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Guide to Choosing the Best Handheld GPS for Fishing

Here’s an interesting fact that you probably didn’t know: GPS devices are growing more popular by the day. That’s all thanks to their outstanding ability to log and store spatial data.

Of course, you need that data when you have some backcountry adventure. Otherwise, you could easily find yourself in an unknown and potentially dangerous territory.

Well, that’s a very brief summary of what a GPS is all about. How about we start from the beginning.

GPS is an abbreviation for Global Positioning System. That pretty much explains the whole concept—it’s a system that you can use to determine your position on the globe at any given time. Basically, GPS devices come with features that will tell you your current location and where you’ve been.

Nowadays, there are many brands and models of GPS devices on the market. High-end units come with extra features that might prove to be lifesaving. On the other hand, simple ones are pocket-friendly and very easy to use. Either way, there’s something for everyone in this market, including those who take their fishing adventures very seriously.

A GPS device is a must-have if you are one who enjoys a few hours or days out at sea. Apart from the very real possibility of getting lost in the vast waters, you will also need it to determine the coordinates of your favorite spots. They could be places where there’s plenty of fish, large fish, or an isolated spot where you get some peace and quiet for proper fishing. Either way, the best device for logging those coordinates is a handheld GPS.

As the name suggests, a handheld GPS is a relatively small and portable GPS device that you hold in your hand while using. It is a very effective gadget for locking in coordinates so that the next time you want to visit the same spot, you won’t have to free float as you try to guess its location.

Despite their importance and popularity, picking the best handheld GPS is actually harder than you might imagine, what with all the models available for you to choose from. Luckily for you, we have laid out a comprehensive guide to buying the best handheld GPS. But first …

Why Buy a Handheld GPS?

  • It will help you determine your location (in latitude and longitude) and navigation paths. This data is important for emergency purposes as well as future reference when you need to return to the same spot.
  • It provides more helpful data like your speed and distance.
  • You can use it as your eyes to determine in which direction to go when there is reduced visibility due to bad weather or other factors.
  • It is small enough not to weigh you down. It is also portable, not like a car GPS, which is fitted in the car’s system.
  • Alternative means of finding locations are not reliable. A map and compass combo is hard to use while smart devices (like smartphones) are just not GPS devices.

What If I Only Have a Map and Compass?

We’ll give credit where it’s due, so kudos to you if you use a map and compass as your navigation guides. That tried and true method has been in use since time immemorial.

However, a map and compass do not come anywhere close to a handheld GPS. The latter provides information that you can’t get when you only have a map and compass. For instance, it will tell you how vast the waters are in terms of depth and surface cover.

Apart from that, you will still need your brain to do most of the work when you are using a map and compass. They don’t have the ability to log and store spatial data, which means they won’t tell you where you are. Ultimately, it will be your task to determine your location before consulting them. So if you don’t know where you are, you will be screwed big time.

A map and compass will certainly not record your speed, distance, and direction automatically either. You will have to keep an eye on your boat’s speedometer (remember that speed changes a lot) and probably draw lines on your map to indicate your path. That is just a lot of work, and the data you will get won’t be as accurate. In fact, it might be out-rightly untrue if you are not keen enough.

Finally, modern GPS devices come with extra features that you will definitely need. For instance, some come with a weather forecast function for those who don’t have any other method of telling what the conditions will be like. Others have the ability to share their data via Bluetooth. That should keep your whole fishing crew up to date on all navigation information.

That said, keep in mind that a handheld GPS is a gadget. As you know, gadgets are fragile, so it is always one fall away from cracking. There’s also the possibility of losing it, or it could simply fall in the water. That is why having a map and compass is a brilliant idea because they will act as your backup plan.

What about a Smartphone?

Smart as they are, smartphones (and smart devices like tablets) cannot replace handheld GPS devices, at least not when your adventure involves going to the sea. A handheld GPS is specially designed for navigation. That is why it has better satellite reception, amazing battery life, and more reliable navigation features.

With a smartphone, you are always at risk of getting stranded at sea because of its short battery life and poor network reception. So just let your smartphone be a smartphone. Don’t try to use it as a GPS. Otherwise, it might let you down when you need it the most.

