So what is the best GPS for hiking? Is it the old-fashioned handheld GPS device? Is it the smartphone with the right GPS app? Or is it the GPS watch? This is a question that I had to answer when I finally decided that it was time to invest in a more up-to-date GPS device for hiking as a possible replacement for the trusty Garmin etrex unit that I had been using since the early 2000s.
In this article, I will explain the answers to this question from the lens of my own experiences, which primarily involved hiking (as well as backpacking) to waterfalls both locally and internationally.
What is a GPS for hiking?
Before we get into the comparison of the three types of GPS hiking devices (handheld, smartphone, or smartwatch), we first have to understand what exactly the GPS hiking device does. Once we understand what the unit is supposed to do, we can then evaluate some of the characteristics that make one type of device more desirable than the other.
So to make a long story short, the basic idea behind a GPS device is that it tells us our location. This is really the main job of any GPS device. From this information, we can then supplement it with maps and routing information for navigation as well as tracking for post-trip blogging, guidance, or even a beacon for search-and-rescue.
The way a GPS device pinpoints our location is that it receives signals from a constellation of GPS (Global Positioning System) satellites. So the GPS unit is technically a receiver that accepts signals from these GPS satellites, and it needs to lock onto the signals from at least three such satellites to triangulate our position.
However, the more satellites that the receiver locks onto, the better its accuracy and the faster the receiver can pinpoint its position. The picture below shows how triangulation determines a location of a point D from points A,B, and C. The location of point D is then presented in a coordinate system like the latitude and longitude system (or latlong), which pretty much puts all of the earth on a grid.
This is very similar to the old school way of identifying at least three different landmarks in the field and looking at where they’re at on a map to triangulate our position on that map. With a compass, each object I would look at would provide me the direction of its location. Then I could take a straight-edge and draw (or at least imagine) the lines from each object according to the compass. Finally, the intersection of those lines would pinpoint exactly where I’m at on the map.
By the way, if the GPS device fails for some reason (e.g. it’s out of batteries or the device shorted due to being dunked in water or a heavy storm), reading a map and compass to triangulate position is always the fallback and basic skill that any hiker must know.
Anyways, a GPS device is not just limited to hiking. It can be used for vehicular navigation (I’ve written up an article about portable GPS devices for cars), maritime navigation, aeronautical navigation, and even guidance systems of projectiles. However, for the purposes of this article, I’m only focusing on the portable GPS devices for hiking.
Such hiking GPS units are typically handheld or wearable devices. They may contain maps keyed to the latlong coordinate system so GPS positioning would place the receiver in the correct place on the map.
Why use the GPS for Hiking?
First of all, I use the GPS primarily to log where I’ve been so I can accurately blog about my activities. However, not everyone cares about this reason to use a GPS receiver on their hikes.
So below are some of the more useful features of having a GPS device in-the-field.
Trail and Backcountry Navigation:
If I knowingly planned for a hike, I can preload a map (if it’s needed), destination waypoints, and even a route onto my GPS hiking device. That way, when I navigate, I’ll know exactly which trail I’m on as well as whether or not I went off-course.
On some of my hikes where I didn’t have this degree of pre-trip planning and real-time navigation and mapping, it actually costed me in terms of not reaching my target waterfall goal. That resulted from either not going far enough or from taking the wrong trail entirely!
Even without a pre-loaded map, if I had to backtrack to my starting point, I could at least see if I deviated from my original path or if I had overshot a pre-trip waypoint. This ability actually saved me from getting lost when there was snow on the trail. It also saved me from continuing for too long after missing a turnoff leading to a remote waterfall where I at least knew the target waterfall’s approximate latitude.
Search and Rescue:
My experiences on most of my hikes were with the basic Garmin etrex and Garmin etrex Venture HC units, which didn’t have other features that might prove invaluable when out in the backcountry.
For example, some of the newer handhelds have a beacon as well as a walkie-talkie, which allows for communication with someone else in the party as well as for search-and-rescue in real emergency situations.
