Whether deep in the backcountry or on open water, proper navigation is a must. And for route finding, recording tracks, or finding a geocache, there’s no more durable and long-lasting navigator than a handheld GPS. While it will never fully replace a map and compass, outdoor GPS devices allow you to plan, follow, and share recent adventures. As you’ll see from our top picks, the market is dominated by one brand: GPS giant Garmin. Currently, there is no one that comes close to the mapping software and feature sets across their lineup. Prices can vary widely, and important considerations include whether you prefer a touchscreen or buttons, which we dive into in our comparison table and buying advice. Below, you’ll find our favorite handheld GPS devices of 2023.
- Best Overall Handheld GPS: Garmin GPSMAP 66i
- Best Minimalist GPS/Satellite Messenger: Garmin inReach Mini 2
- Best Budget Handheld GPS: Garmin eTrex 22x
- Best Handheld GPS With a Touchscreen: Garmin Montana 700
Best Overall Handheld GPS
Weight: 8.1 oz.
Screen: 3 in.
Battery life: 35 hours (200 in power save mode)
Memory: 16 GB (accepts microSD)
What we like: A premium GPS device with satellite messaging/SOS.
What we don’t: Expensive and not as accurate as many other options here.
The Garmin GPSMAP 64sx held our top spot for an extended stretch, but we replaced it with the GPSMAP 66i last year. With the 66i, you get Garmin’s premium navigation tools in a rugged design, alongside the added benefit of satellite messaging and SOS via inReach (Garmin acquired the company in 2016). For explorers headed into areas without cell service, the ability to send and receive messages, share a track, access weather forecasts, and initiate rescues is a game-changer, and well worth the extra $250 (note: a subscription plan is required to use the messaging and SOS features). To top it off, the 66i’s hardware is best-in-class within the GPSMAP lineup, including a high-resolution 3-inch screen, impressive battery life (200 hours in power save mode), 16 GB of memory, and Wi-Fi connectivity.
Like most of Garmin’s GPSMAP offerings, the 66i features an external antenna, ABC sensors, and multi-GNSS support (GPS and Galileo), and is compatible with both TopoActive mapping and Birdseye satellite imagery. These navigational tools will get the job done for most users, but keep in mind that devices like the GPSMAP 66sr and GPSMAP 65s offer better accuracy with expanded satellite support. And while the 66i’s lithium-ion battery is long-lasting and rechargeable, some might appreciate the simple convenience of AAs that you get with the 64x and 65 series. Minor gripes aside, the GPSMAP 66i is an impressive tool, and its ability to send and receive messages via satellite is certainly an indication of where the GPS market is headed.
See the Garmin GPSMAP 66i
Best Minimalist GPS/Satellite Messenger
Weight: 3.5 oz.
Screen: 1.3 in.
Battery life: Up to 14 days
What we like: GPS and satellite messaging in a light and relatively affordable design.
What we don’t: Not ideal for navigation unless paired with a smartphone.
Garmin’s inReach Mini 2 looks a little different from most GPS devices here, but for weight-conscious explorers, it’s definitely worth a look. The primary functions of the inReach Mini are satellite messaging and SOS (a feature we’re seeing on more and more GPS devices, such as the GPSMAP 66i above), but it also offers features like tracking, weather reports, and maps and navigation. And with a recent update, the “2” is more impressive than ever: Accuracy has improved with multi-GNSS support and a digital compass, there’s more storage space for preloaded maps and routes, and battery life is noticeably longer. Tack on a diminutive size and weight and fairly approachable price point, and it’s no secret why the inReach Mini 2 has become a must-have for avid hikers, climbers, backcountry skiers, and other dedicated outdoor adventurers.
Unlike most of the competition, however, the inReach Mini 2 is fairly reliant on a smartphone–many of which have middling battery lives and aren’t particularly robust. It’s true that you can use the Mini as a standalone device, but with the small black-and-white screen and simple button interface, it’s certainly not as user-friendly as most offerings here. What’s more, you’ll need a subscription to use the device’s communication features, which will run you anywhere from $12 to $65 per month (most GPS features still work without a subscription). But in 2023, most backcountry explorers prefer to navigate using their smartphones, and the added safety net of satellite messaging and SOS is an undeniable perk. For a deeper dive, check out our article on the best satellite messengers.
See the Garmin inReach Mini 2
Best Budget Handheld GPS
Weight: 5 oz.
