Today, many hiking GPS offers are available. For beginners and experts alike, it is often difficult to choose and understand the differences between several handheld GPS units.
This buying guide will inform people interested in choosing and purchasing a handheld GPS for outdoor activities such as hiking, mountain biking, cycling or geocaching, off-road or marine activities (paddle boarding, surfing, sailing, kayaking, fishing).
The choice of your handheld hiking GPS will depend on your needs, and it is not always necessary to buy a high-end device!
On the other hand, if you are thinking of a more compact and muliti-purpose orientation tool, you could choose a hiking GPS watch. Buying guide here.
Check these hiking GPS reviews and you'll be fixed!
Table of Contents
- Reviews of the top 8 best hiking GPS in 2020
- GPORTER GP-102 + - Cheap and Effective
- Garmin eTrex 10 - Geocaching at a low price
- Bushnell Bear Grylls Edition BackTrack D-Tour GPS - Compact and functional
- Garmin eTrex 20x - The best value for money
- Garmin eTrex 30 - The crush!
- Garmin eTrex Touch 35 - The ultimate outdoor GPS
- Garmin Oregon 650t - The ultimate multi-feature GPS
- Garmin Montana 680 - The ultimate customizable GPS
- FAQ about Hiking GPS
- inReach Global Satellite Communication by Garmin
- Why use a handheld GPS for hiking?
- Handheld GPS for Hiking: How to make life simpler by making it safer
- What to consider before buying a handheld GPS for hiking?
- How do you use a GPS for hiking?
Reviews of the top 8 best hiking GPS in 2020
GPORTER GP-102 + - Cheap and Effective
You are new to hiking, and you want the help of a handheld GPS? The GPORTER 102+ is the one you need. It is the easiest portable GPS to use!
Given its low price, it does not have super-advanced technology, as you can imagine, but it has the major features: pedometer, altimeter, barometer, thermometer, clock.
So you'll know what distance you covered, at what altitude you are, and what the atmospheric pressure and the air temperature are at your position.
Its backlit LCD display allows you to see the information displayed regardless of the brightness. And something special for those who keep their device in a pocket or backpack: you have to press two buttons to browse.
Some will see it as an ergonomic fault, but I find it rather useful as it avoids random clicks and the risk of false manipulation.
In short, the GP-102 GPORTER + is an excellent device to start hiking with a handheld GPS!
Garmin eTrex 10 - Geocaching at a low price
If you want to go hiking and treasure hunt occasionally, this is the ideal device! It will meet all your geolocation expectations and let you discover geocaching for cheap.
With the Garmin eTrex 10, you have a reliable ally for hiking, and some even use it for making cycling trips or sea navigation (to be used with other cards of course).
I must admit that for that price, the benefit from GLONASS (GLONASS is Russia's version of GPS, provides an alternative to the American positioning system and is the second navigational system in operation with global coverage and of comparable precision) is something exceptional.
At the base, the GPS system is excellent, but the two systems coupled together put it over the top. They allow an immediate, precise location, by receiving 24 satellites!
In the depths of a forest, in the middle of a valley, on the highest peaks, with this Garmin unit, you are not about to get lost!
Bushnell Bear Grylls Edition BackTrack D-Tour GPS - Compact and functional
Those who, like me, do not like to be hampered by large equipment will be delighted with this little outdoor GPS from Bushnell. The Backtrack D-Tour is a capable device with all the necessary features needed for hiking.
The Bushnell BackTrack D-Tour will provide you with useful information either in real time or once at home on the computer. During your hike, it will give very accurate information on your position, altitude, distance and will do the same back at home with accurate information through the Dtour application on your PC or Mac.
The backtrack mode as the name suggests is to take you back to your starting point, and that is an exciting feature. You can select up to 5 departure or destination points and your device you will take you there promptly!
Also very useful to find your car if you parked in a remote parking lot or even a few blocks away from your home.
