8 Best Handheld GPS for Backpacking and Hiking in 2020

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It took the advent of radar, sonar and chronometers to replace sextons used as navigational tools by the earliest explorers, but the most progress cartographers could make into the 20th century were maps and atlases that guided drivers and ultimately cyclists from place to place. U.S. military engineers pioneered GPS technology in the 1970s, but it took another 13 years for consumer versions to hit the market. 

First models were anything but efficient, say researchers at NDrive.com: “Translucent maps had to be placed in the screen manually and would scroll over a monochrome 6-inch screen used for lighting and pinpointing purposes. The unit was optional for the equivalent of about $2,750 – nearly 25 percent of the price of the actual cars themselves.”

These days, hand-helds and wearables are no big deal because the technology has advanced so far, and if you’ve kept up with it, you know that this market has exploded.


Garmin GPSMAP 66st

Garmin’s hand-held GPSMAP 66st is just the latest in this pioneering company’s products. You get a 3-inch color display, topo maps and a Birdseye Satellite Imagery. Even bright sun won’t diminish your ability to read the display and at 6.4 x 1.4 x 2.5 inches and weighing only 8-ounces, this could quickly qualify as your most treasured hiking possession – next to proper shoes, of course. 

Enjoy Multiple Global Navigation Satellite Systems (GNSS) support that won’t disappoint even in challenging circumstances, plus the services of a three-axis compass and barometric altimeter. Expanded wireless connectivity supports Active Weather, so you’re never in the dark about forecasts. Animated weather radar and Geocaching Live offer ongoing mobile syncing and updates. 

Compatible with the Garmin Explore™ website and app, enjoy 16 hours of battery life in GPS mode and a full week in expedition mode, but it’s the high-resolution, photo-realistic route views that may thrill you the most. Expect accurate representations of trails, trailheads and clearings that register waypoints based on landmarks. Preloaded with Canada maps, you can even wonder north if the mood strikes. 


Garmin Reach Explorer+ – Our Pick!

If you’ve got a healthy checkbook balance and have decided that you deserve a gift because you stay fit and healthy thanks to all of your hiking adventures, this handy red Garmin Reach Explorer+ shows the world that you’re not shy about rewarding yourself. This hand-held satellite communicator not only offers you topo maps and GPS navigation but 100-percent global Iridium satellite coverage allows you to maintain two-way text messaging from anywhere as long as you’ve got a satellite subscription. 

Are you lost in the wilderness? Not for long. Trigger the GPS’s SOS signal to launch a 24/7 search run by a monitoring center. If you’re eager to share your location with family or friends, the rechargeable internal lithium battery won’t let you down. Even if you’re stuck in water, this product comes with an IPX7 waterproof rating. 

Link up mobile devices using the free Earthmate app and download maps, U.S. NOAA charts, color aerial imagery and more. This Garmin is preloaded with Delorme topo maps that deliver onscreen GPS routing, and if you love practicing your basic navigation skills, a built-in digital compass, barometric altimeter and accelerometer are all available to you.


Garmin eTrex 30 Worldwide GPS Navigator – Also Great!

How’s this for a deal: This Garmin eTrex 30 Worldwide communication device costs less than half the amount you would spend on the Reach Explorer+, but you put the entire world at your feet if you choose this GPS device. If you spot one, grab it because depleted stock on various websites can make this valuable tool hard to find. 

The sleek black unit weighs 5 ounces and measures 1.3 x 4 x 2.1 inches, so it’s easily lost if you don’t secure it while you’re climbing and walking. This rugged device is preloaded with a worldwide relief base map and you’ll be able to see where you’re going on the 2.2-inch color display and the WAAS-enabled receiver comes with HotFix and GLONASS support for fast positioning and a reliable signal. 

This GPS meets IPX7 waterproof standards in case you find yourself up a creek literally, and the built-in 3-axis electronic compass does an excellent job of pinpointing your heading while the barometric altimeter offers a precise altitude reading. You’ll need two A.A. batteries, the desire to discover new travel, and if you bring your dog along, what else do you need?


Garmin Oregon 700

If the Worldwide GPS Navigator described above sounds like a great deal, but you’ve no intention of leaving the U.S., consider this comparably-priced Garmin. The Oregon 700 gets decent ratings from purchasers and not all of them live in Oregon. The 3-inch sunlight-readable touchscreen display is a bit larger, and at 4.5 x 1.3 x 2.4 inches, the device is slightly larger, too. 

Like the other products in this review, this Garmin is equipped with a 3-axis, tilt-compensated electronic compass with accelerometer and barometric altimeter sensors, too. Depending upon how you like to read your screen, you can get the coordinates you require in either landscape or portrait view. 

We’re not sure what Garmin means when they say that they’ve “ruggedized” this unit but the reference seems to describe ergonomics, and this model too receives an IPX7 waterproof rating and comes with a carabiner clip and USB cable. Customize your Oregon using Connect I.Q. It reflects everything you like to use, from data fields and widgets to apps. All it takes is a lithium-ion battery to get you up and running in Oregon or anywhere else for that matter. 


