Best Handheld GPS Trackers – Top 2021 Models and Full Buyer’s Guide!
GPS trackers have advanced greatly in the past few decades to the point where you can have a fully-detailed mapping of your area in your pocket. From hiking and orienteering to sailing, these devices are crucial to finding your end destination. Picking the best handheld GPS tracker, however, might prove tricky thanks to the abundance of models out there. Furthermore, they are all oddly similar in their features at first glance, while vastly different when you take a deeper look.
While Garmin is the leading GPS company nowadays, there are still a few other models which are worth considering, especially if you’re on a tight budget. In this guide, we will go over the top models for this year, review their features, and go through all the details you need to look for when choosing your new GPS tracker.
Handheld GPS Comparison Chart
|Garmin GPSMAP 64st|
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|Garmin eTrex 30x|
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|Garmin Montana 680|
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|DeLorme inReach SE|
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|Garmin Foretrex 401|
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|Garmin InReach Mini|
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Best Overall – Garmin GPSMAP 64st
There is no denying Garmin is dominating the GPS trackers segment. Still, there are countless models you can choose from within the brand and what many consider the best out of them all is the Garmin GPSMAP 64st. It is one of the best-constructed trackers that is good for any occasion. It has a rugged construction that features a lot of high-quality materials. The whole body is nicely sealed and is IPX7 rated meaning it is waterproof and can survive a quick submersion of up to 1 meters. At the front, there are a lot of physical buttons. There it also houses the 2.6-inch 160x240p colored display which is vibrant and easily readable even under direct sunlight.
On the inside, the 64st is equally potent. It has 8 GB of internal memory that stores all the pre-loaded Garmin maps. All that is powered by a rechargeable NiMH battery pack. It can also run on 2 AA batteries. Depending on the battery type you can get up to 20 hours of battery life from it with the GPS turned on. Some additional features that are particularly interesting are the wireless Garmin Connect uploads you can do from the 64st version. You can also share your live data with Live Track. As extra functions, you also get a 3-axis compass paired with a barometer and an altimeter. The tracker also supports up to 200 saved routes.
The thing that might confuse you at first is that there are 5 different GPSMAP models starting from the base model and ending with the 64st with the ANT+ and Bluetooth options. The base model is actually a better value for its money even though it is slightly less powerful and has less internal storage. If you want all the bells and whistles, however, opt for the 64st.
- Durable construction
- Easy to use with and without gloves
- Many buttons for easy navigation
- Easily readable display
- Fairly lightweight
- 3-axis compass
- Very expensive
- A lot of model variations can make the choice complicated
Best Budget – Garmin eTrex 30x Handheld GPS
Jumping from arguably one of the most expensive models, we arrive at one of the best budget options out there. Granted, this isn’t the cheapest GPS tracker on the market but it certainly has the best price-to-value ratio out of all Garmin models. The Garmin eTrex series has been Garmin’s frontrunner for compact and functional trackers. The 30x builds up upon the reputation of the 20x which was a user favorite for a few years.
The significant improvement in this model compared to the previous generation is the better display which is now higher in contrast, more colorful, and is easier to read under direct sunlight. The resolution is up to 240×320 pixels which is on par with the rest of Garmin’s 2021 line-up. Apart from the internal storage of near 4GB you also get an SD card slot which can be used to load additional maps such as HuntView, City Navigator NT, TOPO 24K, and others. Just like with other modern Garmin models, the 30x has a 3-axis compass on the inside, as well as a barometer and altimeter that deliver accurate information to the tracker regarding altitude changes. In terms of connectivity, the 30x can wirelessly share its routes, waypoints, and tracks with other smart devices.
One of the few complains I have with it is the poor use of space at the front. Instead of having a bigger display, the top side of the body houses a single button, while the rest of the control buttons are on both sides. While this is easier for using it with either hand, it would’ve been nice to have a bigger display upfront. Another issue I have is with the pre-loaded map, which will pretty much make you buy a third-party one, ultimately raising the cost of the device.
- Great price-to-value ratio
- Good battery life
- Has automatic routing
- Compatible with custom maps
- Up to 200 routes
- Has a compass, barometer, and altimeter
- To get a good third-party map you will have to pay extra
- Could use a bigger display
Best Screen – Garmin Montana 680 Touchscreen GPS/GLONASS Receiver
If you are looking for a large, bright, and colorful display that is also touch-sensitive, the Garmin Montana 680 is the right choice for you. While it has a very large price tag, it more than makes up for the steep price. The main feature is obviously the display which is a 4-inch high-resolution touchscreen. It is glove-friendly and handles decently under sunlight.
