There’s no need to rely on your smartphone or smartwatch for navigation. We rounded up the best handheld GPS devices for finding your way.
While smartphones and GPS watches are indeed useful for navigation, they can’t match the interactive and detailed capabilities of a handheld GPS. A high-quality handheld GPS will allow you to view a layered overview of the terrain, insert waypoints and plan a route, and seamlessly log data.
Compared to a smartphone, a handheld GPS has major advantages, including superior durability and much longer battery life. Simply put, no other kind of device on the market can take the place of a good handheld GPS.
Whether you’re trying to stay on course through a whiteout or chart an efficient path through the desert, the portable GPS devices on this list will get the job done. While we do still recommend bringing a map and compass as an analog backup in case technology fails you, the products on this list are the best of the best, and we stand by each one.
We divided this list into useful categories so you can easily find the best handheld GPS for your needs:
The Best Handheld GPS of 2021
Best Overall: Garmin GPSMAP 66sr
Garmin’s GPSMAP 66 series ($500) contains four distinct models. Of these, the 66sr is the most feature-packed option in terms of technology and functions. Though the 66sr is built in the same outer casing as some of the other models in the 66 lineup, it’s packed with a plethora of superior features.
The 66sr sports a 3-inch color display that presents imagery in crisp and vibrant detail. Many users report that the display is brighter and easier to view than other models in Garmin’s 66 lineup. Notably, the display has been designed to be readable even when it’s facing direct sunlight. No need to squint!
Garmin built multi-band technology into the 66sr, which helps you track your route in especially challenging environments such as narrow canyons and dense forests. Where other GPS devices struggle to remain online, the 66sr shines.
Connectivity via Bluetooth allows you to share your waypoints, routes, and geocaches wirelessly with other enabled devices. For up-to-date weather forecasts and animated weather radar, the device’s Active Weather feature is accurate and easy to use.
What really sets the 66sr apart from other models on the market is that it’s the first outdoor GPS unit to utilize five satellite systems. A simultaneous combination of GPS, GLONASS, Galileo, QZSS, and IRSS dramatically improves the accuracy of the device’s mapping capabilities.
The Garmin GPSMAP 66sr comes with the standard heavy-duty case and an internal rechargeable lithium-ion battery that the other handheld GPS devices in the Garmin 66 lineup include. The battery can last up to 36 hours in standard mode and 450 hours in expedition mode. The 66sr is considered waterproof and can withstand submersion in water up to one meter deep for up to 30 minutes.
- Battery life: 36 hours in standard mode and 450 hours in expedition mode
- Weight: 8.2 ounces
- Memory: 16 GB with expandable memory
- Large, bright, easy-to-see display
- Remembers up to 10,000 waypoints
- Integrated altimeter
- Great position accuracy
- Waterproof rating of IPX7
- Expanded global navigation system and multi-band technology
- Bluetooth connectivity
- Active Weather provides in-depth and accurate forecasts
- More expensive than other options
- User must also carry a battery pack or solar panel to recharge the device on longer trips
Best Budget: Garmin eTrex 10
The minuscule Garmin eTrex 10 ($110) is the very definition of a handheld GPS. For $120, this is a great device to consider for users who are willing to sacrifice a few higher-end features in place of simplicity and affordability. Because the eTrex 10 is considered a baseline unit, it lacks the GPS capabilities of more expensive options from Garmin, though it still manages to perform with impressive speed and accuracy.
The eTrex 10 performs its basic tracking and waypoint-marking duties extremely well. Thanks to its compact size, this device takes up very little space in your pack, making it a good selection for expeditions or adventures where weight is a factor. The rugged outer case and display are rated to IPX7 and won’t fail when exposed to rain, splashes, and snow.
For a baseline unit, the eTrex 10 provides solid GPS reception thanks to its integrated WAAS/EGNOS receiver that can track its user with an accuracy rating of +/- 7 feet. In dense tree cover and narrow canyons, this device is still often able to maintain satellite reception — an impressive trait for such an affordable device.
Four preset buttons and a single toggle for navigating around the screen add up to a simple user interface that feels intuitive right out of the box. Even while wearing gloves, the eTrex 10 is easy to operate.
The major downside of this device (and its low price) is its complete lack of mapping capability. The preloaded base map that comes with the device is devoid of detail, and there’s no way to view actual topo maps on the eTrex 10.
While in the field, you have to navigate without being able to view any real information about the terrain you’re covering. For more complex navigation or expeditionary travel where built-in mapping capabilities are needed, this device falls short.
