When selecting a GPS for hiking, two key criteria come to mind. It’s likely that a hiker will want a unit that’s good for navigation and that will not encounter reception problems.
Reception is important
So for one thing, I’m limiting my recommendations to high-sensitivity receivers, such as those with the SiRFstar III or MediaTek chipsets. With these receivers, you can stick them in your pocket, or a mesh pocket on a day pack, and you are still likely to have adequate reception. Some of this is dependent upon how the satellite constellation is positioned relative to your location on any given day, but overall, I think you’ll be happy with the performance of these units.
Navigation and maps
The other important thing is getting a receiver that is set up to navigate. Not all GPS receivers can accommodate topo maps. If you’re content with a receiver that won’t let you add detailed maps, check out the Garmin eTrex 10. Otherwise, stick with a mapping unit. Be aware though — most units don’t include detailed maps. Fortunately, there are plenty of free (and legal) topo maps for Garmin units. One other note before we get into the recommendations — you may also find it helpful to check out my Garmin handheld GPS comparison chart.
Our choice: Garmin eTrex 20
- Bright color screen
- Can accept detailed topo maps
- Tons of features not previously available on entry level models; if you can swing the price, this is the one to get
Other budget units:
- The Garmin eTrex Venture HC can be significantly cheaper but carries an older, more complex interface, and lacks paperless geocaching and a few other features
- The Garmin eTrex 10 is a new model that has a monochrome screen; you also lose the ability to load maps. The eTrex 10 is available for just under $100 at the time of this update.
Mid-range GPS for hiking
Our choice: Garmin Oregon 450
- Barometric altimeter and tri-axial electronic compass
- BirdsEye aerial imagery capability
- Garmin custom maps capability
- Advanced track navigation
- This unit has recently been on sale for as low as $250, but you may need to wait for Black Friday to see pricing that low again
Other mid-range units
- The Garmin Dakota 20 is a smaller version of the Oregon. Once its been on the market for awhile, it should start to show up at a discounted and very attractive price.
- The old standby used to be the Garmin GPSMAP 60CSx. A solid performer, but lacking a tri-axial compass, aerial/custom imagery and advanced track navigation capabilities. I’ve recently seen it on sale for as low as $199.
- The Delorme PN-60 can accommodate aerial imagery and real USGS topos. It has a smaller screen than the Oregon (albeit more legible in most daylight conditions) and comes with powerful but complex software. Available for around $260 at the time of last update.
The top of the line GPS for hikers
- Garmin Montana series – I recently reviewed the Garmin Montana 600 and have been very impressed with it. Yes, it’s a bit on the big side, but that really didn’t both me much. And it’s the best dual-use unit Garmin has ever offered.
- Garmin GPSMAP 62s – Perfect for those who don’t want a touch screen unit. It brings all the latest features such as paperless geocaching, BirdsEye aerial imagery, custom maps and advanced track navigation. Step to the 62st for pre-loaded 1:100,000 scale topo maps of the entire US.
- The Garmin Oregon 550t, combines a high resolution, touch screen interface with pre-loaded topo maps of the entire U.S and a built-in 3.2 MP geotagging camera.
- The DeLorme PN-60w / inReach combo is a special case. Used together, these devices allow for two-way communication with the outside world, even where there is no cell signal. If you venture far off the beaten track, or go it alone, this one is hard to pass up.
Other high end units:
- Another option is to get a couple of Rino 650 units for you and your outdoor adventure partner. That way, you get most of the advantages of the 62s, plus you can see their position on your screen (and vice versa)!