Hands-on Gear Review
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Pros: Lightweight, good battery life, reliable push buttons, above average display.
Cons: Small screen, no electronic compass, buttons are harder to push than Garmin's 62 series, less accurate than $400+ models.
Best Uses: Lightweight hiking and climbing, best value GPS.
The Garmin eTrex 20 is the best value GPS available anywhere. It locates your position with reasonably efficiency and accuracy and helps to get you back on route or navigate in low visibility conditions. This is our favorite GPS for backpacking because it's the lightest GPS we've tested (up to 4.3 oz lighter than others!!) and it has great battery life.
We believe the eTrex 20 is the best value of the models in the eTrex series. The eTrex 10 loses the colored display and doesn’t support maps or aerial imagery. The eTrex 30 adds features found on more powerful units: a barometric altimeter, wireless data sharing, and a 3-axis electronic compass. However, if you're going to pay more for other features we think it's worth stepping up several levels to the Garmin Oregon 600.
Check our complete Handheld GPS Review to compare all of the models tested.
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OutdoorGearLab Editors' Hands-on Review
Ease of Use
The eTrex 20 operates with six buttons. A multi-directional toggle lies on the top face, zoom and menu buttons are on the left side, and the power button (also the backlight) and back button are on the right side. This configuration is easy to operate with your right hand. We usually run the zoom and menu buttons with our index and middle fingers and the toggle, back, and power buttons with our thumb. This configuration is easier and faster than the Magellan eXplorist 310’s cramped design, which packs five buttons close together on the lower half of the face. Many of our testers choose the eTrex for winter mountaineering because its push buttons are more reliable in cold weather than touch screens.
The eTrex’s main menu is very similar to the ones found on the company’s Dakota 20 and Oregon 550 units – the difference being you navigate to and select pages with the toggle, not your finger. Main menu items can be arranged by pressing the menu button. Like with the 62 series, the eTrex’s zoom buttons will skip a page in the main menu and will move between keypads when entering text. Pressing the power button once will display the battery meter. Excepting the Magellan eXplorist 710 and Garmin Oregon 600, the eTrex 20 offers a more expedient workflow than any touchscreen device we tested.
The eTrex 20 is compatible with Garmin’s topo maps (we recommend the 1:24,000 scale) and BirdsEye satellite imagery (~$30/year, not recommended). You can also save money and transfer
free maps and custom maps. The eTrex comes with the same navigation features as its more expensive siblings and can display the distance to the next waypoint as well as the distance to the final destination (DeLorme and Magellan units can’t do both).
The eTrex series comes with six profiles that allow you to customize the display for various activities. For example, you can have four data fields for biking and two for hiking. You could track up (map orients in the direction the GPS is pointed or traveling) for hiking and north up (north is at the top) for kayaking. Or you could have a specific profile that displays certain maps or custom maps, such as Yosemite National Park trails on top of aerial imagery.
The eTrex has a plastic rail mount (the Oregon 550, 600 and GPS Map 62sc have metal mounts) that allows you to attach an excellent carabiner clip, bike mount, or other optional accessories to the device.
Though we didn't rank each GPS on its weight and packed size it's important to note that the eTrex is the best lightweight GPS we've tested. It's 1.9 oz. or 20% lighter than our Editor's Choice winner, the Garmin Oregon 600. This weight savings is fantastic because our testers never want to carry a GPS on multi-day trips where weight matters, and use it for only a very small percentage of the total trip duration. (We primarily only turn it on to confirm our position or to navigate in bad weather.) The eTrex is also among the most compact GPS units we've tested, another advantage in for many applications.
Related to weight, Garmin measures the device's battery life at 25 hours, which is considerably better than most other units tested. Our tests show that the eTrex 20 was much more efficient than touchscreen units and those that had electronic compasses. We started out bringing extra batteries for it, but after several trips up to one week long we stopped. Unless, we are doing a lot of navigation we don't bring extra batteries on most trips. Another benefit.
The eTrex’s small size impacts its reception and accuracy. We found that its recorded tracks were less accurate (farther from a known point, like a road) than other units. The device is also slightly slower to pinpoint your location in dense clouds and heavy canopy cover. However, this slight reduction in reception is not a drawback in most circumstances. Unless you're doing a lot of navigation in whiteout conditions or are marking the locations of important small objects, such buried treasure, the eTrex works great.
The small screen leaves little space for data fields in the map view and the buttons are harder to push than those on Garmin's GPS Map 62 series. The screen is easier to see than many plastic touchscreen units (such as the Garmin Oregon 550, Dakota 20, and Magellan 710) but not as good as the newer Garmin Oregon 600.
Whether you're looking for a GPS for backpacking, mountaineering, or paddling we highly recommend the eTrex 20. It gets the job done well and costs $200+ less than top-tier models. We feel that coughing up the extra cash for a more powerful unit is only worth it if you do a lot of navigation in foul weather or are mountaineering, where a better screen and more powerful navigation features could help you to avoid crevasses and cliffs in whiteout conditions. Though our testers rarely bring a GPS for backpacking they often choose the eTrex 20 because it is simple, lightweight, and has good battery life.
We believe the eTrex 20 is the best value model in the eTrex line. The Garmin eTrex 10 loses the colored display and doesn’t support maps or aerial imagery. The Garmin eTrex 30 adds features found on more powerful units: a barometric altimeter, wireless data sharing, and a 3-axis electronic compass. If you want a more powerful navigation aid we suggest putting up the extra cash for the Garmin Oregon 600.
Garmin eTrex 20 Owners Manual
— Max Neale
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Most recent review: August 3, 2013
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