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Best Handheld GPS of 2021

Taking a picture is a snap with a camera button on the left side of th...
Photo: Jared Vilhauer
Wednesday May 19, 2021
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For the past eight years, we've bought 25 of the top handheld GPS units to test side-by-side. Our comparison review covers six of the best available on the market today. Our team of backcountry travel experts has navigated through whiteouts, desert washes, and fog-covered forests from Alaska to the desert Southwest to push the limits of each of these units. Our comprehensive reviews go in-depth to cover key features, capabilities, and limitations. 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.

Top 6 Product Ratings

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Awards Editors' Choice Award    Best Buy Award 
Price $450 List
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$549.99 at Amazon$92.60 at Amazon
Overall Score Sort Icon
82
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70
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Pros Excellent reception, large buttons, big screen, smart notifications and connectivitySmartphone-like touch screen, solid reception, activity specific profiles, wireless messaging and communication, tons of waypoint storageEasy and affordable two-way messaging, great smartphone app, feature loaded, proven global networkImpeccable reception, large display, 8 MP camera, compatible with several mounts, dual orientation, wireless communication, electronic compassLow-cost, miniature-sized, reliable durability, accurate
Cons Expensive, bulky, complicated connectivity between devicesMore waypoint storage and features than most need, battery hungry, hard to use with glove, can freeze up in coldExpensive initial purchase, largest and heaviest messengerLarge, heavy, expensiveNearly non-existent basemap, lack of mapping capability, insufficient internal memory
Bottom Line Our favorite model, this reliable and accurate GPS unit is full of featuresStraightforward function meets glitzy features in a unit that's great for a range of activity in reasonable weather conditionsFully featured and arguably more reliable even than commonly available satellite phonesA large screen and excellent reception make up for this unit's bulk if you have trouble viewing normal units or use satellite imageryPerfect for geocaching or tracking your next adventure, but not designed with mapping in mind
Rating Categories Garmin GPSMAP 66st Garmin Oregon 700 Garmin inReach Explorer+ Garmin Montana 680 Garmin eTrex 10
Reception (20%)
8
7
8
9
6
Ease Of Use (20%)
7
8
7
8
6
Display Quality (20%)
9
9
6
7
8
Speed (15%)
9
8
8
9
7
Weight And Size (15%)
8
8
8
4
10
Versatility (10%)
8
7
9
7
4
Specs Garmin GPSMAP 66st Garmin Oregon 700 Garmin inReach... Garmin Montana 680 Garmin eTrex 10
Battery Life (hours) 16 16 75 22 25
No. of Waypoints 10,000 10,000 500 4,000 1,000
Saved Tracks / Points per Track 250 / 20,000 250 / 20,000 20 / 500 200 / 10,000 100 / 10,000
Preloaded Maps US and Canada Simple Basemap 1:25k U.S. and Canada Simple Basemap Simple Basemap
Dimensions (in.) 2.5" x 6.4" x 1.4" 2.4" x 4.5" x 1.3" 2.7" x 6.5" x 1.5" 2.9" x 5.7" x 1.4" 2.1" x 4.0" x 1.3"
Weight w/ Batteries (oz.) 7.5 oz 7.4 oz 7.5 oz 10.3 oz 4.6 oz
Display Size (in.) 1.5" x 2.5" 1.5" x 2.5" 1.4" x 1.9" 2.0" x 3.5" 1.4" x 1.7"
Display Resolution (pixels) 240 x 400 240 x 400 200 x 265 272 x 480 128 x 160
Built-in Memory 16 GB 1.7 GB 2 GB 4 GB 6 MB
Accepts Data Cards MicroSD MicroSD No MicroSD No
Touchsceen or Buttons Buttons Touchscreen (dual orientation) Buttons Touchscreen (dual orientation) Buttons
Electronic or Differential Compass Electronic Electronic Electronic Electronic Differential
Barometric Altimeter Yes Yes Yes Yes No
Wireless Communication Yes Yes Yes Yes No
Satellite Systems Used (GPS, GLONASS) Wide Augmentation System Present (WAAS) All All All All All
Ability to add maps Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
Automatic Routing Yes Yes Yes Yes No
Vertical Profiling Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
Camera/Video No No No Camera - 8 MP No
Photo Viewer Yes Yes No Yes No
Geocaching (paperless) Yes Yes No Yes Yes
Hunt/Fish Calendar Yes Yes No Yes Yes
Sun and Moon Information Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
Area Calculator Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
Battery Information 2 AA Batteries 2 AA Batteries / Rechargeable NiMH pack optional Rechargeable lithium ion 3 AA Batteries / Rechargeable NiMH pack 2 AA Batteries
Online Connect Communities Garmin Connect Garmin Connect Garmin Earthmate Garmin Connect No
Screen Info Transflective color TFT Transflective color TFT touchscreen Transflective, color TFT Transflective 65k color TFT Transflective, monochrome
Interface Information high-speed USB and NMEA 0183 High-speed USB, NMEA 0183 compatible USB High-speed USB, NMEA 0183 compatible USB
What Comes in the Box -USB cable
  • Documentation
  • Bird's eye sattelite imagery
  • Carabiner clip
-USB cable -Carabiner clip -Documentation -Preloaded with TOPO
  • USB cable
  • Carabiner clip
  • Documentation
-1 year BirdsEye Satellite Imagery subscription
  • USB cable
  • AC charger
  • Battery pack
  • Multiple socket adaptors
-USB cable
  • Documentation


