Roundup: How to choose a handheld GPS

Hi all, time for another Q&A session and this time we’ve got some advice on how to choose a handheld GPS. In itself, that’s a vast and subjective question. Hikers all have their gear preferences and choice of satelllite navigation is huge and often debated in earnest. Instead of pointing you at a particular brand (because even Jake and I can’t agree on the best GPS ), we’ve decided to put together our thoughts on what a really good navigation unit should, and shouldn’t, have.

One point we do agree on is that a GPS is no substitute for navigating with a map and compass, no matter what anyone thinks. Good navigation skills have saved me more than a few times in my life and I highly recommended that everyone who travels into the wilds knows how to use a map and compass together.

Please choose a better map and compass than this!

How will you use your GPS?

Your choice of GPS unit is vast. Here at TrekSumo, we focus on hiking, skiing and running right now. At some point in the future we’ll porbably branch out into cycling and will try to cover all the options that are right for you.

The activity you participate in will affect your choice of device with the most obvious differences being between hiking and running. Jake and I both use pretty rugged hiking watches (mine is the Fenix 6 and Jake owns a Garmin Tactix Delta) both of which are great alternatives to the likes the Garmin 945 and Vivoactive 3.

If you’re a cyclist you choice of GPS is huge. I evny you.

Battery Life

This needs to be huge no matter where you’re hiking. Go for the max – stand two GPS side by side and pick the one with the largest battery life. Now, you’re probably wondering if this applies when you’re only going on a day hike, right? Good question and my answer remains: go large, fast.

And always, always buy a GPS that has a rechargeable battery – it’s more environmentally friendly and rechargeable units tend to have have a longer life.

Tip: buying a handheld GPS with great battery life isn’t going to be of any use if you decided to buy a cheap charging devices capable of holding only one charge. Invest in good quality gear that comes with lots of recommendations.

If you want to take it to the next level, invest in solar charging panels.

Satellite acquistion

How many satellites can the GPS you’re intrested in acquire and how fast? The more satellites a GPS can lock onto the greater the accuracy of the unit and the faster you’ll know your location. These two points might not seem important right now, but the could make the difference between life and death on the frozen ice cap of Greenland…

A few years back I skied across Greenland. Towards the end of the journey, over on the east coast, is a huge crevasse field which can be dangerous to cross. Satellite mapping means that most, if not all, of these huge fissures that sit below a thin layer of surface ice and snow are well known and marked.

But moving safely between the crevasses requires pinpoint accuracy from a GPS. A few metres too far foward and down into the depths you go. A GPS with anywhere up to 18 locks is a better option than one with only 6.

Satellite networks

Most modern GPSs will give you the option of using one, or all three, of the following satellite networks:

  • GPS
  • GLASNOSS
  • Galileo

The systems are run by the US, Russia and EU, respectively and each has advantages over the other. For example, GLASNOSS seems to be more accurate in the Northern hemisphere, whilst GPS is undergoing a huge update which promises to give even greater levels of accuracy than currently available.

Where possible, use two or more networks at the same time. The biggest gains for you will be an improved lock-on times and greater accuracy if one of the networks is experiencing issues or you can’t get a good view of tghe sky.

Data import and export

The ability to import and export routes, way points, etc is really useful for sharing and safety, it also makes adding new routes simple. The old fashioned way of creating routes was time consuming, boring and open to errors as you had to type coordinates on a keypad, or using an on-screen keyboard. Once complete, you would ask someone to check each grid reference for errors.

You can still enter data using the virtual keyboard and I recommend everyone try this at least once if only to learn how easy it is to type in incorrect coordinates.

Big buttons!

The bigger, the better. You’re a hardened hiker which means that, at some point, you’re going to be travelling through some pretty cold environments and you’ll need to keep your pinkies warm inside some outsized down mitts. Trust me, it’s not easy operating a fiddly joystick when you’re wearing a pair of these:

IMAGE OF HUG DOWN MITTS

Joking aside, the buttons on a handheld GPS should be large enough that you can operate every menu function without have to take off your gloves. Why? Because frostbit hurts… a lot.

Screen

What type of screen should your GPS have? For me, there is no arguing – black and white all the way. Literally. There is no need for a colour screen on a handheld GPS. Monochrome is less likely to fail – I’ve only ever once experienced ‘bleeding’ of the black LCD colour on my Garmin eTrex 10 (reviewed here) and that was after three weeks in the extreme cold.

My friend’s colour screen GPS failed after 5 days!

Sure, that’s not the norm but my view is that the fewer ‘enhancemnts’ to a basic GPS, the better. More tech means a more opportunity for you to experience first hand the ‘law of sod’!

To touch screen, or not to touch screen?

Alas, poor Yorick, it’s a no from me. The world seems to have gone ga-ga over touchscreen devices and I have to admit to loving my iPhone, but you really don’t need a touch sensitive GPS. I trialled one some time back and managed to wipe out my entire route because I hadn’t locked the screen and placed the unit in my jacket pocket. The movement of the GPS inside my pocket was recorded as taps on the screen and, like horrible magic, my route was gone (I wish I could have put money on this happening – the odds and payout would be huge).

And keep the screen as small as posssible to reduce the amount of energy used. More on that in a moment…

Mapping functionality

Most of the mid to high end handheld GPSs now come with downloadable maps. I have mixed views on this. Oh, no I don’t! Ask yourself this: do you really need to download digital maps? The more you come to rely on the vast range of features the more likely you’ll be up a creek without a paddle when the unit breaks down, or fails to get a satellite lock.

The very best mapping you can take with you on your hike, or trek, is a good old fashioned piece of topography etched into paper. Just add a compass and you’ll never again be lost (assuming you know how to use them both). I have yet to be convinced that GPS mapping functionality can in any way replace a paper map.

Dont’ take my word for it: try route planning using both methods. There’s no difference in the approach. In fact, I’d argue that using a map and compass to plot a journey, and writing down each leg of your journey will help seal the route into your mind.

Even though all my routes are planned on a map, my backup navigation device is the Garmin InReach Explorer+, an awesome piece of tech. What I really like is that I’m not forced to download maps in order to use it.

Waterproof

Yes, definitley. But do you really need a GPS that can resist water ingress up to 4 hours at a depth of 150m? No. If it’s that deep underwater, you’ve either lost it for all time or you’re a deep sea diver and you shouldn’t be reading this post. Oh, unless you’re a deep sea diver who loves hiking, in which case – great to meet you, keep reading.

IPX7 rating means the device will resist water seeping through the casing for 30 minutes at a depth of 1 metre.

You are unlikely to need a GPS that can go deeper and for longer. Stick to IPX7.

What about heart rate sensors, accelerometers and wifi connectivity?

You don’t need them. It’s all too easy to get sucked into the belief that your GPS could, and should, have all the functionality found in your smartphone, but this is ridiculous. The chances are you’ll take your iPhone, or Android phone, on your trips so why double on the functionality?

A more important point to consider is this: more functions equals more power drain. Do you really want to be hauling a car battery in ruck just so that you can power on your GPS?

Wrapping it up.

Choosing a GPS that fits your needs is simple. You really dont’t need to have thousands of features that you’ll never use and which become more potential failure points, issues you don’t want to experience when you’re out on the trails. Keep it simple and you won’t go wrong. And please do learn how to navigate using a map and compass!