Garmin eTrex 20x - The best value for money
With the eTrex 20x, Garmin has found the perfect balance between quality and price. This Garmin model features a high-resolution display with 65,000 colors, an internal memory of 4 GB (possibility of another microSD card) and basic features for hiking.
Other benefits and they are many, are the TopoActive preloaded maps (for Eastern/Western Europe) that allow the use of the handheld GPS for hiking as it was initially designed but also for Geocaching, mountaineering, biking or even fishing!
Using 24 GPS and GLONASS satellites allows 20% faster positioning even in the most remote areas. The excuse of "I got lost" is no longer valid, your device knows where you are!
Do not forget the itinerary feature that allows you to go from point A to point B by following the path shown on your super color screen! And it is even possible to plan your routes with the BaseCamp software, so you can find out in advance about points of interest, nearby geocaches and why not, yes, yes read it right, the Garmin eTrex 20x manages GPX files of the site geocaching.com for treasure hunting.
To you, the beautiful adventures with this hiking GPS tracker!
Garmin eTrex 30 - The crush!
We go upmarket with this eTrex 30 from Garmin.
Well, I will not dwell on the basic features found on the eTrex 20x (like route planning with BaseCamp, the ability to add memory, the availability of satellite images with BirdsEye (optional), enhanced location with GPS and GLONASS and of course the function for Geocaching treasure hunt), but on the evolutions.
Compared to its predecessor, Garmin has redesigned the ergonomics, there is an improved interface and a social feature among users. Indeed, you can share your waypoints and your tracks with the Garmin community and this wireless!
The ETrex 30 also allows profiles configuration, which will be of great help when you go for a bicycle ride, after you just came from a geocaching session 2 days before.
No need to set up since you have already done it once! It's fast, effective and straightforward.
Other big news, the device has an electronic 3-axis compass with inclination compensation that allows you to stay on course even if the device is not horizontal.
You will therefore always follow the right road, but not as far as Rome!
Not to mention the barometric altimeter, which calculates your exact altitude depending on the pressure so that you can monitor the weather as well.
View the full review of the Garmin eTrex 30x HERE!
Garmin eTrex Touch 35 - The ultimate outdoor GPS
With the eTrex Touch 35, we go up in the category. This time with a unit specialized in outdoor activities such as biking, hiking, geocaching and for families with a device suitable for all (small, robust, waterproof and with touch screen).
For the basic features, the device will give you a wealth of information for practicing hunting and fishing thanks to a program with optimized activity profiles that will allow you with a simple click to move from one mode to another.
It geolocates to perfection with GPS and GLONASS, tells you sunrise and sunset times, altitude and heading to keep with its electronic compass.
Another positive feature: the Bluetooth connection connects to your smartphone to receive notifications directly on the screen of the device with the Smart Notifications program.
Other features include data logging and synchronization to Garmin Connect or Garmin Adventures.
The Garmin eTrex 35 Touch is preloaded with TopoActive maps (for Eastern/Western Europe) that will allow you to take on the paths and trails, downloading nothing.
It will delight geocaching enthusiasts, as they will find that over 250,000 geocaches are listed in the eTrex Touch 35 directly from the geocaching.com official website.
A must-have for lovers of the great outdoors.
Garmin Oregon 650t - The ultimate multi-feature GPS
With this high-end model of handheld GPS, you'll keep beautiful memories of your outings!
Let's start with the basic features from Garmin like the different activity profiles, the barometric altimeter, the 3-axis compass, the GPS + GLONASS systems which guarantee high positioning accuracy, the Bluetooth connection to connect your smartphone and the BaseCamp route planner.
Now I will talk about the other programs that make the Garmin Oregon 650T, a real “workhorse”.
First, the 3-inch touchscreen with double orientation - portrait and landscape - that will excite everyone.
We have the customization of the dashboard with shortcuts and monitoring activities that allow you to schedule your trips directly on your device.
Then the famous 8 MP camera with autofocus and geographic tag recording.
The flashlight with several levels of lighting that will save the battery when you go out at night.
