A handheld GPS unit is your best bet to confidently navigate terrain far out of cell range. We bought 7 of the top ranked handheld GPS units available today and tested them all around the world to help you find the best one for your land-based needs. We took them across mountain passes and into deep ravines to test reception, handed them to newbies to test user-friendliness, and squinted at their screens in the bright light of mid-day to test display quality. Whether you want a simple GPS for the occasional backcountry hike or a device that is ready to see you through ambitious expeditions in remote corners of the world, our review has you covered.
The Best Handheld GPS Review
The Oregon 700 sports a bright and functional screen that's very reminiscent of a smartphone. After you YouTube the basics, this GPS unit is straightforward to use. It offers rapid and accurate reception and nearly every feature that modern GPS units employ. You can connect to WiFi to upload activities, update software, and download extended prediction orbit (EPO) files, which help the GPS predict satellite location. The active weather feature is cool but uses your smartphone data. This device stores an unfathomable 10,000 waypoints and 250 tracks with 20,000 points each. That is so much data. We don't need it, but maybe a research scientist somewhere does.
That wonderful touchscreen demands juice and refuses to respond to bulky gloves. The unit can freeze up in cold weather. Using lithium batteries can help. This unit is a pleasure to use whenever the weather isn't miserable, and you have room for extra batteries.
Read the review: Garmin Oregon 700
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+
The Garmin GPS MAP 64s is our top pick for mountaineering, ski touring, and below freezing adventures where the reliability of push buttons in cold weather supersedes all other factors. The 64s also has a big external antenna that provides faster and more consistent reception than most of the competition. This is useful if you find yourself in super thick forest canopies in the tropics, deep slot canyons (like in Utah and Arizona), or stuck in a whiteout on the side of a mountain. If money isn't a factor, consider checking out the GPSMAP 62sc if you'd like a built-in camera. Consider the GPSMAP 64st for preloaded topographic (topo) maps and 4GB of extra memory.
On the downside, the 64s is a bulky unit. Our testers liked the GPS MAP 64s for colder, more extreme days but took the svelte 700 out on most bluebird days.
Read review: Garmin GPS MAP 64s
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. Not only that, but it will only cost you $199.
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
The highest list price buys the snazziest GPS unit in the test. The Montana 680 is an excellent receiver. If money is no object and accuracy is your highest priority, this may be the device for you. A large, bright screen that orients vertically and horizontally makes this one of the easiest units to use and see. It's the only device that we would consider using with satellite imagery on a regular basis. Its 8-megapixel camera has automatic focus, letting you easily reference photos to a given waypoint. Among the fastest units to respond, this unit can redraw maps in an instant. For $50 more, the Montana 680t comes with topo maps.That's the good. The bad is — the Montana 680's reception edge doesn't seem worth the high price tag for most applications. The unit's size and hefty weight also give us pause. Ounces count in the backcountry, and this unit has you hauling around 10.3 of them. Without communication options that hybrids like the Map 64s provide, it just doesn't seem worth it.
Read review: Garmin Montana 680
The least expensive GPS unit on the list, the eTrex 10 earns its keep by letting you skip a navigation App and leave your iPhone tucked safely away. A long-time standard in the industry, the 10 has gained a worldwide base map and paperless geocaching over the years but maintained its straightforward functionality. Its lack of whosits and whatsits keep operations streamlined. The 25-hours of battery life is a nice plus. Both the eTrex 10 and 20units have the same long battery life. They're also compact and supremely packable.
Choosing the eTrex 10 over the 20 will save you $90 but cost you a color display and expandable memory. The small screen is less pleasant to squint at than more expansive, and expensive, versions.
Read review: Garmin eTrex 10
We tested the Oregon 750t for several weeks. It's great, but it's more than we want in the backcountry. The only differences between the 750 and the 700 is a flashlight, an 8-megapixel camera with autofocus and digital zoom, 2.3 GB of memory, and $100. We pretty much always have our iPhone around for photos and a headlamp for a flashlight. If you're keen on georeferencing photos, we'll steer you towards the big beautiful screen of the Garmin Montana 680. The only advantage the Oregon 750t is that it's lighter and smaller than the Montana.
The t versions of Garmin units are preloaded with U.S. 100k topo maps and run about $50 more than non-t versions. Downloading those same maps after the fact costs around $60. While 1:100,000k topos are okay for general navigation, they aren't very useful in steep terrain. Garmin's map sales page has many more detailed and activity specific options, including 1:24,000 maps that offer turn-by-turn instructions on roads or trails. If you choose to buy maps from a manufacturer or source then online, we recommend the 24k scale.
Analysis and Test Results
We test these handheld GPS devices while hiking, skiing, mountaineering, 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.
What's a GPS?
Handheld Global Positioning System (GPS) units log and store spatial data while you adventure in the backcountry. They are built to withstand harsh weather while helping you determine where you are and where you've been. High performing devices come with extra features like cameras and topo maps, while low performing devices keep it simple. 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?
Most people don't. In our experience, a handheld unit is not necessary for most hikes. In most cases, a map and compass (and knowing how to use them) are better to have in your pack than a GPS. And in the unlikely event you need a rescue, a Personal Locator Beacon is what you want. In an actual emergency, knowing your GPS coordinates is no replacement for the ability to summon help.
When walking on established and maintained trails, as most people do, it's difficult to get lost. And, if you do lose the trail, it's generally easy to retrace your steps and get back on track. We recommend that you learn to navigate by map and compass before you get a GPS (more on this below). A map doesn't run on batteries and won't go out on you when you really need it.
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).
Our buying advice article for activity trackers and GPS devices offer a range of great uses for your GPS.
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. See our article on how to load GPS files on your phone, which includes App recommendations. 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. A good source for free maps is the GPS File Depot. 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 $100 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.
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 cult sport that uses a GPS or phone app to hunt down treasures hidden in random locations across the globe. We recommend an App for this one since any geocaches aren't too far afield. But many GPS units offer preloaded geocaches to get you started right away. These make sense for the geocacher that also revels in longer backcountry mission.
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 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?
Currently, 1,200 satellites are orbiting Earth. These satellites belong to a variety of countries and government sectors. In North America, we receive signals from satellites managed by the U.S. Department of Defense. Higher performance units utilize satellite data from both the USA and other countries with private networks. These satellites transmit timing and positional data. A GPS receiver can triangulate your location after it receives a signal from at least four satellites. Units with higher accuracy can pick up transmitted data from more satellites. The most accurate units we tested include the Garmin Montana 680 and the Garmin GPS MAP 64s. These units had recorded accuracy within 10 feet, which is awesome for a handheld. Trimble GPS units are more accurate (and more expensive) putting you within an inch of your actual position.
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. The GPS network accesses 32 satellites while GLONASS contributes 24 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 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. We also have a full review of these devices for your perusing pleasure.
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 a 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. If you get to that point, you might as well throw down.
— Amber King and Chris McNamara