January 4, 2007

Buying Guide: Outdoor/Handheld GPS Recommendations

The current crop of GPS receivers are generally small and affordable for entry level GPS units. If you would like to get a lot of bells and whistles, you can easily pay up to $500 for a handheld GPS when you start adding on the latest features. So while the prices of GPS units have dropped, to a little more than $100 for a decent entry level GPS, the feature sets have gotten better too.

Updated: Jan 4, 2007

Unit Recommendations Up Front – Explanations Below

Entry Level Handheld GPS
I used to recommend the Garmin eTrex Legend Monochrome, which sells for around $130, but the Garmin eTrex Venture Cx is well worth the extra money due to the color screen, the longer battery life and the ability to download via USB which will be light year's faster than the Legend's serial connection.

Garmin eTrex Venture Cx garminventurecx.jpg

  • Color screen,
  • Mapping,
  • Expandable with Micro SD cards,
  • 32 hours run time,
  • USB connectivity
  • Waterproof (IPX7 stds)

    Mid-Tier Handheld GPS
    Has the features from the Venture Cx above.

    Garmin eTrex Vista Cx adds:


  • Electronic Compass
  • Barometric Altimeter
  • 64MB Micro SD Card

    High End Handheld GPS
    Garmin GPSMap 60CSx - The GPSMap 60CSx is a bigger handheld that offers a big screen (50% bigger than the eTrex “C” models). - See my Review of the Garmin GPSMAP 60CSX.

  • Color screen,
  • Mapping,
  • Expandable with Micro SD cards – 64MB card included
  • 32 hours run time,
  • SiRF star III chipset,
  • USB connectivity
  • Waterproof (IPX7 stds)
  • BIG color screen
  • Quad Helix antenna – better reception
  • External Antenna port

    All of the above Handhelds come with a base map, which means that it has highways, bodies of water, etc. They don’t include detailed maps of secondary roads, or navigational aids in bodies of water. I recommend getting these detailed maps depending on your needs:

    City Navigator – Detailed Streets and Points of Interest (POI).
    BlueChart – Marine navigation with NavAids, for offshore use.
    Inland Lakes – Thousands of lakes plotted.
    Topo USA – Topographical navigation. Trails are not always labeled with names.
    Garmin Topo 24K – If you are going to National Parks, and want extreme detail, like trail names, etc. The trails are even routable. Note that there are 2 versions East/West.


    Get a GPS With Mapping Capabilities - I recommend a few features on GPS units that are worth paying for, and one of those features is mapping capability. The absolute bottom of the line products from the major manufacturers do not come equipped with mapping abilities, and that means that you need to “navigate” across a blank screen. Wouldn’t you like to see a map under you, even if you are walking in the woods? Wouldn’t you like to know that you are close to that road on the other side of the state forest? So, while the units that are map capable are only about $30 more, you’ll need to also buy a CD with map data for around $100, so it is a decent up-charge to have the full road coverage.

    Newer Models have Color and USB Computer Connectivity - If you can afford it, I would urge you to move up to some of the newer models that are in color and have the ability to take expansion cards. OK – so you like the detailed maps, and you travel to another part of the country, you’ll need to download new maps to the device, and the older devices came with minimal onboard storage. So, the newer ones come with expandable cards, and you can load up a large card with a heck of a lot of map data, freeing you from frequent trips to the computer to download new maps. On top of this, the newer units come with color screens and audible alerts that allow you to see more data easily, and program audible alerts when you are coming in range of a turn or a waypoint.

    So here are some features that you should look for:

    1) Mapping and built in “base maps” – covered above. A base map is a basic map of interstates and towns in the country. These are basic and won’t cover surface roads.
    2) Color Screen - nice to have, covered above. Transreflective Color screens are good as they are easy to read in the sunlight and are easy on batteries. Garmin and Magellan handhelds have these.
    3) Waterproof – Most outdoor units are waterproof, but if you are using an automobile GPS when you hike, watch out it may not be waterproof – don’t drop it in that stream!
    4) Waypoints – Almost all units have these but you should think about getting one capable of 500+ waypoints.
    5) Routing – When you drop waypoints on important locations or turns you need to make, you can connect to for a route. You should have 20+ routes available for use. I chew these up quickly and you don’t want to keep going back to the computer to exchange these things every time you head out.
    6) Battery Life – Older units have 12 hours of use, and newer ones with efficient GPS chipsets have up to 30+ hours on “AA” batteries. The longer the better, as a 12 hour battery life is really just 1-1.5 days on the trail. This can cause you to carry A LOT of “AA” batteries with you for a week long outing.
    7) Good Size for you – Go pick the model up at a store, you’ll want to make sure you can deal with the size. Mine fits in my pocket, but others clip to backpack straps so a bigger unit is OK. You choose and check it out.
    8) Topo Map capability – Nice to have if you are out in the woods and hills/mountains a lot. Both Garmin and Magellan have decent Topo map CDs out for their units.
    9) SiRF star III or similar chipset – This is a good upgrade, not a must have. This is a game changer, and I am sure that there are others that are coming to compete at this level, but these chips are amazing. In short, they are sensitive, accurate and draw very little power. This has the effect of increasing batter life (almost doubling), and it pulls in signals under heavy tree cover. I could get reception in the second floor of my house right through the roof, so, I’ll bet tree leaves are no match for this chipset. If you want to read more see our article – What is SiRF star III Chipset?

    We will continue to update this recommendation list to keep it current and relevant.

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    Posted by Scott Martin at January 4, 2007 6:44 AM
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