TOP 11 Best GPS for Hiking & Backpacking – Navigation in the Backcountry

TOP 11 Best GPS for Hiking & Backpacking – Navigation in the Backcountry
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So, you’ve been on some well-marked trails and you’re ready to take your hiking to the next level.

Modern technology is impressive, I’ll admit.

But your smartphone just won’t cut it when it comes to navigating in the backcountry. Relying on Google maps could get you in trouble.

I’m going to help you find the best GPS for hiking.

Read on for a list of what’s available on the market this year and some pointers on what to look for.

TOP 11 Best GPS Devices for Hiking 2019

Garmin GPSMAP 64s

Review: This is probably the best handheld GPS device for hiking on the market right now. In fact, it’s been the most popular for a number of years – it’s that hard to beat.

It’s successors, the 64st and the 64sc come with a 100K topographic map and a camera respectively, but for most people, those aren’t enough to justify the price jump when the 64s has everything you need, and you can download free topo maps easily enough.

It comes with a 4GB memory that can be extended with an SD card. It has a 2.6” sunlight-readable screen and 250,000 preloaded geocaches.

Pros

  • Magnetic compass and barometric altimeter.
  • Physical buttons are glove-friendly in cold weather.
  • Includes GLONASS.

Cons

  • Low resolution screen.

Takeaway

This is the best handheld GPS 2019. It’s reliable, easy to use, and has all of the necessary functions.

Garmin 63st

Review: As mentioned above, this is basically the 64s but with 100K topo maps included for the U.S. or Canada.

If you live outside of North America you’ll be better off with the 64s and downloading your own maps.

But for some people, the convenience of the preloaded maps is worth purchasing this model.

Pros

  • Preloaded 100K topo maps.
  • Compass, accelerometer and altimeter.
  • 250,000 preloaded geocaches.
  • High sensitivity GLONASS and GPS.

Cons

  • Expensive.

Takeaway

This is the best GPS for backpacking if you want the convenience of preloaded maps.

Garmin Oregon 650t

Review: The Oregon 650t is one of the more expensive options but is definitely a high performer.

The high-quality touch screen is easy to use and it comes with a digital camera and preloaded 100K maps.

If you need more than the 3.5GB of remaining storage then you can add a microSD card.

Pros

  • 3” colour touch screen.
  • Uses both GPS and GLONASS satellites.
  • Can use either 2x AA batteries or the USB rechargeable NiMH battery.
  • Can share routes and waypoints wirelessly with other devices.

Cons

  • Battery life could be better.

Takeaway

This is the best GPS for backpacking for its extensive range of features and reliable quality, and the best handheld GPS 2019 if you prefer a touchscreen.

Garmin Montana 680t

Review: Garmin’s Montana 680t is similar to the Oregon 650t but with a bigger screen, slightly better resolution and a more waterproof, durable design.

It’s bulkier, but it will handle being dropped and it has a waterproof rating of IPX7.

Like the Oregon, it has the extra accuracy and speed associated with GLONASS satellites and can communicate wirelessly with other devices.

Pros

  • 4” rotating colour touch screen.
  • Preloaded 100K topo maps.
  • Barometric altimeter and 3-axis compass.
  • Dual GPS and GLONASS systems.

Cons

  • A little bulky and cumbersome to hold and carry.

Takeaway

This is the best GPS for mountaineering due to its waterproofing, durability, and large, glove-friendly touch screen.

Garmin Foretrex 401

Review: This GPS is worn on your wrist like an over-sized wristwatch which is extra convenient when you’re hiking.

It’s tiny, lightweight, accurate and reasonably affordable. It’s also very durable and weather-proof, able to cope with extreme temperature changes and rain with no problem.

It doesn’t have huge memory and it’s not ideal if you’re a fan of viewing maps, but it does an excellent job of navigating you to waypoints.

Pros

  • Uses 2 x AAA batteries which last 17 hours in GPS mode.
  • Compatible with a heart rate monitor which is sold separately.
  • Has a magnetic compass and barometric altimeter.

Cons

  • Small screen.
  • The instruction manual is not very helpful, you need to be a little tech savvy to get the best out of this GPS.

Takeaway

This is the best GPS for tracking your hike and remembering your waypoints in places where you don’t have adequate cell phone coverage.

Garmin inReach Explorer+

Review: This is a satellite phone that also has GPS navigation capabilities.

It’s not going to be as customizable for navigating as the more popular Garmin’s on this list, but it provides reliable communication, doubles as an emergency locator beacon and has adequate navigation capabilities.

Pros

  • 2 way messaging when you’re out of cell phone range.
  • Is also a personal locator beacon for use in emergencies.
  • Waypoints and routes can be preloaded for convenience.
  • IPX 7 waterproofing.

Cons

  • Expensive.
  • Fewer navigation features than the models above.