Other units (like my watch) have a barometer, which might come in handy if there’s concern of incoming bad weather with a drop in barometeric pressure. Depending on the situation, that foresight would cause me to seek shelter, turn back, or perhaps to not take a stream scramble or crossing due to the flash flood potential.
Pacing and Progress:
With a planned waypoint or route, I can also leverage the GPS unit to let me know my progress against the goal. That can be a tremendous help for pacing as well as to remain positive and upbeat knowing I’m working towards a definite goal.
Newer units might also have an altimeter to present how far along I might be on a climb compared against an elevation profile (with a pre-trip route uploaded) to pace myself on an uphill or to know when to take rest breaks.
Where can we use the GPS Hiking Device?
We can use a GPS Hiking Device anywhere it can receive signals from the GPS satellites. So it works best out in the open like in deserts, on mountains, meadows, plains, or in tundra.
However, if satellite visibility is limited or non-existent, the receiver may lose lock and have to reacquire signals from the GPS satellites again when the visibility is back. Such places with limited visibility include tunnels, caves, narrow canyons/gorges, or even forests with lots of tree cover.
Also, trying to use the GPS indoors won’t work too well though I suspect smartphones might overcome this limitation with aid from cell towers as well as WiFi from internet routers.
While on the topic of limited satellite visibility, GPS receivers can be even further handicapped when they’re physically covered by things like pockets, packs, or rain ponchos, or even sleeves. For example, if I have a handheld GPS unit or smartphone, it won’t work as well if it’s sitting inside a backpack as opposed to being clipped on a strap with its antenna pointing upright out in the open.
Similarly, for a GPS wristwatch, wearing a long-sleeved shirt or jacket over the watch would also impact its ability to acquire or track the signals from the GPS satellites.
Who should consider buying a GPS Hiking Device?
In my mind, I think the GPS hiking device is an invaluable tool for anyone who wants to hike, trek (or overnight backpack), or scramble (especially off-trail or on lesser-traveled trails).
Personally, I think bloggers who really want accuracy in reporting where they’ve been should use one of these devices as well. Trying to recall things from memory or crude notes pales in comparison to a device whose job it is to track and log where I’ve been for all times that the device is on and locking to the satellites.
Otherwise, these units are more of a nice-to-have item for people who tend to stick to the well-developed trails, or in built-up areas where the need to navigate without cell reception is not an issue.
Which GPS Hiking Device is right for me?
So now that we’ve established what GPS units are, what they do, and how they’re useful, we’re now in position to look at the different types of GPS units. Each has advantages and disadvantages, which I’ll explain in this section.
There’s a very wide variety of GPS Hiking Devices, but I’ll limit this discussion to only the devices that I’ve had experience with.
Handheld GPS Devices or Units:
The handheld GPS Device for hiking is a simple GPS receiver that can be held in the hand. They have a screen and some buttons to control what is seen on the display. I’m quite familiar with the original Garmin etrex and the Garmin etrex Venture HC units, which are quite old by today’s standards.
That said, I’m aware that there are newer handheld models that may expand the list of PROS and CONS that I’m about to spell out here.
What I Like About My Handheld GPS Receiver (with MapSource/BaseCamp software):
Long Battery Life: The Garmin etrex units that I’ve used can run on 2 AA batteries, which can go at least 24 hours if left on all the time. In fact, during a 7-hour test that I performed, the battery indicator remained full (too bad it didn’t have a way to indicate battery life as a percentage to better quantify this).
If I run out of batteries, I can easily swap them out for a new set of AA batteries and keep going for as long as I have spare batteries to swap in. This is especially useful in the backcountry where the ability to charge batteries is extremely limited or non-existent.
Durability: I’ve gone on some hikes that actually involved some degree of swimming or deep wading. So knowing that this unit can be dunked in water and still keep working means I have one less thing to worry about on such hikes.
The unit is also very rugged so if I happened to drop it on a rock or on granite, the screen will not crack and the unit will continue to work.
Just the fact that I’ve been using my Garmin etrex units for over 15 years and counting should indicate how durable they are.