For users looking for a simple device that can save and track waypoints for geocaching or simple navigational excursions, the eTrex 10 is a pocket-size budget option that’s well worth its price tag thanks to a quality build and an intuitive user interface.
- Battery life: 25 hours
- Weight: 5 ounces with batteries
- Memory: 8 MB
- Simple, easy-to-use interface
- Lightweight and compact
- Great reception for the price
- Easy to mark and save waypoints
- Can be operated with gloved hands
- Rated to IPX7 water resistance
- Lack of detailed mapping capability
- Low memory storage
Best for Messaging: Garmin inReach Mini
The Garmin inReach Mini ($350) is an all-in-one handheld GPS device and two-way satellite messenger. Though this device deserves its place on this list of great handheld GPS devices, it’s really a communication device first and a navigation device second.
Still, in an incredibly compact package, the inReach Mini is highly capable of helping you get to where you’re going and staying in touch with the world when you’re out of cellphone range.
With an onboard GPS receiver, this device includes basic navigational features. A location screen tells you your latitude, longitude, and altitude. The inReach Mini can drop and save waypoints.
In navigation mode, the device will point you to any waypoint or coordinates that you input. Just remember that navigation mode will always send you along a straight line toward your destination instead of following any paths or trails that may exist. A built-in compass screen also serves as a handy and basic navigational tool.
Beyond its barebones navigational capabilities, the inReach Mini really shines as a backcountry communications device. You’ll need to purchase a subscription to send and receive messages with the device, and various subscription levels are available.
Tracking mode allows you to send your location to your contacts of choice at regular intervals. If, for example, you’re on a long thru-hike and want to keep loved ones updated on your position, you can set the device to send out your precise location at regular intervals between 10 minutes and 4 hours.
Template and custom messages can be sent from the inReach Mini to contacts via phone number or email address. Messages can also be sent to other inReach devices.
Your subscription determines the number of preset and custom messages you can send. Different subscription rates allow different messaging allotments. Because of its small stature, typing out messages with the inReach can be tedious and difficult. Using the Garmin app, you can connect your smartphone with your inReach and type out your texts on your phone if you choose.
Garmin has programmed the Mini to work with the global Iridium satellite network. While thick forest cover and narrow canyons can decrease the strength of any satellite signal, this device seems to stay well-connected anywhere in the world.
By far, the Garmin inReach Mini comes in the smallest package of any GPS-enabled satellite messaging device on the market. For updating your loved ones while you’re out on an adventure, or for calling help in case of an emergency, this device is entirely capable.
For those looking for a device with advanced navigation and mapping features, the inReach Mini probably isn’t the best choice. For $350, the inReach Mini is a compact and well-built backcountry communications device.
- Battery life: Up to 90 hours
- Weight: 3.5 ounces including batteries
- Memory: Can save up to 500 waypoints
- Lightweight and compact
- 2-way messaging capability
- IPX7 water resistance rating
- Passive tracking mode allows others at home to track your position
- Custom messaging capability
- Easy-to-read display
- Works with global Iridium network
- Reliable reception
- Limited navigation and mapping features
- Paid subscription required for all communication features
Best of the Rest
The Garmin eTrex 30x ($300) is a top-notch handheld GPS navigator. With enhanced memory and display resolution, the eTrex 30x is the most feature-packed model in Garmin’s eTrex series.
With a water-resistant outer coating and a 2.2-inch color display, the eTrex 30x is similar in appearance to the eTrex 20x. The difference is that the 30x is loaded with additional features and increased memory.
The Global Positioning System relies on 24 satellites that are supposed to provide worldwide reception for GPS-enabled devices. In reality, some regions of the world offer better GPS connectivity than others.
To solve this problem, the Garmin eTrex 30x is also enabled with GLONASS connectivity. GLONASS is Russia’s equivalent to GPS, and by utilizing both systems at once, the eTrex 30x functions reliably in an impressive range of areas across the entire globe.
An integrated electronic compass within the 30x is also a helpful means of understanding your own position. This compass works while holding the device in any orientation and is ideal when you want to view a simple directional bearing instead of a full map view.
Additionally, a built-in barometric altimeter uses air pressure to determine your altitude down to an impressive degree of accuracy. Other built-in features include wireless connectivity, a clock, an alarm, and a trip computer.
The Garmin eTrex 30x represents an elite balance of lightweight design with feature-packed performance. At just 12 ounces and boasting a top-class battery life, this reliable device eliminates the need for other navigational accessories.