Speaking of energy, this device is the first to have dual power: the NiMH (16 hours of battery life) recharges as soon as you plug it in or the unit can run on conventional AA batteries.
No more excuses to say "I was out of batteries". You always have a spare one now!
Garmin Montana 680 - The ultimate customizable GPS
Take the Oregon 650 (just above) and add a 4-inch TFT touchscreen with 65,000 color and all the customization options and you will get the Garmin Montana 680.
A robust, waterproof, reliable hiking GPS, highly readable and useful, regardless of your activity type.
With its new tracks manager, you can plan your route according to your sport profiles and easily choose your waypoints.
In front of an interesting site, you can also capture the moment and take beautiful pictures with the 8 MP camera integrated into the unit. Let’s have a little selfie?
Regarding customization, you can opt for shortcuts and have a dashboard that suits your needs with only the information you want (you can display up to 16 items on the screen).
You can also customize the internal menus, and you can put everything in the order you want to have faster access to your favorite applications and all this with extreme simplicity.
If for you, nature is not a place where you want to be wracking your brain with the material, then opt for the Montana 680 with its large screen. It's a safe bet.
FAQ about Hiking GPS
What is the best hiking GPS unit to buy?
The essential criteria for selecting the best hiking GPS are:
- battery life
- quality of GPS signal reception
- robustness and water resistance
- screen size
Do I need a handheld GPS for hiking?
You would need a GPS for hiking if you want to:
- Visualize your position on the screen; a marker simulates our position and moves as we move. Several scales, several representations are possible. The background on which the mark moves is either a neutral background or a map.
- Record your route: a succession of points called waypoints are stored in the GPS.
- Follow a route: you try to superimpose the marker of your location with a route.
- Go to a place; the destination is a waypoint and the GPS shows you a course to follow.
- Follow a path on a map; you want to overlay your location with the path marker.
And don't forget some natural uses:
- when you get lost, to find your way in the fog.
- to explore, without precise preparation, looking for paths following the map background.
- to retrace your steps by following the same path in the opposite direction.
Finally, an obvious and compulsory precaution; always carry a paper map and a compass, add an altimeter when in the mountains because electronic devices are not immune to breakdown or battery failure.
What is the most accurate handheld GPS?
To define which handheld GPS device is the most accurate, we must first understand how accuracy is achieved.
The accuracy of atomic clocks
Synchronization? Yes, because our position can be deduced from the travel time - between the transmitting satellite and the GPS receiver - of the signal.
The information from the two clocks must, therefore, be extremely precise and synchronized.
A shift of one microsecond results in a positioning error of some 300 meters!
Hence the use of atomic clocks. It is these clocks - plus some relativistic corrections - that make the precision of the GPS.
Since our handheld units are not equipped with such clocks, the timestamp is produced by the atomic clock embedded in a satellite.
GPS chips and devices
Some GPS chips can provide accuracy to the centimeter but, for the moment, they are still too expensive and energy-intensive to be available to the general public and therefore remain reserved for specific uses (driverless car, precision farming, military applications, etc.).
As for our GPS units and smartphones, they offer a precision that oscillates, for the best of them, between 5 and 10 meters, which is already quite interesting.
GPS, GLONASS and GALILEO constellations
You probably already know that besides GPS there are two others positioning constellations, the Russian GLONASS and the European GALILEO (there is also the Chinese BEIDOU but not operational yet).
The accuracy of positioning is 3 to 5 meters for GPS satellites, a little less good for the Glonass constellation and in the order of a meter for Galileo, thanks in particular to the atomic clock onboard each satellite, which is more recent and therefore more accurate.
The harmonious use of the two infrastructures (dual source) brings a real advantage in terms of accuracy and safety in the event of failure of one of the two systems.
So we can safely say that hiking GPS units combining GPS and Glonass systems are the most accurate when it comes to positioning. You can find such feature in almost all Garmin models.
