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Your most fun outdoor adventure can quickly turn into your worst nightmare if you end up getting lost, and when you’re out on the water, being lost can be even more dangerous if you’re away from civilization.
And wouldn’t you want to retrace your favorite routes or find that awesome fishing spots you visited?
That’s where having the best kayak GPS navigation system with you can help. But what features do you really need on kayak GPS devices? And what makes the best GPS for kayaking? To help you out, we’ve put together a buying guide to help you choose the best kayak GPS. This includes our top pick, the Garmin eTrex 20x.
At a Glance: Top Rated Kayak GPS Units
Why Use A GPS When Kayaking?
GPS, which stands for Global Positioning System, is a satellite based system owned by the United States Government, that was first developed for locating submarines and for providing a satellite navigation system for military operations. The Federal Aviation Administration developed the technology.
A GPS can help you pinpoint your exact location, show you the direction that you’re heading, guide you to a specific location, as well as being able to show you how fast you’re travelling using your current arrows. A GPS device receives signals from the satellites and provides you with a precise location, using coordinates.
GPS navigation systems are popular with people in a range of sports and activities, as they can used for different purposes, such as for driving, kayaking, hiking, fishing, golfing and many others as they can pinpoint your location with high accuracy and show angular velocity.
If you’re out on an adventure, GPS satellite communication will let you find your way back by tracking your route, so that you’re able to see where you’ve been and can return to that same trail on another day using a Tracback feature.
If you’re golfing, for example, you’ll be able to use GPS to calculate distances accurately, and if you’re fishing, a GPS will let you find your way back to specific fishing holes time and time again, so you shouldn’t ever lose sight of your favorite spots, as the device can track your routes and record the spots as waypoints.
Can’t I Just Use A Smartphone?
While a lot of smartphones will have GPS built in with data tracking functions, you may find that the GPS mode will only work if you’re connected to wifi or a cellular network. So if you lose phone signal in remote areas, you won’t be able to receive satellite communication as your phone will need to receive signals from cell towers.
With GPS devices, the signal is received directly from the satellites, so there’s no requirement for any other signals or network connections; making it a continuous signal that’s free to use all over the world.
Smartphones also generally don’t store maps or offer route tracking or a Tracback feature, unlike handheld GPS units, which means they will usually rely on Wi Fi signals to relay the coordinates onto a map. With most GPS devices having the capacity to store maps, the coordinates can then be directly shown on your stored maps with no need for any other connectivity.
Many smartphones will have assisted GPS, which means they rely on data being sent between cellular and wifi networks to give you an extremely accurate location. While this can be handy in some circumstances – such as traveling through a city, trying to find an address – it may not work so well if you find yourself off the beaten track, away from civilization (and cellular towers) and in heavy tree cover.
Another downside with smartphones is that because they’re ‘smart’, they have a lot going on at any one time, meaning this can have a negative effect on the life of the battery on a single charge.
If you have a phone, you’ll know all about it and that the batteries on a smartphone probably won’t last as long on a day trip as the batteries on a dedicated GPS device would.
So this is another reason why you might be better with a GPS device than a smartphone if it’s for navigation purposes.
Kayak GPS Units: These Aren’t Fish Finders Are They?
The simple answer is, no; a GPS is not a fish finder. Each device uses different technology for different purposes, with the GPS being more adept at mapping the land and the fish finder faring better at mapping the underwater landscape.
Where a GPS uses satellites to transmit information, a fish finder uses sonar technology. This allows it to detect objects and landscape under the water, by way of analysing data from pulses of energy that bounce off each underwater object and are then transmitted back to the screen on the fish finder.
It is the sonar technology that allows you to see fish, with some models giving you a more precise image of the type or size of fish that may be swimming nearby. A fish finder will also let you see the various depths and temperature of the water. This can be useful data for your fishing calendar.
Although a GPS won’t locate the fish for you, it can still be a useful tool for fishing and as a chart plotter, as it will allow you to mark specific spots as waypoints. So, when you find a particularly lucrative fishing hole you know you’ll always be able to find it again.
Some fish finders (made by most GPS manufacturers), like the Garmin Striker 4 from the Garmin Striker series, will have built in GPS as well as dual beam sonar and usually come with a marine mount for easy installation.