Things to Consider when Buying a Handheld GPS

The whole point of getting a handheld GPS is to to navigate through the sea or river easily. Besides that, you might also want a device that offers a few extra features that will make your fishing trips more fun. You don’t necessarily need the most expensive model but rather one that matches your needs. Here are the factors to consider when making your selection.

The Maps 

For a dedicated GPS, it’s really about the maps more than anything else. When you are making your choice, be sure to examine what is included thoroughly. If the GPS’s maps cover all or most of your favorite fishing spots, then it should serve you well. Go a step further and check whether their scales are precise.

With modern handheld GPS devices, you can always add more maps by either downloading them directly to your device or through a PC. Keep in mind that maps designed for a particular GPS brand will not work in a different brand.

The Display

Generally speaking, you have three main options when choosing a display for your handheld GPS. The best display depends on factors like weather conditions. For instance, you might find it challenging to use certain displays when it is sunny because of glare from the sun. Here are your options:

  • Color Displays: A few years ago, color displays were generally hard to come by, let alone in a GPS device. Nowadays, it’s a totally different story—a good one, to say the least. The colored icons on GPS maps make it easy to read the whole map. You will also find that distinguishing landmarks is a piece of cake when using a color display. The only problem is that traditional color displays are difficult to read in the sun due to glare.
  • LCD Displays: These are the best displays for handheld GPS devices. They are sufficiently bright, have better color, and are more durable. Additionally, LCD screens consume very little power. That should help you save your GPS’s battery. But you will have to pay more for a handheld GPS that uses an LCD display. Of course, high-quality attracts a high price (don’t worry; it’s not dramatically expensive).
  • TFT Displays: TFTs are somewhere between LCD and color displays. While they reduce glare and reflection, they don’t offer the best image quality. That is especially true if the images are small. The good thing is that you will still get full-color maps for easy readability.

The Receiver

You really don’t want a GPS that loses reception every now and then. Consistent network reception is a must. Don’t be the person who always has to hold his/her GPS in the air and wait for maps to download. More often than not, it will land you in very serious trouble every time you have to deal with a bad situation (like escaping bad weather or finding the way after getting lost). We strongly recommend that you choose a device that uses a Wide Area Augmentation System (WAAS) for reception. The system is not only accurate but also very fast in connection.

GPS Position 

All handheld GPS devices will display your location. Depending on your model, you can get a simple latitude and longitude reading or a more detailed reading that includes distance to your next waypoint and OS grid referencing among other supplementary features.

While they might not be primarily important to your navigation, such finer details can really help you figure out how to maneuver through the waters. So if you can get a GPS that offers more than just latitude and longitude readings, by all means, go for it.


How well-built is the GPS you are settling for? Well, that’s kind of a subjective question, but you can totally be objective about it. Simply identify and judge the parts and features that matter. Here are a few to get you going:

  • Buttons vs. Touchpad: Today’s GPS devices come with a touchscreen. It is easier and faster to operate compared to the traditional button-based system. But if you are going to wear gloves, then a GPS with buttons will probably serve you better. So in this respect, it really depends on which you prefer.
  • Batteries: Check to ensure that the expected battery life of your device meets your needs. Remember that you need the GPS to be well charged for as long as you are out there, so a battery life of 10 to 20 hours should be reasonable enough.
  • Memory: Don’t underestimate the amount of storage space that maps can take. Usually, the bigger the memory, the better. If you can get your hands on a device that supports external storage, you will be better equipped to save as many maps as you need for all your fishing excursions.
  • Waterproofing: At times, the weather can be very unpredictable. The weatherman can tell you that it will be sunny the whole day only for rain to surprise you in the afternoon. If your GPS is waterproof, that won’t be a problem because it will still help you to get to wherever you need to be. Also, keep in mind that your device can fall in the water. If it is a stream or relatively small river, you might have the chance to recover it. Depending on its level of waterproofing, it might even be intact and fully functional. So that’s another thing to look at when you are choosing one of these gadgets.
  • Accessories: What else does the manufacture include in the package? Do they add value to your GPS? If it uses rechargeable batteries, you definitely need a charger. It is sort of paramount for your GPS to also have a way of connecting to a PC. USB is the easiest method, but you can also consider Bluetooth. Some models come with a built-in camera that you can use to record your adventures. It is not really a primary necessity, but it can save you when you forget your real camera or smartphone. Your camera or smartphone could also die on you while you are out there. If you don’t have a means of charging them, you can turn to your camera-fitted GPS. Other accessories to consider include a storage case, heat monitor, and belt clip.

