How to Choose the Best Handheld GPS

Buying Advice
By ⋅ Senior Review Editor, OutdoorGearLab - Tuesday April 26, 2016
Handheld Global Positioning System (GPS) units are intended to log and store spatial data while you adventure in the back country. They are built to withstand all weather conditions and come with many features to help you determine where you are and where you've been. There are many GPS units on the market today. High performing devices are set apart with extra features while low performing devices stay simple. Before buying your next GPS, consider if you need a device, what you are intend to use it for, and how much you're willing to spend.

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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.
Credit: Dan Zokaites

Do you need a GPS?


It's wise to be prepared when heading into unfamiliar territory, and a GPS can provide protection if conditions deteriorate. You may run into issues like bad weather reducing visibility, washed out trails, and poorly marked trails (worse if combined with poor visibility), which can throw you off your intended route. Fog, rain, or snow can all be problematic and make trail finding difficult. We have all more than once taken a "short cut" after descending a climb, following what was initially a pretty good trail, only to have the trail peter out and end up in an epic bushwhack back to the car in the dark. A GPS can help you navigate through unexpected conditions and get you safely back to your car.

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Stuck in a whiteout and not sure where to go? Navigate back to way points you've taken, see trip data, log tracks, and stay safe.
Credit: Dan Zokaites

Can a GPS replace a map and compass?


The tried and true method of navigating by a map and compass can't be replaced by a handheld GPS unit. We at OutdoorGearLab strongly recommend carrying a map and compass in addition to a GPS unit when in unfamiliar terrain. GPS units are great to use with a map to find location (using latitude and longitude). Maps don't run out of batteries or break if accidentally dropped off a cliff. As a result - they are a fail safe backup to any electronic device. For added protection, put your non-waterproof printed maps into a 8" x 11" waterproof LOCKSAK bag. This will ensure that even in bad storms your map will stay safe and dry.

Why buy a GPS?


Many GPS units have programmable profiles for recreational use. If you spend time on the water, program it for nautical navigation. If you prefer to hike, choose a hikers profile instead.

A GPS can provide valuable location-based information that you can't see with your own eyes. For example, marine GPS devices with charts show water depth, potential underwater hazards, and most importantly display your position in poor visibility conditions. Lobster fishermen in Maine use GPS to plot the locations of their traps so that they can fish in dense fog, heavy rain, or whiteout snow conditions. Hunters use GPS to mark the location of their kill, tree stand, or trailhead. Mountain guides will use the "tracks" function to mark routes up and down mountains. Some guides testing the units said they share routes on descent of the mountain via Bluetooth with fellow guides going up. For outdoor recreation purposes, GPS devices are most useful for displaying your position (which presumably can't be found by other methods) relative to your destination. Many love to spend their weekends looking for hidden treasures called "geocaches." Many devices tested (like the Garmin GPS MAP 64s) have pre-programmed caches located in your vicinity for a fun-filled weekend. Find out some other great uses for your GPS here.

Smartphone GPS applications


Most of us carry a phone in the backcountry. So why carry something else?
Answer: dedicated handheld GPS have better satellite reception, more powerful navigation features, and better battery life than smartphones GPS applications. They are ideal for extensive off-trail navigation in low visibility conditions. However, if you carry a phone and primarily walk on trails or travel on established routes (like rivers), a smartphone app is likely all you need. We recommend the Trimble Outdoors app for its navigation features (requires additional purchase of area-specific maps) and the Topo Maps app for the best value (iPhone/iPod only, download unlimited free maps before you leave). Based on our testers' extensive experience in the backcountry we've found that a GPS is most commonly used to identify or confirm our position briefly before we resume navigating with maps. For such applications, an app like Topo Maps works well and only costs $7.99. For most backpackers we suggest starting out with a GPS app and upgrading to a handheld GPS if it proves insufficient for your needs.

What to consider when buying a handheld GPS


In considering a new GPS unit you need to determine what kind of GPS you need, the features you want, and how much you're willing to spend. You don't want to purchase a GPS intended for car navigation when you intend to go hiking. Learn more about GPS types and their features.

Types of GPS Units



Car Navigation Systems: Used primarily as a navigational system in your vehicle, these units are either built into the car's dash, suctioned to a window, or mounted to the dash. They have great accuracy, a large screen, and easy-to-see color schemes. You can get from point A to B by simply typing in your destination and pressing "go." In our review, the Garmin Montana 680 seemed to be the best handheld that could be used as a navigation system in an automobile.

