When people ask me why they can't just use Google Maps on their iPhone during a hike, I tell them because of reception. With the best hiking GPS you can find, reception isn't a problem.
There's no avoiding the fact that many hikes will take you far away from urban centers, where you find the most stable cell reception. And even if a hike takes place close to a city, there's no guarantee that a rocky outcropping or valley won't block the signal. Also, serious hikers venture far from civilization and let's not even mention hiking in a foreign land.
That's when a handheld GPS unit will prove invaluable. Picture this: you and your friends are hiking the foothills of the Rockies. However, because you had to work late, your friends set out before you. They've set up a base camp 10 miles from the road. Because you bought the best hiking GPS for this type of hike, you're able to find them with no problem. That's something Google Maps cannot do!
How to Choose the Best Hiking GPS
When choosing the best hiking GPS for you, think about what kind of hiking you're likely to do. For instance, if you're a casual hiker, then a simple Magellan TR7 will be more than enough for you. However, if you're the kind of person who prefers hiking up remote mountains in the Appalachians, then you'll want a Garmin InReach Explorer+.
Next, you need to know what kind of budget you're working with. Some GPS units can cost hundreds of dollars. If you're trying to find the best hiking GPS for tackling a northern forest, then don't spend big cash on something fancy when a Foretrex 401 will do the job perfectly for much less.
What is a handheld GPS?
Simply put, GPS (Global Positioning System) uses a series of overhead satellites to triangulate the location of the device. They are extremely accurate, but lapses in time can occur as one or more satellites pass over the horizon, and new satellites take over the handoff. In these cases, you may notice that your GPS is lagging by a few seconds. The problem usually fixes itself within a moment or two.
Unlike a navigation GPS, which gets mounted on the dash of a car, a handheld GPS is a small, portable unit you can carry with you. These are the perfect companion to any serious hiker, camper, or climber. The best hiking GPS units have clips so you can hang them off your pants or backpack. Or they're small enough to fit in your pocket. Some of them are small and connect to your smartphone via Bluetooth, which gives your phone a satellite connection. No matter what the units look like, they all perform the same function: use satellites to mark the device's location on the ground.
How can GPS help me?
Because you'll be hiking in the wild, away from the convenience of cell towers and public Wi-Fi, you'll need GPS to keep from getting lost. In some cases, GPS can keep you alive. Did you know that every year nearly 2,000 people get lost in the wild in the U.S.? If you equip yourself with the best hiking GPS device, you can avoid adding to that number.
Where can GPS go?
GPS can find you anywhere on earth. GPS uses between 1381 and 1575 megahertz UHF signals, which can penetrate most natural obstacles except for mountains. Clouds, trees, gases, and even houses are no obstacle for a GPS signal. However, because receivers are becoming more sophisticated, many things which once blocked the signals are no longer barriers. For instance, the best hiking GPS devices on the market today can read signals even from a foot underground!
Where can I buy one?
Thankfully, finding the best hiking GPS for your needs is easy. You can find a handheld GPS device on Amazon, eBay, and brick and mortar retailers such as Walmart and Best Buy.
How much do they cost?
Prices for GPS vary wildly from device to device. The best hiking GPS units will cost between $80 and $400, although there may be some outliers.
How We Reviewed
To find the best hiking GPS devices for every situation, we dug through dozens of choices that are available today. Eventually, we narrowed the list down to seven different choices. We checked out what customers on Amazon had to say about each one of these units, just to make sure that they can handle real-world challenges. Finally, we reviewed their prices and warranties and were able to bring you the ten best hiking GPS devices for every hiking situation.
The Best Hiking GPS for Every Type of Situation
Hiking isn't just a matter of strapping on some stylish hiking boots and stomping through the local municipal woods. For us serious hikers, it involves preparing for an adventure, which includes an element of danger, and struggle, and facing the unknown. We head far out of town and forge our own trails. Often, we strap tents to our back and set up camp when we get tired. Many hikers head abroad, to foreign lands, and hike the unknown. I've personally known someone who spent three years hiking around Nepal. He came home in great shape.
Whether you're hiking the Himalayas or upper New York state, we've found the best hiking GPS for you. Here they are, in no particular order.
- Rugged handheld navigator with preloaded worldwide basemap and 2.2-inch monochrome display
- WAAS-enabled GPS receiver with HotFix and GLONASS support for fast positioning and a reliable signal
- Waterproof to IPX7 standards for protection against splashes, rain, etc.
- Support for paperless geocaching and Garmin spine-mounting accessories. Power with two AA batteries for up to 20 hours of use (best with Polaroid AA batteries)
- See high and low elevation points or store waypoints along a track (start, finish and high/low altitude) to estimate time and distance between points
If you're expecting to take some tumbles and to put your gear through a tough time, then you'll want a tough GPS device. The Garmin eTrex10 GPS fits the bill. Durable plastic with a rubberized frame encases the entire unit. It's IP7 water resistant, which is enough to protect it from splashes, rain, and the like. You don't want to take this white water rafting, but fording a stream will be no problem. Because it comes preloaded with a world map, you don't have to do anything except turn it on. Two AA batteries will keep it going for up to 20 hours. You can buy it for between $70 and $110.
