This report covers handheld GPS receivers mainly intended for camping, geocaching and hiking. A handheld GPS unit receives data from multiple satellites orbiting the Earth, performing the necessary calculations to determine a position that's accurate to within 50 to 100 feet. Because these units are designed to be portable, they are more compact than car GPS units and have smaller screens (typically less than 3.5 inches). Handheld GPS units usually come with fewer road maps than car GPS receivers. Handhelds do have a longer battery life than car units, however, and they are built more ruggedly to resist the elements. See our auto GPS report for more information about GPS receivers intended for use in a car.
We found the most authoritative reviews for GPS receivers at GPSTracklog.com, an enthusiast site that conducts extensive hands-on testing. GPSMagazine.com is also helpful, even though its coverage is heavily slanted in favor of automotive GPS receivers. ConsumerReports.org rates a number of handheld GPS receivers, but discussion is too short to be satisfying and everything is hidden behind a subscribers-only wall. About.com rates fewer handheld GPS receivers, but its reports are based on hands-on testing. User reviews can be found at Amazon.com and Geocaching.com
More and more small electronics devices -- especially cell phones and smartphones -- are including GPS features. For more on those options, see the separate ConsumerSearch reports on smartphones and cell phones. Sports watches can also incorporate GPS so you can track distance and routing. These are covered in our report on sports watches.
But how do these devices stand up to a dedicated handheld GPS? Very well, according to most reviews, and there are a plethora of apps for Android and Apple phones that help hikers, geocachers and others get the most from their hobby. The one place where dedicated GPS receivers continue to hold an advantage is in their typically rugged construction. Though you can add cases that improve things markedly, most cell phones are not built to withstand a fall on a rocky trail, or a dunk in a creek or stream. If you already have a GPS-equipped smart phone, it's almost certainly adequate for occasional use or for those who are new to life on the trail. On the other hand, most experienced hikers, climbers, geocachers and bikers still rely on dedicated GPS units to guide them safely to their destination.