Do you live for the outdoors? Do you love exploring all the nature landscapes in your area? If you do, then hiking is probably near the top of your list of favorite activities. When it comes to hiking, there’s a lot of accessories that get touted as “must haves.”
There’s your obvious stuff like hiking boots, hiking clothes, and a good water bottle. But in this article, we’re looking at one piece of hiking equipment that sometimes gets overlooked – a hiking GPS device.
A GPS device is a great tool for navigation, but you might be surprised at how extensive some of them are these days. Many GPSs on the market have features which extend well beyond your traditional navigation aids. We’re here to help, we’ve surveyed the market and are presenting our picks for best hiking GPSs. We’ll help you explain everything you need to know about the basics of these devices, and help you pick between all the options on the market.
What Is a Hiking GPS? How Do You Use One?
Before we jump into our guide to the top products on the market, let’s cover the basics. Exactly what is a hiking GPS?
As you might already know, GPS stands for Global Positioning System. A handheld GPS unit or GPS app, like the one you probably have on your phone, allows you to track your current location, and get a sense of where you are in the world.
It lets you visualize your position in relation to a map of the area. You can probably imagine why this would be so useful on a hike, and especially on a hike in an area you aren’t familiar with. A GPS tracker can be an essential piece of equipment for planning your route, staying on course, and sorting yourself out if you get lost.
A GPS hiking device has a few notable advantages over the GPS app on your phone. For one, they are much more durable. They are made to handle the outdoors.
That means they are strong, much more water resistant, and the batteries last longer. Many even come with replaceable batteries. Additionally, a handheld GPS tracker features more comprehensive maps, including details on topography and things of that nature. Their GPS signal is superior as well compared to a hiking app.
You don’t have to worry about losing signal even in many of the most remote areas, as you’ll be able to access offline maps in the device’s internal memory. GPS satellites have a stronger signal than on a smartphone.
Of course, there are still many different options even within the category of “hiking GPS.” They have all different types of features and capabilities, with some features extending well beyond simple navigation.
Next up, we’ll run down the most common features for those who want to learn more about this product. And after that, we’re survey our choices for the best modern GPS devices on the market. Read on to learn more.
Features of a Hiking GPS
Now that we’ve covered the basics of a hiking GPS, let’s get into a bit of the more extensive features. Many of the hiking GPSs we will show have quite a bit more than traditional navigation features. In this section, we’re going to explain what these features are, so that you can see whether they might be useful in making your own decision.
First up is maps. While it might seem obvious that a GPS should have a good map, you’d be surprised how detailed and comprehensive GPS maps can be. A GPS navigator will come preloaded with a basic map in its internal memory, but many also give the option to download more extensive map overlays as well. These maps will go into more detail about topography, elevation, local features and points of interest, and trails or routes.
The GPS display can also make a big difference. This is largely dependent on the pixel resolution, which will allow you to see more detail in your surroundings. Additionally, some GPS will have a color display, and some can even display 3D maps as well, which makes topography easier to comprehend.
Geocaching is a popular pastime which has taken the GPS community by storm in recent years. Many GPSs are built for the express purpose of encouraging this hobby. Many link up with popular geocaching websites, and populate your GPS with new caches as they arise. Some even have preloaded caches built into the GPS on purchase.
If you aren’t familiar with geocaching, it is kind of like a big scavenger hunt. People hide “caches” throughout the world, which are often waterproof containers, where finders can leave trinkets or sign a logbook. The hider will upload the GPS coordinates of the cache to a website, where people can find the cache in the real world.
Some hiking GPSs have built in satellite phones. These are particularly useful if you want to maintain contact with the outside world, whether it be for safety concerns or any other reasons. Some satellite phones even allow you to send text messages as well. This is particularly useful for hikers who do not want to bring their phone on hikes, or if they know they will be in an area without cell coverage.
Compass, Barometer, Altimeter
Compass, barometer, and altimeter are three features you will see on nearly every GPS. Simply put, the compass lets you know which way you are facing or heading, while the barometer and altimeter track your altitude levels. This gives you more complete information as to your current orientation. A barometer can also tell you certain data about weather conditions as well.
Waypoints and Planning
Knowing where you are is a useful feature of a GPS, but knowing where you are going is just as important. GPSs contain various degrees of location planning and tracking. Many will let you set waypoints which act as your destination, as well as track the route to get there. You can even download maps which outline trails and routes, and even provide information as to the difficulty.
Many GPSs even have online capabilities, which allow you to share your routes and trails with others. This allows you to compare adventures, and even get new inspiration from others’ experiences.