This can be a useful electronic device for fishing, with a CHIRP sonar transducer to help detect fish. But it may require a separate battery to be carried on your fishing kayak to transmit power to the device and allow the CHIRP sonar transducer to transmit data collected.
Kayak GPS Features To Look Out For
A GPS is a great accessory for any kayaker. Features to look out for include:
Being resistant to water is probably one of the most important features to have on a GPS if you’re taking it kayaking, as it can easily get splashed from your paddle or the rain, or even fall overboard if it’s not securely attached to something.
The best kayak GPS devices are waterproof, which means they should be fully functional even after being submerged in the water but you’ll probably find that there are more that are water resistant and not waterproof.
Most kayak GPS units will have a water resistance level, rated using the IP code system, so the higher IP rating systems, the more water resistant it is. For kayaking you will probably want a device with a rating of at least IPX7 water resistance, which would protect against some water submersion.
If you go for (or have) a unit with a rating of 6 or less, it’s probably a good idea to look at obtaining a waterproof case!
Size Matters: Keep It Small and Lightweight
When you’re in a kayak you’re limited to space and weight so having a lightweight, portable GPS device – that will easily fit in with the rest of your gear – can be a good idea.
Some devices can be worn on your wrist, which could be an option if you’re limited for space or don’t want to mount one to your yak. Some of these even have heart rate monitors as extra features.
Plenty Of Memory
GPS devices usually have some type of memory or the ability to insert a memory card to increase the storage capacity. The larger the memory on the device, the more waypoints, trails and maps you should be able to store.
Some devices will have both built-in memory and the option for adding a memory card, often a micro SD card.
Many GPS navigation systems will be able to store waypoints and tracks, with some also able to store routes. The difference between routes and tracks is that routes are paths that already exist and tracks are a path that you or somebody else has traveled along previously.
Long Battery Life
When you’re heading out on a day or multi-day excursion, the last thing you will want is for your GPS battery to die when you’re in the middle of nowhere. So, consider a GPS system that has a long battery life and think about how you will charge it when you’re out and about.
You may find that some devices feature lithium-ion batteries, like the ones you would find on phones and other small gadgets. These are lightweight and can be recharged, usually just like your phone.
Devices with other batteries, such as AA, are often less expensive and you might find that it may be easier to use a device with these types of batteries if you’re going to be away from electricity for a significant length of time, as you can simply take a couple of spare batteries with you on a longer trip.
Good, Detailed Maps
Most GPS navigation devices should come with some maps or a basic mapping package already installed and with the ability for you to load on additional maps and update the default map using the internet or a Bluetooth connection.
Some may require you to purchase maps separately for more detailed maps for specific locations marked or a year BirdsEye Satellite Imagery subscription, for example. If it has a low internal memory, you may not be able to store as many maps and it might not be as useful for saving waypoints or tidal graphs.
Some devices may have extra features and more advanced mapping software than others, such as with water routes or topographical maps, or even moon information.
You might find that some GPS systems come with maps with shaded relief, which will allow you to see the lay of the land, such as mountains, valleys, deep canyons and other aspects, showing you a broad range of topography.
Some GPS devices will also be GLONASS compatible which is the Russian satellite navigation system, which uses 24 satellites compared to the US’s 31 for GPS.
Having a GPS system that can use both GPS and GLONASS systems can give you a more precise location and provide you with a highly accurate position fix map and ultra accurate time. GLONASS compatibility can be a useful feature to have.
Best GPS For Kayaks
1: Garmin eTrex 20x
- Screen size: 2.2 inches
- Waterproof rating: IPX7
- Battery life: up to 25 hours
This GLONASS compatible Garmin eTrex device features a 2.2 inch color display screen with a 240 by 320 pixel resolution. This is designed to be clear and easy to read, even in bright sunlight, with a backlit display for poor light or low light conditions.
It has 3.7 GB of memory built in, as well as the capacity to take a microSD card for additional memory making it our choice for the best kayak GPS with exceptional accuracy.
Another feature of this WAAS enabled GPS receiver (Wide Area Augmentation System) is that it comes with preloaded worldwide base maps that has shaded relief, so you can identify mountains or canyons to give you a better understanding of the landscape.
However, you may need to purchase additional maps for your location, such as topo U.S. maps or sign up to the BirdsEye Satellite Imagery subscription (separate purchase).
