The thing about technology is, it's ever evolving. It’s amazing how much GPS has transformed since it was first rolled out in 1995. Today, more than ever, we depend on GPS devices to know where we are, and how to get where we are going. Having a handheld GPS is equivalent to having a map or a compass in your hands. Not just one map though, all the maps. And a compass that knows where you are, and can read itself to get you where you want to go.
Therefore, owning a great handheld GPS for your outdoor adventures is a smart idea. It's a tool that contributes immensely to your passion for exploring and on some rare occasions, even to your orientation and safety. If you have some GPS experience, say in your car or on your bike, then you already know a little about them. However, finding the right handheld GPS for you can seem daunting. What features are you looking for? How much will it cost, and will it do what you need it to?
How to Choose the Right Handheld GPS Device
How to Choose the Right Handheld GPS Device
A portable GPS is ideal for outdoor activities including sports. There are plenty of models and brands of handheld GPS. Many also cost a pretty penny, since they are for professionals looking to get the best devices out there. But, you don’t need to panic, we searched for handheld GPS models to help you find the best one for your needs. Including your budget. Here are a few examples of outdoor activities where a handheld GPS would be useful.
- Mountain climbing
But, why a handheld GPS, why not just use your smartphone?
Because they are so advanced, you might feel your smartphone is enough for an outdoor expedition, but what if you drop it? And, even though there are rugged mobile phones and tablets in the market, what about batteries? How long can you go between charges running that GPS? Your smartphone might have all the apps needed for an outdoor sporting activity, but standalone devices still have a lot of benefits. A great handheld GPS will be shockproof, waterproof and run on AA batteries.
Your cell, a map, and a compass may seem like enough tools. And, learning how to read a compass and a map, and while you are at it, mastering the art of sky charting are truly valuable skills for outdoor people. There’s nothing like that Boy Scout feeling of finding your way, right? But, a portable GPS will allow you to experience your adventures without fear that the wind will take your map and leave you lost. Or, that you will drop that fancy phone and shatter the screen. It also allows people who may not be able to find their way with those tools to explore the great outdoors. Here are some of the important factors to look out for before purchasing a handheld GPS.
While it might not be crucial, weight is an important consideration when picking out a handheld GPS. A bulky device may make things more difficult, especially if you are in that geocaching challenge along with your crew. A good rule of thumb is to get a device that does not weigh more than seven ounces. Anything over that becomes a weight concern, considering you will have to carry it for quite a while.
When it comes to battery life, it's safer to rely on your skills mastering a physical map or compass. But it's even better if your handheld GPS has good battery life, as it doesn’t make for a great story when you get lost in the woods. The most reliable handheld GPS devices on the market offer as much as 10 to 25 hours of battery life. To be on the safe side, it's better to get a device that has a 20-hour limit, the lowest being 15 hours.
More often than not, a larger handheld GPS unit will have a better reception and give a more accurate position, thanks to its huge antenna. A handheld GPS used for hiking will triangulate your exact position to about five meters. There are devices in the market that will achieve a 3D lock on the user's position quicker, offering centimeter accuracy. However, those types of handheld GPS devices are big and expensive.
With that in mind, any handheld GPS device that as a 3-meter (about 10 feet) accuracy is more than enough. Avoid getting the slim ones, the ones with a bigger antenna are better for increased satellite reception.
Speed and ease of use
It doesn’t matter how much you love touchscreen devices when it comes to your handheld GPS, you should probably avoid it. Handheld GPS devices are designed to be easier to see in bright light and resistant to bad weather conditions. Also, they will not need your bare hands to function, and they are more forgiving on your battery life. The large, brilliant, touchscreens we love are battery-eating fiends.
When you plan on inputting a lot of data into the device, that touchscreen does come in handy though. The user-friendliness of a device matters. Especially when it comes to a handheld GPS device. Some of the basic operations that you will need to perform include.
- Editing waypoints
- Editing and creating tracks
- Navigating to a waypoint
For these kinds of operations, your configuration buttons are crucial. It will also matter a great deal how fast your handheld GPS perfoms these actions.
Every single handheld GPS device on the market has it's own mapping software. Garmin Basecamp is the most popular, closely followed by Magellan Vantage Point. Both of these softwares are available for an annual fee. DeLorme handhelds come with a free Topo North America topographic software. Users can access free maps from GPS File Deposit as well.
