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The Best Handheld GPS Review

Taking a picture is a snap with a camera button on the left side of the unit. Here the author is pictured filling in a description for a 'photo way point' in Alaska.
Tuesday June 11, 2019
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A handheld GPS unit is your best bet to confidently navigate terrain far out of cell range. We bought 9 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 canyons 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.


Top 7 Product Ratings

Displaying 1 - 5 of 7
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Awards Editors' Choice Award Top Pick Award  Top Pick Award  
Price $449.99 at Amazon
Compare at 2 sellers
$254.99 at Amazon$289.99 at Amazon$374.99 at Backcountry
Compare at 3 sellers
$437.35 at Amazon
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Pros Excellent reception, large buttons, big screen, smart notifications and connectivity.Fantastic reception through thick coverage, affordable, large buttons, share wirelessly features, smart notifications (connect to your smartphone)Smartphone-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 compass
Cons Expensive, bulky, complicated connectivity between devices.Weak basemap, larger size, non-rechargeable batteriesMore 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, expensive
Bottom Line A reliable and accurate GPS unit chock full of features.This is your best bet for four-season reliability when it's too dirty or cold out to take off your gloves.Straightforward function meets glitzy features in a unit that's great for a range of activity in reasonable weather conditions.Fully featured and arguably more reliable even than commonly available satellite phones.A large screen and excellent reception make up for this unit's bulk if you have trouble viewing normal units or use satellite imagery.
Rating Categories Garmin GPSMAP 66st Garmin GPS MAP 64s Garmin Oregon 700 Garmin inReach Explorer+ Garmin Montana 680
Reception (20%)
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Weight And Size (15%)
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Specs Garmin GPSMAP 66st Garmin GPS MAP 64s Garmin Oregon 700 Garmin inReach... Garmin Montana 680
Battery Life (hours) 16 16 75 22
No. of Waypoints 10,000 5,000 (250,000) preloaded geocaches) 500 4,000
Saved Tracks / Points per Track 250 / 20,000 200 / 10,000 20 / 500 200 / 10,000
Preloaded Maps US and Canada Simple Basemap 1:25k U.S. and Canada Simple Basemap
Dimensions (in.) 2.5 x 6.4 x 1.4 2.4 x 6.3 x 1.4 2.7 x 1.5 x 6.5 2.9 x 5.7 x 1.4
Weight w/ Batteries (oz.) 8 7.6 6.8 7.5 10.3
Display Size (in.) 1.5 x 2.5 1.43 x 2.15 1.4 x 1.9 2 x 3.5
Display Resolution (pixels) 240 x 400 160 x 240 200 x 265 272 x 480
Built-in Memory 16 GB 4 GB 2 GB 4 GB
Accepts Data Cards microSD microSD No microSD
Touchsceen or buttons? Buttons Buttons Buttons Touchscreen (dual orientation)
Electronic or Differential Compass? Electronic Electronic Electronic Electronic
Barometric Altimeter Yes Yes Yes Yes
Wireless Communication? Yes Yes Yes Yes
Satellite Systems Used (GPS, GLONASS) Wide Augmentation System Present (WAAS)? All All All All
Ability to add maps? Yes Yes Yes Yes
Automatic Routing Yes Yes Yes Yes
Vertical Profiling Yes Yes Yes Yes
Camera/Video No No No Camera - 8 MP
Photo Viewer Yes Yes No Yes
Geocaching (paperless) Yes Yes No Yes
Hunt/Fish Calendar Yes Yes No Yes
Sun and Moon Information Yes Yes Yes Yes
Area Calculator Yes Yes Yes Yes
Battery Information 2 AA Batteries 2 AA batteries Rechargeable lithium ion 3 AA Batteries / Rechargeable NiMH pack
Online Connect Communities Garmin Connect Garmin Connect Garmin Earthmate Garmin Connect
Screen Info transflective color TFT transflective, 65-K color TFT, transflective transflective, color TFT transflective 65k color TFT
Interface Information high-speed USB and NMEA 0183 USB, NMEA 0183 compatible USB high-speed USB, NMEA 0183 compatible
What Comes in the Box? USB cable, documentation, bird's eye sattelite imagery, carabiner clip -1 year BirdsEye satellite imagery w/ international coverage
-USB data cable
-Carabineer clip
-Documentation
-inReach Explorer+
-Preloaded with TOPO
-USB cable
-Carabiner clip
-Documentation
-1 year BirdsEye Satellite Imagery subscription
-USB cable
-AC charger
-Battery pack
-Multiple socket adaptors

