Reviews You Can Rely On

Best Handheld GPS of 2024

We put a variety of handheld GPS units to head to head testing in order to find the best products
gearlab tested logo
Best Handheld GPS Review (The Oregon 700, eTrex 20x, eTrex Touch 35, and the GPSMAP 66st)
The Oregon 700, eTrex 20x, eTrex Touch 35, and the GPSMAP 66st
Credit: Ethan Newman

The Best Handheld GPSs for 2024

For the past 8 years, we've tested 25 of the top handheld GPS units side-by-side. Our review directly compares 4 of the best models available on the market today. An expert team of analysts has navigated through whiteouts, desert washes, fog-covered forests, and high mountain passes from Alaska to the Four Corners. Our intensive field testing pushes the limits of these units and helps highlight strengths and weaknesses relative to the competition. Our comprehensive review goes in-depth to cover the key features, capabilities, and limitations of each device. So next time you strike out on an adventure, you'll know you're on the right track with the best handheld GPS unit for your needs.

For more navigation help when heading out for a hike or backpacking, you might also like our reviews on the best GPS watches and best satellite messengers. We've also tested the top walkie talkies for communicating with your backcountry partner. Carrying devices like these can inspire confidence when you venture out of cell range, whether on skis or striding in a pair of top-rated hiking boots.

Editor's Note: We updated our handheld GPS review on May 28, 2024, removing some discontinued models and sharing some info on the latest version of Garmin's GPSMAP. We're currently testing an updated fleet of products and will update this review in the coming months with our findings.

Top 4 Handheld GPSs - Test Results

Displaying 1 - 4 of 4
< Previous | Compare | Next >
Awards Editors' Choice Award  Best Buy Award  
Price $499.99 at Backcountry
Compare at 3 sellers
$600 List$280.00 at REI
Compare at 2 sellers
$110 List
Overall Score Sort Icon
Star Rating
  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5
  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5
  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5
  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5
Pros Excellent reception, large buttons, big screen, smart notifications and connectivityHuge touchscreen, fast processing speed, shock and water resistantReasonably priced, includes barometric altimeter and electronic compass, small and lightweight, long battery lifeLow-cost, miniature-sized, reliable durability, accurate
Cons Expensive, bulky, complicated connectivity between devicesBig and heavy, expensive, less practical as a handheld unitSmall screen, lack of connectivity, tedious user interfaceNearly non-existent basemap, lack of mapping capability, insufficient internal memory
Bottom Line Our favorite model, this reliable and accurate GPS unit is full of featuresAn extremely capable handheld unit, with a size and design better suited to mounting on an ATV or touring motorcycleThe addition of an altimeter and electronic compass make this lightweight unit one of the most cost-effective options on the marketPerfect for geocaching or tracking your next adventure, but not designed with mapping in mind
Rating Categories Garmin GPSMAP 66st Garmin Montana 700 Garmin eTrex 32x Garmin eTrex 10
Reception (20%)
Ease of Use (20%)
Display Quality (20%)
Speed (15%)
Weight and Size (15%)
Versatility (10%)
Specs Garmin GPSMAP 66st Garmin Montana 700 Garmin eTrex 32x Garmin eTrex 10
Battery Life GPS Mode: 16 hours
Expedition Mode: 170 hours
GPS Mode: 18
Expedition Mode: 330
25 hours 25 hours
Water Resistant Yes, IPX7 Yes, IPX7 Yes, IPX7 Yes, IPX7
No. of Waypoints 10,000 10,000 2,000 1,000
Saved Tracks / Points per Track 250 / 20,000 250 / 20,000 200 / 10,000 100 / 10,000
Preloaded Maps Topo 100k, US and Canada US Federal Public Lands;
Garmin TopoActive (regional)
Garmin TopoActive;
Routable (OpenStreetMap)
Simple Basemap
Dimensions (in.) 2.5 x 6.4 x 1.4 3.4 x 7.2 x 1.3 2.1 x 4.0 x 1.3 2.1 x 4.0 x 1.3
Weight w/ Batteries (oz.) 7.5 14 5 4.6
Display Size (in.) 1.5 x 2.5 4.25 x 2.55 1.4 x 1.7 1.4 x 1.7
Display Resolution (pixels) 240 x 400 480 x 800 240 x 320 128 x 160
Built-in Memory 16 GB 16 GB 8 GB 6 MB
Accepts Data Cards microSD microSD microSD No
Touchsceen or Buttons Buttons Touchscreen Buttons Buttons
Electronic or Differential Compass Electronic Electronic Electronic Differential
Barometric Altimeter Yes Yes Yes No
Wireless Communication Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, ANT+ Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, ANT+ ANT+ No
Ability to Add Maps Yes Yes Yes Yes
Support Satellite Imagery Yes Yes Yes No
Automatic Routing Yes Yes Yes No
Vertical Profiling Yes Yes Yes Yes
Camera/Video No No No No
Picture Viewer Yes Yes Yes No
Geocaching (paperless) Yes Yes Yes Yes
Hunt/Fish Calendar Yes Yes Yes Yes
Sun and Moon Information Yes Yes Yes Yes
Area Calculator Yes Yes Yes Yes
Battery Information 2 AA Batteries Rechargeable lithium ion battery pack 2 AA Batteries 2 AA Batteries
Online Connect Communities Garmin Connect Garmin Connect;
Connect IQ
No No
Screen Info Transflective color TFT WVGA transflective, dual orientation Transflective, 65K color TFT Transflective, monochrome
Interface Information High-speed micro USB; NMEA 0183 High-speed micro USB; NMEA 0183 mini USB mini USB
What Comes in the Box -BirdsEye Satellite Imagery subscription included
  • USB cable
  • Carabiner clip
  • Documentation
-BirdsEye Satellite Imagery subscription included
  • USB cable
  • Lithium-ion battery pack
  • Documentation
-USB cable
  • Documentation
-USB cable
  • Documentation