Simple: This device primarily only does one job, and it does it well. There’s not much of a learning curve to use it.
Trip Logging: This is pretty much a pre-requisite for me on any GPS unit that I consider using because I want to track my activity while saving waypoints for specific points of interest that I’d want to call attention to.
I can interface with software like MapSource or BaseCamp to get the trip data on my computer and compare them to maps that I already have offline so I get the whole picture of where I’ve been.
Adequate Routing: Handheld units do an adequate job of routing me to a destination waypoint in much the way a homing signal would let me know if I’m getting “hot” or “cold” as I hike.
Of course, this presumes that I had pre-loaded a waypoint to set as a goal in the first place, which the unit is perfectly able to handle through software like MapSource or BaseCamp.
What I Don’t Like About My Handheld GPS Receiver:
Slow Fix: My etrex units typically took at least 10-15 minutes or longer from the moment I powered up the unit until it locked onto enough satellites to start tracking. This meant that I couldn’t start hiking until the GPS unit was ready unless I just took off and risked the GPS taking even longer to lock (as visibility can vary when I’m on the move).
The reason for the slow fix is that it relies only on the US-based GPS constellation of satellites. It’s incapable of listening to other satellites like the Russian-based GLONASS or the EU’s Galileo. I’m aware that newer and more expensive handheld units are capable of doing this, but I can’t say more about them since I haven’t invested more money into these types of units.
Awkward Carrying: One pain point for using my Garmin etrex devices are the lack of proper clips so it can maintain reception while also allowing me to add waypoints or look at my progress without the risk of it falling.
Without a proper clipping system (hard to do with the older etrex units but easier with the newer ones), I’m relegated to finding a hip pocket or putting it in my pant pocket or shirt pocket. The worst case is that I have to sacrifice a free hand to hold onto it.
Limited Memory: My old units had very limited memory so I couldn’t store many map tiles at high detail for hikes. This necessarily limited the duration of the hikes before I’d have to upload a new map, which may or may not be easy to do depending on how much real-estate I was covering and whether I have access to may laptop (assuming it had a mapset I could put on).
Inaccurate Altimeter: My old etrex’s altimeter only determines altitude solely by how many satellites it has tracked onto. Becuase it already struggles with getting a fix in the first place, I noticed that when tracking my daily walks, it claimed that I had a total climb of 366ft and total descent of 373ft over an elevation range of -12ft to 200ft. This can’t be true considering I was hiking on flat pavement the entire way.
Smartphone with Mapping and Routing App:
The smartphone acting as a GPS Device for hiking is the next solution that I’ve considered. We currently own iPhones (we’ve got at least 3 or 4 generations of these things), and the one that we use as a GPS receiver for hikes is our iPhone XR, which is loaded with the Gaia GPS app.
The phone has a built-in GPS receiver chip when Location Services is turned on. However, the Gaia GPS app provides other functionality like the maps, activity tracking, and other features that the Garmin etrex can do.
What I Like About My Smartphone (with Gaia GPS App):
Fast Fix: Of the three types of GPS hiking units, the phone acquired my position the fastest. Heck, it was even able to locate my position inside my house, which I suspect was a combination of internet triangulation before I had put the phone in Airplane mode and relied only on the GPS part of the device.
Therefore, the phone required little to no time starting to track where I’m at because it already determined my position even before I got started.
Large Touch Screen: Of the three devices that I’m considering in this in-depth review, the phone by far has the largest screen. This makes it easy to see the map as well as zoom and pan for full control.
Gaia GPS even has a camera icon so I could take a picture and have that immediately act as a waypoint or point-of-interest. This can really speed things up the in-the-field workflow instead of awkwardly fumbling with the device to name the waypoint something or trying to correlate its default name with some scribbles in my notepad.
Functionality: Pretty much anything the standard Garmin GPS units can do, the combo of the iPhone and Gaia GPS app can also do (and maybe do it better). In addition to the aforementioned touch screen ease-of-use and easy addition of new waypoints or points of interest, the phone can also navigate or route, and it allows me to turn on or off the recording (to save battery life and minimize GPS drift).
