We've bought and tested the 25 best handheld GPS units available for 8 years running. This review covers 6 best-of-the-best devices. Our testers are backcountry travel and data logging experts who have navigated whiteouts, flash flood strandings, and bluebird outings with these units. From charting a course through Canyonlands to staying on route during Alaskan ski missions, our team took backcountry missions to the limit to try every feature. We passed them around to our techno-challenged friends to see just how easy they are to use, tested their loading speed and, off-course, their reception in varied terrain. When you're out of cell range, a handheld GPS will keep you on track. We did the legwork to help you find the right option for your needs.
The Best Handheld GPS Review
Best Handheld GPS
Garmin GPSMAP 66st
The Garmin GPSMAP 66st is the new king of accuracy and reliability in extreme field conditions, especially in cold weather. The 66st has a large quad-helix antenna and connects to more satellite networks than most other models, making it more reliable and accurate than the competition we've tested. We were able to get better reception in slot canyons and tree cover than anything else we've tried, which makes it nice for the slot canyons of the Southwest, the thick forests of the East Coast, or the whiteouts of the Pacific Northwest. The 66st also comes with 16GB of internal memory, more than double of everything else, and preloaded topo maps for the US and Canada. It is expensive, but this is a highly capable unit for expeditions and fieldwork.
Read review: Garmin GPSMAP 66st
Best for Messaging and Navigation
Garmin inReach Explorer+
With impressively reliable reception, SOS features, satellite text messaging, and navigation via GPS, the Garmin inReach Explorer+ is a standout device for a variety of uses when you're far from cell phone reception. We used it for a wide range of trips, from alpine climbing in Alaska to trekking in the backcountry of Patagonia. While it is primarily a messaging and SOS device, you can also use the inReach Explorer+ as a handheld GPS. It's easy to share your tracks and location via text messaging and social media. In addition to downloadable maps, the ability to pre-load waypoints and routes is helpful for planning long trips over complex terrain.
The Explorer+ has far fewer navigation features, and a more limited interface than dedicated GPS models like the Garmin Montana 680 or Garmin Oregon 700 but works well for simple navigation and tracking. The Explorer+ is also an emergency personal locator beacon, and we caution against navigating with and draining the batteries of your lifeline. But, if you're going to do it, this is the way to go. For those who want to go deep in the backcountry with a device that can be used for both messaging and navigation, the inReach Explorer+ is unparalleled. (We recommend the compact inReach Mini as a personal locator and messager if you have another means of navigating.)
Read review: Garmin inReach Explore+
Best Bang for the Buck
Garmin eTrex 20x
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 the 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 backcountry for an extended period. Add this unit to your Dream Backpacking Gear List, as it may save you if you find yourself off trail.
It's not the most tricked-out option, however. If you need more memory, better screen resolution, a compass, or a barometric altimeter, upgrade to the Garmin eTrex 30x.
Read review: Garmin eTrex 20x
Analysis and Test Results
We test these handheld GPS devices while hiking, skiing, mountaineering, canyoneering, kayaking, mountain biking, mapping plant populations, and more over the course of years. We mark and navigate to waypoints, compare map drawing speed, and test the compass against our trusty old, magnetic standby. We've logged hundreds of miles on foot in Colorado, Washington, Utah, and Alaska. More than a dozen people who range from GPS experts to complete novices used these units and provided feedback.
Why you should trust us
To test these devices we put together an all-star crew of outdoor adventurers to try and get lost and find their way back using these amazing devices. Our head testers include Chris Mcnamara, the founder of Outdoor Gear Lab, who at one point was calculated to have spent 3% of his life on El Capitan in Yosemite. Amber King is the other head tester, who when she's not teaching students as a science teacher, can be found covering long distances running, biking, or rafting in Colorado. Our third tester, Ethan Newman is a climbing and canyoneering guide in Southwest Utah.
These three main testers, as well as many more folks, took these GPS units everywhere from ski touring in Alaska, to the San Juan mountains of Colorado, to the canyons of Southwest Utah. Our testers used these GPS units in whiteouts, hail storms, and while temporarily stranded by flash floods in order to bring you real reviews about the best handheld GPS units out there.
What's a GPS?
GPS stands for Global Positioning System. Often it's used to refer to units (in this case handheld) to track and store timing and positional data for backcountry adventures. Often, they're intended to be used in conjunction with a map and compass. They are designed to be resistant to water, shock, and thermal stress, and any other harsh conditions you'd typically run into out in the wilderness. High performing devices come with extras like cameras and topo maps, as well as better antennas, more memory, altimeters, and internal electronic compasses. More baseline models tend to be lighter and simpler, with better battery life. Before buying your next GPS, consider if you need one, what you intend to use it for, and how much you're willing to spend.