Screen: 2.2 in.
Battery life: 25 hours
Memory: 8 GB (accepts microSD)
What we like: Great feature set at a budget price.
What we don’t: Costs another $100 to get a 3-axis compass and barometric altimeter.
Expensive GPS devices offer an overwhelming and, for some, unnecessary number of features. With that in mind, a good number of outdoor-goers will find plenty to like with the budget-friendly Garmin eTrex 22x. The device is simple to use and comes with 8 GB of internal memory, 25 hours of battery life, and a tough, water-resistant construction. It’s true the eTrex has a smaller screen than pricier alternatives, lacks a barometric altimeter and three-axis compass, and doesn’t have any touchscreen capabilities, but it’s a proven performer and priced right at just $200 (or $180 at REI).
It’s worth noting that Garmin also offers an upgraded eTrex 32x that comes in $100 more. The two models are identical in basic design and size, but the 32 includes a compass and barometric altimeter for better position accuracy. These added features may be worth it for serious backcountry adventurers, but it’s a fairly big jump in price up to $300. Our take is that if you can do without the added sensors, the eTrex 22 is the better all-around value. And for an even cheaper and more pared-down option, check out the $110 eTrex 10, which has a monochrome display.
See the Garmin eTrex 22x
Best Handheld GPS With a Touchscreen
Weight: 14.5 oz.
Screen: 5 in.
Battery life: 18 hours (330 in expedition mode)
Memory: 16 GB (accepts microSD)
What we like: Massive, high-resolution display and tank-like durability.
What we don’t: You might be able to get away with a smartphone.
Handheld GPS devices haven’t always excelled in user experience, but the Garmin Montana 700 is about as good as it gets. The headlining feature is the colorful, 5-inch touchscreen: Instead of awkwardly making selections with archaic buttons, the Montana offers convenience on par with a modern smartphone. This makes scrolling through features and navigating via maps a breeze, and the Montana’s Gorilla Glass screen is easy to read even in direct sunlight. Importantly, the modernized design also sacrifices little in the way of performance: Like the GPSMAP 66i above, the Montana 700 features ABC sensors, multi-GNSS support (GPS and Galileo), and a full set of topographic maps. Finally, Garmin also offers the Montana 700i ($700), which tacks on inReach technology so you can stay connected even in areas without cell service.
In 2023, handheld GPS devices have become a little long in the tooth, which is largely due to the increased capabilities of modern smartphones. The vast majority of today’s phones are GPS-equipped, and a plethora of apps give you the ability to navigate in areas without cell service. But there are still a few reasons serious explorers might want a handheld GPS device. For one, they’re considerably more durable—the Montana in particular features a tank-like design that meets military standards for heat, shock, vibration, and water. Second, battery life is a lot more impressive: The Montana lasts for 18 hours in GPS mode and 330 hours in expedition mode. And finally, dedicated GPS devices are simply more accurate, with most models boasting built-in sensors and connectivity to a greater network of satellites. In other words, if you’re looking for the convenience of a smartphone in a design that’s built to perform in the backcountry, the Montana is a nice solution.
See the Garmin Montana 700
Best of the Rest
Weight: 7.7 oz.
Screen: 2.6 in.
Battery life: 16 hours
Memory: 8 GB (accepts microSD)
What we like: More accurate and $250 cheaper than the GPSMAP 66i above.
What we don’t: Not everyone loves the buttons; antenna adds bulk.
For those who don’t need satellite messaging or SOS, the Garmin GPSMAP 64sx offers all the GPS functionality of our top pick (including better accuracy) for $250 less. This device is feature-packed, has a clear and easy-to-read 2.6-inch screen, and includes large and well-marked buttons that are simple to operate even with gloves on. It’s also a solid value at $350 for the mid-range “sx” version that includes a barometric altimeter and three-axis compass. You can upgrade to the 64csx, which features a built-in 8-megapixel camera, but we don’t think it’s worth the additional $100. In the end, the GPSMAP 64sx is a durable and reliable option for everything from backcountry hiking and cycling to geocaching.