More Tracking Points: One thing I really liked about the iPhone combined with Gaia GPS app was that it seemed to record track points more frequently than any of my Garmin units (including my watch). That results in potentially even more accurate reporting of my tracks and waypoints though this is also dependent on the phone’s GPS reception at the time.
Extensive Map Catalog: It seemed like the Gaia GPS App had a pretty extensive catalog of detailed maps throughout the United States and parts of the world. Thus, I didn’t need to mess with converting maps into something that say Garmin MapSource or BaseCamp would need to understand to use it.
However, in order to get even more detailed coverage (including trails), I’d need to subscribe to their service for about $20 per year. They also have a pro package for $40 per year. Nevertheless, this might be a subscription worth having if I determined that I don’t need any standalone GPS devices for hiking.
What I Don’t Like About My Smartphone (with Gaia GPS App):
Battery Drain: Even in Airplane mode with WiFi turned off but Location Services turned on, the phone sucked batteries at a rate of about 10% on a half-hour local walk. This can go up or down depending on what else I do with the phone (like how often I take pictures or videos and how many other programs run in the background).
On a seven-hour test, the phone went from 100% to 57%, which burned charge way faster than my Garmin Fenix 6X Pro watch (it went from 100% down to 92% in the same time), and my Garmin etrex Venture HC unit which graphically remained full (no percentage indicator).
This will not do in the backcountry, and I’d need to bring a spare battery pack or two or more in order for it to be viable for any backcountry use, especially for treks of longer than 2 days.
Metadata Leakage and Privacy: One of my biggest concerns about using our iPhone for everything is how much metadata is easily leaked unknowingly from the phone to anyone on the internet with malicious or even selfish intentions. If you’ve watched the TV show Mr Robot and paid any attention to Edward Snowden’s revelations, you can easily see how vulnerable we are if we rely too much on them.
Location metadata is particularly sensitive because people can find out where you live, where you’ve been at any time, and other things you probably don’t want strangers to know. Personally, I try to limit my phone usage and reliance, but it does make me feel uneasy to use it even as a GPS hiking device.
Awkward Exporting Interface: One thing I’m not too thrilled about is the interface that allows me to export my tracks and waypoints in the field back to my computer. I had to dig around for it on my phone, but I eventually figured out how to email the info or export the zip file from within the phone app so I wouldn’t have to go through my Gaia GPS account.
Of course, the fallback would be to let the phone sync up with my Gaia GPS account via internet connection (a privacy concern) and then fumble with the web interface once my phone’s cached GPS data was uploaded to my Gaia GPS account.
From there, I was then finally able to see my stuff and download the GPX or KML file to my computer through that Gaia GPS account. Initially, I had email setup problems so I once thought that feature didn’t work.
That said, it seemed like in the web interface, I was only able to grab the waypointed photos that I took during recording one-by-one through the Gaia GPS slideshow when I had to “View Larger Photo”. Only then could I do a “Save Image As” to my computer, which would contain the LatLong metadata as part of that photo. However, the export feature within the phone app did let me email and send the whole zip archive as a collective unit (provided the mailer could handle larger files if I took a lot of pictured waypoints).
Anyways, if I took a lot of waypoints with pictures, it could be tedious to get all the photos I needed associated with the trip. I found this to be very clunky and almost offsetting the advantages of taking pictures to act as waypoints in the first place (supposing that emailing or sending the zip file exceeded the file size limits).
Fragile: If my iPhone gets dropped into a river or creek, it’s done. If I drop my iPhone onto granite or a rock, depending on how it lands, it’s likely going to crack the glass of the touch screen (thereby limiting its functionality and utility).
The phone may be a bit more weatherproof than my expensive camera equipment (so I feel better about taking pictures in the mist or under heavy rain with it). However, it will eventually not behave if the water eventually makes it through the holes and into the circuitry where a short would be inevitable.
