If you’re planning on heading out on a lengthy hiking trip it’s best to know what the best GPS devices to take hiking. There’s no sense in being stuck out in the middle of nowhere where your cell phone isn’t getting any service.
I’ll save this for another post, but NOTHING beats a compass and a printed map. You just need to know how to use them.
This is also a general guide on what options are available. If you want to learn more about how to USE the GPS device, well, REI already wrote a really good guide, so check it out.
GPS vs Cell Service
- Most already have a phone
- Cell device has GPS capability installed
- Apps available that offer guidance
- Full location detail
- Record tracks of trip
- More efficient range capability
When it comes to GPS devices while hiking, having a cell phone will help you in most occasions. Devices that are enabled for cellular use have GPS chips installed. That includes tablets that have cell capabilities, but if you need to send out a signal, or get directions how to get some where you’ll be limited once you’re in areas with little to no service.
I’ve used my cell phone to help me in my local parks. Heck, even parks I’ve been to a few times. You just never know when you’re going to get turned around. On your phone you have a few top options.
I’ve also needed to get directions thinking I could just use the GPS on Google maps to at least show me where I’m at. But the blue location dot served my no purpose if cell service can’t download the map. See what I mean?
Top 3 suggestions for GPS/ location on your cell device:
Google maps is probably the most commonly used location/ direction application. I use it for my daily commutes, for restaurant recommendations, or planning my next road trip. I have my phone on me about 99% of my waking hours.
When I go hiking I also use my phone for a lot of the filming I do for my YouTube channel, so if I’m in a pinch and need to know where I’m at while visiting a local park I can just pull out my phone. It’s an OK solution for GPS devices while hiking.
Lost Maples state park and Enchanted Rock state park; two great examples of my phone being useless while being out on the trail. Yes– your Google maps will give you pinpoint location details, and if you have access to WiFi even better, BUT if you’re cell service isn’t available to download the map for where you’re at, then the GPS location doesn’t serve much of a purpose.
I suggest downloading, or saving maps to your phone for reference later, but even that doesn’t have any guarantees.
My favorite YouTuber talks highly about Gaia, so I downloaded for my personal use, and I really enjoy it. There is a premium version that I recommend if you’re going to be spending a lot of time on the road or out on the trails. Either road or gravel.
Gaia GPS serves as a location device more than navigational. Navigation is not its strong suit, but it is an aspect that is growing. No, Gaia is best served as a mapping system that will help you know where you’re at and what’s around.
If you’re looking for some forest roads or Bureau of Land Management roads I’ll bust out my tablet and open this app. There are multiple layers you can reference, some free some paid, but from there you can see if where you’ll be will have access points.
For example; when I went to Colorado by way of New Mexico I stayed on BLM land in New Mexico. While there I was able to use Gaia GPS to tell me there were forest roads around me that I could use to cut through some ranch land to get to the main highway. That information isn’t available on Google.
The GPS system used for this is much better if you download the maps ahead of time, but just know they are hefty files. Don’t download more than you need if you think you’ll need the space for something else. These won’t download to your phone or tablet without cell service.
This app is on iOS and Android devices.
The Hiking Project App is just an example for trail apps that can be used along with the GPS, but it is also one of the top trail applications available. Hiking project utilizes GPS as part of its tracking capability, so it also serves as a great tool to add to ensuring guidance out on the trails. It doesn’t serve any purpose for roads like GAIA does though, but if you’re out on a hike you can try and use maps that can be downloaded. So if you’re planning on heading to a specific state, download those maps ahead of time so they’re already on your phone.
Pure GPS Devices
GPS devices are going to take your location capabilities to the next level, but not all GPS devices are created equal. While each device will be able to notate your Global Position, different models will feature the abilities to make contact with your loved ones through messaging, give you navigation, or even be able to send GPS signals to non-GPS capable devices. So in terms of the best gps device to take hiking, it should depend on how remote of the location you’re heading, for how long, and your price point.
It’s also important to note that GPS devices are not the same as Personal Locator Beacon, (PLB), and Satellite Messengers. These are definitely great options to send out distress signals when you’re in need of a rescue. Read more about those here.
GPS Device Features to Consider
GPS & GLONASS
You need to consider additional location systems that are available, like GLONASS, to partner with GPS. GLONASS works off of different satellites, but is recommended at higher elevations. Having a device that has both, like this Garmin eTrex 22x, will feature the additional tracking system.
Most GPS devices have some format of topography maps pre-installed. At least you should be on the lookout for those, but know that maps can get pricey. It takes a lot of work to create them, and you want to have a ton of detail installed.
You can find maps specific to the region you’re travelling, and just like GAIA GPS, there are additional options within the maps that feature additional waypoints and points of interest. REI has a variety of maps from Garmin, but you can find maps from the devices website respectively.
Memory & Battery Life
The best GPS device to take hiking will need to have the ability to store a lot of information, and batteries that can be replaced. Most GPS devices will have internal memory, but you want to look for card slots that can hold memory cards. Like mentioned above- some maps are really large, and you want to be able to hold multiple layers.
You also want to be able to keep your device charged if you’re going to be in the wilderness for an extended amount of time before reaching civilization. Bringing an additional charger won’t help add juice to a GPS device, so you’ll want something that used batteries, so you can pack those with your gear.
Ease of Use
Using GPS devices while hiking you need to be able to read the screen easily, and read it easily in different lighting. A lot of newer models feature color screens, and they’re now able to block a lot more of the light when you’re looking at it outside for great clarity.
These features will add to the cost of the item, but don’t you want something that’s going to work well when you need it most? Don’t scrimp on something that potentially can get you out of a really tough situation.
One of the biggest changes I’ve seen in GPS devices for hiking would be the wearable market. Watches by Garmin and Suunto come top reviews for what they’re capable of. Sturdy, military-grade items that will do just as good a job of some handheld devices out there.