Though we always recommend having a map and a compass as a backup, the 30x will have you feeling navigating confidently throughout any expedition or adventure.
- Battery life: 2 AA batteries last up to 24 hours before needing replacement
- Weight: 12 oz.
- Memory: 3.7 GB, SD card-compatible
- Clear and bright color display
- Affordable relative to its functionality
- Combines GPS and GLONASS for widespread and reliable reception
- Durable casing
- Easy-to-press large buttons
- Comes with built-in map with aspect shading
- User interface takes some practice to learn
The Garmin Montana 700i ($700) features a tough and durable build, a large touchscreen, and navigation capabilities that represent the best of the best on the handheld GPS market. Popular with hunters and expeditionary recreationists, the 700 is a newer model from Garmin that performs as beautifully as it appears.
The 700i’s 5-inch high-resolution display looks like it belongs on a high-end smartphone. An updated Gorilla Glass screen ensures that the massive display is hardy and not too fragile for the backcountry.
Multiple global navigation satellite systems are enabled on the 700i, including GPS, GLONASS, and Galileo. These systems can be activated simultaneously for extra-reliable reception, even in tight ravines and dense forests. Multiple preloaded TopoActive maps allow you to see many features of the terrain on your screen, including peaks, lakes, major roads, and trails.
Garmin has maximized the connectivity of the 700i, and it can interface with other smart devices using both Bluetooth and Wi-Fi. This makes it easy to share your location, download satellite imagery, connect to the Garmin app, and more. Other built-in features include an accurate altimeter, a barometer to monitor weather, and a three-axis electronic compass.
Because of its vast connectivity capabilities and its huge, brightly lit display, the 700i has a shorter battery life than other more simplistic devices on this list. Also, it weighs a hefty 1.46 pounds.
Compared to the 700 version, the 700i includes satellite messaging and the ability to send out SOS signals in case of emergency. Instead of carrying a separate device for satellite communication, the 700i builds this feature into its already long list of functions.
Though this device wouldn’t be described as svelte or lightweight, it’s most certainly among the most advanced handheld GPS devices on the market. For users who prioritize a large and easy-to-view display that offers an experience similar to a smartphone, the 700i is a technological marvel built for outdoor adventure.
- Battery life: 18 hours
- Weight: 1.46 pounds
- Memory: 16 GB and compatible with microSD cards
- Huge, high-resolution display
- Integrated satellite messaging and SOS capability
- Rugged construction with Gorilla Glass screen
- Lots of internal memory
- Heavy and bulky
- Cannot be used with gloves on
The Garmin Oregon 700 ($400) could be considered a pared-down version of the Garmin Montana 700i. Thanks to a large 3-inch color touchscreen, the Oregon 700 offers an intuitive user interface reminiscent of a smartphone.
Compared to the Montana 700i, this model is smaller and more compact, which could be a good or bad thing depending on your needs. For backpacking or other forms of overnight backcountry travel, we like the smaller size because it’s lighter and takes up less space but still offers tons of features and easy-to-use appeal.
Though the Oregon 700’s 16-hour battery life is on the shorter side, it makes up for this with impressive storage capabilities that can hold up to 10,000 waypoints. Like most of Garmin’s handheld GPs devices, the Oregon 700 can access both the GPS and GLONASS satellite networks via a built-in antenna.
In the connectivity category, the Oregon 700 can be connected to your smartphone via Bluetooth to display active weather patterns on its own screen. Quick to respond to all touchscreen commands, users can expect little frustration from the Oregon 700 when using it in the field.
Because of its large touchscreen and lack of physical buttons, this device is best used in warm and dry climates where the user won’t be using gloves. Though the whole device is water-rated to IPX7, the screen becomes almost useless when wet.
Overall, the Oregon 700 is a high-quality device that combines technological luxury with a compact size, a good value, and lots of practical features. Compared to the Montana 700i, the Oregon 700 is smaller and lighter, which likely appeals to those trying to maintain a lightweight kit.
The Oregon 700 is also cheaper at $400. For $50 more, this model is also available with a built-in camera. Overall, we recommend this device to anyone who wants a modern handheld GPS for use in climates that don’t require the user to wear gloves.
- Battery life: 16 hours
- Weight: 7.4 ounces with batteries
- Memory: 3.4 GB and compatible with microSD
- Large smartphone-like touchscreen
- Easy-to-learn interface
- Bluetooth and Wi-Fi connectivity
- Can hold up to 10,000 waypoints
- Rarely lags
- Screen is inoperable while wearing gloves
- More expensive than similar options
Buyer’s Guide: How to Choose a Handheld GPS Device
Though handheld GPS devices have been available for several decades, recent developments have vastly improved the capabilities of the options available on the market in 2021.