THE FOUR CONSTELLATIONS of geopositioning satellites:
CONSTELLATIONS of geopositioning satellites
number of operational satellites
21 (26 launched) full deployment in 2020
21 - full deployment in 2020
inReach Global Satellite Communication by Garmin
Even if it does not allow you to make calls, the Garmin inReach technology is still a tool that offers many possibilities that allow you to communicate wherever you are in the world.
To this end, it uses the Iridium satellite network, for which global coverage is known to be reliable. To access it and communicate with your inReach device, you must subscribe to an annual plan or opt for a flexible monthly schedule.
This gives you the ability to communicate by satellite to not only send and receive SMS, but also to exchange messages with all mobile numbers and email addresses. Connected to the GEOS worldwide search and rescue coordination center, this device allows you to send an interactive SOS message.
Being also a handheld GPS, the Garmin inReach SE+ and Explorer+ series are a valuable tool to avoid getting lost in your outdoor adventures.
Similarly, a connection with other inReach devices within range allows interaction with them. From the free Earthmate application installed on a compatible mobile device, you will access downloadable maps after pairing. There are many other options available to you.
The InReach Mini, on the other hand, provides global messaging and interactive SOS plus basic GPS and compass page navigation. It can pair with a smartphone, tablet or compatible Garmin outdoor device to access topographic maps, aerial imagery, U.S. NOAA charts and other advanced features.
Last update on 2021-06-19 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API
Why use a handheld GPS for hiking?
A handheld hiking GPS can display your position on the screen, record your route, follow a trail, head to a specific location or follow a path on the map.
You can use before the hike to prepare the trail, during the trek to follow a path and after the hike to analyze the data.
A GPS is useful for hikers, hunters, fishermen, but also for geocache fans, mountain bikers or motorcyclists.
It replaces the paper map and the compass for navigation. A point on the screen shows your position on a map, and a line indicates the route you have just taken while an arrow points to your destination. It's as simple as that.
Besides the usual guidance on a map, the latest models offer a touch screen that is readable in full sun, a barometric altimeter (more accurate than GPS for altitude) and an electronic compass.
A handheld GPS is a classic solution for hiking because it offers robustness, low price, and autonomy.
A GPS map for hiking is entirely waterproof, sturdy, and works simply with AA batteries. It is an option that has proven itself for hiking, treasure hunting, or geocaching (I talk more about geocaching a few paragraphs below).
Here are pros and cons:
- Ease of use
- Need to buy or download maps
- Need to buy a memory card
- Works with batteries
Handheld GPS for Hiking: How to make life simpler by making it safer
A hiking GPS meets a simple need and does it well: the need to orient yourself correctly at all times and in all circumstances, during outdoor activities.
A true guardian angel
Have you ever been caught in the middle of your hike in a fog so thick that you couldn't see more than 5 meters in front of you? This is not an experience you would like to live through without a handheld hiking GPS.
You find yourself unable to orient yourself, and if weather gets bad, your exciting excursion will quickly turn into a nightmare.
Great for hiking, but not only!
Although often used in hiking, this type of positioning device can be used for many other activities. Are you a fan of strenuous mountain bike rides? Long horseback riding? Or maybe your gig is to hurtle down a mountain on skis?
All these activities can be made safer and easier to organize with a handheld GPS.
You can also use these devices for another lesser-known type of outdoor activity: geocaching.
Geocaching: A new kind of treasure hunt
Do you not know what geocaching is? It's simple: it's a community treasure hunt. An adventure for all ages to love.
Do you have children? You must have them try this! I do not know about you, but personally, this is the thing I would have loved doing when I was a kid.
Okay then, you're probably wondering what exactly it is, right?
So it's very simple: people hide small boxes containing a guest book where you leave a brief record of your passage. They then share on the Internet the geocache GPS track to the entire world.
You download the map, transfer it to your unit, and go for the adventure. Rather cool, right?
There are millions of geocaches scattered all around the globe. It is often an opportunity to discover new and exciting places you probably would never have found otherwise.
What to consider before buying a handheld GPS for hiking?
These devices often have so many features, and it can overwhelm and sometimes it gets confusing to know what to look for. That is why I have listed for you the features to check first so you can easily find the model that suits you best.