Best Handheld GPS


Garmin GPSMAP 66st


Editors' Choice Award

$449.99
at Amazon
See It

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 in | Touchscreen: No

Best for Messaging and Navigation


Garmin inReach Explorer+


Top Pick Award

$374.99
(17% off)
at Backcountry
See It

75
OVERALL
SCORE
  • Reception - 20% 8
  • Ease of Use - 20% 7
  • Display Quality - 20% 6
  • Speed - 15% 8
  • Weight and Size - 15% 8
  • Versatility - 10% 9
Display Size: 1.4 x 1.9 in | Touchscreen: No
Excellent reception
Versatility, good at a variety of adventure
Long battery life
Helpful notifications via a smartphone connection
Limited navigation interface and features
Expensive
Must have a service plan for messaging
Typing is cumbersome

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+

Most Reliabile 4-Season GPS


Garmin GPS MAP 64s


Top Pick Award

$254.99
(15% off)
at Amazon
See It

80
OVERALL
SCORE
  • Reception - 20% 8
  • Ease of Use - 20% 7
  • Display Quality - 20% 8
  • Speed - 15% 9
  • Weight and Size - 15% 8
  • Versatility - 10% 8
Display Size: 1.5 x 2.5 in | Touchscreen: No
Fantastic reception in thick coverage
Very accurate with GPS, GLONASS, and Galileo networks
Large buttons
Wireless data sharing
Notifications from your smartphone
Includes topo maps and bird's eye imagery
Expensive
On the large side
Non-rechargeable batteries

The Garmin GPSMAP 66st is the new king of accuracy and reliability in extreme field conditions, especially in cold weather. The 66st has a large quad helix antenna and connects to more satellite networks than most other models, making it more reliable and accurate than the competition we've tested. We were able to get better reception in slot canyons and tree cover than anything else we've tried, which makes it nice for the slot canyons of the Southwest, the thick forests of the East Coast, or the whiteouts of the Pacific Northwest. The 66st also comes with 16GB of internal memory, more than double of everything else, and preloaded topo maps for the US and Canada. It is expensive, but this is a highly capable unit for expeditions and fieldwork. It's also a bulky unit, so for better weather days and daytrips we preferred the Oregon 700.

Read review: Garmin GPSMAP 66st

Best Bang for the Buck


Garmin eTrex 20x


Garmin eTrex 20x
Best Buy Award

$147.93
(26% off)
at REI
See It

73
OVERALL
SCORE
  • Reception - 20% 6
  • Ease of Use - 20% 8
  • Display Quality - 20% 7
  • Speed - 15% 6
  • Weight and Size - 15% 10
  • Versatility - 10% 7
Display Size: 1.4 x 1.7 in | Touchscreen: No
Inexpensive
Lightweight
Easy to use
Great screen quality
Longest battery life
Reliable push buttons
No electronic compass
Basemap is very limited
Small screen
Very little memory

The Garmin eTrex 20x is a small and lightweight hiking GPS that provides ample performance for roughly half the price and weight of the other two award winners. This device will help you get back on track if the weather turns foul and you can't find your route. This is perfect for those in need of a lightweight device before going into the backcountry for an extended period. Add this unit to your Dream Backpacking Gear List, as it may save you if you find yourself off trail.

It's not the most tricked-out option, however. If you need more memory, better screen resolution, a compass, or a barometric altimeter, upgrade to the Garmin eTrex 30x.

Read review: Garmin eTrex 20x


Analysis and Test Results


We test these handheld GPS devices while hiking, skiing, mountaineering, canyoneering, kayaking, mountain biking, mapping plant populations, and more over the course of years. We mark and navigate to waypoints, compare map drawing speed, and test the compass against our trusty old, magnetic standby. We've logged hundreds of miles on foot in Colorado, Washington, Utah, and Alaska. More than a dozen people who range from GPS experts to complete novices used these units and provided feedback.

Why you should trust us


To test these devices we put together an all-star crew of outdoor adventurers to try and get lost and find their way back using these amazing devices. Our head testers include Chris Mcnamara, the founder of Outdoor Gear Lab, who at one point was calculated to have spent 3% of his life on El Capitan in Yosemite. Amber King is the other head tester, who when she's not teaching students as a science teacher, can be found covering long distances running, biking, or rafting in Colorado. Our third tester, Ethan Newman is a climbing and canyoneering guide in Southwest Utah.

