Making Sense of All the Features of Handheld GPS Units
Alhough I'd been an avid hiker for many years, I'd never even considered using a GPS until I joined Search & Rescue, when navigation in its many forms, including by handheld gadget, was part of our basic training. Until then, a map and a compass were all I'd used to figure out where I was going ... and how to get back.
Since that time more than five years ago, I've used a variety of GPS units on countless occasions, both in the backcountry and on confusing, unsigned forest roads. And once I got comfortable with my first GPS, I began using it for much more than SAR missions.
GPSes are great tools to add to your grab bag of navigational knowledge, and they can be a lot of fun too. Of course, really understanding and knowing your way around whichever model you buy is key to using it effectively and safely, but first you have to figure out which one to spend your money on.
Since I now help teach navigation to new Search & Rescue members, I've had many different GPSes in my hand, not to mention the various units I've owned myself. Here, I'd like to show you a range of handheld GPSes that I like and recommend, most of which I've used at least a little and, in some cases, a lot and help you decide which is the right one for you.
Featured Handheld GPS Units
The models you'll see here....
They're all made by Garmin. Yes, there are other good brands, like Magellan for example -- and I started out with an older model Magellan, handed down to me, that worked well and that I liked just fine -- but once I switched to a Garmin, I've never even considered another brand.
I've found Garmin customer service and support to be very responsive, both online and on the phone, once even taking a suggestion made by myself and one of my SAR teammates and incorporating it into a new model. So, of course I'm a fan!
The eTrex Series
Any of these models is great for a beginner GPS user, but there are enough features to keep most backcountry navigators happy for a long time -- more than enough time to get your money's worth and then some. Eventually, if you want even more functionality, you can upgrade to another model, but the eTrexes are better than fine for the majority of those who venture off the beaten path.
The Garmin 62 and Oregon 600-650 Series
These days, I'm personally using a Garmin 60CSx GPS Navigator, which is the forerunner of the newer 62 series you'll see here. Both the 60 and 62 series are very popular with many Search & Rescue folks, and I'll probably stick with mine for a long time. (I'd say until it conks out for good, but I don't know if that will happen.)
The 62 and Oregon 600 series have a number of added benefits and features beyond the eTrexes, including optional built-in cameras that I'll talk about in a bit, because they have more functionality than just taking pictures. These GPSes are pricier, of course, but if you're an avid navigator, like to keep records and interface your GPS unit with other devices, you may want to consider one of these.
Me with my first GPS, an old hand-me-down from a friend
Questions to Ask Yourself Before Buying
Decide what kinds of features you really need and want
You can always change or upgrade to a higher end GPS in the future, but most of the good handhelds on the market cost a lot more than pocket change. So best to make a careful, informed decision, so you'll have a good chance of being satisfied with your purchase.
Here are some things to think about....
- First, why are you shopping for a GPS and what do you want to use it for?Are you a hiker or cross-country skier, a geocacher, a hunter or an angler -- all of the above? Do you work in the backcountry as a ranger perhaps, in forestry, or in Search & Rescue? Do you travel in the backcountry for days at a time and go long distances?
Think about why you want a GPS and what kinds of things you want to be able to do with it. The rest of this list will help you consider some of those things....
- The Screen: Do you want a color screen, or is black-and-white okay? Do you want a big screen (well, big for a handheld GPS) or is a smaller screen just fine?
- Maps: Do you want to see topographic (even shaded topographic) maps on your GPS, or are planimetric (2-dimensional) maps enough?
- Memory: Do want to save a large number of waypoints, tracks and routes, or will you often delete them after use? Do you want enough memory to download more maps?
- Entering and Finding Information: Do you want toggles and buttons or a touch screen?
- The Compass Feature: Do you want a built-in electronic compass that always shows your heading even when you're standing still, or is okay that the compass on your GPS shows the accurate heading only when you begin moving?
- An Altimeter: Do you want a barometric altimeter that pinpoints your precise altitude at all times and even helps track changing weather, or is an approximate altitude and no altimeter okay with you?
- How about Blue Tooth capability? Do you want to be able to wirelessly share data from your GPS with other devices?
- And how does a built-in camera sound, with each photo geo-tagged with the location, for the ability to navigate back to it at another time?
- Do you primarily want to use a GPS to mark where you started from and return to it later, or are you interested in more complex route-finding and transferring your track to mapping software on your computer?
- Are you someone who'll want to share data, maps, and possibly photos from your GPS with other people? Will you want to interact with social media right from your GPS?
A Good GPS, Especially for Beginners
Beginning with the base model and then the more advanced versions....
After using the second-hand older Magellan for a while, I bought a new GPS -- an eTrex similar to this model. That was several years ago, though, and Garmin has updated this series since then to what you see here.
The eTrex 10 is perfect for those just learning to use a GPS, but it's got plenty of functionality to satisfy many seasoned "casual" navigators. You can always start out with the eTrex 20 or 30 if you prefer the color screen and the added features I'll explain below.
All of these versions of the eTrex have a 2.2-inch screen, a toggle switch on the front upper-right and several buttons on the sides of the unit to "navigate" through the pages, enter information, and make selections.
Other aspects the three versions have in common are that they're "WAAS-enabled" with "HotFix and GLONASS support," which just means they're accurate -- as accurate as you'd ever need unless you're maybe looking for a specific blade of grass -- and fast at positioning ... definitely faster than older models. They run on two AA batteries (or rechargeable NiMH or Lithium batteries) for up to 20 hours or more, and they all have a worldwide planometric basemap.
These GPSes, while popular with backcountry travelers and geocachers, can also be used for front-country navigation (drivers, cyclists, etc.), but of course they don't talk to you like GPSes do that are designed specifically for vehicles. Being compatible with a variety of spine-mounting accessories, they can, however, be mounted on dashboards and handlebars.
