Whether you’re a newbie looking to indulge your adventurous spirit or an experienced veteran looking to conquer new trails or the open water, you can’t deny the importance of having a reliable GPS device. In our modern world, where maps are quickly becoming obsolete, the best handheld GPS devices combine a compass and map.
Our top 5 best handheld GPS devices are from Garmin, a world-renowned tech giant when it comes to hand-held GPS devices. Recently, Garmin introduced a bucket load of new features to its GPS device which includes a thermometer and water depth which makes navigating new terrain in poor conditions a walk in the park.
The eTrex 10 comes in first on this list because of the variety of editions it offers at different prices, so you’re sure you’ll find something that fits your needs. They include a base model which has an analog-like display; a barometric altimeter featuring a 3-axis compass; a color display edition which has an expandable memory slot and a geocaching bundle.
It has a rugged look so you know it can handle a fall and they even managed to preload a global base map in a tiny 2.2-inch monochromatic display. At that size, it can pretty much fit anywhere and what’s more, it has a reliable and fast positioning system thanks to the inbuilt WAAS-enabled GPS receiver combined with GLONASS support and HotFix.
Additionally, with this device, you won’t have to every worry when the weather turns bad thanks to IPX7 waterproof standard so if you drop it in the water or get a splash on it, just wipe it, and you’re good to go. Garmin included a variety of spine mounting accessories, and it also supports paperless geocaching.
You only need two double-A batteries to power it, and you’ll get up to 25 hours from it, pretty sweet don’t you think? The device also records and shows essential information such as terrain, hints, difficulty, locations, and descriptions, so you don’t have to enter coordinates or printed paper.
Garmin has stuck to their principle of providing functionality, long battery life, affordability and rugged look. The eTrex series is world’s first consumer grade receiver capable of simultaneously tracking GLONASS satellites and GPS and is 20% faster than GPS.
- What we liked
- ✅ A Barometric altimeter
- ✅ An electronic compass
- ✅ Over 200 routes
- ✅ Automatic routing
- What we didn’t like
- ❌ You can’t charge with USB
- ❌ You can’t load maps
The eTrex 20x is famous among users who want a better resolution and enhanced memory. It features a 240 by 320-pixel display which gives you an improved readability with a greater resolution. The eTrex 20x is the predecessor to the popular 20 version, but they expanded the internal memory so you can access more maps.
Additionally, it supports GPX geocaching so you can now directly download additional details and geocaches to your device. Being a WAAS-enabled handheld GPS receiver combined with GLONASS support and HotFix you can rest easy knowing you’ll find your location even in a deep canyon or in heavy cover.
All this is fitted into a tiny 2.2-inch readable 240 by 360 pixels color display which has shaded relief and a worldwide base map. Moreover, you can use the device on an ATV, a boat, car, bicycle even a hot air balloon thanks to its durability and affordable price.
It’s a lightweight, dependable device that weighs about 5 ounces and uses two double AA batteries. If you want to start geocaching, then you’ll love this device. It’s a well-built device with a functional design that is sturdy and solid. The 20x also comes with a quick start guide that is easy to understand and use, and you can even use it to log data so you can Adobe Photoshop Lightroom to geotag pictures.
But that’s not all; it has a feature that can calculate and show you the area when you walk around a plot which works pretty well. Its ability to locate and lock onto a location quickly is exceptional and if you want to use Google Earth with your device, then simply download it, and you’re good to go.
- What we liked
- ✅ 65k sunlight readable display
- ✅ 3.7 gigabytes of internal space
- ✅ Expandable memory slots
- ✅ A variety of maps: TOPO 24K, BlueChart g2, HntView, etc.
- What we didn’t like
- ❌ Your location tends to drift a little when you stop walking
- ❌ No full-function manual
- ❌ Complex GUI
If you’re looking for the best reflective display and a super sunlight readable touch-screen, then look no further than the Oregon 600. Additionally, the screen is impact resistance and supports gloved usage thanks to its dual orientations views and multi-touch capabilities.
Garmin included a top-of-the-range double battery system which means you can either use typical double-A batteries or the optional NiMH pack which also happens to be rechargeable. You can only charge the NiHM pack when you connect it to power, externally.
You will always find your bearing with the Oregon 600 thanks to its inbuilt 3-axix digital compass, tilt compensation feature, so you will always know where you’re heading even when you’re not holding the device levelly and a precise accelerometer.