Do You Need a Handheld GPS?
Realistically, you probably don't. Usually, a map and compass, and the associated skills are more than adequate to get through most backcountry adventures, and they never run out of battery. No GPS unit will substitute for having basic orienteering skills and common sense. They simply tell you where you are and where you've gone. In the unlikely event that you need to call for help, a Personal Locator Beacon is what you want. The only unit that functions as both a GPS and a PLB is the inReach Explorer+.
Alternatively, most people these days have smartphones with gps technology, and inexpensive apps that provide topo maps and marking abilities cover most of the same functions. While they're not as accurate as a real deal GPS unit, for many folks, they are good enough.
So, who does need a GPS? Those who love to hike off-the-main trail, serial bushwhackers, backcountry skiers, and climbers who frequently descend on unfamiliar and poorly marked trails will gain benefit from a GPS, which can pinpoint their exact location, allowing them to re-orient themselves on a map and find the way home. A GPS is also helpful in bad weather conditions (heavy rain, snow, or fog), hiking on a dark cloudy or moonless night, or when traveling over snow-covered terrain where the main trail may be buried and the tracks of those who came before you may be unreliable (they might be just as lost as you — believe us, we've been there).
Can a GPS replace a map and compass?
No. We strongly recommend carrying a map and compass when in unfamiliar terrain. Maps don't run out of batteries or break if accidentally dropped off a cliff. They're a fail-safe backup to any electronic device.
Smartphone versus a Handheld GPS?
Of course, an app-enabled smartphone can also do these things — and call for help. Why carry something else?
Answer: Your smartphone GPS may not prove reliable in the backcountry. Smartphones rely on the combination of a cheap GPS device, and triangulation between cell-towers (and even WiFi) to dial in your location. Yet, many of the best hikes in the mountains, desert, and pristine backcountry areas that have no reliable cell support, and your smartphone's GPS sensors might not cut the mustard.
In contrast, handheld GPS units are burlier, have much better GPS satellite reception, more powerful navigation features, and better battery life than smartphones with GPS applications. You can also replace the batteries in the field.
Still, in situations where they do work, then smartphone apps like Gaia, Avenza, or Topo Maps are great and can quickly find your location on established trails before resuming map navigation. Smartphone GPS works best if you are in a region where cell signal is available and may be unreliable when you get backcountry. Don't forget to download maps before leaving cell or wifi signals behind.
What to Consider When Buying a Handheld GPS
Answering a few questions will rapidly narrow the GPS field, helping you find the right unit.
- How much are you willing to carry? — Do you want a compact version or will you haul extra weight for perks like a larger screen?
- How much are you willing to squint? — Back to that screen size issue, is a big screen the most important thing to you? If so, you might have to deal with carrying a larger unit.
- Buttons or touchscreen? --Touchscreens respond faster than button units. They also consume more battery life, can freeze up in cold conditions, and don't work well with thick gloves. Most touchscreen GPS units we tested are also years behind most smartphones. The Garmin Oregon 700 is the exception. Buttoned units work with thick gloves, their batteries last longer, and they are more reliable in extreme temperatures. But they're slower, and it takes longer to type in waypoints. It comes down to preference. Do you prefer a unit that feels modern and operates quickly? Or do you want reliability above all else?
After you figure that out, you can start thinking about all the bells and whistles. We call those features. The more you get, the more you pay. Here's a summary of the most important features:
Most modern GPS units are incredibly accurate, pinpointing the device's location to at least 10-meters. Units that use the Wide Area Augmentation System (WAAS) are accurate to 3-meters or less, according to Garmin. All the devices we tested use WAAS. To get even more accuracy, you can buy a differential beacon receiver and antenna to use a distance correcting Differential GPS (DGPS). Modern smartphones offer GPS accuracy of around 4.9 meters, according to GPS.gov.
Tall buildings, canyons, and trees interrupt satellite signals, slowing them down and making your device less accurate. Clouds and weather don't affect reception. It's best to carry your device outside your pack or in a light waterproof layer to give it the best access to satellites.
Maps — Should you Buy Preloaded?
GPS units come with a very rudimentary basic base map. You can see roads on them, and that's about it. As we mentioned above, you can buy a GPS unit preloaded with topo maps, or buy them separately after the fact. You can also download maps and satellite imagery for free and transfer them to your unit. The United States Geological Survey has a wealth of free spatial data. Most U.S. states also have a website that houses spatial data. If you want the best maps, often for free, spend some time tinkering with ree data. If you want fast and straightforward map access, you can get them for around a hundred bucks from your GPS manufacturer.
