Best Handheld GPS for Hiking in 2019 (Reviews + Map Tips)

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 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 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 one for your next trip.

Quick Summary

Best Traditional: Garmin GPSMAP 64st, TOPO U.S. 100K with High-Sensitivity GPS and GLONASS Receiver

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.

Best Modern: Garmin Oregon 650t 3-Inch Handheld GPS with 8MP Digital Camera

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.

Who Should (Or Shouldn’t) Get This?

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.

Best Handheld GPS for Hiking: What to Consider

Size

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.

Battery

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.

Interface

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.

Features

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 Handheld GPS for Hiking: Top Picks 2019

1. Garmin GPSMAP 64st, TOPO U.S. 100K with High-Sensitivity GPS and GLONASS Receiver


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.

Pros:

  • 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.

Cons:

  • 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.

>> Check Price on Amazon <<

2. Garmin Oregon 650t 3-Inch Handheld GPS with 8MP Digital Camera


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.

Pros:

  • 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.

Cons:

  • Not ideal if you prefer physical buttons, and preloaded maps are the United States only.

>> Check Price on Amazon <<

3. Garmin Foretrex 401 Waterproof Hiking GPS


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.

Pros:

  • 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.

Cons:

  • Doesn’t support topographic maps, but you can also bring a paper map instead.

>> Check Price on Amazon <<

GPS Map Tips & Tricks

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.

Other great sites for getting cheap or free maps include GPSFileDepot, which has maps from around the world, or the United States Geological Survey (USGS) if your trip is in the states.

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.

Conclusion

Whether you plan to go geocaching for the afternoon or backpacking for a week, a handheld 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 an Apple and Microsoft fanboy who works with his Mac and lives with a PC at home. While he is not reading technology journals, you’ll probably find him playing online games with friends or hiking in the wild.

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