Features and options
The above factors represent some of the most basic and sort-for features. However, there are plenty more options that you can discover in a reliable handheld GPS device. For example, getting a GPS device with the following would be ideal.
- Bigger internal memory (1GB)
- Navigational routes
- Barometer altimeter
- Track log points
- Electronic compass
- Color display
How We Reviewed
We want you to have an extremely easy time choosing and purchasing the perfect unit for you. The best handheld GPS devices on the market are in our review. We chose them according to consumer reviews, product descriptions, user complaints, and positive customer feedback online. We have compared them with rival products as well to create a reliable, unbiased selection.
Best Handheld GPS Devices
Here are the top handheld GPS devices for outdoor sporting. You will find summaries of each product including its features, prices, rating, and warranties if available.
The Garmin 64st is a topnotch rugged and full-featured device from Garmin. This device has a reputation for excelling in the right places. This 2.6-inch color screen handheld GPS device is fluid when it comes to zooming, making navigation painless and easy.
It has a notable helix antenna that features both GLONASS and GPS technology allowing additional signal boost when in different environments. This device features 250,000 preloaded caching and about 100,000 topographical maps. With the Garmin 64st, you get full year access to BirdsEye satellite imagery. It has an 8GB internal memory that makes adding additional maps quite easily. What’s more, this handheld GPS device features a three-axis tilt-compensated electronic compass.
The Garmin 64st has an impressive 4.7 out of 5 stars rating on Amazon. It costs between $$ and $$ on Amazon.
The Garmin eTrex 30x is a budget handheld device with a 2.2-inch 240 x 320 resolution display. It might not be the largest device, but it works well in direct sunlight. It also includes a built-in Basecamp feature Garmin with shaded relief. The Garmin eTrex 30x handheld GPS has an additional 3.7GB of internal memory that is expandable via MicroSD.
The Garmin eTrex 30x has an inbuilt three-axis tilt that makes navigation and location identification much easier. Its GPS receiver and HotFix satellite prediction help to maintain a signal even if you are in deep in the canyons or in heavy cover. It can store up to 200 routes and about 2,000 waypoints making your next expedition even easier to plan for before you set out.
The Garmin eTrex 30x has a 3.7 out of 5 stars rating due to customer reviews on Amazon. It costs between $$ and $$.
Garmin typically dominates the handheld GPS market. However, the DeLorme InReach Explorer offers 100 hours of battery life, making it an exceptional unit. It offers a host of features that are beyond your average handheld GPS devices such as SOS tracking and two-way satellite messaging.
Additionally, the DeLorme InReach acts as a tracker offering about 10 minutes to 4 hours of location transmission intervals. One limiting factor of this handheld GPS device is its display. At 1.8 inches, its small for today’s GPS devices. If you ask me, this small bump is worth overlooking for its superior battery life.
The DeLorme InReach Explorer scores a cool 4.0 out of 5 stars based on Amazon consumer reviews. You can get this device between $$ and $$.
The Magellan eXplorist 310 summit grabs a spot on this list because it brings to the table a variety of functionality and maps that you should pay attention to when in the market for a handheld GPS. So what great features are these? First, a bundled-up topography of a variety of popular mountains throughout the globe, that’s better than a one-size-fits-all approach.
It also offers detailed road work, rural mapping and water features. Its 2.2-inch sunlight readable screen is on-par with most Garmin devices, with an additional paperless geocaching option. It’s not as user-friendly as the Garmin, of course.
The Magellan eXplorist 310 Summit has 2.7 out of 5 stars rating due to Amazon customer reviews. It costs between $$ and $$.
The Garmin Oregon 600t is popular for its display. It features a full superior sunlight-readable three-inch display. It also has a multi-touch functionality making it easier to pinch and get the exact location you are looking for.
The 600t comes with a Bluetooth and ANT functionality to offer additional connectivity. There are also topographical maps included ensuring that your expeditions go as planned. Garmin also has a 650t version of this device, with an inbuilt 8MP camera. In case you are hiking, you will probably have a phone with you, and you will want your GPS to focus on doing what it does best.