Having a tool with the latest technology is helpful. But do you think your handheld GPS will still be useful when the battery is dead?
So it is essential to buy a model with sufficient autonomy.
The models with the best battery life are around 25 hours. Needless to say that if it can hold 3 to 4 long days of hiking, you will have peace of mind.
The quality of reception of the GPS signal
During a hike, you're likely to find yourself in places where the reception of the GPS signal is not the best. Do you usually climb mountains? Cross large and dense forests? These places are usually not known for good reception satellite reception.
With poor signal, the accuracy of your position will be significantly reduced, and sometimes, may even become unusable.
Having a built-in compass in your hiking GPS is something I consider essential. It will allow your device to tell you which direction you are heading, even if you are not moving.
Without a compass, you cannot know which direction you are turning, if you are not walking or moving forward.
While this feature may seem basic, you won't find it in all models. Think to check for this detail, if you consider not being able to do without a compass.
The altimeter is also a function that will improve your location. It will provide more information about your trip, and allow you the calculation of height differences along your path.
If the altimeter has also a barometric function, it will turn your handheld GPS unit into a real weather station. It may well plot weather forecasts based on changes in air pressure. Rather nice if it can warn you of a storm, don’t you think?
A larger memory allows more storage of information and maps. An extension of memory with a micro-SD card is quite useful.
The internal memory may also be used for data storage only, so you will have to store your cards on a separate micro-SD card.
Robustness / Resistance to water
It is always best to have an extra-sturdy device. You'll have no nasty surprises in extreme weather condition.
Imagine yourself caught in a storm with your top-notch model? It takes on water, goes down, and here you are unable to orient yourself.
Of course, for more occasional use, this criterion may be of lesser importance.
Entry level hiking GPS devices have mostly monochrome screens.
Is it out of the question for you to use such a screen? No worries, there is something to satisfy everyone.
The latest models will offer a color touch screen of excellent quality. But for this, you will have to spend at least a hundred dollars more.
If it is an important selection criterion for you, check this point before buying.
How do you use a GPS for hiking?
If every GPS brand uses its own interface, making it difficult to describe precisely the steps to follow to set up and prepare your device for your hike, the method remains the same for all.
To take full advantage of it, you need a background map to locate yourself and a track (or waypoints) to guide yourself.
Principles of GPS
The Global Positioning System is a network of 24 satellites (originally) owned by the US military.
With 12 satellites for the northern hemisphere and 12 for the southern hemisphere, it allows, thanks to a GPS receiver (a hiking GPS for example) to get its position on earth with an accuracy of about ten meters.
The receiver needs to pick up at least 4 satellites to determine its position.
Besides the satellite network, there are two terrestrial networks, WAAS in the United States and Canada, and EGNOS in Europe.
They allow you to refine the positioning accuracy to about 3 meters in covered areas (requires that your receiver system is WAAS/EGNOS compatible, and the option activated).
Today, with our increasing reliance on GPS, and to meet the competition, the USA are expanding their network (31 satellites to date) to improve the accuracy and reliability of the system.
Because the GPS satellite constellation is not unique, Russia has the GLONASS network and many GPS receivers are compatible with it.
By capturing two different constellations, GPS and GLONASS, these receivers allow a better reliability and accuracy, especially when they only capture few satellites (in the bottom of a valley, in a dense forest...).
In 2020, Europe will have its own network called Galileo. Comprising 30 satellites, it will offer an accuracy of a few meters and will be compatible with the EGNOS ground network.
Also know that China is deploying its own system.
Using a hiking GPS
You can either use a hiking GPS as a primary or backup orientation and navigation tool.
In this second case, it is mainly used to position oneself on a map, when lost for example.
Simply read the coordinates it shows and plot them on the map to get your immediate location.
You can also use it to quickly transmit your position to the emergency services in the event of a problem.
Of course, to take advantage of all the features, you must use it as a primary navigation tool.
