Looking for the best handheld GPS device to keep you on the right path when hiking or venturing into the wilderness? Want to get started in Geocaching? 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 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 or coffee shops with wi-fi to download maps, so built-in maps and a rugged build are key features.
Other crucial factors are what you get by way of maps and how you update them, what kind of compass there is, how many GNSS (satellite systems) are supported, whether there is an altimeter for accurate altitude, and of course the dimensions. Portability is a factor.
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! Touch screens don’t love water either, so physical buttons are often a useful addition or alternative.
Best handheld GPS device in 2023
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With a capacitive display, the etrex Touch 35 feels a good deal more modern than the eTrex 10 (a little further down this list), and offers useful features which you might not imagine possible in something so small. The 65K color reflective touchscreen is clearly visible on a bright day, and the map view can be set to rotate with the compass (as if you were holding the map to face the direction of travel), just like pricier devices. The refresh rate isn’t amazing, but it’s adequate for hiking. Activity enthusiasts will also appreciate the ability to hook up ANT+ devices, while an altimeter ensures readings are thoroughly 3-dimensional. The US eTrex Touch edition even comes preloaded with 250,000 geocaching routes. (Note: the 35T means ‘topographic’ and includes topographic maps, while the standard 35 doesn’t).(opens in new tab)
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 your photographic needs already 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.(opens in new tab)
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.(opens in new tab)
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.(opens in new tab)
An all-purpose GPS designed to serve the needs of hikers, mountain bikers, quad bikers and all adventures – one device to rule them all. As such it is firmly built, with Gorilla Glass and to MIL-STD-810, as well as a QuickLock mounting for attachment to (and removal from) handlebars. The physical buttons make for easy operation of some functions even in the wet or at speed.
In terms of tech, the Trail 2 Plus sports dual Bluetooth – making it possible to connect a phone as well as heart-rate or cadence monitors. The location system supports all 4 GNSS systems, making it fast, while a digital compass and barometer ensure 3-dimensional accuracy. TwoNav support their devices with a Link app on phones, and a Go Cloud service, and achievements can be shared via Strava, Training Peaks, Komoot and other social networks. The only down-side is TwoNav’s limited availability in the US, though you can still download TomTom and OSM maps.(opens in new tab)
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.
With storage for 15,000 map segments, mapping, routing, and the option of satellite comms (with a subscription) the rugged 66i is a device for all conditions. The InReach satellite system can even be used to predict those conditions via the weather service. The buttons also mean operation isn’t weather or glove dependant, while Garmin fans will have access to Connect IQ – a home for data, widgets and apps, as well as smartwatch compatibility.
While only two of the four GNSS are used, the device does incorporate altimeter, barometer and 3-axis compass to ensure accurate position and direction. It also supports connections to your phone to download satellite photography to the device on demand.
Battery life is an impressive 35h tracking (and 200 in ‘expedition mode’).
Ultimately this isn’t the cheapest out there, but it is flexible, and offers a bit more than the 64 series if you’re willing to pay.(opens in new tab)
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.(opens in new tab)
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.(opens in new tab)
Designed for driving with a hint of exploration, the Garmin Overlander has both in vehicle and ‘Explore’ modes. The former has the useful ability to serve as a monitor for a BC 35 backup camera (opens in new tab), or warn when the vehicle is reaching its lean limits. You can set vehicle dimensions, weight (and those of the trailer) whenever you choose. A POI database includes public campgrounds so this would make an ideal choice for mobile home owners, but off-roaders would be just as happy too, thanks to the room for USGS downloadable satellite maps and the three hours battery life which means you can pull the device from its powered magnetic mount and carry it with you into the great beyond.
Key features of handheld GPS devices
On the subject of the term GPS, we often use it to mean all positioning satellites, but technically it refers to the American Global Positioning System. The EU, Russia and China all have their own alternatives; Galileo, GLONASS and BeiDou. Devices that support multiple systems can offer better speed and accuracy. The collective term for these systems is GNSS – e.g. GPS is just another GNSS.
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 the best satellite phones(opens in new tab)).
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.
Emergency satellite communications is now possible via the iPhone 14, but devices here, with built in antenna, are more flexible, allowing you to share your position with friends and family and communicate in non-emergency situations. Garmin’s devices use the InReach system, a company Garmin acquired in 2016.
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