Sure, you can download directions from Google Maps for offline use — but that’s the kind of thing you use for a weekend ski trip, not a trek by foot up a mountain.
GPS (Global Positioning System) tech has become so commonplace it’s often taken for granted. Every smartphone on the market can get you to that distant relative’s house or lead you through the city in search of a new restaurant. However, they tend to falter once the 4G (Fourth Generation of Broadband Cellular Network Technology) connection disappears.
That’s where a handheld GPS comes in. They’re perfect for hikers venturing out of the cellular grid and guide you along trails or any route you pick. And just as they allow you to confidently navigate the wilderness, we’re here to help you navigate the world of choosing the best hiking GPS for your next trip.
Featuring physical buttons and antenna, this device is what comes to mind when one says “handheld GPS”. It’s preloaded with plenty of materials from topo maps to geocaches and has plenty of extra memory for uploading your own maps.
The touchscreen display, digital camera, and brightly colored screen make this sleek model extremely modern. It’s complete with preloaded maps and uses both rechargeable and replaceable power for optimal battery life.
Most Flexible: Garmin Foretrex 401 Waterproof Hiking GPS
With a wrist strap for easy access and a case that’s both water and dust-proof, the Foretrex is ready for anything you throw at it. While it doesn’t support topo maps, it’s extremely precise and easy to use, making it a great and practical choice.
Should You Get a Handheld GPS?
If you hike outside of your local nature center, then you’re going to find yourself in need of a GPS very soon. It could simply be because your phone battery dies, but more than likely it will be because you need something that can get signal in areas that Google Maps or Apple Maps doesn’t, and will never have, on street view.
Whether you’re a lifelong hiker or just starting to hit the trail, a GPS is incredibly important. It allows you to create paths and waypoints, reduces the likelihood that you will get lost, and will work when your phone has long since given up. From a day trip to a weeklong trek, a handheld GPS will be able to get you there. The durability of these devices is unmatched, and they’re perfect for anyone who wants to get serious about the outdoors.
Handheld GPS for Hiking: What to Consider in 2020?
If you’ve ever been backpacking, you know that every ounce counts when you are lugging it up a mountain, and every inch counts when trying to pack the last of your belongings into a single bag. The GPS you choose needs to balance functionality with practicality. Always check the weight of each potential unit, and consider that any backup batteries are also going to add to that number. Make sure the unit will fit comfortably in your hand and easily into your pack since some models aren’t perfect rectangles.
The battery life of your GPS is extremely important. While handheld units have the advantage of typically use replaceable batteries rather than requiring recharging, it’s inconvenient to carry a bunch of extra sets. You’ll want a battery life of at least 16 hours, but many offer up to 48 hours, which is especially great if you plan to go on longer trips.
You should pick an interface that you can comfortably interact with. While some people can’t survive with the familiarity of a touch screen, others will get better use out of physical buttons (especially if you’ll be wearing gloves or have larger fingers). Some handhelds are offered in black and white, instead of color. These can be easier to read in direct sunlight, but harder to use.
Technological advancements have made the handheld GPS more than a map. From the different types of maps the unit supports to additional features such as messaging, almost every model offers a little something extra that differentiates it from the crowd. If these are necessary to you, narrow your search to higher-end models.
Best Hiking GPS in 2020: Our Picks
Featuring a wristwatch-like design that makes your GPS wearable for easy access, the Foretrex is a great bet. It’s waterproof, stands up to dust, and has an 8-hour battery life (takes AAA batteries). The screen is black and white, but clearly visible in direct sunlight.
- Straps onto your wrist for easy access, and can sync up with other units (for example, if your hiking partner is also using one).
- Screen display can be customized and can feature up to four categories of information at once.
- Tracks everything from elevation to distance traveled.
- Supports MGRS maps as well.
- Doesn’t support topographic maps, but you can also bring a paper map instead.
Complete with easy to press buttons, a sunlight readable display, and preloaded topo maps, this unit is great for users of all levels. It’s even preloaded with 250,000 geocaches, has a built-in barometer, and 8GB of internal memory for storing all your additional maps and routes.
- Comes with many preloaded features, which is great for beginners who are just getting the hang of things as well as experts who would like some free materials.
- It’s rugged and even offers Bluetooth compatibility. 16-hour battery life.
- Shape is slightly awkward for placing in packs due to the antenna.
- Only comes with US maps, so if you plan to hike elsewhere (such as Europe) you will need to buy additional maps.
Featuring a complete touchscreen display that’s resistant to sunlight, and capable of taking pixels with an 8MP camera, the Oregon 650t is ready for the trails. It comes preloaded topo maps for the US and uses both batteries or the built-in rechargeable lithium-ion power pack.
- Offering a camera and LED flashlight, the extra features are a leg up against other models.
- It can quickly obtain an accurate fix on your position.
- The size and shape are ideal for fitting into a pack, pocket, or your palm.
- Not ideal if you prefer physical buttons, and preloaded maps are the United States only.
Useful Map Tips
Every GPS comes with a default map, but if you’re looking for more, it can sometimes cost you more than anticipated. Luckily, you don’t have to buy all your maps directly from the source.
If you’re using a Garmin GPS system, you can read the instruction video below for uploading free maps from OpenStreetMaps and installing them onto your handheld.
Remember that a handheld GPS should never replace your normal map and compass. Electronics are never guaranteed to work, and it’s not a risk worth taking. Make sure you know how to navigate both ways, especially if you’ll be hiking somewhere particularly remote.
Whether you plan to go geocaching for the afternoon or backpacking for a week, a handheld hiking GPS will help you find your way. Multiple map formats, screen types, sizes, and styles are available so you can make sure to get a device that fits your needs.
We hope this guide has led you to a decision, and if so, we’d love to hear about it. Leave a comment below and tell us where you’re headed!
Andreas is a freelance tech writer based in California. He works on a Mac in the office and lives with a PC and many old computer electronics at home. While he is not reading or writing, you’ll probably find him playing online games with friends.