Garmin Montana 680

Having taken roads less traveled via the eTrex Navigator and Oregon, we return you to the world of higher-priced and more sophisticated Garmin systems, and in fact the Montana is the priciest one on this list so far. In return for your healthy investment, you get worldwide base maps and touchscreen innovations that include 250,000 preloaded worldwide geocaches from Geocaching.com. 

Receive a 1-year Birdseye Satellite Imagery subscription in addition to the high-sensitivity, WAAS-enabled GPS receiver packaged with Hotfix satellite prediction and GLONASS support. Use the Montana to quickly and precisely pinpoint your location even if you’re beneath a heavy forest canopy, or you’ve wandered into a deep canyon. 

The track manager gives you the ability to sort out, navigate and organize waypoints and routes and tracking logs can be stopped and started at will. What makes the Montana stand out from the herd? For owners, the deal-breaker was the 8-megapixel digital camera offering superior resolution and images. A bit larger than other models on our list, this Garmin measures 1.4 x 2.9 x 5.7 inches but still weighs only 10 ounces. Even the battery is included!


Magellan eXplorist 310

You’re not imagining things if you notice that we’ve switched brands and taken a quick jog away from Garmin, but in order to provide the best range of products for you, we’re featuring this Magellan both because it’s a good product and features the least expensive price tag on our list. Buy it “as is” or pay a little more to upgrade to the Fishing Hotspots bundle if your idea of heaven is fishing and hiking.

The eXplorist 310 is waterproof, features a comparably-sized 2.2-inch LCD display, and you also get IPX7 assurances that a fall into a body of water won’t take this GPS device out of commission. Included on this Magellan’s features list are a sunlight-readable color screen and high-sensitivity SiRFstarIII GPS, but it’s the ease of use that may impress you most. 

The main menu is simple, as are intuitive contextual menus, and Magellan didn’t skimp on the technology needed to deliver vibrant graphics. Spot detailed road networks, water features, urban and rural land use, and a realistic shaded relief background. Size-wise, this is no wimpy product. It measures 5.6 x 5.8 x 2.4 inches yet weighs only 5 ounces and you can look forward to 18 hours of battery life plus power-saving features that extend battery life. 


Garmin eTrex 20x

If you’re shopping by price point, you’ll want to know that this eTrex 20x costs around the same amount as the Navigator if you’ve concluded that both belong on your shortlist. This hand-held GPS device is known for excellent enhanced memory and resolution quality, it’s water-resistant (not waterproof) and the 2.2-inch color display matches its cousin, the eTrex 30. 

But that’s where similarities end. Technology is kicked up a notch on the 20x. Garmin claims that you can load more maps courtesy of the 3.7 GB of internal memory and microSD card slot. This hot orange GPS device features TOPO 24K, HuntView, BlueChart g2, City Navigator NT and BirdsEye Satellite Imagery (subscription required). 

The sunlight-readable display is a popular feature on this 5-ounce, 2.1 x 4 x 1.3-inch device, and because this is high-sensitivity technology, the WAAS-enabled GPS receiver, HotFix satellite prediction and GLONASS support are all included, so your position loads quickly and precisely even in the most densely wooded areas. This GPS doesn’t come with the lithium-ion battery needed to operate it, but with the money you save, this shouldn’t be a problem. 


Garmin epix

If you love the idea of wearing your GPS device on your wrist rather than toting a hand-held that could get lost if you’re not cautious, the epix is – well, epic! But beware of the pricing differentials when you check out this wearable. The epix base price is slightly less than the highest-priced products on our list, but once you start adding features, it could become the most expensive option of all. 

Strap this 0.7 x 2 x 2.1-inch unit to your wrist and enjoy a 1.4-inch high resolution, sunlight-visible color Chroma touchscreen display, 8 G.B. internal memory capable of loading a variety of maps — including TOPO U.S. 24K and City Navigator NT – and you can customize your watch to suit your style via differing watch faces, data fields, widgets and applications. 

Your watch automatically uploads data wirelessly to Garmin Connect, LiveTrack, and social media, and you won’t miss a text, alert or email since the epix features Smart Notification4. One owner calls this wearable “the ultimate military watch,” so if the military grid reference system is essential to you, why waste time looking elsewhere?


How does GPS Work? 

We turn to the folks at HandHeldGPSPro.com for an answer. Succinctly, GPS roots harken back to the 14th-century navigation “trick” conjured up by Ferdinand Magellan, who used basic trigonometry to plot out routes that managed to get him around the world. What’s the scientific basis? Triangulation. You’ve got a unit in your hands. Approximately 24 satellites circle the planet 24/7. 

Signals from space bounce back and forth to the earth’s surface. “The most common GPS network used in the world today is called Navstar,” according to these pros, but as you may have noticed it’s not the only man-made celestial being floating in space. Other systems include Russian-owned GLONASS, China-owned COMPASS and Europe’s GALILEO. To sum up: there must be a satellite in space, receivers on the ground and the GPS device you’re looking to buy to make the connection.


