Perhaps you’re planning for a field work activity this year that requires “trail marking” function or “way-point” function to note the exact location of your target location. Or maybe you’re a camper, hiker or even a hunter wondering how to navigate unfamiliar trails or open waters and what navigation tool that you might require. In this article we break down the year top handheld GPS devices to help to find your way to campsite, hunting spot or other location.
Best Overall Handheld GPS
- Garmin GPSMAP 64st ($238)
While most new Garmin handhelds are ditching their buttons, there are some holdouts, including the excellent GPSMAP 64st. What sets the GPSMAP series apart from the rest is its combination of price, accuracy, and firmware that is mostly free of bugs. GPSMAP 64st comes with a worldwide base-map with shaded relief and is pre-loaded with TOPO 100K, which includes coverage of the full U.S., including Alaska, Hawaii and Puerto Rico. Plus it includes a 1-year BirdsEye Satellite Imagery subscription – all the tools for serious climbing or hiking. Map detail includes national, state and local parks and forests, along with terrain contours, elevation information, trails, rivers, lakes and points of interest. The “s” in the name means the device can pair with your phone to receive notifications, but more importantly for us, the midrange model also includes an electronic compass and barometric altimeter. An external antenna and compatibility with GLONASS and GPS satellites ensure a reliable fix and class-leading accuracy at the cost of bulk and total weight.
A Second Close
2. Garmin Oregon 700 ( $289.99 )
Garmin Oregon 700 is a breezy model with a 3-inch sunlight-readable touchscreen display, which has dual orientation (landscape or portrait view). The device has simple menus and dedicated profiles for various sports (hiking, cycling, paddling, and more). If you’re sold on a touchscreen, the Oregon 700 is the best overall option on this list. What’s even more enticing is this model has a rugged design that Stands strong against dust, dirt and humidity -and it is water-rated to Ipx7.
The Third- And Best Based on Budget
3. Garmin eTrex 20x( $132.99 )
Expensive GPS devices offer an overwhelming and, and at times, unnecessary number of features, which is why for many users, the simple but excellent eTrex 20x is a great buy. This device Features a 2.2” 65K color sunlight readable display offering increased resolution (240 x 320 pixels). This GPS unit has a large 3.7 GB of internal memory and microSD card slot that allows you to load a variety of maps, including TOPO 24K, HuntView, BlueChart g2, City Navigator NT and BirdsEye Satellite Imagery (subscription required). True, it has a smaller screen than the expensive models, lacks a barometric altimeter, and does not have any touchscreen capabilities, but for $132.99 budget you get a tool with a high-sensitivity, WAAS-enabled GPS receiver, HotFix satellite prediction and GLONASS support. eTrex 20x can locate your position quickly and precisely and maintains its location even in heavy cover and deep canyons.
4th – The Best Wrist-mounted Alternative
4. Garmin Foretrex 601 ( $179.99 )
Garmin Foretrex 601 is waterproof , durable, hiking GPS constructed to military standards (MIL STD 810G). This wrist-mounted device is night vision goggle compatible and works with GPS, GLONASS and Galileo satellite systems to provide accurate positioning . The biggest compromise compared with the options above is that you aren’t able to add TOPO maps. Instead, you have to use the old-fashioned breadcrumb trail and 3-axis compass for navigation. Further, the 2-inch screen is small compared to a standard handheld unit, but on the plus side, it’s easy to read even in direct sunlight. All told, the Foretrex isn’t for everyone, but its simple design, durable build, and fantastic 48 hrs in navigation mode battery life has its appeals for back-country explorers.
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5. Garmin Epix ($371.82)
It’s true, the Garmin Epix is not just a small timepiece but an actual handheld GPS worn typically on a strap on one’s wrist like a watch. The device has 1.4 inch high resolution, sunlight visible color chroma touchscreen display. It might surprise you that this tiny device is laden with 8 GB internal memory that lets you load a variety of maps, including TOPO U.S. 24K and City Navigator NT. What Garmin Epix signifies is a leap in technology, packing many handheld navigation features and functionality into something that can be worn day-to-day.
Any Other Alternatives?
As you’ve seen from our top 5 picks, the market is dominated by one brand: Garmin. The reason is because no other player comes close to their mapping software and features set across their lineup.
However, there are many other brands like Magellan eXplorist 310 which serves to prove that the GPS game isn’t only for Garmin.
Te-Rich Handheld GPS is also another pocket friendly alternative that does everything a basic GPS should: Support GPS, GLONASS Navigation Satellite System, provide instant and precise positioning, create and follow routes, mark way-points and show your trip progress with tracks.
