Best Handheld GPS
In a do or die situation, a GPS can be a life saver. In less serious occasions, it can simply be a nifty tool that can save you from becoming lost. But, much like other technology in the world, most GPS’s offer much more than just the basics. Besides giving and receiving directions, you will find that they can work as a multipurpose device. Specifically, this list will focus on the models that you can easily hold in the palm of your hand and take with you anywhere.
We have done some research in the market and came up with the current top ten best handheld GPS units. Various customer reviews, overall quality, and various other factors have been taken into consideration to help you decide which one suits your needs best. For your next adventure in the woods or a simple road trip you can now bring along your handy GPS to help assist you and help you to find your way.
- BAD ELF 2200
- Compact design
- 5 simultaneous users
- GARMIN FORETREX
- Route storing option
- Great display
- Garmin Montana
- Track Manager
- Has Camera
- Preloaded Geochaches
10 Best Handheld GPS devices
BAD ELF 2200 GPS PRO
A standalone GPS data logger will store over 100 hours of tracking data and can log at one-second intervals.
If you are just logging data, this can last up to 35 hours. But, if you are using other functionalities then it may be reduced to 16-20 hours.
A large LCD, backlight screen provides an easy way to see the display (even at night).
With Bluetooth functionality, you can connect up to five devices at a time. It is also compatible with the iPad, iPad mini and iPhone 5.
If you download the Bad Elf Utility App, which is free, you can transfer your data from the GPS Pro to any handheld device of your choosing.
As a GPS, it is fantastic with over 100 hours of tracking data and a very good battery life. But, the Bluetooth capability puts it over the top.
- Easily fits snugly in the palm of your hand
- Up to five people can connect simultaneously to the GPS Pro via Bluetooth
- The USB cover does not fit tightly and it sometimes opens unexpectedly
- Downloading data can take some time to get used to
GARMIN FORETREX 401 GPS
It features a high-sensitivity GPS receiver with HotFix that provides excellent reception in heavily-covered areas (forest, underground). Plus, the Foretrex keeps track of routes, tracks and waypoints.
Requires two, AAA batteries and will last approximately eight hours (which will vary depending on the type of battery you use and how often you use it).
A large LCD display enables an easy to read interface, while the back-lighting assists in darker environments.
Using Garmin Connect, you can get a detailed analysis of your activities and also send tracks to your outdoor device.
Besides the basic GPS functions, this features a TracBack feature that will retrace your steps, sunrise and sunset times, hunting and fishing information, and a heart rate monitor.
If not for the sub-par battery life, this may have taken the top spot. Everything else, however, is nearly top notch.
- Keeps track of your path and displays it as a dotted trail on the display
- Allows you to create and store routes to your favorite places
- Even with higher density batteries, the battery life could only last around eight hours
Garmin Montana 680t
It features a color four-inch-dual-orientated touchscreen that is also glove friendly, which is great in the colder months.
The Montana tracks both GPS and GLONASS Satellites to keep you firmly on the right path.
With this handheld GPS, you also get a TrackManager, which will help you to organize and navigate through different tracks and routes.
- Acquires satellites quite quickly compared to others
- Screen is generous
- Screen can be difficult to see in direct sunlight
STANDARD HORIZON HX870 WITH INTERNAL GPS
A 66-channel WAAS GPS receiver offers a wide range of locations.
It comes equipped with a long-lasting 1800 mAh Li-ion battery and an Alkaline battery tray.
The display can be both great and a hindrance, as it is oversized and provides a full dot matrix display. But, the white LED display, when on, can make it hard to see during peak brightness.
This features the ability to continuously track and display position information of up to nine pre-selected vessels.
If needed, the receiver allows the radio to transmit a DSC distress call. Also, it has a noise-cancelling function when you are transmitting audio.
Besides the display, which can be a slight issue from time to time, there is nothing but pure quality here.
- Backed by a 3-year waterproof warranty
- An integrated 66 channel GPS receiver
- The white LED light can be hard to see with the sun out, or with excess light
DUAL ELECTRONICS BLUETOOTH GPS RECEIVER
For reliable GPS coordinates, there is an implemented Wide Area Augmentation System.
