Best Hiking GPS for Backcountry Adventures: 2020 Buyer’s Guide
When you’re hiking, one of the most important tools you can bring along is the best hiking GPS.
GPS technology can be found in almost any techy device these days, including pet collars, drones, phones, and much more. While GPS technology is very commonplace these days, this technology is still everything when it comes to camping and hiking. In fact, a hiking GPS will be invaluable when you’re hiking through the backcountry for the first time or trying a new route or older trails.
But finding the right GPS device can be a challenge, especially since more and more manufacturers release new and improved models each year. I’ve tested out several of the top models on the market and found six models that can be total game changers. I’ve also created a buyer’s guide that will show you what features matter the most, the different types of hiking devices to choose from, and how to choose the best model for your upcoming vacation. Below, you’ll find a comparison chart that lists each of the models that made it onto by best of the best list, their top features, and how each model rated.
Hiking GPS Comparison Chart
Garmin Montana GPS Receiver
Garmin is the leading manufacturer of hiking GPS devices, for a variety of reasons. Their models are well-built, intuitive, and very accurate. Their latest model is currently crushing the competition, thanks to its feature-packed design.
This model comes with over 250,000 preloaded geocaches and utilizes both GPS and GLONASS navigation for improved accuracy. The GPS receiver is also WAAS enabled. You can use the track manager feature to organize your trip and navigate through track logs, routes, and waypoints. This model is also equipped with an eight-megapixel digital camera that allows you to take photos of your journey and capture important moments. This model is able to quickly locate your position and effortlessly maintains it, making the Montana one of the most reliable GPS hiking devices on the market. The device features a large four-inch touchscreen display that’s brightly lit and easy to read, even in bright and low light conditions.
- GPS and GLONASS reception
- WAAS enabled receiver
- Four-inch display screen
- Camera doesn’t take high res photos
The GPS comes with free Base Camp software that will allow you to organize your routes, waypoints, and maps, so you can plan your trip out effortlessly. This intuitive device is beginner-friendly, comes loaded with some great features including a digital camera, and features a durable lightweight design, all of which makes it one of the top models on the market.
Garmin GPSMAP 66s Hiking GPS
This model comes with the BirdsEye satellite imagery subscription, a large three-inch display screen that’s easy to read in bright sunlight and multiple global navigation satellite systems that precisely track your routes in more challenging environments, such as canyons. The device comes with preloaded maps for Canada and America. It also comes with expanded wireless connectivity and features an active weather program that will keep you up to date on forecasts, so you’ll know right away if inclement weather is headed in your direction.
- Weather forecasts
- BirdsEye satellite imagery subscription
- Three-inch display screen
- Randomly freezes
This model boasts a sixteen-hour battery life, which is significantly longer than competing models. It also comes with a built-in flashlight, which will come in handy for hikers who find themselves still on the trail after the sun sets. This device is accurate, reliable, and housed in a durable casing that’s designed to protect it against falls. This is a great buy for those longer hiking trips through the backcountry, when a standard GPS device would have trouble keeping a strong signal.
Garmin eTrex 10 Handheld GPS
This model is built tough and features a small two-inch monochrome display. This device is WAAS enabled and features both GPS and GLONASS support for improved signal strength and accuracy. The device itself is waterproof and can withstand splashes and heavy rainfall. It also supports paperless geocaching and is powered with two AA batteries that provide up to twenty hours of power. You can view both low and high elevation points, store important waypoints on your route and view the estimated distance between waypoints. The user-friendly menu makes it easy to navigate through the different features, plan a route, check alternate routes, and save important waypoints.
- Rugged design
- GPS and GLONASS support
- Twenty hours of battery life
- Small display screen
- Screen is difficult to see in low and bright light conditions
This model features an intuitive user interface, paperless geocaching, a worldwide basemap, and an impressive battery life. The fact that it features both GPS and GLONASS means you’ll enjoy faster positioning and a stronger signal. This model doesn’t come loaded with all the bells and whistles that the serious hiker may want, but it is very easy to use, accurate, reliable, and built to withstand heavy-duty use.
