What features do you need (or want) on an Outdoor GPS unit.

What features do you need (or want) on an Outdoor GPS unit.

Before choosing your first GPS unit it is good to look at the features you need and will use on an Outdoor GPS. When you know this it makes your decision a little easier.

But don’t worry you can also ring a friendly expert at GPS Training who can help you make the correct decision. If you are happy we are also happy!

What activity do you need the GPS for?

The first thing to decide is what you need to use the device for. You get GPS devices for cars, motorbikes, bicycles, and on foot.

We believe you should get a device for each of the activities. The only time we believe this not needing to be the case is if you looking to do some tour cycling, with this activity you have a good cross over with a GPS aimed at walkers.

If you just need to confirm your position in an emergency or as a backup for traditional map and compass navigation, you probably only need one of the simpler GPS devices and these do not have any on screen mapping, but with the price of GPS units with mapping coming down so dramatically over recent years we would certainly urge you to look at one with onscreen mapping.

If you are looking to partly replace a paper map, you will need a device that shows maps on-screen, preferably with a reasonable screen size and maps covering the right area in the best scale.

The other thing to bear in mind is if you are wanting a touch screen or button GPS. If you do lots of winter walking and wear gloves it is certainly worth considering a GPS with buttons.

Choosing a Handheld GPS

Dedicated GPS, Smartphone or Tablet?

Most makes of smartphone and tablet these days come a choices of mapping, from simple apps that just show the position to full on screen mapping.

Many peoples first experience of GPS navigation can be with a smartphone but if you are heading out and doing some proper walking smartphones and tablets have some big drawbacks.

Most of the apps do not work when there is no mobile signal, or have reduced functionality. As many of the places you are likely to be using GPS navigation have poor mobile coverage, you need to ensure the app downloads all the maps you need to the devices local memory.

The battery life on many smartphones can frankly be shocking when using them as a GPS to navigate with. Most outdoor GPS units work on AA batteries or have an option to put these in so you can change batteries if you are on a multiple day trek.

Smartphones are not made to work in rain and bad weather and it can often be a costly experience if you get your phone or tablet wet.


When choosing your GPS device, pay attention to the maps included and available as extras. 

Most GPS devices and apps come with a basemap, but these are usually not suitable for walking with. 

For the UK, Ordnance Survey maps are the main experience people are looking for, as we have been used to walking with OS maps on paper. All the GPS manufacturers offer both 1:25k maps, 1:50k maps and 1:250k maps.

There is an advantage of the 1:25k maps which is what many walkers use in a paper form but these are often very costly to buy with a GPS so it may be work looking at buying your GPS with full country at 1:50k and buying the areas you walk in most often at 1:50k

When you are buying a new GPS unit, look at the bundled maps on offer. You will often find that you can save a lot of money by buying them at the same time instead or purchasing them later. 

Maps bought for different GPS brands or different apps are not transferable to another brand of device.

What Functions do you want of a GPS Device?

- GPS Position: All GPS devices do this, but some only report latitude/longitude while others will report also OS grid reference when set up correctly, altitude and distances to the next waypoint. 

- Waterproofing and durability: Dedicated GPS units are generally designed to cope with rain, while some can handle full submersion. If the device does not have one included, a rugged case can make it easier to hold and more drop resistant.

- Batteries: Bigger screens and more features tend to use more power, either shortening batter life or adding to the weight. Check the expected batter life meets your needs, whether you are a day walker or a multi-day hiker. Replaceable batteries in standard sizes are a big advantage for longer trips, as it’s easier and cheaper than proprietary battery packs or recharge kits.

- Buttons and touch screen: Some devices now use touch screens, and while these can make it more intuitive to use they are also harder to use with cold hands or when wearing gloves. Most touch screens on dedicated GPS devices are designed to work while wearing thin gloves, but thicker gloves will make accuracy difficult.

Magnetic compass: Some GPS units have an included magnetic compass, which allows you to check the direction you are facing easily. Without a magnetic compass you will have to move a short distance to the GPS device can calculate the direction you are moving.

- On screen mapping: If you have a device that shows a map on screen, check it is available in the correct scale. Check how well the screen performs under different light conditions, from direct sunlight to low light or torchlight. Brighter screens are more usable, but often at the cost of shorter battery life. Also check the display resolution, as high resolutions will show more detail on the map.

- Connectivity and software: Check what connections your device has – the most common in USB which makes it easy to connect to any modern computer. Many of the dedicated GPS devices come with software for adding maps, and may also include route planning abilities.

- Managing walk data: GPX files are one of the standard formats for importing and exporting GPS routes. They consist of a series of points, and being able to import and export GPX files will allows you to import and export routes to other programs.

- Barometric altimeter: GPS is not very accurate for calculating the altitude, so if you want a higher accuracy look for a device with a barometric altimeter. This uses the air pressure to give a more accurate reading for altitude.

- Built in camera: Record your travels with a built in camera. Having one in the GPS saves carrying a separate camera, and photos will generally be tagged with their exact location, which can be really useful for building a trip scrapbook later. The higher the MP (megapixels) of the camera, the more detailed the image will be, but you will generally find a dedicated camera will have more options and create better photos, especially in more difficult conditions, such as poor light or reflective snow.

Route Recording: Being able to record your route allows you to review it and share it later. It’s great for settling arguments about how far you have travelled (and the vertical difference). If your device has GPX export you can then send this to others as a file, allowing them to follow your route more easily.

Waypoints and routes: Being able to store multiple routes on the device gives more flexibility, especially for longer trips. You will also be limited by the maximum number of ‘waypoints’, showing the next destination. Higher is better, but if you only plan to go on day trips a handful of routes and a few hundred waypoints are sufficient, while those on multi-day trips will need more storage. Some downloaded routes can have a lot of waypoints, and recording a route can create a lot of waypoint data as well, so having more space ensure you do not lose the end of the route. Some devices store imported routes and recorded routes separately, so you may have two different numbers.

Note that different manufacturers do not use the same terms for routes, especially the difference between recorded routes and created/imported routes, so when looking at storage make sure you understand the difference.

Further reading

1. Best Outdoor GPS unit

2. Walk and talk - practical guide to using a GPS Unit

3. Top 10 selling GPS units

4. Never had a GPS before? If so start here.

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