Hiking GPS

Hiking GPS buying guide

Last updated: December 2013
Getting started

Getting started

Modern adventurers have numerous tools to choose from when packing for a day trip or an overnight wilderness excursion, and for many, a convenient, all-in-one device is a handheld hiking GPS unit. Those portable navigators can direct you from Point A to Point B, guide you along a plotted course, and add an extra measure of safety and even fun. For more specific route guidance, the user can view and edit trails, waypoints, and geocaches on a computer with the included software.

Among the uses for hiking handhelds is geocaching, essentially GPS-based treasure hunting. Geocache enthusiasts log in to geocaching.com or opencaching.com to learn about possible caches in a given area, to log a find, or to create a profile for a new cache. The so-called treasures are usually watertight plastic containers containing a logbook to sign and several trinkets. When you find a geocache, you may exchange one object for another. In our experience, they are often toys and simple mementoes. Tiny "microcaches" might have only a small scroll for signing. Geocaches can provide inspiration for getting some exercise and give real purpose to the handheld devices.

Other uses for handhelds include general hiking, with the ability to plan a trip from a desktop computer and follow a digital breadcrumb trail back to the trailhead. They can also be useful for hunting and fishing. Many include basic sunrise and sunset times, tide tables, and a hunting/fishing calendar.

All the hiking navigators provide guidance with a simple straight line between waypoints along a route. That method gives the shortest route, but often it is not the easiest or the most practical one to follow. Even when they're equipped with topographical maps, the devices just connect the dots. For example, if you are seeking a geocache at specific coordinates, the device will not route you along a trail around a cliff face. Ultimately, the user will need to decide on the best route given the terrain. Some additional maps may include trails for national parks and main roads for basic guidance.

At their core, the hiking units we have used share many similarities, with the control interface, geocaching friendliness, standard maps, and screen size being among the most significant differentiators. Garmin, Magellan, and Delorme devices all offer similar features, differing most in packaging and ease of use.

How to choose

Most units are capable of paperless geocaching, which means information (i.e., instructions and hints) beyond the basic coordinates can be loaded into the handheld device before the user heads out to the trail. Geocaching.com requires a premium subscription for this service; Garmin-owned opencaching.com is free to use. Both communities offer smart-phone applications, as well.

Without going the paperless geocaching route, users will need to print the description and hints to help find the cache. Most newer units are capable of one-click paperless geocaching, while others require you to first download a GPX file and then import the file to their unit.

All units are water and impact resistant, giving them a distinct advantage over using a smart-phone with an application.

Portability is an important consideration. Some units, such as the Garmin eTrex and Dakota series, are very pocket friendly, while some DeLorme and Magellan devices are more of a handful.

Screen dimensions are a key factor in the overall size. Small, 2.2-inch screens, like those on the eTrex, are big enough for basic trail plotting and geocaching, but a larger 4.0-inch screen is much easier for reading a bigger area and interpreting topographic maps. The ideal balance is a device with the smallest exterior dimensions and largest screen size. Units such as the Garmin Montana provide a large touch screen in a minimal package.

To keep your options open, consider devices with a microSD slot that can be used for adding maps, such topographic, street, or water maps.

There are a variety of controls used, and each has its own pros and cons. A touchscreen is typically easy to use, though some may be more difficult when wearing gloves. A combination of touchscreen and hard buttons may be the most effective design. The eTrex devices use a tiny joystick that works fine when info is downloaded to the device, but entering numbers and letters can be tedious. With limited practice, a user could become comfortable and even adept at using any control method.

As a rule, handhelds use convenient AA batteries (alkaline or rechargeable NiMH), though the Garmin Montana line can also use a single lithium-ion battery. For most casual hikers, all units provide the power to guide for a full day, especially if the unit is shut off during breaks. Using rechargeable batteries might provide longer run time and carrying a spare set is recommended.

Bottom line

Products from the leading companies (Garmin, Magellan, DeLorme) span a broad price range. The more expensive devices can add navigation features, as well as wireless data transfer, camera, flashlight, voice recorder, photo viewer, and an MP3 player. We have found that paying more brings more features, but the accuracy and basic connect-the-dots guidance is similar among all units.

We recommend considering how often you will use the device and which features you will truly use before choosing.

And if you do buy a device, head outdoors and enjoy it. Handheld hiking navigators can help blaze new trails of family fun.


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