The Best Handheld GPS Review

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Which handheld GPS is the best? We tested six of the latest and greatest units from Garmin, Magellan, and DeLorme. We climbed to high peaks, hiked through canyons, and tinkered endlessly to produce a comprehensive and objective review. We assessed each device on satellite reception, ease of use, processing speed, display quality, and weight. Our awards and rankings highlight the best models for specific uses. Our Editors' Choice, the Garmin Oregon 600, is modern and easy to use. Our Top Pick for Reliability, the Garmin GPS MAP 64s, will endure through the nastiest of weather. The Garmin eTrex 20x is our Best Buy winner and perfect for those on a budget.

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Test Results and Ratings

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Analysis and Award Winners


Review by:

Senior Review Editor
OutdoorGearLab

Last Updated:
Tuesday
April 26, 2016

Best Overall Handheld GPS


Garmin Oregon 600


Editors' Choice Award

Price:   Varies from $250 - $400 online
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The Garmin Oregon 600 is the only GPS available that has a modern, high quality touchscreen display. The reason we love it so much is because it is the closest to resemble a smartphone. Even though it isn't as high quality as an iPhone display, it certainly comes close in functionality. In addition to a great screen, the Oregon 600 is extremely easy to use, highly accurate, and quickly loads maps. It comes with many features, including a Bluetooth chip that allows you to share your way point and track data with receiving units nearby. It also hosts an electronic compass, 1.5 GB of memory, and 16 hours of battery life. 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. If you want a bit more out of your Oregon 600, check out the Garmin Oregon 650. This model now comes with an 8 megapixel camera!

Best Bang for the Buck


Garmin eTrex 20x


Best Buy Award

Price:   Varies from $168 - $200 online
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The Garmin eTrex 20x is a small and lightweight hiking GPS that provides ample performance for roughly half the price and weight of the other two award winners. This device will help you get back on track if weather turns foul and you can't find your route. This is perfect for those in need of a lightweight device before going into the back country for an extended period of time. Add this unit to your Dream Hiking Gear List as it may save you if you find yourself off trail. Not only that, but it will only cost you $199. If you're looking to upgrade your xTrex 20x memory storage and screen resolution, check out the Garmin eTrex 30x.

Top Pick Award for Reliability


Garmin GPS MAP 64s


Top Pick Award

Price:   Varies from $200 - $300 online
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The Garmin GPS MAP 64s 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 64s also has a big external antenna that provides better and quicker reception than the Oregon 600, which is useful if you find yourself in super thick forest canopies (tropical jungles), deep slot canyons (like in Utah and Arizona), or stuck in a whiteout on the side of a mountain. Our testers liked the GPS MAP 64s for colder, more extreme days but took the Oregon 600 out on most bluebird days. If money isn't a factor, consider checking out the Garmin GPSMAP 64sc if you're looking for all the bells and whistles for your Garmin.

Shout-Outs


Top Pick for Accuracy: Garmin Montana 680
Top Pick for Features: Magellan eXplorist 510




Analysis and Test Results


In this review we tested six of the best and most popular handheld GPS units designed for land-based outdoor recreation. A Global Positioning System (GPS) unit is used to collect and store spatial data for a plethora of activities. These include camping, hiking, biking, mountaineering, fishing, hunting, skiing, and more. It helps you navigate to specific locations and get you back to places you've been. GPS models vary based on performance, level of accuracy, battery life, and additional features. Some are specific to navigation in cars, while others are made to wear on your wrist like the Suunto Ambit 3 Sport.

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Ski touring in Alaska is a perfect place to test the limits of these handheld GPS units.

In this review, we sought out GPS models that are small and lightweight enough to fit in your pocket. We do not cover models with built in radio or communication devices. Every model tested has an assortment of features and meets IPX7 standards, which require electronic devices to withstand accidental immersion in one meter of water for up to 30 minutes.

What sets a higher performing device apart from a lower performance device are a few fancy features. Some GPS units feature a share wireless option, barometric altimeter, and electronic compass while others do not.

