Use cases for handheld GPS devices

Forum Posting

A Membership is required to post in the forums. Login or become a member to post in the member forums!

Home Forums Gear Forums Gear (General) Use cases for handheld GPS devices

Viewing 25 posts - 1 through 25 (of 32 total)
  • Author
  • #3792730
    Ryan Jordan


    Locale: Central Rockies

    With GPS now, integrated into our phones and smart watches, and hybrid. GPS – satellite messenger devices, I’m curious to know if any of you are still using traditional handheld GPS devices that aren’t satellite communicators, and why you chose a handheld GPS only device.

    BPL Member



    Several hours with no reply.  I guess that says there aren’t many of us left out there. I still use a dedicated GPS.  Many reasons.  I have made phones inoperable by dropping them. Never a GPS unit, even under water.   A phone is vital to use with any of Garmin’s communicators if I want to have a real text conversation, especially in an emergency, so I want it to work when I really need it. These days, phones are far more important for everyday life than my wallet, so I don’t want to endanger it.  A gps forces me to plan hikes, routes, and alternatives and then load the tracks, a task I find enjoyable and it enhances safety.  It uses far less power so no extra battery pack needed since I don’t do long thru hikes. An extra pair of Li batteries work fine.  And I don’t use apps like guthooks. TMI for my hiking.  I have an additional old GPS for bad weather that is not a touch screen, so no special gloves and it works in the rain.  I like the safety and predictability of dedicated hardware.  The aviation industry does not use phones to fly airplanes and the military does not use phones to fight wars.  I do neither, but I subscribe to their reliability ethic.  It’s also emotional. I have the first Garmin GPS 50 “handheld” from 1991 on my shelf.   GPS units are in my dinosaur genes.

    Glen L


    Locale: Southern Arizona

    I started using gps professionally for aerial mapping photography in 1993 mostly to keep the pilot on line without having to keep saying one or two degrees left or right constantly and finally bought a Garmin hiking gps in 2004. All those have been long retired. I only use a phone and iPhone 14 Pro Max to be precise and while I’m carful with it I don’t baby it. Never had a problem and love the plus size screen. I don’t miss the extra weight of stand alone gps, cameras or plant guides etc.

    The use cases now  would be professionally for more specific purposes than hiking imo. Precision surveying both aerial and ground comes to mind.

    BPL Member


    I use a dedicated GPS device as I navigate using map and compass and just want to be able to get my location (Ordnance Survey Grid Reference as I am in the UK).

    I don’t use my phone to get location as I want to conserve my phones battery life and my GPS device lasts for over 24 hrs.

    I use a Garmin eTrex 10 has this is the cheapest device I can buy. I use it to record my walks as well as for location but don’t use its map or other functions.

    I also carry spare LI bateries.

    Philip Tschersich
    BPL Member


    Locale: Kodiak Alaska

    We use a number of Garmin hand-held GPS units (60cs, 60csx, 62s, 64x) on deck for fisheries research applications. We use them because there is an easy, single-button-press mark function (create a waypoint) that works with wet gloves on. I find them annoying to deal with in basically every other regard. Position acquisition time, even out on the ocean with no obstructions overhead, is insanely long even if we have only moved a mile. Waypoint download is fiddly and Garmin’s software is so bad that I end up using a 3rd party app. Battery life is terrible (with decent 2300 mAh rechargeable NiMH AAs). The screens are dark and low res, and the rocker-switch map movement is archaic. I basically have little good to say about them, though they do work in our specific single-button-press application. I don’t hike with one, so feel free to ignore/delete this post if it’s too off topic.

    BPL Member


    8 years since I used mine.

    I’d rather bring a stack of power bricks on really long trips to keep my bright phone screen with detailed 7.5 min quads up and running. I also have two charging cables, as those fail the most. On really out there, committing trips I’m rarely solo so we load the route and maps on all devices before. Small scale Nat Geo maps are always somewhere in the kit.

    Giving up the GPS also meant giving up tracking my routes, since the phone in tracking mode uses too much power. But I rarely want to share my adventures with that amount of accuracy, and I update the rough pre-trip files on Caltopo when I get back.

