In this guide we’ll look at the best handheld GPS devices for hiking.
We’ve compared accuracy, build quality, features and cost
to give you our top recommendations.
What Is The Best GPS For Hiking?
More Detailed Hiking GPS Reviews
With 2-way messaging, 100% global satellite coverage, and both tracking and location sharing, the Garmin inReach Explorer+ is the perfect all-rounder. Pair with your mobile device to unlock even more awesome features.
The Garmin inReach Explorer+ means you’re never out of reach, no matter how far off the grid you may be! Packed full of nifty features, this GPS is the perfect all-rounder, with communication, location sharing, navigation and critical SOS functions to keep both you and your loved ones relaxed while you hike.
So what’s so great about this model? The 100% global Iridium satellite coverage enables two way text messaging from anywhere. If you get into trouble, you can easily trigger an interactive SOS to the 24/7 search and rescue center, and it’s also easy to share your location with friends and family.
Other features include the ability to pair it with your mobile device for access to downloadable maps, color aerial imagery and more. Plus, there’s preloaded DeLorme TOPO maps with onscreen GPS routing, and the usual built-in digital compass, barometric altimeter and accelerometer.
Reliable, durable and packed full of features, the Garmin inReach Explorer+ is a must-have. I don’t ever head out without it!
The Garmin GPSMAP 64st is a worthy runner up to the Garmin inReach Explorer+. With a sunlight readable 2.6” color display, this model certainly looks more modern. While battery life is often an issue with color displays, this model offers a dual battery system to ensure you’re not caught off guard – use either two AA batteries or the included NiMh battery which can be charged while inside the device.
The GPSMAP 64st comes equipped with a worldwide basemap and is preloaded with TOPO 100k, including coverage of the US. It includes a 1-year BirdsEye Satellite imagery subscription, while the high sensitivity GPS will locate your position accurately and quickly.
Ensure wireless connectivity via bluetooth, a 3-axis compass and, if you’re a keen geocacher, 250,000 preloaded caches from geocaching.com. Finally, receive Smart Notifications and pair with optional ANT+ sensors like a heart rate monitor and temperature sensor, or connect it to your action camera. You can also upload your route to Garmin Connect and view on your smartphone.
Find your way when you need it the most! This GPS is fun, accurate and reliable – with the preloaded maps an excellent bonus.
The Garmin Foretrex 401 Hiking GPS is neat, nifty and the perfect budget option. It takes up minimal space but is still jam packed with features. This device may be small, but boy is it mighty!
This wrist-mounted device takes up no pocket space, but is jam-packed with great features. Perfect for outdoor activities that require the use of both hands.
The Foretrex 401 boasts a high-sensitivity waterproof GPS receiver, an electronic compass and a barometric altimeter. It stands its own brilliantly against the other more advanced devices and is preferred by many for lightweight feel and ease of use.
It may be small, but it’ll keep you safe! This device keeps track of your path and displays it as a dotted trail on the screen, meaning you can retrace your path back to where you started – no matter how deep into the woods you may be! You can also save locations as waypoints like your campsite or vehicle.
This device has a 17 hour battery life and replaceable AAA batteries. It comes with the option of a heart rate monitor to track your fitness or progress.
Finally, it features everything you might need to know about your trip, including sunrise/sunset times, hunting and fishing information, compass, and an altimeter. Easily connect it to your computer to get detailed analysis of your activities and a map of your route on Google earth.
If you like to combine Geocaching with your hikes, the Garmin Montana 680t will help you find your feet. With 250,000 preloaded geocaches, as well as a high sensitivity GPS receiver, this GPS will keep you safe, and give you hours of fun at the same time.
Any geocaching enthusiast will know the importance of a great GPS device, and the Garmin Montana 680t is one of the best handheld GPS devices there is. The device also includes a years subscription to Birdseye Satellite Imagery.
But it’s not just a great device for geocaches. The Garmin Montana 680t has a whole bunch of great features. The glove-friendly, sunlight readable touchscreen display is a nice touch (pun intended), especially when the weather is cold.
This device pinpoints your location accurately, tracking both GPS and GLONASS satellites to ensure you always know where you are, even when surrounded by tall trees and buildings.
The included BaseCamp software allows you to easily view and organise routes, waypoints, maps and tracks. Finally, the 8 megapixel camera is a great addition – allowing you to capture the moment as you go.
Hiking GPS Buyer’s Guide
GPS devices can be top of the range, highly-advanced devices, or they can look like something your grandparents used to communicate! The basic features are important, and anything extra on top of these will add not just to the functionality, but the cost too.
Of course, all GPS devices should have advanced positioning technology. Many devices support solely a GPS satellite to locate your position, but more and more now are supporting both GPS and GLONASS. This provides greater accuracy and the ability to pinpoint your location faster.
GPS and GLONASS support will also work better in woods, valleys or other areas where there’s less signal. Some devices also support BDS, which will give you even greater accuracy – although this is uncommon.
Compass & Altimeter
You won’t always be able to find a GPS signal, and many GPS devices also have a compass and altimeter to use as a backup. These offer more of an ‘old school’ hiking feel, and work even if you have no GPS signal – for example in dense woods or valleys.
Switching off your GPS and relying solely on a compass and map will save you battery – something of an essential on longer hikes. If you’re short on juice, use your compass to figure out where to go, and your GPS as a backup.
Built-in Memory & Maps
Most GPS units come with a basic base map. These will have roads and, to be honest, not much else. Topographic maps are preloaded onto many GPs devices, or they can be bought seperately. These maps are highly detailed, high-quality satellite imagery. If you don’t mind putting a little work in, you can find these for free online.