In addition to this, this high sensitivity GPS also has the capacity to save up to 10,000 waypoints and 200 tracks. Plus, you can even save up to 50 routes, to allow for easier navigation of pre-defined trails. But it doesn’t have the most intuitive user interface, so it might take some time to navigate the software and HotFix technology.
Measuring 4 by 2.1 by 1.3 inches and weighing 4.96 ounces, this could be a good pocket sized GPS navigator for a day on the water. The WAAS enabled receiver also has HotFix satellite prediction, uses both GPS and GLONASS support for improved accuracy and has a battery life of up to 25 hours. However, the battery may not last this long if it’s on max mode the entire time.
- High resolution display with sunlight readable screen
- Pre-loaded maps
- Good internal memory
- Doesn’t rank highly on user friendliness
2: Garmin GPSMAP 78sc
- Screen size: 2.6 inches
- Waterproof rating: IPX7
- Battery life: up to 20 hours
This GPS receiver is explicitly designed for water enthusiasts and has a marine mount, marine cartography and is BlueChart compatible. It’s a waterproof GPS navigation device with an IP code rating of IPX7 water resistance and it even floats on water, so you can easily rescue it if it goes overboard.
This handheld GPS measures 2.6 by 1.2 by 6 inches, weighs 7.7 ounces and benefits from a 2.6 inch screen. It features a built in BlueChart G2, detailing the US and Bahamas coastal charts, with depth contours, shorelines, harbors, plus more. This includes a WAAS enabled GPS receiver and HotFix satellite prediction, as well as a worldwide base map.
You can download satellite images to use with your maps using the BirdsEye Satellite Imagery subscription (extra charge). You can also download additional maps, such as topo U.S. maps and marine maps (additional purchase).
However, this marine GPS does not include maps for inland lakes or rivers. It has a wrist strap but no swivel mount. It’s also not GLONASS compatible.
This high sensitivity GPS has a 20 hour battery life and benefits from having an electronic compass, as well as a barometric altimeter, so you can detect sudden weather changes and atmospheric pressure and note your direction to avoid adverse conditions.
It also has a built in microSD memory card slot for extra storage options and you can even wirelessly share your set waypoints and routes with other Bluetooth compatible devices. This means you can conveniently send your newly discovered water trails and marine GPS information to your friends so they can explore them on their own using connection software.
- Preloaded maps for US coastal waters
- Wireless data sharing
- WAAS enabled GPS technology
- Inland water maps not included
3: Garmin Montana 600
- Screen size: 4 inches
- Waterproof rating: IPX7
- Battery life: 16 hours (lithium), 22 hours (alkaline)
This GPS receiver is packed with lots of features for a fun day out. It has a large dual orientation 4 inch LCD color display touchscreen (measured diagonally), which is glove friendly and designed to be easily readable in direct sunlight.
There is no basic mapping package included with this GPS navigator. All your maps, including a world base map and topographic maps, need to be purchased separately.
But it does have an internal memory to log up to 10,000 points and 200 tracks and it’s compatible with custom maps. Weighing just over 10 ounces and measuring 1.4 by 5.7 by 2.9 inches, this system shouldn’t take up too much room on your kayak and will easily fit in a pocket or pouch.
This device benefits from having a dual battery system with a rechargeable lithium-ion battery that can last up to 16 hours after a full charge. But it can also run off of AA batteries, which can give it a 22 hour life.
Another feature of this excellent GPS is its durability, as it benefits from being waterproof with a rating of IPX7, which could make it ideal for a trip on the water or if you’re heading out in rainy conditions.
In addition to this, it also has mapping features including a 3-axis digital compass and barometric meter, which could come in handy for weather updates if you’re on a multi-day trip. However, it doesn’t work with both GPS and GLONASS. It only uses GPS technology and is not GLONASS compatible.
- Glove friendly touchscreen display
- Rechargeable battery
- Decent display size with 4 inch screen
- No preloaded maps
4: Garmin eTrex 10
- Screen size: 2.2 inches
- Waterproof rating: IPX7
- Battery life: up to 25 hours
This is an extremely durable, lightweight GPS device that weighs 5 ounces and measures 4 by 1.3 by 2.1 inches, making it an ideal size and weight for taking with you when you have limited storage space. So it could be a good option for a kayaking trip. It also uses both GPS and GLONASS data and supports GPX files for paperless geocaching.