    A friend uses phone for maps and a Coros Watch in tracking mode, which uses very little power and charges with equally little drain on the power banks.

    Mark Verber
    BPL Member


    Locale: San Francisco Bay Area

    it’s been more than 10 years.  I use my phone with a Garmin watch as backup.

    Jeff McWilliams
    BPL Member


    Locale: Midwest

    I still have a Garmin GPSMap 62cx.  I use it to find ice climbs up at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore.  The ice climbing guidebook gives the Lat/Lon for all the climbs, and many can be difficult to locate if you’ve never been to them before.

    I like the GPSMap 62cx over using my phone because:

    1.  AA Lithium batteries perform a lot better in sub-freezing temps than my phone does.

    2.  The physical buttons on the Garmin GPSMap unit are a lot easier to manipulate with gloves than a phone touchscreen is.  Even with touchscreen friendly gloves, it’s almost impossible to manipulate the UI on apps like Caltopo or Gaia.

    A GpsMap 67i that combines “GPSMap” gps functionality with InReach capabilities would be cool, but there’s no way in hell I’m paying $600 for that.

    I should note that with Caltopo I can export map layers in kmz format and the Garmin displays those map layers just fine.  No need to purchase maps from Garmin.

    Jeff McWilliams
    BPL Member


    Locale: Midwest

    Philip –

    It blows my mind that the hardware specs on Garmin’s handheld units like the GPSMap series, have more or less been the same for YEARS.   I see that the Montana series has much better screen specs.   Can it really be difficult to get non-touch LCD screens with higher resolution to update the GPSMap handhelds?   I also wish they’d publish specs on what microcontroller each model uses to give an indication of performance.  But perhaps that’s exactly why they DON’T publish specs on them.

    Something like a $4 Raspberry Pi Pico probably runs circles around whatever microcontroller Garmin is using in the GPSMap handhelds.

    I have two of the last color handheld GPS Units that Lowrance made (the Endura) before they got out of the handheld GPS business.  (They’re still big in marine and fishing electronics).  I always felt they were nicer than the similar GPSMap units available at the time.  The downside was that they used a closed map format, so there’s no way to update them with Caltopo maps the way you can with Garmin GPS handhelds.


    Jerry Adams
    BPL Member


    Locale: Oregon and Washington

    It makes no sense for Garmin to update the screens on their devices, or the processors or …

    The handheld GPS market is small.  The phone market is huge.  They can afford to spend a lot designing a better screen or whatever and spread the cost across the huge number of phones.

    Garmin can’t compete.  People prefer to use their phone.

    Dan @ Durston Gear
    BPL Member


    Locale: Canadian Rockies

    I learned to hike with paper maps, where having any GPS at all feels like a backup so I don’t have a desire to carry a backup for a backup. I only started carrying a phone in the backcountry about 3 years ago and while I do use it more than paper maps now, I still would be confident working from paper maps if my phone failed.

    Jason G
    BPL Member


    Locale: iceberg lake

    I’d much sooner bring an old phone that is fully charged, turned off, in a small dry bag and loaded with all the same maps for a backup device than I would a dedicated GPS.

    Albert H
    BPL Member


    I’m an outlier with this and still carry a handheld GPS – a Garmin GPSMap 66st.

    Why?  Well, I think it’s a far more reliable device than a phone, both in terms of its durability and functionality.  For those of you that were frustrated with older versions of the GPSMap series, I also had a 62 series, and the rocker button operation, screen size and location speed (GPS + GLONASS) are much improved on the newer units.

    Two features of the 66st that I find indispensable are 1) the ability to connect with and operate an inReach Mini2 using the built-in “InReach Remote” app (lets you send/check messages etc without tinkering with the Mini itself), and 2) it uses replaceable AA batteries, so no need for carrying a charger.  The battery life is excellent on a pair of Li batteries (I can get 4-5 days, or  much longer in expedition mode) and having a spare set in the pocket is pretty reassuring.