Some devices come extra features while others are plain and simple. The Magellan eXplorist 510 has a camera, video recorder, and voice recorder while the Garmin GPS MAP 64s can sync up to a smartphone to provide "smart notifications." These extras are nice to a) fully document adventures and b) stay connected without taking your phone out of your backpack.

Another important function for any GPS unit is the ability to upload your trip information to a computer. All the devices tested in this review are compatible with the popular viewing software BaseCampTM developed by Garmin. Other software programs include Magellan'sVantagePoint and the DeLorme Topo North American Desktop Software. In this review we found BaseCamp to be the easiest to navigate.

When is a Handheld GPS really necessary? Will a Smartphone Suffice?


There are situations where a smartphone can be a better tool than a GPS, and others where it doesn't measure up. These questions and many others we answer in our GPS Buying Advice Article. Learn about the many features of a handheld GPS.

How Do GPS Units Work?


Currently there are 1,200 satellites orbiting the Earth. These satellites belong to a variety of countries and a number of government sectors. In North America, we receive signals from satellites managed by the U.S. Department of Defense. Higher performance units utilize satellite data from both the USA and other countries with private networks. These satellites transmit timing and positional data. Once a GPS receiver receives a signal from at least four satellites, the location can be triangulated. Units with higher accuracy can pick up transmitted data from more satellites. The most accurate units tested in this review include the Garmin Montana 680 and the Garmin GPS MAP 64s. These units had recorded accuracy within 10 feet which is awesome for a handheld. Trimble GPS units are more accurate (and more expensive) putting you within an inch of your actual position. These units are much larger and used to triangulate exact position.

Satellite Networks


The units tested in this review used two satellite networks. The USA manages the Global Positioning Satellite (GPS) network while Russia manages the Globalnaya Navigazionnaya Sputnikovaya Sistema (GLONASS) network. The GPS network accesses 32 satellites while GLONASS contributes 24 additional satellites. In addition, all handhelds have WAAS (Wide Area Augmentation System) compatibility to increase unit accuracy. This technology provides data to compatible receivers to augment their position. Signals from satellites are sent to WAAS master stations on land where augmentation messages are sent out. This message is sent to compatible receivers (like GPS units) which automatically corrects errors to provide a much more accurate estimate of location. GPS units that utilized GLONASS, GPS, and WAAS compatibility with a large antenna had the best reception.

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Utilizing both GLONASS and GPS satellite networks, the Garmin Oregon 600 (Editors' Choice) helps this group of skiers navigate through a white-out.

Mapping Software


Each manufacturer includes software designed to organize, analyze (though functions are very basic) and project the way points 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 way points or tracks in Google Earth, a feature no other manufacturer supports.

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Magellan and Garmin brands are compatible with Google Earth. Here we see a track comparison of all units. DeLorme is not compatible with Google Earth and stands on its own without a file converter.

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 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.

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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.

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 back country; 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 the Handheld GPS


The handheld GPS units we use today to find our way around the woods, mountains and deserts for our playtime adventures have their roots in the military. In 1957, the Russian government launched the first satellite Sputnik. With Sputnik up in orbit, US physicists from Johns 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 six 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 1970s and early 1980s, 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 the Soviets 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 2016, there are 32 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 percent of the day and so that at any one moment any spot on earth is "visible" to at least four satellites.

Criteria for Evaluation


We evaluated each model through an array of objective field and at-home tests. Our main testers spent hours tinkering with these units to provide you with an in-depth review. Our criteria focused on the unit itself. For each unit we consider reception, ease of use, display quality, speed, weight, and versatility for evaluation. Using an array of tests we were able to determine award winners and help you determine what to purchase for you next handheld GPS.

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The six devices tested in this review. There is one Magellan, one DeLorme, and four Garmin devices.

Satellite Reception


The Global Positioning System is a worldwide radio-navigation system that consists of 32 satellites and their ground stations. These are owned and operated by the U.S. Department of Defense. Some units also utilize the Globalnaya Navigazionnaya Sputnikovaya Sistema satellite system that operates 24 additional satellites. Handheld units that utilize both networks are typically faster and more accurate.