The U.S. National Agricultural Imagery Program (NAIP) shoots high quality, free satellite imagery (aerial photos stitched together) for the entire continental U.S. You can also buy satellite imagery. Often it's unnecessary because you can plan your routes in Google Earth and then send files to your mapping software and device. Satellite imagery is hard to see on most GPS units and is rarely necessary for the backcountry. Some units, like the GPSMAP 66st come with a free subscription to Garmin's database of Birdseye satellite imagery that can be downloaded on wifi.
Each GPS manufacture offers software designed to organize, analyze and project the waypoints and tracks you collect with your GPS. Garmin's Basecamp is our favorite. 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 we've tested supports.
How Many Waypoints Do You Need?
You don't need that many waypoints to get you through a trip, even a pretty long one. We've never needed more than 1,000, the minimum number on the units we tested, at one time. They're also easy to delete after you're done. If, however, you plan on holding on to waypoints from multiple trips, conducting involved science surveys, or embarking on a mapping mission — you might want to aim high. You can also get a microSD card to expand your GPS's memory.
Geocaching is a relatively new outdoor activity, essentially using a GPS unit or GPS software for a scavenger hunt of sorts, looking for hidden treasures all over the world. Most GPS units are set up for this in some way, but a phone app usually works pretty well too, as they're rarely far out in the wild. Some of the GPS units we tested have preloaded geocaches on there.
Electronic or Differential Compass
The cut-off point between basic units and more powerful ones is usually the electronic compass. It displays your heading while held in place. In contrast, you have to be moving for a differential compass to work. For some, this is a great advantage — say during a whiteout next to a cliff edge. Many mountain guides prefer an electronic compass because it makes navigating faster and easier. Does that mean everybody needs it? No.
Do You Need a Barometric Altimeter
A camera, microphone, and voice recorder are nice add-ons to fully document adventures or field data. You can use these media options to mark a waypoint instead of typing one. We loved this option when looking back at our adventures. Photos also help keep you on the trail when following a track. This is especially helpful for outdoor guides or scientific surveys. In general, it's a great way to keep photos or voice memos and waypoints in one place.
Share Wirelessly and Smart Notifications
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.
How Do GPS Units Work?
GPS units work by communicating with satellites orbiting the earth designed to read and triangulate signals sent from the unit. In the United States, the Department of Defense manages the GPS network, a series of 33 satellites orbiting the earth designed to transmit both positional and timing data. When a GPS unit contacts at least four satellites it is able to pinpoint your position with a decent degree of accuracy, although terrain and conditions can affect this. Some of the units we tested are also able to use other countries' satellites, including the 26 satellites of the Russian GLONASS system, and 26 more from the European Union's Galileo network. The most accurate unit we tested was the Garmin GPSMAP 66st, as that is the only unit that was able to access all three of those satellite networks, and was able to get within 10 feet of accuracy, although the Montana 680 was similarly accurate.
The units we tested employ two satellite networks. The USA manages the Global Positioning Satellite (GPS) network while Russia manages the Globalnaya Navigazionnaya Sputnikovaya Sistema (GLONASS) network. More recently, the European Union added its own Galileo network. The GPS network accesses 32 satellites while GLONASS and Galileo each contribute 26 additional satellites. All handhelds also use the WAAS (Wide Area Augmentation System) to increase accuracy. Satellites send signals to WAAS master stations on the ground. This message is then relayed to compatible receivers (like GPS units) to provide a much more accurate estimate of location. GPS units that use GLONASS, GPS, Galileo, and WAAS have the best reception.
Handheld GPS versus Other GPS Unit Types
We tested Handheld GPS Units. 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 popular for on-land navigating needs. Here are a few other types of GPS Units.
We've also included a Two-way Communication System entry, with the Garmin inReach Explorer+. These handheld GPS devices are compatible with two-way satellite communication systems for remote areas with no cell reception. They're handy for long excursions when you need an emergency contact device.
There are a variety of GPS watches and altimeters that can log backcountry travel information. These GPS Watches are popular among trail runners, mountain guides, hikers, and backpackers. They are a great alternative to handheld units if you're looking to go light, but have much shorter battery life and a small display.
GPS units are great when you need them, but they aren't cheap. A smartphone can get you by until you're heading out on a multi-day backcountry trip guided by a map and compass, scouting multiple complicated routes, or conducting long field surveys. If you get to that point, you might as well throw down. There's no substitute for a dedicated, accurate handheld GPS unit.
— Amber King, Ethan Newman, and Chris McNamara