Most folks will use the GPS only when it comes to their cars and perhaps only the most passionate ones will use GPS devices for their biking pleasure. But rest assured that there are other categories of uses for GPS devices that some of you might find at least curious, such as geocaching, hunting, hiking or any other kind of outdoor sports. This kind of GPS devices is called handheld GPS and we will try our best to bring you the best units currently available on the market.
Having a handheld GPS unit is not a fad, but rather a tool that contributes to your passion or, in some cases, even to your security and orientation, especially when you are backpacking. If you have used a GPS unit until now, be it in your car or on your bike, then you probably already know some important tips than you need to look at before getting one. Let’s analyze together what they are, as well as finding the best handheld GPS devices.
How to choose the right handheld GPS: notable tips
I will let you know from the beginning that there are plenty of handheld GPS devices that can cost a pretty buck; they are aimed at professionals looking to get top-notch gadgets. Of course, we will enlist here all kinds of handheld GPS models, so I’m almost sure you will manage to find the one you are looking for. Like I started saying above, a portable GPS unit can be used for outdoor sports and for a number of other activities. Let’s try and compile the most important ones:
- Mountain biking
- River rafting
You might think that your smartphone is enough to help you out in the wild, but what if you drop it? We know there are rugged phones and tablets out there, but what about batteries? Even if smartphones are encompassing more and more features, standalone devices still have a lot of advantages. A good portable handheld GPS device will be waterproof, shockproof and will most likely run on AA batteries.
But, just like we have mentioned in our bike GPS guide, it’s much better to learn how to handle a map, a compass and, why not, even master the art of skycharting. You’ll definitely feel like a young scout once more! But if you made up your mind and you decided you are not looking for adventures, then you need to get a portable GPS unit. Here are some of the most important things to look at before getting one.
- Weight – albeit not crucial, weight is an important factor when choosing a handheld GPS device, because you are going to carry it around with your for quite a while. And it definitely won’t make your job easier if you’re in that geocaching challenge along with your friends. Therefore, look for something that doesn’t weigh more than 7 ounces (less than 200 grams). Anything under that amount will be very light and won’t make your hiking more difficult.
- Battery life – here we arrive at a point where it’s safer to rely on your skills with mastering a physical compass and a map. Your handheld GPS needs to have a very good battery life, because you definitely don’t wanna get lost in the wilderness. Most reliable portable GPS units will have a battery life from 10 to around 25 hours. Of course, ideally would be for you to get something around the 20 hours limit, but even around 15 hours should be quite enough.
- Satellite reception and accuracy – most of the time than not, larger portable GPS will provide a more accurate position and will have a better satellite reception, thanks to their large antennas. While this is not always true, it’s good to have it in mind. Handheld hiking GPS units triangulate your position to around five meters.There are units that achieve a 3D lock on your position much faster, providing even a centimeter accuracy, but those are really expensive (and big). Therefore, any handheld GPS device with a 3 meter accuracy should be more than enough. Also, don’t look for the slimmest one, but the one with the biggest antenna for increased satellite reception.
- Ease of use & speed – first of all, even if you’re in love with touch screen devices, you should not apply this rule when it comes to an outdoor sports GPS unit. Handheld GPS units are usually easier to see under bright sunlight and are more resistant to bad weather conditions. Also, you don’t need bare fingers and they are more gentle on your battery life. Touchscreen units, on the other hand, are easier to use if you are planning on inputting a lot of data. After you get passed that, you need to know just how friendly is a certain handheld GPS unit with you. Some basic operations you will be performing on your outdoor GPS will be arking and editing waypoints, creating and editing tracks, navigating to a waypoint, following a route. For that, the placement and the configuration of buttons is crucial. Also, it matters a lot how fast your portable GPS is performing these actions.
- Mapping software & maps – every handheld GPS maker has its own mapping software. Garmin Basecamp seems to be the best one in this field, being following by Magellan Vantage Point, both available for an annual fee while DeLorme comes with the free Topo North America topographic mapping softwar. You can get free maps in the GPS File Depot, as well.
- Diversity of features – the above represent the most basic and looked for features. However, there are plenty other options you should find in a reliable portable GPS device, such as: built-in memory (1GB would be ideal), memory card slot (microSD or SD), navigation routes (50 should be enough), track log points (the best ones will have around 10,000), barometric altimeter, electronic compass, backlight, color display and, why not, even a basic camera.
Just like with the bike GPS buying guide, we will list below the most reliable handheld GPS brands, but this time, thanks to the reviews and the expertise of such online authorities as OutdoorGearLab, TopTenReviews, Amazon, GPSTrackLog and many others, we will also give you a few specific models, for all kind of prices, for sure. However, we will be giving you reference of the newer models, that is, if you might wonder why we didn’t put some older versions, thanks to their professional recommendations. To give you an examples, it’s like saying that you should go for an iPhone 4, which is still very good, even if the iPhone 5 is out in the wild.
Best handheld GPS brands and models
- eXplorist GC North America
- Magellan Triton 2000 – North America
- Magellan eXplorist 510 Hunter Edition
- Magellan eXplorist 510 TOPO! Edition
- Magellan eXplorist 310 Hunter Edition