According to this hiking article on MNN, there are over $4 million dollars spent each year searching for thousands of hikers who have gotten themselves astray in the wilderness.
Most of the time, this bill is covered by the taxpayers but depending on where you’re lost, you may receive a hefty ($500+) bill for the search and rescue (SAR) teams that were deployed at your distress.
Why do so many hikers, hunters, runners, and campers get lost? How can you ensure your hiking trip doesn’t turn out to cost you several hundred dollars and a long walk/ride of shame? What is the one indispensable item you can buy that hasn’t been replaced by the smartphone?
A rugged and dependable hiking GPS! Yes, it really is that simple and no, your smartphone is not as good as a dedicated GPS. Many hikers get lost and claim they thought they could rely on their smartphone, but the truth is, no smartphone has the full capabilities and durability of a GPS, at least not yet anyway. Smartphones GPS are meant to run at extremely low power levels to ensure you get long-lasting battery life. This means a smartphone will not be able to reach as far or be as accurate as a dedicated GPS device. Please, do not rely on your smartphone to guide you through the wilderness.
Investing in a high-quality GPS is absolutely crucial for anyone who plans on spending time in the great outdoors.
- Here Are the Best Handheld GPS Devices for Hiking
- 1. Garmin eTrex10 GPS (Best Value)
- 2. Garmin inReach Explorer+
- 3. Garmin inReach Mini
- 4. Garmin GPSMAP 64st
- 5. Garmin Oregon 650t (Great Touchscreen GPS)
- 6. Garmin eTrex 35 (Good Value Touchscreen GPS)
- 7. Garmin Foretrex 601 (Rugged Military Style)
- 8. Garmin Foretrex 401
- 9. Casio Pro Trek (GPS Watch)
- 10. Magellan eXplorist 300 (Garmin GPS Alternative)
Want to learn how to choose a GPS for hiking before seeing the list? Keep reading!
Getting lost seems like something out of a movie and it couldn’t possibly ever happen to you, right? I’m sure the thousands of people every year who get lost say that too.
Sure, you might just be a master navigator in a concrete jungle or even a skillful tracker of all things furry in the wilderness, but what happens when you fall into a river and your phone gets soaked? What happens if the markers you’ve been leaving are swept away or covered? If you eat a mushroom that erases the last 48 hours of your memory? (okay, I’m not sure this happens but it doesn’t hurt to be prepared). There are so many unfortunate events that could happen to a hiker no matter their skill level that it is absolutely imperative that you are prepared and equipped with the latest GPS technology. With how cheap these devices are, how available they are, and how easy they are to use, there is absolutely no excuse in venturing out without one.
Now that you are going to buy one because you’re responsible and wouldn’t want a SAR out looking for you all weekend, where do you look and what do you look for? There are so many options that come configurable with many different options and functions, where do you even start to look?
HERE!!! We’ll first discuss what the most important functions of a GPS are and then I’ll guide you through my favorite GPS devices on the market that you can easily find for sale on the web.
Most Important GPS Functions
Touchscreen or physical buttons?
This one is personal preference unless you are hiking in extremely low temperatures. Touchscreens are really cool and will probably be faster to use and configure, but if you’re hiking in low temperatures, chances are that you’ll be wearing gloves. Gloves and touchscreens do not work well together so please consider the conditions you will be hiking in. A touchscreen is also more likely to be rendered incapacitated from screen damage. Most GPS units are made to be extremely tough but if on the off chance the screen takes a beating, a touchscreen has more likelihood of rendering the device useless.
What functions do you need?
All GPS devices are built for basic navigating purposes, but the range of functions and cool features is huge. Typically, this will depend largely on your budget and what you actually need. To choose the right GPS for you, I would consider the extensiveness of your other gear. If your trip requires high-end hiking boots (if you’re interested, check out my favorite hiking boots here), a tent that can withstand 100mph winds, a sleeping bag then is rated for -50 degrees, etc, then you should probably be looking into state-of-the-art GPS devices as well. If you just need a plastic water bottle and some basic tennis shoes, you will probably be fine with a budget brand GPS. Of course, that is a very general statement and you may really enjoy the advanced features of a high-end GPS for your stroll through the woods.