Customers on Amazon rated it 3.7 out of 5 stars. Everyone said it does its primary job of finding your position very well. You can also mark sites for future reference, so if you have a camp, simply mark it, and it will guide you back when you need. People complained that the display was too small, but that's great for hiking.
- Connect up to 5 devices at a time via Bluetooth technology. Now also compatible with the iPhone 5, new iPad, iPad mini, and iPod touch 5th generation.
- Large LCD screen with backlight for night operation
- Standalone GPS datalogger stores 100+ hours of tracking data
- Extra-long battery life and 10Hz reporting rate
- Rugged and splash-proof to IPX4 standards
You may not think that loving one's iPhone counts as a hiking situation, but ask any iPhone lover and they will tell you that it does, indeed, count. That's because they use their iPhone for everything, including GPS navigation. With the Bad Elf 2200, you can keep a small chicken nugget-sized GPS unit broadcasting to your iPhone via Bluetooth. It's also IP4 water resistant, which means rain and splashing won't hurt it. While there's no on-screen map available, once it's synced to your iPhone (or iPad), you can use your Google Maps to navigate. The Bad Elf costs between $175 and $200.
Customers rated it 4.4 out of 5 stars on Amazon, with everyone saying it works great for navigation and has amazing battery life. The only complaints were that it didn't connect to more than two devices at the same time.
- Sunlight-Readable 2.6" color display. Display size-1.43 x 2.15 inches and 2.6 inch diag (6.6 cm). Battery life-16 hours. Water rating IPX7
- Expanded Internal Memory 8GB.Display resolution 160 x 240 pixels. Interface: high-speed USB and NMEA 0183 compatible
- DUAL BATTERY SYSTEM Use with 2 traditional AA batteries (best with Polaroid AA batteries), or the optional rechargeable NiMH battery pack that can be charged while inside the device.Weight 8.1 oz (230 g) with batteries
- Receive Smart Notifications* and pair with optional ANT+ sensors, such as heart rate monitor, Tempe temperature sensor, speed/cadence, or use to control your VIRB action camera (64s/64st only)
- Wirelessly upload data to Garmin Connect and view on smartphone, plus share activities as they happen with Live Track (64s/64st only).3-axis compass with barometric altimeter.Routes:200
Then there's the best hiking GPS for when you go far, far away. The Garmin GPSMAP 64st is a reliable handheld device with a 2.6-inch color display screen. Because it's Garmin, you know this thing has every available feature. In this case, it comes with a temperature gauge, elevation monitor, and can even pair to your smartphone via Bluetooth. Best of all, two AA batteries will power it for up to 24 hours. It costs between $200 and $250.
Amazon customers gave it a solid 4.0 out of 5 stars, with almost everyone saying that this thing latches on to a satellite signal very quickly. A few people complained that pairing to their phone wasn't reliable.
- Features high-sensitivity GPS receiver with HotFix for improved performance and reception in heavy tree cover or deep canyons
- Keeps track of routes, tracks and waypoints, and heart rate with add on heart rate monitor (sold separate). Uses standard AAA batteries. 2 required.
- TracBack feature retraces user's path on the easy-to-read LCD display;Display resolution 100 x 64 pixels;Battery life Up to 17 hours in GPS mode;Track Log 10000. Display size : 1.42 x 0.91 inches
- Supports dual position readout so user can view current location in multiple formats. Audible tones. Hold the compass level when navigating to ensure maximum accuracy
- Features trip computer, sunrise/sunset times, hunting/fishing information, electronic compass and barometric altimeter
Next is the Garmin Foretrex 401, which is the best hiking GPS for trekking through the woods. That is particularly helpful if you're hiking on the Northwest Pacific, such as Oregon, Washington, or British Columbia. That's because this handy little GPS is waterproof. It also has a "HotFix" feature which allows it to pick up a signal through the thick forest canopy.
- NOTICE: Any products sold by third-party are not for manufacture and cannot be confirmed as holding up-to-date firmware. Protect your purchase and buy from trusted and authorized sellers only - and GoTenna.
- SMART DEVICE: goTenna Mesh pairs to your phone and enables it to privately relay texts and GPS locations between other goTenna devices, up to 4 miles in range.
- INDEPENDENT & FREE: You don't need phone service, routers, towers or satellites to use goTenna. Power your own network, whenever and wherever you need it. Secure encryption- No central data-store so your private chats are end-to-end encrypted.
- CHAT, TEXT & GPS: Our super-smart mesh protocol powers private 1-to-1, group chats or public emergency broadcasts to all nearby users. Plus, the free goTenna app includes detailed offline maps for any region in the world.
- THE PERFECT OFF-GRID TOOL: goTenna Mesh is great for hiking in areas where cell service is unreliable, avoiding costly data plans while traveling internationally, and staying connected in emergency situations when cell service is down.