The battery will last around 8.5 hours, but an included USB charging cord will charge it back up.
There is no LCD display present and your other device provides that for you.
In a matter of seconds, this GPS receiver will connect to any devices that have Bluetooth enabled.
Past general GPS functionality, you can choose to track your fitness and even find restaurants and stores near your area.
The fact that this is not a standalone GPS could alter its rank for you, but if you have a smartphone or tablet you will be happy to utilize its capabilities.
- Comes with a USB charging cord, car charger and non-slip pad if you choose to stick it to surfaces
- Included one-year warranty
- When turned off, it has a slight power drain
- It needs to be paired with a Bluetooth device for proper use
Garmin eTrex 30x
According to those who have used this device and love it, one main gripe was that the pre-loaded maps were not that great, so opted to add their own.
To take full advantage of the smaller screen, TOPO 24k maps are are great high definition topographic maps that many hikers tend to use.
And of course, in our modern age, this device is wirelessly compatible with other's devices to share tracks and routes. If you come across a special spot and meet other hikers on the way, you can simply direct them to the spot by sharing it through your eTrex 30.
- Upgraded display
- 3.7 GB of storage
- Built in sensors
- Preloaded maps aren't great
DELORME INREACH SE
With this satellite tracker, you can send and receive 160-character text messages with GPS coordinates. Tracking intervals from 10 minutes to four hours provide you access for tracking your trip.
A brilliant built-in rechargeable Lithium-ion battery can last for days.
For the most part, while not amazing, the LCD display is adequate enough to read.
Through Bluetooth, you can track and navigate using free maps and charts that come equipped with your exact coordinates.
In the case of an emergency, you can have a two-way conversation with GEOS, which is a search and rescue monitor center.
This truly is a terrific model and its requirement for an active subscription is one of the few downsides that keep it from going any higher.
- 100 percent global coverage
- Amazing battery life
- Will not function in any way without a subscription
- The battery is not removable
GARMIN OREGON 450T GPS
Much like the Garmin models that have preceded it, the Oregon comes equipped with a high-sensitivity GPS receiver with HotFix for great performance.
There is no battery pack available, just AA batteries. It works best with lithium batteries but can last around 10 hours.
A huge 3”, readable, color, and touchscreen display enhances clarity.
Between multiple units, you can share routes, waypoints, and geocaches.
With the microSD card slot, you can insert a MapSource card with detailed street maps. When doing so, you will be provided with turn-by-turn directions to your intended destination.
Anytime you choose a Garmin GPS you can expect quality and the Oregon is certainly no exception.
- Terrific display provides enhanced clarity
- 3-axis electronic compass and barometric altimeter
- The included directions are practically useless
- When logging distance, it can be wildly inaccurate at times
YAESU HANDHELD VHF/GPS
A 66 channel GPS receiver is included for reliable navigation and there is the capability of programming up to 200 memory channels.
It comes with a Lithium-ion battery pack, but an Alkaline tray is also included which takes six AA batteries.
A display dimmer, backlit keypad and full dot matrix LCD screen provide a great display.
For USA versions, you can access the NOAA Weather Channel and Weather Alert.
The Airband transceiver provides VOR and ILS navigation on the “NAV’ band and full communication on the Aircraft communications band.
For an everyday individual, this may be a tad bit over the top. Passed its complexity, though, it gets the job done at an excellent rate.
- It can be reprogrammed in minutes using the PC Programming software
- Includes a 66 channel GPS receiver
- The plethora of features are not easily accessible and can be overwhelming for someone looking for a simple GPS
DeLorme AG InReach Explorer & Satellite Communicator
Along with the messaging, you are able to track your route, drop waypoints, and navigate. You are also able to view route distances, and it is equipped with a digital compass as well.
And for extra Scout's points, plan your trip's routes online ahead of time and even share it with family and friends to watch your journey outdoors.
