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 2021.
Weight: 8.1 oz.
Screen: 3 in.
Battery life: 35 hours (200 in power save mode)
Memory: 16 GB (accepts microSD)
What we like: A premium GPS device with satellite messaging/SOS.
What we don’t: Expensive and not as accurate as many other options here.
The Garmin GPSMAP 64sx held our top spot for a number of years, but we’ve replaced it with the GPSMAP 66i for 2021. With the 66i, you get Garmin’s premium navigation tools in a rugged design, alongside the added benefit of satellite messaging and SOS via inReach (Garmin acquired the company in 2016). For explorers headed into areas without cell service, the ability to send and receive messages, share a track, access weather forecasts, and initiate rescues is a game-changer, and well worth the extra $250 (note: a subscription plan is required to use the messaging and SOS features). To top it off, the 66i’s hardware is best-in-class within the GPSMAP lineup, including a high-resolution 3-inch screen, impressive battery life (200 hours in power save mode), 16 GB of memory, and Wi-Fi connectivity.
Like most of Garmin’s GPSMAP offerings, the 66i features an external antenna, ABC sensors, and multi-GNSS support (GPS and Galileo), and is compatible with both TopoActive mapping and Birdseye satellite imagery. These navigational tools will get the job done for most users, but keep in mind that devices like the GPSMAP 66sr and 65s offer better accuracy with expanded satellite support. And while the 66i’s lithium-ion battery is long-lasting and rechargeable, some might appreciate the simple convenience of AAs that you get with the 64x and 65 series. Minor gripes aside, the GPSMAP 66i is an impressive tool, and its ability to send and receive messages via satellite is certainly an indication of where the GPS market is headed.
See the Garmin GPSMAP 66i
Best Minimalist GPS/Satellite Messenger
Weight: 3.5 oz.
Screen: 1.3 in.
Battery life: 90 hours (24 days in power save mode)
Memory: 6.5 MB
What we like: GPS and satellite messaging in a lightweight and affordable design.
What we don’t: Limited GPS functionality.
Garmin’s inReach Mini might not be a true-blue GPS device, but for weight-conscious explorers it’s definitely worth a look. The primary function of the inReach Mini is satellite messaging and SOS (a feature we’re seeing on more and more GPS devices, such as the GPSMAP 66i above), but it also pairs with a smartphone to offer rudimentary navigation on preloaded maps. Tack on a minimalist size and weight, reasonable price point, and impressive battery life, and it’s no secret why the inReach Mini has become a very popular safety measure amongst hikers, climbers, and backcountry skiers. We especially like the tracking function, which saves your position at regular intervals and plots the track on a map for friends and family to follow in real-time.
With smartphones proving themselves to be increasingly capable, a strong case can be made for a device like the inReach Mini. But its navigation does fall short in a few significant ways. For one, you have to have a subscription to use the device, and even to just access its GPS functions (this will run you anywhere from $12 to $65/month). Second, whereas the other models here retrieve data from a variety of satellite systems, the inReach Mini only uses GPS, and it doesn’t have a built-in barometric altimeter or compass. And finally, among phone navigation apps, Garmin’s Earthmate is middling at best (we usually use our phone’s GPS to operate Gaia instead). For slightly better GPS functionality, you can bump up to the inReach Explorer+ below ($450), which features a functional display screen with preloaded TOPO maps, barometric altimeter, and 3-axis compass.
See the Garmin inReach Mini
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 a device like the GPSMAP 64sx below only raises the cost by $50. Our take is that if you can do without the added sensors, the eTrex 22 is the better all-around value. Finally, keep in mind that Garmin also offers the eTrex Touch 25 with 3-axis compass and touchscreen (but no barometric altimeter) for $250.
See the Garmin eTrex 22x
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 off, 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. And the 700 model is a breeze to use (relatively speaking) with accurate touchscreen functionality, including simple menus and dedicated profiles for various sports (hiking, cycling, paddling, and more).
In comparing the Oregon to a device like the GPSMAP 64sx below, the decision largely comes down to preference between buttons or a touchscreen. The more modernized Oregon 700 is sleeker with its integrated antenna and superior menu system, but the buttons on the 64sx are more reliable, and you do get a bit more accuracy with a Galileo sensor (plus, it’s $50 cheaper). But if you’re sold on a touchscreen, the Oregon 700 is the best overall option on this list. You can spend another $50 for the Oregon 750’s built-in 8-megapixel camera, or opt for the 750t ($550), which tacks on pre-loaded Topo U.S. 100K maps. Don’t expect much from the camera in terms of image quality, but the main draw is that it geotags where each photo is taken.
See the Garmin Oregon 700
Best of the Rest
Weight: 7.7 oz.
Screen: 2.6 in.
Battery life: 16 hours
Memory: 8 GB (accepts microSD)
What we like: More accurate and $250 cheaper than the GPSMAP 66i above.
What we don’t: Not everyone loves the buttons; antenna adds bulk.