For getting a reliable fix and accurate tracking, the GPSMAP has an external antenna and multi-GNSS support. Compared to the 66i above, you get compatibility with GLONASS satellites in addition to GPS and Galileo satellites, which results in even more precise navigation. But for serious backcountry use, the 64 lacks many of the high-end components of the 66: Battery life is less than half of the more premium handheld (16 hrs vs. the 66’s 35 hrs), the screen is smaller and has a lower resolution, and you don’t get modern features like a rechargeable battery or live tracking. In the end, the 64sx isn’t Garmin’s flashiest offering, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a more functional and durable GPS device at this price point. Of note: For $50 more, you can bump up to the GPSMAP 65s with a multi-band receiver for even better accuracy.
See the Garmin GPSMAP 64sx
Weight: 3.1 oz.
Screen: 2 in.
Battery life: 48 hours
What we like: Great battery life and hands-free convenience.
What we don’t: Can’t download maps onto the device.
Garmin’s wrist-mounted Foretrex 601 offers a unique spin on the standard GPS device, with hands-free operation that makes it popular for hunting, target shooting, and other tactical applications. Like Garmin’s premium offerings, the Foretrex 601 features fast acquisition and accurate recording with GPS, GLONASS, and Galileo support, along with a 3-axis compass and barometric altimeter. Battery life is impressive at 48 hours in navigation mode, and the 601 is as tough as ever with military-grade construction. Taken together, the Foretrex is all of the bones of a handheld unit but none of the bulk, and a highly functional tool for the right user.
Where does the Foretrex 601 fall short? The biggest compromise compared with the options above is that you aren’t able to add TOPO maps. Instead, you have to use the old-fashioned breadcrumb trail and 3-axis compass for navigation. Further, the 2-inch screen is small compared to a standard handheld unit, but on the plus side, it’s easy to read even in direct sunlight. All told, the Foretrex isn’t for everyone, but its simple design, durable build, and fantastic battery life has its appeals for backcountry explorers.
See the Garmin Foretrex 601
Weight: 5.2 oz.
Screen: 2.2 in.
Battery life: 18 hours
Memory: 2 GB
What we like: Great affordable option for geocaching.
What we don’t: Old design and dated technology.
Proving that the GPS game isn’t Garmin-only, the Magellan eXplorist 310 is a solid entry-level GPS. The eXplorist does everything a basic GPS should: create and follow routes, mark waypoints and show your trip progress with tracks. Geocache-ready, the eXplorist comes with a decent base map that includes roads and some geographic features. A summary page details your exploits, with key bits like how long it took you to uncover each cache. Also, as opposed to its closest competitor, the Garmin eTrex 10, the eXplorist’s 2.2-inch screen is color and reads reasonably well even in direct light.
What pushes the eXplorist towards the bottom of our rankings? The line is getting long in the tooth, which means the satellite lock can take a while, their software is not as well-established as Garmin, and navigating between menus can be clunky. But at a great price ($200 on Amazon at the time of publishing) and for simple uses like geocaching or route-finding on a local trail, it’s a fine budget option.
See the Magellan eXplorist 310
|GPS Device||Price||Weight||Screen||Battery||Memory||Messaging & SOS|
|Garmin GPSMAP 66i||$600||8.1 oz.||3 in.||35 hours||16 GB (accepts microSD||Yes|
|Garmin inReach Mini 2||$400||3.5 oz.||1.3 in.||14 days||Unavailable||Yes|
|Garmin eTrex 22x||$200||5 oz.||2.2 in.||25 hours||8 GB (accepts microSD)||No|
|Garmin Montana 700||$600||14.5 oz.||5 in.||18 hours||16 GB (accepts microSD)||No (available)|
|Garmin GPSMAP 64sx||$350||7.7 oz.||2.6 in.||16 hours||8 GB (accepts microSD)||No|
|Garmin Foretrex 601||$200||3.1 oz.||2 in||48 hours||Unavailable||No|
|Magellan eXplorist 310||$200||5.2 oz.||2.2 in.||18 hours||2 GB||No|
- Touchscreen vs. Buttons
- Display: Screen Size and Readability
- Global Navigation Satellite Systems
- Mapping and Memory
- Satellite Messaging and SOS
- Battery Type and Battery Life
- Altimeter, Barometer and Compass (ABC)
- Dimensions and Weight
- Handheld GPS vs. Smartphone GPS Apps
- GPS Watches
As with smartphones, touchscreens are becoming more prevalent in the handheld GPS market. These devices are intuitive, easy to navigate or type with, and work in both landscape and portrait orientations. But a few of the reasons some of the best-rated models are laden with buttons, including Garmin's GPSMAP 66i, are that the touchscreen tech and the built-in software isn’t as advanced as our expensive phones, nor are they as consistent in rough and cold weather. Further, using a touchscreen can be a pain with gloves—despite technologies that make some gloves work decently well.
