While they may never replace a good old-fashioned map and compass, handheld GPS systems have come a long way technologically and are now a great resource to bring along on all sorts of adventures including hunting, hiking, boating, golfing, biking, geocaching, and more. Depending on your preferred adventure there are a number of things to consider when choosing a handheld GPS system including features, size, battery life, controls, software, compatibility, durability, satellite coverage, and dozens of other factors — and there are a ton of products out there to consider. Here’s a guide on how to buy the best handheld GPS for your needs on the market.
How handheld GPSs work?
GPS stands for Global Positioning System — which is exactly what a GPS does. The technology was designed in the 1980s for military use and has since been revolutionized and grown for civilian application. To pinpoint your location, a GPS system will connect with at least three orbital satellites which pinpoint your location. These satellites, rotating around the earth’s orbit about 20,000 km off the ground, communicate with receivers on the ground before transmitting that information to the GPS system in your hand.
Types of handheld GPSs
A lot of GPS systems essentially do the same thing and there aren’t really that many different
types of GPS systems but there are a lot of systems that are tailored to specific activities. These different GPS systems have specific features to facilitate certain adventures.
- Hunting handheld GPS systems allow for the likelihood that you’ll be under some pretty
heavy tree cover — you might even be in those trees a lot of the time. Hunting handheld
GPS systems will be more durable to put up with colder temperatures, swampy drops,
and anything and everything else you might encounter on a hunting trip. Traveling
lightweight isn’t as much of a requirement for hunting trips so opting for the larger screen
size is a possibility. Notably, some handheld hunting GPS systems also include maps that
help hunters differentiate between hunting grounds and private property.
- Hiking handheld GPS systems are specifically designed to make it easy to set waypoints
along your trek. A handheld hiking GPS allows you to set very specific waypoints so you
can go from point to point. You can also easily set waypoints at trail markers, trailheads,
or campsites. Some handheld hiking GPS systems will come preloaded with maps of
hiking trails and terrain. You’ll want a more lightweight handheld GPS system for hiking
because it’s best to keep it in your hand (not in a backpack where signals could be
blocked) for most of the hike.
- Boating handheld GPS systems will help you mark docks and waypoints along your
boating route whether you’re going out for a leisurely day on the water or a longer trip
downriver. Some handheld GPS systems for boating even come with fishfinders so you
can track where different types of fish are in the water to optimize your fish game. Sophisticated fishfinder systems can even find fish that are hiding in weedy or rocky
areas. Even more sophisticated? Some boating handheld GPS systems have sonar.
- Golf handheld GPS systems offer a lot of information about the range. It can tell you
yardage to the green and yardage to various hazards — and that’s just the most basic of
golf GPS features. A lot of handheld golf GPS systems come with 100 ranges preloaded
— and those who don’t allow for additional maps to be downloaded.
How to choose a handheld GPS?
There are three key things to keep in mind when choosing which handheld GPS system you want to purchase.
Unit and Screen Size
As with iPhones, tablets, laptops, and all other major technological devices, screens are getting bigger and bigger. This also means, for a lot of these products, that the size of the device is also getting bigger. Handheld GPS systems are no exception. Screen sizes for these handheld tools are growing which almost always means the size of the device is increasing too. This is something to keep in mind when you’re shopping around for systems. Are you willing to make do with a smaller screen if it means your device is more low-profile and less weight? Are you going somewhere that weight is less of an issue than visibility?
Ease of control (buttons, screens, ports, etc.) is important to keep in mind. Are you comfortable operating systems that use touch screens? Will you be adventuring during the winter when gloves will likely get in the way?
Beyond just location, there are a ton of advanced features that today’s handheld GPS systems are capable of. Some handheld GPS systems have barometer and altimeter capabilities which provide more accurate elevation readings. An electronic compass feature can help you determine which direction you’re headed — not always an easy task depending on your environment. Wireless data transfer will give you a quick and easy way to share data. Preloaded maps give you a strong foundation off which to build your map database with additional downloads and topographic information. If you’re planning on traveling far and wide, the ability to download third-party maps and software is important. If geotagged photos are important to you, some handheld GPS systems come with digital cameras. Some even come with two-way radio capabilities. All of these features will add some expense to your overall device cost, but if any of these are important tools to have along on your adventure they are available
How to use a handheld GPS?