In determining the best reception, we performed a number of objective tests. We took these units outside in both open and dense areas and compared accuracy of all units. At home we engaged in four tests. In our first, we turned these units on and timed it to see how long it took to determine a location. This mimics how long it will take a unit to get a signal in a new location. In our second test, we turned on each unit and moved them progressively from open areas (the middle of the floor) closer to the wall and compared their recorded accuracy. In our third test, we marked a way point and tried to navigate back to the original location using the GPS. We measured the distance from the actual way point to the location the unit told us we had arrived. For our last test, we mapped out an area of 7000 square feet and (using the area calculator function) walked the perimeter of the area. The units that were closest to calculating 7000 square feet (after three trials) were deemed to be the most accurate. Through these tests and our experience in the field, we were able to determine the units with best accuracy and reception.

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Here we see a comparison of tracks while driving. Light blue = Garmin eTrex 20x, dark blue = Garmin Oregon 600, Red = Garmin GPSMAP 64s, Green = Garmin Montana 680. The Montana was the most accurate in this test.

Of all the units tested, we were most impressed with the Garmin GPS MAP 64s and Garmin Montana 680. The Garmin Montana (the largest unit) had the best accuracy while the GPS MAP 64s (with the largest antennae) was a close second. Our Best Buy winner, Garmin eTrex 20x had decent accuracy picking up a signal faster than any other unit. All units except for the Magellan eXplorist 510 and DeLorme PN-60 utilized both GLONASS and GPS networks. Consequently, the DeLorme PN-60 took the longest to lock onto a position but provided decent accuracy once it did. The Magellan eXplorist 510 proved to be less accurate than the DeLorme PN-60 but still provided accuracy within 15 ft.

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The Montana 680 was the most accurate in navigating us back to way points taken in our accuracy tests.

Ease of Use


Here we assessed how easy is was to perform certain key functions such as marking and editing way points, creating and editing tracks, navigating to a way point, and following a route. In our tests, we gave these units to beginners and compared individual components. These included screen type, menu layout, keyboard type, button configuration, and software interface. In the end, units that earned top marks were easy to use out of the box with limited reference to user manuals. We found that touch screens were easier to use than buttoned units as they have a close resemblance to smartphones. That said, units with large buttons stood out as a better option for cold weather with easier access to menu functions and better keyboard accuracy.

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Entering waypoints is made easy with the dual-orientation screen. Here we see it in landscape mode. You can also lock the screen.

In the ease of use category, the Garmin devices reigned king. The interface software is very similar, and our novice testers thought it was the easiest to use. The Garmin Oregon 600 (Editors' Choice) was first in the category as its touchscreen was extremely responsive, modern, and simple. The Garmin Montana 680 was next for its large size and touchscreen. The Garmin GPS MAP 64s and eTrex 20x (Best Buy winner) were both buttoned units that earned the same rating. The GPS MAP 64s features many large, easy to use buttons while the eTrex 20x features a central toggle functioning as a directional and enter button. Our testers weren't huge fans of both the Magellan eXplorist 510 and DeLorme PN-60 in this category. The eXplorist specifically had a keyboard that was split between two screens that you laboriously had to flip back and forth between to enter text.

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Even though we loved the big keyboard, the split keyboard was very inconvenient.

Display Quality


Here we assessed how easy it was to see the screen. We looked at screen display in both low light and high light conditions, with and without sunglasses. All the units feature high quality screens of different sizes. Even though larger displays are easier to see, we noticed that these usually resulted in more glare and less visibility overall. We also noticed that units with plastic screens had poor visibility in comparison to those with hard plastic or glass screens.

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Here Kelly and Dan compare the screens of the (left to right) Garmin Montana 680, Magellan eXplorist 510, and Garmin Oregon 600. The Oregon's screen was the easiest to see and crisp in these high light conditions. The Montana 680's screen is large but produces glare on high light days, as does the Magellan. These are the three touchscreens we tested.

