If you’re headed to the backcountry, you’re going to need a reliable way to know where you are and where you’re going. These days you don’t have to rely on maps and compasses, even though having them for a backup is a good idea. Technology has put us in a place where we can have our coordinates tracked and updated with extreme accuracy. We can pinpoint with basically exact precision where we are, or where someone is if we have their coordinates.
GPS devices exist for many purposes. For car navigation, military tracking, and location services. When you’re going on a remote hike, having a good handheld GPS could actually save your life. What if you sustain an injury far off in the bush and have no way to notify people of where you are or that you need help? If you’re adventuring off the beaten path, you generally won’t have cell reception, so you need to find another way to help you track your location.
Handheld GPS devices are super convenient, and lightweight to use. You can track your location, look up tomorrows route, and give yourself a detailed map view. Later, we’re going to talk about what makes a good handheld GPS, but for now, we’re going to talk about our favorite 10 handheld GPS devices in 2020.
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View The Best Handheld GPS Below
1. Garmin eTrex10 GPS
Garmin dominates the GPS market. The products they make set the standard for quality and reliability. The first one we feature is a rugged and durable designed GPS that comes with a preloaded worldwide base map so that pretty much anywhere you go, you’ll already have the map ready to go. It connects quickly to GPS and GLONASS satellites for light speed positioning and features paperless geocaching capabilities.
The battery of this Garmin handheld GPS device will last you 25 hours when you are using AA batteries, and you can download GPX files for on the go geocaching. A high strength signal will be reliable and clear, and even works when under heavy cover and in canyons. The time taken to lock onto a location is 20% quicker than lesser GPS systems. The display is a 2.2-inch monochrome monitor and displays at 128 x 160 pixels.
+ Preloaded worldwide map
+ GPS and GLONASS satellite connection
+ 25 hours of battery life
+ 2.2-inch display
+ Quick location lock
Why We Like It – Its got great size, excellent connectivity, durable design and very quick loc on location. Its everything you need to make sure you don’t get lost in the wilderness.
2. Garmin eTrex 20x
A little bit of a buffed up version of the Garmin eTrex 10x, you will find a lot of the same features as you did on the previous pick, except with a little better quality. You get the same pre-loaded worldwide base map displayed on a 2.2 monochrome screen. The GPS receiver is also connected using GPS and GLONASS satellites, with the addition of HotFix to give you even quicker and more accurate positioning.
The GPS is compatible with many of the maps you will need to have access to, including topographic, marine, and road. You will get all of the durability you need and it comes with a sturdy IPX7 waterproof rating. It also supports paperless geocaching with GPX downloadable files. You will get a lot more detail with the eTrex 20 with lakes, terrain details, and roads easily identifiable in countries all around the world.
+ Detailed pre-loaded sitemap
+ IPX7 Waterproof
+ Durable and rugged
+ Clear screen
+ Fast location lock
Why We Like It – Compared to the eTrex 10, this is just a step up. THings are very detailed and it loads really quickly for a small GPS system. Overall, highly recommended for people who need to track location in the wilderness all around the world.
3. Garmin GPSMAP 64st
Oh look, another Garmin GPS system on the list. It also comes with a pre-loaded base map that is highly detailed and gives shaded relief so you can really identify elevations. The screen is set up and designed to be readable in sunlight which can be really useful. If you can’t read it in the sunlight, it will slow you down, or you may not accurately read it at all. Along with our previous two features, it connects using the GPS and GLONASS satellites and transmits location using a Quad Helix Antenna. Included when you purchase are 100,000 U.S maps and a 1-year subscription to Birdseye Satellite Imagery.
The compass has been designed intelligently. Even if you’re standing still and holding the GPS at an angle, the compass will accurately measure you’re heading. If you find other compatible devices, you can share geocaches, locations, and more wirelessly. Everything is displayed on a 2.6-inch screen and you get 8GB of memory on the card.
+ Sunlight readable screen
+ 2.6-inch display screen
+ Speedy location lock
+ 8GB memory
+ Detailed map imagery
Why We Like It – The 64st handheld GPS offers a lot of detail and precision. The Birdseye Imagery subscription to start with is a huge plus. You get so much detail on your maps that you can literally go anywhere in the U.S and you will have amazing accuracy on the screen.
4. Garmin eTrex 30x
To bring the Garmin eTrex GPS features to a sliding conclusion, we’ve got the overlord of all eTrex GPS systems up next. Instead of saying nothing about it and just telling you to buy it, we’re going to give you the details anyway. With the same rugged and durable design that you get with the slightly cheaper versions, you also get a little bit more.
Super clear display with 240 x 320 pixels, on the 2.2-inch sunlight readable screen. Expanded memory so you can store more maps and locations. Shaded relief on the worldwide detailed maps, which are pre-loaded of course.