So now that we know the science behind handheld GPS systems and some of the different types — how exactly do you use a handheld GPS system? The first step, regardless of which handheld GPS system you decide to purchase, will always be to read the instruction manual. Every GPS system is different, so making sure you’re familiar with the instruction manual of your specific device will help you hit the trails, water, rocks, or range prepared.
The first time you use your handheld GPS, there are a number of operations you’ll need to run initially including customizing settings and locking on to satellites. Again — the instruction manual will let you know how to do all of this.
When using your handheld GPS system — regardless of which unit you choose to purchase — they will all display your position. You’ll also be able to record tracks with your handheld GPS, and navigate point-to-point. The system will give you directions to each waypoint. You’ll also be able to view trip data so you can view mileage completed, mileage left, and other data depending on which specific handheld GPS system you brought on your adventure.
Top handheld GPS Brands
Garmin has a hard monopoly on handheld GPS systems — regardless of the activity, there’s likely a Garmin GPS system that’s up to the task of keeping you on the right path, trail, or route. DeLorme has a couple of GPS systems that also consistently make it into the top rankings. Magellan is also a strong brand for handheld GPS systems.
Best Handheld GPS on the Market Review
With all these features, functions, and things to consider in mind, here’s where can you find some of the top-rated handheld GPS systems out there no matter what adventure you’re going on.
1. Best Handheld Hunting GPS – Garmin Oregon 700 Handheld GPS
The Garmin Oregon handheld GPS system is the best hunting GPS out there — at a reasonable price point. The unit’s 3” touchscreen display uses three sensors and Bluetooth technology in order to provide you with accurate data on where you are, where your hunting post is, where you left your truck, and where the borderlines of the hunting grounds are. The Bluetooth capabilities allow you to share your waypoints and routes. The Garmin Oregon is available in a bundle that includes the unit, a worldwide base map, a charging cable, a carabiner clip, and — of course — an instruction manual. The device can be plugged in to charge or it can be operated with traditional batteries.The 3” touchscreen display is sunlight-readable with dual-orientation so it doesn’t matter which direction the unit is facing at any given time. It was designed to hold up against dust, dirt, and humidity. Any function, feature, or map that isn’t already included on the unit can be
downloaded using a WiFi connection and the Connect IQ store in order to customize your unit to do exactly the jobs you need it to do. And — even though you’ll be out on the hunt no matter what the weather is like — the Garmin Oregon will also provide weather updates.
Best Handheld Hiking GPS – Garmin GPSMAP 64st
If you’re looking for a hiking handheld GPS system, you don’t have to look any further than the Garmin GPSMAP 64st. This small 1.43” by 2.15” system has a 16-hour battery life and a water rating IPX7. That battery life isn’t quite as long as some of the other systems on this list — keep that in mind if you want to be able to take this system with you for days on end. You’ll need to bring back up batteries or an alternative charging method. Luckily, it comes with a dual battery system — use two traditional AA batteries or use the optional rechargeable NiMH battery pack that can be charged inside the device.
This GPS system is compatible with smart notifications. It can also be paired with an ANT+ sensor like a heart rate monitor, temperature sensor, speed, sensor, or even a VIRB action camera. These compatibilities will add a little extra expense to your device — keep this in mind if you plan to customize your handheld system with all the bells and whistles. Wirelessly upload data to your device through the Garmin Connect app or view it on a smartphone — but the system does also come preloaded with 200 routes.
Best Handheld Fishing GPS – Lowrance Hook 2 Fish Finder
When it comes to fishing, Garmin has finally been usurped from the throne. Lowrance actually makes the highest rated fishfinder GPS available on Amazon. The Lowrance Hook 2 Fish Finder is easy to use and easy to set up. The system auto-tunes to sonar to find the fish and phone-like menus make it easy to navigate the system meaning you can spend less time looking at the tiny screen and more time taking in the scenery. The Hook 2 offers a wider sonar range than past models which can measure fish straight down as well as fish arch measurements.
Not all fishfinders offer GPS capabilities, but the Hook 2 handheld GPS system certainly does — which likely contributes to its higher-than-average price tag. The GPS built into this device allows you to plot waypoints, follow trails, and navigate. However, as the device is primarily a fishfinder and only operates as a GPS system in a secondary capacity, no maps are included and all of the GPS location data will need to be uploaded.
Best Handheld Marine GPS – Garmin Striker 4 Marine GPS
Looking for a cheaper option for a fishfinder and GPS rolled into one that’s also made by the brand that has more or less monopolized the GPS industry — and for good reason? Garmin also makes a handheld GPS system that’s built for being out on the water and finding fish.
