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The Best Handheld GPS Units for Wandering the World

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Putting a GPS on your wrist or into your car is fine if you’re strictly an urban or suburban adventurer who plans on roughing it in the wilds of south Brooklyn or taking a survival trek along Mulholland, but they won’t be nearly as much help if your a hiker who needs true satellite assistance as you head off the beaten path and deep into forests, deserts, jungle, or the arctic wastes. For that, you need a good handheld GPS, which is why we’ve found the best units on the market.

Best Handheld GPS Units

Handheld GPS vs. Smartphone GPS

Your phone is an all-in-one unit that can give you directions, take pictures, and – oh yeah! – make phone calls. However, smartphones aren’t going to be as durable and rugged as most handheld GPS devices. Not to mention, these units are designed specifically to help you navigate. Likewise, phones typically just use their cell service and basic GPS for navigation, while handhelds can get access to a wider range of satellite systems.

Last but not least is battery power. Handheld GPS units can often run for days at a time without needing to be recharged, whereas smartphones will need to be powered up throughout the day, especially if service is low and if GPS is in constant use.

What to Look For in a Handheld GPS

Usability: This can come down to a touchscreen display or a push-button toggle. Touchscreens are great on our phones due to advanced technologies that also drive up the prices. However, more rudimentary tech on handheld GPS won’t be so hot. Not to mention how much more difficult they are to operate with gloves on. That’s why many GPS units utilize buttons, D-pads, and/or joysticks to operate.

Maps: At their core, a GPS device will have a reasonably helpful navigation map. However, the extra mapping features are what can make some options better than others. These include topo maps, elevation details, points of interest, and even off-road waypoints which certain models won’t come equipped with.

Screen Size: You don’t necessarily need a large screen on your GPS unit, since that would mean the unit itself is probably not too compact. On the other hand, if it’s creeping on 2″ or less in diagonal length. Look for a handheld that balances overall size with its screen size.

Durability: Many of the following devices will have durability ratings much higher than that of your smartphone. Waterproof and drop-resistant, most handheld GPS units are designed for a rugged lifestyle.

Battery Life: One last thing to consider is the life of your battery. Some GPS are meant to be backups for your phone and run on AA batteries while others have a built-in pack that can be recharged.

Bushnell BackTrack Mini

Bushnell BackTrack Mini
  • Really lightweight and compact
  • Useful breadcrumb feature
  • Durable
  • Simple usability
  • Small screen
  • Short battery life; meant to be backup for smartphone GPS

Best Budget GPS: With the strength of the GPS in our smartphones today, it may be difficult to justify spending a few hundred dollars on a dedicated device. However, Bushnell’s Backtrack Mini is designed to be a backup option for if your smartphone isn’t available, whether it’s dead or out of service range. Weighing just 2oz, you won’t even notice this GPS device on your person, and it will give you up to 35 hours of battery life on a single charge. There won’t be any fancy features, but the Backtrack Mini thrives on simplicity, with just 4 buttons, a concise readout (albeit on a 2-inch screen), and a fantastic compass that serves as a breadcrumb feature to track where you came from. It’s IPX7-rated and super compact, making it a good choice for backpackers as well. Although there aren’t any built-in maps, this unit will do the job just fine and for a fair price.

Weight: 2oz
Screen Size: 2″
Battery Life: 24 to 35 hours

Garmin ETrex SE

Garmin eTrex SE
  • Inexpensive
  • Durable
  • Very long battery life
  • Not super glove friendly; finicky touchscreen

Best Minimalist GPS: Garmin generally has the market cornered when it comes to GPS units, so whichever model you pick will get you back to base camp without too many problems. The eTrex is certainly not going to turn many heads, but you won’t find anything in the same price range that has nearly as many features or is as accurate. It’s only 5.5oz and yet can take a drop from several feet without cracking or breaking, a lesson the iPhone could stand to learn. It has a full IPX7 waterproof rating which allows it to work in a complete deluge making it the perfect gift for your stormchasing friends. It will run for up to a week on two AA batteries (and up to 3 months in Expedition Mode) giving it a long life that is easily expanded. It now comes with Bluetooth connectivity, capable of syncing up to your smartphone apps for trip planning, weather reports, and even geocaching. However, the 2.2-inch screen can be a little touchy; expect some light to moderate swearing if trying to operate it with gloves.

