What to look for in a handheld GPS device

Don't pay for features you won't need.

How you intend to use your GPS device will inform which one to buy. I often fall into the trap of asking “What can it do” instead of “What do I need it to do”. It sounds like common sense, but is often forgotten when we start comparing the lists and lists of features advertised for GPS devices. While some features are very handy, others just complicate things and get in the way.

Assuming that you have decided to get a handheld GPS device, specifically for hiking, you will find this post helpful. If you’re considering a multipurpose device, to be used in a car or on motorbike, more needs to be taken into consideration.

What makes this process easier is that aside from Garmin there aren’t really any other players in the hiking GPS market.

Here are a few questions to ask yourself:

Will it be your primary means of navigation?

By primary, I don't mean only. Technology fails. Full stop. Having an accurate, waterproofed map as redundant navigation is a must.

If a printed map is your main means of navigation and all you want is a pin point location, opt for the most basic model. A handheld device or even a watch that reads your location and allows you to save and load waypoints is all you need. Models like the eTrex 10 or any of the wrist-worn ones are perfect for this.

Basic wrist-worn GPS.

eTrex range of handheld GPS devices. The basic eTrex 10 on the left to the more advanced eTrex 30 on the right.

The top of the range

If you intend to use your GPS as your main form of navigation, a user friendly model with more features is necessary. Opt for one that allows you to follow a preplanned track plotted on the computer in Google Earth, Base Camp or equivalent. Functionality to add topographical maps makes reading and planning routes much quicker. Handheld models ranging from the eTrex 20 all the way up to the top of the range Monterra can work for this purpose. 

How long will you use it for?

Will you use it for short periods or on longer hikes?  These devices can eat through batteries, even more so when they struggle to find satellites or when used with the backlight on. Even when on standby they often get woken up by an accidental press of a button in your pack.

For a quick day hike, built in batteries charged from your car or computer are fine.

For extended hikes over a couple of days, replaceable AA batteries are a better option as you can just take spare batteries, or steal some from your torch.

Some devices use both AA and built-in Lithium batteries. If you can afford the cake, you can have it and eat it too.

Generally devices with full colour displays don't last as long as single colour. It’s quite self-explanatory but it is an often-overlooked sacrifice made when opting for the big, full colour, high-resolution screen. Fancy.

Do you intend to use it in conjunction with a PC?

If you like planning your trips in advance then combining trip-planning software on your desktop with your device is the way to go. Basecamp compatibility is a feature available on all new devices, but this informs some other choices you need to make. For example opting for a touch screen or not.

Entering lots of coordinates, renaming and managing trip data without a touch screen is painful. If you won't be using your device with a PC, get a touch screen. The Dakota is a good entry-level option. The pricier Oregon, Montana and Monterra models also feature touch screens. A disadvantage is that some devices aren’t as responsive as smartphone touch screens and can feel quite unresponsive in comparison. Touch screens and sun screen are an annoying combination.

With a PC and trip-planning software you very seldomly have to organise data using the device’s interface. Which means you can opt for a non-touch screen – in some cases a big plus. These guys are easier to read in direct sunlight, can be operated while wearing gloves and don't get sunscreen on the screen. Both the eTrex and GPSMAP 62 ranges are brilliant.

I use Garmin Basecamp. It’s free, plays well with Google Earth and is available on Mac & PC. It’s a very easy way to plan hikes, add points of interest, and manage tracks.

Will you be adding maps?

Scale on a little GPS screen is hard to judge, this is where topo maps come in. Added maps give you the lay of the land at a glance, comprehensive place and sometimes even farm names.

Adding a 1:50 000 topo map pack really helps you get the most out of your device, if you’re willing to fork out an extra R1500. In my opinion it’s absolutely worth it.

Just be aware that very few devices have enough built in memory for this and not all take a Micro SD card. So if you intend on adding maps make sure you get one that supports a Micro SD.

The aptly-named Topo Southern Africa 2013 Pro pack contains topographical maps for all of Southern Africa and can be downloaded or purchased on an SD card.

What I use:

  • eTrex 20
  • Topo Southern Africa 2013 Pro
  • Basecamp & Google Earth
  • eTrex Protective Holster
  • Garmin Carabiner Button Clip 

My final choice was the eTrex 20 and I’ve been super happy with it.

I chose the eTrex 20 over the 30 as the only extra features on the 30 was the electronic compass and the barometric altimeter. Compasses on GPS devices will never be as accurate as a good quality traditional compass and thus are not needed.

Normal altimeters work fine. Barometric altimeters often give false readings if they’re not reset at new locations or when atmospheric pressure changes drastically. Just another thing I don't have to worry about. 

To make up your own mind a comprehensive comparison chart can be found on the Garmin site.