Most GPS devices will do these:
- Display your positioning via coordinates and uses this data to place you on a map.
- Select a point and display directions to that point from either another point or your current location.
- Tracking features allowing your GPS to record your path and help you find your way back home.
- Trip data information containing statistics such as time traveled, distance traveled, average speed, the altitude you’ve gained/lost, etc.
Expensive GPS devices will do these:
- Intuitive geocaching managers.
- Digital camera functionality with geotagging (yes, some even stick on a selfie stick).
- Radio communication for communicating with other devices or calling for help.
- MicroSD expandable memory slots that allow for your device to store map data, photos, contacts, special route data, and even music!
- Third party map services for advanced topography and route information.
- Electronic compasses will display the direction you are facing currently versus cheaper GPS units that may only be able to tell you which direction you have been heading with the last several steps.
- Advanced Barometer and altimeter functions that may be able to record weather trends and even alert you to possible weather changes.
- Places of interest or cautionary warnings notifications
Here Are the Best Handheld GPS Devices for Hiking
In no particular order, I will provide a list of GPS devices that you may be interested in. These are certainly not the only devices, but the list will pretty well sum up the majority of options available. There are hundreds, if not thousands of GPS devices from many different manufacturers that essentially all do the same thing. This list is meant for those of you who don’t know where to look, are overwhelmed with the multitude of options or may just want to pick something up quickly with a small and brief review.
1. Garmin eTrex10 GPS (Best Value)
My Review: I personally own two of this exact model and in my opinion, it’s the best hiking GPS for the money.
If you just need a basic GPS for hiking you will not be disappointed in the eTrex 10. For under 100 dollars you get a reliable GPS that is more than capable of doing all the things most recreational hikers want from a GPS.
It’s great very easy GPS to use and has all of the functions you can expect from a low budget GPS device
The battery life is great, and one of the favorite things about this GPS is that it runs off two AA batteries. I definitely recommend packing a couple of extra sets of batteries just in case. If you don’t want to use this as your primary GPS because you want a fancier one with more functions and a touchscreen as your primary GPS, it’s also a great back up. I would recommend this to anyone hunting or doing casual hiking and camping. I used this while in the Marines and never had any problems with it. Garmin also supports a wide variety of mounting hardware allowing you to easily mount this unit on a backpack, bicycle, etc. This unit does have an issue with being a bit slow and may take a few seconds here and then to respond but this is easily circumvented with a bit of patience.
Here is a short video I found on YouTube describing it’s basic features and how to save, search, and set waypoints.
Notable Functions and Features:
Notable Functions and Features:
2. Garmin inReach Explorer+
My Review: Before we discuss this particular GPS unit, I want to make it clear that this is a GPS, Satellite phone, and Personal Locator Beacon (PLB) all in one.
With this, you can send text messages, SOS alerts, and have access to 24/7 search and rescue support from anywhere in the world. This unit allows you the ability to relay your location to someone else, such as a concerned family member or a team member whose responsibility is to keep tabs on you during a trip into harsh environments.
The Explorer+ package is essentially a pre-loaded map pack featuring DeLorme topographic maps, all of which can be configured with waypoints, Garmin routing, etc. The unit includes a built-in digital compass, however, be warned that most digital compasses found on GPS units only work by calculating your movement, and fail to give accurate readings when standing still. Furthermore, the unit also encompasses a barometer, altimeter, and an accelerometer and can use all of this data to create historical trip statistics. To boot, this unit also provides you with weather reports automatically detailed for you based on your GPS location.
All of these incredible features can be used on your smartphone with Bluetooth pairing via the Earthmate application, available on both Android and IOS platforms.