Garmin Rino 2-Way Radio/GPS Navigator
This is a handheld GPS hiking device that offers an extended range up to twenty miles and features a two-way radio that will allow you to communicate with other hikers in your party. This model uses both GPS and GLONASS support for improved signal strength and tracking accuracy. This will be especially important when you’re traveling through challenging environments, such as areas with dense tree coverage overhead. The device features a three-inch touchscreen display that’s easy to read in both bright and low light conditions. The dual battery system provides up to fourteen hours per charge using a lithium-ion battery. You can also choose to use two AA batteries, which will provide up to eighteen hours of battery life.
- GPS and GLONASS
- Dual battery system
- Two-way radio
- Position reporting
- Difficult to set up
The built-in two-way radio will come in handy if you’re hiking with a large group of friends and family, while the GPS and GLONASS satellite reception allows for improved signal strength and precise tracking, even if you’re traveling through a canyon. This system comes loaded with some great features that make it perfect for the backcountry hiker in need of a reliable and powerful GPS device that they can rely on wherever they travel.
Garmin InReach Explorer Handheld GPS
This GPS device allows you to communicate and explore everywhere. Using the iridium satellite network, this device can be used anywhere in the world. Not only can you use it for your next hiking adventure, but it can also be used to exchange text messages with any email address or cellphone. This model also comes with the InReach feature which when pressed, will trigger an SOS to the system’s monitoring center, which is open twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Now you can hike through challenging terrain, exploring new trails, using the accurate GPS system, without the fear of getting lost. Should you get lost, then you can immediately activate the SOS system for help. The ability to send and receive text messages is also a huge selling point for most hikers.
- Sends and receives texts
- SOS feature
- Low price
- Difficult to set up
This model comes loaded with some great features, offers a reliable and strong GPS signal, so you can explore new trails and routes through the backcountry, and allows you to send and receive text messages so you can stay in constant contact with friends and family. This model is a great buy for anyone who is looking for a GPS that’s rugged and loaded with important safety features.
Garmin Oregon 700 Handheld GPS
This handy hiking GPS features a three-inch touchscreen that’s easy to read, even in bright sunlight or low light conditions. It comes with a built-in electronic compass, in addition to barometric and accelerometer sensors. It features a battery life of up to sixteen hours and a rugged design that will protect it from chips and cracks in the event it’s dropped. The Bluetooth capability allows for wireless data exchange, so you can save routes, waypoints, and other important information, and download new maps, without connecting the device to your PC. The built-in altimeter will provide accurate elevation data so you can closely monitor descent and ascent, while the barometer can be relied on for accurate weather forecasts.
- Electronic compass
- Altimeter and barometer
- Large display screen
- Not beginner-friendly
This feature-packed GPS device will keep you up to date concerning weather forecasts, your precise location, and provides ascent and descent information. The included user’s manual is very vague, which is one of the reasons this model is not very beginner-friendly. There are many features to choose from and adjusting them can be overwhelming for the beginner who has no prior experience with this type of device. However, considering the quality, and accuracy of this model, the experienced hiker will fall in love and can take advantage of the many important features this device has to offer.
Hiking GPS Buyer’s Guide
When you’re on a hike, you’ll find yourself heavily relying on your GPS to tell you where you are, where you’re headed and where you’ve been. If you love exploring the great outdoors and hiking with the family, then you don’t want to leave home without a GPS.
Of course, you should know how to read a map and use a compass to navigate the great outdoors, but a good quality GPS device is an easier, more reliable way to plan your route and reach your destination. Why? Because these devices can easily and quickly help you find your way back to a trail or path, should you get lost, they include updated information, such as news concerning trails that are temporarily closed or shut down, and they can include other features that the hiker will find themselves relying on.
Benefits of Using a Hiking GPS
- A hiking GPS will allow you to explore nature, without the fear of getting lost
- You won’t have to walk around holding a large map and using a compass to navigate through deep underbrush and overgrown trails.
- Using a GPS, you’ll find it’s almost impossible to get lost since the GPS signal allows you to always identify where you are.
