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, and off-road or marine activities (paddle boarding, surfing, sailing, kayaking, fishing).
Your handheld hiking GPS will depend on your needs, and it is only sometimes necessary to buy a high-end device!
On the other hand, if you are thinking of a more compact and multi-purpose orientation tool, you could choose a hiking GPS watch. Buying guide here.
Check these hiking GPS reviews, and you will find the right for you!
Table of Contents
- Reviews of the top 5 best hiking GPS in 2022
- Garmin eTrex 22x - Easy to Use and Durable
- Garmin eTrex 32x - Versatile and robust
- Garmin Oregon 700 - The Most Affordable in the Oregon Series
- Garmin GPSMAP 66sr - The Most Accurate GPS
- Garmin Montana 700i - The 5-inch Display 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 5 best hiking GPS in 2022
"Updated January 2022"
The Garmin Etrex 22x is a compact handheld GPS device, ready to be used in the most demanding environments and with maximum durability. Garmin has created this device for use in the mountains, cycling, hiking, bicycle touring, and the outdoors in general.
The Garmin Etrex 22x at a glance
- Garmin - eTrex 22x - Hiking GPS with TopoActive mapping for US and Canada
- 2.2-inch sunlight-readable color display
- Pre-loaded TopoActive maps to guide you on the roads during your bike rides or on the trails during your hikes
- Multi-GNSS (Global Navigation Satellite Systems) (GPS and GLONASS) for even greater accuracy in challenging environments
- An easy-to-use and durable GPS
The main advantage of the Garmin Etrex 22x is its durability and ease of use.
Virtually any user can learn to track routes and view maps with it quickly (we don't need to download or install them), and it's also a very affordable device.
The Etrex 22x's screen is just the right size for easy viewing of trails, and its brightness is excellent for daytime use.
With 65,000 colors, readability is suitable for viewing all data during physical activity, and the 240 × 320px resolution is a good compromise between sharpness and battery life.
Pre-loaded maps for tracking routes
One of the highlights of the Garmin Etrex 22x GPS is the Topoactive maps, which include all the information for North America, (for other parts of the world, you may have to purchase the maps). It is suitable for running, hiking, cycling, mountain biking, fishing, and geocaching.
Overall, the Garmin Etrex 22x is a great companion for outdoor activities. I like the high level of detail on the map: all sorts of roads, buildings, and natural features appear, but also landmarks such as important places in urban areas.
If I had to define it, it is the most versatile, complete, reliable, and robust hiking GPS on the market for less than $300.
It's impossible to go wrong with this tool.
How do I know that? Because it's the updated and refined version of the eTrex 30, which has given us so much joy since 2012 and continues to do so.
Indeed, the Garmin eTrex 32x is a Garmin hiking GPS with mapping capability, running on two AA batteries (25 hours autonomy) and without a touchscreen. It is ideal if we run it with gloves on.
In addition, it has a barometric altimeter and a 3-axis compass and resists water to a depth of 1 meter for 30 minutes (IPX7).
It is easy to use and allows you to focus on navigation without too much confusion. It is robust (unlike a smartphone).
It runs on AA batteries that are easy to replace and use.
The screen is easily readable in sunlight.
The pre-loaded Garmin topographic maps have good trail coverage.
The software is stable and works perfectly—no need for improvements. The interface is easy to use.
The joystick may require some skill, especially with gloves.
The device turns on quickly when you touch the joystick.
On the other hand, the 8 GB internal memory is loaded with Garmin topo maps and does not leave much room for additional maps.
As a result, you'll need a micro SD card if you plan to load additional maps or heavy data. The USB connector and the mini-USB are included with the device.
Easy to use and packed with valuable features, the Garmin Oregon 700 is the most affordable GPS in the Oregon series.
This series features dual orientation touchscreens (landscape and portrait view) that work like a smartphone, making them intuitive for casual users.
Simple functionality combines striking features in a device ideal for various adventures in reasonable weather conditions.
It is also ideal for those who wish to follow multiple activities, such as hiking, trekking, cycling, and fishing.
General characteristics of the Garmin Oregon 700
- Garmin - Oregon 700 - Hiking GPS - 3" color touchscreen
- GPS and GLONASS satellite reception for more accurate tracking than GPS alone in steep areas
- 3-axis electronic compass with accelerometer and barometric altimeter
- 3" touch screen with dual orientation (landscape or portrait mode)
It's the cheapest option in the Oregon series, but it still offers plenty of options in a simple-to-use device.
A relatively large and bright screen is a big plus, but the 16 hours of battery life may seem short.
But because you can change the AA batteries wherever you are, it will never run out of power.
Compact and lightweight, it's also convenient to carry in a backpack or jacket pocket.
The Oregon 700 is excellent for sunny weather, where the touch screen shines.
In cold weather, however, it's a little less reliable, especially if you use alkaline batteries.
The Oregon 700 is too much for short geocaching trips or casual Sunday hikes.
In that case, a smartphone app will probably be more than sufficient.