We mentioned the display above, but it deserves its own section as well. The display can make a big difference as to the usability of your GPS unit. It makes all the difference in how much detail it can display with the maps, which can really help you to navigate your surroundings. This is largely influenced both by the size and the resolution. Some displays also have touch screen capabilities, although this is largely a personal preference.
And many GPS units have various other add-ons as well! Many can connect to a smart phone to download a multitude of apps surrounding communication, route planning, map downloading, weather conditions, and more! Read on to check out some of the cool features that these GPS units have in store.
Best GPS Products for Hiking in 2020
Here we go, next up are our top picks for hiking GPS. In this list, you’ll find a variety of different products. We made sure to include a good range. We’ve included everything from simple GPSs for navigation, to heavy duty GPSs with many of the advanced features that we outlined above. We want to be sure that you can find a product that matches your needs. After all, the “best” product on the market is simply the best product for you!
Note: You might notice in reading our list that it is pretty heavy on one brand name – Garmin. We didn’t set out to do this, but in examining the market, they were the clear top contender in GPS manufacturing. They simply offer so many quality products with so many quality features. This list isn’t sponsored by Garmin, and they’ve earned many of the top spots on our list!
1. Garmin eTrex 10
First up is the Garmin eTrex 10. This is definitely a more “budget” option for hiking GPS, but don’t expect that to mean a decrease in quality! The GPS itself is strong and durable. This will hold up to any hiking trips you take it on. This comes preloaded with the worldwide basemap (by tracking both GPS and GLONASS satellites), and has strong satellite signal to locate your position quickly wherever you go.
It is also compatible with Garmin BaseCamp, which is an app that allows you to track topography, contour lines, and elevation profiles. BaseCamp also allows you to organize waypoints, routes, and tracks.
The one downside might be the simplistic nature of the screen. It certainly has an old-school feel to it. Some hikers may prefer a bit more of a detailed map, as it may be a bit easier to read and understand your location. However, if you’re simply looking for a capable GPS at an affordable price, then it’s hard to go wrong here.
2. Garmin eTrex 30
Think of the Garmin eTrex 30 as the “premium” version of the eTrex 10 which we covered above. This has all the features of the eTrex 10 and more. What you will probably notice most is the upgraded display. There is a much higher pixel resolution and it is in full color.
The eTrex 30 also has upgraded memory capacity over the other eTrex models. This means you can download more maps, and save more waypoints, routes, and trails. While it only comes preloaded with a basemap, you can definitely find all sorts of free maps available for download that give you all the detail you might be seeking.
It is worth mentioning BaseCamp once again here. Garmin’s trip planning software is highly intuitive and useful. It is great for planning trips, setting waypoints, and even sharing your adventures with friends. If you’re looking for a durable GPS that makes trip-planning fun and easy, then the eTrex 30 might be what you are looking for.
3. Garmin 010 InReach Explorer and Handheld Satellite Communicator
The Garmin “InReach” models are a step up from the eTrex, both in functionality and in price! A considerable bit more expensive than the eTrex, the InReach is more suitable for serious hikers, or those who want a bit of extra functionality.
This is a very extensive GPS with Internet capabilities. On the navigation front, this comes preloaded with DeLorme topo maps (with many, many more maps available for download online). There is onscreen GPS routing, and a built-in digital compass, barometric altimeter, and accelerometer. And of course, it has all the routes, waypoints, and trails you’d expect of a hiking GPS.
The device can also be paired with smartphones to take advantage of many different apps and location sharing features. A notable app is the Earthmate app, which allows access to free maps, aerial imagery, and NOAA charts.
One of the other major selling points is that the InReach is also a satellite phone. No worries of being completely cut off from the outside world should you need to reach someone (especially if you don’t want to bring your phone, or there is no cell service). You can use the satellite phone to both call and text should the need arise. You can call or text any phone number or email address. There is even the option to trigger an SOS to the 24/7 search and rescue center.
4. Garmin InReach Mini
Here’s a more portable and stripped down version of the Garmin InReach Explorer+. But make no mistake, this is still a highly capable GPS. It retains most of the great features that we outlined about the Explorer+. There are detailed topo maps, with the ability to download many free maps. It has all the GPS functionality you’d expect (trip planning, routing, waypoints, trails, etc.) You can also pair with your smartphone to get the Earthmate app for aerial imagery, NOAA charts, and more free maps.
Basically the main difference between this one and the Explorer+ is the size. Although, this does come with a notable usability decline in the sense that the screen is smaller, and the map is not as viewable. This can actually be a pretty big consideration to many hikers and adventurers.
This model is a satellite phone as well. You can call or send two-way text messages to any phone number or email. It also has the option to send an SOS to the 24/7 search and rescue center. It uses the 100% global Iridium network, although a satellite subscription is required. This is a highly capable satellite phone as well as GPS.
