Tracking Down the Best Handheld GPS Models
Selecting the perfect handheld GPS without field testing it is hard, but that's where we come in. We researched 35+ models and tested the best 5 handhelds on high mountain peaks, deep canyons, and many other backcountry environments and situations. Our expert reviews tinkered endlessly with these products, assessing which ones have the best satellite reception, which are easiest to use, and which models display info with the best quality and clarity. We also considered processing speeds and each model's weight in this comprehensive review. Read on to find the right device for your adventurous endeavors, whether you're looking for a budget option, the most reliable model, or the most modern and easy to use GPS.
Read the full review below >
Test Results and Ratings
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Analysis and Award Winners
Updated April 2017
As of Spring 2017, our testing and research continue to tip the hat to Garmin's dominance in the GPS market. We are yet to test a model that unseats any of our award winners. We recently added other versions of our award winners into the individual review, which we find intriguing and helpful in your search for the perfect handheld device. For example, the Oregon 650 from Garmin is similar to our Editors' Choice winner but comes equipped with an 8-megapixel camera that geotags each photo. We also added tables and charts to quickly compare performance differences between each model reviewed.
Best Overall Handheld GPS
Garmin Oregon 600
Our Editors' Choice Award winner, the Garmin Oregon 600, is keeping up with the times. It's the only model in this review that has a modern, high-quality touchscreen display. It resembles our smartphones, making it intuitive and easy to use. iPhone displays are higher quality, but this GPS device definitely offers plenty of functionality. On top of the great screen, this model is highly accurate and loads maps with optimal speed. Loaded with features, it includes a Bluetooth chip that allows you to share your waypoint and track data with receiving units nearby. It also hosts an electronic compass, 1.5 GB of memory, and 16 hours of battery life. The Oregon 600 redefines the standard for handheld GPS devices. We highly recommend this to anyone that does a lot of travel in low visibility conditions or has the cash the push the performance envelope. If you want a bit more out of your Oregon 600, check out the Garmin Oregon 650, comes with an 8-megapixel camera that tags each photo with your location.
Smartphone-like touch screen
Fast map redraw
Simple menu layout
Customizable menu options
Long battery life
Sensitive screen that changes easily
Limited basecamp interface
Read full review: Garmin Oregon 600
Best Bang for the Buck
Garmin eTrex 20x
The Garmin eTrex 20x is a small and lightweight hiking GPS that provides ample performance for roughly half the price and weight of the other two award winners. This device will help you get back on track if the weather turns foul and you can't find your route. This is perfect for those in need of a lightweight device before going into the backcountry for an extended period of time. Add this unit to your Dream Hiking Gear List as it may save you if you find yourself off trail. Not only that, but it will only cost you $199. If you're looking to upgrade your xTrex 20x memory storage and screen resolution, check out the Garmin eTrex 30x.
Easy to use
Great screen quality
Longest battery life
Reliable push buttons
No electronic compass
Basemap is very limited
Owner's manual lacks detail
Read full review: Garmin eTrex 20x
Top Pick Award for Reliability
Garmin GPS MAP 64s
The Garmin GPS MAP 64s is our top pick for mountaineering, ski touring, and below freezing adventures where the reliability of push buttons in cold weather supersedes all other factors. The 64s also has a big external antenna that provides better and quicker reception than the Oregon 600, which is useful if you find yourself in super thick forest canopies (tropical jungles), deep slot canyons (like in Utah and Arizona), or stuck in a whiteout on the side of a mountain. Our testers liked the GPS MAP 64s for colder, more extreme days but took the Oregon 600 out on most bluebird days. If money isn't a factor, consider checking out the Garmin GPSMAP 64sc if you're looking for all the bells and whistles for your Garmin.
