What should one look for in the specifications to determine whether a handheld purpose-built GPS receiver provides good navigational consistency under reasonably normal, low-speed conditions? Highly preferably both in open areas as well as potentially dense woodland.

I am looking primarily for something that will work well for walking and bicycling (hence low-speed; good accuracy while travelling by car is less of a concern because then even a 15 meters error may translate to about half a second of travelling time).

Are marine units as a general rule better in this regard than (for want of a better word) "personal" GPS receivers, in the absence of an external antenna? Or are they simply more rugged, and certified for marine use, while providing little potential benefit to non-maritime users?

My current (admittedly somewhat dated) GPS receiver, even after having had plenty of time to download a full GPS almanac, with a clear view of the sky and half a dozen satellites to work with, often reports navigational accuracy to be in the range 10-20 meters. What's more, that number tends to vary quite wildly. That certainly is good enough to e.g. find one's way back to a known location such as getting back to the car or campsite, but as soon as you need more accuracy than that, it falls way short.

I will be using the receiver primarily within Scandinavia, and Sweden in particular, generally outside of cities and often in forested areas.

To clarify, it doesn't have to provide pin-point position accuracy (for that, 10-20 meters is very often quite sufficient), but consistency in readings in the same area is much more useful. As an example, if I lay down a track and then have the dog follow that track, I am very interested in how closely the dog actually follows the track but I am not particularly interested in the exact location of the track. So, if the readings are off by some reasonable distance that isn't a major concern (as has been pointed out, it's not like being 20 meters off means you are hopelessly lost; if it is, it's not like a GPS receiver is likely to help much); as long as that within a reasonably short time frame (more than minutes, less than hours) two readings taken in the same physical location match well in terms of the reported location, that's good enough for me.

  • How accurate do you need? For what purpose?
    – ppl
    Commented Apr 27, 2013 at 15:34
  • @ppl I guess I was hoping for accuracy down to at least a few meters, but after having read up a little too it looks like that's pretty much out of the question with commonly available equipment and what supporting systems I can expect to be available here.
    – user
    Commented Apr 27, 2013 at 21:53
  • As for purpose, one obvious use of precision positioning for me would be in tracking training with the dogs; being able to mark the route while I lay down a track and then as the dog follows it would allow me to see, in detail, if particular passages are easier or more difficult for the dog. For that, 20 meters precision in the positional data is totally useless.
    – user
    Commented Apr 27, 2013 at 21:57
  • Is post-processing of the data an option? Or do you need that accuracy in the field?
    – ppl
    Commented Apr 28, 2013 at 13:10
  • @ppl Thinking some more about it, I guess "accuracy" is actually the wrong word for what I'm looking for, which isn't so much accuracy as consistency. The numbers could in a sense say that I'm on the other side of the country, as long as the error is consistent so that when you overlay two positions where readings were taken in the same physical spot, the positions as reported by the GPS receiver match closely. I'll try to rephrase the question to clarify this.
    – user
    Commented Apr 28, 2013 at 13:26

3 Answers 3


If you really do need exceptional accuracy, you could use the solution many Ingress players use - a good Android phone with a battery pack.

In the game you often need accuracy of 2 or 3 metres - so the Galaxy S3 or a phone paired with the Nexus 7 (which has an excellend GPS) are the tools of choice. The game uses google maps and wireless navigation, as well as the inbuilt compass and accelerometers.

My battery pack (a 12000mAh one I picked up for about £25) is only slightly larger than my S3 so the pair are easy to fit in my trouser or jacket pocket.

To be honest though, even my Garmin eTrek has accuracy better than 10m, which for walking and cycling should be far more than enough. Can you describe what your specific need is that requires this sort of accuracy. I can't think of any time I would need it when hiking, cycling or exploring...

