Shopping for and Using GPS Units for Hiking and Trekking On and Off Trail

Note: This guide was written before smartphone apps with GPS capabilities became more widespread, so the focus of this guide is on dedicated handheld GPS units.


On the Trail with GPS

How to Choose a GPS Receiver

By Jeremy Apgar, Trail Conference cartographer

GPS on the TrailAs the staff cartographer here at the Trail Conference, I am often approached by volunteers or members asking, "I am interested in getting a GPS receiver to hike with but don't quite know what to look for...can you provide any recommendations?"

More and more people are carrying a GPS receiver when they hike. In addition, many people are getting into geo-caching, a family-friendly activity that utilizes GPS receivers to hunt for treasure in the great outdoors. In a survey concerning trail map usage that we conducted in 2009, 50% of the 660 respondents noted they use a GPS receiver when out hiking, with their frequency of use ranging from rarely to always.

(Fortunately, over 90% of total respondents noted they carry a trail map at least most of the time. GPS units should not be considered substitutes for map and compass, but supplements to them. Like any electronic technology, they are not wholly reliable: batteries may die, the unit may fail, contact may be lost with satellites.)

With so many different brands offering multiple models with a wide range of features (Garmin, for instance, offers over 40 different GPS receivers for "On the Trail" use), it can certainly seem like an overwhelming task to find the GPS receiver perfect for your use. This article aims to provide some guidance about what to look for when shopping for a GPS receiver, keeping in mind that everyone has distinct needs and varying wallet sizes.


Do you want to just track your mileage or perhaps your elevation ups and downs? Do you want to record and find specific locations (waypoints, perhaps for geo-caching)? These are fairly straightforward GPS applications and you probably can get away with simpler and less expensive units that have no built-in map.

Or perhaps you want to record tracks of your hikes and impose them on maps on your computer at home or in your GPS unit? Maybe you want to follow a trail map installed on your unit. Mapping features tend to lead up the GPS scale of products and therefore in price.


The following features are fairly standard among many handheld GPS receivers, but it is still important to make sure they are included for the particular model you are interested in.

Rugged/Waterproof: GPS receivers used on the trail should be able to withstand some abuse, from getting wet in a surprise thunderstorm to being dropped on a rocky trail. Look for at least some protection to dropping and a waterproof rating.

Battery Life: Most new GPS receivers can exceed 16 hours of use on two AA batteries, which works out great for most day trips. It's a good idea, though, to bring along an extra set of batteries.

Positional Accuracy: Look for GPS receivers that utilize a 12-channel parallel receiver system, as this allows the receiver to lock onto multiple satellites at the same time to more accurately pinpoint your location. Many factors affect GPS accuracy, regardless of the model; but some receivers provide enhanced accuracy under certain conditions, such as with a system called WAAS (Wide Area Augmentation System). GPS receivers need unobstructed access to satellites overhead, so to maintain the best connection, they should not be hidden inside a deep pocket or backpack (keep in mind that it is still possible to lose satellite connection even under seemingly perfect conditions).


Maps: Not all GPS receivers have mapping tools. The most basic units document and record data such as miles traveled, waypoints, or elevation, simply as numbers. Some GPS receivers have basic mapping capabilities, showing your location in reference to major roads or towns. Others can be used to access fully-featured topographic maps that are either preloaded or available for purchase. Certain GPS receivers even allow user-created maps to be used. It is important to identify what kind of mapping capability you need, as this variable plays a big role in the overall price.

Color vs. Grayscale: More expensive models tend to provide color screens while less expensive models have a grayscale screen. This factor often goes hand-in-hand with mapping capabilities, as topographic maps are often easier to follow with a color screen. If the intended use of the GPS receiver is less focused on using maps, consider a grayscale model to save some money. It is also important to make sure the screen is readable in the outdoors, as certain screens can appear to be washed out in sunlight.


