The Best Handheld GPS Review
Best Overall Handheld GPS
Garmin GPSMAP 66st
The Garmin GPSMAP 66st is the king of accuracy and reliability, easily earning our Editors' Choice award. The 66st has a powerful, quad-helix antenna and connects to more satellite networks than most other models. It is more reliable and accurate than much of the competition. Even in less than ideal locations, we were able to lock into great reception. This unit was reliable nearly everywhere: from slot canyons of the Southwest, into whiteouts of the Pacific Northwest. This handheld GPS also comes with 16GB of internal memory — 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 to 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 unit for field research, the 66st likely fits the bill. But for many recreationalists, this unit may be overkill. While it has the ability to link wirelessly to your phone, we found setting up this process to be cumbersome. While this unit may not feature a touchscreen, we really appreciated the simple layout of the large buttons — this powerful, handheld GPS is easy to use, even in the most extreme field conditions.
Read review: Garmin GPSMAP 66st
Best Bang for the Buck
Garmin eTrex 20x
The Garmin eTrex 20x is a small and lightweight hiking GPS that provides ample performance, without the price or weight of other top-performing units. This capable device will surely help you get back on track if the weather turns foul, and you can't find your route. The perfect handheld GPS 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 accidentally off trail.
It's not the most tricked-out option, however. The eTrex line is based in simplicity, and while the 20x has many of the features you need, it may not have everything you want. This small device also sports a small screen, and does not offer the same resolution as higher-priced models. You must be on the move for the differential compass to locate direction, and this unit does not include a barometric altimeter. But if what you need is a reliable, durable, highly-portable GPS, look no further than the eTrex 20.
Read review: Garmin eTrex 20x
Best for Messaging and Navigation
Garmin inReach Explorer+
With impressively reliable reception, SOS features, satellite text messaging, and navigation via GPS, the Garmin inReach Explorer+ is a standout device for a variety of uses when you're far from cell phone reception. We used it for a wide range of trips, from alpine climbing in Alaska to trekking in the backcountry of Patagonia. While it is primarily a messaging and SOS device, you can also use the inReach Explorer+ as a handheld GPS. It's easy to share your tracks and location via text messaging and social media. In addition to downloadable maps, the ability to pre-load waypoints and routes is helpful for planning long trips over complex terrain.
The Explorer+ has far fewer navigation features, and a more limited interface than dedicated GPS models like the Garmin Montana 680 or Garmin Oregon 700 but works well for simple navigation and tracking. The Explorer+ is also an emergency personal locator beacon, and we caution against navigating with and draining the batteries of your lifeline. But, if you're going to do it, this is the way to go. For those who want to go deep in the backcountry with a device that can be used for both messaging and navigation, the inReach Explorer+ is unparalleled. (We recommend the compact inReach Mini as a personal locator and messager if you have another means of navigating.)
Read review: Garmin inReach Explorer+
Best for Paperless Geocaching
Garmin eTrex 10
For the geocache crowd who is looking for an inexpensive means of going paperless, the Garmin eTrex 10 is our Top Pick as the perfect eco-friendly, entry-level option. This compact, lightweight device is easily stashed away in a pack or tossed into a pocket to carry along on your next adventure. While it may be the absolute baseline for Garmin handhelds, it still offers the speed and accuracy of more expensive models. We particularly appreciated this unit for the ability to link to both GPS and GLONASS networks, providing us with solid reception, even in the deep canyons of the Southwest. While it 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." With the exception of major cities and borders, the preloaded basemap is essentially blank. With very limited internal memory, and no optional 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
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 Outdoor Gear Lab, 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 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 Southwest, our testers used these GPS units in whiteouts, in slot canyons, and while temporarily stranded by flash floods to bring you real insight into each device, pulled from real adventure epics. Our rigorous testing process combines time in the field with testing, where we can equitably evaluate everything from reception accuracy, to memory capability, to size and weight. We compile research, closely examine features and ease of use, and note when some devices shine, and when others completely fail. We purchase all of our gear at retail value, and utilize 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
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 our trusty old, magnetic standby. We've 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 — have used these units and provided feedback, bringing you a comprehensive, and completely objective 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 qualities are more important than others, namely reception and ease of use — without the accuracy of a satellite and efficiency of a GPS, you might as well only be using a map and compass!
GPS stands for Global Positioning System. Often it's used to refer to devices --- in this case handheld — used to track and store timing and positional data. While this is a major misconception, 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. It is important to consider your specific needs before purchasing, as these units often carry a hefty price tag.
