A GPS device with a map on the screen laying in grass

The 5 Best Hiking GPS Devices in 2019: Stay the Course

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A GPS is an indispensable part of any modern hiking gear list. With a GPS, you can quickly and accurately pinpoint your location, track your route, and get a solid understanding of the landscape around you. When used with a map and a compass, a GPS bolsters your ability to route find in tricky situations and can make a huge difference in an emergency.

However, there are so many different GPS units out there to choose from, so we understand if you’re feeling a bit overwhelmed at the prospect of choosing just one. That’s why we’re here to review the five best hiking GPS devices. Plus, we’ll walk you through the ins and outs of choosing the best one for your needs. Here we go!

Quick Answer: The 5 Best GPS Hiking Devices

The 5 Best Hiking GPS Devices Reviewed

Hiking GPS devices have made leaps in bounds in terms of progress in the last decade. We took a deep dive into the nuts and bolts and made our top picks of the best GPS devices for hiking in 2019, so you can spend less time researching and more time getting lost, but not really lost 🙂

Garmin Foretrex 401 Waterproof Hiking GPS

If a GPS is an essential part of your navigation system, then you’ll want to make sure it’s accessible at all times. With the Garmin Foretrex 401’s wrist-mounted system, you’ll never have to be without your GPS in the backcountry.

Thanks to the Foretrex 401’s wrist mount, you can navigate quickly and efficiently in a hands-free manner. With the Foretrex 401’s highly-sensitive receiver, electronic compass, and barometric altimeter, you can be confident that your device will work when you need it most. Plus, the Foretrex 401 keeps track of your path, marking it as a dotted trail on the screen, which can be a great help if you feel like you may have lost the trail.

If that wasn’t good enough, the Foretrex 401 has the capability to create and store route data so you can quickly get back to your favorite spots. With 17 hours of battery life, sunrise/sunset times, hunting and fishing information, and the ability to connect with wireless accessories, such as a heart rate monitor, you can take on the world with the Foretrex 401.

Pros:

  • Wrist mount for hands-free use
  • Can connect with wireless accessories
  • Tracks your path as you walk
  • 17 hours of battery life
  • Sunrise/sunset and hunting/fishing information

Cons:

  • Wrist mount isn’t great for everyone
  • Fairly simple display
  • Relatively small memory for waypoints and routes
Garmin Foretrex 401 Waterproof Hiking GPS
662 Reviews
Garmin Foretrex 401 Waterproof Hiking GPS
  • Features high-sensitivity GPS receiver with HotFix for improved performance and reception in heavy tree cover or deep canyons
  • Keeps track of routes, tracks and waypoints, and heart rate with add on heart rate monitor (sold separate). Uses standard AAA batteries. 2 required.
  • TracBack feature retraces user's path on the easy-to-read LCD display;Display resolution 100 x 64 pixels;Battery life Up to 17 hours in GPS mode;Track Log 10000. Display size : 1.42 x 0.91 inches
  • Supports dual position readout so user can view current location in multiple formats. Audible tones. Hold the compass level when navigating to ensure maximum accuracy

Garmin inReach Explorer+

The Garmin inReach Explorer+ is Garmin’s top-of-the-line GPS and satellite communication combo system. As a true two-in-one device, the inReach Explorer+ functions just as a standard hiking GPS would, but also allows users to also use inReach’s two-way messaging system.

This messaging system lets you stay up-to-date with happenings at home or with other hiking parties as you can text directly with another inReach device, directly with a mobile number or even to an email address. Plus, the inReach Explorer+ allows you to hit an SOS button in a true emergency, which connects you directly to an emergency call center that will help send search and rescue personnel to your location.

As a GPS unit, the inReach Explorer+ is about on par with a device like the Garmin eTrex 30x, as it has a color screen, navigation functions, and decent maps. You can even pair the Explorer+ with your mobile device using Bluetooth if you’d rather see the maps on a larger screen.

However, the inReach Explorer+ uses a rechargeable battery system, which isn’t the best if you’re out and about for a long time as it’s difficult to keep the battery at full charge. Plus, the inReach Explorer+ is fairly bulky and heavy and it requires a subscription service to the satellite messaging system to operate. But, if you want an all-in-one GPS and messaging device, the Garmin inReach Explorer+ just might be for you.

