Best Hiking GPS
Tips on How to Find the Best Hiking GPS for Your Needs
A hiking GPS unit can be a great way to enhance your experience of the outdoors, if used properly. However, before you rush out to buy the latest and greatest in GPS technology, you have to ask yourself one question: “How do I expect to use this to my advantage?”
In fact, for basic hiking, getting even the best hiking GPS device is probably not going to alter your experience much. For the vast majority of people, hiking is an activity primarily pursued during warmer months, with good weather, on extensively maintained trails. In such conditions, it is really quite hard to get lost, and there are usually other hikers nearby who will be able to help in most bad-case scenarios.
This isn’t to say that such a device can’t fit into your hiking routine, however, but merely that you need to know in what way it can be actually useful for your planned activities, even if you are one of the casual hikers who prefers to take well-kept trails in ideal conditions.
A few reasons to consider acquiring a GPS device are:
- Assistance in low-visibility conditions
- Monitoring pace in adventure-style race hiking
- Geocaching (the hobby of finding hidden caches using specific coordinates around the world, and especially outdoors)
A hiking GPS device can also enhance your experience as a runner, snow-sport enthusiast, cyclist and many other activities. However, for the purposes of this article, we are primarily considering the utility of a GPS device in enhancing one’s experience of hiking.
A Quick Note on Geocaching
If Geocaching is your primary purpose for having a GPS device, you may opt to download a GPS app onto a smartphone instead, or stick to a budget-friendly handheld GPS device. The higher end GPS units are best suited for those who intend on intensive outdoors use in rugged or diverse situations, and almost all name brand GPS units offer decent geocache support.
What Features Are Actually Important?
As with many other high-tech product fields, there is a plethora of tiers of devices with more or less features available for your usage. One thing is for sure, however: the best hiking GPS unit for you will be the one that has features you actually intend to use. You can expect all major products to give these basic features:
- Display location – the most rudimentary and important feature there is on a GPS unit, it tells you where you are at that moment. This location can also be laid out in relation to other waypoints you’ve previously programmed.
- Route navigation – the ability to download pre-made sets of waypoints or program your own to help set a plan for the path you intend to take on a hike.
- Point-to-point navigation – familiar to anyone who has ever used GPS navigation in a car, this will tell you distance to the next point, and directions on how to get there.
- Record track-log: the 21st century of Theseus with his ball of string in the labyrinth of the Minotaur, this traces your steps, and allows you to backtrack much more easily.
Beyond that, there are quite a few bells and whistles to consider. The mp3 playing functionality on some of the higher end models might sound neat in theory, but consider carefully on whether you are actually likely to utilize this kind of feature. A digital camera can be nice if you don’t want to take an additional camera with you during your activity, and many GPS cameras now have the ability to make a “geotag” that will note exactly where you were when you took the photo.
Touchscreen vs. Traditional Screen
One feature that is important to consider in today’s market is the type of screen and interface. Nowadays, you have the option of touchscreen technology or the traditional non-interactive screen plus button-activated interface.
To make this particular consideration simpler, I’ll say it straight: touchscreens in GPS units aren’t ready for the big-time, yet. They’re not terrible to use, but they have yet to be developed to a range of functionality that fits the active outdoors experience. Consider: in colder conditions, touchscreens cannot be manipulated while using gloves, are harder to view in bright light conditions, use up battery more quickly than traditional screens, and they operate much more slowly in cold weather conditions.
A traditional screen + button interface has only one downside, which is that it takes a little longer to input data. However, in our experience, while trying to triangulate your location and plot your path, a few extra seconds one way or the other rarely makes a difference.
Bottom line: I love buying the latest gadgets as much as the next guy, but this innovation simply isn’t functional enough yet, and for the time being, the best hiking GPS units will still utilize the traditional interface.
This is a group of functions that we consider to be primarily useful for application in more rugged, backpacking type excursions, and all three provide important assistance in less-than-ideal conditions, which help them qualify for necessary features in the best GPS hiking devices available.
Electronic compass – GPS units without an electronic compass can really only function while you are moving. This can make for an awkward encumbrance as you move forward while still trying to read your handheld device, perhaps missing terrain features that you should be paying attention to while on the hike. An electronic compass fixes that, as it allows you to measure where you are while standing still. It has to be calibrated before you can use it, and it shouldn’t be considered a replacement to a traditional compass, but it is a tool that is so convenient and useful that you shouldn’t pass it up. The best hiking gps is sure to have this feature in my opinion.
High-sensitivity chipset – This is a basic upgrade of the hardware inside hiking GPS devices that allows the receiver to detect weaker signals when you are deep in a canyon or under heavy foliage. Although not necessary for a large number of hikes, if you plan on going to locations with these kinds of features in the terrain, you will certainly appreciate having this kind of chipset.
Barometer/altimeter – having a barometer installed in your GPS device can be extremely useful when in places that have frequent, sudden changes in weather. It’s a feature that requires practice to become comfortable with its usage, but can be extraordinarily useful if you’re going into more treacherous terrain. The altimeter also allows you to know your altitude even if you can’t get reception from satellites, but requires frequent calibration to work properly. Consider the altimeter to be somewhat useful, and the barometer to be a critical feature for certain hiking conditions.
Mapping Software Support: Not all GPS units offer support for mapping software. The best hiking GPS devices do, however, and we recommend that you avoid those that don’t. The basic maps provided by GPS units that do not feature this kind of support are okay, but the ability to get exactly the kind of maps that you want is valuable enough to suggest that support of Mapping Software is a feature that you should seek.
Quadrifilar Helix Antenna: this feature isn’t really necessary, but can help to avoid a host of minor annoyances, as it will allow the handheld set to be used and receive reception no matter what position you’re holding it in, unlike the traditional flat patch antenna, which requires being held horizontally to function optimally.
Final Functions to Consider
There are plenty more functions to think about when deciding on which is the best Hiking GPS device for you, but the few we’d like to highlight are:
- Battery life/type – Disposable lithium batteries cost more, but they last longer and function better in cold weather conditions, and you can always easily carry extras.
- Two-way radio – Frequently with ranges of up to two miles for Family Radio Service and fourteen miles on General Mobile Radio service (provided ideal weather conditions), this can be a lifesaver in an emergency situation, and you can often find up to date weather information on the NOAA 7-channel weather radio.
- Expandable memory storage – Some GPS units now allow the insertion of micro SD cards to upload more maps or geocache coordinates. This can be convenient, but isn’t really necessary as long as you’ve properly planned for your trip.
- Black and white vs. color screens – Simply put, color screens are a lot easier to read. Unless you’re on a very tight budget, always opt for the color screen.
So, Which GPS Should I Buy?
We can’t tell you the best hiking GPS device for your needs, since every person will have a slightly different approach towards their outdoor activities. However, if you find that you want a device that features most of the recommended functions we’ve outlined above, you could do far worse than start your search with the Garmin GPSMAP 62s Handheld GPS Navigator, which has been highly rated by many experts, and features the latest and greatest of actually useful features. Otherwise, to find the best hiking GPS unit for you, carefully cherrypick the features you actually really want, and the marketplace will certainly have a device that suits your personal tastes.