5. Garmin Oregon 700
The Garmin Oregon is one of Garmin’s classic GPS models, and for good reason. This thing is a very capable GPS unit. It has ABC sensors, and a 3-axis tilt compensated electronic compass with accelerometer and barometric altimeter sensors. Basically, this GPS is great at knowing exactly where you are, and keeping track of you as you move. It has excellent satellite connectivity, and uses both GPS and GLONASS satellite reception.
The Oregon has a good-sized touchscreen and an intuitive user interface. It is quite easy for anyone to pick up and use. It has a preloaded, worldwide shaded basemap, but there is always the option to download many free maps as well.
The Garmin Oregon also has access to Active Weather, which is a live look at the weather (and the forecast) in your area. It also comes packed with a 1-year subscription to BirdsEye satellite imagery.
This is also a favourite among the geocaching community. There are options to make the Oregon automatically download new caches from the geocaching.com website.
Overall, this is a very capable GPS. It has everything you need for most kinds of hiking adventures, and its durability makes it more than suitable for most anything you could throw at it.
6. Garmin 010 Watch
Here’s an option that is great if you’d prefer a wristwatch over the traditional handheld GPS unit. This is a very capable GPS watch, and was built to withstand the harsh conditions of hiking that you may face in the outdoors.
As far as the GPS tracking goes, this one is great. There is built in 3-axis compass and barometric alignment, as well as multiple satellite systems (using both GPS and GLONASS). Basically, it helps to track your location quickly and efficiently no matter where you are.
This is also great as an activity watch. It monitors your distance, times, and heartrate, which allows it to estimate calories burned. You can even connect it to various smartphone apps for more consistent tracking and activity sharing.
It has a preloaded worldwide basemap. While the display is nothing too extensive, it is great for more basic needs.
If you are looking for a watch which is primarily used for navigation and for monitoring and sharing fitness data, then this watch is for you!
7. Garmin Montana
The Garmin Montana is another great option in the long line of Garmin GPS products. This one has a big, easy to read screen, with a very usable touch screen.
The GPS functionality is great. It tracks your location quickly and easily with it’s WAAS-enabled GPS receiver. It has a preloaded worldwide basemap with the option to download countless free maps online. You can utilize Garmin’s BaseCamp program to easily plan, organize, and track routes, trails, and waypoints. It’s the ultimate in trip planning.
This is also a favourite among geocachers. It actually comes preloaded with over 250,000 worldwide geocaches from geocache.com. And you have the option to keep updated with the newest caches as they arise.
As a bonus, this GPS even has an 8 megapixel digital camera!
Overall, another solid option, and an especially great option for geocachers! It’s a bit on the bigger side, so a bit less portable than many other options on our list. But overall, it’s a great choice.
8. BEST BUDGET: Mini GPS
A product not made by Garmin? That’s right, we’re mixing it up with this Mini GPS, which is great for an ultra-portable option. If you want a bare bones GPS that you can take anywhere, this one might be your go-to option.
This GPS isn’t going to give you even close to the features of the products above. But it gives you locational info (longitude, latitude, and altitude), and also has good location tracking. You can also set up to 16 waypoints.
This is nothing fancy, but if you want a simple, portable GPS, this one might do the trick. It’s small enough that you can put it on a keychain. Definitely not for everyone, but it might just be for you!
9. Suunto Traverse Alpha
The Suunto Traversa Alpha is another highly capable GPS watch. This is a GPS watch that was primarily designed for hunting and fishing.
The GPS features are quite adept. It has an altimeter, compass, and a barometer. It utilizes both GPS and GLONASS identification, and you can track your routes, trails, and waypoints. It also tracks the moon phases, weather, and the sunrise times.
This is a highly durable watch for any outdoorsman. It has reinforced composite glass with a stainless steel surrounding. The strap is made of tough nylon. It is water resistant up to 100 metres, and has a 14 day battery life.
Overall, this is a solid choice of GPS watch for many outdoorsmen. While it doesn’t quite have the GPS capabilities of many of the options above, it is more than suitable for many basic needs. It also comes in a variety of cool colors and styles.
Thanks so much for checking out our guide to the best hiking GPSs! We tried to include many varieties of GPS on our list, so that there is something for everyone. The most important consideration is how you plan on using your GPS. The GPS you will require depends largely on what type of hiking you plan on doing. Are you going on simple nature walks, deep treks into the woods, trail runs, camping trips, or anything in between?
First evaluate what you actually need the GPS for, and match your own needs to one of our products above. We are confident you will find a product that will meet all your needs and more!
And if you’re a serious hiker, check out our hiking tattoo ideas!