Best Overall Handheld GPS

Garmin GPSMAP 66st

  • Reception 8.0
  • Ease of Use 7.0
  • Display Quality 9.0
  • Speed 9.0
  • Weight and Size 8.0
  • Versatility 8.0
Display Size: 1.5" x 2.5" | Touchscreen: No
Fantastic reception in thick coverage
Wireless notifications and data sharing
Includes topo maps and Bird's Eye Imagery (without a subscription)
Bulkier and heavier than most
Advanced features hide behind complex menus
Garmin's current version is the GPSMAP 67, which uses a lithium battery instead of the two AA batteries. We're linking to the updated version and currently testing it for our upcoming review update.
The Garmin GPSMAP 66st is at the top of its class in terms of accuracy and reliability, earning it our top honors. It boasts a powerful quad-helix antenna and reliably connects to more satellite networks with greater accuracy than most other models. Even in less-than-ideal locations, like under thick tree cover or in a tight slot canyon, the GPSMAP 66st can maintain a satellite connection. When in the range of cell service, this unit can pair with your smartphone to overlay real-time weather data on your maps. Its 16GB of internal memory is more than double most other units and comes preloaded with topo maps for the US and Canada and subscription-free access to Garmin's Bird's Eye Imagery.

All of these attributes will cost you a good chunk of change. Yet, the Garmin GPSMAP 66st is worth every penny for those who plan on embarking on expeditionary trips or need high accuracy for field research. As for casual recreation, this device might be overkill. Additional features, such as wirelessly linking to your phone, require a cumbersome setup process. Although it lacks a built-in touchscreen, we appreciate the sizable buttons and intuitive layout. The Garmin GPSMAP 66st is undoubtedly a powerful device, yet it's also easy to use, even in the most extreme field conditions.

