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The world may be increasingly digital, but there are still plenty of spots out there that don’t get cellular service, posing a potential problem if you’re stuck somewhere in a dead zone.
A handheld GPS bypasses this completely, relying on satellite to receive navigation, location, weather data, and of course to communicate, when crossing long stretches of Earth with zero cell signal.
But the latest handheld GPS devices aren’t just for emergencies and things like land measurement – there’s plenty of adventure that awaits with one of these units, like geocaching, hiking, hunting, and off-roading too.
What Are the Best Handheld GPS Devices?
These portable palm-sized GPS units can provide peace of mind and worry-free confidence on your next trip into the wild or across the world. Here’s what to know:
Communication: Some of the best handheld GPS devices include a CB, GMRS (two-way radio service), or global coverage that lets you text from anywhere. An SOS feature can be a literal lifesaver too, connecting you with help wherever you are. WiFi and Bluetooth can also come in handy to sync your other devices up to it, giving you more control as well as options to choose from on the accompanying app.
Display: A full-color display is nice to have, but not necessarily a dealbreaker if there isn’t one – simple black and white graphics can still get the job done for basic off-grid navigation, and the unit will generally cost way less too. Don’t expect smartphone-sized screens on these either, as they’re significantly smaller, usually under three inches. If you’re going somewhere with excessively harsh sunlight, a screen that’s designed to be readable in bright conditions is ideal.
Durability: It’s always good to have a GPS unit that’s waterproof and weatherproof, specifically if you’re taking this thing deep into the outdoors. A rating of IP65 or higher means that it’s protected against water and dust. A rubber grip around the edges not only offers protection, but is also much more comfortable and secure to hold onto.
Charging: Since these are designed to stray far from a power source, the batteries are usually lithium ion or something similar that can be recharged and last a while, up to and around 18 hours on ones with displays, with the option for backup AAs.
Extras: Some of these have things like a built-in camera for geotagging, expandable storage, and maps with microSD cards. There are endless extras, but focusing only on what you’ll actually use will help keep the cost down.
1. Garmin Montana 700i
Garmin is pretty much the undisputed leader when it comes to handheld GPS devices. And it’s clear to see why.
This GPS unit has a five-inch touchscreen — by far the largest of the bunch here — and it even responds to your touch through gloves.
Winding your way through unfamiliar cities is effortless with the colorful, step-by-step guides, while preloaded topographical maps show you the elevation and terrain when you hit the trails. BirdsEye imagery lets you download satellite photos right to your device, and set your route between points and landmarks.
The Montana’s InReach technology is excellent for staying one step ahead of the weather, along with a three-axis compass, and an altimeter and barometer are included too via the ABC sensors.
There’s an 8MP autofocus camera that can automatically geotag photos, and two-way messaging lets you keep in contact with others (and even post to social media). In case of emergency, a global monitoring service is there for you 24/7 with a subscription.
2. Garmin GPSMAP 64SX
This option is great for those using their first GPS device. It’s simple to set waypoints for things like hiking and hunting, and the thick antenna is quick to pick up a satellite using GLONASS for increased accuracy and coverage. Plus you can even see their locations, distance, and signal strength.
This GPS device is preloaded with Top Active mapping for accurate route-planning, and marking a location is instant with one tap.
Zooming in and out is easy too with designated and clearly-marked buttons, and navigating the menu on its 2.6-inch color display is user-friendly even for newbies.
This is IPX7-rated, meaning it can survive being submerged in up to a meter of water, and the battery life is lengthy too, stretching up to 16 hours.
3. ZOLEO Satellite Communicator
If you’re in need of a GPS device for emergencies only, this is a more user-friendly option when you need to send an SOS.
This is primarily a messaging device first and foremost, and pairs with the well-designed smartphone app to communicate through texting. But for sending a basic distress signal, all you need is the main unit itself, no need to even get out your phone. It’ll send GPS coordinates to the contacts you’ve selected beforehand, along with a pre-entered message.
Battery life is a wild 200 hours, and at 5.5 ounces, this can clip onto a backpack. A designated SOS button is covered to prevent accidental pressings, and LED lights are built to flash with it when you need help.
4. Garmin eTrex 22x
This GPS device is ready for some rough trails and treatment.
The 2.2-inch color display is fully readable in bright sunlight, and is preloaded with Topo Active maps to plan out your routes and trails, see natural and manmade boundaries, and even download them to the device or to a microSD card.
It’s built for superior tracking in tougher environments, with support for GPS as well as GLONASS satellite systems, and can last up to 25 hours in GPS mode on just two AA batteries.