If you are heading out for a hike in the backcountry, one of the most indispensable appliances you can bring along is a handheld hiking GPS. This little device frees you from having to rely solely on paper maps and a compass to find your way. With it, you can check your exact coordinates at any time, view detailed information on your surroundings, chart your path, and stay safe.
Thinking of buying a hiking GPS, but not sure where to begin your search for the best model? Below you can view prices and features for bestselling hiking GPS devices.
If you still are not sure what you need, read on to learn everything you need to know about hiking GPS models.
What is a Hiking GPS?
A hiking GPS is a handheld device you can carry with you anywhere on earth. Because it uses satellites (more on that below) to pinpoint your position, you can use it even out in the backcountry.
The abbreviation “GPS” is short for “Global Positioning System.” Originally GPS was created for military use by the U.S. Department of Defense. Eventually access to the GPS network was given to civilians as well. GPS now is used widely for commercial and private purposes.
How Does a Hiking GPS Work?
A hiking GPS device is able to communicate with satellites in orbit. GPS satellites transmit ongoing information about their position and the time. Your hiking GPS receiver combines this position and time data from several satellites to determine your precise coordinates on earth.
Questions to Ask When Shopping for a Hiking GPS
Do you really need to buy a hiking GPS?
Generally speaking, if you are going to be hiking out in the backcountry, the GPS app on your smartphone is not going to provide you with the utility you need. Your smartphone is not very rugged, and the battery life is too short for a long hike. Plus, the GPS features are very restricted. But if you only take the occasional hike now and again, it may not make a lot of sense to go out and buy a whole new device. For frequent backcountry hikers, however, a hiking GPS is a necessary buy.
What kind of mapping software do you want?
There are three common types of mapping software included with hiking GPS devices: proprietary software, third-party software, or what is known as “waypoint management software.” Learn about all three options in-depth before you decide on a device. And do not forget to bring your old-fashioned paper maps with you as well. While a GPS can provide you with far more information than a paper map, any device can fail, and you should never be without a backup.
How much memory do you need?
This is a very important consideration when shopping for a hiking GPS. If you only hike now and again, you might get away with a small amount of storage for your data. But if you are a frequent hiker and will save a lot of routes or you plan to take pictures or videos with the same device, you will want to shop for a device with a high storage capacity.
Features and Add-Ons to Look For When Shopping for a Hiking GPS
Satellite Reception and Accuracy
The best hiking GPS devices offer you both excellent reception and accuracy. Strong reception is a must if you are going to be hiking out in the backcountry far from civilization. But accuracy can be important too, especially if you will be participating in activities where your precise coordinates are important to know down to within a few feet (geocaching being an excellent example).
Ease of Use
When it comes to ease of use, consider two aspects: the hardware and the software. Would you prefer large buttons or a touch screen? This is partly a personal preference, but it depends on where you will hike as well (buttons tend to be easier to use in the cold). With software, look for simple navigation and ease of use for creating and editing routes.
The quality of the display is important, because while hiking, you may be viewing it in all kinds of conditions—light and dark, bright sun, rain, or even snow. Make sure that your GPS will not present you with high glare, and that the screen is bright enough to view clearly in all conditions. If you wear sunglasses while you are hiking on a regular basis, you may also want to ensure that the screen is easy to read through shades.
Try and choose a hiking GPS which will function quickly and reliably. Do keep in mind that the very first time you turn on any GPS, it will take a while to sync up with the satellites. On subsequent uses, it should work much faster. Also note that some GPS devices slow down in cold conditions and may even glitch or freeze up completely. So if you will be hiking in low temperatures, read customer reviews and make sure the GPS will function in the environments where you plan to use it.
Weight and Size
In general, you want to get a device which is compact and lightweight. But you may find that you prefer a slightly larger screen size. This is totally a matter of personal preference. Just choose something which will fit in your pack, be comfortable to hold in your hand, and which presents you with a readable display.
