What is a handheld GPS?
A handheld GPS (or global positioning system), also called a GPS receiver, is like a portable version of the GPS you have in your car or your phone. It shows you where you are and what direction you are headed in.
Handheld GPS devices use trilateration to show you where you are, meaning it sends a signal out, and the satellites nearest to you will bounce it back. The handheld GPS receiver will track that signal and how long it took to bounce back. Using that information, it can calculate how far you are from each satellite, giving you a relatively precise area that you have to be in.
The military initially used a GPS satellite, and any other handheld unit available to civilians was not nearly as accurate. Later on, better GPS systems were offered to the general public, and today you can find reliable, modern GPS devices for a reasonable price at almost any outdoor equipment store.
Best Uses for a Handheld GPS
As handheld GPS units have become more accessible, there are various outdoor activities that people will use them for. Many handheld GPS systems don’t just show you where you are but can show you where to go too. You can map out trails and view the general area with a topographical map as well. It can also show you the fastest way around the area you are navigating. Because there are so many uses for a GPS, there are various kinds like a hunting GPS, ones recommended specifically for fishing, some to help you go paperless geocaching, a GPS watch for bikers, a portable GPS unit for hiking, and more.
You can use a handheld GPS device the way you would use an ordinary navigation device in your car. There is no limitation saying it has to be used for wilderness exploration. Any kind of navigation or tracking that you can think of a handheld GPS system could probably handle.
You can enter a waypoint into handheld GPS systems too. It will find the fastest route to as many waypoints as you enter into it. It is easy to plot routes around the area you are in, any waypoints you want, and the final destination you are headed to.
Handheld GPS vs. Smartphones
One of the main differences between a handheld GPS and a smartphone, it needs to either have pre-downloaded the map you want or be connected to WiFi or the internet. Not especially helpful out in the middle of nowhere. A separate, handheld GPS unit is better than a smartphone with a GPS app on it in many ways.
A handheld GPS will have much better durability than a phone. When you are hiking, geocaching, biking, camping, hunting, or any other kind of outdoor work that would merit a GPS receiver, you don’t want your directions to rely on something as fragile as a smartphone. Purely from a practical point of view, a handheld GPS is more sturdy, shock-resistant, and water-resistant than a phone.
Also, using a GPS app on a phone drains the battery very quickly, so unless you are bringing your own power source for your phone, you won’t get very far (at least not in the direction you want to go). Handheld GPS devices have longer battery life. They are designed to be used for hours on end out in the middle of nowhere. And when your handheld GPS eventually croaks, you just have to switch out the batteries, a simple, traveler-friendly process that will take you all of 10 seconds to do.
After receiving a fresh set of batteries, your handheld GPS will boot itself back up and pick up where you left off. A smartphone needs to be plugged into a power source, not exactly an on-the-go solution and can take hours to charge fully.
To give the smartphones some credit, they can access way more detailed maps for basically anywhere on earth instantly when they have a signal. However, a handheld GPS takes a minute to process the data from the satellites and then build a map for you of the general area.
An iPhone has a GPS tracker inside it that it can pull up for you when you need it. The problem with the iPhone’s GPS is the actual data isn’t stored on the phone all the time; it is all stored in the cloud. The phone can’t hold all the information it uses because it would eat up storage space and battery life.
Instead, the phone uses WiFi or an internet signal to access iCloud, where all the data can be stored without taking up space on your phone. This is both helpful and problematic: you can get a bigger, more detailed, and adjustable map quicker than with a handheld GPS device — so long as you have WiFi or internet. If you don’t have any signal, your iPhone can’t connect to the cloud, and you can’t access your maps.
You can get more information on how an iPhone is different from a handheld GPS device here.
A Samsung will work the same way; they usually require an internet signal or WiFi connection to pull up the map. You can download certain maps that you often use that you can access without a signal, but downloaded maps will take up space on your phone.