Using a handheld GPS requires preparation before your hike if you want to take full advantage of its capabilities once in the field.
To do this, you will need:
- A digital map
- A track to follow and/or waypoints
Digital maps to use with GPS
There are two types of maps for GPS.
The raster map which is, to put it simply, a paper map that has been scanned.
It is often more economical, but less suitable. For example, the more you zoom in on the map, the blurrier it gets and the slower it loads on the screen.
Whereas the vector map is digitally redrawn, layer by layer where each element is independent.
This allows you to isolate elements by filtering them to make them more visible.
For example, to give more prominence to hiking trails to better distinguish them from the rest. It also offers the advantage of having no loss of quality at any zoom level.
Digital maps are produced either by the geographical institutes of the country concerned, such as the USGS for USA, IGN for France, or by paper map publishers, or by community projects, such as OpenStreetMap, which offer free global mapping.
For the first two cases, GPS manufacturers offer on their site the purchase of these digital maps to download.
You can also buy them in bookshops (you buy a memory card to insert in the unit or a code giving the right to download).
They are usually expensive, but they are the most complete.
For community projects, they are often country specific, so you have to do some research on the internet to find them.
There is only OpenStreetMap that covers all countries in the world. These maps are often free, but a little less complete.
With an increasing number of users, they are over time more and more detailed and often sufficient.
If TwoNav (mostly for Europe) proposes these maps to download on its site for a few dollars, making the installation easier, to install them on a Garmin model, you have to do it by yourself by downloading them from OpenStreetMap sites here.
GPS track and waypoints
One advantage of handheld GPS is the ability to display the track of the route you are following on a background map.
To do this, a file in GPX format (standard format for exchange between GPS units) has to be copied to the device containing the tracks and waypoints of the hike to be carried out.
GPS tracks can be retrieved from other hikers on sharing sites, such as Wikiloc which covers the world.
Their advantage is that they make it possible to find many traces easily, but on the other hand no verification of the traces is done.
If a person got lost, took a detour, it will be recorded in the GPX file.
It is important to study the track (see which path it follows) before you leave, to make sure that this is the path you intend to follow.
Some tourist offices, organizations, topo-guides also sometimes offer tracks to download.
The second option is to draw your track. With the software corresponding to your handheld GPS, Land for TwoNav, BaseCamp for Garmin, and the digital map installed, you just have to draw the route of your hike by following the hiking trail on the map.
It is also possible to add waypoints on important places, such as refuges, passes.
AllTrails is also an interesting site for recorded trails.
These sites are easy to use and have many map backgrounds.
You can also draw your itinerary using GoogleEarth software, which has the particularity of using satellite images as a background map.
Record your journey
In addition to the guidance, a handheld GPS can record (in a GPX format file) the entire route taken.
This allows you to review your hike when you come back on a software like GoogleEarth, to save it for your next hike, to publish it on GPS track sharing sites.
GPS applications for smartphones
While GPS applications for smartphones are often more intuitive to use and above all more economical (no hiking GPS to buy), their use is more limited.
It is advisable to use them for short hikes (low battery life) or as a backup to the paper map as a secondary orientation tool.
For regular use, on hikes of several days, it is preferable to invest in a hiking GPS. It remains, to this day, more adapted, more reliable, more robust, more autonomous than a smartphone.
Once the map and the trails are installed in the GPS, all you have to do is activate tracking so that the device guides you through the trails, and depending on its options, it can also display a lot of information, such as the distance to the next pass, the ascents made and remaining, the walking time to reach the next hut.
But above all you will always know exactly where you are and the direction you need to follow to reach your destination.
If in good weather, on a marked trail, it may seem futile, on unmarked routes and/or in bad weather, the GPS is of great use.
No matter which handheld GPS unit or application you choose, it always takes time to learn how to use them. It is important to practice using it and to know your tool well before relying on it for routine use.
One last word, a hiking GPS has one major flaw, with its small screen, it does not allow you to have an overview of your route. That's why it's important to always keep a paper map with you.
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