More Handheld GPS Buying Advice
- Touchscreen vs. Buttons
- Display: Screen Size and Readability
- GPS Receiver Types: WAAS and GLONASS
- Maps: Preloaded vs. Adding Later
- Battery Type and Battery Life
- Altimeter, Barometer and Compass (ABC)
- Dimensions and Weight
Touchscreen vs. Buttons
As with smartphones, touchscreens are increasingly becoming the preferred style of handheld GPS. Touchscreens are intuitive, easy to navigate and work in both landscape and portrait orientations.
The reason some of the best-rated models are built with buttons is because the supporting touch-based software isn’t as advanced. Another reason is because touch doesn’t work very well in rough, humid or cold conditions. Further, using a touchscreen outdoor can be a pain with gloves on—despite technologies that make some gloves work decently well.
But with all that in mind, touchscreen is the better choice over buttons. Buttons add bulk, and if you need to type, they are cumbersome and slow to navigate an on-screen keyboard. Your preferred style will vary, but if you’re wearing gloves most of the time, need to quickly navigate between screens while on the move or operate the GPS in frigid temperatures, buttons are best. As touchscreen technology continues to improve, including the current option to adjust the sensitivity setting of the screen, its benefit of a sleek and low profile design where more space can be dedicated to a screen will continue to win over more users.
Display: Screen Size and Readability
One of the main reasons to choose an upgraded GPS is for a larger screen size. For boating, hunting and motorized activities, a larger screen is helpful when you need to be able to see the information clearly at just a glance. GIS enthusiasts, mappers, hikers, backpackers and bike-packers might still be happy with a small and light device, such as the eTrex 20x.But for geocaching, a small or midsize screen will be inconvenient. The GPSMAP series has long been popular with mountain bikers and geocachers, and the eTrex works great for those on a budget.
The brightness of the screen and readability in direct sunlight are also important considerations. Thankfully, this has been an area of emphasis for Garmin lately, and their new models excel with anti-glare screens with good back-lighting and contrast that make maps and text easy to decipher.
GPS Receiver Types: WAAS and GLONASS
GPS devices are no longer simply compatible with GPS satellites. As with all segments of the handheld GPS world, Garmin is taking the lead here with the ability to connect with the GLONASS satellite system. In combination with the GPS network, this Russian-based technology improves the receiver’s performance in deep canyons and under heavy cover with 24 additional satellites, as well as overall accuracy for those in the northern latitudes. Note: you do need to turn on the GLONASS setting on the device to use it, and it will drain your battery a bit faster.
You’ll notice a number of new Garmin devices are listed as having a WAAS-enabled receiver, which is yet another opportunity for Garmin to leverage existing technology to improve accuracy in tracking. In this case, WAAS, which stands for Wide Angle Augmentation System, was originally developed for aviation to help compensate for hiccups in GPS tracking. It uses a network of satellite and ground-based stations for moments when GPS satellites were not reliably working. In use, the WAAS-enabled service should smooth out errors and further improve tracking accuracy.
Maps: Preloaded vs. Adding Later
Many Garmin devices come with the option for a preloaded 100k map. They’re easy to spot with a “t” at the end of the name and a subsequent slight bump in price (for example, the Garmin GPSMAP 64st).
Battery Type and Battery Life
The long-time standard for batteries in GPS devices was the trusty AA. They were cheap, had decent battery lives and could be swapped out when they were drained. On the downside, if you were heading out for more than a day—and sometimes just for the day—you’d need to bring backup batteries. With extra stuff brings extra weight and inconvenience. And while AA batteries remain an option for nearly all GPS devices, Garmin and others have turned to rechargeable battery packs as a compelling alternative.
The main advantage is the ability to recharge on the go. If you already bring a solar panel or battery pack for charging your other devices, it’s as simple as hooking it up to your Garmin unit. The lithium-ion battery packs do cost you a little extra.
Altimeter, Barometer and Compass (ABC)
Nearly all handheld GPS devices feature a barometric altimeter and 3-axis compass. The advantage of the electronic compass is its ability to read direction no matter how you’re holding the device. Standard compasses require you to hold the device horizontally to orient properly. It’s a small but nice addition, particularly if you’re needing to hold the device upright to get a signal. Getting a read on barometric pressure is helpful in determining elevation because the higher you go, the lower the pressure. The science isn’t perfect here, however, because when weather shifts, barometric pressure also changes, which can skew the numbers. That said, a barometric altimeter remains the best option for mountainous and back-country use, and can provide a helpful approximation of your current elevation.
Dimensions and Weight
In most cases, dimensions and weight correspond with screen size. How you’ll be using the device will dictate how important dimensions and weight are. The Garmin Oregon 700 is a best seller because it’s light and reasonably small without compromising readability. Those that opt for high-end devices like the Monterra and Montana are not typically carrying them in their hand or hiking with a pack, instead placing them on a handlebar mount for snowmobiling.
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