In terms of navigating, the Montana 680 uses a variety of signals to pinpoint your exact location. Apart from working with the GPS and GLONASS systems, it is also WAAS-enabled and has Hotfix satellite prediction support. This allows the tacker to work even in deep canyons and hard-to-reach places. It also comes with 250,000 pre-loaded geocaches around the world and a 1-year Birdseye satellite imagery subscription. Unfortunately, when that runs out it will add a lot to the running costs of the device.
The battery life here isn’t better than average, clocking at around 15 hours with the GPS turned on. Another feature that is worth mentioning here is the Camera at the back. It has an 8-megapixel sensor with autofocus and auto geo-tagging features that comes in handy when you want to geotag a spot with its coordinates.
- Excellent touchscreen display
- 8 Megapixel camera with auto geo-tagging
- Comes with 1-year Birdseye Satellite Imagery subscription
- Supports geocaching GPX files
- Very expensive
- Birdseye photos are sometimes hard to read
- Often requires additional map downloads
Best Battery Life – DeLorme inReach SE Satellite Tracker
The Delorme inReach SE is a very unique type of GPS tracker. It is the perfect combination of a tracker and an emergency tool which can send SOS signals as well as text messages with GPS coordinates. There is also a delivery confirmation feature for every SOS and text message you send out.
The battery management on this device is definitely a strong feature. The ability to track your trip in intervals from 10 minutes to 4 hours allows the tracker to run up to 100 hours, compared to other Garmin devices which often cannot surpass more than 20 hours of run-time. You can also wirelessly shared your coordinates within those same intervals including your altitude and speed.
The tracker works with the Iridium Satellite network which provides a top-quality global coverage. While the screen size is one of the main disadvantages, I cannot fault it for how colofrul and bright it is.
- Can send SOS signals and text messages
- Adjustable tracking intervals
- Works with Iridium Satellites
- Can wirelessly pair with other devices
- Very durable construction
- Screen is really smart
- Not very cheap
Water-resistant option – Garmin Foretrex 401 Waterproof GPS
The Garmin Foretrex 401 is one of the more unique GPS trackers on today’s market. It features a wrist-mounted navigator which comes with a comfortable strap that allows your tracker to stay by your side along the journey. To bring the price down, Garmin has done some corner-cutting here and there, the main one being with the display. While it is a very easy-to-read LCD display, it isn’t colored and it also isn’t very detailed when it comes to your coordinates.
Despite this tracker being very accurate thanks to its GPS receiver (with HotFix), it is primarily used for geocaching. On the inside, you have a memory chip that can store up to 10000 tracklogs, routes, and waypoints. In terms of battery life, it uses 3 AAA batteries which will last you roughly 16 hours, depending on the brand. The Foretrex 401 is relatively easy to use and allows you to share data with other 401s which makes it a great gift for your hiking partner.
- Unique wrist-mounted design
- Easy to read display
- Large physical buttons
- Works on AAA batteries
- Accurate GPS receiver
- Display won’t visualize your poisition in great detail
- Compass needs constant calibrating
Best Mini GPS – Garmin InReach Mini
Ther Garmin InReach Mini is yet another unique tracker by the company that has the sole advantage of being incredibly compact and easy to carry around. Unfortunately, that is where the good things pretty much end. If you are browsing for a functional GPS tracker, this one isn’t the one for you.
The steep price isn’t at all justified by the functionality here, especially considering there are some other high-end Garmin trackers in this price point. Still, the construction of the InReach Mini is exceptionally durable and rugged. This little tracker also allows for two-way messaging using the Iridium Satellite network. The bad part is that you need to have a paid subscription for that.
- Tiny form-factor
- Rugged construction
- Easy to use
- The display has a good resolution
- Two-way messaging
- Not great for orienteering or any type of map using
- Requires a paid subscription for the messaging function to work
Handheld GPS Trackers Buyer’s Guide
Nowadays, there are very few options that are as reliable as a handheld GPS when it comes to route finding or finding your way through unknown terrain. Whether you are out in the water or deep in the backcountry, these devices are invaluable. When buying your first GPS tracker, there won’t be much of a choice outside Garmin. However, Garmin has made sure to provide with you with an absolutely vast line-up of models completely different from each other in terms of features and functionality. Of course, the main mapping software and pre-loaded maps are generally the same but apart from that, there is a model for everyone’s needs.