Pros:

  • Two-way texting satellite messaging system
  • SOS button for emergencies
  • Full-color display with decent maps
  • Can be paired with a mobile device
  • Garmin’s Iridium system allows for satellite connectivity anywhere in the world

Cons:

  • Requires a subscription system for operation
  • Uses only a rechargeable battery
  • Heavy and bulky
  • Expensive
Sale
Garmin inReach Explorer+
296 Reviews
Garmin inReach Explorer+
  • 100 percent global Iridium satellite coverage enables two way text messaging from anywhere (satellite subscription required)
  • Trigger an interactive SOS to the 24/7 search and rescue monitoring center
  • Track and share your location with family and friends. Water rating : IPX7. Battery : Rechargeable internal lithium ion
  • Pair with mobile devices using the free Earthmate app for access to downloadable maps, U.S. NOAA charts, color aerial imagery and more

Garmin GPSMAP 64st

The GPSMAP 64st is one of Garmin’s premier handheld navigation units. Featuring a 2.6” sunlight-readable color display with a 16-hour battery life and an IPX7 waterproof rating, the GPSMAP is designed for the rugged outdoors. Thanks to an 8 GB memory, the GPSMAP 64st can load plenty of customizable maps and save over 5000 waypoints to keep you oriented on any adventure.

Plus with a fully electronic compass, a barometric altimeter, and a high-sensitivity reader that can connect to the GPS and GLONASS systems simultaneously, the GPSMAP 64st is ready for precision navigation. If that wasn’t enough, the GPSMAP 64st can even sync with the Garmin Connect app, which allows you to analyze and share your route data with family and friends. That’s pretty cool.

Pros:

  • Can connect to GPS and GLONASS satellites for more accuracy
  • 16-hour battery life
  • IPX7 waterproof rating
  • 8GB of memory can store 5000 waypoints
  • Electric compass and barometric altimeter
  • Compatible with Garmin Connect interface

Cons:

  • Bulky
  • Heavy
  • Expensive
Garmin GPSMAP 64st
1,121 Reviews
Garmin GPSMAP 64st
  • Sunlight Readable 2.6 inches color display. Display size : 1.43 x 2.15 inches and 2.6 inch diag (6.6 centimeter). Battery life : 16 hours. Water rating IPX7
  • Expanded Internal Memory 8GB.Display resolution 160 x 240 pixels. Interface: high speed USB and NMEA 0183 compatible
  • DUAL BATTERY SYSTEM Use with 2 traditional AA batteries (best with Polaroid AA batteries), or the optional rechargeable NiMH battery pack that can be charged while inside the device.Weight 8.1 ounce (230 grams) with batteries
  • Receive Smart Notifications* and pair with optional ANT+ sensors, such as heart rate monitor, Tempe temperature sensor, speed/cadence, or use to control your VIRB action camera (64s/64st only)

Garmin eTrex 30x

Built upon the foundations of the superbly popular Garmin eTrex 30, the eTrex 30x is the same great GPS with new and enhanced features. The eTrex 30x features a higher resolution screen (240 x 320 pixels) that’s sunlight-readable for a better user experience as well as an expanded internal memory to help you hold more maps and waypoints in the backcountry.

Plus, the eTrex 30x has a 3-axis tilt-compensated electric compass, which allows you to see your current bearing with ease. A barometric altimeter can quickly locate your elevation while the device’s receivers can quickly track GPS and GLONASS satellites at the same time for a faster waypoint.

The eTrex 30x comes ready to go with a variety of different options potential mounting options, so you can take it with you whether you hike, bike, ride ATVs, or spend time boating. Whatever your adventure, the eTrex 30x is right by your side.