- GPS devices will give you peace of mind and allow you to focus on exploring your beautiful surroundings instead of searching a map for your exact location
- A GPS will include newly opened trails and information that’s current, so you can try out new routes
- Some models will not just keep you on track when you’re hiking, but they can also serve as navigation devices, ensuring you arrive at your starting point.
- These devices can also be used for other hobbies, outside of hiking, such as geocaching.
- When you or family and friends are out hiking and exploring the backcountry, far away from urban life, the danger of getting lost is very real, not to mention the chance of becoming injured during your journey, with no ability to physically make it to the destination. A GPS device in this case can be a total lifesaver. Many models now come with an SOS button that you can use to send out an emergency signal for people to come to your aid.
Now that you know about some of the benefits these devices have to offer, let’s learn more about the must-have features, new technology, and connectivity options they have to offer.
Other Basic Functions
Regardless of the model you buy, all GPS devices will perform the following basic functions:
- Display your position: These devices will tell you exactly where you are by displaying your coordinates on the screen. It will also show your position on a topo or base map.
- Tracking: When this feature is switched on, your GPS will lay down digital tracking points, automatically, at regular intervals. You can use these digital tracks to retrace your steps later, or they can be used to evaluate the route you traveled.
- Point to point navigation: These GPS devices will direct you by giving you the distance and directions to a location. You will be able to pre-mark any waypoint of interest, once you’re home and reviewing data, by entering the exact coordinates. When you’re out in the field, you can have the program mark the waypoint at any place you want to return to later on, such as your campsite or a certain path. All devices will provide the distance and bearing to a waypoint. Since a trail doesn’t follow a straight line the bearing will change as you hike. The distance that you need to travel will also change as you go, until you reach your destination.
- Trip data: This function is similar to an odometer and will tell you cumulative stats such as how high you have climbed or how far you have come.
- PC use: These devices will come with some great software programs that will allow you to analyze trips, plan routes, and manage maps. Take some time to learn how the software works and the different features it has to offer in order to get the most out of your new GPS device.
Other Important Features
When it comes to shopping around for a GPS, you’ll quickly find that there are a variety of features and options to consider.
If you need a device that you can use for some trails that are close to home, then you can get by with a basic model. However, if you’re looking for a device to take with you on a longer trip where you’ll be exploring unknown terrain, then a feature-packed GPS will be the best option.
When you’re trying to choose the right GPS for your trip, consider the following:
Screen size and device size. Models with a larger screen will be heavier and bulkier. For some people, lighter will be better, while for others, screen size will be a priority. Before you start shopping, determine if screen size or unit weight is a priority.
Interface style is also another important consideration. Some models are controlled via dedicated buttons, while others will come in a touchscreen style. Models that have a touchscreen will be more difficult to control in cold and wet weather, while models with dedicated buttons will be simple to control, even when you’re wearing gloves.
Do you want a model that comes loaded with extra features? Higher priced models will come with extra features such as wireless transmission, an electronic compass, and a barometer.
All devices will come with a basic base map. Some models will also come with full topo maps as well. Most of these devices will allow you to use separately purchased topography maps that you can download online or ones that you have uploaded via an SD card. In order to manage all of the maps on your device, you’ll need to connect your GPS to your computer, then use the included software in order to plan out your trip.
Maps that are offered by GPS makers can be expensive, so you can try searching online to find free or low-cost maps that you can download. Keep in mind, not all devices will allow you to use third-party maps, so make sure you check this out before you make a final decision on your new GPS.
While using your smartphone’s GPS can be helpful in some instances, you already know that your phone’s battery life is not one of its strongest points. If you’re planning on heading out for a long hike, then you need to use a dedicated GPS device.
Rechargeable batteries are a great choice for day hikes, but for overnight trips, the best choice is lithium batteries. Fortunately, most types of GPS devices use lithium batteries. When you’re hiking through the backcountry, you may not have a way to recharge your device’s batteries, so keep this in mind if you’re interested in a model that runs on rechargeable batteries.
