The 9 Best Hiking GPS Devices
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GPS—or global positioning system—used to be a novelty, but today this technology is everywhere. Our cars use this network of satellites to help us navigate the best route to and from the office. Our phones, based on our location, are capable of feeding us advertisements when we are near a gas station or breakfast place. Even dog collars set up with GPS can ping our lost pet’s location back to us. For hikers, a GPS-enabled device is a must-have for outdoor adventures to help monitor where you are and to direct you to where you want to end up.
Almost every smartphone has a GPS receiver these days which makes the technology available for nearly everyone on the trails while apps make it simple to plot your route and view your hikes on various types of maps. But at the same time, there’s still a need for dedicated handheld GPS units, watches, and more, which offer greater accuracy, battery life, and durability than a smartphone. Carrying a dedicated GPS device can ultimately boost your comfort level and confidence on a hike when you are out of cell range.
There is a wide spectrum of GPS options today so whether you’re navigating off-the-beaten path in backcountry, following a trail, or just want to know how far you've hiked, there’s a GPS for that. I've considered a variety of GPS units, personal locator beacons (PLBs), satellite communicators, and apps to meet your needs.
But note: Don’t buy a GPS gadget with the idea of replacing your traditional tried-and-true navigational tools like a map and compass. If you do become lost, finding your way back to safety or familiar territory is not something you should leave entirely up to battery-operated devices.
The Best Hiking GPS
The Expert: I bought my first GPS unit back in middle school—an early-2000s Garmin eTrex Legend—after saving up my allowance. Since then, in one form or another, a GPS has been a staple of my backpack from hiking and backpacking in New York’s Adirondacks Mountains to my month-long backpacking and climbing trips to the Cascades, Alaska Range, and more.
I’ve used primitive handheld GPS units, various smartphone apps, mini satellite communicators, multiple GPS-enabled watches, and some of the most modern, top-of-the-line GPS devices on the market. All that experience has gone into my work as a writer and gear reviewer for Backpacker and Outside Magazines before becoming editor-in-chief of the backpacking publication Trails Magazine.
What to Consider in a Hiking GPS
Depending how you spend time outdoors and in backcountry, you’ll have different needs for a GPS device. If you’re out for a day hike and trail runs, your needs will be different than someone out for a weeks-long or months-long through-hike or someone who’s in the backcountry skiing or mountaineering.
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A cellphone with GPS apps is suitable for a day or even a weekend-long adventure, but keep in mind that a smartphone has a less powerful GPS antenna than a dedicated GPS unit. On top of that, a phone's batteries and chips are designed for shorter periods of time between charges than a dedicated GPS device, some of which can go for a week or more without a charge depending on the settings used.
What you want in a dedicated GPS device or satellite messenger is to be able to connect to multiple satellite networks. Other important features are having waypoints and geocaching abilities, durability and water resistance/waterproofness, large enough screen size and detail, barometer, altimeter, compass, app integration, and, for some, SOS features and satellite messaging abilities.
The more satellite networks a GPS device can connect with, the more accurate its readings should be which is especially important in places where it's challenging to get a signal like canyons and heavily forested areas.
Look for devices that can connect to multiple satellite networks including GPS, GLONASS (Global Navigation Satellite System—a Russian satellite-based navigation system that works in conjunction with GPS to provide position information to compatible devices), and Galileo (the European global navigation system), which is said to be even more accurate than our GPS in the United States, and which may help get signals faster and with more accuracy.
Also, look for systems that use WAAS (Wide Area Augmentation System), which corrects errors in data that a GPS device receives, getting your location within 3 meters at least 95 percent of the time.
Waypoints and Geocaching
Waypoints are GPS coordinates that can be pre-programmed into a GPS device or used to mark something like a stream crossing or a turn while en route. Waypoints are a fundamental feature of all GPSs, but different units have varying amounts of memory and can hold assorted quantities of waypoints. For geocaching, coordinates are used to signify where something is hidden.
Unlike most smartphones, GPS devices are designed for the wild. As such, they should be able to handle a drop or two, and even better, they should be at least water-resistant or fully waterproof. Many are IPX7-rated, meaning they can withstand being under a meter of water for 30 minutes.
