was getting into in the real world environment as well as the back country, so I suggest that anybody who is willing to take a little time to learn how to use it, should use it. If it's just something that you throw in your backpack like your first aid kit, then I don't think it's a useful tool because when you need it you may not know how to use it.

Do you think this technology will ever supplant good old-fashioned map and compass skills?
No, I think there is something inherent or innate about humans and our need to have a diagrammatic representation of the earth something that's on paper. Of course I encourage the use of new technology, but that doesn't mean I don't keep a paper map in my pack. Knowing how to use a compass is tried and true, and I don't know if it will ever be fully replaced.

At this point would just using the GPS on a smart phone suffice for most people?
I struggle with this one. More and more, I use a free GPS app on my phone because I like to map my tracks. As soon as I get back home and in the Internet world I can email myself my track and add it to my ArcGIS Online webmap. I like to archive my stuff, but that's really the only reason why I would use a smartphone over a handheld GPS unit, which is still more reliable and easy to use. What a lot of people don't know that is that they can use the GPS feature on their smartphone even if they have no cell reception. I think that as more people figure that out they will start using their cellphones instead, but I hear concerns all the time from Search and Rescue teams that they don't trust the battery on their phones. I know full well they could just carry an external charger and it will last just as long as their handheld unit, but I think for a lot of people it's just ingrained that GPS's are rugged and the battery lasts a long time, and that's why they'll stick with it, for a while anyway. People said three years ago that they'd be gone, and maybe three years from now they will be declining but it's all about the generation I think. The people who are born with smartphones in their hands will probably go with them over a handheld unit.

How integral are handheld GPS units to Search and Rescue operations?
From my perspective and in the ideal world, we'd be all using mobile technology that's connected in real time. At Esri Disaster Response we teach people how to do that, say for a damage assessment. But more often than not, when I am working with volunteer SAR teams the way they're collecting data in the field is still through handheld units, and in the US it's predominantly the Garmin 60 series or eTrex that I see people using. That will probably start to switch to the touchscreen models I now have a Garmin Dakota but I still love my 60 series.

The handheld units are used for Search and Rescue operations in two keys ways: number one is collecting the tracks of where searchers went. If you think of a missing person as a puzzle or a game, then the game is to figure out where they are not by filling in the map with negatives; "They are not here, they are not there," because I know searchers went there and didn't find them. The second key way handheld units are used are for calling in clues over the radio; "I found a bootprint, I'm pretty sure it belongs to the missing person, here are my coordinates." They'll log a waypoint of the location on their unit, but typically they are trying to get that information to the command post as quickly as possible because that might change how they allocate resources.

I'm also seeing maps and assignments (the segment that an individual is being assigned to search) being loaded on to the handheld unit more often, but right now that is still kind of a bandwidth problem. If you have 100 individual units it takes a while to get all those assignments loaded on.

Any GPS saved the day stories?
Unfortunately, more often than success stories we see confusion of the coordinate system. Handheld GPS units all collect data the same way, using what is called WGS84. This is the way they think, talk and how they record things. What's projected on your screen can be changed between UTM (Universal Transverse Mercator), DMS (Degrees Minutes Seconds), and Decimal Degrees. So if someone changes the datum on their unit, or call in their coordinates and they don't understand that it's a different datum then what they are using on their maps, it could be very incorrect. Teams and people should practice communicating location so that they can all agree on what they are looking at and communicate it over the radio, which is another challenge. If the datum is in DMS it needs to be said one way, vs Decimal Degrees vs UTM. Particularly between DMS and Decimal Degrees, if you put the decimal in the wrong spot, or you say seconds when you mean minutes, or there's a space and you don't say it, it can all cause real chaos.

That being said, I do recall a success story in Yosemite National Park where a number of critical clues were recorded using a handheld GPS unit. We had a missing hiker, and through the Wilderness Permitting System we managed to track down a witness who remembered seeing him. Not only that, but he had logged the coordinates of their meeting, and recalled that the hiker said he was going on to Red Peak Pass. This gave us a total change in our strategy, as we didn't think he was hiking anywhere near Red Peak Pass, and that's where he was found. Had we not been able to confirm from the witness via a coordinate where he saw him, we may not have made sense of that scenario as not everyone remembers exactly where they saw someone. The missing hiker was found alive after being out for 13 days. He had only planned on being gone for 2, and was on his last bag of candy. He stayed put which is why he lived.

Chris McNamara and Max Neale
Helpful Buying Tips
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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