Another good feature of this GLONASS compatible WAAS enabled GPS receiver is that it is waterproof and has a rating of IPX7 water resistance, so could be a good choice for watersports use, fishing and wet weather.
This is a handheld device that has a 2.2 inch basic monochrome display screen, so it’s designed to be easy read no matter what the lighting conditions are like, unlike most GPS systems with color screens that may not be sunlight readable.
It has a long battery life, of up to 25 hours with two AA batteries and is able to store up to 10,000 points, 200 tracks and up to 50 routes with a low internal memory.
The GPS navigator features a pre loaded worldwide base map built in but does not have the internal memory capability to add new maps or a basic mapping package to it as it’s the more basic product from the eTrex range (which comes in three basic styles). It does have paperless geocaching support for GPX files.
For added precision and accuracy of location and GPS tracking, this Garmin device is also compatible with the Russian navigation system, GLONASS, so can benefit from receiving data from multiple satellites as well as the GPS ones. It’s not BlueChart compatible.
- Easy to read in any light
- Accurate tracking and location
- Lightweight and compact
- Geocaching support
- Not able to add maps
5: Rand McNally Foris 850
- Screen size: 3 inches
- Waterproof rating: IPX7
- Battery life: up to 12 hours
This GPS device boasts having maps of more than 5 million trails and roads built in, including detailed visual maps, US street maps, water features, trails within US National Parks and Forests, and more. Plus, it has spoken and visual turn by turn directions, so you can follow a route hands free.
There’s plenty of storage, including a large 8 GB of built-in memory, with enough space for saving up to 7,000 waypoints and 1,000 tracks. If you run out of room there’s also a micro SD card slot so you can add even more waypoints or additional maps. But it doesn’t have the longest battery life.
Weighing just under 9 ounces, this GPS receiver measures just 2.7 by 4.7 by 1.25 inches, so it should be a convenient size for packing in your pocket. It has a large 3 inch color touchscreen display and comes with a sunlight readable anti-glare screen protector, so that it’s easier to read in bright sunlight.
This GPS also features a 3-axis compass and an altimeter, so you should be able to track your elevation and make sure you’re heading in the right direction. However, it doesn’t have GLONASS support.
It has a durable, rugged design that could make it one of the best kayaking GPS, as it has a water rating of IPX7, so it’s waterproof and should be able to withstand an accidental drop in the water, if you’re quick at fishing it back out again.
- Touchscreen display
- Decent internal memory
- Pre-loaded maps
- Battery life not the best
Kayak GPS FAQs
How To Power The GPS On Long Trips?
You can power a GPS in the same way that you might power a fish finder; by bringing a battery along.
There are also solar chargers that can work with some GPS devices with USB charging capabilities.
Solar power can be useful if you’ll be off grid for several days.
How Do I Mount To The Kayak?
You can mount your GPS to your yak just like you would with a fish finder, with a swivel mount. Using gear tracks can be a good option that can allow you to easily install and remove the GPS.
If you have a suitable flat spot on your yak you can also install the mounting hardware that will hold the GPS while you’re on the water.
Can I Use A GPS With A Fish Finder?
Yes. This can allow you to find fish and navigate underwater landscapes, as well as mark your waypoints and find your way home. Some fish finders may also have GPS built in.
Do They Tell You What Speed You’re Doing?
Yes, they should be able to tell you your current speed or average speed but the GPS would need to be on for the whole time you’re paddling.
Marking waypoints for each time you stop can give you your speed between each waypoint.
Now that you’ve read our buying guide of the best kayak GPS reviews, you should know what to look for when you go to purchase yours.
Our top choice from the best kayak GPS devices is the Garmin eTrex 20x because it’s a great size and lots of extra features. It has a high sensitivity GPS receiver and a decent internal memory, plus an IPX7 water rating. It also has an excellent battery life for kayaking trips and GLONASS compatibility.
Our pick for runner-up on our buying guide is the Garmin GPSMAP 78sc because it has a floating design and comes with preloaded topo and coastal maps with all the navigation information, making it one of the best kayak GPS receivers with marine cartography and an IPX7 water rating.
Another great choice is the Garmin Montana 600 because it has an easy-to-use touchscreen and can operate with a dual battery system, for added convenience when you’re off the grid.
Having a GPS when you’re kayaking can help you mark your location and find your way back to your put-in location and your vehicle, meaning you could be less likely to get lost, even when you seem to be in the middle of nowhere.