Fifth on our list is an ultra-portable GPS option for anyone who hikes in foreign lands. Whether you're trekking somewhere in Costa Rica or exploring a trail in Thailand, the goTenna Mesh is a perfect companion. Basically, this is a stick which is a little bigger than a USB stick. Except it's a satellite receiver that you can carry with you anywhere. Simply tether it via Bluetooth to your smartphone, tablet, or laptop, and you instantly have not only a full GPS connection, but also communication capabilities. You can send messages to your group provided they all have a goTenna Mesh as well. The free goTenna app comes with maps, so you just tether, open the app, and hike. There's no need to worry about expensive travel fees for your data plan, or to carry a massive GPS hand unit through customs. These little things cost between $120 and $150.
On Amazon, they got 3.6 out of 5 stars. Most people said the goTenna is very easy to use, and the ability to broadcast emergency signals is invaluable. However, quite a few people complained that the goTenna app doesn't work on the iPhone X or Samsung Galaxy Note 8 and 9. We're sure goTenna will address this issue.
- WIDE AREA AUGMENTATION SYSTEM - this highly sensitive system allows your device to connect to several satellites providing accurate and reliable GPS coordinates within +/- 2.5m (CEP), Max Speed of 1,150 mph & Max Altitude of 65,600 ft.
- ADD GPS WIRELESSLY VIA BLUETOOTH - you can greatly strengthen your GPS signal on any device by seamlessly connecting via Bluetooth up to 5 devices in a matter of seconds
- HUNDREDS OF APPLICATIONS - being able to add accurate GPS to your device will now allow you to use hundreds of available apps in any scenario such as car, marine, & aerial navigation, hiking, fitness, social networking and much more
- BATTERY LIFE & INCLUDED - your GPS receiver has an extended battery lifespan of 10 hours of continuous use & comes with a USB charging cord, an adjustable strap, 12-30V car charger and non-slip pad that will securely stick to most surfaces
- 1 YEAR WARRANTY - guaranteed high quality and reliability with hassle-free parts and labor warranty with excellent customer service
Not all of the best hiking GPS devices need be handheld. As we mentioned earlier, a great many hikes end with camping. The Dual Electronics XGPS160 is a GPS "hub" that you can use in your base camp to connect up to five devices via Bluetooth. It looks like a colorful hot plate. The XGPS160 is highly sensitive to satellite signals and works on both the standard GPS networks and the Russian GLONASS network. It has a great battery that will last for up to 10 hours if left on continuously. Everyone in your camp can then download maps, or you can carry it with you in your bag, and everyone in your group can maintain a GPS signal while on the move. Best of all, it only costs between $125 and $150.
Customers gave it 3.6 out of 5 stars on Amazon. Most people were impressed with how quickly it latches on to satellite signals, and many praised its long battery life. Some people complained that it doesn't pair well with iPhones via Bluetooth, but Android phones had no problem.
- Touchscreen - 3-inch sunlight-readable touchscreen display with Dual orientation (landscape or portrait view)
- Abc sensors - 3-axis tilt-compensated electronic Compass with accelerometer and Barometric altimeter sensors
- Ruggedized for the outdoors - ergonomic, rugged design that Stands strong against dust, dirt and humidity -and it is water-rated to Ipx7
- Activity profiles - simplified multi activity menu interface - including climb, hike, hunt, bike, geocache, fish and more
- Connect IQ - connect IQ compatible to customize the Device with data fields, widgets, and apps; find what you like or build your own
Finally, we have what may be the all-around best hiking GPS unit on the market. The Garmin Oregon 700 is a handheld GPS device with a bright 3-inch color touchscreen. The screen looks great in direct sunlight, and you can change its orientation between portrait and landscape. Also, the entire device is ergonomic, so holding it feels nice. Best of all, it carries an IP7 rating, so you can get this thing wet. Because it's a Garmin, the Oregon 700 latches on to signals easily enough, with state of the art receivers built inside. And because it's so user-friendly, you can track various activity profiles on the device, such as climbing, biking, hiking, and others. That is, if you want to keep a log of your adventures. Expect to pay between $300 and $350.
Amazon customers gave it 3.5 out of 5 stars. Everyone said that it finds satellite signals easily, and the data is accurate. Also, many customers praised the build quality of this GPS. On the other hand, a few people complained that it chews through battery like a starving bear. Don't expect to hike for more than a few hours or you'll need to recharge your GPS.
Which One Is the Best?
3.7 out of 5.0
4.4 out of 5.0
4.0 out of 5.0
4.5 out of 5.0
3.6 out of 5.0
3.6 out of 5.0
3.5 out of 5.0
Because every hike is different, it's impossible to say that any particular device is the best hiking GPS, which is why we chose the best hiking GPS for different scenarios. Of course, most hikers tackle multiple trails, and end up in various situations, through the course of their life. In that case, you might want to go with something that will pair to your phone. However, we find that while convenient, a Bluetooth device isn't always the best answer in every situation. Rugged trails, thick forest canopies, and mountains can quickly put an end to a small Bluetooth GPS device.
All in all, the best device for you is up to you. You'll need to figure out what kind of hiking you're most likely to engage in, and choose the right device. What kind of hiker are you? Let us know in the comments!