How to Select the Best Handheld GPS for Hiking

A handheld GPS device is for those who take their hiking trips seriously. There will be a point when they will want to feel “independent”. Such devices carry all the technology needed, not to get lost and far more.

A true story

Let us tell you a story from our trips. A few years ago, we decided to hike along with a team of hikers we never knew before. The trip was during the end of winter. The team arrived late at the meeting point and that was not a good sign.

To cut a long story short, we were around 50 people on the mountain, through a poorly marked path. At some point the leader and tail of the team disappeared in the heavy fog that was rapidly surrounding the mountain.

We got lost too but managed to gather a small team and we decided to try our lack, by going down again. We had no GPS. This was that first time I wished I had one with me as without a clearly marked path, we would rely on our memory to come down.

It took us 3 hours more than needed and last hour was through darkness.

Apart from the apparent case of the lack of responsibility of the hiking leaders, at that point I thought that it was my own responsibility to know how to get myself back.

You get the point.

Carrying a handheld GPS device, dramatically reduces the danger to get lost in forests, mountains or even open water. They are a bit pricey, but how much do you evaluate safety, and tracking every step of your trips. Tracking gives you the information to improve and also share valuable paths info within the routes tracking community.

Here are some important key elements to know, so to choose best handheld GPS device.

Do you really need a handheld GPS?

Think of trips where weather conditions change. How you will find your way through or/and back? You need a handheld GPS for poorly marked trails, washed out trails and for any situation where you need to get out of your standard track.

Keep in mind, that many climbers advice not to think of a GPS as a substitute of a map and a compass, provided that you can read and use such.

One main reason to use such a GPS device. Maps don’t break and they don’t run out of batteries. Most, use GPS devices to check their position, while continuing navigating with the map.

GPS devices are also great to know your position against your destination and share tracked info into related forums and with other hikers. Even as you hike the path (i.e. via Bluetooth).

Types of GPS devices

Since we focus on the hiking part, there are mainly the “watches” type, and handheld GPS devices.

The first you can wear them as watches and are popular among trail runners, hikers, mountain guides. They come with very specific features that are less than those in the handheld ones. These “watches” are used to log your route info, to show you where you’ve been, the altitude you’ve climbed or descended, and a few more.

The handheld GPS units have many more features. They are actually multi-functional computers. They log spatial data. Through such a device you can have waypoints, make notes, track your route, have altitude profiles, geocache and many more. These are preferred mostly from hikers and they use them on-land. Such devices are very reliable and stand well against difficult weather conditions.

Handheld devices also have a cord to wear them around you neck, and not just holding them occupying your hands.

There is a 3rd, more sophisticated category, that allows two-way communication. Such are used in extreme conditions with two-way satellite communication even in areas without signal.

Types of GPS receivers: WASS, GLONASS

GLONASS is the Russian version of GPS. It stands for Globalnaya Navigazionnaya Sputnikovaya Sistema (Global Navigation Satellite System). This technology, used with the GPS network improves the receiver’s performance when the device is in deep canyons or/and under heavy cover with 24 additional satellites. When turned on, this feature eats up your battery fast.

WAAS, stands for Wide Angle Augmentation System. It should smooth out errors and further improve tracking accuracy, as it uses a network of satellite and ground-based stations.

Basic features of a handheld GPS device

The ideal device comes with the capabilities mentioned below.

  • Maps. Included and capability to easily upload maps from 3rd parties
  • Compass. An electronic or a differential one
  • Trip Computer
  • Geocaching
  • Photo Viewer. Some devices also come with cameras
  • Waypoint marking
  • Ways to organize and store waypoints
  • Area Calculator
  • Calculator
  • Alarm Clock
  • Different ways to graph your information on the device – i.e. distance vs. altitude, and more
  • Route Planner
  • Sunset & rise of sun
  • Calendar
  • Location of closest cities
  • P.o.I’s (Points of Interest: gas, restaurants, etc)
  • Tides Information
  • Stopwatch
  • A way to show you the position of satellites, along with signal strength so to triangulate your position
  • Proximity Alarm

Smartphone vs handheld GPS

Someone may say “hey, I can do almost all of these with my smartphone and a couple of apps”. Well, maybe but you smartphone battery will last way less than of your GPS device. Plus the GPS device signal is far better from a smartphone “antenna”.

So, think of RAS: Reliability, Availability, Safety.

Touchscreen or buttons?

While touchscreen ones seem more “modern”, you need easiness of use and extended length of use. Touchscreen ones, eat up your battery faster. When you wear gloves you… can’t use them, and these cases will be many.

Buttoned ones have bit longer response time due to keypad input and… that’s all. Their battery lasts longer and you can use them with gloves on. You do want reliability and availability.

Electronic or differential Compass?

With the first one you don’t need to move or walk to have the compass point to the correct direction. You do need to do so with the differential one. Seems not a big difference but when you don’t have visibility (fog, snow) an end of a cliff may be in the next step. So…?

Do I need a barometric altimeter?

Such features in a GPS device provide more accuracy plus you can find out weather conditions when you don’t have access to weather data.

Media and Sharing options

The ability to take pictures or even record sound is handy when you share a route with waypoints AND the related -per waypoint- picture. Some devices come with Bluetooth technology so you can share all these data between devices (apart from also downloading them in your laptop).

Some even have wifi receptors.

Battery saving tips for handheld GPS

What you need to know about the “juice” source of your GPS device.

  • For day hikes prefer rechargeables
  • For overnight hikes, better choose long-life lithium ones
  • Always have fresh batteries in your device before your trip and always carry spares
  • Lower your back light. This uses less battery
  • Activate the screen timeout when you don’t need to constantly check your device. It also saves power from your battery
  • If you don’t use, deactivate: Electronic compass, Track record, GLONASS, WAAS, SNT+ Sensors
  • When not taking photos, exit the Camera app
  • Turn touch sensitivity to normal
  • Battery save mode: Enable it
  • Map orientation: Set to North up
  • Map speed: Set it to normal

Do a range test prior using it in actual difficult hiking. Turn all features On and see the battery consumption rate.

Well, that is a well round list of things to know before you choose your handheld GPS device. Feel free to share it around with your friends.

Share, your own tips and feel to check more outdoor tips here.

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