It also features a barometric altimeter which tracks the changes in surrounding pressure to pinpoint your latitude accurately, and you can even use it to watch out for changing weather patterns. Additionally, since you’ll want to show off your adventurous exploits, you can easily share your pictures, waypoints, routes, tracks with other handheld Garmin-compatible devices.
Adding maps to the Oregon 600 is a breeze so if you’ve always wanted to explore the Pacific Crest Trail or the Appalachian Trail, now you can. It also offers you turn-by-turn routing capability, and for a price, you can get satellite imagery, BirdsEye.
It also features an extra sensitive WAAS and GLONASS satellite GPS receiver with HotFix so you can quickly get your bearing even in bad weather. With the Oregon 600, you won’t have to be picky about geocaches you can just “down-them-all” since it can store up to 4 million of them.
- What we liked
- ✅ Holds up to 4 million geocaches
- ✅ Easy to use and intuitive GUI
- ✅ Barometric altimeter
- ✅ Tilt compensation
- ✅ Electronic 3-axis compass
- What we didn’t like
- ❌ Setting computer trip preferences can be a pain
- ❌ 6-8 hours battery life
- ❌ You always have to turn the lock display
The eTrex 30x is a compact and lightweight device which makes it a suitable choice for hikers, mountaineers, trekkers and outdoor excursions since you can easily put it in hip belt pocket. Additionally, it will snugly wrap around your arm like a glove to a hand which is quite convenient.
It’s a small device, but it does offer great impact and water resistance so you can be sure it will work even if it slips or takes a dipping in the water. It has a tiny display at 2.2 inches combined a with a 240 by 320-pixel resolution and can display up to 65k colors.
It features a 3-axis digital compass, WAAS, wireless connectivity, a barometric altimeter, and HotFix. Thanks to its tilt compensation feature you will still find your bearings even if you don’t hold it at the right level. The barometric altimeter accurately pinpoint’s your exact latitude, and you can also use it to monitor changing weather patterns.
Being HotFix and WAAS enabled you can be sure there will be no lag time, it’s going to be quick and accurate. It also features an expandable memory slot for a MicroSD card for when you need that extra space. Furthermore, you can integrate the map with satellite images, but you’ll need a premium subscription to access this cool feature—BirdsEye.
But that’s not all; you can also pair your eTrex 30x with a variety of accessories including an external thermometer—obviously from Garmin, and even a heart rate monitor thanks to its wireless connectivity feature.
Overall, the eTrex 30x is a pretty good handheld GPS device thanks to its tiny size and rich features and hardware. If you’re a hiker, climber, mountaineer or just a nature fanatic, then you’ll love the Garmin eTrex 30x.
What we liked
Superb battery life
Lightweight and compact build
Sunlight readable screen
What we didn’t like
Small screen size
Integrated map lacks detail
The eTrex Touch 25 GPS has a 2.6-inch capacitative touchscreen color display that will give you high-quality readability even in sunlight. Although most handheld GPS devices usually are multipurpose, this one stands out by including activity profiles you can choose from. It offers you an easy to use GUI and navigation for selecting the activities you want.
The activities include hunting, hiking, climbing, fishing, geocaching and much more. It has a compact design in a lightweight body weighing in at about 5.6 ounces, and you can easily mount it on a boat or bicycle. Navigating with this unit will be easy thanks to the 250,000 preloaded topographical maps.
As with all Garmin products, it has a rugged look and is both water and impact resistant, so a dip in a pond or fall won’t do much damage. Additionally, it has both GLONASS support and GPS so you can expect a high sensitivity and it also utilizes HotFix so pinpointing your precise locations won’t be a problem.
With a 3-axis electronic compass with tilt compensation, you won’t ever worry about finding your bearings using this device. It’s powered by two double-A batteries and will give you a goo 16 hours of use before you need to change or recharge them.
It does offer some extra accessories that include a foot pod, heart rate monitor and an external thermometer which makes it quite the handy tool have with you. If you’re in the market for a device that can handle harsh weather conditions such as heavy rains, then the eTrex Touch 25 GPS is a suitable companion to have.
And Garmin was so considerate and made it eco-friendly by going paperless without compromising the efficiency, durability of the device. It also supports GPX files so gone are the days of manually entering coordinates and using printed paper.