    Yes, the interface is a bit archaic, but once you figure out how to navigate the menus and find where the core functions are, it’s not a problem.  Also, you can set up “profiles” (like hiking, skiing, driving, etc) for which you can simplify the menus displayed on the screen to only include the stuff you’re interested in seeing to do what your activity requires.

    I’m familiar with all of the logic for using a phone, but after weighing all the pros and cons, I’m still hanging with this handheld for now.

    John K
    BPL Member


    I just migrated from my eTrex20 to a 67i. Really liking the 67i, combines the GPS / tracking function with the satcom function and a long lasting battery. Maybe I’m old school, but I like the device.

    AK Granola
    BPL Member


    I gave mine to the local boy scouts. I hope they’re using it to at least learn stuff, if not for use in the field.

    David Thomas
    BPL Member


    Locale: North Woods. Far North.

    I gave all mine to Eastern European friends a decade or more ago, when they was cool to them, but not so great here anymore.

    I did like the robustness of them, the long battery life (because it’s doing only one thing) and the one-touch Man-Overboard button while ocean fishing but as Philip said, in every other way, they suck, especially the user interface.  It’s worse than sending a text on a 1990s Nokia flip phone.

    I finally got a new iPhone without killing the old one (came with the new job), so I have a smaller, older iPhone with no phone / data plan.  I can load apps and maps while in wifi and then have a smart device just for GPS use while otherwise in airplane mode.  No cell, wifi or bluetooth transmission sucking up battery life and so it lasts quite a while, like the dedicated Garmin did, but with bigger brighter screen and vastly easier UI.

    So consider a used or very basic smart phone for that dedicated GPS use case.  You’ll preserve the battery life of your fully connected cell phone (maybe leaving it off most of the time) and might avoid the battery brick and charging cables while having redundancy that no single device could give you.

    Brian W
    BPL Member


    Paper weight.  Along with my car GPS before using Google maps on my phone and then with car play.

    What’s fascinating to me now is that emergency SOS devices have the biggest room for improvement. But cellphones are starting to incorporate satellite antennas to eat their lunch. Watching how this unfolds is more interesting to me since cellphones have worse battery lives. But backpackers are now carrying batteries.

    Albert H
    BPL Member


    For those of you that are eager for smart phones to fully implement the pending sat-communication functions, I’m curious why reliability and redundancy isn’t a consideration for you.  I like the fact that my GPS orienteering device (GPSMAP 66st) and my sat communication device (InReach Mini2) are two separate units and in a pinch (if the GPS failed), the Mini2 has TracBack functionality to get me home.  That redundancy seems like a plus, whereas relying on a phone as the only unit seems risky.

    I’m very reliant on my phone when I’m not in the woods, but I just don’t trust it as my only lifeline in the wild, especially in inclement (cold, wet) conditions.  And as I mentioned earlier, I sure like the ability to simply swap out AA batteries in the GPS, as opposed to carrying a power brick.

    I kind of want to be convinced, but I’m not there yet!

    Mark Verber
    BPL Member


    Locale: San Francisco Bay Area

    I have no need or interest… but the new Garmin eTrex Solar runs for 200 without sun, and in reasonable sunlight can keep itself charged.  Alas, no downloadable topo maps but you can download routes? I have no need for it, but I could imagine for someone doing an extended expedition in the fair north, etc might find it useful.

    Sam Farrington
    BPL Member


    Locale: Chocorua NH, USA

    Hi Ryan,

    I’m still carrying a small GPS to record waypoints (coordinates) to use when posting later about routes I’ve enjoyed.  (Or to be rescued should there be an accident, so also carry a small PLB.)  This is for the benefit of others who use the tech gear, or just want to see locations of a route on a map.

    There is actually an advantage to locating routes without high tech gear.  Once a route has been physically located, with map and compass if needed, the way can usually be located again by recall.  There can be some issues with this, though.  For example, Lake Agnes in the Never Summer wilderness used to have an island off shore, but perhaps with climate changes, the water level can drop, and folks can just walk out to the island.  So sometimes shorelines and other features can change their appearance a bit, or become totally grown over, and one has to take that into account.  But with some self-reorientation, the way becomes clear.  And with a familiar route, even the map and compass are seldom needed.