Weight: 5.5oz
Screen Size: 2.2″
Battery Life: 7.5 to 90 days

Garmin GPSMAP 67

Garmin GPSMAP 67
  • Exceptional location accuracy
  • Comes with hi-res photorealistic satellite maps via WiFi
  • Fantastic screen resolution
  • Large display
  • Pricey
  • Heavier than other devices

Best Overall Handheld GPS: This is your one-and-done purchase if you just want an outstanding device that isn’t bogged down with all the cutesy nonsense. You can get GPS models that come with altimeters – though don’t expect them to be accurate – or ones with a camera or a compass, but really the GPSMAP 67 is fine all by itself. The 240 x 400-pixel resolution makes good use of the 3-inch screen. The topography pops and sizzles even when you’re viewing it through goggles or in direct sunlight. It hooks right into the Garmin Connect network so that you can get input from others if you so desire. The analysis of routes is especially helpful if you are braving new territory. It’s fairly light and easy to both carry and operate on the move. And what’s more, you can now download hi-res satellite maps via WiFi for more photorealistic trail discovery.

Weight: 8.1oz
Screen Size: 3″
Battery Life: 7 to 35 days

Garmin inReach Explorer+

Garmin inReach Explorer
  • Offers two-way messaging
  • 24/7 access to search-and-rescue monitoring center
  • Good battery life
  • Simple navigation capabilities

Best for Satellite Messaging: We swear, we’re not Garmin fanboys, they just seem to know their business better than anyone else. Here, they’ve made a two-way text messaging device that uses satellite to do more than just navigate. However, the inReach Explorer+ does that too. Mainly used for communicating with people when you’re off the grid, the device can send your location and tracks to others on their phones or social media accounts. And if you find yourself in hot water, it can easily ping an SOS callout to a 24/7 search-and-rescue monitoring center as well. In terms of GPS, the Explorer+ is good for trip planning with downloadable maps, a compass, and waypoint finding, although its navigation capabilities are far simpler than more dedicated devices. A good supplement for a GPS adventure watch, the inReach Explorer+ is perfect for overlanding or off-the-map exploring.

Weight: 7.5oz
Screen Size: 2.31″
Battery Life: 3 to 30 days

Magellan eXplorist 310

Magellan eXplorist 310
  • Super durable and waterproof
  • Nice app features and topo maps
  • Finicky joystick

Best for Geocaching: GPS does more than just give you turn-by-turn directions. It offers the ability to set waypoints, determine the difficulty of a particular excursion, and adds the option of wilderness treasure hunting known as geocaching. Geocaches are small capsules left by other wanderers and explorers with log books, unusual items, and advice for anyone who comes along. They are Easter eggs for grown-ups and add a lot of fun to your trip.

Besides Garmin, Magellan is the next big name in this sector of the market, although lately they’ve shifted towards dashboard units instead. Still available, the Explorist 310 boasts a 2.2-inch color display with better legibility than even some options by Garmin. On top of the standard topo geographic maps, the compact device has dedicated geocaching features that lets you search, filter, and log your caches, as well as view logged finds from other people and over 20 unique characteristics for each cache. From a durability standpoint, not only is it IPX7-rated for waterproofness but it has a rubberized shell that surrounds the back and also frames the screen to protect it from drops. There’s also an attachment point that’s built into the unibody shell construction. If you’re looking for something to compete with Garmin’s range in terms of strict GPS for hiking and exploring, you may not find what you’re looking for here, but it’s a great option for paperless geocaching.

Weight: 5.2oz
Screen Size: 2.2″
Battery Life: 18 hours to 1 day

The Best GPS Watches for Hiking

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If you love getting lost in the woods, then check out our guide to the best GPS smartwatches for hiking.