But this is common to the Oregon 700. Any mountain and hiking GPS can be too expensive if you're not a hiker or don't like adventures.
It is intuitive, reliable, and fun to use as a GPS device and mountain guide.
However, there may be better choices for activities in icy climates where you constantly wear gloves.
But if you want a high-end GPS unit that's powerful, easy to use, and works reliably in climates that everyone will want to enjoy, this is a good buy for you.
Garmin's most accurate outdoor GPS: a GPS that features multi-band technology and supports a multitude of GNSS for maximum accuracy in the most challenging environments, such as heavy tree cover and canyons.
It features an altimeter, barometer, compass sensors, and routable TopoActive maps for North America and Canada and BirdsEye satellite imagery.
A high-precision GPS for challenging conditions.
Description of the Garmin GPSMAP 66sr
- There's no need to squint with this large, anti-glare color display.
- Multi-band technology and multiple GNSS support allow you to navigate in difficult areas.
- Maps are as beautiful and detailed as photos - without a subscription.
- Clearly display peaks and valleys with TopoActive maps.
- Having Active Weather is like having your weatherman for every trip (when paired with your smartphone).
- Discover new horizons with a battery life of up to 36 hours in GPS mode and 450 hours in Expedition mode.
- Integrated led light flashlight.
Garmin Montana 700i : Design
The Montana 700i's large 5-inch touchscreen display is the wider screen in the brand's portable hiking GPS units.
This screen is great because it can show you a ton of information about your surroundings and is relatively easy to read.
The downside is that the GPS is bigger and heavier than most other devices.
The touchscreen will display many maps and is very responsive for scrolling.
It's easy to see in the sun, no matter how bright it is, and you can adjust the brightness to save battery life. You'll have no problem interacting with it in light rain.
inReach Satellite Messaging
Another great feature of the Montana 700i is the included inReach feature.
inReach is a two-way satellite messaging service with SOS capability.
With the push of a button, you can send search and rescue messages anywhere in the world.
inReach operates on the Iridium network with 100% global coverage (needs subscription).
The QWERTY keyboard is excellent for typing long messages. The touch screen is nice to use because it is fast and responsive.
Weather reports & inReach subscription
The inReach will also allow you to pull weather reports via the Inreach subscription.
Remember that the Montana 700i, like every device with inReach, needs a subscription plan to work.
You can turn the subscription plan on and off when you don't need it, but the satellite tracking feature will stop recording.
Montana 700i: MIL-STD 810 protection rating
The Montana 700i GPS complies with the MIL-STD 810 standard, which makes it resistant to extreme temperatures (-33 to +60°C), shocks, water, and vibrations.
This protection rating is the system the U.S. military uses to test the durability and strength of electronic devices.
Having tried several older GPS devices, I can attest that the screens are often a weak point for manufacturers. But not with this model.
It is also IPX7 rated, so it will withstand being dropped in 1 meter of water for 30 minutes.
Light rain and accidental drops will not be a problem for this GPS.
Garmin Montana 700i: Topoactive Maps
The Montana 700i comes pre-loaded with Topoactive maps for U.S. and Canada.
These topographic maps with relief shading make it easier for you to see what the terrain you're on looks like.
You'll also access routable off-road paths and trails based on OpenStreetMap open-source data.
If you see a dirt road or trail on OpenStreetMap, it will be included on the topoactive maps to view and navigate.
The topoactive maps receive regular updates, which you can install via the Garmin Express application. It's nice to know that regular updates are issued.
Montana 700i : BirdsEye satellite imagery
Satellite imagery is a great planning tool for hiking, which will allow you to have a GPS track and topographic maps.
Many smartphone applications today offer users the possibility to access offline maps, some with satellite imagery. But Garmin has its solution called BirdsEye Satellite Imagery that you can download via Basecamp. However, it requires an annual subscription to use.
It is a helpful feature for finding trails and landmarks outside your topo maps.
Recent satellite images will easily show main trails, old roads, and lakes if you have downloaded them before you go.
BirdsEye can only be used via wifi, so you'll need to download the maps offline before leaving home.
Trail management is very similar to all other Garmin GPS units.
You can add new trails via Garmin Basecamp on your computer or via the app. The GPS will need to be connected to your smartphone or PC to transfer your tracks.
However, you will need a way to display all the tracks on the device's map at once. Instead, you'll have to browse the maps one by one and activate the tracks. So if you want to see an entire network of trails, it will take some time.
Garmin Montana 700i : VERDICT
The Garmin Montana 700i GPS with inReach is a great GPS for hiking.
Its large touchscreen will show you lots of details on the trail and is easy to use.
The built-in inReach will allow you to call for help if needed, anywhere.
The GPS is quite heavy overall, but if you're looking for a solid unit for hikes and adventures and can afford it, the Garmin Montana 700i is just right.
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 where you are and moves as you move. Several scales and 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, 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 evident and compulsory precaution; always carry a paper map and a compass, and 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 signal's travel time - between the transmitting satellite and the GPS receiver.