Takeaway

This is the best GPS for backcountry adventures for the ability to send messages to the outside world when you don’t have cell coverage.

Garmin eTrex 20x

Review: This GPS is one of the smallest and lightest handheld options, with a 2.2” screen It has almost all of the features of the more expensive units but in a smaller, more affordable package.

If you want a compass and altimeter, you can upgrade to the 30x, but the 20x has everything you need for basic navigation.

Pros

  • 3.7GB memory and microSD card slot.
  • Affordable.
  • Good 240 x 320 resolution.
  • Can save 10,000 waypoints and 200 tracks.

Cons

  • No compass or barometric altimeter.
  • Doesn’t come with 100K maps, just a base map.

Takeaway

This is the best handheld GPS for hiking if you’re looking for something lightweight, affordable and beginner-friendly.

Garmin eTrex Touch 35

Review: This is an eTrex model but with a touch screen, as the name implies. The screen is also a tiny bit larger than the other eTrex devices, measuring in at 2.6”.

It comes with a worldwide base map while the 35t comes with a preloaded topo map, but with 4GB of memory, there is plenty of space to add your own. There’s also a slot for an SD card.

Pros

  • Electronic tilt-compensated compass and barometric altimeter.
  • Both GPS and GLONASS satellites.
  • Wireless connectivity with your smartphone or other devices for sharing data.
  • The excellent quality touch screen is readable in direct sunlight.

Cons

  • The screen is lower resolution than could be expected.

Takeaway

This is another top-rated handheld GPS for hiking. It hasn’t had all the kinks of the upgrade smoothed out yet, but it’s still a reliable and top quality unit.

Satmap Active 20 GPS

active20-gb

Review: As one of the few competitor brands to Garmin, the Satmap Active 20 GPS provides a number of great features, excellent durability, and user-friendliness.

It picks up signals from GPS, GLONASS, and GALILEO (European) satellites, it has a 3 axis compass and barometric altimeter, and it comes with 3 different scale maps preloaded which are quick to toggle between.

Pros

  • Both touchscreen and buttons so you can use either depending on the conditions.
  • The touchscreen is fast and responsive.
  • 3.5” high-resolution screen.
  • IP68 Waterproof rating and IK Impact.
  • Bluetooth and wireless connectivity.

Cons

  • The battery tray is fiddly to remove and may not be waterproof once reinserted.

Takeaway

This is the best GPS for hiking and driving, being extremely easy to use and with street-level maps available for 50 countries.

Magellan Explorist 310

Review: The Magellan Explorist 310 is an excellent option for entry-level hiking and geocaching.

It doesn’t quite have the performance of the Garmin devices so wouldn’t be the best choice for a real survival situation, but it’s still a solid option if you’re on a tighter budget and your whole world isn’t about hiking.

Pros

  • 2.2” display and physical buttons.
  • IPX 7 waterproof rating.
  • Affordable.

Cons

  • Small memory – only 500MB.

Takeaway

Magellan GPS devices don’t win any prizes when placed next to a Garmin, but they’re a great option for beginners and entry-level hikers looking to learn.

Bad Elf 2200 GPS Pro

Review: Bad Elf GPSs are actually designed for the aviation world so their accuracy is more in vertical than horizontal positioning, but it still comes pretty close to the Garmin models.

It comes in a much more compact package than most of the Garmin models, being more the size of a handheld stopwatch, and it’s splash-proof.

Pros

  • Far more accurate than a smartphone but not quite as accurate as a Garmin GPS.
  • Tiny, lightweight and compact.
  • Bluetooth connectivity.
  • 16-35 hour battery life.

Cons

  • Not waterproof.

Takeaway

This isn’t the best option for hiking, but depending on your requirements it could fit the bill, and future Bad Elf models are worth keeping an eye on.

Why Get a GPS?

First up, in this day and age, why do you need a GPS for hiking when you already have a smartphone?

Well, the short answer is, specific GPS devices are way better.

GPS devices pick up a more accurate signal much more quickly which can make a big difference when you’re navigating in the backcountry. They have a better battery life, and are more durable, waterproof and better able to handle being dropped than your smartphone.

They’re also significantly better at calculating elevation changes which cell phones tend to grossly over-estimate due to their jumping around while they try to find you.

a compass on map

Last but not least, if you’re heading into the backcountry and aren’t going to be following well-marked trails, it would be irresponsible to rely on your smartphone.

There aren’t any map applications that give enough detail and contour lines to be able to navigate safely.

If you’re serious about your hiking experience, GPS is a way to go. It is literally as important, maybe even more important, than your backpacking knife when you’re in the backcountry.

The best GPS units for hiking are durable and can handle getting wet and being dropped.

They are also easy to use, fast and accurate at locating your position and have good battery life.

But, there are a few things to consider…

Unit Size

Overall unit size is more of a preference thing – how much weight and bulk are you willing to carry on your hiking trip?

