GPS navigator type and possible uses
All types of GPS devices for kayaking have their most important function in common: they use satellites to locate your position. Every GPS unit, regardless of the extra features it has, can give you your location in latitude and longitude so you can find yourself on a map or track your movement across a waterscape as you paddle.
However, GPS units can differ a lot in how they present that location information and the extra features they offer. GPS trackers for kayaking can be divided into several different types.
First, there are GPS devices that function purely as GPSs with built-in map screens. These models, like the Garmin GPSMAP 64st and eTrex 30x, are designed to not only locate your position, but also to show you where you are on a map of your area. These GPS devices are relatively simple to use, since they only have mapping functionality, and can be used to track your trip, pre-plot a course that you can follow, or mark points of interest along your route.
Some kayaking GPS devices, like the Garmin Striker 4 and Humminbird Helix 5, double as fish-finders. In addition to having a GPS receiver, these GPS + fishfinder devices also have a sonar system that attaches to the underside of your kayak to detect fish in the water below your boat.
For anglers, these units can be very advantageous, since they make it possible to see when fish are in the area of your kayak and what depths they may be at.
These fishfinder GPS units can do everything a standard GPS device can do, but they are typically limited to use in the water rather than on land as well. Note that some units, like the Garmin Striker 4, have GPS capabilities but no built-in maps.
For emergency situations, some GPS units have a built-in VHF radio. These GPS devices, like the Standard Horizon HX870, tend to provide only basic GPS functionality like giving you coordinates and directions to waypoints. But, having a VHF radio in your GPS means that it is easy to radio to other ships, including in an emergency, and to relay your location in coordinates.
Finally, GPS watches are among the most affordable and portable GPS devices. GPS watches for kayaking, like the Garmin Foretrex 401, do not give you built-in maps, but they do allow you to see your location, navigate to waypoints, and track your paddle in case you need to return along the same route.
The display is one of the most important parts of any GPS unit since it’s where you’ll look for information. So, the display needs to be large enough, lighted enough, and high-resolution enough for you to make out information quickly without straining your eyes.
Handheld GPSs for kayaking tend to have relatively small displays to keep them lightweight and portable. However, because these GPS units also have high-resolution maps to display, they typically offer variable screen brightness, high screen resolution, and the ability to zoom in and out.
Fishfinder GPS systems often have larger screens since they are meant to be mounted on the front of your kayak. This larger screen can be helpful because you can split-screen the sonar display and any map or directional displays.
GPS watches unsurprisingly have the smallest displays since they need to fit on your wrist. Most often, like for the Garmin Foretrex 401, these displays are not in color, but use large fonts and have a backlight for viewing in low-light conditions.
If your GPS has the ability to display maps, like the Garmin GPSMAP 64st, eTrex 30x, or GPSMAP 78S, you’ll need to consider where you’ll be kayaking. Some GPS units come with only maps of the US and surrounding waters, while other GPS units come fully loaded with maps for the entire world. Even then, the maps may or may not be at a high enough resolution for the purposes of your trip.
Most modern GPS units with mapping functionality allow you to download custom maps to your device using a USB or SD card.
Note that you may need to pay for map sets that are in the right format for your GPS, although Garmin has increasingly made it possible to add maps for free.
Battery type and life
Kayaking GPS devices use a surprisingly wide range of battery types. For example, the Garmin Striker 4 requires a 12-volt battery, while the Standard Horizon HX870 requires a lithium-ion battery, while the Garmin eTrex 30 requires two AA batteries. When considering the type of battery, consider whether you’re likely to ever be out paddling longer than your GPS’s rated battery life – and if so, whether the given type of battery can easily be replaced in the field or purchased at any dock.
Battery life is a very important consideration, since you don’t want to be carrying tons of spare batteries even if you can replace them in the field. GPS devices are designed to last a surprisingly long time on a small amount of juice, so all of the units we reviewed have rated lives longer than 16 hours. Still, expect your GPS to run out of battery faster than this if you tend to keep the screen at maximum brightness or are viewing maps frequently.
There are two different satellite location systems in use when it comes to GPS units: GPS and GLONASS. GPS satellites are run by the US and are slightly more accurate in most areas, while GLONASS satellites are run by Russia and have better coverage in polar regions.
Because GPS is US-run, all of the GPS devices we reviewed typically locate your position using GPS. However, the Garmin GPSMAP 64st and eTrex 30 can also use GLONASS satellites, making them slightly more versatile. Most paddlers won’t ever need to use GLONASS, so having a GPS-only device should not be a problem.
All of the GPS units we reviewed are rated to at least IPX7, meaning that they are fully waterproof even if you submerge them up to three feet deep for an extended period. This is more than enough protection to ensure that your GPS won’t fail because of water intrusion. Still, the Standard Horizon HX870 is rated to IPX8, which means that it can be submerged to more than three feet depth.
GPS devices for kayaking typically cost in the $100–$300 range, with the exact cost depending on the features of your GPS unit. Budget GPS devices and GPS watches can save you money, but don’t expect to get built-in map displays. On the other hand, GPS units with high-resolution map displays and powerful fish sonars will run on the high end of this price range.