Aviation Navigation Systems: These units are designed for use in the air. These units feature aerial map views with flight plan, airport, and direct-to navigation information. If you're in a low-flying bird, these navigation systems will help you stay en route in a storm.

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Here we picture the cockpit of a small plane flying us into the Alaskan range. Pictured on the top left is a GPS unit specific to navigating in the air. An absolute necessity when getting caught in a storm.
Credit: Amber King

Boat-Based Navigation Systems: Any dedicated boatman has their trusty "fish finder" and GPS combo. These contain navigational and sonar technology. Coastal ocean and inner lakes maps help navigate large bodies of water while sonar helps to find prey lurking in the deeps below.

GPS watches and altimeters: There are a variety of watches that monitor fitness. Some fitness trackers are simple and just monitor the number of steps you take in a day. Others have a built-in GPS that can log your route information to show you where you've been, the altitude you've climbed or descended, and more. These GPS Watches are popular among trail runners, mountain guides, hikers, and backpackers. They are a great alternative to a handheld if you're just looking to go light but don't have nearly as many features.

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Not all the watches we tested have navigational function. The entire Ambit family, as well as the Garmin Fenix, can point the way to a predetermined point. This can replace, for rudimentary off-trail navigation, one's hand-held GPS.
Credit: Jediah Porter


Two-way Communication Systems: Some GPS handheld GPS devices are compatible with two-way satellite communication systems. For example, the DeLorme PN-60w is compatible with the DeLorme inReach SE Satellite Messenger to communicate in remote areas with no reception. These are especially handy when planning long excursions into the backcountry and an emergency device is needed. Check out The Best Personal Locator Beacon and Satellite Messenger Review to learn more.

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A satellite communication device that can pair with some DeLorme handheld GPS devices.
Credit: DeLorme

Hand Held GPS Units: We focus on these devices in our review. They are reliable multi-functional computers designed to log spatial data. They mark waypoints, track your route, make notes, geocache, pull up altitude profiles, and more. Small enough to wear around your neck or stash in your backpack, they are commonly used for on-land purposes. They are especially useful when you need a reliable unit that won't run out of battery quickly and can endure nasty weather conditions. An example of a truly trustworthy hand-held is our Best Buy winner - the Garmin eTrex 20x.

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There are many GPS handhelds on the market ranging from super simple to complex. Here we picture the most high tech to the simplest from left to right: Garmin Montana 680, Garmin GPSMAP 64s (Top Pick for Reliability), DeLorme PN-60, Magellan eXplorist 510, Garmin Oregon 600 (Editors Choice), Garmin eTrex 20x (Best Buy)
Credit: Dan Zoikates

Handheld GPS Features


The features of a GPS unit is what sets one apart from the other. Some units come are loaded while others just offer the basics. Before buying a handheld, consider what extras you want and need.

Before we dive into the pros and cons for additional features, you need to understand what a basic GPS unit comes with. All the units in this review come with the following:

-Maps (ability to upload maps for paper-less navigation)
-Compass (electronic or differential)
-Trip Computer (logs motion info like speed, time, distance to the next waypoint, etc.)
-Geocache options (some come pre-loaded with many)
-Photo Viewer (some also have cameras)
-Mark Waypoint
-Track and Waypoint Managers (organize and store waypoints)
-Profile Options (select different ways to graph your information on the device - i.e. distance vs. altitude, distance vs. time, ect)
-Route Planner (use waypoints
-Sun and Moon (sunset & rises)
-Area Calculator (walk a perimeter and it will calculate the area)
-Calculator
-Alarm Clock
-Calendar
-Stopwatch
-Satellites (Shows you the number of satellites triangulating your position and the strength)
-Best Fishing Days
-Proximity Alarm (set it to a waypoint)
-Location of closest cities
-Points of Interest (airports, hospitals, etc.)
-Tides Information (for the surfers out there!)

