Unless you’re Chuck Norris, getting stuck on a narrow mountain ledge in dense fog would most probably ruin your day. Fortunately for us, dedicated outdoor GPS navigation devices help prevent the worst from happening. Here’s what you need to know about these high-tech lifesavers to help you decide which Garmin handheld GPS to take on your next trail.

I bet you use your smartphone to navigate around town all the time. Most of us do. In fact, I reckon we’ve become so blasé about using GPS phone apps, that many of us now assume our handsets are the only personal navigators we’ll ever need. If you stick to the civilizing influence of network coverage your entire life, this is probably true. However, for nature lovers intent on hitting trails far from the reassuring veil of high-tech connectivity, it’s a completely different story.

A lack of cell phone signal is not the only problem facing intrepid wanderers wanting to stay safe. Nature can be tough, especially on electronics. And most smartphones are just that; a bundle of temperamental electronic components packed inside a delicate housing. One bad drop onto rocks, or a severe dunking in a mountain stream, and they’re history.

Smartphones also suck juice faster than gas-guzzling V8s when using navigation apps – requiring them to be plugged into your vehicle’s auxiliary power system, especially if you spend much time on the road. So how long do you think your phone’s battery will last unplugged with its GPS fired up all day? My educated guess: Not long enough.

wheretoRight GPS for the job

That said, if getting lost in the wilderness, or injuring yourself tumbling down a ravine in bad weather don’t factor in your plans – then a dedicated outdoor GPS navigation device is the obvious answer. Most of them come fully waterproof. Their robust designs can withstand the inevitable bashes and drops that occur in the wild. Featuring efficient processors, they remain powered up significantly longer than any fancy pocket computer. And, as the majority use AA batteries, carrying spares is a non-issue.

Most importantly, dedicated GPS navigators never lose signal – allowing you to always pinpoint your exact location, retrace your route if necessary, and see how far you still have to go before reaching your destination. Even better, high-end units often incorporate barometric altimeters, helping you to track real-time weather changes, too.


The Garmin Montana 680 has a touch screen that is glove friendly and comes with a built-in digital camera.

Features to consider before purchasing a handheld GPS

Touchy operators or button pushers

Whether you go for a touchscreen or button-operated device depends on what you want to use it for.

Touchscreens work faster, mainly because you don’t have the hassle of scrolling through menu options. They are also more convenient to plug waypoints into and have larger displays. However, their larger screens make them more power hungry than button-operated devices.

Button-operated devices may seem old-school, but they have their place – especially in cold, wet environments where wearing heavy gloves isn’t a fashion statement. Their batteries also last longer. On the downside, inserting waypoints via the button interface can be a pain. But if you’re looking for a rock-solid device that can take any adventure on its chin, then buttons are your safest bet.

Electronic or differential compass

The main difference between electronic and differential compasses is their level of sophistication.
For mountain climbers and others who spend a lot of time on the edge, the more sophisticated (read expensive) electronic compass is a must-have tool. That’s because it shows direction even when you’re standing still – an important feature in tight, zero-vis situations where you need to figure out your heading and not plummet into thin air.

Differential compasses, using simpler technology, rely on satellite tracking to establish direction. As a consequence, they require you take a few steps before showing a true heading. Fortunately, this isn’t a big deal for the average weekend adventurer.

fenix3barBarometric altimeter

A barometric altimeter is one of those features that draws the line between high and low end devices, indicating where each unit stands in its product range. Handhelds low in the specs department tend to be better at calculating your position (latitude and longitude) than height above sea level (altitude). To get around this, higher-end units incorporate a barometric altimeter to provide more accurate atmospheric pressure readings. This, in turn allows for the real-time tracking of weather patterns – making it an important feature for extreme adventurers or those who prefer hiking long distance solo.

Connect and share

If you prefer to hike in groups and like sharing track information with others, you’re going to need a higher-end unit boasting wireless sharing and Bluetooth connectivity options. These cool features let you quickly transfer track and waypoint files to other compatible devices, allowing your entire group to stay in the loop. You can also conveniently share your route with others preparing to head out on the same trail you’ve just finished before leaving the car park.

Media matters

When travelling light, combining as many features as you can into one compact package makes a lot of sense.

Apart from the ability to see all your photos, videos and voice notes exactly where they were captured along your route, once back in the comfort of your home – these fun features have practical applications, too. For example, you can use captured media to mark waypoints instead of typing them in. And, after sharing your trail information with hiking buddies, they can use your photos etc. to ensure they stay on track when retracing your route.

Which Garmin handheld works best for you?

garminstackI like my Garmin GPSMAP 64, but that’s me. Touchscreens on anything other than smartphones or tablets drive me nuts, so the fact that it doesn’t have one is a big plus. I also appreciate its rugged (albeit relatively bulky) waterproof design, ability to accept various maps, accurate quad helix antenna and fast satellite (GPS and GLONASS) acquisition.

That my trusty handheld can’t perform wireless data transfers (I have to connect to my PC via USB) or receive smart notifications doesn’t bother me in the least. Admittedly, its colour 6.6 cm display is a bit small for my liking, but it has never let me down – whether I’ve been boating offshore or rambling through the countryside. And, although features such as 3-axis tilt-compensated electronic compass and barometric altimeter (found on the fancier GPSMAP 64s) would be nice, I can live without them.

In short, it syncs with my simple needs and outdoor interests perfectly. It’s also what I could sensibly afford at the time.

Which handheld navigator works best for you will undoubtedly be completely different. For example: If I was a mountain biker, neither the GPSMAP 64 or 64s would leap out as viable options. For a start, I consider them way too bulky. Their screens would be too small for me to read properly once mounted on handlebars. And, the way I see it, any attempt at using their push-button interfaces while bouncing down a dirt track would be a scream, literally. Steering? Good luck with that.

Instead, I would opt for Garmin’s eTrek Touch 35. Offering basically the same functionality as the 64s, along with its IPX7 waterproof rating. The Touch 35 weighs 101 grams less, and comes in a more compact, bike-friendly form factor. Its larger 11.7 cm touchscreen would make seeing where you’re going, not to mention navigating menus on the fly much easier. Oh, and it comes standard with a bike mount, too. It’s a no-brainer, really.

Cost vs. functionality

There’s nothing wrong in splashing out on an expensive, high-end navigation device, just because you can. But if all you aspire to are day hikes – where getting back to your vehicle before sundown is your main priority – you could be wasting hard-earned cash. If that’s the case, you’d be better off going for a less sophisticated unit and spending the money saved on a decent pair of hiking boots.

My advice: Realistically assess your outdoor lifestyle and interests, factor in a few personality quirks (hey, we all have them) and check out your budget – only then will you be in a position to decide which handheld navigation device works best for you. – (c) 2016 NavWorld

About The Author

Sean Woods

Originally a photographer for the Star newspaper in the bad old days, Sean Woods turned to writing after the first democratic elections in '94. The career shift paid serious dividends, culminating in him becoming associate editor for Popular Mechanics magazine with a number of technology writing awards under his belt. His interests include anything to do with boats, motorcycles and all those fancy tech gadgets that help the modern world go around.

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