Let’s start with discussing some of the upsides of having such a tracker and see what makes these devices so famous across hikers, sailors, hunters, and other people that spend their time out in the open…
Benefits Of Handheld GPS Trackers
Among the many benefits GPS trackers give you, there are a few which are valid only for the smaller handheld models.
Being handheld, these devices allow for easier storage and transportation and are also quite easy to carry around in your hand while you’re trying to figure out your location. There are some models that take things a step further and are even smaller than regular handheld models. One example for that is the Garmin InReach Mini, which can pretty much fit into any pocket and has a decent battery life to back itself up.
The small footprint also allows easier waterproofing and because of that most modern GPS models are IPX7 rated, meaning they can withstand splashes and even drops in shallow waters. The small lightweight body of these devices is also tougher than a larger unit that is easier to drop and break. That same size also allows for a ton of activities to be done with the held of these devices without the need of bringing an extra pack to store them, as you’d need with the bigger trackers.
Apart from their advantages, these handheld trackers also have a few downsides, the most important of which are the small display, and the smaller battery sizes made to fit the reduced body size. Still, one would argue this size is good enough but some people prefer bigger screens over smaller handheld devices. If you are going into a single specific area, bringing an old-school map of the region might be a good addition to your gear. That way, you will be able to pair the data you get from the tracker with the physical map, which on its own eliminates the need for a large display.
Features To Look For
When choosing the ideal GPS tracker for you, there are a few important features to take into consideration. Those are:
- Durability & Design
- Tracking method
- Battery Properties
- Ease of use
- Additional Features
Let’s take a look at each of those a little more in-depth now, and see how they reflect the final quality of the tracker…
Durability & Design
There are a few things that are important when it comes to the design of the tracker. One of the more important ones is the dimensions. Gone are the days of the old bulky GPS devices which used a significant chunk of your backpack’s space. Nowadays, most Garmin models are really practical and small. Some models like the Garmin InReach Mini even take things a step further by being incredibly small. Of course, the major disadvantage of all that downsizing that has been doing on is the reduced display real estate. With devices getting smaller, their display maps are also getting smaller. This means that you will have to find the perfect compromize for you in terms of size/body ratio. Some models go fully touch-screen in order to eliminate all the buttons and leave more space for the display.
The weight used to be important as well but with most modern models it is no longer a big facto ras they are all relatively lightweight. That is partially thanks to new composite materials which also add a lot to the durability of the device.
One last thing I want to touch on is weather resistance. Most GPS models nowadays are pretty nicely sealed and are dust resistant but not all of them are fully waterproof. That means that they might be splash resistant but you will have a hard time if you fully submerge them. If you are hiking in adverse conditions, opt for models that have IP ratings such as IPX7 or better.
Since most high-end GPS devices out there are made by Garmin, you can expect them to use primarily Garmin’s satellite GPS system. However, there are some Garmin models which also use GLONASS and other international satellites to better your experience across the world.
Something that you should definitely be looking for is WAAS-enabled GPS receivers. WAAS stands for Wide Area Augmentation System which is a system consisting of ground reference stations spread across the USA. This allows your receiver to pinpoint your position much more accurately depending on the region you are in. A good receiver usually works with both GPS and WAAS signals.
We already touched briefly on display sizes earlier but there are a few other features that we have to go through. Whether or not the display is colored or a standard LCD one makes a huge difference to the user experience. Most high-end models will have colored displays that visualize your surroundings in greater detail. However, those colored displays are usually far more battery-hungry and tend to last you less time than standard LCDs.
If you go for a colored display, make sure you pay attention to the resolution. For instance, a 240×320 pixel resolution on a 2.2-inch display is great and allows for a lot of details, while lesser resolutions will look a bit edgier and dated. Some Garmin models like the eTrex 30x have transreflective displays which allow the light to bounce off the display and reflect back to your eyes making the actual display easily visible even under direct sunlight.
The last feature you’d want to consider is whether the display should be a touch screen or not. Personally, I prefer hard buttons but as I mentioned earlier, they take more space on the device unless they are on its sides. If you are certain that you want a touch screen, choose one that can easily be navigated with gloves on.
