Growing up, we always used to ask our dad, “Are we there yet?” And in his own philosophical way he would always answer, “No, we will never be there. We will always be here.”
It was a strange way to teach us about the importance of self-location, and although old Dad was speaking abstractly, we took the point. Knowing where you are is one of the most important aspects of bushcraft, and the best way to do that is by finding the best handheld global positioning system and learning how to use it.
What all goes in to a well-made GPS system for hunting? Well that’s a question we would love to answer, but it will be after our countdown of The 7 Best Handheld GPS Units for Hunting.
Here’s how we broke it down:
The overall carry weight of the unit. Because these GPS devices are used in the backcountry, many consider lighter units to be more desirable for distance travel.
The GPS unit’s on-board memory is what is responsible for storing maps, topographical data, and system info.
All the products on our list are either AA Batteries or AAA Batteries.
However, the BATTERY LIFE can vary significantly, so be sure to check the specifications!
• DISPLAY SIZE
This is the diagonally-measured size of the screen, that is, the length of the bottom right corner to the top left corner. While larger screens mean that it is easier to view information, it can also mean additional weight and bulk in the pack.
Best Handheld GPS for Hunting
Garmin OREGON 600 3-Inch Worldwide Handheld GPS
• WEIGHT: 7.4 ounces
• MEMORY: Reinforced
• BATTERY: 2x AA
• DISPLAY SIZE: 3 inches
When it comes to GPS tracking technology, there is perhaps no brand that has much immediate name recognition as Garmin. Because they have been in the game for so long, Garmin has managed to build a sterling reputation for crafting some of the most reliable and affordable tracking technology available today.
The OREGON 600 is a considerable step up from its predecessor. The new 600 model features an even more advanced reflective display technology, which means that you are getting one of the brightest and most ‘visible’ touchscreens that we have ever seen on a GPS unit.
One of the hot new innovations that manufacturers are catching onto is the growing demand to be able to use your GPS unit to share waypoints, descriptions, photos, and even geocaches. Garmin is no slouch in this department, as the Oregon 600 allows you to do just that and manages to do it a lot faster than many of its competitors.
Now for the downsides. Garmin’s technology has always involved some complicated installation procedures, and the 600 is no exception. You will have to read the manual cover to cover if you hope to get a really good feel for how to program the buttons and everything.
In addition, all Garmin products seem to suffer from the same flaw as experiencing program crashes more often than some other manufacturers. We can only hope that Garmin is working on a software update to address the issue.
Most Rugged Handheld GPS for Hunting
Garmin GPSMAP 64st High-Sensitivity GPS with GLONASS Receiver
• WEIGHT: .58 pounds
• MEMORY: 8GB
• BATTERY: 2x AA
• DISPLAY SIZE: 2.6 inches
There are a few specific features on the 64ST model GPS that when announced made us very excited to try out. After spending so many years with the 60CSx, we thought that moving to the 64st would be something of an upgraded considering the additional storage space and Bluetooth connectivity.
Right off the bat we noticed how sturdy and rugged this little GPS is. Feels like it could really take a beating if it needed to, which is likely considering how things can get in the great outdoors.
One of the things that the 64st does best is acquire signal. In fact it managed to find a signal after startup noticeably faster than even other Garmin products, leading us to wonder what exactly is going on in this little device that we don’t even know about.
There are a few problems however that make us wonder if Garmin really had everything figured out with the 64st. For instance, the data entry interface is so clunky that you would think it was out of the 90s. There is no touchscreen, nor is there a QWERTY keyboard, so the user is forced to use thick, clumsy buttons to get the job done.
We might also mention the battery life, which certainly left something to be desired compared to other products in this price range. However we did notice that lithium batteries tend to work much better with Garmin products.
Best Handheld GPS for Fishing
Magellan eXplorist 310 Fishing Hot Spots Bundle
• WEIGHT: 3.6 ounces
• MEMORY: 500 MB
• BATTERY: 2x AA
• DISPLAY SIZE: 2.2 inches
Not the kind of folks to be outdone, MAGELLAN has released the newest version of its eXplorist 300 series handheld GPS unit, and from what we can tell, they are out to win it. This is one of the most feature-rich handheld GPS units in the sub $300 price range, making it the perfect all-around GPS unit for a number of activities.