The Garmin inReach is a global Iridium satellite phone through GEOS, which ensures access to communication literally anywhere on the planet. To use this feature, however, you’ll need to sign up and pay the subscription fee, however, if you’re an adrenaline junky planning on pushing your limits and journeying into the unknown, I’d say it’s a small price to pay to have the peace of mind and come equipped with a device that could be the difference between life and death. You can also easily turn this feature on and off anytime through your online account.
If you decide to cancel your subscription, you can continue to use the device as a GPS, but you will lose access to the SOS feature, messaging, tracking (over the air logging will still work), and weather features.
3. Garmin inReach Mini
My Review: We can’t praise the inReach Explorer+ without also discussing the inReach Mini! Just like its full-sized companion, the Mini is also a full-service two-way GEOS SOS satellite communicator and GPS unit combo that utilizes a rechargeable lithium-Ion battery pack.
If you’ve read the review about the inReach Explorer+, then you’re already familiar with this model. Really, the big difference is simply its size and GPS capabilities.
The GPS functions are essentially the same while lacking the preloaded topographical maps, but using it is a bit more difficult without that large colorful screen. An important thing to note here, though, is that you can pair your smartphone with the inReach Mini and use that as your method of the interface instead, making the mini just as user-friendly and as powerful as the Explorer+ and, in my opinion, significantly better than the Explorer SE for some applications. Although the Mini doesn’t technically come with preloaded maps, if you’re using it to pair with a smartphone, you’ll get pretty much all the same functions you would with the larger Explorer+.
The big focus on the inReach Mini was cramming all of the great features we love from the inReach Explorer+ into a much smaller and lighter package. The mini is roughly half the size of the Explorer+ and Explorer SE and only weighs 3.5 ounces, making it one of the lightest GPS and Satellite communicators on the market today.
I will mention this, if you don’t plan to bring a smartphone or a tablet on the trip with your inReach Mini, I’d probably recommend the Explorer+. The Mini is a little difficult to send text messages on and isn’t capable of displaying such detail and information that the Explorer+ is built to display. Without a smartphone, the mini feels like a very crude GPS unit, but still, the satellite communication features function basically the same, except texting on it is a bit rough. If you’re like most people and you bring along a smartphone, then the inReach Mini is a little monster of a unit and is likely one of the best you’ll find.
As a final note about the Garmin inReach Mini, it has the ability to pair up with more than just a smartphone. Have a Garmin Fenix 5 GPS watch? They’ll work together to provide you with next level GPS functionality.
4. Garmin GPSMAP 64st
My Review: This is one of the highest rated and best handheld GPS systems out there for many reasons.
It offers pretty much any functionality that any basic to mid-range outdoorsman would ever require.
This GPS has great connectivity options for a PC or mobile phone and tracks a variety of different metrics that are fun and easy to share and compare with friends who use similar devices.
The device does have a low battery life compared to many other devices but that seems to be a pretty universal trend with 2xAA battery devices that have a lot of functionality. If you simply turn off functions you don’t need such as Bluetooth and advanced topography, the device will last significantly longer. GLONASS integration ensures great GPS connectivity and with the onboard electronic compass, you will always know where you’re headed!
Here is a pretty good video that gives a 1-minute overview of the GPS. I think you’ll see why this is the best hiking GPS systems out there, and considering it’s under $300 makes it a great value.
Notable Functions and Features: Cons:
Notable Functions and Features:
5. Garmin Oregon 650t (Great Touchscreen GPS)
My review: Although this device is a great tool to have, I would probably not recommend it for most situations.
The photos are great and the connectivity is fabulous. Visibility in the sun is unmatched and the fact that you can use the touchscreen with light gloves on is a huge plus.
However, a unit this expensive should be expected to function nearly 100% of the time, however, there are hundreds of reports of this unit crashing and requiring the batteries to be pulled out.