Therefore, the information from the two clocks must be exact 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 comes from 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. They remain reserved for specific uses (driverless cars, 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 other positioning constellations, the Russian GLONASS and the European GALILEO (there is also the Chinese BEIDOU, but it still needs to be operational).
The positioning accuracy is 3 to 5 meters for GPS satellites, a little worse 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 hiking GPS units combining GPS and Glonass systems are the most accurate regarding positioning. You can find such a 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 will enable 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 and communicate with your inReach device, you must subscribe to an annual plan or opt for a flexible monthly schedule.
It allows you to communicate by satellite to send and receive SMS and 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.
As they are also handheld GPS, the Garmin inReach SE+ and Explorer+ series are valuable tools to avoid getting lost in your outdoor adventures.
Similarly, a connection with other inReach devices within a range allows interaction. After pairing them from the free Earthmate application installed on a compatible mobile device, you will access downloadable maps. 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.
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 it before the hike to prepare for 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, 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 touchscreen 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 will talk more about geocaching in a few paragraphs below).
Here are the 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 during outdoor activities at all times and in all circumstances.
A true guardian angel
Have you ever been caught in the middle of your hike in a thick fog that you couldn't see more than 5 meters in front of you? It is not an experience you would like to live through without a handheld hiking GPS.
You find yourself unable to orient yourself, and if the weather gets bad, your exciting excursion will quickly become a nightmare.
Great for hiking, but not only!
Although often used in hiking, this 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 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.
So it's straightforward: people hide small boxes containing a guest book where you leave a brief record of your passage. They then share the geocache GPS track with the entire world on the Internet.
You download the map, transfer it to your unit, and go for the adventure. Pretty 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, which can overwhelm and sometimes get confusing to know what to look for. That is why I have listed 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. 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 could be better. Do you usually climb mountains? Cross large and dense forests? These places are generally known for poor reception satellite reception.
With a 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 will only find it in some models. Think about checking 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 to calculate height differences along your path.
If the altimeter also has a barometric function, it will turn your handheld GPS unit into an actual weather station. It may well plot weather forecasts based on changes in air pressure. Rather nice if it could warn you of a storm.
More significant memory allows more storage of information and maps. An extension of memory with a micro-SD card is quite helpful.
The internal memory may also be used for data storage, so you must 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 conditions.
Imagine yourself caught in a storm with your top-notch model. It takes on water, goes down, and you cannot orient yourself here.
Of course, this criterion may be of lesser importance for more occasional use.
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.
Check this point before buying if it is a critical selection criterion for you.
How do you use a GPS for hiking?
If every GPS brand uses its 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 you.
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 must pick up at least four 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 (require 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 is expanding its 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.
By capturing two different constellations, GPS and GLONASS. These receivers allow better reliability and accuracy, especially when they only capture a few satellites (at the bottom of a valley, in a dense forest).
In 2020, Europe will have its network called Galileo. Comprising 30 satellites, it will offer accuracy of a few meters and will be compatible with the EGNOS ground network.
Also, know that China is deploying its system.
Using a hiking GPS
You can use a hiking GPS as a primary or backup orientation and navigation tool.
This second case is mainly used to position oneself on a map when lost, for example.
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 case of a problem.
Of course, you must use it as a primary navigation tool to take advantage of all the features.
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 the following:
- A digital map
- A track to follow and/or waypoints
Digital maps to use with GPS
There are two types of maps for GPS.
In simple words, the raster map is a scanned paper map.
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.
It 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 the USA and IGN for France, by paper map publishers, or by community projects, such as OpenStreetMap, which offers 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 purchase 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.
Suppose TwoNav (primarily for Europe) proposes these maps to download on its site for a few dollars, making the installation more accessible, to install them on a Garmin model. In that case, 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.
For 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, verification still needs to be done.
If a person gets lost or takes a detour, it will be recorded in the GPX file.
Before you leave, it is vital to study the track (see which path it follows) to ensure that this is the path you intend to follow.
Some tourist offices, organizations, and topo-guides also sometimes offer tracks to download.
The second option is to draw your path. With the software corresponding to your handheld GPS, Land for TwoNav, BaseCamp for Garmin, and the digital map installed, you have to draw your hike route by following the hiking trail on the map.
It is also possible to add waypoints on essential places, such as refuges and 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 Google Earth 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 software like
GoogleEarth, to save it for your next hike, to publish it on GPS tracking 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.
Using them for short hikes (low battery life) or as a secondary orientation tool is advisable as a backup to the paper map.
For regular use, investing in a hiking GPS on hikes of several days is preferable. It remains, to this day, more adapted, more reliable, more robust, more autonomous than a smartphone.
Once the map and the trails are uploaded to 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, and 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 the GPS is of great use in good weather, on a marked trail, it may seem futile on unmarked routes, or in bad weather.
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: its small screen does not allow you to have an overview of your route. That's why it's essential to always keep a paper map with you.
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