Price of a handheld GPS tends to be tied directly to performance, features, and memory storage. Our Editors' Choice Award-winning Garmin GPSMAP 66st has every feature you may ever need — with more memory than you could possibly every need — but is near the top of the price spectrum. Alternatively, our most price-point model, the Garmin eTrex 10, carries only the bare essentials in tracking.
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. Adventurers of this breed 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 Best Buy Award-winner, the Garmin eTrex 20x, offers mapping performance in a durable package that will stand-up to the rigors of any adventure.
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 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 in the mountains, desert, and pristine backcountry areas that have no reliable cell support, and so your smartphone's GPS sensors might not cut the mustard.
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. Just don't forget to download maps before leaving cell or wifi signals behind! A touch-screen model with automatic routing — like the Garmin Montana 680 — is a great option that will double as both a driving GPS, and for off-road travel.
In contrast to smartphones, handheld GPS units are burlier, have much better GPS satellite reception, more powerful navigation features, and afford better battery life in cold climates. We feel that a few key questions you should ask yourself about how you intend to use your new GPS that will really help narrow your search for the perfect handheld. After you figure that out, you can start thinking about all the bells and whistles — ie. 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.
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. But even without these additions, 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 20x and eTrex 10 — have nearly top-notch reception in almost every situation.
Ease of Use
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 this data. If you want fast and straightforward map access, you can get them for around a hundred bucks from your GPS manufacturer.
The U.S. National Agricultural Imagery Program (NAIP) shoots high quality, free satellite imagery (aerial photos stitched together) for the entire continental U.S. You can also buy satellite imagery. Often it's unnecessary because you can plan your routes in Google Earth and then send files to your mapping software and device. Satellite imagery is hard to see on most GPS units and is rarely necessary for the backcountry. Some units, like the GPSMAP 66st come with a free subscription to Garmin's database of Birdseye satellite imagery that can be downloaded on wifi.
Each GPS manufacture offers software designed to organize, analyze and project the waypoints and tracks you collect with your GPS. Garmin's Basecamp is our favorite. It's simple, intuitive, cross-platform, and provides everything a basic GPS user needs. For example, you can easily display waypoints or tracks in Google Earth. It is also essential to really basic models like the eTrex 10, which due to its lack of mapping capability, would otherwise be rendered useless.
Do you want a compact version like an eTrex 20x, or will you haul extra weight — like the Montana 680 — for perks like a larger screen? Is a big screen the most important thing for a GPS, because you need 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, by far offers the largest screen size and also the highest quality resolution. It's 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. But the major difference, the Oregon 700 is a touchscreen, while the GPSMAP 66st is button-controlled.
So then, 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. 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?
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 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 use other countries' satellites, including the 26 satellites of the Russian GLONASS system, and 26 more from the European Union's Galileo network. The more satellites, the faster you can track a position, and the better the accuracy
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.
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 units we tested were able to achieve an accuracy within 10 feet very quickly. While 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 it was able to lock onto a signal after powering on.
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 easily portable. But the more features you tack onto a portable GPS unit, the larger and heavier they become. Handheld devices are popular for backcountry navigation, particularly because they are so portable.
But not all units are created equally with regard to this quality, 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, heaviest unit in our review, but still weighs only 10 ounces. The eTrex line falls at the other end of the spectrum — the equally sized eTrex 10 and eTrex 20x are small enough to fit into a pant's pocket.
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 have the same capabilities of the handheld units featured here.
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.
You don't need that many waypoints to get you through a trip, even a pretty long one. Even with 500 waypoints — the minimum number on the units we tested, on the inReach Explorer+ — is likely more than anyone might 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 units memory with a microSD card; only the inReach Explorer+ and eTrex 10 don't support additional memory.
Geocaching is a relatively new outdoor activity, essentially using a GPS unit or GPS software for a scavenger hunt of sorts, looking for hidden treasures all over the world. Most GPS units are set up for this in some way, 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 eTrex 10 is our Top Pick for Geocaching, thanks to its accuracy balanced with affordability.
Electronic vs. 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. Only the eTrex 10 and eTrex 20x don't offer an electronic compass.
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. While many options boast a photo viewer — even the lowly *eTrex 20x — the Montana 680 is the only GPS in our review to include a camera. But extras like that also come at the price of added size.
Wireless Capability 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. High-end units like the GPSMAP 66st sport this high-level of technicality, but it does take some time and know-how to setup. If you don't want to take your phone out of the backpack while staying connected, this may be an option for you.
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, Chris McNamara, Clark Tate, Jediah Porter, and Aaron Rice