Fantastic reception through thick coverage
Share wirelessly features
Smart notifications (connect to your smartphone)
Read full review: Garmin GPS MAP 64s
Top Pick for Accuracy: Garmin Montana 680
Top Pick for Features: Magellan eXplorist 510
Analysis and Test Results
In this review, we tested six of the best and most popular handheld GPS units designed for land-based outdoor recreation. A Global Positioning System (GPS) unit is used to collect and store spatial data for a plethora of activities. These include camping, hiking, biking, mountaineering, fishing, hunting, skiing, and more. It helps you navigate to specific locations and get you back to places you've been. GPS models vary based on performance, the level of accuracy, battery life, and additional features.
We evaluated each model through an array of objective field and at-home tests. Our main testers spent hours tinkering with these units to provide you with an in-depth review. Our criteria focused on the unit itself. For each unit, we consider reception, ease of use, display quality, speed, weight, and versatility for evaluation. Using an array of tests we were able to determine award winners and help you determine what to purchase for you next handheld GPS.
The Global Positioning System is a worldwide radio-navigation system that consists of 32 satellites and their ground stations. These are owned and operated by the U.S. Department of Defense. Some units also utilize the Globalnaya Navigazionnaya Sputnikovaya Sistema satellite system that operates 24 additional satellites. Handheld units that utilize both networks are typically faster and more accurate.
In determining the best reception, we performed a number of objective tests. We took these units outside in both open and dense areas and compared the accuracy of all units. At home, we engaged in four tests. In our first, we turned these units on and timed it to see how long it took to determine a location. This mimics how long it will take a unit to get a signal in a new location. In our second test, we turned on each unit and moved them progressively from open areas (the middle of the floor) closer to the wall and compared their recorded accuracy. In our third test, we marked a waypoint and tried to navigate back to the original location using the GPS. We measured the distance from the actual waypoint to the location the unit told us we had arrived. For our last test, we mapped out an area of 7000 square feet and (using the area calculator function) walked the perimeter of the area. The units that were closest to calculating 7000 square feet (after three trials) were deemed to be the most accurate. Through these tests and our experience in the field, we were able to determine the units with best accuracy and reception.
Of all the units tested, we were most impressed with the Garmin GPS MAP 64s and Garmin Montana 680. The Garmin Montana (the largest unit) had the best accuracy while the GPS MAP 64s (with the largest antennae) was a close second. Our Best Buy winner, Garmin eTrex 20x had decent accuracy picking up a signal faster than any other unit. All units except for the Magellan eXplorist 510 utilized both GLONASS and GPS networks. The Magellan eXplorist 510 provided accuracy within 15 ft.
Ease of Use
Here we assessed how easy is was to perform certain key functions such as marking and editing waypoints, creating and editing tracks, navigating to a waypoint, and following a route. In our tests, we gave these units to beginners and compared individual components. These included screen type, menu layout, keyboard type, button configuration, and software interface.
In the end, units that earned top marks were easy to use out of the box with limited reference to user manuals. We found that touch screens were easier to use than buttoned units as they have a close resemblance to smartphones. That said, units with large buttons stood out as a better option for cold weather with easier access to menu functions and better keyboard accuracy.
In the ease of use category, the Garmin devices reigned king. The interface software is very similar, and our novice testers thought it was the easiest to use. The Garmin Oregon 600 (Editors' Choice) was first in the category as its touchscreen was extremely responsive, modern, and simple. The Garmin Montana 680 was next for its large size and touchscreen. The Garmin GPS MAP 64s and eTrex 20x (Best Buy winner) were both buttoned units that earned the same rating. The GPS MAP 64s features many large, easy to use buttons while the eTrex 20x features a central toggle functioning as a directional and enter button. Our testers weren't huge fans of the Magellan eXplorist 510 in this category. The eXplorist specifically had a keyboard that was split between two screens that you laboriously had to flip back and forth between to enter text.
Another important function for any GPS unit is the ability to upload your trip information to a computer. All the devices tested in this review are compatible with the popular viewing software BaseCampTM developed by Garmin. Another software program is Magellan'sVantagePoint. In this review we found BaseCamp to be the easiest to navigate.