Size: As much as we appreciate how our iPhone may eventually make it so I don’t have to lug around a DSLR or mirrorless camera with lenses, it’s a bit of a nuisance as a GPS device. I’d either have to put it in a pocket on my clothes or on my day pack or backpack, but at the expense of compromising GPS satellite visibility and thus its accuracy.
If it’s out in the open for maximum accuracy, I have to find a way to hold onto it without losing it while still freeing my hands for other important tasks.
Wearable GPS Device:
The wearable device that I’m using is the Garmin Fenix 6X Pro Sapphire. It’s basically a very expensive watch that’s got just about all of the handheld GPS functionality along with the kind of things you’d typically see in fitness watches like the FitBit. The sapphire part of the watch meant that it had a scratch-resistant glass.
Even though it does lots of things that are not hiking related (including health indicators like pulse rate, heart rate, calorie count, pedometer, blood oxygen levels, etc.), I’m only going to focus on the hiking functionality in this article.
What I Like About My GPS Watch (with BaseCamp and Garmin Connect):
It’s Wearable: Because I can literally wear this like a typical wristwatch, all my pain points regarding reception and accuracy as well as keeping both my hands free for other tasks have been solved.
While the watch is a bit beefy, I got used to it as its other benefits outweighed my initial shoulder soreness given the unexpected extra weight on that arm.
Fast Fix:: Because it was out in the open on my wrist (and not stowed within my day pack or pocket), it had better satellite visibility. It also tracked satellites from a combination of GPS and GLONASS constellations or GPS and Galileo constellations.
It didn’t get a fix while I was indoors, but it quickly locked into my position barely a minute or two after I went outdoors, which didn’t put it behind that of the iPhone’s fast fix.
Functionality: This watch pretty much does everything that my Garmin etrex can do, and maybe it can do it better. It can provide me alerts when I go off-course when following a pre-determined route. And it can also let me know my progress on the hike as well since I can look at my position relative to the map that the Fenix 6X Pro comes included with.
The watch also had a USB cable that allowed me to import and export maps, routes, waypoints, and tracks back and forth between Garmin BaseCamp (with the aid of Garmin Connect when I uploaded routes to the watch). I didn’t even need to involve my iPhone for this type of connectivity given my privacy concerns, which was also a big plus.
The Fenix 6X Pro series also came pre-loaded with Topo Maps of the entire USA so that took a little more complexity out of the picture when it came to uploading maps to the device prior to hikes or trips as a whole within the country.
Accurate: When compared with the iPhone’s increased number of track points over the etrex handheld unit, it seemed like my Fenix 6X Pro did better than both of them. So it definitely gave me enough to think that I could ditch my etrex handheld for this watch in most circumstances.
In addition, the watch also has an ABC (altimeter, barometer, and compass) that’s also accurate. So it can tell me my progress on not just the entire hike, but it can also give me progress on any climbs so I would know how to pace myself.
The barometer was a handy feature so I could respond to potential changes in the weather simply by looking at drops in barometric pressure. So I could better avert life-threatening situations that would be weather-related.
Rugged and Waterproof: The watch was built to be waterproof, and the sapphire glass that I bought this watch with meant that it was scratch-resistant. That’s something my own wristwatch couldn’t handle as it had lots of scratches that I had to live with given all the times it had scraped rocks on my waterfall hikes and scrambles.
The bottom line here was that I was confident taking this device on pretty much all the rugged conditions that I would typically encounter on my hikes.
Battery Life: When in map mode and tracking turned on, the watch can last around 60 hours. However, I can easily take it out of map mode and stop recording when I know I’m not hiking anymore and settling in camp.
So that could stretch out the battery life of the watch to a typically 3-day weekend backpack. For longer treks in the backcountry, I could also put the watch in Ultratrac mode, which only records track points every minute instead of every second.
So that would trade extended battery life for diminished tracking log accuracy, which is something I generally don’t like doing since I’m into recording everywhere I’ve been. But at least that option is there.
What I Don’t Like About My GPS Watch (with BaseCamp and Garmin Connect):
Battery Not Easily Replaced: This becomes problematic on very long multi-day hikes since I can’t just swap out AA batteries like I could with the handheld GPS units. Instead, I would have to watch the battery life very carefully when in the field.