This is something I would not expect from a $500+ unit. If you want the most expensive touchscreen photo taking fancy pants GPS available to show off in front of your hiking buddies, go ahead and pick this one up. If you just want a trusty device for hiking, this is probably a good miss for you.
Additional notable features:
It may be easier to list what this GPS device doesn’t come with, but for the sake of keeping this list consistent, here we go!
- It has a 3 axis compass including accelerometer, barometer, and altimeter.
- It has an Impact resistant 3” sunlight readable touchscreen display encompassing multi-touch technology.
- Glove accommodation for touchscreen usage
- Dual-band GPS/GLONASS satellite position capability
- Dual AA battery or NiMH rechargeable battery pack (included)
- ANT and Bluetooth connectivity
- Wirelessly share tracks, waypoints, routes, geocaches, customized maps, trip statistics, and photos
- 8MP Digital Camera with autofocus, zoom and LED flash/torch
- Geotagged photos for easy sharing via Garmin Adventures platform
- MicroSD expandable memory
- Lightweight 7.4oz design
- Pre-downloaded US topography maps
6. Garmin eTrex 35 (Good Value Touchscreen GPS)
My Review: This is on the cheaper side for a solid touch screen enabled device. It’s suitable for pretty much all situations and has MicroSD expandability to load custom maps from third-party map makers.
This is the perfect GPS for someone who wants a fancy touchscreen model but doesn’t need a top of the line GPS. It’s affordable and comes with all of the functions any average hiker would need. The only thing it lacks that most models in this price range come with is Bluetooth connectivity.
Notable Functions and Features:
- 2.5” color touchscreen display that is sunlight readable
- Built-in mapping with a worldwide base map and shaded relief
- 100k US topo maps included
- Electronic compass offering 3 axis tilt compensators
- Activity profiles
- ANT+ connectivity to track activity statistics
- Barometer, altimeter, and compass
- 4GB memory
- 250k geocache maps
- GLONASS and GPS satellite positioning
- 2xAA batteries or rechargeable NiHM battery capabilities (batteries not included)
- 16 hour battery life
- Transfer data from unit to unit wirelessly
- 100k points and 200 tracks logging
- Garmin Connect compatible
- 5.6oz weight
7. Garmin Foretrex 601 (Rugged Military Style)
My Review: This is a great device for rugged all-terrain use. This was modeled after the military’s version and comes with almost all of the same functionality except bullet trajectory calculators.
It’s not fancy and it doesn’t have a nice color display but it has almost unbeatable battery life and durability.
This isn’t made for the casual runner or cyclist but more so for extreme sports and long journeys into tough elements.
Notable Functions and Features:
- GPS, GLONASS, and Galileo satellite functionality
- Smart phone connectivity
- Notifications for emails, texts, calls, etc
- MIL-STD-810G military grade construction
- Over 1 month battery life in watch mode
- Over 48 hour battery life in navigation mode
- 3 axis sensors including compass, altimeter, and barometer
- Night vision goggle compatible
- Garmin Connect compatible with auto upload features
- Very basic monochrome display
8. Garmin Foretrex 401
My Review: This unit is designed for our none military and hardcore adventurists. It has a lot of the same functionality as the Garmin 601 but is a lot easier to use and a bit smaller and lighter.
The device is great for both casual use and extensive adventuring, just don’t expect ultra-high durability. For the price, this is likely the best wearable full functioning GPS you can find today. It is also top rated on Amazon and despite there being an actual military version, many servicemen utilize this device in combat zones around the world.
Key Functions and Features:
- HotFix enabled GPS sensor for high-sensitivity performance
- Tracks waypoints, routes, heart rate (with add on monitor), path retracements, sunrise/sunset times and more
- Basic hunting and fishing information
- 3 axis including barometer, altimeter, and electronic compass
- LCD display with 100×64 resolution
- 1.42”x0.91” display size
- Audible tones and dual position readout configurations
- Display may be difficult to read in extreme sunlight
- Entering data is difficult due to its small and simplistic design
9. Casio Pro Trek (GPS Watch)
My Review: This watch is perfect for those who need minor GPS functionality in activities such as running, hiking, hunting, etc. It’s incredibly easy to use and includes a ton of functions outside of GPS as well.