What we liked
GPS and GLONASS support
250,000 preloaded geocaches
What we didn’t like
No expandable memory slots
So, why should you go for a handheld GPS device
A GPS provides you with key navigation information beyond what you can see with your own eyes. Take for instance a marine GPS device with a chart shows you the water depth and any potential hazards on your route and most important of all, it shows you where you are in limited visibility conditions. Here are some other reasons you should go for a handheld GPS device:
Hunting and Tramping
There are several specially designed devices just for hunting and Tramping. These devices are usually lightweight, tiny enough to fit almost anywhere and have a pretty decent battery life. You can get the non-mapping editions much cheaper than those that have mapping features, and some of them come with dog collars, so your furry companion doesn’t wander off.
There is always the risk of not finding a suitable product, but you now have the options of choosing the features that you want and that best satisfy your next adventure. Always keep your expectations at a reasonable level, so you don’t make the wrong decision. Virtually every type of outdoor GPS device has geocaching capabilities, so this shouldn’t be a deal-breaker for you.
Street driving GPSs and those for a 4WD are much heavier than the handheld versions and usually have more bulk because of the extra dimensions. However, the downside of using this type of device is that you restricted to using it your vehicle. Many of them aren’t waterproof and were mainly used for urban navigation.
If you’re an avid cyclist, then you can also attach a GPS to your bike to help you navigate. The conventional handheld model won’t work for biking activities since you have to install it on the handlebar of your bike. However, always go for a unit that can handle a lot of vibration.
What to consider when looking for the best handheld GPS device
Buttons vs. touchscreen
Most users prefer a touchscreen unit rather than a button device just like with smartphones. The best thing about touchscreen devices is that they have an intuitive GUI that makes navigating or inputting text easy and you can use it in either a portrait or landscape orientation.
However, some of the best models have buttons which help in navigating considering that the touchscreen on devices doesn’t compare to those of smartphones. Additionally, the touchscreen can also be a pain with temperature changes and might be hard using a glove to operate your unit.
A touchscreen display has its advantages over buttons. Buttons add to the weight of the device, can be tiresome to operate and you can expect to navigate as fast as with a touch display.
Display: Readability and screen size
A key reason for choosing a premium GPS device is the display and bigger screen size. Think about it, when you’re boating or involved in any motorized activity would you rather look into a smaller or larger screen? To be able to see and process information instantly with such activities, and that’s why a bigger screen is better.
On the other hand, if you’re a mountaineer, backpacker or hiker, then the smaller handheld devices would be better suited to your activities. For the extra functionality, the largest size you’ll probably be comfortable with is a 3-inch model, like the Oregon 600, which weighs about 8 ounces.
If you’re looking for a device primarily for geocaching, then the smaller or medium sized units would be a good fit. Additionally, you also want to consider the brightness, readability and direct sunlight visibility since no one wants to squint their eyes to read—kind of like what happens when you’re chopping onions.
Fortunately, Garmin has listened to our cries, and their recent models have anti-glare displays, with excellent contrast and backlighting. It makes reading a map and deciphering text that much easier.
Receiver type: WAAS and GLONASS
GPS devices have become more complex over the years, which means they can no longer simply connect to GPS satellites. Garmin is a leading giant in making technological advancements when it comes to GPS devices, and this is evident since they now include GLONASS support in a majority of their units.
GLONASS is a Russian-based technology, and when combined with GPS it significantly improves the sensitivity of the device and makes it reliable even in deep canyons. It also has 24 extra satellites and great precision for those in the northern regions.
The technology hasn’t been perfected in handheld devices. It requires for you to turn it on and will drain your battery a lot faster than when it’s off. WAAS enable receivers to give an additional advantage when it comes to enhancing tracking accuracy.
WAAS is an acronym for Wide Angle Augmentation System, and although it was initially developed for aviation purposes, it’s now used in GPS devices. It utilizes a network of satellites and ground stations when there are problems with GPS, so it’s always a good idea to have it as a feature.
Preloaded vs. Loading maps
Most of the devices from Garmin come with preloaded maps some 100k and others with 250k maps. Spotting them is easy since they usually have “t” appended after the model ID. We wouldn’t advise you get models with this feature since all devices have the option of preloaded maps, but you can also upload downloaded maps from your PC or Mac.