Screen Type and Size
As I briefly mentioned earlier, models that have a touchscreen will have a larger display and no physical buttons, however, these devices can be difficult to use in cold weather or rainy weather. While a large screen is better for viewing, keep in mind that the device will be heavier and the bigger screen size will also drain the batteries faster.
Most modern devices will come with Wi-Fi connectivity or a wireless device to device communication feature. This means that you will be able to communicate with other members in your party that are carrying compatible devices. Bluetooth is another popular method for data transfer. This is important because you would need to plug your device in via a USB cord to your computer in order to download or upload new data. If you don’t want to deal with connecting to your PC each time you want to transfer data, then look for a model with Bluetooth capabilities.
Lower priced devices may come with a short ninety-day warranty, while the higher-priced models will have warranties that range from one year up to three years. If you’re purchasing a higher priced model, make sure it comes with a warranty against manufacturing defects, at the very least.
Models that are more feature-heavy will come with a higher price tag. If you’re looking for a GPS device to use for the trails in your area, then you can easily get by with a basic bare-bones model. However, if you often hike through rural areas, then a model that comes loaded with important advanced features such as an altimeter and barometer, is well worth the higher price tag. On average, you can expect to pay anywhere from thirty dollars up to five hundred dollars.
All models will perform basic navigation. Feature-packed devices will come with some great extra features, such as:
Altimeter and barometer
While a GPS receiver will tell you the altitude based on information received via satellite, a model with an altimeter and barometer feature will provide you with more accurate elevation readings by considering important barometric data. This feature allows users to also gauge weather trends.
All models will tell you the direction you’re headed in while you’re on the move. If you purchase a model that comes equipped with an electronic compass then you’ll notice that it also tells you the direction you’re facing, even when you’re standing still. This can be very helpful since it will help you to orient yourself in order to plan a route when you’re taking a break off the trail.
Wireless data transfer allows your device to communicate with any compatible GPS devices. The devices often must be the same brand. This will provide and fast and simple way to share important information with other people in your group, such as routes and waypoints.
SD Card Use
The more memory your device has, the more navigation and map data you can store. Additionally, many devices will also allow you to expand the memory by inserting an SD card.
Many of the leading models will come equipped with geocaching functions, which allow users to enjoy paperless geocaching and manage any found caches.
Not all models will be waterproof or water-resistant, however, some are. If you’re planning on hiking during the fall or winter months, then purchasing a model that has some level of protection against water damage will be important. While most devices cannot be submerged, those that do feature a waterproof design will be protected against splashes and moderate to heavy rainfall.
If the GPS you buy comes with a two-way radio, then you will be able to communicate with nearby family and friends as you make your way through the backcountry. Keep in mind, in these rural locations, your cellphone reception will probably be non-existent.
Do I Need a Hiking GPS?
Many newer models will come with some of the same features that you will find on a smartphone, plus the features of a traditional GPS, and an electronic compass. Because of this, planning out a hiking trip has never been easier. These devices will come with trail-plotting features and pre-loaded maps that will help users to check out any topo hurdles or mark off important waypoints. Now, you can plan your trip, or relieve your experiences on the trail. If you’re traveling with a group of hikers, it will be much easier to plan out and share route information.
These devices are useful both before and after a hiking adventure. They can help you out when you’re on your journey and you can locate important landmarks and will give you the direction and altitude, whether you’re heading south, west, or north, it can provide the coordinates, longitudes, and latitudes, and will also allow you to communicate with other people in your group.
You’ll also find that these devices make it much easier to return to a past hiking spot, retrace your steps, or find alternate routes to your destination.
How to Set Up a Hiking GPS
In order to customize your new model’s features, you’ll want to head to the user menu, which features a wide variety of setting options. You can still use basic navigation features without adjusting any of the additional features. The device’s format menu will include the map datum and the position format. The position format refers to your coordinates. The device can display the coordinates in several systems. You can adjust this setting to the desired system, based on what you’re the most comfortable with.