Best Overall Handheld GPS


Garmin GPSMAP 66st


82
OVERALL
SCORE
  • Reception - 20% 8
  • Ease of Use - 20% 7
  • Display Quality - 20% 9
  • Speed - 15% 9
  • Weight and Size - 15% 8
  • Versatility - 10% 8
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)
Expensive
Bulkier and heavier than most
Advanced features hide behind complex menus

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 is able to 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, as well as subscription-free access to Garmin's Bird's Eye Imagery.

As might be expected, all of this capability carries a hefty price tag. If you plan on a lot of expeditionary travel or need a highly accurate, handheld GPS for field research, the capabilities of the 66st are more than worth the investment. But for many who use a GPS unit for more casual recreation, this model will likely be overkill. Even additional features, like wirelessly linking to your phone, require a cumbersome setup process. Although this unit doesn't feature a touchscreen, we really appreciate the large buttons and their intuitive layout. The Garmin GPSMAP 66st is certainly a powerful unit, but one that is even to use, even in the most extreme field conditions.

Read review: Garmin GPSMAP 66st

Best Bang for Your Buck


Garmin eTrex 10


70
OVERALL
SCORE
  • Reception - 20% 6
  • Ease of Use - 20% 6
  • Display Quality - 20% 8
  • Speed - 15% 7
  • Weight and Size - 15% 10
  • Versatility - 10% 4
Display Size: 1.4 x 1.7 in | Touchscreen: No
Inexpensive
Durable and lightweight
Speedy and accurate
Lack of base map
Very little memory
Limited capability

For the geocache crowd looking for an inexpensive means of going paperless, the Garmin eTrex 10 is the perfect eco-friendly, entry-level option — and a great choice because of its excellent value. This compact, lightweight device can be easily stashed away in a pack or tossed into a pocket to carry along on your next adventure. Although it does represent the absolute baseline for Garmin handhelds, it still offers the speed and accuracy of more expensive models. We particularly appreciated its ability to link to both GPS and GLONASS networks, providing us with solid reception, even inside deep slot canyons. While it is great for easily following a track and marking waypoints, that's about where the functionality ends for this super simple GPS.

Even Garmin considers the eTrex 10 to be a "non-mapping GPS unit." Except for major cities and borders, the preloaded basemap is essentially blank. With very limited internal memory and no external microSD slot, it's not possible to upload even a single quad topo map to this device. However, it does have enough memory to accept full geocache files, including coordinates, descriptions, and hints. A great plug-and-play option, the eTrex 10 is an affordable means of dipping your toes into the world of GPS navigation.