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Here we see the satellite utilization of the GPSMAP 64s. This tells us position, satellite network utilization, elevation, and satellite strenth.
Credit: Amber King

Touchscreen or Buttons?
GPS Units with buttons are typically more reliable than touchscreens in extreme weather conditions.
One big decision to make is whether you want a touchscreen or a buttoned unit. Touchscreens are advantageous in that they provide faster operation than traditional screens. However they suck up more battery than a normal screen, can freeze up in cold conditions, and don't work as well with thick gloves. Most of the touchscreen GPS units we tested have displays that are years behind those of most smartphones (the exception is the Garmin Oregon 600).

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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.
Credit: Dan Zokaites

Buttoned units are advantageous because you can use them with thick or thin gloves (the exception is the DeLorme PN-60, batteries last longer, and they work in all temperature extremes. They are just more reliable. The downside is they lag in speed and it takes longer to type in waypoints. What it really comes down to is your preference. Do you prefer a unit that feels more modern and operates quickly? Or are you looking for something that is above all reliable?

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Here we compare the Garmin eTrex 20x, the Garmin GPSMAPS 64s, and the DeLorme Earthmate PN-60. Both the Garmin screens are made from similar durable materials and do well in both high and low light conditions. These are all buttoned units tested.
Credit: Dan Zokaites

Electronic or Differential Compass?
Electronic compasses are usually the cut-off point where manufacturers separate the basic units from the more powerful ones. An electronic compass shows you direction without having to move whereas a differential compass will not show your direction without movement. For some this is a great advantage. One of our main testers was a mountain guide that works on Mt. Rainer in Washington State. He mentioned that having an electronic compass is important for situations where you need to figure your direction without moving (say a whiteout when you're close to cliff edge). Many mountain guides will look for a GPS unit that has an electronic vs. differential compass because it makes navigating faster and easier. Does that mean everybody needs it? No. It is not necessary for the average recreational GPS user; it's just a nice add-on.

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The electronic compass is quick to respond and doesn't require you to move to find direction.
Credit: Dan Zokaites

Barometric Altimeter?
GPS devices that feature a barometric altimeter are more accurate in calculating altitude than those without.

Another feature that defines the line between high and low performance devices. Altitude readings in handheld GPS units tend to be less accurate than latitude-longitudinal readings. A barometric altimeter using special sensors helps better calculate altitude. You can also use these altimeters to track weather patterns. This is especially useful if you are in the back country without access to a weather forecast. A great feature for better accuracy.

Pictured here are the barometric pressure settings. You can set this to track pressure trends and predict weather patterns while in the backcountry.
Credit: Garmin

Media Options
The addition of a camera, microphone, and voice recorder is a cool add-on to fully document adventures. Some GPS units (like the Magellan eXplorist 510) come equipped with these options. You can use these media options to mark a waypoint in lieu of typing one in. We loved this option when looking back at our adventures and we can directly see pictures and videos of our route along the way. Furthermore if sharing your route information with friends they can use these pictures to ensure they are following the same track. This is especially helpful for those looking to buy a device for an outdoor guiding company or to conduct scientific surveys for an area. Many survey groups require photo evidence for an area and this a great way to keep everything in one place (as opposed to carrying a camera and later attaching the pictures to different waypoints).

Share Wirelessly and Smart Notifications
As technology gets smarter, so does the handheld GPS. High performing devices like the Garmin GPS MAP 64s have many sharing features. The first being the "share wirelessly" option. These devices come equipped with Bluetooth technology. With a compatible receiver you can quickly send track and way point files wirelessly to another device. Our main tester mentioned this is especially helpful if you have another group that is about to embark on the same route you just finished. In a matter of minutes you can sync up devices and share your route. We would recommend this for users intending to share track information with others.

Receive text messages and media updates on your device without pulling out your phone. A modern and unique feature.
Credit: Garmin

Another great feature is "smart notifications." You can sync your smartphone to your GPS and receive text messages or social media updates on the unit. If you don't want to take your phone out of the backpack while staying connected, this may be an option for you.
Amber King
About the Author
After finishing up her B.Sc and B.Ed in 2009, Amber moved to the USA from Canada to spend time in the mountains of the West. Drawn in by dreams of climbing perfect cracks and exploring new areas, she found herself in a few different places - Utah to Colorado to Arizona to Washington. Along her journey she discovered trail running as a new found love. Completing her first half-marathon, full-marathon, and ultra-marathon within one year, she is learning how to be an endurance athlete. She also loves to boat, back country snowboard, and rock climb. When she's not playing in the wilderness, you can find her planning experiential based school trips as a high school science teacher.

 
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