Most modern GPS trackers come with a built-in battery which lasts usually around 15-20 hours in GPS-mode. However, there are some models which offer you the option to use AA batteries to power them. Furthermore, some models can have a certain amount of their features work without a GPS signal furthering the battery life.
Since the trackers with rechargeable internal batteries don’t last too long, it will be a good idea to consider carrying an external battery pack (if there is no option for additional AA batteries). There are some models that last long enough to not need recharges, though. One good example for that is the Garmin inReach series trackers which generally have a battery life of up to 100 hours.
Apart from the base map that comes with most Garmin devices, there are some models out there that give you the option to insert an SD card with pre-loaded maps on it. Some of those maps can be TOPO 24k, BlueChart G2, BirdsEye, HuntView, City Navigator, and others. Still, in my opinion, the pre-loaded basemaps across all Garmin models support a worldwide location service that is quite detailed and good enough for most tasks.
The main reasons to upload maps on your tracker with an external card or USB is if you plan to just use it for orienteering and not use the live GPS signal to give you your location. If you are going to constantly use the GPS signal for your location, then uploading third-party maps isn’t something I would recommend.
Ease of use
How practical a handheld GPS tracker is mainly depends on its form factor and button layout. To be able to move through the map on your screen, you often need a comfortable center button with 4 directions or a joy-stick style controller (if the screen isn’t touch-sensitive). Having the physical buttons on the side also adds to the one-handed comfort some models out there offer.
The few advantages and conveniences touch screens offers are that you can toggle landscape and portrait modes for the map, as well as work your way through all the menus and tasks relatively fast. Still, trackers are a long way behind modern smartphones in their touch screen technology, which is one of the reasons why new models are packed full of physical buttons all around them. The other reason is that a bigger touch-sensitive display requires a bigger battery that oftentimes makes the device less practical.
There are two ways that GPS trackers communicate with other devices – Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. Having either one of those (or both) is going to greatly increase the usability of your model. That will allow you to share destinations and other functions of your GPS tracker with other trackers or mobile devices.
There are countless possible features that can be present in your tracker. Each of them adds a significant value to the overall product and makes for a better user experience.
One of the main ones that seem to fit the profile of a GPS tracker the best is the SOS capabilities. Assuming that most trackers are used in a tracking/hiking environment, having the option to send out SOS signals almost seems mandatory. For that reason, most models can send signals in intervals ranging from 4 minutes to 5 hours or even longer. The longer the intervals the more battery will be preserved but the less likely is that your signal will get picked up.
One of the other things that I haven’t mentioned yet is your tracker’s pairing capabilities. Some high-end models can pair with ANT+ sensors for various body metrics such as heart rate, cadence, etc. Some Garmin trackers also pair with Tempe temperature sensors to give you accurate stats on the display. There are also models which can pair with your action camera so that you use the buttons on the tracker to control the camera shutter.
Additionally, there are other features which add to the overall convenience and practicality of any GPS tracker. Those are things like Wi-fi, Bluetooth, compass, preloaded maps, trip computers, user profiles, waypoint manager, route planners, built-in photo viewer app, barometers, altimeters, and others.
Lastly, it goes without saying that you should always keep an eye on the price. While good models can seem very tempting due to the abundance of functions they have, they are often quite expensive and don’t offer good price-to-value ratios. If you are looking for an essential GPS tracker, I would suggest sticking to the base models that have all the necessary functions to keep you aware of your positioning and surroundings. The best way to guarantee a good value out of your future tracker is to write down the features that you absolutely want to have on your model and a pre-determined budget. After you have those laid out, try sticking to them when browsing through the different models out there.
Frequently Asked Questions
Do you need a GPS tracker for geocaching?
While you do need a GPS tracker to geocache, it doesn’t have to be a high-end one nor it has to be super expensive. Accuracy is pretty much the only feature you should be after if you want to easily navigate through waypoints and get to your final point. Look for models that are durable, easy to use, and conveniently sized.
Do GPS trackers have Weather notifications?
There are some models like the Garmin InReach that has weather forecast and alerts, although that feature isn’t mandatory for most other models. If you are going out in areas with weather that is hard to predict this is a must-have feature.
Being able to quickly pinpoint your location with a satisfactory accuracy is one of the paramount features of the best handheld GPS trackers on today’s market. There are, of course, a ton of other features that you should take into consideration but all that depends primarily on your necessities. If you are simply into geocaching than you might not need a ton of extra features, while an avid hiker would want as many bells and whistles as possible on his tracker.