Select the best GPS Unit for HIking Adventures.

How to Select the Best Hiking GPS Unit

Last Updated on October 26, 2020

GPS units have helped hikers for years to get through the jungle since the late 1980s. Choosing a good GPS unit before going on a hike can be a very confusing task. Especially with all that advanced technology involved in the GPS units nowadays.

People have many questions regarding GPS systems and units. How do they work? Where to use it? Which GPS unit to buy for hiking? These are some basic questions everyone has.

How to Choose the Best GPS unit for Hiking 1

Before writing this article, I thought I knew everything about GPS units (because I have been using one for years). But this is where my conception ended; I researched and found many new things about a GPS such as wireless data transfer between two GPS units.

So, I tried to write everything that I could gather out of my experience and the research into this guide. This is not a product review; I have compiled the list of features in a modern-day GPS unit. Read on to know more about GPS units and learn how to choose the best GPS unit for Hiking.

What is a GPS Unit?

Starting from the very basic, GPS stands for Global Positioning System, this system was initially known as NAVSTAR GPS. It is a satellite-based radio navigation system owned by the United States and it is operated by the United States Space Force. In its early days, GPS was used by the United States Department of Defense (1973) and was released for use by the public in the 1980s.

The system consists of a GPS receiver located on Earth and the satellite. The receiver is in the GPS unit and the satellite helps to locate it with help of radio signals. Any obstruction like mountains, trees, buildings, etc. can weaken the signal. On the outer-shell, the GPS receiver and the Satellite are in sync with the help of very stable atomic clocks. The clocks are updated daily for accurate positioning of up to 30 cm. The time is taken (delay) by the signal to reach the receiver from four different satellites at the same time is calculated to find the position of the receiver/person.

That’s a lot of technical talks; now let’s get back to the guide. The GPS units for campers and hikers are different from a regular GPS unit in terms of form, ruggedness, and usability. Read the next part to know when it should be used.

GPS Units for Campers/Hikers

Hikers who go on long hike and treks, where the mobile tower signal is lost, should use a GPS unit ideally. GPS units come in many different forms and factors and are made by different manufacturers.

A GPS device helps the hikers to get through the jungles or mountains with the help of a map that shows the highlighted routes. GPS units are therefore very useful during a hike and taking it to the hike will significantly ease up the process of navigation through the jungles and mountains.

GPS is better than a traditional map and compass as they pack both of them in one unit while retaining many other features. However, it is advised not to rely on a GPS unit and take a map and compass while on going on a hike or any adventure trip. Sometimes GPS signals are lost which may turn out to be a big blunder.

Some of the most popular manufacturers include; Garmin, Magellan, DeLorme, Lowrance, etc. These companies produce different models with different features. We will see the feature in the next section. There are many features included in a modern GPS unit. You can pick one that suits you the best.


There are some features found on every GPS unit; that is the modern GPS systems have some features which are common for all. These features have increased the usability and interface of the GPS devices. Additional to these features some other features help in boosting the user experience furthermore.

If you like simplicity and those additional features are a bit daunting for you, then you can easily refer to the features listed below for easy understanding and narrowing down your choice of a GPS unit.

The common features:

User Interface

This simply indicates how the user interacts with the GPS unit. There are primarily two ways to do that; Touchscreens or Buttons and display. Most of the GPS units use touchscreens now for fluency of operation. But a few cheaper ones use the traditional button and screen set up.

The software

It also plays a very crucial role in easing the user experience and makes everything smoother. Garmin is very good at delivering very good software skins for their products.

Screen Size

To some people, the size of the screen is very important. Especially for people with weak eye-sights, therefore it is advised to go for a GPS unit with a relatively good size screen. It is helpful to easily navigate as everything appears big.

However, a big screen is desirable but it has its setbacks. A bigger screen will also drain the battery faster.

Frankly to say, if you are not a hard-core tech-savvy person, then these two features are more than enough for you. And if you are looking for technical features then be ready to spend more money.

Take a look at the advanced features below.

Advanced Features

Every GPS unit is made to guide you with the help of an electronic Map. But there’s a lot more space inside for other features too, therefore, manufactures include many advanced features. You can check these features which can help you choose a perfect unit for yourself.


Compass and map go together and are being used for many centuries for guidance. Some of the GPS units come preloaded with internal electronic compasses which are of great help in the woods because sometimes the GPS signals are lost. Compass will help you to find a way out in that case. This is a feature that is the most desirable additional feature, try to get a unit with an inbuilt compass.

Barometer and Altimeter

A barometer is used to find the pressure of a particular elevation while Altimeter is used to find the elevation of a place from the sea level. Sometimes, these are very much desirable by some people. Especially, to the advanced level campers and hikers to predict the weather depending on the barometric reading. The altimeter helps in determining the ascend and descend of a particular place.

Preloaded Maps

All the units come with a basic set of maps loaded which can help in guiding in every situation. Users can take a subscription to certain plans of manufacturers for getting new and added maps. Sometimes these maps are free for use and can be loaded on your device using a micro SD card.

Before buying a unit, check if the subscriptions are paid or free to use; as some of the manufacturers sell it separately.

Micro-SD Slot

The internal memory of a typical GPS unit is very low therefore, many of them come with an extra slot for a Micro-SD card. It will help you in storing more maps on your device. Nowadays, every unit contains a slot for an SD card and you can store detailed maps. You can also store the maps in your PC or any other memory storage device for saving the space on the Micro-SD card.

Digital Camera

Very few units offer this option; it is relatively expensive. You can take photos of a place ad geotag them on your device. This ensures that you don’t get lost in the jungle. Cameras are not offered by every manufacture as it is not an essential feature.

Wireless Data Transfer

This allows transferring data like maps and tags between two different units. It is only available between the units from the same manufacturer. You should only go for this feature if you are a very much tech-savvy person.

How to Choose a GPS Unit

Now that you know about the features and working of a GPS device, it is obvious that you should work on channelizing your search for a good unit. I have compiled everything from what is written in the guide so far into this section. Here you will find the essential things to look for before buying a GPS unit.

These points are related to the ease of usability and reliability of the unit. They have nothing to do with the technical specifications of the unit.

Battery Life

GPS devices take power from the batteries inside the units. Therefore, a good unit should be able to deliver a very good battery life. Also, most of the units can work on the standard AA battery which is of great help in case the device runs out of charge. Moreover, the device comes with rechargeable batteries which you can charge if going on a car-camp trip.

Built Quality

The biggest advantage of GPS units over the traditional map and compass is that these can handle almost all the weather conditions no matter what. All the GPS units for hikers are waterproof and very tough helping them to go through all the abuse.


The prices for these units vary greatly depending upon the added features. You should first check what is needed and then go on to buy it. Price should be the first consideration as GPS units are a relatively expensive choice of gadgets.

Added Features

After you decide the budget, check for what features you need in the device. Look for the features above and check what you need and which product delivers the best based on the reviews. Added features include; SD card slot, preloaded maps, wireless transfer, camera, etc.


Hiking GPS units are very useful if you are going on a hike or camp. These units pack a map with a compass for navigation in forest areas or mountains. There are many added features in a typical GPS unit for ease of use. You can check on these features and get a perfect unit for yourself. It is advisable to look for good quality units as they will go through great abuse during the use.

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