Unit size also impacts screen size.

If you don’t have the patience to squint at a tiny screen, you’ll need a larger device.

Touchscreen vs. Buttons

Again, this is a preference thing, but buttons can beat a touch screen in terms of durability and ease of use when wearing thick gloves in cold conditions.

Memory Size

This is pretty important as you want space to upload your own maps and save a decent amount of data before and during your trip.

If you think you might need more space, look for units that have a slot for a microSD card.

Waterproof vs. Water-Resistant

If you’re going into the backcountry, your device at the very least will need to be water-resistant.

The weather can change, you might fall in a stream, or drop your GPS in your coffee, who knows?

Better to be safe than sorry when it comes to a device that could save your life!

GPS Alone or With GLONASS

GLONASS is a Russian owned satellite system, translated as Russian Global Navigation Satellite System, compared to the U.S. owned Global Positioning System.

GPS devices that also use GLONASS satellites appear to be faster and more accurate as they can receive signals from more satellites.

It’s especially useful when you’re in an area with obstacles such as a gully or tricky terrain that might block some of the signals.

But – having GLONASS enabled on your device will use up your battery life a little faster. Like everything in life, it’s a compromise.

Preloaded Maps vs. Downloading Your Own

Of course, this is a personal choice. But, long story short, Garmin devices with the ‘t’ on the end simply have 100k maps included.

There are no other additional features to justify the extra cost. Especially when most maps are available for free online, and you’ll probably prefer a larger scale than 100k anyway.

Ultimately, it’s up to you. But my preference would be the cheaper model without the preloaded maps. Add an SD card and download your free maps online.

Electronic Compass

An electronic compass can be an advantage if you don’t have a compass already. If the GPS doesn’t have an electronic compass, it will most likely use a differential compass which means it needs you to be moving to determine which way north is.

An electronic compass can point out north if you’re standing still.

Alternatively, buying a GPS without an electronic compass could save you quite a bit of money, especially if you already have a good hiking compass (and know how to use it).

If you’re thinking about working on your map reading and compass skills (which you should have nailed before moving on to GPS), check out my article on the best hiking compasses.

group of people hiking

Rechargeable Batteries

Rechargeable batteries are the only thing that makes sense in this day and age.

Let’s be honest, disposable batteries just aren’t good for the environment.

If you have a good solar power bank and a GPS that charges via micro USB, you are set for multi-day trips without having to worry about your GPS going flat.

If you’re going on an overseas trip, you’ll likely have multiple devices and charging cables that you’ll be taking with you.

If you have an expensive GPS, you’ll be wanting to make sure it’s safe and contained while you travel. The solution to both is an electronics travel organizer, and luckily for you, I’ve already made a list of the best organizers!

If you’re a beginner and need a few more tips, there are some great videos online with introductions to GPS navigation.

But it’s worth making sure you know the basics of map and compass navigation before relying on your fancy new GPS, just in case something goes wrong!

FAQs

Can I Use My Phone GPS for Hiking?

Well, yes, you can, but it won’t be as accurate or reliable. Most smartphone apps don’t provide contour lines so can dangerous to use for hiking navigation.

You’re much safer using a GPS.

man holding phone with GPS

Will Phone GPS Work Without Cell Signal?

Yes, the GPS function in your phone works independently of cell phone networks.

What are the Best GPS Apps for Phone?

There are many, many GPS apps available. Which you prefer comes down to personal preference, but they’ll all be less reliable than a specific GPS device which will have a stronger and more accurate signal than a smartphone.

What is the Difference Between a GPS Track and Route?

A route is like a path you plan to take, kind of like a join-the-dots puzzle with the waypoints you’ve entered and is created on a computer.

A track is the recorded path you or somebody else has actually taken, saved in the GPS while you walked.

Routes are fine for use over easy terrain when you just need to know which direction to head in. Tracks are best when the terrain is tricky and you want to follow a more accurate path.

How Accurate are Handheld GPS Devices?

The accuracy of the device you choose to use will partly depend on your terrain and whether the satellite signals are getting a clear line or being interrupted.

Accuracy around 2-5m is generally considered to be good.

What is the Most Accurate GPS Device?

Any of the most recent Garmin models, particularly the eTrex, MAP 64, Montana and Oregon are the most accurate GPS devices available for hiking.

Does the Weather Affect GPS Accuracy?

The short answer is no, generally bad weather such rain, heavy clouds and snow don’t influence GPS accuracy as the device can still receive signals from the satellites.

man holding a compass

Summary

Choosing the best GPS for hiking is easier than many other items of outdoor gear as there aren’t actually that many to choose from.

Garmin make the best hiking GPS devices, it’s just a case of deciding how much you want to pay and what features you require.

Feel free to comment here if you have any thoughts to share on hiking GPSs. And enjoy your next adventure with your new navigation-ability!

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