Whether deep in the backcountry or on open water, proper navigation is a must. And for route finding, recording tracks, or finding a geocache, there’s no more durable and long-lasting navigator than a handheld GPS. While it will never fully replace a map and compass, outdoor GPS devices allow you to plan, follow, and share recent adventures. As you’ll see from our top picks, the market is dominated by one brand: GPS giant Garmin. Currently, there is no one that comes close to the mapping software and feature sets across their lineup. Prices can vary widely, and important considerations include whether you prefer a touchscreen or buttons, which we dive into in our comparison table and buying advice. Below, you’ll find our favorite handheld GPS devices of 2020.
Weight: 8.1 oz.
Screen: 2.6 in.
Battery life: 16 hours
Memory: 4 GB (accepts microSD)
What we like: Proven, reliable, and very accurate.
What we don’t: Not everyone loves the buttons; antenna adds bulk.
While most new Garmin handhelds are ditching their buttons, there are some holdouts, including the excellent GPSMAP 64. This device is feature-packed, has a clear and easy-to-read 2.6-inch screen, and includes large and well-marked buttons that are simple to operate even with gloves on. It’s also a solid value at $350 for the mid-range “sx” version that includes a barometric altimeter and 3-axis compass. There is an upgraded model with a built-in 8-megapixel camera, but we don’t think it’s worth the additional $100. For everything from backcountry hiking and cycling to geocaching, the GPSMAP is a quality and proven option.
For getting a reliable fix and accurate tracking, the GPSMAP has an external antenna and multi-GNSS support. This means you get compatibility with a range of satellites, including GPS, Galileo, and GLONASS for standout coverage. This does come at the cost of bulk and weight, and at 8.1 ounces (without batteries), it’s harder to justify bringing on minimalist trips. It’s worth noting that Garmin released a follow-up 66 model a couple years ago, although it has been plagued by a number of reliability issues since its launch. At the time of publishing, we still recommend the more proven (and $50-less-expensive) 64sx.
See the Garmin GPSMAP 64sx
Best Budget Handheld GPS
Weight: 5 oz.
Screen: 2.2 in.
Battery life: 25 hours
Memory: 8 GB (accepts microSD)
What we like: Great feature set at a budget price.
What we don’t: Costs another $100 to get a 3-axis compass and barometric altimeter.
Expensive GPS devices offer an overwhelming and, for some, unnecessary number of features. As such, a good number of outdoors people will be best off with the budget-friendly eTrex 22x. The device is simple to use, comes with 8 GB of internal memory, 25 hours of battery life, and a tough, water-resistant construction. It’s true the eTrex has a smaller screen than pricier alternatives, lacks a barometric altimeter and 3-axis compass, and does not have any touchscreen capabilities. But it’s a proven performer and priced right at $200.
It’s worth noting that Garmin also offers an upgraded eTrex 32x that comes in $100 more. The two models are identical in the basic design and size, but the 32 includes a compass and barometric altimeter. These added features may be worth it for serious backcountry adventurers, but it’s a fairly big jump in price up to $300. For reference, adding those two features to the GPSMAP above only raises the cost by $50. Our take is if you can do without the added sensors, the eTrex 22 is the better all-around value. And of note for budget-seekers: the prior-generation eTrex 20 is still available at retailers like Amazon at a healthy discount.
See the Garmin eTrex 22x
Best Hybrid GPS/Satellite Messenger
Weight: 7.5 oz.
Screen: 2.4 in.
Battery life: 100 hours
Memory: 2 GB
What we like: True union of a handheld GPS, satellite messenger, and SOS device.
What we don’t: Falls short of Garmin’s other units for navigation.
The first product release after Garmin’s purchase of DeLorme was an updated version of the popular inReach emergency device. The original inReach Explorer blended rudimentary navigation with DeLorme’s well-known SOS and satellite messenger capabilities. Now, the device can be considered a true handheld GPS: the screen has grown from 1.8 to 2.4 inches (larger than the eTrex above), and the Explorer+ model comes with preloaded 24K maps. For those looking for the security of an SOS service, off-the-grid two-way messaging, and GPS navigation, the Explorer+ is the one to get.
While the built-in 24K maps represent a significant step, the inReach Explorer’s mapping and user interface still is a DeLorme product and falls short of a modern Garmin handheld. Moreover, the inReach has limited internal memory, doesn't include a slot for microSD cards, and its platform can’t accommodate some map types (including Garmin’s maps). If you’re looking to combine GPS and SOS capabilities into one unit, there's a lot to like here, and we’re hopeful that Garmin will give the inReach a needed boost in usability. For a simplified and much smaller alternative, check out the Garmin inReach Mini.
