Who Really Needs a Handheld GPS?

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Handheld GPS

A handheld GPS is a must if you like to go four-wheeling, hunting, fishing, hiking, skiing, snowmobiling, flying, geocaching, boating or even traveling in your car. A small GPS receiver can really enhance your outdoor experience! For hiking, hunting and ATV riding, a good portable gps system is a necessity.

Small gps systems have been around for a long time. The problem with the earlier gps receivers was that they weren't user friendly at all and didn't show much anyway.

The newer gps units are user friendly and very easy to learn to use. Some units even work across the spectrum, in other words they come setup for road navigation, marine applications, hunting, hiking, flying and more, all in a single unit. All you have to do is add software.

If you’re like me, you participate in many of the above activities and sometimes you need to know… where you are, how to get where you’re going, how far it is, and how long it takes to get there! This is especially true for outdoor enthusiasts.

Important GPS Features to consider

Map page – Shows your position in relation to your waypoints. Bearing to your next waypoint is very important too.

Mapping ability – Allows you to download from your PC (with compatible software) a map of the area you will be traveling. Providing information such as TOPO contours, rivers, streams, lakes or road information. It’s like carrying a large interactive map in the handheld GPS.

Memory – Be sure to choose a unit with enough built-in memory to hold all your waypoints, routes and maps. This is especially important if you plan on using mapping software. You can add memory to some units.

Size – Size matters for outdoor use. A small, feature packed unit that fits in a shirt pocket is ideal.

Ruggedness – You want a unit built tough and at least water resistant to withstand harsh outdoor use.

Readability – Choose a unit that has a large enough screen for you to be able to read and one that can be read in bright sunlight and darkness.

Reception – A unit with a 12 channel parallel receiver assures better reception in adverse conditions. An optional external antenna device is nice, if available.

Battery Life – Battery life is important and can run from under 10 hours to over 20 hours. Longer is better, and don’t forget to bring extra batteries.

Waypoints and Routes – Make sure the unit you choose has plenty of waypoint and route storage. Not a problem in the newer units.

Compass and Altimeter – Some newer units offer a magnetic compass and barometric altimeter, two really handy additions!

Typical GPS Outdoor Applications

Four-Wheeling This includes 4x4 trucks, Jeeps, SUV’s, and ATV’s. A handheld GPS enables this group to navigate to an off road destination and even locate interesting points of interest along the way. Most importantly, you will always know where you are and how to get out. I don't go 4-wheeling without my off road gps!

Hunting GPS offers hunters the ability to navigate to and from the hunting site, mark downed game for later retrieval, mark the starting/return point of a hunt, know legal shooting times and best times to hunt at that location.

Fishing Much the same as hunting, along with the ability to mark hot fishing spots and detect anchor drift. Some GPS’s show the best times to fish at a particular location and will guide the fisherman safely back to the launch point.

Hiking Hikers sometimes need to mark the location of trailheads or a vehicle location to be able to safely return. The handheld GPS can record the whole hike which allows the hiker to reverse navigate to the starting point.

Snowmobiling Snowmobilers, like other off road travelers, need to know where they are and how to return to the jump off point. This is especially critical during bad weather with low visibility and fresh snow covering their tracks!

Cross-country Skiing Several cross-country skiers in the Reno/Tahoe area, where I live, are getting lost every year. Some die of exposure and others often suffer from frostbite before being rescued. Mostly preventable with a small GPS!

Mountain Biking Mountain biking is very popular in many parts of the country. A GPS, mounted to the handlebars or in a pocket, gives the mountain Biker a lot of helpful information!

Other GPS Uses Many handheld GPS’s can download street navigation software to use while driving your car when traveling on the freeways, towns and residential areas!

Just plain marking interesting spots, such as treasure locations, remote ghost towns, old mines, historic places, trails and many more handy uses such as mapping.

As a pilot, I have used GPS navigation in aircraft for many years and I always carry my handheld GPS for backup!

Side Note: It’s usually not necessary to possess multiple GPS units, or one for each of the above activities. A single, well-chosen receiver will handle most situations, with some compromise.

Typical handheld GPS story!

Trip Planning This trip came about during late deer season, when someone informed us of a hot hunting spot along the California-Nevada Stateline. I used my map software (which can interface with GPS) to locate the general area and get Lat/Long coordinates.

I fed the coordinates into my handheld GPS and saw that the location was less than 30 miles from my home. I then created (from map coordinates) waypoints in the GPS to mark the exit from the highway and where to make turns on the jeep trails to our destination.

If you have certain mapping software compatible with your GPS, you can plan the whole trip on your computer and download waypoints and routes into your GPS ready to go. For this trip, I had to do it manually.

Handy Information Following the directions through the GPS got us to the remote hunting area in no time. The GPS located the state line, our elevation and official sunset for our location (legal hunting cutoff time). The GPS showed the nearest gravel road at 3.5 miles and 11 miles to highway 395.

GPS and the Hunt After some rugged four wheeling we parked our 4WD’s in near blizzard conditions to prepare for our hunt! I marked the trucks position with the GPS so I could find my way back, and four of us set off in various directions for a spot and stalk deer hunt with our bows.


It snowed on and off all day, piling up to 6 inches, which covered my tracks. In the thick timber, with no reference to the sun and blowing snow, I wasn’t sure where I was. Fortunately a quick GPS check always showed my distance and direction to the truck.

My hunting partners (without GPS) admitted they were lost much of the time! Had I shot a buck, I could have marked the spot with the GPS and returned later with help to retrieve the animal. The GPS’s neat “back track” feature will guide you back to where you started!

As you can see by this real life example, my little handheld GPS helped to make our day. Even under adverse conditions, this handy gadget provided important information that got us to and from our destination, and kept me from getting lost while there!

Since writing this article I've purchased a Garmin 60CSX GPS with a database of TOPO maps for the whole United States. I live in the West and mainly use the unit in California and Nevada. It really comes in handy as I can use it on the highway or in the boondocks on jeep trails. It's really nice to have a color TOPO map of wherever you are at any given time. I still use it for long hikes and extended ATV rides where I mark my starting point for easy, safe return after dark.

GPS Basics

What is GPS (GPS) or Global Positioning System is a satellite-based navigation system comprised of 24 satellites placed into orbit by the U.S. Department of Defense. This system was originally intended for military use, but was made available to civilians in 1984. GPS service is free.

How Does GPS Work?

GPS Navigation uses orbiting satellite signals to determine your position. These satellites continually send out radio signals containing precise position and time information back to earth. All this 365 days a year, in any weather anytime day or night.

GPS Reception GPS signals require an unobstructed view of the sky and do not travel through buildings or other solid surfaces. You can usually receive signals in automobiles, through windows and your clothes. Tall buildings, Steep canyons and timber can degrade reception.

GPS Accuracy By knowing the position of 3, 4 or more of these satellites and calculating various time differences between the transmitted signals, your GPS receiver can determine its present position anywhere on earth.

The GPS continually updates your position, speed, time and even provides accurate 3-dimensional position (with at least 4 satellites locked on). Most of the newer GPS models with “WAAS” can be accurate to less than 10 feet. Even my older 1990’s unit is less than 50 feet.

For more information go to Handheld GPS.

Update... See my review of the Garmin Etrex Vista Here!

NEW... See my newest GPS at Garmin GPSMAP.

Handheld GPS Manufacturers

For detailed information on handheld GPS features and availability, follow the manufacturer links below…




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