The GPS itself is fairly accurate but you must download the maps you wish to use. It does not come with maps pre-installed and will not work without your phone if you have no maps installed. As far as GPS enabled smart watches go, I would recommend them to the less serious adventurers reading this.
Not everyone will be venturing deep into the wilderness and they won’t be scaling any significant elevations. GPS signals on watches are clearly not as precise as a full GPS unit but they will get the job done just as well as a GPS unit for minor activities. You are spending about the same on this watch as most of the mid to high-end GPS devices, but you are getting a full-fledged smartwatch. Most smartwatches today are running the same OS and have the same functionalities, so I would recommend finding the style you like and basing your decision off of that as the GPS functionalities will largely all be the same.
In conclusion, please do us all a favor and bring a GPS device that is fit for the adventure you are planning to take. You are not only risking your own health and wellbeing by choosing to be unprepared, but you are also risking the lives of the search and rescue operators, friends, local law enforcement, etc. GPS units are not going to break the bank but they will save your butt in a pinch. You may be frustrated to see that Garmin pretty well dominates the market alone. They have a version of their GPS systems for every platform including watches and are by far the most well-known GPS manufacturers in the world. With this said, there are other options to consider! No matter what you choose, don’t ever venture into unknown (or you think you know it but actually don’t) territory without a trusted device.
As a little disclaimer, the list is not a fully encompassing end all be all list. These are just talking points for further investigation. Most of the GPS devices discussed in this article have several variations of the same model which range in price and functionality. My advice would be to define your budget, find a “style” of GPS that you like, then determine which model has the functions you will need. You can spend all day reading the function lists of several hundred different models but at the end of the day, they’re all basically the same thing.
Notable Functions and Features:
- Android Wear OS by Google
- Mil-Standard 810 G durability
- 50m water resistance
- Digital compass, altimeter, barometer
- Activity tracker
- Dual layer LCD screens
- Full-color map display
- Offline map functionality with downloadable maps
- Location memory
- Compatible with almost all smartphones
- This is not a replacement for a full GPS unit
- You must download the maps before leaving internet access or use your smartphone.
10. Magellan eXplorist 300 (Garmin GPS Alternative)
Note: In my opinion, there are far better options on this list at a similar price point. That said, if you’ve had a bad experience with Garmin in the past and are looking for a Garmin alternative, this is a solid GPS. You can find this GPS on Amazon through this link.
My Review: This is a great GPS unit for those of you who enjoy simplicity and ease of use. The eXplorist 300 has a very rugged and durable design and simply gets the job done. This unit will get you from point A to point B and help you find your way if you get lost in between. This GPS isn’t going to blow your mind with features and it won’t help you take sick selfies on the way, but it will provide a very budget friendly option for low to medium range adventures.
Magellan also has several different variations of this device that may have less or more functions. I chose to review this one as it seems to take the middle ground. I would look further into these models to find the one that fits your needs.
Notable Functions and Features: Cons
Notable Functions and Features:
MNN: Uses for a Hiking GPS
Wikipedia: GPS Devices
There are a lot of great GPS systems on this list. It’s impossible to say exactly what the best GPS for hiking is because it depends on what features you’re looking for, but the GPS systems at position 1 and 2 on this list are great options for most people.
If you have any questions or comments feel free to leave them below.
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Corporal Wabo is a former Infantry Squad Leader with 3rd Bn 4th Marines that specialized in Mortars. In his free time, he enjoys hunting, hiking, running, shooting guns, and reviewing gear. He started this website while transitioning out of the Marines, and since has recruited several other Marines to help him work on the Marine Approved website. We are currently looking for former Marines that like to talk tactical gear, survival gear, hiking supplies, etc. For more information about us or to join the team, check out the “About Us” tab.