While some of the devices on this list focus strictly on providing quality GPS mapping and position tracking, other options also offer a long list of additional features such as Bluetooth and Wi-Fi connectivity, touchscreen displays, satellite messaging, emergency features, altimeters, compasses, and more.
With so many available features and lots of high-quality options, it can be difficult to navigate the market and figure out which handheld GPS best suits your needs. Remember, the ideal device is the one that will add the most benefit to your life and your navigational pursuits.
Before you purchase, consider your needs. It may even be helpful to make a list of features that are non-negotiable for you. Determining your budget before you begin shopping may also help, as devices on the market vary wildly in price from $100 to over $700.
We recommend every device on this list. Through careful research and product testing, we have compiled a list of well-made, high-quality handheld GPS devices. Our guide for how to choose aims to explain various features and terminology you’re sure to encounter as you shop for a handheld GPS.
The positional accuracy of handheld GPS devices has improved steadily over the decades. Now, high-quality devices such as the ones on this list can pinpoint the user’s location within a margin of 10 m or less. According to Garmin, the manufacturer of multiple devices on our list, units that are equipped with the Wide Area Augmentation System can be accurate to 3 m or less.
In landscapes both urban and undeveloped, large features such as canyons and skyscrapers can interrupt your signal and decrease the accuracy of your GPS device. Clouds and stormy weather tend to not impact your signal. To maintain a clear signal with satellites, it helps to carry your device on the exterior (not in a pocket) of your back or underneath a single layer of thin material.
Ease of Use
Every handheld GPS device has a unique user interface you’ll have to learn as the device’s operator. Some devices, like the Garmin eTrex 10, are operated using a small number of simple buttons, while others, like the Garmin Montana 700i, rely on a large color touchscreen display.
No matter the configuration of your device, we recommend spending some time reading the user manual and practicing navigating with your device before you head out into the backcountry.
Large touchscreens tend to offer a shorter learning curve thanks to their large, bright, and colorful displays. These kinds of devices are quick to learn for people familiar with smartphone use, but they also come with some downsides.
Most notably, touchscreen handheld GPS devices are difficult to use when the weather is cold or wet. While out hunting, fishing, or hiking, it’s likely that you’ll be wearing gloves. Simply put, you can’t operate a touchscreen with gloves, which renders high-end devices like the Garmin Montana 700i warm-weather-specific.
For a super easy-to-use handheld GPS that utilizes buttons instead of a touchscreen, we recommend the simple and affordable Garmin eTrex 10.
To deal with the issue of glare and sunny-day readability, Garmin’s new models have been engineered with anti-glare screens that make maps and data easy to decipher — even in direct sun.
Out of the box, most GPS devices come with a very simplistic map that displays little detail about the terrain. Some high-end devices come with multiple maps preloaded, each displaying certain information and landmarks such as roads, trails, and lakes.
Many devices allow you to purchase additional maps and upload them to the device. Some sources, such as the United States Geological Survey, offer free spatial data that can be added to your device.
Generally, the more data and information about the terrain that your device contains, the easier it will be to navigate using the mapping function of the device.
Satellite imagery, which is essentially aerial photos of Earth that have been stitched together, is usually difficult to see and utilize on a handheld GPS device. However, some devices with larger displays like the Garmin Montana 700i are more capable of making use of satellite imagery during navigation.
Most makers of handheld GPS devices have created their own software that’s used to organize and display the tracks and waypoints that you have saved using your device.
BaseCamp from Garmin is an excellent platform that provides everything you need as a GPS user. For example, using BaseCamp, you can overlay your waypoints and tracks onto Google Earth. This is especially helpful for devices unable to utilize satellite imagery on their own.
Many handheld GPS devices still rely on AA batteries, which are cheap, quick to replace, and easily accessible. However, if you’re heading out on a long expedition where access to a store is out of the question, you’ll have to bring a potentially annoying quality of fresh batteries to keep your device working. While AA batteries remain an option, some manufacturers are now making devices with rechargeable battery packs as a practical alternative.
Rechargeable batteries can reduce weight and save money over time. Many outdoor professionals and recreationists carry battery packs and solar panels, which are compact ways of recharging a handheld GPS in the field. Many models that have rechargeable batteries are also compatible with AA batteries as a backup.