See the Garmin inReach Explorer+
Best Handheld GPS With a Touchscreen
Weight: 7.4 oz.
Screen: 3 in.
Battery life: 16 hours
Memory: 3.4 GB (accepts microSD)
What we like: Feature-rich with a high-quality touchscreen.
What we don’t: You pay extra compared to a button-equipped model.
One of the common sacrifices in swapping your smartphone for a handheld GPS is user experience. While no GPS has put it all together, the Garmin Oregon 700 is getting pretty darn close. First, it’s properly sized for the job, with a large and bright screen that’s easy to see but still small and light enough to stuff in a pack. The 700 model, which replaced the popular Oregon 600, is a breeze to use with simple menus and dedicated profiles for various sports (hiking, cycling, paddling, and more).
In comparing the Oregon to our top pick, the decision largely comes down to preference between buttons or a touchscreen. The Oregon 700 is more modern and sleeker with its integrated antenna and superior menu system, but the buttons on the Garmin 64sx are more reliable, particularly in extreme weather, and it’s $50 cheaper. If you’re sold on a touchscreen, the Oregon 700 is the best overall option on this list. And you can spend another $50 for the Oregon 750, which has a rechargeable battery pack and built-in 8-megapixel camera. However, the image quality of the camera is relatively poor, with its main redeeming quality being that it geotags where the photo was taken.
See the Garmin Oregon 700
Best of the Rest
Weight: 10.2 oz. (with lithium-ion pack)
Screen: 4 in.
Battery life: 16 hours (lithium-ion) 22 hours (3 AAs)
Memory: 4 GB (accepts microSD)
What we like: Large color screen is easy to read.
What we don’t: Inferior touchscreen and bulky.
A big hit with hunters and moto adventurers, the Montana received a modest update a few years ago, which earned it a name change from the 600 series to 610. Its defining features still remain: a large 4-inch screen, tough build with a raised bezel, and advanced navigation capabilities. What’s new is a bump in internal memory, a 1-year subscription to Garmin’s Birdeye imagery, and, most importantly, GLONASS satellite support (although it lacks the Galileo compatibility of more recent units). The additional 24 satellites should improve acquisition time and overall accuracy.
It’s common for folks to weigh the Montana against the Oregon. For us, the convincing reason for most to choose the Montana is screen size, and this is what makes it so popular for backcountry-motorized activities or when space isn’t at a premium. As an overall piece, however, the Montana’s extra cost and bulk, as well as its less advanced touchscreen, push it down our list of favorite handhelds.
See the Garmin Montana 610
Weight: 3.1 oz.
Screen: 2 in.
Battery life: 48 hours
What we like: Great battery life and hands-free convenience.
What we don’t: Can’t download maps onto the device.
After a long and successful run, Garmin has replaced its wrist-mounted Foretrex 401 with the 601. This unique design takes the basic style of a handheld unit but in a shrunken-down and lighter form that can be used hands-free with the included nylon strap. Likely due to the 401’s popularity, Garmin stuck to simply improving the 601 rather than making wholesale changes. Notable updates include a very impressive 48-hour battery life in navigation mode, compatibility with three satellite systems for fast acquisition and accurate recording, and an upgraded screen. And the Foretrex is as tough as ever with its military-grade construction.
Where does the Foretrex 601 fall short? The biggest compromise compared with the options above is that you aren’t able to add TOPO maps. Instead, you have to use the old-fashioned breadcrumb trail and 3-axis compass for navigation. Further, the 2-inch screen is small compared to a standard handheld unit, but on the plus side, it’s easy to read even in direct sunlight. All told, the Foretrex isn’t for everyone, but its simple design, durable build, and fantastic battery life has its appeals for backcountry explorers.
See the Garmin Foretrex 601
Weight: 5.2 oz.
Screen: 2.2 in.
Battery life: 18 hours
Memory: 2 GB
What we like: Great affordable option for geocaching.
What we don’t: Old design and dated technology.
Proving that the GPS game isn’t Garmin-only, the Magellan eXplorist 310 is a solid entry-level GPS. The eXplorist does everything a basic GPS should: create and follow routes, mark waypoints and show your trip progress with tracks. Geocache-ready, the eXplorist comes with a decent base map that includes roads and some geographic features. A summary page details your exploits, with key bits like how long it took you to uncover each cache. Also, as opposed to its closest competitor, the Garmin eTrex 10, the eXplorist’s 2.2-inch screen is color and reads reasonably well even in direct light.