For those who don’t need satellite messaging or SOS, the Garmin GPSMAP 64sx offers all the GPS functionality of our top pick (including better accuracy) for $250 less. 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. You can upgrade to the 64csx, which features a built-in 8-megapixel camera, but we don’t think it’s worth the additional $100. In the end, the GPSMAP 64sx is a durable and reliable option for everything from backcountry hiking and cycling to geocaching.
For getting a reliable fix and accurate tracking, the GPSMAP has an external antenna and multi-GNSS support. Compared to the 66i above, you get compatibility with GLONASS satellites in addition to GPS and Galileo satellites, which results in even more precise navigation. And while many new Garmin handhelds are opting for more modern touchscreens (like the Oregon above and Montana below), the GPSMAP 64sx’s button interface is more reliable in cold and wet weather. It’s not Garmin’s flashiest offering, but for just $350, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more functional and durable GPS device. Of note: For $50 more, you can also bump up to the GPSMAP 65s with a multi-band receiver for even better accuracy.
See the Garmin GPSMAP 64sx
Weight: 14.5 oz.
Screen: 5 in.
Battery life: 18 hours (330 in expedition mode)
Memory: 16 GB (accepts microSD)
What we like: Massive, high-resolution display and tank-like durability.
What we don’t: Heavy, bulky, and expensive.
A big hit with hunters and moto adventurers, the Montana recently received a major revamp with the new 700 series. Overall, its defining features still remain: a large touchscreen, tough build with a raised bezel, and advanced navigation capabilities. But the 700 is significantly modernized compared to its predecessor (the 610), with a larger and higher resolution display (5 in. compared to the 610’s 4 in.), increased durability, and a bump in internal memory (16 vs. 4 GB). Importantly, navigation accuracy is also improved with the addition of Galileo satellite support, and you now have the option of the “i” model here, which tacks on inReach technology so you can stay connected even in areas without cell service.
It’s common for folks to weigh the Montana against the Oregon above. For us, the convincing reason 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. It’s also the more rugged choice, with an updated Gorilla Glass screen and tank-like design that’s built to withstand all manner of abuse. And finally, if you want the added safety measure of inReach satellite messaging and SOS, you won’t find it with the Oregon. But for almost double the cost, you’ll have to decide if the Montana’s upgrades are worth it. It’s also worth noting that the Montana comes in a 700 version (no inReach) for $600 and a 750i ($800) that features a camera in addition to inReach technology.
See the Garmin Montana 700i
Weight: 7.5 oz.
Screen: 2.3 in.
Battery life: 100 hours (30 days in power save mode)
Memory: 2 GB
What we like: The most affordable inReach-equipped GPS device here.
What we don’t: Heavier and more expensive than the inReach Mini; middling GPS features.
Demand for satellite messaging and SOS is up in 2021, so it comes as no surprise that many of Garmin’s modern devices now feature subscription-based inReach technology. The field of options spans from the minimalist inReach Mini to the high-powered GPSMAP 66i and Montana 700i, with the Explorer+ landing right in the middle. Unlike the Mini above, the Explorer is a real-deal GPS device, featuring a color display, on-screen navigation, and the added accuracy of a barometric altimeter and 3-axis compass. To top it off, it comes equipped with 24K maps of the U.S. and Canada, and the 100-hour battery life outpaces every other design here.
The Explorer+ can’t match the GPSMAP 66i or Montana 700i in terms of accuracy, storage, and features, but it does have one thing going for it: price. At $450, it’s by far the cheapest inReach-equipped GPS device here, besting the 66i by a full $150 (it’s also slightly lighter and has almost triple the battery life). On the other end of the spectrum, it’s no match for the inReach Mini in terms of weight, packability, and price, but unlike the Mini it’s simple to operate without a cell phone, which is one less electronic device to worry about in the field. If you don’t need the added GPS support, the Mini is still our top choice for a minimalist satellite messaging device, but the Explorer+ nevertheless offers a solid feature set at a reasonable cost.
See the Garmin inReach Explorer+
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.
Garmin’s wrist-mounted Foretrex 601 offers a unique spin on the standard GPS device, with hands-free operation that makes it popular for hunting, target shooting, and other tactical applications. Like Garmin’s premium offerings, the Foretrex 601 features fast acquisition and accurate recording with GPS, GLONASS, and Galileo support, along with a 3-axis compass and barometric altimeter. Battery life is impressive at 48 hours in navigation mode, and the 601 is as tough as ever with military-grade construction. Taken together, the Foretrex is all of the bones of a handheld unit but none of the bulk, and a highly functional tool for the right user.