Read review: Garmin eTrex 10

Best for Messaging and Navigation


Garmin inReach Explorer+


Display Size: 1.4 x 1.7 in | Touchscreen: No
Excellent reception
A PLB with messaging capability
Long battery life
Limited navigation interface and features
Expensive
Messaging requires a service plan

The Garmin inReach Explorer+ is a standout, multifunctional device that keeps you reliably connected, even deep into the backcountry. With GPS navigation, SOS features, and satellite text messaging, the inReach Explorer+ is a standout as a highly capable device. We used it for a wide range of trips, from alpine climbing in Alaska to trekking in the Patagonian backcountry. Although it is primarily a messaging and SOS device, you can also use the inReach Explorer+ as a handheld GPS. It makes it easy to share your tracks and location via text messaging and social media. In addition to downloadable maps, the ability to preload 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. Still, it 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 okay relying on a single device and willing to carry a backup power source, 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 more compact inReach Mini as a personal locator and messager if you also have another means of navigating.)

Read review: Garmin inReach Explorer+

Compare Products

select up to 5 products to compare
Score Product Price Our Take
82
$450
Editors' Choice Award
This model is a top-of-the-line GPS unit for a wide variety of conditions
79
$400
A smartphone-like touchscreen makes navigating the backcountry straightforward, unless you need to wear gloves
75
$450
An excellent device with only one weakness - portability
75
$550
A great unit if you like larger text and don't mind carrying a bit more
70
$110
Best Buy Award
A solid entry-level unit for the geocaching crowd, or as an emergency backup
68
$300
The Garmin eTrex Touch 35 is a nice balance between features and minimal weight

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.
Photo: Jared Vilhauer

Why You Should Trust Us


To test these devices, we put together 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 students as a science teacher, 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, field researcher, 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 process 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 shine and when others completely failed. We utilized the expertise of our science-minded, adventure-obsessed testing crew so that we can provide the most accurate, objective reviews available on the internet.

Related: How We Tested Handheld GPSs

Click to enlarge
Click to enlarge
Click to enlarge

Analysis and Test Results


We tested these handheld GPS devices over the course of 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.

Related: Buying Advice for Handheld GPSs

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 units come in a variety of shapes and sizes, and each...
Handheld GPS units come in a variety of shapes and sizes, and each have their particular strengths and faults, depending on the situation.
Photo: Dan Zokaties

Value


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. While this is a major misconception, they're often intended to be used in conjunction with a traditional 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 and better antennas, more memory, altimeters, or internal electronic compasses. More baseline models tend to be 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 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 in this review that functions as both a GPS and a PLB is the inReach Explorer+.

Alternatively, most people these days 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 deal GPS unit, they are good enough for many folks.

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.
Photo: 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), hiking on a dark cloudy or moonless night, or 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).

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.
Photo: 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.

The Gaia base map is more compelling than that of the Oregon 700...
The Gaia base map is more compelling than that of the Oregon 700. You can get better base maps for the GPS, though. Even with the life proof case, we'd rather drop the GPS unit. It can also hold a charge for 16 hours at a time and get new AAs in the field.
Photo: Jenna Ammerman

What about the GPS on my smartphone?
The reception of your smartphone simply 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 where there is no reliable cell support, and so your smartphone's GPS sensors might not cut the mustard.

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.
Photo: 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 if you are in a region where cell signal is available, but it may become unreliable when you get into the backcountry. Just don't forget to download maps before leaving cell or WiFi signals behind. A touchscreen model with automatic routing — like the Garmin Montana 680 — is a great option that can double as both a driving GPS and for off-road travel.

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

Forgot to download maps before heading out? Many of our top models...
Forgot to download maps before heading out? Many of our top models, including the Garmin GPSMAP 66st, come preloaded with topo maps of the US and Canada.
Photo: 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.

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.
Photo: Aaron Rice

Reception


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 GPS.gov.


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, it's best to carry your device outside your pack or in a light waterproof layer.

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.
Photo: 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 units like the Montana 680. 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.

Even in the thick cover of lodgepole forest, we were able to get...
Even in the thick cover of lodgepole forest, we were able to get quality satellite reception on almost every GPS unit we tested.
Photo: Aaron Rice

Ease of Use


GPS units usually come with a very 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 download maps and satellite imagery for free and transfer them to your unit. The United States Geological Survey offers a wealth of free spatial data. Most U.S. states 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 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 this 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.

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.
Photo: Max Neale

Each GPS manufacture 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 in 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.

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.
Photo: Dan Zokaites

Display Quality


Do you want a compact version like an eTrex 10, or are you willing to haul extra weight — like the Montana 680 — for perks like a larger screen? Is a big GPS screen more important because you would like to be able 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 definitely a difference in screen size and display quality between them.


