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 hiking and backpacking trips often involve more than a little exploration. Unfortunately, it’s almost too easy to wander into a part of the wilderness 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 United States 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 transmit 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 hiking GPS devices for trekking, backpacking, and everything in between.
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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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), 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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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 automatically triggers 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 the Explorer+ brings.
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Garmin eTrex 20 ($145)
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 new eTrex 20. The company has taken the popular eTrex 10 and made it even better with a more ergonomic design, enhanced screen quality, and a sunlight-readable display. The product boasts expanded mapping capabilities and tracks both GPS and GLONASS satellites at the same time. A major upgrade to the eTrex series is paperless geocaching in addition to 1.7 gigabytes of internal memory on which you can load TOPO 24K maps or plug in a BlueChart g2 for an expedition on the water. The eTrex 20 is also compatible with City Navigator NT and BirdsEye Satellite Imagery, although the latter requires a subscription.
The eTrex 20 was designed to be compatible for a variety of activities and is available with mounts for ATVs, bikes, boats, or as a handheld in your car. Similar to the eTrex 10, this new model is water resistant and also designed to withstand exposure to dust, humidity, and dirt, so that you can take your GPS device with you anywhere. Although it lacks some fancier features provided by higher-quality models, the eTrex 20 offers all the essentials in an affordable package.
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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 select, the Ambit displays barometric pressure or altitude and its readings are incredibly accurate. If you have it set to Automatic, it’ll switch back and forth, based on whether you’re on a 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 an 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 sports 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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Magellan eXplorist 310 ($160)
Proving that Garmin doesn’t entirely dominate the field, the Magellan eXplorist is an excellent basic model that serves as an affordable option for geocaching. Pre-loaded with the World Edition map, this product is ready for navigation right out of its packaging. The GPS is accurate to within 10 to 15 feet and is powered by two AA batteries, providing for 18 hours of continuous use. The base maps include roads and geographic features and the eXplorist marks waypoints in addition to showing your trip progress with tracks. The color screen is easy to read in direct sunlight and the device includes a loop at the bottom through which you can hang or attach your GPS.
The Magellan eXplorist is especially useful during geocaching, with a summary page that lets you know how you did and how long it took for you to uncover each cache. The product includes a 3.2-megapixel camera, video, and voice recorder, making for a mid-range device with all the bells and whistles at an affordable price — no doubt an excellent entry-level GPS device.
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What to look for in a hiking GPS
Screen type: If it’s a touchscreen, it’ll be easier to navigate, and for some users, the sense of familiarity (now that we all have smartphones) might be important. On the other hand, you won’t be able to operate a touchscreen with gloves or mittens on, so if there’s the potential for inclement weather on your trip, you may want to choose a device with buttons.
Sensors: Barometric altimeters, thermometers, and electronic compasses can be vital tools. Cheaper GPS devices rarely include these sensors.
Car navigation: Some handheld GPS devices can effectively double as dashboard-mounted navigation in your vehicle. Few have screens that are big enough and clear enough, though.
Bluetooth connectivity: Devices that can communicate with one another to share maps, geocaches, and topographical data can be very valuable. You can save precious time if all members of your party have compatible devices.
Satellite communication: Some GPS devices are capable of communicating from remote areas, regardless of reception. If you’re planning a long trip or going deep into the rough, one of these could be the difference between life and death (hopefully not, though).
Smartphone compatibility: Some high-end handheld GPS navigators are capable of synchronizing with smartphones to provide “smart notifications.” This can be a handy tool when an unfriendly weather front is rolling in, or if you’ve veered off the path by accident.
Camera: Realistically, most people have a smartphone with a better camera than any GPS, but if you’d prefer to leave your phone at home (or if you can’t afford to waste the battery for some reason or another), you can snag a navigator with a decent onboard camera (for posterity).
Geocaching options: Some GPS devices come pre-loaded with geocache locations, and software designed specifically for geocaching. If not, you can usually upload your own via cable or SD card, but it’s still a fun addition to keep in mind.