Going on a hike far away from everyday commotion can be a fantastic experience. However, your trip requires some planning too. You need to think about what you plan to bring with you in your hiking backpack, but how you are going to find your way and reach the desired destination. Sure, some trails are marked well, but sometimes we find ourselves in unfamiliar territory. Getting lost can be a very serious problem, and even put you in danger.

For this reason, many hikers take a GPS device with them when they go on the trail. This device makes the hike much easier, since you will always be aware of your location and which obstacles lie ahead. You will also be able to plan routes, save waypoints and share this data with other participants. Some GPS devices give you just the basic information and have simple functions, while others are more sophisticated and include numerous useful functions and additional features.

Finding the best backpacking GPS depends on your preferences and intended use, as much as on the product itself. We selected some great products for you to choose from, and also compiled a buying guide to give you some pointers on what to look for when buying, so don’t miss out.

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How To Choose A Hiking GPS – Buying Guide

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Choosing a good GPS for hiking shouldn’t be all that difficult, as long as you know what you’re after and keep a few things in mind. This is a device that needs to be functional and reliable, since you depend on it to show you the way. Ease of use, long battery life, quick positioning and compatibility with various maps are just a few things the best hiking GPS devices need to have. Take a look.

Battery Life And Type

This is one of the most important things to consider when choosing your portable GPS for hiking. Unlike other devices we use every day, we won’t have the opportunity to charge the GPS device often. Running out of power when you’re in the middle of nowhere can be a big problem. Manufacturers thought about this, so you have several options to choose from when it comes to batteries. Some tracking devices use disposable batteries (AA or AAA). This is very handy, because you can take a spare pack with you, and replace them on the go. However, this takes additional space in your pack and some hikers wish to avoid that.

The alternative solution are rechargeable batteries, which you can charge at home or on the go. Some products give you dual battery options, since they can operate with both rechargeable or disposable batteries. Not many trekking GPS devices come with sealed batteries, because it takes time for them to charge. Also, you need to bring either a solar charger or a portable charger with you. Whichever battery type you choose, always consider how long they are going to last. They should last at least throughout the day, so you don’t have to worry about power mid-hike. Look for battery information when choosing your GPS and you will avoid trouble later on.

Weight And Dimensions

Hiking GPS devices are designed to fit the palm of your hand, so they are very compact. While not many products in this category are large or heavy, some hikers are weight-conscious and want their GPS (as well as other hiking gear) to be as light as possible. If this is you, then you should know that smaller weight means that your unit is going to have a smaller screen and possibly be more difficult to operate because of this. You are going to have to make a compromise to some extent, and we think it’s smartest to find a balance between size and ease of use.

Display

In terms of screen size, a large display on your walking GPS will make it easier for you to see more details on the map. However, a larger screen will consume more battery power too, meaning they are not very energy efficient. The best hiking GPS devices come with high-quality color screens which show all the details on your map. On the other hand, some cheaper versions come with monochromatic screens which are more battery-efficient, but aren’t that easy to read. In addition, it’s a big plus if the device has a screen which can easily be seen in sunlight, and also good backlight so you can read information when hiking at night. Of course, devices with larger and better screens will be costlier too.

Receiver Type And Positioning Technology

GPS devices collect signals emitted by satellites orbiting the Earth, and use these signals to calculate your location and project it on the map on your display. Most commonly used system is the GPS (Global Positioning System) developed by the United States. In addition to this system, many products we featured use GLONASS system too, which is an alternative to GPS, developed by Russia.

Both of these are available worldwide, and devices which use both have access to signals from a larger number of satellites enabling them to be more accurate and find your location faster, especially if you are in deep or covered areas. Furthermore, some devices are WAAS-enabled (Wide Area Augmentation System). This system was designed as an aid to the GPS, and it allows your device to compute your location with greater precision. While some people don’t require a device which works with these additional systems, it can certainly be beneficial in many scenarios.

