Handheld GPS Units Buying Guide

Posted by  Monday, April 08 2013 2:00 am

For most people, the attraction to getting outdoors to hike, backpack, camp, fish or hunt is to enjoy a break from their hectic lives. Life currently has increased the need for the human race to simply slow down and reconnect with the natural world.

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Keeping on track is easily accomplished with guidance from a handheld GPS unit.

Although outdoor adventures do offer us a dose of sanity, the urge to bring along a modern gadget to enhance the experience remains for most. Navigation has always been an element of outdoor pursuits that either entertained or frustrated the traveler. The quest for accurate navigation was amped up by the U.S. Department of Defense several decades ago, and the Global Positioning System (GPS) was created. Today, handheld GPS units are found strapped to hundreds of thousands of outdoor adventurers, guiding their way and recording their travel routes.

The GPS unit may be the most appreciated piece of technology for outdoors enthusiasts to come along in years. The heart of the GPS is the soaring satellites orbiting the earth. The satellites are supplied with atomic clocks that emit signals of their location and time. These signals are received by a GPS unit. Once the GPS unit locks on to four or more satellites, the GPS determines its location on earth and the results are displayed on the unit's small LCD screen. Once the GPS is locked on to a set of satellites, the next issue is how accurate of a reading it's getting — the more satellites, the better the accuracy. It's a map, compass and navigating record keeper all in one.

All in the Family

When the first handheld hit the retail market, it barely fit in an adult-sized hand and its accuracy was lacking. Today, dozens of models make up a family of handheld GPS units that provide the perfect navigating tool for whatever your outdoor passion may be — and are extremely accurate. The family is separated into three subgroups: watch-size, hand-size and hand-size with communication capabilities.

The simple pocket-watch sized units are capable of recording your starting point and a couple points along the way. These little GPS units are primarily used for back tracking your steps back to camp with only a couple buttons to push. Some models in this little class also display time, altitude, temperature and elevation. Similar units are now built to fit on the wrist in a watch format. Both styles work well if both hands are busy with trekking poles or fishing rods.

The most common models include cell phone-sized units — although they are similar in size, that's where the similarities end. This group is the most diverse and where choosing the correct unit for your outdoor navigational needs take some consideration. From basic features to the most technically advanced GPS technology are available in this group. For the average weekend outdoors enthusiast, this group is the most popular. The unit fits in the hand nicely and even with a few extra buttons, is easy to operate with a bit of practice. The screen displays a map with details either built-in or added by the user and is easily read while on the move. Screens sizes have grown to allow more map details to be viewed at one time — a feature that is appreciated after using a small screen while viewing on the move.

The third group of the handheld GPS family is the talker in the clan. Two-way radios are merged with GPS units to create the best opportunity for staying on your way and keeping in contact with your comrades along for the adventure. The starting model in the group includes just that: a two-way radio and a GPS unit with a built-in map. The unit at the top of this group sports a barometer, altimeter, NOAA weather radio, color touchscreen and a long-lasting battery pack to power it all.

Rough & Ready

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Many GPS units, like this one from Bushnell, can be compact enough to place anywhere while you're on the trail.

Most electronics are to be considered fragile, especially when the natural elements are involved. Luckily for GPS buyers, the GPS manufacturers kept that fact in mind when designing the GPS' exterior shell. Not that you can throw your handheld GPS against a rock in anger over losing that big brown trout you packed into the backcountry to fish for, but do consider the unit durable. Most units are protected with a rubber coating surrounding the outer edges to damper the impact from drops. To make your selected GPS even more durable, slide the unit into a model-specific, matching case. A case also adds a belt clip and lanyard to keep the unit attached to the user.

Of course water is an element that outdoors enthusiasts encounter, so waterproofing the GPS units is common feature. To learn just how much waterproof you prospective unit is, check the IPX (ingress protection) rating. The IPX waterproof rating is followed by a number. For example, an IPX7 rating means a unit can be submerged in 1 meter of water for 30 minutes. The higher the number, the better the waterproofing.

Battery life varies per unit and the more features a unit has, the more energy it takes to run them. On average, handheld GPS units will stay powered for 12 hours on two AA batteries or a lithium-ion battery pack in higher end models. Depending on the length of travel the GPS will be tracking on your excursion, a set of batteries will last a weekend if the unit is turned off while not moving. It's always a good practice to include a fresh set of batteries in your pack as a back-up.

Even with batteries loaded, handheld GPS units are not heavy or cumbersome to handle even with gloves on. Button and control knob placements were done so with big fingers and gloved hands in mind. If possible, get your hands on the prospective GPS unit to get a realistic feel, and then consider a few scenarios that you will likely encounter while using the unit. Can you operate the unit with one hand or will it take both? Are the buttons too close together for your finger size? Ease of operation matched with knowledge of internal features and navigational screens results in fun navigating instead of confused looks at the little electronic gadget in the field.

