If we had attempted, 20 years ago, to title an article ‘best handheld GPS’ or even more bizarre: ‘best hiking GPS’, chances are you would have said something along the lines of “yeah right.” That is if you didn’t say “what is a GPS?” And it may interest you to know that the first GPS receivers weighed in at a whopping 23 kgs, as recently as 1995.
If this idea was barely comprehendible, talk of combining a global positioning system with a camera and a phone, would surely have pushed this wild notion into the realms of the impossible. Now if you had said that all of this could be reduced to a wrist watch, you would have had the person institutionalized.
History of GPS
Let’s take a quick look at some interesting facts around this remarkable bit of technology
- 1957 – The Russians launched the first man-made satellite, Sputnik 1.
- 1974-85 – The US launches 22 of its own satellites.
- 1989 – Magellan Corporation is first to market with a hand-held navigation device, the Magellan NAV 1000.
- 1995 – 24 active satellites are circumnavigating earth.
- 1999 – Benefon launched the first commercially-available GPS phone.
- 2001 – Companies like Garmin and Tom Tom began making available GPS devices, as we know them today.
And the rest is history as they say.
The result is an incredibly useful and effective device which can, amongst other things
- track your every movement,
- direct you to ANY desired location on earth, and do so to within 3m of the exact point on the ground, and
- provide you with speed and elevation information.
In A Nutshell
Satellites travel at approximately 14,000 km/h and are about 19,000 km above the earth. All of this simply means that your GPS device is able to see at least 4 of the 24 satellites at any one time. And this is what your little device needs to give you a whole bunch of information.
We have simplified and abbreviated the information somewhat, and there are is a whole lot more that goes on behind the scenes as you navigate in the wilderness.
In a world with ever improving satellite acquisition speeds, accuracy, intuitive functionality and robust design, we are spoilt for choice, and before we take a look at eight hand-held GPS devices, let’s take a look at what we need to look out for;
- Display: The best amongst them will must enable you to not only clearly see the display, but you should also be able to determine what primary information displays on the default screen. For example, you may be an athlete who is heart-rate focused during your exercise routine, and for you, beats per minute should be prominently displayed, while other info becomes less important.
- Battery life: Obviously, the longer the battery lasts between charges or replacement, the better.
- Accuracy: Accuracy is a challenge for any GPS, and often requires the user to remain motionless for a while, whilst the unit gathers satellite data returning greater degrees of locational accuracy as the seconds tick by. One can only then imagine how difficult it is for a watch, which is on constant motion, often at high speed, to maintain locational accuracy.
- Desktop applications and the ability to synchronize your watch data easily, providing you with a range of graphs and statistical data to ‘track’ your performance.
- Accessory synchronization: It must be able to quickly pick up a heart-rate strap or any other device we wish to pair to our watch. Earlier models had a horrid time of deciding whose heart-rate strap to pick up in crowded places, and often just abandoned the idea altogether.
- We take it as given, that the unit needs to be waterproof, include a stop watch and alarm, and offer a range of beep notifications: oh, and at very least, must have the ability to lock out the buttons, to stop accidentally changing modes or disrupting the recording of our activity – a problem which affected many early model sport watches.
Some basic do’s and don’ts for a happy athlete, and a happy GPS device
- READ THE MANUAL – Yes we all know this, but few of us will ever take the time to do this, and so let’s accept that a fair number of our complaints are probably based on the fact that we didn’t do as requested.
- Locating and locking onto satellites is best achieved by keeping still in an area free of trees and buildings. And yes expect that it could take a few minutes for your watch to find and lock onto their heavenly guides.
- The age old water proof versus water resistant debate appears to be showing no signs of ending any time soon. And this is where many manufacturers don’t seem to have quite got the hang of producing the perfect seal with every unit sold. It is worth checking out your device (if this feature is critical to your application) before automatically assuming it is as it says it is.
Now, if you thought that the above features pretty much summed up what your GPS unit should do, think again.
There are a number of really cool additional features we hadn’t even begun to think of. Now, let’s take a look at 10 of the best GPS devices.
Top Handheld GPS
Garmin GPSMAP 64s Worldwide
There are a number of options in this range; base model, with ANT and blue tooth, with ANT and blue tooth & US TOPO, with ANT and blue tooth & Canadian TOPO. We will look at the 2nd option.
We like: Expanded memory, rapid satellite acquisition, and robust design.
We don’t like: A device not intended for the novice, some understanding of GPS functionality required to make use of the limited buttons.