No doubt hunters will appreciate the bright and vibrant screen, which is totally readable even in direct sunlight when glare normally would be an issue. But the unit’s real selling point is in its pre-loaded map collection.
The eXplorist comes loaded with a World Edition Map, which has a complete road map of the United States, Canada, Western Europe, and Australia, with regional maps available for download for other locations.
Of course the fishing bundle offers a few more extra goodies on top of the already impressive list of features. The fishing map that comes included features information on thousands of lakes across the United States, including fish species information and land profiles. Dubbing this unit the best handheld GPS for fishing was a no brainer.
What are our complaints with the eXplorist 310? First off, the screen is a bit small, don’t you think? Considering the fact that they spend so much time boasting about their glare-proof screen, you’d think they would want to make it a little bigger. In addition, the font they chose to go with is thin and can be hard to read, and there’s no option to change the font.
Garmin MONTANA 680t
• WEIGHT: .64 pounds
• MEMORY: 500 MB
• BATTERY: 2x AA
• DISPLAY SIZE: 4 inches
The first thing we wanted to find out when we started researching the 680t is what precisely is the difference between this model and the older and slightly more affordable 610t, the model that came before this one in the MONTANA series of GPS units.
The answer is an 8 megabyte digital camera, which is something that not a whole lot of units can claim as a base-model feature. While 8 MB is hardly a super-impressive resolution considering what is possible these days with even cell phone cameras, it is still a handy thing to have, especially if you are in the habit of marking trail locations or waypoints.
What we loved: the MONTANA series has always has wonderful GPS signal. It finds a signal fast and holds it for longer, which is an improvement even over other units from the same manufacturer. In our experience, Garmin products also feature some of the most accurate GPS readings, making it that much more unlikely that you will find yourself far off the trail.
The Cons: the price on this unit can be too much for entry level hunters and geocachers who would rather spend their hard earned dollars elsewhere. There are certainly a few features that we could point to that would justify the price, but in the end it isn’t going to change the fact that it’s one of the most expensive units on our list.
Best Handheld GPS for Backcountry Hunting
DeLorme inReach SE Satellite Tracker
• WEIGHT: 7.02 ounces
• MEMORY: 1 GB
• BATTERY: 2x AA
• DISPLAY SIZE: 1.8 inches
We have to be frank that we didn’t know a whole lot about the GPS technology company DeLorme before we went into this, so we had to do a bit of research, and what we found out was quite impressive.
For one thing, this is the one GPS unit on our lists that offers worldwide text messaging capabilities. You heard that right. That means that even in areas that were traditionally poor-quality GPS reception, you can now get a text message out to anywhere in the world. If you can’t imagine the implications of that then you aren’t thinking big enough.
What is really impressive is that DeLorme has developed an app that makes this process even easier. Anyone who has ever operated a GPS unit can tell you how awful it can be to work with those clunky, hard to press buttons. With the Earthmate app, you can use your smartphone to compost the messages before sending them out via the satellite tracker. Pretty cool, right?
If course this kind of technology isn’t free. The global texting service charges an additional monthly fee on top of the price of the unit, but the value of what you are getting in return is incredible, especially for the hardcore outdoor enthusiasts who are the ones who actually find themselves in such situations. One thing we noticed about DeLorme however was that the customer service department was somewhat lacking. Making any changes to your subscription service after it is setup can be kind of a chore, and their representatives don’t seem too concerned about making it any easier.
Best All-Around Handheld GPS for Hunting
Garmin eTrex 30x Handheld Navigator
• WEIGHT: 4.9 ounces
• MEMORY: 3.7 GB
• BATTERY: 2x AA
• DISPLAY SIZE: 2.2 inches
There is a subtle difference between Garmin’s popular eTrex 30 and the eTrex 30x, and that is the quality of screen that comes included. The display on the 30x is both larger and more high resolution than its predecessor and is highly readable even in high sunlight situations. Sure, the 2.2 inch screen isn’t huge or anything, but in this case, it isn’t the size that counts.
One of the greatest things about Garmin’s most recent product releases is their shared ability to utilize even bigger SD cards, which means that it is completely possible to transfer downloaded maps from one unit to another, if you are the kind of person (like we are) who as a different hand-held GPS for basically every activity.
