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Stay on the Right Trail with the Best Hiking GPS

See where you are and where to go with these handheld GPS devices, GPS watches, and apps.

best hiking gps
Staff, Courtesy of Coros

When you’re heading into the backcountry, knowing where you are is critical. Although printed maps should be in every hiker’s pack, a hiking GPS has the added benefit of telling you where you are—even when the fog rolls in.

The Expert: For the last five years, Colleen Sintchcombe has hiked through desert canyons, alongside glacial rivers, and summited the highest mountain in the contiguous U.S. In 2017, she spent three months hiking 1,000 miles along the Pacific Crest and Oregon Coast trails. In most of those scenarios, she turned to GPS-enabled apps and personal locator beacons to keep her safe and on the right route.

Types of Hiking GPS

Whether you want extra security on popular trails or you’re planning an off-trail excursion, there are a few GPS tools you should consider. Handheld GPS devices use one or more satellite services to map your location, whereas feature-stuffed emergency beacons have multiple satellite networks at their disposal for maximum accuracy with search and rescue. In particularly rugged conditions, such as mountaineering expeditions or lengthy backcountry trips, a standalone GPS device with a long battery life can guide you out of a bad situation. One with a rescue option can literally be life-saving.

GPS Meets Texting: Stay Connected with the Best Satellite Communicators

On the smaller side, many smartwatches now include sophisticated GPS maps, too. Day hikers and trail runners who might otherwise go without navigational tools can carry these ultralight options on their arms. A quick flick of the wrist will let you know you’re still on the right path.

Perhaps the most convenient option—and most budget-friendly—are apps that use your smartphone’s built-in GPS. Although phone GPS isn’t perfect, it’s usually able to measure within about 16 feet (or 5 meters) of your exact location—competing against entry-level hiking GPS devices. But relying on the same device you’re using for photos, texting, music, and other entertainment can make battery life a challenge. Still, the apps work surprisingly well when you download maps for offline use, and they don’t require any extra room in your backpack.

Keep in mind, GPS devices aren’t turn-by-turn directions for the wilderness. The benefit of GPS is that it tells you exactly where you are (within a margin of error) on a topographic map. If you’re following a trail, the GPS functions like a map—you can reference it when you come to a fork in the trail and need to know which direction to go, and if it’s tracking you, you can follow your exact route on the way out. But if you’re heading into an overgrown or backcountry excursion, you’ll need to download or create a route on that map before you head out. Even then, the best-laid GPS route has to be combined with the reality of your surroundings—just because your GPS says head south doesn’t mean the path will necessarily be safe.

How We Evaluated

For each device, I assessed how long the battery lasts, how accurate its maps are, and how large its display screen is—after all, you need to see the map in order to use it. We also kept in mind how much the device weighed, its ease of use, and whether it had other useful features for hikers, like the ability to summon search and rescue. In addition to my own experience using hiking GPS devices and apps, I considered first-person tests from other review sites and user reviews for each of the GPS models here.

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Best Handheld GPS
Garmin GPSMAP 66si

Key Specs

  • Battery Life: 35 hours (200 in power save mode)
  • Weight: 8.5 oz
  • Display Size: 3 in.
  • Waterproof Rating: IPX7

The Garmin GPSMAP 66si is a long-lasting powerhouse of a handheld GPS with a large screen that makes map-reading easy. Big buttons make it functional even when you’re wearing gloves or dealing with rain. But it’s the bonus features that really set it apart, including the ability to send messages and request emergency services—though you’ll need a subscription (starting at $14.95 per month) to access these.

  • Large screen
  • Impressive battery life

  • Expensive
Best Value Handheld GPS
Garmin inReach Mini

Key Specs

  • Battery Life: 50 hours
  • Weight: 3.5 oz
  • Display Size: 0.9 x 0.9 in.
  • Waterproof Rating: IPX7

The inReach Mini is primarily a personal locator beacon, but its GPS capabilities are worth a look. That’s especially true if gear weight matters to you—this model clocks in at just 3.5 ounces. Pair the inReach Mini with your phone to access basic maps and automatically track your location at regular intervals to keep loved ones at home updated. The downside is you’ll need a monthly subscription to use the device, including the GPS features.