Therefore, going with the 600t for a lower price, and you will get Garmin’s Oregon line for a lower price than the 650t would be arguably a better bet.
This device has a 3.9 out of 5 stars rating based on Amazon consumer reviews. It costs between $$ and $$.
The Garmin Montana is a big hit with moto adventurers and hunters. A recent update earned it a name change from the 600 series to the 610. One of its defining features is its big 4.1-inch screen, raised bezel, and tough build. Its also got superb navigation capabilities. With this device, you get one-year access to GLONASS and Garmin’s BirdsEye Imagery. This handheld device has a 4GB internal memory that is expandable via MicroSD.
The Garmin Montana 610 weighs 10.2 oz with a lithium pack. It has an awesome battery life of about 16 hours, but you get close to 22 hours on lithium-ion 3AAs. Despite its inferior touch screen, its large color screen is easy to read.
This device has a 3.6 out of 5 stars rating on Amazon. It costs between $$ and $$.
This handheld GPS device meets IPX7 standards, meaning its waterproof and can be immersed in one meter of water for about 30 minutes. This is a great feature, knowing that your handheld GPS device will not be harmed by heavy splashing or rainfall during an outdoor activity.
The Garmin eTrex 10 Worldwide measures 1.4 x 1.7 x 2.2 inches and weighs 9.1 ounces. It features about 50 routes and has 20 hours of battery life. With this device, you can save 200 tracks into its logging system, giving you a chance to re-visit old sites. Garmin’s eTrex ten receiver is WAAS-enabled with GLONASS and HotFix support.
The Garmin eTrex 10 has a 3.7 out of 5 stars rating on Amazon. Its price ranges between $ and $$.
After a successful run with the Foretrex 401, Garmin has finally replaced it with the 601. Its unique design takes the basic style of a handheld unit but in a lighter and smaller form for handsfree use. The Garmin Foretrex 601 weighs 3.1 oz with a two-inch screen that is small compared to your average handheld GPS device.
Probably due to the 401’s popularity, Garmin decided to improve on it rather than making wholesome changes. Some of the notable changes are its 48-hour battery life while in navigation mode. A discouraging thing about the 601 is that users can’t download TOPO maps. The only option is to use the three-axis compass for navigation and the old-fashioned breadcrumb trail.
The Garmin Foretex 601 has an impressive 4.4 out of 5 stars based on Amazon customer reviews. It costs between $$ and $$.
At the very top of Garmin’s handheld GPS models, is the Garmin Monterra. So, what makes this device so unique? Well, despite its stratospheric price tag, it runs on an Android OS (Operating System). The OS makes it compatible with Wi-Fi, customizable display, and ability to download outdoor related applications.
This device is so advanced it looks like a smartphone. It has 1080p video functionality together with an 8MP camera that will automatically geotag the user’s location. The downside of the Monterra is it still fall short with the user experience. Even with the numerous updates, it's not free from a few bugs. Its complexity and price tag often leave users questioning if it's worth the purchase.
This device has a 3.9 out of 5 stars rating based on Amazon consumer reviews. It costs between $$ and $$.
This device is a build-up from the popular eTrex series. Just like the name indicates its an eTrex with a touchscreen. Garmin did a pretty good job with the nice quality touchscreen. This device is based on the eTrex 30 model and includes a better electronic compass, altimeter and wireless sharing between other Garmin devices.
This handheld GPS device, like newer Garmin devices, has received various complaints with its firmware. Most users complain of frozen screens and dropping waypoints. While Garmin always sorts this out, they get its reliability from their top-selling eTrex 20x. Still, the eTrex touch is a worth buy for your outdoor activities weighing 5.6 oz with a battery life of up to 16 hours.
This device has a 3.6 out of 5 stars rating due to Amazon customer reviews. It costs between $$ and $$.
Whether you are deep in the backcountry or on open waters, accurate navigation is paramount. For recording tracks, route finding, or geocaching there is no more reliable, long-lasting navigator than a handheld GPS device. While it could never fully replace a compass or a map, they are extremely handy when it comes to planning and sharing recent adventures. Unfortunately, one unbeatable giant brand, Garmin, dominates the GPS market. However, we hope you will be able to make a well-formed decision from our detailed analysis that will suit your outdoor needs.