Here we assessed how easy it was to see the screen. We looked at screen display in both low light and high light conditions, with and without sunglasses. All the units feature high-quality screens of different sizes. Even though larger displays are easier to see, we noticed that these usually resulted in more glare and less visibility overall. We also noticed that units with plastic screens had poor visibility in comparison to those with hard plastic or glass screens.
The Garmin Oregon 600 had the best screen quality, made from gorilla glass with a 2.5-inch display. The Garmin GPS MAP 64s and eTrex 20x both had screens manufactured from the same material (with little glare in all light conditions) but of different sizes. The eTrex 20x has a 1.7-inch screen while the GPS MAP 64s has a 2-inch screen. These performed well in all light conditions. The Garmin Montana 680 had a 3.5-inch screen (great for those with poor eyesight) but had glare in high light conditions. The Magellan eXplorist 510 was rated the poorest in this category, as the cheap plastic screen tended to reflect light in both low and high light conditions.
This variable assessed the speed of each unit. We timed how long it took to start up, draw maps, and go from one function to another. In addition, we put all the units into a freezer overnight to see how the cold affected all the variables listed above. We found that none of the units' speed was affected by the cold except the Garmin Oregon that froze up with the extreme temperatures.
The Garmin Oregon 600 and Garmin Montana 680 were the fastest followed closely by the Garmin GPS MAP 64s. The Oregon 600 was the fastest to toggle between functions and type in waypoints. The Montana 680 was the slowest to start up but very fast redraw maps. The Garmin GPS MAP 64s was the fastest buttoned unit to redraw maps and toggle between functions.
Weight and Size
In this category, we simply looked at the size and weight of the unit. Using an at-home scale we weighed each unit and compared the relative size of the units to one another. This is an important metric to consider for those that need a lightweight unit.
The Garmin eTrex 20x, our Best Buy winner, was the lightest (5.1 oz) and smallest unit tested. Many of our ski testers reached for this when heading out for a quick and light lap in the mountains.
On the flip side, the Garmin Montana 680 was a beast. This unit was in the running for Editors' Choice but lost the race due to its bulk and size. At 10.3 oz, we won't be bringing this unit on any lightweight-dependent adventures.
When considering this metric we simply thought to ourselves - which unit could we take anywhere? We considered the units' features, durability, battery life, weight, size, and use with gloves. Units with a smaller design, longer battery life, and more features did better in this metric.
The Garmin GPS MAP 64s is our Top Pick for Reliability with one of the highest ratings in this category. Even though it doesn't have the most features or the smallest construction, our testers felt it was the best for all weather conditions. The Magellan eXplorist 510 features a plethora of features, including a video and voice recorder and 3.2 MP camera. This made it the most versatile to fully document adventures.
The Garmin Montana 680 proved to have a very large screen, perfect for navigational and hiking purposes. It also features a 8 MP camera to help document adventures. We also liked the Garmin eTrex 20x. Even though it was the simplest in design, it featured the longest battery life, the lightest weight, and did well in all weather conditions. Overall, all the units were quite versatile, all being awarded medium to high ratings in this category.
Rechargeable batteries-These can save you a lot of money over time.
USB cable-This USB Cable allows you to charge your device and connect it to your computer to transfer routes.
Carrying Cases-Like with any electronic device, it is important to protect it with a case. The GPSMAP 64s Slip Case and the eTrex Carrying Case are two options.
Mounts-There are many different kinds of mounts available. One that is compatible with all of our award winners is the Garmin Friction Mount.
Navigating wilderness shouldn't be a frustrating endeavor, and with the right GPS device, it isn't. There are plenty of options available with a variety of strengths and weakness. We hope this review helps identify the top performers for your specific backcountry pursuits and makes the question of "Which one should I get?" easy to answer. Head over to our Buying Advice article for more info to assist in the shopping process.
— Amber King
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