Handheld GPS for Hiking, Hunting, or Kayaking: Top 5 Portable Reviews
5 Good, Portable GPS Units for Hunting, Hiking, or Kayaking
We live in an age where maps and directions are becoming redundant. My cell phone tells me exactly where I am most of the time. But what happens when we venture outside of civilization, when we're in the middle of the woods or the ocean?
A handheld GPS makes hiking, kayaking, and hunting a much safer and more manageable adventure. GPS, or the Global Positioning System, uses satellite triangulation to give you a very accurate estimate of your current position.
They can be used to offer directions, give you the lay of the land via satellite topography, chart the path you've travelled, or even give you boundary alerts to let you know when you're in hunting territory.
So which is the best handheld hiking / hunting / kayaking GPS anyway? This article takes a look at the best portable backcountry GPS receivers around, taking into account features like durability, battery life, versatility, and weatherproofness. We'll offer some pros and cons to give you the full picture before you dive in. Sound interesting? Keep on reading.
GPS vs. GLONASS: The best handheld GPS units can access both
You've probably heard of GPS before, but have you heard of GLONASS? They're similar systems, the main difference is in ownership.
Both systems are space based navigation and positioning systems, and they both make use of satellites to triangulate your position at any one time. The idea goes that by precisely timing transmissions from several GPS satellites, the receiver can calculate a very accurate current position.
GPS was developed by the United States Department of Defense. As such, the DoD has control over the system, and while private users may access the system, military takes precedence.
For that reason, it's often wise to have a supplementary system. For a long time Russian-owned GLONASS wasn't as good as GPS, but recently it has become every bit as powerful. It's especially useful if you find the GPS system is slow to respond.
The best portable GPS receivers for hiking and hunting have access to both systems, and you can switch between them easily.
Foretrex: A wearable, portable GPS for hiking, hunting & adventure
Often when you're on a hike, you prefer to keep your hands available for climbing or taking photos. Luckily, there are some navigation systems which will keep you aware of your surroundings, hands free.
Garmin Fortex 401
The Foretrex is one of the best hiking GPS receivers. With great reviews, it's a popular item and it's pretty affordable too, which is a bonus. You'll notice that it differs from most popular units because it features a wrist strap to affix to your forearm.
Garmin knows that many people will be using it in densely wooded surroundings, so they've built it with a high sensitivity receiver that lets you stay in contact with the system even with tall trees all around. The overall signal reliability is very good.
It's extremely light in weight, and it doesn't weigh a whole lot more than a wristwatch. It has a dual layout format, so you can check two readouts at once, like altitude and compass.
Cons: It doesn't come with a built-in map. The small size and light weight preclude having a larger screen. Still, it comes with a path tracker, a trip computer, an altimeter, a compass, and it even has hunting and fishing information. Familiarize yourself with positioning and you'll forget you ever needed a map.
Verdict: It's a cheap handheld GPS with rave reviews, and you'll love the hands-free portability.
eXplorist 350H: The best hunting GPS unit around?
The eXplorist 350H, by Magellan, is a handheld GPS receiver made for hunting in all conditions. Even the casing is camouflaged!
Magellan eXploist 350H
If you're a hunter who finds themselves outside of cell range pretty frequently, this little unit is ideal. It's a backcountry hunting GPS unit with great reviews.
Obviously the eXplorist gives you detailed GPS positioning as you'd expect. Where it really shines is the added features specifically intended for hunters or hikers.
It comes equipped with preloaded maps, so you can go paper free. It has details on road networks, cities, rivers and lakes, and elevation contouring to help identify hills and mountain ranges.
Another fantastic feature is the hunting boundary system. Whether you're hunting in the US or Canada, you'll be able to access the boundaries and borders. With a tap you can overlay that information onto your map screen, so you can see where you are in relation.
In addition, the eXplorist will send you alerts if you're approaching the border of a hunting zone (such as approaching a highway). Avoid getting fined with this handy little gadget.
Cons: The one thing I wish it had was a rechargeable battery. The best handheld GPS for outdoor use have lithium batteries, but this one requires two AA batteries, which will last for around 18 hours of use. I'd recommend picking up some rechargeable AAs to avoid the extra costs of feeding this thing.
Verdict: The eXplorist is among the top GPS receivers for hunters or outdoorsmen. It's affordable and durable, and it just might be the answer you're looking for.
eTrex: A cheap, personal GPS for Kayak or Hiking
Garmin units tend to be pricier because they're a high end brand. So I was surprised and impressed to find the eTrex at such an affordable rate. It's a cheap portable GPS receiver with access to both GPS and GLONASS.
The eTrex is just about the perfect size. It's small enough to slip into a pocket, but it features a bright 2.2 inch screen that is easy to read.
It comes preloaded with a base world map that allows you to see your position graphically no matter where you are. The 3-axis compass gives you your current bearing, even if you're at a standstill. A built-in altimeter (barometrically based) gives you an accurate altitude measurement too.
The eTrex is a very good hunting or hiking GPS because it employs HotFix to give you a rapid reading on your position. The receiver does a pretty good job of getting a reading even in denser forest, and it's nice to be able to switch to GLONASS if GPS isn't working out.