Read more: Garmin GPSMAP 66st review

handheld gps - this unit is about the size of a smartphone, but a bit thicker.
This unit is about the size of a smartphone, but a bit thicker.
Credit: Ethan Newman

Best Bang for Your Buck

Garmin eTrex 32x

  • Reception 6.0
  • Ease of Use 7.0
  • Display Quality 7.0
  • Speed 7.0
  • Weight and Size 10.0
  • Versatility 7.0
Display Size: 1.4" x 1.7" | Touchscreen: No
Reasonably priced
Includes a barometric altimeter and electronic compass
Compact and lightweight
Small screen
Lack of connectivity
Tedious user interface

If you're in the market for a straightforward GPS unit that sacrifices little when it comes to pure navigation performance, the Garmin eTrex 32x is a prime choice. It performs well beyond its weight class when compared directly with more advanced models. An excellent value that does not skimp in reception and processing speed, this device comes preloaded with Garmin's TopoActive basemap, which offers adequate data for those who don't want to mess with the process of searching for and uploading individual maps. The available accuracy linking GPS and GLONASS networks is improved by adding a barometric altimeter and a 3-axis digital compass — two sensors often only reserved for much more expensive GPS units. Yet, this enhanced capability somehow doesn't affect its size and weight. Just as small and lightweight as other units in the eTrex line, this compact GPS can easily be stowed away in a pack or tossed into a pocket for a day hike.

Although it's certainly impressive, eTrex 32x has some limitations. Despite its routable navigation ability, the fairly tiny screen is not reasonable for navigating around a new city via car or even daily driving. It is also still very much a base-level GPS unit — although it supports Garmin's BirdsEye Satellite Imagery, it doesn't offer the same level of connectivity as more advanced models. Likewise, many used to modern user interfaces will find the joystick and T9-style keyboards cumbersome or tedious compared to the normalized convenience of a touchscreen. But as a plug-and-play option for simple navigation or a durable, compact, and capable GPS for expeditions, the eTrex 32x presents an affordable option with more advanced capabilities.

Read more: Garmin eTrex 32x review

handheld gps - compact, lightweight, and accurate, the etrex 32x is the ideal...
Compact, lightweight, and accurate, the eTrex 32x is the ideal companion for extended backcountry trips.
Credit: Jill Rice

Compare Products

select up to 5 products to compare
Score Product Price
Garmin GPSMAP 66st
Best Overall Handheld GPS
Editors' Choice Award
Garmin Montana 700
Garmin eTrex 32x
Best Bang for Your Buck
Best Buy Award
Garmin eTrex 10

handheld gps - one of our testers was surprised how ubiquitous satellite reception...
One of our testers was surprised how ubiquitous satellite reception is these days, even in Alaska. All of the Garmin units we tested have very strong and consistent reception.
Credit: Jared Vilhauer

Why Trust GearLab

To test these devices, we assembled an all-star crew of outdoor adventurers. Our head testers include Chris McNamara, the founder of OutdoorGearLab, who at one point was calculated to have spent 3% of his life on El Capitan in Yosemite; Amber King, who when she's not teaching science to her students, can be found covering long distances running, biking, or rafting in Colorado; Ethan Newman, who is a climbing and canyoneering guide in Southwest Utah; and Aaron Rice, a ski patroller, avalanche instructor, and wilderness guide in New Mexico.

These lead testers — plus scores of friends and partners — took to testing these GPS units in real-world situations. From mountaineering in Alaska to ski touring in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado to winding through the canyon country of the Southwest, our testers used these GPS units in whiteouts, in slot canyons, and while temporarily stranded by flash floods to bring you insight into each device, pulled from real adventure epics. Our rigorous assessment combined time in the field with objective testing, where we evaluated everything from reception accuracy to memory capability to size and weight. We compiled research, closely examined features and ease of use, and noted when some devices shone and others failed. We utilized the expertise of our science-minded, adventure-obsessed testing crew to provide the most accurate, objective reviews available on the internet.

Our testers took these units out daily to compare all the metrics in...
Our testers took these units out daily to compare all the metrics in this review, regardless of conditions.
Portable, durable. The eTrex line offers quality performance at a...
Portable, durable. The eTrex line offers quality performance at a much more affordable price.
Want to get back to your car way down there, but not sure which...
Want to get back to your car way down there, but not sure which direction you need to go? A GPS can help with that!