Size/Weight: Though many GPS receivers for hiking use are designed to be handheld, their sizes and shapes widely vary. Some are small enough to fit comfortably in a child's hand, while others can be bulkier and be easier to use with larger adult hands. Screen sizes and resolutions also vary, so be sure you can easily read the text and maps on the screen. The best way to figure out what works for you is to find an outdoor retail store such as Campmor or Ramsey Outdoor that carries GPS receivers and allows customers to handle the units and try them out.


Each of these above factors influences the cost of a GPS receiver, so if you can decide what you need in a receiver, you can easily narrow down your possibilities. A small, grayscale receiver with no or very limited mapping capabilities and other functions may cost about $100, while a top-of-the-line color receiver with topographic mapping, a touchscreen display, and other advanced features may cost as much as $600. Luckily, there are some great GPS receivers that offer a good mix of these extremes for around $300.

Keep these points in mind as you figure out your needs and research different brands/models on the internet or at an outdoor retailer. If you have experience with GPS receivers and would like to provide your personal recommendations or additional input, please leave a comment at the bottom of this page for others to read. (You must be a registered user of the site to read and write comments.)


How to Get the Most Out of Your GPS Units

Here are just a few ideas for how you can use your GPS for a variety of activities (note: some of these ideas rely on features that may not be available on all GPS units):

  • Track Your Elevation Change as you climb up a mountain by referring to the altimeter of a GPS receiver.
  • Go on a GPS Treasure Hunt known as geocaching.
  • After a great hike, transfer your GPS tracks to a computer and Create A Map in a program such as Google Earth.
  • Collect GPS Data for the Trail Conference to be used on trail maps (see section below for more information).
  • If you are into photography, explore the ability to Geotag Your Photos based on GPS data.
  • Once you start using your GPS receiver in the outdoors, you will likely discover many other ways that you can use it to enhance your hiking experience.


Providing GPS Data for Trail Conference Maps

GPSing for our Trail MapsHere at the Trail Conference, we use trail data collected by volunteers with handheld GPS receivers for a wide variety of projects, from our published trail maps to advocacy and land conservation issues. With the extraordinary number of trails in the NY-NJ area and the amount of relocations and new trails constantly in the works, we can certainly use any help in obtaining GPS data for trails.


If you might be interested in using your GPS receiver to collect trail data for our needs here at the Trail Conference, please contact Jeremy Apgar ([email protected]) for further details.


Other Useful Links

  • Garmin 'Hiking' GPS Devices - Garmin's site has a lot of information about their wide variety of handheld GPS devices and also has a very useful comparison tool that allows you to compare/contrast the features of multiple GPS devices.
  • Magellan 'eXplorist' GPS Receivers -  With a variety of features and pricepoints, Magellan's eXplorist GPS receivers are an attractive option for hikers.
  • -A very thorough site with GPS reviews, tips on using certain GPS features, a GPS forum and much more, including an 'essential hiking feature list'.
  • Guide to GPS Navigation - This site has a great overview of what GPS is and also provides additional resources (link suggested by a helpful website user who found it helpful for her GPS research).
  • - Learn all about geocaching on the official geocaching website!


Comment: Please be relevant, civil, non-commercial.

Jeremy Apgar's picture

If you have a preferred GPS receiver that you take on hikes, please tell us and other readers about it by leaving a comment here!  Also feel free to provide additional links about hiking with a GPS and any other information you may want to include.

~Jeremy, TC cartographer

cholmes's picture

The iPhone 3Gs with its built-in GPS receivers, magnetometer, accelerometers, and camera is an excellent device for taking on your hike. The iPhone app, MotionX-GPS Sport which you use on the trail, has received hundreds of excellent reviews. I use it all the time.
BrianSnat's picture

I've used over a dozen different units over the years and still own a half dozen. With all those units to chose from, my go to unit for hiking and obtaining trail tracks is still the Garmin 60CSX. I've yet to encounter its equal for reception and accuracy, even among newer and more "advanced" units. Battery life is very good, it's easy to use and extremely durable. The only downside is it's size. It's a bit on the bulky side. When weight and size are considerations, as when I'm backpacking, I'll go with a smaller unit like a Garmin eTrex.'s picture