    Thank you for all your many contributions to trekking.  It has become a life changer.  Sam

    BPL Member


    I use an older Etrex 30 for backup on remote trips where navigation is going to be difficult with paper maps (for example I am going to have to travel with limited visibility like at night), packrafting, and for winter trips.   If I had a 100% waterproof case for my phone I wouldn’t use it packrafting, I just can’t find a waterproof case for my phone.

    The handheld AA-powered Garmin units are still really nice for winter bike-packing trips where I want to navigate/see where I am going while riding my bike.   With lithium AA batteries  I get >30hrs out of one set with my unit and it still works fine at sub -40f.  However, that is a really small market, I have no idea who Garmin is selling these units to these days.    If Garmin makes a version of their new etrex that takes maps of some sort and still gets a ~160hr life I think they might have (still very small) reason to buy them.

    peter v
    BPL Member


    Garmin Foretrex 401. 2.8 oz.  shows real gps location, not cell tower approximation. runs for as long as i can trek on one set of AAA’s. works at sub-zero temps. gives current on-location magnetic declination. does not break … and it just never ever ever frigg’n EVER … rings.

    own a Garmin Inreach. have packed just a few days ago the printed out operators manual. thusly, if faced with the common 7,000 hour Canadian Airways layover in Sagavirniktuk while waiting for the seasons to change, will have something to read.

    northern travelers note : try to buy an airline ticket in major Canada airport without a cell phone. go ahead, just try it. please report back.

    Eric Blumensaadt
    BPL Member


    Locale: Mojave Desert

    I still use my old GARMIN Colorado when hunting because, with Nevda’s lottery tag system, it’s alway in territory I’ve never beeb before.

    I don’t trust the battery in my iPhone and need the property lines in the OnX Hunt card I use in my GERMIN.

    I hope that soon GARMIN will give us an In-Reach GPS with the FULL features they put in their regular GPS units. GARMIN used to have a good business in automotive GPS but now with WAZE, etc. nobody uses an automotive GARMIN anymore. Therefore… you would think GARMIN would concentrate on making their outdoor products with better features.

    Mike W
    BPL Member


    Locale: British Columbia

    My Garmin handheld GPS does have inReach capabilities, but I often use it just as a GPS, so I’ll explain the benefits (use cases):

    1. I’ve had my phone crap-out in the cold before I could finish a text message (not reliable in the cold)
    2. I’ve spent 10 minutes trying to enter a waypoint on my phone when it’s pouring rain and the touch screen won’t respond
    3. I don’t carry my phone (one device does it all).
    4. I upload my own custom maps to the GPS (registered via Google Earth) and can navigate via the GPS on the custom maps.
    5. I have many map products loaded directly on my GPS (Backroads Maps, Garmin Topo, Aerial Imagery…)
    6. I use Garmin’s “Live Track” when I am going to an area that has cell service (this obviously requires a phone as well as the GPS)
    7. The GPS is tough!
    BPL Member


    I guess I am a dinosaur as I have never used a GPS device for navigation, so I am more interested in use cases that *might* persuade me to ditch my beloved 1:25k maps and sighting compass.

    I do have the OS Locate app on my phone (compass and UK grid ref) and my wife insisted I carry a SpotX (the one with the keyboard).

    For me then the use cases for using some form of a GPS device are:

    1.  How do I, in remote areas and in an emergency, contact the rescue services and tell them where I am and why I need help?

    2. How do I, in remote areas with no phone signal, contact my wife and tell her where I am and that I am well?

    3. How do I, in remote areas and in extreme need, confirm where I am?

    Cases 1 and 2 cannot be met with what might be called a ‘traditional’ hand held GPS.  Only 3 requires GPS only and even that does not require a map display, only a grid ref.


Viewing 25 posts - 1 through 25 (of 32 total)
  • You must be logged in to reply to this topic.
Forum Posting

A Membership is required to post in the forums. Login or become a member to post in the member forums!

Get the Newsletter

Get our free Handbook and Receive our weekly newsletter to see what's new at Backpacking Light!

Gear Research & Discovery Tools