In this day and age, so many devices give you a GPS location. Anyone who owns a smartphone knows that you can open your map app and within seconds you know where you are and what’s around you. But a smartphone’s GPS doesn’t quite cut it when it comes down to life in the wilderness. Quite often you’ll lose signal, batteries may die and it can be an altogether glitchy experience. Plus, you probably won’t want to risk your smartphone being damaged or lost whilst using it in rugged conditions.
At A Glance: Our Top 3 Handheld GPS
This is where a handheld GPS comes in. Much more reliable and with a greater feature set than a GPS watch or smartphone, a handheld GPS shows you terrain, allows you to plan routes, set marks, use topographical maps, and a lot more. Some handheld GPS’ even allow you to communicate via satellite and send SOS signals when you’re really in trouble, something a watch or smartphone simply can’t do.
If you spend a lot of time in the backcountry, out of phone signal, and far from any help, then a handheld GPS is a must. It’s that extra layer of safety that also provides peace of mind, you’ll always know where you are, can find your way out or give your co-ordinates to someone who is trying to find and rescue you.
In this article, we will review the best handheld GPS on the market today, comparing their feature sets so that you can find the right one for you, quickly and easily. It has to be said that handheld GPS devices, or technology of any sort, shouldn’t be what you’re relying solely on for navigation, you never know when technology will fail or when you’ll need a backup. And, although a good hiking app on your phone is one way to do that, you should always carry a hiking compass and a map too.
Best On A Budget
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Best Of The Best
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The Garmin eTrex 20x is a step down from the 30x. It’s not that different though and still has the major features you need, it is a little less expensive as well.
The 2.2-inch display is excellent and gives you a full-color resolution that you can read clearly in the sun. The memory is large at 3.7 GB and there is a micro SD slot for if you’d like to expand. This allows you to download and use TOPO 24K, HuntView, BlueChart g2, City Navigator NT, and BirdsEye Satellite Imagery.
The Garmin eTrex still uses both the GPS and GLONASS networks to give you a quick accurate location that locks on with ease. You can follow yourself around on the included world base map, add routes, waypoints, and more.
In terms of durability, it’s pretty good too being shock and water-resistant. The Garmin eTrex not rated to IPX7 so don’t let it get submerged.
The only things you’re missing out on with the Garmin eTrex 20X are the additional features. It does not come with a compass, a barometric altimeter, or an accelerometer.
Overall, if you’re on a budget and want a solid handheld GPS, this is a great shout.
The Garmin Montana 680T is similar to the 750T Oregon but somehow takes things to a new level, again.
Like the Oregon, it has a touch screen that’s simple and easy to use. The display is large at 4-inches, the largest in the review so far. It gives you great color resolution and of course, you can see it in the sun too. The larger screen does make the unit quite heavy at 10 oz. but it’s worth the extra weight in our opinion.
The Garmin Montana uses both GPS and GLONASS to give you a very quick and accurate location. This unit comes with 250k preloaded geocaches, US TOPO maps, and a free 1 year subs. to Birdseye Satellite Imagery. That’s quite an awesome bundle right there.
As well as being a GPS, the Garmin Montana 680T also has; a compass, barometric altimeter, an 8MP camera, sun and moon information, hunting/fishing calendar, and tide tables. That’s some impressive add ons to an accurate easy to use GPS.
It also comes with the option of using AA or rechargeable batteries, giving you the option to save some cash and the environment but also having some extra’s on hand in the backcountry.
There are some downsides, the weight and price are obvious ones but some users find the unit a bit cumbersome and slow to load maps and that some aren’t updated. However, this is not everyone’s opinion.
Overall, the Garmin Montana a solid and accurate device with some great additional features.
The Garmin in Reach Explorer+ is a handheld GPS with all the basics you need plus a satellite communicator (not quite a phone). It’s a GPS with the huge addition of peace of mind and ideal for those of you who spend time in the middle of nowhere. If you need to stay in touch with family or might have to call out rescue services, this is the handheld GPS for you.
Once signed up to a subscription you can email, two-way-text, share your live location, and send a rescue beacon with location to search and rescue. This is all run through the Iridium Global Satellite Network and will provide truly global coverage.
In terms of being a GPS, the in Reach Explorer+ displays everything on a bright 2.3-inch color display and comes preloaded with DeLorme TOPO 24k maps. You can add also maps from your mobile, connect to NOAA, plot routes, mark waypoints and more. It’s very accurate and quick to find your location when switched on and will easily lock on while you’re moving around.