The Best Products on the Market Today

Garmin Legend H Handheld GPS Navigator 

Dimensions: 1.2 x 2 x 4.4 inches

Weight: 5.3 oz.

Best For: Fishing and Geocaching

With its fairly large LCD display, this handheld GPS will offer you very clear and high-quality images. The 24 MB of storage space is more than enough for you to save the maps you need. Don’t forget that it comes with base maps for rivers, lakes, coastlines, and major cities. Its small size makes it very portable and a favorite among both men and women. Add that to its accuracy of within five meters to the point, and you have yourself the perfect GPS for fishing.


Garmin Oregon 450 Handheld GPS Navigator 

Dimensions: 2.3 x 4.5 x 1.4 inches

Weight: 6.8 oz.

Best For: Fishing, Geocaching, and Exploring New Locations

Main Features:

This is one of the few GPS devices that contain practically everything you will need when you are out fishing. For starters, it features a touchscreen for easy control. The screen is customized for outdoor use, so you don’t have to worry about sun glare. There are plenty of base maps and up to 2,000 custom waypoints for you to save all your favorite fishing spots. If you feel that the device’s storage is insufficient, you can always add an external memory card to the card slot. The GPS’s 16-hour battery life is more than enough for a full day of fishing before you have to recharge it. If you are going as a group, you will love the Oregon 450’s ability to share information. That should save you the hassle of giving directions to your friends via phone calls or texts.


Garmin GPSMAP 64st 

Dimensions: 1.4 x 4.2 x 6.3

Weight: 9.28 oz.

Best For: Fishing, Geocaching, and Hiking

Main Features:

Although the GPSMAP 64st is fitted with a color screen, its images are so clear that you can see icons clearly even in sunlight. The fully topographic maps are arguably the most detailed of all handheld GPS devices. That together with the handy compass is what makes this GPS very accurate and easy to use. You can rely on it when exploring new locations. The construction is no disappointment either. Rather than a touchscreen, this GPS features a simple-to-use toggle button. There is a microSD slot where you can insert a memory card when you need additional space. Chances are you will need that additional memory to store as many maps as you need. One good thing is that the GPS has a Bluetooth feature that will allow you to transfer files to and from your device.

Garmin eTrex 10 Worldwide Handheld GPS Navigator 

Dimensions: 4 x 1.3 x 2.1

Weight: 5 oz.

Best for: fishing and geocaching

Main Features:

If you are looking for a GPS with an excellent receiver then look no further than the Garmin eTrex 10. This highly-rated handheld GPS is simple in design yet it packs amazing features that can be used by adults and kids alike. For starters, the 25-hour battery life is something that you will embrace with a smile. It will give you some peace of mind knowing that your GPS won’t die on you while you are out fishing. Additionally, the topographic maps that come with the device are very clear and easy to read. The consistent 1:100,000 scale will make it easy for you to figure out the actual distance given the map distance. It might not be the most advanced unit out there what with its mono-color screen but at its price it is definitely worth considering when you are on a shoestring budget.


Garmin Oregon 650t 3-Inch Handheld GPS 

Dimensions: 4.5 x 1.3 x 2.4 inches

Weight: 7.4 oz.

Best for: fishing

Main Features:

The Garmin Oregon 650t offers everything that modern GPS devices have to offer. Expect to see all the standard features like a fairly large touchscreen, rechargeable batteries, and a rugged waterproof body. But there are some extras that are not found in most other GPSs; including a built-in camera, 3-D display of images, and Bluetooth. For maximum accuracy, this unit combines custom maps with a built-in compass, accelerometer, barometric and altimeter. Couple that with the dual-band positioning that provides fine details on locations and you will feel extremely safe even before you start using this GPS. It’s not really among the cheapest models out there but whatever it brings to the table is priceless to say the least.

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