How to Choose a Handheld GPS Device for Hiking
When buying a handheld hiking GPS device, there are several factors to take into consideration and several ‘musts’ to put on your tick list. The most important of these are as follow:
Dimensions and weight
How much added bulk and weight are you willing to carry to ensure your safety and to simplify navigation?
Most handheld GPS devices weigh in at under 12 oz (with batteries).
If you’re splashing out on an expensive piece of kit, however, you want to get the lightest and smallest unit without sacrificing too much in the way of screen size.
There’s no point in having an expensive, 6-12oz gadget in your pack if you’re going to struggle reading it!
That said, the weight and overall size of your unit is likely to increase along with the screen size.
For this reason, a trade-off is often necessary between screen size and unit size and weight.
Touchscreen or buttons? There are benefits and drawbacks to both.
Touchscreen models are great for speed and efficiency but difficult to operate with gloves.
Button models are a touch more cumbersome but easier to use year-round.
Features such as compass, preloaded maps, large storage space, barometer and wireless transmission can all add to the price of your GPS.
Deciding which of these is a ‘must’ for your needs will help you choose by a simple process of elimination.
Below, we’ve added a brief overview of some of these features and why you might want to have them.
All GPS receivers come with a basic base map.
Some units also include topographic maps but usually these must be purchased separately and downloaded or added via a microSD card.
All GPS manufacturers have a program that allows you to plan routes and manage your collection of topo maps on your PC/Mac at home.
Before buying, check to see if this software requires subscription (as is the case with Magellan units).
Third-party maps and software
Undoubtedly the biggest post-purchase expense.
Before buying, check the availability of free maps for your device online or the price of third-party maps if these aren’t available.
In addition to BirdsEye Satellite Imagery, a barometer/altimeter can give you more accuracy when pinpointing your current elevation.
Great for determining how far you’ve come in terms of ascent/descent and also assessing incoming weather by barometric data.
A very handy feature that tells you what direction you are facing when stationary, as opposed to the standard ‘direction of travel’ feature included in almost all GPS devices.
This allows you to triangulate your current position if you’re in doubt and identify other features on your map or in the nearby terrain.
The bigger, the better! The more memory your device has, the more maps and waypoints you can store.
With most units you can expand your memory with a microSD card.
Wireless data transfer
Allows communication with compatible GPS units of the same brand for data-sharing.
Rarely a deal-breaker, but a potential weight and bulk-saver if your expectations aren’t too high with regard to quality.
Also handy for geotaggers for tracing where each photo was taken.
A bit of a ‘luxury’ add-on, this feature is nevertheless very useful if you want or need to remain in contact with fellow hikers and can help you locate them if either of you happen to get lost or drift apart.
What are the Advantages and Disadvantages to using a GPS receiver?
- Simplified navigation – if you’re out in a gale or on a poorly marked route, a GPS device can save a lot of tricky map work.
- Time-saving – a GPS device allows you to navigate on the go, without stopping to take bearings etc…
- Accuracy – even the best map and compass users are prone to human error and struggle to match the precision of modern GPS units.
- Altimeter – useful for cross-checking your location and assessing how far you have come or have to go.
- Peace of mind – even if you are a die-hard map-lover, having a GPS in your pack will spare you any stress if a gust of wind or downpour deprive you of your map.
- Connectivity – advanced units allow you to communicate with other GPS users, share data and even be located should anything go wrong.
- None – provided you always bring a map and compass for backup and know how to use them!
As useful as a GPS receiver may be, you should never be totally reliant on it for navigation.
Always bring a map and compass and take the time to learn how to use them. Batteries can die and system bugs can pop up unexpectedly, so always be prepared.
Read the user manual thoroughly and then practice using your unit in a familiar outdoor environment before heading into the backcountry.
This beginner’s guide to using the best backcountry GPS by Just Trails offers a very handy intro for novices to the world of GPS navigation.
For a step-by-step guide on how to use a GPS receiver, this article from trails.com covers just about every base that needs covered!
Conclusion: What is the Top Handheld GPS for Hiking
The GPS receiver you choose will ultimately depend on your needs and personal preferences.
That said, value-for-money is a fairly universal desirable trait. Given this, our review has found the [amazon link=”B00AXUXRSO” title=”Garmin Oregon 600t” /] to be a photo-finish winner of the title of best GPS device for hiking in 2017, just edging out the incredibly reliable [amazon link=”B00HWL9AR4″ title=”Garmin GPSMAP 64s” /] and the cheap but wonderfully cheerful [amazon link=”B00XQE6ZFG” title=”Garmin eTrex 20x” /].
But what does the Oregon 600t have that its competitors don’t?
The best way to answer this question is by focusing on what it doesn’t have – a lofty price-tag!
There are cheaper models than the 600t and also pricier models with more features and frills.
The eTrex 20x is a great budget option, but lacks the 600t’s snappy interface, large screen and wealth of features.
The Monterra and Magellan eXplorist may boast cameras, but few would be willing to pay more than double the price for low-resolution photos and other, non-essential add-ons.
For a reliable, functional and easy-to-use receiver at an affordable price, the Garmin Oregon 600t Is hard to beat!