What is best, a GPS watch or a handheld GPS unit?

GPS Unit, GPS Watch -

What is best, a GPS watch or a handheld GPS unit?

One of the questions we often get asked – What is best, a GPS watch or a handheld GPS unit?

So, let’s look at the pros and cons of walking with a GPS watch or GPS unit.

GPS watch – pros

  1. GPS watches are lightweight.
  2. You can wear a GPS watch at all times, as it is also a smartwatch.

GPS watch – cons

  1. GPS watches do have a small screen.
  2. Sometimes with a GPS watch you can suffer a little with battery life and charging whist on the move.
  3. Sadly with a Garmin GPS watch there is no option to put Ordnance Survey maps on a GPS watch, but you can still plan on free Ordnance Survey route planning software and transfer the course onto your watch. 

GPS unit – pros

  1. Often a GPS unit is cheaper than a GPS watch.
  2. You get a larger screen on your GPS unit compared to the GPS watch.
  3. Battery life is often better with a GPS unit and you are able to charge or change the batteries whilst out walking.
  4. If you are in the UK you can put Ordnance Survey maps on an Outdoor GPS unit.

GPS unit – cons

  1. A GPS unit is more bulkier than a GPS watch. 

But the key difference is in the navigational experience –

  1. With a GPS watch the watch vibrates when you are ‘off course’.

    You also can follow an arrow on the screen, but please be aware it is a smaller screen.

    With the new Fenix 7 from Garmin you also get an audible beep as you approach a turn as your course is overlaid on the preinstalled Topo active maps.
  2. With a GPS unit you also get an audible beep, but this will be when you are approaching a pre-determined waypoint that you have planned beforehand.

    The other thing with a handheld GPS unit is you also have to ability with the larger screen and Ordnance Survey Maps to ‘plan on the hoof’. If you do need to change your walk you can easily do this on a handheld GPS unit.

Further reading

  1. GPS watches

  2. Outdoor GPS units


  • Ian Baines

    Hi Jon, I enjoyed tour GPSMAP66i talk where things didn’t quite go to plan because of trees down and you were able to replan on the device around it. I have a GPSMAP66i too and have had to do so. I love the ability to see the OS mapping on the device and to interact with it and feel the watches with only the Garmin topoactive mapping come a poor second.
    Having said that the watches are more convenient and their battery life is very good. There are other brands that allow OS mapping on the watches but for me though, I wouldn’t want to be without my ’66i, but then it can do so much more.

  • Ray Grange

    Dear Jon
    Good Video. Totally agree. I use a 66s for navigation and find your tip of setting up the marine off course excellent. Often walking just listening for the gps points and a warning of off course.
    I also have an instinct solar which I just use mainly as a health watch – steps heart rate, sleep etc. The battery life is excellent.
    I would be lost without the gps with maps as the main aspect can be to locate exactly where you are. If I have to change a route I generally use a paper map but I like see the original route on my gps to see how to get back on route.
    Kind Regards
    Ray Grange

  • Colin Fisher

    Hi Jon, just watched your video on GPS Unit vs Watch. I have a 66sr and Instinct Solar. (both purchased from yourselves). What I am finding is that I use both when out doing a major walk. I load a route into both. The watch is good for glancing at as you walk along just as a reassurance that you are still on the trail. Screens can be set up on the watch so that most relevant data is easily available. However, when it comes to a junction which can have a multitude of options then the GPS unit has to come into play. I have had experience of Y type junctions which are not initially clear as to which way to go on the watch screen. Another very important factor is that the GPS receiver on the 66sr is far more sensitive and odd things started to happen with the watch navigation screen in the midst of a wood. The 66sr was head and shoulders above the watch. Nett is that the watch is fine as an aid but would I ever leave the 66sr behind on a major walk? No way. Finally – the most important thing of all. The paper map. Ideally matching the map on the GPS unit.

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