best hiking gps

Best Hiking GPS | Handhelds + Watches

Posted on Posted in Camping Equipment

If you want to know what the best hiking GPS is… you’ve come to the right place.

Whether you’re a seasoned backpacker or a weekend geocacher, wilderness tracking devices have made huge advances in recent years, and consumers are reaping the benefits.

While you should always carry a map and compass as a backup on extended trips, GPS and downloadable topographic maps mean you can now explore new trails with an astonishing level of technical support.

Complementary features range from high-tech compasses to barometric altimeters, wireless sharing, and extensive route-planning software. If you prefer to keep technology to a minimum on your back-country treks, you can do so with the security of GPS literally in your back pocket.

We’ll review both handheld devices and watches.

Quick Comparison of Handheld GPS Top Options:

Product Quality Our Rating
Garmin Oregon 600 A ★★★★★
Garmin eTrex 30x A- ★★★★☆
Magellan eXplorist 510 B+ ★★★★

 

Quick Comparison of Watch GPS Top Options:

Product Quality Our Rating
Garmin Fenix 3 Sapphire A ★★★★★
Suunto Ambit3 Peak A- ★★★★☆
Garmin Tactix Bravo B+ ★★★★
Garmin Vivoactive Hr S A- ★★★★☆
Apple Watch Series 2 B+ ★★★☆

Best Hiking GPS (Handheld Devices)

Handhelds tend to offer more wilderness-specific features than fitness watches and are often more affordable, as well. While you may still rely on your phone to take pictures, dedicated GPS devices will be more rugged and reliable than your smartphone, and is a must-have on long trips.

The acknowledged leader in mountaineering accessories is Garmin, whose handheld GPS devices dominate Best Of lists. While Garmin (and intrepid competitors) offer an exhaustive array of features over a range of price points, a couple of devices stand out for overall value and versatility.

 

Product Quality Our Rating
Garmin Oregon 600 A ★★★★★
Garmin eTrex 30x A- ★★★★☆
Magellan eXplorist 510 B+ ★★★★

Garmin Oregon 600

Garmin Oregon 600

The Garmin Oregon 600 has been out for a while, but this perennial favorite still gets the job done. It has a 3” sunlight-readable touchscreen, Worldwide basemap, tri-axial compass, and is packed with other features. Plus, this award-winning device is accurate, quick-loading, and easy to use. The Oregon 600 has a modest 1.7 GB of memory (expandable), but it can hold 4 million geocaches. It offers a pretty standard 16 hours of battery life and the option of a rechargeable NiMH pack (not included). The Oregon 600 uses GPS and GLONASS satellites simultaneously for fast, accurate positioning worldwide. It also supports fast unit-to-unit data transfer between compatible (Garmin) devices and comes with Garmin’s handy BaseCamp trip-planning software.

  • Display: 3” touchscreen
  • Compass: Tri-axial
  • Battery life: 16 hours
  • Memory: 1.7GB (expandable)
  • Water-resistant: Yes (IPX7)
  • Durable: Yes
  • Weight: 7.4 oz

Turn-by-turn directions: Yes

Pros: Responsive and easy to use

Cons:  No camera, limited basemap

Note: The next in the series, the Oregon 650, includes a camera, but the picture quality isn’t great, so you’re probably fine sticking with the cheaper 600.

Garmin eTrex 30x

 Garmin eTrex 30x

The Garmin eTrex 30x is another all-around great value and holds up well against dust, dirt, humidity, and water. Its 2.2” sunlight-readable display features enhanced 65K color resolution (240×320). This device boasts an impressive 25 hours of battery life and comes with a  respectable 3.7GB of memory (expandable), which means you can load plenty of maps in addition to its preloaded worldwide basemap. It has plenty of useful features, like a barometric altimeter, built-in sensors, and tri-axis compass, and it comes with Garmin’s BaseCamp trip-planning software. It also features easy wireless sharing between compatible (Garmin) devices, and turn-by-turn driving directions to get you to the trailhead. At only 5 oz, it’s one of the lightest handhelds in its category. Like the Oregon 600, this device combines GPS and GLONASS satellites for reliable global positioning in any terrain.

  • Display: 2.2”
  • Compass: Tri-axial
  • Battery life: 25 hours (2 AA)
  • Memory: 3.7GB (expandable)
  • Water-resistant: IPX7
  • Durable: Yes
  • Camera: No
  • Weight: 5 oz
  • Turn-by-turn directions: Yes

Pros: light and compact, good battery life, 3.7GB memory

Cons: no touch screen, small screen, no camera

Although the Garmin eTrex 30x is a great overall value, the lower end of this line is also worth checking out: The Garmin eTrex 20x is a great value (minus the tria-axial compass and barometric altimeter). If you don’t need a lot of bells and whistles, you should also check out the very affordable Garmin eTrex 10x.