For those with a little patience, I recommend the Magellan Triton receiver for use in hiking. A little patience is required since there are some bugs in the Triton system but they can be worked around. I use a TRITON 500. The big advantage of the Triton is that almost any scanned map can be loaded into the receiver very easily. I have loaded to my GPS: NYNJTC Trail Maps Historical Hoeferlin Maps Google Terrain Maps Google Satellite Maps USGS TOPO Maps NG TOPO MAPS Virtual Earth Satellite Maps Bob M
brokenlug's picture

This GPS rocks for on the trail use. I love being able to put any scanned paper map on the device with Delorme's X-Map program. The only problem with getting TC maps onboard is that they are folded. It would be nice if the TC could somehow make available unfolded sheets of all the map sets that I could purchase? I already own all of them, but would gladly buy all of them again without the creases to get them on my handheld. This would make my PN-40 the uber hiking tool for this area.
wll1630's picture

Would love to hear how to upload maps on to unit. I have the pn60
mstemp's picture

Does anyone have the actual Harriman, Bear Mountain, and East Hudson trails already mapped onto a GPS.  I see that one can scan in a copy of the map and overlay that as a custom map into a GPS.  But why should everyone have to do that themselves?  Is there a site where these maps are already shared as free or for purchase?   I also see that Garmin sells a 1X24 Top Map of the NorthEast which it says "Contains routable roads, trails and highways in metropolitan and rural areas so getting to your destination is easy by creating point-to-point routes on compatible devices"   Does anybody know if these Garmin maps include the NY/NJ Trails?
Jeremy Apgar's picture

Hello! At the moment, the Trail Conference does not offer either the maps or trails themselves in a digital format that can be easily placed on a GPS receiver.  Also, I believe the NorthEast topo map you described is not very comprehensive in terms of its trail coverage in our region.  It may include the Appalachian Trail but not much more in our area, although the trails included may have changed since I last looked at this product. We are currently working on developing a few options for providing our trail data in digital format for devices like smartphones and GPS receivers.  This is one of our most frequently requested items related to the maps, so we will be trying to provide a solution in the near future.  Stay tuned!~Jeremy, TC cartographer
belleclarkson's picture

Before I thought GPS device are all the and can recieve signal everywhere you are if you were on the same place. I wansnt aware that there are many things that you have to consider when getting one. And the most part that amaze me is it is also capable of being used in navigating. Belle of Tampa DUI attorney
wudwork's picture

I bought a TC map and scanned it in, georeferenced it and put on my Android. I use bluetooth GPS and consume about 10% battery over 8 hour hike. I am finding the breadcrumb trail, created in my phone app, to be exact when driving to trailhead. During hike however, there is quite a bit of deviation from trail. I have measured at least 100ft in some areas. Yet in maybe 40% of trail, the breadcrumbs are overlay the marked trail nicely. Because the breadcrumbs are directly over the tar roads, the georeference and bluetooth GPS are considered calibrated with least deviation.  As such, it is my opinion that trying to manage the plethora of individual trails (moving target) is too costly. Jeremy, please consider another approach. We still must have paper, but.... But for us electronic folks, why not have the iPhone app leave breadcrumbs then provide feature to upload those completed "tracks" to a centralized database. In future, instead of downloading a "static" trail map, one would indicate what area they intend to hike and the "system" would download a base topo/area map then auto-overlay the aggregated trail "tracks" that last folks created. This drives a dynamic system. At some frequency, you "just" print the most current overlays. Also, it is not obvious if the iPhone app does support recording tracks (breadcrumbs). This is a necessary feature to make the dynamic mapping system work. I can forward you Pine Meadow and Alpine hikes (via .KMZ) and you can see for yourself. Thoughts ?   Tom
Jeremy Apgar's picture

Thanks for the suggestions, Tom.  We have just completed the process of making our published maps available through the PDF Maps app (currently for iPhone & iPad).  We are excited to make our maps available digitally, and we hope this serves as a first step into how we can provide our high-quality maps and trail information to users of mobile devices.  We are continually evaluating how to bring this content to users like yourself, so your suggestions are very much appreciated.

~Jeremy, TC cartographer