Things you get that the other eTrex don’t offer: a 3-axis compass, and a barometric altimeter. These are incredibly useful and accurate tools that help you know exactly where you’re pointed and how far you’ve come up the hill. The detail and precision you get with this GPS is something to be experienced. It also contains the same connectivity and lock on location features that the other two eTrex handheld GPS’s come with.
+ 3-axis compass
+ Highly detailed maps
+ Shaded relief
+ Sunlight readable map
+ Quick lock on the location
Why We Like It – This is a great GPS that is similar to other Garmin GPS’s but with superpowers. You have all the features you want, with detail and precision. If you’ve got the budget for it, and you will have a use for a GPS this good, you’ll really enjoy all of its awesome features.
5. Garmin Foretrex 401
This is a slender wrist mountable GPS with high-powered capabilities for tracking your location and storing past and future maps. If you’re using both hands and still need to be able to use the GPS when you’re for example biking or skiing, this GPS system will keep track of everything for you and you’ll be able to read the display clearly.
It is a highly sensitive receiver with HotFix which gives you strong connectivity even in canyons and heavy cover. You can attach a separate heart rate monitor to the GPS to keep track of your vitals. Powered using 2 AAA batteries, the life of the GPS is 17 hours when in GPS mode.
Whenever you need more power, just pop a couple more batteries in. You can view sunset and rise times as well as hunting and fishing information on dual readout interfaces. It is also waterproof so if you find yourself up Smth’s creek, you won’t have to worry about it shutting down on you.
+ 17-hour battery
+ HotFix Connectivity
+ Clear, easy to read display
6. Garmin inReach Explorer+
This handheld GPS comes with convenient messaging capabilities which allows you to communicate via text even when you are far off the path. Spot technology will transmit your location precisely if you are in need of the quickest search and rescue help available. You can track your location and share it with your family and your friends. The battery is rechargeable and is made of lithium ion. You can get this GPS wet as it has an IPX7 waterproof rating
When you connect to mobile devices to can download highly detailed maps from all over the world. track elevations, aerial views, NOAA charts, and more. It also has a built-in compass and a barometric altimeter to help pinpoint your location. A great handheld GPS that gives you detailed maps and the ability to communicate and update worried loved ones.
+ Text messaging capabilities
+ Highly detailed maps
+ Spot locations
+ Highly precise tracker
+ Rechargeable battery
Why We Like It – The best thing about it is the ability to update your family and friends of your location. It has everything that other GPS units contain, but not many are able to let you tell your family that you are safe when they haven’t heard from you for days or weeks.
7. Garmin Montana 680t
Coming with 250K pre-loaded geocaches, this will be a geocacher’s dream. When you purchase, included is a 1-year subscription to Birdseye Satellite Imagery. That will give you a crazy amount of detail on the preloaded maps. One thing is that there are no Canadian maps included and you need to pay extra for them.
Using GPS, GLONASS, and HotFix technology, you will always have the quickest and most precise tracking of your location. It is designed to give you coverage even when you are under heavy obstruction or canyoning. It gives you the ability to track and manage past and future routes easily if you’re into keeping tabs.
You’re also able to take a picture with the 8MP camera for quick references to where you were at one time. You’ve got lots of space to see everyone on the 4-inch screen which is also gloves friendly for when you’re in the great white North. Also included, is a 3-axis compass and a barometric altimeter.
+ Large Display
+ Precise Locator
+ Included compass
+ 1-year Birdseye subscription
+ Pre-loaded geocaches
Why We Like It – The display lets you see everything on the large screen. Some GPS units have small screens and are tough to read. This one is really clear. Also having a camera on your GPS is kind of cool as a backup.
8. Standard Horizon HX870
This is a true workhorse of a GPS system. An integrated 66-channel WAAS GPS is super precise. It is also equipped with a digital selective calling which can be very useful in the wilderness. On the compass page, you can find, choose, and save a waypoint and keep it stored for later to be routed to when you are ready. You can also connect to the channel 16 distress signal if you end up needing some assistance.
When it hits the water, an automatic strobe light starts flickering so that you can find it, or someone can find you. It is highly durable and waterproof with an IPX8 rating that will allow you to submerge for up to 30 minutes without the unit succumbing to drowning. This is a simple system that is meant for the rugged and affluent wilderness adventurer.
+ Emergency strobe
+ IPX8 Waterproof
+ Digital selective calling
+ Highly precise GPS tracker
+ Rechargeable battery
Why we like it – We like it because there is no nonsense about this GPS. It has powerful, reliable, and durable features that keep you on track and get you where you’re going. It also resembles a walky-talky like you probably had as a kid.
