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The Backpacker’s Top Ratings for Handheld GPS

written by: Daniel P. McGoldrick•edited by: Michele McDonough•updated: 9/7/2009

The special criteria that a backpacker has in choosing the best hand held GPS unit for expeditions into the back country needs to be carefully considered. Find the best ratings for a GPS navigational device that will guide a trekker on the trail and, more importantly, off the trail bushwhacking.

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    Considerations for Choosing a GPS for Backpacking

    First consider the primary factors to think about when buying a handheld portable GPS for backpacking starting with size and weight because ultra light backpacking is the best way to go. Also, you’ll want it to have a long battery life and be durable and waterproof for the rugged environment. Whether you get tired, clumsy, or just lost in the beauty of a scenic vista, you will eventually drop the thing. You also want to make sure the screen is easy to read in the sun and that it’s uncomplicated to operate.

    Let’s not forget the most important thing is that you can get good maps built in or downloadable for the places you plan to backpack into and the places you haven’t thought about yet. Make sure the GPS you choose has access to the best detailed topographic maps for trails and wild lands like National Geographic Maps. For dense rainforests, jungles, and deep canyons you’ll want one with the best receiver. The same applies to foggy/rainy/snowy conditions that can be encountered. Some receivers are better than others but even the best need to see the satellites so there are antennas you can buy as accessories to put on the backpack or your hat.

    Backpackers are, by nature, extremely curious about what their present elevation is so that is a key feature. In that deep snow when every line through the trees looks like the trail, you’ll want this device to tell you exactly where your snow shoes should be pointed to get you where you’re going. With those considerations in mind here are some of the top rated brands and models.

    Top Handheld GPS Ratings Backpacker Tested

    Garmin: The Garmin Colorado has received praise from experts and enthusiasts alike in the backpacker community. I researched many product consumer reports sites as well as reviews from the folks who bought them to get this consensus. The Colorado 400T ($485), the top of the line, has a large screen viewable in direct sunlight with a 3D map view option for the detailed topographic maps (national, state, and local parks in the U.S.) it comes loaded with. You operate it with an easy, Ipod like wheel. Its receiver is extremely sensitive and stays locked on; it's got an electric compass, and a barometric altimeter. Contour and elevation info make it ideal for the climber. The Garmin GPSMAP 60CSx ($300) is an older model but still very popular because it has been tried and true for many trekkers (gear loyalty) although it isn’t as easy to operate and has a smaller screen. Also because it is very lightweight, durable, and doubles as a two-way radio, the Garmin Rino 530 HCx ($369) is a very worthy choice well rated by experts and the grunts in the hills alike.

    As far as the cheapest unit you can get that still delivers, but without the eye candy the expensive ones have, is the Garmin eTrex®. ($110) This model is effective, lightweight, durable and still works in deep timber. On 2 AA batteries, this model will last 17 hours which is ideal for long backpacking forays into the wilderness. You can operate the eTrex® H with one hand and the user interface is quite intuitive. On an overnight trip below 10 degrees we had absolutely no trouble with it. You don’t have to drop your trekking poles and gloves to operate it which can get old quick.

    Magellan: You wouldn’t think you could really go wrong with the company named after the explorer who changed the name of the ocean previously known as the South Sea to The Pacific. Even if the explorer didn’t really know where he was going, you want the GPS with his namesake to know exactly where you are. The Magellan Triton 2000 ($430) will ensure that you do, it’s extremely accurate and loaded with features that may or may not belong on a GPS. In addition to a lot of the features we've already covered; it has 2-megapixel camera. There are negative reviews about some features that don’t seem to work, glitchy bugs, and customer service issues. At the other end, there are people who swear by this item and it is rated high by experts which is why it’s included here. It has a hefty price tag so do your research to figure out if all those extras are worth it.