A handheld GPS for hiking and backpacking could cost you over $ 500, or less than half of that, depending on what your needs are. With so many different models and features available, it’s best to begin your search by asking yourself a few basic questions that will help narrow down the list of possibilities.
First, you should decide what level of GPS functionality you want. Portable handhelds can be divided into two groups, mapping and non-mapping. There are pros and cons to each. Non-mapping GPS navigators are a little more basic and old-school, and are best used in conjunction with paper topographic maps. These devices provide coordinates telling you your exact location, let you mark waypoints along your route, and can show you a schematic “breadcrumb trail” depicting your journey. What they do not provide is a detailed base map that appears on the navigator screen.
Mapping devices in contrast do pinpoint your location on an actual map, and let you plot routes to some desired destination. They often have larger, color screen for easy viewing, and require a lot more memory to store map data. Many less expensive mapping GPS devices come with base maps that are not much use for hiking or wilderness navigation, because they only show major landscape features. But GPS topographic maps are available for most of these units, which vary in detail depending on the specific location. High-end units come with complete topo map sets pre-loaded; others require specific maps be downloaded to your computer and then uploaded to your GPS, or loaded directly from a CD-ROM set or memory card.
These units are impressive but they have their limitations. Particularly if you are a hiker or backpacker who does a lot of wilderness navigation off-trail, you’ll find that viewing your map location on a three or four-inch screen is just no substitute for spreading out a full-size paper topographic map . And if you want to retain access to the broad-scale view, you can actually map a GPS? If you like the technology and want the experience of using it in the backcountry, ploting multiple routes and such, go for a mapping device. If all you want is to be able to find yourself on a map at any time and not get lost, a simple non-mapping GPS locator may be all you need.
Make sure you consider your basic backcountry philosophy here. If you are a low-tech minimalist when backpacking, you probably do not want to take a fancy GPS with a big screen. If you want a mapping unit that is still extremely light and compact, there are options available, but keep in mind that gadgets that cram more functionality into smaller size often become harder to use. Will you still be able to press the small buttons or proper key sequence if your hands are freezing? Give some careful thought to your reasons for deciding to purchase a hiking GPS in the first place, and the types of situations in which you might be using it.
Once you have decided which type of hiking GPS you want, you can start to consider other qualities and features. This is where your budget enters the picture as well. Other things being equal, it’s nice to have a device with more memory for storing route information and map data, and one with a memory card slot. Hikers and backpackers will want a high-sensitivity receiver capable of picking up a signal even under strict tree cover. If you decide on a mapping unit, make sure the screen is bright and clear enough to be read easily – not just in the store but outside in direct sunlight.
Do not feel bad about not going with the latest top-of-the-line receiver. Probably the best way to get a real bargain is to choose a model that has been out there for a year or two, as prices come down significantly for slightly older models. Many will still have all the functionality you need, and you avoid paying extra for features you do not even want. Most people can find a great GPS for wilderness use priced under $ 300, or even under $ 200.
Finally, the most important advice of all: Once you have purchased your GPS, learn how to use it before heading out! And do not let the GPS be your sole means of navigation, as any unit can be lost or broken. So remember the map and compass too.