 Magellan eXplorist 510

 Magellan eXplorist 510

Taking on the Gamin line is the Magellan exploits 510. It features a 3.2-megapixel camera with autofocus, video recorder, and voice recorder for geo-referenced note-taking. The rugged device offers a 3” touchscreen, a World Edition preloaded map, and online sharing using VantangePoint software (PC only). It comes with 2GB memory (expandable), 16-hour battery life, water resistance, and plenty of other features. With its media capabilities and sharing features, this one is perfect for paperless geocaching.

  • Display: 3”
  • Compass: Tri-axial
  • Battery life: 16 hours (2 AA)
  • Memory: 2GB (expandable)
  • Water-resistant: IPX7-7
  • Durable: Yes
  • Camera: 3.2 megapixel
  • Weight: 6.87oz
  • Turn-by-turn directions: No

Pros: Camera plus video and voice recorder for record-keeping/geocaching

Cons: Doesn’t have tri-axial compass, barometric altimeter, uses up battery quickly

In the same series, the Magellan eXplorist 310 offers a pared-down option (most affordable) Magellan eXplorist 610 adds a tri-axial compass and barometric altimeter (mid range) and the eXplorist 710 adds a topographic map and turn-by-turn directions (most expensive).

For those who like the old-school feel of this device, there’s a lot to love. This durable, full-featured handheld is water-resistant and comes with plenty of modern features, like a 2.6-inch sunlight-readable color screen, notifications (with compatible iPhone), and a one-year BirdsEye Satellite Imagery subscription. The quad helix antenna comes with high-sensitivity GPS and GLONASS satellite tracking, so you’ll always know where you are. It also comes with an impressive 4GB of memory, a micro-SD slot, and plenty of other features, including easy wireless sharing with compatible devices. Although it doesn’t have a camera, it can connect with VIRB action camera through Garmin’s app.

  • Display: 2.6”
  • Compass: Tri-axial
  • Battery life: 16 hours (2 AA)
  • Memory: 4GB (expandable)
  • Water-resistant: IPX7
  • Durable: Yes
  • Camera: No
  • Weight: 8.1 oz
  • Turn-by-turn directions: Yes

Pros: convenient connectivity, impressive navigation with BirdsEye Satellite (one year free)

Cons: Bulky and heavy, not everyone likes the buttons

The Best Hiking GPS (Handheld)

The handheld GPS field is crowded with feature-rich options that will let you blaze trails with impunity. The Garmin devices offer the power of GPS plus GLONASS satellites for reliable location-tracking in virtually any conditions, but the Magellan eXplorist 510 is also praised for its highly accurate and reliable GPS. If weight is a factor, the 5-oz Garmin eTrex 30x is a good option, especially compared to the bulky 8.1-oz Garmin GPSMAP 64s GPS. The Magellan eXplorist 510 is worth considering if you’re looking for a handheld with camera and recording capabilities. But for sheer ease of use, and its sensitive touchscreen, the Garmin Oregon 600 is a great way to go.

Best Hiking GPS (Watches)

Best Hiking GPS (Watches)

While a dedicated handheld device is recommended for backpacking or wilderness trekking, a GPS-enabled fitness watch can easily handle hiking, biking, and even swimming. Advantages of using a watch include comfort and versatility, pairing with your smartphone for notifications, and an abundance of fitness features. If you use a smartwatch in your daily life and enjoy regular outdoor activities, it may be worth purchasing a watch with serious tracking features, including GPS. Just be prepared to shell out a bit more than you might for a dedicated handheld.

 

 

Product Quality Our Rating
Garmin Fenix 3 Sapphire A ★★★★★
Suunto Ambit3 Peak A- ★★★★☆
Garmin Tactix Bravo B+ ★★★★
Garmin Vivoactive Hr S A- ★★★★☆
Apple Watch Series 2 B+ ★★★☆

Garmin Fenix 3 Sapphire

Garmin Fenix 3 Sapphire

The durable Garmin Fenix 3 Sapphire is equipped with standard mountaineering features like tri-axial compass, altimeter, barometer, and thermometer. This watch features a 1.2-inch sunlight-readable display with a scratch-resistant sapphire lens. The combination of GPS and GLONASS satellite reception maintains accurate positioning wherever you are. The watch also offers serious fitness training features, like advanced running dynamics with vertical oscillation and vertical ratio, VO2 max, and recovery advisor. Connect IQ allows for personalization of apps, and the Garmin Connect mobile app is available for both iOS and Android devices so you can receive important notifications. The watch can also be paired with Garmin’s Virb action camera. While this is a versatile device and packs an impressive array of features, it isn’t cheap.

