Best Overall Handheld GPS
Garmin Oregon 600
Smartphone-like touch screen
Fast map redraw
Simple menu layout
Customizable menu options
Dual orientation screen
Long battery life
Sensitive screen that changes easily
Limited basecamp interface
The Garmin Oregon 600
is the only GPS available that has a modern
, high quality touchscreen display. The reason we love it so much is because it is the closest to resemble a smartphone. Even though it isn't as high quality as an iPhone display, it certainly comes close in functionality. In addition to a great screen, the Oregon 600 is extremely easy to use, highly accurate, and quickly loads maps. It comes with many features, including a Bluetooth chip that allows you to share your way point and track data with receiving units nearby. It also hosts an electronic compass, 1.5 GB of memory, and 16 hours of battery life. The Oregon 600 sets the new standard for handheld GPS devices. We highly recommend this to anyone that does a lot of travel in low visibility conditions or has the cash the push the performance envelope. If you want a bit more out of your Oregon 600, check out the Garmin Oregon 650
. This model now comes with an 8 megapixel camera!
Best Bang for the Buck
Garmin eTrex 20x
Easy to use
Great screen quality
Longest battery life
Reliable push buttons
No electronic compass
Basemap is very limited
Owner's manual lacks detail
The Garmin eTrex 20x
is a small and lightweight hiking GPS that provides ample performance for roughly half the price and weight of the other two award winners. This device will help you get back on track if weather turns foul and you can't find your route. This is perfect for those in need of a lightweight device before going into the back country for an extended period of time. Add this unit to your Dream Hiking Gear List
as it may save you if you find yourself off trail. Not only that, but it will only cost you $199. If you're looking to upgrade your xTrex 20x memory storage and screen resolution, check out the Garmin eTrex 30x
Top Pick Award for Reliability
Garmin GPS MAP 64s
Fantastic reception through thick coverage
Share wirelessly features
Smart notifications (connect to your smartphone)
The Garmin GPS MAP 64s
is our top pick for mountaineering, ski touring, and below freezing adventures where the reliability of push buttons in cold weather supersedes all other factors
. The 64s also has a big external antenna that provides better and quicker reception than the Oregon 600, which is useful if you find yourself in super thick forest canopies (tropical jungles), deep slot canyons (like in Utah and Arizona), or stuck in a whiteout on the side of a mountain. Our testers liked the GPS MAP 64s for colder, more extreme days but took the Oregon 600 out on most bluebird days. If money isn't a factor, consider checking out the Garmin GPSMAP 64sc
if you're looking for all the bells and whistles for your Garmin.
Top Pick for Accuracy: Garmin Montana 680
Top Pick for Features: Magellan eXplorist 510
Analysis and Test Results
In this review we tested six of the best and most popular handheld GPS units designed for land-based outdoor recreation. A Global Positioning System (GPS) unit is used to collect and store spatial data for a plethora of activities. These include camping, hiking, biking, mountaineering, fishing, hunting, skiing, and more. It helps you navigate to specific locations and get you back to places you've been. GPS models vary based on performance, level of accuracy, battery life, and additional features. Some are specific to navigation in cars, while others are made to wear on your wrist like the Suunto Ambit 3 Sport
Ski touring in Alaska is a perfect place to test the limits of these handheld GPS units.
In this review, we sought out GPS models that are small and lightweight enough to fit in your pocket. We do not cover models with built in radio or communication devices. Every model tested has an assortment of features and meets IPX7
standards, which require electronic devices to withstand accidental immersion in one meter of water for up to 30 minutes.
What sets a higher performing device apart from a lower performance device are a few fancy features. Some GPS units feature a share wireless option, barometric altimeter, and electronic compass while others do not.
Some devices come extra features while others are plain and simple. The Magellan eXplorist 510
has a camera, video recorder, and voice recorder while the Garmin GPS MAP 64s can sync up to a smartphone to provide "smart notifications." These extras are nice to a) fully document adventures and b) stay connected without taking your phone out of your backpack.
Another important function for any GPS unit is the ability to upload your trip information to a computer. All the devices tested in this review are compatible with the popular viewing software BaseCampTM
developed by Garmin. Other software programs include Magellan'sVantagePoint
and the DeLorme Topo North American Desktop Software. In this review we found BaseCamp to be the easiest to navigate.
When is a Handheld GPS really necessary? Will a Smartphone Suffice?
There are situations where a smartphone can be a better tool than a GPS, and others where it doesn't measure up. These questions and many others we answer in our GPS Buying Advice Article
. Learn about the many features of a handheld GPS.
How Do GPS Units Work?
Currently there are 1,200 satellites orbiting the Earth. These satellites belong to a variety of countries and a number of government sectors. In North America, we receive signals from satellites managed by the U.S. Department of Defense. Higher performance units utilize satellite data from both the USA and other countries with private networks. These satellites transmit timing and positional data. Once a GPS receiver receives a signal from at least four satellites, the location can be triangulated. Units with higher accuracy can pick up transmitted data from more satellites. The most accurate units tested in this review include the Garmin Montana 680
and the Garmin GPS MAP 64s. These units had recorded accuracy within 10 feet which is awesome for a handheld. Trimble GPS units are more accurate (and more expensive) putting you within an inch of your actual position. These units are much larger and used to triangulate exact position.
