Skip to content

How to Choose a Handheld GPS Receiver

Reprinted with permission from Garmin International

To the first-time buyer, selecting a handheld GPS unit can be a daunting task. Knowing your navigational needs in advance will make your shopping easier, and your next boating trip more enjoyable.

The most important question you should ask yourself when purchasing a handheld GPS receiver is how do I intend to use it? Will it be your primary means of navigation, or a backup to a fixed-mount chartplotter? Besides using it on your boat, do you plan to use it while driving, fishing, hiking, or hunting? All GPS units can show your position and basic navigation information, but each model offers a different combination of features. The following checklist from leading GPS manufacturer Garmin International will help you narrow down the feature set that will benefit you most:

Display – are you more interested in an ultra-compact unit, or are you willing to sacrifice size for a larger display screen? These days, units like the Garmin Geko series are as small as a modern flip-phone. Other handhelds, like the GPSMAP 76 series, have larger, easier-to-read display screens, but aren’t quite as compact.

Mounting Considerations – Where do you intend to use your GPS? Virtually every unit offers different optional mounting accessories, so take a moment to consider the ideal position for your handheld. In a marine environment, it’s a good idea to have your unit secured near you while piloting your boat. If you intend to use the unit under a solid roof (or sometimes, a Bimini top), you may want to consider purchasing a unit with an optional external antenna for better reception.

Mapping – All handhelds show your position and basic navigation information, but many boaters want a unit that also has mapping capabilities. These units come equipped with a standard basemap that typically shows lakes, rivers, shorelines, major cities, and highways. Additionally, users can download detailed map data from optional CD-ROMs, like Garmin’s BlueChart or Recreational Lakes. This additional data offers highly detailed marine navigational data, boat ramps, marinas, underwater structure, contour lines, and more. If you intend to use your new unit in the car or on the trail, Garmin also offers street and topographic data on CD-ROM. The Garmin GPSMAP 76 and higher-end eTrex models are two product lines that offer mapping capabilities.

Additional Features – Many Garmin units offer unique features that can be helpful to boaters, including sunrise/sunset tables and fishing and hunting charts. Some units also feature internal electronic compasses and barometric altimeters, which can give you precise altitude readings and help you define weather patterns. Battery life is also an issue for many boaters, and it’s a good idea to always carry a spare set aboard your boat. An optional 12-volt cigarette lighter cable can power most units as well. If you’re accident-prone and worried about losing your new unit overboard, you may want to consider the GPSMAP 76 series – those units float.

Ease of Use – No matter how many bells and whistles your new GPS receiver has, they’re next to worthless unless you can access them easily and efficiently. It’s important that your handheld GPS is not only advanced and accurate, but user-friendly as well. Look for units and menus that are intuitive and easy to navigate. Garmin’s menu-driven operation makes learning how to use your new GPS receiver simple.

Integrated Radio Capabilities – Garmin’s Rino 110 and 120 offer exclusive FRS and GMRS radio capabilities integrated with GPS. With a range of two to five miles (depending on frequency), these units are perfect for ship-to-shore or nearby boat-to-boat communication. What’s more, Rino users can transmit their GPS position over FRS channels to other Rino users in the area and also see where their companions are located on the unit’s display. Users can then navigate to that position using the Rino’s GPS feature.

A boat demo drive is also a must before purchasing any new craft. On the sea trial, you’ll only have a short period of time to predict how a boat will perform during a lifetime’s worth of conditions, so make it count. If you can, take her out on a breezy day and go out in the open ocean. This is the only real way to find out if she’s a wet boat. Run into the seas, downswell and cross swell to see how the boat handles. See how she performs at trolling speeds, and what kind of wake she throws. Bring some gear and friend along for the boat test, and make sure the tank is at least half full. This will help you see how the vessel performs under real conditions.

Buy from a Reputable Dealer – Once you’ve determined your requirements, purchase your handheld GPS of choice from a trusted marine electronics dealer. Click here for a list of potential ones.

One final note of advice. To make your GPS experience as productive and enjoyable as possible, be sure to read the quick-start guide and instruction manual that comes with your new unit. It’s also important to spend some time on the water familiarizing yourself with your new GPS receiver. Also, don’t forget that a GPS unit is no substitute for good seamanship. Know your position at all times, have (and be able to use) a backup navigation system on board, and don’t take any unnecessary risks when navigating.

With a little homework before your purchase – and a little practice afterwards on the boat, you’ll quickly become proficient at using GPS to make your boating excursions more enjoyable, more productive, and safer.