Complex: There’s a lot of customization and controls with this watch. Thus, I had to go through a little bit of a learning curve before I finally got comfortable using it.
I still find some of the controls a bit complex and confusing, but I know with repeated use, it eventually sinks into my muscle memory over time, but it’s definitely a bit awkward to use when I had first put it on.
That said, it necessarily had to be complex in order to move around the map as well as name or rename waypoints. In fact, it took me so long to rename waypoints (even slower than I can do on a Garmin handheld GPS) that I ultimately decided that I’m better off just saving the waypoint with the default date and time.
Then, I’d just note down why I took the waypoint with my pen and notepad, which I could then finally do the renaming after I get on the computer and download the activity to it.
Small Screen: Of the devices that I considered, my Fenix 6X Pro had the smallest screen. But I have to caveat that by saying that it’s amazing to have a watch with mapping capabilities in the first place. So maybe I shouldn’t be so hard on the screen size.
Any larger, and it starts to become overbearing as a wristwatch.
It’s Heavy: Even though I complained about the small screen, it’s also pretty heavy for a wristwatch. I guess it pushes the limit on how much computing power you can fit into something as compact as a wristwatch, but the Fenix 6X Pro is definitely not for everyone.
Doesn’t Display Satellite View: This may be more of a nitpick, but I tried real hard to look for a display on the watch that does exactly what the Garmin etrex units do when the “Satellite” icon is selected. The etrex units actually start off in this view upon power up when the device tries to lock onto enough satellites to get a fix.
Personally, I would have liked to see something like this to get an idea of the real-time accuracy of the GPS in the watch, where I could also experiment with its accuracy based on how I would have positioned my wrist (for a true apples-to-apples comparison against the other devices).
I’m not sure if this is an oversight by Garmin or if they intentionally left this out, but I did find it strange that this was left out while they had a myriad of other displays or widgets (most of them marginally useful or repeating information) for hiking.
Conclusion and Final Thoughts
So after this in-depth look at the three different types of GPS devices for hiking, I’d have to say that each unit has its strengths and weaknesses. Therefore, I’d say that preferring a particular unit over another would really depend on the situation.
Thus, given that context, if I had to choose one as the best general-purpose unit for my GPS needs, I would pick my Garmin Fenix 6X Pro GPS watch despite its shortcomings. It seemed well-suited for all my short and long day hike needs, and I do have workarounds concerning the slowness of renaming waypoints as well as zoom/panning the map.
Heck, I even use this watch on our daily walks (which became even more frequent when we had to deal with COVID-19) as its other features were good to know regarding my health and level of activity.
When it came to using my iPhone with Gaia GPS, I found that it was a suitable backup solution. However, its fragility and battery life made me “not want to put all by eggs in one basket”, so to speak. But I do like its ability to take pictures as waypoints, and I definitely like the ease of use in the field with the touch screen.
Finally, when it came to using my trusty Garmin etrex Venture HC handheld GPS, I would reserve its use to multi-day backcountry excursions now that I’ve got a Fenix 6X Pro watch that does the job better. As long as I have some spare AA batteries, I could keep tracking myself regardless of how many days the trek would be.
That said, it’s conceivable that I didn’t give the handheld GPS a fair shake since I don’t own any of the newer and more expensive GPS handheld devices like the Garmin GPSMAP 66st. So maybe I might update this review with more to say about the handheld units if I finally have the chance to get one of the newer ones and use it in the field.
Indeed, GPS receivers for hiking have come a long way since the early Garmin etrex days. While I generally don’t like to keep buying the latest and greatest gadgets, I figured that it was about time I finally got with the times regarding these units and graduate from my “OG” handheld. Hopefully, the solutions I’ve got now will last me another decade or two…
So what do you think? Leave a comment below and let the community know what your preferences are and why.
Naturally, you can pick up a GPS receiver for hiking (handheld, smartphone, or watch) from a dealer like REI. I’ve added more help articles on what to look for in a GPS device from the experts at REI.