The Box Says: Sunlight-Readable 2.6″ color display, Expanded Internal Memory 4GB, DUAL BATTERY SYSTEM Use with 2 traditional AA batteries, or the optional rechargeable NiMH battery pack that can be charged while inside the device. Wirelessly upload data to Garmin Connect and view on smartphone, plus share activities as they happen with Live Track (64s/64st only).
We Say: Loads of features, some would say too many features for the majority of users. Operating a device with gloves is generally a bit of trick, but the Garmin GPSMAP 64s Worldwide with High-Sensitivity GPS and GLONASS Receiver has achieved success as far as button size and button spacing is concerned.
The blue tooth option is an interesting gimmick, but not sure it is altogether useable. The maps are good, but not great, and it would be a good idea to download the full maps before heading out on the trail. The screen resolution is however awesome.
Garmin Oregon 600 3-Inch Worldwide Handheld GPS
There are a number of options in this range; base model, base model with either topo maps and digital camera, and base with both options. We will look at the base option.
We like: The sleek touchscreen display that has a similar look and feel as a smartphone.
We don’t like: Not good in poor weather.
The Box Says: 3-Inch sunlight-readable, touchscreen display with touch screen capability, both dual-band GPS and GLONASS satellite positioning. 3-axis compass, accelerometer, barometric altimeter. Bluetooth technology.
We Say: Possibly the best touch screen model on the market, but there is a downside to this: just a few drops of water is all it takes to get the device developing a mind of its own. If you count yourself amongst the technologically challenged, then this device is perfect, it is really easy to use.
Garmin Oregon 600 3-Inch Worldwide Handheld GPS has an awesome display, and Garmin have succeeded in the ability that this device possesses in determining the amount of back-light to use in different light conditions.
DeLorme inReach Explorer Satellite Messenger
This option includes both a base model and a model including navigation features, we will look at the option with navigation features.
We like Two-way satellite communicator.
We don’t like: Topographic maps are only available in Earthmate cell phone app. The high monthly subscription costs.
The Box Says: Create or view a route, drop waypoints, see your tracks, and navigate with the on-screen map view. DeLorme inReach Explorer Satellite Messenger can send and receive 160-character text messages with GPS coordinates to cell numbers or email addresses worldwide and post updates to social media.
Send an SOS, receive a delivery confirmation, and communicate back and forth with our 24/7 search and rescue monitoring center.
We Say: The satellite signal is very strong, and can connect through a tent wall. The two-way satellite text is awesome for communicating, and does not require cell phone coverage. The website interface is easy to use and syncing is simple. The Mapshare function is impressive and lets you share your progress with family and friends.
All this does come at a price however, and is probably beyond the reach of the casual hiker, but will find an audience amongst the serious or professional adventurers. outside of cell phone range
Garmin Montana 610 GPS
We like: The Base Camp app, robust device with large touch screen.
We don’t like: Not ideal for the novice navigator, rather complicated to master.
The Box Says: 250,000 preloaded worldwide geocaches from Geocaching.com, a 1-year Birdseye Satellite Imagery subscription is included. Garmin Montana 610 GPS locates your position quickly and precisely and maintains its location even in heavy cover and deep canyons. With Track Manager you are able to organize and navigate through waypoints/routes/track logs.
We Say: The entry model in the Montana range, and although it is designed as a hand-held navigator without a camera, it is equally suited to your car or boat, through one of the optional mounts.
It features an effective 4-inch color touchscreen display, and adapts quickly to changing lighting conditions. Entry level it may be, and it is ideally suited to users with a bit of experience in using navigating devices. It is certainly tough and robust and can withstand some pretty tough treatment and conditions.
Magellan CX0310SGXNA eXplorist 310 GPS
We take a look at the base model, and you can add a Summit Series Topo Map, and / or Fishing Hot Spot bundles.
We like: The price, tough and lightweight.
We don’t like: Small screen, toggle button is not great, sluggish.
The Box Says: Magellan CX0310SGXNA eXplorist 310 Waterproof Hiking GPS has 2.2-inch LCD display, waterproof GPS receiver, sunlight-readable color screen and high-sensitivity SiRFstarIII GPS.
Easy operation with a simple main menu, intuitive contextual menus, and vibrant graphics. It includes; detailed road network, water features, urban and rural land use, and realistic shaded relief background. 18 hours’ battery life.
We Say: Cheap it may be, but it is not good value. The buttons are awkward, the screen small, and the toggle button in the centre returns jerky responses, and the buttons are near impossible to operate with two thumbs and certainly very unlikely wearing gloves.
We take a look at the base model, and you can add US and Canada Topo Maps.