These three main testers, as well as many more folks, took these GPS units everywhere from ski touring in Alaska, to the San Juan mountains of Colorado, to the canyons of Southwest Utah. Our testers used these GPS units in whiteouts, hail storms, and while temporarily stranded by flash floods in order to bring you real reviews about the best handheld GPS units out there.

Six of the devices tested in this review.
Six of the devices tested in this review.

What's a GPS?


GPS stands for Global Positioning System. Often it's used to refer to units (in this case handheld) to track and store timing and positional data for backcountry adventures. Often, they're intended to be used in conjunction with a map and compass. They are designed to be resistant to water, shock, and thermal stress, and any other harsh conditions you'd typically run into out in the wilderness. High performing devices come with extras like cameras and topo maps, as well as better antennas, more memory, altimeters, and internal electronic compasses. More baseline models tend to be lighter and simpler, with better battery life. Before buying your next GPS, consider if you need one, what you intend to use it for, and how much you're willing to spend.

Do You Need a Handheld GPS?


Realistically, you probably don't. Usually, a map and compass, and the associated skills are more than adequate to get through most backcountry adventures, and they never run out of battery. No GPS unit will substitute for having basic orienteering skills and common sense. They simply tell you where you are and where you've gone. In the unlikely event that you need to call for help, a Personal Locator Beacon is what you want. The only unit that functions as both a GPS and a PLB is the inReach Explorer+.

Alternatively, most people these days have smartphones with gps technology, and inexpensive apps that provide topo maps and marking abilities cover most of the same functions. While they're not as accurate as a real deal GPS unit, for many folks, they are good enough.

So, who does need a GPS? Those who love to hike off-the-main trail, serial bushwhackers, backcountry skiers, and climbers who frequently descend on unfamiliar and poorly marked trails will gain benefit from a GPS, which can pinpoint their exact location, allowing them to re-orient themselves on a map and find the way home. A GPS is also helpful in bad weather conditions (heavy rain, snow, or fog), hiking on a dark cloudy or moonless night, or when traveling over snow-covered terrain where the main trail may be buried and the tracks of those who came before you may be unreliable (they might be just as lost as you — believe us, we've been there).


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.
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.

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.

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.
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.

Smartphone versus a Handheld GPS?


Of course, an app-enabled smartphone can also do these things — and call for help. Why carry something else?

Answer: Your smartphone GPS may not prove reliable in the backcountry. Smartphones rely on the combination of a cheap GPS device, and triangulation between cell-towers (and even WiFi) to dial in your location. Yet, many of the best hikes in the mountains, desert, and pristine backcountry areas that have no reliable cell support, and your smartphone's GPS sensors might not cut the mustard.


In contrast, handheld GPS units are burlier, have much better GPS satellite reception, more powerful navigation features, and better battery life than smartphones with GPS applications. You can also replace the batteries in the field.

Still, in situations where they do work, then smartphone apps like Gaia, Avenza, or Topo Maps are great and can quickly find your location on established trails before resuming map navigation. Smartphone GPS works best if you are in a region where cell signal is available and may be unreliable when you get backcountry. Don't forget to download maps before leaving cell or wifi signals behind.

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

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:

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.
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.

Reception Quality


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.

You're unlikely to be able to download a new map here. Gotta plan ahead.
You're unlikely to be able to download a new map here. Gotta plan ahead.

Maps — Should you Buy Preloaded?


GPS units come with a very rudimentary basic base map. You can see roads on them, and that's about it. As we mentioned above, you can buy a GPS unit preloaded with topo maps, or buy them separately after the fact. You can also download maps and satellite imagery for free and transfer them to your unit. The United States Geological Survey has a wealth of free spatial data. Most U.S. states also have a website that houses spatial data. If you want the best maps, often for free, spend some time tinkering with ree data. If you want fast and straightforward map access, you can get them for around a hundred bucks from your GPS manufacturer.


The U.S. National Agricultural Imagery Program (NAIP) shoots high quality, free satellite imagery (aerial photos stitched together) for the entire continental U.S. You can also buy satellite imagery. Often it's unnecessary because you can plan your routes in Google Earth and then send files to your mapping software and device. Satellite imagery is hard to see on most GPS units and is rarely necessary for the backcountry. Some units, like the GPSMAP 66st come with a free subscription to Garmin's database of Birdseye satellite imagery that can be downloaded on wifi.

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.
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.

