How To Choose a GPS Device for Your Next Backcountry Trip

Photo: Lithiumphoto

Get the right device for you with this guide to GPS features and functionality.

There’s nothing scarier than the unknown, but a GPS device can make it a little less daunting. GPS units help you navigate in new territory, and they can be lifesavers if something goes wrong. The latest versions are also incredibly versatile: Today’s GPS-equipped devices range from activity-tracking smartwatches to emergency beacons and satellite telephones.

So how do they work? First, the basics: GPS stands for Global Positioning System. Using radio signals, a GPS device communicates with dozens of satellites that orbit Earth in order to triangulate your exact location. GPS devices all operate on those basic principles, but they can have other features as well, including the ability to send and receive messages.

Safety is paramount when venturing outdoors. Often, you won’t have cell service and could be hours away from any type of emergency assistance. To adventure responsibly, you have to be prepared—and outfitting yourself with GPS is an important part of that preparation.

When purchasing a GPS device, consider elements like its size, battery life, and overall functionality. Here’s what you need to know to buy the right model for you.

In this article, you’ll learn:

  • Types of GPS devices
  • What factors to consider when using a GPS device for navigation
  • How to shop for emergency GPS devices
  • The pros and cons of GPS apps
  • How to choose the right GPS for your needs

Types of GPS Devices

At its core, a GPS device is a navigation, tracking, or location tool, and the technology comes in a variety of forms:

  • Handheld GPS mapping devices 
  • Emergency beacons
  • GPS-equipped smartwatches
  • Smartphone apps that facilitate GPS use

GPS for Primary Navigation

If you’re carrying a GPS on a cycling, hiking, or backpacking trip to navigate, make sure your device is durable, reliable, and not too heavy or bulky.


Durability matters with GPS units just as much as it does with other outdoor essentials. From jostling around in your pack to exposure to sun and storms, your GPS needs to withstand some serious abuse. Look for water-, dust-, and shock-resistance ratings to ensure that it’ll hold up through various weather conditions—rain or snow, cold or hot temperatures—as well as dusty or sandy environments.


Maps can come preloaded on a GPS device, but in most cases you will have to download maps depending on your location and the type of information you want (topographic, road, or waterway maps, for example).


Some navigation and communication services come with a subscription fee, and those rates will vary between service providers. Most plans factor in how frequently you’ll be using your device throughout the year as well as non-mapping extras your device might offer, like sending or receiving messages via satellite.


Whatever you buy, it needs to be reliable and easy to use. For that reason, don’t overcomplicate things: Buy a GPS device that meets your technological needs without overwhelming your capacity to use it quickly and efficiently. One key reliability concern is battery life. If you’ll be using a GPS device for primary navigation, it’ll need long battery life (or else you’ll have to charge it constantly). Many devices will require a charge at some point on a multi-day trip, so consider if you’ll need to bring a battery bank and charger along. It’s also a good idea to test all devices before heading into the field.

Wireless Connectivity 

Wireless connectivity can make GPS units easy to use by moving the entire interface to an app on your phone. But relying on this system also has its risks: In addition to keeping your GPS powered and protected from the elements, you have to keep your phone powered and protected, too. 


This will matter more the longer or farther you have to carry the GPS device. A unit’s weight will likely depend on its features and functions. Devices with interactive screens will be bigger than simpler beacons or those that use Bluetooth connections to link your phone, where you can use an app to manage the device. Choose a product that won’t weigh you down but still has all the functions you need.

GPS for Emergency Assistance

If you want a GPS device to call for emergency support in the backcountry, don’t worry about all the frills. Just ensure you’ll get coverage throughout your trip and can manage the device in stressful situations.

Ease of Use

Get an idea of how much you’ll need to read the manual when out in the field. Ideally, GPS devices are more or less intuitive: You learn how to use the device at home, take it for a practice round, then when you’re out in the field, you’re good to go. How easy is the device to turn on? Turn off? Send an SOS message? Connect via Bluetooth to your phone? These are all important factors to consider, because in an emergency, every second counts.


This depends on the shape of the terrain and the positioning of satellites, which isn’t exactly in your control. When shopping for emergency GPS beacons, ensure you’ll have good coverage wherever you’re going—often, GPS companies will stock their websites with a coverage map that can help you determine if the device is right for your trip.

Wireless Functionality 

Pairing a device with your phone is great when you’re using an app to navigate, but it generally isn’t necessary for emergency communication. A good emergency GPS will have an independent SOS button that automatically sends a signal to alert emergency response teams; there’s no need for an app.

GPS Apps

Smartphones have become powerful backcountry tools over the years. Some smartphone apps work with standalone GPS devices to show your location on a digital map, and other apps work without additional GPS devices (they use your phone’s built-in GPS). The former will provide you with a solid navigation system, while the latter comes with a bit more room for error.

Device-specific GPS Apps

These are designed to work in concert with a company’s standalone device (a GPS-equipped Garmin smartwatch, for example). As you set up your GPS device, you’ll likely be asked to download an app on your phone, too. From there you can adjust the device’s settings and also use it as an interface to browse maps and more.

Device-less GPS Apps

These utilize your smartphone’s built-in GPS capability. They can be useful in places where you’ll maintain reliable service (unless you download maps ahead of time, apps generally need cell service in order to function). Just make sure your phone has sufficient battery life or you have a way to charge it. These apps can also be useful for trip planning at home. 

Choosing the Right Model for You

As always, context is everything. The right gear for you depends on the scope of your adventure. Here are some questions to guide your shopping.

Heading into new-to-you terrain?

GPS devices are a must in these scenarios. Devices with screens that show your map and location in real time can be a time-saving (and potentially life-saving) tool in the backcountry—you’ll have a constant read on your position without taking out your map and compass. Just keep the GPS unit in an accessible pocket or hip belt for easy navigation assistance.

Carrying a GPS solely for emergency purposes?

Skip frills like wireless connectivity or on-screen mapping, and go for the simplest SOS device you can find. 

Missing your partner/family while you’re out of service?

Consider a GPS device that connects to your phone for easy typing and set yourself up with a service plan with unlimited messaging.

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.