One of the things a good GPS should be is waterproof, and the 30x is certainly that. It is rated for a full 30 minute immersion before any damage occurs. If you are underwater for thirty minutes, however, it stands to reason that you have some bigger problems to deal with than compromised circuitry.
There is one feature here that we fell in love with that we didn’t even realize that we wanted, and that is the simple and yet exceedingly well-designed alarm clock. You’d think that this was just a throwaway side feature, but we ended up using it quite often and it allowed us to keep the cell phones stowed away, as it would have been the only other thing we were using them for. Our only problem was that they joystick was somewhat unresponsive on several occasions. It’s the kind of problem that only causes a minor inconvenience, but if we could fix it with a wish, we certainly would.
Best Budget Pick Handheld GPS for Hunting
Garmin FORETREX 401 Waterproof Hiking GPS
• WEIGHT: 3.1 ounces
• MEMORY: Reinforced
• BATTERY: 2x AAA
• DISPLAY SIZE: 1.7 inches
You can take one look at the FORETREX 401 Hiking GPS and know exactly what it is that sets this unit apart from its competitors. As the only wrist-mounted GPS unit on our list it manages to secure a spot at the top of the list of best handheld GPS units, for no other reason than offering something that the other units simply cannot.
There is a heated, interesting, and ongoing debate surrounding wrist-mounted GPS units vs. the more traditional handheld units that have dominated the market for the last few years. For one thing, wrist mounted GPS units tend to be somewhat bulky, which can be uncomfortable for a long hike.
On the other hand, the fact that you are able to keep a close eye on your position & bearing while having access to both hands is an incredibly valuable thing to some outdoorsman. Take the mountain biker, for instance, who is spending the day on wheels and doesn’t want to be going in and out of his gear bag every twenty minutes.
Or the avid hunter, who has enough to carry as it is. But a GPS unit is more than just its most obvious feature. We wanted to get a feel for what was really making this unit tick, so to speak. Overall it is a wonderfully easy to use product that is just a bit bulky, but it’s not heavy enough to become much of a bother.
A Handheld GPS Buyer’s Guide: What Exactly to Look For
If our review list wasn’t enough excitement for you, we’ve decided to take a bit of a deeper dive into the world of handheld Global Positioning Systems. Here are the things you should be paying attention to if you are considering purchasing one of these devices:
Screen Size & Touch Screen Resolution
Screen sized tend to vary from about 1.5 inches to 4.5 inches when measured on the diagonal. The bigger the screen, the more clearly you can see the information, but it will also mean a bigger battery draw and increased carry weight.
Resolution is an important aspect of GPS units. Because these units are mostly used outside, they can be particularly susceptible to sun glare. The best handheld GPS for hunting and fishing feature vivid, glare-resistant screens that can be seen clearly in a number of conditions.
It might go without saying, but always carry extra batteries when you are traveling in the backcountry. Whether it’s hunting or fishing, having a few extra AAs can be the difference between life and death if things turn south, hombre.
Battery life on handheld GPS units range considerably, so it is important to factor in your total estimated travel time, and then increase that estimate by 20% to determine the amount of batteries that you will need to bring.
In addition, it is helpful to keep a log of how long batteries tend to last in your unit, so you can use that information to better plan for upcoming excursions.
On-Board CPU Memory
Some of these GPS units have some pretty considerable built-in mapping systems, and with that comes gigabytes of data that needs to be stored. For that reason, every handheld GPS for hunting is equipped with its own on-board memory, ranging from less than 10 megabytes to hundreds of gigabytes.
The more memory you have, the more data you will be able to store, which means more roads, maps, and topographical images.
Add-on / Upgradeable Memory
Many GPS units are capable of increasing their overall memory with the addition of an SD CARD. Because many third party products are available in this category, it is a very cost effective way to increase the total possible storage of your GPS unit.
Pre-Installed GPS Road Maps
Every product manufacturer is unique, and each offers a different set of pre-installed maps and mapping systems for customer use. Before you buy, check the product specifications to make sure that the unit you are interested in has the maps that you need.
Additional Features / Premium Features
Here’s what we like to call the bells & whistles. Those fancy extras that make one product rise above its competition in one way or another.
Here are our favorite PREMIUM FEATURES that are available in the best handheld GPS of 2019:
- Text Messaging
Some GPS manufacturers offer a satellite text messaging service that is available to the user anywhere in the world. There is usually an extra monthly subscription charge for services like these, but it is one of the most incredible pieces of technology we have ever seen.
