How We Tested Handheld GPSs

How We Test
Amber King
Senior Review Editor

Last Updated:

Here at OutdoorGearLab we take our testing seriously. Over the last few years we tested these six handheld GPS devices while hiking, skiing, mountaineering, kayaking, driving, mountain biking, and more. We climbed to the tops of mountains, explored the depths of the earth, and kayaked on the ocean. Some of our testers used these units to map populations, hiking trails, and plot the location of environmental monitoring equipment. We literally logged hundreds of miles while travelling by foot in Colorado, Washington, Utah, and Alaska. More than a dozen people who range from GPS power users to complete novices used the six models tested here and contributed great feedback. We assessed each unit on satellite reception, ease of use, display quality, speed, and weight.

Most of our current testing took place in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado. Here we see lots of steep  remote terrain that could obstruct satellite signals. We also got ourselves into all sorts of weather conditions.
Most of our current testing took place in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado. Here we see lots of steep, remote terrain that could obstruct satellite signals. We also got ourselves into all sorts of weather conditions.

In addition to our field tests we performed many objective in-home tests to determine the minute differences between each unit. For satellite reception we compared the actual accuracy of each device by marking waypoints and navigating back to them. We also looked at unit performance in both open areas and heavily covered terrain. Here we could see reported accuracy and compared those numbers to actual measurements we took. Ease of use was determined by tinkering endlessly and comparing software interface and button configurations. Display quality was assessed by taking units out in high and low light conditions. Speed was observed comparatively while redrawing maps and using the compass function. Finally we weighed and measured each unit to determine which was most fit for lightweight excursions.

Dan was our main tester. He took these units out daily to compare all the metrics in this review.
Dan was our main tester. He took these units out daily to compare all the metrics in this review.

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.