What pushes the eXplorist towards the bottom of our rankings? The line is getting long in the tooth, which means the satellite lock can take a while, their software is not as well-established as Garmin, and navigating between menus can be clunky. But at a great price ($135 on Amazon at the time of publishing) and for simple uses like geocaching or route-finding on a local trail, it’s a fine budget option.
See the Magellan eXplorist 310
Weight: 3 oz.
Screen: 1.4 in.
Battery life: Up to 50 hours
Memory: 8 GB
What we like: On-the-wrist navigation.
What we don’t: Difficult to use and not a very polished piece.
It’s true, the Garmin Epix is not an actual handheld GPS. Worn as a watch, the device has the smallest screen and one of the largest price tags on this list (although it is often on sale). But what it signifies is a leap in technology, packing many handheld navigation features and functionality into something that can be worn day-to-day. Its pros are the easy-to-access map that’s right on your wrist with no need to grab a separate device, and the touchscreen display is colorful and pretty easy to read.
Unfortunately, there are plenty of cons. The display is too small (1.4 inches, despite its 2-inch frame), but most importantly, it’s a mess to navigate. The all-important user interface (you’ll find people all over complaining about the UI) is full of unusable features and is illogical in its design. The Epix is undoubtedly “cool” and a sign of things to come, but this one is strictly for early adopters that can forgive its growing pains. For another wrist-worn GPS option in a more refined but pricier package, check out Garmin's Fenix 6 Pro.
See the Garmin Epix
|Garmin GPSMAP 64sx||$350||8.1 oz.||2.6 in.||16 hours||4 GB (accepts microSD)||No|
|Garmin eTrex 22x||$200||5 oz.||2.2 in.||25 hours||8 GB (accepts microSD)||No|
|Garmin inReach Explorer+||$450||7.5 oz.||2.4 in.||100 hours||2 GB||No|
|Garmin Oregon 700||$400||7.4 oz.||3 in.||16 hours||3.4 GB (accepts microSD)||Yes|
|Garmin Montana 610||$500||10.2 oz.||4 in.||16 hours (Li);
22 hours (AAs)
|4 GB (accepts microSD)||Yes|
|Garmin Foretrex 601||$250||3.1 oz.||2 in||48 hours||Unavailable||No|
|Magellan eXplorist 310||$135||5.2 oz.||2.2 in.||18 hours||2 GB||No|
|Garmin Epix||$550||3 oz.||1.4 in.||50 hours||8 GB||Yes|
- Touchscreen vs. Buttons
- Display: Screen Size and Readability
- GPS Receiver Types: GLONASS and Galileo
- Mapping and Memory
- Battery Type and Battery Life
- Altimeter, Barometer and Compass (ABC)
- Dimensions and Weight
- Handheld GPS vs. Smartphone GPS Apps
As with smartphones, touchscreens are becoming more prevalent in the handheld GPS market. These devices are intuitive, easy to navigate or type with, and work in both landscape and portrait orientations. But a few of the reasons some of the best-rated models are laden with buttons, including Garmin's GPSMAP 64 and eTrex 22x, are that the touchscreen tech and the built-in software isn’t as advanced as our expensive phones, nor are they as consistent in rough and cold weather. Further, using a touchscreen can be a pain with gloves—despite technologies that make some gloves work decently well.
But for all those complaints, there is an equally good argument a touchscreen is the better choice over buttons. Buttons add bulk, and if you need to type, they are cumbersome and slow to navigate an on-screen keyboard. Your preferred style will vary, but if you’re wearing gloves most of the time, need to quickly navigate between screens while on the move or operate the GPS in frigid temperatures, buttons are best. As touchscreen technology continues to improve, including the current option to adjust the sensitivity setting of the screen, its benefit of a sleek and low profile design where more space can be dedicated to a screen will continue to win over more and more users.
One of the main reasons to upgrade to a high-end GPS is a large screen size. For boating, hunting, and motorized activities, a larger screen is helpful when you need to be able to see the information clearly at just a glance. Hikers, backpackers, and long-distance adventurers such as thru-hikers or bikepackers will still be happiest with a small and light device, such as the eTrex 22x (2.2 in. measured diagonally). For more advanced functionality, the largest these lightweight enthusiasts probably want is the 3-inch screen and 7-ounce Garmin Oregon 700. For geocaching, a small or midsize screen should do the trick. The GPSMAP series (2.6 in.) has long been popular with mountain bikers and geocachers, and the eTrex works great for those on a budget.
The brightness of the screen and readability in direct sunlight are important considerations. Thankfully, this has been an area of emphasis for Garmin lately, and their new models excel with anti-glare screens with good backlighting and contrast that make maps and text easy to decipher. Some of the best models include the Garmin Oregon and Montana, while the cheaper eTrex falls a little short. In the end, other than our bottom two picks, the Magellan eXplorist and Garmin Epix, which have small screen sizes and don't excel in bad lighting conditions, readability is a strength among handheld devices.