The rubberized buttons are placed on the size, giving the screen more real estate without making the unit bulky. It's fairly waterproof and should survive a splash or quick dunk without any issues.
It's a great portable GPS for geocaching, and you can preload it with other waypoints, or create ones of your own. It is compatible with a wide range of 3rd party maps. You can load them into internal memory, or use a microSD card.
Cons: Again, it runs on AA batteries. Get yourself some rechargeable ones if you pick up this unit.
Verdict: It's a cheap, waterproof, handheld GPS with some of the best features and great reviews. Want to save money? Go for the base model with black and white screen.
Montana: A WAAS Enabled Portable GPS for Hiking; Best Touch Screen
The Montana is much like the state its named after: rugged and beautiful. It's a waterproof outdoor GPS that's best for kayak and hiking.
The first thing you're likely to notice about the Montana is the large screen. At around 4 inches across, it's bright and (importantly) easily readable in bright sunlight, much like an e-reader. It's a touch screen unit.
The Montana has a preloaded basemap, with shading. It's also preloaded with US topography so you can use it right away for driving, hunting or exploring in America. You can load in other maps too, such as TopoUS or Bluechart preloaded cards.
The Montana is an extremely sensitive portable GPS unit. It is WAAS enabled, which allows it to communicate with both the satellites and with ground stations to give a more accurate readout. That means you'll get an accurate readout to within 3 metres most of the time.
I often recommend the Montana as a good GPS for hiking and kayaking because it's a waterproof unit. I wouldn't try soaking it, but the odd splash or bit of rain won't harm it. It's rugged too, and the bumps and bruises of your adventures won't be a problem.
Like most powerful hiking and hunting GPS receivers, this one features a 3-axis compass which will give you your bearing at a standstill. It also gives you altitude. With a built-in 5 megapixel camera, the Montana is one of the best GPS receivers for geocaching. You can instantly share those pictures wirelessly.
It's powered by a rechargeable lithium battery pack, but you can swap it out for AA batteries if that suits your needs better.
Cons: It's a little bit bigger than some other units, which can be a problem for minimalist hiking trips. The preloaded Topo US 100k map set doesn't have as much detail in back country as I'd like.
Verdict: The Montana is a great little handheld GPS unit that's good for hiking, exploring and driving in back country. Super accurate.
GPSMAP 64st: A powerful, accurate handheld GPS unit for hunting, climbing & hiking
The GPSMAP 64st is a fantastic portable hiking GPS with add ons that really make it stand out. It is compatible with GPS and GLONASS, and the bright 2.6 inch display is readable in sunny conditions.
Garmin GPSMAP 64st
You'll probably notice right away that the antenna is prominent. It's a quad helix antenna intended to improve reception in remote locations, brush cover and canyons.
As a higher end portable hiking GPS, it has the features you'd expect to see, including a 3-axis compass for bearing, an altimeter, and a full suite of 100K Topo maps which cover the US, Alaska and Puerto Rico. This unit comes with a 1-year subscription to Birdseye Satellite Imagery, which is a premium service that I highly recommend you try out, it's a fantastic add-on for hikers and outdoorsmen.
Into geocaching? This handheld GPS lets you wirelessly plant and share waypoints, as well as access a treasure trove of caches uploaded by other users.
You can opt for the optional ANT+ Bluetooth system, which makes your receiver compatible with many heart rate monitors, activity sensors, cadence monitors, etc.
It's a solid unit that feels great in your hand, and the 2.6 inch screen is the perfect size. The buttons are external, and the unit is waterproof, so it's a top choice as hiking GPS units go.
It comes with a rechargeable battery pack, but you can use AAs if you prefer.
Cons: The user interface has a learning curve, especially if you're accustomed to touch screen.
Verdict: A highly accurate, fast, dependable receiver, this is among the best portable GPS for hunting, hiking, kayak or geocaching. GLONASS compatible.
Won't my cell phone do?
WHY A HANDHELD GPS IS BEST FOR HIKING, HUNTING AND EXPLORING
Many modern cell phones now have capabilities which mimic those of GPS navigation receivers. While they work well in cities, they're not nearly as dependable once you're out in the field.
Why? Cell phone companies are concerned with providing coverage to populated areas. There's no money in providing signals to wilderness regions.
Whether you're hiking, hunting, climbing or kayaking, it doesn't matter. Once you're far afield, the only thing to receive signal will be your portable GPS unit. In some cases, that can make a huge difference.
In addition, cell phones typically aren't nearly as rugged (read waterproof) or as accurate. The higher end receivers can be accurate to within a few metres. I'd be surprised if most cell phones can manage that.
These are pricey. Where can I find a cheap handheld GPS for hunting / hiking?
There can be some sticker shock. A receiver is a complex piece of electronics, and the costs associated are higher than many people expect.
That being said, most of the portable GPS units reviewed above come in a variety of models. If you want a particular unit but it seems too expensive, check out the base model price. You might have to sacrifice some bells and whistles (like Bluetooth), but you'll still get the basic rugged functionality you need.
Thanks for reading!