Alongside maps, mapping software can be downloaded onto the device – Garmin’s Basecamp being the most popular. This provides everything you need to work your GPS properly – allowing you to track routes or display waypoints.
Memory will be needed if you want to download more maps onto your GPS. A MicroSD card slot is common, and many devices offer internal memory.
If the basic features aren’t enough and you’re after something a little more upmarket, here’s what else to look out for – although keep in mind these won’t come cheap!
Wifi connectivity is seen as a priority by many, and totally pointless by others! Wifi allows you to upload data straight to or from your smartphone, usually into an app.
This means you can plot graphs and see data from your hike or activity. You can also transfer notes or routes to friends’ devices, and easily download maps without needing to plug your device into a computer.
It seems we can’t go anywhere without a camera anymore, and many GPS devices these days have a quality camera for snapping pictures as you go.
While some of these are comparable to your smartphone camera, most aren’t – so if a camera is on your list it’s worth making sure it’s a good one.
These allow calls between groups without relying on a phone signal. They are extremely useful for search and rescue teams, and also fun to use! If your group are going to be splitting up at any point, a 2-way radio is great feature to have.
GPS units designed for geocaching can provide hours of fun for the entire family. Most GPS devices will work well for geocaching, but the ones specially designed for this activity are best.
These automatically upload geocaches with details about how to find them – including difficulty, terrain, location and hints. They will also likely have pre-downloaded geocaches and topo maps.
Other Factors to Consider
It’s not just about the features. The design, weight, cost and battery life of your device should all be taken into account.
While it used to be that the larger the screen, the heavier the device; this is no longer the case, and very advanced GPS devices are now designed to be lightweight.
You’ll have a choice of either touchscreen or traditional GPS screens. Touchscreens will be larger but they may weigh less. Be aware that a touchscreen may also decrease the battery life.
Touchscreens can also be harder to use in the rain, and if you’re hiking in colder temperatures you should opt for a glove-friendly screen. Bear in mind that you will pay more for a touchscreen device than a traditional.
Traditional screens will have a longer battery life but be less intuitive to use (as we are all now so used to touchscreens!). They may also be slower, although they are easier to use with gloves and in the rain and they will be cheaper.
Other display options include sunlight readability and a backlight – both of which will consume the battery life faster.
Packing light is essential when it comes to hiking, and this includes your GPS. Lightweight GPS devices are easy to find, but they will be more expensive. If you need a larger screen size, expect to add a few extra grams.
Low-end devices with buttons instead of touchscreens and less features are often heavier. They are rarely designed to be lightweight and often look bulky. Very expensive, sleek devices with touchscreens will be lighter but, you guessed it, much more expensive.
GPS devices are not cheap but when you appreciate how much trouble they can get you out of, it’s no surprise.
The price of a GPS mainly depends on its features. Devices with a huge number of advanced features, a large color touchscreen, Wifi connectivity, and a camera will be more expensive – often up to and over $400.
Cheaper devices will have far less features, usually offering the basic ABC (altimeter, barometer and compass), plus GPS. These devices won’t be touchscreen, but will be simple to use and most likely very durable. They may also have a better battery life. These can cost under $200.
With a hiking GPS device, more expensive doesn’t always mean better. If all you need is a basic GPS device and you’re not bothered about the fancy extra stuff, you can find one for cheap. If, however, you want the equivalent of a handheld computer in your backpack, be prepared to pay a lot more!
One of the biggest advantages of using a GPS over a smartphone is their durability. Any GPS device for hiking you buy should be sturdy, tough and durable.
Bear in mind that the more lightweight the device, the less durable it may be. Likewise, if your device is more advanced, for example with a large glass touchscreen, it may not be drop-proof!
The sturdy, seriously tough devices will have more basic features and much bulkier to carry. However, they are exceptionally reliable with a great battery life and usually able to withstand a drop or two!
Most GPS devices are water resistant and some are totally waterproof. While water resistance means it won’t get damaged in a rain shower, waterproof devices can survive being submerged – or dropped in a puddle!
Battery life is a tricky topic when it comes to GPS devices. If you’re going to be hiking for days on end, miles away from anywhere, then a good battery life should be top on your list of priorities. Getting stranded with no battery is not only hugely frustrating, it’s also very dangerous.
If however, you are planning on doing casual weekend hikes and won’t be putting yourself in any real danger, battery life can be a little lower on your list of priorities. It is worth noting however, that devices with more advanced features will drain the battery faster and cost more. Often, inexpensive and simpler devices have a longer battery life.
Keeping your GPS warm in colder temperatures will keep the battery going for longer, as well as keeping it cool when the temperature is high. GPS devices that use disposable batteries can be great for longer hikes, but be sure to pack some spares!
How Do GPS Devices Compare to Smartphones?
For hiking, I would always recommend a specific GPS device. While smartphones are highly convenient, they have a terrible battery life – especially while running a GPS and they are nowhere near as durable.
However, smartphones are convenient, lightweight and, for many people, easier to use than GPS devices. We are used to smartphones, and they contain everything we need, including a camera, GPS and 24/7 access to the internet in one lightweight package.
For longer or multiple day hikes, a GPS device is an essential, with a smartphone as a backup. However, for navigating your way around cities or shorter hikes, a smartphone might be your preferred option. GPS devices have a better satellite reception, more powerful navigation and replaceable batteries. For this reason, they will always be my top choice.
So my advice? Put the smartphone away! GPS devices can be found to suit a range of budgets and they can hugely enhance your hiking experience.