GPS devices are no longer simply compatible with GPS satellites. As with all segments of the handheld GPS world, Garmin is taking the lead here with the ability to connect with the GLONASS satellite system. In combination with the GPS network, this Russian-based technology improves the receiver’s performance in deep canyons and under heavy cover with 24 additional satellites, as well as overall accuracy for those in the northern latitudes. Note: you do need to turn on the GLONASS setting on the device to use it, and it will drain your battery a bit faster. In addition, a number of Garmin’s newer devices (including our top-rated GPSMAP 64) are compatible with the European Union’s Galileo network to maximize coverage. Models that can work with all three are commonly referred to as having “multi-GNSS support.”
All handheld devices come with some form of basemap—essentially a blank screen that will include some major local features—while many include additional preloaded maps or the option to upload more later on. For Garmin devices, it will largely depend on the age of the product. Some newer models like the GPSMAP 64 include TopoActive mapping, which is a fairly extensive program with contour lines to indicate elevation gained/lost, points of interest, and some on- and off-road navigation based on your country of origin (i.e., a device purchased in the U.S. will have a North American TopoActive map). Others like the older Montana 610 do not include this feature. The good news is that most of our top picks have built-in memory and/or a microSD slot for adding maps (we indicate this in our comparison table above). And it’s worth noting that there are a number of ways to add maps to your device for free, including the popular OpenStreetMap.
The long-time standard for batteries in GPS devices has been the trusty AA. They are cheap, have decent battery lives, and can be swapped out when they are drained. On the downside, if you are heading out for an extended stretch, you'll need to bring backup batteries. With extra stuff brings extra weight and inconvenience. And while AA batteries remain an option for nearly all GPS devices, Garmin and others have turned to rechargeable battery packs as a compelling alternative.
The main advantage is the ability to recharge on the go. If you already bring a solar panel or battery pack for charging your other devices, it’s as simple as hooking it up to your Garmin unit. The lithium-ion battery packs do cost you a little extra—other than the top-of-the-line Montana 610 they’re often lumped in with the camera versions. Alternatively, you can purchase them separately for around $26. We like the idea of the rechargeable system. It’s less waste and a more efficient way of staying out longer, provided you have an easy solution for charging the batteries back up.
Once you clear $300 retail, nearly all handheld GPS devices list a barometric altimeter and 3-axis compass. The advantage of the electronic compass is its ability to read direction no matter how you’re holding the device. Standard compasses require you to hold the device horizontally to orient properly (or be moving if it's GPS-based). It’s a small but nice addition, particularly if you’re needing to hold the device upright to get a signal. Getting a read on barometric pressure is helpful in determining elevation because the higher you go, the lower the pressure. The science isn’t perfect here, however, because when weather shifts, barometric pressure also changes, which can skew the numbers. That said, a barometric altimeter remains the best option for mountainous and backcountry use and can provide a helpful approximation of your current elevation.
In most cases, dimensions and weight correspond with screen size. The smallest and lightest handheld options on our list, the Garmin eTrex 22x and Magellan eXplorist 310, have equally small 2.2-inch screens. How you’ll be using the device will dictate how important dimensions and weight are. The Garmin Oregon 700 is a best seller because it’s light and reasonably small without compromising readability. Those that opt for high-end devices like the Montana are not typically carrying them in their hand or hiking with a pack, instead placing them on a handlebar mount for ATVing or snowmobiling.
Smartphones have been eroding the handheld GPS market for years. And the reasons are fairly obvious: most hikers and backcountry explorers already have their phones along for capturing photos, and the simplicity of keeping everything on one device is a big plus. In addition, prior concerns with durability have been partially addressed with burlier carrying cases and increased water and drop protection.
In terms of mapping and accuracy, handheld devices have the upper hand with greater compatibility with a wider array of satellite systems (smartphones use cell towers and GPS), which can be valuable in deep backcountry areas with challenging coverage. That said, most hikers, backpackers, and climbers will be happy with the performance, and there are a number of quality smartphone mapping maps. Popular choices include Gaia (a subscription-based service) and Topo Maps, which allow you to download quality USGS topos. The main hang-up with going the smartphone route, however, is battery life. It’s true you can charge up on the go via a solar panel or portal recharger like Goal Zero’s Flip, but these GPS-based apps are battery hogs and can’t come close to the ease of use and longevity of a handheld GPS. As things currently stand, this is the main reason to opt for a handheld GPS over a smartphone.
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