We like: Multi activity navigation watch – pretty much does it all.
We don’t like: The price and looks.
The Box Says; TOUCHSCREEN – 1.4″ high resolution, sunlight-visible color Chroma touchscreen display, 8 GB internal memory lets you load a variety of maps, including TOPO U.S. 24K and City Navigator NT. Customize your watch with a variety of; watch faces, data fields, widgets and applications.
Automatically uploads data wirelessly to Garmin Connect, LiveTrack and social media (using Garmin Connect Mobile app on smartphone4), plus features Smart Notification4 so you can receive emails, texts and alerts directly on the watch. Easy and quick access to multiple activities, such as hiking, navigation, running, mountaineering, swimming, and indoor workouts.
We Say; The Epix is Garmins first watch to combine and bundle ALL the features of its activity and navigation wrist watch models. The result is a waterproof to 50m, comprehensive device, but this comes at a price it is not going to win any competitions for its looks. Safe to say it is rugged.
The device connects in a number of ways, as would be expected for a premium ‘all inclusive’ device, and is probably all you will ever need for almost any situation. It must be said though, that one can get a lot of the functions for a lot less.
Garmin Monterra Wi-Fi Enabled GPS Navigator
We take a look at the model with worldwide base map.
We like: Android operating system accesses many apps, easy to view display.
We don’t like: The price, bulky and heavy, uses old android version.
The Box Says: 4-Inch touchscreen display with dual orientation – Android operating system with Google Play apps.
Connectivity via Wi-Fi (802.11gbn), Bluetooth 4.0, ANT+ or NFC (Near Field Communication). 8MP autofocus camera with automatic geotagging, LED flash/torch, and full 1080p HD video capture capability. 3-axis compass with accelerometer, gyro and barometric altimeter, built-in waterproof microphone and speaker with 3.5mm jack. Dual battery system – rechargeable Li-ion pack (included) or replaceable 3 AA batteries – FM Radio (with NOAA – SAME weather alerts, U.S. only).
We Say: Lets say upfront that the Garmin Monterra Wi-Fi Enabled GPS Navigator is probably best suited to professional users, rather than recreational adventure enthusiast.
In its standard offering the unit offers a number of applications and functions, and these are simply extended through its android platform. It is heavy and sufficiently robust to handle almost all applications, including spilling the device into a stream or two.
Garmin 010-01325-00 etrex Touch 25
We take a look at the model with worldwide base map.
We like: An awesome all-purpose GPS device for the leisure user.
We don’t like: Not much.
The Box Says: Garmin 010-01325-00 etrex Touch 25 has Touchscreen – 2.6-inch color, easy-to-use navigation for multiple activities, including climb, hike, hunt, bike, geocache, fish and more.
Electronic compass – all models offer a 3-axis tilt-compensated electronic compass, which shows your heading even when standing still, without holding it level. All models feature worldwide base map with shaded relief, while the 35t comes preloaded with either TOPO US 100k or TOPO Canada maps. Barometric altimeter – smart notifications – ant+ connectivity.
We Say: If ever there was a device to get the leisure user into the outdoors, the full color touch screen display is attractive, and adds to the intuitive functionality of this device.
Whether or not it was Garmin’s intention, they have created a device which is user-friendly, a good navigator using the latest GPS technology, and to get to an attractive price point, some of the surplus features of other models have been left out.
Does the hand-held GPS device eliminate the need to be dropping bread crumbs as you head deeper into the wilderness?
It is interesting to note how the functionality of mobile phones, navigators, cameras, heart rate monitors etc. are merging into a single device. Be that as it may, and yes, it is quite possible that your smart phone will provide basic navigation functionality in urban areas, there is little to replace a hand-held hiking GPS.
The vast majority of hikers and adventurers fall within the leisure sector, and there can be little doubt that a GPS would all but remove any anxiety of wandering off the trail, and getting lost.
There are a couple of bits of information which could turn your wilderness adventure into a relaxed and highly enjoyable experience.
- The ability to return to the exact point where you started if you needed to.
- The ability to set an end point, along with a pre-determined path.
And if this was not enough, the devices that we have reviewed contain a bewildering number of additional features and applications, which will certainly add a whole new dimension to your adventure.
A very little bit of theoretical knowledge of the working of GPS device is all that is needed to get the idea, and this includes simply knowing that a way point is a little flag maker which you ‘drop’ on your device, give it a name, and off you go to the next one.
Whether you are a beginner, or an expert adventurer, all that is left to do is plan your next wilderness experience.
And yes, a GPS device will replace your bag of breadcrumbs.