What features should you look for?

Obviously, screen size matters, especially if you have sight issues that require corrective lenses to help you read small print and graphics, but your search field should transcend this if you want the most technologically advanced and easy-to-use option on the market. We consulted Switch Back Travel.com to get leads on what today’s GPS product buyer values most. 

Buttons or touchscreens?

No contest, fellow hiker! The hand-held market is dominated by touchscreen-driven GPS systems, but that doesn’t mean that buttons have gone the way of the Dodo Bird. If you are purchasing a device that’s not terribly sophisticated, which means it could lack advanced software, you’re going to need buttons to use your unit. 

Further, gloves are an impediment to folks who need a tactile touch to push screens around manually, buttons literally add to the weight of a device, and if you need to type in coordinates, you’d better have lots of patience. That stated, if all other features are equal, a touchscreen, in this day and age, remains your best bet, and this is particularly true of the state-of-the-art products introduced so often, GPS geeks go a little mad.

Altimeters, barometers and compasses, oh my!

In a perfect world, everyone would have learned some basic, non-sophisticated navigational skills as kids. But Scouting groups are becoming less popular, and to be honest, technology-dependent people don’t want to expend the energy it takes to learn these skills because GPS exists. Happily, product designers have not forgotten those of us who want to know more than where we are and where we’re going, which is why having these features on our GPS systems is like putting cream in coffee. 

Photo by Jamie Street on Unsplash

So you get the best of both worlds when you choose a GPS product that offers you altimeter and barometer readings in addition to compass features. As a hiker, it’s incumbent upon you to keep tabs on barometric pressure because as you trek higher, air pressure decreases, and your performance could decrease. “Barometers measure changes in atmospheric pressure in one location.” 

Pressure altimeters measure pressure changes to “estimate the altitude at different locations,” say experts posting on AirDensityOnline.com. Because these readings are so sensitive on hand-held and portable GPS systems, re-calibration from time to time is essential. 

Further, your body must make adjustments when there’s less oxygen in the air and even temperature is impacted. A barometer reading of above 29.92 inHg means air is cooling, humidity is decreasing, and the pressure of that air is stabilizing the atmosphere. If it’s below 29.92 inHg, you could be looking at increased humidity, warming and the potential for rain, snow or clouds. 

What could be more essential to have onboard your GPS system than a compass? Electronic compasses are so smart, they can give you accurate readings no matter how or at what angle you hold your device. Unlike the small compass you used at summer camp, today’s 3-axis compass is an efficient take on a dependable device: you won’t have to keep a 3-axis compass level to get a reading as opposed to 2-axle models that don’t require a geocache site to function. 

The bigger the screen, the better?

Having already touched on the topic of screen size throughout each of these product reviews, it’s likely we can all agree that the bigger the better is a theme that strikes a chord. The Switchback team injects logic into the discussion when then say that “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.” 

Photo by Drew Collins on Unsplash

On the other hand, hikers are attracted to smaller, lighter models, so you may not put the Oregon 700 featured above at the top of your must-have list. It’s crucial to mention screen brightness. Direct sunlight has plagued screen readers forever. But product developers to the rescue: anti-glare screen faces are improving for folks sick and tired of getting headaches because, despite sunglasses, they are weary of squinting nonstop. 

The battery life dilemma

Face it; everything you do in life these days seems to revolve around battery life! Uncharged smartphones, all sorts of portable and battery-driven machines and even toys require charging. GPS systems have not been left out of the equation. The techs at e2Link.com claim to be the distributor of the mother of all products when they post this question on their website: “Are you looking for the smallest GPS tracker with the longest battery life? If yes, you have landed on the right page”. Curious? You bet. 

But as long as society is being held hostage by batteries, it pays to put “longest battery life” at the top of your list of features you can’t live without, especially if you’re treating yourself with the latest and greatest GPS gear. Get into the nitty-gritty of select models profiled above, and you’ll find that A.A. batteries are the coin of the realm for some units while lithium-ion is the epitome of power, mostly if you have lost patience with the need to continually replenish your A.A. batteries and feel guilty about having no place to recycle the dead ones.


Why can’t I just use my smartphone as my GPS device? 

You can. Nobody’s stopping you. But according to New York Times Gadgetwise journalist Eric A. Taub, GPS devices are superior in myriad ways. Your mobile’s screen is likely smaller than those found on GPS-only products, navigation apps perform more efficiently, and phone batteries already run out of juice fairly quickly, so using GPS functions will drain it faster. Further, your consumer data plan has the potential to drive up your monthly bill. 

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

Smartphone maps can disappear when calls come in and when you’re seeking directions, that data takes precedence over any music you’re playing. “Why a consumer should still buy a separate GPS unit is a question we ask ourselves all the time,” said Bill Strand, Magellan’s associate director of product marketing “We’re finding things that smartphones are not good at yet,” said Mr. Strand. “But it’s a moving target; it could change next year.”