The Garmin Striker 4 Marine GPS was built with capabilities that allow you to track fish, mark fish, and return for them later. The system also includes CHIRP technology which allows for much more tracking detail. The system will track for fish, schools of fish, and — of course — large physical obstacles that could ruin more than just your fishing record for the day. While some users have said that the display was rather low resolution, it is 3.5” so you don’t have to worry about squinting in the sun to make out the details of a small display screen. Depending on what you’re looking for, the Garmin Striker 4 is available in a variety of bundles — purchase just the unit or find a bundle that comes with the chargers, mounting mechanisms, and protection that fits your needs.
Best Handheld Golf GPS – Garmin Approach G8
Garmin once again comes in with the top-rated GPS for yet another activity — golfing. The Garmin Approach G8 provides distance to target with adjustments for uphill or downhill shots. The 1.5” by 2.6” display makes it easy to view information without making the device to large and cumbersome to carry in addition to clubs and other golf gear. Smart notification capabilities mean that the device can also receive email, text, and alert notifications from your phone — if that’s what you really want on a golf course. With the Garmin Connect Online Golf community, Garmin Approach G8 users can compete with other users online, comparing rounds and sharing shots.
The device will also remember how far you can hit with each club and provide recommendations on which club to use based on your past shots — this feature called Pinpointer is unique to Garmin golf GPS systems. The large display is also equipped with large numbers and font size for easy viewing and comes with automatic course updates.
Best Handheld Geocaching GPS – Garmin Montana 610
Geocaching is a rather unique activity — that requires equally unique equipment. The Garmin Montana 610 was designed specifically for this activity with 250,000 preloaded worldwide geocaches from Geocaching.com. The unit comes with a 1-year Birdseye Satellite Imagery subscription so you can experience geocaching from above. The large display has a bright, transflective 65k color TFT with dual-orientation capabilities and sunlight readability — basically, you’ll have zero issues viewing this screen. As for the GPS itself, the system is highly sensitive, WAAS-enabled, with a Hotfix satellite prediction and GLONASS support.
Just like with a lot of handheld GPS units, this system has the ability to organize and navigate through waypoints and routes and also includes tracklogs so you can see where you’ve been and where you’re headed. This device is on the pricier side, but you’re not going to find a better handheld GPS for geocaching than the Garmin Montana 610.
Best Handheld Watersports GPS – Garmin eTrex
The upgraded Garmin ETrex offers a 2.2” color display that’s highly readable in sunlight — an important feature for taking this handheld GPS system out on the water for watersports. The 2.1” by 4.0” by 1.3” unit is reasonably small and can be tucked into a pocket or strapped to a lifevest. It can also be mounted to a variety of vehicles including jet skis. And, of course, the unit is the most water-resistant of Garmin’s systems. The Garmin eTrex has a 3.7 GB internal memory — any maps it doesn’t already have preloaded you’ll have the memory space to load. Still worried about storage? There’s a microSD card slot that would let you load an even wider variety of maps.
The built-in sensors on the Garmin eTrex add a 3-axis tilt in order for you to measure your precise altitude — even if you’re catching some air off the water. You can even track barometric pressure over time. Want to share waypoints, tracks, routes, geocaches, or any of the other data the Garmin eTrex can track? Other compatible devices can connect wirelessly to your data — just press send.
Best Handheld Mountaineering GPS – Garmin InReach Explorer+
The Garmin InReach Explorer+ — while rather pricey — is the best handheld GPS system you could take on a mountaineering trip. Navigation capabilities are important on a long mountaineering trip — for obvious reasons — but there are other things to keep in mind too, and the InReach Explorer+ accounts for some of those additional factors. While it’s known for its reliable reception, the InReach Explorer+ also has messaging and SOS capabilities that could mean life or death in many a mountaineering scenario. The long battery life is also ideal for longer adventures. This device has buttons instead of a touchscreen so don’t worry about taking gloves off in order to operate your navigator.
This is one of the pricier options for handheld GPS systems at $460 — and you’ll need a service plan in order to use the messaging resources. Even without a touchscreen, typing on the small buttons can be difficult. But the personal locator capabilities of this small navigator mean you’ll be that much safer on any intense, long mountaineering trip. Not in an emergency but still want to share your location via text or social media? This handheld GPS system can do that too.
