handheld GPS


It’s easy to lose direction if you are on a river in a kayak or bushwalking around unfamiliar ground. It’s easy to panic in those situations because the sense of not knowing where you are can become overwhelming quite fast.

If you are looking for a solution before you get into that kind of situation, there is little better than a handheld GPS device. These devices can serve as your own guide to getting out of a fix.

A handheld GPS can give your position wherever you are and they are great for heading back the way you came (or slightly changing it). You can use coordinates to find any place in the world and work out your way to get there.

Depending on what you are looking for, you could pay very little to a whole lot for a handheld GPS. But if hiking and direction don’t mix well with you, then a handheld GPS could get you out of some tricky, and sweaty, situations.


GPS uses satellites to work out where you are. Those satellites are orbiting the earth and sending signals to that small device in your hand. It takes 3 satellite for your device to know where it is. A fourth satellite can even let your device know high you are on a mountain.

Interestingly, because the satellites are on the move, recalculations are made to know exactly where they are in relation to where we are on the earth. This is because they are on the move and speed of time is actually different!

A handheld GPS will normally take a few seconds to work out where it is. However, if you’re in a tropical rainforest in North Queensland, it could take up to a minute. If you are struggling to get a connection, head to a space where you can see the sky – an opening in the canopy.


Okay, this is a newbie mistake. Just because your particular smartphone comes with GPS, that doesn’t mean they can directly connect to a satellite. They still need to be connected to a data network to map out or download map information. Only satellite phones have the location abilities of GPS. It’s unlikely you’d want to fork out the cost of a satellite phone unless you are someone who does more than holiday in the great outdoors. They are more designed for professional use. Nevertheless, if you can afford one, they are an awesome addition to any boat on the reef or cruiser built for comfortable living in the outback.

So, unless you are inside the data network range, a handheld GPS is simply the best (and just about your only) option. You’re unlikely to lose a satellite signal like you are used to with your mobile phone losing the network.


GPS devices allow you to work with your maps and save points of interest (or waypoints as they are known) along your journey, like a river crossing, interesting plant life or even a hard-to-find record shop, is easily done by pressing a button or two and can be very useful when you want to revisit the area. Yes, it is quite fun using a handheld GPS device even when you are not on an outback adventure.

You can even record exactly where you have been. I use waypoint markers to highlight areas I want to slightly avoid on my way back.

Sharing what you want with others is as easy as putting your coordinates into Google Earth. You might need to do that separately on your smartphone when you get home. Since Google became the world map, the standard of using Latitude and Longitude has become more popular than the other methods.


A high-resolution screen is simply the best because you can see more detail on the map. They are also much easier to see if your eyes get as tired as mine and need an extra bit of help. You’ll be surprised how much difference resolution makes. For example, an iPad 4th generation screen has the same resolution as a large laptop screen. That’s the difference resolution can make. Don’t be fooled into thinking resolution is the physical size of the screen.

The unit needs to be easy to carry in your hand and not too heavy for your bag. Soft buttons are easier to press. I’ve found a rubber thimble (from a sewing kit) is a great way to get traction on buttons and keys, especially if your hands are sweaty. The rubber thimble also keeps the oils off your fingers from damaging your keys and device (yes the oils are very damaging over time).

Most GPS devices can use both rechargeable batteries or normal alkaline batteries. The best models have their own rechargeable Li-ion battery. Rechargeable batteries are always the way to go – let’s always think about the environment.

Most GPS devices usually come with a basic map. You will have to pay for detailed topographic maps for extreme exploring if you want them. Some units even support marine navigation maps, which are also good for fishing – again, at an additional cost.

It’s great to have a model that you can connect to your desktop so you can work out routes and the like in advance and then download to your device. A connectivity cable and software for your machine at home allows your GPS to connect to a desktop to download and upload information.


Is there anything you would like to add to this article or do you have one you would like to publish? Share your experience and let us know through the comments section below.

Bill Matthews

Bill is as green friendly as they come. He's travelled the world, loves kayak fishing and camping.