Hitting the trail soon? Even if you have a stellar sense of direction, having a handheld GPS unit can make your excursion even more engaging, exciting, and safe.
Imagine having a map and compass in the palm of your hand — that’s exactly what a handheld GPS is. While you can still follow the North Star to reach your destination, you can be more selective of your terrain with GPS. Between geotagging, real-time information, and, in some units, smartphone pairing, you’ve literally got the whole world before you.
Pioneer a new path on your next excursion with this buying guide for handheld GPS units.
We’re including our favorite model, the Garmin GPSMAP 64s. Its geotagging capability and 8GB of internal data make it essential for the seasoned expeditionist.
Considerations when choosing handheld GPS units
Maps and storage: When it comes to using a handheld GPS, the first thing to consider is whether it’s equipped with the maps you need — and has enough storage space to accommodate them. Most GPS units generally have internal memory, which could be as much as 8GB.
Some manufacturers include access to a standard region map as part of their price. Others will either charge you upfront for lifetime maps for updates, or you’ll need to pay for a subscription service to maintain updated maps.
Display: Handheld GPS units either have monochromatic LCD displays, which tend to be more affordable, or color screens, some of which are high-definition, on the higher end of the price range. Another feature to look for when comparing displays is whether they have a nighttime mode.
Power: You’ll want a battery-efficient handheld GPS unit, especially considering you’ll have the screen on often. If you have access to electricity, units that take rechargeable batteries are ideal. For GPS units that have alkaline or lithium batteries instead, you’ll need to stock up on extra ones.
Size and ergonomics: Handheld GPS units range in size from half the size of your hand to as large as a smartphone. Smaller units are ideal if you’re short on space and want a lightweight, compact model. Larger units tend to have large screens, which will display more information.
Durability: Because handheld GPS units are used in tough terrain and sometimes inclement weather, they’re designed to handle various weather conditions. Some units are all-weather with water-resistant features, which is ideal if you’re near water or in a rainy climate. There are also units that are built to withstand dropping. To understand how durable a unit is in this department, look for its IP (Ingress Protection) number.
Activity-specific functionality: Look for handheld GPS units that offer activity-specific features, such as sunrise and sunset times — useful for hunting and fishing — or wind resistance.
Emergency functions: Seek units that have SOS features and remote-tracking apps so in the event of an emergency, you’re able to contact someone for help.
Image capturing: To record images or videos, some GPS units are equipped with image-capturing capabilities. It’s an ideal feature if you don’t want to bring a camera or your phone.
Device management: Some GPS units have smartphone connectivity to either download updated maps or to set up multiple units in a group travelling together.
Beginners’ or budget-friendly handheld GPS units are user-friendly and under $200. Units with advanced features, like color screens and water-resistance, cost between $200 and $400. For experienced outdoor enthusiasts, models with an assortment of premium features, such as 5,000 waypoints, are closer to $700.
Q. I don’t want to hold the GPS in my hand at all times, so are there any hands-free options?
A. Yes. You can attach some units to a bicycle or motorcycle, but you need to buy the mount separately. You can also hold it inside a tactical fanny pack for easy access. Depending on their size, some GPS units are compatible with arm band media holders.
Q. Will my handheld GPS unit work in other countries?
A. It should, provided you’ve downloaded the regional maps for it. If your GPS didn’t come with lifetime maps, you’ll need to purchase maps or access separately. If your GPS is rechargeable, you’ll probably need an international power adapter to charge it.
Handheld GPS units we recommend
Best of the best: Garmin’s GPSMAP 64s
Our take: Color display screen for easy visualization, and has quick results from fast locking with satellite.
What we like: Efficient through multiple power save options, and has 8GB of internal data. Some geotagging capability.
What we dislike: Pricey.
Best bang for your buck: Garmin’s eTrex 10 Worldwide GPS Navigator
Our take: Affordable model from leading brand ideal for budding outdoor enthusiasts.
What we like: Rugged case design for added durability. Connects fast to satellites, and has crisp monochromatic imaging.
What we dislike: Requires AA batteries, and advanced users may seek more advanced features than what’s offered.
Choice 3: Bad Elf’s 2200 GPS Pro
Our take: Battery efficient and fits in the palm of your hand. Streamlined design.
What we like: Digital screen with green nighttime mode. Bluetooth capability and connection with up to five devices.
What we dislike: Features might be too basic for advanced users, and screen may be a bit small for some people.
Sian Babish is a writer for BestReviews. BestReviews is a product review company with a singular mission: to help simplify your purchasing decisions and save you time and money. BestReviews never accepts free products from manufacturers and purchases every product it reviews with its own funds.
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