Smartphones are probably the best option for everyday use around town. As stated above, they provide high-quality maps and directions but require data or internet or WiFi connection.
Handheld GPS devices are the best option for going off-road or being in the wilderness. They are a sturdier and longer-lasting option that will work away from cell towers and don’t require an internet connection.
Do handheld GPS devices need the internet or a phone signal?
No, a dedicated, separate device will not require internet or a phone signal. Most smartphones use the internet to connect to project a map for you and give real-time directions, but a dedicated, handheld GPS tracker won’t need the internet.
Handheld GPS devices are designed for outdoor, middle of nowhere use, and so they will either have pre-downloaded maps or will have another way of sending and receiving data to the satellites.
It depends on what you are using your GPS for. If you only need it for directions around town or the occasional road trip, then there is no reason to spend extra money. Just use the free apps available on your phone.
But, if you want a GPS for more than driving on the highway, it is definitely worth looking into and spending money on a separate handheld GPS device.
A smartphone requires a cell signal to provide you with a map. Again this is not a problem for city-folk, but if you are wandering the mountains, you aren’t going to have the best WiFi or internet connection. A handheld device will continue to direct you even beyond the reach of cell towers.
What are the advantages and disadvantages of using a GPS?
It is easy to use. Combine that with the fact that GPS satellites cover the whole earth, and anyone can use a GPS receiver.
Detailed maps help people with more than being lost in the woods. Most GPS apps offer places to go for food, entertainment, shopping, etc.
Both the satellites and the GPS software are constantly updated to give current information.
The signal may be accessed anywhere on the globe, but it can be blocked. Being underground, in narrow valleys, or even very dense trees can divert the signal and mess up your route. That’s why it’s important to look at a GPS unit that also has an altimeter and barometer.
They are technology, which is subject to malfunction. Despite its simple design and purpose, there is never a guarantee that the GPS software will work perfectly. In the event of a technological malfunction, it is always a good idea to have physical maps on hand.
They can also sometimes be inaccurate, depending on the positioning of the satellite relative to your position. Certain positions may be hard to triangulate effectively, and your GPS might give you coordinates that are slightly off.
Best Handheld GPS
One of the best handheld GPS units to look into is the Garmin eTrex. It has a 25-hour battery life and a sturdy build. It is water and dust resistant. The eTrex is also easy to follow and has a high-sensitivity, giving it more accuracy and helping you follow the right path. The Garmin eTrex uses both a GPS receiver and a GLONASS receiver, giving you bigger and better maps in less time than other GPS receivers. The eTrex is also compatible with geocaching. You can go paperless, as the Garmin eTrex can connect to the geocaching site and store important information about different caches around you. Other than geocaching, the eTrex has a different setting you can use for other occasions, including recreational, fitness, marine, and automotive. It has an easy to see and use tracking system and layout for marking or creating routes and finding waypoints.
You can also look into the Garmin eTrex 20x for an updated version. It has a greater resolution and a larger internal memory.
The Garmin eTrex 30x is equipped with even more capabilities. It has an electric compass and a barometric altimeter to be even more precise and useful. Thanks to the 3-axis electronic compass, you don’t have to be holding your eTrex at a specific angle to get your direction; it will calculate it for you. The barometric altimeter gives you a more precise reading of your altitude. You can use the barometric altimeter to track the pressure over time, giving you a weather estimate as well. It also has the option to share locations and maps wirelessly with other similar devices.
Another option, also by Garmin, is the Garmin Montana. It is similar to the eTrex 30x but even more updated. It is equipped with a 3-axis electronic compass and a barometric altimeter and has a touchscreen for easy use and navigation. It also supports geocaching and can share wirelessly with other devices.
Similar products with similar prices are also made by Magellan Explorist and are worth looking into as well.
Every device has different capabilities, and you have your own specific needs and price range. Any of the devices mentioned above will be a good place to start, but look around and see what appeals to you.