The Garmin Oregon 600 had the best screen quality, made from gorilla glass with a 2.5 inch display. The Garmin GPS MAP 64s and eTrex 20x both had screens manufactured from the same material (with little glare in all light conditions) but of different sizes. The eTrex 20x has a 1.7 inch screen while the GPS MAP 64s has a 2 inch screen. These performed well in all light conditions. The Garmin Montana 680 had a 3.5 inch screen (great for those with poor eyesight) but had glare in high light conditions. The Magellan eXplorist 510 was rated the poorest in this category, as the cheap plastic screen tended to reflect light in both low and high light conditions.

Speed


This variable assessed the speed of each unit. We timed how long it took to start up, draw maps, and go from one function to another. In addition, we put all the units into a freezer overnight to see how the cold affected all the variables listed above. We found that none of the units' speed was affected by the cold except the Garmin Oregon that froze up with the extreme temperatures.

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The Garmin Oregon 600 is fast and easy to use. The touchscreen is sensitive with smooth transitions between functions.

The Garmin Oregon 600 and Garmin Montana 680 were the fastest followed closely by the Garmin GPS MAP 64s. The Oregon 600 was the fastest to toggle between functions and type in way points. The Montana 680 was the slowest to start up but very fast redraw maps. The Garmin GPS MAP 64s was the fastest buttoned unit to redraw maps and toggle between functions. The slowest overall unit was the DeLorme Earthmate PN-60; it took longer than the rest to start up and showed a lag between functions.

Weight and Size


In this category we simply looked at the size and weight of the unit. Using an at-home scale we weighed each unit and compared the relative size of the units to one another. This is an important metric to consider for those that need a lightweight unit.

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A comparison of size. From left to right: Garmin Montana 680, Garmin GPS Maps 64s, DeLorme PN-60, Magellan eXplorist 510, Garmin Oregon 600, Garmin eTrex 20x.

The Garmin eTrex 20x, our Best Buy winner, was the lightest (5.1 oz) and smallest unit tested. Many of our ski testers reached for this when heading out for a quick and light lap in the mountains. On the flip side, the Garmin Montana 680 was a beast. This unit was in the running for Editors' Choice but lost the race due to its bulk and size. At 10.3 oz, we won't be bringing this unit on any lightweight-dependent adventures.

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The Garmin eTrex 20x is lightweight and fits in small pockets. Take this GPS unit on your longest or fastest adventures.

Versatility


When considering this metric we simply thought to ourselves - which unit could we take anywhere? We considered the units' features, durability, battery life, weight, size, and use with gloves. Units with a smaller design, longer battery life, and more features did better in this metric.

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Use it with or without gloves. In both situations this Top Pick for Reliability is accurate and easy to use.

The Garmin GPS MAP 64s is our Top Pick for Reliability with one of the highest ratings in this category. Even though it doesn't have the most features or the smallest construction, our testers felt it was the best for all weather conditions. The Magellan eXplorist 510 features a plethora of features, including a video and voice recorder and 3.2 MP camera. This made it the most versatile to fully document adventures.

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Taking a picture is a snap with a camera button on the left side of the unit. Here the author is pictured filling in a description for a 'photo way point' in Alaska.

The Garmin Montana 680 proved to have a very large screen, perfect for navigational and hiking purposes. It also features a 8 MP camera to help document adventures. We also liked the Garmin eTrex 20x. Even though it was the simplest in design, it featured the longest battery life, the lightest weight, and did well in all weather conditions. Overall, all the units were quite versatile, all being awarded medium to high ratings in this category.

Accessories


Rechargeable batteries-These can save you a lot of money over time.

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 64s 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 is the Garmin Friction Mount.

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 his career as a wildlife biologist, which involved using handheld GPS units in the field as well as making a lot of maps. He soon realized that this was his passion. 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 tough 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. Ten 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 GPS MAP 64s 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 smartphone 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 touch screen 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 onto 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 than 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, versus 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 two, and was on his last bag of candy. He stayed put, which is why he lived.
Amber King
Helpful Buying Tips
Unbiased.