Analysis and Test Results

We tested these handheld GPS devices over the years — hiking, skiing, mountaineering, canyoneering, kayaking, mountain biking, mapping plant populations, and more. We have marked and navigated to waypoints, compared map drawing speed, and tested the compasses of each unit against a trusty old, magnetic standby. We logged hundreds of miles on foot in Colorado, Washington, Utah, New Mexico, and Alaska. More than a dozen people — who range from GPS experts to complete novices — used these units to provide diverse feedback and bring you a review of some of the best handheld GPS units on the market.

We rated our selection of handheld GPS units on six scoring metrics: reception, ease of use, display quality, speed, weight and size, and versatility. It is important to note that these are some of the best and most popular options available on the market; while scores may vary, the numbers are based on how well each device compared to the competition. Some of these qualities are undeniably more important than others, namely reception and ease of use. Without the accuracy of a satellite and the efficiency of a GPS, you might as well be using a map and compass.

handheld gps - depending on how and when you plan on using your gps, a simple user...
Depending on how and when you plan on using your GPS, a simple user interface like the eTrex 32x may actually be preferable to a touchscreen unit like the Oregon 750t (right, now discontinued).
Credit: Jill Rice


GPS stands for Global Positioning System. Often it's used to refer to devices — in this case, handheld — that can track and store timing and positional data. Though it may seem counterintuitive, they're often intended to be used with a traditional map and compass. They are designed to resist water, shock, thermal stress, and any other harsh conditions you'd typically run into out in the wilderness. High-performing devices come with extras like cameras, topo maps, better antennas, more memory, altimeters, or internal electronic compasses. Baseline models are lighter and simpler and can often boast 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. It is important to consider your specific needs before purchasing, as these units often carry a hefty price tag.

The price of a handheld GPS tends to be tied directly to its performance, features, and amount of memory storage. The Garmin GPSMAP 66st has every feature you may ever need — with more memory than you possibly could ever need — but it's near the top of the price spectrum. Alternatively, our most price-point model, the Garmin eTrex 10, carries only the bare essentials for tracking.

No GPS unit can substitute for basic orienteering skills, situational awareness, and common sense. They tell you where you are and where you've gone. In the unlikely event that you need to call for help, a top-rated satellite messenger is what you want.

Alternatively, most people have smartphones with GPS capabilities and inexpensive apps that offer topo maps and tracking functions. Although this combination isn't as accurate as a real GPS unit, they are good enough for many folks.

handheld gps - for navigating rough canyon country, a gps might afford better...
For navigating rough canyon country, a GPS might afford better tracking capability than a smartphone GPS that could easily lose service, if it even has it in the first place.
Credit: Jill Rice

So, who needs a handheld 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. Adventurers of this breed will benefit the most from a GPS, which can pinpoint their exact location and allow 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) or when hiking on a dark, cloudy, or moonless night. It's also good when traveling over snow-covered terrain when the ordinary trail is 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).

handheld gps - a lot of our current testing took place in the san juan mountains of...
A lot 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.
Credit: Dan Zokaties

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 serve as a fail-safe backup to any electronic device.

What about the GPS on my smartphone?
The reception of your smartphone 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 are in the mountains, deserts, or pristine backcountry areas with no reliable cell support, so your smartphone's GPS sensors might not cut the mustard.

handheld gps - make sure you can make it back to that perfect alpine lake the next...
Make sure you can make it back to that perfect alpine lake the next time. The ability to accurately mark waypoints is a huge plus for GPS units when your adventures take you beyond cell-service.
Credit: Jill Rice

Still, in situations where they do work, smartphone apps like Gaia, Avenza, or Topo Maps are great and can quickly identify your location on established trails before resuming map navigation. Smartphone GPS works best in a region where a cell signal is available, but it may become unreliable when you enter the backcountry. Don't forget to download maps before leaving cell or WiFi signals behind. A touchscreen model with automatic routing — like the Garmin Montana 700 — is a great option that can double as a driving GPS and for off-road travel.