Touchscreen vs. Buttons

You have two options to choose from – a touchscreen or a conventional device with buttons. Some of us are used to touchscreens on other devices we use every day, so perhaps this type of handheld GPS will be easier to use. However, they can be problematic to operate when it’s raining or if you have gloves on when hiking in cold weather. While some products are compatible with gloves, a device with physical buttons can be more suitable and easier to use in these situations.

On the other hand, models with buttons are often more durable and have a smaller chance to break. Some people find it easier to press buttons when going through options and menus, but a touchscreen is undoubtedly faster (especially when typing in information). It all comes down to your preference, and which type you find more comfortable to use.

Maps: Preloaded vs. Adding Later

For your GPS device to be fully functional, you need to have some maps loaded on it. As you probably know, some devices come with pre-loaded maps, installed by the manufacturer. This is nice, but it often raises the total price of the product. Also, not all devices come with the same map quality. While some manufacturers install a high-quality topographic map, most products come with a basic 100k without much detail.

If you get a device without any maps, or you don’t like the one you got, you have plenty of options to choose from and set them up yourself. You can find both free and paid maps online, depending on what you need. You simply connect your device to your PC and load the maps. Make sure you get a device which is compatible with various map types you intend to use. Also, the device should have sufficient memory, which we’ll talk about a bit later.

ABC: Altimeter, Barometer, And Compass

Some products have additional sensors integrated inside which greatly increase the functionality. Keep in mind that not all products have these, especially those in the lower price range. As we mentioned, these sensors allow the device to display useful information – altitude and orientation. If a device is equipped with a barometric sensor, it can measure atmospheric pressure, using the same principle as an altimeter watch. Based on those readings, it can display change in altitude because pressure is lower in higher altitudes. However, these readings are influenced by changing weather too, because the pressure changes with it. Even though it’s not completely precise, it’s usually pretty close and you can get a good idea about elevation.

Furthermore, some devices come with a compass inside, an electronic three-axis compass. This type is much easier to use than a standard compass, since it shows direction no matter how you’re holding the device (compared to a conventional compass which you need to hold horizontally to get a good reading). If you want to learn more on how all this works, read our article on how to use a compass. Another benefit of electronic compasses found in these devices is that they allow the device show heading even when you’re standing still, which isn’t possible for GPS devices without this sensor.

Memory

As we mentioned, your gadget needs to have sufficient memory so you can load all the maps you want. Every product comes with internal memory – some have less than 1GB, while others have much more. It’s a big plus if your new outdoor GPS has expandable memory. This way you can insert a MicroSD card inside, and fill the device with all the things you need before going on a hiking adventure. But it’s not just about pre-loading maps before the trip – many devices also record useful information while you are on the hike. This information includes distance covered, tracking your route or waypoints, and you need to count this in when thinking about memory. If there isn’t a substantial difference in price, you should always go for a product with better data storage options.

Compatibility With Other Devices

Some of the products we talked about are easy to pair and use with other devices – different GPS units or your mobile phone for example. If it’s equipped with wireless technology and compatible with devices other hikers use, you can quickly and easily share maps and useful information with other members of your group. In addition, if you connect it to your phone, you can receive notifications on your GPS, for example if someone sends you a message or if there’s upcoming bad weather. Finally, all products are compatible with your PC at home, and use a USB connection to transfer data. As a bonus, some manufacturers hand out their specialized software to make using and adjusting the device easier.

Construction

Since GPS hiker trackers are designed to be used outdoors, they need to be much tougher compared to other devices we use. They should be made from strong materials that won’t break when you drop the device on the ground, which is bound to happen at some point. Furthermore, they should be shock-proof so the components inside don’t get damaged from the impact. In addition to build quality, the device needs to be waterproof too, since you will sometimes be caught in the rain or you will encounter humid conditions on your cross-country hike. Depending on the particular product and manufacturer, GPS devices come with various waterproof standards which represent different levels of protection.