- Messaging capable
- People have used this in no-call service areas
- Some had trouble with messaging
Criteria Used for the Evaluation
The Software and System Present for Accuracy and Speed
While some of these GPS’s have other functionalities, and some simply just have an internal GPS implemented, the main point of your GPS search should be finding the most accurate and fasted model possible. All the fancy design features and extra functions aside, this is what makes GPS’s so popular. When trying to decide, which ones have the best GPS, you can keep a few factors in mind.
First up, keep an eye out for models that sport a high-sensitivity GPS receiver. This is more than a fancy labeling gimmick and accomplishes more than just sounding cool. A GPS with a high-sensitivity receiver will use large banks of correlators and digital signal processing to produce signals as quickly and efficiently as possible. This makes the signal outdoors extremely fast, but also makes indoor signals useable. Due to the extra processing power, these types of GPS’s can integrate weak signals into a position.
During this list, you also may have noticed some models sporting a certain number of channels. This can be very confusing and is so in-depth that you could write a paper on it. To save you the time and sanity, here is a quick explanation. When a GPS has 66 channels, then it can track the location of that many satellites at the same time. Now, there are not nearly that many satellites in orbit so what is the point of going to a number that high? To speed up the process, as satellites must first be acquired when they come in view of the GPS, multiple channels can look for the same satellite.
The last two points are great to keep in mind for traditional GPS’s, but there are special versions out there. One on this list, in specific, is a GPS that will track your vehicle or children. Models such as these will be used in an entirely different way, such as for tracking your vehicle in heavy populated areas or making sure your teenager is not out partying.
The Type of Battery/Batteries It Takes and How Long They Last
With technology devices like GPS receivers, a key factor that always comes into play is the battery life. That and what type of battery design is implemented. For example, is there an included battery that comes with it, is it removable? Or, do you have to put AA or AAA batteries inside? For pure performance, you will not need to concern yourself with which type of battery is utilized. But, some people may prefer one method over the other.
Let’s start with GPS’s that require AA or AAA batteries. The most obvious problem with this method, for some people, is that you are required to add and remove new batteries when needed. Plus, if they die and you do not have replacements, you can’t operate it unless you buy some new batteries. However, there are a lot of options at your disposal with this method. For example, it is your preference to either buy cheap batteries (such as Alkaline) or premium batteries (such as Ultimate Lithium). This will have direct implications on how long the GPS will last.
What about models that have a built-in battery? Mainly, the best aspect is the ability to charge it anytime you please. If it runs out, if you have the means to charge it, you can still use it. Most will do so via USB, so if you are on the road you probably could charge it in your vehicle. If the battery is not removable or not a universal design, though, the biggest issue can be if it reaches its shelf life. At this point, you may have to buy a new GPS (if there is no way to get a new battery). As far as how long they will last, in general, most will last several hours before needing new batteries or a charge.
The Design of the Display
This will weigh differently from one person to the next, as the display will not affect the performance in any way. But, for some, it could be a deal breaker. Much like a smartphone or laptop, for some, the resolution and clarity is the most important aspect. After all, it is beneficial for you to see the GPS information that is in the palm of your hands. While it is very rare for GPS’s to not have a display at all, unless they are designed for special purposes or to be connected with an additional source, some sport better ones than others.
As they are small in nature, the amount of space the display takes up is a factor to consider. Thankfully, it is not difficult to find this out as all you need to do is look at a picture of the interface. Some will have a half screen and half buttons, while others will have a full display with touchscreen controls. Speaking of a touchscreen, that is another factor. If you prefer keys, then avoid GPS’s with a full-screen display.
Proper backlighting plays another role and allows you to use the device at night. But, in the daylight, a backlit screen may reduce battery life so you could also look into ones with a dimming control. Lastly, some versions will have a monochrome display. Meaning, either a black and white display or one that focuses on one central color.
The Wireless or Bluetooth Functionality That It Possesses
This is where GPS devices transform themselves into more than what they were designed for. Most will just expect a GPS to be a logical way for them to receive directions and understand where they are at all times. But, they can do so much more than that with their wireless and Bluetooth functionality. Not all of them will possess both, or even one, but the models that do hold enhanced value. Especially, for those that utilize Bluetooth technology.