Depending on use, most GPS units have an easy-to-read screen that displays a maps of your location. Some devices have touch screens which can be an extra expense. Some, like the Garmin InReach Messenger, only have a small screen, but connect with an app on your smart device for showing larger images of maps and for taking any notes.
Barometer, Altimeter, and Compass
Not all GPS units have a barometer, altimeter, and compass, but these are helpful with location and weather. The barometer can sense changes in weather and can help warn of impending storms. The altimeter senses elevation which aids in determining location and distance, and the compass shows you the direction in which you are going.
Some GPS units work with an app on your smart devices which makes it easier to make notes or store waypoints on the device, which is great for marking features on the trail, and for helping visualize where you are.
SOS and Satellite Messaging
Certain GPS units also operate as PLBs and/or satellite messengers. This allows users to make SOS calls almost anywhere in the world and uses networks like Iridium or Global Star to coordinate dispatching help. They can also send short text messages to friends and family even without cell coverage. These services generally cost extra with a required subscription. The latest iPhone can also now access similar functions.
Using software or an app on your smart devices, you can create routes and upload them to your GPS unit. Apps, like Gaia GPS and OnX, are also great for creating routes and exporting them to your devices, including smart devices and GPS units. You can also export the route and any waypoints you saved on your GPS device when you return.
How We Selected These Hiking GPS Devices
I combined my personal experience using most of these GPS devices over the years with detailed research, checking reviews, and reading information from manufacturers to make my recommendations for the best GPS units, watches, and apps.
I also relied on the team of editors at Popular Mechanics who regularly review the latest models and continually research customer reviews. I've relied on that combined research, usage, knowledge to reconfirm my choices. These are the best GPS devices and apps worth buying now.
If you’re looking for a fully featured, easy-to-use, touch-screen-based GPS device, the Garmin Montana 700i is ideal. The unit has a large color touch screen that comes preloaded with topographic maps—with enough memory to add more. It has 16GB of onboard storage with the ability to add up to 32GB with a microSD card.
The device meets the MIL-STD 810 specs for thermal, shock, water, and vibration, so it can hold up in the harshest of conditions. Ideal for sportspeople, researchers, and backcountry enthusiasts, this unit is ideal when weight (it's a hefty 14.5 ounces with included lithium-ion battery pack) and size aren’t a hindrance.
It can store up to 10,000 waypoints. The “i” model, which costs $100 more than the Montana 700, can also serve as a PLB and satellite messenger with an InReach subscription ($14.95 per month). Garmin also offers versions of the device with a camera and without the PLB messenger capabilities.
9 Peak GPS
The Suunto 9 Peak is a GPS watch that doesn’t scream adventure, yet is fully capable of lasting in the backcountry far longer than other options like an Apple Watch. While the Apple Watch needs a daily charge, the Suunto Peak 9 can last a week or more (7 days in Tour mode) on a single charge, depending on settings used.
The 9 Peak, which is smaller and slimmer than the Suunto 9 Baro. It does an admirable job of tracking hikes, runs, and other adventures thanks to its ability to connect to more GPS systems than many handheld GPS units in the market.
Routes can be programmed into the app and then uploaded to the device. There is a Snap to Route feature that guards against poor GPS signals in areas like cities and canyons to keep you successfully on route.
As a smart watch it also has extra sensors like a barometric altimeter, a heart rate monitor, and blood oxygen sensor. These extras work well enough, but are not as reliable as a dedicated heart rate monitor and VO2 sensor that we have found with most smartwatches.
Garmin GPSMAP 67i
Garmin’s latest GPSMAP, the 67i, is one of the most-fully featured GPS devices with the longest battery life I’ve seen in a standalone unit. The 67i lets you track roughly 165 hours of hiking before the battery dies, or put it into Expedition Mode (for fewer features and a less detailed track) for up to 425 hours.
The device is fast and reliable thanks to its quad-helix antenna that connects to more satellite networks than many similar devices, therefore providing greater accuracy. The 67i also pairs with smartphones through the Garmin Explore app and can share and upload information between the two.