There is also a built-in compass, barometric altimeter, and accelerometer. It uses a rechargeable lithium-Ion battery, great for the environment but be sure to take some extras or a power bank with you. It is a little expensive overall but worth it for the communication options.
Overall, this is the perfect balance between a Satphone and a GPS, and in our eyes worth every penny.
The Garmin eTrex 30x is an awesome handheld GPS loaded with extra features. It’s compact, durable and rugged design make it very popular amongst hikers and outdoors enthusiasts alike.
Weighing just over 4oz and being small enough to stash into the hip pocket of your backpack, this handheld is a force to be reckoned with. The 2.2-inch display delivers a 65k color image that’s readable in sunlight. Gone are the days of looking for a shadow to see where you are.
This Garmin eTrex comes with a preloaded base map of the whole world with shaded relief and thanks to the 3.7 GB internal memory and the micro SD card slot, you can load a variety of other maps too. TOPO 24K, HuntView, BlueChart g2, and City Navigator NT are all compatible and if you want a satellite overlay you can enable BirdsEye Satellite Imagery with a subscription.
Like most handheld GPS devices, you can plan routes, mark waypoints and wirelessly share them too. It uses GPS and GLONASS satellites to track your location, making it more accurate and quicker to let you know where you are.
As well as being a GPS device, the Garmin eTrex 30x comes with a 3 axis tilt-compensated electronic compass and a barometric altimeter. This gives you a very accurate compass heading as well as being able to monitor your altitude and the weather. It’s also built to last being shockproof and water-resistant plus it has great battery life.
There are some downsides, as always. The screen is a little small but not too small and there is no key lock function, so random button pressing can happen, wasting battery or changing settings if you’re unlucky.
Overall though, the Garmin eTrex is a great handheld GPS device at a very reasonable price
The Garmin GPSMAP 64st takes things to the next level in terms of size when compared to the Garmin eTrex 30x. It is a little heavier but you get a larger screen of 2.6-inches and a bigger internal memory of 8GB, this allows you to store more on the base unit and save you micro SD for more things.
The Garmin GPSMAP 64st is also fully waterproof with a water rating of IPX7 meaning it can be submerged at 1m for 30 minutes without being damaged. For you kayakers and fishermen out there who like to get lost on the backcountry rivers, this is a great feature.
Like most Garmins, it uses GPS and GLONASS to give you a accurate location very quickly. This also makes it quite reliable as it doesn’t depend solely on one satellite network but two. There is also an electronic 3-axis compass and barometric altimeter to give you an accurate bearing, altitude reading, and storm warnings.
The Garmin GPSMAP 64s can wireless transfer data and via Bluetooth to your smartphone so you can share and download routes with ease. You can also share activities LIVE, using Live Track. It also comes ready with a world base map and US TOPO map.
The battery life is 16 hours and it runs on 2 x AA’s that are easily bought and replaced. There is also an option to use a rechargeable NiMH battery pack that can be charged in the unit via a USB cable.
This GPS device is a little expensive and it can be a little slow at downloading maps but all in all, it’s an awesome choice if you want something bigger, better and more durable.
The Garmin 750T Oregon set’s the bar even higher. It’s almost like a smartphone that decided to be a handheld GPS device instead. It has a large touch screen, you can download apps, customize data fields, and it comes with an 8MP camera.
The large, color display makes it easy to read in all conditions while the touch screen makes navigating through the options easy as pie. The screen even has a dual orientation (landscape or portrait view), just like a smartphone, which is perhaps why it’s so intuitive to use.
While being so clever, it’s also robust. It’s been designed to handle dust, shock, humidity and comes with an IPX7 water rating, meaning it can be 1m underwater for 30 minutes.
Like the other Garmins, it gives you accurate and quick locations thanks to using both GLONASS and GPS satellite networks, comes with a 3-axis tilt-compensated electronic compass, barometric altimeter, plus an accelerometer.
It connects to other devices through WiFi, Bluetooth, and ANT+. If you’re into Geocaching, then you can update your geocaches live from websites, how mad it that. You can also enable live weather radar overlays and use BirdsEye Satellite imagery, both of which are free for the first year. Oh yeah, it’s got a flashlight too.
Overall, it’s an awesome handheld GPS device that’s more sophisticated than most. It’s understandably a bit expensive though.
The Garmin Foretrex 401 is one of the lightest and smallest handhelds around. It’s so small that it comes with a strap and sits on your wrist comfortably. Being so small, the display is quite tiny but clear and easy to see even in bright sunshine.
