Despite rapidly advancing technology and rampant consumer demand, there are actually very few manufacturers of GPS handhelds for the marine market. By far the biggest player is Garmin, with a range of options from the basic e-Trex at less than £100 right up to the impressive Montana 650T at around £450. Lowrance and Magellan also produce some very worthwhile handheld GPS units, but beyond that, the options are quite limited. So how do you decide which make and model to buy?
Well in the first instance, look for robust, waterproof, buoyant construction, plus large buttons, a legible screen, a long battery life and user-friendly shortcuts. Look also for a range of effective fixing options to attach the unit to your car dashboard, your boat helm and your foulie gear - and check out not just the software options of your favoured manufacturer but also the ‘bundle’ packages, which can often provide better value.
As for the features, accurate information regarding your position, course and speed, plus solar, lunar and tidal data are all now provided as a matter of course, even on basic models. As you go up the scale, you should also expect an altimeter, an electronic compass, wireless data share and perhaps even a camera for both still images and video footage. And at the top end, touchscreen interfaces, rechargeable lithium-ion (rather than replaceable) batteries and greater flexibility in connectivity and information analysis also come into play. Take a look at the following ten models (in ascending price order) and you should find something to fit the bill…
(1) Garmin eTrex 10
The 2.2-inch monochrome screen on the little eTrex 10 offers basic navigation and position, plus a simple track detailing your route. Not only is it compact (at just 141 grams) but it is also very efficient, with up to 25 hours from its two AA batteries. The side-mounted buttons make it easy to operate one-handed and while it won’t accept additional data cards or memory upgrades, its size, price and durability make it a great entry-level option.
(2) Garmin GPS Map 72H
This basic black and white handheld GPS is massively rugged and a doddle to use. It comes with a decent battery life and rapid screen updates, but more importantly, it will take the knocks, float when dropped and give you simple displays that you can read at pace on a lumpy surface. It has been discontinued now but there are still lots around, so if you like it, grab one while you can.
(3) Garmin Foretrex 401
Designed to fit on your wrist, the Foretrex 401 enables you to keep your hands free for wheel and throttle. You get 17 hours from the two AAA batteries and, as well as route and waypoint storage, it offers relatively advanced features like a trip computer and wireless data sharing. It’s no good for complex navigation but it’s simple to use and great for active pursuits like kayaking, jetskiing and watersports.
(4) Magellan Explorist 310
Designed to challenge Garmin’s Oregon series, Magellan's Explorist 310 is extremely light (just 20g more than an iPhone) and comes with OS mapping compatibility, a colour screen and a push-button interface. Its 500MB internal memory is non-expandable and it’s not quite as intuitive to use as a Garmin but it connects to a Mac or PC via a well-protected USB port and the build quality is excellent.
(5) Lowrance Endura Outback
The Lowrance Endura handheld GPS range has been around for quite a while now but it continues to do a good job with Mapyx marine charts. You get an electronic compass and altimeter, plus big, user-friendly buttons, a 2.7-inch screen and a very long life of 48 hours from a pair of AAs. The device contains 4GB of internal memory but a micro SD expansion slot will support up to an additional 32GB of storage.
(6) Garmin GPS Map 78
The 78 (a subtle upgrade on the widely loved 76) uses a traditional push-button interface with basic world mapping pre-loaded, plus an SD card slot, safely sited in the waterproof battery bay (for marine charts or City Navigator road routing). It’s not the lightest or most compact unit out there, but for simplicity of operation, reliability, rugged build and easy connectivity, this is one of the best traditional handhelds you can buy.
(7) Magellan Explorist 510
The Explorist 510 comes with an integrated 3.2-megapixel camera for videos and stills, plus a microphone and speaker for geo-tagged voice notes. It also offers a three-inch high-res touchscreen display (240x400) and a pre-loaded World map. Compatible with Navionics Gold marine charts and Ordnance Survey land-based cartography, it’s a serious tempter from Magellan.
(8) Garmin GPS Map 78s
The GPS Map 78s builds on the ability of the GPSMAP 78 with a barometer to help you track weather patterns, plus a tilt-compensated electronic compass and optional ‘Bird’s Eye’ software to enable the download of satellite images. It’s not as stylish as the 62 or the Oregon touchscreen, but its buoyant construction, modern connectivity and brilliantly simple operation make it a top choice.
(9) Memory Map Adventurer 3500 Marine Edition
This marine edition of this ‘smart-phone-style’ unit includes a big 3.5-inch colour touchscreen and more than 800 UK and Ireland marine charts, plus 1:50k Ordnance Survey maps of the entire UK. The pack includes the necessary PC software, plus a protective case, mains and car chargers and a rail mount - and you can also add extra charts from Memory Map’s V5 range, plus voice-guided in-car SatNav, a spare lithium-ion battery and a cycle mount.
(10) Garmin Montana Marine Bundle Pack
At the heart of the Montana Marine Bundle is an enormous four-inch touchscreen display, plus g2 cartography for the whole of the UK, Ireland and Northern France and compatibility with City Navigator NT and GB Discoverer. In addition to Wireless Data Transfer, you get a three-axis compass, a barometric altimeter and dual battery options. It’s not exactly a lightweight but for high-end features, it’s tough to beat.
Looking for a handheld VHF? Read our feature The 10 best handheld VHF radios.