Related: How to Load a GPS File on Your Phone in GPX Format

handheld gps - don&#039;t worry if you aren&#039;t interested in uploading maps to your new...
Don't worry if you aren't interested in uploading maps to your new GPS; many of Garmin's units come preloaded with adequate basemaps for your region, and more advanced units like the Montana 700 even include overlays to enhance navigation.
Credit: Jill Rice

In contrast to smartphones, handheld GPS units are burlier, with much better GPS satellite reception, more powerful navigation features, and supply better battery life in cold climates. A few questions will help narrow your search for the perfect handheld. After you figure that out, you can start thinking about all the bells and whistles — i.e., features.

handheld gps - out hunting springtime snow? for rugged missions like ski touring...
Out hunting springtime snow? For rugged missions like ski touring and mountaineering, a durable, highly water-resistant portable GPS may be preferable to a smartphone.
Credit: Aaron Rice


Most modern GPS units are incredibly accurate and can pinpoint the device's location to a resolution of 10 meters. According to Garmin, units that use the Wide Area Augmentation System (WAAS) can be accurate to 3 meters or less. All the devices we tested use WAAS. To get even more accuracy, you can buy a differential beacon receiver and antenna to utilize a distance correcting Differential GPS (DGPS). Modern smartphones, in contrast, offer GPS accuracy of around 4.9 meters, according to

Tall buildings, canyons, and trees can interrupt satellite signals, slowing them down and reducing your device's accuracy. Clouds and weather, however, shouldn't affect reception. To get the best signal with the satellites, carrying your device outside your pack or in a light waterproof layer is best.

handheld gps - you&#039;re unlikely to be able to download a new map here. gotta plan...
You're unlikely to be able to download a new map here. Gotta plan ahead.
Credit: Jared Vilhauer

We found that the highest performing — but unfortunately, also often the most expensive — models tend to achieve the best satellite reception. Units like the GPSMAP 66st include quad-helix antennae, which are quite sensitive even in dense cover. Electronic compasses — as opposed to a mechanical, differential compass — also improve accuracy when on the move and are included in expensive units like the Montana 700, but surprisingly in more affordable units like the eTrex 32x. Even without these additions, however, all of the Garmin units we tested provided quality reception. All of the units we tested carry receivers that accept both GPS and GLONASS satellites, so even price-point models — like the eTrex 10 — offer nearly top-notch reception in almost every situation.

handheld gps - almost every gps unit we tested is able to gain a quality satellite...
Almost every GPS unit we tested is able to gain a quality satellite signal, even under a dense forest canopy.
Credit: Jill Rice

Ease of Use

GPS units usually come with a rudimentary basic base map that distinguishes roads but not much else. As we mentioned above, you can buy a GPS unit preloaded with topo maps or buy them separately after the fact. You can also free download maps and satellite imagery and transfer them to your unit. The United States Geological Survey offers a wealth of free spatial data. Most states in the US also have a website that distributes spatial data. If you want the best maps, often for free, spend some time tinkering with this data. If you want more convenient, straightforward map access, you can get them for around a hundred bucks from your GPS manufacturer.

The US National Agricultural Imagery Program (NAIP) shoots high-quality, free satellite imagery (aerial photos stitched together) for the entire continental United States. You can also buy satellite imagery. Often this is 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. Like the GPSMAP 66st, some units come with a free subscription to Garmin's database of Birdseye satellite imagery that can be downloaded on WiFi.

handheld gps - garmin&#039;s basecamp is the best free software that comes with a gps...
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.
Credit: Max Neale

Each GPS manufacturer offers software designed to organize, analyze, and display 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 see waypoints or tracks on Google Earth. It is also an essential feature on really basic models like the eTrex 10, which due to its lack of mapping capability, would otherwise be rendered useless.

handheld gps - stuck in a whiteout and not sure where to go? navigate back to way...
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

Display Quality

Do you want a compact version like an eTrex 32x, or are you willing to haul extra weight — like the Montana 700 — for perks like a larger screen? Is a big GPS screen more important because you would like to quickly see information at a glance while driving? Or are you willing to squint for a more portable unit? Since all of the units in this review are handheld, none are huge — but there is a difference in screen size and display quality between them.