But for all those complaints, there is an equally good argument a touchscreen is the better choice over buttons. Buttons add bulk, and if you need to type, they are cumbersome and slow to navigate an on-screen keyboard. Your preferred style will vary, but if you’re wearing gloves most of the time, need to quickly navigate between screens while on the move or operate the GPS in frigid temperatures, buttons are best. As touchscreen technology continues to improve, including the current option to adjust the sensitivity setting of the screen, its benefit of a sleek and low profile design where more space can be dedicated to a screen will continue to win over more and more users.
One of the main reasons to upgrade to a high-end GPS is a large screen size. For boating, hunting, and motorized activities, a larger screen is helpful when you need to be able to see the information clearly at just a glance. Hikers, backpackers, and long-distance adventurers such as thru-hikers or bikepackers will still be happiest with a small and light device, such as the eTrex 22x (2.2 in. measured diagonally) or inReach Mini 2 (1.3 in. diagonally). For geocaching, a small or midsize screen should do the trick. The larger GPSMAP 64 and 65 (2.6 in.) and 66 (3 in.) have long been popular with mountain bikers and geocachers.
The brightness of the screen and readability in direct sunlight are important considerations. Thankfully, this has been an area of emphasis for Garmin lately, and their new models excel with anti-glare screens with good backlighting and contrast that make maps and text easy to decipher. One of the best models is the Garmin Montana, while the cheaper eTrex falls a little short. In the end, other than the Magellan eXplorist, which has a small screen size and doesn't excel in bad lighting conditions, readability is a strength among handheld devices.
In researching GPS devices, you’re bound to run across the term GNSS, or Global Navigation Satellite Systems. GNSS refers to the entire “constellation” of satellite systems, including GPS (U.S.), GLONASS (Russia), Galileo (EU), QZSS (Japan), and BeiDou (China). As with all segments of the handheld GPS world, Garmin is taking the lead here with the ability to connect not just with GPS, but other GNSS networks as well (often referred to as “multi-GNSS support”).
The big takeaway for most users is accuracy and availability: if a device can connect to multiple satellite systems, it’s more likely to be able to get a quick and precise location fix, no matter your position in the world. If your explorations take you into deep canyons or under heavy cover, or if accuracy is paramount, you might want to consider a device with multi-GNSS support. For example, Garmin’s GPSMAP 66i connects to both GPS and GLONASS, and their GPSMAP 65s offers even better reach with GPS, GLONASS, Galileo, and QZSS support. More rudimentary systems like the inReach Mini connect only to GPS, although the updated inReach Mini 2 features multi-GNSS support. And a final note: your device might require you to turn on the additional satellite support, and it’s likely to drain your battery a bit faster.
All handheld devices come with some form of base map—essentially a blank screen that will include some major local features—while many include additional preloaded maps or the option to upload more later on. For Garmin devices, it will largely depend on the age of the product. Most modern models (like the GPSMAP 66i and Montana 700) include TopoActive mapping, which is a fairly extensive program with contour lines to indicate elevation gained/lost, points of interest, and some on- and off-road navigation based on your country of origin (i.e., a device purchased in the U.S. will have a North American TopoActive map). The good news is that most of our top picks have built-in memory and/or a microSD slot for adding maps (we indicate this in our comparison table above). And it’s worth noting that there are a number of ways to add maps to your device for free, including the popular OpenStreetMap.
A growing number of GPS devices now have the ability to transmit messages or SOS alerts via satellite. Paired with a subscription (often billed monthly with a one-time set-up fee), this tech allows you to connect in areas without cell service, including sending and receiving texts, posting to social media, sharing your location, and communicating between GPS devices. The benefits are endless (we’ve used our GPS device to get weather reports in the North Cascades and schedule flights in the Alaska Range), and especially vital in the event of an accident. Communication can be managed on the device’s screen, but in the case of smaller devices (like the Garmin inReach Mini 2), the ability to pair with your smartphone via Bluetooth is a welcome feature. A number of models above come with satellite connectivity, including the Garmin inReach Mini, GPSMAP 66i, and Montana 700i. For a deeper dive on the topic, see our article on the best satellite messengers.