There are a whole bunch of extra bells and whistles which some GPS devices include. Each will increase the cost of the device—and some may also increase its size and weight. But they add functionality for hikers. For example:
- Added navigational aids like an electronic compass and a barometric altimeter
- Sensitivity tools to increase reception, like a quadrifilar helix antenna and a high-sensitivity chipset
- Support for additional mapping programs
- A digital camera
- Two-way radio
- Wireless data transfer
- Automatic download and display of geocaching data
Extra features like these can take their toll on your battery, so that is something else to think about while you are shopping. If you will be going on long hikes, you may decide that a longer battery life is more important to you than extra bells and whistles. Many GPS devices do allow you to disable features you are not using to conserve battery however. You can also bring extra batteries with you on your outings.
You now know all about the most important features to look for when you are shopping for a handheld hiking GPS. Scroll back up to the top of the page and take a closer look at our comparison chart. We have made it easy for you to compare the features and prices for highly rated hiking GPS models. Remember to read customer reviews and to ask yourself specific questions about where you plan to hike and how long your trips will be. This will help you to identify which features matter most in your hiking GPS!
Garmin Foretrex 401: the Soldier’s Choice
Garmin Foretrex 401 is one of the only GPS units out there capable of withstanding desert dust. That’s why more than a few US soldiers that have spent time in the middle east have given it awesome reviews.
- Incredibly tough. The Foretrex 401 resists massive temperature changes and dust better than any other GPS unit on the market today.
- Tracks elevation changes. This unit’s elevation tracker allows you to get a more realistic picture of your journey.
- BaseCamp / Google Maps compatible. Upload your waypoints to Google Maps once your journey is over to see exactly where you went.
- No dropped signals. In addition to being tougher than most GPS units, the Foretrex 401 is also more reliable.
- Small size. The Foretrex 401’s wristband allows you to take this GPS unit with you wherever you go.
- Great battery life. You can get 20 hours of usage or more, depending on your settings.
- No need to install extra software. The Foretrex 401 functions like a USB hard drive, which makes it very easy to access the files you need without the aid of extra software.
- The manual is not well written. The wording is often unclear and typos are littered throughout.
- If you have especially thick wrists, you may have a problem with the Foretrex 401’s wristband. It is not adjustable.
Garmin Oregon 600: Super Easy to Use
Oregon 600 is especially uncomplicated. Many GPS units require you to sift through complicated menus, but with the Oregon 600 you can navigate with ease.
- Excellent reception. It only takes a few seconds for the Oregon 600 to grab your GPS position.
- The display is easy to read. This device looks equally good at night and in direct sunlight.
- Intuitive interface. Even if you’re not familiar with how GPS devices work, you’ll be able to figure the Oregon 600 in a matter of minutes.
- USB charging compatible. You can charge this helmet using any USB compatible connection cord.
- Fast scrolling. No lagging, skipping or stuttering.
- Free maps are available. This helmet is 100% GPS File Depot compatible.
- MicroSD compatible. The microSD slot accepts 32GB microSD cards, which is enough room to store a very large collection of maps.
- The Garmin Oregon 600’s manual is confusing. It has very few pictures and the instructions are not worded very clearly.
- The software is buggy and crashes often. The trip computer is probably the worst offender because it crashes before after and during almost every trip.
Garmin eTrex 20x: Bigger and Better Than Ever
Garmin’s eTrex is its display. Measuring in at 2.2 inches, eTrex’s screen is much bigger and brighter than it used to be. Also, the eTrex’s data storage capacity has grown as well. Now it’s got 3.7 gigs of internal storage plus a SD card expansion slot, giving you the ability to save very large, detailed map files.
- Super display. The eTrex 20x’s great looking 240×320, 2.2 inch screen is a massive upgrade.
- Tons of memory. With 3.7 GB of built-in storage and a microSD expansion slot, you’ll have enough space to download all the maps you could ever want or need.
- Pinpoint accuracy. With HotFix and GLONASS support included, you’ll be able to get a GPS fix from virtually anywhere on the planet.
- Rugged rubber shell. The eTrex 20x’s tough exterior allows it to survive accidents that would cause other GPS units to crack open.
- Read geocache hints. Unlike some older handheld GPS units, this one can read and open geocache GPX files.
- Free software. The latest version of eTrex is still compatible with the popular free trip planning software known as BaseCamp.
- Batteries included. With its preloaded map and bonus set of batteries, eTrex 20x is ready to use right out of the box.
- Garmin updated the eTrex 20x with lots of new hardware, but its clunky, user unfriendly menus are still pretty much the same.