Best Handheld Biking GPS – Garmin Edge 530
This biking bundle comes with everything you need to hit the roads for as many miles as you please — USB car adapter, USB wall adapter, fitness and wellness software, tempered glass screen protector, and a microfiber cloth. The 2.6” display unit can be easily mounted to any bike’s handlebars. The GPS provides turn-by-turn directions with preloaded cycle maps that will allow you to choose the routes most often chosen by local bikers. The system is also equipped for mountain biking and hill climbing — specific route information will show you how much of your ascent is remaining and what grade you’re currently climbing.
This handheld GPS unit is built for health and wellness — it will provide your VO2 max, recover, training load focus, heat and altitude acclimation, nutrition, hydration, and more. It’s bike-specific safety features include group messaging and tracking and incident detection. It even has rearview radar. Not the features you’re looking for? The device can be customized with free apps, widgets, and data fields.
How accurate are handheld GPS units?
The government minimum accuracy for commercial handheld GPS units is 4 meters — your actual location should be within 4 meters of where your handheld GPS system says you are. This is just the minimum, however, and a lot of handheld GPS systems are closer to 3 meters of accuracy.
Can I view my handheld GPS maps on a computer?
Yes. Mostly. This will depend on what specific GPS system you purchase, but a lot of handheld GPS systems can install maps to compatible computers for use with programs like BaseCamp and MapInstall. BaseCamp can read and display maps on a Garmin device even without installing the maps to the computer. Some GPS systems will require a USB plug-in. Others will have wireless map-sharing capabilities.
Do handheld GPS systems need Wifi?
Nope. Handheld GPS systems do not need an internet connection to run. Rather, these devices use satellites to help determine and lock positions. These systems can operate without internet, Wifi, or cellular data. However, keep in mind that this connecting isn’t without its obstacles — for example, trees and tall buildings tend to interrupt a handheld GPS system’s ability to communicate with satellite systems.
What is CEP on a handheld GPS?
CEP stands for Circular Error Probability and it’s the radius of a circle centered on the true value that contains 50% of the actual GPS locations. That’s a fancy way to describe the margin of error for different handheld GPS systems, more or less. Basically, if your GPS system has a 1 meter CEP that means it will be within one meter of the true location 50 percent of the time.
What are some tips for managing the battery life of my handheld GPS?
Bring extra batteries. Always. Rechargeable batteries are good for shorter trips. For longer trips bring along long-life lithium batteries. Make sure batteries are freshly charged before the beginning of your trip, and — again — bring extra batteries! Keeping your screen brightness dimmed and allowing the screen to timeout after a short period of time will help keep those batteries going as long as possible.
Can a handheld GPS replace a map and compass?
This is frowned upon among adventure gurus. Depending on your brand of adventure, there could be several very good reasons to not completely leave behind a trusty map and compass. There’s waterproofing, battery life, and general rugged survival to keep in mind. The last thing you want is for your handheld GPS system to go down for one reason or another and find you left the map and compass at home.
Can one type of handheld GPS be used for a different activity?
Obviously, handheld GPS systems designed for a specific activity will be best-suited for that specific activity and could very well fall short if used for a different activity. For example, a golfing GPS probably won’t hold up to the speed you’d need for biking or even hiking. Similarly, a driving GPS might not have the accuracy you need for a golf GPS. So while handheld GPS systems can be used for various activities, be careful of certain shortcomings.
How can I improve my GPS signal?
There are a number of ways you can improve a GPS signal if you’re having problems with accuracy or connection. Avoid obstructions such as tall trees or buildings that could inhibit the signal. Make sure your handheld GPS system is charged — lower battery means less power to obtain signals.
Does my handheld GPS need an external antenna?
If you plan to travel to places where getting a signal might generally be difficult (places with heavy tree cover, for example) it might be helpful to have an external antenna. Quadrifilar helix antennae are external antennae that you can attach to most GPS systems (double check your system for compatibility before purchasing an external antenna). Always point the antenna away from obstructions for the best signal.
Will holding my GPS higher help obtain a GPS signal?
This is a common misconception. Holding a handheld GPS system higher towards the sky won’t actually improve GPS signal. The ideal height to hold a handheld GPS system to obtain the strongest signal is actually at shoulder height.
With all these options and different features, it can be hard to determine exactly what handheld GPS system is the best choice for any given adventure. This guide provides tips on what the different types of handheld GPS systems do, what types of features these different handheld systems offer, and tips for how best to operate your handheld GPS system no matter which specific unit is the best handheld gps you choose to purchase. Happy adventuring!