Advanced Features

A number of added features can improve your user experience, and bring you some things you didn’t know you needed in the first place. We already briefly mentioned the wireless connectivity, which allows you to share information with others without using cables. This is usually done with a Bluetooth connection, but some devices also include ANT+ wireless protocol, to connect to other devices such as a heart rate monitor for example.

Some devices have an integrated radio communicator, with a range of several miles. This way you can communicate with other members of your hiking party, or access NOAA weather radio broadcasts. To take this a step further, some navigators double as satellite communicators. This means you can send and receive messages, and call for help in wilderness survival situations.

If you like taking photos, you will be glad to hear that you can get a GPS with a camera. However, these cameras are not as advanced as those we have on our smartphones. They can be handy if you don’t have your phone with you and wish to quickly take a photo. Furthermore, most devices can be used for geocaching, some even come with many pre-loaded locations to make the search easier for you. You can also load geocaching files through your PC, and most products will recognize and use them without problems.

FAQs

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Q: Why Use Handheld GPS For Hiking? Can’t I Just Use My Phone?

A: Both GPS devices and smartphones are popular among hikers and used for navigation. While phones are great in many situations and very easy to use, they were not specifically made for this purpose and have some downsides. The screen is bigger and you need to run a few apps which means that the battery will drain faster. Here we encounter a problem – you can’t simply replace the battery on your phone, you need to charge it. Also, many phones are not resistant to water, and may get damaged if you are backpacking in the rain. Handheld GPSes have this covered – they are more robust and resistant to outdoor conditions. They are also designed to work with maps, and can show your location, record routes and give you the information you need immediately, while remaining energy-efficient.

Q: What Is A Mapping GPS?

A: A mapping GPS is a device which shows your position on a map. Even though this is standard nowadays, it wasn’t so in the beginning. Early GPSes showed your position and certain waypoints, but you had no way of knowing the characteristics of the terrain ahead – whether it was flat or steep, and which type of obstacles you would encounter. Modern devices use detailed maps on which they project your position and path, so you get a much clearer image of what lies ahead.

Q: Do I Have To Pay For Maps?

A: This depends on what type of map you want to have on your device. We already mentioned that some products come with preloaded maps, which vary in quality. Like we discussed, you can get many maps online, free of charge. However, the best maps cost money and you need to pay for them. If you aren’t too demanding, then you will certainly be able to find a free map which will work great, and you’ll also save some money along the way.

Q: Should I Use Rechargeable Batteries?

A: Using rechargeable batteries is great, as long as they are replaceable and you have a spare set with you when the ones inside run out of power. This way your device can always have power while you’re using a more eco-friendly solution and avoiding disposable batteries. However, as we mentioned earlier, a sealed battery can be annoying because you need to wait for it to charge. Some of the best backpacking GPS units give you the option of choosing the type of batteries you want to use.

Q: Is A Touch Screen Better Than Button Operated GPSes?

A: We can’t say which one is better, because this depends on you as the user. Touchscreens are larger, easier to see and use, but they require more power too. On the other hand, some hikers prefer to operate their GPS using buttons. Furthermore, gadgets with buttons are often more affordable since they have a simpler design.

Globo Surf Overview

A hiking GPS is a very useful piece of equipment, which will make navigating the trail much easier. It will also drastically decrease the chances of getting lost along the way. As you had the chance to see, there is a wide array of products available – ranging from basic and budget friendly options to more sophisticated products with large screens and lots of added features. Like we pointed out earlier, functionality is most important, so pick a product which will work best in your situation. Have fun and stay safe!

More Backpacking/Hiking Reviews:

Have you tried a hiking GPS that made it onto our list? Was it able to quickly pinpoint your location? How are you satisfied with usability and additional functions? Please share your experience with us in the comment section below.

Globo Surf Hiking GPS Reviews

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Great info and product reviews. I decided to go with your recommendation n.5.

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My name is David Hamburg. I am an avid water sports fan who enjoys paddle boarding, surfing, scuba diving, and kite surfing. Anything with a board or chance I can get in the water I love! I am such a big fan I decided to start this website to review all my favorite products and some others. Hope you enjoy!