The units tested in this review used two satellite networks. The USA manages the Global Positioning Satellite (GPS) network while Russia manages the Globalnaya Navigazionnaya Sputnikovaya Sistema (GLONASS) network. The GPS network accesses 32 satellites while GLONASS contributes 24 additional satellites. In addition, all handhelds have WAAS (Wide Area Augmentation System) compatibility to increase unit accuracy. This technology provides data to compatible receivers to augment their position. Signals from satellites are sent to WAAS master stations on land where augmentation messages are sent out. This message is sent to compatible receivers (like GPS units) which automatically corrects errors to provide a much more accurate estimate of location. GPS units that utilized GLONASS, GPS, and WAAS compatibility with a large antenna had the best reception.
Utilizing both GLONASS and GPS satellite networks, the Garmin Oregon 600 (Editors' Choice) helps this group of skiers navigate through a white-out.
Each manufacturer includes software designed to organize, analyze (though functions are very basic) and project the way points and tracks you collect with your unit. Garmin Basecamp is our favorite software because it's simple, intuitive, cross platform, and provides everything a basic GPS user needs. For example, you can easily display way points or tracks in Google Earth, a feature no other manufacturer supports.
Magellan and Garmin brands are compatible with Google Earth. Here we see a track comparison of all units. DeLorme is not compatible with Google Earth and stands on its own without a file converter.
Magellan Vantage Point is very similar to Basecamp in that it offers a comparable suite of tools. We, however, prefer Basecamp because it's slightly easier to use and Mac compatible. DeLorme models ship with Topo North America, a powerful and impressive suite of detailed topo maps for the Unites States. Although these maps are excellent, we found the software to be harder to use than Basecamp and Vantage Point. Performing basic functions, such as viewing an elevation profile of a route, requires more mouse clicks in Topo North America than in either of the other two programs. If you want to do some analysis, skip the included software and download an open source GIS.
An export from DeLorme Topo USA that shows the route and elevation profile (blue line is speed) for the drive from Bishop to South Lake Tahoe, CA. Topo USA is the most powerful, but least intuitive software that comes with the units tested.
1:100,000 is a useful scale for general navigation, but 1:24,000 is much better for navigating in steep terrain.
If you choose to buy maps from a manufacturer, definitely go with 24k scale (Garmin denotes models with preloaded 100k maps by adding a "t" to the model number). All manufacturers offer aerial imagery downloads for around $30 per year, but this is often unnecessary because you can plan your routes in Google Earth and then send files to your mapping software and device. Satellite imagery is rarely necessary in the back country; we don't suggest paying money for it.
You can also download maps and satellite imagery for free and transfer them to your unit. A good source for free maps is the GPS File Depot
. The U.S. National Agricultural Imagery Program (NAIP) shoots high quality, free aerial imagery for the entire continental U.S. every year or two. The United States Geological Survey's Seamless Data Warehouse
has a wealth of free spatial data. And of course, most U.S. states have a website that houses spatial data. If you want the best maps spend some time tinkering with the free data. If you want something low effort be prepared to shell out around $100 for maps from a manufacturer.
Garmin's Basecamp is the best free software that comes with a GPS. It is useful for trip planning because you can draw potential routes and calculate elevation gain and loss.
The History of the Handheld GPS
The handheld GPS units we use today to find our way around the woods, mountains and deserts for our playtime adventures have their roots in the military. In 1957, the Russian government launched the first satellite — Sputnik. With Sputnik up in orbit, US physicists from Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory decided to monitor Sputnik's radio transmissions. They discovered that due to the Doppler effect, you could track the location of the satellite from the ground, mostly by measuring the distance and location of receivers on earth relative to the satellites overhead. To help locate their submarines, the US Navy built the first satellite navigation system in 1959. It initially consisted of six satellites and sometimes took hours to receive signals from the satellites — imagine how frustrated we get these days if we have to wait a few seconds.
In the 1970s and early 1980s, the US Air Force continued to launch more satellites into their system, which was originally called NAVSTAR. Many of these satellites carried atomic clocks onboard to accurately measure transmission times. In 1983, a commercial Korean Air flight was shot down by the Soviets after it wandered over the Soviet airspace border near the Kamchatka Peninsula. This prompted President Reagan to announce that access to the GPS system would be available to all civilian commercial aircraft to increase safety. However, it took until 1989 to get the system complete and fully operational. At that time, the first hand-held device was marketed in the US — the Magellan NAV 1000.
From 1990 through 2000, the US Department of Defense deliberately diminished the accuracy of the GPS system for private users, fearing that US enemies might be able to use it to gain advantage. When the signal scrambling ended, the system went from having 100-meter accuracy to 20-meter accuracy overnight, which made it useful for all sorts of private industries and purposes.
As of 2016, there are 32 satellites orbiting the earth approximately 12,600 miles high. They are programmed to each orbit the earth twice a day and so that at least 24 of them are available 95 percent of the day and so that at any one moment any spot on earth is "visible" to at least four satellites.
Criteria for Evaluation
We evaluated each model through an array of objective field and at-home tests. Our main testers spent hours tinkering with these units to provide you with an in-depth review. Our criteria focused on the unit itself. For each unit we consider reception, ease of use, display quality, speed, weight, and versatility for evaluation. Using an array of tests we were able to determine award winners and help you determine what to purchase for you next handheld GPS.
The six devices tested in this review. There is one Magellan, one DeLorme, and four Garmin devices.
Check out the table below to see how each handheld GPS ranked in Overall Performance.