The Montana 680, with a 7 square-inch screen, offers the largest screen and also the highest quality resolution. Its smartphone-like touchscreen makes navigation easy, particularly in a car. The Oregon 700 and GPSMAP 66st both have a 3.75 square-inch screen — nearly half the size — but more than adequate for a handheld unit. However, the major difference is that the Oregon 700 is a touchscreen, while the GPSMAP 66st is button-controlled.

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.
Photo: Jill Rice

So then, buttons or touchscreen? Touchscreens respond faster than button units, but 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. 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 value reliability above all else?

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.
Photo: Aaron Rice

Speed


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 that transmit both positional and timing data. When a GPS unit contacts at least four satellites, it can 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 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.

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.
Photo: Jill Rice

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 location estimate. GPS units that use GLONASS, GPS, Galileo, and WAAS will offer the best reception.

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.
Photo: Aaron Rice

The fastest — and 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 improve its signal with WAAS. However, many of the other units we tested were able to achieve accuracy within 10 feet very quickly. Although the Montana 680 and inReach Explorer+ were nearly as speedy as the 66st, even basic units like the eTrex 10 impressed us with how quickly they were able to lock onto a signal after powering on.

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.
Photo: Amber King

Weight and Size


We tested handheld GPS units. These units are very capable, able to mark waypoints, track your route, make notes, geocache, pull up altitude profiles, and often much more. But they are also small enough to wear around your neck or stash in your backpack. The Garmin inReach Explorer+, despite its two-way communication capability, is also very portable. 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.

The Garmin eTrex 20x is lightweight and fits in small pockets. Take...
The Garmin eTrex 20x is lightweight and fits in small pockets. Take this GPS unit on your longest or fastest adventures.
Photo: Dan Zokaties

However, not all units are created equally with regard to portability, so it is important to consider if you want to carry a GPS in your pocket or will most likely only carry one of these devices when you are also carrying a backpack. The Montana 680 is by far the largest and heaviest unit in our review but still weighs only 10 ounces. The eTrex line falls at the other end of the spectrum — the eTrex 10 is small enough to fit into a pant's pocket.

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.
Photo: 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 much shorter battery life, a significantly smaller display, and may not offer the same capabilities as the handheld units featured here.

Versatility


Most of the units featured in this review are surprisingly versatile, sporting functions well-outside the realm of navigation, ranging from flashlight to calculator to texting. We won't dive too deeply into each function of each model we tested, but rather will discuss a few important ones.


Waypoints


You don't need that many waypoints to get you through a trip, even a pretty long one. Even 500 waypoints — the minimum number on the units we tested, on the inReach Explorer+ — 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, 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. The eTrex Touch 35 offers the best capability in the smallest package. But for many of these units, you can also boost your unit's memory with a microSD card; only the inReach Explorer+ and eTrex 10 don't support extra external memory.

It was less than ideal not being able to load even a single topo...
It was less than ideal not being able to load even a single topo quad onto the memory-limited eTrex 10.
Photo: Aaron Rice

Geocaching


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 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.

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!
Photo: 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.

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.
Photo: Dan Zokaites

Barometric Altimeter


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

Media


A camera, microphone, and voice recorder can be 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 past adventures. Photos also help keep you on the trail when following a track. This is especially helpful for outdoor guides or scientific surveys. While many options boast a photo viewer, the Montana 680 is the only GPS in our review to include a camera. But extras like that also come at the price of the added size.

The Garmin Montana 680 is large. It does not fit into small pockets...
The Garmin Montana 680 is large. It does not fit into small pockets - just big ones.
Photo: Dan Zokaites


Wireless Capability and Smart Notifications


Garmin inReach Explorer&reg;+
Garmin inReach Explorer®+
Photo: Garmin
High performing GPS devices are able to share wirelessly — these devices come equipped with Bluetooth technology. With a compatible receiver, you 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 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 recommend this for users intending to share track information with others. Bluetooth communication has become fairly commonplace, so only the two eTrex models do not have this capability.

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.
Photo: 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. If you don't want to take your phone out of the backpack while staying connected, this may be an option for you.

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.
Photo: Jenna Ammerman

Conclusion


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

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