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 ($150 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
|Garmin GPSMAP 66i||$600||8.1 oz.||3 in.||35 hours||16 GB (accepts microSD)||No|
|Garmin inReach Mini||$350||3.5 oz.||1.3 in.||90 hours||6.5 MB||No|
|Garmin eTrex 22x||$200||5 oz.||2.2 in.||25 hours||8 GB (accepts microSD)||No|
|Garmin Oregon 700||$400||7.4 oz.||3 in.||16 hours||3.4 GB (accepts microSD)||Yes|
|Garmin GPSMAP 64sx||$350||7.7 oz.||2.6 in.||16 hours||8 GB (accepts microSD)||No|
|Garmin Montana 700i||$700||14.5 oz.||5 in.||18 hours||16 GB (accepts microSD)||Yes|
|Garmin inReach Explorer+||$450||7.5 oz.||2.3 in.||100 hours||2 GB||No|
|Garmin Foretrex 601||$200||3.1 oz.||2 in||48 hours||Unavailable||No|
|Magellan eXplorist 310||$150||5.2 oz.||2.2 in.||18 hours||2 GB||No|
- Touchscreen vs. Buttons
- Display: Screen Size and Readability
- Global Navigation Satellite Systems
- Mapping and Memory
- Satellite Messaging and SOS
- Battery Type and Battery Life
- Altimeter, Barometer and Compass (ABC)
- Dimensions and Weight
- Handheld GPS vs. Smartphone GPS Apps
- GPS Watches
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 66i, 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 the Magellan eXplorist, which has a small screen size and doesn't excel in bad lighting conditions, readability is a strength among handheld devices.
In researching GPS devices, you’re bound to run across the term GNSS, or Global Navigation Satellite Systems. GNSS refers to the entire “constellation” of satellite systems, including GPS (U.S.), GLONASS (Russia), Galileo (EU), QZSS (Japan), and BeiDou (China). As with all segments of the handheld GPS world, Garmin is taking the lead here with the ability to connect not just with GPS, but other GNSS networks as well (often referred to as “multi-GNSS support”).
The big takeaway for most users is accuracy and availability: if a device can connect to multiple satellite systems, it’s more likely to be able to get a quick and precise location fix, no matter your position in the world. If your explorations take you into deep canyons or under heavy cover, or if accuracy is paramount, you might want to consider a device with multi-GNSS support. For example, Garmin’s GPSMAP 66i connects to both GPS and GLONASS, and their GPSMAP 65s offers even better reach with GPS, GLONASS, Galileo, and QZSS support. More rudimentary systems like the inReach Mini connect only to GPS. And a final note: your device might require you to turn on the additional satellite support, and it’s likely to drain your battery a bit faster.
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. Most modern models (like the GPSMAP 66i and Montana 700) 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). Older devices like the Oregon 700 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.
A growing number of GPS devices now have the ability to transmit messages or SOS alerts via satellite. Paired with a subscription (often billed monthly with a one-time set-up fee), this tech allows you to connect in areas without cell service, including sending and receiving texts, posting to social media, sharing your location, and communicating between GPS devices. The benefits are endless (we’ve used our GPS device to get weather reports in the North Cascades and schedule flights in the Alaska Range), and especially vital in the event of an accident. Communication can be managed on the device’s screen, but in the case of smaller devices (like the Garmin inReach Mini), the ability to pair with your smartphone via Bluetooth is a welcome feature. A number of models above come with satellite connectivity, including the Garmin inReach Mini, GPSMAP 66i, Montana 700i, and inReach Explorer+. For a full list of options, see our article on the best satellite messengers.
The long-time standard for batteries in GPS devices has been the trusty AA. They are cheap, have decent lifespans, 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 a number of backup batteries. With extra stuff brings extra weight and inconvenience, and then there’s the hassle of disposing of used batteries correctly. So while AA batteries remain an option for many GPS devices, Garmin and others have turned to rechargeable battery packs as a compelling alternative.
The main advantage to rechargeable batteries is the ability to reduce weight and bulk from your pack—and over time the cost-savings can really add up. And with portable solar panels and power banks becoming more and more reliable (the Anker PowerCore is our favorite), there’s simply very little downside. As a result, rechargeable battery packs now come preinstalled on many of Garmin’s most premium models (such as the GPSMAP 66i and Montana 700), and many devices that take AAs are also compatible with a rechargeable lithium-ion pack (sold separately for around $26).
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 and regardless of if you’re moving or still. Standard compasses must be held 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 or referencing route information, 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 of a smartphone, and there are a number of quality mapping apps available for free or a small charge. 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 portable recharger, 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.
In addition to smartphone GPS apps, GPS watches are another piece of relatively new technology giving handheld GPS devices a run for their money. Like a standard GPS device, these watches allow you to find your location on preloaded maps, upload and follow .gpx tracks, record your route, retrace your steps, and even pan out and view your surroundings. With the most basic navigation, you’ll see a simple line with waypoint marker on an otherwise blank screen, while the most premium watches (the Garmin Fenix 6 Pro, for example) feature preloaded color topographic maps with detailed contour lines, geographic place names, and more. At best, you get most of the features of a handheld GPS device packed into a streamlined wrist watch.
But while the technology is impressive, we have a hard time recommending a GPS watch as a full-blown substitute for a GPS device. The small screen and controls are fairly painstaking to navigate unless you put in the time to learn the system, and the mapping functions can be a big drain on a watch’s battery life. Additionally, in most cases you’ll pay more for the smaller device: for example, the Garmin Fenix 6 Pro watch will cost you $650, while the premium Garmin GPSMAP 66i handheld is $600 (including the addition of satellite messaging and SOS). But for those who value the streamlined package and only use GPS occasionally, a high-end GPS watch (other options include the Coros Vertix and Garmin Forerunner 945) is certainly an intriguing option.
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