Memories, Marks & Points

The GPS unit's memory is as important as its ability to capture a satellite's signal. Memory comes in two ways: internal and via removable memory card. Internal memory will suffice if the built-in map works for your application. If 24 MB of internal memory is capable of holding the map you desire, then go that route. But if you plan or even if the possibility may arise in the future, to add more map details, then select the unit with expandable memory ability. SD cards can add gigabytes of memory possibilities to handle a plethora of waypoints, routes, and POIs (points of interest). The same can be done with units with large internal memories, but more memory inside simply costs more.

GPS units can also be found in two-way radios.

Utilizing memory cards allows the user to store different maps and data on separate cards for long-distance travel. This way, swapping cards at the halfway point provides the map needed to finish the trip. Internal memory capacity is usually too small to store a lot of data. Map data is stored in sections or separate digital files, which can be uploaded to the GPS unit from a computer via mapping software of from the unit's manufacture's website.

Mapping software comes standard with some units as a package deal. If you're not planning to explore other states, and your target location is contained within a few counties around home, then there is no need for a great deal of data or data storage needs. But if you adventure statewide and then some, select a unit with as much memory as the budget allows and software that provides the mapping details and locations you desire.

Included in basic built-in maps are cities, towns, roadways and water bodies. POIs are also available for searching that include restaurants, gas stations, parks and lodging facilities. As more details are added to the map, more memory is required.

Waypoints are spots on the map that are placed by the user. Waypoints are the breadcrumbs that the user will place on the GPS map as mark turns, sights, water sources, and whatever the user wants to add to the route for locating later or simply an addition to the map. If you plan to record many marks, then select a unit that stores waypoints by the hundreds. You'll be surprised at how quickly the waypoints add up on even a one-day trip on the trail. If using the GPS for hunting or fishing, then the waypoints may add up even quicker. Each waypoint may be represented by a subject matching icon (such as a tent, bridge, or fire tower) or one may be created and titled by using the unit's on-screen keyboard.

Reach for the Stars

It's amazing how such a small gadget can locate orbiting satellites stalking the earth, 10,000 miles away. The technology of GPS antennas has greatly improved. In the 1990s, a clear sky was needed to ensure a fairly accurate signal. Now, GPS antennas on even the entry model units can lock on to the satellites while under tree canopy, heavy clouds and beside hills. Although, the clearer the sky the better to capture the best signal possible.

Better signal capturing ability results in quicker navigation. A unit model that boasts a quick "TTFF" (time to first fix), represents how fast the unit locks on to a navigable signal from being turned on in a location distant from where it was turned off last. This is commonly called a "cold start". Depending on the sight path to the sky, what used to take an older GPS ten minutes or more, to begin tracking satellites, can be completed in just a minute or two with an entry level model - even quicker with an advanced model. For the best accuracy possible, select a unit that utilizes the WAAS (Wide Area Augmentation System) feature. WAAS improves location accuracy by combining satellites and ground-based navigation systems. This improves the horizontal accuracy.

Handheld GPS units come with minimal options to all the bells and whistles, like this one from Garmin.

Bells & Whistles

No — handheld GPS units don't have bells or whistles, but they do offer a list of other useful options. Besides, isn't keeping from getting lost one of the reasons you're shopping for a handheld GPS? Checking your elevation is entertaining as you travel, but a barometer can warn of approaching storms that may be out of sight. This is a handy feature on multi-day trips that are void of newscasts.

Serious hikers will appreciate an altimeter on their GPS unit. For hunters and anglers, a hunt/fish calendar gives hints of what days or nights would be best in the woods or on the water. A marine handheld GPS unit holds the secret to finding the big ones, and doing so without marooning your boat in the process. Similar to topo maps for hikers, hunters, and campers, marine models display underwater topography. A handheld also has a place to assist vehicle navigation by snapping into a cradle designed for the dashboard of cars and trucks. Base maps include roadways and points of interest in and around town.

No matter what handheld GPS unit you select, plan on practicing with it in the backyard, around town, and while visiting friends in the next county or state. Once you get the feel of the buttons and which button brings up the desired information on the screen, you'll be on your way to enjoying and exploring the outdoors like you've never done before - and find your way back home.


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Robert Loewendick

Robert Loewendick is a freelance outdoor writer and guidebook author with work regularly published in magazines, newspapers and websites, both in the U.S. and in Canada. Spending days and nights surrounded by the natural world is not a hobby, but instead a lifestyle for Loewendick. Whether fly-fishing a mountain stream or cruising a Great Lake for angling adventures, hiking miles of tame trails or wild ones, paddling calm lakes or running rapids, Loewendick's days outdoors regularly end at a campsite. His award-winning writing has earned him active memberships in Outdoor Writers Association of America and Outdoor Writers of Ohio. 

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