You still get very quick and accurate GPS locations regardless of the size and the extra features like sunrise/sunset times, hunting/fishing information, electronic compass, and barometric altimeter. It will hold tracks, waypoints and measure your rate too if you buy the add on.
Being so small, it’s ideal for those who need two hands and want to see the GPS at the same time. But there are some downsides too. The display is very small, maps are not shown, and it can be a little tricky to use, especially as the user manual isn’t that great.
Overall, a good choice if you want a tiny handheld GPS device that fits on your wrist.
The Magellan eXplorist 310 is a step down in quality compared to Garmin but this entry-level handheld GPS is great value and does the basics pretty well.
It comes with a solid 2.2 inch LCD color display that is easy to see in the sun. The preloaded world base map gives you shading, road networks, water features, and urban and rural land use. It’s quite simple to use the joystick and buttons, the menu is a bit tricky at first but once you’re well versed it’ll become quite easy.
In terms of finding your location, Magellan claims that through using certain networks they can pin down your location to 3 meters, and it’s actually pretty good. The one drawback is that it can have a weak signal and take a while to find you. And once found, it doesn’t lock on that well.
There is 500MB of internal memory on the unit, ideal for geocaching and adding some Summit Series topo maps, but unfortunately, you cant expand the memory with a micro SD.
The battery life is pretty good at 18 hours running on just 2 AAs. You can take this on a long 4-5 day hike and using the suspend mode, that keeps everything off but GPS, you’ll probably do it on just one set of batteries. Still take your spares though.
Overall a solid unit but without the extra features of other more sophisticated handhelds. If you’re on a budget and want a simple handheld GPS, it’s quite a good shout.
The last thing you need is for your handheld GPS to fail while you’re hiking around the wilderness and you should be sure that the one you choose is shock and water-resistant. All the handhelds in this review are shock and water-resistant, some are also waterproof with an IPX7 rating. This means they will be fine when submerged to 1m for 30 minutes.
If you do heavy water-based activities, it’s worth going for handheld GPS devices with an IPX7 rating.
Battery life is important, especially if your using rechargeables. You don’t want to run out and change or the time, or end up with a dead battery that needs charging. All the handheld GPS devices in the review come with a great battery life of up to 22 hours.
Some of the units can use both rechargeable and disposable batteries, which is the safest choice in our eyes. This means you can reduce the use of disposables but still have some handy in an emergency.
The display is one of the most important things to consider, after all, if you cant see your handheld GPS device, it’s pretty useless. You’ll want a display that’s at least 2-inches big and that you can see in the sun. All the handhelds in the review have great displays, some color, and some black and white.
There are a few GPS’s in the review that are touch screen. This makes them very easy and quick to navigate but hard to use with gloves on if you’re hiking through cold climates.
Remember, the bigger your display, the larger and heavier the GPS will be, so be sure to find the right balance for you.
Handheld GPS’ are not just a GPS these days but can come with a large number of extra features that may come in useful in the wilderness. Units with these additional features do cost more but in the end, it could be worth it,
Quite a lot of even low-level handheld GPS units come with a barometric altimeter and compass which is very hand for knowing your elevation, bearing and to be able to predict if the weather may change and get nasty.
If you love treasure hunts then luckily lots of the GPS’ in this review support geocaching and some even have them pre-loaded.
Basic GPS units all come with a base map but some also come with detailed TOPO maps and the ability to subscribe to satellite imagery. While the base map is often enough, it is great to have detailed maps if you’re spending a lot of time exploring new areas.
Only one GPS in the review offers this, the Garmin in Reach Explorer+. It connects to the Iridium Satellite Network and allows you to text, email, send SOS signals, and share your live location with loved ones. If there is any additional feature worth having, this is it for us. We just wish it was incorporated in all handhelds.
Here are our top choices from the review.
The best of the best is the Garmin in Reach Explorer+. This is not only a solid GPS but it also connects to the Iridium Sat Network. This allows you to two-way text, share your live location, and communicate with search and rescue. It’s ideal for any adventurer, keeping the user safe and making sure their family doesn’t have to worry.
The best handheld GPS on a budget is the Garmin eTrex 20x. If you’re looking for a no-frills GPS which is excellent at pinpointing and tracking your location, this is the one. You can add maps, waypoints, and routes using the large internal memory and micro SD slot but you do lose out on extra tools like a compass, a barometric altimeter, and an accelerometer.
The best allrounder is the Garmin Montana 680T. It has a large, clear, touch screen display and does everything you want from a GPS and more. It comes with preloaded geocaches, US TOPO maps, and includes a flashlight, an 8MP camera, a compass, a barometric altimeter, and an accelerometer.