Moreover, if you decide to purchase a map from Garmin, you will most likely go for the 24k edition. It has a greater level of detail and contours which will enable you to navigate steep slopes better since they show you the degree of steepness.
Simply put, you can always upload the maps yourselves, so you don’t need to buy the more expensive models because of this feature.
Battery life and type
Conventional GPSs used the typical double-A batteries as the standard since they are inexpensive, provide a decent battery life and you can always swap them out when they are drained. However, there is a downside to these batteries as they’ll only give you at most a day of use, so you need to carry spare batteries with you.
On the other hand, carrying extra stuff adds to your weight and becomes an inconvenience—you can imagine how many batteries you would need for a 7-day outdoor excursion. With that said, double-A batteries are still are popular with GPS devices, but Garmin and other manufacturers are now moving to rechargeable battery packs.
The best part about rechargeable batterie is that you can also charge them while on the move if you have a solar unit. A rechargeable battery does cost more compared to the disposable versions but if you’re looking to minimize waste, weight and get more from your outdoors then use a rechargeable battery pack.
Altimeter, Compass, and Barometer
Some of the more expensive handheld GPS devices come with a barometric altimeter and a 3-axis electronic compass. The best part about the electronic compass is you can accurately find your bearings even if you haven’t properly oriented the device.
It comes in handy when you need to get a signal and have to hold it uprightly—a relatively small feature but quite convenient. The barometric altimeter pinpoints your exact latitude by measuring the changes in pressure so you can expect a precise reading of your elevation.
However, as brilliant as it is, it comes with a major drawback—barometric pressure changes with changes in weather. Having said that, if you’re a mountaineer or love hiking or backpacking in the countryside, then it does come in quite handy when you need to know your latitude.
Does size matter? Weight and dimensions
Most of the time, weight and dimensions directly affect the screen size. The smaller and lighter versions usually have a 2.2-inch display with the larger heavier versions featuring a 3.3-inch screen. Our best pick for a lightweight device is the Oregon 600 since it very light and reasonably compact while retaining sunlight readability.
Impact and water resistant
An outdoor adventure is no cake walk, and the best handheld GPS device should have a sturdy and strong design. It should be made of an impact, water, and abrasive resistant material and be able to withstand a couple of splashes, falls or rain.
Optional Features to consider
Do you want to easily share your routes, waypoints, tracks, and geocaches with your friends who have compatible GPS devices? Then this is a feature you must have, otherwise you’ll be stuck juggling between cables and devices.
Some devices come with integrated cameras that will capture not only memories but also location. Additionally, most support geotagging, or you can also do it manually if Photoshop is your cup of tea.
A two-way radio is an excellent feature to consider especially for emergency situations if not anything else. They can either have an integrated FRS—family radio service, or a GMRS—General Mobile Radio Service. In ideal conditions, the FRS has a 2-mile range radius, and the GMRS has a 14-mile range radius plus you will also get the latest weather predictions from NOAA-7 weather radio.
Handheld GPS devices vs. Smartphones vs. GPS watches
Handheld GPS devices have a variety of additional features unlike GPS systems in smartphones. First of all, most of them are waterproof, sturdy, durable and you can use either disposable or rechargeable battery packs.
Additionally, you’ll find navigating with a handheld GPS device much easier than with your GPS watch chiefly because you get a bigger screen, better resolution and better detail and map quality. Presently, the GPS watches available on the market don’t show high-quality maps, so it will be hard navigating different terrains.
GPS vs. Map and compass
The classical navigational method which involved using maps and compasses is still viable even today, and a GPS can’t quite fully replace them. You should always carry a compass and map in each of your adventures if you’re venturing new terrain.
GPS devices complement maps and compasses and usually make finding your location that much easier. Additionally, maps don’t use batteries so they’ll never run out or break should you decide to throw it off the edge of a clip for whatever the reason.
So, you can consider carrying a map as a backup safety measure in case your digital companion fades, or you threw it off a cliff. However, they can still get wet so make sure you carry them in a waterproof bag.
Adventures are no walk in the park, but they don’t necessarily have to painstakingly frustrate and with right handheld GPS device they won’t. You have a lot of options when considering the best handheld GPS device, but we hope this article will better inform you before you make your purchase.