When you mark waypoints make sure you choose the same system as the map, book, or other source of location information. When you adjust this setting, the device will convert your information seamlessly, in order to match the current setting.
The map datum is important. The idea behind this feature is that the datum that you set must match the topo map’s datum, which will be found in the legend. Or it can match the datum of any guide or other source of information that you’ll be using. If it doesn’t match, then the position coordinates will place a point in the wrong location on the map. The datum involves the geographic modeling of the earth at the time the map was created.
GPS technology utilizes a worldwide network of satellites that broadcast a signal that the device receives. Since many modern GPS devices are also able to receive signals from GLONASS satellites, they are more accurate than their predecessors, especially when you’re dealing with heavy tree cover overhead. In order to calibrate the satellite settings on your device, simply head outside, switch your device on and allow it to perform a signal search. This process can take a few minutes. After this point, the device will be able to easily locate satellites as you travel.
When you shut your device off, the satellites will continue to move. This means your device will always need a few minutes to acquire the signals each time you turn it back on. If you travel a long distance before switching the device back on, acquiring the signal may take longer. If you’re traveling through a canyon, there is dense tree cover, signals can also get blocked. Once you reach a place where the sky is no longer obstructed, then it will take a few moments for the device to calibrate with the satellite signals. Keep in mind that the signal will not be blocked by cloud coverage.
When you’re traveling, don’t block the signal by placing your device in your pocket or at the bottom of your pack. Instead, you should carry it on a strap or hold onto it.
These devices can display signal strength in a variety of ways including a series of bars or on a detailed satellite page. If your device allows you to customize the fields on your map pages, trip computer, or your compass, make sure you add a signal strength field. Keeping a close eye on the signal strength will allow you to determine how much you can rely on the GPS when you need precise navigation.
Frequently Asked Questions
Can I Use My Phone for GPS Hiking?
No, especially if you’re planning on a longer hiking trip. Your phone’s battery doesn’t last long as it is but add a hiking GPS to the mix and you’re looking at a battery life of just a few hours. If you’re hiking in the backcountry, you won’t have access to electricity, so you’ll be unable to recharge your phone. Additionally, many of the apps and programs on smartphones are very lacking in terms of hiking features. A dedicated GPS device is the best option if you need a device for your next backcountry trip.
Do All GPS Trackers Need a SIM Card?
All GPS devices will come with a receiver that is used to triangulate the position to the closet satellite signal. Most models will need a sim card in order to connect. A SIM card is what will allow the location transmission, sending and receiving audio data and commands, in order to turn on audio features.
How Accurate are GPS?
If you’re outdoors and you can see the open sky, the accuracy from your phone is approximately five meters. GPS devices are about as accurate as the built-in GPS in your phone, however, these devices come with more features. Factors such as overhead coverage, such as dense brush or trees, can have an impact on how accurate the GPS is, since it can block the signal so your device is no longer getting a signal in real-time, instead, the screen essentially freezes until a clear signal is available. Bottom line, as long as there are no overhead obstructions, GPS is very reliable.
What Type of Data Does a GPS Use?
These days, GPS signals are stronger and more reliable than ever, and it’s a technology that’s more commonly used than it was just five years ago.
GPS is defined as a radio navigation system that uses radio waves between a receiver and a satellite inside a dedicated device or smartphone to provide a location to any type of software that needs it.
These devices will come in handy for the serious hiker who loves to explore new routes and trails through the backcountry. These feature-packed modern GPS devices now offer more features than ever and come with more powerful batteries, and intuitive designs that make them very user-friendly.
The best hiking GPS will be intuitive, accurate, fast, and will include a variety of preloaded maps that you can use to plan your next hiking adventure. Not all GPS devices are created equal, and there are many factors that you must take into consideration before you choose your new model. This guide is designed to help you do just that, by educating you on the different types of features available, discussing functionality and capability, and giving you an in-depth look at the six best models currently on the market. I hope this guide and my product recommendations have helped to point you in the right direction to find the perfect device for your next trip, whether you’re hitting the local trails by your house or planning a month-long hiking and camping adventure in the backcountry.