The Montana 700, with a 5-inch diagonal screen, offers the largest screen and the highest quality resolution. Its smartphone-like touchscreen makes navigation easy, particularly in a car. The GPSMAP 66st has a 3.75 square-inch screen — nearly half the size — but more than adequate for a handheld unit. However, it is controlled by buttons instead of a touchscreen.

handheld gps - this unit offers a powerful color screen, that is easily readable...
This unit offers a powerful color screen, that is easily readable even in the brightest sunlight of the desert southwest.
Credit: Jill Rice

So then, buttons or touchscreen? Touchscreens have a quicker response time than button units. However, they eat up battery life faster, can potentially freeze in cold climates, and aren't the most compatible with thick gloves. We also found that most touchscreen GPS devices we tested weren't as advanced as smartphones. Button devices work with thick gloves, have better battery life, and are more reliable in extreme temperatures. The downside is they operate slower, and typing waypoints is more time-consuming. What it comes down to is your personal preference. Do you prefer a more modern unit that operates quickly? Or do you value reliability above all else?

handheld gps - small, portable, and plenty capable as a back-up just in case you...
Small, portable, and plenty capable as a back-up just in case you get lost, the eTrex 10 is perfect for alpine climbing.
Credit: Aaron Rice


GPS units communicate with satellites orbiting the earth designed to read and triangulate signals sent from the unit. The Department of Defense manages the GPS network in the United States, a series of 33 satellites that transmit both positional and timing data. When a GPS unit contacts at least four satellites, it can pinpoint your position accurately, although terrain and conditions can affect this. Some of the units we tested can also interface with other countries' satellites, including the 26 satellites of the Russian GLONASS system or 26 more from the European Union's Galileo network. The more satellites, the faster and more accurately you can identify your position.

handheld gps - navigating narrow slot canyons really tested the capability of even...
Navigating narrow slot canyons really tested the capability of even our highest performing GPS units.
Credit: Jill Rice

All handhelds use the WAAS (Wide Area Augmentation System) to increase accuracy. Satellites send signals to WAAS master stations on the ground. This message is relayed to compatible receivers (like GPS units) to provide a much more accurate location estimate. GPS units that use GLONASS, GPS, Galileo, and WAAS will offer the best reception.

handheld gps - about the only place we completely lost reception was when we...
About the only place we completely lost reception was when we experimented to see if it was possible to navigate via GPS underground. Here we are at the mouth of a local cave system.
Credit: Aaron Rice

The fastest and most accurate unit we tested was the Garmin GPSMAP 66st, as that is the only unit that could access all three of those satellite networks and improve its signal with WAAS. However, many of the other units we tested achieved accuracy within 10 feet very quickly. Although the Montana 700 was nearly as speedy as the 66st, even basic units like the eTrex 32x impressed us with how quickly they could lock onto a signal after powering on.

handheld gps - here we see a comparison of tracks while driving. light blue =...
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.
Credit: Amber King

Weight and Size

We tested handheld GPS units. These units are capable of marking waypoints, tracking your route, making notes, geocaching, pulling altitude profiles, and much more. They are also small enough to wear around your neck or stash in your backpack. But the more features you add to a portable GPS unit, the larger and heavier they become. Handheld devices are popular for backcountry navigation, particularly because they are so portable.

handheld gps - even the montana 700, which is the bulkiest and heaviest unit in...
Even the Montana 700, which is the bulkiest and heaviest unit in this review, is really not much larger than your average smartphone.
Credit: Jill Rice

However, not all units are created equally regarding portability, so it is important to consider whether you'll carry your GPS in your pocket or plan to stash it in a backpack. The Montana 700 is by far the largest and heaviest unit in our review but still weighs just 14 ounces and is only slightly bulkier than a modern smartphone. The eTrex line falls at the other end of the spectrum — both the eTrex 10 and more capable eTrex 32x are small enough to fit into a pant's pocket.

handheld gps - all portable gps units are small enough to comfortably carry, making...
All portable GPS units are small enough to comfortably carry, making trail navigation that much easier.
Credit: Jill Rice

Just as a point of comparison, there are also a variety of GPS Watches that can log backcountry travel information. These 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 a much shorter battery life and a significantly smaller display. They may not offer the same capabilities as the handheld units featured here.


Most units we reviewed are astonishingly versatile; sporting functions well outside navigation, ranging from flashlight to calculator to texting. We won't dive too deeply into every function of each model we tested but rather will discuss a few important ones.