For a brief explanation of what Bluetooth technology is, it allows you to sync data from devices that have it enabled. So, both devices need to have the technology in order for information to be synced. With GPS’s that have it, you could connect them to your laptop, smartphone, and tablet. Some models will have more use for it to upload your data on different types of applications, while others will utilize it for you to navigate through more free maps.
With wireless capabilities, some GPS’s will track and map with Google maps over the internet (doing so in real-time). Then, there is Garmin Connect. With all the entries on this list, Garmin proves that they are a frontrunner in GPS technology. One of the reasons why is their products utilize Garmin Connect, including their handheld GPS’s. With this software, you can get a detailed analysis of your activities, send tracks to your outdoor device, upload data and view it on other devices, and share routes and geocaches between units.
Of course, as with the display, you can make the claim that these types of features are not prevalent in the overall performance of a GPS (at least for the versions that do not require Bluetooth). But, this type of technology can make a good product a great one.
The Other Tasks and Features it can Accomplish
At this point, it has been drilled into your cranium but these devices are very diverse in nature. At least, some of the most elite models are. There are a plethora of extra features that you can look for and they will vary from model to model. While you should not expect to hold a full-length phone conversation or stream a Skype call, there are useful functions that GPS devices can perform past their original intent.
Firstly, you have the additional information that some can display that may not be much use to you. For example, ones that come equipped with the ability to monitor your heart rate. Or, the models that display basic hunting and fishing information. If you do not care about hunting, fishing, or fitness you may have zero uses for that type of information. Models that work as radio transmitters may also include the means to get in touch with a search and rescue monitor center in the case of an emergency, which could be handy if you have a fear that something bad is going to happen to you.
The way you want to use a GPS could also be different, so you could find restaurants and stores that are located near your area. Then, there are the models with microSD card slots. These become useful in the situations where you require more detailed street maps. Simply, insert a card with this type of data and some will then display for you turn-by-turn directions to your intended destination.
It is a mouthful and a handful to consider, but just disregard the features that have no meaning to you. From person to person, this will vary so tread carefully in this compartment.
Minor Gripes for You To Pay Attention To
If you were keeping score at home, you probably noticed that a lot of the entries on this list had similar issues. No product is perfect, so flaws will always be present, but there are some that could sway your decision. Three really important ones to keep in mind is how detailed the instruction manual is, if the included maps are too basic (if it has maps) and if it requires a subscription.
As far as the manual goes, the more you use the device the less you will need it. But, at first, GPS’s can be very confusing and it helps when the manual is detailed enough to inform you of what to do. Some have manuals that do the complete opposite and provide you with useless information. Then, there is the issue with the maps (with ones that have them). With Bluetooth, some models will allow you to gather more detailed versions. But, not all have this benefit and you may need to buy detailed maps. Lastly, some systems will need an active subscription to function properly. You may not be interested in paying anything past the initial price tag.
Q: Who Controls GPS?
GPS is a technology that most people are aware of, but one that few probably fully understand. A common question when it comes to this, is who controls GPS? To better explain this, it is important to know that GPS stands for Global Positioning System. This is a space-based radio navigation system that is controlled and monitored by the United States government. GPS coordinates are not randomly given to you by a software or program.
Although the United States is the primary system used around the world, other countries are developing new systems to eventually join them. However, when it comes to operations and management, the U.S. Department of Defense is responsible. Because the U.S. Coast Guard serves as the civilian interface to the Department of Defense, it is then their duty to communicate GPS information to the public and report and issues that happen. Clearly, this is coveted technology and the United States does not want to mess around with who operates and maintains it.
Q: Can You Use Your GPS Internationally?
Alright, so enough with the history lesson. Let’s now dive into some questions that you can take with you in the real-world. Some people either want to travel to another country or live in one altogether. This then begs the question, do GPS’s work in countries outside of the United States? The simple answer is yes, as GPS receivers are designed to work anywhere in the world (as far as location goes). However, there are some precautions that you should be aware of. Most notably, for GPS devices that can store maps, is that map data could be hard to obtain.
