In the era of smartphones, why would you ever consider purchasing a dedicated GPS unit for your hiking needs? There are plenty of free smartphone apps that support hiking maps, so what’s the point? If all your hikes are easy and take less than a day, then you probably won’t need these devices.
But if being in the wild is your passion and you frequently spend several days out there, even in harsh conditions, then getting one of these units may be a good idea.
Here are the top three benefits of using GPS over smartphones:
- Many of them are water resistant and tolerate extreme temperatures much better than your smartphone.
- The battery life is also better, and unlike smartphones they use standard AA or AAA batteries, which you usually pack for your flashlight anyway.
- The newer devices use not only GPS, but GLONASS satellites as well, which makes the positioning faster and more accurate.
So, the better devices are generally more accurate than smartphones anyway. Apart from that, you’ll look like an amateur if you’re hiking only with your phone. So there’s that, I said it.
The market is dominated by Garmin and Magellan
And that is not necessarily a bad thing. They really make good devices, so let’s dive in and check four affordable ones.
Magellan CX0310SGXNA eXplorist 310 Waterproof Hiking GPS
This is the cheapest and most basic device on our list. It costs about 150 USD, weighs 5.1 ounces and has a 2.2” color display. It works with 2 AA batteries and the advertised battery life is 18 hours. That’s pretty awesome especially if you pay a little attention and keep it off unless you really need it it can easily last you for a week.
- Rugged and waterproof to IPX-7 standards.
- Preloaded World Edition map
- High-sensitivity SiRFstarIII GPS with 3-5 meter accuracy
- Suspend mode
- Track data: distance travelled, average speed, elevation gain and descent, and average time to find
- Geocaching capabilities
Other features include POIs, fishing and hunting calendar, sun and moon (tide) calendar, audible alarms and area calculation using walk around or by selecting points. These are considered basic features and are found in almost every GPS device.
One controversial feature of this device is the joystick. Do you remember those pre-smartphone cell phones that you had to navigate with a joystick? This Magellan works like that. Some people hate it, some people don’t mind it. Jack from Oregon said:
This thing just feels good in your hand. The buttons are convenient. I wasn’t incredibly happy with the joystick. In addition to pushing the joystick around with your thumb to move the onscreen mouse, you also click it in to make selections. I’ve found myself getting accidental “clicks” when I only meant to move the mouse. This isn’t that huge of a deal, but it was definitely worth mentioning.
Check for more user reviews under this link
Another weak point is that this device has no SD card slot, so it only holds one regional topo map. Plus the screen is could be bigger.
The eXplorist 310 is a solid entry level device and a good choice if you don’t want to spend more.
Garmin Dakota 20 Waterproof Hiking GPS
This one is a Garmin device, a little bit more expensive but still affordable. Especially if you care about quality. It’s not that cheap but you can find good deals if there is a sale. It weighs 5.3 ounces, has a bigger, 2.6” screen and offers somewhat better battery life (20h, 2 AA batteries). It supports all the features that the Magellan eXplorist 310, but these extras may make it worth the purchase:
- 3-axis electronic compass
- microSD card slot
- barometric altimeter
- can be used in car and city navigation as well
The first one is important because the compass will be accurate at all times. Without this, the compass is “calculated” from the GPS signals, so it won’t show the right direction when you stop and turn.
Some things that users love about this unit:
While the screen isn’t the brightest I’ve ever seen, it’s workable even in sunlight, and the user interface has a nice feel.
If you want to read more testimonials head over here.
The touch screen definitely makes it easier to use this device than the eXplorist with the joystick. A few people complained about using the screen in sunlight, but as the above comment says, it’s alright.
Using polarized sunglasses also improves the visibility of the screen. Another huge advantage is that custom maps can be easily used with this device. That means that you won’t have to buy the usually expensive Garmin topo maps. If you do buy Garmin maps, make sure you buy the SD card format, otherwise the maps will be linked to the device, so if you upgrade later, you’ll have to buy the maps again. No such problem with the SD format maps.
Magellan eXplorist 510 Waterproof Hiking GPS
This is an all-in-one device. It costs about 216 USD, weighs 15.2 ounces, uses 2 AA batteries like the others and offer 15 hours of battery life. That is pretty good when you consider the following features:
· 3″ touch screen (but it also has buttons)
· Integrated 3.2 mega-pixel camera, microphone and speaker
It also has all the previously mentioned features: sunrise/sunset, hunting/fishing calendars, area calculation, etc. Many users say that the battery life is nowhere near advertised 15 hours, in part because you will have to turn the brightness all the way up in direct sunlight. But it works with the standard 2 AA batteries, so you can just bring extras. Another important information is that you will definitely need to buy an SD card, because the OS takes up most of the internal storage.
It’s a great choice if you want an accurate GPs device with big screen and great satellite connectivity. The ability to capture audio, images and videos might make this device especially attractive to geocachers.
Garmin GPSMAP 64s
This is the last device on our list. This is the most expensive on our list, but it has an impressive feature list:
- 2.6″ sunlight-readable color screen
- High-sensitivity GPS and GLONASS receiver with quad helix antenna
- 1-year BirdsEye Satellite Imagery subscription
- 3-axis compass with barometric altimeter
- Wireless connectivity via Bluetooth® technology¹ or ANT+™
The screen is a smaller than on the eXplorist 510, but this one works great, even in direct sunlight. The second point ensure quick locks on satellites and extremely good accuracy. The third item might come handy, but one thing everyone loves about this device is the ability to use custom maps easily – that means you won’t have to buy the expensive Garmin maps. We’ve already covered the advantage of the 3-axis compass at the eXplorist 510, and last one is useful to easily share waypoints, tracks, geocaches wirelessly with compatible devices. You can even get alerts from your iPhone on the 64s when you get an email or text.
This device work with 2 AA batteries like the other one and weighs 9.3 ounces. Of course, it also has the hunting/fishing calendar, etc. features. This is definitely the best unit on our list, but as you will see the price might reflects that too.
Whichever you choose, one common point is that the documentation provided is lacking, so you may need some time to get used to the device. Also, don’t miss out on the custom maps. Search forums to find out the best methods. And here are two sites to get you started:
For Garmin devices: GPSfiledepot.com
For Magellan devices: http://maps4me.net/