Pros:

  • Compact
  • Decent memory
  • Quick connection to GPS and GLONASS satellites
  • Electronic compass and barometric altimeter
  • Higher-resolution screen

Cons:

  • Small screen size to device size ratio
  • Small memory size compared to similarly priced units
  • Relatively expensive
Sale
Garmin eTrex 30x
284 Reviews
Garmin eTrex 30x
  • UPGRADED DISPLAY Features a 2.2” 65K color sunglight readable display offering increased resolution (240 x 320 pixels). Physical dimensions: 2.1" x 4.0" x 1.3" (5.4 x 10.3 x 3.3 cm)
  • LOAD MORE MAPS Large 3.7 GB of internal memory and microSD card slot lets you load a variety of maps, including TOPO 24K, HuntView, BlueChart g2, City Navigator NT and BirdsEye Satellite Imagery (subscription required)
  • PRELOADED BASEMAP Includes a worldwide basemap with shaded relief
  • BUILT IN SENSORS eTrex 30x adds a built in 3 axis tilt compensated electronic compass and a barometric altimeter which tracks changes in pressure to pinpoint your precise altitude, and you even can use it to plot barometric pressure over time

Garmin Fenix 5 Plus

If you can’t stand to be without the latest technology, the Fenix 5 Plus’s integrated GPS/smartwatch interface just might be for you. Combining the best in the latest smartwatch and wearable tech innovations with Garmin’s legendary GPS systems, the Fenix 5 Plus is the ultimate watch for endurance athletes and mountain enthusiasts, alike. 

This multisport GPS smartwatch can monitor your heart rate and provide accurate color topographic maps all at the same time. With route finding information and a variety of built-in navigation equipment, including a gyroscope, barometric altimeter, and an electronic compass, the Fenix is ready to keep you on the right path.

Plus, the Fenix 5 Plus watch can connect to not one, but three satellite networks (GPS, GLONASS, and Galileo) all at the same time for the ability to connect more quickly and more accurately in any conditions than your standard GPS unit. 

Pros:

  • Combined GPS and smartwatch technology
  • Full-color topo maps and route finding information
  • Built-in navigation tools
  • Can connect to three satellite systems
  • Tracks health and activity information
  • Can store up to 1000 songs from Spotify

Cons:

  • Expensive
  • Battery only lasts 8 hours in GPS mode
  • Bulky for a watch
  • Not practical on longer expeditions
Garmin Fenix 5 Plus
363 Reviews
Garmin Fenix 5 Plus
  • Premium multi sport GPS smartwatch that estimates heart rate at the wrist and includes color TOPO maps featuring trend line popularity routing to help you find and follow the best paths
  • Fit for adventure with rugged design that features stainless steel or diamond like carbon (DLC) Titanium bezel, buttons and rear case
  • Easily store and play up to 500 songs on your watch, and connect with Bluetooth headphones (sold separately) for phone free listening
  • Garmin Pay

GPS HIking Devices Comparison Table

Features/ProductGarmin Foretrex 401Garmin inReach Explorer+Garmin GPSMAP 64stGarmin eTrex 30xGarmin Fenix 5 Plus
Weight
3.1 ounes8 ounces10 ounces4.96 ounces3.04 ounces
Display
1.7 inches2.3 inches2.6 inches2.2 in1.2 in
Battery Life17 hoursup to 100 hours16 hours25 hours18 hours (GPS)
Dimensions1.7 x 0.9 x 2.9"1.5 x 2.7 x 6.5"1.4 x 4.2 x 6.3"2.1 x 4 x 1.3"1.9 x 0.6 x 1.9"
BluetoothYesYesYesYesYes

Hiking GPS Advanced Features

While pretty much any GPS worth buying will come with the ability to drop waypoints, tell you your elevation, and track a route, only a few will come with more advanced additional features. Of course, you’ll have to pay extra for some of these advanced features, but depending on what you’re using your GPS for, it might be worth it. Here are some of the features you might find on a fancier GPS unit:

Electronic Compass

Although an electronic compass doesn’t replace the need for a physical compass, they can be useful accessories to have in your GPS. An electronic compass allows you to quickly and easily orient yourself to the cardinal directions without having to remember which way to turn your compass for declination as you can input that information into your device. That’s pretty helpful.

Preloaded Maps

While all GPS units will come loaded with a base map, these maps tend to be pretty basic. If you plan to use your GPS for more complicated situations or in a marine environment, you might want to be able to load your device with additional maps. Should this be the case, you’ll want to look for a GPS with a microSD card slot, which allows you to add additional maps on-the-go, easily customizing your device for any terrain.

Geocaching Features

These days, many GPS units have geocaching capabilities, allowing you to go paperless in the backcountry. Thus, if you’re an avid geocacher, you’ll want to confirm that your GPS can handle this information before you leave home.

