Looking for the best handheld GPS device to keep you on the right path when hiking or venturing into the wilderness? Our guide will help you choose the right one for your needs, and at the best price.
Most of us have become very used to depending on GPS-equipped phones and cars to locate ourselves in built-up areas, but when you’re out in the wider world things are different. It’s very unlikely you’ll be able to rely on cellular coverage to download maps, phones are rarely built to prioritize ruggedness. In remote places, a device that uses satellite positioning with built-in maps is the solution.
On the subject of the term GPS, we tend to use it to mean all positioning satellites, but technically it refers to the American Global Positioning System. Both the EU and Russia have their own alternatives– Galileo and GLONASS respectively. Devices with multiple systems can be a bit faster or accurate.
A feature called WAAS (Wide Area Augmentation System) can increase accuracy from about 10 meters to within 3 most of the time in North America; In Europe a similar system exists called EGNOS. Location satellites, however accurate, are not for communications. The ability to use satellite comms networks like Iridium is a whole different tech (see our separate guide to satellite phones).
A crucial feature for many is map storage; some kind of internal memory which might come with regional mapping can be augmented by downloading more maps via a connection, or you might be able to bolster the storage with an SD card. Most devices only feature maps for the country or continent they are purchased in by default - and additional maps have to be bought and downloaded.
In terms of getting your direction, features like a differential compass let you hold the device in the air to improve satellite signal without upsetting the compass, while a barometric altimeter will let you know your elevation, or help in weather prediction. Geocaching is also a feature found on more than one handheld GPS and might help players move faster.
Finally, if you’re venturing into the outdoors we have to remind you to think about the weather; IPX-4 and up should protect from splashing water which is a reasonable minimum if you think rain is possible. That’s still noticeably more weatherproof than your average paper map though!
Best handheld GPS device in 2021
The Garmin Montana series is a premium product and priced accordingly, but it also as feature-packed as we could imagine. We’re only talking about the two versions with an ‘i’ at the end of their names; these feature the inReach messaging system which can be used to send text messages (or hail SOS) as simply as on a smartphone. (inReach is a Garmin service which uses the Iridium® satellite phone network, and requires a subscription). The 750i also sports an 8-megapixel camera, though since you’re reading DCW we suspect you might have that covered! It’s a bit chunky, like a larger phone, but the big screen is useful reading maps. We like that for longer expeditions the rechargeable battery can be replaced with traditional AA cells and – Garmin being Garmin – there are useful cellular integrations including weather forecasts.
If all you need from a GPS device is to know exactly where you are in comparison to where you’d hoped to be, the eTrex 10 is a useful and rugged device which will leave a significantly smaller hole in the wallet than many others. It is nevertheless accurate, thanks to its use of GLONASS and WASS (in the US), and uses Garmin’s ‘HotFix’ tech which aims to speed up getting a location by remembering roughly where you are. The device can be connected to Mac or PC via a USB cable (the socket is weather shielded) and geocaches downloaded from it (the memory of 2000 is more than adequate). The mono screen is easily read in the sun and the menu intuitive, with modes for recreation, geocaching, automotive, marine and fitness.
The TwoNav Cross is compact, handy for hiking and cycling. The touch screen, is enhanced with buttons on either side beneath a rubber seal which is available in a choice of colors. It is a great choice for those in the UK, where the service offers downloads of Ordnance Survey maps (there is even an OS-branded version of their larger Adventura 2 model), and can display them with simulated 3D topography. It supports the SeeMe location broadcasting service when linked to your phone. SeeMe (the price fluctuates outside the Eurozone) can also transmit distance, altitude, heart-rate and more via email or emergency calls. The device includes 3 years service with SeeMe and the Go cloud which can analyse your routes, and a qwerty keyboard on screen when naming new routes.
A more modern device than those in Garmin’s eTrex series, this is built around a small touch screen and the idea that you’ll probably have your phone with you in your bag, and certainly that the most ‘natural’ way to interface with a feature-rich device is via icons and swipes like a smartphone. Indeed many will appreciate this until the rain really takes over. Garmin’s connectivity features are too many to list, but among them are a camera remote (get that selfie from a better angle), and active weather. There is ample storage for map tiles and satellite squares and, of course, these can be quickly transferred from your phone as well as a ‘real’ computer; Geocache Live fans will also appreciate sharing their experiences faster.
If you’re looking for a rugged handheld GPS which is significantly lighter on the budget than the large screen models while still having all the capabilities to get you on your way, this is an excellent choice. The ‘sx’ model can also be paired with your phone to share texts as they arrive so you can safely leave that in your pack. The screen and button interface means the weatherproofing remains practical and you can keep going through the rain. There is storage space for 3000 map segments / 250 satellite image files before adding a memory card and the log will track 10,000 points (200 journeys), plus you get access to Geocaching too. We’d suggest some Lithium AA cells, or a few spares, if you’re going on a long trip though.
While it might not appeal to Mark Twain, this could be the ultimate gift for golf enthusiasts – a variant of the handheld GPS with 35,000 courses mapped out inside (update via wi-fi). When taken to the course, it will dynamically rotate based on your angle of view, and quickly find the map and indicate your yardage. You can indicate your target area – how far you think you’ll get – and it’ll re-route accordingly. You can also add the day’s pin position, if you know it. The grip makes it feel a little like a ruggedized smart phone (as does the screen and somewhat redundant 13 megapixel camera). As you finish each hole, you can input your score, adding whether you missed shots left or right, all of which build up useful stats to help with your game. Whether this is a necessary device probably depends on the quality of cellular coverage at your golf course, but the appeal is clear.
While, strictly speaking, this shouldn’t be included in a list of handheld devices, we reasoned that it goes pretty near the hand and it’s certainly a worthwhile alternative we were duty bound to put before you. The chunky form might be a little unsubtle for a modern spy, but the large buttons make operation easy even in the cold and the device has a USB connection for a familiar connection system. It is supplied with Applied Ballistics Elite software, so should prove ideal for hunters, and you can share your location via Garmin Connect Mobile in cellular areas.