Depending on the length of the trips you’ll be taking with your device, aim for a handheld GPS that has a long battery life while in active GPS-enabled modes. Typically, one of the trade-offs of large touchscreen devices is that they tend to have a shorter battery life than button-operated alternatives.
Depending on where you’re going with your GPS and how you plan to get there, weight may be an important consideration. Some handheld GPS devices, like the Garmin inReach Mini, weigh under 4 ounces. Others, like the Garmin Montana 700i, weigh over a pound.
Most information saved to handheld GPS devices comes in the form of waypoints, or coordinates for a specific location you want to save for future use. For most trips, only a few waypoints are necessary. Devices on this list are capable of saving between 500 and 10,000 waypoints at any given time, which should be more than enough, especially if you plan to clear this data or move it to another device between trips.
However, if you plan to save waypoints from multiple trips all at once, or if you want to be able to store lots of maps and satellite images on your device, look for options with plenty of storage space. High-end models often hold up to 16 GB of information, and many are also compatible with microSD memory cards for additional storage capacity.
Every handheld GPS comes with a basic map, which is essentially a blank screen that includes the most noteworthy local features and nothing more. Many modern Garmin products come with a preloaded base map with contour lines that convey elevation, points of interest, and major trails and roads.
On most devices, maps can be added to improve upon the default base-level map to create a more detailed layout of the terrain around you. Remember, additional maps take up memory, so be sure your device isn’t full if you want to add more maps.
Satellite Messaging and Emergency Features
Satellite messaging devices have the ability to send (and sometimes receive) messages in areas where cellular devices don’t have reception. Now, many handheld GPS devices have been built with this capability to create a class of all-in-one backcountry navigation and communication tools.
To use these messaging features, a paid subscription is usually required that allows a limited number of messages to be sent and received each month.
For those who wish to communicate with others while out of cellphone range, this is an invaluable feature that can quell worry from afar and keep everyone in the loop. Some satellite messaging devices can be programmed to automatically send out predetermined messages at regular time intervals.
In the event of an emergency, you must be able to quickly signal for help. Some devices have an SOS button that can instantly trigger a response from local emergency medical services. On this list, the Garmin inReach Mini has more communication features than navigation features, but it’s a great little device.
Geocaching is an increasingly popular outdoor activity that utilizes navigational tools to search for cool treasures that have been hidden all over the world. Most GPS units are suitable for assisting enthusiasts in this hobby, and some are even designed specifically for geocaching adventures.
The Garmin eTrex 10 is a simple and excellent personal GPS tracker that serves as an affordable entry point into the exciting world of geocaching.
Most handheld GPS devices include a barometric altimeter. When navigating, it’s often highly important to be aware of your current altitude with an accurate barometer. Using pressure sensors, an altimeter can also help you track weather patterns and trends, which is important information to have — especially in the mountains.
A three-axis compass, which is included in most midlevel (and up) handheld GPs models, allows you to read direction no matter how you’re holding the device.
It’s a handy feature, though it’s not strictly necessary because it’s a good idea to carry a standard compass as backup anyway.
Which Is the Best GPS to Buy?
All of the handheld GPS devices on this are high-quality. We recommend each one for different reasons. Of these options, determining which one is best is all about figuring out what your needs are and which device best suits them.
If you’re looking for a device that has a color touchscreen but is also compact and lightweight, the Garmin Oregon 700 is an excellent choice. If you’re looking for a packable device that can reliably communicate via satellite, the Garmin inReach Mini would be a great buy.
How Accurate Is a Handheld GPS Device?
With a clear signal, many modern handheld GPS devices can pinpoint your location with an error margin of just a few meters. This level of accuracy is great for emergency scenarios, reliable waypoint setting, and geocaching. Integrated altimeters and three-axis compasses in handheld GPS devices are also more accurate now than ever before.
Is a Handheld GPS Device Better Than a Phone?
For accurate navigation in regions where cellular service isn’t available, handheld GPS devices are certainly better than smartphones for reliable mapping and positioning. Purpose-built GPS devices also tend to hold up much better to the elements than smartphones.
Though smartphones can be helpful navigational tools, their short battery life, reliance on cellular service, and general fragility mean they just aren’t the best for proper expeditionary navigation.
Do You Need a Handheld GPS for Geocaching?
While some geocaching locations can be navigated with a smartphone, a handheld GPS device is really the best tool for geocaching. With a handheld GPS, you can enjoy geocaching sessions without cellular service and save waypoints so you can return to specific locations over and over again.
Have a favorite handheld GPS? Let us know in the comments, and we’ll check it out for future updates to this article.