A smartphone can help you navigate in the wilderness, but phones are easily damaged and shut down by water. Phone batteries are also short-lived when running GPS. A handheld GPS device, which is completely waterproof, rugged, and runs on AA batteries, can be a better and more reliable option for the hiking and backpacking enthusiast. Modern GPS units may have extras, such as cameras or the ability to communicate via satellite. Read on for more about the five best handheld hiking GPS units (click on images to enlarge).
There are several models in the Garmin eTrex line, but the eTrex 20 strikes a good balance between a full range of functions and price in a color mapping hiking GPS. The eTrex 20 tracks the U.S. GPS satellites, but also the Russian GLONASS satellites, for improved signal availability and accuracy. The eTrex 20's high-res, 1.4 x 1.7-inch screen is visible in full daylight. Other features include paperless geocaching, customizable "dashboards" for your most-used applications, and the ability to load a wide range of Garmin mapsets via convenient microSD card. You may also sync up the eTrex 20 with Garmin's Basecamp software for trip planning and syncing. Accessory mounts for bikes, ATVs, and marine are also available.
If you travel well beyond the communications grid, and need to stay connected for safety or professional reasons, consider the DeLorme PN-60 combined with the DeLorme InReach two-way satellite communicator. The InReach works with all of DeLorme's handheld GPS line, as well as with smartphones. InReach is capable using communication satellites to send and receive e-mails and text messages, as well as providing automated tracking reporting, or sending an SOS to emergency services. The Earthmate PN-60 GPS has a high-res color screen, and comes with a full set of North American topographic maps included. It's also easy to load mapsets from DeLorme's vas map library. A digital compass, tides chart, and more make the PN-60 a good wilderness tool.
The fēnix is made for "mountaineers, hikers, cyclists, hunters and backpackers. fēnix provides comprehensive navigation and tracking functionalities as well as trip information to guide adventurers," states Garmin. The fēnix, which sells for $399 and has a scratch-resistant mineral glass face, has the following functions: altimeter, barometer, compass, thermometer, and a Bluetooth link to your smartphone. "fēnix lets you create routes, record up to 1,000 waypoints (such as campsites or points of interest), and record GPS bread crumb trails on the move (tracklogs). Navigate to coordinates, along a track or route, towards waypoints, geocaches or along any other selected bearing," states Garmin.
If you like to pack your smartphone on hiking and backpacking trips because it has a camera, consider the the Magellan eXplorist 510. It has a built-in 3.2-megapixel camera plus the advantage of being much more weather-resistant than a smartphone. A microphone and the ability to record and store sound files also sets this handheld GPS apart. Beyond these extras, the eXplorist 510 has a 3-inch (diagonal) high-res color touchscreen, paperless geocaching, and accepts a wide range of accessory maps, including street maps with turn-by-turn directions.
If you like a large, color touchscreen, consider the Garmin Dakota 20. It's high-res screen measures 1.4 inches by 2.2 inches, and it is controlled by touch commands. This palm-sized (2.2 x 3.9 inches) handheld GPS has a barometric altimeter to improve accuracy of GPS elevation readout, and a digital compass. A microSD card makes it easy to load Garmin's many map and lake and ocean chart options. The Dakota 20 also features paperless geocaching, and syncing with Garmin's Basecamp software for trip planning and loading.
If you're looking for a high-quality handheld GPS for hiking and geocaching at a budget price, consider the Magellan eXplorist 110. This models has a high-res, 2.2-inch (diagonal) color screen and a glove-friendly, large-button control panel. The 110 lets you overlay different compass styles over maps. It maintains an active track of your hike, and has customizable waypoints. Several types of mounts are available, including a handlebar mount and a vehicle windshield kit.