  • Ultralight
  • Doubles as a personal locator beacon
  • Affordable for a handheld

  • GPS app is rudimentary
Best for Navigating Trails and Roads
Garmin Montana 700i

Key Specs

  • Battery Life: 18 hours to 7 days
  • Weight: 14.5 oz
  • Display Size: 5 in.
  • Waterproof Rating: IPX7

For hikers who get to trailheads via hard-to-navigate forest roads, this heavy-duty GPS works just as well in the car as it does in the backcountry. Just about every bell and whistle you could want in a GPS is here: a 3-axis compass, barometric altimeter, an SOS option via inReach (subscription required), and a full QWERTY touchscreen keyboard for sending messages (again, subscription required).

  • Big screen
  • Military-grade construction

  • Expensive
  • Heavy
  • Bulky
Impressively Accurate GPS Watch
Garmin Fenix 6 Pro

Key Specs

  • Battery Life: 36 hours in GPS mode
  • Weight: 2.9 oz
  • Display Size: 1.3 in.
  • Waterproof Rating: 100 m

Want to navigate a trail, track your heart rate, and pay for your post-hike burger all from the same device? You can do that with the Garmin Fenix 6 Pro. Thanks to supporting multiple global navigation systems (GPS, GLONASS, and Galileo), this watch manages to be impressively accurate with a long-lasting battery to boot. But the number of features this watch offers can make it a slow study for new users who just want to get on the trail.

  • Feature-rich
  • Impressive battery life in GPS mode

  • Heavy
  • Expensive
  • Complicated to learn
Lightweight GPS Watch
Garmin Forerunner 945
$524.99 (10% off)

Key Specs

  • Battery Life: 36 hours in GPS mode
  • Weight: 1.8 oz
  • Display Size: 1.2 in.
  • Waterproof Rating: 50 m

The Forerunner 945 offers many of the same benefits as the Fenix 6 Pro at a lesser price: multi-network satellite connection, tracking for multiple sports, and conveniences like Garmin Pay. The differences between the two aren’t related to GPS functionality, but instead things like screen size, storage space, and waterproof depths—all of which the Fenix 6 Pro performs better in but aren’t likely to make a big difference to most hikers.

  • Lighter but still excellent GPS compared to the Fenix 6 Pro

  • GPS eats up battery life
Best Value GPS Watch
Coros Apex 46mm

Key Specs

  • Battery Life: 35 hours (up to 100 in the UltraMax power-saving mode)
  • Weight: 2 oz
  • Display Size: 1.2 in.
  • Waterproof Rating: 100 m

Like other sports watches, the Coros Apex has your standard activity-specific features and specialty sensors that monitor metrics like heart rate. But Coros is a good deal less expensive than the two Garmin watches, even though its battery life is similarly matched. The biggest downside is that the Coros maps just aren’t as nice and detailed as Garmin’s topographic navigation—although as an up-and-comer, they seem to be making regular improvements.

  • Good price point
  • Good battery life

  • Mapping and navigating features are only okay
GPS Watch with a Large Display
Suunto 9 Peak

Key Specs

  • Battery Life: 25 hours in GPS mode
  • Weight: 1.8 oz
  • Display Size: 1.6 in.
  • Waterproof Rating: 100 m

Competing with Garmin’s watches, the Suunto 9 Peak does an excellent job—and even exceeds that competitor’s standards by relying on additional GPS satellite systems (QZSS and Beidou) for improved accuracy. For hikers and runners who like to have impeccable Strava route lines, Suunto’s widely-praised “Snap to Route” feature keeps your GPS track perfectly mapped to your intended route.

  • Solid tracking and well-priced compared to Garmin

  • App isn’t as sophisticated as Garmin
Phone App for Backcountry Explorers

For avid hikers or people planning off-route excursions, it’s hard to beat Gaia’s far-reaching topo maps and tracking abilities—all of which you can access from your phone. Gaia has several free features, but a subscription ($39.99 per year) will allow you to download maps for offline use, which is when they really come in handy. You’ll also be able to see your average speed, moving speed, elevation detail, and an arrow showing whether you’re headed in the right direction.

  • Excellent topo maps can be downloaded for a large area, allowing you to see beyond your immediate hike

  • Not especially intuitive for finding your next hike
Easy to Find New Trails

Beloved by day hikers seeking their next adventure, AllTrails is an excellent entry-level tool for navigating. You’ll need cell service to use the free version, or upgrade to Pro ($29.99 per year) to download maps offline. For short day hikes or users who want to share their treks, AllTrails’ basic GPS features and topo maps are enough to get by on well-trodden paths.

  • Great discovery tool and social platform for sharing hikes

  • Relies on crowdsourcing, which can lead to inaccurate or missing trail data
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