With certain devices, they will only be of use to you if you can download map data in your area. Chances are, in a different country, this map data may not be available to you. So, if you are trapped in Japan and have no idea where you are, random latitude and longitudes may not assist you that much. However, when you are visiting another country, it is wise to at least have some sort of GPS to help you navigate (even if it only minorly helps).
Q: What is Geocaching?
It was not mentioned too many times throughout this list, but you may have overheard the term geocaching before. If you have, do you know what it is? It may come as a surprise, but geocaching is nothing more than a recreational outdoor activity that utilizes GPS technology. Basically, it is a real-world outdoor treasuring hunting game that requires you to navigate to a specific set of GPS coordinates. The end result is to find a geocache container, which can be considered the treasure.
All you need to join in on the fun is a GPS device, such as the ten that were listed, and a basic membership at Geocaching.com. Once you have confirmed your free Basic Membership, with the option for a Premium one if you like, simply enter your current postal code and click search on the “Hide & Seek a Cache” page (all done on Geocaching.com). Then, choose a geocache from the list and load the coordinates into your GPS device. From there, treasure on to find the hidden geocache, but make sure to return it to its original location for future treasure hunters.
Q: Will GPS Devices Work Underwater?
Much like with other technology devices, some GPS handhelds are protected with some sort of waterproof or water-resistant technology. There are limitations and some will just protect against light rain and accidental splashes, but not if it is submerged in water for a certain amount of time. However, the reality of the situation is even if a GPS device is designed to withstand gallons of water it would not work properly. Nope, not even if you were in a container (such as a submarine) under water it still would not function.
Why may you ask? It is because of the way that the GPS receives directions and specific coordinates. What happens is they listen to signals from various satellites in space. From there, they will mathematically calculate their own position in reference to the satellites. But, this technology does not work as well, or at all, underwater. As Joshua Niedzwiecki, the BAE Systems director of sensor processing, points out radio signals do not broadcast very far underwater. Though they are constantly developing the technology to overcome this, for now, it is just like if you tried to use your smartphone deep into the ocean. Eventually, you would lose all connectivity.
Q: Do You Need the Internet to Use a GPS Device?
Some specific devices will utilize the internet in some way, or Bluetooth. But now that you know the process of how a GPS works, this question should be easy for you to answer. Because GPS devices receive signals from various satellites that are floating in space, the internet is not required for them to function properly. Even for specific versions that allow you to upload for detailed maps into the system, the internet is not required for this. To download the maps on the SD card, to begin with, unless pre-installed, you may need the internet. However, there is no need for concern if you have no access to the internet; the GPS will still function as designed.
Q: How Well Will GPS Work Indoors?
As you are starting to conclude, GPS technology is a little limited in terms of usability. You now know that it will not work underwater and can be extremely limited in other countries, but it also does not function superbly indoors. Technically, it can be used but it may not be very useful for you. When trying to use the satellites to receive a signal, the walls, roofs, and other indoor objects reduce the effect of the signal. But, there is a system out there that was designed for this very purpose.
An IPS, which is an Indoor Positioning System, is a system that is specifically designed to locate people and objects that are inside of a building. They achieve this using radio waves, acoustic signals, and various other sensory information. However, integration between the two separate technologies can be made. In specific, GNSS receivers that have a high sensitivity are able to adequately receive satellite signals in most indoor environments.
GPS technology can be extremely overwhelming and for those of you who do not know much on the subject, do not worry about it. To use and enjoy a GPS handheld, you do not need to be an aficionado of GPS technology or need to understand every single process. The point is they are convenient devices that will assist you in getting you where you need to go. As you have seen, some work a little differently than others, but the overall point remains the same. Now that we have named the top ten best handled GPS units, it can help you decide which one suits you and your adventure needs best. So for your next camping trip or hike you will be able to get where you are going without any problems with your new GPS.