  • Display: 1.2”
  • Compass: Yes
  • Battery life: 20 hours (GPS training mode) 50 hours (UltraTrac mode) up to 6 weeks (watch mode)
  • Water-resistant: 10 ATM
  • GPS: Yes, w/GLONASS

Pros: Durable, loaded with fitness features

Cons: Expensive, heavy, expensive

Suunto Ambit3 Peak

 Suunto Ambit3 Peak

The Suunto Ambit3 Peak offers great functionality, durability, and a full range of fitness features. The watch has a basic but user-friendly display and features consistently accurate GPS, altimeter, barometer, thermometer, and compass. Navigation and planning are easy, as the waypoints and GPX routes can be imported from the Suunto Movescount App, and a Heatmap feature points you to popular routes within a certain area. The Ambit3 is Bluetooth-compatible so you can monitor incoming and missed calls, messages, and other notifications from your phone (available for Android and iOS devices).

  • Display: 1.14”
  • Compass: Yes
  • Battery life: 22 hours in GPS mode, up to 200 hours in time mode
  • Water-resistant: 100M
  • GPS: Yes

Pros: outstanding GPS reception, easily programmable

Cons: uncomfortable, poor battery life

The Ambit3 line comes in four different versions – Suunto Ambit3 Peak, Suunto Ambit3 Vertical, Suunto Ambit3 Sport, and Suunto Ambit3 Run. But the Suunto Ambit3 Peak is particularly toward hiking and mountaineering.

Garmin Tactix Bravo

Garmin Tactix Bravo

The Garmin Tactix Bravo offers the basic functionality of a military training watch, although it is designed to be worn in your daily life. In addition to GPS, this super-durable watch includes an altimeter, tri-axial compass, barometer,  and heart rate monitor. It is also Wi-Fi enabled, connects easily with your smartphone via Bluetooth, and displays all notifications on the screen. In addition to sunlight display mode, it offers night vision and a green backlight for furtive use. It also includes fitness features and a sleep tracker. More utilitarian than fashion-forward, it features a scratch-proof lens and bezel.

  • Display: 1.2”
  • Compass: Yes
  • Battery life: 20 hours (GPS training mode) 50 hours (UltraTrac mode) up to 6 weeks (watch mode)
  • Water-resistant: 10 ATM
  • GPS: Yes, w/GLENS

Pros: super rugged, night vision display

Cons: The price

Garmin Vivoactive Hr S

 Garmin Vivoactive Hr

In addition to GPS, the Garmin vivoactive HR offers a well-rounded set of features, including a heart-rate monitor, notifications, and plenty of third-party apps. The sunlight-readable, high-resolution color touchscreen is easy to read, and quick-access buttons offer shortcuts to common functions. Garmin includes complementary face changes through the Connect IQ store for those who enjoy personalizing their device. In addition to covering the basics for hiking, this watch can keep up with all your outdoor sports.

  • Display: .80”
  • Compass: electronic
  • Battery life: 13 hours (GPS mode), 8 days (watch/activity tracking mode)
  • Water-resistant: 5 ATM
  • GPS: Yes

Pros: Easy to read, versatile

Cons: a little bulky, limited battery life

 Apple Watch Series 2

 Apple Watch Series 2

The Apple Watch Series 2 has been updated to include built-in GPS with GLONASS satellite positioning and will sync any collected data with your iPhone whenever the two are in range. The watch is water-resistant up to 50 meters (fine for swimming but not for diving) and features heart-monitoring and plenty of fitness and activity-tracking features. This series also boasts faster GPU performance than its predecessor. While it’s not as rugged as some and not geared toward outdoor sports, it’s a stylish watch, even more so with the option of interchangeable faces. With Apple’s controversial cordless AirBuds, you can listen to music while you hike, which is a nice bonus if you aren’t worried about battery life.

  • Display: 1.65”
  • Compass: No
  • Battery life: Varies depending on use, up to 18 hours standard use
  • Water-resistant: 50M
  • GPS: Yes w/GLENS

Pros: For fans of the Apple Watch, it now has GPS and up to 2x faster GPU

Cons: Inaccuracies with fitness-tracking features, not geared toward hiking, hard to read in sunlight

 

The Best Hiking GPS (Watches)

If you’re hunting for the ultimate utilitarian smartwatch, and money’s no object, you can’t go wrong with the military-style Garmin Tactix Bravo. For the urban fitness buff who demands versatility in a stylish form factor, Garmin’s highly regarded Garmin Fenix 3 Sapphire is a good option. The Suunto Ambit3 Peak holds its own against these two in most respects, but the weaker battery is something to consider. The Apple Watch Series 2 doesn’t stack up to the others as a serious hiking device, but it’s an attractive option for die-hard Apple fans. If price is a major factor, the Garmin vivoactive HR is a basic, but well-rounded contender and delivers GPS at a very reasonable price point.

If you have favorites of your own or experience using these devices, please let us know in the comments.

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