GPS for Hiking: A Guide for Navigating On-Trail

This blog is published in partnership with REI


Embarking on a hiking adventure is an exhilarating experience, but ensuring you stay on the right path is crucial for a safe and enjoyable journey.

GPS units have become indispensable tools for hikers, providing accurate navigation, real-time tracking, and essential information about the terrain. Your GPS can alert your loved ones if you need help, and it can assist in search & rescue should you ever get into an emergency situation.

When taking a commitment like the 52 Hike Challenge, we recommend you consider some form of GPS tracking for your adventures, and if you’re hiking alone, we believe it’s a mandatory piece of gear to carry. After all, Navigation (including a map, compass and GPS unit) is one of the Ten Essentials for hiking and outdoor recreation.

In this blog we will...

  • Talk about your options when choosing a GPS for hiking
  • Explore each GPS unit's unique features and benefits
  • Discuss how to use a GPS for your hiking adventures

Let's dive right into the basics of GPS units and their importance when hiking.

Basics of GPS for Hiking

Understanding GPS Technology

Global Positioning System (GPS) technology uses a network of satellites to pinpoint your location on Earth. Hiking GPS units leverage this technology to provide accurate and reliable location data, helping you navigate trails with confidence and also keep you found. Learn more about how personal locators work here.

Key Features to Look for When Shopping for a GPS Unit for Hiking

Reputation: Go with a company like Garmin which has over 30 years on the market and has a great reputation.

Durability: Hiking can be tough on equipment, so choose a rugged and weather-resistant GPS unit.

Battery Life: Long-lasting battery life is essential for extended hikes. Consider units with replaceable batteries or the ability to charge on the go. Most units recommend you use lithium batteries.

Pro tip: Don’t forget to change out your batteries every now and then and bring extra batteries in case of malfunction.

3 Types of Hiking GPS Units

  1. Handheld GPS Devices:

These portable devices are specifically designed for outdoor use. They often come with topographic maps, waypoints, and tracking features. These are tied to satellite systems, which is how you can be tracked in the backcountry. Some popular brands include Garmin, SPOT and ZOLEO. Some of the devices like the Zoleo and Garmin inReach Mini will have an app component to them for communicating while a Garmin inReach Explorer and SPOT X allows you to use its own interface for messaging folks. 


Here are a few handheld GPS units you can check out: 

Note: I have personally used the SPOT and ZOLEO devices. You will need to pay an annual service fee to ensure you have service when out on your adventures. There are also tracking features you can set up so your loved ones can see your routes every so often.

  1. Smartphone Apps:

Many hikers use smartphones with GPS apps for navigation. Apps like Gaia GPS and AllTrails offer mapping, tracking, and route planning functionalities. However, be mindful of battery life and the availability of cellular signal in remote areas. In addition, you will want to have a backup form of navigation and tracking, since going out of range can affect your ability to stay found. Plus, you never know, you could lose your phone, etc.

  1. GPS Watches:

Some watches like the Garmin fenix  and Suunto allow you to view maps, track your adventure, and come with GPS features that enable you to notify an emergency contact that you need help. Make sure to get more details of how these feature work.

Hiking Tips for Choosing the Right GPS & How to Use It

3 Hiking Tips for Choosing the Right GPS Unit

  1. Consider Your Needs

Assess your hiking style, frequency, and the type of terrain you'll be navigating. For casual hikers, a smartphone app might be okay, while we highly recommend avid and backcountry / thru-hikers get a dedicated handheld GPS device with advanced features.

  1. Mapping and Navigation

Look for units that offer detailed topographic maps, trail networks, and the ability to preload maps. 

  1. Connectivity Features

Bluetooth and Wi-Fi connectivity enable data sharing, syncing with other devices, and downloading updates. Some GPS units even offer live tracking, allowing friends and family to monitor your progress in real-time.

3 Hiking Tips for Effective GPS Usage

  1. Learn the Basics:

Familiarize yourself with your GPS unit's features and settings before hitting the trail. For example, with my SPOT device, I had to preload my contacts before I could send them OK messages. You don’t want to get caught in an emergency situation and not know how to use your unit. Also, for my Suunto watch to work properly, I would upload GPX tracks for easy navigating.

  1. Always Carry a Map and Compass:

While GPS units are powerful tools, it's essential to have traditional navigation tools and knowledge as a backup. You can take a class at REI and with the Sierra Club.


  1. Regularly Update Software and Maps:

Keep your device's firmware and maps up to date to ensure optimal performance and accuracy.

Pro tip: Have a plan with your family of what they should do if you hit the distress signal. True story, a friend and I were on a backpacking trip and she was bitten by a dog. We had to get off the trail as a precaution. It wasn't a life threatening injury, so we did not want to get rescued by the authorities. Thankfully we came across a ranger at our rest stop. We later spoke to our families and told them if they ever received a "need help" message from us, they should call the local ranger station and even 911 for help and give them our coordinates. Ultimately, it's a good idea to have a plan, so they know what to do in case of such situation. 

Get More GPS Hiking Tips

Investing in a reliable GPS unit is an investment in your safety and peace of mind while hiking. Whether you choose a dedicated handheld device or prefer to rely on your smartphone, the key is to find a solution that aligns with your hiking needs and preferences. Armed with the right GPS technology, you can confidently explore the great outdoors and discover new trails with ease.

For even more information on picking a GPS unit, head on over to this REI blog.

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