Types of GPS Receivers

Trail and Street GPS Receivers, and Smartphone Apps

As civilian users of GPS technology, we have many GPS receivers to choose from, so many that it can be difficult to decide what to buy. This website complements my GPS books by recommending specific basic and mapping trail and street GPS receivers from the units in current production from the major manufacturers. My suggestions are based on using the receivers, comparing specifications, and reading reviews. But ExploringGPS.com is not a review site- for detailed reviews of GPS receivers, I recommend GPS Tracklog.

While I'm still a strong advocate of using a dedicated trail or street GPS receiver for serious navigation (meaning you really, really have to get to your destination in a timely manner!), I can't ignore the fact that smartphone GPS apps have become very popular. The two major disadvantages, limited battery life and offline access to maps, can be overcome. You can carry an external battery pack to charge or run your phone, although at the cost of much more weight and bulk than a dedicated trail GPS unit. And, the best GPS apps allow you to download maps in advance so that you'll have access when you can't get a data connection. An advantage of GPS apps is the wide selection of maps and charts that you can view and download for free or very little cost, including topo maps, satellite imagery, and aviation and marine charts.

Specialized GPS receivers dedicated to marine, aviation, engineering, and scientific work are beyond the scope of this Web site and are not considered in making my recommendations. I don't cover fitness GPS receivers and smartwatches because they use rechargeable batteries that can't be replaced in the field. Any GPS receiver used for serious back country navigation must have user-replaceable batteries.

On the Trail

With an advanced mapping GPS receiver, you can find your way in the backcountry regardless of weather or location, whether you are hiking, snowshoeing, birdwatching, hunting, photographing, fishing, paddling a canoe or sea kayak, mountain biking, cross-country skiing, backroad driving, or doing any outdoor activity where accurate navigation is important. At home, you can work with digital maps and satellite images to plan outdoor adventures. In the outdoors, you can record your trip by saving waypoints and tracks and track your progress on the GPS receiver's built-in base maps and add-on topographic (topo) maps. Back at home, you can download the trip data to your computer, attach labels, graphics, elevation profiles, comments and photos, and then share it with friends or publish it for all to see on the Internet.

Basic trail GPS receivers have the same accuracy as advanced GPS receivers, but leave out such features as magnetic compasses and barometric altimeters. Some support detailed mapping and some do not.

On the Road

"Street" GPS receivers let you choose your destination from thousands of built-in points-of-interest (POI's) representing cities, businesses, and public buildings, or by entering a street address or intersection, and then navigate the quickest or shortest route to your destination. The GPS receiver gives driving directions via voice prompts, and many also speak street names so that you never have to take your eyes off the road. You can set most street GPS units to avoid toll roads and other undesirable routes. If you miss a turn, automatic rerouting recalculates your route. Emergency location lets you quickly find the nearest police, fire, and medical services. Advanced features on some GPS units include lifetime map updates, fuel-efficient routing, real-time traffic information, and smart traffic that takes into account historic rush hour speeds when computing your time of arrival.

One GPS Receiver to Do It All?

Most mapping trail receivers can be used for street navigation when loaded with street mapping, and many street units can accept topo maps. So why not buy one receiver to do both? Because two uses are so completely different I recommend that you buy dedicated GPS receivers. For example, touch screens are essential in a vehicle but difficult to use outdoors wearing gloves. Buttons are much easier to operate on the trail and are less likely to be pressed accidentally. Large screens are important in a vehicle or on a motorcycle but make for heavy, bulky trail units. And most trail receivers don't have speakers, so you can't hear spoken directions while driving. Instead, you must constantly look at the screen- a serious distraction while driving. Finally, street GPS units use rechargeable batteries that can't be replaced in the field- and last only last 2 to 4 hours on a charge.

The Recommendations

On the Home page, I recommend several advanced and basic trail and street GPS receivers. Click on the receiver models to buy them on Amazon. For more information on the receivers, visit the manufacturer's Web sites on the Links page.

For a description of GPS terminology, see the Glossary.

This Web site is not intended to be a GPS how-to. For instruction on using GPS, see my books on the About page.