Communication Features

Thanks to advances in radio and satellite technology, many GPS units are actually secondary features to more complex communication devices. Many of these devices allow you to communicate via two-way radio or even text-messaging with another device user or any phone number. Some of these devices even come with an SOS button for directly relaying an emergency signal to the authorities.

Hiking GPS Buying Guide

The best handheld GPS doesn’t have to be difficult to find. However, there are a lot of different factors that go into choosing the best GPS that you should consider before swiping your credit card. Here are the top things to keep in mind when buying a hiking GPS unit:

Display

Modern GPS units have a variety of different display options, from an old-school black and white screen to a new age touch screen. If you’re the type of person that struggles with technology, you’d probably be better off with a simpler model with a classic, easy-to-use display. On the other hand, if you like to have all of the latest and greatest features at your fingertips, a touch screen or high-powered display is the way to go.

When it comes to displays, the main thing you want to look at is the size of the screen relative to the size of the device. For the most part, a larger screen is easier to use (simply because it’s easier to see the information on the screen). However, generally speaking, the larger the screen, the heavier the GPS. Additionally, GPS units with larger screens tend to cost more, as do GPS units with touch screens and full-color displays, so it really depends on what you want from your navigation device.

Software

Any modern GPS will come pre-equipped with the factory software, which you may need to update as soon as you receive your device. Since most of the best hiking GPS units come from Garmin, the software is actually pretty similar between the devices. Instead, what you want to look for are the features that your specific GPS device can support as this will determine its usefulness.

Weight

The last thing anyone wants is to be carrying a brick of a GPS around in the backcountry. Thankfully, there are plenty of lightweight options out there to satiate our ultralight friends. However, this light weight does tend to come at a cost and, generally, that’s in features.

Usually, lightweight GPS devices are relatively minimalistic, with few added features and fairly small screens. However, for those of us who use our GPS devices sparingly, this can be an added benefit as there’s no reason to carry around a lot of weight in a gadget that we barely use.

Battery Life

A general rule of thumb for a GPS device is that the more features it has – and the more often you use these features – the quicker the battery will die. Thus, if you want to have a GPS that you can leave in your pack and not worry about, you’ll probably want to get a simpler, lighter device with a smaller screen and fewer features.

Additionally, if you really want to conserve your battery life, you can keep your batteries out of the GPS until you’re going to use the device. Often, GPS units turn on inside your pack because they’re getting jostled around, so you can save yourself the headache and keep the batteries out of the device until you’re actually using it.

Reception Quality

Without satellite reception, a GPS is fairly useless. Thankfully, most modern GPS units can pick up a signal quickly and hold onto it rather well. Usually, your device’s network capabilities will affect the quality of your satellite reception.

Until recently, most GPS receivers could only pick up a signal from the GPS (global positioning system) satellites. Nowadays, many devices can also pick up signals from the Russian GLONASS system, which means they are much more reliable, especially in high-tree cover and canyon areas. Thus, if a good signal is important to you (it should be), you might want to opt for a device that can connect to both systems.

Maps

If you use your GPS for more than just plotting waypoints, you’ll probably want a good set of digital maps. However, digital maps vary drastically in quality, from unbelievably useless to insanely detailed. Plus, you can even get maps that are specifically designed for certain activities, such as hunting or marine use.

That being said, most GPS base maps (the kind of maps that units come with from the factory) leave a lot to be desired. So, if you really want quality maps on your GPS device, you’ll want to buy one that has a MicroSD card slot on it. 

This slot allows you to insert a memory card with preloaded maps on it, which can be purchased from Garmin or similar companies. Many of these maps are highly detailed and allow for much better GPS-based navigation than the base maps, so they’re worth investing in, especially if you plan to use your device on the water, too.

The Verdict

Ultimately, you’re only going to bring one GPS with you into the backcountry, so you need to make it a good one. If we were going to choose just one of the five GPS units in this review, we’d go with the Garmin eTrex 30x to accompany us on our adventures. The Garmin eTrex 30x is a high powered GPS unit with all of the features you need and no extra frills. Quick to connect to satellites, but also easy to use and highly intuitive, the eTrex 30 keeps things simple when you need them most. 

So, what are you waiting for? Get your GPS and get out into the mountains!

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