The “i” version also features built-in inReach technology, allowing you to hit SOS and text with loved ones all from the GPS (or using a paired smartphone).
Garmin’s eTrex line has long been considered easy-to-use and budget-friendly, but the new SE takes that to another level thanks to a black and white screen and limited mapping capabilities.
It features one of the most accurate antennas possible today, pairs with your phone for trip planning, and can run for days on long hikes. Navigating through the menus is simple with only four buttons and it has plenty of space for saving waypoints, routes, and tracks.
The key thing your phone probably can’t do yet is send a text or call for help when you’re beyond the reach of cell service. Instead of cell towers, this little Garmin device uses satellites to send and receive messages with loved ones or rescuers no matter how deep you are in the backcountry (an active satellite subscription of $14.95 per month is required).
Weighing in at only 4 ounces, this gadget is an easy insurance policy for any outing. The small screen allows you to send very basic preset messages and read incoming texts, but by pairing it to your phone, you can do a lot more. The built-in GPS also allows you to send your location to friends and family.
Fenix 7 Solar Multisport GPS
In 2023, the Fenix7 from Garmin still remains one of our favorites and has yet to be surpassed. It's the first GPS smartwatch from Garmin with a touch screen, allowing wearers to use it or the buttons to navigate features. It can show multiple metrics on a single screen, making it plenty useful.
It’s also available with three different face sizes (42mm, 47mm, 51mm) which means someone with a slender wrist isn’t stuck with wearing a watch that fits best on the Hulk’s wrist.
With extra features like a gyroscope, thermometer, and accelerometer, this is one of the most feature packed watches ever built. In the solar version (a non-solar version is available for $100 less) battery life is further extended between charges, making it ideal for multi-day or multi-week adventures.
For many folks on basic day hikes and camping trips, a phone’s GPS antenna gets the job done—and the Gaia GPS app is the best to load before you head out. Plan your trips on your phone, tablet, or computer then download the routes, waypoints, and maps to your phone for use off the grid.
Gaia GPS features a slew of built-in maps including various topographic and trail maps, driving and biking maps, and even layers that show the weather, snow depth, and more, allowing you to build a map with all the data you could need for your particular adventure. Use it to navigate and track your adventures in the field, then review them on your computer when you get home.
For those who love maps and who enjoy understanding the history of an area, there’s no better tool than Caltopo. It offers similar mapping features as the onX outdoor app, but with this one you can overlay stacks of information about the area as you’re working out routes.
For instance, map overlays include fire history, recreational use, cell phone coverage, avalanche slope angles, and forecasts, geological information, information about structures, and more.
When building routes and adding waypoints in Caltopo, you have tools that will snap to an existing trail or you can draw a line off of it. You can access many features for free on the website and the accompanying app, but a yearly subscription ($20 for mobile, $50 for pro, $100 for desktop) unlocks additional features.
Don’t Ditch Your Map or Compass, But Have One of These Handy GPS Gadgets on Your Next Adventure. Expert Ryan Wichelns on Accuracy, Two-Way Messaging and More.
PM: How accurate are GPS handhelds?
RW: When GPS technology first came out, it was designed for the military, and the government intentionally put limits on how accurate the satellites would become for civilians. By 2000, that “selective availability” was removed, and GPS units basically got more accurate overnight.
Today, it’s not hard to get a GPS fix that’s accurate to within a few feet. Anything between you and the satellites, though, can harm your accuracy, especially water, foliage, or clouds.
PM: Do I need a GPS with two-way satellite messaging?
RW: That completely depends on you and what you’re doing outside. If you’re regularly going on adventures solo or in more remote or dangerous locations, then having the ability to use SOS can possibly save your life.
If you’re only day-hiking in places with lots of people around, it might not be necessary. Consider your activities and your comfort with risk.
PM: If my GPS fails, what backup should I have on hand?
RW: GPS or not, I always like to carry a paper map when I’m in the backcountry. If my GPS fails (more likely if I’m using my phone with a smaller battery and breakable screen), then having a map (and ideally a compass) is basically my only way of knowing how to get back home.
But carrying those things isn’t enough: You also need to know how to use them. Technology fails and batteries die, but a paper map won't.
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