The long-time standard for batteries in GPS devices has been the trusty AA. They are cheap, have decent lifespans, and can be swapped out when they are drained. On the downside, if you are heading out for an extended stretch, you'll need to bring a number of backup batteries. With extra stuff brings extra weight and inconvenience, and then there’s the hassle of disposing of used batteries correctly. So while AA batteries remain an option for many GPS devices, Garmin and others have turned to rechargeable battery packs as a compelling alternative.
The main advantage to rechargeable batteries is the ability to reduce weight and bulk from your pack—and over time the cost-savings can really add up. And with portable solar panels and power banks becoming more and more reliable (the Anker PowerCore is our favorite), there’s simply very little downside. As a result, rechargeable battery packs now come preinstalled on many of Garmin’s most premium models (such as the GPSMAP 66i and Montana 700), and many devices that take AAs are also compatible with a rechargeable lithium-ion pack (sold separately for around $30).
Nearly all handheld GPS devices list a barometric altimeter and 3-axis compass. The advantage of the electronic compass is its ability to read direction no matter how you’re holding the device and regardless of if you’re moving or still. Standard compasses must be held horizontally to orient properly (or be moving if it's GPS-based). It’s a small but nice addition, particularly if you’re needing to hold the device upright to get a signal. Getting a read on barometric pressure is helpful in determining elevation because the higher you go, the lower the pressure. The science isn’t perfect here, however, because when weather shifts, barometric pressure also changes, which can skew the numbers. That said, a barometric altimeter remains the best option for mountainous and backcountry use and can provide a helpful approximation of your current elevation.
In most cases, dimensions and weight correspond with screen size. Some of the smallest and lightest handheld options on our list, the Garmin eTrex 22x and Magellan eXplorist 310, have equally small 2.2-inch screens. How you’ll be using the device will dictate how important dimensions and weight are. Those that opt for high-end devices like the Montana are not typically carrying them in their hand or hiking with a pack, instead placing them on a handlebar mount for ATVing or snowmobiling.
Smartphones have been eroding the handheld GPS market for years. And the reasons are fairly obvious: most hikers and backcountry explorers already have their phones along for capturing photos or referencing route information, and the simplicity of keeping everything on one device is a big plus. In addition, prior concerns with durability have been partially addressed with burlier carrying cases and increased water and drop protection.
In terms of mapping and accuracy, handheld devices have the upper hand with greater compatibility with a wider array of satellite systems (smartphones use cell towers and GPS), which can be valuable in deep backcountry areas with challenging coverage. That said, most hikers, backpackers, and climbers will be happy with the performance of a smartphone, and there are a number of quality mapping apps available for free or a small charge. Popular choices include Gaia (a subscription-based service) and Topo Maps, which allow you to download quality USGS topos. The main hang-up with going the smartphone route, however, is battery life. It’s true you can charge up on the go via a solar panel or portable recharger, but these GPS-based apps are battery hogs and can’t come close to the ease of use and longevity of a handheld GPS. As things currently stand, this is the main reason to opt for a handheld GPS over a smartphone.
In addition to smartphone GPS apps, GPS-equipped sports watches are another piece of relatively new technology giving handheld GPS devices a run for their money. Like a standard GPS device, these watches allow you to find your location on preloaded maps, upload and follow .gpx tracks, record your route, retrace your steps, and even pan out and view your surroundings. With the most basic navigation, you’ll see a simple line with waypoint marker on an otherwise blank screen, while the most premium watches (the Garmin Fenix 6 Pro, for example) feature preloaded color topographic maps with detailed contour lines, geographic place names, and more. At best, you get most of the features of a handheld GPS device packed into a streamlined wrist watch.
But while the technology is impressive, we have a hard time recommending a GPS watch as a full-blown substitute for a GPS device. The small screen and controls are fairly painstaking to navigate unless you put in the time to learn the system, and the mapping functions can be a big drain on a watch’s battery life. Additionally, in most cases you’ll pay more for the smaller device: for example, the Garmin Fenix 7 watch will cost you $700, while the premium Garmin GPSMAP 66i handheld is $600 (including the addition of satellite messaging and SOS). But for those who value the streamlined package and only use GPS occasionally, a high-end GPS watch (other options include the COROS Vertix 2 and Garmin Forerunner 955) is certainly an intriguing option.
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