Once upon a time hikers had to rely on a map, compass, and their own sense of direction to keep from getting lost on the trail. Adverse conditions like snow and fog could make route finding a challenge even for the best of map readers and lots of time was wasted starting at topo maps rather than taking in the world around them. Fortunately for you, modern hiker, you have a whole world of technology at your fingertips to make your navigational life a lot easier.
Handheld hiking GPSs are designed to help you know where you are, keep track of where you’ve been, and figure out where you’ve still got to go. They’ll help keep you going when visibility is nil and make it easier to find your way back to your car if conditions really start to deteriorate. And they can collect a lot of interesting information along the way! Things like the distance you walked, the speed at which you traveled, and just how many feet of elevation you gained can all be tracked using modern GPS tools.
But just because a good GPS is a vital part of your hiking tool kit doesn’t mean that every unit is created equal. In this article we will help you decide which features to look for in a hiking GPS and then give you some recommendations for units that are sure to get the job done. So let’s get to it!
What Kind of GPS is Right for You?
Before we get into the nitty gritty details of what makes a great hiking GPS, let’s narrow it down to what types of devices we are (and aren’t!) talking about. This article focuses on GPS units that are designed to get you from Point A to Point B and maybe keep track of where you’ve gone. If you’re looking for a high powered fitness watch that will use GPS to track how far and fast you’ve ran or ridden your bike, that’s a different type of product. If you’re a field scientist looking for a device that will collect loads of geo-referenced data that can be plugged into a GIS program and used for research, these are not the units for you. The devices we will be looking at in this article are basic GPS units, designed for the everyday hiker and adventurer that wants a little more security when they get off the beaten path.
Touch Screen or No Touch Screen?
One of the first decisions you will need to make is whether you want a unit with a touch screen. Touch screens can make navigating around on the device faster and easier but they tend to eat up power and can often be harder to see in bright sunlight. Whether you want a touch screen or not will depend largely on how you plan to use your unit and whether the benefits of being able to easily toggle through the display is worth the drawbacks in battery life and visibility. Another thing to consider when deciding whether a touch screen is right for you is the fact that touch screens typically require bare fingers to operate, which might be a little uncomfortable if the weather is cold!
While rechargeable batteries may seem like a good feature in any electronic device, they have one significant drawback: they can’t be recharged in the backcountry. When it comes to a handheld GPS, look for a unit that takes regular AA or AAA batteries that can be swapped out on the fly.
Rugged Casing and Waterproofing
It probably goes without saying but if you are going to invest in a GPS for hiking, you’re going to want it to be tough. Whether you’re traversing exposed ridge lines or just hiking along on a well-established trail, there is a good chance that at some point you will lose your balance and stumble. Make sure your unit can handle the impact! It’s also extremely important to choose a GPS won’t give up the ghost the moment that it gets a little wet. Even if your hiking adventures usually take you to the arid desert, waterproofing is an important feature to have.
Built in Maps
Many units on the market have maps already loaded onto them. While you may, at times, want to add your own maps to the unit, having built in maps already on board will save you time and money. Buying additional maps to put on your GPS can be an expensive and time consuming endeavor and is often just not necessary for the casual hiker. Having some built in maps already on the device will make your life easier… and less expensive!
A Word of Caution…
Before we get into our favorite GPS units, we want to remind you that your GPS unit is only one tool in your navigational arsenal. While these devices may help you stay on track, they should always be used in conjunction with a map, compass, and lots of common sense. Technology can fail and you don’t want to be lost in the woods if it does!
With all that in mind, here are our picks for best the best GPS units for hiking!
Garmin Oregon 550T
You are going to notice a lot of Garmin devices on this list and there’s a really good reason for it: they are the gold standard in all things GPS. The Oregon 550T is one of their most popular devices and features a sunlight friendly, 3-inch touchscreen display, a 3.2 megapixel camera, and pre-loaded topo maps for all locations in the contintental United States.
This is a powerful little GPS that can do most anything you want it to do. You’ll have approximately 850 MB of memory with which to take and store georeferened pictures, set waypoints, track your movement, and load additional maps. The Oregon 550T’s ample technology is protected by waterproof and rugged case.
This is a high-tech, feature loaded device that will make just about any outdoor explorer a very happy hiker.
Magellan eXplorist 110
If what you’re looking for is a GPS unit that will do all of the basics for a great price, look no further than the Magellan eXplorist 110.
This GPS is perfect for hikers, bikers, and geocachers who want basic navigation tools but not all the bells and whistles that come with a more expensive device.
This GPS features a 2.2” color screen that is easy to read in direct sunlight, 18 hour battery life, and a pre-loaded map that shows everything from roads to water features all around the world.
This easy to use GPS comes in a burly, waterproof case that will take a beating and keep right on going.
This is the perfect GPS unit for hikers who are looking for something simple and inexpensive that will get the job done!
Garmin Rino 610
If you’re a hiker that likes to go it alone but also likes the security of being able to check in from time to time, you’re going to love the Garmin Rino 610.
This device has all the bells and whistles of the other units on our list but adds a 1-Watt FRS/GMRS radio for good measure.
What this means for you is that you can check in with your family, hiking partners, or anyone else with a similar device that is in your area.
You can also use the device to send text messages with your exact location to other Rino users. These features provide lots of peace of mind for the solo adventurer that wants to stay safe.
The 2.6” glove-friendly touch screen doesn’t hurt either!
Bushnell Bear Grylls Edition Personal Tracking Device
Just because Bear Grylls likes to put himself into some of the most dangerous situations imaginable doesn’t mean that you have to also.
While this device does not have some of the high-powered mapping capabilities of some of the others on our list it does do one thing very well and that’s get you home safely.
This device uses GPS to track your movements and give you clear, easy to follow directions that will get you safely back to your car.
It also tracks things like speed and distance so that you will know how far you’ve gone.
If your primary goal in buying a GPS for hiking is to be sure that you’ll always know how to get home, this device may be exactly what you were looking for!
Garmin Dakota 10
If you like the features of the Garmin Oregon 550T described above but think it may be a little bit more than what you need, take a look at the Dakota 10. This unit is a little bit smaller than the Oregon 550T and has a longer battery life.
The tradeoff for all this goodness is a smaller screen, less backlighting, and no camera. If these things aren’t a big deal to you, you’ll love the Dakota 10’s ease of use, track management tools, and 18-hour battery life.
This capable little GPS is perfect for hikers, bikers, hunters, and geocachers who are looking for more advanced tools in a compact package!