See the eTrex 10 in Action
Watching short tutorials like this one, even before you have one in your own hand, give you a good idea of how the screen looks and how the unit is operated....
Watch up to 18 more short video tutorials about various functions of this model.
The Garmin GPSMAP 62 Series - Beginning with the base model
If I were buying a new GPS today, this is the series I'd go to. I'd have to think a bit about whether I really want--would use--the additional features beyond the base model that come with the other versions (shown below) and if they're worth the extra money to me, but no question I'd go with a 62. That's because I'm more than a "casual" navigator, often want to use my GPS in conjunction with other technology, prefer the layout of the buttons to that of the eTrex, and I prefer toggles and buttons to the touch screen you'll find in the Oregon series further down the page.
In a nutshell, here are the features the 62 series GPSes all have in common....
- Screen size: 2.6 inches
- Screen: 65k transflective color display (meaning you can see it well in the sunlight)
- Built-in worldwide basemap with shaded relief
- Built-in Memory: 1.7G with the capability to add many detailed topographic, marine and road maps
- Speed & Accuracy: Quad helix antenna, WAAS-enabled GPS receiver and HotFix satellite prediction (like the eTrex) for fast positioning
- Support BirdsEye Satellite Imagery (subscription required) for integrating satellite images with your maps
- Support geocaching GPX files for downloading caches and details to the unit
- Connectivity: Easily connect to computers and the internet to get a detailed analysis of your activities and send tracks to your device using Garmin Connect; view your activities on a map with Google Earth; explore routes uploaded by other Garmin Connect users; share your experiences on Twitter and Facebook
- Batteries/Battery Life: Runs on 2 AA batteries for up to 20 hours
A Video Overview of the Garmin GPSMAP 62 Series
The Garmin Oregon 600 and 650 Series
When you're a navigating nerd ... uh, afficianado ... who wants all the bells and whistles
Okay, so newer isn't always better, but in this case it's different in some significant ways from the 62 series above. This Oregon 600 series is best for those who've had at least some GPS experience and, as with the 62 series, like to share information between their GPS and other devices as well as other people.
I don't have firsthand experience with this new model as of yet, but I have used some earlier Garmin Oregon series, like the Garmin Oregon 550 Waterproof Hiking GPS during one of my GPS classes in Search & Rescue, and I thought it was a really sleek unit. My teammates who have Oregons seem very pleased with them.
When it comes to this new Oregon series, though, I can only look at the features and benefits. And here they are....
As a base with the 600, you'll get a larger screen than the 62 series units. This one is a 3-inch sunlight-readable touchscreen. The buttons it does have are customizable for 1-touch waypoint marking. You'll also get the electronic compass, a barometric altimeter, and an accelerometer too.
With 1.5GB of memory, you can easily add more maps and data besides the pre-loaded worldwide shaded-relief basemap -- like TOPO U.S. 24K maps; Trailhead Series TOPO maps for famous long-distance hikes like the Appalachian and the Pacific Crest Trails; and City Navigator map data for routing on roads. You can also add satellite images to your maps with a subscription to BirdsEye Satellite Imagery and plug in BlueChart g2 preloaded cards for navigating on the water.
With this GPS, you can wirelessly share waypoints, tracks, routes and geocaches just like in the 62 series, but now you can also touch "send" and share larger files like Garmin Adventures and Custom Maps. And sharing is fast.
Free trip-planning BaseCamp software allows you to view and organize maps, waypoints, routes and tracks. You can also create Garmin Adventures that you can share with others.
If you're an avid geocacher, you can store up to 4 million caches in this unit. That should keep you busy! You can download all the caches from OpenCaching.com, GSAK, or use any program or website that supports GGZ files.
With this GPS, you can switch from portrait to landscape view, just like with many cell phones.
The Rest of the Oregon 600/650 Series
The next in line is the 600 model with a "t," which means twice the memory (3GB) as the base model along with pre-loaded U.S. TOPO 100K maps.
Then there's the 650. With this one, you don't get the preloaded topo maps as with the 600t, but you do get 3.5GB of memory and a built-in 8 megapixel autofocus digital camera that takes geo-tagged images which you can share wirelessly. For more storage, you can insert a microSD card, and you can even view photos from other devices on that card with the picture viewer. With this model, the NiMH rechargeable battery pack is included.
And finally the 650t. NOW add back in the pre-loaded U.S. TOPO 100k maps and another half a gigabyte, for a total of 4GB of memory. The NiMH battery pack is included with this model also.
If You Buy a Garmin GPS.....
You can get the technical support you need, along with map updates, additional manuals, service alerts and warranty information on the
You can also register your unit, watch helpful videos, and check out all of the different types of GPSes--handhelds, units for the road and water, sports GPSes, and more--that are available, along with mobile apps, desktop and web applications, additional maps, charts, and extras.
I highly recommend paying a visit to the Garmin site now and then if you use any of their products.
© 2013 Deb Kingsbury
Do You Currently Own a Handheld GPS? - If so, which one and are you satisfied with it?
VineetBhandari on March 23, 2013:
Sounds Great for adventure trips
BeyondRoses on March 01, 2013:
I don't have a handheld GPS, but have a Garmin GPS in the car. They've came so far with GPS, and what they can do now. Sounds sweet for the adventurer! I'm sure many times, it can be a lifesaver.
techmom on February 28, 2013:
We got a Garmin last year and love it. Geocaching is very fun, and it keeps us from getting lost in the car.
Stuwaha on February 28, 2013:
I should probably get one, I got lost inside an elevator once... true story :/
writerkath on February 27, 2013:
I don't have one, but my inlaws do! They love it!