- Wrist Mounts
Some of the coolest GPS we have seen have featured wrist-mounted design, which makes it possible to check your positioning even when both hands are otherwise occupied. It sounds like the perfect thing for the long distance mountain biker.
- On-Board Camera
There is only one GPS on our list that features an on-board camera, and that is the Garmin MONTANA 680t. While it may seem like an unnecessary feature considering the fact that everyone has a camera on their phone, it can be a very helpful tool for people who are trying to assign pictures to specific GPS waypoints.
A History of Handheld GPS Technology
Global positioning system technology actually has a really cool history behind it, which is fun to know if you are GPS-heads like us. Check out NASA’s GLOBAL POSITIONING SYSTEM HISTORY.
Maybe it’s because we just absolutely love Dick Tracy, but one of our all-time favorite GPS units just has to be the wrist-mounted GARMIN FORETREX 401. We can understand how it is a little too bulky for some people’s tastes, but for us it was the easiest way to stick to pre-determined coordinates, like you would experience when returning to a kill site to retrieve the rest of the haul.
However there is no denying that the old saying “you get what you pay for” is true, especially when it comes to outdoors equipment. That’s why we are totally willing to shell out the extra bucks for a subscription to the text messaging service offered by DeLorme’s inReach GPS. The idea of being able to send a text message anywhere in the world sounds like science fiction, but it’s real, and it is exactly the kind of thing we are looking for when we are shopping for hi-tech GPS equipment.
Frequently Asked Questions
•Q: Are they good for water activities like kayaking?
A: Absolutely. Although there might be some exceptions, all of the handheld GPS units on our list are at the very least water resistant, which means that they will be suitable for certain lengths of submersion.
It is important to check the product specifications to make sure that you know exactly how much water your individual unit can handle.
As far as on-board mapping is concerned, most GPS units are equipped with roads and trail maps, but might not feature as detailed maps of river and water features. Before you depart on your adventure, be sure to check that you have the necessary maps and topographical information.
•Q: Do any of them allowing to download trail maps like iPhone store does?
A: It is a common feature of GPS units these days that new maps and trial information can be downloaded onto the device. Generally, this is possible via SD card which can be transferred between the unit and the computer.
Some GPS units even feature cross-platform integration. The DeLorme inReach, for instance, has developed a smartphone app of their own dedicated to increasing the performance of their mobile GPS unit. If that’s not customer service, then we don’t know what is.
•Q: Are there any models with speakers, like Siri?
A: Because of the immense battery power required by handheld global positioning service devices, the addition of a speaker and voice-guidance is out of the question for most models. Unfortunately, there is just no efficient way to power that kind of technology for hunting & backcountry applications without carrying around a massive bag of batteries.
•Q: Are the displays glove friendly?
A: The buttons on these things are pretty dense, and that means that they are also quite hard to push. If we are being totally honest, you probably couldn’t do much with these buttons if you had gloves on, unless you were wearing the really, really thin kind of gloves.
As far as the touch screens are concerned, even thinner gloves can have a hard time navigating the options even if they are thinner gloves. This may just be one of those things that you have to accept with handheld GPS devices. The buttons are designed to not be pressed accidentally, so it takes a considerable amount of force to operate them.
•Q: Can you download city maps in it? Is it good for city navigation?
A: YES! In fact, many handheld GPS units these days not only support the download of city maps across the world, but they come standard, loaded into the device. This is the real miracle of modern GPS technology and data storage; maps of large portions of the developed world can be stored on a device the size of a cell phone.
Another cool way to take advantage of downloadable maps is to store them upon a single SD CARD that you can then move from device to device, ensuring that you always have access to the maps that you have paid for.
•Q: Can the battery be replaced?
A: Absolutely. All of the handheld GPS units on our review list were powered by either AA or AAA batteries, meaning that they can be replaced as fast as you can switch them out. In fact, this is an important safety feature of such devices, as it is not possible to recharge the batteries via power outlet in survival situations.
For this reason, we highly recommend that you always pack a spare set of batteries. You never know how long you might need the device to be working for.Not to mention all the times that I have just plain forgot to turn the thing off when it isn’t in use. Seriously, people. Batteries are your friend.