You don't need that many waypoints to get you through a trip, even a pretty long one. Even 500 waypoints is likely more than most people would need at one time. They're also very easy to save on a computer and then delete after you're back home. If you plan on holding on to waypoints from multiple trips, conducting detailed science surveys, or embarking on a mapping mission, aim high. For many of these units, you can also boost your memory with a microSD card; only the eTrex 10 doesn't support extra external memory.

handheld gps - it was less than ideal being unable to load even a single topo quad...
It was less than ideal being unable to load even a single topo quad onto the memory-limited eTrex 10.
Credit: Aaron Rice


Geocaching is a relatively new outdoor activity, essentially using a GPS unit or GPS software for a scavenger hunt, looking for hidden treasures all over the world. Most GPS units are set up for this somehow, and some of the ones we tested have preloaded geocaches so you can unpack and play. A huge draw for the geocaching crowd is that a modern GPS unit — with text display — allows them to go paperless. For easy entry to this worldwide phenomenon, the Garmin eTrex 10, thanks to its accuracy balanced with affordability.

handheld gps - however, we loved the simple etrex 10 when it came to paperless...
However, we loved the simple eTrex 10 when it came to paperless geocaching -- since its basically wandering, it's a fun activity for any GPS enthusiast!
Credit: Aaron Rice

Electronic vs. Differential Compass

The cut-off point between basic units and more sophisticated ones is usually an electronic compass. This allows a unit to display your heading while held in place. In contrast, you have to be moving for a differential compass to work properly. 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. Only the eTrex 10 doesn't offer an electronic compass.

handheld gps - the electronic compass is quick to respond and doesn&#039;t require you...
The electronic compass is quick to respond and doesn't require you to move to find direction.
Credit: Dan Zokaites

Barometric Altimeter

Another feature that separates high-performing devices from base models is a barometric altimeter, which uses a small sensor to detect air pressure and calculate altitude instead of relying on positional data alone. Barometric altimeters also allow you to track weather patterns and trends, which can be useful in the mountains when knowledge of a coming storm is crucial. Only the baseline-level eTrex 10 doesn't come with a barometric altimeter.

handheld gps - the etrex 32x is the only price-point model that also includes a...
The eTrex 32x is the only price-point model that also includes a barometric altimeter, which comes in handy when accurately assessing large changes in topography.
Credit: Jill Rice


A camera, microphone, and voice recorder can be nice add-ons to document adventures or field data fully. You can use these media options to mark a waypoint instead of typing one. We loved this option when looking back at our past adventures. Photos also help keep you on the trail when following a track. This is especially helpful for outdoor guides or scientific surveys.

Wireless Capability and Smart Notifications

High-performing GPS devices are able to share wirelessly — these devices come equipped with Bluetooth technology. A compatible receiver can quickly send track and waypoint files to another device wire-free. One of our main testers mentioned that this is especially helpful if you have another group about to embark on the same route you just finished. You can sync up devices and share your route in a few minutes. We recommend this for users intending to share track information with others. Bluetooth communication has become commonplace, so only the eTrex models do not have this capability.

handheld gps - wondering what&#039;s happening with the weather way over there? the...
Wondering what's happening with the weather way over there? The GPSMAP 66st can send you notifications straight to your phone, so you won't have to pull it out of your pack each time you're wondering what's behind those building clouds.
Credit: Jill Rice

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. High-end units like the GPSMAP 66st sport this high level of technicality, but it does take some time and know-how to set up. This may be an option if you don't want to take your phone out of the backpack while staying connected.

handheld gps - already juggling lots of receivers? with wireless capability, you...
Already juggling lots of receivers? With wireless capability, you can leave your GPS stashed in your pack, well away from your avy beacon... which hopefully is well away from your cell phone.
Credit: Jenna Ammerman


GPS units are great when you need them, but they don't come 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 invest because there's no substitute for a dedicated, accurate handheld GPS unit.

Amber King, Ethan Newman, Chris McNamara, Clark Tate, Jediah Porter, & Aaron Rice