  • Hmm, this might actually be worth looking into. I did just now update the question to hopefully clarify it; you may want to have a look. I take it the Galaxy S3 has an 'equally' good GPS as the Nexus 7? (Also, to avoid making this a "shopping" question, it'd be nice if you would include in your answer what makes them so: the "what to look for" part.)
    – user
    Commented Apr 28, 2013 at 13:41
  • They do both seem to have very good GPS's in them, however I don't know what chipset that would be. One of the advantages they do have is that they can auto-calibrate from google's own wireless network data.
    – Rory Alsop
    Commented Apr 28, 2013 at 21:28
  • I don't believe the claim that some handheld GPS units have smaller errors than others. Do you have any documentation for this claim?
    – user2169
    Commented Jan 25, 2015 at 0:48
  • Handheld GPS devices all quote different tolerances. While timing accuracy is important, some devices use other sources, such as inertial navigation etc.
    – Rory Alsop
    Commented Jan 25, 2015 at 1:24

I live in Sweden and I hike a lot in the wild. My personal top three properties to look for in a handheld GPS receiver for The Great Outdoors:

  • Battery life
  • Battery life
  • Battery life

I honestly don't care if the measurement is 20 metre off. In the Swedish mountains, it usually isn't, there are no deep canyons, and if there are you can only go in one direction anyway (well, two). I don't need and I don't want a colour display, nor any map information. In Sweden, you really don't need a barometric altimetre. A compass takes battery life but you can get directional information by walking a bit in a certain direction, and in the Swedish mountains, this is almost always possible. The best way to maximise battery life is to get rid of all the useless stuff. I still want a GPS receiver that doesn't have a screen that's always on.

All I want a handheld GPS-receiver to do is to tell me where I am (all models do) and keep a tracklog (all models do?). But when I'm in the wild for ten days, I don't want to have to carry 20 batteries. Therefore, my only consideration is: battery life.

Did I mention battery life?

  • Color screen or compass capability doesn't necessarily hinder the battery life. One should look at the battery life of the device first as their are multiple factors in play. For Garmin 5 years ago, their monochrome version of the eTrex had shorter battery life (possibly a less efficient and older chipset?) than their color screen model. We should keep in mind that the compass can be disabled. If you want longevity you should consider Lithium batteries support as they last longer and weight less then Ni-MH batteries.
    – ppl
    Commented Apr 27, 2013 at 17:18
  • @ppl Well, all other things being equal those features do drain the battery. A disadvantage of Lithium batteries I find is that they're harder to charge or replace in the wild (I usually take non-rechargeable batteries so I can replace them; with lithium batteries I would need to charge them, which can be difficult in the wild)
    – gerrit
    Commented Apr 27, 2013 at 17:26
  • Do you mean Lithium-ion batteries? I'm thinking of Lithium batteries. For LCD screens power consumption I believe is mostly influenced by the backlight intensity which is an other user-configurable factor (like the compass). Unless I'm mistaken, the monochrome screen saving energy is a myth in the context of GPS devices; unless someone have an e-ink GPS? :)
    – ppl
    Commented Apr 27, 2013 at 17:34
  • @ppl I guess I was confused with the battery type. I admit that I don't know too much about screens.
    – gerrit
    Commented Apr 27, 2013 at 18:09
  • You might be right for the screen although I'm not sure how much it factors in for the overall energy consumption.
    – ppl
    Commented Apr 27, 2013 at 20:27

I haven't seen any evidence that one brand or model of handheld GPS unit differs from any other model in its random or systematic errors. As far as I understand, the errors are determined by (1) the geometry of the satellites currently in the visible part of the sky from your location, and (2) the physics of the propagation of the radio waves (including effects such as multipath, ionospheric refraction, attenuation through forest canopy, ...). These effects can be reduced with techniques like dual-frequency GPS and differential GPS, but those features aren't available in hand-held GPS units, only in units such as those intended for use by surveyors.

What differentiates one hand-held GPS from another is other factors such as size, weight, screen resolution, color screen, ease of use, and mapping features.

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