9. Garmin GPSMAP 78sc Handheld GPS
To wrap up our Garmin features, we end on a good note. This is a GPS unit that is marine friendly if you’re getting out on the boat or canoe. It’s got a highly sensitive GPS receiver and shows you everything you need to see on a 2.6-inch display screen. It comes with an IPX7 waterproof rating and floats if it ends up going overboard. Includes depth charts, shorelines, and other useful information regarding marine navigation.
The built-in digital compass will keep you on track, and if you’re doing some geocaching, it is compatible for that as well. You can track, the route to, and save waypoints and share them with similar compatible devices.
+ Geocaching compatible
+ Marine usage
+ Shorelines and depths
+ Built-in compass
Why We Like It – For the marine adventurer, this will be a great handheld GPS to help you locate yourself, depths and shorelines so you always know where you need to be.
10. PRIMETRACKING Personal GPS Tracker
The PRIMETRACKING Personal GPS comes with instant updates and alerts, a two-week-long battery life, and unlimited range. With this tracker, you can monitor your loved ones and check on them in real-time. You can also set up a Geofence and get an alert sent straight to you if they cross it.
This is a Prime Tracker mini; it’s three-inches tall and less than half an inch wide, meaning this lightweight tracker is easy to conceal. You can keep it in your car, bag, backpack, and pocket, meaning you’ll always be in the know. As it’s so small, you can keep tabs on your luggage and handbags – never lose them again! This GPS Tracker uses 4G LTE technology that updates every ten seconds in the smartphone app, which means you’ll receive instant direction, location, and movement information.
+ Small and lightweight
+ Track anywhere at any time
+ Instant information and notifications
+ 4G LTE technology
Why We Like It – We love how small this PRIMETRACKING Personal GPS is. You can keep it in your bag or pocket, and even monitor items you’re scared of accidentally losing!
Handheld GPS Buyers Guide
Now that we’ve talked about which are some of the best handheld GPS devices on the market. It’s time to talk about what makes them what they are. Some of the terminologies can be confusing, so here is a bit of info about what we’re actually dealing with.
Types of GPS
GPS used to be the only way to track location using satellites, but that is no longer the case. Now, with GLONASS and WAAS, there are many other backup forms that we can rely on. The most precise GPS devices will use all three. It simply means that the more platforms you’re using, the more satellites are being called on to give you your location.
GLONASS is a Russian built technology which puts an additional 24 satellites to work in order to pinpoint the location. WAAS, which is Wide Angle Augmentation System was originally integrated into the aviation world to help out when GPS would stop working temporarily. When you have all three systems working for you, you get a more accurate location and a stronger signal.
The display screens on GPS devices vary widely on different devices. A lot comes with a 2.2-inch screen, but some show you everything you need on a 4-inch screen. Depending on your specific uses, you will need to decide which is better for you.
If you need to have location and information displayed to you in a way that you can read clearly, then you’ll want to get a larger, more detailed screen setting. If all you are doing is going for simple hikes in the woods and you want an accompaniment, Lower resolution screens will do just fine. The high-powered screens are great for when you need to read precise elevations and depths so you can be exactly sure where you are and where you need to be.
The best handheld GPS systems will be able to stand up to whatever you throw their way. The degree of durability may be different depending on what you are using it for. Marine sport participators will find GPS’s with high IPX waterproof rating useful as it is almost guaranteed that the system will get wet at some point. They will also need to be strong enough to stand up to harsh weather conditions like storms and wind without bugging out.
If you’re an on land adventurer, then waterproof won’t be as big of a priority. Usually, you will just need a device that can handle drops, knocks, and the odd rainfall without losing its capabilities. Generally, GPS systems are made stronger than our smartphones are so you shouldn’t have to worry too much about getting a heavy duty GPS that can be run over by a truck.
Some of the best handheld GPS systems will allow you to connect to family, friends, or rescue teams via messaging. It is important that they at least have the technology to broadcast your location to a search and rescue tea so that if you’re in trouble, help can find you easily. When you’re in the wilderness, it can sometimes take u to 24-hours for help to arrive.
If you’re able to send messages to the people who are looking after helping you out, then you’ll be better off. In some cases, search and rescue will walk in to help someone because taking helicopters is expensive. Helicopters are also much faster, so if you are able to send distress messages that outline the severity of your situation, then help may get to you much faster.
It is also useful to be able to let your family and friends know that you are safe so that they don’t have to worry about you if you have been on the trail for a while.
All of the best handheld GPS systems will be a wonderful aid for you when you’re out in the wilderness. You won’t have to worry about getting lost and you’ll be able to accurately track your routes for wherever you are going. Hopefully, this guide has given you everything you need in order to find the right handheld GPS that is best for you.
When it comes to GPS systems, you generally get what you pay for. Spending a little extra money could give you a ton of extra features that will make your locating and tracking much, much easier.
Did you know?
The first GPS system was developed by the U.S military when it sent Block 1, into space as the first satellite transmitter in 1974. Before that, it was all maps and compasses.