Going on a hike far away from everyday commotion can be a fantastic experience, however, it requires detailed planning. Sure, some trails are marked well, but sometimes we find ourselves in unfamiliar territory, and getting lost can be a very serious problem, and even put you in danger. That’s where the best backpacking gps comes in in order to keep you on the right trail, show upcoming geographical conditions, and even send SOS messages in case you find yourself in a survival situation.
Finding the best GPS for hiking 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 detailed buying guide to give you pointers on what to look for when buying, so don’t miss out.
How To Choose A Hiking GPS – Buying Guide
Battery Life And Type
Unlike other devices we use every day, we won’t have the opportunity to charge the GPS device often. 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 is 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 handheld 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.
Weight And Dimensions
Handheld 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 a 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.
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 GPS devices come with high-quality color screens that 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 the 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. The most commonly used system is GPS (Global Positioning System) developed by the United States. In addition to this system, many products we featured, use the GLONASS system too, which is an alternative to GPS, developed by Russia. 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.
Touchscreen vs. Buttons
Touchscreens 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).
Maps: Preloaded vs. Adding Later
As you probably know, some devices come with pre-loaded maps, installed by the manufacturer. 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, you can find 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 that is compatible with various map types you intend to use.
ABC: Altimeter, Barometer, And Compass
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 the change in altitude because the 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). They also show heading even when you’re standing still, which isn’t possible for GPS devices without this sensor.
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 to 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.
Compatibility With Other Devices
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. 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.
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 and should be shock-proof so the components inside don’t get damaged from the impact. In addition, the device needs to be waterproof too, in case you might encounter humid conditions on your cross-country hike. Depending on the particular product and manufacturer, GPS devices come with various waterproof standards that represent different levels of protection.
Wireless connectivity allows you to share information with others without using cables. Some devices have an integrated radio communicator, with a range of several miles. To take this a step further, some navigators double as satellite communicators so that you can send and receive text messages, and call for help in wilderness survival situations. 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.
Q: Why Use Handheld GPS For Hiking? Can’t I Just Use My Phone?
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. 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 mapping GPS is a device that shows your position on a map. 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?
This depends on what type of map you want to have on your device. 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.
Q: Should I Use Rechargeable Batteries?
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. 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?
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.
Globo Surf Overview
The best handheld GPS units are 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. Like we pointed out earlier, functionality is most important, so pick a product that will work best in your situation.
More Backpacking/Hiking Reviews:
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- G Shock Watch
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- Tactical Boots
- Backpacking Stove
- Dslr Camera
Have you tried one of the handheld GPS devices 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.