Losing yourself in nature can be a gratifying, enlightening experience — that is, until you literally lose yourself in nature. Going off the beaten path is fun, and often hiking and backpacking trips involve more than a little exploration. Unfortunately, it’s almost too easy to wander into a part of the wilderness that your map doesn’t include, and that can entail unforeseen dangers.
Luckily, we’ve got the Global Positioning System. The project, which became officially operational in 1995, was developed by the U.S. Department of Defense to overcome the limitations of previous navigation systems, and the system — operated by the Air Force — is freely accessible for anyone with a GPS receiver. These handy gizmos, which today do much more than just transmitting your location to emergency services, can be the difference between life or death in the wilderness. To that end, we’ve compiled a list of the best GPS devices for hiking and backpacking.
Garmin GPSMAP 64s ($255)
Get used to seeing Garmin gadgets on this list, because there are few (if any) companies that can compete when it comes to making a quality GPS tracker. The GPSMAP 64s is an all-around powerhouse, with pretty much every feature you could want, plus a few you didn’t know you needed. The quad-helix antenna, which connects to both GPS and the Russian GLONASS system, ensures accurate location data even when under heavy canopy, and the 4GB of storage allows for up to 5,000 different waypoints and 200 different routes.
This device can wirelessly share routing and map information with compatible devices, and it comes with 250,000 preloaded geocaches, in case geocaching is your jam. The sturdy physical-button design means you can comfortably use the 64s with gloves on, and its battery lasts for 16 hours of use. It even synchronizes with your smartphone to provide “smart notifications,” in case a heavy storm is about to roll in. In addition, the 64s can be paired with optional ANT+ sensors — like thermometers and heart rate monitors — to provide notifications. All in all, this is pretty much the most versatile GPS tracker you can buy.
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Best touchscreen GPS
Garmin Oregon 600 ($196)
Garmin’s Oregon 600, named after the best state in America (we might be biased), will be your best friend on and off the trail. The 3-inch color touchscreen display actually feels responsive and slick, more like a smartphone than a clunky GPS locator. Like the GPSMAP 64s, the Oregon 600 utilizes both GPS and GLONASS technology to ensure location accuracy, though it’s not as quick to get a signal due to its lack of antennae. The Oregon also comes equipped with Bluetooth, so you can transmit data to and from compatible devices.
The Oregon 600 was the first big-brand GPS to utilize multitouch technology, and it works wonders. Navigating maps is easier than ever, and the user interface is surprisingly simple. The durable Gorilla Glass cover pulls double duty here, simultaneously protecting the screen and improving readability, no matter the weather conditions. The Oregon will also switch back and forth between portrait and landscape orientation, a feature oddly few GPS devices can boast.
Also included: an electronic compass, accelerometer, and barometric altimeter, to help you track direction while standing still and chart your elevation gain/loss. It’s not the best choice for inclement conditions (touchscreens don’t work so well with gloves on), but otherwise this is one of the best choices out there. There are newer Garmin Oregon trackers (700, 750, 750t), but they’ll cost a lot more for just a few minor improvements.
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Best satellite messenger GPS
Garmin inReach Explorer ($450)
In 2016, Garmin acquired satellite tracking and messaging company DeLorme, and appropriated the technology used in its inReach Explorer device to create a satellite messenger-GPS hybrid. Global Iridium satellite coverage enables two-way text messaging from anywhere on the planet, and a dedicated “SOS” function will automatically trigger a notification to the 24/7 search and rescue monitoring center. The Explorer+ also comes preloaded with maps, as well as an electronic compass, accelerometer, and barometric altimeter.
If the included maps don’t work for you, you can simply pair to a mobile device and download the free Earthmate app for access to aerial imagery, NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) charts, and topographical map data. The unfortunate kicker: you’ll need to subscribe to one of Garmin’s annual plans to use this device. The plans aren’t cheap (starting at around $150/year), so this isn’t a stocking stuffer for walking in the park. The cheaper plans allow you to pre-set messages to be sent anytime, while the more expensive plans allow you to type out custom messages when — and where — you like. True explorers, though, will surely appreciate the value that the Explorer+ brings.
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Best affordable GPS
Garmin eTrex 10 ($88)
If you’re a casual weekend hiker, or you’re just getting started and don’t want to spend hundreds of dollars on a GPS you’ll rarely use, check out Garmin’s eTrex 10. The GPS receiver is HotFix- and GLONASS-enabled, so you won’t have to wait long to acquire a signal, though you’ll need to download your own maps if you want anything more than barebones positioning.
The eTrex 10 is IPX7 rated for water protection, so you won’t need to worry about rain showers shorting out your guide. It’s particularly useful for geocaching, with the ability to store notes and information related to specific caches that you’re seeking. The 2.2-inch monochrome screen is surprisingly readable in sunlight, though of course it pales in comparison with the other options on this list. A convenient mounting spine allows you to attach the GPS to bikes or carabiners, and the extremely simple operating system is perfect to teach kids (or beginners) the ins and outs of navigation.
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Best GPS watch
Suunto Ambit 3 Peak ($400)
You could easily spend thousands on a GPS-enabled sports watch these days, but why would you? For under $500, Suunto’s Ambit 3 Peak watch does it all. Depending on the settings you have selected, the Ambit will display barometric pressure or altitude, and its readings are incredibly accurate. If you’ve got it set to “automatic,” it’ll switch back and forth, based upon whether you’re on flat or graded terrain. In addition, it displays a graph of the past 24 hours, so you can easily track trends across your trip.
The included compass is tilt compensated, so you don’t need to worry about keeping your hand level, though it does need to be calibrated rather often. The GPS functionality is barebones on the watch, but when paired with Suunto’s Movescount app, you can navigate to pre-selected points of interest, and the FindBack feature helps you — you guessed it — find your way back to a starting point. The Ambit 3 includes all the regular watch features, including alarm, stopwatch, and interval timers, but it also doubles as a fitness tracker, capable of keeping daily and weekly logs to track calories burned and sport performance. It’s even water-resistant up to 100 meters, so you can use it for swimming or snorkeling.
There are lots of watches with these features, but few that are both affordable and reliable; the Ambit 3 Peak qualifies.
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