Mapping Software


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.

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.
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.

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


Geocaching is a relatively new outdoor activity, essentially using a GPS unit or GPS software for a scavenger hunt of sorts, looking for hidden treasures all over the world. Most GPS units are set up for this in some way, but a phone app usually works pretty well too, as they're rarely far out in the wild. Some of the GPS units we tested have preloaded geocaches on there.

The electronic compass is quick to respond and doesn't require you to move to find direction.
The electronic compass is quick to respond and doesn't require you to move to find direction.

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


Pictured here are the barometric pressure settings. You can set this to track pressure trends and predict weather patterns while in the backcountry.
Pictured here are the barometric pressure settings. You can set this to track pressure trends and predict weather patterns while in the backcountry.
One of the features that separate high performing devices from base models is a barometric altimeter, which uses a small sensor to detect air pressure to calculate altitude, instead of relying on positional data alone. Barometric altimeters also allow you to track weather patterns and trends, which is really useful in the mountains when knowledge of a coming storm can be the difference between life or death.


Media Options


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

Share Wirelessly and Smart Notifications


Receive text messages and media updates on your device without pulling out your phone. A modern and unique feature.
Receive text messages and media updates on your device without pulling out your phone. A modern and unique feature.
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. Our main tester mentioned 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 would recommend this for users intending to share track information with others.

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.

You can use a GPS unit to follow a predetermined path that you created on mapping software beforehand.
You can use a GPS unit to follow a predetermined path that you created on mapping software beforehand.

How Do GPS Units Work?


GPS units work by communicating with satellites orbiting the earth designed to read and triangulate signals sent from the unit. In the United States, the Department of Defense manages the GPS network, a series of 33 satellites orbiting the earth designed to transmit both positional and timing data. When a GPS unit contacts at least four satellites it is able to pinpoint your position with a decent degree of accuracy, although terrain and conditions can affect this. Some of the units we tested are also able to use other countries' satellites, including the 26 satellites of the Russian GLONASS system, and 26 more from the European Union's Galileo network. The most accurate unit we tested was the Garmin GPSMAP 66st, as that is the only unit that was able to access all three of those satellite networks, and was able to get within 10 feet of accuracy, although the Montana 680 and GPSMAP 64 were similarly accurate.

Satellite Networks


The units we tested employ two satellite networks. The USA manages the Global Positioning Satellite (GPS) network while Russia manages the Globalnaya Navigazionnaya Sputnikovaya Sistema (GLONASS) network. More recently, the European Union added its own Galileo network. The GPS network accesses 32 satellites while GLONASS and Galileo each contribute 26 additional satellites. All handhelds also use the WAAS (Wide Area Augmentation System) to increase accuracy. Satellites send signals to WAAS master stations on the ground. This message is then relayed to compatible receivers (like GPS units) to provide a much more accurate estimate of location. GPS units that use GLONASS, GPS, Galileo, and WAAS have the best reception.

Magellan and Garmin brands are compatible with Google Earth. Here we see a track comparison of all units. DeLorme is not compatible with Google Earth and stands on its own without a file converter.
Magellan and Garmin brands are compatible with Google Earth. Here we see a track comparison of all units. DeLorme is not compatible with Google Earth and stands on its own without a file converter.

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.

Many GPS units have programmable profiles for recreational use. If you spend time on the water, program it for nautical navigation. If you prefer to hike, choose a hiker's profile instead.

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.

Related: Best Satellite Messengers and Personal Locator Beacons in 2019

There are a variety of GPS watches and altimeters that can log backcountry travel information. These GPS Watches are popular among trail runners, mountain guides, hikers, and backpackers. They are a great alternative to handheld units if you're looking to go light, but have much shorter battery life and a small display.

The Garmin eTrex 20x and Garmin GPSMAPS 64s are made from similar durable materials and do well in both high and low light conditions. GPS Units are beloved for their durability  battery life  and great reception.
The Garmin eTrex 20x and Garmin GPSMAPS 64s are made from similar durable materials and do well in both high and low light conditions. GPS Units are beloved for their durability, battery life, and great reception.

Conclusion


GPS units are great when you need them, but they aren't cheap. A smartphone can get you by until you're heading out on a multi-day backcountry trip guided by a map and compass, scouting multiple complicated routes, or conducting long field surveys. If you get to that point, you might as well throw down. There's no substitute for a dedicated, accurate handheld GPS unit.


Amber King, Ethan Newman, and Chris McNamara