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Beginners handheld GPS vs. GPS watch

I'm looking to buy my first GPS device. I am interested in one that helps me set breadcrumbs so if I stray off the trail (especially in winter I can find my way back. Does anyone have advice on the pros/cons of buying a handheld gps vs a gps watch?

3 Replies

Two things sortof come to mind.

1) GaiaGPS app on your smartphone.  I use it to record my hikes.  You can use that to backtrack.  Super cheap but can kill your mobile phone battery.

2) Garmin InReach or InReach mini.  I have the mini and use it to drop breadcrumbs (waypoints).  More expensive but battery lasts for a long time *and* it has the satellite messaging and SOS. 

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Basically what @nathanu  said...

It does depend what you actually want it for and why you feel backtracking is something you specifically need but unless you need something rugged, apps on modern smart phones will give you the GPS function you probably need for hiking especially when combined with a printed map.  I would try those first.  CalTopo,  US Topo, Gaia GPS and Guthooks are some of the apps worth a look.

GPS Watches can be good if you want fitness monitoring.  Possibly useful for climbing and running but otherwise seem a bit of a gizmo.  Not something I bother with.

For the US, and general "hiking",  the only standalone "GPS" device I think is worth bothering with in addition to your phone would be a Garmin InReach for its standalone satellite (ie off grid)  tracking, messaging, SOS and weather reports (ie mostly not actually GPS functions).  I have a Mini primarily for backpacking which is the one to get unless you don't carry printed maps. Then the larger heavier Explorer+ might make sense since it gives you mapping as a backup to your phone and since it has maps and has a longer battery life it is a good choice for you like impromptu and aggressive day hikes where you might not carry a battery bank and possibly don't have a time to get a printed map.  Phone apps require a bit more prep.  For multi-day the mini is light and small and can be run in a battery efficient way in addition to being rechargeable from a battery bank.

The Mini will do 1 second logging and backtracking if needed but it is of the rudimentary follow the arrow sort since there is no mapping on the device.   The Mini does link with the map in the Garmin Earthmate app but that app is barely usable for navigation...more a handy UI for the messaging and interest in seeing your track on a map.  1s logging on the Mini uses a lot of battery so it is something you turn on when needed.  You can log slower more economically but the backtrack will become less accurate and more likely to lead you into trouble.  Tracking and backtracking on a phone probably uses more power but phone batteries have more capacity and if you are relying on your phone then you should be taking an appropriately sized battery bank for your trip. 


I have a Fenix GPS watch and I love it. It is definitely pricey (I got it on sale and there was still some sticker shock) but I'm glad I finally made the plunge. Before I had the watch I would mainly use apps on my phone to spot check my navigation as I went. However, I found it cumbersome having to pull out my phone and also definitely had some battery failures particularly in the winter when it was colder out. The Fenix has great batter life (and I have the small one which presumably is the worst of the bunch) that has never hinted at failing me. I also love the convenience of just real quick glancing down at my watch to see where I want to go or check that I'm still on course. It will track you the entire time you are moving so very easy to double back. I usually preplan my routes and load them in so I can follow them but it also has a fair amount of trail data already loaded on the watch and even convenient extras that a lot of the apps don't like where bathrooms are located.